Monday, October 28, 2013

Sunday at the beach with Joy

Last week a report was put on “Birdline Victoria” about a Sanderling being seen at Bancoora Beach. I had never heard of Bancoora Beach so, like we all do these days, I googled it. Bancoora Beach, it turns out, is at Breamlea, right next to 13th Beach and I know where that is so on Sunday morning Joy and I headed for a day at the beach. We wanted to see the Sanderling. And Hooded Plovers live on the beach there too, and are always nice to see.
Bancoora Beach at Breamlea

It turned out to be a perfect October day for the beach with no wind, a little bit of sunshine and a near empty beach (near empty of people that is). With the tide way out a few people were walking their dogs along the water’s edge, and out on the smallish waves a group of hardy surfers in wet suits were riding down slopes that reflected silver, white and green in the morning sunlight. On an arm of rocks that went out into the ocean a small group of fishermen were casting lines and watching the surfers.
Surfing and fishing

In case you're wondering, this ride ended badly just after this photo was taken

First we chose to walk west, until we finally came upon a small group of Ruddy Turnstone turning over seaweed on the beach, and beyond them we could see at least two Hooded Plover. There was no Sanderling to be seen so we turned and headed back down the beach. 
Ruddy Turnstones turning over seaweed

About 500 metres past the Breamlea surf life saving club we finally found the Sanderling, in fact two of them. And with them were three more Hooded Plover, a Ruddy Turnstone and a Red-necked Stint.

Sanderling with a dainty morsel

Hooded Plover. Normally they will look for a bigger windbreak to sit behind

Red-necked Stint, Hooded Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Sanderlings

Red-capped Dotterel with a very large sand worm, which was swallowed whole ...
and I think it nearly choked him.

We then drove around to Barwon Heads to check out the mud flats in the river. There were at least 12 Curlew, some 60 Bar-tailed Godwits and many stints, sandpipers greenshanks. My numbers are a bit vague because when we got out of the car we both realised – we had not bought our scopes! Bother!
Bar-tailed Godwits with Barwon Heads in the background

Bar-tailed Godwit

Greenshank with a very spiky  crab....

that looked very uncomfortable to swallow

As we sat on the bank of the river eating lunch we started thinking about how to make things happen on a birding trip and came up with:
1/  If you want to find some really interesting looking waders on a mud flat – leave your scope at home.
2/  If you want to see a rare bird, or an ordinary bird doing something rare – leave your camera in the car.
3/  If you want to see a really special bird, a new "tick" perhaps, and can't find it – leave your binoculars at the car when you give up the hunt and go behind a bush for a “call of nature” break.
4/  If you want every bird for miles around to disappear – slam the car door.
5/  But conversely – if there are no birds in sight, get someone in the group to SNEEZE really loudly. It is amazing how often little birds will suddenly appear on top of a bush to see what the noise was.

An interesting thing at lunch was, we found a new bird for Australia, an Iridescent Wader. Well, actually, it was originally a ship assisted bird but is now well established and is known to most people as a Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris). And normally I think they are very vulgar indeed but yesterday they came very close to outing Sanderling as “bird of the day”. There was one particular starling in a group of 7 or 8 that flew out onto the mudflat and started drilling into crab holes, just as any other good wader would do, until it dug out one of those round mud-flat crabs. When it had the crab out on the sand it seemed to roll it around a bit, and then ate it. Fascinating. And to make the event even better the starling was in full breeding plumage, shining and flashing as though it had been anodised. Really, they can be very beautiful.
First you open your beak and make the crab hole bigger ...

then you jam your head all the way down the hole ...

and grab the crab and drop it before it can nip you.

From the way the feathers are all fluffed up I am not sure if this crab bit the starling's tongue, or if it just tastes really sour.

All text &images © Jenny Spry

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Portland Pelagic Weekend

Big Years are a good way to add some spice to birding, especially casual ones where your only target is your own total from a previous year. Back in 2010 I saw 304 species in Victoria which is not a high total considering that the state list, without vagrants, is somewhere near 450. The trip to Portland for a pelagic was a perfect opportunity to add four more. On Friday night before I left for Portland my 2013 Victorian list was on 318 and I had “possible” list of 4 more land birds I could find on the weekend.

