Tuesday, 9 December 2014

A MORNING IN HEALESVILLE


On Monday I spent a very pleasant morning at a friend's property at Healesville.  Welcome Swallows and Striated Pardalotes were nesting under the eaves of the house.  One male whipbird called without an answer from his mate.  I can only assume he was a bachelor.  Several Rufous Whistlers sang loudly and happily and at least one gorgeous Golden Whistler joined in.  More than one thrush added mellifluous music until kookaburras overwhelmed the entire valley with their loud laughter.  A fat young yellow robin sat out in the open, vulnerable, unprotected, and somehow humorous without a tail.  A male Superb Fairy-wren lived up to his name.  Yellow-faced Honeyeaters dominated the canopy while scrubwrens chattered in the undergrowth.  A White-thoated Treecreeper piped loudly as he spiralled up a treetrunk.  We quickly compiled a list of over twenty species and I wondered what nightlife would inhabit the enormous manna gums after dark.  My friend has seen Powerful Owls, but I'll bet there are others too.

A delightful bush haven so close to Melbourne.

BONESEEDING AT THE YOU YANGS AGAIN

Eastern Yellow Robin by Jim Smart
Under the expert leadership of Merrilyn Serong, a group of happy birders gathered last Saturday to remove boneseed from our allocated patch in the You Yangs Regional Park (site 31).  We were not deterred by intermittent misty rain, although at times the poor light drained all colour from the most colourful birds - Eastern Rosellas appeared as monochrome black silhouettes.

New Holland and Black-chinned Honeyeaters cavorted in the gum trees, while Musk Lorikeets flew overhead.  Weebills sang with a disproportionately loud song for such tiny birds.  A Jacky Winter waggled his tail, happy to be alive, and for the second time since I've joined this group, we saw a koala while we were birding.

We admired both Scarlet and Flame Robins while being serenaded by Rufous Whistlers.  Grey Fantails were determined to get onto our bird list and Striated Thornbills were most cooperative and gave us all a good look.

While pulling out boneseed, I was entertained by a flock of sittellas, several yellow robins and a couple of Dusky Woodswallows.  After I'd completed my self-imposed quota of 300 weeds, as I walked back to the cars, a Black Kite flew overhead.  These once rare raptors in southern Victoria, are now so commonplace, they're barely noteworthy.  Nevertheless, note him I did.

We enjoy birding in the You Yangs and pretend that we're there to remove boneseed.  We come away with a nice bird list and a totally unwarranted feeling of self-righteousness.

A BIT MORE ABOUT COCOS, 22-29 November 2014

View from our motel room on Cocos
On Saturday afternoon we flew from Christmas to Cocos Island, and were settled into our room in the motel by 4 p.m.  It was uncomfortably hot as we convened to investigate a small bird that had been sighted towards the end of the runway.  We flushed the bird several times, splashing backwards and forwards across a small creek.  It kept returning to dense vegetation.  We all had reasonable sightings and, although we did not see a red throat, were happy with the identification of Red-throated Pipit.  
Red-throated Pipit, photo by Roger Williams

Richard had recommended Birds of South East Asia by Craig Robson and it proved to be a most useful guide.  It informed us that the Red-throated Pipit is often found near water, and that first year birds have no red.  This was my 747th Australian bird and I began to hope that I'd reach the 750 milestone on Cocos Island.
White-breasted Waterhen, common on Cocos, photo by Roger Williams

Cocos (Keeling) Islands comprise West Island (where the airport and the motel are located), Home Island (where the Clunies Ross homestead is located and where we saw most of our exciting birds), South Island (home to Saunders' Terns - the reason for my trip), Horsborough Island (an uninhabited hostile place, overwhelmed by dodder) and nearby Direction Island (where the grounding of the Emden is commemorated).

I spent Sunday morning in a state of wretched anxiety because Richard had announced that this was the day we'd take the motorised canoes over to South Island to look for Saunders' Terns.  The first time I'd visited Cocos Islands in 2007, Mike Carter had been there to confirm the identity of this exciting new bird for Australia.  I'd been with Richard Baxter on that occasion too, but no one knew much about tides and tern behaviour then, and no one in our group saw the terns on that occasion.  Richard had told me that he'd seen the terns on every trip since, so I had high expectations of finally adding this bird to my lifelist.  I also had a high degree of apprehension because I knew the expedition involved wading a fair distance through waist-deep water.  I don't have good balance; I don't like getting wet; I'm always anxious around small boats.  From my point of view, this tick demanded a fair amount of dedication.  I was up for it of course (it was what I'd come for) but that didn't stop me worrying about it.

The motorised canoes accommodated just two people each:  one driver and one passenger.  I was allocated to Richard's canoe.  I felt smugly safe in our leader's boat.  He is an expert swimmer and diver, and I knew that no one would be better at operating the outboard canoes.  

