Monday, 27 July 2015

Some comments on two invasive species

When we lived in Dar es Salaam (2001-03) there was considerable concern about the spread of Indian House Crows, and the impact on indigenous species.  Similar concerns have been expressed about the Common Myna in Canberra, and as I have better data about that species, I will start off with some comments on them.

Common Myna Acridotheres tristis

This species is native to Asia.  The species has an alternative name of Indian Myna which is not that sensible as there are 8 species of myna (in various genera) found in the sub-Continent.  It also has a popular name of Rat-with-wings, which is possibly rude to rats.

The beast in question was introduced to Australia in the 1860s.   For reasons that escape me they were popular cage birds, which had the almost inevitable outcome that they escaped and (less usually) became established in the wild.  They are widely regarded as pests, out-competing native species.  Interestingly it has been reported that in Singapore it is itself being out-competed by the White-vented Myna (A. cinereus).

In the ACT the mynas were deliberately introduced by a misguided individual.  The tale as I have heard it is that:
the person was recovering from an operation in a Sydney Hospital and the fiirst sound he heard was a Myna walking on the window ledge outside his room. To him this represented a return to life and he wished to share this with others in Canberra. So some birds were trapped and then released near the Kingston shops.
When we came to Canberra in 1983 Kingston was still the epicentre of the infection with a sub-population in Scullin.  Shortly after this they exploded in numbers and became common throughout the ACT.  It is very difficult to estimate the number of Common Mynas in Canberra: a Minister did refer, in a Press Release, to an estimate of up to 150,000 at peak and I did some analysis which concluded this was a possible number, although my inclination would be to take a somewhat smaller one - 100,000 might be better.

CIMAG was established in 2006 to take action on the Myna, (I presume the obsolete name is used as it gives the group a more easily pronounced acronym.)  Their core business is assisting with trapping and euthanasing the birds.  The explosion of the population of Mynas in the ACT and the success of CIMAG in reducing their numbers is illustrated by this chart of the abundance (average number of birds per site-week in the COG Garden Bird Survey) of the Mynas in the ACT (the star represents the year of foundation of CIMAG).
The uptick in the year ended 2/7/2014 is not a great surprise.  Some years ago an experienced birder commented to the effect that the Myna will never be eradicated from the ACT unless "something is done about the population at the Queanbeyan racecourse."  Whether the up-tick represents a re-invigoration of the species will be decided in the future, but mechanistic projections of the trend line give very variable results depending upon the length of the data series input to the projection.

House Crow (Corvus splendens)

Image from Avibase sourced to
I am surprised that I didn't have an image of this species from our time in Dar es Salaam as they were very common there.  They are sometimes described as a 'jackdaw' since they resemble the mainly European species Eurasian Jackdaw- Corvus monedula.  As an aside I did report seeing a Jackdaw in Dubai, in 2005, which would have been a first for the country - but I rapidly changed the observation to House Crow, explaining that I had recently been in Europe and had forgotten the House Crows of Dar es Salaam.  

The principal concerns about House Crows in Tanzania were that they predate the nests of smaller native species and were out-competing the native Pied Crow C. albus.

An attempt had been made to control the species by shotgunning the nests when there were young or eggs in the nests.  This took out two generations in one blast.  After some 20,000 cartridges the programme ran out of funds and the House Crow population boomed again.

This post was stimulated by reading a mention of House Crows in a post by Ian Fraser about Borneo which led me, via Uncle Google to an article in the Tanzanian Daily News about the demise of another control program.  This one had involved poisoning the Crows with DRC 1339 and other techniques including trapping and stoning the crows!  The article estimates that 900,000 Crows were killed in this programme.  This seems a huge number of birds, but is broadly consistent with an estimate of 700,000 Crows killed a couple of years earlier and an estimate of 1.5 million Crows in Dar es Salaam in 2010, before the programme started.

The article also states that the Crows were originally introduced to Zanzibar, then part of the Sultanate of Oman (not far from Dubai!) to control rubbish.

Unfortunately it seems that at the time the article was written funding had run out again and the crows were rapidly rebuilding their population.

A couple of conclusions

In both cases the birds were deliberately introduced by man.  Naughty, naughty, man.

In the case of the House Crow man, in the form of the Tanzanian Government, appears to have dropped the ball and allowed what seems to have been a very successful programme to finish too soon.  This should be a big message for the folk of Canberra to sustain their support for CIMAG and not to say that because the Mynas have dropped from 3rd most common species in the GBS to the 20th that the war has been won.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The road that parallels the rail trail

Having some spare time on 25 July I decided to do a birding trip from Bungendore via Hoskinstown to the Captains Flat Rd at Foxlow along the various manifestations of Hoskinstown Road which more or less follows the Captains Flat Rail line, which has been proposed - with a lot of community support - as a rail trail.

