Goodbye Coomalie…see you in December!

Three months have come and gone since I first landed in the Northern Territory of Australia to being studying the behavioral ecology of red-backed fairy-wrens in the Coomalie Creek region. We have witnessed the progression of the dry season, with both the big and little dams at the farm shriveling to just a fraction of their original size, and the billabong now easily crossable in at least 3 places. All in all it was a very successful season: 108 birds caught and banded, which I thought was a good portion of the birds on the main study site until the penultimate day when I saw at least 12 unbanded birds, including a flock of 6 with 2 bright males and another male molting into bright! Oh well, more birds to catch this coming breeding season…I was sorely tempted to get the netting gear back out of storage and give it one more go, but restrained myself.

On my last afternoon I went down to the billabong and was greeted by contact calls when I had almost reached the platform. YYY et al. were all hanging out in the bamboo closest to the house, and had acquired some new unbanded friends (a slightly spotty male-the only billabong bird with any bright plumage!- and 2 dulls). Since I didn’t have the nets with me, they were of course flying relatively low back and forth between bamboo clumps, and let me get reasonably close. The late afternoon is the perfect time to spend down at the platform, and as I approached I heard the splash of a freshie (I was hoping it would come back out while I was there but had no such luck). Sitting quietly, birds started to appear quietly around the platform to forage, including lemon-bellied flycatchers, a pair of shining monarchs, a little bronze-cuckoo, and an azure kingfisher! It was the perfect last afternoon of what will hopefully be many more to come out here at Coomalie.

As is often the case with field work, this first field season has opened up more questions than it has provided answers, so I am excited to get back in the field this coming wet season and see the division into breeding pairs and what the birds are up to. With birds molting when we first got here and then many molting in July (when we were able to catch them to document it more closely), I will be very curious to come back in future months and learn more about their molt schedule. For the most part, the only really molty birds have been those molting into bright—so when do the dull birds molt?? For now, it is back to the office, with lots of data to sort through, DNA to extract, feathers to spec, and grants to write!

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Wrens wrens wrens

When the students left just over a week ago, we had banded a total of 82 birds-not bad for just a couple weeks of netting, and with setbacks like a major fire tearing through half of the field site. A big push in netting occurred when Professor Jordan Karubian (Tulane University) was here and we had the highly competitive (ok not really) “Old Gold Challenge.” The rules? Catching one unbanded  wren=one point, with bright males worth 2 points and recaptures worth just 0.25 points. The prize? Cadbury Old Gold chocolate! When Jordan left our total captures were at about 50 birds, and in the next couple weeks we were able to keep adding to that.

When I dropped the students off at the airport, I had set a goal for myself to make it to 100 banded birds in my final 2 weeks at Coomalie. However, netting solo can be difficult and after the first few days I was sure that I would never make it. In fact, in five days I failed to catch any new birds and was only able to get a couple of recaps. I was having terrible luck, with some birds bouncing and some birds just plain disappearing. However, my luck has since improved, and in the past 4 days I have been able to capture 22 new birds bringing our total up to 104! In the last week I will continue to band but I will probably shift my focus more towards resighting these birds to see who is hanging out with who. Some birds are definitely in pairs already, but as for the small and medium flocks, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the coming breeding season.  We’ll be able to tell for certain when we analyze the blood samples, but it seems like more than half of the birds are male, leading to a sex bias in the population that leads me to believe that we will have a fair number of groups with cooperative helpers this coming breeding season.

We both have flies on our heads

Birds of Coomalie

For anyone interested in the birds we have been seeing at our site aside from red-backed fairy-wrens, here is a list we put together of the birds seen in the past two months. Previous researchers at Coomalie were able to compile a list of 164 birds species, making our list of 100 seem less impressive…but as our months here add on, the list will continue to grow. Highlights were the Gouldian Finches (which over the course of a couple days everyone was able to see), and Jabirus at both the big and the little dams—always impressive to see, especially in flight. Rainbow bee-eaters are seen daily, in fact they are so common that one starts to take for granted how beautiful they are. And, last but not least, my favorite birds here, the kingfishers: 4 species seen so far, but still keeping our eyes peeled for that Little Kingfisher.

Birds of Coomalie