Sunday, 26 March 2017

PELAGIC, KIAMA, 25 MARCH 2017

Just about anyone else who saw a South Polar Skua, a Kermadec Petrel and a Gould's Petrel on the same boat trip, would be very pleased with themselves.  Me, I just can't help thinking it's unfair!  I liked these birds of course, and the close-up and personal views of Grey-faced Petrels and one magnificent Gibson's Albatross were fantastic, but I came home feeling cheated.
Gould's Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

This was my thirteenth attempt at seeing a White-necked Petrel and I did not see one.  What am I doing wrong?  [For those of you of a pedantic nature, my previous thirteen attempts included four trips which were cancelled and nine that went out, being:  from Wollongong:  February 2008, March 2009, March 2010, February 2011, March 2012, and January 2015; from Port Stephens:  April 2012 and April 2016; and from Kiama February 2016.]  White-necked Petrels can be seen (so they say!) from Wollongong, Kiama or Sydney in January, February and March and from Port Stephens you can catch them as late as April.

Roger has (understandably) become tired of driving me interstate to chase a bird I never see.  So, on my twelfth attempt I arranged to drive to Port Stephens in February with my birding mate, Philip Jackson.  Alas! we did not get past 'Go!'  Before we left Melbourne, Mick Roderick (who organizes the Port Stephens trips) rang to say the weather forecast was abysmal and he did not believe the boat would get out.  So we never actually left home.

The January 2017 Southport pelagic saw a White-necked Petrel and the February 2017 Kiama pelagic had unprecedented views of them - several birds, close to the boat.  At one stage, I'm told those present thought one bird might land on the deck.  There's also been some seawatch sightings.  2017 seemed to be the year of the White-necked Petrel.  And I was missing out.

So I turned up for the Kiama pelagic on 25 March 2017 full of expectation.  The weather forecast was pretty good - smooth seas, light rain developing in the afternoon.  All the ducks were lining up in a row.  If only the White-necked Petrels would do the same.

The boat left on the dot of 7.30, full of optimistic, expectant birders.  There were three other Victorians present, all of whom had travelled up to New South Wales, in the hope of seeing a White-necked Petrel.  I couldn't help wondering if they, too, had made twelve previous attempts.  I thought I really had earned that bird.

We started off with lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a sprinkling of Australasian Gannets.  Then some eagle-eyed participant spied a storm petrel in the distance.  It turned out to be Wilson's - the first of several we saw during the day, and the only storm petrel species we saw.

Then a Shy Albatross defied its name and flew close to the boat.  I guess we saw half a dozen or more throughout the day.  Next was a Pomarine Jaeger.  Either the one bird stayed loyal to the boat or we saw six or seven individual birds.  I never saw more than one bird at a time.

There was a buzz of excitement as a skua flew over.  I looked up, viewed the bird in my binoculars and wrote in my notebook 'Brown Skua.'  The bird flew past the boat and all the expert seabirders on board paid it more attention than I did.  Very quickly the call went up 'South Polar Skua!'
South Poloar Skua, photo by Brook Whylie

I've only seen one South Polar Skua before.  That was off Wollongong in February 2008 (when I was actually looking for a White-necked Petrel).  That skua was a delicious iced coffee colour, and, in my ignorance, I thought, if I ever see one of them again, I'll know it.  Now I know that the Wollongong bird was a light phase bird.  Today's bird was an intermediate phase.  If I ever happen to see a dark phase, I'll certainly write it down as Brown Skua.  Traps for beginners.  I recall all the skuas I saw in the Antarctic, and how difficult they were to identify.

We saw hundreds of Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters and scores of Grey-faced Petrels - they seemed to take it in turns to predominate.  Lindsay banded 21 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and captured four that had been banded previously.  He also banded several Grey-faced Petrels and, for the first time, I had eye to eye contact with these beautiful birds.  They certainly look different up close.  They are handsome flying overhead, but they are exceptionally becoming in the hand.

We saw several Providence Petrels that the New South Wales boys insisted on calling Solander's - although I note that the official SOSSA checklist we were given lists them as Providence, with Solander's as an alternative name.

One lone White-faced Heron flew very high and very determinedly out to sea.  Where could he be going?

A couple of Short-tailed Shearwaters flew past at a distance, not hanging around to enjoy our company or our burleigh.

I still hadn't given up on my White-necked Petrel when a magnificent Gibson's Albatross flew in.  She sat on the water so we could all admire her appropriately.  Then Lindsay netted her and we all had the chance of admiring her again, much closer.  Truly, a breathtakingly beautiful bird.

