Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sooty Owl Redux - another Bunyip evening

Had been chatting with a couple of young birders - Owen and James who were keen to see their first Sooty Owl as well as some of the other avian delights of Bunyip State Forest so I arranged to meet them there last weekend for an afternoon and evening out in the forest. I have probably mentioned before that Bunyip is my favourite birding spot so I didn't need much of an excuse to get out. First birds heard at Mortimers Picnic Ground were Crested Shrike-tit, Satin Flycatcher and Cicadabird so off to a good start. After checking out a nice female flycatcher we chased down the Cicadabird which gave nice views of the male which was a new bird for Owen and his dad. A Brush Cuckoo gave its weird frenzied call and only unsatisfying flight views on the way through.

Crappy Cicadabird shot

From here we drove across Link Road stopping at a couple of my favourite spots which were largely quiet. A single Lyrebird and a couple of Rufous Fantail were of interest as was a single Fallow Deer disappearing into the brush.

Brown Goshawk

At the beginning of Ash Landing Road was a Brown Goshawk which sat nicely allowing a couple of quick snaps - somewhat surprisingly this a bird I dont record particularly often at Bunyip. We stopped at the first creek which was nice and birdy as usual with a number of Beautiful Firetail a highlight. Walking along the road things were again a little on the quiet side although we added Scared Kingfisher and Large-billed Scrubwren to the day list.

A quick trip into Gembrook for dinner and back out to the helipad to await dusk. Southern Emu-wren were common as usual in the grassy heathland as were Scarlet Robin. I managed to get some photos of a rather bold native rodent while the others went off to check out Dyers Picnic Ground to see the resident Satin bowerbird. Later examination of the photos indicated the rodent was a Swamp Rat which I was happy to get in pixels.

Swamp Rat

Before dusk the inimitable Melbourne Birder Steve Davidson showed up  with client in tow also looking for nightjars and other night birds - this was a birder tick for both James and Owen. It was rather cool and overcast with few flying insects but on dusk we heard a couple of brief nightjar calls then nothing. A Sooty Owl called from the creekline north of the helipad but as usual would not come in to visit.... I have heard this bird a number of times over the years but have never set eyes on it. There was a brief moment of excitement as a Sugar Glider flew in and landed above our heads while an Owlet-nightjar churred away in the gully. 

We gave up on the nightjars (Steve had better luck elsewhere) and wandered up Ash Landing Road which was largely quiet aside from a couple of yapping Sugar Gliders and a couple of brief calls from a distant Sooty that was again not responsive. Looking for Sooty Owls in Bunyip is generally a matter of methodically checking likely areas and so it was on our third stop on Link Road. I heard the bird as soon as I left the car so wandered up the road a little and gave a quick burst of the tape and a lovely Sooty flew straight in. As is often their want it gave a great display with wings raised and would not keep quiet.

Who wants a cuddle?

This was a new bird for the other three and in the end we had walk away views as we left it in peace. We continued along Link Road trying other locations with not muck luck as the wind was now rising. Back at Mortimers were a surprising number of Boobooks making a variety of calls- at least 3 or 4 birds giving some decent views which was a nice way to round out the evening.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A quiet day in the office

Last Friday we got the word that the Portland pelagic was on - two months in a row - almost unheard of! So following the usual Saturday morning swimming lessons I headed over to Preston for a lift down with Scott and Peter. There had been southerly winds in the days leading up so there was some expectation that something good would turn up. Had the usual steak and a couple of beers at Mac's and early to bed.

Up bright and early and down to board the Southern Pride with Dodgy and Nev running the show. The signs were good - almost the first bird seen was an Arctic Jaeger above the harbour before we had even cast off. In the harbour itself were many Short-tailed Shearwaters resting on the water awaiting their fate - part of the huge wreck that is occurring up and down the South East coast this year. Heading out to Lawrence Rocks and beyond we passed plenty more Short-tails which were looking a bit more healthy as well as a couple of Fluttering.

Probably the bird of the day went begging about half an hour short of the shelf when a distant large skua/jaeger type was seen briefly settling on the water. We stopped and burleyed but could not pull it in. Out on the shelf we had a good day but with nothing spectacular - 5 species of albatross, good numbers of White-chinned Petrels and 3 Storm-petrels in close were of interest. Reasonable numbers of Fairy Prions gave something to pick through as did a couple fo Sooty Shearwaters passing through. Much like the last few Portland pelagics I have done really. A few Common Dolphins were the only mammals of the trip

Back in the harbour a Pied Cormorant was of interest - quite an uncommon bird in the Portland District. There were also further Short-tails on the beach and waiting to die in the shallows. Its quite sad knowing there is really nothing that can be done for them.... wrecks are a part of life for this species and hopefully this year is just part of the cycle and not something more sinister.

It did allow for some nice portrait shots on grass which you don't get every day with this species.

