Saturday, 30 January 2016

SO THAT WAS JANUARY

What a great start to the year!  On New Year's Day I often visit Banyule and Wilson Reserve, in an attempt to get the year's birdlist off to a good start.  This year I didn't.  These treats are still in store for me in 2016.  But I ticked a lifer in January, something I don't often do, and what better start to the year could there be?

Apart from seeing the poor lost Paradise Shelduck at Lake Wollumboola, I spent a very pleasant hour at Trin Warren Tam-Boore (while Rog was at one of his interminable doctor's appointments) and visited Werribee twice.  Yes, I did see the Red-necked Phalarope, not very good views, but I saw it.  Better, I saw some great interstate birders who'd come to see the phalarope.  Three species of crakes put on a delightful display and Werribee was as wonderful as only Werribee can be.  

We saw thousands of ducks, but dipped on the Brolga.  We saw many raptors, but came home without a kestrel.  We had four species of terns and lots of waders.  The avocets were as elegant as ever, Banded Stilts overshadowed their smaller cousins and the Cape Barren Geese impressed everyone.  We had superb views of Little Grassbird, Striated Fieldwren and Australian Reed-Warbler.  I enjoyed the Brown Songlark and I always love zebbies.  One single Dusky Woodswallow greeted us on both our visits.

This despite the rain.  It seems to rain less at Werribee than it does in Melbourne.  Often I leave a wet Melbourne and enjoy a pleasant dry day at Werribee.  This year, both my visits so far have been wet.
Phil Jackson and me at the Borrow Pits, Werribee, photo by Dianne Lee

I managed 30 daily walks in January, seeing a total of 26 species.  I saw an average of 11 species on each walk:  the most was 16 and the least was 8.  I added just one new bird to my daily walk list.  It was a Little Eagle.  The Rainbow Lorikeets drew my attention to it, with their ear-piercing screeching.  It was quite high in the sky, seemingly oblivious to the noisy lorikeets.

In February, I plan to make yet another attempt on my last remaining bogey bird: the White-necked Petrel.  This is supposedly the easiest seabird on the Australian list that I have not seen.  I have driven (or, more correctly, Roger has driven) to New South Wales on at least a dozen occasions in an attempt to add this bird to my lifelist, but so far have had no luck.  Perhaps 2016 will be my year.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

PARADISE SHELDUCK

What a great way to start 2016!  In January 2015, Lake Wollumboola presented me with a White-rumped Sandpiper.  Now, in January 2016, it has miraculously produced a Paradise Shelduck.

Twitchers had gathered at the lake (located near Nowra in New South Wales) to admire a Hudsonian Godwit.  For several days they overlooked an aberrant shelduck amongst the teal.  Then someone noticed that it was in fact a Paradise Shelduck from New Zealand.  HANZAB records that some Paradise Shelduck were seen on Lord Howe Island in 1950.  There are no previous confirmed mainland records.  

I heard about the shelduck last week, but decided I did not want to drive that far alone.  (My computer told me it was a little over 8 hours' drive.)  James Mustafa (who had driven up to see the Hudsonian Godwit, and noticed the odd shelduck but not paid it sufficient attention) said he was free on Monday afternoon.  We set off at 3.15.  We spent the night at Goulburn and recommenced our journey at 5.15 on Tuesday morning.  We were at Lake Wollumboola at 7.30 a.m.  It was raining, but we did not let this dampen our spirits.  A group of men identified themselves as birders by their cameras and binoculars.  They were standing, chatting under umbrellas, on the lake's edge, quite near the car park.  We rejoiced.  This must mean the shelduck was very close by.  We donned rain jackets, grabbed the scope, and hurried to join them.  

No, they said.  The duck was at the far end of the lake with the swans.  They did not know where the hudwit was.  We didn't bother to ask them why they were standing under umbrellas by a lake on a rainy Tuesday morning.  We set off immediately towards the swans.  It was then 7.45.

