Bush stone-curlews

I was astonished to see these bush stone-curlews (also know as bush thick-knees, Burhinus grallarius) in a park in an urban area about an hour and a half from home. They seemed quite used to people – even a car driving over the grass near them (!) did not cause them to fly off.

Bush stone-curlews resting in a park

These birds feed at night on insects, snails, small lizards, seeds and the occasional small mammal.

According to Birdsinbackyards:

Bush stone-curlews have a remarkable courtship dance. Individuals stand with their wings outstretched, their tail upright and their neck stretched slightly forward. The birds will stamp their feet up and down, like a soldier marking time. This courtship ritual is repeated for an hour or more at a time and is accompanied by loud and constant calling. Eggs are laid in a shallow scrape in the ground and both adults share the incubation and care for the young.

The driver of the car had obviously not seen – or chose to ignore – the prominent signs in the park.

I’ve seen beach stone-curlews (Esacus neglectus) in far north Queensland, but this was a first for me. Tick!

More Arctic avians

I met fellow-Aussies Bruce and Linda on the Arctic trip, and Bruce has kindly allowed me to post some of his great shots. He has a camera with a big lens (allowing for nice close-ups) and the knowledge to use it, unlike me and my little point-and-shoot (yes, I know, RTFM). (All photos copyright by Bruce Moore – thanks, Bruce!)

Atlantic puffins

Puffins resting on steep rock ledges

One of three puffin species, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) has been estimated to have 10,000 breeding pairs in the islands of Svalbard. I first saw this bird on the way to the Orkneys, north of Scotland. They nest sociably in crevices or in the spaces under convenient boulders in the Arctic where there is little soil depth (otherwise they would burrow into the ground). The chicks stay hidden and are fed fish, crustaceans and worms accumulated by the diving adults.

Glaucus gulls

Glaucus gull and chicks

Glaucus gulls (Larus hyperboreus) are omnivorous, eating molluscs, the eggs and chicks of other seabirds. They are the second-largest gulls in the world.

Black-legged kittiwakes

Kittiwakes like to hang out on icebergs

Rissa tridactyla is a colonial nester, even on glacier edges or snowbanks if there are no ice-free ledges. They build nests on very steep slopes as protection from Arctic foxes, which steal their eggs and chicks. They generally forage far out to sea, following trawlers, collecting shrimps, marine snails and terrestrial invertebrates and plants, seeds and grasses.

 

Common eiders

Male eider flying over a glaucus gull

Common eiders (Somateria mollissima) are divers – the males black-and white and the females brown. They nest on ice-free islands, pulling down from their own breasts to line the nest. They eat crustaceans and molluscs.

 

Brünnich’s guillemots

Brunnich’s guillemots crowd together on rocky cliffs

There are a few large breeding colonies of Uria lomvia on exposed cliffs, each containing perhaps over a million birds. These are the birds you might have seen on a David Attenborough program – the chicks launch themselves (with their father) from the high cliffs even though they are unable to fly. If the chick hits the ground, it struggles through the scree towards the sea, but may be taken by Arctic foxes or great skuas. If it hits or makes it to the water, it and its father will swim south to warmer climes. The father is also flightless at this time as he is moulting.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle goose

Branta leucopsis breeds exclusively in the Arctic on low-lying islands and sea-cliff edges. They graze on vegetation. This is the bird that was thought, in medieval times, to come from a barnacle. It was thus classified as a sea animal, so that it could be eaten by Catholics on Fridays (when meat was not allowed).

Northern fulmars

Northern fulmar

Svalbard has the ‘blue’ form of Fulmarus glacialis – the other form has more white. They happily follow ships in case any offerings get thrown over the side. They are not great on land but are strong fliers –  wingspan is over a metre – and they have been known to live around 30 years.

 

Arctic terns

Arctic tern

Sterna paradisaea migrates between the north and south pole areas, spending the summer months at each pole in turn. They travel 90,000 km every year for about 30 years – the biggest bird migration known. They vigorously defend their nests so expect to be dive-bombed if you go near one – but you wouldn’t, would you?

 

Great skuas

Great skua

Great skuas (Stercorarius skua) aggressively attack other birds on the wing, forcing them to regurgitate their food, which the skuas snatch for themselves. Like terns, they will aggressively defend their nest from intruders, whether human or fox or polar bear.