The island we were headed for looked deceptively close, but seemed to take a very long time to reach.  We beached the canoes, took our cameras and binoculars and left our dry bags as high as we could reach in the palm trees, expecting the tide to come in while we were off terning.  Then we set off, wading in the warm tropical water, pretending nonchalance at the resident reef sharks, heading for a distant sand bar where we could see a big flock of waders.


The water was much deeper than this on the way back!
Through binoculars we identified the waders as Whimbrels, Eastern Curlews, Ruddy Turnstones and Grey Plovers.  Through Jenny's scope we saw three Saunders' Terns loafing on the sandspit (#748).  Seldom has the sight of a small tern given me such pleasure!  Thanks to Jenny, we each had a quick look at the terns before, for some unknown reason, all the waders and terns flew off.  If Jenny hadn't taken her scope, Richard would have led his first unsuccessful tern hunt since 2007.  As it was, we were all delighted with our sighting.

We celebrated with nibbles and bubbly, supplied by Ash, the bloke who hired the canoes.  When it came time to return to West Island, I learned that Richard expected me to drive the boat!  It is no false modesty for me to say that I was utterly hopeless.  Nor can I blame my alcohol consumption for my total lack of seamanship.  Enough said.  Richard chose to swim rather than share my dangerous canoe.

On Monday morning we took the 6.30 ferry to Home Island.  In the gardens of Clunies Ross House we saw a Chinese Sparrowhawk (749), the black wingtips obvious in flight.  After lunch we wandered through a banana plantation, hoping for Asian Koels.  Some members of the group saw both male and female koels.  I did not.  But I did see a Javan Pond Heron - my milestone 750th Australian bird!  In flight its obvious white wings made me think Cattle Egret.


Clunies Ross House
We started Tuesday looking for Watercock on our way to Bechat Besar swamp, where we saw Eurasian Teal (751) and all had excellent views of the Chinese Sparrowhawk.  After breakfast we flushed a Pin-tailed Snipe (752) beside the airport.  We visited the bottle dump, the tip, then the beach for a Common Redshank.  After lunch, we looked for vagrants in the big trees beside the airport, then visited the swamp again.  At dusk we spoltlighted for nightjars, but did not see a thing.

On Wednesday we visited Horsborough Island in a glass bottomed boat.  People wanting to dive, snorkel or swim with sharks all enjoyed this trip.  Then we went to Direction Island, where a large gazebo commemorates the First World War battle between the German cruiser SMS Emden and the Australian HMAS Sydney on 9 November 1914.


Dodder strangling plants on Horsborough Island
Thursday found us back on Home Island.  In the Clunies Ross garden I had wonderful views of Hodgsons Hawk Cuckoo (753).  Later we saw both male and female Asian Koels (754).  After lunch, we went looking for a Chinese Pond Heron.  This involved twenty minutes wading through quite deep water.  One couple declined to go, on the grounds that he couldn't swim.  I can't swim either, but I wasn't going to let that stop me.  We braved coral, clams, unexpected holes, reef sharks, moray eels, a huge sea slug and hundreds of beches de mer.  The sharks frightened shoals of silver mullets into jumping high out of the water - a spectacular sight.  The wind was quite strong and could easily have blown me off balance.  Thank you, Steve, for holding my hand on this very brave venture.  I could not have done it without you.  We walked as directed, I held up my binoculars to look around, and the Chinese Pond Heron (755) flew into view!
Chinese Pond Heron, my 755th Australian bird, photo by Roger Williams

On Friday we added Dollarbird to our list, chasing it around the Quarantine Station until we all had good views.  This is the nominate subspecies that breeds in Indonesia.  The Dollarbird I'm used to seeing on mainland Australia is the race pacificus.

I was ready to head home on Saturday, quite unable to hide my glee at my remarkable score of 755.  I hope it's not another seven years before I return to Cocos again.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

A BIT MORE ABOUT CHRISTMAS ISLAND

I was on Christmas Island from Tuesday 18 until Saturday 22 November 2014, hoping to see a Savannah Nightjar that I had heard calling on my previous visit in 2007.  However, we had no luck with nightjars of any sort.  We did see all the endemics - the Emerald Dove, the Imperial-Pigeon, the Swiftlet, the White-eye and the Island Thrush were all very easy.  The Hawk-Owl required a bit of work, as did the Java Sparrow.  We searched for Java Sparrows amongst the Eurasian Tree Sparrows where the locals feed them in front of a block of flats over the road from the technical school.  On our last day we learnt that they were seen each morning in the vicinity of the nursery, and that's where we finally caught up with them.