The rain hit our faces unkindly.  My precious notebook, inside my supposedly waterproof jacket pocket was soon quite wet.  So was I.  We skirted the nesting Little Terns, and tried to think positive thoughts.  I told James that, in circumstances like these, when I was with my father, he would recite poetry for me.  He'd learnt Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin as a child and had never forgotten it.  I also remember a ballad about Inch Cape Rock.  And others.  Surprisingly, James remembered some very beautiful poetry.  I had not expected that.  And it certainly took my mind off my wet feet, wet clothes and the heavy wet tripod I was lugging along for company.

We had our heads down, trudging into the rain.

'The rain will be behind us on the way back,' said James cheerfully.

I needed my entire concentration just putting one wet foot in front of the other.  I could not think of anything suitable to say and did not respond.  Suddenly James stopped.

'Look,' he said, grinning stupidly.

The Paradise Shelduck was grazing happily, not 100 metres in front of us.  It was in company with some Grey Teal,  a long way away from the swans at the far end of the lake.  It was 8 o'clock.  Really a very easy twitch.

We retreated to the cover of some nearby scrub.  I was happy with my January lifer.  James attempted to get a bit closer, using the scrub as a shield.  The teal soon flushed.  The shelduck honked, but did not fly.  James took a photo and then left the shelduck in peace.
Paradise Shelduck, photo by James Mustafa

Really, a fantastic start to the year.  Can 2016 continue this high standard?

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

SO MUCH FOR 2015

I did my morning walk today and suddenly realized that, as the forecast temperature for Melbourne tomorrow is 39, I probably won't be going for a walk, so that was most likely my final walk for 2015.  This morning I added a new bird to my walk list:  the Purple-crowned Lorikeet, making a total list of 39 species.  However, I should delete Willie Wagtail, which I used to see regularly on my north walk and White-plumed Honeyeater, which seems to have been successfully replaced throughout my walking area by Noisy Miners.  Other birds I added to the walk list this year are:  Straw-necked Ibis, European Goldfinch (probably escapees), Eastern Spinebill, Crimson Rosella, Little Corella, Collared Sparrowhawk and Musk Lorikeet.  The largest number of species I saw on any walk was 16, which I achieved in winter on a north walk.  I average around 10 species per walk.

Herald Petrel, photo by Judy Leitch

My birding objectives for 2015 had been modest:  I had aimed for five new birds.  I achieved four of these:  the Slender-billed Prion, Herald Petrel, Morepork and Nullarbor Quail-thrush.  Thanks to Graham Barwell, I also saw the White-rumped Sandpiper.  Yet again, I did not see the White-necked Petrel, which is a real bogey bird for me.  I was particularly pleased to see the prion at last, because I'd been looking for it for six years.  Persistence pays off.

In 2016, I'm planning a trip with Richard Baxter to Torres Strait and I'm hoping for Coconut Lorikeet and Red-capped Flowerpecker as well as whatever rarities care to present themselves.  In winter, I'm planning to drive west again, this time looking for a Naretha Bluebonnet and a Copperback Quail-thrush.  Of course, I will look again for the elusive White-necked Petrel.  People tell me that it's not a rare bird.  I'll have to luck onto it some time.  And then how will I justify my trips to Wollongong?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

BIRDING IN THE ANTARCTIC

Since I was a small child, throwing streamers at the departing Nella Dan at the South Melbourne dock, I have wanted to go to the Antarctic.  Such romance!  One of the world's last frontiers.

At last I have achieved this childhood dream.  The Antarctic was both more and less than I'd dared to hope.  The scenery was far more spectacular than I'd expected.  The mountains were higher and more rugged, and they thrust skyward from the sea sometimes with no beach whatsoever.  Of course there was lots of snow and ice, but the colours were surprising.  The sky was blue; the water was black.  The ice was sometimes white, sometimes blue, sometimes transparent.  Icebergs came in all shapes and sizes.  As they melted slowly into the black water, an eerie milky almost iridescent green puddle surrounded the base of the iceberg.  As huge chunks of glaciers calved off, a sound like an explosion preceded the splash into the water.  Sometimes, pack ice of all sizes seemed to cover the sea for many kilometres in all directions.  The ship ploughed through this and it closed like a zipper behind us.