We toodled off to the gannet colony at Point Danger afterwards to look for the Cape Gannet but were unsuccessful - gannet numbers were well down on the previous visit. A Rufous Bristlebird nearby put on a bit of a show and a Northern Giant-petrel flying past was of interest.

It was near here where I got the bird of the day - an endangered Mellbloms Spider Orchid, TICK! This was down to as low as 30 plants a few years ago and has made a small recovery. However the site was largely overgrown and right next to the smelter! Could certainly do with some maintenance and probably not from Alcoa! In the end we only found one flower a bit past its best. I did spend some time getting much better photos of the more common Greencombs Spider Orchid type but didn't realise this until we got home... doh!

Mellbloms Spider Orchid

Large? Greencomb Spider Orchid

Then started the long trip home which went rather quickly as the conversation ranged from birds to birds and some more birds :-)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A South African Interloper in Portland

Last Friday night I made the call and the word was that the Portland Pelagic was going ahead. Great news as it has been more miss than hit over the pas year or two. I arranged a lift down with Paul Dodd and Ruth Woodrow and met at their place around noon as we hoped to check the gannet colony before checking in. Zipped down the well worn path to Portland and headed straight to the gannet colony at Point Danger which is near the smelter. As far as I'm aware this is the only mainland colony in Australia and is overflow from the nearby large colony on Lawrence Rocks. Aside from seeing Australasian Gannets at close quarters, we were checking the colony for Cape Gannets, a vagrant from southern Africa which are reported occasionally in Australian colonies. Interestingly Australasian Gannets turn up in South African colonies too!

The last couple of hundred meters to the viewing platform has several water filled holes so is probably best attempted in a car with reasonable clearance, but it is an easy walk in. We were fortunate that on arrival the caretaker was there and he let us go in through the gate close to the colony - he could not really have stopped us... the lock had been stolen.... Was a great experience being so close to a gannet colony with many of them courting. I scanned the colony repeatedly looking for all black tails or long gular stripes with no joy and eventually wandered off chasing a nearby calling Bristlebird... only to go running back when Ruth found a gannet with a long gular stripe! The bird stubbornly preened away and would not show its neck but it had the courtesy to spread its tail showing all black feathers and its iris was much paler than the surrounding Australasian Gannets. It eventually raised its head and there was the beautiful long stripe extending well down the neck. TICK! Very exciting and a totally unexpected bonus! Thanks Ruth! :)

We spent about 20 minutes observing the bird with Paul and Ruth taking about 10 memory cards worth of photos. To say we were excited was an understatement - its been quite a few years since one had been publicly reported here although their presence has been suspected. Eventually the cold wind defeated us and we went back to Mac's for a celebratory beer or two and a steak.

It was the start of daylight saving so the 7am start on the boat was really 6 am and it sure felt like it after a night of waking up every 30 minutes to check if the phone had really rolled over to daylight savings. Conditions were very calm all day with just about 3m of swell so I was quite comfortable and mostly dry sitting on the back of the boat. Headed out past Lawrence Rocks where good numbers of recently returned short-tailed shearwaters provided something to look at. Knowing that its a long 3 hours out to the shelf in Portland I packed the headphones which was a really good idea so spent my time listening to Midnight Oil which seemed an appropriate soundtrack while watching shearwaters and Shy albatrosses glide above the waves.

All in all it was a good day at sea without anything particularly special - I am probably spoilt after my previous weekend off Tassie. Still there were nice birds with a number of Antipodean Albatrosses, both Giant-petrels, both races of both Cape and Great-winged Petrels and reasonable numbers of Flesh-footed Shearwaters amongst others. There were three berley stops and we added steadily to the list at each stop with flybys from White-fronted Terns and a couple of species of Storm-petrels. We had a large tub of shark liver which we would kill to have down on a Tassie pelagic where it is in very short supply.

Probably the most interesting bird of the day was a darkly hooded Shy type Albatross which flew in. The underwings were very clean which indicated it was Shy but there was some thought that it may have been a Salvin's due to the striking hood. Later examination of photos confirmed it was a Shy, likely of the NZ race steadi as they breed later and it is very unlikely a Tassie bird would still have such a strong hood.

 Eventually it was time to slip the headphones back in for the trip back - this time Something for Kate's "Feeding the birds and hoping for something in return" seemed appropriate. A couple of Arctic Jaegers chasing terns and a young Sea-eagle on Lawrence Rocks rounded out the list. Was a most enjoyable day at sea.

Eremaea list

Friday, September 20, 2013

A holy trinity of albatross - another long weekend in Tasmania

Last weekend saw me heading down to Tasmania again for another long weekend of pelagic birding. Unfortunately my main camera body had just died so only had my old d40x which has suffered one to many drops over the years so I don't have too many pictures this time round. I flew across on Shitstar on Friday evening and was conveniently sitting next a young Mormon missionary who had been doing God's work in the dark, third-world backwater that is Tasmania for the past couple of months - we had a good conversation and I had to nod solemnly when he explained how eye opening it was being in such a disadvantaged country compared to 'Murica. I must have made a good impression because I was offered a copy of the Book of Mormon but unfortunately for him I don't smoke.

