Great Aussie Backyard Bird Count

Last week I took part in the Great Aussie Backyard Bird Count – an annual citizen science event that monitors the diversity and numbers of birds across Australia.

Over the course of the week, bird-lovers around the country submitted around 84,000 bird surveys to BirdLife Australia, and counted nearly 2.8 million birds in total.

I managed eight surveys, took in around 40 species, and counted nearly 300 individual birds – a drop in the ocean, but everyone’s combined efforts add up. Each survey is 20 minutes long, so 84,000 of those adds up to about 28,000 hours of combined effort. Go team!

Who showed up to be counted?

I surveyed in a various habitats – including my immediate neighbourhood, wetland and woodland habitats at Flinders University and nearby Warriparinga, and alongside the Field River.

I saw many of what I would call ‘the usual suspects’ – common native birds like Rainbow Lorikeets, Noisy Miners, Australian Wood Ducks, Red Wattlebirds, and introduced birds like and Starlings and Sparrows.

Unsurprisingly, the most numerous bird I saw was the ubiquitous and noisy Rainbow Lorikeet – the commonest species in last year’s Backyard Bird Count.

But I was delighted to see some species that are less ‘everyday’ for me: busy little Superb Fairy-wrens, a White-browed Scrubwren (which was intent on eating a caterpillar bigger than its head), Grey Currawongs (confusingly, the local sub-species is black), and a Royal Spoonbill (always fun, because who doesn’t like a bird with a built-in set of salad tongs?).

A Royal Spoonbill wading through the lake at Flinders University (Photo: Elen Shute)



By good fortune, I also had a couple of bird species show up in my garden for the first time this week (they must have known they were bound for fame and glory!). A small group of Silvereyes visited my courtyard, and a Collared Sparrowhawk caused a commotion among the small birds. The Sparrowhawk left with feathers stuck to its feet, but I didn’t see who was at the bottom of the food-chain on this occasion.

What I learnt by taking part

I need to lift my little brown bird (LBB) identification game.

I got better at identifying anonymous LBBs during the week thanks to field-guides and by listening to bird calls on Graeme Chapman’s excellent website. But I still missed out on recording a few species because I couldn’t tell what they were quickly enough. A work in progress.

My neighbourhood is a deeply unpopular spot for birding.

Taking part prompted me to check out the local records for some of the species I don’t usually see, by searching the Atlas of Living Australia, which combines recent and historical species records from a variety of sources.

Interestingly, most of the species I searched for have either no records in the immediate area, or at least not recent ones. This suggests to me that bird species in my local area – even in open spaces such as the Field River – are going under-recorded.

I don’t blame local birders for not making a beeline for the area – why would you when you could head to a pretty conservation park nearby, like the Onkaparinga River National Park?

But many of the species that I saw – especially woodland birds like fairy-wrens, thornbills, white-plumed honeyeaters and currawongs, which I never or rarely get in my garden ­– I found in highly urbanised and decidedly unsexy spots, including weed-dominated habitats right next to the noisy Southern Expressway.

I therefore suspect that there is more birdlife hanging on in this south-western region of Adelaide than you would guess based on dots on the map in the Atlas of Living Australia. It might be worth checking out your own area on the map too.

It’s vital to record what species are present where in order to conserve them – and of course that is the whole point of the Backyard Bird Count. So I’ve vowed that this year, I will make an effort to do more surveys in my local area to fill in some of those gaps on the map.

Get ready for next time!

While BirdLife Australia is busy crunching this year’s numbers, you can download the Great Aussie Backyard Bird Count app ready for next October.

Or if you can’t wait a whole year, hop on board with the Birds in Backyards Seasonal Surveys! That’s what I’ll be doing in the coming 12 months, so wish me luck with those little brown birds…

Night Parrots, Ground Parrots, and a game of legs-eleven

Australia has a diverse array of parrot species. Between them they span the entire continent, from the wet tropics to the arid interior, and everything in between. Most are unique to Australia, and they provide some of the most distinctive sights and sounds of this country.