But I was on a birding trip, not a sight seeing tour.  Penguins are always personality plus birds:  often endearing, sometimes confiding, forever memorable.  We must have seen hundreds of thousands of them.  I saw six different species - more of them later.  I saw five species of albatross.  The most numerous was Black-browed, then Grey-headed, then Light-mantled Sooty, then Wandering, and finally, Southern Royal.  I had hoped to see Sooty Albatross, but we did not.  We saw lots of Cape Petrels, Blue Petrels, Antarctic Prions and Imperial Shags of various races.
Atlantic Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick

Antarctic Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick

For me the birding highlights were Atlantic Petrel, Antarctic Petrel, Southern Fulmars and ethereal Snow Petrels.  We saw just two Atlantic Petrels on the second day.  That was our quota.  We saw Antarctic Petrels on five consecutive days, but only ever one or two individuals.  By contrast, we saw many thousands of Southern Fulmars.  On one day alone we recorded over a thousand.  This was a bird I particularly wanted to see, as it has always eluded my Australian list.  I thought I saw one on my Macquarie Island trip:  a large white bird flying high in the sky.  Now that I've seen fulmars, I can say that my unidentified Macquarie Island bird was not a fulmar:  it did not have a large enough wingspan.  Fulmars are surprisingly pretty birds:  none of the illustrations I've seen do them justice.  The last of my special birds is the breathtaking Snow Petrel.  Everyone loves Snow Petrels.  I saw them on four days; the largest number on any day was a total of fifty birds.
Snow Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick

I scored just nine lifers on the Antarctic leg of my trip.

We boarded our ship, Aurora's Polar Pioneer, at Stanley in the Falklands.  We flew from Chile into the military airport, picked up our baggage and were immediately taken by bus to Stanley.  The countryside was not particularly attractive, but birds flew past the windows of the bus (lifers for me) as our guide gave commentary about the war.  I have no doubt that some people would find commentary about the war more interesting than unidentified strange birds.  Those people had not signed up for a birding tour. 

With no time at all for birding, I left the Falklands with 6 lifers:  the flightless Falkland Steamerduck; the easily identified Rock Cormorant (with a bright red face); Magellanic Oystercatcher; Rufous-chested Dotterel (which I spied while everyone else was photographing a shipwreck); Dolphin Gull (at the port as we left) and, very luckily, Correndera Pipit (which I saw from the bus as it flew).  I also saw a pair of caracara, whose identification remains unclear.  I thought they were Striated, but I'm told that's impossible and they must have been Southern.  Alas, I will never know.
South Georgia Pipit, photo by Mick Roderick

We left the Falklands on Saturday evening and arrived at South Georgia on Tuesday.  That day I achieved three lifers:  the most endearing and very naughty Snowy Sheathbill; South Georgia Pintails and South Georgia Pipit, the world's most southern passerine.  

We played around South Georgia until Saturday, visiting several memorable spots.  Everyone likes Salisbury Plain, which 250,000 King Penguins call home.  My favourite spot was Gold Harbour, where there were only 20,000 King Penguins, and also Gentoos, skuas, giant-petrels, intimidating fur seals and elephant seals.  The King Penguins trumpet loudly and mate rather roughly.  The fluffy brown chicks whistle 'Maroochydore.'  Many of the seals had pups, which were undeniably cute.  While we were on South Georgia, a photographer from another cruise ship was bitten by a fur seal on Salisbury Plain, and the boat returned to the Falklands to get proper medical attention for him.  The Drygalski Fjord was spectacular.  There was nowhere to land, but we cruised up the fjord while dozens of Antarctic Terns flew around the ship.