My effort started on the edge of Bungendore, at Trucking Yard Lane.  The disused section of the railway line (green line below) comes off the still active Canberra - Goulburn line (black below) about 3 km out of the village.
However, my explorations started on the edge of the village as two dams (and the surrounding paddocks) there often have interesting birds.  The dam on Trucking Yard Lane (TYL in the image above) is the preferred location of a flock of Plumed Whistling Ducks which have taken up residence there over the warmer months.   At times the surrounding paddock, and the trees above the racks in the image below, are occupied by up to 500 each of Galahs and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.
However the weather on this day - strong wind and quite cool - was such that the Plumed Whistling Ducks were not observed.  The only waterfowl around were about 75 Pacific Black Ducks and 30 Australian Wood Ducks (aka Maned Goose) and 8 Australian Shelduck.  A few Galahs were over by the racks .

I then moved on to Hoskinstown Road and looked on the dam opposite the Bungendore Meadow development.  This is often the location of large numbers (up to 100) of Australian Shelduck but there were only 6 visible on the dam on this day.  About 100 Galahs were munching on something in the paddock - possibly Cape Weed tubers.

The rest of the trip is illustrated in this image.
About 1 km along Hoskinstown Rd I crossed the active rail line and drove down the road through paddocks for another 5+ kms until our first crossing of the disused line.  After a little climbing over the next 1.4km we got to the road edge of the 6 mile Travelling Stock Reserve (TSR).  As seen in this image at the road it is a very nice area of old Eucalyptus mannifera with lots of hollows, making it popular with nesting species in Spring.
The far side of the TSR is a grassy slope which runs down to the rail trail.  Neils Creek Rd runs through the TSR and crosses the trail  on its way to servicing some properties.  Near the junction of this road and the trail is a largeish dam which has at times provided a harbour for a good range of waterfowl.

Back to Hoskinstown rd, we go downhill and pass the end of Briars-Sharrow Rd on our way to the radio telescope at Mills Cross.(11.7km from Bungendore).  A few hundred metres further and the rail trail crosses the road.
That image gives a good idea of the trail as it crosses the Plain, with rather attractive hills on all sides.   Note also the dam on the Western side of the rails: there are a lot of them in this section of the trail and they be interesting focal points for birds.  At this time of the year the grass in this area in good habitat for the Flame Robins seeking refuge from the cold of Winter in the mountains.

Hoskinstown Rd at this point is bordered by Hawthorns (Crategus sp).  They are unfortunately an introduced species and thus BAD, but also provide shelter for many native birds (including Diamond Firetails) and food for many other species, notably Gang-gang Cockatoos.  Which of course makes them GOOD.  If the ideologues want to get rid of the Hawthorns it is probably a good thing, as long as they establish alternative trees/shrubs, with similar benefits for birds, first!

About 17km after leaving Bungendore one enters the village of Hoskinstown, with the rail line just the east (where it crosses Plains Rd).  I have been told that the first house in the village was rented by Marianne Faithfull while Mick Jagger (now, of course, Sir Mick Jagger) was filming Ned Kelly in Braidwood.

We press on down the road, ignoring side roads leading to Forbes Creek (after 18km) and, after crossing Yandiguinula Creek,  Rossi (23km).   The road now climbs a fair bit to a look out over the Foxlow Lagoon.  The rail has stayed down along the far side of the Creek but is exposed to the Lagoon at its NW end.  This Lagoon is the only large water body in the area traversed by the rail trail and - while it does go dry in very droughtish times - provides a good refuge for water birds.  It is the only site in the area where I am aware of Musk Ducks being resident and wheer I have seen the only Whiskered Tern recorded in the area.  It is on private property which should not be entered.

At the high point of the road is this small memorial.  The silver bowl gives a clue that Brownie was a dog: possibly one who devoted its life to sorting out stock in the surrounding paddocks..
Descending a hill - always a Good Thing on a bike - the trail comes back close to the road running by a remnant of eucalypts.
 I suspect these are a mixture of E, mannifera (Brittle gum) and E. pauciflora (snow gum).  Again the trees are old and with a good supply of hollows.  The area is very popular with nesting Tree Martins in Spring and the fallen timber in this general area has allowed me to record Brown Treecreepers in the past.

You are asking where are pictures of birds?  I took some of Banded Lapwings back near Mills Cross but they were very naff.  However this light-phase Brown Falcon posed nicely on a Koppers log beside the trail crossing about 28.4 km from Bungendore.
Just before the road hits the Captais Flat Rd it crosses the Molonglo River.  The road crossing is slightly East of this interesting rail bridge.
I'll see if I can do another post sometime soon covering the remaining distance down to the Flat.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Some flowers come indoors

Despite the crummy time of year Frances has found a few flowers, and attractive foliage items outdoors and bought them indoors.