The extravagantly-hued Rainbow Lorikeet was declared to be Australia’s most common bird after last year’s Backyard Bird Count. At the other extreme of the conservation balance-sheet, the Orange-bellied Parrot, which migrates across the ocean between Tasmania and the mainland, is in a desperate situation with fewer than 50 left in the wild.

Where I live south of Adelaide, I can easily see several species of parrot before breakfast. Galahs, Rainbow Lorikeets, Crimson Rosellas, Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and Red Rumps are the ones I see most regularly.

IMG_9976 copy
A Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans [Photo: Elen Shute]

Although these are everyday species, I have never got over the novelty of having parrots as common garden birds. By the time I moved to Australia at the age of 10, I was already thoroughly bird-struck, and it was like arriving in paradise. It still is.

There are many species of parrot that I have yet to see, but there is one unusual group of species floating at the top my bucket list: the Ground Parrots and Night Parrots.

Life down low

Many species of parrot feed on the ground, but there are only a handful of species in the world that live out their entire lives – eating, resting and nesting – at ground-level. Night Parrots and Ground Parrots are the only Australian parrots to have adopted this uncommon and specialised lifestyle.

They are famously cryptic and hard to detect. They are well-camouflaged, rarely fly, and their preferred survival strategy is to hide or run away from potential predators – including us.

Night Parrots are so good at this that they evaded detection in Australia’s vast arid zone for several decades, during which time they were feared to be extinct. It took ecologist John Young 15 years of diligent effort to re-discover a living population – and to capture the first ever photograph and video footage of a living Night Parrot – in 2013. The species, previously a near-myth, was instantly catapulted to rockstar status – but it still doesn’t sign many autographs.

Ground Parrots are slightly less elusive, but are still rare to spot. If they are located at all in their swamp and heathland habitats around the continental margins, it is usually by their call.

More diverse than we thought

Scientists are still unraveling the ecology of these species, especially the Night Parrot, whose habits have only been documented in earnest over the last five years. The evolutionary history of this group of birds is also not very well understood.

Until a few years ago, only one species of Ground Parrot was known to exist, but a genetic study published in 2010 split the species into two, implying that a more interesting evolutionary story has unfolded for these birds over the last couple of million years.

The tiny, isolated population in south-west Western Australia was found to be a species in its own right. This is now known as the Western Ground Parrot, Pezoporus flaviventris. The population clings on to survival in heathland habitat near Esperance.

The Ground Parrot populations in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania are now known as the Eastern Ground Parrot, and retain the previous scientific name of the species, Pezoporus wallicus. This species lives in swamps and heathland habitats on the mainland, and in button-grass moorlands in Tasmania.

The Eastern Ground Parrot is much more secure than its western counterpart, but it is extinct in South Australia, thanks mainly to the draining of its former swampy habitats. This stands as a warning of what could happen if we fail to protect the remaining Ground Parrot populations from threatening processes.

Palaeontology is just slow ecology

In case I never get to see any of these unusual birds in the wild, I’m prepared to settle for studying their skeletons to try and find out more about their evolutionary history. (Bones are famous for their inability to run away.)

In my palaeontology work I have spent many hours looking at parrot bones down a microscope. As with all bones, they have evolutionary stories to tell if you study them closely.

For example, all parrots share the same general structure of the lower leg bone (the tarsometatarsus). It is relatively short, and at the bottom are the trochleae, where the toe bones attach. Parrots have four toes, two pointing forward and two pointing backwards. Unlike most other birds, in parrots the fourth trochlea is bent around to the back of the tarsometatarsus, which makes the fourth toe face the rear.

This foot arrangement works well as a grasping tool – as anyone who has watched a parrot deftly bringing its food up to its beak will know.

IMG_3581 copy.JPG
A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Cacatua galerita, using its dextrous feet to eat blossoms [Photo: Elen Shute]

The bones of Pezoporus

The same basic tarsometatarsus structure is common to all parrots, but the anatomical detail differs between species, which allows us to tell their bones apart. All members of a species share unique inherited features of the skeleton, which reflect both their ancestry and their lifestyle.

