September 27, 2010

It's far from black and white

I vowed I wouldn't write another Magpie post, but I've had to, following a series of developments.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about Australian Magpies, as you do, and was disconcerted to hear them discussed in terms of annoyance on a par with that caused by wasps back home. The Australians I was with didn't seem to like them much at all, despite the highly regarded Professor Gisela Kaplan of the University of New England in New South Wales describing them as one of Australia's 'culturally important icons'. Now, I don't like wasps, and have never seen the point of them, frankly, in the weird and wonderful natural scheme of things. But a Magpie's song is a thing of beauty, making them 'one of the foremost songbirds in the world', according to Prof Kaplan.

(At this juncture, I have to say that I have heard few ordinary-person-in-the-street Australians raving about their wildlife half as much as I do.)

During this discussion I was told about a 12-year-old boy from a town west of Brisbane who had died after running into the road while trying to escape a Magpie attack. This is an extreme and tragic example of a fairly common occurrence at this time of year, ie the breeding season, when male Magpies swoop on cyclists and pedestrians they see as a potential threat to chicks in the nest – within 100 metres of it, in fact. My friend was hit on the helmet a couple of times on only our second cycle ride in Brisbane; one of his colleagues went to hospital with a suspected dislocated shoulder after falling off his bike while under attack a couple of weeks ago; and yesterday I met a lady with bandaged wrist on the ferry who had come a cropper in simple circumstances last week at South Bank.

These attacks are taken very seriously in Australia. You can consult maps of Magpie-attack hotspots. And there's plenty of advice: carry an umbrella to brandish; wear a sturdy hat; attach long cable ties to your helmet poking out in all directions that will wave about as you move; and the best one – wear a face mask on the back of your head. Magpies value the element of surprise: they are less likely to swoop if they think you're watching them... and they usually attack from behind. If you do become a victim, and the attacker can be identified, the Environmental Protection Agency or Brisbane City Council will assist with its relocation (Magpies are a protected species under Australian law).

So, in the eyes of many Australians, male Magpies cross over to the dark side from July to November.

Meanwhile... back in Waterline Crescent Park, Mrs Magpie is building again. Well, she's built, actually, and she's sitting again. Literally the day after the babes had flown she started to build a second nest not far from the first – and much better-positioned for us in our bedroom hide. One chick returned to the tree, squeaking pitifully, as Mum brought in twigs for the new nest rather than tasty morsels for her baby. The new nest is decorated with rather fine green and red binder twine (as Postman Pat called it). In this picture, you can just see her head peeping out over the top.
Why has she done this again, and so soon? I am on the case.

If anyone thinks I'm obsessing about Magpies, I'd like to introduce a couple of other garden visitors. I think the one below a Fence (or Snake-eyed) Skink. I know he looks a bit like a snake but in fact he's a common garden lizard. He's here most days now, but I think he was probably sleeping for lengthy periods during the winter months. Skinks are the largest family of lizard: there are nearly 1,300 species worldwide and 389 varieties are found in Australia.
And below, in a rather fine basket of a nest, a Noisy Friarbird tends to her young in not a large ornamental tree over the fence from our patio. You can just see a chick's gaping mouth below mama's long pointy beak. She's been sitting for weeks – with ne'er a peep out of her – but she doesn't like being scrutinized through the binoculars and she will not tolerate any other bird in her tree. She is not one of the most attractive birds in the Australian aviary, but you've got to admire the nest construction.
Finally, just in case anyone back home thinks I might be swanning about on the beach now that spring is here...


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