Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Preen party!

Apostlebirds take preening to a whole new level, a whole new level of social fluffiness involving the preening of self and those of group members. If any behaviour (other than extreme chattiness) characterizes these birds, it is preening. Spend a few minutes with these birds and you will see them fluff themselves out and preen, preening the neck, face, back, chest and even bum of a fellow bird. Sometimes small groups of birds will sit and preen together, and often the whole group will engage in a group preen (late morning a popular time).

Apparently, these are not the only birds that do this “extreme preening”. A friend and colleague works with Arabian Babblers, and these are his birds engaged in their “morning dance”.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Birds bites bag with bread

The yearling kids are pretty bold. They know I have bread, and they know that it may be in the bag, and damn it, they want more now! And if they don’t see it they will get it themselves damn it! (Just for the record, I have a whole habituation process I go through involved cueing with a whistle and a scale, but face it, they are clever birds, they know I am not a threat, they know I bring bread treats, and they know that if they can not see me holding it, then it is either hidden in my hand (video to come later) or in my bag.

Field season finale

Well, another field season has been completed, and in many ways it was very ,very different from the last season, but in one way it is the same. Once again, I am “rained” in on the day of my departure, and with all my gear crammed into my small 4WD, I am awaiting news from the traffic conditions report and once again eating too much sugar. This year, like the last, leaving the field was hastened by the need for meeting some sort of bureaucratic or logistic deadline, but unlike last year the recording conditions remain good enough to stay. However, in the absence of bird breeding, I must return to the city and start the many joys of computer analysis and journal article writing.

This morning, as the rain pelted from the sky, the Cottagers came to bid me farewell (or rather unbeknownst to them, they came for their last meal of bread). The bedraggled group came and foraged in the backyard picking off the misfortunate insects stuck in the mud, while a few of their members came and helped themselves to the rest of my bread. Being wet and probably somewhat cold, the group was not eager to hang around, but I was happy that a few of them stuck around in a small fuzzy clump on the veranda.

Leaving the field and returning to the city is always an adjustment for me. There is a certain charm to waking up with the birds (literally) and heading out in the light of dawn, and spending the best parts of the days outside. However, I always have difficulty taking a day “off” and to date, for all seven months of the total time that I have spent in the field, I have yet to take an entire day off where I am not popping out to see the birds, going through sound and video files or analyzing data. That does lend to some exhaustion, especially on arrival in the city at the end of the season, but that exhaustion usually corrects itself after a few days of sleep, watching movies with hubby, cooking, gardening and hugging my pet chickens. But I do miss the field and miss my birds.

This field season, like the last, has lent itself to a lot of great stories to remain written and hopefully in the next few months I will get some of the stories out of my head and on to paper (or the computer screen for the most part).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hard discoveries and goodbye to a darling bird

Yesterday, I found out the painful way that apostlebirds will continue to do urgent alarm calls even after the threat is gone but a freshly dead group member remains on the ground.

My technician and I had been working in the creek with a few members of the Sweetbeak Clan when we heard the mobbing calls . The birds we were working with swiftly flew to the aid of the group while we lumbered behind like the slow ground bound beasts that we are. Unfortunately for us, we were furthered slowed by the water in the creek and the muddy, muddy steep banks. My technician forged through the water and up the muddy bank and I ran around the whole mess. But not quick enough, I arrived in time to see the birds urgent alarm calling and looking at the ground (naturally I thought it was a snake (not unlike the apostlebird - mulga snake interaction that I had seen earlier at the station).

The birds kept alarm clicking and staring at the ground (see video of the end of the interaction), and I gingerly stepped across the ground seeking the perpetrator. I was very paranoid as it could have been the world’s number two most venomous snake and clearly the birds were alarm calling while looking at something that I myself could not see. The last thing I wanted to do was tread on an angry snake. I refused to step into the bushes, and when I backed off, that is when I saw him and my heart dropped.

It was Nowum, a little bird that was hatched some time this autumn, and at only 8 months old at most, he had weathered a dry hungry winter, evaded many, many hungry raptors feeding their own young through what was a busy elongated breeding season for birds, reptiles, goats, pigs and roos alike, and in the sad and often cruel way of nature, had succumbed to a rapid raptor attack.

The raptor had long gone, robbing me the chance to see the face of the cause of my loss, and thus identify the species responsible for Nowum’s death. Perhaps it was a she-raptor that would have fed her young, or maybe a young raptor searching for his next meal (more likely as the predator had failed to carry off his prize). I am sure that the predator was beautiful and had I been another type of biologist, I would have rejoiced at the majesty of the rapid attack.

But alas, I am not a raptor-ologist, and the apostlebirds are my pride and joy, so instead, I picked up Nowum and cradled his broken neck, stroked his beak, and looked up at the audience of family and group members. “I am so sorry, so, so sorry I was too late to help”. They alarm clicked softly and in my guilt and I was worried that they would think that it was me that had killed him, but they had seen the attack, mobbed the culprit and seen the release, albeit too late, of their child, sibling, family member and friend.