Landed at 9:30 pm and was pleasantly surprised to have the hire car upgraded again, this time to a Renault Latitude which was quite fancy with leather seats and no keys. Zipped down to the Lufra in Eaglehawk Neck which was uneventful aside from a couple of possums and an Eastern Barred Bandicoot. There were a few punters already at the Lufra so together we sacrificed a goat which is standard practice before most pelagic trips and upon examination of the entrails we found the omens to be good... we just did not realise how good....

A group of 13 keen pelagic birders gathered on the wharf at the aptly named Pirates Bay and boarded the sturdy Pauletta (I really should get a photo one of these trips) Sea conditions were very good as we motored out and headed towards the Hippolytes where we saw the usual Black-faced Cormorants and Kelp Gulls as well as a Peregrine and a Swamp Harrier. Of interest there was a New-Zealand Fur Seal in among the Aussies, probably collecting the dole. There were good numbers of Diving-petrels as we chugged further out as well as the odd Shy and Giant-petrel. As we closed in on the shelf we had our first White-headed Petrel quickly followed by a Soft-plumaged - great start and a sign of things to come! This first White-headed Petrel was quickly followed by others all moving south and it was apparent we were in the middle of a large movement - we ended up seeing over 100 for the day. A large stubby grey petrel appeared and the call of Grey Petrel went up - my first lifer for the trip - a very smart bird. As we moved further out beyond the shelf a distant Light-mantled Sooty Albatross was spotted by our eagle eyed leader Rohan Clarke - this is a bird I had dreamed of seeing since I was about 5 years old and I was in a bit of a quandary as it drifted further away... I wanted to see it close, I wanted to see those eyes... still I needn't have worried. As it rose and dipped above the waves its pale mantle glistened in the sun and the smile was hard to wipe off my face.

At the second berley point there were still plenty of White-headed Petrels and the more common pelagic species continued to turn up. Nice specimens of both Wandering and Antipodean albatross were a highlight as well as both Royals, White-chinned Petrel and more Grey Petrels. An albatross with a grey head sauntered into the boat and I remember thinking thats a very dirty underwing for a Bullers.... it was a lovely adult Grey-headed Albatross - another lifer... as it circled the boat a Blue Petrel was spotted - yet another lifer - I did not know where to look first!! As it turns out I should have stayed on the Grey-headed as it was the first of 30+ Blue Petrels we saw for the day - each seemingly getting closer to the boat as they passed by, continuing the north to south pattern of the White-headed's.

Of interest was the rare pelagic Skylark at 500 fathoms, probably on its annual migration to its breeding grounds somewhere NNE from Macquarie Island. After a glorious few hours which included another distant Light-mantled Sooty we headed back in closer to the shelf. Again more White-headed and Blue Petrels - we had taken to calling them White-headed Sparrows. As we were about to toss it in, two prions with what I would call "stonking great bills" flew through... Upon examination of photos later they were Salvin's!!! Lifer number 5 for the day!! We trundled back to port through calm seas and it must be one of the few pelagics where more sightings of Blue and Grey Petrel hardly raised a mention let alone the call of "STOP THE BOAT!!!"... although another Grey-headed Albatross, this time a juvenile did warrant the call. Conditions were so mild that I actually felt almost fresh stepping back on the wharf which is unusual for a Tasmanian pelagic trip.

Over a cleansing ale back at the Lufra we digested the day which included 9 taxa of albatross, 100+ White-headed Petrel, 30+ Blue Petrel and 6 or 7 Grey petrel and wondered what tomorrow would bring. On dusk a few of us wandered out to Port Arthur where the resident castanops Masked Owls again put on a good show, in particular showing the size difference between the sexes. This site also remains one of the easiest places in Australia to reliably see Long-nosed Potoroo among the many Tasmanian Pademelon. On the way back to the hotel for dinner I found a Morepork sitting in the middle of the road - as with any member of the Boobook family it gave me the most contemptible stare in askance as to why I was on its road before flying off. After a standard Lufra dinner which consisted of a slab of cow carcass and gravy a few of us headed out spotlighting again - it was quiet with only a few Tawny Frogmouths seen.

