Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 and the Year of the Night-bird

2013 was my year to attempt to see more species of bird in Victoria in a year than I had before, a sort of casual “Big Year”, just to beat my not too spectacular 2010 total of 304 species seen in Victoria in one year. The current record for Victoria is 389 species, held by Paul Dodd & Ruth Woodrow. I was not out to beat that, just my own total.

The year started well and by the end of June I was up to 310 species and my 2010 record was beaten, but then a distraction occurred. I suddenly found I was doing two “Big Years”, concurrently. A check of my old records showed that I had never before seen more than 4 owl species in Victoria in one year (Sooty, Powerful, Barn and Southern Boobook) and now I had already seen 6; Sooty, Barn, Masked, Barking, Powerful and Morepork. Added to these I had also seen Australian Owlet-nightjar and Spotted Nightjar. That made eight night birds and I realised I was doing a “Victorian Night-bird Big Year”. Oooh, what fun.

The first night bird for the year was a Powerful Owl at Banyule, beside the Yarra on the 6th of January. It was a beautiful day but care was needed as we were walking along a narrow, muddy path used by that ferocious breed of non-avian road-runner – the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). No “beep beep” from these road-runners though, just a “ting  ting”, and that is the signal to jump sideways as a blur of bicycle wheels and multi-coloured lycra speeds by. Just after a flock of these strange beasts had past, I looked sideways and there, right at eye level was a Powerful Owl. It sat there with its dinner, a Ring-tailed Possum, in its talon.
Powerful Owl

The second owl came on the 27th of January at Orbost and the instant I saw it I knew it was my new most favouritest owl ever! In the warm January night air it flew in and sat above the car and looked at us. I just melted into oohs and aahs. I was looking at my first Masked Owl. Tick. This owl had been a “bogey bird” for me for many years of wandering the night time forest and farm roads around Gippsland. My friend Joy must have known that we would win because she had bought two single drink bottles of bubbly at the pub while we were having dinner. High fives, a clink of glasses and lots of “wow, did you see ...”; “how about when it ...”; “alright, at last, after all these years ... ”. Clink, sip, sigh, and back to the motel, floating high on the memory all the way.
Masked Owl, the picture is very average but the bird was beautiful

The next owl was a new Victorian sighting for me. A Barking Owl that we found near Chiltern at Easter. This bird was easier to find and only took one night of looking. We heard them first, calling across farmland, but they remained distant and out of sight. We finally gave up and drove the country roads until we came around a corner and there, right in the headlights, just above the road, was the Barking Owl. Isn’t it interesting how some birds will stay out of sight, sometimes for years, until they judge you have done enough work to “earn” your view, then they pop out and say “hi, here I am, have your look, you’ve earned it now, left profile, right profile ... ”?

My Barn Owl happened because the take away dinner shop in Nhill was super busy. Our pizza was going to take 45 minutes or more. Nhill is in the middle of the Mallee wheat growing area of Victoria and what better place is there for Barn Owls? We drove out of town and headed south, planning on doing a large square around the paddocks until, finally, we would end up back outside the pizza shop. The first leg of the square provided nothing. We turned right and started the westerly leg of the square, driving slowly with headlights on high and the led lenser waving out the passenger window, as you do. About half way along the road a large pale bird flew across the headlight beam and we turned the car so the headlights followed it. The road was wide and we ended up almost at 90º to it with the lights out into the paddock where the bird had landed. It sat for a while and then leisurely flew off. We finished driving the square without seeing any more owls and went back into to the pizza shop. Have you ever noticed how much better a dinner tastes after you have ticked off a wanted bird?
Barn Owl, not the Nhill bird but they are very beautiful

Fifth owl for the year was a Sooty Owl. I have one of these “tied to a tree” down near Orbost but that is a long way to go. Something closer was needed. Lots of people say the place to go is Badger Weir near Healsville. Joy and I arrived at the car park just on dark and walked into the picnic area. It took a while put we finally heard one call from high on a ridge to our left. This bird stopped calling but soon a pair was calling from the back of the picnic area. We stood waiting as the calls grew closer and closer until at last one bird flew over our heads and landed low in a Black Wattle while its mate stayed hidden, calling from high in a gum tree.

And then came a bonus bird and, according to the latest IOC list of Australian birds, a new “tick”. A “Southern Boobook” had been seen in a back yard in Hamilton. As the photos went around it was agreed it was a bird from Tasmania and therefore not a Southern Boobook any more but, because of the species split, a Morepork. I called and arranged to drive down and, on a beautiful sunny day, I headed for Hamilton. The gorgeous little bird was sitting right where it was meant to be and I had beautiful views.

The last owl species, a Southern Boobook, finally showed itself as we camped at Wyperfeld National Park in north-west Victoria. On our first night at the campground we heard one calling, and then a reply. We traced one owl to a large dead tree beside a road and the second to some trees further off the road. Each night after that we went to sleep to the back and forth “mo-poke, mo-poke” call of the birds and if we awoke in the early hours we could still hear them. Gorgeous.

Then there are the “almost owls”, the owlet-nightjars, nightjars and frogmouths. The Owlet-nightjar we found was flying around each evening over our camp at Hattah Kulkyne.
Australian Owlet-nightjar, they are just so cute

Later that same weekend we were driving around the park at night and we flushed a Spotted Nightjar. Normally nightjar sightings can be brief as they fly in and out of a torch beam. This one, however, flew ahead of us in the headlight beam for some minutes giving wonderful views of the spots in the wing.
Spotted Nightjar

The first Tawny Frogmouth for the year we found snoozing in the morning sun as we walked around Banyule on the 6th of January.
Tawny Frogmouth

So, as the year came to an end I was just missing one Victorian night bird, White-throated Nightjar, but there was a problem, I had run out of time to see one. I could drive the three hours to Chiltern where I know they live, or four hours down to Orbost. They live closer to Melbourne too, out near Healesville or Bunyip, just two hours from home, but those ones live where hoons on trail bikes blaze through the night and I am just not keen enough to enter their territories alone. So I ended up with, for Victoria, 7 owls, 1 Frogmouth, 1 Owlet-nightjar and 1 Nightjar. I was very pleased.

Outside Victoria I added Christmas Island Hawk-owl and Savanna Night-jar to my list to give me 12 night birds for the year.
Christmas Island Hawk-owl

One final owl I saw was a Masked Owl in Tasmania. It is currently a race of the mainland Masked Owl but is being considered by the IOC for splitting into its own species. I saw a pair of these one night in September but I can’t officially add it to my list for night bird number 13 until the IOC formally announce the split.

To finish the year I headed for the Western Treatment Plant, where else? Especially as we will be starting the new year tomorrow with a gathering of birding friends at ... the WTP. One reason for the visit was to find one last bird for the year, a Long-toed Stint. I arrived early and started hunting and the day went from good to better to great. I found the stint, then found a Broad-billed Sandpiper, then had a fly by from a Black Falcon, then found 3 Pectoral Sandpipers, 6 Grey Plover, 1 Far Eastern Curlew, 1 Bar-tailed Godwit, 3 Red Knot and 1 Bailon’s Crake.
Long-toed Stilt, and it even lifted a leg to show the long toes

Broad-billed Sandpiper, centre, and two Red-necked Stints

So, I ended up seeing 12 species of night bird in one year and broke my old Victorian year record of 304 by 42 species! Yes! 2013 was a fun year (smile).

All text & images © Jenny Spry


  1. Some magnificent nocturnal finds. Love the powerful owl portrait. Hope you have a bigger year in 2014!

    1. Hi Russell, I am working on it. No definite plans yet but there are some interesting pelagics on offer this year (smile)