We (my technician and I) carried Nowum back to the rapidly growing nest and in the shadows of a large gum tree examined him for wounds. I found a large puncture near his heart, so then I knew it was a large raptor, larger than a hawk. And in a cruel twist of irony, we wrapped him in the bread bag, the bag that he would have died to get in. Poor bird finally got his wish. Nowum’s group was already back to business with nest building and begging for bread by the time we got back to our gear, and we returned to our work with heaviness in our hearts. But as the world never ceases to turn, and as the season and winds forever continue to change and the lives of these often fragile birds continues to unfold, we continued to work at unraveling their mysteries. Nowum, like all the birds that I have noticed had gone missing, found dead and eaten and dried by the unforgiving desert wind or seen limping away to never be seen again, will remain in my heart. Nowum, you will be missed, and thank you for giving me a little piece to the puzzle of apostlebird acoustics and antics.

Nowum with a muddy beak from nest building

Nowum joins his siblings for a treat of bread

The group alarm clicks while looking down at Nowum (dead from attack)

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Bird Dimension- another dimension in the field-time continuum (WARNING: field loopiness expected)

I think I am making progress towards understanding the bird dimension. This dimension is experienced by almost all bird field biologists, and exists alongside our own dimension. However, it is very ,very hard (and impossible in some cases) for humans to cross over into it, but if we are lucky, we are able to find the “portals” in which our birds pass to and fro. However, even if you are a bird, passing across the dimensions is not always within your control. In different parts of the world, there are different energies that govern dimension crossing. Here in the Outback, the main agent seems to be the wind.

I first experienced this dimension during my first field season (spring1) last year while tracking birds not yet ready to commit their selves to breeding. I had tracked a group along side their feeding grounds and while I excused myself to a tree the birds had popped over a ridge and disappeared. I regarded this as inexperience dealing with birds that may have decided to go from chatty screech-mode to ninja mode (another topic for later discussion). However, once the birds had gone into breeding mode I did not experience sudden disappearances, which in a way makes sense as the forces of dimension crossing may be too strong for eggs and young birds to handle.

During my second season (autumn 1), many birds had moved away and the few groups that remained had many young newly fledged birds, so it was only until this current season (spring2) that I truly experienced the bird dimension. When I arrived two months ago, the groups that remained (fewer than in autumn) had young that had reached over 75% of the adult body mass. They were thus able to make crossings. The birds had also been satisfied with the number of young they had produced and to make up for the previous harsh dry years had bred straight through spring, summer, and early fall. The mouse plague that had swept across the land during the summer and autumn had eaten down many grass seeds and the weather had gone back to dryness. Although it was technically “breeding season”, the birds had no “breeding energy” to counteract the pull of the bird dimension.

Of the seven groups that remained on the station grounds, the Littlebeak Clan was particularly susceptible to the wind. During still, sunny cloudless parts of the day, the group of five birds were nowhere to be seen, but as soon as the wind picked up they were swooped across the dimensions and delivered to our door, all very hungry from their journey and ever so chatty. It was a crying (literally in some cases) shame that attempts to record their talking yielded WAY too much wind (later discussion: “Why the wind hates me”). Other groups seemed to be susceptible to the wind push/pull system, although larger group sizes sometimes (but not necessarily) also helped resists the pull back into the bird dimension.

Recently, my technician and I discovered the Cottagers making a run for an open portal, dragging along their reluctant teenagers. We had been looking for the Hopover Clan, who had long since decided after numerous nest building episodes that their summer hangout by the North Lake was not good for the current time, and had moved over a ridge into a dry creek bed. So, imagine our surprise when in that same creek bed we were greeted by the excited grunts and squeaks of the Cottager kids as they came down from their nap in the trees. Of course, being field biologist we embraced the opportunity to work with the birds in the creek bed, but the group had other ideas, which being apostlebirds, only became apparent after they had hopped on the scale and eaten our bread. The kids were still begging for more bread when the adults started their quorum behaviour and gathering in the trees oriented towards the portal. One by one they added their vote of “Shall we go? In this direction””In this direction. Let’s go” “Let’s go, right there”, and en masse, the adults flew down the creek. Some of the kids (the “good” kids) left immediately, leaving behind a few reluctant stragglers that while stuffing their beaks would glance down the creek with loud long “Eeeeee! Eeeeee! Eeee?” before flying off.

And up we got and followed like good little biologists, until we noticed them on an opposite hillside just in time to see them fly over OPEN FLAT land, with no trees, no cover and over a mad dash of about 250m to a small gully. We ran, and they moved again across OPEN land, and this time my tech and I split up, she running after birds, and me for the field car. She tracked them through three more hopovers and the last thing she saw before I arrived with the car was the group bee-lining it for the North Lake again across open land (but at least close enough near trees that should an aerial predator come, they could dash for cover).

We caught up with the group at the North Lake just in time to see them dash up one shore into the portal and behind a clump of trees, and although we thoroughly searched the tree clump, followed by a tour of the lake, three drainages and a second look in the clump and nearest drainage going back, we could not relocate the group. I bet you they were already in the next dimension looking at us through the one way dimension glass snickering the whole time.

