Sunday, February 2, 2014

Australia Day Holiday Weekend

Public holiday weekends are a great opportunity to get away for some birding. For the past few years we have taken this summer break as a chance to head to Orbost and the coast in the far east of Victoria but this year we opted for a change and headed north-east to the dry grasslands and hills around Chiltern.
Chiltern area with thanks to Google Earth

Chiltern is in the middle of a National Park that protects a large Box-Ironbark woodland, and not far to the south-west there is a similar woodland in the Warby-Ovens National Park. There is a third section of the park to the south-east of Chiltern but we did not bird down there due to lack of time.
Box-Ironbark woodland. The dark tree to the left of the track is an Ironbark and the grey trees are Box

A stand of Ironbark with their thick, creviced bark. 

It was the first time we had been to these parks in summer and the birding was spectacular, as was our drive up on the Friday, and not because of the birds we saw. It was raining a gentle mist as we left Melb and it got heavier as we went north. By the time we were having lunch in Benalla it was heavy enough to be "damp-standing-under-the-tailgate" but not quite "sit-in-the-car" annoying and by the time we were getting near Chiltern it was spectacular. Across the flat plains to the west of Chiltern we could see the dark clouds forming broad funnel shapes that extended right to the ground and within these clouds and rain everything, trees, houses, fences, animals, all disappeared from view. I love a good storm and this was one of the best.
Yellow-tufted Honeyeater

Crested Shrike-tit with its crest raised

We stayed at the Lake Anderson Caravan Park in Chiltern and when we got up on Saturday morning the sun was out and the bush smelt sparkly fresh and sharp in the cool air. It is a smell that always stops me in my tracks and makes me close my eyes, breathe deeply and smile. Our first stop was Bartley’s Block, a cleared area within the forest, and in the early morning sunshine the flowering mistletoe was full of honeyeaters, and small birds bounced and chirped in the freshness everywhere we walked.
Bartley's Block sign

Bartley's Block and the long grass in which VERY LARGE snakes live

A small brown honeyeater gave us our first id challenge. It looked like a female Black Honeyeater but we hadn’t expected to find that species, but then we saw a male in its black hood and black-zipped front. And then we saw another one, and then another and another. It seems that they are not uncommon around Chiltern in January, it is just that we had never birded around Chiltern in mid summer. Then came the next surprise with the arrival of White-throated Gerygones. Again we realised that they are a summer visitor that we had missed in our previous winter visits.
Female Black-honeyeater

Male Black Honeyeater in flowering Mistletoe

The regulars were there as well but again proved a bit of a challenge because so many were young birds without their adult colouring. The Red-capped Robins were just brown, the Turquoise Parrots had very little to no turquoise on the face and the young White-throated Gerygones did not have a white throat. It was fun to have to think about identification a bit as small birds flitted past in the tangle of leaves and branches.
Young Red-capped Robin, without any distinguishing colour

Red-capped Robin in moult

Young Turquoise Parrot in the Warby Ranges

Turquoise Parrot with a hint of turquoise colour on the face

Adult White-throated Gerygone

Young White-throated Gerygone with no white throat

The rain seemed to have brought out a few other interesting natives. In the long dead grass, half way across Bartley's Block I stopped in mid stride and called for Joy to stop too. Just in front of me was the largest and most beautiful Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus) I have ever seen. It was thick and shiny and I guess it was nearly 2 metres long, but I didn't get close enough to actually pace out its length or lie down beside it for comparison; the comment in the field guide says "Dangerously venomous and bite can be fatal". It knew we were there but it too froze as we watched until we backed off a little and it slid away between some trees. Gorgeous. Later we came across a large Tree Goana or Lace Monitor (Varanus varius) and judging by the broad spread of its stomach it had just finished a very large meal.
The Red-bellied Black Snake as I first saw it. Two more steps and my foot would have been on the back of a very angry, very dangerous, snake. 
Portrait of a beautiful Red-bellied Black Snake

Red-bellied Black Snake stretching out as it moved away

Lace Monitor

On Saturday night we went looking for a Barking Owl at a spot we know of south of Chiltern. They are not hard to find in this area but there is a small complication, the locals have a very active "Neighbourhood Watch". Last year when we were there a police car pulled up along side us but left with a wave and a smile when we said we were looking for owls. This year two cars pulled us over, and again were satisfied when they found out we were looking for owls, but it was a bit scary.
Barking Owl

Tawny Frogmouth

Sunday was our day for the Warby Ranges and although the habitat is similar we have always found it to be a little dryer with a different mix of birds so well worth a visit. After a look around Bartley's Block in the morning we arrived in Wangaratta at lunchtime and were lucky enough to choose Kaluna Bushland Reserve, right in the middle of town, as a spot for lunch. As we walked the trails through the reserve we were surrounded by birds, including the yellow form of the Crimson Rosella and more than a dozen Dollarbirds. This was another surprise for the trip. We have seen Dollarbirds in Vic before but never in such big flocks.
Dollarbird showing the distinctive white "dollars" in the wings

Of course all these Dollarbirds got us off on one of our driving reveries. We decided that a flock of Dollarbirds had to be either a Bank or Wealth of Dollarbirds and this led us to consider some of the other birds we had seen for the weekend; A Surprise of Black Honeyeaters just because we weren't expecting them, a Delight of White-throated Gerygone because they are so beautiful in their butter-yellow vests, and a Pin-cushion of Needletails, why not.
Adult Blue-faced Honeyeater

Young Blue-faced Honeyeater

As usual the Warby Ranges did give us different birds including large numbers of Turquoise Parrots and Leaden Flycatchers. We ended the trip with well over 100 species for the weekend including Latham's Snipe, Peregrine Falcon, Peaceful Dove, Little Corella, Little Lorikeet, Speckled Warbler and Western Gerygone.
Varied Sittella

Young White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike
Don't you just love the hairdo? "Mr T", isn't it?

Fuscous Honeyeater in the morning sunshine

Can it be called "flying" if the wings are closed?

I know, maybe not the best photo but can't you just hear the sound of these two laughing together in the crisp morning sunshine?

 All text & images © Jenny Spry

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