Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Werribee in Winter

To me it feels like Melbourne is having a 1960s retro winter. We have had days on end where it has rained and drizzled non stop. The wind has blown in hard from the south-west and made a wet 16º C day feel like a 4º C day. And when all that finishes we get two or three sparklingly blue-sky days with no wind and the temp is in the low teens.

Yes, I can hear the giggles, Melbourne is always wet and windy, right? But remember, from 1990-something to 2010 using the words “winter rain” and “Melbourne” in a sentence created an oxymoron. Cold and windy maybe but certainly not wet, and we have a very expensive, not completed, never used, redundant desalination plant to prove it.

This is all very nostalgic but where does one go birding now that Melbourne is having wet, windy winter days again, or even days that are likely to end up wet and windy? Well that is easy, you go where you can see 90 +/- species of birds in winter without needing to get out of the car, except to open the occasional gate. Werribee, the birding Mecca beside the bay.

And last Sunday was a prime example. A cold wet morning, followed by about 2 hours of sunshine, followed by high cloud and a bit of misty rain, all mixed with a bighting, Antarctic-ice-shard laden, south-west wind. The Oriental Pratincole was still there, and standing in the exact position it had been in on the 29th of July. Talk about site loyalty! But the Broad-billed Sandpiper has disappeared, could it be doing a reverse migration?

And the first Red-necked Stint showing breeding plumage is there. Forget Cuckoos and Martins being the harbingers of Spring – at Werribee the true harbinger is the return of the first wader! I did not see any last Tuesday (07/08) but yesterday (13/08) there were dark bodies with red necks in amongst all the drab gray over-wintering stints. Bliss, what will be next? A sharpy? A Woody? I will be down every week now to Welcome Back the Waders – who needs to go all the way to Broome! (Well, a bit of an exaggeration. I would love to go to Broome but … ). Of course it all becomes very stressful after a while as one scans through thousands and thousands of waders looking for that one little ball of feathers that will start a twitch. Yeh, I can hardly wait for the stress to start.

To fill in time waiting for the waders, this is the time to watch all the other birds as they practice the rituals of the breeding season. The male Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo was feeding juicy caterpillars to his prospective mate.
Male offering caterpillar to female
The Little Grassbirds have given up skulking and were sitting on top of bushes singing. This one was also taking time out to feast on the gnats that were stuck in a nearby spider’s web.

A week or so back, Welcome Swallows were feeding up on wrigglers from the roadside pools. They were really interesting to watch too. HANZAB says that the average bill length of a Welcome Swallow is about 10.5mm. Based on this the birds were catching wrigglers from depths up to approx 20mm by ducking their heads under water while doing a fluttering hover. And to make it more interesting HANZAB does not mention swallows taking prey from below the surface of the water. 

After each "dive" they shook their heads to remove water

And a couple of times I saw and photographed the swallows change from a horizontal hover to a near vertical hover, just touching the tips of their tails in the water. Were they just washing their tail tips or could they have been trying to lure the wrigglers closer to the surface? It happened so often it was obviously not accidental, it was a planned action during the feeding session.

The male Superb Fairy-wren is shaking off his dull, gabardine-grey winter coat and fresh blue colours are starting to come through.

But in the wind some birds definitely struggle with bad hair problems.

This time of year is also when Orange-bellied Parrots may be found feeding along the tracks of the plant or perching amongst the saltbush. It is also when a birder’s heart can be set a-racing. I came around a corner and there was a neophema on the track in front of me. What was it? OBP or Blue-winged? Well, the colour said Blue-winged but one can’t be too careful. Blue-wings can have very orange bellies and OBPs can be pretty drab. The answer these days, sadly, is not to look first at the plumage but to look at the legs. 99.9% of the OBPs have been banded. If it isn’t banded then it isn’t an OBP – most of the time anyway.

Of course there are down sides with the rainy weather, for some people anyway. The tracks around Werribee are made up of a sticky mix of mud and what ever came down the pipes from Melbourne over the last 150 years, yumm. Sadly I have no photos of the events but it seems quite a few people have been seeing a wet, grassy track and thinking they can drive their tiny town-use 50 mm ground clearance car down it, just like one could when it didn’t rain in Melbourne during winter.

I am told one guy did it and was found sitting on a gatepost beside 29 mile Road, late one rainy Sunday afternoon, waiting for the RACV to arrive. RACV man did arrive but when told the job was to pull out a car that was sitting on its floor pan in the mud with all four wheels in soup, he just rolled around on the ground laughing before informing the unlucky driver “no way”. Luckily there was a friendly birder who eventually pulled him out by using, and risking, a very large 4X4.

The moral of the story for anyone going to the WTP at the moment is, stay on the main tracks ONLY and keep off all those interesting little side tracks. They may look solid, but they aren’t, and you may risk digging around in solids you would not normally consider touching, even if they are 150 years old.
Hardhead. They are very shy and the whole flocks takes off as you drive by
Where people used to think "crows" should be; behind bars. Little Raven
They often look very grubby but in flight ...
Snakebird, otherwise known as Australasian Darter

European Goldfinch are VERY cautious and hard to get near
So, I looked at the weather on the ABC tonight so as to start planning my next visit to the WTP and guess what … it’s going to be cold, wet and rainy in Melbourne until at least next Sunday. It looks like my nostalgic retro winter is going to continue for some time yet.

All images copyright to Jenny Spry