Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Temminck's Courser

Temminck's Courser pair, Tarangire NP, Aug 2011. Male behind
One of the highlights of my recent trips was coming across this pair of Temminck's Coursers with two small chicks in Tarangire. They were nesting in an area burnt earlier this year, as it typical for this species - it's certainly one of the bird that are strongly associated with recently burnt areas. In fact, as you can see from the photo there's very little ground cover left in the area they were nesting, and there's unlikely to be anything until the rains come several weeks from now. The same species was also common last weekend on the nicely regrowing, but heavily grazed grass of northern Serengeti - but breeding doesn't seem to have started up there as the birds were all in small flocks. Breeding seasons for many birds are pretty confusing in the tropics, and it doesn't help that different parts of Tanzania have different climates either: much of northern and western Serengeti is now well into their rainy season, whilst southern Serengeti and most of the rest of the country are still parched and will remain so for several more weeks yet. The few breeding records there are in the Tanzania Bird Atlas database  from northern Serengeti are all August/September, so maybe they're just about to start up there which suggests that, as in southern Africa, the species has breeding season that are in some areas - like Tarangire - associated with the dry season, but in other areas are associated with the wet season. Curiously, there it seems to be the other way around, with wet-season breeding in low rainfall areas, and dry-season breeding in higher rainfall areas. Clearly there's a lot to learn about the ecology of these common birds - and if you come across nests with eggs or chicks please do let Liz and Neil know via the Tanzania Bird Atlas so we can start to put the full picture together: the more contributors the better (at the time of putting the map together for their website there were NO breeding records at all for Tarangire!).
Male Temminck's Courser feeding chick

As a little background information on the birds, it's good to remember that coursers are actually wading birds - order Charadriiformes, just like plovers, lapwings and sandpipers, but they below to a specialised family Glareolidae within that order, including the pratincoles and other coursers. Most coursers are nocturnal, and Temminck's is also active at night, but easily found during the day (unlike some other species). That's quite handy, as they mainly feed on termites, and most of them are mainly active at night too. (Just one more of the very many termite predators around the savannah!)
Temminck's Courser, Male

As a final little snippet, the name comes from Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch zoologist (and aristocrat) who has a pretty long list of birds named for him, including the Temminck's Stint that will be familiar to many birders from Europe and Asia, and which winters in very small numbers in East Africa. (He's also got a pangolin named for him, which is rather cool!) He lived in an interesting time for zoology - when he took up his final job as first director of the National Natural History Museum in Holland in 1820 zoology was essentially the preserve of a few rich people like himself, who occupied all the important positions. But within a few years other, ordinary people without long family histories were starting to get involved in zoology, and started challenging the authority of the established aristocrats. Temminck couldn't handle the competion and wanted things to remain as they were - poor people should be happy being poor and not have anything to say about science. And eventually, in about 1940 he stopped being involved in ornithology at all as he couldn't handle his views on taxonomy being challenged by people he didn't consider to be his peers - and consequently lost all the authority he once had. All in all, this 'democratization' of science can only be seen as a good thing - all the more reason not to leave science to the scientists and contribute your own observations and thoughts whereever you can!

Temminck's Courser Chick - 1 or 2 days old. Note 'egg tooth' on tip of bill to cut through the egg shell.

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