So, what is the tarsometatarsus like in Ground Parrots and Night Parrots? Some of that we can answer, and some of that we can’t as yet.

The Eastern Ground Parrot has an exceptionally elongate tarsometatarsus. Compared to other parrots, it looks like this bone has been grasped at both ends and stretched.

001 copy
The lower leg bone of an Eastern Ground Parrot Pezoporus wallicus [Photo: Elen Shute]

The stretch-limo legs of the Eastern Ground Parrot relate to its terrestrial lifestyle and gait: unlike other parrots, which have short, stubby legs and can’t walk without rolling heavily from side to side, they are said to move briskly without the characteristic parrot waddle.

Do the Western Ground Parrot and Night Parrot have a tarsometatarsus with the same stilt-like proportions? We might assume so, based on a shared ground-dwelling lifestyle, but without skeletons to examine that’s just guess-work at the moment.

In this video of a Western Ground Parrot, it certainly seems to move briskly without waddling, so it might well have an elongate leg similar to its Eastern cousin. But observations of the Night Parrot since its rediscovery indicate that it sometimes moves by hopping like a kangaroo, and this video footage seems to show it scurrying in a rodent-like fashion along the ground. Does it need stilts to move like that? Maybe not.

There are several different types of tarsometatarsus that I have seen in fossil collections from various parts of Australia that are similar enough to know that they are Pezoporus, but different enough to see that they don’t belong to the same species.

To work out which species these bones belong to, which will tell us about the past geographical distributions of these birds, it will be necessary to compare the fossil leg bones with modern skeletons of all three living species of Pezoporus.

This is easier said than done, as remains of the Western Ground Parrot and the Night Parrot are as scarce as you would expect, and skeletons are non-existent. It will involve CT scanning preserved museum skins to study the bones inside.

Only then will it be possible to tell whether the fossil bones belong to the three living Pezoporus species, or if any of them belong to extinct relatives that we don’t yet know of. It’ll be a labour of love, but considering it took more than a decade of walking through spinifex to find a living population of Night Parrots, I think that’s a pretty good deal.

Paradise lost, parasite found

My neighbourhood isn’t exactly a naturalist’s paradise. I live about 100 metres away from the busy Southern Expressway in Adelaide’s southern suburbs.

There isn’t much by way of native vegetation around the streets here, and the local birdlife is decidedly urban – a lot of Noisy Miners, New Holland Honeyeaters, feral pigeons and the like. There is a sparrow clinging to my lounge room window frame, staring in at me, as I sit here writing.

But this week was exciting because I saw a new bird for the first time, and I didn’t even have to leave my own garden.

[It was only the second most unusual thing to appear in my garden this week, by the way. The first was an unknown person who sprinted barefoot in their pyjamas through my front garden as I drank my coffee one morning.]

A visitor calls

As I tended my veg garden the other day, I heard an unfamiliar bird call coming from a tall tree in the corner of the garden. It seemed to be coming from a flock of sparrows that were perched there, but this wasn’t a sparrow-y chirrup.

It was a thin, slightly miserable-sounding, repeated, descending whine: siyew, siyew, siyew. I’d heard the same sound around the place for the last couple of days, but didn’t know who was making it.

Straining my eyes to see, I noticed that one of the ‘sparrows’ was a little larger than the others, and had a longer tail. Under the tail I could make out distinct black barring – which I immediately recognised as a feature of cuckoos!

Much excitement.

I have had quite a lot to do with cuckoo skeletons in my palaeontology research – during my PhD I described the world’s largest ever species of cuckoo – but this was the first time I’d ever seen a live one.

Who said that?

But, don’t cuckoos say ‘cuckoo’?

Some, yes. The Common Cuckoo from Eurasia and Africa does – the kind immortalised in Swiss clocks. Only one species that occurs in Australia, the Oriental Cuckoo, sounds like this, but this migratory species doesn’t generally call at the time of year it visits Australia.

