Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Murray-Sunset 3rd to 6th September

This year has been very wet in Victoria, maybe as wet 2010 when all the lakes and dams filled. With the hope that the Mallee parks around Ouyen would be green and their trees would be in flower three of us headed north for a long weekend of birding. Joy had insisted I was to enjoy by birthday properly and had taken an extra day off work. Mel was working on her Year List in the hope that she could see 400 species in the year, and see some new birds as well. I was along for a fun weekend of birding.
Pink Lakes with camping area
Melbourne to Ouyen is a well-worn track for us. First stop is Lockwood South for a cup of tea at the rest stop and sports ground. Usually a well cared for area the rains had sent everything into overdrive and the ground was covered in a long growth of something that looked like Cape Weed.
Orchid Calandenia parva
Second stop was lunch at Lake Tyrell. Usually this is an all but dry salt pan but this year the water levels are high. Strangely Lake Tyrell, 400 km From Adelaide, 400 km from Melbourne and 800 km from Sydney - all as the crow flies - has become the latest must-visit place for Chinese tourists. Sea Lake, the nearest town with a population of just over 600 is a dying wheat town but check out this website:    and the photos when you Google Lake Tyrell. The photos are fantastic and you can see why the place has become so popular.

As we left Lake Tyrell and headed north west the rain set in and our hoped for afternoon tea in Timberoo Forest Reserve got washed out. We went their because it is one of the closest places to Melbourne to see White-browed Treecreepers. We slipped and slid along the dirt roads and out to the Mallee Highway and the road into Ouyen. Mel also collects photos of "Big Things" and in Ouyen they have the Big Wheat Sheaf and The Big Mallee-root. She collected photos of them both to add to her collection.
Sunrise on the way into Murray-Sunset

Watching Brown Songlark singing at sunrise

Restful is not a word I would apply to the weekend but fun is. We drove out to Pink Lakes to look for Striated Grasswren and Joy was the only one to see one. Into Honeymoon Track hoping for Red-lored Whistler, Black-eared Miner and Chestnut Quail-thrush. Of course we dipped on the first two but Mel got a tick with the quail-thrush. We also found some Mallee Emu-wrens which I had great fun with 'cos I was road testing my new hearing aid ... and I could hear them!! The aid has three settings, one indoor and two outdoor. Of course it had taken me some time with the audiologist before she did what I wanted with one of the outdoor settings which was to crank up the high frequency end. When I finally said I was happy with the settings she had them at the extreme of the capability and she said the sound would be to loud. She was right, inside or for normal use it is too loud but in the silence of the Murray-Sunset bush it was perfect. All the little bush noises I haven't heard since I can't remember when just whispered in my ear. Of course when a Rainbow Lorikeet goes over my first instinct is to clasp my hands to my ears and duck (smile).
Mallee Emu-wren

Mulga Parrots showing banding at base of tail

Female and male Mulga Parrot

Male and young adult male Mulga Parrots

The fight goes on. Male upper and young male lower

I think "bird(s) of the weekend" were the Mallefowl we found working a nest. In all my years of birding this was the first time I had seen Malleefowl at a nest, mainly because I do not like staking out nests. This particular nest was a bit different because we came across it no more than 20 metres in from the road and we could watch without leaving the car or road. I will need to do some more reading though because there were 3 adult birds near the nest so I assume one pair and an interloper hoping to break up the couple. And, again, because of my new hearing aid I could even hear the low frequency "oooom" call the birds were making.

Malleefowl working nest. The male adds or scrapes off leaf litter and sand to maintain the best  nest temperature for incubation of the eggs.

Planning for a birthday dinner in a town where there are only two options is not too difficult. The hotel does a good, umm? well ... , yes, alright, an OK,  "hotel-style" meal and the Ouyen Club has a nice selection of country town style "Asian come Chinese" dishes. Both were available for dinner on the Monday night and I finally selected the hotel. I chose it for two reasons; first, the hotel offers the standard "sticky date pudding" type desert but the club does not offer dessert and, second, my Great Grandfather used to stay at the hotel in Ouyen when he worked as a fertiliser salesman after the first war. So, dessert and sentiment won out. The BIG error though turned out to be not guessing that Monday night might be the cook's night off at the hotel. The meal was memorable and my 2016 birthday dinner will go down in our birding history annals as the worst hotel dinner ever. Perhaps the worst birding dinner ever, just coming a very close second behind an unexpected camping night meal on the Nullarbor Plain where the only food we had was canned meat and baked beans.

