Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Reflections in a WTP Settling Pond

Yesterday a high pressure system was sitting over Melbourne but a front was due to arrive sometime around the middle of the day. Knowing that my birding time may be limited by this weather change I headed for the Western Treatment Plant early, getting there at about 8:00 am. The forecast turned out to be exactly what happened with the morning being calm and clear and then, at about 11:00 am, the sky clouded over and a north-west wind came in hard enough to rock the car around every time I stopped to check out the birds.

Strong winds at the WTP are not pleasant. The tracks and empty ponds are composed of a very fine black soil and it does not take long for binoculars, scopes, hands, clothes, everything to become coated. Just half an hour lays enough dust on the dashboard that you could use your finger tip to write your day list in it. As I eat my lunch I try not to think of what that fine dust that coats everything is made from.

Still, the first few hours were the best I have had at the WTP for some time. There was no wind at all, not even a gentle zephyr to mar the glassy surface of the ponds. The temperature was low so there was no heat haze to blur the scope views and many of the waders were moulting into breeding plumage. In fact, the moulting was so universal across all the ducks and waders that small white feathers floated gently on the ponds and accumulated around the edges like a lace trimming. Sounds carried well too and the unmistakable honking call of Brolgas in flight could be heard log before the birds came into view. On getting out of the car with the scope the cool morning air, scented with dew on the grass, was a joy to breathe,

This is also the time of year that all wader watching opportunities need to be grabbed whenever possible. The flocks are getting touchy and spend a lot of time on the wing, circling and landing, then exploding into flight for no apparent reason. The Curlew Sandpipers are the brightest with their brick-red chests but the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers are also getting bright new primaries to carry them north. Within the next few weeks the waders will disappear and then all we can do is wait until they return, with worn feathers and voracious appetites.

I know everyone does "reflection" photos but the morning was so perfect and the birds so beautiful I could just not resist (smile).

Looking north over Pond 6 at the "T" Section lagoons

A mixed flock on a mudbank 


White-headed Stilt – that we used to call Black-winged Stilt

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper


Common Greenshank

Red-necked Stint

White-headed Stilt

Marsh Sandpiper

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Darwin in the wet

On the 21st of January a Grey Phalarope was found on Leanyer Sewage Treatment Plant in Darwin and the twitch was on, birders from all over Australia made plans. On the 22nd I got on the internet and arranged a birding pass for entry to the treatment plant.
Male Bar-shouldered Dove giving courtship display

Northern race of Galah,  kuhli

On the 23rd the news even hit the local Darwin ABC radio station but this is the wet season and, also on the 23rd, heavy rain caused flooding across Darwin washing out roads and rail lines and closing the sewage plant. Two things had happened at the plant, first the dirt tracks had become impassable and second, a crocodile had swum in and been seen in one of the ponds. The twich was on hold! This was a birding nightmare! A class one vagrant was in town and birders couldn't get in to see it. The twitch subsided with an audible sigh of dismay!
Python in Botanical Gardens. A beautiful specimen that we eventually realised was made of plastic (smile)

Not to be daunted, when the rain eased off a few intrepid souls walked into the boundary fence on the 26th and 27th and found that distant scope views of the bird could be obtained from outside the fence, and the twitch was on again, with an audible sigh of relief.
Cattle Egrets with very tame Buffalo used for milk and cheese production

When people walked in to the fence on the 6th February they found not only the Grey Phalarope was on the pond, but there were 7 Red-necked Phalarope with it. This was totally unheard of. Red-necked Phalarope usually occur in Australia in ones and twos as rare vagrants, rarely in a flock, and the Grey was only Australia's sixth record. But still it rained and still the inside of the plant remained off limits.
Pied Herons

Procrastination and other plans got in the way and the earliest I could get to Darwin was Saturday 15th Feb, 3 weeks after the bird was found and, as it turned out, 5 days after all the phalaropes decided to fly north. I had dipped!
Intermediate Egret in breeding plumage

