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.

Monday, 26 December 2016

CHRISTMAS ISLAND DECEMBER 2016

Having achieved a remarkable eleven lifers on the Cocos Islands, I couldn't help wondering what treasures were in store for me on Christmas Island.  As this was my fourth visit to Christmas, I had no right to expect anything new.  Perhaps not the rarest possibilities, but there were three birds I particularly wanted to see:  Grey Wagtail, Savannah Nightjar and Watercock.  It seemed to me that Grey Wagtail was a glaring omission from my list.  It was a bird I really should have seen by now.  As for the Savannah Nightjar, I'd heard it on my second visit to Christmas Island in 2007, and I regretted not being able to count it.  I really wanted to add it to my list.  I'd hoped to see a Watercock on my first visit, but quickly realized it was not an easy bird.  I reckoned I'd earnt it now, on my fourth visit.
The Class of December 2016.  Back row:  Robert Shore, Irena Earl, Richard Baxter, Glen Pacey, Damien Baxter.  Front row:  Warwick Remington, David Koffel, Hedley Earl, me, James Mustafa, Mike Carter. Photo by Warwick Remington.

In fact I saw another seven lifers on Christmas Island in December 2016, bringing my life total to an incredible 799!  I did see Grey Wagtails (five birds, I think) but, although I heard it again, I could not see a Savannah Nightjar.  However, I did see a Grey Nightjar, which is perhaps rarer.  I walked through much dense undergrowth, hoping for Watercock, or indeed Swinhoe's Snipe, which I also wanted to see, but I didn't flush a thing.
Grey Wagtail - at last!  Photo by James Mustafa

The seven lifers I saw were (in the order I saw them):
Asian House Martins (793)
Grey Wagtail (794) (at last!)
Common Swift (795) (a first for the Australian list)
Grey Nightjar (796)
Japanese Sparrowhawk (797)
Malayan Night-Heron (798) and
Corn Crake (799).
Malayan Night-Heron, photo by James Mustafa

How lucky was that!  The Japanese Sparrowhawks were tiny.  They were so small that I was surprised that they can ever be confused with Chinese Sparrowhawks.  We also saw the local race of Striated Heron (amurensis) and Peregrine Falcon (calidus).  Of course we saw all the endemics.  The Island Thrush and Christmas Imperial-Pigeon were very common (as were kestrels) and we saw white-eyes and frigatebirds every day.  
Island Thrush

Every lunchtime I spent examining tropicbirds.  Most were Golden Bosunbirds, some were White-tailed Tropicbirds and a few were Red-tailed.  I was looking for a Red-billed Tropicbird.  It really was needle in a haystack stuff.  Scores of tropicbirds wheeled overhead.  I searched the sky.   The birds were often very high, and were often attacked by frigatebirds that were waiting for them returning from their morning feeding out at sea.  I would never be able to discern a red bill. I was looking for a dark back.  Alas!  All the tropicbirds I saw had pure white backs.  Richard had planned a boat trip around the island, which I thought would give me another chance of seeing the Red-billed Tropicbird.  Unfortunately, seas were rough and the boat trip was cancelled.

The red crabs were migrating, but numbers were not as spectacular as I've seen on previous trips.  We had quite a bit of rain, and got wet through on several occasions.  Food was ordinary (apart from meals provided by Lisa, which were excellent, and a couple of dinners at the Chinese restaurant) as the island was running out of food.  The Noodle Bar was closed.  Seas were rough and the supply ship could not berth.

At dinner on the last night, everyone was asked to name the best bird of the trip.  On these occasions, someone always says 'Golden Bosunbird.'  They are, indeed, beautiful birds.  But my bird of the trip (and I'm surprised that no one else named it) was the Corn Crake.  HANZAB has only two reports of Corn Crake in Australia:  one in Randwick, NSW in June 1893 and the other on board ship off Jurien Bay in WA in December 1944 (the previous port of call was Melbourne).  So, while we saw birds that were not on the Australian list, the Corn Crake has been sitting stubbornly on the list, unseen for 72 years.  I always enjoy adding a new bird to my list.  But I seem to get more pleasure out of ticking birds that I never expected to see, birds that I cannot seek out, birds that haven't been seen for many years.  Surely there is no better candidate than the Corn Crake.
Corn Crake, photo by Robert Shore


Richard is to be congratulated for another extremely successful trip.  He managed to ensure that almost everyone saw almost everything.  Several people on the trip achieved milestones:  most notably, Glen Pacey reached 800.  Well done, Glen.  Richard Baxter's tours of Cocos and Christmas Islands are now essential for any serious twitcher.
Caught in the act! Photo by James Mustafa

