A day in Alice Springs

Right smack (almost) in the middle of Australia is the town of Alice Springs. It is a large town considering its location and is a major hub for tourists and truck drivers between Adelaide and Darwin. Right on the edge of the desert, human dwellings have meant that water is available to many animals and plants; an oasis of sorts.

I had just taken a group down to Alice Springs and needed something to do for a full day before going home to Darwin the following day. As I am working on the Inspiring Australia wildlife app at the moment, there has been a need to gather as many wildlife photographs as possible. Birds especially are high on the list. They can be shy and I had been without a long lens for a while up until recently. The logical stop had to be the Olive Pink botanical gardens. Showcasing a variety of desert and semi arid plants native to the area, it attracts birds in numbers.

The yellow throated, or white rumped miner (Manorina flavigula)

The first bird to appear was possibly the most likely in much of Central Australia – the yellow throated miner. It is in fact a honeyeater, unrelated the the Asian mynahs. A social bird, families travel in groups, noisily proclaiming the fact they are present. Easy to identify, they tend to have pale rumps which are very visible as they fly away. Yellow throated miners may control their territory against rival families and even other bird species, taking over patches of woodland as they go. Also in the same trees but frustrating to try and photograph were the related yet not so social spiny cheeked honeyeaters.

Moving along, I eventually reached the gates of Olive Pink Botanical Gardens. After attempting a drink from the drinking fountain (which shot a jet about 4m into the sky, narrowly missing my camera and face!) I proceeded to the cafe area. On the way, the most visible (yet fast and difficult) birds were the ever present honeyeaters. But what I really wanted was a western bowerbird.

The female caper white being mobbed

They just had to be in here somewhere. The cafe was surrounded in butteflies, mostly the caper white (Belenois java) which were hatching out of their pupae and looking for mates. An endless procession of males were converging on one hapless female who had barely emerged from her chrysalis and still unable to fly as her wings were still saggy. One male got lucky and stuck with her for an hour or so before flying away. She soon left the scene.

A male sniffing around

Galah, known elsewhere as a Rose Crested Cockatoo. In Australia, Galah means “idiot” though these are smart birds.

Soon enough, a male western bowerbird arrived at the cafe, looking for either treasures to add to his treasure chest or a feed. Or maybe both. He hissed (as they do) and bounced around far too quickly for me to get a clear shot. But the galahs provided a worthwhile distraction. Several pairs clambered about in the trees munching on acacia seeds, not minding the intrusion at all.

Also joining in were a bunch of Australian ringneck parrots (Barnardius zonarius). Not closely related to the Indian species by a similar name, they are green and yellow with a dark blue head and distinct yellow collar. They sat quietly in the acacia trees and a couple took to the ground to see if the foraging was any better there. They were semi tame and allowed relatively close shots.

Tasty plant

The bees were also active:

A European honeybee incoming

And crested pigeons:

Wassup?

But it was now closing time and the real star of the show had just given away the locality of his treasure chest. I heard a loud hiss, followed by a mechanical sound and a whistle. The male bowerbird was performing nearby to a semi interested female. He allowed me very close, but it was too dark for an easy picture. He did the right thing and jumped up on an exposed branch to let me take a heap of pictures with my macro lens!

Hiss! The western bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchus guttatus) calling.

Male western bowerbirds have a lovely pink crests

Return to Kakadu

After leaving Australia’s East Coast I decided to head back to Australia’s Northern Territory to work in Kakadu once more. It’s a massive national park east of Darwin, and as usual it didn’t disappoint.

The tour began in Litchfield right after the “super moon” event earlier in the week. The usual dry season fires made it look an impressive orange:

During the first night camped out near the Mary River a spotlight search of the campsite revealed a scruffy looking Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) sitting on a branch scanning the ground below for prey. In the north of Australia they are smaller than their southern brethren and often reddish in color.  Not an owl, but a cousin of the nightjars these birds are very hard to find by day but can be spotted at night as they hunt.

And this is how they got their name…

Couldn’t resist one more picture…

We kicked off the Kakadu part of the journey the following morning with a wildlife cruise by Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge on the Mary River’s Rockhole Billabong. In Northern Australia, a billabong is a stretch of permanent water that remains throughout the dry season. Full of wildlife, it is home to fish, frogs, an impressive list of birds, and of course crocodiles. Both Australian species live here, the Johnson’s (freshwater) and Estuarine (saltwater) and can be easily spotted in and around the water.

Such as this sneaky looking one…

One of the most obvious birds around is the Australian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) which looks to be designed by a committee with a long snakelike neck, sharp bill and webbed feet. It barely floats so it can dive with ease and hunt fish, spearing them with the bill before returning to the surface to flick them off the bill, catch them in midair to swallow.

