Chris Watson

Alice Springs

The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia: An Early Account by A. E. Newsome

Review, EcologyChris Watson

by Thomas Newsome and Alan Newsome

CSIRO Publishing, July 2016

Paperback AU$39.95

“Desert lands have an appealing starkness and simplicity. The very grain of the countryside is exposed to all. Ancient mountain ranges plunge and rear from the plains. Rocks and boulders lie tumbled at their feet. Dry watercourses break through mountain gorges to meander and die in the desert. Stunted trees stand mutely enduring the heat.

Biological survival in such a land is not simple.” - p.15-16

 

It is just such a land, however, which is home to the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus; the largest extant marsupial on Earth and Australia’s largest terrestrial mammal. The Red Kangaroo is an Australian icon that ranks with Uluru and the Sydney Opera House for international recognition. The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia presents the gathered thoughts and findings on the species, from the early work of one of the great minds of Australian ecology.

Alan Newsome’s work was already familiar to me when I gained employment as an environmental consultant in Alice Springs in 2011. As it happens, Alan’s son, Thomas Newsome, was working at the firm which took me on, and I’d learn that he is a gifted ecologist in his own right. I’d been living in Central Australia for several years at that time and, being interested in the ecology of Central Australian fauna, Alan Newsome’s name was a regular feature on my reading list. Though I only worked with Thomas for a short time, my excitement at the publication of The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia comes, not only from my own affinity for the country and animals that it describes, but from an appreciation of his standing, and his father’s, in the Australian ecological community.

Alan began studying the Red Kangaroo in 1957 and it’s important to appreciate how rudimentary our understanding of the animal’s ecology was at that time. Alan was the first to discover many of the behavioural and physiological adaptations that have allowed the species to live so successfully in a landscape with such famously extreme and irregular conditions. Working on the beautiful plains to the north of the MacDonnell Range, Alan methodically uncovered the mysteries of the Red Kangaroo’s life. His book takes us through the challenges the kangaroo must overcome to survive in this country in chapters dealing with the landforms, climate and vegetation; distribution and abundance; reproduction (some of Alan’s most astonishing discoveries relate to the reproductive biology of the Red Kangaroo and these breakthroughs, and the methods by which they were revealed, are presented in considerable detail); food and water; sociology and a final chapter titled Ecomythology.

In addition to the main body of text there is an enlightening foreword by famed marsupial biologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and a preface by Thomas Newsome in his role as co-author and editor. [Alan Newsome passed away in 2007. This book is the edited result of a mostly complete manuscript which Thomas discovered among Alan’s effects in 2010.]

In the intervening decades since Alan Newsome’s field work, another generation of ecologists has built on his findings and we understand the Red Kangaroo’s biology well. But perhaps the great story presented by The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia, and a thread running through the entire book, is Alan’s determination to also come to grips with the Aranda* understanding of kangaroo ecology.

Like few other outback zoologists since Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Newsome allows room for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to be interpreted scientifically and considered alongside his own findings. The culmination of the book is in the final chapter titled Ecomythology in which Alan sets out the close alignment of his own hard-won knowledge with the traditional knowledge of his Aranda colleagues. The world has turned now and it is routine for IEK to be incorporated into scientific research and reporting, but we see the foundations of this practice in Alan’s work at a time when such considerations were by no means commonplace.

In addition to the book’s value as an important work of science and history, it is a beautiful piece of writing. As the brief excerpt I’ve used reveals, Alan's was an engaging writing style, as stripped-back and plain as the desert landscapes he describes. As an avowed desert-lover myself, Alan’s deep affection for the country in which he spent so much of his career, is instantly relatable from the way he writes about it. He also had that all-too-rare talent for rendering scientific writing enjoyable for the reader, without sacrificing any of its rigour. The ease of his style is such that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia reads more like a story than a scientific treatise at times. This is testament to his ability to render deep scholarship comprehensible to the lay-reader rather than any “dumbing down” or skimping on detail.

Ultimately, The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will appeal to an audience far beyond the ranks of biologists. It includes almost as much history and anthropology as it does ecology. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with the writings of other prominent Centralian researchers like T.G.H. Strehlow, with whom Alan discussed his work at some length, and the correspondence of the aforementioned Spencer and Gillen.

As well as being a peerless account of animal ecology and scientific investigation in the desert, it is a postcard from Central Australia and the ecological adventures of a young scientist on a personal journey of discovery. There is no doubt that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will continue to inspire and inform future generations of Australian ecologists for a very long time to come.