We learnt about the rat eradication program on South Georgia, which has cost 7.5 million pounds, and seems to have been successful.  We visited the museum at Grytiviken, where I enjoyed the display of birdlife.  They had birds, various eggs, and a burrow showing a diving-petrel.  Much to my amusement, it was a Common Diving-petrel, not the local South Georgian species.  Put this down to my ignorance.  I later learned that there are more Common Diving-petrels on South Georgia (3.8 million breeding pairs) than there are South Georgian Diving-petrels (2 million). The birds look identical at sea and I did not really expect to be able to say that I'd seen any new diving-petrel on this trip.  However, thanks to Mick Roderick and his terrific photos, we did confirm that we had seen South Georgian birds.  While we were in Grytiviken, we visited Shackleton's grave and toasted his memory.  We also had a celebratory Shackleton dinner, with the dining rooms decorated with the ship's flags and paper lanterns, made from biosecurity forms we had dutifully filled out!
Northern Giant-Petrel, photo by Mick Roderick

After we left South Georgia, we spent two days cruising until we arrived at Elephant Island.  We saw few birds during these two days, the most common being Antarctic Prion, followed by Cape Petrel.  There were lots of Blue Petrels on the first day, but very few thereafter.  We saw Wilson's Storm-petrels every day of the trip, but never in big numbers.  We also saw Black-bellied Storm-petrels, but not every day.  We saw Grey-backed Storm-petrels on three days only, a total of five birds.  White-chinned Petrels were with us all the time, until we arrived in the Antarctic.  We saw a few birds every day, up to fifty individuals.

On Gourdin Island, three penguins were breeding:  Chinstrap, Adelie and Gentoo.  There was constant braying:  the Chinstrap have the highest pitch, then the Adelies and the Gentoos the lowest.  A veritable cacophony.  
Chinstrap Penguin, photo by Mick Roderick

An Antarctic wind storm slowed us down and prevented us from landing at Cuverville.  Snow was pretty, as was the pack ice, but huge chunks of ice falling from the rigging was a little disconcerting.  I had planned to send postcards from Port Lockroy, but there was too much ice for us to land.

I rather liked the frozen waterfall on Deception Island, and certainly enjoyed the skuas having a hot thermal bath on Livingston Island.  

Drake Passage did not live up to its reputation.  We had very calm seas - nothing at all like my experience around Macquarie Island.  In fact, visiting The Horn was somewhat of an anticlimax.

I am delighted to have fulfilled my childhood dream, and finally visited the Antarctic.  The scenery was breath taking.  However, I confess that I was disappointed in the birdlife.  I had expected more birds and more species.  The picture of Light-mantled Sooty Albatross doing their mating ballet will remain with me forever, and the size of the penguin colonies is simply overwhelming, while individual birds that seem to want to make friends will be a treasured memory for years to come.

It was the experience of a lifetime.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

BIRDING IN CHILE

I've just returned from a trip to South Georgia and the Antarctic, run by Aurora Expeditions.  For reasons best known to themselves, Aurora booked me into two full days in Chile on the way.  One day they offered a tour of Santiago; the other day they scheduled a winery tour, including a visit to the picturesque seaside township of Valparaiso.  I declined these offers.

I've never been to Chile before and the chance to spend two days birding was far more appealing.  I engaged a guide:  Fernando Diaz from Albatross Birding and Nature Tours.  He was excellent!  His English was very good, his catering was wonderful (table cloths, no less!) but, most important, his knowledge of birds was unsurpassed.

Before I left home I purchased a field guide:  Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica by Martin R. de la Pena and Maurice Rumboll.  I would not recommend it.  The text is inadequate and the illustrations are poor.  I later discovered that the book I should have bought was Birds of Chile by Alvaro Jaramillo.  It is very good indeed.

