Friday, January 15, 2016

New Blog

For a number of reasons I have decided to move my blog from trusty blogspot - New post can now be accessed here -

Hopefully you might find something of interest

Monday, December 14, 2015

Pilot Whales off Portland

In the process of transitioning to a new blog site for various reasons but while setting it up I will split the limited posts I get to these days :)

Last Sunday 13/12/2015 a group of 10 birders were out on the “Timaru” from Portland in South-west Victoria. This is a new boat for us so we are still training the crew on what is required for a successful pelagic birding trip and they are learning fast. Unfortunately on this trip we had no shark liver and only fish frames for berley which may have affected our ability to attract and hold birds around the boat. However conditions were very calm, with very little swell or wind and on such days birds are often reluctant to feed anyway. After an uneventful trip out (aside from good numbers of Great-winged Petrel well inside the shelf) and first stop beyond the shelf it was decided to move out deeper looking for birds.

Great-winged Petrel

We were motoring to a second spot when the call went out for “Whales!” The boat quickly stopped and through binoculars I immediately saw the curved dorsal fin and bulbous black head of what I was sure were pilot whales. Over the next 15 minutes we observed many animals around the boat but all kept at least 100 meters away at all times. It was hard to estimate numbers but there was at least 20 animals but probably more. There was clearly a variety of sizes ranging from very small where the dorsal fin barely came above the water to very large with big hook backed fins. Many bad photos were taken due to the distance but zooming in we could see the distinctive white saddle behind the dorsal fin on some animals which combined with the bulbous head confirmed them as pilot whales. The next question was “what kind of pilot whale?”, as the two species, long-finned and short-finned are notoriously difficult to split in the field. it would seem that short-finned pilot whale has never been recorded in Victoria, being a largely sub-tropical and tropical species while there are many records of long-finned pilot whale, particularly in the Bonney Upwelling where we were. In addition experts who have looked at the photos agree they are long-finned, so long-finned they are! A new mammal for me and suddenly the pelagic was looking right up. The animals lingered for perhaps 15 minutes, mainly logging on the surface before quietly slipping from sight. Cetaceans aside from Common Dolphin are a special event on Portland pelagics and these pilot whales joined a list of others I have seen in recent years including Blue, Fin, Southern Right, Humpback and Killer whales.

Pilot whale showing saddle

Pilot whale pod

Once the pilot whales disappeared things did improve on the birding front. Across the whole day a highlight was the large numbers of Great-winged Petrels – conservatively we would have seen at least 250 including disturbing some large rafts but the number could easily be higher than that. Other highlights included three White-headed Petrels, only the second time I have seen these on a Victorian pelagic and a very nice Wandering Albatross with a nearly white tail. On the boat we decided this was an “exulans” or true Wanderer and was a very nice bird that made several passes. A good bit of time at Lawrence Rocks and we made it back to Portland. With the promise of shark liver on the next pelagic I am looking forward to January.

Wandering Albatross

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Spring Season at Baluk Willam

Lucas on point
Spotted Sun-orchid - Thelymitra ixiodes

Its been a while since I have posted anything but hopefully showing off a few orchids from this season at Baluk Willam NCR will get things started again. As I have said previously. Baluk Willam is a great little reserve in Belgrave South near Lysterfield which is renowned for its range of native orchids. It is worth a visit any time of the year with the spring season being a particular specialty. It is worth checking out the excellent Friend's website before visiting to see what is flowering - - it also gives hints of where to look.Be aware that many orchids by their very nature only have a very brief flowering season so it is easy to miss them.

Thelymitra media - Tall Sun-orchid
I usually start at the carpark near the intersection of the aptly named Orchid Road and Courtney's Road and do the loop north - the area around the large Cherry Ballart on both sides of the track is particularly productive and is a great area for various Greenhoods, Helmet orchids and Sun-orchids depending on the season. My 4 year old particularly likes this area as there are lots of rocks to climb, logs to look under and orchids to spot. It is also one of the more productive birding areas.
Tall Greenhood - Bunochilus melagrammus

Maroonhood - Pterosylis pedunculata
Mountain Greenhood - Pterostylis alpina

Head back down the fire road beside the fenceline checking any open areas although this area doesn't seem as productive as it has in previous years. However the tongue orchids are numerous in season and long lasting.There is often a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles over the paddocks here.