CBW

 

*Also spelled Arrernte and Arunta, these are the Aboriginal Australians who are the traditional custodians of the lands surrounding Alice Springs and much of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Mysterious Princess of the Western Deserts

Twitching, Research, birdingChris Watson

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

– Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

The Princess Parrot Polytelis alexandrae, is a staggeringly beautiful animal for a variety of reasons. It’s a fractal bird. There's a new layer of contradiction, conundrum and surprise revealed at each level it’s examined: the long, long tail, the males’ odd little wing spatules, the dissonant colour scheme, the preference for an extremely unpredictable desert habitat, the wide-ranging movements. Even the fact that it is common in captivity but so difficult to observe in the wild gives a strange familiarity to a bird which is seen by only a lucky handful of people most years.

Marble Gum Eucalyptus gongylocarpa, along the Connie Sue Highway, WA: a known favourite for Princess Parrot nesting.

If you’re like most birdwatchers, the first place you will observe this species is in an aviary. With luck, it will be a bird of the wild colouration rather than the product of aviculturists’ bizarre fascination with breeding unnatural colours into birds; apparently they’re particularly fond of blue Princess Parrots. Weirdos. The real bird lives in scattered populations out in the wilds of inland Australia. Even the remote inland city of Alice Springs is a solid day of driving on unsealed bush roads from any of the habitat where the bird is seen with anything that could be termed 'regularity'.

Viewed sitting on its perch in an aviary, the dissonant colours of the parrot will probably seem at odds with a bird supposed to be at home in the sandy deserts of Central and Western Australia. This is most likely due to the observer’s lack of familiarity with these environs. For those yet to travel there, the Western Deserts are as surprising as the creatures that call them home. If the word ‘desert’ traditionally conjures bleak images of dusty, desolate plains and bare rock, then no habitat could be more unexpected. The range of the Princess Parrot covers a wide swathe north/south along the border of Western Australia with South Australia and the Northern Territory, from the top of the Canning Stock Route south of Halls Creek WA, down to around Neale Junction in the Great Victoria Desert. Being anywhere in this part of the country is far from a guarantee of seeing the bird, but this is where they lurk.

The blue skies near Neale Junction WA, a well-known locality for Princess Parrot, on a more cloudy afternoon.

The palette out here is rich beyond anyone’s expectations; the sand is a deeper and more lustrous red than you think, the trees are a lusher and more verdant green, the grasses a saturated golden yellow. Due to the interplay of contrasting colours and how they’re processed in our brains, the skies here are literally among the bluest on Earth. Following rain the flowers appear in every colour. So crypsis is relative. If you’re a nightjar wanting to blend in with decomposing leaf litter, then mottled browns, blacks, and greys are fine. But to survive above ground level in the riot of colour that is the Western Desert demands something a bit more… Matisse.

A pair of Princess Parrot enjoying the mid-morning sun during a winter visit to Australian Wildlife Conservancy's Newhaven Reserve west of Alice Springs in 2012.

So when it is at home, the Princess Parrot’s lime green shoulders vanish into the fresh growth on a Desert Bloodwood. The powdery pinks and sky blues are by turns shaded and brightened in flight by the reflected hues of earth and sky. And then there’s the thing you’ll never get from a caged bird: the jizz. That ineffable but distinctive movement and posture that is unique to a species. Like its congeners this is a high-speed mover. When the deserts dry and the water holes are distantly separated, the birds are capable of covering the necessary distance in short order. Counter-intuitively for a bird with such a long tail, it has the strange habit of perching along a branch. Not always. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of pictures of them perching in the conventional fashion with their elongated rectrices spearing earthward at a right angle to the branch, but they are often observed with those feathers laid flat along the length of the branch – almost frogmouth-like. Perhaps another concession to crypsis? Maybe all the Polytelis parrots do this, I’m not sure. I’ve seen Regent Parrots do it, but I’ve never seen Superb Parrots.

....sitting quietly in a Desert Bloodwood Corymbia opaca. Very easy to miss. I wonder how many birds like this I've driven straight past over the years. 

In any case they’re a special animal. Certainly they deserve their reputation as our second most-desired bird after another desert parrot, the perennially unfindable Night Parrot Pezoporus occidentalis. There are many senior Australian birders who are yet to mount the necessary expedition out west to see Princess Parrot in the wild, and many who have and still missed the birds. Even for those who live in the outback, those who in most years may stumble on Grey Honeyeater, Grey Falcon, and various grasswrens, all merely from frequenting the right habitat, will still be unlikely, and consider themselves very fortunate, to see Princess Parrots – just ask Richard Waring.

