Monday, 14 October 2013

Serval or "Cerval" - The Deer-like cat (Leptailurus serval)

Speaking of Servals it is time that I introduced you to three big eared, long legged, spotty awesome animals that have crept into my heart (and the hearts of many others) over the past four and a half years. I have been in the very fortunate position to be charged with the honor and privilege of hand raising and training them for their role at the Werribee Zoo.
They are the tallest of the African small cats and are found throughout Africa in grassland habitats. They are reliant on water and a predominantly rodent diet that they locate with their exceptional hearing ability. They are also the longest legged cat in the world and can jump three vertical meters to catch a bird in flight.
They were three months old when they arrived from Mogo Zoo in New South Wales. They were specifically bred there for their role with us and got their first human contact from two weeks of age.

The initial housing on arrival was a converted shipping container that was also to quarantine them before settling into their current home. Quarantine is necessary to eliminate the possibility of bringing any disease into the zoo's greater collection and constitutes testing the animals (blood and feces) then waiting for the effective incubation periods for any pathogens to pass before re-testing. This period can be any where from a month or more. Our girls stayed here for three months as their enclosure was not yet complete so they stayed beyond their actual quarantine period.
It was a critical time in their lives and we spent about four hours each day training, feeding and playing with them. Each one had their own box and they were placed in this box before every meal in order to stop any quarreling over food and to teach or condition them that to be in this confined space would have a positive outcome and even offer them some security. This particular conditioning has been done every day and for every meal and has had far reaching advantages in their day to day management  as we can weigh, medicate, separate, transport and examine an individual and they are completely at peace with this. In order to get their food they need to wait their turn to be let out of the box where after they must step onto a log or "station" before being given the food reward. This has happened since the first day they arrived and it began with their milk feed and progressed to the current training reward of a piece of diced meat.

I often liken this part of the training process to calling a family to the dinner table as we can relate to that. I also remember how the servals had to learn their manners by keeping their sharp little claws to themselves!
another critical part of their training.

The previous two images show an examination under anesthetic or what we simply refer to as an (EUA). It is much better to put an animal under anesthetic while invasive tests are being done. The image where a large needle is visible shows how the microchip is being implanted between the animal's shoulder blades. Microchip transponders are important so that the individuals and their records are not mixed up.

As they have grown there is one thing that has not changed and that is their personalities! The previous image shows how they were startled by a battery operated drill that I was using to mount a soap dispenser in the room. Nanki, the one in front has always been the leader and she was the first to investigate while her sisters Morili and Tula hid behind her and waited until she had solved the mystery by approaching the drill and killing it by stamping on it and punching it with her feet in true serval style. I hope to post a video that better illustrates this scenario.

Their names have significant meanings too; Nanki means undivided (Indian origin also from an Afrikaans poem), Morili means "women with a fiery tongue" although she only hisses when she is frightened and Tula means quiet.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Bird of Prey Identification Part 2/2

Falcons and Kestrel - in our local area (Wyndham, Victoria, Australia).

The Brown falcon     Falco berigora

The Brown falcon  (40 - 50 cm) is the most prolific falcon by far and is often visible when perched out on vantage points such as power poles, posts and dead trees. They have a distinctive "kek kek kek" call usually uttered in flight that can easily help to separate them from the previously mentioned Eagle, Kites and Harriers.
Falcons do not build their own nests and this species will commonly use old Raven nests to breed.
Their coloration is extremely variable from light to very dark. The following image shows the outline of a rather light form.

Black Falcon     Falco subniger

The Black Falcon may be encountered on rare occasions and it is possible to confuse this bird with a dark form of the previous species. It is almost black as the name suggests and old birds can become white around the throat. They are slightly larger (45 -55 cm), are much faster fliers and the shape of the wing (shown below) can be a great identification feature.

The Australian Hobby     Falco longipennis

The Australian Hobby is a little (30 - 35 cm) fast falcon that hunts mainly small passerines (perching birds - note half plucked honey-eater in talons!). Surprisingly it is happy to frequent suburbia but this is probably due to the available food source. It is often crepuscular, hunting around dusk and dawn and likes to keep to areas with large trees for cover. 

The Nankeen Kestrel      Falco cenchroides

The Nankeen Kestrel (30 -35 cm) is the only Kestrel species in Australia and is in effect a small falcon - just slower - and is often seen hovering whilst looking for it's mainly rodent diet. They have a much longer tail  than the Black-shouldered Kite which also hovers, and red brown coloration as well as pale yellow (or 'Nankeen' - a color so named because of a pale yellow cloth made at Nanjing in China from a yellow variety of cotton!) . Both photos show females. Males have a grey head and are smaller.

