Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Australia Day 2013, Orbost and a Big Tick

What does one do on the Australia Day Weekend? Wave a flag and march? Naaah. Go to the Tennis? Naaah. Go birding? YES, of course. 

And one of the most pleasant places to go is Croajingolong Park in east Gippsland. And one of the easiest access points from Melbourne is the Cape Conran/Yeerung River area. There is good accommodation at the Countryman Motel in Orbost and from there one can explore the mouth of the Snowy River at Marlo, Cabbage Tree Reserve, the rocky coast at Cape Conran and other access points, the Yeerung River and the heathlands along the Old Coast Road. Our best year, in 2009, gave us 111 species for the weekend and this year we saw 105.
Road into Cabbage Tree reserve
And it is not only quantity, but quality. Where else can one find shearwaters, albatross and other ocean birds, Turquoise Parrots, Southern Emu-wren, Ground Parrot, Square-tailed Kite, Masked Owl, Sooty Owl and many dozens of bush birds; all within an hours drive of your bed?
Two Turquoise Parrots
Part of the fun is working out routes and times. Early is best for the Yeerung Bridge and the Southern Emu-wrens but low tide is best for the Snowy River mouth. Very late is best for the owls and nightjars and the middle of the day is best at Cabbage Tree reserve, because there are picnic tables and lunch can be eaten while surrounded by Large-billed Scrub-wrens, Topknot Pigeons, Lyrebirds, Scarlet Honeyeaters and Rufous Fantails.
Rufous Fantail at Cabbage Tree Reserve
This year Joy and I started the year well by breaking through 100 species on 1st January at the WTP. With this brilliant start we decided to try for 200 species before the end of January. Why not, a bit of a challenge adds spice to the enjoyment of seeing beautiful birds (smile). By the time we left Orbost I had my 200 and Joy just needed a couple more, which on 30/1 she now has. Our next target is 250 by the end of March.
Brown Gerygone at Cabbage Tree reserve
The main purpose of this Australia Day weekend trip, however, was to find a Masked Owl. Back in October 2008 four of us were on a major trip up the east coast to see all the birds we could. Of course, when we got to Kingfisher Park we duly ticked of the Masked Owl that came out at dusk each night. Easy! Then, 2 years later in Sept 2010, came the report that that particular masked Owl was actually a Barn owl. Bother! So, open the Excel file, highlight Masked Owl, hit delete, and back to the hunt. Sigh. But that is one of the joys of birding, one has to be honest with oneself.
Bassian Thrush near Yeerung Bridge
But losing that particular bird was a bit annoying because I don’t enjoy driving country roads alone at night while spotlighting over farmer’s sheep paddocks, they can get angry – the farmers, that is. Nor do I enjoy going down dirt roads alone in the dark, who knows what sort of boogy-man is just around the corner with a loaded chain saw? So after the delete button was hit I have spent the last 2 ½ years searching around Eaglehawk neck in southern Tasmania and cruising the back roads south-east of Orbost, with friends.
Beautiful Firetail near Yeerung Bridge
We have heard the bird call a few times and I have emailed friends and contacts seeking out all the latest information. People replied, “It’s easy. Stop here, play tape, bird will arrive” or “They are common just north of the intersection” or “We saw three last weekend” Sigh. Not for me, a bogy bird is a bogy bird is a bogy bird.
Collared Sparrowhawk at Cabbage Tree Reserve. There was a family of three.
Then Tim McKellar put a sighting on Birdata. Armed with this new info Joy and I headed for Orbost. On Saturday night it was overcast and a violent thunderstorm had just gone through. I guess rain and forked lightning is not good for owling ‘cos we tried a string of locations, including Tim’s, and didn’t see any. Sunday night was better with a full moon and 50% overcast. We tried the same locations again, and this time Tim’s came good. Ten seconds of playback and the Masked Owl alighted on a dead branch 3 metres above our heads. And it was a truly beautiful bird, definitely my new most favourite owl in the whole world. I am still smiling.
Yes, it is out of focus - but I am more than pleased to have it.
Joy must have known the bogy-owl was going to finally give itself up because she had bought 2 single drink bottles of bubbly at the pub when we had dinner. We opened the car fridge and toasted the owl. Not only was it a new bird for both of us but for me it was my 400th species in Victoria and the last tick I can get in Victoria, other than future vagrants.

The rest of the weekend wasn’t too shabby either. We had our second Square-tailed Kite for the year, and then Joy stopped the car right where a male Emu-wren was waiting to jump out and wave at us. Then two Turquoise Parrots flew up from the road and perched in the sun. Enough to say, the weekend was a roaring success. We saw over 100 species including Beautiful Firetail, Bassian Thrush, White-throated Needletail, Rufous Fantail, Large-billed Scrubwren, Brown Gerygone and lots of other delightful birds.
Southern Emu-wren on Old Coast Road
And to top it off, an Australian Sea Lion was resting on the rocks at the West Cape boat launch. Croajingolong. It was a long way off but I do wish I had taken its photo as I find now that they are not common that far east.

