Sunday, 1 November 2015


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)

Wednesday, 21 October 2015


I thought I'd got all my ticks for the year.  Unless some vagrant appeared unexpectedly, I didn't think 2015 had any more new birds for me.  Then some wonderful birder discovered Moreporks at Cape Liptrap (# 764).  Howzat!

Morepork, photo by Geoff Glare

Southern Boobooks are found throughout Australia, and of course, I'd seen many.  But I hadn't seen any in Tasmania and the Tasmanian race had recently been split from the mainland subspecies, and now we potentially had a new bird to add to our lifelist:  the Morepork.

I was at home studying dutifully (exams next week) when James Mustafa phoned to say he was planning to drive to Cape Liptrap to see the Moreporks.  I confess I did not have to think very long or very hard.  Of course I could take the night off.  I'd study all the better with a tick under my belt, I told myself.  A little bit of birding could only enhance my studies.  A new lifer would give me a boost:  my memory would be improved, my comprehension would increase, I would wing confidently to my exams.

So we set off.  James, his delightful girlfriend Clancye, and me.

Traffic was dreadful.  The two and a half hour trip from Melbourne to Cape Liptrap took more like four hours.  It didn't matter.  The sun had not set as we arrived in the Cape Liptrap lighthouse carpark.  Luckily, the temperature was not very cold, there was no wind and there was no sign of rain.  But my heart fell as I looked around.  We were in the right place, but there were no trees.  For me, owls and trees go together, like, well, studying and books.  It was all coastal scrub.  And to prove it, we heard a whipbird call.  James had photos taken a couple of days before of Moreporks in this spot.  It had to be right.  We wandered along the path to the lighthouse, trying to match the photos to the surroundings.

At the lighthouse, we met Geoff Glare and his charming wife, Anne, aka 'The Whale Woman.'  They'd been whale watching and, like us, had come to admire the Moreporks.  Of course it was the right spot.  We found a stunted tree that matched one photo perfectly.  Another photo was of an owl on the ground, and another bird was sitting on a post.  There were certainly lots of posts.  We chatted politely, trying to pretend that it didn't really matter whether or not we saw the Morepork.  Slowly, the sun set over the sea.

At 8.20 we decided to walk towards the lighthouse.  James saw a bird, then another.  It landed and we ran to position our torches and get a good look.  Yes, it was a Morepork, right on cue.   It was 8.25.  It did not seem to be in the least concerned by our presence.  It had the yellowest eyes!  It sat, ignoring us, occasionally gracing us with a direct stare and a frown.  We all had great tickable views.  Then it was off.

Quite happy with my single sighting (happy! I was ecstatic!) I did not need more.  We walked slowly back up the path.  Suddenly, there was another owl, much darker this time, but extremely pale underneath when he flew.  (I say 'he' but I have no idea what sex it was.  I believe it was a juvenile bird because it was so pale underneath.)  Again, we all enjoyed wonderful views.  The bird sat, obligingly, letting us admire him at length.

Finally, he flew.

Again, we walked towards the car and home.  Again, we were distracted by a Morepork.  A third bird, and for the third time, we all drank him in.  Geoff was distracted by a frog, but I'm afraid I cared only about owls at that moment.  We'd seen three birds in just a half an hour.

We were a very fulfilled, cheerful bunch.  The long drive home did not seem so long.  I did not give my exams a moment's thought.  I went home to dream about yellow-eyed Moreporks.

Saturday, 10 October 2015


For many years, I have wanted to eradicate exotic pests from Australia.  Now I find myself yearning to cull a native species.

Unwanted, unwelcome and unloved:  how do we eradicate them?

Noisy Miners have taken over some suburbs of Melbourne and turned previously enjoyable spots into miner monocultures.  When I moved to Kew 20 years ago, we enjoyed White-plumed Honeyeaters.  I have seen Eastern Spinebills in my street.  No more.  Now we must make do with miners.

Recently I visited the Maranoa Gardens in Balwyn, a suburb some 15 kilometres east of central Melbourne.  I have happy memories of visiting these municipal native gardens with my late grandfather and my late parents.  The birding used to be good.  I remember many Suberb Fairy-wrens and Silvereyes.  I remember New Holland Honeyeaters, Eastern Spinebills and Little Wattlebirds.  If you visit today, you'll see plenty of Noisy Miners, but not much else.

