Saturday, 3 December 2011

escaping the office...

Unfortunately I’ve been rather office bound the last wee while. It hasn’t been in vain though, I’ve knocked out another PhD thesis chapter, and completed the GIS (geographic information systems) analysis necessary for the next one. However summer has arrived, and earlier in the week it was just too nice a day to spend in front of the computer. A far more appealing option was to head to the Dunedin Botanic Gardens to get my bird geek on with a friend and colleague, also named Ed. Our target species: the humble dunnock (Prunella modularis).

Dunnocks (also known as hedge sparrows) are a fairly small, drab, and seemingly unremarkable little bird. So unremarkable, in fact, that despite their abundance in urban areas many people don’t realise their existence, failing to distinguish them from house sparrows (Passer domesticus). While there are differences between the two in plumage, song and behaviour, to the untrained observer the bill is the easiest distinguishing feature. House sparrows have a broad, finch-like beak, whereas dunnocks have a finer, more needle like bill. This is how I taught my young son to tell them apart.

Their inconspicuous appearance, however, belies a far more ‘colourful’ private life, with all the possible mating strategies being exhibited by dunnocks. Monogamy (mutually exclusive), polygyny (one male, two or more females), polyandry (one female, two or more males), and a generous dose of promiscuity can all be found in dunnocks. Ed’s PhD is on the evolutionary consequences of this, and examining which strategies, under which circumstances, are the most successful in rearing offspring and ensuring the continuation of the genetic line. Over the past few summers Ed has been catching adults, monitoring nests, and doing paternity tests on the chicks to build up a big picture of the dynamics of an urban dunnock population.

Hopefully the pictures will give you an insight into the more enjoyable side of being a bird biologist-getting out in the sunshine and getting our bird geek on. For me it was a welcome opportunity to get out of the office. Now back to that data analysis….

Ed removing an adult dunnock from the mist net. 

Colour bands are a common tool in ornithology, enabling biologists to tell birds apart. 

Chicks are regularly weighed and measured to check their progress 

 And nest cameras are used to see which adults are feeding the chicks, and how often.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


 Apologies for the delay in getting another post up. Since my return to New Zealand 3 weeks ago I've had my head down doing some serious data analysis and writing. If anyone would really like to read a blog post on statistical modeling of arthropod communities I'd be happy to oblige.

As you may recall, many of my images from my recent trip to Namibia were committed to slide film, and hence hadn't been posted. Finding somewhere to get slide film processed over there proved difficult-it seems slide film has been erased from the memory of all the camera shops I tried in Windhoek. I went into one camera shop and asked 'do you process slide film', to which the shop attendant replied 'yes, do you have your memory card here?' Righto.... I didn't spend long enough in Capetown to get it done on the way through there, so it had to wait until I got home. I got the film back from the lab last week, though haven't had a chance to have a good look through until tonight. With a few hundred images from my trip it's just like Christmas, and I'm getting to relive it all over again.

The nostalgia goes back beyond reliving my trip though. My decision to use film on this trip arose from a recent experience where I simply could not get the shot I wanted out of digital. No matter what I tried, nothing could make up for some undefinable character, some sort of elusive depth of character. It's the same phenomenon as music, whereby digital medium are supposedly superior to analogue, and despite the immense advantage of convenience held by the digital technology, records still hold their own and are enjoying a resurgence among audiophiles disillusioned by the digital age. Shooting the film was also an exercise in nostalgia. Before leaving I dug out my first SLR, a Pentax, and nothing flash by any stretch of the imagination. The whir of the motordrive after the shutter, the inevitable phenomenon of getting to the end of the roll just as an animal moved its head in the direction I'd been waiting for, trying to keep the dust out of the camera while changing film (not easy in the desert!).... and I loved every minute of it and will be doing it some more. Ah, nostalgia.

Hopefully you'll agree the selection of images below made it all worthwhile. All shot on fujichrome provia 100F, with a Pentax MZ50.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Raptor rapture

Howdy folks,

First to clarify: I am not using the word 'rapture' in the biblical sense. As far as I'm aware, we are not facing any sort of judgement day/end of the world scenario at the talons of eagles, falcons, or any other bird of prey. Though as always, I reserve my right to be completely wrong. Rather I refer to the joy that can be had in observing such magnificent birds.