Three Gull-billed Terns had been seen at Werribee WTP, and I only needed one. I drove in, sat by the road where the last report came from and waited. It seemed really strange being at WTP and not actually going into the plant but I watched waders, gulls, raptors etc flying over until a lone tern flew toward me, over the car, and off into the plant. It had taken only 20 minutes to see the Gull-billed Tern and I was on my way again. One down, three to go.

Next stop was the Great Otway National Park which is south-west of Geelong and on the way to Portland, if you take the long way via The Great Ocean Road. It is a good place for Forest Ravens and I ticked them of on the road into Triplet Falls (two down two to go). I had never been to Triplet Falls but I had been told it was a good place for Olive Whistlers, bird three on the list. I parked the car in front of the sign with an arrow that said “Triplet Falls 2 hours return” and reasoned that I did not need to go to the falls, just far enough to find the whistler. 

I soon found that the path went down steeply and “down steeply”, to me, always translated as “back up even more steeply”. As children raced passed me going both up and down I listened for the whistler without hearing more than a few scrubwrens, thornbills and childish yells and screams. I gave up and struggled back to the car and sagged onto the drivers seat with a sigh. I must get more real leg exercise. I drank half a bottle of water and finished the vanilla slice from lunch and felt better. Olive Whistler, dip; but I had another location for later in the weekend.
The Portland Pelagic boat, with the awnings wound up it was OK - no,  just joking. But it seems sad to see a boat left to go like that. Ah well, at least the Black-faced Cormorants were enjoying it.

Pulling into Portland I was half way through my drive and had not seen a Grey Goshawk, an uncommon raptor in Victoria but sometimes seen during a drive to Portland, but I had time. I had some daylight left so I decided to try a really long shot, Cape Gannet at Point Danger, but read my last blog for the full story of this bird.
iPod photo of the real Portland pelagic boat, the Southern Pride taken at 0700 as we were boarding.

Sunday’s pelagic promised some new birds for the year but a pelagic trip is always a dice game and anything is possible. I ended up with three new birds for the year being Flesh-footed Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and Arctic Jaeger. It was, as usual, a really good trip. The Southern Pride is perfect for birding because she is broad and stable with lots of room to stand around. They also put on magic food for the birders, not just for the birds. Coffee and tea comes as you want/need it, large plates of biscuits come out for morning tea and huge plates of salad and sandwiches come out for lunch. Bottled water and cans of soda are stored in an esky full of ice. Bliss; birds, food and friends – what could be better?
The remains of lunch after the hungry passengers had been at it.

Monday morning was time to look for, and dip on, the Cape Gannet that had been seen on Saturday evening but not to worry, 64 km away in Nelson was another recommended place for Olive Whistler. An added difficulty had arisen though, after my “mountaineering” at Triplet Falls and standing all day on rolling boat deck, as I got out of bed I nearly fell over because my calf muscles were so stiff and sore. A hot shower helped but walking was a nightmare and I was surprised that no one offered me a walking frame as I toddled down the main street of Portland to get food.
The Point Danger gannet colony from the sea. Fences to stop dogs and foxes can be seen on top and bottom of  the cape.

I got to Nelson, got out of the car and limped 100 metres down the Livingston’s Island Nature Trail and had Olive Whistlers “dancing all over my toes”. Thank heavens. Three down and one to go, well two actually because I had added the Cape Gannet to the “possible” list. So, three down, two to go. The walk hadn’t helped my calf muscles either and my left leg screamed abuse at me every time I put the clutch in to change gears.
Part of the gannet colony on Lawrence Rocks.

The Cape Gannet performed perfectly, at last. Isn’t it amazing how birds so often seem to hide and make you work to see them. They drop out of sight as you come up, then eventually wink at each other and say something akin to “OK, this is her third visit, she’s worked hard enough, lets come out and show our selves now”. Sigh, thank you Mr Cape Gannet.
Southern Pride at sea off Portland

Only one bird now, the Grey Goshawk, and all I could do was look and hope as I drove back to Melbourne. I must have been looking too hard because I suddenly saw a sign saying “Mount Gambier 405 km”! Mt Gambier is 180ยบ the wrong way if you want to get to Melbourne from Portland. I stopped at an intersection and consulted the map. Hmmm, not too bad, this little side road I had stopped at would take me about 3 km and drop me on the correct road. I threw the map book in the back and as I did I heard corellas yelling and screaming above me. I looked up and the screams were because – they were being chased by a Grey Goshawk! Lost? Lost? Pshaw! Who was lost? I just needed to be at that particular corner at that particular instant so I could tick off my last needed bird for the weekend. My legs stopped hurting, the road straightened out, the car purred and all was well with the world. I was floating. Four out of four wanted birds PLUS a MEGA. The Cape Gannet was a new bird for my Australia list and totally unexpected.