As I hadn't birded around Darwin before I could still possibly find some new birds; Rufous Owl, Hooded Parrot, Yellow-rumped Mannikin, Partridge Pigeon and Chestnut-backed Buttonquail, so I stuck to my plan and boarded the Saturday flight to Darwin.
Little Egret in breeding plumage

I met up with friends in Darwin and we headed out to look for birds. Even though we knew all the phalaropes had gone we decided to head for Leanyer Sewage Treatment Plant just because sewage treatment plants are "5 star" tourist spots, if you are a birder. We also secretly wanted to make sure for ourselves that the phalarope had left, even though some of the best birders in town had told us they had. I mean, what if they had come back sometime in the last hour! They hadn't. Sigh.
Forest Kingfisher

Next stop was Knuckey's Lagoon to look for finches and cisticolas. There were no cisticolas but there was a small group of Chestnut-breasted Mannikin and in the middle of the group – one Yellow-rumped Mannikin, my first tick for the trip.
Brush Cuckoo

From Knuckey's Lagoon it was off to the Botanical Gardens to track down a Rufous Owl that lives there, most of the time but not on that day. Bother. Howard Springs was another option for the owl so off we went arriving late in the day when Rufous Owls are meant to fly out of the wet, mosquito and leach-infested forest. None did so we walked in, and didn't see one. Next evening we repeated the process, again without luck. A third visit later that night worked though and just as we pulled up a Rufous Owl did a long, slow fly-past, right in front of the car, and we all had an extended look at this special bird. Tick two.
Comb-crested Jacana showing off its long toes

Sunday morning saw us heading for the Palmerston poo-ponds, my second poo-ponds for the trip, where 2 Red-necked Phalarope had been reported. The ponds were closed but by peering through the trees, we could see glimpses of water but little else.
Merton's Water monitor. This one was just over a metre long

Out at Fogg Dam that afternoon herons and egrets fed on the spillway and captive water buffalo allowed Cattle Egrets to walk on their backs. The highlights though were probably the sheer number of herons and egrets, all in breeding plumage, the Bustard that flew over the road and the Slaty-grey Snake that slid very fast across in front of us as we headed home.
Slaty-grey Snake, about 2 metres long

On Tuesday morning I drove down to Pine Creek, about 220 km south of Darwin, for my next group of wanted birds. I booked into the Lazy Lizard cabins behind the pub after a quick look at the football ground for the Hooded Parrots that are meant to hang out there. There was no sign of them so I figured I would need to go back late in the afternoon or early the next morning.
Great Bowerbird at power in garden of the Lazy Lizard Hotel

My next act was to check out all the other local birding spots that had been recommended to me. The local poo-ponds were small and only had 4 Wandering Whistling Ducks, 2 Rajah Shelducks and a lone Black-fronted Dotterel. They did, however, hold the distinction of being the third poo-ponds I had explored on the trip, a new record for the number of poo-ponds visited on one trip.
Wandering Whistling Duck at Leanyer Sewage Treatment Ponds

From the poo-ponds I drove down to Copperfield Dam. This is a beautiful location tucked in over a rise of rocky hills. The day was overcast but the trees still shone vibrant green against the red soil and long grass. The birds were scarce but a couple of fun experiences were a shimmering blue butterfly, a Blue Argus, a Chestnut-backed Button Quail that scurried into the grass beside the track (tick three) and a Collared Lorikeet that sat on a dead branch and screamed at me.
Copperfield Dam

I think these signs are to scale. Dogs in the Northern Territory are as big as donkeys and could easily be as tall as a tent (smile)

Male Blue Argus butterfly

Having checked out all the recommended spots I drove back into town and picked up sandwiches and a drink for lunch and headed back to the football oval to wait for the parrots. To my delight a small group, apparently all female and juvenile, flew in and allowed a couple of id photos. Tick four was in the bag.
Blue-faced Honeyeater

After lunch I returned to Copperfield Dam and spent until 1600 looking for Partridge Pigeons. Then at 1615 a massive storm hit and the rain bucketed. Birding for the day was over. I got back to the cabin just as the lightning hit and blacked out the entire town so I sat in the dark writing up the day's adventures on my laptop and wondered what sort of cold meal the Lazy Lizard pub might be able to serve me for dinner.
Crimson Finch