Black-shouldered Kite      Elanus notatus 

The Black-shouldered Kite smaller than the other two kites at (36 cm) - is the 'butterfly' among raptors. It is both dainty and colorful with it's red eyes and yellow feet contrasting with it's black and white coloration. Immature birds are brown with pale legs and eyes and can be confused with the previous species especially because they hover in much the same manner however they lack the falcon mask or hood. It is important to note that this Kite has a much shorter tail than the Kestrel and appears as a stockier bird.

Peregrine Falcon      Falco peregrinus

The Peregrine Falcon  (38 - 48 cm) - is a large falcon and the fastest of them all generally stooping at speeds of over 180 mph. (One is said to have been recorded at 242 mph or 389 km/h in 2005!). The name literally means 'wanderer' and they will sometimes migrate across the Bass Strait.
They are infrequently seen in the area and can be identified by their grey coloration, size and dark hood. Adults have horizontal barring across the chest and young have vertical streaks while some tend to have a light chest. The above rather poor illustration, was taken in North Queensland where this bird was attempting to hunt whistling ducks. Note the yellow around the eye.

Happy birding

Part 1 of 2

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Whistling Kite

Whistling Kite

Upon hearing the distinctive whistle of this bird today my curiosity got the better of me so I went to investigate. To my surprise it allowed me to venture to within about eight meters of where it was sitting enjoying the morning sun. They are building a nest about twenty meters up in a nearby gum tree.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Buff-banded Rail

Buff-banded Rail

I often encounter these charismatic little birds  as I go about my work at the zoo and their cheerful character often does well to brighten any one's day.
According to a colleague who  has been there for a while, this species was not common in the past but due to successive generations of them growing up around our visitors they have become quite conditioned to people and accustomed to gleaning a few crumbs from the numerous picnic tables around the grounds. This one literally ate out of my hand today!

Buff-banded Rail

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Bird of Prey Identification Part 1/2

Little Eagle, Kite and Harrier identification in our local area (Wyndham, Victoria, Australia).

I am really fortunate to have what most would say is a "dream job" as a keeper at Werribee Open Range Zoo. If you hear me refer to myself as "servalpaul" it is because I predominantly look after three beautiful Serval cats, (a large eared, long legged grassland cat from Africa) among other species.
The Zoo is situated to the West of Melbourne and boasts a large expanse of land bisected by the major Werribee river which enters Port Phillip bay several kilometers down stream. With it's diverse habitat, the area is home to numerous species of birds.

There are five species that seem to confuse people the most so in this section I will attempt to point out some easily identifiable differences.

Little Eagle     Hieraaetus morphnoides

There are a resident pair of Little eagles on the property so they can almost always be seen. They are the smallest eagle (45 - 55 cm)  but similar in size to the Kites and Harriers I will mention.
The interesting thing about this pair is that one is a light phase bird (pictured) and the other is a dark phase (chocolate colored) bird. Colors can be helpful in identification but in this case will probably make matters worse! It is therefore necessary for me to point out more shape and proportion. The Little Eagle is stocky and fairly "square" in appearance but it's tail is short in proportion to it's body and the end is straight. When perched one might observe that the feathers extend all the way down to the feet.

Whistling Kite         Milvus sphenurus

The Whistling Kite(53 cm)  is probably the most numerous and will sometimes be seen in groups. There is a pair currently building a nest over 20 m high in a gum above the Hippo off limit area.
Note the "M" or "W" angle of the wings in this bird as this is quite a common posture in flight. More importantly though, is the length of the tail in relation to the body, and convex (rounded) or "paddle "shape end is probably the most outstanding feature. Feathers do not grow down to the (grey colored) feet in this bird and its whistling call is distinctive.

Black Kite     Milvus migrans

The Black Kite (52 cm) is similar to the Whistling Kite in shape and size but the main difference is that it has a concave or "fork" shaped tail. Sometimes it is found in association with Whistling Kites. Its legs are yellow in color.

Spotted Harrier     Circus assimilis

The Spotted Harrier (53 - 60 cm) has relatively long wings and tail as well as bare yellow legs. The white spots are normally quite visible over the brick red coloration in conjunction with the prominent barring of the wings and tail.
They tend to exhibit a rather "floppy" flight or they hang like a pendulum in a "V" shaped posture when hunting, as pictured.

Swamp Harrier     Circus approximans 

Swamp Harriers (50 - 58 cm)are similar to Spotted harriers in flight patterns and dimensions however they are dark chocolate brown in appearance. The white rump is a very important distinguishing feature but is not always visible.

I hope that this information will be useful for you budding birders out there. I will take a look at  some Falcons, the Nankeen Kestrel, and the Black shouldered Kite in the next post.

Happy birding

Part 2 of 2

Monday, 19 August 2013

Camels and Magpies.

I was asked to share a photo story about Camels and Magpies over at Act Wild.

Act wild is a Zoos Victoria blog.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Little Eagle

Little Eagle (Light Phase)

Seeing that birds of prey are my first love I thought it appropriate by way of introduction to post this Little Eagle that I captured over the zoo last weekend.


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