I finished the weekend with 8 new birds for my year list and a huge smile. Birding is such fun, and the SMILE comes back every time I think of the birds I saw, and how and when I saw them. 

Young Yellow-nosed Albatross

A pair of Shy Albatross canoodling.

The Short-tailed Shearwater were very keen on the berley we were  feeding out ...

... the bird at top has just surfaced from chasing berley as it sank and the other bird is just diving ....

... and they are very good at swimming under water going maybe 500mm deep for the sinking berley.

Wilson's Storm-petrel

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Fairy Prion

PS: The current Victorian Big Year record is 389. It was set in 2010 by Paul Dodd and Ruth Woodrow, and I have no intension of trying to break it (smile).

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cape Gannet at Point Danger, Portland

Lawrence Rocks and Point Danger both have Australian Gannet colonies, and they are the only places in eastern Australia where Cape Gannets can sometimes be found. The last reported sighting was of 4 birds on Lawrence Rocks in February 2005. In January 2004 there were 2 birds seen in the Point Danger colony.
Lawrence Rocks and Point Danger, nearest to them. Bottom left is Cape Nelson and top left is Portland (Goole Earth)

Back in May I was on my first ever Portland pelagic and as we were coming back into port we passed about 200 metres from Lawrence Rocks. I took 187 photos of the Gannets on the top of the rocks and when I got home I put the photos on the computer and looked for a Cape Gannet. Talk about playing “Where’s Wally”, with a magnifying glass! Total failure. Back on shore I went looking for the colony at Point Danger, got lost, and ended up at Cape Nelson, some 20 km from where I needed to be. Bother.
Lawrence Rocks

This last weekend I was on another Portland pelagic trip and I did my homework. I arrived at Point Danger without getting lost, but it was about 1800 and dusk. Worse, the dirt track was flooded and I didn’t want to risk getting bogged. I decided to give up and try on Sunday after the pelagic. When I pulled up outside my room at the motel Tim Bawden walked up and said, “We’ve just seen a Cape Gannet at Point Danger. Double Bother, or words to that effect! I looked at the time, remembered the road and decided to wait – but I think I almost cried into my beer at dinner when Paul Dodd showed me pictures.
Cape Gannet showing long gular stripe

After the pelagic on Sunday a convoy of cars headed to Point Danger but there was no Cape Gannet to be seen. I was staying the night so I went back at 0800 on Monday morning. It was a beautiful morning with no wind and bright sunshine, but no Cape Gannet. Hmmm, bother, again. I wanted to see an Olive Whistler for my year list so I drove the 65 km to Nelson (not Cape Nelson) and saw the bird and was back at Point Danger by 1200. I set my scope up on the viewing platform and the very first bird I looked at was the Cape Gannet. Yeeeeaaa! A quick dance around the tripod, another look, another dance – then it was time for some photos.
The colony on Point danger. Cape Gannet is bottom left.

Photos of birds standing still can be a bit boring but I took photos of the long black gular stripe and the all black tail. Another gannet arrived, an Australian Gannet, and neither bird stood still. There was lots of displaying with splayed wings and raised necks – and then they really started moving, they were pollinating! Well, being a nice girl that’s what I choose to call it (smile), others call it “copulating” or, or, no I can’t even type that word (smile).

The Cape Gannet went into display before his mate landed, I wonder if she called to him or did he just see her?

After some mutual displaying and the female had done some nest tidying the birds started "pollinating".

... but after it was over she quickly moved away and dumped him on the ground

It was then the male's turn to re-arrange the nesting material 

... and then go into another display while his mate preened

 A deep final bow to his mate, who wasn't even watching.
After watching the bird for about an hour I rang Paul and told him I had seen it, then headed off to fill the car with petrol, me with lunch, and start the long drive home. My photos are nowhere near as good as Paul’s but they are good enough for the record and they do show the birds “moving”.

All images and text © Jenny Spry