Thursday, January 15, 2015

A MEGA Twitch or "Once more onto the beach, dear friends, ..."*

White-rumped Sandpiper, the bird that said we just HAD to go on the twitch

On Monday 5th of January two postings on the local birding site got all the local twitchers edgy. A White-rumped Sandpiper had been seen on a beach near Shoalhaven, south of Sydney and a South Island Pied Oystercatcher (SIPO) had been seen on a beach near Coff's Harbour, North of Sydney. The oystercatcher is from New Zealand and they turn up in Australia with some regularity.
South Island Pied Oystercatcher

The sandpiper is a different case altogether. It breeds in the arctic and then flies down the west coast of Canada and the USA to spend the northern winter in the south of South America. Somehow this bird got mixed with the wrong flock, or got her/his directions mixed, or maybe just wanted to go exploring. Whichever, he/she ended up in Australia instead of South America. Because there have only been a few, maybe 6 or 7, White-rumped Sandpipers found in Australia the twitcher network went crazy.
Joy's photo of me peering down the beach. We found the SIPO at the far end

Joy and I read the postings, called Barb, and the "game was afoot"*. The earliest we could leave was Saturday so it was a long week hoping that both birds would hang around. I watched the twitching sites for reports of the sandpiper daily, well, no, hourly actually, well, OK, every 5 or ten minutes. People were driving in, flying in, organising groups to go carpooling. People started posting photos of the sandpiper and giving updates. Then it disappeared from the beach it had been found on! aaargh, we would miss seeing it. Then it was re-found at a Little Tern nesting colony beside a lake south of Shoalhaven, aaah, there was still hope.
Inside our 20th century plane.

We booked a loop trip; Melbourne to Coff's Harbour via Sydney, Shoalhaven via Sydney and then back to Melb. We rendezvoused at Joy's on Friday night and left for the airport at 0400 Saturday morning. The flight to Sydney was by your standard 21st C jet but Sydney to Coff's was in a quaint old thing with a high wing and propellers. This would have been OK but when I looked out the window there was this huge spinning blade, and I immediately had images of a James Bond scenario where the blade would break loose and come scything through the plane, right about where I was sitting. When we came to land the wheels came down and the whole plane shook and shuddered, it was all just so last century (smile).
The view from my seat

It looked much more romantic once we were in the air

All went well though and by 1100 we were standing on the beach south of Coff's Harbour looking for the SIPO. The day was warm, as it always is in central New South Wales but there was a very strong northerly blowing right down the beach. We started staggering into the wind as sea spray and flying sand blasted into our faces. The spot we were aiming for was 3 km up the beach and we so hoped that the bird was hiding somewhere closer.
The SIPO in a cloud of sand

I set up the scope and peered up the beach into the sand storm. Nothing. A kilometre further north and I tried again. Still nothing. We kept walking and finally saw a small black dot. I set the scope up and through the fog of sand I could see three bird-sized black dots. Yes!! it was starting to look good. After a bit more walking I tried the scope again and .... two of the dots were driftwood but one was a bird, an oystercatcher. But was it an Australian oystercatcher or a New Zealand one?

We got closer and took a few photos and it looked good for the SIPO. We then moved closer again and up to the top of the beach by the bushes so we were less visible. The sand blasted us and the bird turned and looked at us. It then took off and flew for maybe 50 metres up the beach and we got a good view of the open wing. All the marks were good for SIPO. Yes!! Tick one for the trip.
It was Barb's 750th Australian species so she was particularly pleased

On Sunday morning we were on the 0600 flight out of Coff's heading for Shoalhaven via Sydney, well actually Culburra Beach and Lake Wollumboula, just south of Shoalhaven. The departure lounge at Coff's was as much fun as the flight in the little plane had been. We walked in and there it was, the Biggles coffee shop. This wasn't just 20th C, it was early 20th C. I loved it. We walked out to the plane and up the stairs and the door closed. I was sure I then heard a call from the cockpit, "chocks away Algy", but maybe not. One excellent thing though was that we flew so low I got nice photos of Tucker Rocks and Bundagen Headland where we had seen the SIPO.