Our other local cuckoos include species with loud whistling calls, raucous monkey-chattering calls, sweet whistling calls, chirruping calls that remind me of the Jetsonmobile, and a mellow sound like water glugging from a bottle.

My bird flew off, so I was left to try and work out what it was.

Based on the whining call and dull plumage, I though it might be a Black-eared Cuckoo, which are generally considered uncommon. Another possibility was a juvenile Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo – a common and widespread Australian species – that hadn’t yet developed the striped front of the adult.

I got my camera out in case it came back so I could capture a better look at it. I kept my ears open, and a few hours later, sure enough, there was the whining call again.

Amazingly, it cooperated fully with the camera, sitting fully exposed on an electricity wire just outside my garden for ages, allowing me to stand more or less directly underneath it.

Horsfield's Bronze Cuckoo
Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo (Photo: Elen Shute)


Once I uploaded the photos onto my computer, I could see I was mistaken about the lack of stripes. There they were, clear as day. Definitely a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo. Widespread, common. But it still made my week.

One more mystery

I was surprised to see that the cuckoo wasn’t being bothered by other birds as it perched there, calling in the open. Many species of cuckoo, including Horsfield’s, are brood parasites: birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other species.

The foster parents are then left with the thankless task of raising voracious young cuckoo chicks, which often grow much larger than the host parents.

Understandably, cuckoos tend not to be very popular with other birds, and often get mobbed by host species who try to drive them away before they can drop off the kids.

I had to wonder who the Horsfield’s were targeting for babysitting duty around here. Today I think I may have got a clue.

This morning I again heard the cuckoo’s whining call, this time out the front of my house. I looked out of the window, and saw a cuckoo (maybe the same one, I don’t know?) sitting on an overhead wire. A feisty New Holland Honeyeater was flying at it, trying to chase it away.

When the Honeyeater landed in front of the cuckoo, the cuckoo instinctively lunged forward with its beak wide open. Was this a defensive move, or was it trying to beg a meal?

I can’t be sure, but later today I found that New Holland Honeyeaters are nesting in my back garden, so they are right to be wary.

A newly fledged chick was hopping around the branches near the nest, cheeping and fluttering its wings to remind its parents that it wants insects, and quickly! The baby was a New Holland, so the parents got away with it – this time.

But I’ll be keeping my eyes open for oversized babies in coming weeks…

New Holland baby
A New Holland Honeyeater fledgling (Photo: Elen Shute)

Desert Reflections

I have reached an age where most times I visit my parents, they send me home with a bag of belongings dating to my teenage years and early twenties as, in their retirement, they belatedly reclaim the cupboard space of my adolescence.

Last week I came away with a bag that included seven paper envelopes of photographs. I didn’t think too much about them and just dumped them on my dining table, but this week, curiosity overtook me and I opened the bag to find out what the photos were of.

It turned out they were pictures I took in 2005, in my early 20s, during my first serious trip into the Australian wilderness: two weeks traversing the impossibly red sand dunes of the Simpson Desert.

I haven’t looked at most of these pictures for years, and I was taken by surprise at the strength of the nostalgia they invoked in me. I got to reflecting about what the trip meant to me.

Despite having finished a degree in biology and environment a few years earlier, by 2005 I was not yet a seasoned outdoorswoman. Before heading into the desert, the sum total of my camping experience was one night spent in a tent on my suburban primary school’s football oval in 1993, with my entire Year 7 class. Intrepid? Not really.

So the chance to head out into remote central Australia was a bit of a leap. And a truly formative experience.

Right place, right time

I only got the opportunity by chance. One day, during my regular weekly volunteering in the fossil collection at the South Australian Museum, I overheard museum staff discussing the trip. Someone had pulled out at short notice, and they were looking for another body – so I put up my hand.

The purpose of the expedition was to seek out signs of one of Australia’s most elusive animals: the Marsupial Mole. (Spoiler: we never actually saw a single Marsupial Mole on the entire two-week trip – but that did not make it an any less magical experience. If anything it added to the mystique.)