We saw (I think) four Hutton's Shearwaters, but no Fluttering, which was surprising, as they have been seen on every March pelagic until today.  The other surprising omissions from our list were Kelp Gull and Arctic Jaeger.
Kermadec Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

A Kermadec Petrel flew around the boat, giving everyone a view, and a Gould's Petrel did likewise.  If I hadn't had my heart set on a White-necked Petrel, this would have made a very good day at sea.  They were handsome birds.  Birds I don't see every day.  But they weren't White-necked Petrels!  

Monday, 27 February 2017

SUMMER'S OVER!

This morning, 28 February, I did my walk early, as the forecast is for another scorcher.  It was my last walk this summer, my 52nd for the season.  In total, I recorded 26 species of birds.  I recorded five species on every walk (Spotted Dove, Rainbow Lorikeet, Noisy MIner, Australian Magpie and Common Myna).  I added four new species to my walking birdlist:  Great Cormorant, White-faced Heron, Australian King Parrot and Pacific Koel.  The largest number of species I recorded on any half-hour walk was 14, which I did on five occasions.  The smallest number was 6, which I did just once.  The average number of species per walk was 11.
Australian King Parrot, a new bird for my Kew walking list

February was quite disappointing really.  I had my heart set on a pelagic out of Port Stephens, which was cancelled (because of bad weather) before I left home.  This would have been my eleventh trip to New South Wales in search of the elusive White-necked Petrel.  To sprinkle salt onto my wounds, the February pelagic out of Kiama saw four White-necked Petrels!  What's more, they had excellent, close views.

Perhaps I expected too much from February because January was so good.  In January, I had two unexpected and successful interstate twitches:  the SIPO (my 800th bird) and the as yet still unidentified gull in Darwin.  And then there was the dear little Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Lake Murdeduke.  No wonder I was hopeful that February could produce similar gems.
James at Lake Murdeduke

The month did have its moments.  There were Pilotbirds and lyrebirds at Tarra Bulga, and a Broad-billed Sandpiper at Werribee (a Victorian tick for me).  Werribee also produced a Ruff in the T-Section, and a very large number of Red-kneed Dotterels - a bird I did not see at all in 2016.
Tarra Bulga National Park, the best place for Pilotbirds

Fred Smith always said that rare waders turn up in Victoria in March.  Unfortunately, my records show that I have never seen a new wader in Victoria in March.  This might be my month.  I live in hope.

Monday, 23 January 2017

BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER AT LAKE MURDEDUKE

Yesterday, I admired the Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Lake Murdeduke, just outside Winchelsea, west of Geelong.  What a pretty little bird!

James drove me down.  He'd seen the bird before, but wanted to get better photos. I just wanted to add the bird to my list.  We arrived at about 11.  It was very hot.  There were very few people looking for the bird.  I think I saw four cars.  For a January twitch so close to Melbourne, I'd have expected many more.  I suppose everyone had seen the bird over the weekend.
James at Lake Murdeduke

Thanks to social media, we knew where the bird was before we arrived.  It was on the shore, just before the sandspit, some half an hour's walk.  We parked and set off, trudging across the paddocks.  A Brown Songlark, some skylarks and several pipits entertained us as we walked, and took our minds off the heat.  Some Banded Stilts shimmered in the far distance, almost on the other side of the lake.  Along the shoreline, Red-necked Stints, Red-capped Plovers, Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpipers, foraged, oblivious of the heat.  One Red-necked Avocet flew away, showing its pretty upperwing pattern.

At 11.30, we started looking seriously at the waders.  The light wasn't good, but it only took about ten minutes before James' sharp eyes spotted our quarry.  Yippee!  Number 802.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, photo by James Mustafa

The bird walked quite fast, along the shoreline and into the grass.  It is moulting, so it will probably be around Lake Murdeduke for a while.  While it is called 'buff' breasted, I would have called the colour pale orange.  We could see its yellow legs and whitish eye-ring.

We came home quite pleased with ourselves.  James had some nice photos, and I had my third lifer for 2017, and it's still only January.


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

DARWIN'S MYSTERY GULL

As soon as I heard about the mystery gull in Darwin, I wanted to see it.  The authorities were debating its identity:  some said it was a Caspian Gull, some said it was Heuglin's Gull, which (so I learnt) is a race of the Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Whatever it was, it was a tick, and I wanted to see it.

James Mustafa and I decided this was an opportunity too good to miss.  We flew to Darwin on Monday, 16 January 2017, and arrived late at night, filled with expectation.  I was confident we'd get this gull, even though it had not been seen for several days.

