Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Morepork twitch

The International Ornithologist’s Union maintains a list of  the world's bird species. It is this list that has become, for many people, the default list for Australian bird species since the "Christidis & Boles" list is no longer being maintained. Recently it has split off the Tasmanian race of the Southern Boobook and called it Morepork (Ninox novaeseelandiae leucopsis). Interestingly, this is reverting to the situation  as it was in the 1930s and earlier.

The Morepork is a very hard species to find in its home state of Tasmania, or so I have found. I have heard them calling in the steep, heavily wooded valleys and hills south of Hobart and chased them numerous times without success. Each winter some birds move north to Victoria so when one turned up  in a backyard in Hamilton just 4 hours drive west of Melbourne, I had to go.
It had selected a good place to hide

I emailed Steve Clark, the birder who had found it, and arranged to go down. Luckily this cute little bundle of feathers is a creature of habit and has been roosting each day in one of two trees in his back yard.
Note quite asleep

I picked up Joy and Helen on Friday morning and we were on our way. The sun was out and there was no wind so it was a perfect day for a twitch. And when we arrived, there was the owl, fast asleep and partially hidden by the ivy climbing up an old hakea. For ten minutes we chatted, oohed and aahed and took photos. Owls can be very hard to find at night but when a daytime roost is found it is just tooo easy.
The eyes reflect strong yellow and even in daylight the eye is dark yellow

Morepork is the allocated common name for this "new" species but it seems odd to me, it sounds like a request at dinner time; "More pork please". An old alternative common name for the Boobook was Mopoke, an approximation of its call, and I think it is a shame this name was not used. I guess the problem is that we are currently using an international list for the Australian birds and the common names given don't always align with the names we are used to, sigh. These small owls speak with an Australian accent and, to my ears, they say Mo-Poke, Mo-Poke; not More-pork, More-pork.
The breast is strongly marked and white flecks show on the head

After about 15 minutes we thanked Steve for his hospitality and climbed back into the car for the drive back to Melbourne. In fact I need to say that both Steve and Jenny were absolutely wonderful in the help they provided us with a combination of phone calls and emails to make sure all three of us were able to see the bird.

What a fun way to spend an early winter day; good company, a new bird for the list, a day in the country and some nice birding from the car. As well as the standard roadside ravens, corellas, waterbirds and raptors we saw a pair of Brolga beside a reedy creek – beautiful.
Helen and Joy "twitching" the Morepork (Mopoke) in Steve's backyard.

All images and text © Jenny Spry

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Little Desert weekend

For the last five or six years Joy and I have gone birding in the Little Desert every Queen’s Birthday weekend. This year we had three target birds being Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Southern Scrub-robin and Slender-billed Thornbill and we found them all, along with the other regulars such as Grey Currawong, Buff-rumped Thornbill and a variety of other honeyeaters.
First light in the cold; looking for Southern Scrub-robins

There had been rain in the area so all the crops were coming up giving the paddocks a low green coat. High clouds made the days dull and photography difficult but they did promise more rain and the locals were really waiting for it to give the wheat a good kick along. 
Roadside Gilbert's Whistler with its crest raised

The weekend started with a rush, literally. We had booked into a motel in Nhill for two nights and it is built in a “U” shape around a central yard with a large tree in it. As we drove in a Collared Sparrowhawk flashed into the yard, did a lap of the tree scattering small birds everywhere, chased one, gave up and landed in the next door’s backyard. What a wonderful way to start the weekend.
Collared Sparrowhawk showing its forked tale and typical stare

On the way to Nhill we did a bit of a scout around the top end of the Little Desert and found McCabe’s Hut Track. It looked like a promising spot because Birdata showed it as a good location for Slender-billed Thornbills. We went back on Sunday morning and drove down the track and, as the saying goes, had Slender-bills “dancing on our toes”. Well, not really, they were really shy so it was more like we had Slender-bills dancing like distant spots before our eyes. Four-wheel drive is essential and unless you have something bigger than a Subie I would recommend doing a u turn after seeing the thornbills and going back out to the north. We didn’t and we did get through to Dimboola, but it was a bit exciting in spots. We could have let air out of the new heavy tread 4X4 tyres but that would have lowered our ground clearance and we needed all we could get. Even so, we did do a redesign job on the plastic sump guard and now a torn part of it hangs downward as a memento (smile).
Tawny-crowned Honeyeater

Tawny-crowned Honeyeater

McCabes Track at the Slender-billed Thornbill site, before the track got really nasty.

Slender-billed Thornbill

Three Slender-billed Thornbills. That is more in one photo than I had ever seen before!

Leaving the Little Desert at Dimboola. It was the last 5 km or so until we reached this sign that were the worst with soft deep sand, just like the sign promises.