As someone who has been exceedingly fortunate and seen these birds on numerous occasions, I can certainly vouch that it is worth the immense effort to get out and spend some time looking. Since 1996 I’ve probably spent a total of many months in Princess Parrot habitat, and only seen the birds on 5 occasions, but even without Princess Parrots, it is entirely worth the cost and time to get out there and look around.

It is an enriching experience. This is birding as it was always meant to be. Once you see this country it becomes part of you.

This is your chance. Alice Springs’ resident birding guide Mark Carter and I, are headed out to this magnificent country in September, to give a bunch of visiting birders their best chance at seeing these birds in the wild this year. Other than having a good chance at finding wild Princess Parrots, we should see plenty of other desert wildlife along the way. At time of writing there are only a couple of positions left on this trip so you’ll need to bite the bullet and get in quick. If it’s a part of the country you are yet to explore, I encourage you to take this opportunity if you can. All the details are on Mark’s website at THIS LINK HERE.

Expeditioners can expect many similar vistas. This is the Sandy Blight Junction Road near the Schwerin Mural Crescent, WA.


Further reading:

As mysterious as the Princess Parrot is, there are researchers out there peeling back the layers and revealing more about its extraordinary life cycle. There are few papers in peer-reviewed journals documenting the ecology of wild birds but this paper is the most recent and will give you a starting point for further literature searches.

The breeding and foraging ecology and abundance of the Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) during a population irruption. Chris Pavey et al.

 

Forest Wagtail - BARC Submission for an Australian Mainland First

TwitchingChris Watson

This post is a result of a few requests that I've had about producing a rare or vagrant bird report for submission to the BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee (BARC).

In fact, I've only had cause to make a single submission to BARC and that was in the fairly celebrated case of the Forest Wagtail that was present in Alice Springs during 2013. There have probably been few, if any, other BARC submissions that have been so straightforward. Leaving aside for a moment that many of the members of the committee had actually travelled to Alice Springs to see the bird themselves, it was a long staying bird which was very site-faithful and was an outstanding photographic subject. After a few months of being viewed by dozens of birders, with who-knows-how-many-thousands of photographs taken, there was no doubt as to its identity and this submission was really just a formality to get the observation on the official record. 

As such, this report is perhaps less detailed than one that you might produce for a bird which is less straightforward to ID (a Lesser Black-backed Gull say), but if you ever have occasion to write such a report, you might find that the research, and the process of consulting with experts is part of the enjoyment of the exercise.

The BARC website has all of the resources and instructions that you might need to guide you through the process and I've always found the members of the committee to be approachable. If you are fortunate enough to find a vagrant species, or a rarity listed on the BARC review list, I'd urge you to take the time to produce a report, however brief, to ensure that our national list is as accurate and up to date as it can be.

So for the interest of those who have requested it, below is the original submission in its entirety. I've copied it over with just a few minor formatting changes but otherwise intact. The original photographs that were included with the report can be found at the bottom of the text.

 

 

Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus at Alice Springs, Northern Territory, April - September 2013

 Submission to BirdLife Australia Rarities Committee, 16 February 2014

  CHRISTOPHER WATSON(1), WILLIAM CORMACK(2) & ANNE CORMACK   

 Preface 

A Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, was identified at a private residence on Cromwell Drive, Alice Springs, Northern Territory on 4 May 2013. The bird was reported to have been present (noted as unusual but otherwise unidentified) since 29 April 2013, but had not been noticed before this date. It was present in the area, and observed at this site by at least 52 visiting birdwatchers from all states of Australia (Will Cormack pers. comm.), and was last seen on 1 September 2013. This is an account of the occurrence, which is believed to be the first record of the species for mainland Australia, following a single photographed record from Christmas Island, 17 May 2009.       

Habitat 

Well-watered private garden with thick lawn at the rear of the house and terraced garden sloping up sharply to the rear of the property with a variety of flowering bushes and a large Date Palm Phoenix dactylifera, shading the eastern side of the garden. The neighbouring properties on either side had less well-watered and vegetated gardens with extensive paved areas. The back of the property is joined with crown land consisting of low acacia scrub containing buffel grass Cenchrus ciliaris, Witchetty Bush Acacia kempeana, and a variety of native grasses (Aristida spp.) on a rocky knoll. North-east of the crown land, roughly 100m from where the bird was observed, is the seventh fairway of the Alice Springs Golf Club providing extensive areas of open, well-watered grass. 300m to the south-west of the property, is the tenth fairway of the course, which has a 250m long water trap. 500m to the south-west is the golf club’s main water feature, an artificial lake approximately 120m at its widest, which is frequented by numerous cormorants, herons, coots, ducks, and other waterbirds.