The Golden Bosunbirds were as elegant as ever and, as on both my previous trips to Christmas Island, there were cute fluffy chicks sitting patiently on the ground pleading to have their photos taken.

Golden Bosunbird chick

We also saw Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Great and Christmas Frigatebirds (but not Lesser) and Abbott's, Red-footed and Brown Boobies.  There were about fifty Common Noddies at the wharf in Flying Fish Cove.  Here we also saw one Common Sandpiper and one White-winged Black Tern.

It was a major irritation to have to remove Variable Goshawk from my life total because capricious taxonomists have decided once again to lump it with Brown Goshawks.  Don't these ornithologists appreciate the ramifications of their decisions?

We knew that a Red Collared Dove had been seen on the island, and, thanks to local knowledge, managed to tick it at Rocky Point on the first day.

Red-rumped Swallows flew around in front of our accommodation, mixed with Barn Swallows early the next morning before breakfast.

On Friday Peter Barron arrived with another birding group, and it was thanks to them that we saw House Swifts.  We'd been at a cove below the casino trying to add Striated Heron to our list, when some thoughtful member of the other birding group phoned to say that they'd seen House Swifts.  We rushed to our vehicles and managed to get good sightings at LB4.

Of course I would have liked to have seen Savannah Nightjars, but I wasn't complaining as I climbed aboard the plane for the next instalment of my adventure:  Cocos Islands.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

CHRISTMAS AND COCOS ISLANDS - AN OVERVIEW

Red Crab migration on Christmas Island
I have just returned from a tour of Christmas and Cocos Islands run by Richard Baxter.  It was my third trip to Christmas Island and my second to the Cocos group, but without a doubt, it was the best.  I went hoping to see a Saunders' Tern as I'd dipped on this bird on my previous trip to Cocos in 2007.  In fact, on my previous trip, I'd only achieved one lifer:  the Western Reef Egret.  This time I achieved a phenomenal nine lifers on Cocos and another four on Christmas Island!  

The Saunders' Tern was hard work:  we took canoes from West Island (where we stayed) to South Island, then had to wade through warm water of varying depths to glimpse the terns on a far sandbank.  Luckily, we all did get a glimpse before they flew.  Thank goodness Jenny took her scope!  Everyone was very relaxed about the reef sharks that accompanied us in the water - that is, everyone except me!  Before I left, I'd just read On the Rocks by Bryan Nelson, which mentions that an ornithologist studying gannets had been badly bitten by a reef shark when he was wading nonchalantly through shallow water.

Black-tipped Reef Shark that accompanied us to see Saunders' Terns
We also worked hard for the Chinese Pond-Heron, wading through deep water for twenty minutes, avoiding clams, unexpected holes, more reef sharks, moray eels, coral, many beches de mer and one huge 2 metre sea slug.  Worse than all these tribulations was the strong wind that might easily have been blown us over - well, me anyway.  Of course, it was all worth it when we had wonderful views of the pond-heron.  It was too easy.  I was looking through my binoculars and the pond-heron flew into view!  Then we had to wade for another twenty minutes back to shore, in time to catch the ferry home to West Island.

On Home Island, in the garden surrounding Clunies Ross House, we first saw Chinese Sparrowhawk.  We saw these birds several times over the next few days.  I also glimpsed a large brown bird, which Richard identified as a Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo.  Others had better views.  Then I suffered the birders' dilemma:  could I count a fleeting glance?  It is a real temptation to add such sightings to your lifelist.  After all, I'd seen the bird.  It had been identified.  Why not add it to my list?  No one (other than me) knew that I hadn't really had a good look.  However, I was strong and resisted the temptation.  For this, I was rewarded three days later with the best possible views of the bird perching cooperatively, showing his yellow eye-ring, his downturned bill and his characteristically barred tail.

We did not have to work so hard for the Javan Pond-Heron - or at least, I didn't.  Others were not quite so lucky.  It will always be memorable for me as it was my 750th Australian bird.

It was a great trip and I came home very happy with my 13 lifers.  I'd hoped for a bittern or a wagtail:  we did not see one of either.  Usually, I lament my omissions.  However, right now, I am quite delighted with all that we did see. My Australian total now sits on 755.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A DELIGHTFUL DOWITCHER!

When I heard that the Long-billed Dowitcher had returned to Lake Tutchewop, I had no option but to go back.  It was worth the drive (and what a drive it was!)  Thanks to the friendly birders at the lake, who located the bird, I achieved a wonderful lifer - a bird that I'd never dreamed I'd see.  I am again indebted to my fellow birders.