I've just returned from my second trip to Etosha National Park, in the North of Namibia. Etosha translates as the 'great white place', and the 23000 km2 park is named after the 4730 km2 salt pan. The Etosha pan is dry for most of the year, though floods after heavy rains from the Ekuma and Oshigambo rivers, at the north east of the pan. The adjoining Fischer's Pan usually holds water. Around half of Etosha National Park is well developed for tourism, and is far from a wilderness experience. A well developed network of roads makes self-drive safaris in a car possible, and three lodges inside the park cater to your every need: camping sites, chalets, restaurants, even swimming pools. The lodges do suffer from infestations of Germans though. The rest of the park is more remote, and out of bounds to self-drive visitors (like me). 

The wide open spaces and scattered trees of Etosha make it a great location for spotting raptors. Etosha is home to around 44 species of vultures, eagles, buzzards, harriers, harrier-hawks, goshawks, kites, sparrowhawks, kestrels and falcons. I regularly spotted Tawny eagles (Aquila rapax), as well as black breasted snake eagles (Circaetus pectoralis), and lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotus). In addition to the pictures below I successfully photographed black kite (Milvus migrans), black-shouldered kite (Elanis caeruleus), and dark chanting goshawk (Melierax metabates). Most of my pictures from this trip have been committed to slide film and won't be processed until I get home, so the pictures below from my digital camera are just a taste. When perched, the silhouettes of their often large frames make a picturesque addition to the skyline, while the circling of buzzards and vultures can be a little unnerving if you find yourself temporarily misplaced (especially on foot in the desert; not that I would ever do such a thing...). 

Alas my time in Namibia is drawing to a close. I've had a fantastic time getting my bird geek on here, but after a few days in Capetown my neglected doctoral thesis will be getting some much deserved attention. 

Till next time, bird geek out.

Tawny eagle with it's eye on the prize.

Southern pale chanting goshawk (Melierax canorus), perched atop an Acacia arioloba tree. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Namibian madness...


Although it may be a few days before these words see the light of the internet, I pen them camped on the bank of the Kovango river-the border between northern Namibia and southern Angola. The sun beats down in the afternoon swelter, and the voices and laughter of the Angolan village children drift over the water, which in turn drifts it’s way east through the Kaprivi strip to the Okovango Delta. I munch on my staple African diet of peanut butter sandwiches and Windhoek lager. Having mislaid my lighter my pipe and tobacco sit forlornly in front of me.

In keeping with the musician theme from my last post, there seems to be a belief here that ‘I’m going slightly mad’. A song, incidentally, performed by Queen, whose front man, Freddy Mercury, was born on the African island of Zanzibar. A crazy place with a fascinating mix of culture and history, you should all visit. But I digress to my alleged madness. Last night a tour group of mostly Australians (pot calling kettle black?) showed up at the local tourist lodge and found it simply incredulous that I arrived here on foot. Admittedly Namibia is not a country to tour on foot-it’s mostly a desert, and hence very very hot and settlements tend to spaced very far apart. However I’ve spent the past four days in the very hospitable, and ridiculously poor village Kayengona (another story for another day…). As my destined campsite was not too far away I opted to walk, the only option really as my ride to the village had long departed. My habit of walking around barefoot just confirmed their view. Going bare foot doesn’t seem to be the done thing in Africa. Even the most destitute people in the poorest villages stare at my unclad feet, and often point and laugh when I pass. The owners of the lodge also seem to think me some sort of lone mad wanderer in need of charity-and have invited me to dine for free in their restaurant. Having sampled their fare last night I am very excited about this-their kudu stroganoff sure beats peanut butter sandwiches.

So am I mad? Mad about birds maybe… mad at birds, definitely. There always has to be some bird that tries its darndest to ruin your sleep on a nice trip into the wilderness. While the New Zealand kiwi (Apteryx spp.), kaka (Nestor meridionalis), and saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) are all lovely birds, they aren’t exactly musically inclined. If you’re lucky enough to visit somewhere with all three in significant numbers you’re in for some restless nights until you get accustomed to it. Here the babblers nicely fill this raucous role. There are four species of babblers in the genus Turdoides in the area, though so far I have only managed to sight two, the arrow-marked babbler (T. jardineii) and Hartlaub’s babbler (T. hartlaubii). Although they are rather handsome birds in their own way, their incessant, well, babbling as the name implies, means they have struggled to secure a place in my heart.