An awesome fisherman and he knows it

And a cool lotus flower to top it off

I stopped for a quick look at the East Alligator River at Cahill’s Crossing, the gateway into Arnhemland. A large crocodile patrolled the waters upstream of the crossing. The odd object on his back is likely a GPS tracker installed in a study:

Backpacking croc style

Before sunset, Ubirr rock was our destination. Famous for its sunsets and cave paintings I decided to take the group there late in the afternoon when it’s at its best. I have loads of pictures of the paintings already but it’s this one that I like the most:

It’s not amazing in an artistic sense but it’s what it represents that makes it special. A dog-like animal with a striped rump. There is nothing else it could be that we know of other than a Thylacine. Often unfortunately known as the “Tasmanian tiger” it is a marsupial like kangaroos and koalas, not a tiger at all. Bearing in mind this painting is about as far from Tasmania as you can get without leaving Australia it is remarkable. Around six Thylacine species are known from fossils on mainland Australia, and none remained by the time Europeans settled here. Only in the dingo-free Tasmania did they persist for a time until the last confirmed one was shot in the 1930s. Sightings continue to be reported in Tasmania.

The stone country to the east of Ubirr is home to some rare and endangered plants and animals, many are found nowhere else.

Bushfires lit by the locals burn constantly

Sunset over the floodplains

The end of a day in Kakadu

Goat suckers! – The mysterious nightjars

Goat suckers! – The mysterious nightjars

Nightjars

Do I look like I have a dark side? The savannah nightjar of Indonesia.

Sneaking into farms at night and stealing the milk from goats? What? Only a century or so ago that is exactly what European farmers thought nightjars got up to, what with their strange shaped mouths and habit of flying around grazing goats at sunset. Them suckling the milk from the sleeping animals would be the only logical conclusion one could make. So nightjars were bestowed with the latin name Caprimulgus which literally means “goat sucker” and still applies to many species today.

Just sittin’ around waiting for a bug to fly over… A White throated nightjar in Australia

The truth of the matter is these secretive and mysterious birds do not feed on goat’s milk but hang about livestock to snap up any insects they might disturb. You see, nightjars are active at night. During the day they hunker down in some leaf litter on the ground and are so well camouflaged you can easily step over one. Nightjars got their more common name by the variety of odd calls they make, literally a jarring experience if you are suddenly awoken by one at night. The calls do vary from species to species. The white throated nightjars (Eurostopodus mystacalis) make a slow whooping sound that accelerates into a maniacal gobbling sound, the large tailed nightjars (Caprimulgus macrourus) have a monotonous chopping call while the savannah nightjars (Caprimulgus affinis) make a loud screeching call in flight at sunset. Either way, you are sure to know that they are about during breeding season.

You can’t see me… a young large tailed nightjar trying to not be seen

When nightjars do get around to it, eggs are laid on the ground in a small scrape. The parent sits there to incubate and protect them from predators and hot or wet weather. When the chick hatches it is capable of walking about and hiding from predators by itself, but it is still fed by the parent. If escape is not possible, the chick will actually attack with an open mouth and bite!

 

Savannah nightjar enjoying a small bit of rock sitting

The best way to see nightjars for yourself is to drive slowly along quiet back roads at night. Their eyes glow orange up ahead. Sometimes you can get within a couple of meters if you are lucky.

Frogmouths

Frogmouths!

The Oscar the Grouch of frogmouths!

So… Oscar the Grouch is real…

Most people see these birds and simply call them “owls,” well that’s if they see them at all. In fact not only are frogmouths not actually owls at all, they are very hard to find during the day.

To find frogmouths:

This is because they have remarkable camouflage that blends in extremely well with the bark of the trees they sleep on. They cannot change the colour of their feathers, but you will find there are some regional differences in colour shade. Have a look at the frogmouths in the pictures, the camouflage is amazing.

Each feather on the frogmouths look like a flake of bark when ruffled up, but when pressed against the body they give the appearance of a rough, broken branch stump. This makes them simply melt into their surrounds and ensures a good day’s sleep.

Where do frogmouths fit in?

No wonder frogmouths are so hard to find by day!

To the part about owls. They are more closely related to nightjars (Caprimulgidae) and Asian frogmouths (Batrachostomidae) than owls. There are some key differences, but the main one is the feet, in owls the feet are “zygodactyl” which means they can grip with two toes forward and two toes back. Frogmouths have the more “standard” anisodactyl toe arrangement of three forward, one back. Frogmouths differ from owls in other ways too, but all we need to know for now is that they are not owls at all. In fact, owls prey on frogmouths at times. The barking owl (Ninox connivens) is a major predator of the tawny frogmouth at least.

More info on frogmouths

The tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) is the most common and widespread of all the frogmouths in Australia and is found in every habitat. The Papuan frogmouth (Podargus papuensis) is found in New Guinea and the far north of Queensland while the marbled frogmouth (Podargus ocellatus) is very rare and found in New Guinea, far northern Queensland and a small area near the NSW/QLD border on the east coast.

 

The largest of the frogmouths – the Papuan frogmouth, this one photographed in Tully, Queensland.

During the day, frogmouths will sit on a branch and do their best to look like part of it. They will peer at an observer through nearly closed eyes, only flying away at the last minute if they think they have been discovered. Sometimes you will find the same one in the same place for weeks, months or even years. When breeding they build a flimsy nest on a branch, raising one to three young in a normal year.

At dusk the frogmouths will announce their presence with calls, the common tawny frogmouths making a deep “oom oom oom” call, or sometimes a coughing sound. They sit on branches and drop down to ambush worms, frogs, insects, scorpions, snakes and anything else that massive heavy bill can snap up.

 

Frogmouths in a family group

Frogmouths are great birds and worth looking out for. See if you can find them in you local area!