Contact Call | Volume 11 Number 2 | March 2022
Finding a boiled lolly... how hard could that be?
For several years now, a group of volunteers led by Dr Ray Pierce have been studying a population of Gouldian Finches located “within a few hours of Mareeba.” The exact location of the populations are not general knowledge at this stage, both for the sake of the birds, but also the property managers so they’re not humbugged by people less concerned about trespass laws and manners as our Birdlife Northern Queensland readership. Pleasingly, the knowledge of the locations has not become general knowledge from those involved in the surveys, and those aware of the birds know better than to ask.
The aim of the survey works, supported by a grant from Queensland Citizen Science (QCS) and auspiced by the North Queensland Natural History Group is trying to determine the basic biology and characteristics of these populations, how they are similar to those found elsewhere across northern Australia, and how they differ. The principal question is what are the landscape-scale characteristics that have helped this population hang on, and therefore what could be done to preserve, or better still, increase it.
We (Renee and I) were lucky enough to join a recent survey over a long week-end, led by Ray and joined by Amanda Freeman, Pippy Cannon and Ceri Pearce. This time of year, the surveys are looking to locate the birds as well as their nests and/or fledglings.
For a stunningly beautiful and colourful bird, the Gouldian Finch is ridiculously easy to miss in the bush. They have a very quiet and unobtrusive call (some people suffering even slight industrial deafness simply cannot hear the high pitch male’s call at all). When feeding they are often low or on the ground, and the birds tend to move around - all factors which make this feathered boiled lolly hard to spot.
However, after some frontline training with Ray, things do get easier thanks to the Gouldian’s partnerships, especially with Black-faced Woodswallows. Ray’s work has continued to discover that these birds have a complex cooperative relationship that goes beyond just feeding. The woodswallows act as lookouts, and call loudly when intruders come into their realm, including bird-nerds sporting binos. They often perch in trees above the Gouldians feeding on grass seed below, possibly benefiting from insects disturbed. Willy Wagtails, Magpie Larks, Masked and Black-throated Finches, Rufous Songlarks, Jacky Winter all join the feeding guild, and everyone benefits.
The research has also found that nesting hollows in proximity to nesting woodswallows are prime real estate for the finches, again benefiting from the woodswallows’ protective nature, discouraging potential predators.
This association also makes finding the cryptic Gouldian easier, as the woodswallows are much easier to spot. After our in-depth training and eyes-on experience, we were soon able to find the birds and complete the survey techniques. We even managed to find several pairs without Ray’s supernatural powers, and even a nesting pair not 20m from where we camped (well, Renee found them but I was there…).
The surveys are a great experience. We got the chance to see this amazing finch in the wild and observe some wonderful behaviours; we got access to areas that would just not otherwise be possible. We had a great time outdoors with some fun and passionate people, and maybe even helped a little with this important work.
If you get the chance to go along to these surveys, don’t miss the opportunity. If you are out in woodland country and see Black-faced Woodswallows, have a good scan with the binos. You may be rewarded with Black-throated or Masked Finch, or even a boiled lolly.
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