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.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

ANOTHER BOGEY BIRD GONE!



In July 2013, I wrote that I had five bogey birds - birds I'd been seeking for many years - birds I feared I'd never see.  I'm delighted to report that, thanks to Mick Roderick, I have now managed to cross the rascally Rufous Scrub-bird off my list of bogey birds.

[Peter Waanders got me the Short-tailed Grasswren in September 2013 and Martin Cachard got me the Black-winged Monarch in November 2013 (thanks to Judy Leitch) so now I have just two bogey birds left - both seabirds.  One is the beautiful White-necked Petrel shown on my masthead, the other the elusive Slender-billed Prion.]

Rog and I drove to Gloucester and Mick took me from there to Gloucester Tops where I had fantastic views of the male scrub-bird singing his little heart out.

Rufous Scrub-bird (Female) - Photo: Mick Roderick

I've looked for Rufous Scrub-birds seriously on many occasions.  They are not an easy bird.  The first time I looked for them was in Lamington National Park in 1984.  I was staying at O'Reilly's guest house.  In all I've visited Lamington National Park five times (O'Reilly's three times and Binna Burra twice) looking for this bird.  Most recently I returned to O'Reilly's last October and this time, in order to be sure, I hired a guide to show me the bird.  This proved to be an expensive waste of time.

I visited Port Stephens in April 2013 because Richard Baxter told me that April would provide a good chance of seeing a White-necked Petrel.  (What he actually said was:  it was 'guaranteed!')  Alas, the pelagic was cancelled, but as I'd driven up from Melbourne, Mick Roderick (who organizes the pelagics) took pity on me and took me out and showed me an Eastern Grass Owl.  I was not disappointed.  I came home thinking of grass owls I'd seen, not petrels I'd missed.

On that occasion, I took the opportunity of being near Barrington Tops National Park to spend a few days looking for the scrub-bird.  I knew April was not the best month to see scrub-birds (October is) but I figured it was worth a go anyway.  I had a mud map of various territories and gave it my best shot.  For two days I heard nothing.  On the third day, I heard a scrub-bird but it was in dense scrub.  I waited for 45 minutes while he tantalized me.  He knew I was there and he was not going to show himself.

It seemed I'd done everything I could and I was never going to see this exasperating little bird.  And I don't think I ever will by myself.

But thanks to Mick, the Rufous Scrub-bird has now become number 740 on my Australian lifelist.  It is my 700th mainland bird.  

Mick picked me up in Gloucester at 6 a.m. and drove me to Gloucester Tops.  It was cold and foggy as we left.  Rog had joked that we'd get the bird by 8 and be back in Gloucester by 9.  Mick took me directly to the territory of a pair of scrub-birds he knows well.  We listened for a few minutes, and yes! the male was calling.  His calls were imitations of Eastern Yellow Robins and Golden Whistlers.  Mick selected a likely spot and we sat on folding stools, listening to the bird calling from various directions.  The little tease knew we were there.  He probably knew we were there just to see him.  Finally, having caused sufficient angst to satisfy his amusement, he hopped up into sight.  He sat, quite visible, in the heart of a fern.  I did my best not to scream with delight.

Then he hopped out of the fern onto a log and began to serenade us.  He put his head back and sang with gusto.  His throat feathers stood out in text book fashion.  It was a perfect sighting of an extremely elusive bird.  I looked at my watch.  It was one minute to 8.  Thank you, Mick.

Rog and I had a delightful trip, although it all pales in comparison with the scrub-bird sighting.  We were away for 12 days, during which I clocked up a total of 153 species of birds.  Apart from the scrub-bird, highlights were Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, Pale Yellow Robin, female Paradise Riflebird and some very pretty Scarlet Honeyeaters.

My first anxiety was whether we'd get away at all.  We'd planned to leave on Wednesday.  At 3 a.m. on Tuesday I was awoken with some creature dancing on my feet!  There was a possum in the house.  With some difficulty I woke Rog and we managed to funnel the little fellow out the front door.  I knew he'd got in through the chimney (which is extraordinarily high) so I set about finding both a chimney sweep to fix the damper and an arborist to cut back the oak tree that allowed possums access to the top of the chimney.  It wasn't easy.  ('Sure, lady, we can come and give you a quote some time next week.')  I refused to take 'no' for an answer.  October is the best month for scrub-birds, and I was not going to let any wretched ringtail stop me from going to look for them.  Thanks to arborist Hayden and chimney sweep Clive we managed to get away on schedule.

The first day we travelled to Wodonga and I visited Wonga Wetlands (site 54) where there were equal numbers of Sacred Kingfishers, Australian Reed-Warblers and rabbits.  A member of staff informed me that the magpies there never swoop.  I felt obliged to tell him that I've been bombed there by magpies with very serious intentions.  It just goes to show that some magpies swoop some people.

The next day we stopped at The Rock Nature Reserve (site 15) intending to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee.  Unfortunately there were several men with some very noisy machinery busy installing new toilets, so we moved on.  I did the Migurra Walk outside Cootamundra (site 84) where I saw a pair of White-winged Trillers.  The kunzea was flowering profusely (a horrible shade of mauve) as was the local egg and bacon (Dillwynia sericea).   On the way back to Melbourne nine days later, I again did the Migurra Walk, and this time I flushed a Painted Button-quail.  At the Bendick Murrell road stop, I saw a pair of Superb Parrots, the first of many for the trip.

The next day I visited Putta Bucca wetlands at Mudgee, hoping that the recently seen Citrine Wagtail would miraculously reappear.  Of course it did not.  But I saw the one and only Rainbow Bee-eater for the trip and one beautiful Southern Boobook being mercilessly harassed by a gaggle of little birds.

On Sunday, I joined the pelagic out of Nelson Bay.  I had modest expectations of an October pelagic out of Port Stephens and was hoping for some storm-petrels and a Flesh-footed Shearwater, which would be annual ticks.  We saw Flesh-footed early on, and several Wilson's Storm-Petrels (however, surprisingly, we dipped on White-faced).  We had great views of five Wandering Albatrosses, which is always a thrill. Best bird of the day for me was a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel that flew past close enough for Brook to photograph it and confirm its identity.   Several unfortunate people were ill all day, although I did not think it was a very rough trip. 

One of the 5 Wandering Albatross we saw on the day.

Mick told me that there was a pair of Beach Stone-curlews at Soldiers Point in Port Stephens, so Rog and I detoured there on our way up to Gloucester.  Here I saw my one and only Eastern Great Egret and Pied Oystercatcher for the trip, but sadly no stone-curlews.  The one thing of interest that I did see was a Little Corella drinking seawater.

Mick also recommended Copeland State Conservation Area as a good birding spot and he was right.  The best bird I saw here was the Pale Yellow Robin (which Rog said were playing in the car park when I went for a walk).  There were also lyrebirds and brush-turkeys and lots of Large-billed Scrubwrens.  Rog and I visited Barrington Tops, which were covered in snow!  Very pretty. 


In Gloucester, there were White-headed Pigeons and Scarlet Honeyeaters.  I'd expected Grey-crowned Babblers, that I'd seen on my last visit, but I was disappointed.  The only babblers on my trip list were White-browed.

When I realized that I was missing Black Swan on my birdlist, we stopped at Winton Wetlands (site 87) on the way home to rectify that omission.  Other surprising omissions from my list were Australasian Grebe, Common Bronzewing, Restless Flycatcher and Silvereye.

I came home to a possum-free house, feeling very pleased with myself for having discarded another bogey bird.  Of course there is no justification for me to feel pleased with myself.  I should be feeling pleased with Mick.  And I am.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

MY DAILY CHALLENGE

Exercise is boring.  Anything that makes it more interesting is to be welcomed warmly. Each day, I walk for 15 minutes as fast as I can (birds willing), then 15 minutes return.  My daily walk can be routine, uninteresting and monotonous.  I have found a cure for this monotony.

Of course I am always aware of the birdlife around me, but I have recently started keeping records of what I see and hear.  In the past I always walked to the east, but now I have been varying my walks to go north, south, and west as well.  I wanted to see where the birds were best, and how they varied in each direction.

Grey Butcherbird - perhaps my favourite local bird

Now that I have completed ten walks in each direction, it is time to look at the results.  There have been a few surprises.

Before I began, I compiled a list of 30 common birds I expected to see in my suburb.  Of these 30 birds, I saw 26 on my 40 walks.  The birds on my list that I did not see were:  Australian Hobby, Little Corella, Silvereye and House Sparrow.  Frustratingly, on one west walk, I thought I saw an Australian Hobby, but it flew away so fast I could not be sure.  Perhaps I would have seen Silvereyes had there been fruiting trees around at the time.  I may yet get them onto my list on future walks.

Birds I saw that were not on my list were:  Australian Raven (seen once on a north walk); Pacific Black Duck (three birds flew overhead just once, again on a north walk); Eastern Rosella (that I saw twice on south walks and once on an east walk); Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike (seen once on a west walk) and one White Ibis (flying high on a north walk).

The birds I recorded on every one of my 40 walks were not surprising.  They were:  Spotted Dove; Rainbow Lorikeet; Red Wattlebird and Australian Magpie.  I dipped on the Common Myna just once, and Little Raven scored 38, that is to say, I missed seeing him just twice.  Noisy Miners had perfect scores walking north and south, but I missed them once walking east and four times walking west.  I saw Pied Currawongs while I was walking in every direction, but more often walking east (7/10).  I only saw Silver Gulls twice, which surprised me.  Once was north and once west.  Again, I only saw Galahs twice, which was not very surprising:  they are not that common in my part of Kew.  Once was north and once was south.  I saw Long-billed Corellas just once, as I was walking south.

The best walk was north.  This walk crosses a major road and ends in a large park, which has two sporting ovals.  My best score for this walk was 16 species, the worst 11, and average 14.  The best bird on this walk was a Willie Wagtail, which I recorded on every north walk (but not on any walk in any other direction).  I also saw Magpie-larks on every north walk, but they were uncommon on other walks (scoring 2 on south  and west walks, and 4 on east walks).  I recorded Spotted Pardalotes three times (once seen, twice heard) on north walks (and heard them just once on an east walk).

The next best walk was south.  This walk starts in a small playground which has several river red gums, crosses a major road, then meanders through suburbia.  Needless to say, the best birds were always in the small playground.  This is where I saw Eastern Rosella.  My best score walking south was 14, the worst 10 and the average 12.  This is the only walk when I saw Crested Pigeons, which I recorded 7 times.  

The third best walk was my old favourite, east, the walk I've been doing for twenty years.  It is the most obvious walk from my house:  straight up the road.  It is all just houses; no parks or reserves.  My best score was 13, worst 8 and average 10.  After I'd done 5 walks, and upstart north looked like beating my old friend east, I decided to tweak the walk a little.  I deviated to include a small park, just off the road I was walking in.  Here I saw Eastern Rosellas just once, and Welcome Swallows every time I visited the park.

The worst walk was west.  It is a boring walk towards the city, with no parks and two schools along the way.  After I saw a Masked Lapwing flying over one school, I tweaked the walk to include looking over the school oval, which I assumed to be the lapwing's destination. However, I did not see the bird again.  My best score walking west was 12, worst 8 and average 10.  As well as the Masked Lapwing, other good birds on the west walk were my only sighting of a Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike and my only sighting of a White-plumed Honeyeater (as well as the frustrating possible sighting of an Australian Hobby).  West was the only walk when I did not record Little Wattlebirds.  This did surprise me.  I even saw them once on an east walk, where I did not think they were present.  In fact they are present about half the time on both north and south walks.

I was surprised at how few records there were of Grey Butcherbirds.  If I'd been asked before I started this endeavour, I'd have said that I'd see butcherbirds about 75% of the time.  In fact, my records show that they were not that common at all:  north: 3;  south:  3; east:  5; and west:  4.  It was sometimes irritating to be enjoying a butcherbird singing in my backyard, then step out the front door to do a walk and not hear him again until my walk was over.

The other surprising thing was just how common Brown Thornbills were.  I'd have guessed I'd see or hear them about 10% of the time.  In fact, scores were:  north:  7; south: 6; east:  3 and west:  6.  They were more often heard than seen, but that was down to the fact that I was out exercising, not birdwatching.

I am delighted to have found a way to make my daily constitutional more interesting.  I will tweak the west walk and try to avoid the schools.  As spring progresses, I hope to add a few more species to my list.

I have always admitted to being a twitcher.  Now my true colours are out there for everyone to see:  I am also a lister.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

RAVISHING RUTHERGLEN

Earlier this week I spent a delightful couple of days in Rutherglen.  It was such fun, I found myself questioning why it was only number 79 in my top 100 birding sites.  It deserves to be higher.  Highlights were a Black-tailed Native-hen at Lake King (my first sighting there), my first Australian Reed-Warbler for the season, (I think) my first White-throated Gerygone for Rutherglen and a pair of Brolga with their two teenage chicks.  I heard Little Grassbirds, but I didn't manage to see them.  I always enjoy wandering along the main street looking for Eurasian Tree Sparrows.  Usually a Blue-faced Honeyeater flies by, even if I miss out on my sparrows.  Whenever I see a kingfisher in Rutherglen, I do my best to turn it into a Red-backed Kingfisher.  Others have seen them here.  All I have managed is Sacred.



Of course, I visited Chiltern too (site number 5) and Beechworth (where I go to add Satin Bowerbirds to my list).  At Chiltern Number 2 dam, there were several Restless Flycatchers, Little Friarbirds and Dusky Woodswallows and (best of all) some Diamond Firetails by the entrance gate.  I also saw two Yellow-footed Antechinus - one playing near the water, the other unfortunately dead on the track.  At Greenhill Dam, the Noisy Friarbirds predominated.  At Cyanide Dam in Honeyeater Picnic Area in the Chiltern/Mt Pilot National Park, a curious Olive-backed Oriole flew to investigate me, just to make sure that he got on my list.  Here there are always Yellow-tufted and Fuscous Honeyeaters, Brown Treecreepers and Eastern Yellow Robins.  I also saw a very vocal, very colourful Mistletoebird.  The wildflowers here were as good as the birds.  There were early nancies, as far as I could see just one donkey orchid and lots of those pretty pink orchids we used to call 'five fingers.'  I walked along McGuiness Road in the National Park looking for Spotted Quail-thrush.  Alas, the quail-thrush did not grace me with their presence, but I was well entertained with Golden Whistlers, Black-chinned Honeyeaters, Eastern Yellow Robins and Dusky Woodswallows, not to mention black wallabies.  The flowers here too were wonderful, principally beautiful blue dianella, and also egg and bacon.

At Woolshed Falls in Beechworth, there were thornbills aplenty:  Little and Brown and Striated.  There were also several pretty Spotted Pardalotes, drawing attention to themselves with their attractive tinkling call.

I came home with a total birdlist of 99 species, not counting those that I heard but did not see.  The weather was perfect.  The flowers were prolific.  The birds were wonderful.  Rutherglen was certainly at its best.