Happy New Year Everyone.

All photos © Jennifer Spry

Monday, January 14, 2013

Painted Honeyeater feeding

While birding near Clunes in Victoria on Sunday 13th March we had prolonged views of a Painted Honeyeater feeding on Mistletoe berries.

I was able to get a full sequence of the bird approaching a mistletoe berry, cutting the end of the skin off (like cutting the shell off the top of a boiled egg without damaging the egg), pushing back the skin, squeezing the skin behind the white flesh (it looks like a lychee) so that the berry moves forward, grasping the berry in the tip of the bill, throwing it up and catching it and then swallowing it whole. 

This method of feeding is briefly mentioned in HANZAB Vol. 5 page 992 in relation to collecting fruit to feed to young but in this case the bird spent approximately 15 to 20 minutes feeding and preening before it flew off.
From the colour of its back it appears that the bird was a female. Only one bird was seen or heard.
The following sequence is compiled from photos of the bird eating two different berries. Some of the images are not as sharp as I would have liked but they are the best I have of each phase of feeding.

The bird reaches for a Mistletoe Berry
The head is turned, apparently cutting the under side of the fruit skin
Now it appears that the top side is being cut. Empty fruit skins can be seen above the one being opened.
The cut top is removed from the fruit and discarded
Here the bird appears to be inspecting the fruit
Here the fruit casing is being squeezed behind the fruit to move the fruit forward
A first grip is made on the fruit
The head is moved and the extraction continues
The fruit is removed and the empty skin is left on the tree
The fruit is thrown up in the air prior to swallowing
The fruit is just visible in the back of the throat. As these two shots are in sequence it appears that the fruit is swallowed without re-grasping in the bill
The fruit is finally swallowed

It was a real privilege to be able watch this beautiful and not common bird as it fed and preened. As we also saw a Square-tailed Kite over the same bush-block and a group of Speckled Warblers nearby it was a spectacular day of birding.

All images © Jenny Spry

Monday, January 7, 2013

Suburban Birding

Last Sunday was warm and sunny but we only had a few hours to spare so instead of a major outing we decided to bird some suburban parks along the Yarra River. We started at Chelsworth Park which has some nice billabongs and borders the Yarra River. There is a small wetland that sometimes has crakes and rails as well as the more common bush birds. The interesting thing we found here were a lot of button-quail platelets along the track beside the golf course. I have never seen button quail here so I will need to go back for a better look, early before the dog-walkers and joggers are out. In fact I was amazed how much lycra got around in the suburban parks. Joy tells me they are actually called a newly recognised species called MAMILS (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) and they are often seen riding bicycles.
The treed area bottom left is known as Wilson Reserve
Next stop was Banyule and this is known as one of the best spots for suburban birding in Melbourne. We parked in Banyule Rd near the bus stop and walked in. First stop is a really small, disgusting mud puddle tucked in the reeds in the north-west corner of the park. Don't walk past when you see the plastic bottles, bits of litter and the occasional chewed dog ball. For some reason the skulkers love this puddle. A few years back there was a Painted Snipe in it and yesterday we found two Buff-banded Rail, a Spotted Crake and a Spotless Crake as well as a few teal and swamphens.

If you follow the track along the edge of the playing fields, taking care to step sideways at the approach of low-flying MAMILS, there is a spot to look down on the billabong. We found a Latham's Snipe here as well as the normal ducks, teal etc.
All this Echidna wanted to do was hide
The path then goes on down to the Yarra, turns north and eventually loops back to the playing fields. And this was where our day really got interesting. Joy found a Tawny Frogmouth and as walked we mused about what else might turn up. Having seen the frogmouth and the crakes and rails we were not to hopeful but, just down the track beside the river I found the most beautiful Powerful Owl I have ever seen. My heart melted and I had a smile from then to bed-time. Its plumage was bright and clean and clenched in its feet was a very plump Ring-tailed Possum. That is what birding is all about.
Leaves over the face, but here is our first Tawny Frogmouth for 2013

Twigs on the face this time, but it is a Powerful Owl so I wont complain

A close up of the face and its grey mask. 
With the tennis on and cricket being played and bicycle races happening across Victoria and international sailing races going on in Port Philip Bay it seems sport is "the thing" this year. Spurred on by the 2012 efforts of John Weigel it seems that this might be the year to challenge "personal bests". Not that birding is competitive or anything, but back in 2010 our personal best for birds seen in a calendar year in Victoria was 303. This year, seeing it has started so well with 120 species so far, we are going to see if we can improve on that personal best, 304 or 305 will be enough, especially as I have a couple of out of state trips planned.

All photos © Jenny Spry

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New year 2013 at the WTP

New Years need to start with a celebration. They need to start with seeing good friends and interesting birds. I also read somewhere that one should start the year as one intends to continue. To this end Joy and I headed for, where else, Werribee.