Male Chestnut Quail-thrush

My final count for the weekend was 95 and amongst them the best for me were the Mallee Emu-wrens, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Malleefowl working a nest and the Mulga Parrots having an aerial fight.
So, all in all I have declared my birthday weekend a success; a new bird for Mel, fun birding with friends and a TRULLY MEMORABLE birthday dinner that I will never forget (smile).
Mallee Military Dragon Ctenophorus fordi

Noisy Miner

Australian Painted Lady

White-eared Honeyeater

Four locals on the Brim wheat silos

Two more mallefowl made, from corrugated iron

All images and text © Jenny Spry

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Britannia Seamount

Some trips don't go quite as smoothly as one would want. For example pelagic seabird trips are notorious for getting cancelled at the last moment by bad weather. There is no point in getting upset, bad weather can make a proposed trip anything from just too uncomfortable to see the birds to downright dangerous. It was bad weather that took sea conditions off Coolangatta from being dangerous, to downright suicidal that caused the postponement of our February 2016 pelagic trip. Cyclone Tatiana was heading right toward where we wanted to go.
Phoenix One at her dock

The Britannia Seamounts are some 200 kms east of Coolangatta in Queensland and the organisers had planned a three night trip starting on the 12th of Feb and getting back into port on the 15th. We watched the weather maps all week and at first it looked promising with storms out over New Caledonian promising steady winds from the east. Sadly, as the week went on the storms grew into two cyclonic centres and moved toward Australia with winds exceeding 65 kph off Coolangatta and stronger toward their centres. Right up to Friday morning there was a chance we would go out but by Friday afternoon, after I had flown up from Melbourne, the trip was called off. We spent Friday night on the boat and then caught the plane back to Melbourne.
Bureau weather map

The twin centres of cyclone Tatiana marked up by Rob Morris. We wanted
to go out to where the right hand corner of the mouth is.

After negotiations with the boat's owners a second booking was made for the weekend starting on the 8th of April. This time the weather goddesses smiled on us and we got out. We boarded the Phoenix One and were allocated our cabins and then went and had a very good meal at one of the dock-side restaurants. The boat left harbour late at night and by morning, when we got on deck before sunrise, we were over the south end of the seamount.
The cabin I shared

and our en suite bathroom

Course for the weekend

The main purpose of the trip was to do research on the unusual storm-petrel that has been found in the area. The organisers had the required permits and the hope was one could be captured and have blood and feather samples taken in the hope that an identification of the bird could be made. As it turned out the birds did not co-operate and none were captured but some were seen on the berley slick behind the boat.
Tahiti Petrel

Arctic Jaeger

Bridled Tern

The trip was still a major success though with more than 20 species of seabirds being seen. Included in that total was the first confirmed sighting for Australia of a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.
Ventral view of storm-petrel

Dorsal view of storm-petrel

Our track as we tried to catch one of the storm-petrels

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Gould's Petrel

And besides the birds we also had the excitement of a rare mammal. We had lowered the tender and were attempting to canon-net a storm petrel when whales started rise near the boat. They turned out to be a pod of the very rare Cuvier's Beaked Whale and we got good views and photos of both adult and juvenile whales.
Tender with Cuvier's whale in the background

Head of Cuvier's Whale

Markings on back of whale

Whale and young

The next morning we were further north, over the Brisbane Seamount, and the birding was fairly quiet. We had hoped for more of the undescribed storm-petrels but none were in sight. Any bird approaching the boat was carefully watched as other rare birds had been reported from this region on past trips but all was quiet until Rohan suddenly called the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel and the usual panic started to make sure all on board saw it and that confirming photos were taken. It is not every day that a new bird for Australia is seen.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Providence Petrel

Flesh-footed Shearwater

 All images & text © Jenny Spry

Monday, June 27, 2016


The trip from Boigu only takes a few hours and on the way we pass Dauan where we stopped on my last visit but this time we have not been given permission to come ashore. Each Island is controlled by a local council and they have full control on who can visit.
Dauan Island

The day is hot and calm and most people are relaxing in the cool of the air-conditioned cabin, chatting, looking at Boigu photos or reading. A large swarm of dragon flies is following the boat and the red/orange ones want to land but aren't game to. Some black and green ones do and they are easier to photograph.

Soon after lunch we arrive off Saibai and anchor. We are much closer to New Guinea now and there is constant boat traffic between the local New Guinea village and Saibai. We go ashore and Richard's first job is to make contact with the local council head and let them know we are on the island so we wander around until he returns. We don't find anything too interesting but there is a large swamp just behind town and Richard leads us to it through waist high grass. We are sure this grass is full of snakes and as we arrive beside the water we are warned not to go too close as this swamp could have crocodiles in it. What a great place to bird watch; snakes behind us, crocodiles in front and we are absorbed with hunting for rarities, not looking for something that may want to kill us. Ducks and geese are flying in to roost for the evening and in amongst them as they fly in Richard spots one that is paler. After a lot of panning with the scopes we finally find it on the water, a nice male Gargany and a tick for most of the group. It is only our first evening on Saibai and we have a mega tick, the trip is going well.
Ducks on the Saibai lagoon with Gagany in centre

Gargany with white strip on head

It is now getting dark and back at the jetty I bend over and undo the anti-snake gators and unlace my shoes in preparation for boarding the tender. I hear an outboard motor-like noise and assume the tender is coming and look up, but there is no tender. I can still hear the noise though and adjust my vision and ears ... and realise the noise is actually a huge cloud of mosquitoes humming around me. Luckily the first tender does arrive and the first of us on the jetty jump on and we head away from shore as fast as we can and soon the mosquitoes are left behind.