I don't know if this counts as ikebana or not.  Regardless of the answer to that proposition I am pleased I was able to withhold a post title referring to either:
  • Eric Bana's brother Ike; or 
  • Tina Bana's former husband

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Why was Australia Post invented?

Before answering that question I will comment that what is to follow does not relate to the people in the local service outlets (what used to be called Post Offices but have been renamed - or possibly rebranded - Post Shops).  They are always helpful and sensible (especially those in the main location in Queanbeyan).  It is unclear whether these are Australia Post (AP) staff or an operation under a franchisee - I suspect the latter.

As an update, I am sure the only reason we got our mail 5 working days after our return was the help I got from one of the staff at the Queanbeyan PO (more detail on this towards the end of the post).  A large bouquet to her!

It also doesn't apply to our delivery contractor who seems to do his job pretty efficiently - and whenever I have spoken to him has been very personable and helpful.

What I am on about is the people in the corporate centre, who act as people do in all huge bureaucracies: worry about their own needs and continuing employment and ignore everything, and everyone, else.

The situation in the USA was no better as shown by this (hopefully legible) Doonesbury cartoon from the early 1980s.

My previous encounter with the Australian corporate oxygen-thieves had come about when they tried to persuade me to sign up to their e-documents scheme without making any attempt to explain why this would be good for me.  I suspect this is because it wouldn't have been good for me, involving more effort on my behalf, but would have kept a few AP jobsworths in beer and fags for a little longer.

The current kerfuffle has arisen as a result of my attempting to cancel a 'hold-mail' arrangement I set up while we were going away on our aborted trip to Queensland.  Stepping back a little, I had been pleased to find I could establish the arrangement online, with relatively little grief.  (I had been a little concerned about other stuff - real estate adverts, free newspapers etc - accumulating in our letter box but had a Eureka moment when I realised the simple solution was to remove the letter box!)

As we returned nearly three weeks early I wanted to start reading our mail again (if for no other reason than to keep up with Tottering by Gently in Country Life).  However when I visited the AP website I found this to be impossible: a form had to be completed, printed out and taken to a Post Shop.  It was also going to take three days (working days - for the bureaucrats that is Monday to Friday unlike the Shop which also works on Saturday) for the cancellation to take effect.

This caused me a few issues, so after lodging on Saturday the required bit of bumf - why am I sounding more and more like my father? - I thought I would give some online feedback.  This proved difficult - I don't think AP really want criticism, and suspect they know that no-one is going to offer praise.  The main issue was that there was a very brief character limit on the comments section of the form.  However, I sent it off.

I got no substantive response to the feedback after 2+days (and the mail wasn't delivered on the 3rd day) so rang the customer service line.  The person there couldn't tell me why it takes 4 days to close the hold but did say that I could reply to the email acknowledgement of my feedback and give them some further detail.  Which I did.

Without going into chapter and verse, the list of issues raised in my email response is:
  1. Why can't a hold be cancelled on line?
  2. Why does it take 4 days for the cancellation to take effect (noting that the counter clerk had entered all details from the bumf into her computer)?
  3. The feedback form doesn't mention the character limit.
  4. Why do I appear to have 2 different customer numbers - different number of characters, not just different characters - with AP?  
I still haven't got a response to either of my on line  messages and it is now 5 AP working days since I sent the first.

Overall it seems to me that the problems with AP are not that they are losing money on the letter delivery service but that they are so inefficient they couldn't find their backside even if they used both hands to search!

But wait: there's more!  On the Thursday  - 4 bureaucrat's 'working' days after I submitted the cancellation our mail didn't arrive.  So I rang the number I had been given for the mail centre which gave me a message about being disconnected.  Que??  So I rang the Post Shop where the staffer who answered the phone recognised my name and rang the mail centre to find out what was going on. She rang back in about 3 minutes and advised that:

  1. The mail centre hadn't received my cancellation: they still had the hold active to 6 August (correct original date);
  2. They had grabbed our mail and put it on the delivery contractor's desk with a note saying the hold had been cancelled;
  3. So we should get a delivery tomorrow (we did) and if we don't, ring her back and she'll pursue again.
  4. The mail centre no longer exists in Queanbeyan but been consolidated into Fyshwick (explaining why the phone number no longer works).
Oh.  To answer the question in the title of the post:  to make Telstra look good.  When questions have been asked about the huge salary of the AP CEO the response has been that the amount paid is what is needed to get a top-notch guy.  Given this fiasco, and that he has been in the job for 5 years so has had plenty of time to sort things out, I'd say the salary on offer has not achieved what it was supposed to.  In a similar vein to my explanation for the Corporation as a whole, I reckon he makes Alan Joyce look good.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Banded Lapwings on the Plain (again)!