Bundagen Headland. We walked 3 km along the beach to the right

After driving from Sydney in heavy rain and fog we arrived at the sandpiper lake at about 1100 and the experience was very different to the SIPO experience. As we got out of the car a birder was loading his scope into the boot of his car. "Hi" we said, "is the bird still here". No need to name the bird, there was only one that birders wanted to see. "Yes", he said, "there's a group watching it now". We walked for about a kilometre in a light drizzle of rain but thankfully not much wind, and there were the people, and there was "the bird". I set the scope up, pointed it at a bird huddled behind a bit of seaweed and, Tick Two. The MEGA was in the bag.
WRSP with Red-necked Stints

WRSP and Little Tern

WRSP and Lesser Sand Plover


The rain stopped and shafts of sunlight lit the black clouds and grey lake. We chatted to people as they came and went. We took hundreds of photos. We chatted to more people. We took more photos of the other waders at the lake. Without a doubt there was a greater variety of small wader species than I had seen in many years; there were Broad-billed Sandpipers, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, Red-knots, Lesser Sand Plovers and Red-necked Stints. The thrill of seeing this bird, rare to Australia, held us and the others on the beach despite the showers of rain that drifted through.

Lesser (Mongolian) Sand Plover

The beach and Little Tern nesting area

Little Terns

The Little Terns had almost finished nesting inside their fenced-off reserve but they and the Crested Terns were still around in big numbers. 
Little Terns inside their fenced off nesting area

We finally drifted off to clean up at our motel and head to a little cafe for a late lunch. The Ten Thousand Tastebuds Cafe is only small but it had the best food and is well worth going to if you are in town looking for "the bird". Best of all, they knew about the sandpiper and didn't think we were totally strange as we sat there eating sandwiches and raving about a non-descript little brown bird that had somehow got lost and flown half way round the world, the wrong way.
Red Knot

Broad-billed Sandpipers

Broad-billed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stint

Red Knots and Red-necked Sandpipers

In just two days of frantic travelling and birding we had ticked off two new birds, seen a lot of NSW birds that we don't get around Melbourne, met a bunch of wonderful people and had a really fun time. What a gorgeous way to spend a weekend.
Red-necked Stints

Water Dragon, just to show that we look at things other than birds (smile)

Water dragon

*With apologies to the bard and King Henry V, or Sherlock Holmes, and modified to suit (smile)

All text and images © Jenny Spry

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New Year's Day 2015

It's nice to start each year with a special bird so, as I got in the car at 7 am and headed to the Western Treatment Plant (WTP), I tried very hard not to look at any birds. Then an Indian Myna, one of Australia's worst environmental bird pests, sometimes known "lovingly" as flying rats, flew straight in front of the car and I couldn't help but see it, sigh. Ah well, the year had to start with something in its normal habitat, a suburban (smile).
Indian Myna in its normal habitat, a suburban street

It is also nice to start the year with friends and our champagne picnic at the WTP with Joy T, Mel and Joy S has now been going long enough to be a tradition to look forward to. And like last year, unexpected friends joined us. This year Annette and Mark stopped by our spot that looks out over the coastal marshland - that is full of often heard, but rarely seen, crakes and rails - and made us six. Perhaps next year it will be eight (smile).

Unlike last year, the sun came out for us and the wind didn't blow, so we sat back and chatted about 2014 and dreamt of trips for 2015 knowing that the birds and weather will conspire to thwart many of our plans. For example on Friday and Saturday, 2nd and 3rd of January, the temp got over 38º C (100º F) in Melbourne and higher on the drying salt lake where the dowitcher is hanging out. Joy and I were going to drive north-west for a second look at the Long-billed Dowitcher, as well as chase up some arid country birds but we decided against it, maybe we are getting old (smile). On Saturday the heat came with gale force northerlies and the effect is similar to standing in front of a blast furnace with its door open. If we had been with the dowitcher, stinging sand and salt would have been added to the mix. Not fun birding.
Pectoral Sandpiper with very worn feathers

One uncommon bird seen on Jan 1st 2014 was seen again this year, a Pectoral Sandpiper, but the Long-toed Sandpiper and Broad-billed Sandpiper we had last year have either not returned yet or have not been found. This is not surprising as there are tens of thousands of small waders at the plant at the moment and finding one small bird that is only slightly different from all the rest is not easy. It is made harder still when you have patiently worked half way through a flock of thousands only to have a Swamp Harrier go over, and they all take off, re-sort themselves with a whirr of wings, and then land back where they started (smile). But in the end I finished the day with 95 species which is a good number and just a bit down on last year's 104.
Pectoral Sandpiper

So with the temp in the 40s for the last two days I have been computer birding in preparation for 2015. The new diary has been started, the new bird sighting spreadsheet is finished, all the 2014 photos are sorted and stored and many cups of my new favourite green tea, Lung Ching, have been drunk. Maybe this week, when the forecast is better, I will head west and see if I can find a Painted Honeyeater, and so the pleasure of being in the bush and finding birds will continue for another year.
Horsfeld's Bushlark

Happy New Year everyone, stay well and I hope you see lots of birds and don't dip on too many.
Crested Pigeon
Buff-banded Rail

All text & images © Jenny Spry