The next morning again saw 13 of nearly the same maniacs lined up on the wharf again and there seemed to be a bit more ginger in the swell as we headed out. A few Common Dolphins and a Sea-eagle broke it up on the way to the Hippolytes where the usual suspects were again in residence. Beyond the Hippolytes we again started to run into White-headed Petrel, this time even in greater numbers than the day before... in fact many times during the day you could not look around without seeing multiple birds... estimate of at least 200 for the day but that is probably an underestimate. There was a distant Sooty Albatross which would have been another lifer but this was filed BVD (Better View Desired) 

Sooty Albatross - Rohan Clarke

Again we had a cracker of a day with my three most desired pelagic birds - Sooty, Light-mantled and Grey-headed Albatross making multiple close passes of the boat - indeed we had 11 taxa of albatross for the day!! I certainly had the previous distant views of both Sooty and Light-mantled improved dramatically with multiple birds circling around the boat although none of them landed. Again we had good numbers of both Grey and Blue Petrels with 10 + of the first and near 40 of the second including many close to the boat. After lunch prion numbers increased, mostly Fairy but by the end of the day we had a couple of Antarctic, a Salvin's (which I missed - seeing its bum head out to the horizon) and finally a Slender-billed seen very well which was lifer number 7!! for the weekend! Slender-billed has been something of a bogey bird of mine so was very pleased to get it under the belt. Other birds which were not seen Saturday included Grey-backed Storm-petrel, macroptera Great-winged Petrel and White-fronted Tern.

As we headed back in the afternoon the swell picked up and we got a bit wet for the first time. The first and only Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross pushed the albatross list to 11 for the day with only Bullers and Salvin's missing from the likely possible suspects. The White-headed Petrels persisted all the way back to the Hippolytes. Again savoured the day over a cleansing ale before playing owl guide and taking some more punters down to Port Arthur where the female owl again put on a show. Managed to make it back just in time before the kitchen closed and consumed the other half of yesterdays cow.

I had originally planned to head up to Loila Tiers near St Helens on the Sunday but after managing to get a spot on the second boat I had to change the agenda on the Monday. I had a brief lie in and was on the road before 8am and headed straight for the Weilangta Forest Drive where my first task was to push some tourists in a bogged Wicked Camper out of the mud. This is a favourite birding spot of mine when down for Eaglehawk Pelagics and it again delivered as a reliable spot for Tassie Thornbill, Pink Robin and Olive Whistler. The weather was turning to shit and it was raining quite heavily as I drove through to Orford where I poked around the river mouth turning up a half dozen Hooded Plovers and a similar number of Fairy Tern. I headed from there up to Freycinet where I again have to question the daily fee of $24 for entrance to the park when they don't even provide rubbish bins.... Still Freycinet is a lovely place and I jogged across to Wineglass Bay and back - birding was very quiet but still worth the visit. 

From here I took the slow route back to Hobart through the Wye River State Reserve (which was fogged in, wet and sleety) and Lake Leake (Dusky Robin and again wet and sleety and not much else) and back to the airport. I did of course have to give the car a bit of a hose off before returning it. I was flying back on Tiger and it never ceases to amaze me the people who travel and think that their $54 fare entitles them to anything.... as it turned out, the flight was delayed an hour and when we got on the plane we heard that the tanker had run out of fuel... so another 45 minutes of twiddling thumbs until we took off.

All in all, a fantastic long weekend in Tassie with 7 Lifers! around 105 bird species including such nice non pelagic birds as Fairy Tern, Pink Robin and Olive Whistler as well as a good mix of endemics and 14 native mammal species. My bird of the trip was a tie between the first adult Grey-headed Albatross on the first day and the first adult Light-mantled Sooty that circled the boat on the second day. Also visited some great country and am counting down to my next visit. Thanks to Rohan Clarke for organising and being such a fantastic leader - certainly the best pelagic birder I have been out to sea with and a great teacher. Also big thanks to Simone and Lucas for letting me go - I love you both :)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Of albatross and owls - a long weekend in Tasmania

I was lucky enough to be booked on a double header pelagic out of Eaglehawk Neck so took a day either side to do a bit of exploring. Arrived in Hobart about 10:00 am and a rather pleasant surprise was being upgraded by Budget from a Suzuki Swift to an X-Trail. I have been down to Tassie at least a half dozen times in the past few years so it is beginning to get a nice familiar feel to it. The first endemic were some native-hens as we rolled out of the airport precinct. My mate Scott wanted to visit Mona so while he became cultural and enlightened I headed to the nearby Goulds Lagoon in Granton to pick up the recently reported Freckled Ducks. I quickly found around 6 loafing near the birdhide as well as a rather mouldy looking Dusky Moorhen which I had not seen in Tassie before. The Lagoon was a bit of a Mallard shagfest with them pairing off and molesting Black Ducks at every opportunity.

Gave Scott a few hours at Mona so looped around through Bridgewater and visited a couple of spots in the Meehan Range which were quiet. A pair of Wedgies over Ridson Vale was a highlight. We ventured down towards Eaglehawk Neck, detouring out along the Weilangta Forest Drive which was very quiet although remains reliable for Tasmanian Thornbill, Scrubwren and Pink Robin. Miles from anywhere was a chicken - clearly a migrating Grey Junglefowl from South India ;-) Had a bit of time before dark so we poked around Eaglehawk Neck but birding was quiet. The sea out from Waterfall Bay was dead flat with hardly an albatross in sight which did not bode well for tomorrow.