Getting a night meal in Nhill can be a bit tricky but the local take-away is excellent so we went in and ordered a pizza. They were so busy the wait was 40 minutes. What to do? Obvious, go owling! We drove down the Winiam East Rd, turned right into C Werners Road, and a beautiful Barn Owl flew across the road in front of us and landed in a paddock. Gorgeous, we were so glad dinner was a 40 minute wait.
The morning after at the Barn Owl site with our tyre tracks from the night before aimed at where the owl landed

Coming home we decide to try again for the Bush Stone-curlews that are meant to live near the hospital in Horsham. As this was about our third attempt to find them we were joking as we drove in as to where they might be, “in that yard?”, “how about that vacant lot?”, “no, under those trees looks like perfect habitat” – and there it was, standing with its back to us. We eventually saw three and it was a new state bird for both Joy and me. What a brilliant way to finish the weekend.
Horsham Bush Stone-curlew

The colouring is just startling

And this bird was in the process of chasing off another Bush Stone-curlew

... possible because he had a mate tucked in under the trees.
As I am always looking for a good country meat pie we stopped at The Ararat Bakery and I got an excellent one (4 stars out of 5) and then went down to Green Hill Lake on the Western Highway, just east of town. This is a great spot to stop and it has a large free camping area with plenty of sites beside the lake and toilet blocks and tables, all in a well maintained park-like setting. There were water birds everywhere and large reed beds that look perfect for bitterns.

All photos and text © Jenny Spry

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pacific Gull feeding on Periwinkles

Due to lack of wind our sea-watch trip on Monday to Point Lonsdale at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay was decidedly short of albatross and other ocean birds. When the tide fell and submerged reefs started to appear birding improved though as Black-faced Cormorants, Crested Terns, Silver Gulls and Pacific Gulls arrayed on the reefs in front of us.

One particular Pacific Gull put on a wonderful show for us. He/she would fly out to a partially submerged reef and collect a large periwinkle, then carry it back to shore, rise up on the wind, then drop it to smash on the rock platform below. He/she did this about six times and there was a distinct pattern that ran; collect periwinkle, fly to shore and drop it on rock platform, eat contents, wash bill in shallow pool, return to reef for another periwinkle.

Collecting periwinkle from partially submerged reef.

Collecting the periwinkle had to be timed between waves

Pacific Gull and periwinkle

Dropping the periwinkle .....

that sometimes required a second drop to break the shell

Eating one of the six or more periwinkles .....

followed by a good face wash before flying off for another periwinkle.

A mess of lorikeets (3rd June)

Scaly-breasted Lorikeets are not common in Victoria but Woodlands Drive in Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula is a known hot-spot for them. They take some finding though, not because lorikeets are hard to find on Woodlands Drive but because the cross-breeding of lorikeets there is rampant and finding one that is true to species is not easy.

Every house in the street seems to have a large number of eucalypts and at the moment most of them are in flower. In these trees we found both Scaly-breasted and Rainbow Lorikeets as well as Scaly-breasted x Rainbow x Little x Purple-crowned x and a few we could not immediately recognise. And the crosses seemed random and, in some cases multiple. If you ever want to see innumerable variations upon a lorikeet theme head for Woodlands Drive.

This bird looks very much like a real Scaly-breasted Lorikeet ....
and this bird looks like areal  Rainbow Lorikeet
but these two are something different. The front bird looks like a Rainbow x Scaly-breasted, but what about the other bird? Scaly-breasted x Rainbow x Purple-crowned Lorikeet x? If so why the long red crown? Is there also something else in there?
On this bird the whole face and crown are red and it has a complete yellow collar. The breast colour suggests some Rainbow. Perhaps it is Little x Purple-crowned x Rainbow?
This one shows Scaly-breasted, Rainbow and Purple-crowned colours
And again this bird looks good for a pure Rainbow, but how pure seeing there is so much cross breeding going on in Woodland Drive.

All images and text © Jenny Spry

A Darter fisherman's story of the one that got away

When we stopped at the boat launching car park on the Barwon River (3rd June) we had a wonderful view of a darter that surfaced with a very large fish maybe 30 cm long, probably a mullet. The darter then tried to fly off but the fish was way too heavy. And a second problem for the darter was that it had impaled the fish so it wasn't even really holding it. The result was a staggering, tail slapping run across the surface of the river, the bird’s head falling forward and the fish sliding off, at which point the darter threw its head back in disgust and screamed before it finally flew away up stream. 

I am sure the scream was in frustration that it had lost the biggest fish it had ever caught, the ultimate fishing story! The boys on the sandbank will just never believe this darter's story about the one that got away; it will hold its wings this [                             ] far apart and they will all look, smile, shake their heads, and go, "oh right!, go on, tell us another one" and go back to their beers (smile).

Joy Tansey took the following photos.

After surfacing the darter tried to fly off with its prize impaled on its bill

The weight was too great and the darter's head tipped forward and the fish slid to freedom

The darter gave a cry of dismay and flew off