A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush

While my background interests are largely based on aquatic or terrestrial animals, I’ve always fancied animals of all sorts, and what better place to indulge in a bit of ornithological (bird-stuff) adventure than Australia!

Australia is home to 828 species of birds, a true birder’s paradise. They really come in all sorts of sizes, colours, varieties and temperaments here. So you might say that there is a “bird” for everyone! Here in the state of Victoria, you’ve got quite an assortment of species and perhaps my current favourite is the rather outwardly dull, Australian Raven. Ravens the world over are known for their intelligence, but here…their call has its own special charm…it is hilarious. I’m not sure how best to describe it, but Simpson & Day (Field Guide to the Birds of Australia) describe the Australian Raven’s call as a “High, far-carrying, child-like wailing; a series of slow notes ‘aaa…’ with [a] strangled, drawn-out finish; also quiet croaking”, in short, its perfectly…you guessed it…hilarious.

Recently I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about the birds of Australia by joining Dr. Christa Beckmann and some visiting American birders on a sampling trip here in south Victoria. It was good fun and over the course of the day, we caught a pretty nice diversity of species, all with their own allure but some were certainly more beautiful than others, case in point…the male Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus), which when in breeding colouration, is really quite a lovely blue…which actually gets confusing because there is also a Lovely Fairy-Wren (M. amabilis) as well as a Splendid Fairy-Wren (M. splendens) [both of which are largely blue when discussing breeding males]. To say that there are a LOT of Fairy-Wrens in Australia is an understatement. But I digress.

We also caught several finches and thornbills, but my favourite of the day was the Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis). Perhaps for no other reason then that they seemed to love being caught in “my” snap trap…they are also rather cute. See below photos.

Snap traps and mist netting for birds - and an Eastern Yellow Robin

Snap traps and mist netting for birds – and an Eastern Yellow Robin

Being a biologist, I should likely explain to you how ornithologists actually catch birds? (If you are an ornithologist, please stop reading – my description will likely not do you justice). Basically, there are two ways (there are actually more than two ways, many more ways, but I am only going to tell you about two of the more common ones…for now). Perhaps the most well-known technique is the Mist Net. These are basically large rectangular nets set between two poles at a fixed distance (e.g. 10 meters or 30 feet). These nets have small squares in them of varying size depending on the size/species of interest. Bigger squares = bigger birds. I should also say that these nets are almost invisible. They really are (can you see it in the bottom panel of the above picture?). Birds must just be so confused when they are caught in a mist net, suddenly hanging in the air. Not just birds actually! In fact, the first day these American birders were visiting, they had a group of Kangaroos (only in Australia!) come piling through and in doing so – damage several of their rather expensive nets (with apparently little notice from the roos, these nets are delicate!)- Luckily this is a rather rare occurrence 😉

Back to the nets – birds that are caught are then carefully plucked from the nets by expert handlers, measured/weighed etc. before being banded (this is a process wherein a small identification ring [or band] made of metal or plastic is placed around the bird’s leg) and released.

But enough about mist nets, I personally rather like “snap traps”, these oval- or square-shaped traps are made of wire, have springs in their mid-sections and have netting material going around the interior (see pictures). The idea behind this capture technique is to find a nice obvious (but not too obvious) spot near some cover, fasten one side of the trap to the ground, fold back the snap mechanism (which keeps the trap in folded position) and set the trigger (which is ever so slightly connected to the snap mechanism). This trigger is then baited with an insect or other scrumptious such-and-such.

Snap traps with an Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis)

Snap traps with an Eastern Yellow Robin

When a bird happens to come by and sees this irresistible free lunch sitting around, it gives the trigger a peck, releases the snap mechanism and the trap snaps shut (unfolds), catching the would-be snacker. It is great fun. I realize this description might be hard to follow, but take a look at the above photos of an (i) open/baited and (ii) closed trap with a Yellow Robin inside for clarification.

Science is amazing.

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