Little auks

Little auk

These little cuties (Alle alle) are estimated to have over 10 million breeding pairs in Svalbard. The noise and great swirling flight they create in their massive breeding colonies when an Arctic fox is about has to be seen to be believed. They are thought to be the world’s most numerous seabird. The breeding season coincides with the seasonal peak of plankton and small fish, taken at night, mostly fairly close to the colony.

 

 

Purple sandpipers

Pruple sandpipers gleaning for food

I’m not sure why Calidris maritima are ‘purple’, but they acted as any wader does, rummaging for invertebrates, insects, buds and seeds along the shoreline.

Black guillemots

Black guillemot, with the distinctive red legs

Cepphus grylle is a diver, going down about nine metres to get fish, crustaceans and molluscs. The breeding colonies are minute compared to some other birds – a few birds, or a few dozen, in scree or on flat ground.

 

 

Snow buntings

The charming snow bunting

Plectrophenax nivalis is the only breeding songbird in Svalbard. It’s about the size of a sparrow and hunts for seeds and insects. 

 

 

 

Arctic avians

I used to be more of an avian adventurer, but I don’t generally do the birding thing much anymore. Despite this, the Arctic trip added a dozen or so birds to my life list (if I were to have such a thing – but of course I do!).

The final bird list on the trip was as follows (the column headings, which can’t be seen, are dates). I didn’t see all of them,  but I’m posting pictures of those I did (all photos are my own unless mentioned in the captions). I’m not concentrating on the birds as such – after all, you can easily find much better shots than mine on the interwebs – but rather on the combination of the birds and the environment they scratch a living out of.

End-of-trip bird list

 

Birds can’t survive the Arctic winter, so migrate back and forth. The Arctic summer brings massive amounts of plankton and other underwater animals and plants, due to upwelling from ocean currents. The whole biological system relies on the summer largesse of the bottom rung of the food web.

The poster on the ship’s wall helped with ID, as did the excellent library.

Svalbard birds poster

  • The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), possibly the world’s greatest migrator, flying every year between the Arctic and Antarctica over a lifetime of 15-30 years

Arctic tern; not my photo, not sure who photographed it

  • Pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Pair of pink-footed geese in Longyearbyen

 

  • Common eider (Somateria mollissima; in the second photo, male on the far right) – yes, the ones whose bum feathers make those cosy ‘eiderdowns’ for your bed.

Eider female sitting on eggs in Longyearbyen

Flock of common eiders on a shingle beach in Svalbard; male far right

Steep slopes give eiders a certain amount of protection from predators – at least they can see a long way

  • Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) – note the surroundings in which they are feeding. This is typical of Longyearbyen and most of the Svalbard peninsula, except that Longyearbyen has lots of mine tailings and industrial structures from the old mining days. The permafrost is just below the surface and the ground unfreezes in summer to only a metre or so, supplying just enough meltwater for tiny plants to unfreeze and commence their summer lives. These are the geese that medieval folks thought came from barnacles.

Barnacle geese in Longyearbyen

  • Glaucus gull (Larus hyperboreus), a large gull that scavenges pretty much anything

    Glaucus gull

Glaucus gulls resting on floating ice

  • Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), breeds in colonies on cliff ledges; 130,000 breeding pairs have been estimated

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown but is one of our party

    Black-legged kittiwakes; photographer unknown

 

  • Brünnich’s guillemot – these birds nest in their hundreds of thousand on sheer cliffs to avoid predation by Arctic foxes and polar bears, which will eat the birds’ eggs and young if they can get at them.

    Brunnich’s guillemot on cliff ledge

  • Long-tailed skua (Stercorarius longicaudus) – these birds attack other birds that have caught their own meals, causing them to drop the food so that the skuas can make off with it.

    Long-tailed skua

 

 

 

 

Northern fulmar; photographer was one of our party

Purple sandpiper

  • Little auk (Alle alle), another bird that nests in thousands on cliffs

    Little auks; photo by Alastair Rae, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Back on the Norwegian mainland, I saw:

  • Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) at Balestrand, the same species we get in Australia
  • Hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – an urban dweller, this one in Tromso

    Hooded crow

    All in all, a satisfying set of additions to the personal bird list.