Sighting conditions

The day that the bird was first positively identified was a fine, still morning, with clear skies and approximately 27°C. The sun was getting high, providing fairly good viewing from all directions. As the bird continued to be observed in following months, it was viewed during a range of climatic conditions, typical of central Australia for the time of year. Temperatures ranged from overnight lows of 2.6°C to daily maximums as high as 35.1°C. Approximately 15mm of rain fell during 12 and 13 May, with a further 47.2mm falling by the time of the final record of the bird. 

Optical aids used

8 x 42 binoculars and a Canon 5DII camera with a 100-400mm f5.6 lens.

Additional Observers

Will Cormack and Anne Cormack, the residents at the property who first noted the bird’s presence, were both present at the time of identification and had seen the bird the previous day as well. They both agreed with the identification of the bird. Before the possibility of Forest Wagtail was presented, they had already rejected the possibility of any of the vagrant species of wagtail (Motacilla sp.) known to have already occurred on mainland Australia and depicted in the Pizzey & Knight field guide, based on lengthy clear views of the bird on this date and the previous day. All three observers are 100% confident of the identity of this bird.

Will and Anne Cormack can be contacted on their home phone: XX XXXX XXXX

Physical Description of Bird

1)    A single live bird was present. 

2)    None of the observers have sufficient experience with the species to accurately estimate age and sex, but in comparison to field guide images it appeared to be a sub-adult bird, due to a less pronounced second white bar on each wing. No sexual dimorphism is suggested or depicted in the available field guides (Robson 2002, Robson 2005, Svensson et al 2009). 

3)    In both size and general shape the bird appeared to be broadly similar to wagtails of the genus Motacilla that WC and CW have observed on numerous occasions in Alice Springs, Zimbabwe, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

4)    We were unable to determine any details of moult due largely to a paucity of reference material. The crown of the head was a dull grey-brown which continued down across the scapulars and on to the upper back. The upper portion of the folded wings had some of the same grey-brown colouration of the upper back, but the remainder of the wing was a dark black colour with strongly contrasting white markings visible at two points while the wing was folded. The upper tail appeared to be a similar grey-brown but the underside of the tail was pale – almost pure white. 

The belly and sides were a similar clean white. The breast was also a clean white colour but with two strongly contrasting black bands – the lower of the two incomplete (coming part way across the breast but not meeting in the middle.) Above the upper black breast band, the throat was a clean white. There was a clear, broad supercilium that joined the upper portion of the bill and extended back well past the eye. There was a strong grey-brown line passing through the middle of the eye and the ear coverts were a very slightly buff, off-white colour. 

5)    The upper mandible was dark grey and the lower mandible was a pale, perhaps slightly fleshy colour. The iris appeared to be a very dark brown colour. The legs and feet were a very pale fleshy pink.

6)    The bird was not heard to call at all during the initial observations. It was later heard to call very occasionally by WC and other observers and was described as sounding vaguely similar in character to the call of Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum (Will Cormack and Rohan Clarke pers. comm.).

7)    The bird was predominantly terrestrial in its habits but was twice seen to perch in the lower branches of acacia shrubs. The first time the bird flew up to perch approximately 100cm from ground level in the branches of a Witchetty Bush, where it stayed for approximately 2 minutes. The second time, it flew in to perch in the branches of a different bush of the same species about 30cm from the ground in the neighbouring yard, but still visible through a chain-mesh (cyclone) fence. 

The remainder of the time the bird walked slowly around the garden except for one flight from the western to the eastern side of the garden (approximately 25m). Only the flush was seen of this flight as the flight path was obscured by terraced garden beds, but the bird was relocated in the opposite corner of the garden. The bird was not heard to call in flight.

When the bird was stationary it swayed its tail constantly from side to side in quite a gentle, but continuous, motion – not at all as vigorous as a Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys or a Grey Fantail R. albiscapa, with which all observers are familiar. It occasionally picked something from the ground, and it once picked at some low seeds hanging from a grass stalk, but it did not appear to eat anything and did not persist in these behaviours. 

The only other birds detected in the garden during the period of the observations was a Mistletoebird, heard in a nearby tree but not seen, and 3 Australian Ringneck Barnardius zonarius, which flew through the garden calling at a height of some 10m above the ground level at the rear of the house. None of these birds appeared to disturb the subject.