Dawn was 6.30, so we set off at 6.  We drove straight to Lee Point, where the gull had last been seen.  There were thousands of waders on the beach:  mainly knots, also godwits and sand plovers, but also a few curlews and one Beach Stone Curlew.  However, there were very few gulls.  We expected our mystery gull to be associating with Silver Gulls so we were looking for flocks of gulls.  Every gull we saw was a Silver Gull, but they had no exotic companion.  We walked along the beach, to ensure that we weren't missing any flock of gulls amongst the waders.

Once we'd persuaded ourselves that our quarry was not present, we returned to the car and drove to Buffalo Creek, pausing along the way to check out a large flock of gulls flying overhead.  They were all Silver Gulls.

At Buffalo Creek, we could see a flock of waders and gulls on the sand spit.  James jumped across the creek most elegantly.  I walked up and down, looking for a spot where I could cross the water without either falling in or getting my feet covered in water up to the ankles.  A greenshank regarded me with amusement.  Once I'd finally crossed the creek (which was flowing quite quickly and was all of eight inches deep at the most) I had to climb a steep sand bank.  I think James was watching the waders as I clambered awkwardly up the bank.   I hope so anyway.  I hurried to catch up with James.
James at Buffalo Creek, regarding waders and gulls

We walked towards the mixed flock, trying not to disturb some nearby terns.  It was immediately apparent that one gull was much larger than the rest.  There it was!  We had our mystery gull at 7.37 a.m.!
Mystery gull at Buffalo Creek, photo by James Mustafa


We felt disproportionately clever.  All we'd done was walk along the beach and see a gull.  We reacted as if we'd achieved some remarkable feat, and indeed that's how it felt.  We congratulated each other with enthusiasm.

Our plane didn't leave until 6.15 p.m., so we had a whole day to go birding in Darwin.  We had a wonderful time, listing over 70 species for the day.  We visited Knuckey's Lagoons, Snipe Pond, McMinn's Lagoon, East Point and, finally, a spot on the Esplanade looking for Barking Owls.  Highlights were three Red-backed Button-quail at the Snipe Pond, and several Rose-crowned Fruit Doves and two Rainbow Pittas at East Point.

This was a most enjoyable twitch.  When the experts decide what to call this mystery gull, I will call it number 801.  2017 is starting off very well indeed.

Monday, 9 January 2017

800 AUSTRALIAN BIRDS AT LAST!

Yesterday, I saw a South Island Oystercatcher, which was my 800th Australian bird.  Yippee!  This has taken 26 years, as (although I've been birding all my life) I started twitching seriously in 1989.  I know John Weigel can do it in 12 months (and I dips me lid to him) but for me, it took 26 years.

I flew to Coolangatta (in Queensland) with my birding mate, Philip Jackson.  We hired a car and drove to Broadwater in New South Wales, which took about an hour.  At Broadwater, there was no obvious access to the beach.  Other birders had referred to Broadwater Beach Road, but we could not find it.  We went into the only handy shop in Broadwater, at the BP service station, spent some money to be polite, and asked about access to the beach.  The friendly fellow behind the counter said he did not know (!) and summoned an assistant.  She arrived, smiled, and confessed total ignorance.  How could you live in Broadwater and not know how to get to the beach?  The man then took pity on us, and said he thought we should drive past the power station and take the road to Evans Head.  After a couple of kilometres, we should turn left, and that would take us to the beach.

We followed his instructions.  After a few minutes driving on the road to Evans Head, a road on the left was clearly signposted 'Broadwater Beach Road.'  That was it.  Other birders had talked about a picnic area, but we did not see such a thing.  At the end of Broadwater Beach Road, we parked the car.  There was a sign informing us that 'This reserve is a refuge for native animals' and, somewhat reassuringly, it featured an illustration of two oystercatchers.  We took the track to the beach.  No one had mentioned steep sand hills.  

It was getting warm as we arrived on the beach in full sun at 5 to 10.  An Australian Pied Oystercatcher was foraging in the waves.  Without hesitation, we turned left, that is to say, north.  A few people were swimming, we could see some fishermen and three 4WDs driving along the beach.  Some dogs barked on the cliffs above.
Philip on Broadwater Beach

Immediately we saw more oystercatchers.  They were all long-legged.  Our quarry, the New Zealand bird, has short, pinkish legs.  It is a smaller bird and looks dumpy beside Australian Pied Oystercatchers.  We walked on.  Through our binoculars, we could see more oystercatchers in the distance.  One certainly looked dumpy.

After another five minutes walking, at 5 past 10, precisely ten minutes after we'd arrived on the beach, we saw our bird!  Certainly smaller, with obviously shorter legs.  Two of the Australian birds wore yellow flags on their legs.  The New Zealand bird wore a red flag, but it was very high on his tibia, often covered by feathers.