I visited several times during September and October 2015 and recorded Pied Currawongs, Australian Magpies, Eastern Rosellas, Rainbow Lorikeets, one Red Wattlebird, a couple of Crested Pigeons, one Grey Butcherbird and Little Ravens.  No small birds at all.  But there were dozens of Noisy Miners.  I reckoned there were about 50 of these despotic creatures in the 1.4 hectare gardens.  That is far too many.

The gardens are lovely, with many flowering native plants.  Noisy Miners, although they are honeyeaters, prefer to eat insects.  They do take nectar, but half-heartedly, and don't feed from many of the flowering plants in the Maranoa Gardens.  Small honeyeaters that in the past would have enjoyed this nectar, are now driven from the gardens by Noisy Miners.  The miners don't need the resource, but won't allow anyone else to use it either.  They are selfish bullies.  They are getting more and more self-assured and aggressive.  They often bomb me as I walk down the street and I see young mothers with prams looking anxiously over their shoulders as they approach the local park.  I suspect that it is a matter of time before residents rebel and take matters into their own hands.  We should agree to cull these unwelcome creatures, plant lots of dense native undergrowth and hope we can see some of our small native birds return.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


Eclipse fishing charter boat

I've just returned from a quick trip to Raine Island in far north Queensland to tick the Herald Petrel.  This is one of Australia's rarest breeding seabirds, with a total population of 20 birds.  That's ten breeding pairs, all on Raine Island.  Herald Petrels also nest elsewhere (such as Tonga, New Caledonia, Samoa and Pitcairn Island) but for Australia, the only known breeding birds are on Raine Island.  The chances of seeing one on any routine pelagic are very close to nil.  The exceptions that prove the rule were (would you believe?) two sightings in March 2015 - one from Eden, and one on a Gold Coast Seamount trip.  Herald Petrels like deep water and most ordinary pelagics don't get out that far.
Herald Petrel, photo by Judy Leitch

Richard Baxter ran three back-to-back trips out of Portland Roads on the fishing charter boat Eclipse.  The first trip was extremely rough and they saw just one Herald Petrel.  The second trip was not quite so bumpy and they saw seven petrels.  I was on the third trip.  For us, conditions were perfect.  We all had magnificent views of the petrel on the second day.  The bird sat on the water not ten metres from the boat.  Then it flew towards us, inspected us individually with a critical eye, then, apparently satisfied, flew off never to be seen again.  We were all very pleased with ourselves, grinning stupidly as if we'd achieved something special.  Which indeed we had.  It was a good thing we got good views, because that was the only petrel for the entire trip that graced us with its presence.
Raine Island:  not a tree in sight

Raine Island is quite small:  I reckon I could walk around it in half an hour.  That's if I were allowed on it.  People are not permitted closer than 500 metres from this protected island.  It is home to thousands of Lesser Frigatebirds, hundreds of Black and Brown Noddies and scores of Brown Boobies.  There's also a scattering of Red-footed and Masked Boobies, Red-tailed Tropicbirds and Sooty Terns.  We saw a couple of Buff-banded Rail, some Silver Gulls and a Masked Lapwing.  That's about it.

The bird list for the entire four day trip was not large.  Sometimes we'd go for an hour without seeing a bird.  We saw some dolphins and others saw some cetaceans.  After the Herald Petrel, the most spectacular sighting was on the fourth day when over 2,500 Black Noddies flew past the boat.  Perhaps 60-80 birds were rafting on the water, while others flew on determinedly.  Suddenly they were joined by about a hundred Black-naped Terns, putting on a fantastic foraging display right in front of us.  They wheeled and turned, and splashed and rose, ethereal and beautiful.  Truly a breathtaking experience.

On the first day I thought I saw a Leach's Storm-Petrel.  It looked like a Welcome Swallow hovering over the water, then it disappeared before anyone else saw it, let alone pointed a camera towards it.  I find these unidentified glimpses more frustrating than not seeing a bird at all.