Small Tongue Orchid - Cryptostylis leptochila
The eastern edge of Courtney's Road is then the next place worth trying with a steady procession of nice species throughout the spring season including Brown Beaks, a couple of Spider-orchids, Sun-orchids and Diuris.

Wine-lipped Spider Orchid - Arachnorchis oenochila

Wallflower Orchid - Diuris orientis
Brown Beaks - Lyperanthus suaveolens

Then, if time permits it is worth driving (or waddling) up to the second 50 sign and parking in the turn out - the area opposite is good for a variety of orchids throughout the season from Cobra's to Beards and Sun-orchids. Then do a nice loop around the tracks through the horse barrier opposite.

Broad-lip Leek Orchid - Prasophyllum odoratum

Eastern Bronze Caladenia - Stegostyla transitoria
Red Beard orchid

Obviously there are plenty of other orchid place around Melbourne and Victoria but this is the place that re-kindled an interest for me and being so close to home is a convenient place to go for a wander on the weekend with a curious 4 year old in tow.I am up to about 40 species photographed here and I still pick up new stuff from time to time.

Red-tipped Greenhood

Monday, July 6, 2015

An unexpected “tern” of events

Shy Albatross

Conditions looked good in the lead up to the monthly Portland Pelagic in June so it was no surprise when the boat was confirmed on Friday evening. Jagged a lift down with Paul and Ruth who were back in the saddle after a few months off. As we pulled into Portland, the bay looked eerily flat which we hoped wouldn’t put the birds off. Thought about the parma but ended up sticking with the usual porterhouse and a few beers which was a good choice.
Up early for the usual Macca’s breakfast – really the only thing it is good for is a pre pelagic muffin and a coffee then down to the Southern Pride for a 7am kick off in the darkness. As we headed out beyond Lawrence Rocks there was a truly spectacular sunrise with all shades of pink and orange. Bird numbers were quite low on the way out with a few Shy and Black-browed Albatross and the odd Fairy Prion. A loose raft of about 10 Fairy Penguins provided some brief excitement. Conditions were very gentle with just a slight swell and almost no wind which meant a lot of birds were just sitting on the water.

Sunrise over Lawrence Rocks

Sooty Shearwater

Things weren’t boding well when we arrived at the shelf and there was hardly a bird to be seen. The first few Shy’s hardly even looked at us as they cruised on by. Eventually a few birds settled and things began to build with reasonable numbers of Fairy Prions having us all looking for something more interesting. A couple of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters joined in the feeding briefly and Great-winged petrels of both races flying through and around but not really feeding. Of interest a flight of around 4 terns flew through and circled the boat a couple of times. The two closest to the boat were clearly juvenile and their slight bill had me thinking Arctic but I decided being the Northern Summer it could not possibly be in this plumage so it must be a juvenile White-fronted tern which I am not particularly familiar with. Still I took plenty of pics of the close terns to examine later. Again some 20 minutes later another similar flight of terns came through and throughout the day we had single obvious adult White-fronted terns doing fly bys. It wasn’t til I posted some pictures on Facebook a couple of days later which I had speculatively titled “juvenile White-fronted Tern” than Rohan Clarke and Kevin Bartram both independently and rather urgently said Antarctic Tern which is a mega bird for a mainland pelagic in Australia. The ID was confirmed by the doyens and the subsequent discussion showed I have a hell of a lot to learn on the topic of “commic” terns which is something I had been avoiding for a long time. One issue we had on the boat is we did not have a field guide with any terns in it which is clearly an oversight although it may not have helped in this case. It looks like these birds – we seem to have had at least three and possibly as many as six birds are the 5th mainland record with punters usually having to go to Macquarie Island. There were a number of very excited phone calls and text messages the night the ID was confirmed.

