Friday, July 12, 2013

Random Raptors at WTP

There has been a “blocking high” sitting over south-eastern Australia for just on a week now. Every morning has been clear and cold enough that ice forms on the windscreen of the car and ones breath rises white into the morning air. The normal cold west to south-west winds of winter are flowing south of Victoria and battering Tasmania. These calm, blue-sky conditions just scream for a person to go birding.

Down at Werribee the day is perfect. In spring and summer the place is shimmering with waders but now all that are around are a few Red-necked Stints, a couple of Greenshanks, and a hundred or so Double-banded Plover wintering over from New Zealand. Some surprises do exist though, like finding a lone Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in full breeding plumage and seven Bar-tailed Godwits on the sand flats at low tide. They shouldn’t be here; they should be in Siberia somewhere.

Wader watching requires hours of scanning mud flats and ones eyes are looking down and out. And the frustration, oh the frustration; could that be a Little Stint? Or over there, is that a Broad-billed? Damn!, that kite just flushed the flock, I am sure that was a mega White-rumped Sandpiper I saw just before they flew!

Right now though, in the middle of winter, all the action is in the air. Raptors are everywhere. On a good day 12 or 13 species can be seen and when the sky is azure blue and there is no wind, as it was last Tuesday, they are a sublime joy to watch. The small raptors hunt mice and small birds, the larger ones hunt ducks and larger birds, and the Black Falcon and Peregrine Falcon hunt what ever they want, or steal from the unwary.

Picture a Peregrine Falcon coming in low and fast across the green bank of a pond, over the calm blue water, no more than a metre from the surface, and into a flock of Pink-eared Ducks that are floating half asleep near the far bank. Pink-ears explode in all directions trying to escape, and the Peregrine banks and turns for another pass. Is it hunting or just having fun by scaring the ducks stupid? It is sometimes hard to tell.

Whistling Kites have a different strategy and again, Pink-eared Ducks are often the quarry. The kites also come in low using the bank of a pond for cover but their strategy is to keep one Pink-ear from getting off the water. Once they have trapped their target they hover over it and attack, forcing the duck to dive, and dive again until it is either drowned or is too exhausted to escape. At this point talons find the duck and it is carried to the bank and its death.

The Black Falcon is an opportunistic hunter. They are sleek and fast in flight and are as happy to strike down an unsuspecting bird as to steal the prey from another raptor such as a Black-shouldered Kite. A pair of Black Falcon were hunting over the Little River and took on a pair of Black-shouldered Kite. It was all over in seconds as the falcon came down on the perched kites. The kites rose up, and one was harassed by the falcon, dropped its prey (a small bird or rodent from the look), and the falcon caught it and sped off with the kites in futile, complaining pursuit. It was a spectacular display of aerial combat. It was one of those moments that make birding special; one of those moments when you just stand awed at what you have just seen. And months and years after you will pass this point and remember the blue sky, the agile attack and say “I once saw a Black Falcon attack a Black-shouldered kite, right here” and the moment will be relived, again, and again – ah, the joy of birding.

Werribee Raptors:

Australian Hobby

Peregrine Falcon hunting Pink-eared Ducks

White-bellied Sea-eagle

Wedge-tailed Eagle

Spotted Harrier warming in the early morning sun

Spotted Harrier, head on

Swamp Harrier hunting over grassland

Whistling Kite

Whistling Kite attempting to keep a Pink-eared Duck under water

Whistling Kite finishing its dinner

Light phase Brown Falcon

Dark phase Brown Falcon

Black Falcon with a meal stolen from a Black-shouldered Kite

The Black-shouldered Kite who lost its dinner to the Falcon

Nankeen Kestrel

All text and images © Jenny Spry


  1. Wow! Some high-end aussie raptor pics here, Jennifer! A real joy for me. I love your collection but I'm surprised not to see Little Eagle there. I used to visit Cherry Lake in Altona often in the winters back in the 90s and had some great encounters with them. Yet, I could have only dreamed of such a picture collection as yours. I regret I travelled by bicycle and couldn't go as far as the werribee ponds. I do remember looking up into the blue sky and seeing a Black Falcon...

  2. Thanks for the nice words Russell. Interestingly Little Eagle would be the raptor I see least often at WTP. I often see them back out over the highway and the plains toward the You Yangs, but not down in the WTP plant.