These small, golden creatures look like an unfinished handicraft project with not quite enough stuffing, and as yet no eyes or ears. Australia has been home to many bizarre evolutionary experiments, but the Marsupial Mole is one of the oddest of the lot.

It ‘swims’ through the sand with its powerful, spade-like forelimbs, searching for its invertebrate prey, rarely surfacing. It has no external eyes or ears, and has a tough, leathery nose that forges through the sand belowground, like the prow of a ship through the sea.

We know vanishingly little about their biology and habits, and back in 2005 the Marsupial Mole was classed as endangered. Then, only one living species was thought to exist, but scientists have since agreed that there are two: the Southern Marsupial Mole (or Itjaritjari), and the Northern Marsupial Mole (or Kakarratul).

Because so little was known about them, the aim of the trip was to study how widely they were spread through the Simpson Desert, and to monitor whether predators like dingos, foxes and cats were dining on the moles and pushing them towards extinction.

Digging the desert

The technique for finding signs of mole activity involved a spade. Our small team – a handful of scientists in a couple of vehicles – slowly made our way by four-wheel drive from south-west to north-east across the desert dunes, digging a series of short trenches as we went.

Dune crest with tracks
The impossibly red sand of the Simpson Desert (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)


On the return journey, once the sand had a chance to dry a little, we would stop and look for circular marks on the walls of the trenches. These circles were the signature of mole digging, the only trace left behind as the animals ‘swam’ through the sand, backfilling the tunnel as they went.

Many times, the spades were also needed to dig the four-wheel drives out of the sand, as we bottomed out on the dune crests and the vehicle became bogged. Adventurous times.

The way of monitoring whether carnivores were eating the moles was less physically taxing work but less glamorous: chopsticking pieces of predator poo into paper bags whenever we found any, to be studied back at the museum.

Other tasks were collecting the occasional spider or tissue sample for the museum’s genetic collection, including samples of muscle tissue from roadkill kangaroos. I can still recall the sound of the bloated roo carcases literally sizzling in the blazing sun of the desert. The flies were as friendly as you might expect.

I drank it all in.

Watching the phases of the moon night by night from my tent.

The huge leg of a mygalomorph spider down its burrow.

The scorpion under my tent.

Ants warring with termites.

Feral camels cruising the dunes.

Entire cow carcases reduced to beef jerky in the desiccating heat and aridity.

Dead cow
A desiccated cow at the foot of a sand dune in the Simpson Desert (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Sand goannas.

Sand goanna closeup
A metre-long Sand Goanna (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Tiny dragons darting in front of the car.

A hopping mouse.

The way a lunchtime sandwich went dry and stale by the time you had even finished making it.

Conversations around the campfire with experienced scientists who tolerated my ignorance and inexperience with generosity and good grace.

The way you hardly saw a living creature by day, but awaking every morning and crawling out of your (borrowed) tent, the dunes were covered – covered – in animal tracks from a nocturnal party you hadn’t been invited to.

Ampurta tracks
Tracks of an Ampurta – a small carnivorous marsupial (Photo: Elen Shute, 2005)

Yet more mystique, more life sensed but not seen. Absolutely. Hooked.

Pics or it didn’t

The trip through the Simpson was very early in my experience as a photographer. This was before the era of digital photography got properly underway, and all your hopes and dreams were contained in small black film canisters.

Photographic gratification was delayed by days or weeks while you waited to get the rolls developed (and so was photographic disappointment).

The seven rolls of film I shot were taken with my trusty Canon Eos 300, my first SLR camera. My lenses were lousy, and so was my technique, but I managed to capture some images that still evoke the magic of that trip for me, and that drove me to write about it now.

I find myself at a bit of a turning point in my life, having just submitted my PhD thesis in vertebrate palaeontology, and transitioning into new work in the environment sector and as a writer.

Finding those photos was a timely and powerful reminder that even though the last dozen years have taken me overseas and back, through several jobs, a couple of tangential careers, and two PhD projects, a common thread through all that time has been a love of the natural world, landscape, and conservation of the life that surrounds us.