Checked into the Lufra Hotel which is becoming a bit of a second home for me and bumped into a number of other birders. After dinner we went out spotlighting along Camp Road south of Taranna where I had heard a couple of Masked Owl very close on my previous visit. Heard a Masked Owl call once but it was not playing nicely, as well as a couple of Boobooks. Unfortunately on the way back out a suicidal pademelon decided to plunge under my front tyre which was a bit sad considering I was driving at less than 30 kph. A very nice Eastern-barred Bandicoot showed well back at the Lufra.

Up bright and early and ready for another pelagic on the Pauletta. My hopes were high as most pelagic birds I still "need" off Southern Australia are generally considered winter birds - unseasonably warm waters and the pelagic gods would have something to say about that of course. Things were very calm with a light breeze as we headed out towards the Hippolytes. Saw reasonable numbers of Common Diving Petrels on the way out - this has to be the most reliable port for them in Australia and albatross numbers began to build with Shy and Bullers the most common. A few fur-seals were loafing on the Hippolytes as well as a few White-faced Herons. A very darkly hooded albatross provided a bit of excitement and I was fairly sure it was a Salvin's but later analysis of photos showed it to be a juvenile Shy. It did demonstrate rather clearly that photos are superior to binocular views when talking about demarcation on wingtips!

As always the arrival at the shelf was announced by the first Great-winged Petrels (all gouldi) and a Cape Petrel (capense) which is always nice. There were plenty of birds but the variety was not huge. Good numbers of Bullers and Shy Albatross with a couple of Yellow-nosed and Campbells Albatross thrown in for good measure. A Brown Skua joined for a while which provided a bit of excitement as it did some good old fashioned harassing. The bird of the day was probably White-headed Petrel with a number of flybys, one close enough for a couple of record shots. Spent a lot of time picking through prions but all were Fairy. As we headed back to dock, hoped for a cetacean but nothing eventuated.

List for Pelagic One

After a quick shower a good sized group of us headed down to near Port Arthur as there was a known location for Masked Owl. We wandered in, kicking the potoroos and pademelons out of the way and setup shop overlooking a huge blue gum and waited for dark. Right on dark a Masked Owl hissed and we all got cracking views of a lovely male. After searching for these in Tassie a number of times over the years and previously hearing at least six it was quite satisfying to finally get a nice view. I have heard that IOC may be splitting castanops at some stage soon...

Up again the next morning for another pelagic. I usually find double header pelagics exhausting but as the conditions on the Saturday were so calm I was quite refreshed. Today conditions were expected to be a bit rougher so we headed out NNE missing the Hippolytes. Like yesterday, there were good numbers of birds but again diversity was low. New birds from yesterday were a nice Southern Royal Albatross which hung around for quite a while and both Southern and Northenr Giant-petrels. Probably most exciting was a Yellow-nosed Albatross showing a bit of a hood which had us hoping it was an Atlantic bird (recently split by IOC) but the sharply pointed yellow streak at the base of the culminicorm showed otherwise. Again plenty of prions to pick through but only Fairy. There were a number of White-fronted Terns, both adult and juvenile which are a favourite of mine. On the way back in a Peregrine 3 miles offshore was of interest. So at the end of two winter pelagics off Tassie I had no new birds and no cetaceans but a whole lot more experience which was valuable.


List for Pelagic Two

With most people headed back to Hobart a few of us went back down near to Port Arthur to hopefully get a view of the female Masked Owl. After birding a bit on the way in we again setup camp overlooking the blue gum. Right on dark a Masked Owl hissed and out popped the male which we ignored (how often does a Masked Owl get ignored) as sitting in the fissure in the trunk was a lovely female. Interestingly it was no darker (or orange) than a female I have seen in Victoria - so I guess I still need to find one of the big large, orange females that Tassie is famous for. After a quick record shot we let them be.

On the final day I got up a little later than I had hoped and decided I would drive as far south as one can go on a gazetted road in Australia and headed towards Cockle Creek. Cruised through Hobart and down through Huonville and the logging town of Geeveston, resisting the lure of the Hartz Mountains and ended up in the sleepy village of Southport. Around here were the three Tassie red robins, Bassian Thrush and best of all got to watch a Grey (White) Goshawk toying with a couple of ravens over a number of minutes. I had intended to search for Ground Parrot around the Ida Bay Railway but after a brief poke around I drove straight to Cockle Creek which is a nice drive aside from the odd logging coupe.