Thanks to Fernando (and not to the field guide) we saw 56 species in two days.  We were high in the Andes and the scenery was spectacular.  The first day we spent in the Yeso Valley and the second day we were on Faranelles Road.  The only two species I managed to get for myself in the city of Santiago were the Rufous-collared Sparrow and the Chimango Caracara.  These birds were both common just about everywhere we went.  Chilean Mockingbirds were common too, as were Moustached Turca and Long-tailed Meadowlarks, with their pretty red breasts.  I saw my first hummingbird on the first day:  the White-sided Hillstar.  Later we saw its nest, suspended from the ceiling of a cave.  Our first endemic was the not very inspiring Crag Chilia.  The beautiful Diademed Sandpiper-plover more than made up for that.
Diademed Sandpiper-plover

Birding in Chile, photo by Chris Melrose

As I knew absolutely nothing about the birds of Chile, I enjoyed the strange sounding names as much as the birds.  I'd heard of siskins, of course, but not Cinclodes, Tit-spinetails, Canasteros, Earthcreepers, Diuca-finches or Ground-tyrants.  So much to learn!
Great Horned Owl, photo by Chris Melrose

Highlights of the second day were a Giant Hummingbird, a Great Horned Owl, a couple of woodpeckers (Striped and Chilean Flicker) and a Black-chested Buzzard-eagle.  We saw plenty of Andean Condors.  We saw them both days, but had better looks on the second day.  And we saw a culpo fox, not in the least bit intimidated by us intruding onto his territory.
Andean Condors fly from the roofs of the buildings at the ski resort


Later, after we returned from the Antarctic, we cruised up the Beagle Channel and moored at Puerto Williams.  I saw almost as many new species here as I had in the past fortnight at sea.  From the boat, I admired a Ringed Kingfisher and a Black-crowned Night-Heron, while Magellanic Penguins swam by.  Both Chilean Swallows and Crested Ducks flew past and some sort of dark cinclodes played amongst the kelp on the shore.  Later, we went for a walk.  Black-faced Ibis flew overhead and a very handsome Thorn-tailed Rayadito squeaked in the bushes above.  In Punta Arenas, while looking unsuccessfully for Brown-headed Gulls, I saw Two-banded Plovers on the rocky shoreline, bringing my total Chilean bird count to 70 species.


Monday, 14 December 2015

CHRISTMAS IS COMING: UNABASHED SELF-PROMOTION

I'm just back from a wonderful trip to the Antarctic and South Georgia (more of that later) and find, to my amazement, that Christmas is almost upon us.  Where does the time go?  If you have people on your Christmas list who are difficult to buy for, here's a suggestion:  why not buy them one of my books?

It seems to me that most people like birds.  For someone who is interested in birds, I'd recommend my first book:  "How Many Birds is That?"  I sell these for $25, which includes postage within Australia.  This is the story of my travels around Australia, trying to see as many species of birds as possible.

For someone whose interest in birds might require some development, why not try my second book:  "Why Watch Birds?"  This is a beginner's guide to bird watching.  I sell it for $20, which includes postage within Australia.

Go to the tab:  "Buy books by Sue Taylor."  You'll see that it's too easy.   Both books come signed by the author.

And let me add that I hope you have a very Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

MIMICKING MAGPIE

I've just returned from my daily walk.  It was cool and drizzly and I saw very few birds.  However, I did witness a remarkable thing:  a magpie that was mimicking.  It was a young bird, I'm not sure which sex, I was standing underneath it, looking straight up at it.  In fact, it took me a while to find it.  I could hear a magpie's whisper song, so I looked for the bird.  There's a very large conifer where magpies often perch, so I expected to find it in that.  When I couldn't see it, I looked elsewhere, and the bird was right above me, quite close, sitting on the electricity wires.

It was happily singing its whisper song, and at the end of each phrase, it inserted the alarm call from an emergency vehicle.

I've witnessed this just once before, some years ago in Western Australia, in a public park.  A magpie was mimicking a race caller on the radio.  That magpie did not insert his mimicking into his usual carolling, as this one did, he concentrated entirely on his imitation of someone calling a horse race on the radio, including background crowd noises.  Remarkable.

Australian Magpie (this is not the bird that was mimicking)