I wandered into the outdoor bar/dining area and all was dark except for a few candles on the bar. I asked about dinner and there was some discussion about what they could cook in the dark and I was surprised to hear that Spaghetti Carbonara was a possibility so I said, yes please, and bought a glass of chardonnay to go with it. What arrived was the best carbonara I have had in many years. As I ate it I saw a sign saying homemade ice cream. What a perfect way to finish the day. So my recommendation is, if you are in Pine Creek looking for birds, eat at the Lazy Lizard. It is a special treat, made even better if the meal is served by candlelight in the middle of an electrical storm (smile).
Torresian Crows with adult to left and juvenile at bottom

Helmeted Guineafowl seen on roadside near Pine Creek. Introduced with some feral populations self sustaining.

My alarm went off at 0600 and by 0630 I was back down at Copperfield Dam and started driving up and down the access road. Copperfield Dam is a beautiful spot and I found many birds but they were all very shy. Collared and Varied Lorikeets flew through but not many landed and the Silver-crowned Friarbirds kept well within the foliage, as did the Northern Rosellas. After 5 or 6 return trips on the access road I stopped because I heard some honeyeaters calling down the gully toward the dam. As I got out of the car I looked back up the road and there, walking slowly and sedately down the road as only a pigeon can, was my last target species for the weekend, a Partridge Pigeon – tick five. It has been a long time since I have had a 5 tick trip. It will be my last time in Australia too as there is now nowhere I can go and get more than 3 ticks in a single location. In total I saw 102 species for the four days.
Male Hooded Parrot at Copperfield Dam

Pair of Hooded Parrot

It was now midday and I had to start heading back toward Darwin. Just in case though, before I left I did the rounds of all the roads that were still passable after the night's rain. First stop was the local tip, always a good spot for birds but there was a guy going through the rubbish looking for refundable bottles and cans so the birds had all left. Next stop was the road behind the railway station to look for finches, again with no luck. A final stop at the football ground had nothing new to see and I was on my way. I had dipped on seeing the vagrant Grey Phalarope but it was still four days of brilliant birding.

Red-collared Lorikeet

Partridge Pigeaon, race smithii

Radjah Shelduck

Grassy woodlands around Pine Creek

Grey Kangaroo at Pine Creek
Bar-shouldered Dove

All text & images © Jenny Spry

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

(American) Golden Plover

Late December last year a Golden Plover was found by 2 birders on rocks near the Point Cook homestead, just outside Melbourne. It was with a flock of 20 +/- Pacific Golden Plover but did not look like them.  Unfortunately the preferred roost location for the flock was in a restricted area that requires permission to enter.

On 22/12 five of us got permission to drive in to the restricted area but our views of the bird, which was in full non-breeding plumage and very worn, were inconclusive. Since then I have walked to the roost location four times, a distance from the locked gate of just over 3.5 km return, and in the heat of a summer day with no shade, it was not easy. I did not find the flock on any of these trips.

Today however Bernie, the ranger, was kind enough to drive us down on his way in to do maintenance work on pumps and organise a crew of workers. He dropped us of at the roost site and there were 16 Golden Plover there, including the American Golden Plover.

The following is a selection of photos taken in the early morning light through a haze of smoke from the bush fires currently burning to the north of Melbourne.
Although not, I believe, 100% confirmed this is the bird considered to be an American Golden Plover.  The symmetrical pattern on the wing coverts was particularly noticeable and very different to the surrounding Pacific Golden Plovers. 

At a distance the AGP is noticeably different to the surrounding Pacific Golden Plovers

Even from the rear there is a big difference

Rear view

Profile with Pacific Golden Plover for comparison

Profile with Pacific Golden Plover for comparison

Profile with Pacific Golden Plover for comparison

Profile with Pacific Golden Plover for comparison

Series taken with the wing raised as the bird stretched

3/4 profile


AGP in alert position

All images & text © Jenny Spry