A message appeared on the COG Chatline on 21 July which caused me some excitement.
Seen yesterday afternoon from Hoskinstown Road, 11 Banded Lapwing, 2 White-fronted Chat and more than 120 Magpies among other species on roadside just North of Hoskinstown.
Although there are nearly always some White-fronted Chats around close to Canberra (Stromlo Forest Park has been a good locale) this is the first time they have been reported in the Carwoola area.

Banded Lapwings are not common in this area, with the possible exception of the paddocks around Lake Bathurst, about 40km away as the Lapwing flies. There was a major incursion to the Hoskinstown Plain by the species in 2012-13 and they were reported once from Wanna Wanna Rd in 2014.  So this report pressed a few of my buttons and I fired up El Camion Real and took myself Plain-wards.

Going past the Col de Widgiewa one has a good view down into the Plain but despite it being 1030 there was still a lot of fog around.  It was still evident when I got to Captains Flat Rd:
But was definitely rising by the time I started on Plains Rd.
Getting a bit further down the road the locals were definitely staking out their territory.  My count was a minimum of 50 roos stacking some zeds in a 5Ha paddock.
I really think they are eating out the entire locality - at least here it's just grass not all the native vegetation in a Nature Reserve.

My recollection from days doing my BAgSc is that dietary stress is a major reason for a break in wool like this sheep - although this isn't a Merino (or even a Border Leicester, which was the go-to breed in the UK) so they may normally look like this.
The little lamb was cute but!

Moving from Hoskinstown to Mills Cross  the main avian action was a good number (my guess was 10) of Flame Robins.  They were even less cooperative than usual in posing for a snap.  Just before the gate into the Cross is a dam on which 2 Pink-eared Ducks were swimming.  They aren't common in the area.
A Lapwing was also present on the far edge of the dam but it was the very common Masked Lapwing rather than my target species.
At this point I checked my email and there was a message from the original observers giving detail about the location of their sightings.  It was about 3km back towards Hoskinstown, so I set off for there looking for a large collection of Magpies (which would be easier to spot than Chats or Lapwings).  Sure enough I soon spotted about 40 Magpies (and 100 Galahs and about 30 Cockies) foraging around a bunch of cattle feeding on some hay.

Scanning the area between the cattle feed and the road one of the brown lumps on the ground (which all looked, at a quick glance, to be the inevitable outcome of cattle being fed) moved.  Bingo!  Tick.
Note the dark breast-band, the different pattern of black and white around the head, and the red patch at the base of the bill, all of which are differences to the Masked Lapwing.  I had got up to four of the birds, very close to the road, when a hullabaloo broke out in the direction of the feeding cattle.  This was a further 4 Banded Lapwings doing imitations of an aerial dogfight with some Magpies.  The flying was very spectacular but eventually the birds landed - one coming to join thse by the road the overs landing near a dam about 100m away.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The prettier side of Winter

Quite a few of my recent posts have been about the miserable and/or cold weather we have been experiencing recently.  So lets brighten up with some flowers.  Not surprisingly they are all bulbs - a plant has to have a good energy store to push out flowers in this season.

Before we left on our trip North one daffodil was in bud in front of the kitchen window.  We thought it a pity that we would miss its emergence.  As a result of the truncation of our trip we haven't.
 Here are its friends!

I rather like the string of drops fringing the flower, so here is a close up-up.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The length of the Cool

At some point recently in discussing the cold weather being experienced around Canberra, Sean Carson - the BoM go-to man for quotable quotes - explained that on some days there is more time with the temperature below zero than above.  His example was the temperature falling below 0  by 7pm and not rising above it until about 9am the following morning.

Some detail on how I have assessed this follows but the big result is that days with extended periods of air frost (ie temperature below 0oC) are most frequent in August.

This is quite a reasonable outcome since:
  1. August is preceded by more cold months than June or July:and 
  2. the angle of the sun is still low so doesn't warm the atmosphere as quickly as it does from September onwards.
This logic follows equally well for explaining why, in the Northern Hemisphere, February seems the coldest month.

Now for the detail.  Unfortunately the time-frame cited by Sean is very difficult for a bear (possibly a polar bear) of little brain, and less SQL programming knowledge, to reflect in an exploration of my weather data.  What I have used as a substitute is the number of days with more than 'x' readings below 0, classified by month. I have converted these to percentages (to adjust for having 3 years of observations for May, 2 years for June and a single month for the other cold months) giving the result in the following table:

% of days with >n hours below 0oC

This is illustrated in a graph: