Friday, May 24, 2013

Banded Stilt Courtship Plumage at WTP 23rd May 2013

There are large numbers of Banded Stilts at the WTP and based on the strong colour of their breast bands they are moulting into breeding plumage. This would seem to be expected at this time of year as most breeding events listed in HANZAB have occurred between May and September.
What I have noticed though is that not only are the breast bands gaining colour but that the birds have grown elongated feathers on their backs that can be raised in display. When raised the elongated back feathers give the birds a distinct ridge of erect feathers between the folded wings and, when lowered, they form a mantle that spreads out over the folded wings.

It appears also that the chestnut breast band can be raised from the body when the bird moves into a display position. This gives the impression that the bird has a “chest plate” that is held out from the body.

I photographed one bird that seemed to be doing a brief display but as I can find no written documentation of Banded Stilts using body feathers as part of their courtship display I cannot be 100% sure. The whole “display” event took about 4 seconds so the bird may have just been stretching, however, the way the feathers were positioned during the event showed that both breast and back feathers could be raised as part of a courtship display.

I would expect that most of the courtship rituals and display would be carried out on the breeding grounds so I am not sure that full courtship displays will be seen at the WTP and similar locations but it would be worth watching Banded Stilt flocks to see if the birds use both raised breast and back feathers for courtship display.
Rear view showing raised feathers
Rear view showing lowered feathers spread over wing feathers
1) Rear bird walks past with lowered feathers. Front bird has drawn its head up at start of "display" (stretching?) movement
2) Back feathers starting to rise
3) Back feathers raised further and neck feathers fluffing up. Breast feathers beginning to rise
4) Back feathers raised further. Head pulled back and neck feathers puffing out above chest band
5) Head moved forward with neck feathers well puffed out. Chest band raised clear from body.  Back and rump feathers fluffed out
6) Neck coming back but body feathers still fluffed out
7) Front bird has lowered its feathers and both are feeding again
Bird preening showing back feathers raised from body
Birds at roost slept with back feathers spread out over wing feathers

All text and photos © Jenny Spry

Monday, May 20, 2013

Northern Shoveler at Western Treatment Plant

Yesterday (19/5) was a glorious autumn day in Melbourne. The sun was out, there was very little wind and the temperature was low so heat haze was a minimal problem. In fact visibility was so good that from The Spit track with my 45 X scope I could clearly see gannets landing on the platform at the end of the Point Wilson explosives jetty - and Google Earth tells me that is a distance of about 5.9 km!
The twitch site on Paradise Rd

I didn't rush to the WTP to see the Northern Shoveler, instead I had a leisurely breakfast and got there at about 1000. This technique usually works well on a weekend when there is a rarity at WTP because when you get there you don't need to look for the bird, all you need to do is drive in and look for the congregation of cars. And Sunday's congregation was up there with the largest, and it was at the first pond on the right as you come down Paradise Rd. Too easy. There were cars, scopes, camera and binoculars everywhere and, sitting on the water in the sun with the other shovelers was the Northern. It seems that it likes this spot because it has been there for a few days now. One problem with it though is, if it turns its back on you it instantly turns into "just another Aus Shoveler" and binoculars and scopes scan over it as though it had Harry Potter's invisibility cloak on. To add excitement to the morning of watching the NS a Peregrine came in low and fast across the pond on a harassment run (not a hunting run) and scattered the Pink-ears in all directions.

The Northern Shoveler with Pink-eared Ducks, Coots and Swans

A distance shot showing how well the Northern Shoveler can stand out

When it turns its back however it just looks like all the other shovelers on the pond

Mostly it just slept while I watched but just once it awoke and stretched

Australasian Shoveler for comparison

The Peregrine starting its "harassment" run

As it past over the Pink-ears they scattered in all directions
As it was getting toward lunchtime when I left the NS I headed toward the Borrow Pits. This place is so well recognised by WTP regulars as "the" place to have lunch that I remember a discussion with some friends there one day who wanted to set up a concession stand selling coffee and sandwiches to passing birders (smile). Anyway, I pulled in and one of the lunch group called out "quick, over here, there is a Bittern" so I walked over, looked in the scope, and added Aus Bittern to my day list. Gorgeous. 
Australasian Bittern at the Borrow Pits

On the basis that all birds are special there were plenty of other special birds around and I spent the rest of the day watching, amongst others, Red-kneed Dotterels, Musk Ducks, Swans, Brolga, a Great Egret with the start of its breeding plumage coming in and a Cattle Egret with just a touch of colour on the top of its head. It was a special day with one of my lowest WTP species counts (71) because it was more fun watching the visible birds than looking for the difficult ones.
Pink-eared Ducks

Great Egret

Interestingly, some of the breeding plumaged Banded Stilts at WTP seem to be in pairs and these birds appear to have nuchal plumes on their backs; or maybe not strictly nuchal plumes but large feathers that they can raise in display. Also, the paired birds that I saw were away from the big flocks, mainly in pond 25 to the east of lake Borrie South.
Banded Stilts showing presumed nuchal feathers
The feathers stand proud between the folded wings. I thought at first that it was possible that the feathers were just lying out of position but they were common to all the apparenly paired birds I saw. There was also no wind that could have raised the feathers. The feathers also seem longer than I would have been expected for back feathers. I now need to go back and look more closely. I never thought of stilts as having “flirt feathers”, apart from their chestnut breast band.
Banded Stilt showing presumed nuchal feathers

I also had an interesting session with a Whistling Kite. I was heading toward the Beach Rd gate when I saw the kite and it had a long, red, unravelling "rope", about a metre long, hanging from its feet. "HA!" I thought, "an obvious case of a bird tangled up in man made rubbish - AGAIN!" With my "high horse" well up and running I took some photos and then thought "wait a minute, maybe it has just picked up this rope to add to its nest" and I climbed down off my "high horse" for a moment and zoomed in the photo on the back of the camera. It was then that I could see that the metre +/- of "red rope" was actually the long, red, fleshy strands of the entrails etc of a bird, and that it ended in a pair of feet and legs that looked like they might have belonged to a Purple Swamp-hen. It was a bit of a gruesome sight but quite spectacular. The WTP is a wonderful place for birding, you never know what you will find.
The distant kite with the "red rope" attached to its feet

A close up showing it wasn't a rope, just the remains of dinner
Lake Borrie

All photos and text © Jenny Spry

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Portland Pelagic 5th May

When I looked at my birding records I saw that the last Birds Australia Port Fairy pelagic that I had been on was in March 2007. That was more than 6 years ago. Quelle horreur!! The situation had to be remedied.

Of course here was that one spectacular trip out of Port Fairy, organised by Neil Macumber, to see the Great Shearwater when it was in town in 2011 but apart from that I had not been on a Victorian trip for far too long. The situation rectified itself when the weather was pronounced "good" and the 5th of May BirdLife Portland trip went ahead.

Portland is not close to Melbourne, it is about a five hour drive for me so it was good to have Scott on board for the ride. We unloaded our bags at the motel and headed for dinner. For me the pre-trip dinner is an important part of the pelagic because it is a chance to sit down with fellow birders, some of whom I may not have seen for a year or more and catch up over a good pub meal and a drink.

Sunday morning was overcast when we arrived at the boat but the strong winds of the past week had dropped off and we had about 10 knots out of the south east. This meant that, while the swells were still enormous, there were no serious waves. So, even though we went up and down a lot the ride was not wet or uncomfortable. As this was my first trip out of Portland I was glad to see that we travelled close to the Australasian Gannet rookery on Lawrence Rocks on the way out, and closer still on the way back.
Lawrence Rocks off Portland is an important Australasian Gannet rookery
The ride out to the shelf takes a couple of hours and on this trip the birds were few and far between. A White-fronted Tern went past as did a few Fluttering Shearwater and the occasional distant Australasian Gannet.

