Carnaby’s Cockatoos are endangered parrots endemic to the south-west of Western Australia, usually seen around Perth from late summer through to winter, when they move inland to breed. So it was a big surprise last summer when observant students discovered two pairs of these iconic birds breeding on a local university campus. As mentioned in this article, this is the first record of Carnaby’s breeding in Perth since European settlement.
As part of ongoing monitoring of Carnaby’s Cockatoos by conservation agencies, both chicks were extracted from their hollows, weighed, measured and banded on one leg with special stainless steel bands bearing unique identifying numbers. The university students set up camera traps facing the hollows to record the parents’ comings and goings and hopefully the timing of the chicks fledging. I was very lucky to be able to take some photos as part of the monitoring. The first chick, known as Chappie, was in a hollow that was difficult to see clearly, particularly in the evening. The parents come in to feed the chicks quite late in the day, when the light is very low on the horizon.
Two pairs of Carnaby parents
Chappie up close
Ronnie’s hollow was in a much better spot and I was able to get some lovely images of him peeking out of his hollow and of his Dad coming in to feed him just before sunset. Anyone familiar with Carnaby’s will know that usually you hear their distinctive call well before you see them; when they are coming in to an active nest they are much more discreet and can suddenly appear as if from nowhere.
Ronnie in his hollow
On candid camera
Ronnie with Dad
It was such a privilege to watch the last few days of Ronnie’s time in his hollow – the parents would call to him and he would think about leaving and then change his mind, and get his wings in a tangle trying to get back in to the hollow. I was expecting that when he fledged he would climb out of the hollow and spend some time on one of the nearby branches before flying away but he didn’t. His parents called to him a few times and he just launched himself out of the hollow over our heads (one of the students was with me) and disappeared over the campus.
Ronnie thinking about leaving his hollow
Changing his mind and getting a bit tangled
Ronnie just before he fledged
Sadly there was no happy ending for Ronnie’s story. A few months later, we found out that he had been found injured on the side of a major road. He was taken to the Perth Zoo but was too badly hurt (probably hit by a car) and had to be euthanised. Car strikes are a major problem for Carnaby’s in urban areas – they often feed on native shrubs planted on roadsides and their tendency to take off low to the ground puts them in harm’s way. Hopefully Chappie will be luckier.
Brightly-coloured male Fairy-wrens in their nuptial plumage can stop many an Australian birder in their tracks. The birds may be tiny but they more than make up for it with showiness. Most familiar are the two “Blue Wrens’ – the Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus) of the east coast and Tasmania, and the Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens) found across the south-western and more southern central areas.
Male Superb Fairy-wren in breeding plumage, at Mt Field in Tasmania
Female Superb Fairy-wren in the leaf litter
Female Splendid Fairy-wren at Lake Joondalup
Eclipse male Superb Fairy-wren showing a few remaining blue feathers
The male blue wrens are easy to identify in their distinctive breeding plumage, but most male Fairy-wrens are only dressed in their beautiful breeding colours for spring and summer; in autumn they moult back into what is called eclipse plumage – similar to the females at first glance. Separating the females, youngsters and non-breeding males is a bit trickier, requiring a close look at the colour of bills, eye-rings and lores. First year males can be confusing as they show the tan eye ring of the females combined with the black bill of a male, while some of the older males will retain their bright colours for the whole year. Often it is thought that the family groups consist of one male with several females but closer inspection usually reveals some birds to be males in non-breeding plumage.
A male Splendid Fairy-wren, probably a young bird given the black bill with the tan eye-ring
Two wrens cudding – young male and female Splendid Fairy-wrens
Female Splendid Fairy-wren with her pale tan eye-ring, lores and beak
Eclipse male Superb Fairy-wren in Tidbinbilla
A male Splendid Fairy-Wren in eclipse plumage, in April.
The blue feathers of the males are iridescent, caused by the particular structure of the barbules of their feathers. Its not hard to see where the Splendid Fairy-wren’s scientific name of splendens (shining) came from. I have often noticed this iridescence when photographing the breeding males – usually the images need the contrast and highlights toned down a bit to prevent the feathers looking plastic. The feature image for this article is a good example – not sure how successful I was. The ear-coverts are often the shiniest feather tract – they are used in face fan displays, which appear to be a territorial behaviour (sometimes seen in response to call playback; phishing is a better option).
Little Boy Blue
Breeding male Splendid Fairy-wren showing the face fan display
Every time I’ve been to Penguin Island, I’ve been fascinated by the Crested Terns (Sterna bergii). The first time I visited with my camera, I watched for ages as a group of terns splashed about in the small waves on the more protected side of the island.
Terns in the waves
In late November last year, the terns were busy raising their families. They started out with the young hidden in the vegetation and the poor parents battling to get fish to the chicks without losing their catch to the very determined Silver Gulls.
Two weeks later, the colony had moved down onto the beach.
The gulls were still very much in evidence but not seeming as much of a threat, probably as the chicks were older. I’m not sure how the parents find their offspring in amongst all the chaos.
Tern chick on the move
Waiting for food – Crested tern chick
Crested tern with lunch
Young Crested tern exercising his wings
Hopefully those chicks are all grown up now, and in juvenile plumage like the bird on the left below.
Penguin Island is one of my favourite places to visit near Perth. It’s a bit of a drive from home south to Rockingham but then just a short ferry ride to the island, which forms part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park. Bridled Terns breed here in summer – it is an awesome experience visiting when they are in residence as they are so close and flying all around you.
The birds and other animals are so much more relaxed than on the mainland making it easier to get close to them (sometime they get too close). I would love to be able to get over to Penguin Island early to get the soft light but as the first ferry is at 9 am I may have to learn how to kayak (and be brave enough to take my camera!).
Pied oystercatcher probing wet sand
Room with a view – nesting Silver gull
Adult Crested tern pair
Snoozing Australian sea-lion
If you’re lucky you’ll spot a wild Little Penguin – the smallest penguin species, found on the southern coast of Australia and around New Zealand. In summer, you sometimes see a couple of penguins hiding under the boardwalks but most of them disappear early in the morning to fish all day, returning at sunset. The island is closed to visitors in winter when the colony (about 1000 pairs) gets into breeding mode. The Little Penguin below is a late fledgling I spotted in the middle of the day – he probably tired of waiting for his parents to return and decided to try fishing for himself. Hopefully he made it to adulthood.
Little penguin fledgling
Pair of Mute swans at Penguin Island
Another unusual sight I came across was this pair of Mute Swans in the sea near the jetty. Mute Swans are an introduced species in Australia; there is a breeding colony at Northam (about 100 km away) but this pair were seen in the Rockingham area for a while.