Potentially Confusing Species

This bird could conceivably be confused with any of the Motacilla wagtail species were it not for the distinctive breast markings, strongly contrasting black and white wing markings, and the constant lateral tail motion. 

If this bird was seen briefly or in flight, on shape and size alone it might be easy to confuse with any of the Motacilla wagtail species. However, having viewed this bird through binoculars at ranges as close as 7m, with the bird walking slowly on the ground and at times stationary, for approximately 50 minutes, we are confident that the characters described above can safely eliminate all of the Motacilla wagtail species.

Documentation

This description was written from memory while consulting the 407 photographs taken during the observation period. Three sequences of high-definition video footage were also taken with the same camera, totalling 1min 51secs of footage, which amply depicts the behaviour and tail motion of the subject. Five photographs have been attached to this submission, which we believe provide sufficient material for a positive identification, but further photographs and video footage can be provided on request.

A brief clip of HD video footage of the bird can be viewed here.

Acknowledgements

Mark Carter, Tim Bawden, and David Stowe each assisted with identification of early images of the bird posted to social media. Mike Carter and Samantha Hopley provided helpful comments on a draft of this submission.

References

Pizzey, G., & Knight, F. (2012). The Field Guide To The Birds Of Australia. Sydney: Harper Collins.

Robson, C. (2002). Birds Of Thailand. London: Princeton University Press.

Robson, C. (2005). Birds of Southeast Asia. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Svensson, L., Mullarney, K., & Zetterstrom, D. (2009). Collins Bird Guide: The Most Complete Guide To The Birds Of Britain And Europe. London: Harper Collins. 

Birding Central Australia #6

birdingChris Watson

Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva

Here after 13,000km flight

Perhaps not much to look at, but the bird in this picture has arrived here in Alice Springs all the way from the northernmost reaches of Siberian Russia or Alaska. To avoid the frigid northern winter, migratory birds like this Pacific Golden Plover, undertake flights as long as 13000 kms. Most birds will make at least one refuelling stop along the way in places like the Saemangeum in South Korea, and the Yangtze River estuary in China. A few birds, however, have been shown to make non-stop flights of up to 9000 kilometres, flying for 7 days or more without touching down. 

Researchers have only just begun unlocking the secrets of these amazing long distance endurance and navigation skills. It seems that they might shut down one half of their brain while flying. This means the other half can effectively “sleep” while the bird is on those marathon flights across oceans.

50 million migratory birds navigate from the Arctic to Australia and back again each year using the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Some are barely the size of a budgie.

A lucky few will call Alice Springs home for the summer, until the stars tell them the time is right, and they will head back northwards once more.

Sightings this week: 

-          Barn Owls everywhere. Lots of reports of these night birds out at night hunting rodents

-          8 Glossy Ibis, 4 Pelicans and 2 Nankeen Night-heron at Lake Mary Ann in Tennant Creek

-          Danny from Bush Bus spotted some Bustards and young Emus while negotiating floodwaters on the Lasseter Highway during the week

Birding Central Australia #5

birdingChris Watson

Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella.

An elegant little bird and a long distance champ

The migrants have arrived!

A variety of the migratory birds that desert us during the colder months are arriving back in The Centre in good-sized flocks. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at our long-distance migratory champions, but the star of this week is a migratory bird, within Australia.

The magnificent Australian Pratincole spends the cooler months in the northern reaches of the continent and then makes its way southward for the summer months. This one was giving me some great views at the sewage ponds here in Alice. This bird is in full breeding plumage with bill and gape flushed bright red, and a rich, chestnut brown developing on the breast.

An elegant little bird, it has earned itself a swag of different names due to its distinctive foraging behaviour, including; Australian Roadrunner, Australian Courser, Arnhem Land Grouse, and Swallow-plover to name but a few.

Keep an eye out for more of these birds turning up along roads as we head into the summer months. The continuing fine weather has produced some great bird sightings this week, and here are just some of the highlights.

Sightings this week: 

-          80 Plumed Whistling-ducks at swamps 40kms along Tanami Rd

-          2 Australian Bustards near turn-off to M’bunghara community on the Gary Junction Highway

-          A single Flock Bronzewing 2kms past Kunoth Bore on the Tanami Rd

-          A Pacific Golden Plover in a mixed flock with lots of other waders including Sharp-tailed and Wood Sandpipers, at the sewage ponds

-          3 immature Banded Stilt have appeared at the sewage ponds, possibly from the historic breeding that has occurred this year at Lake Torrens in SA