Cockle Creek is an idyllic hamlet of a few holiday shacks, campsites and a ranger station where I parked and ummed and ahhed a bit about paying 24 bucks for the privilege which I did - I don't mind paying at all, I just think they could at least provide a pen on a piece of string to fill out the permit form for that price! I really think for a state that relies on tourism Tasmania can be remarkably tourist unfriendly at times - surely not all tourists want to only visit Mona and rather see at least a couple of the magnificent parks - the various permit options should be clearly advertised at the airport and probably available at the car hire places. I have visited Tassie a half a dozen times in the last few years and every time there seems to be something that could be done a little better... still its a great place to visit and I will keep coming back! The best was the guy at the Lake Pedder Chalet in one of the most glorious environments in Australia who told me and others that we should not go out for a walk as there were snakes... needless to say I did go for a walk or four and I can confirm there were snakes... I'm probably lucky to be alive!

I had a tipoff from Paul Brooks that the area of swampy sedge on the South Coast Bay Walk about an hours walk south was good for Ground Parrot so headed in that direction. There was reasonably good birding on the way with plenty of Yellow-throated and Crescent Honeyeaters and groups of Strong-billed Honeyeaters ripping at bark doing their best Shrike-tit impressions. Green Rosella's were common and there were plenty of Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos, their calls strangely different to their mainland counterparts. Eventually made it past the distractions to the boardwalk through an area of sedge/rush swampy heath and the first bird I saw was a Ground Parrot perched in some ti-tree which gave me a guilty look and dropped on top off the rushes clumsily clambering along before dropping from sight. I spent about an hour in this area walking along the boardwalk and had a second cracking view of a Ground Parrot alongside the boardwalk - it ran, long tail streaming behind like a mini pheasant before again giving me the guilty look and plunging into the undergrowth. Southern Emu-wrens were common in this area as well with groups every 50 meters or so. 

I heard at least 6 Ground Parrots in this area in addition to the two seen and did not leave the boardwalk. It is clearly a great place for them - reminds me a lot of swampy heath on The Prom which I have spent a lot of time trudging through - shows what a lack of foxes does. Headed back to the car, spending a bit of time around the creek which is apparently a site for Azure Kingfisher with no luck. The drive back to Hobart and my flight was uneventful - I will be back in September. Managed to knock up a bit over 100 bird species without specifically trying as well as 10 mammal species. Best bird - the female Tassie Masked Owl!

Thanks to Simone and Lucas for letting me go and Rohan Clarke for organising two great days at sea.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

David Attenborough in concert

A rather self indulgent post, so feel free to ignore and move on :-) 

Last Friday night my wonderful wife Simone had bought me a ticket to go and see one of my all time heroes, the incomparable David Attenborough, talk about his life and work at the Plenary in Melbourne. My first memory of the name was the Life on Earth book on my grandfathers shelf which my precocious self pulled down to look for bird pictures. I waddled over from work and was immediately lured into buying a signed copy of his latest book, Drawn From Paradise... I really could not go wrong. Bumped into Messrs Dolby Snr and Jnr - I'm sorry to say Timbo, he now is taller than you! 

Settled into a great seat and I must admit I became rather excited as the light dimmed and the curtains drew and what looked to be a wild Attenborough appeared on stage. I considered using playback to bring him closer but was able to adequately get enough of the key features to identify him - crooked smile, light blue shirt, sparkling eyes but the call was diagnostic.... Tick! What followed was a near 3 hour journey through his professional life - there was nothing new, nothing I had not heard from him before, but it was magical and I hung on every word even though it was hosted by Ray Martin. I should point out that Ray Martin had clearly had his hair set before the show and it was a magnificent, moulded casque that would put a cassowary to shame. Chances are the wild Attenborough will go extinct one day but he will live on in over 100 hours of documentaries which are in some ways part of the soundtrack of my life.

Of interest he did say that his favourite critter is the human child between the age of 12 to 24 months and I have to say I agree with him as I just so happen to have one of the same. Towards the end of the talk, a number of young folk got the opportunity to ask him a question but none of them dared asked the question on everyone's lips - "what is your biggest dip??" .... it would be rather special to be able to grip the master.. 

An example of David's favourite critter - one who is fascinated by the natural world and one I hope retains the fascination

At the end of the day I was surprised it was a purely acoustic set and he didn't bring out his original band but all in all it is likely to be my second favourite day this year (apparently I did get married already this year)

David showed some of his favourite all time experiences and I was rather pleased on reflection to realise I have experienced more than my fair share. Recently I have had a few workmates and other acquaintances ask when I got into birds and nature... and I ask when did they lose interest? As David said, he has never met a young child who is not fascinated by the natural world around them, unfortunately most of them lose it as they get older. At least Lucas is off to a good start.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Chasing that dark ghost - the Sooty Owl

One of my favourite birds has always been that dark denizen of the forested gullies of Eastern Australia, the Sooty Owl. I tend to get a bit of an itch I cant quite scratch unless I get a chance to go out and spend an evening poking around the tall forests east of Melbourne at least once every few months, an itch that gets stronger as time goes on. These forests are magical, sometimes eerie places once the sun drops below the horizon with the gurgles of gliders and the distant calls of a boobook replacing the daytime chorus. But the sound that still gets my heart racing is the piercing "falling bomb" call of the Sooty travelling through the misty night air.

