Sunday, November 8, 2009

Torres Imperial-pigeons along the Ella Bay Road

A fortnight ago, after a long walk at Ella Bay I chanced upon a flock of Torres Imperial-pigeons Ducula spilorrhoa. They were feeding amongst the tree tops near the car park on the Ella Bay Road.

As I approached they were wheeling in and out amongst the trees so you have to excuse the quality of my photographs! I snapped off a few quick insurance shots before I even recognised what sort of birds they were.

When I saw their distinctive black and white tails identification was easy.
As I said they were very active and had no doubt been disturbed by my approach. They were zooming all over the place.
I decided to squat down by the side of the road and let things settle.

Hey while things are settling in the story I will tell you a little about these pigeons and we can return to the Ella Bay Road in a minute or two!

The Torres Imperial-pigeon Ducula spilorrhoa is largely a migratory bird which can be found in Northern Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia. In Australia it has a few common names including Nutmeg pigeon, Torres pigeon and Torres Straight pigeon.

The Australian birds are most abundant in the central and northern areas of the Great Barrier Reef zone. Tens of thousands of these pigeons arrive in Australia from New Guinea during July/August and leave in February/March. This migration coincides with the ripening of the Australian rainforest fruits on which these birds feed.

In Queensland the Torres-Imperial pigeon generally roosts on coastal nesting islands. Each day they travel to the coastal rainforests on the mainland to forage, returning to the islands before nightfall.

The Torres-Imperial pigeon is a plump sort of bird measuring about 38 to 44 cm long with a wingspan of 45 cm. They feed almost exclusively on arboreal fruit and can eat very large fruit, either regurgitating or excreting the seed after its nutritious pulp has been digested. They are important aerial seed distributors for coastal rainforest trees at places like Ella Bay.

It is interesting to note that the largest colonies of Torres-Imperial pigeons occur north of Cooktown where reduced coastal clearing for agriculture and human settlement has had a lesser impact on the food trees these birds rely on. I recently read that Night Island has a recorded population of 60000 birds, the largest colony I know of.

The Torres-Imperial pigeon used to be an extremely common species. In the early 1900s, E.J. Banfield the famous beachcomber of Dunk Island described flocks of 100 000 birds traveling daily between Dunk Island and the mainland. ‘No doubt, fully 100000 come and go evening and morning’ Banfield states in his popular book ‘Confessions of a Beachcomber’.

Unfortunately during the same era their numbers were decimated by shooter who believed the Torres-Imperial pigeon was a pest species (and good sport)! Fortunately this bird is now protected and reasonably common, although its numbers may never return to their previous levels due to the loss of essential coastal rainforest for agriculture and human settlement.

Hey lets get back to the Ella Bay Road where I was waiting for the pigeon flock to settle down a little! Of course after a few minutes the birds settled and I managed to get a photo of one bird sitting quietly by itself in the forest canopy.
Some other birds were flapping about in the trees eating fruit and jostling for the best positions.
There certainly was plenty of fruit on this tree and there’s that black and white pigeon tail again!
It had been a big day so I said my goodbyes to Ella Bay’s Torres-Imperial pigeons. No big messages today although I must say whenever I see large flocks of these birds I am reminded of the extinct American Passenger pigeon who’s massive populations (billions) led people into a false sense of security regarding the species long term safety. Gone forever never to return.

I hope you enjoyed meeting these welcome seed distributing guests on the Ella Bay Road as much as I did!

Cheers Russ

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