Friday, August 23, 2013

Change of Season at WTP

It is an interesting time at the WTP at the moment. The locals are all adopting their “flirt feathers” and are thinking about, or are fully involved in, breeding. At the same time the tourists are coming back from up north and still show the remains of their breeding plumes, but have nothing more on their minds than feeding and resting after a long trip.

One of the species showing local colour the best at the moment is the Pelican. Their bills and facial skin are colouring up beautifully.

I have always though of the Musk Duck as being just a drab, dark grey to black duck, and a strange one at that. The male has a huge dewlap, pointy tail feathers and does a startling display involving lots of splashing. They also have a small squeaking call that seems totally out of place for such a large heavy bird. The beautiful plumage on this female though has changed my mind, she is subtly beautiful in her new woo-the-boys outfit.

One surprise was a pair of Black Kite flirting and apparently carrying sticks to a nest site in the cypress trees. Not the best picture but it was such a surprise to see them apparently starting to nest I was a bit rushed.

Common Greenshanks have some nice colour left but are moulting to their off-season drabs.

Cattle are being grazed at the moment in the grasslands on the way out to Ryan's Swamp. This is a good place to look for Stubble Quail.

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Friday, August 9, 2013

Welcome Swallows "fishing" at WTP

As happened in 2012, Welcome Swallows are again feeding on larvae captured from below the surface of the roadside pools on 29 Mile Rd at the WTP Western Lagoons at Werribee, Vic. About 30 were hovering over the pools and plunging their heads below the surface. I noticed that after each attack when the head had gone deep into the water the birds swung their heads 180º when they rose up. It appears that they do this to remove water from their faces. The head was not swung if only the bill entered the water.

I have received reports of this sub-surface feeding behaviour from Warrnambool, WTP, Dandenong and Anderson’s Inlet, all along the south coast of Victoria. Has anyone seen this type of feeding behaviour from any Hirundinidae species from any other place? NSW? SA? Central Vic? Overseas?

The photos below aren’t the best quality but have you ever tried to photograph a fast flying, zipping and dipping swallow and catch it, not only in focus but in focus at a precise milli-second over a shaded pond – and then maintain focus for a series of 3 or 4 photos as the bird moves? Aaaaagh! (smile). It's a fun challenge though so the next half decent day I will go back and try again.

There are so few flying insects at the WTP at the moment that swallows follow my car as I drive along grassy tracks hoping I disturb something. Maybe the diving takes place at this time of year because there is so little of the more easy to capture flying prey? 

The type of sub-surface prey captured may be opportunistic as to species as long as the length is acceptable because I have one out of focus photo that seems to show a round beetle and another, also out of focus, that may be a silver-coloured, very small (10 mm +/-) fish.

Welcome Swallows hunting for swimming prey. The bird on left has head in water, the centre bird is looking and the right hand bird has just struck at a prey.

Swallow capturing prey with bill just in the water

(1) First in a sequence of three photos taken within 1 second. The bird has seen prey and is about to strike ...

... (2) the catch has been made, apparently a larvae of some sort ...

... (3) and finally the bill is open and the prey can just be made out at the back of the mouth.

Head swing showing circle of water drops. The tail is kicked up so that it clears the water as the swallow rises after the attack.

This shows a more extreme example of the raised tail and 180º head rotation.

Could this be a very small silver-coloured fish? Or maybe just water shining on a larvae of some type? A better photo will be needed.

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Werribee WTP Spring - almost

Well, I was sort of joking on my last blog when I said spring was here but now I think it may have really arrived early, even if it is only the first week of August and a good three weeks from the official start of spring. When we were down at the plant on Sunday the Banded Lapwings had a chick running around, the Little Ravens were nest building, the Eurasian Skylarks were in full song and the Black Falcons were very obviously paired.
Looking over Walsh's Lagoons to the You Yangs

Eurasian Songlark

I went down with Joy and again the raptors put on a full show. First act was a Black Falcon sitting on a fence post beside the road feasting on a rat. The meal was well advanced and we only knew it was a rat because when the falcon eventually took off the rat’s long tail hung out behind.
Black Falcon with the remains of a rat

Further down the road a magnificent Wedge-tailed Eagle sat on a post trying to soak up the morning sunshine, all the time being harassed by a Magpie. Such insolence; the Wedgie finally gave up and flew off.
Australian Magpie annoying a Wedge-tailed Eagle

The Black-shouldered Kites were feeling game too and took on a Black Falcon that I guess had strayed into their territory. The Black Falcon was about as interested in its antagonists as the Wedgie had been and just continued on its way with only the occasional barrel roll and flash of talons to show it recognised that the kites were there.