Even when we got to the shelf it remained quiet for some time. We bobbed around on the swell as we waited for some birds and berly was cast behind the boat. It took about ten minutes, maybe more, but come they did. First on the scene were some of the smaller albatross, mollymawks, and we soon had a nice following of Black-browed and Shy Albatross. Fairy Prions joined them and then the storm petrels arrived; Wilson’s, Grey-backed and White-faced. It was turning into an excellent trip.
Fairy Prion
Campbell's Albatross with the pale eye in the background and Black-browed Albatross with a dark eye in the foreground used to be subspecies of Black-browed but have been split by the IOC
Grey-backed Storm-petrel with very worn plumage
A surprise for me happened when the lid on one of the big iceboxes was opened and a huge tray of sandwiches appeared. This was a pelagic first for me and the swarm of hands over the platter was as thick as the swarm of feeding gannets diving on prey. I was going to take a photo of this event but as I had one hand on my binos and the other on an egg and lettuce sandwich the photo never happened. I did, however, get a photo of the lunchtime biscuit platter before they all disappeared but as you can see the on-board gannets had cleared the salad platter before I could get to the camera. The second large icebox was full of soft drinks and bottled water, and tea and coffee was available whenever wanted. Such luxury.
Shy Albatross chasing food with water sheeting of its wings
Juvenile Shy Albatross with its dark collar and grey, black-tipped bill
The empty salad plate and dwindling biscuit plate with Glen showing how many Sooty Albatross we have seen, or was it the number of biscuits she has eaten?
The first large albatross, a Northern Royal, arrived at this stop and when they appear I know I am on a pelagic. They are just so beautiful as they glide in on their two metre wingspan. By the time the trip was over we had seen four large albatross, two Northern Royal and two Wandering.
Juvenile all brown Wandering Albatross
Sub-adult plumage of Wandering Albatross
Northern Royal Albatross with its all black upper wing
The second stop was the spectacular stop of the trip. As we threw the berly over a Sooty Albatross approached the boat and landed. Spectacular. The Sooty is an uncommon sight off Victoria so everyone was thrilled and many people onboard ticked of a new species.

Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
It was then that things started to get ridiculous. This uncommon bird was joined by a second, and we had 2 Sooty Albatross sitting beside us, and then a third bird arrived. Never before have I seen three Sooty Albatross together. What a trip.

When a Sooty Albatross comes in everyone wants a photo ......
but where do you look when a second one arrives?

To maintain the quality of the day the call went out that there was a “different looking” prion behind the boat. We all then got good looks as the bird joined the feeding birds. Antarctic Prion? Salvin’s Prion? No one was sure but as it turned out after consulting various people and sending photos around it was agreed that it was an Antarctic Prion. Another tick for many on board.
Antarctic Prion
Antarctic Prion
And birds aren’t the only interesting natural events. We had a Man-of-War jellyfish at one stop, the first I have been able to inspect closely. Normally I keep well away from such stinging beasts but this time, by leaning over the side I could see the beautiful fluorescent colours and delicate sail. There was also a small pod of dolphins just as we got back to Lawrence Rocks, and on the rocks, Fur Seals and Sea Lions. Sadly the photos are not as good as I had wanted because my good 100 – 400 L lens was in hospital having an image stabiliser transplant and I had to use my older, basic 70 – 300 lens.
Portugese Man-of-war showing its fluorescent spots and tail. A mist of stinging tendrils up to 10 metres long hangs below this small, innocuous looking bladder.
Common Dolphin
When I finally got my list worked out and photos checked I had seen 24 species for the day, including the inshore species such as Black-faced Cormorant, Pacific Gull, Silver Gull and Australasian Gannet. Bird-wise, the surprise for me was that we had not seen many petrels, other than a Southern Giant Petrel and a few Great-winged Petrels, but hey, with Antarctic Prion and Sooty Albatross on the list, who could complain?
The terns and Silver Gulls line up on the water's edge while the cormorants, seals, and Sea Lions rest further up. The top shelf of Lawrence Rocks is reserved for the gannets.

All images and text © Jenny Spry