My alarm went off at 0530 and I picked up Joy at the very civilised hour of 0700. As we chatted our way down the Geelong Rd we decided to beat our record of 93 birds in one day. We knew it could be done because people often report seeing over 100, we just had never bothered to try too hard.

Surprisingly there were very few people out birding at 0730 on New Year’s Day morning; and the day was just perfect, and getting better as the morning cloud burnt off and the sun lit up the grasslands and ponds. The birds were everywhere and we picked up Fairy Martins and lots more as we drove down to Austin Rd. Once we got through the gate and headed around the long way to the “T” Section ponds we found a flock of Black-tailed Native-hens, a Spotted Harrier sunning in a gap in the tea-trees, a very yellow Golden-headed Cisticola that looked very swish against a background of golden drying grasslands. A pair of Glossy Ibis, Cape Barren Geese and four Brolga completed the list of "special" birds.
Spotted Harrier sunning

Golden-headed Cisticola. The breast really was very yellow, not just from reflected light

Glossy Ibis in full breeding colour
Across the road at the Western Lagoons we met Mel and Sarah and then went on to look for the resident skulkers and lurkers, the crakes and rails. We missed them all and headed next to Kirks Point for the Golden Plover. They were there but the small terns, Fairy and Little, that we usually find at the point were not on the rocks. They must have been out on the bay fishing, and it was a beautiful morning for it.
Pacific Golden Plover on the rocks at Kirk's Point

As it was lunch time and low tide we went in through the Beach Rd gate to the rocks and again saw Mel and Sarah. On the day before (31/12) I had seen Great Knot and Ruddy Turnstone here and we needed them for our 2013 year list and to build our numbers for the day. As we sat down for lunch our count was at 87.

Lunch was our standard New Year’s Day affair. I had bought some mixed nuts and we each had our salads, sandwiches and wraps. As we sat in the sun and watched the resident Broad-billed Sandpiper I eased the cork from a very pleasant sparkling faux-champagne from New Zealand and we relaxed from the strain of the hunt. This is definitely how the year must progress; good friend, good birds and good weather. Sigh. How hard is the life of a birdwatcher (smile).
A very distant Broad-billed Sandpiper. A good bird to go on the year list.

After lunch the hunt was on again. Across the Little River ford the Pectoral Sandpipers eluded us but we found a Marsh Sandpiper. The Bailon’s Crake in the Conservation Pond gave itself up, as did large numbers of Australian Spotted Crakes. The ponds and tracks are covered by unbelievable numbers of Pink-eared Ducks and Shelducks. We also got a glimpse of a Reed Warbler and lots of ducks, including 5 Freckled Ducks on the rocks in Lake Borrie. It was nice to see them back where they belong.
Spotted Crake lurking under bushes along The Spit track

Hardhead with lovely patterns on its feet

Pink-eared Ducks

The afternoon was wearing on so we made for the main gate. On the Paradise Rd lagoon we found a Black-tailed Godwit and waited and waited until it lifted its wing to prove to us it wasn’t a Hudsonian Godwit – birdwatchers always have to remain optimistic. In the pines by the power station we found a Little Eagle and added Common Myna. The day was all but over and as we left the plant our tally was 103 species. We had done it. We were, and are happy. The year is off to a very good start.

A very baby Silver Gull - just to symbolise the New Year

All photos © Jenny Spry

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Hills are Alive with ....

The end of the year was approaching fast and I still did not have a Superb Lyrebird on my list for 2012. The only answer was for a Sunday drive to Badgers Weir and Mt Donna Buang in the hills to the east of Melbourne.

It was a beautiful day but the birds were thin on the ground, so to speak. We found a Lyrebird at Badgers Weir, a Large-billed Scrubwren, lots of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and some of the tame King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas that come in for the free birdseed handed out by tourists.

Mt Donna Buang is a place where Melbourne people go to see snow and throw snowballs. In summer the winding dirt road from Healseville often has some nice robins and on the actual access road is a place where, in the cold months, Lyrebirds and Pilotbirds can be found.

On this particular warm summer Sunday though the hills were alive with nothing but loud cars and idiots. We pulled up for lunch in a car park decorated with circles of burn-out rubber and within minutes two cars full of "boys" arrived accompanied by loud "doof doof" music. We left so they could add to the black circles without our disapproving faces.

Further up the access road we found a pleasant place for lunch, but were soon assailed by loud car exhausts and louts sitting half out car windows screaming abuse and asinine exuberance at all and sundry.

Driving back down the narrow winding road the local village idiot in a clapped out ute tried to force us off the edge of the road as he pushed to get past.

So, if you are ever in Melbourne on a warm, sunny summer sunday and think of driving up Mt Donna Buang ... DON'T. The Hills are Alive with .... nothing but louts.

We did find some very nice butterflies, and they do have wings, and they do fly, so we dubbed them "birds for a day" and admired them and took their photos.

Macleay's Swallowtail

Macleay's Swallowtail

Australian Painted Lady

Australian Painted Lady

Common Grass-blue

Common Migrant

All images © Jenny Spry