I planned to arise at 5 a.m. and leave at 6, but as I was awake anyway, I jumped out of bed at 4.15, and left at 5.  It was dark and very, very wet.  My first problem was that Johnson Street had been blocked off for some sort of street carnival.  Despite having no sense of direction, I managed to navigate my way around that in the dark.  The next problem was filling the car with petrol - something I've never done before in my new car.  Then, going up the Calder at about 60 k in the 110 k zone, I found myself aquaplaning all over the wet road.  Most disconcerting.  I wondered if there'd be ice at Macedon.  It was 8.5 degrees, so I figured that was too warm for ice.  Instead I was treated to thick fog.

The first bird I saw was a kookaburra at 6.20.  Other good birds on the trip up were a Royal Spoonbill and a Spotted Harrier.

I arrived at around 8.45, better timing than I'd expected with my slow speeds.  I drove up Lake William Road, noting the sign "Dry Weather Road Only."  I parked cautiously on the road and was disappointed to see that there were no birders present on this (south) side of the lake.  Within minutes a white 4WD arrived, and drove off the road and into the mud.  I followed it on foot down towards the lake and recognised Barb Williams as one of the passengers.  Again there were lots of stilts and avocets, but not much else.  Certainly no sign of a dowitcher.

After extricating the 4WD from the mud, the carload of birders decided to check the north side of the lake and Barb promised to phone me if the bird were there.  The road on the north side was undergoing major roadworks when we were here on Wednesday, and I thought it wouldn't be safe to drive on it in my little car.  I think the aquaplaning on the Calder made me more cautious than usual.

Then came the news:  the bird was present!  I was going north, mud or no mud.  I smiled sweetly (at least I hope it was a sweet smile) at a total stranger and asked for a lift.  I drove to the north road where I intended to park and jump into his vehicle, but when I arrived, I thought the road looked perfectly fine - in fact much better than Lake William Road - so I did not need to impose on him.

There were quite a few people there - I counted 13 cars.  And a very happy group of birders they were too.  After last Wednesday's heat, today was windy and cold.  And most of all, muddy.  But nothing could dampen our spirits as we admired that dear, delightful dowitcher. 

I should also thank Richard Baxter for posting the bird's return on Birding-Aus, because otherwise I would not have known it was there. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

I DIPPED ON THE DOWITCHER

Lake Tutchewop - no dowitcher in sight
Australian birders were very excited to learn that an American Dowitcher had been seen on Lake Tutchewop in northern Victoria.  People who hadn't seen the bird formed opinions about whether it was Short-billed or Long-billed.  I think in the end, Long-billed Dowitcher won out.  A first for Australia!

Last Monday evening I received a text from Mick Roderick telling me about the bird.  I found the lake on the map between Kerang and Swan Hill.  It didn't look too far to drive.  Roger, my husband, (not a birder) was not in the least bit interested.  I spent a sleepless night wondering if I really wanted to drive there alone in my little low car.  If we had to drive around a salt lake, it would be much more comfortable in Roger's 4WD.  On Tuesday morning, as usual, Roger slept in.  I pottered about the house, telling myself that there were other things in life than rare birds, and that I should concentrate on next week's trip to Christmas Island.

A trip to Christmas Island is a very exciting event, yet I refused to be consoled.  This year I'd already missed out on the Yellow Bittern in Brisbane and the Citrine Wagtail in Mudgee, surely I was entitled to tick this Victorian bird.

Rog finally emerged about noon, went to his computer, then announced that we could leave immediately, but he was only prepared to drive as far as Bendigo today.  That's how it happened that I did not arrive at Lake Tutchewop until about 9.30 on Wednesday morning.

A friendly group of birders stood on the north of the lake, and another on the south.  I learnt that the bird had not been seen since 6 p.m. on Tuesday.  There were quite a few waders and ducks on the lake, but nothing that vaguely resembled a dowitcher.  Most impressive were the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of avocets and stilts, loafing in the water.  There were more Black-winged than Banded, but plenty of both.  I caught up with old birding friends, and made some new ones.

At lunch time Rog and I drove into Swan Hill, had a quick bite, then found a motel for the night.  Then Rog took me back to the lake to wait some more for the dowitcher to return.  This time I was on the south side of the lake, and again I made some new birding friends.  Paul had come from Brisbane, Phillip from Melbourne.  Scott, who I'd met on a pelagic earlier this year, had driven down from Canberra.  Scott drove me around the lake very slowly and we examined every bird.  I am confident that the dowitcher was not there.

The next morning, on our way back to Melbourne, Rog and I again called in at the lake.  This time there was just one car present, and I didn't speak to anyone.  We visited both north and south of the lake and I do not believe that the bird was present.

So it was home to Melbourne, without my tick.  I was disappointed, of course.  But I was very pleased that I'd at least tried to see the bird.  If the options are staying at home and not looking, and going out and being disappointed, give me disappointment every time.  I had an enjoyable time at the lake.  I met some great people.  And those Banded Stilts alone were worth the trip.