The silence in the forest

Walking along the tracks of Lord Howe Island’s palm forests was a strange experience. All I could hear was the wind through the palm leaves, the sea and the occasional rustle. At home when I hear rustling, it’ll be a brush turkey, a goanna, a snake, maybe a frog or three, or one of many, many birds. In the same month (November) at home, there’s also the ear-splitting stridulations (love that word) of cicadas en masse.

Lord Howe native kentia palm forest

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I like to be in America

Or My 2010 US Deep South trip (part 1 of 4)

I like to be in America, Okay by me in America.
Everything free in America, For a small fee in America.

West Side Story

SATURDAY 22/5/2010

Andrew saw me off at the Brisbane international airport for the Qantas 11 am fight to LA. I sat next to an Indigenous man and his wife who were on their way to Seattle for a world-wide indigenous conference, which happens every year in different localities (I think it’s the First Nations conference or some such). They lived in an over-50s gated community somewhere around Brisbane. We arrived in LA international airport (LAX) at 6-30 am the same day as we left, thanks to the International Date Line, after a 13-hour flight.

Despite worrying that I wouldn’t have enough time to get through customs to my connecting flight, I had absolutely no problems getting from LA to Atlanta – it took half an hour to get through LAX immigration and pick up my luggage in LA and get through customs. This included queueing for passport check and finger-printing and retinal photography – the joys of living post 9/11.

A curious and heart-stopping moment in LAX airport: I had wound my way around the looong queue to get into the American Airlines terminal (very efficient queue-minders there) and was walking through the nth security check when four big, tall African-American security guys ran through, shouting ‘Boom, boom, boom’. We all stopped – they shouted ‘Stay still, don’t move!’. We all froze. About 30 seconds later, an announcement over the PA said it was a drill. Phew! I asked the nearest person what it was about, and they shrugged and said they had no idea.

I then had a 2-hour wait to catch a connecting flight to Dallas with American Airlines, then another 2-hour wait at Dallas for a connecting flight to Atlanta. It was great to be on the ground and able to people-watch – the US is much more multiracial and multicultural than Australia, at least in the areas I visited. It was curious that on American Airlines you must pay for your food or drink (even a US$1 bottle of beer) with a credit card – no cash accepted. I suppose it eliminates muggings. My luggage appeared on the carousel in Atlanta airport just as Alan and Jane arrived to pick me up at 7 pm-ish Atlanta time (14 hours ‘behind’ Lismore time). It was roughly 29 degrees C and fine, though a bit muggy. Imperial units (miles, Fahrenheit and gallons) are generally used in the US.

We had a sandwich snack at the airport before driving (this was the first time I experienced the large size of American meals, enough for two, but I was starving so polished it off no problems) in Alan’s Prius (I’d heard hybrid cars are very quiet and it’s true) to their home in Decatur (pronounced ‘Dec-A-tur’, not ‘Dec-a-TUR’). It is a quiet neighbourhood with lots of trees and manicured lawns, a few kilometres from Atlanta’s centre. It was a bit disconcerting to be sitting in a car driving on the ‘other’ side of the road, and to have a road rule ‘right on red’, so that you can turn right when facing a red light if it is safe to do so.

Emory University was in the neighbourhood and has a huge campus. Jane worked at the Centers for Disease Control, a huge organisation doing research on health and epidemiology. She’d wanted to show me through, but I would have had to have serious security checks – not practical for just an afternoon’s visit. The facility has lots of very nasty diseases on site, like smallpox and Ebola.

SUNDAY 23/5/2010

I awoke at 3-30 am raring to go – fortunately Alan and Jane have a great library with books of much interest to me, so I started reading The Lost City of Z, about the search for a ‘lost city’ in the Amazon – well-written and gripping. Later I read My Stroke of Insight, by a neuroanatomist who herself had a stroke, describing her attack and recovery – another well-written and fascinating book.

After the sun rose, I moved to the breakfast table where I was able to look at the back deck and bird feeder. Jane and Alan put out seeds to attract birds. I saw a male and female cardinal this morning at the bird feeder – and a squirrel! Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are apparently considered a nuisance, but have novelty value for me. Possums in Australia are often considered the same way in urban areas, where they find cosy places in roofs and rattle around to the annoyance of humans. (Apologies for the less-than-perfect photos. I was shooting them through a window.)

Grey squirrel munching bird seed

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