The casual, non-birder observer could easily come to the conclusion that Australia’s birds fall into three basic groups –
- A majority that are various combinations of black and white or shades in between and can be found hanging about just about anywhere – in trees, on lampposts, in the garden, in town, at the sea – you get the picture
- A lot that are vividly coloured birds, that in any other country would most likely be sitting in a cage in someone’s kitchen saying “hello – polly wants a cracker” or suchlike
- The rest – a variety of smaller, often nondescript birds that don’t seem to seek the limelight as much as the above two groups and take some effort to find as they skulk in the bushes and trees
That’s a gross simplification of course, so to put it into some perspective, this is what the author of The Complete Guide to Australian Birds, George Adams, has to say in his introduction –
Australia is one of the world’s ten mega-diverse countries and is fortunate to have a rich diversity of birds and an unusually high number of endemic species found across its many, equally diverse and beautiful landscapes. The jabbering of parrots, the laughter of Kookaburras, the song of the Magpie or the trilling warble of Fairy-wrens all bestow a real sense of ‘place’ that is uniquely Australian.Having just returned from our second visit to Australia (the first was in pre-pandemic 2019) I can associate with his description of the birding experience that this fine country has to offer.
The only problem is, with Australia being such a vast country, and considering that our two visits to date have been restricted to a relatively small part of one state – Victoria, in the south-east corner of Australia – means we have hardly touched on that rich diversity.
The majority of this massive continent and its birdlife therefore remains a mystery for the time being, with my only knowledge of it gleaned from the abovementioned guide.
However, having spent a total of some two and a half months during the two visits we have made to Sale, Victoria where our son and family have settled, there has been ample time to observe the neighbourhood birds and those in other places we visited, in the process getting to know some of the common birds quite well.
Which brings me back to those three basic groups, starting with …..
Black and white – and shades in between
Starting with the “all-blacks”, one of the most obvious and widespread is the Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, loudly pronouncing its presence with its “aark” call and often seen from a distance gliding across the landscape
The Common Blackbird Turdus merula, a much smaller species of thrush size and common in the UK and Europe, favours gardens – the female is a mottled brownish colour
Largest of all, the Black Swan Cygnus atratus, (yes, even the swans are black in Australia) which looks all black when swimming but shows white flight feathers when flying
The “black-and-whites” make up a large proportion of the birds seen generally, with the Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen leading the way (by a couple of furlongs) – it is just everywhere and the family in Aus were quick to mention how aggressive it can be especially during breeding times. I was quite intimidated by one during our road trip along the Great Alpine Road (more about that in a future post) when I found one perched on our rental car’s mirror one morning, giving me a glaring look of “Who’s car is this anyway?”
They do have a very different song, curiously tuneful and sounding like it’s being produced by some sort of electronic instrument.
One of my favourites is the Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoluca, a glossy black-and-white medium sized bird which spends most of the time foraging on the ground, often in gardens. Also known as the “Peewee”, presumably based on its liquid call, it is neither Magpie or Lark but is related to Flycatchers, which it shows by its buoyant fluttering flight when chasing insect prey
Another favourite is the Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, which looks like a slightly smaller edition of the Magpie, although it has less obvious white colouring confined to a white band on the wings and a white-tipped tail. The voice is a distinctive, ringing “cur-ra-wong” which is why it carries the unusual name
Also in this category are the two common Ibises, both of which are combinations of black and white and both occur in flocks of anything from a handful to a hundred or more. One morning I counted over 20 on the lawn of our son’s house, enjoying a temporary “wetland” caused by recent heavy rains.
Firstly, the one that has the impressive name of Australian White Ibis Theskiornis molucca, but is colloquially known as the “Bin Chicken” due to its habit of scavenging from rubbish bins in the cities. They make a grand sight at dusk when they fly in numbers in V-formation on their way to roost for the night.
The second Ibis has the interesting name Straw-necked Ibis Theskiornis spinicollis, but the reason for this name is not immediately obvious until you zoom in on the photos taken and notice that, indeed, the neck does have a straw-like appearance
A bird which I had only a glimpse of during our 2019 visit but which afforded me some cracking views this time around is the Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus. “Honey, I shrunk the magpie” comes to mind as it has all the features of the larger Magpie, scaled down to about half the size. In fact the Magpie and Butcherbirds belong to the same genus so the similarity is easy to understand. The Butcherbird name derives from its habit of impaling prey for later consumption, much like we see in South Africa with the Fiscals (which are also referred to as butcherbirds)
That covers the black and white birds that are most often seen – excluding the smaller birds and water birds which I will introduce in further posts. That leaves the “vividly coloured birds” and “the rest” for a follow up introductory post on my Australian birding experience