November 19, 2017

Black cockatoos herald winter

Turning over the page of my Australian Geographic wall calendar on May Day a picture of a pair of my favourite birds – yellow-tailed black cockatoos – announced the approach of winter.

Although in fact the calendar said we were starting the last month of autumn, the coming of winter was confirmed a day later when I saw the first snow of the year on kunanyi/Mt Wellington.

The May page of the calendar was adorned with a hand-coloured lino-cut by wildlife artist Vida Pearson, which showed the cockies munching on the flower cones of silver banksia.

The picture depicted a scene in the Grampian Mountains of Victoria but it could have been inspired by events in Tasmania because two cockies I saw next day were also making the most of a crop of banksia flowers in a low bush at the start of the Pipeline Track near my home in the Waterworks Valley.

After munching on the banksia cones, the pair of cockies flew to a dead gum, where they then proceeded to probe the bark for wood-boring grubs.

It was unusual to see just a pair of cockies at this time of year because I usually see them with a youngster – the juvenile noisily calling for food – or in loose flocks of up to 20 birds with young birds flying with them.

The cockatoos lay two eggs but one bird only usually survives, to stay with his or her parents right through to the next breeding season.

I didn’t want to dwell on what might have happened to the cockie pair’s chick, instead I spent an enjoyable half hour or so watching them at work in the dead gum. The female – identified by her whitish beak, whereas the male as a black one – watched on approvingly from a higher branch as the male pressed his ear to the trunk of the tree to listen for the movement of the grubs under the bark. When he heard one, he tore at the fibrous wood furiously, using his powerful beak to send strips of bark to the forest floor.

Although Tasmanian folklore suggests the arrival of cockies in towns and cities foretells bad weather, the black cockies move to lower terrain in any case during winter. But the first snow of winter no doubt spurs this movement.

Cockies seek out ageing trees in spring which provide nest hollows – these are mainly found on the mountain in the Hobart area – and they spend the summer there feeding on the rich bounty of pollen and nectar produced by shrubs and trees. As autumn bites, they take young down to lower slopes in search of burrowing insects in dead bark, or the blooms of silver banksia which flower during autumn and into winter.  On the mainland, black cockies are known to forsake the high country for bottlebrush woodlands on the coast.

In the Waterworks Valley, the black cockies seem content to spend the winter there and when frost lies thick on my lawn they are welcome visitors to my garden.

 

 

 

 

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