We did see Wilson's and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels.  We boarded the boat on Friday afternoon, and returned to Portland Roads on Tuesday morning, having travelled a total of 315 nautical miles.  We each thought ourselves pretty clever, having ticked Australia's rarest breeding seabird.

Thank you, Richard!

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Powerful Owl, Banyule, photo by James Mustafa
At last, winter is over and I can look forward to some warmer weather.  It has been a cold winter this year.  The birds are already anticipating better things to come.  Pied Currawongs have arrived and are making their presence felt.  Yesterday I found a Little Raven's nest and last week I discovered that Noisy Miners are nesting in a hedge at the end of my street.  Really it is amazing how few nests I find when I am out looking every day.

I think I know my local birds, and yet I do not.  Before yesterday, had I been asked, I'd have said with confidence that Brown Thornbills occur in small flocks.  Yesterday I read that they occur singly or in pairs.  My records show that I see or hear Brown Thornbills just about every other day.  I was sure that they were in small parties, foraging through the trees at about eye height.  However, when I think about it, what happens is, I hear Brown Thornbills, I go looking, I see one bird, so I can write it down as 'seen' then I move on.  I never stop to see how many birds there are, and as these tiny birds have very loud voices they could well be tricking me into thinking that there are more of them than there really are.  I heard them on my walk today, so I decided to check them out.  The call was loud, but there was in fact just a single bird.  You can be sure that I will be making a note of thornbill numbers in future.

Magpie Goose at Werribee, photo by James Mustafa
My birding highlight during August was a visit from a birding friend from WA.  He came with a wish list of east coast birds he wanted to see.  Now, Steve is a special man.  He celebrated with me on Cocos Island last November when I saw my 750th Australian bird. That was the Javan Pond-Heron. Then, a couple of days later, he ushered me through waist-deep shark infested waters to see a Chinese Pond-Heron.  I would never have seen that bird without Steve, and I will be forever grateful.  Therefore, when Steve arrived with a list of 'must see' birds, I wanted to help as much as possible.  So I enlisted help.  I called on James Mustafa and the three of us had a wonderful couple of days, crossing birds off Steve's list.  Of course we started at Werribee, where there were a few new birds for Steve, but the highlight for both me and James was a pair of Magpie Geese.

Tawny Frogmouth, Bunyip SP, photo by James Mustafa

We went owling at Bunyip State Park, and James very cleverly showed us a Sooty Owl as well as a few frogmouths, one greater glider and some very sadly mangey wombats.  We went to lots of birdy spots and did a fair bit of crossing off on Steve's list.  I'm not sure who enjoyed it most, but it was probably me.  I added lots of birds to my August list, learnt some new birding places and altogether had a great time.  Thank you to Steve for coming and providing the excuse to go birding, and especially thank you to James, who was most generous with his time and his expertise.

Monday, 20 July 2015


In July 2013 I bemoaned the fact that I had five bogey birds (not counting the Common Redshank).  I'm delighted to report that I have since seen four of those five bogey birds (as well as the Common Redshank).  First to go was the Short-tailed Grasswren in September 2013, thanks to Peter Waanders.  Then, in November the same year, it was the Black-winged Monarch, thanks to Martin Cachard and Judy Leitch.  In October 2014, I crossed off the Rufous Scrub-bird thanks to Mick Roderick.  Now, finally, in July 2015, I've seen the Slender-billed Prion.  At last!  I thank everyone who's been on a winter pelagic with me over the last few years and endured my loud frustrations at missing out on this recalcitrant whalebird.  Finally, I have seen it.  Now, just the White-necked Petrel remains.  Next summer perhaps.

I'd booked to go on the Portland pelagic in June and was disappointed when I had to pull out as I had an exam the next morning.  As soon as the exams were over, I put my name down for a July pelagic out of Port Fairy with Neil Macumber.  Then the weather turned foul and the trip was cancelled.  I thought I'd never see my prion.  Luckily, Neil rescheduled the trip the following weekend, and we managed to get out on Sunday 19 July 2015.  It turned into a most memorable day.
Southern Giant-Petrel, photo by James Mustafa
Slender-billed Prion, photo by Bruce Wedderburn

Sooty Albatross, photo by James Mustafa

The weather was cold (very cold!) but the threatened swells did not eventuate and it was a relatively pleasant winter's day at sea.  Relatively pleasant!  What am I saying?  It was a fantastic day!  I got a lifer! 