It’s not all bad though. Having not gone much more than 100 metres from my tent I have so far positively identified just over 40 different species, and a whole lot more have gone unidentified (so far…). The bee eaters (Merops spp.) are as cute as ever, but the most delightful to watch has been the white-bellied sunbird (Cinnyris talatala), a tiny nectivore I have seen feeding on the small flowers of a local banksia tree. I also found some nest building today. Unfortunately their small size, rapid movements and the thick bushes they’ve been hanging out in have made them elusive to photograph, so I’ll leave you with a picture of a raucous babbler, and a little bee eater.

This post is getting far too long now, so I’d better sign off. Although I’ve traveled a long way to get to my current birding location, don’t forget the message from my previous posts-no matter where you are, there’s always a nearby opportunity to get your bird geek on good and proper. 

An arrow marked babbler. Babbling.  

A little bee-eater (M. pusillus). Being cute.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

A lesson on sparrows for Alanis Morissette

In the past few weeks I've been doing a lot of touring of Namibia, visiting and camping in some of the most beautiful spots in the country, and indeed the world. So what to write about... the bull elephants clearing a waterhole of a pride of lions so they could bathe, or the black breasted snake eagle soaring over the plains of the Erongo? Or perhaps fixing the car in the middle of Etosha National Park at sunset, watched by herds of zebra and passing jackals? What has inspired me more than all this has been a bunch of sparrows. 

There are around 27 species of 'true' sparrows in the genus Passer found naturally throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, although most people are no doubt most familiar with house sparrows (Passer domesticus). However the most intriguing aspect of the ecology of sparrows is also the reason they tend to be overlooked, and disregarded as a bird worthy of watching (take note Alanis, that really is ironic). Sparrows got the roughest deal in China in the late 1950s, where they were included in the 'four pests campaign', in the mistaken belief that they were consuming large amounts of grain, lowering agricultural productivity, Chinese people were encouraged to kill sparrows (along with rats, flies and mosquitoes). Take note again Alanis-as the sparrows were persecuted and pushed to the verge of extinction, agricultural productivity in fact dropped. Further investigation revealed that the sparrows were actually consuming large numbers of locusts-which were the real threat to agriculture from the beginning. This lesson came too late however, and the 'kill a sparrow' campaign has been linked to a famine resulting in the starvation of over 30 million people. 

Getting back to that first irony though-everywhere people settle most birds suffer from localised extinctions, not sparrows however. They manage to not only survive, but thrive in the highly altered environments we offer them-a fascinating phenomenon, although over familiarity with them tends to lead to our overlooking them. As with urban areas throughout the world, house sparrows are also found in african cities and towns. In less modified areas, however, the Cape sparrow, P. melanurus, is much more common. I was surprised to find them in the numbers I did though in the harshest environment I have had the pleasure of visiting-the Namib Desert. The Namib desert covers around 81,000 square kilometres in South West Africa, with rainfall within the desert varying from 5 to 85mm annually. The only occasion I had to get a temperature reading in the area was 44 degrees Celcius... and yet sizable flocks of Cape sparrows were to be seen. With even the hardy Acacia erioloba trees in short supply, the few existing trees were clogged with nests. 

So next time you see a few sparrows catching your muffin crumbs at your favourite cafe, don't fob them off as being too common to engage your interest-take the opportunity to get your bird geek on and give them the thought they deserve. 

Female Cape sparrow.

Namib desert.

Southern Bird Geek trying to fit in with the the local springbok crowd (thanks for the photo, Willem).

Monday, 29 August 2011

Windhoek wonders

A fairly rapid follow on from the last post... turns out I didn't have to go far to find some opportunity to get my bird geek on in Windhoek, Namibia. Large flocks of swifts can be seen from the yard of the backpackers I'm staying at, and red-eyed bulbuls, go-away-birds, and white-backed mousebirds are also commonly seen, including one mousebird building a nest. Given my unfamiliarity with the region there are a few other birds I'm still working on ID's for. Also, not more than five metres from the front door a southern masked weaver bird (Ploceus velatus) has also been busy building a nest, and trying his best to attract a mate. 

Southern masked weavers are the most widely distributed of all the african weavers, and can be found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and of course Namibia. Although they typically form colonies in large trees, isolated nests aren't uncommon, nor are breeding attempts in suburbia. The male weaver bird will build the structure of the nest, and if it meets the approval of a female she will line it with soft grass and feathers. If it doesn't meet her standards it will be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. Once she has committed to the nest by laying the male will start work on a new nest for a new lady. So far, however, this weaver bird hasn't had much luck with the first...

