Spotted Catbird

Spotted Catbird, Queensland, Aus.

Spotted Catbird, Queensland, Aus.

There are hundreds of jungle-like sounds that emanate from the Australian rainforest.  It can get overwhelming for a visiting birder to identify them all.  But the cat snarls are so distinct, it is wonderfully satisfying to hear them and know instantly which bird that is.

 

In their territory the spotted catbird is everywhere, and the calls are distinctive, loud, and frequent.  Ailuroedus melanotis, however, are only found in a few tiny parts of northern Queensland and New Guinea.

 

You can see the large black patch below its red eye, the “spotted” part of the catbird’s name.  They are in the bowerbird family, but they do not build bowers.  More info about bowerbirds here .

 

Spotted Catbird calling, Aus.

Spotted Catbird calling, Aus.

The spotted catbirds we saw and heard were primarily near Lake Eacham in the Atherton Tablelands.  To hear them, click here  and go to the catalog number at the far right; check out Patrick Aberg’s recordings.    (Many thanks to my blogging friend RH at Rolling Harbour, who told me about this audio website.)

 

Jet viewing the rainforest catbirds, Aus.

Jet in the rainforest studying catbirds, Aus.

 

On days when we met with our guide before dawn, we had a few hours “off” at mid-day.  During the break, Athena and I would sit on our lodge deck studying the birds and mammals in our guide books.  The spotted catbird would forage around there, perching on thick vines and looking at us, puzzled by our presence in his territory.  And then a marvelously loud cat clamor would erupt.

 

Spotted-Catbird,-OZPhoto credit:  Athena Alexander

Yellow River Water Cruise, Australia

Nankeen Night Heron, Kakadu

Nankeen Night Heron, Kakadu

Two different days we cruised Australia’s South Alligator River in a pontoon boat.  Crocodiles were prevalent,  and there were hundreds of wading birds and raptors to enjoy and photograph as we slowly floated the river.

 

Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, not far from Darwin, covers over 7,600 square miles (19,000 km).    With approximately 280 bird species and 60 mammal species, wildlife activity is rich.  Aboriginal heritage is rich, too, their home for 40,000 years.   Read more about Kakadu here.

 

South Alligator River sunset, Kakadu

South Alligator River sunset, Kakadu

You have to make a commitment to visit Kakadu:  a 4.5 hour flight from Sydney plus a 3 hour drive from Darwin.  It is well worth it.

 

Of our five September days in Kakadu, by noon every day it was 110 degrees (F).  This kind of weather slows down even the most enthusiastic birders!  Experiencing the extreme heat, we rearranged our plans and spent every afternoon in the lodge swimming pool under the shade sails.

 

Crocodile, Kakadu

Crocodile, Kakadu

Wildlife don’t venture out during these hot spells either, so the sunrise and sunset cruises were the birdiest time of the day (at only 80-90 degrees)…and thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Wandering Whistling Ducks, Kakadu

Wandering Whistling Ducks, Kakadu

Crocodile, Kakadu

Crocodile, Kakadu

 

 

Comb-crested Jacana, Kakadu

Comb-crested Jacana, Kakadu

Vaux’s Swifts

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux's swifts

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

I spend a lot of time every year watching all kinds of migratory bird activity.  This one, in Healdsburg, California, is one of my favorites.

 

Every autumn, Vaux’s swifts (pronounced vawks) make their long journey from Washington State, British Columbia, and southern Alaska down to Mexico and South America.

 

They make overnight stops along the way, and in mid-September they stop in Healdsburg, as they have done every year since 1989.  There is a chimney in a boarding school called Rio Lindo Adventist Academy where thousands of swifts congregate.  Chaetura vauxi prefer to roost in hollow trees, but an unused chimney is what they have flexibly settled for.  There are reportedly other chimneys along the U.S. west coast the swifts use too, this is the one I have witnessed.

 

Athena (standing) watching the swift arrival

Athena (standing) watching the swift arrival, considering how to capture the birds in the dark

At the peak of the migration there are 5,000-10,000 swifts several evenings in a row.  Sometimes it is higher, last year the estimate was 23,000.  More about Vaux’s swifts here.

 

At this time of year the Academy’s boiler chimney is not yet in use.  The school is exceptionally gracious in allowing the public onto campus to view the spectacle.  Also of note: they allow 10,000+ birds to pack into their chimney for a month every year.  It can’t be tidy.

 

After the sun sets, first you see a few swifts, then a few dozen.  They swoop about, catching insects, foraging, taking in one last snack before bedtime.   The bird is only about 4-5 inches (10-12 cm) long; they look like swallows in the sky.  Then each minute that passes, more swifts arrive, until you hear thousands of screeching swifts.  Now the sky is filled with birds.

 

Just before dark, the swifts begin the circle dance.  They circle and circle en masse approximately 25 feet above the chimney.  A huge swirling vortex builds above our heads.  I like to lay on my back, relax, and let myself get lifted into what feels like a spinning tornado of birds.

 

Then one at a time, like leaves fluttering off a tree, they leave the vortex and vanish into the chimney.  Soon they’re all dropping in.

 

After about 15 minutes, it seems like all the swifts have disappeared into that one chimney.  And then another dozen or so appear, circle, and eventually vanish into the chimney.  And then another dozen or more, until there are no more left.

 

What a wonderful world.

 

First photo: Athena Alexander

Second photo: Jet Eliot

 

Antbird Antics

Dusky Antbird, Belize

Dusky Antbird, Belize

At first sight it is a small, brown bird under the dark rainforest canopy poking around in leaf litter, not very remarkable.  Yet a fascinating drama can unfold before your eyes….

 

In a family of over 200 species (Thamnophilidae)  the antbirds occupy the neotropical rainforests of Central and South America.  They are usually observed in the understory of the forest.

 

Antbirds in general have short, rounded wings, for easy maneuverability in dense forest undergrowth; and strong, stable legs for gripping stems.  They usually have strong bills, sometimes with hooks, for holding and crushing insect prey.  Each species has adaptations particular to their foraging habits.

 

The antbird diet is largely insects.  Some species eat ants, some rub ants across their wings for self-anointing or other reasons (see anting).  Some species of antbirds are dependent on the army ants for stirring up insects.  They follow army ants in the same way gulls follow fishing boats.

 

While birding, often you will see a glimpse of the bird and quietly follow it to get a better look.  But other times you may get lucky, like we did in Belize, and have the opportunity to observe a half hour performance of antbird theatrics.

 

When we arrived, there was a chorus of high-pitched peeping, and a dozen antbird species fluttering about at ankle height.  Most antbirds are shy in nature and difficult to observe.  But when they find an army ant raid, they are single-minded, see nothing else around them, including us giant humans.

 

As the thick mass of army ants swarmed the leaf-littered surface of the forest floor, they stirred up hundreds of insects.  Birds were hopping, peeping, jumping; some had a fresh catch in their bill, beating it against a branch, others were frantically flipping the leaf litter, searching for the perfect bite.  It was a glorious feeding frenzy.

 

What do the humans do amidst this flurry?  Find a place to stand that is close enough to get a good view, but far enough to avoid the creature chaos.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander