Last Saturday morning saw me sitting by the phone waiting for a call to tell me that the pelagic proposed to go out from Port Fairy on Sunday 13 July was really going to go. Four times already this year I have booked to go on a pelagic but bad weather has stymied me. I desperately wanted to go out in winter, as I need to see a Slender-billed Prion for my lifelist. At last the call came. The boat was going to go. I was delighted.
The weather was cold and grey with intermittent rain as we drove from Melbourne to Port Fairy. We made the obligatory stop at Point Addis to look for Rufous Bristlebirds, but had no luck. One friendly Flame Robin entertained us as we ate lunch near Colac; otherwise it was an uneventful trip.
Sunday morning saw me at the wharf, eager to get going, happy to recognise a couple of my fellow passengers. Perceive is one of my favourite pelagic boats. At $180, it is more expensive than some, but it is also more comfortable. And we are given a very welcome hot cuppa with some delightful home-made slice from Neil's partner, Alison. Thank you, Alison!
We set off on time, around 7 a.m., a happy, expectant boatful of birders. At around 9 a.m., we stopped. Apparently the captain could tell something was wrong. We were all blissfully ignorant. Paul, the deckhand, climbed onto the roof and saw that the life raft had come loose. For a dreadful moment I feared we were going to turn back to port. But no, Paul managed to tie the thing down safely and we were off again.
There were not a lot of birds as we motored towards the shelf. I sat next to a Dutchman who had just arrived in Australia on 1 July. His Australian life total was 90, which I thought was pretty good in a strange country in winter by himself. He was eager to see some albatrosses. A White-fronted Tern flew past, giving us all good looks. A tick for several passengers, including the Dutchman.
Every now and then, we were engulfed with cold water. Paul threatened to lower the plastic blinds to keep us dry. We preferred to risk a soaking and see the birds.
It turned out to be quite a good day for albatross, so my Dutchman was happy. We had six species, mainly Shy, and also lots of Black-browed. There were also just a couple of Yellow-nosed, Buller's, Campbell's and, best of all, two Grey-headed. Alas, I did not get a good look at the Grey-headeds. They were on the opposite side of the boat from where I was sitting, and did not hang around.
Unfortunately we saw just two prions all day: both Fairies. So my wish was not fulfilled. However, with so many albatrosses, it would be churlish to complain. Most of the albatrosses accompanied us back to port. There were up to thirty flying around the boat at any time. Wonderful!
We saw little else. There were several Fluttering Shearwaters and I think just one Hutton's. There were a few giant-petrels (about three I think) but only one was identified as a Northern. That was about it. A great day for albatross, but sadly no great albatross.
We drove back to Melbourne on Monday. The weather was again grey and unfriendly. I dipped on Hooded Plovers at Killarney (although I know they were present at Port Fairy because the Dutchman had photographed them on Saturday). I also dipped on Black-faced Cormorants, which usually greet me on the Moyne. Had a trip total of 70 birds.
The next day we set off for Rutherglen, wanting to get in a quick trip before my next pelagic commitment at Swansea on 24 July. The weather was still as you'd expect in mid-winter: grey, wet and cold. A pair of Scarlet Robins were very active at the Grasstree roadside stop.
Wednesday was foggy. Vision was poor. Nevertheless we saw shovellers at the ephemeral swamp near the Rutherglen tip. I feared I wouldn't see much else and adjusted my expectations. Rog drove me to Chiltern No 2 dam. The gate was locked, but Rog parked and sat happily reading his newspaper. I walked through wet grass to the birdhide. It's one of those horrible noisy hides, with a door that bangs loudly and windows that cannot be opened without frightening metallic crashes. I couldn't see much on the dam, although there were a couple of Great Crested Grebes in non-breeding plumage and one swan on a nest. I did much better with bush birds. Some sun managed to shine through and I saw a magnificent male Golden Whistler and an almost equally gorgeous female Crested Shriketit. There were Crimson Rosellas, lots of choughs and one noisy Restless Flycatcher.
I managed to drag Rog away from his paper and he drove to No 1 dam, where a Black-tailed Native-hen hurried into the reeds. There were also Red-browed Finches (sadly no Diamond Firetails here today) and ducks, grebes and plovers.
Next stop was Cyanide Dam at Honeyeater Picnic Area in the Chiltern/Mt Pilot National Park. Here the most surprising sighting was a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike. He must have forgotten to migrate. Every time I heard a Red Wattlebird, I had a good look, as a Regent Honeyeater had been reported to be consorting amongst them and imitating them. Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters were as gorgeous as ever and there were lots of Fuscous Honeyeaters too. One bird kept saying 'tickety-boo.' I hadn't heard that call before. It was one aberrant Fuscous. The others were all making their usual rollicking call. A Wedge-tailed Eagle soared overhead as I admired the Fuscous Honeyeaters. I did manage White-naped and Black-chinned, but not much else.
We came home to Melbourne on Thursday, with a trip list of 63. I was surprised that I had seen more birds in a three day trip to Port Fairy than a three day trip to Rutherglen (and Chiltern). In summer I expect 80 birds a day around Rutherglen.
Now I am preparing to go to Swansea and hoping (again!) for my Slender-billed Prion. Fingers crossed.
Wednesday, 30 April 2014
|Cattle Egret by Jim Smart|
Sunday was perfect: beautiful autumn sun. I had great expectations. First stop was the ephemeral swamp in Rutherglen near the tip, often the site for good birds. Not today. There was water in the swamp and a few ducks, but no crakes, no waders, no dotterels. The best I could do was a Tree Martin. I was sure I'd do better at Bartley's Block. We arrived to see a car parked near the gate, an unusual occurrence. I usually have the place to myself. The occupants told us that they'd seen a Regent Honeyeater here the day before. Now I really did expect some good birds. A male Scarlet Robin flew by to confirm that I was right. However, he turned out to be the best bird I saw. As we drove to Greenhill Dam, a pair of Turquoise Parrots flew by. Sittellas put on a beautiful display for me at Cyanide Dam, where the Brown Treecreepers were more scarce than usual, and, perhaps for the first time, I did not see an Eastern Yellow Robin. We visited No 1 dam, then No 2 where the most interesting sighting was a female Flame Robin.
We had lunch at The Terrace at All Saints winery, just because the chef had been written up in the Weekend Australian. This was one of the best meals I've ever eaten, and I would happily recommend this restaurant to anyone willing to pay $70 for three courses. (We made do with two courses for $55.)
I started Monday morning with a walk around Lake King in Rutherglen. I saw 24 species before breakfast, the most interesting being Tree Sparrows, which I saw in the main street of Rutherglen opposite our motel, amongst a flock of House Sparrows. We checked out Lake Anderson in Chiltern, then drove to McGuiness Road in the Mt Pilot section of the national park. This is where I look for quail-thrush. I walked along the road in the sun. It was very pleasant but there were very few birds, and no hint of quail-thrush. Next we visited Woolshed Falls, stopping to check out the ducks at the waterworks on the way. There were some Blue-billed Ducks on the dam, but they insisted on staying as far from the road as possible. In Beechworth, we did the tourist drive, and ticked Satin Bowerbirds on schedule at Lake Sambell. Then we returned to the national park in Chiltern, where I walked along Tower Hill Road. I did see some button-quail platelets, but sadly, no button-quail. At Cyanide Dam, the Sittellas were in the same tree they'd been in yesterday. I disturbed a Common Bronzewing and admired White-naped Honeyeaters as they splashed in the dam.
Tuesday was grey and it rained most of the way home. I enjoyed my time around Chiltern. I always do. However, I've never before come home thinking that the highlight was lunch at a winery, rather than the birds I'd seen.
Monday, 14 April 2014
|White-necked Heron - more common than usual?|
We left home on Wednesday and drove for three wet days to get to Dubbo. As soon as we turned for home, the sun came out and we had a delightful drive home.
The only bird of note on the first day was a paddock full of Cattle Egrets - my first for the year. The next day, notwithstanding the almost constant rain, I birded at The Rock (south of Wagga) and Migurra Walk (outside Cootamundra). When my book 'Best 100 Birdwatching Sites in Australia' first came out, there was some discussion on Birding-Aus about my site selection. Someone said that The Rock should not have been included. I thought at the time that whoever made that comment should revisit the place with an open mind. The birds there can be terrific. They can be. But they weren't last week. The only bird I saw was a White-throated Treecreeper. But then it was raining. It had stopped briefly when I arrived at Migurra Walk. I saw some honeyeaters and thornbills, some thickheads, several Striated Pardalotes and the ubiquitous Grey Fantail. Nice birding, but nothing special.
On Friday, we drove to Dubbo in the rain. Not many birds, but I did notice that there seemed to be lots of White-necked Herons. More than I'm used to anyway. Some years ago, we had an irruption of White-necked Herons at Werribee. They are not rare birds, but they are not usually quite so common.
As soon as the call came through that the pelagic was cancelled, Roger turned for home and the sun shone. Without the rain, I expected to see many more birds. Alas, it was not so. We actually saw fewer birds on the return trip.
On Sunday, the day I was supposed to be out at sea, notching up rare seabirds, I was birding in perfect conditions around Cootamundra, back at The Rock, then at Wonga Wetlands in Albury - three of my top 100 sites. There was little of note. I managed a Musk Duck and an Australasian Shoveler on Bethungra Dam and a Western Gerygone at The Rock, but that was about it.
On Monday, we drove back to Melbourne from Wodonga, stopping at two of my favourite spots: Chiltern Park and Cyanide Dam. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. I saw my first robin for the trip at Chiltern Park: an Eastern Yellow. Then a family of Scarlet Robins greeted me at Cyanide Dam. There was also a mixed flock of thornbills and Superb Fairywrens including at least one Speckled Warbler. I hadn't seen Speckled Warblers at Cyanide before, so that was special.
It is always enjoyable to go birding - even when it is raining and the birdlist disappoints, I remain hopeful that something exciting will appear around the next corner. Conversely, it is always most irritating when a pelagic is cancelled. Hopes for that rare seabird are dashed. I tell myself 'next time,' but somehow it doesn't quite work. My Pollyanna attitude only goes so far. After all, a missed tick is a missed tick.
Monday, 7 April 2014
|West Island, Ashmore Reef|
Trips to Ashmore Reef have normally been in spring when birders hope to see Matsudaira's, Swinhoe's and even Leach's Storm-Petrels. This inaugural autumn trip was aimed at rare passerines.
A bus picked up all the participants from their various lodgings in Broome (nearly forgetting one hapless fellow, who was sitting patiently waiting when we belatedly returned for him!). We were delivered to the beach and expected to wade out to a dingy. In the surf a helpful assistant intercepted my slow progress to hand me a name tag. How very thoughtful. I didn't swear at her. Instead I clambered aboard the dingy. No one said I had to be elegant.
The Reef Prince was a beautiful boat and I had a very comfortable room. We had early starts every morning and everyone retired to bed directly the evening meal was over. I found a DVD about the identification of storm-petrels and lay on my bed watching it happily.
The first day was characterised by Hutton's Shearwaters in the morning and Streaked in the afternoon. We saw Common Bottlenose and Swarf Spinner Dolphins, one large manta ray, several sea snakes and lots of pretty flying fish irrupting from under the catamaran like water from a fountain. I believe I identified six different species of flying fish.
At breakfast on the second day I suggested that this might be the best day of the trip. We would be travelling all day. I would not have to get into a small boat. And there was a good chance of a lifer: Bulwer's Petrel. Sure enough, I was on deck at 5.40 a.m. and was greeted by a Bulwer's sitting on the water in front of the boat.
We were to see a total of 68 Bulwer's that day, and a couple of hundred Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. We were to see Bridled, Sooty and Crested Terns just about every day of the trip. The birds we saw most were Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns, followed by Lesser Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies.
Early that morning, an inquisitive Abbott's Booby flew over the boat for a close look, and, later in the day, we were buzzed by a customs plane.
We saw our only Short-finned Pilot Whales that day too. It was very hot, so I sat in the shade at the back of the boat and chatted with Biggles, who had recently been guiding Pearl Jordan (the woman assuming Phoebe Snetsinger's number one world birding spot). Biggles, a renowned Darwin birder, told me that he had seen 799 Australian birds.
The next morning we saw what we assumed to be an illegal Indonesian fishing vessel. We also saw a drum in the water called a FAD - a fishing aggravation device. How it worked I do not know.
We arrived at West Island in Ashmore Reef at lunchtime on day 3. At about 5 hectares, West Island is the largest of the three islands. Ashmore Reef is uninhabited but because of assylum seekers, there is a very visible Navy presence.
I struggled onto a dingy and (with the help of fellow passengers) managed to get off at the other end. While I was wading ashore, I lost the soles off both my Tivas, so it was barefoot for me thereafter.
Walking around the island was hot and difficult. The beach is a minefield of turtle holes and, off the beach, vines trip your every step. West Island has two prominent coconut palms. Large bushes are dotted around the edge of the island and the rest of the land is covered with grasses, shrubs, vines and bushes with various degrees of penetrability. One patch of spinifex was particularly impenetrable, so of course, a line of brave birders walked through it several times, while the rest of us watched to see what they'd flush. Nothing. While walking across the island we'd often flush Buff-banded Rail and once Biggles set up a small snipe.
We examined every bush carefully looking for any small bird. Each time we visited West Island, we saw different birdlife. The predominant bird on that first occasion was the Sacred Kingfisher - we saw about sixty. We also saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, an Oriental Cuckoo and an Oriental Reed Warbler. There were several Red-tailed Tropicbird nests with chicks at different stages of development. I was hot and irritable and tick-less.
We visited West Island three more times. There were always Reef Egrets on the beach. I reckoned the ratio of white to dark morph was about five to one. We saw lots of waders, mainly Greater Sand Plovers, Whimbrels, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. We saw one White-winged Triller, a couple of Barn Swallows, one Oriental Dollarbird, one Rainbow Bee-eater and several more cuckoos.
The only heart-pumpingly rare passerine was quite an anti-climax as it was identified days after it was seen. John Weigel and Biggles found a warbler which they thought was something other than an Arctic Warbler. As an Arctic Warbler can only be identified conclusively by its song, we all surrounded the poor little bird, willing it to sing. It did not. Photos were taken. Everyone saw the bird fly and a few of us saw it perched. It looked like an Arctic Warbler to me, but what would I know? After much debate and deliberation, the experts decided it was a Yellow-browed Warbler. Yippee! Another tick.
After our early visit (5.30 a.m.) to West Island on day 4, we set off again to circumnavigate Middle Island. At 2 hectares, this is the smallest of the three islands and it is deemed too sensitive for us to land there. This is fine by me. I'm quite happy not having to get out of the dingy.
Middle Island was populated maily by Brown Noddies, followed by Lesser Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies. There were also about thirty Red-footed Boobies and half a dozen Masked Boobies.
Everyone (except me) clambered ashore on a nearby sand cay, which was well populated with waders. I stayed on the dingy in the shade with my water bottle, watching my hot thirsty comrades looking at the waders I could see from my shady seat.
On the way back to the Reef Prince we saw a large tiger shark in the shallows.
On day 5 we visited West Island twice - very early as usual and again in the afternoon. We found lots of tiny baby turtles, dead on the sand. We were told that this was due to the invasive fire ants. They bite the baby turtles which are then disorientated and head inland instead of out to sea.
Late that morning we visited East Island, half the size of West Island at 2.5 hectares. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip. It is home to squillions of noddies: 35,000 Brown, 2,500 Black and just 10-20 Lesser. Many people were excited to see Lesser Noddies, the most difficult of our noddies to tick.
Brown Boobies were sitting on eggs, usually one or two. The Sooty Terns were (as always) very vocal. Luckily they were not yet breeding. George told me that their behaviour is well synchronised and when they're breeding they fly in the air and intimidate intruders. This is called the dreads and I'm pleased I wasn't sujected to it.
On a nearby sand bar we admired thousands of warders - mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Greater Sand Plovers and Great Knots, but including several Asian Dowitchers in breeding plumage. Spectacular!
Everyone was exhausted, compounded by the heat, the early starts but, mostly, the lack of rarities.
We set sail back to Broome at 9 a.m. on day 6. A Red-necked Phalarope created great excitement landing on the water beside the boat and swimming in circles for us. I confess I was much more excited by a Jouanin's Petrel that flew past, obligingly giving everyone a good look. My third tick for the trip and a good one too. What's more, it was Biggles' 800th bird. Well done, Biggles!
Day 7 was an uneventful day at sea.
We paused at the Lacepedes on day 8 and were disheartened to see so many Silver Gulls. The Lacepedes are a very special place - lots of waders and turtles, but it was difficult for them to compete with the magnificent East Island we'd experienced two days before.
The only other bird we saw was a few Lesser Crested Terns flying past as we neared our mooring at Broome.
The fiasco of disembarking was worse than getting onto the boat a week before. Of course it was a wet landing. We were expeced to carry our own luggage onto the dingy. If passengers had not helped, the crew could not have coped.
There was no explanation or apology for these wet landings in Broome. I do not know why they occurred. The crew are so adept at jumping on and off little boats and into and out of the water, that they really think nothing of it, and have no comprehension how difficult it can be for women of a certain age. And it really is a shame to finish such a great trip on an unnecessarily sour note.
I must thank George Swann, Adrian Boyle and Mike Carter for their incomparable knowledge and expertise, and all my fellow participants for their company, bonhomie and most particularly, their assistance in getting on and off those wretched little boats.
George picked me up at my hotel at 6. He had Dr Rob Hamilton, a birder from Hobart with him. For the day, I managed 94 birds, despite the heat. George and Rob, who spent hours wading through ankle deep wetlands, saw several more.
The day started well at the sewage works where we had immediate and excellent views of the Semipalmated Plover in breeding plumage. It was more brightly coloured than the drab bird I'd seen illustrated but I confess I did not notice that its bill was orange at the base. The Semiplamated Plover is an American bird breeding anywhere in the far north from Alaska to Newfoundland. When I'd learnt before I left home that the bird was in breeding plumage I was worried that it might leave before I could get there. I later learned that it always leaves on the same day in April. A creature of habit indeed.
We also saw both races of the Yellow Wagtail cooperatively playing side by side. There were several other waders, including Black-wnged Stilt with some very cute chicks.
From the sewage works we went to Station Hill looking for raptors. Here I saw my first giant burrowing frog, which was fun, even if not very raptorial. Then it was on to Roebuck Plains. Highlights for me were my favourite woodswallow (White-breasted), Red-backed Fairywrens and Magpie Geese with goslings.
I was surprised to learn that George remembered taking my parents birding some 25 years ago. He particularly remembered that they had Painted Honeyeaters nesting in their front garden. No wonder he's such a good birder with a memory like that.
Regardless of what the field guides say, George tells me that there are always a few Common Redshanks in Broome. He had seemed quite confident of showing me one so I was relaxed and expectant as we drove to Little Crab Creek the first time. Somehow he had misjudged the tides and there were no waders to be seen at all, let alone any redshanks. We drove back and admired thousands of waders in Roebuck Bey - truly a spectacular sight.
The second time we approached Little Crab Creek I was not quite so relaxed. What if I missed out on this wretched bird yet again? I had looked for it so many times and, if I missed out on this occasion, I reckoned it would now qualify as a bogey bird. In September 2009, at the end of Klaus' Black Grasswren tour, instead of going home, I had flown to Broome from Kununurra in order to look for a Common Redshank. I had tried my best, and the wardens at the bird observatory on my behalf did so too, but I was not blessed with a redshank on that occasion.
Broome is a long way from Melbourne. If you put up with the heat, I reckon you're entitled to a lifer or two.
As we walked through the mangroves to the entrance to Little Crab Creek we were diverted with Dusky Gerygones, Yellow White-eyes and White-breasted Whistlers. We saw Mangrove Grey Fantails, Lemon-bellied Flycatchers, while Brahminy Kites and a Peregrine Falcon flew overhead. But I was not satisfied with all this entertainment. There was only one bird that would gratify me today. With muddy feet we reached the entrance to the creek. In seconds George had a couple of Common Redshank in the scope for me. Yippee! Two birds I requested and two birds George delivered.
I knew then that my trip to Ashmore Reef would be a success.
Sunday, 9 March 2014
|The helipad at Bunyip State Park|
Yesterday evening we went looking for White-throated Nightjars at the helipad at Bunyip State Park. Sadly, we did not see or hear a nightjar. We heard several Sooty Owls, but couldn't manage to see one. The only night birds we did see were a couple of Southern Boobooks.
Bunyip State Park (site number 50 in my book) is 65 kilometres east of Melbourne in the Dandenong Ranges. We arrived at the helipad at 7.30, in time for a restorative cup of coffee before the serious watching began. Black cockies wailed over the treetops and White-throated Needletails put on a aerobatic display over the helipad while we waited. Two carloads of birders turned up, all wanting to see nightjars. I was delighted at this, because I had feared that March was too late in the year. I think of nightjars in Melbourne as a purely summer phenomenon, and March is, after all, autumn. I feared the birds would be on their way back up north by March. And perhaps they were.
It was a very pleasant evening: balmy temperature, no wind, no pesky insects and good company. A couple of Southern Boobooks flew over the helipad and ensured that we stayed focused. I had thought that about 8.30 would be the right time, and I think that was probably right. Although, I have no right to say so as we didn't see or hear any nightjars. We did hear Sooty Owls, doing both the falling bomb call and the trill. After a while of not seeing or hearing nightjars, the Sooty Owls got the better of us, and we all walked down the road, as the owls did sound quite close. I suspect they were never as close as we had thought. They were always just a little too far away - never close enough for even a glimpse.
Thank you to those lovely birders we met at the helipad who were so generous with their time and expertise. I did enjoy chatting to you! I still suspect that March is a little late for nightjars. But it is always fun trying.
Saturday, 8 March 2014
|Cape Barren Goose|
We had a wonderful day at Werribee on Friday. Raptors starred. We saw lots of waders and ducks and several crakes, including one Spotted Crake standing on a rock!
Early in the day, we bumped into Martin doing a survey, so we found out all we could. He told us about Broad-billed and Pectoral Sandpipers, Double-banded Plovers, Black Falcons, Freckled Ducks, Little and Fairy Terns and Blue-winged Parrots. We searched in all his recommended spots, but we did not see any of these birds.
We saw many Whistling and Black Kites, a couple of Black-shouldered ones too. Several Swamp Harriers, one Brown Falcon, and a Brown Goshawk and an Australian Hobby.
A crake ran across the road in front of the bird hide. It was very dark, and might have been a Spotless Crake, but I was not sure. We saw several Australian Spotted Crakes and one skulking Buff-banded Rail. The light was not good. It was on the other side of the river, and in the binoculars just looked like a dark rail, but in the scope there was no doubting his identity. I had never seen a crake perched on a rock before. The rock was in a lagoon, surrounded by water. The bird flew, only to be attacked by (of all things) a Welcome Swallow. The crake disappeared under the water, never to be seen again. I assume it swam under water to the bank.
The Golden-headed Cisticolas were, as ever, very beautiful. A Little Grassbird sat obligingly up on top of a bush, determined to get its name onto my list. White-winged Black Terns swooped over the lagoons, and loafed on the beach, so we could admire their non-breeding plumage properly through the scope. We saw a remarkable seven Great Crested Grebes, always one of my favourites.
A most enjoyable day. Many beautiful birds. As a Sydney friend of mine said recently: 'it's impossible to have a bad day at Werribee.'