We were all so excited when we saw the Sooty Albatross, we momentarily forgot the temperature. Then there were a few giant-petrels, mainly Northern, but definitely one Southern.  We had lots of prions, and every now and then I interrupted the boat's birding and begged them to look at one bird that I imagined had a broader, whiter eyebrow than Fairy Prions are supposed to have.  I must say everyone was very patient with me, as I did my best to wish my Slender-billed Prion into being.  Finally, James Mustafa found a bird that was undeniably a Slender-billed.  I don't usually try to walk around at sea, as I'm liable to fall over, but I did try to get to the right side of the boat to see James's prion.  I glimpsed it as it flew.  But there were more and I achieved very good sightings.  Yippee!  My fourth bogey bird was no more.  Thank you, James.

And thanks to James and to Bruce Wedderburn for their photos.

I believe that there were other prions too, apart from Fairys and Slender-bills.  Of course there were lots of photographers present, so no doubt we will learn in due course what other prions were present.

Some pelagics are cold and wet.  Some produce few birds.  But occasionally there is one that stands out.  Sunday's trip was one such pelagic.  Most people celebrated the Sooty Albatross.  I rejoiced in the Slender-billed Prion.  Everyone went home happy, with a special warm glow known only to successful twitchers.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


Rog and I have just returned from a successful trip to see the Nullarbor Quail-thrush.  Yippee!  (#760)  We were away for 12 nights, travelled 4,130 kilometres and saw 117 species of birds, the best being the quail-thrush (naturally).  Other good birds included White-fronted Honeyeater (at Arid Lands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta), Crested Bellbirds (on the roadside out of Ceduna) and Blue Bonnets and Black-faced Woodswallows at Lake Tyrrell on the way home.

The weather was mixed.  Some days it was too windy for good birding, some days it drizzled, there were lots of grey grumpy clouds and a little rain, as well as a couple of perfect sunny days.
Where we saw the quailthrush, behind the roadhouse.

While searching for the quail-thrush, we saw lots of White-winged Fairy-wrens and Slender-billed Thornbills and a few pipits, Horsfield Bronze-cuckoos and Rufous Fieldwrens.  In years gone by, we had looked for the quail-thrush more than once around the Nullarbor Roadhouse, with no success, and when we visited the Eyre Bird Observatory in 2004, I thought I had arranged to be shown this bird by the wardens.  In fact, they had agreed to show me.  I've got the emails to prove it!  However, it was not to be.  On previous searches, we had heard the bird, but could not see it.  Most frustrating.  As we set off on this occasion, we had a fair amount of trepidation about driving 2,000 kilometres across the continent on what might have proved to be a wild goose chase.

We arrived at the Nullarbor Roadhouse at 1 o'clock (an easy drive from Ceduna) and immediately set about looking for the quail-thrush.  We had instructions from Thomas and Thomas from our previous searches.  The little dirt track perpendicular to the Eyre Highway is easily found.  It took two hours of looking before we found the bird:  a beautiful male ran out onto the track in front of us, paused, turned so we could see his breast, then scurried away never to be seen again.  I was delighted and Roger was relieved.  The next morning, to celebrate our success, we did a joy flight over the head of the bight, admiring eight southern right whales that had come here to calve.

Wild Dog Hill, Whyalla Conservation Park

Apart from the quail-thrush, the best birding of the trip was in the Whyalla Conservation Park, on the road into Wild Dog Hill picnic area.  Here Slender-billed Thornbills were nesting in a sugarwood.  I'm almost sure I glimpsed a couple of grasswren as I chased White-browed Babblers and Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters.

It was a good trip.  Of course it was:  we saw the quail-thrush!  We saw red and both eastern and western grey kangaroos as well as the whales.  Other, not so welcome animals were one large feral cat, one fox and two rabbits.

A very pleasant way to spend a few cold days in June.