We were delighted.  Sparkling pinot noir on the plane on the way home was nice, but bigger celebrations are definitely called for.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

WONDERFUL WERRIBEE - AGAIN

'Why do you want to go to Werribee?  We were there on Sunday!'

Rog and I have been married for over forty years, and he still doesn't understand!

My birding mate, Philip, was back from his New Year's sojourn, and had suggested a trip to Werribee on Thursday.  Of course I was up for it.

Lots of other birders had taken advantage of the warm day too.  There were people everywhere.

Philip and I had a great day and saw 16 species Rog and I had not seen on Sunday.  Birds I was pleased to add to my annual list that I'd expected to see on Sunday (but hadn't) were:  Hardhead, Blue-billed Duck, Cape Barren Goose, Whiskered Tern, Zebra Finch and Goldfinch.  We saw three Hoary-headed Grebes, so at least I have one species of grebe on my list for 2017.  We saw a flock of Dusky Woodswallows on the Point Wilson Road - birds that had chosen not to show themselves on Sunday.  We saw two White-bellied Sea-Eagles, or perhaps the one bird twice - once sitting on a fence in the T-Section and one flying out to sea at the seaside bird hide.
Blue-billed Duck

These were all welcome of course.  But we also saw several good birds, birds I don't see on every summer visit to Werribee.  These included the Red-necked Phalarope (swimming distinctively in front of us), Terek Sandpipers (yes, plural), a single Glossy Ibis (in T-Section), a couple of Horsfield's Bushlarks (sitting cooperatively still to be identified), one big obvious Red Knot amongst the stints and a lone Little Eagle (which I haven't seen at Werribee since autumn 2010).

Philip and I did not see the friendly Buff-banded Rail that Rog and I had admired four days previously.  And, although we saw both Striated Fieldwren and Little Grassbird, we did not enjoy the exceptionally good sightings Rog and I had had on Sunday.  We saw Brolga, as Rog and I had on Sunday.  But on Thursday, we saw two birds on four different occasions.  How many individual Brolgas we saw, we will probably never know.

The road to Kirk Point was closed.  A sign informed us it is sceduled to re-open on 7 January.  We were told the Pacific Golden Plovers had been seen the day before, but we couldn't drive in to confirm the sighting.

Truly, a great day.  Lots of wonderful sightings.  I think I'd be happy going to Werribee every day.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A TRIP TO WERRIBEE: THE BEST WAY TO START THE YEAR

I started 2017 grumpy.  I was forced out of bed half an hour early by Roger's stentorian snoring, only to be confronted by a large unfriendly spider that had taken up residence in the shower recess.  I left home at 5 to 7.  There was no traffic.  I arrived at Leo's supermarket in Kew right on the dot of 7.  Neither of the bread shops was open, but Leo's had a large sign in the window advertising the fact that it opened at 7.  It wasn't open.  The lights were on.  The staff were inside, laughing and joking amongst themselves.  I was outside and the doors were locked.  The jocular staff could see me quite clearly.  I left at ten past 7.  The doors had not opened.  2017 could only improve from here.

I'm pleased to say it did.

My very favourite thing to do on New Year's Day is to go to Werribee.  I'd visited in November and been struck by the small number of birds.  Both waders and ducks were very poorly represented.  I was interested to see whether things had improved.  I'd heard there was a Terek Sandpiper present, and I thought he'd look good on my January list.

Roger and I had a most enjoyable day, despite grey weather, and occasional drizzle.  There were lots of teal and shelducks, and plenty of Red-necked Stints.  We had some good sightings.  Roger's favourite bird of the day was a Buff-banded Rail that stood on the road in front of the car on the river crossing and refused to run away.  My favourite was a Striated Fieldwren on the road to Kirk Point, that sat beside the car and let me admire his beauty for several minutes.  We flushed a Brown Quail on the Point Wilson Road.  There were other good birds too.  The Brolgas were present at the Borrow Pits.  We saw both Little Grassbird and Australian Reed-Warblers at the former crake hot spot in the T-Section.  However, there were no crakes.  Or at least, we didn't see any.
Sharp-tailed Sandpipers

My list of omissions is as interesting as my list of birds seen.  We saw no grebes at all.  We saw no avocets.  We saw no Pink-eared Ducks, no Hardheads, no Blue-bills.  We saw very few raptors, very few cormorants and very few coots.  I saw just two shovelers, and just one Whistling Kite.  And I dipped on the Terek Sandpiper.

However, I repeat, it was a most enjoyable day.  As a friend of mine once quipped, there's no such thing as a bad day at Werribee.