Monday, 22 September 2014

GRASSTREE ROADSIDE RESERVE


When we drive up the Hume, we always stop at the Grasstree Roadside Reserve.  I've seen some good birds here over the years and some pretty wildflowers too.  There's usually a friendly Red-capped Robin and always Weebills.  In spring there are orchids and in autumn there are butterflies.  Just once I saw Brown Quail here.

Located 105 kilometres north of Melbourne, Grasstree is one hour's drive from the Western Ring Road, so for us, coming from Melbourne, it is the perfect spot for coffee.  There is a small dam, where I've seen White-faced Herons and once, a Royal Spoonbill.  Fairy-wrens hop around your feet while you enjoy your break and Grey Fantails scold from above.  I do recommend the walking path.  If you like Grasstrees, you won't be disappointed.  I was brought up to call them 'Black boys,' but this is now deemed politically incorrect and we are supposed to say 'Xanthorrhoea.'
Yellow-faced Honeyeater, photo by Jim Smart
The birds were great when I was there last Saturday.  A very vocal Spotted Pardalote drew attention to himself, out in the open high in a dead tree.  There were Brown and Buff-rumped Thornbills, Red-browed Finches and perhaps best of all, one of my favourite honeyeaters, the Brown-headed.  They are such pretty little birds.


A large family of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes flew in while we were there.  I think there were six birds, all apparently in adult plumage.  Willie Wagtails chatted happily and Welcome Swallows swooped above.  Then suddenly everything went quiet.  I looked up to see a Whistling Kite gliding by.

One very loud call confused me.  I don't know why I always have such trouble with this call.  I should know it by now.  Eventually I tracked it down.  It was the Yellow-faced Honeyeater.  Ken Simpson describes the call as 'cheerful "chick-up."  Liquid repeated "chir rup, chir-rup" in falling sequence, loud for size of bird.'  I'll try to remember that.

I must mention the wildflowers too, because they were almost as good as the birds.  There was one wattle flowering and one cream flowering grevillea.  There were candles, sundews, lots of glossidia, some beautiful deep blue dianella and several white and two different yellow flowers I was unable to identify.  

Grasstree Roadside Reserve rarely disappoints.  If the birds aren't behaving, you can read the informative signs and learn about the history of gold and bushrangers in the vicinity.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

GILBERT'S WHISTLER

My brother and I are cleaning out our parents' house in order for it to be sold.  If you've read my first book, How Many Birds is That? you may remember the first chapter, 'All Thanks to a Hooded Robin' which is about my parents' place and the wonderful birds I've seen there over the years.  They bought the property because of its bird life.

Last Wednesday morning, I was wiping down bookshelves and quite bored with the job.  My back was aching, I was alone and the task seemed endless.  Outside the sun was shining and the birds were singing.  A Grey Shrike-thrush and an Eastern Yellow Robin both did their best to entice me out into the sunshine.  A cup of coffee on the verandah watching White-browed Babblers play in the garden and Little Lorikeets flit overhead would surely do me good.  Wouldn't I return to my work with renewed vigour and work twice as well?  Stoically, I ignored the birds' invitation and kept working. Then I heard a Gilbert's Whistler.  He was very close.  I dropped my cloth and rushed outside.

Gilbert's Whistler at my parents' place
He was very beautiful.  He sat, singing, allowing me to enjoy his presence.  It seemed a long time since I'd been so close to a Gilbert's Whistler.

When my parents were alive, and I visited them regularly, my records show that I'd see Gilbert's Whistlers every month.  They nested in the garden each year.  If, on any occasion, I found I didn't have them on my birdlist, I'd go to the garage and slam the door.  The birds would dutifully call in response.  Sometimes my Dad could get them to call by clapping his hands.  I seem to remember that my claps were not quite loud enough.

I've seen them in South Australia a few times, but the last time I'd seen them in Victoria, was at my parents' place in August 2009, and here one was now right in the garden where he belonged.  That bird lifted my spirits enormously.  I returned to my cleaning with a happy heart, revitalized more than any caffeine boost could have done.