Sydney plays host to many summer migrants. Some species use spend our summer fattening up before returning to the northern hemisphere to breed, while others are here to raise their families. Two of my favourite summer visitors travel south to breed, the Rufous Fantail and Sacred Kingfisher.
Rufous Fantails are birds of shaded gullies, wet forest and rainforest. They use the uncluttered air above walking tracks to chase down flying insects. When they’re not flying they often sit in the middle of the track. These habits make them a relatively common sight in appropriate habitat.
The fantail pairs lay claim to a small patch of forest and can be seen in the same location day after day. I found my first nest this summer when a fantail I’d been watching flitting around a dark gully suddenly disappeared from sight. Close inspection revealed it sitting in the gloom on a tiny cup-shaped nest. The nest was woven from fine strands of what looked like the fibre from Cabbage Tree Palms. The Rufous Fantail looked me in the eye but showed no inclination to leave the nest. I took a couple of images, then stood quietly watching. A few minutes later a second bird arrived and they swapped sitting duties.
The first sign that Sacred Kingfishers have arrived for the summer is the sound of their ringing calls in local bushland. They are a forest-dwelling kingfisher with a taste for large insects and any frog or reptile they can fit down their throats. They nest in hollows burrowed into termite nests high on the trunk of large trees. Most arboreal termite nests show evidence of such burrows, either the 5–10 centimetre diameter holes produced by Sacred Kingfisher or the much larger ones dug by Laughing Kookaburras.
Sacred Kingfishers are abundant around Sydney over summer, however my best sighting of the season came during a mid January visit to the Murray River. It started with an adult landing in a huge River Red Gum in front of the car. The kingfisher grasped a black cicada, which it repeatedly whacked against the branch. Soon enough the rough treatment detached the cicada’s head, at which point it was passed to one of the two chicks that sat begging for food. The successful recipient spent the next few minutes turning the cicada from side to side in an attempt to swallow the ungainly treat. Eventually it succeeded, then sat quietly with a big lump in its crop.
Over the coming months this season’s Rufous Fantails and Sacred Kingfishers will follow their parents on their return to northern Australia, with a few going even further beyond the national border. It’s comforting to know that Sydney still contains bushland of a quality to attract such migrants, while reminding us that the survival of such species depends on what they encounter at every point in their long travels.
Odds and sods