Wet Tropics of Northern Queensland, Australia
Part 2: Atherton Tablelands - Riflebirds & Bowerbirds
Since October/November is the prime time for witnessing the courtship display of Victoria's Riflebird, I was keen to spend a decent amount of time in the rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands in the hope of being able to capture a few images of this spectacular event.
My initial plan had been to spend about a week in the tablelands then move a bit further north towards Cooktown, but I was having so much fun spending time with the riflebirds and the other rainforest residents that I ended up staying for over 2 weeks. At dawn most mornings you could find me staking out one of the well known riflebird display posts in the hope of a good display. Sometimes he didn't turn up at all, but on other mornings he put on such amazing displays that I forgot all about the many long, boring hours spent watching an empty perch waiting for something to happen...
Victoria's Riflebird is a member of the Bird-of-paradise family and, common to most other members of this exclusively Australasian family, has an elaborate courtship display. The display is usually made from a prominent high perch and begins with the male screeching out his distinctive rasping call while fluffing up his feathers to show off his glossy, greyish-olive belly and iridescent green throat to maximum effect.
The male next goes into a static "circular wing display" (as shown above and below) where it fans its wings out in front of its breast with the wing tips overlapping and arches its neck back with its bill wide open to display the vibrant yellow of its gape.
Unfortunately I wasn't privileged enough to see a female join him on his perch, but if one had the next stage of the display would have been to start an alternate wing-clapping display, raising alternate wings above his head with increasing tempo to slap the wing-tip of the other wing with an audible clap, a sound reminiscent of a distant rifleshot, hence the name "Riflebird".
Although lacking the spectacular finery of the males, females are attractive birds in their own right, although it is usually impossible to tell whether the bird in question is actually a female or an immature male, as males can take up to 7 years to attain their full breeding plumage.
The bowerbirds, are represented by several species in the Atherton Tablelands. Bowerbirds were long thought to be closely related to the birds-of-paradise but recent biomolecular studies have shown them to be not only a family in their own right but one that belongs to a more primitive lineage. The construction of the bowers varies greatly from species to species and can range from beautifully constructed woven structures with carefully arranged adornments of brightly coloured objects to fairly minimalistic cleared areas of the forest floor sprinkled with a few freshly picked green leaves. Some, such as the the Catbirds, don't build any type of display arena at all.
The most elusive of the tableland bowerbirds is the Golden Bowerbird which, outside of the breeding season, can be very hard to find in the dense rainforests it inhabits. During the breeding season, however, the males are rarely very far from their bower, so if you know the location of one it is only a matter of waiting patiently for him to return. Usually it is not even a very long wait, and he will turn up pretty soon after you arrive. Despite their cooperative nature when near their bower, it can be very difficult to get good photos of them as, apart from the usual problem of branches and leaves getting in the way, it is pretty dark in the understorey of the rainforest even at midday. There are two option in this situation: either use natural light with a high ISO and a very slow shutter speed; or use fill-flash with a slightly higher (but still slow) shutter speed to help freeze any slight movement of the bird. When using the flash, it is important to not overdo it and the aim should always be to get as natural-looking lighting as possible. I used both techniques in the photos shown here.
The Golden Bowerbird is the smallest of all the bowerbirds, but it is also the species that builds the biggest bower. This usually consists of two large towers of untidily arranged branches and twigs arranged at the base of a tree with a single branch connecting the two towers that the male bowerbird uses as a display perch.
Tooth-billed Bowerbird is the dowdiest of the Atherton bowerbirds and is quite minimalistic when it comes to bower construction. The courtship arena consists only of a cleared area on the forest floor decorated with up to 180 green leaves, usually arranged with the leaf's paler, underside uppermost. The density of their territories can be quite high and at one place I located at least 5 arenas along a 500m stretch of a path.
Male Tooth-billed Bowerbirds attract females to their courtship arenas with their rich and varied vocalisations, which include a high degree of mimicry. When singing, they tend to sit motionless on a low branch, usually only 1-2m above the ground, and can be quite hard to spot even when you know there is one only a couple of metres away from you.
Spotted Catbirds, or Black-eared Catbird as they are sometimes named, are common in the rainforests of the tablelands but are quite secretive and are more often heard than seen. Their cat-like, mewling calls are very easy to recognise and are most frequently heard in the early mornings.
Spotted Catbird (Ailuroedus melanotis)
Spotted Catbird (Ailuroedus melanotis)
The catbirds form a distinct group within the bowerbirds that is thought to have separated from the rest of the family around 24 million years ago and they neither clear a display court nor build a bower.
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They may not be used or copied in any form without prior written permission.