Last Friday night I headed out with a couple of mates to Tarago State Forest which is an area of Mountain Ash, Silvertop and Messmate near Neerim in Victoria. It was my fourth visit spotlighting this year to this area and on each occassion I have seen some great birds and mammals. I was hoping to get better Sooty Owl shots than earlier in the year but unfortunately it was not to be. We arrived just on dark and after fumbling around for gear, opening a beer we immediately got onto a calling Tyto owl. The owl was doing a pitch perfect rendition of the Masked Owl hiss and was clearly a large bird - so we got quite excited thinking it was probably a Masked that was dancing around just outside our torch beams. Eventually we did get brief but good looks of a large female Sooty - a beautiful bird. We left her in peace and continued on. I had not heard a Sooty doing that particular call before and if I had not sighted the bird may have been tempted to put it down as a possible heard Masked Owl - certainly learn new things all the time.

We continued along and as a whole the forest was almost eerily quiet - lit by a near full moon. We heard another Sooty call distantly - this time a more traditional bomb call as well as a couple of distant boobooks. A couple of Yellow-bellied Gliders gurgling were the only mammals - the place is usually alive with Greater, Sugar and Yellow-bellied gliders as well as possums but perhaps the moon was making them wary. The last stop in Tarago just on the edge of a logging coupe again had a Tyto hissing away, although distantly, which we left in peace.

The great thing about spotlighting at this time of year is that you can start early, have a good 4 or 5 hours spotlighting and still be home tucked up in bed before midnight. As the mercury dipped towards freezing we drove back through the eastern edges of Bunyip State Park dodging wombats and a magnificent Sambar stag. Following some hot noodles and a brief drive along the powerline easement in Bunyip we headed back to Melbourne, rather satisfied but already looking forward to the next trip. Its good to know that despite the pressures of logging and significant damage during the Black Saturday fires, there still seems to be a good population of Sooty Owls in the area.

On previous nocturnal visits to this area - have recorded Boobook and Powerful Owls, Owlet-nightjar and Tawny Frgomouth. White-throated Nightjar is easily found just over the hill in Bunyip during the summer months so should occur here too. It is a very good area for mammals too with Greater, Yellow-bellied and Sugar Gliders common as well as Mountain and Common Brushtail, Common Ringtail possums. Long-nosed Bandicoots are often seen on the side of the road in warmer months and Swamp Wallabies are common. Many species of microbat can be seen, particularly in the warmer months and earlier this year a couple of Grey-headed Flying-foxes were recorded. Probably the most noticable mammal is the wombat - generally doing their best to be kamakaze road hazards...

It is also a cracking area for birding during the day during the warmer months - but that can wait for another day....

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Birding around Seaspray and the Honeysuckles

Around the turn of the century my parents purchased a holiday house near the sleepy holiday village of Seaspray on the 90 Mile Beach in Central Gippsland. As you roll into Seaspray after crossing the environmental crimes that are the Gippsland Plains you would be forgiven for thinking that it hardly looks like a birding mecca, but looks can be deceiving. A mixture of farmland, estuary, saltmarsh, banksia scrub and coast has meant that reasonable list of birds have accumulated over the years with my personal list approaching 150 species for the local area. While I would never recommend it as a birding location you would choose to visit, there is certainly more than enough to keep the visting birder sane. I thought I would write a few words so anyone finding themselves there might know a few places worth poking around.

When recording birds for Seaspray I count the area from the eastern outskirts of the Honeysuckles to the mouth of Merriman's Creek and out to the Primary School and along Tip Road - a rather arbitrary decision but one I made years ago and continue to stick with.

Eremaea list of species for Seaspray

Travelling through the farmland there are often larger birds in the paddocks like ibis, shelduck and herons while in winter Flame Robins frequent the fencelines adding some nice flashes of colour to the landscape. As you drive into Seaspray on the left is Tip Road - its worth a quick drive down here as its generally the only place in the area you will get Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Eastern Rosella and Noisy Miner - there is also a resident Brown Goshawk which hangs around. The Seaspray township itself is rather bland with a rather anaemic shop, caravan park and a collection of shacks and holiday houses. Head for the mouth of Merriman's Creek which is a tern roost which generally has a good sized group of Crested with the occasional Caspian or Common Tern thrown in as well as a few resident Pacific Gulls.

There is a walk up Merriman's Creek which is well worth doing, particularly when the duck season is on as birds tend to hide there. Recently I flushed an Australasian Bittern from reeds here but also has other more common waterbirds like cormorants, swamphens, spoonbills and ducks. I have always found seawatching on the 90 Mile Beach here a bit of a non event - aside from the odd flock of Fluttering Shearwaters and a few Gannets, the water is just too shallow for reliable seabirds - Humpbacks are seen occasionally however.

