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.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015


I haven't had much time for birding lately, but I usually manage to find time for my morning walk.  This morning, I saw a new species for my walk lists.  It was a Collared Sparrowhawk, not something you see every day in the suburbs.

I don't have a photo of a Collared Sparrowhawk, so here's a picture of me learning how to band a bird, taken a couple of weeks ago by Dena Paris, the girl who was teaching me.

I was delighted to add a new species to my walk list this morning, on the last day of April.  The last new species I saw was, strangely enough, on the last day of March.  It was an Eastern Spinebill.  I began to wonder how many more new birds I might see.

There are, I am told, many formulae for estimating the total number of bird species in a patch.  One devised by Chao goes like this:  the total number of species is equal to the number that you've seen, plus the number of species you've seen once, squared, divided by double the number that you've seen twice.

I've seen a total of 34 species on my morning walks, just five of them only once.  These are Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike, Australian White Ibis, White-plumed Honeyeater and the aforementioned spinebill and sparrowhawk.  I've also seen five species twice:  Silver Gull, Musk Lorikeet, Australian Raven, Masked Lapwing and Pacific Black Duck.  So, according to Chao, the total number of species here should be:  34 + (5 x 5) / (2 x 5) = 34 + 25/10 = 34 + 2.5 = 36.5.  Now I'm looking forward to seeing those extra 2.5 species!  It will be fascinating to see how long it takes me.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


Grey Shrike-thrush, a mimic
Last week, Rog and I spent an enjoyable couple of days around Rutherglen.  Unfortunately, our car demanded a new battery, so my birding was thwarted a little, and I couldn't get to all my favourite spots.

I walked around Lake King, strolled around Wonga Wetlands, visited Wahgunyah, checked out Chiltern No 1 and 2 dams, and had a quick look around Cyanide Dam.  Then I ran out of time.  There were two highlights:  Sunday Creek at Wahgunyah and a mimicking Grey Shrike-thrush at Chiltern No 2 dam.

Jim O'Toole, a Rutherglen bird photographer, (who, I'm delighted to say, I met because of this blog) took me to Pfeiffer's in Wahgunyah, where Azure Kingfishers had nested recently.  Sunday Creek flows behind Pfeiffer's cellar door and Pfeiffer's use the bridge over the creek as a great spot for functions.  A large tree has recently fallen into the creek, and the kingfishers nested in the soil clinging to its bole.  What a tiny hole they used!  They had finished nesting when I was there, but Jim and I stood on the bridge, hoping that a tell-tale flash of azure blue would alert us to the bird's presence.
Jim O'Toole's photo of the dove with its eggs
While we waited, we admired a Peaceful Dove which had nested in the dead branches of the fallen tree, quite safe from ground predators in the middle of the creek.  We watched as one dove came to replace the other on the nest, and had a glimpse of the two round white eggs they were incubating.  It was good to be able to look down on a dove's nest for a change.

We had other things to amuse us too:  Brown Treecreepers, Willie Wagtails, Red-browed Finches, ducks, cormorants and platypus.  Then, finally, our patience was rewarded:  a flash of blue landed on the dead tree.  I gasped involuntarily.  Azure Kingfishers always take my breath away.  Thank you, Jim!
Jim O'Toole's Azure Kingfisher

The other highlight was at No 2 dam.  There's always something good at the gate here.  On this occasion, it was a vocal Mistletoebird.  I walked the track to the bird hide, and along the way accumulated a list of some 15 species.  Dusky Woodswallows were everywhere.  At the hide, I could hear Black-chinned and Fuscous Honeyeaters.  Then I heard a bird I could not identify.  I tracked it down and discovered it was a Grey Shrike-thrush, but it was not making a thrush call.  It was mimicking, something I had not witnessed before.  Unfortunately, the thrush did not appreciate my attention and flew away.

As soon as I was home, I reached for my HANZAB.  Alec Chisholm did a lot of work on birds mimicking, going back to the 1930's and sure enough, he had several reports of Grey Shrike-thrushes mimicking both at rest and while feeding.  There were just two other reports:  one from someone called Bridgewater in 1933, who reported that a thrush copied a possum squeal and one from someone called Jackson in 1995 saying that a thrush mimicked a Golden Whistler in the Big Desert.

Clearly, I had seen something which has not been reported a great deal.  I'm sorry that I did not see and hear more.

There's always something interesting in the Rutherglen district.  I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, 14 March 2015


I was horrified to see this notice last week at Cyanide Dam (or Honeyeater Picnic Area if you prefer) in the Chiltern/Mt Pilot National Park.

Apparently someone thinks it is a good idea to burn this beautiful bush for 'both fuel management and ecological reasons.'  

I don't!

I understand that there is pressure on the Department of Environment and Primary Industries to burn a certain area of Victoria each year to meet 'fuel reduction' targets.  I do hope that the Chiltern/Mt Pilot National Park (or any other national park or, indeed, any patch of Crown land) is not being burnt simply to meet some academic target.  I see no reason to burn this land.  I see no benefit at all.  I can certainly imagine many creatures being terrified, injured and killed.  For what gain?  So that this bit of bush that's been burnt now, won't be burnt next summer?

I wonder if they'd dare to put a match to it, if there were Regent Honeyeaters or Turquoise Parrots nesting there at the moment?  Perhaps they wouldn't care.

I wonder if all the bureaucrats are in agreement on this, or if there is more than one opinion within the Department.  I wonder if the people proposing to burn this National Park love this countryside as I do, or if they regard it as inferior bush 'not as good as rainforest' as one bureaucrat said to me once.

I wonder if all the politicians agree that this is a good idea.

I'm sorry that I cannot do something to stop this desecration.