By Robert Dugand, Postdoctoral Research Associate at The University of Western Australia
In the last year, we have recorded over 120 species of birds within a 35km radius of the Roxby Downs township, which includes the Arid Recovery Reserve. Although native mammals are the primary focus of Arid Recovery’s work, a fenced, predator-free reserve also creates an important refuge for native bird species, particularly with increasing predator pressure from wild and domestic cats. We recently blogged about ducks in the desert; here, we highlight a few of our favourite local birds. We count down our favourite birds in three different categories. If there is too much to read, enjoy some photos from around town (mostly).
In Australia, spring is terrifying. It’s magpie swooping season. I think most of us have been swooped by an overly protective magpie, or at least live in fear of it. Snakes, spiders, sharks: meh. Magpies + drop bears = terror. Magpies are surprisingly scarce in Roxby Downs, and we’re seldom under threat. However, many other bird species are serial swoopers, mostly targeting other birds. Here’s our top three swooping list:
3. Any bird smaller than a wedgie…
Wedge-tailed eagles are one of Australia’s most iconic birds. They majestically and effortlessly soar overhead up in the thermals. But they are constantly being bombarded by smaller birds (ALL birds!). It doesn’t always pay to be big.
It pained me to include woodswallows in this list because they are my favourite group of birds. They can be cute and cuddly, but they are fiercely protective of their brethren. I have taken countless photos of raptors only to zoom in and discover a pesky woodswallow darting towards them. For a bird that weighs no more than a golf ball, they certainly pack a punch. At Arid Recovery, we’ve recorded white-browed, masked, and black-faced woodswallows, while white-breasted woodswallows can be common in and around town.
Did you know…? Despite their name and the fact that they are amazing aerialists, woodswallows are closely related to butcherbirds and currawongs, not swallows and martins! Even though they primarily eat invertebrates, they also have bifurcated tongues for eating nectar. White-breasted woodswallows (the most abundant in the Roxby Downs township) are also brilliant vocal mimics, though they can mostly be heard yelling ‘pirt’ high in the sky, keeping in contact with their flock.
1. Willie wagtails
Swooping is almost the default behaviour of willie wagtails. They have the potential to be beautiful backyard buddies – they can make melodious whistles, and their tail in constant wagging motion is adorable. Alas, mostly they just resort to their grumpy swooping behaviour and grating “chitit-chitit-chitit” noise. Woodswallows swoop with gusto – they’re in and they’re out. Willie wagtails are slow, and they hang around swooping back and forth, taking on birds of all sizes. It’s this fearless, relentless swooping behaviour that nudged out woodswallows from the top spot. I guess when you’ve got a grumpy brow, you play the role…
Honourable mention: Just about any honeyeater or miner could have fitted into this category! They mob anything that moves, and they’re awfully loud in doing so…
You’re so vain
Most birds are reasonably skittish. Some love the limelight and seem to pose for photos. They’ll find a perfect branch with an uninterrupted view, look down the lens, and smile.
3. Splendid fairywrens
Splendid fairywrens are common on the dunes around town. If you happen to come across a group, one will undoubtedly be perched atop a tree. It’s usually the showy, blue male. Some might say it’s sentry behaviour, where one individual finds a high point to look out for predators while the rest of the family forages. But we’re not buying that – they’re clearly showing off and posing for the camera… They are beautiful beyond question, but they know it.
2. Red-capped robins
Much like the splendid fairywrens, red-capped robins take any opportunity to pose. They drop onto the floor to catch their prey, but spend a lot of their time on branches with uninterrupted views. Red-capped robins love an over-the-shoulder pose. The males are striking with their red caps and breasts contrasting with the black and white body, and the red is so vibrant that it even pops against the red dirt of the outback. But, we think the females are prettier – sorry boys.
1. Birds of the night
At Arid Recovery, camera traps are used to keep an eye on things. While extremely useful for monitoring native species and detecting incursions of introduced predators, it is highly entertaining to see who loves being on camera when they think no one is watching (or do they know?!). Barn owls are the standout, but boobooks also love the attention.
Honourable mention: Corvids (much like owls, they love being on camera when no one is watching!)
Dishonourable mention: Cinnamon quail-thrush (unbelievably well camouflaged in this environment, they simply don’t want to be seen)!
Birds are the best. But, sometimes, birds are the worst. Here, we highlight some foul behaviour…
3. Zebra finches
How did these strikingly beautiful little finches rank at three on the despicable list?! They can will build a nest in anything. Flat surfaces are fair game. Roof eaves. Hose reels. Car wheels (and don’t leave the car window down!). Raptor nests. Dingo carcasses. ANYTHING. We feel bad about putting them on the list, but they can be a real pain.
2. Gull-billed terns
In October 2022, Roxby Downs and its surrounds had over 130mm of rainfall. Gull-billed terns flocked to the area, including to Arid Recovery. They feast on skinks and dragons, and, although eating reptiles is not in itself despicable, they mostly don’t finish their food! Medium-sized meals don’t really fit in the stomach, so, while the top half digests, the legs and tail just hang around until it’s time to be vomited up, what a waste! Sometimes parent gull-billed terns will feed their chicks meals that are too big (such as bearded dragons), causing the chicks to choke and die. We think that’s rather despicable!
1. Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo
There could be only one winner. Laying your eggs in another’s nest and making them care for your child is truly despicable behaviour (albeit, ingenious). Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos are common around the outskirts of town, particularly through summer. While hard to spot, they can be heard making a long “tseeeuw” whistle. They are quite small, and mostly parasitise the nests of beautiful little fairywrens and thornbills. Poor form!
Did you know…? There are also bees that parasitise the nest of other bees! In town, there are cuckoo bees that lay their eggs in the nests of blue-banded bees (images below).
Honourable mentions: little corellas (they’re loud and they ate our sunflowers)
Please adhere to your local laws and regulations about pet cats – our native wildlife depend on you! Information from Atlas of Living Australia (https://www.ala.org.au/), Menkhorst et al 2019 (The Australian Bird Guide, Revised Edition), and from communication with experts.
All photos were taken by Robert Dugand, unless otherwise specified.