Thursday, 12 November 2015

Australia - 50 days in

50 days in and the fieldwork for the cuckoo research project I'm currently working on is going well, the summer is getting hot, and my birding list is ever growing.

I arrived on the 23rd September and was introduced to the team I would be working with. There are 13 of us living in a shared house currently. We all work on the same field site on the shore of Lake Samsonvale (just north of Brisbane), but are working on 3 separate projects. The Fairy-wren project is run by Derrick Thrasher from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and has a crew of 6, the Ecoimmunology crew has 2 members  - PhD student Diana Carneiro and her assistant - and our project on Cuckoos has 5. Our supervisor is William Feeney and there are 4 of us that are field technicians. The field site is split into 4 sections, so we each monitor 1 section for Will. 


Project Background


This is the first year that Will has worked/researched at this field site. He intends to make it a long term study site for researching cuckoos and their hosts, so a lot of our work this season is a bit exploratory and focussed on setting up for future seasons. Little research has been done on any of the cuckoo species in Queensland, so there is some degree of uncertainty about what species they parasitise and what their phenology is. Unlike Europe, where there is just one species of cuckoo (Common cuckoo - Cuculus canorus), we currently have 7 on the site. Eastern Koel (Eudynamys orientalis) and Channel-billed Cuckoos (Scythrops novaehollandiae) parasitise large passerine species such as Currawongs, butcherbirds and large honeyeaters. Unfortunately these host species nest too high for us to study. However, Fan-tailed Cuckoo (Cacomantis flabelliformis), Brush Cuckoo (Cacomantis variolosus), and Shining (Chalcites lucidus), Little (Chalcites minutillus) and Horsfield's (Chalcites basalis) Bronze-Cuckoo all parasitise species with nests that we can study. There is also the potential to get Pallid Cuckoo (Cacomantis pallidus) on site, but these have not been heard yet. Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus opatus) may turn up in the winter, but would not breed at this site. 

Will's research focusses on the coevolutionary 'arms race' between cuckoo and their hosts, and the Australian cuckoos present a very different study system than their European counterpart. Each cuckoo species seems to have a primary host species, however if this is not available they may parasitise other hosts as well. Therefore one host species may be at risk of being parasitised by several different cuckoo species. This produces some very interesting evolutionary pressures for both the cuckoo and host species, and Will is studying the behavioural mechanisms that both species use to 'out wit' the other.

Daily Routine


04:00 - Wake up
04:30 - Leave for the field site
05:00 to 11:00 - Monitor the site. This mostly involves trying to find as many nests as possible of multiple species. Our target species are White-browed Scrubwren and Superb Fairy-wren, but any species with the potential to be parasitised by cuckoos will do. Nests previously found must also be monitored for lay dates, hatch dates and fledging success. Several experiments / data collection projects are being run also.  

Male Superb Fairy-wren
White-browed Scrubwren - Juvenile, 
though females have very similar plumage
Scrubwren nestling - just a few days old
Brown Honeyeater nest and eggs

11:30 to 12:00ish - Return home and have lunch
12:00 to 14:30ish - Free time. This is normally filled with napping or data entry
14:30 - Sometimes we head back out to the field site at this point. Afternoons are dedicated to mist-netting and trying to get all of our Scrubwrens and Superbs colour banded/ringed. This can be great fun or very tedious as we've seen many target birds bounce out of nets!


Male Superb Fairy-wren 
with new colour bands
Female / juvenile Superb Fairy-wren 
with colour bands
Sometimes we get some nice bycatch. 
This is a Lewin's Honeyeater

18:30 - Dinner time. We cook in pairs on a rota. I've learnt some great new recipes and had some delicious food in the last month and a half.
20:30 - Bedtime! It's a raving existence this house full of 20-something year olds lead.


It's not all birds...


Although the majority of my days are filled with nest searching and birding, there's a lot of other amazing wildlife around here that I encounter daily.


This Eastern Brown Snake was behind 
glass at Australia Zoo, but I come 
across them on site fairly regularly

Reptiles and amphibians are everywhere!...
...even in our living room. 
Goliath Stick Insects hide 
in the canopy above...
...with their amazingly colourful wings
Friendly butterflies keep me 
company on site
There are lovely little beetles wherever I look...
...the site would be an entomologists dream.

The flora is beautiful too with amazing 
wild flowers, incredible tree/shrub 
diversity and endless grass species

And of course there are the Australian classics of koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wild dogs, possums, goannas (Lace Monitors), snakes, spiders, cane toads (not so classic) and all of the incredible flora!

Overall I'm having a pretty good time out here. It's very different from British fieldwork, and I miss seabirds, but it's an incredible experience and I live and work with wonderful people. I'm looking forward to the next 2 months here. 

If you want more up-to-date information and photos of what we get up to just follow me on Twitter ( @r_green24 ) or the project ( @Aus_Cuckoos ), or follow us on Instagram ( samsonvalebirdproject ).

Finally, just because I can, here's a video of a chilled out Fan-tailed Cuckoo chick perching on Will's hand. Tom Ryan - Will's second in command - took the video.


video