Suburban southern masked weaver at work in Windhoek, Namibia.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Capetown kingfisher

Continuing the urban kingfisher theme-this morning I had a very enjoyable visit to Rondevlei Nature Reserve, as part of my first visit to Capetown. Thanks in large part to the generous hospitality of my colleague Susie, the jetlag recovery and orientation to being in a new country was (almost) seamless. While Capetown has the usual unfortunate drawbacks of african cities, it is blessed with a great network of parks and reserves which support a fantastic diversity of birds. Rondevlei Nature Reserve forms a part of the False Bay Ecology Park, and is tucked between the coast and the bustling metropolis. In the park have been counted 320 plant species, including 17 endangered, 235 bird species, including 7 endangered, 29 reptile species, 23 mammal species, 8 amphibian species, 2 of which are endangered, and the reserve is also home to the Cape’s only hippopotamus population. All this within the city bounds. With the area of land undergoing urban development continuing to grow exponentially, this is a great example of the importance of allowing for nature conservation within our towns and cities. 

Despite the best attempts of the weather to thwart our efforts to get our bird geek on, we were able to spot and identify a large number of bird species that were new to me. We were lucky to spot a goliath heron (Ardea goliath), well outside it's normal range. Although there was no shortage of competition for the most exciting observation, the prize has to go to the malachite (Alcedo cristata), a fairly common small kingfisher-one of the smallest in Africa. We had lingered in one particular hide a bit longer than the others, not because there were any more birds there, but it was in a spot sheltered from the building southerly wind. Although the malachite only lingered long enough for a few rushed pictures, it was enough to expose the depth of my geekiness by getting the heart racing. 

I'm now in Windhoek, in the heart of Namibia. I'm giving a seminar at the university on urban bird research, and another public lecture hosted by the Namibian Scientific Society on bird conservation in New Zealand in a few days. Until then I'm looking forward to seeing what avian gems the urban wilds of Windhoek can throw at me.

Malachite kingfisher, Rondevlei Nature Reserve, Capetown. 

A more geographically minded goliath heron, within it's normal range (lower Zambezi, 2008).

Thursday, 4 August 2011


My first ever blog post. I'm not really sure if there's any sort of etiquette or 'done thing' for blog posts, so I'll just start how I intend to continue-with some stuff that's happening in my life, and a nice story about some birds.

Today I finished the first draft of the second chapter of my PhD thesis. It's about the foraging behaviour of silvereyes in urban trees, and the importance of adaptive opportunistic behaviour in birds (a phrase I made up, and I hope will catch on). Obviously I've been spending a fair bit of time in front of the computer writing, but lucky for me there is a nice bike path at the bottom of the hill which takes me most of the way to uni. The bike path runs along the edge of the harbour, and the ride in and out of school is a great way to relax, and get my daily fix of nature.

Yesterday morning I was biking along, as usual, when I spotted a kingfisher, (Halcyon sancta, kotare), amongst the rocks just above the shoreline. He (or she) flew up and perched on a powerline clutching a crab in its bill, then proceeded to systematically break off all the legs and nippers by bashing it against the wire before sending it down the hatch. This was only the second occasion I've had the opportunity to watch a kingfisher handling prey. The first was a little further from home, in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia. I had arrived at a small watering hole where I had seen some fish eagles earlier in the day, and was hoping to snap a few pics in the fantastic african evening light. The fish eagles weren't to be seen, but a pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) was, it flew in and landed on a branch not far away from me, having evidently just captured a small fish. As the New Zealand kingfisher had done with the crab, the African kingfisher, grasping the fish as shown below, proceeded to pound the fish into submission against the branch. This battering continued long after the fish had been stunned. Maybe the kingfisher was tenderising it, maybe it wanted to make sure the fish was well and truly dead and wasn't going to start wriggling around in its gullet. Or maybe (I like to think) it was being obliging and allowing me plenty of time to snap off some nice pics. I hope you enjoy the picture, I have certainly enjoyed my experiences watching some very similar behaviour in two very different locations. It's certainly a good reminder that you don't have to travel to some exotic location to have a memorable wildlife viewing experience and get your bird geek on.

With my chapter finished, I'm off to the pub.

Bird geek out.

Pied kingfisher with prey, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.