The second tender is not as lucky. People pile in and it heads out but then it stops. We are now back on board the Eclipse so our tender heads back to help but hey are underway again and soon join us. As they come on board they tells us that when they stopped they were still close enough to shore for the mosquitoes to reach them and they all had to swat and wave frantically to protect themselves. I have no idea how people live on Saibai at dusk, it must be by remaining indoors with the doors closed.

Next morning the hunt is on for more new birds. This time we board the tenders and motor around to the back side of the island and land on a beach. We had landed here on the last trip I was on but it is now much more overgrown. Large flocks of Rainbow Bee-eaters are flying over, migrating north to New Guinea but nothing else of note is seen.
Hundreds of Rainbow Bee-eaters were heading north while we were on Saibai

Back on board for lunch we watch as flocks of Torresian Imperial Pigeons fly across the water to New Guinea. It is possibly to tick them off in Australia and a moment later add them to our New Guinea lists. The same can be done with the Rajah Shelducks and Pied Herons.
Torresian Imperial Pigeons on their way to New Guinea

After lunch we go back and land at the jetty and walk out of town heading for the cemetery. It has new cement walls around it since I was last here, probably because sea levels are rising and it is now prone to flooding as it is right beside the mangroves and only just above a normal high tide level. Our hope is to find a Common Paradise Kingfisher. They have been reported from the island so we spread out along the edge of the mangroves and wait. Richard plays the call but there is no reply. As we gather back at the cemetery a call is heard. We check through our calls on the ipods and the bird is provisionally identified as a Little Paradise Kingfisher. It calls 3 or 4 times more from way off but we never do find it. It will remain a bird for the next trip. As we start to walk back toward the town Barb calls she has found an Owl. It is a Barking Owl right over the wall of the cemetery. Biggles does his Barking Owl call and a second bird replies and soon we have two owls watching as we head back.
Waiting for the Kingfisher to call (image Barb Williams)

Barking Owl race assimilis

Orange-flash Crow Butterfly

Next we walk out toward the town dump where on the last trip we had found some good birds. This time there is more water around and there is also a huge pile of earth that is probably for filling the sandbags that are being placed along the waterfront to protect the town from flooding. From the top of the pile we can see the swamp but there are no ducks visible. Cisticola are calling and I am hoping for a Zitting but only find Golden-headed.
Golden-headed Cisticola

The radio mast has an Osprey nest in it and as we watch it flies in with a very large piece of nest material. A new raptor is seen approaching, a Peregrine Falcon, and it lands on the tower below theOsprey.

Peregrine Falcon

The local New Guinea people have heard we are in town so have set up with all their handmade goods, hoping we will buy. And buy we do. Biggles and I buy a carved wooden dugong each and the skipper buys a large, very lifelike, carved crocodile.
New Guinea market on Saibai (image Sue Lashko)

Next morning before breakfast we get in the tenders for a bit more playing at tourists. We motor north to a gravel island that sits on the border between Australia and New Zealand. Two Osprey sit on the Island, one in Australia and the other in New Guinea. Heading back a pair of Channel-billed Cuckoos fly over heading toward New Guinea and I watch until they cross the border. I add two new birds to my growing New Guinea list.
Island on the Australian New Guinea border

Foreground Osprey is in Australia, background one is in New Guinea

Town in New Guinea that the traders on Saibai come from

New Guinea trader heading for home

Back on Board Eclipse and we up-anchor again to head for Horn Island. It has been a good trip and I saw 50 species on Boigu, 69 on Saibai and 7 in New Guinea, with two new birds for my Australian life list, the Orange-fronted Fruit-Dove and the Gargany. It was a really good trip with a great group of people and an excellent boat and crew. We could not have asked for better, except if we had also seen a Gurney's Eagle, I really wanted to see one of those.
Torresian Imperial Pigeon

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher in the Mangroves


Up a creek

It is sad to get off on Horn Island, especially as Eclipse is about to head out again with a second group to do the trip we have just done. What is worse, we heard later that they did see a Gurney's Eagle. Sigh, there is nothing else for it, I will just have to go again.
Bulk carrier seen just before we arrived back at Horn Island

All text & images © Jenny Spry