After this display we found the Black Falcons again and they really put on a “Big Year - Attu” moment for us (if you haven’t seen the film you must). The sky was overcast and rain had just started to fall. With the strong west wind blowing the afternoon felt much colder than the 12º C it actually was and the rain made it feel like winter was making a comeback. When we stopped the car to open a gate we saw two Black Falcons high up in front of us and as we watched they started some aerial play, climbing, diving, twisting and rolling. We sat with the binoculars on them and drank in the display. Gorgeous. Such power and beauty. 

And then came the “Attu” moment; the falcons flew at each other and the lower one rolled over and the two birds locked talons. From here they went into a spiralling fall, tumbling slowly around each other, locked together as one with wings half closed. SIGH. I have never seen that display before. It was unbelievably wonderful. I can close my eyes right now and still see them falling slowly down and flowing together. What a sight!
Black-shouldered Kite annoying a Black Falcon

Out on Beach Rd a Banded Lapwing couple were looking after young chicks while cattle wandered around nearby. I do hope that the young chick is careful; what with all the raptors in the area and the cattle the first few weeks of life could be a real challenge.
Banded Lapwing and chick in their preferred habitat; short grass and lots of cow pats

With all the rain we have had the ponds are all full and the overflows are running fast. It seems there must be good food in them too as both the Eurasian Coots and Dusky Moorhens were feeding in them. The fast-flowing water gave some interesting effects as the birds stuck their heads down to feed.
Eurasian Coot

Dusky Moorhens

Then we found this very curious Welcome Swallow.
It just sort of peered in the window of the car at me. Probably wondering what sort of beast I was

And this is something we often see at the plant because of how close the Avalon Airport is, a Red-tailed QANTAS-bird. How I would love to be on it. Ah well, just another 3 months or so and I will be.
Red-tailed QANTAS-bird

Just because I can’t keep away I was down at the plant again yesterday with Marlene and the waders are starting to arrive back. There were lots more Red-necked Stints than last weekend and on Summer Lagoon 2 there were five Greenshanks still showing some breeding plumage. Yeeeah. Spring is in the air.
Greenshanks with the remains of breeding plumage

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Spring at the WTP

And yes, I know it is technically still winter but Melbourne has just come through its warmest July ever and the sun is shining and the birds are courting and the jasmine in my back yard is about to burst into flower.

Raptors are still all the go at the WTP and Tuesday was extra special, not because I found a new one but because a Black Falcon sat on a roadside fence post about 7 or 8 metres from me and while I complimented it on its beauty the falcon just sat and looked superior, which it was. The blood on its talons suggested it had just finished a meal, maybe that was why it was so loath to fly, whatever the reason though, it was a special five minutes until the falcon got sick of my praise and flew off. It ended up that I saw Black Falcons on Beach Rd, 29 Mile Rd and on the Spit track about half way to the Murtcain Outlet; they were everywhere.
Black Falcon on Beach Road

A Black-shouldered Kite also put on a show of aerobatics for me. Hovering as they do, it evidently saw some prey and went into a full dive. This was normal and I have seen it many times but this bird just kept diving. Going by the height of a four-strand fence it was still in full dive position when its head was less than a metre from the ground. I did not see how it pulled out before it drove its beak into the dirt, but it did, and flew off without its catch.
Black-shouldered Kite surveying, as they do

The start of the dive...

aimed straight at something ...

and now with its wings fully back and still in full dive less than a metre from the ground

A different B-s Kite did have a feed though and I watched as it carefully plucked, and then ate, a mouse. Mouse fluff went everywhere and then the kite grabbed the mouse and down it went, head first, until all that was showing was a length of tail.
First you take all the fluff off ....

then you gulp it down whole, head first.

Of course the tail can be a problem but it too soon disappeared.

On the waterbird front, after all that is the purpose of the WTP, there were three Glossy Ibis at the Borrow Pits.
Glossy Ibis

All images and text © Jenny Spry