The thing about bird dimensions (and I have also been told, fish dimensions) is that although the portal location stays the same, the timing does not, much to the effect that on some days the portal remains closed and on others the portal is in active use. For example,in apostlebirds, whole groups appear and disappear over a set of northern ridges. Exploration beyond the ridge leads to a convoluted hilly area, that although beautiful, is very deceptive. You can spend days there hiking up and down, up and down, up and down hills and around and around corners and not find the birds, even though the seem to pop in and out of that area. I once got up on the highest hill near the region and stared through binoculars looking for any sign of disturbances in the air, grass, trees, rocks, etc…. to see if I could make out the portal.

So, the mystery still remains of the field-time continuum. How many birds pass through it? For how long? Can they pop out at locations beyond the field station? When they pass through it is it like a teleportation device? (please, oh please, I would love to get the physics of that one). The birds hold the mystery, and I’m afraid that no amount of bread will buy me that information. Birds!

Watching us through the one way “bird dimension” window probably looks like this (one of left laughing at us).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Snoozy birds

An expectant grey feathered face examines me and I wonder if he is aware that the perch in which he stands in the source of his coveted bread. This young one, like many of his siblings, is too young to be interested in the activities that occupy his mother and father, older adult siblings and unrelated “uncles” and “aunts” that are now so occupied with nest building. This leaves me in charge of occupying the nine young ones (aged 7-11 months old) which are in fact, not the focus of my current study.

Usually the young ones occupy themselves with looking for food, preening and play, but as the adults of the group are busy, they approach me with curiosity. They know me as food lady, beholder of the bread, and maybe at their age, they have not properly associated the bread with the ceremonial whistle, sit down and the kitchen scale on which they are asked to stand. Adults know better, and in the absence of the three cues, do not often bother themselves to come ask for food (except for a few sassy ones that try their luck with doleful eyes).

But, as the sun ascends the sky, like birds of many varieties, the fledgling become snoozy and they head up into the protective branches of a gum tree to fluff up besides the adults for their daily afternoon snooze.

Becoming a wild bird

There is something to be said about the camaraderie of having a bird sitting on your knee as you write notes. In reality, I tolerate it little from my birds as the last thing I want is 18 birds climbing all over me like a jungle gym while seeking out bread rewards. But on the rare occasion that it is a single bird that joins me and I am in a contemplative mood patiently awaiting for my focal bird to be ready to start the next step in my experiment, I welcome the feathered companionship. There are many joys to working so closely with social animals. Humans, ourselves being such social creatures, naturally tend towards social relationships (and in very specific forms for many of us), and having the proximity of sociality is pleasing.

As a field biologist, such study species also allows one’s mind to avoid approaching rapid loopiness within the field. I have friends and colleagues that have, in their long hikes, observations and solitude in the field have effectively learned how to melodiously (or rhythmically) play their cheeks, throats, knees and other body parts very well. Poems, broadway songs and jiggles have been written about study species, methods and experimental designs and once, in a particularly long hike with the marked absence of birds, I designed in my mind, an entire bellydance-tribal fusion interpretive dance based (of course) on a sound scape put together solely on apostlebird songs and other naturally occurring sounds within the Outback environment (yes, that is just how talkative the apostlebirds are).

The mind wandering towards an artistic interpretation of one’s research or research site is actually not a bad thing (albeit a bit crazy). It actually allows a researcher to shift perspectives and in the case of dance, think about what birdy body movements occur during birdy behaviour. I myself lacking wings and a large slightly green tinged tail would have to make use of a double layered veil, brown and grey tie-dyed silk on one side, and chiffon forest green on the other, to interpret the vast and variable movements associated with the apostlebird language and movements. The gentle way in which the softness of their downy chests rocks as they walk, balance and move across their terrain would never be brought to justice by my straighter bipedal form. Oh, to have the form of a bird, round in the chest and long in the tail, a delicate frame set on two quick little stilts (or many other forms of legs in the case of different species).

I was once asked why I did not study prettier birds, such as the bejeweled little birds that flit across a tropical jungle landscape or perhaps even the colourful parrots that dot the azure skies of the Outback, sitting high upon the branches of majestic gum trees. My initial response was that brains were better than beauty, and I liked to study clever, sassy birds. However, to me, the apostlebirds and crows are beautiful. In such close proximity to the apostlebirds, I can examine the way the brown and grey feathers blend together across a back that blend well into the dry earth. And how I love that when the sun catches their wings just right, it reflects back an olive green not unlike the green that streaks across the white and brown smooth bark of a gumtree. From the softness of the feathers on their head to their small broad beak that digs for both food and mud for nest building, they are beautiful.

But most importantly to me, is that they are interesting. These birds are communicators, constantly chatting and in constant movement, Even as I type this blog into my computer, I can listen to their night time negotiations (up in the roost tree), and as the sun sets behind the distant hills, I can enjoy both a magnificent view and an amusing acoustic backdrop.

The sociality the birds enjoy is both heartwarming and amusing and also not without tears. Furthermore, their bird psychology holds the workings of their minds just far enough away that most of their behaviour remains a mystery, a mystery that for solving will ensure that slowly, over time, will need to become a wild bird.