My parents house is in The Honeysuckles a couple of kilometers to the east of Seaspray - this is a small settlement nestled in remnant banksia woodland and bordered by the 90 Mile Beach and the Ramsar listed wetlands of the far western edge of Lake Reeve. The most common birds by far in this area are the dominant population of Little and Red Wattlebirds which makes for a raucous dawn chorus. When the banksias are flowering other nectar seekers move in including Crescent Honeyeaters and Rainbow and less frequently Musk Lorikeets. The eerie call of the Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos are a common sound as they come in to raid the banksia cones. On one occasion there was a small group of Swift Parrots staging for their migration back to Tasmania. Like any holiday village, the local Crimson Rosella population knows who has feeders and are sure to come visit when people arrive.

Come spring and summer there are always cuckoos calling and terrorizing the local small bird population - its always amusing to see scrubwren parents struggling to feed a baby Fan-tailed Cuckoo three times their size. You are more likely to hear than see the local Eastern Whipbirds but with a bit of effort a view can be coaxed out of them. Brown and Stubble Quail move in and out of the area and can be heard calling from rank grassy areas when around. White-throated Needtletails and less often Pacific Swifts visit in Summer. Occasional species include Brush Bronzewing, Satin Flycatcher and Sacred Kingfisher.

The real gem of the area though is the Ramsar wetlands of Lake Reeve which is a large, very shallow (and occassionally dry) lake that is part of the Gippsland Lakes complex. The very western end of Lake Reeve pokes into The Honeysuckles and my parents are lucky enough to have a holiday house that overlooks it all on Mandalay Drive . I have spent many an hour sitting in the backyard watching the interplay of waders, waterbirds and the raptors that frequent the area. The lake at the very western end rarely drys out and can be accessed from a track off Shoreline Drive. the track passes through an area of long grass and saltmarsh which contains a remnant population of Southern Emu-wren (difficult to track down but still there) as well as large numbers of Striated Fieldwren, White-front Chat and the occasional Blue-winged Parrot. The lake itself usually holds good numbers of ducks including Shoveller and Hardhead as well as 100's of swans - unfortunately duckhunting is allowed here in season - curious as to what sort of backwards country we live in that allows shooting of waterbirds in a Ramsar wetland (and so close to houses!!) In the last couple of years there have been both Avocet and Banded Stilts and in summer it holds good numbers of the more common waders.

Because of the large numbers of prey around it is a great area for raptors. There are resident White-bellied Sea-eagles in the area and these patrol regularly causing great consternation among the local inhabitants. Swamp Harriers and Whistling Kites are also common and Black-shouldered Kites and Nankeen Kestrels are always hovering over the surrounding grassland. When waders are about Peregrines and Hobbys visit the area but do not seem to be resident.

Along Mandalay Drive is a turn off to a causeway across the Lake - it is in this area the best birding can be had when there is water and nice muddy edges. I have spent many good hours traipsing through the saltmarsh here - gumboots are handy. Common waders include Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and in winter Double-banded Plover. Red-capped Plovers breed here in good numbers. Less frequently recorded include Common Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Marsh Sandpiper and Golden Plover. Last year I was fortunate enough to stumble across an Eastern Yellow Wagtail which even encouraged a few birders to come down and look for it.

Google maps - Mandalay Drive - The Honeysuckles

Whats next? There are still quite a few birds commonly found in the local area that have not yet been recorded in Seaspray so I think the list will go well past 150 and who knows when another rarity like the Eastern Yellow Wagtail might turn up??

Believe it or not this is an Eastern Yellow Wagtail - photo of the year edition

Birding locations nearby

Jack Smith Lake is around 20 minutes drive west from Seaspray and can be well worth a visit. Its probably the best place in the universe for Striated Fieldwren which you would be hard pressed to miss. It is also a great place for Blue-winged Parrot especially in winter although it is found all year round.  A couple of years ago I recorded a few Singing Honeyeater here which is quite an easterly record for this bird. When the lake holds water it can be good for waders including Avocets, Banded Stilt, Double-banded Plover (winter) and one occasion I counted over 60 Pacific Golden Plovers hiding in the grass. At least one pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles frequent the area. Unfortunately it is also a duck shooting location so probably best to avoid in season. I have also found White-lipped Snake here on a couple of occassions.

Giffard Flora Reserve is around 15 minutes drive north of Seaspray and contains a significant remnant of coastal eucalypt woodland and areas of banksia heath. It is quite a good location for more common bush birds and can be good for terrestrial orchids. Good numbers of Gang-gangs visit in winter. It borders onto Mullungdung State Forest which opens up a further area for exploration.

Further afield, Holey Plains State Park, Sale Common and Lake Guyatt, The Lakes National Park and Mitchell River National Park all beckon, but these can wait for another day as they probably all deserve further attention....