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.

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