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern
We had two further stops and species numbers built slowly with Cape Petrel and Yellow-nosed Albatross paying us visits. There continued to be good numbers of prions and the odd storm-petrel in the slick but nothing rarer eventuated despite a lot of scanning. We had Antarctic, Salvin’s and Slender-billed Prion on the last trip but this time there was not a whalebird to be found.

Fairy Prion

Great-winged Petrel
We were getting close to leaving thinking at best this would be a pleasant but below average pelagic when Scott spotted a lovely adult Salvin’s Albatross sailing in which landed right behind the boat and began to feed. I can hardly remember my last Salvin’s Albatross so it was great to get plenty of good photos. It then even took off and followed the boat giving us some nice chances to get pics of the underwing. Adult Salvin’s have not been recorded often in recent years on SE Australian pelagics and many birds that were previously identified as juvenile Salvin’s have probably been misidentified so it was certainly thought to be the bird of the day at the time and put smiles on faces.
The trip back in was largely uneventful although things did pick up around Lawrence Rocks with a Brown Skua smashing a couple of gannets and the first Northern Giant-petrel sailing past as well as the usual Fur-seals, Kelp Gulls and Black-faced Cormorants. Despite the flat conditions and reports of Southern Right-whales and Humpbacks around we did not see any whales on the day and only a couple of Common Dolphins.

Salvin's Albatross

Salvin's Albatross

The Port Fairy pelagic went out the same day so there was a few anxious moments as we found out what birds they had – Soft-plumaged Petrel being their bird of the day which was probably shaded by our Salvin’s Albatross but ended up being blown out of the water by the Antarctic Terns! Unfortunately it turns out that the Southern Pride has been sold with the September trip being the last however the good news is that a new boat in Portland has been found so a new chapter of these trips can begin. Check out the BirdLife Victoria Activities Page on the BirdLife Australia website if you are interested in getting on one of these trips.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A rather "soft" day at sea

Its been a long time since I have written anything but a visitor on a recent Portland pelagic was too good not to share. Wandered down with the crew as usual on Saturday afternoon with the most interesting low-light being a road-killed Grey Goshawk at Panmure - this ended up in a bag for deposit at the museum and surprisingly was not forgotten in the hotel room fridge. The forecast had deteriorated some what so we were expecting a bumpy trip but it was actually quite pleasant.

Grey Goshawk

After the usual steak and a few beers at Macs we were up early. Quite a bit of activity on the way out with a few jaegers the highlight. Just before the shelf a cookilaria type petrel escaped from view, the brief views I had indicated Gould's but could not be sure. This and a good number of Fairy Prions were hopefully a good sign. The first berley point had a good variety of common species and just as we were leaving an early Brown Skua provided brief excitement.

Kangaroo Fairy Prion
Shy Albatross
On arrival at the second berley point there was immediate excitement as a White-headed Petrel flew through - a first on a Victorian pelagic for me but it did not stick around. Soon after in the slick immediately behind the boat was another Pterodroma which threw me for a second until I realised it was a Soft-plumaged Petrel with quite a bit of pale underwing. This proved to be the star performer of the day and stuck around for at least 20 minutes - even landing in the slick to feed. I have seen these a number of times on Southern Australian pelagics but never had one behaving like this. Many photos taken by most onboard.

Soft-plumaged Petrel
After that it was all a bit anti-climactic although there continued to be plenty of birds around the back of the boat. A young black-browed was of interest with the horn colour coming through on top of the bill.

Black-browed Albatross

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

The trip back in was largely uneventful with a couple of jaegers again being the highlight. A thick bodied bird flew away from the boat at one stage and was probably a Pom but alas got away. As sea conditions were deteriorating and running out of time we skipped Lawrence Rocks so missed a few usual species. All in all a great day at sea and an enjoyable weekend with some very good people.

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 :-)