Thursday, 22 December 2016

COCOS ISLANDS DECEMBER 2016

Jenny Spry, the first woman to achieve an Australian birdlist of 800 birds, told me that the secret of reaching 800 birds was to do lots of pelagics.  This may be true for Jenny, but I've done an awful lot of pelagics without adding anything to my life total.  I think the secret to reaching 800 Australian birds is to go on Richard Baxter's bird tours.  I was with him in the Torres Strait last March when I added 7 to my life total. And in December 2016, I visited Cocos and Christmas Islands with him.  This was my third visit to the Cocos Islands with him.  I added eleven birds to my lifelist:  8 on West Island and 3 on Home Island.  Not bad by anyone's standards.

Richard took ten birders on this trip.  We arrived on Cocos at about 10.30 on Saturday and saw Pin-tailed Snipe almost immediately.  I saw my first lifer before lunch on the first day.  It was Yellow Bittern (782).  There were three birds, uncharacteristically standing out in the open, giving us all excellent views.  I had a feeling then that this was going to be an exceptionally good tour.

After lunch, we drove to the airport. A Rosy Starling (783) flew overhead and we saw Oriental Pratincole at the end of the runway.  The starling sat up in a dead tree, allowing great views through the scope.  I remember when I saw my first Roseate Tern, I was disappointed at the lack of pink.  There was just a very subtle hint of colour.  The Rosy Starling was the same.  It is barely pink at all.
Rosy Starling, photo by James Mustafa

The next day, Sunday, I had two ticks before breakfast!  The first was von Schrenk's Bittern (784), which we flushed from the undergrowth near the airport, and the second was an Asian Brown Flycatcher (785) that appeared right in the tree Richard said it would, after about half an hour of hot waiting.  After breakfast, Richard took us to the farm, where we looked unsuccessfully for Brown Shrike and attempted unsuccessfully to flush Watercock.  During the lunch break, James Mustafa and I decided to go looking ourselves and returned to the farm.  Of course, we could not see anything new, but we wandered happily around, just pleased to be on Cocos.  We decided to do one lap around the fence before returning to the others.  Almost immediately a black bird flew overhead and landed high in a large tree.  It had an undulating flight, like a Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike, and, when it landed, I could see it had a fish tail.  It was a Drongo Cuckoo (786)!  We rushed back to tell the others, and were severely reprimanded for not leaving one person with the bird.  I was pleased that I had not waited in the hot sun, as it took half an hour for everyone to gather together and return to the farm.  The Drongo Cuckoo had quite disappeared.  By way of compensation, the Brown Shrike (787) put in an appearance, sitting high on a branch, giving great views.
Drongo Cuckoo, photo by James Mustafa

On Monday we all took the early morning ferry to Home Island.  A few of us spent a couple of nights in Oceania House on Home Island.  This had the advantage of having eyes and ears on both islands, which paid off because we managed to find a night-heron the next day.  Oceania House was built in 1887 by George Clunies-Ross, grandson of John Clunies-Ross who moved his family to live on the previously uninhabited islands in 1827.  He planted coconuts and established a copra business, importing Malay labourers to do all the work. The Malay population on Home Island today is descended from Clunies-Ross's workers. Oceania House is a two storey mansion built of glazed white bricks imported from Scotland, and furnished with impressive antiques.  
Blue and White Flycatcher, photo by James Mustafa

On Monday, we searched unsuccessfully for Watercock, saw Chinese Sparrowhawk being mobbed by White Terns, got good views of Barn Swallows, and admired a Chinese Pond-Heron.  In the gardens of Oceania House, we saw a Blue and White Flycatcher (788) as well as another unidentified flycatcher showing some yellow.  James and I staked out the tree the unidentified bird was in, and decided to forego dinner in an effort to try to get a good look at it.  We did not.  Despite several hot hours of dedicated watching, we could not see any bird.
Oceania House, where I spent a couple of nights

Early on Tuesday morning, we found the Black-crowned Night-Heron (789) and alerted the others.  Then we saw the Eye-browed Thrush (790) in the gardens.  I glimpsed this bird several times before I eventually had excellent views.  
Black-crowned Night-Heron, photo by James Mustafa

On these trips there are always disappointments.  Watercock was one for me on this trip.  And we all tried hard on several occasions to see a couple of cuckoos, apparently a Plaintive Cuckoo and an Indian Cuckoo.  But perhaps the biggest disappointment was a bird that three of us saw and heard, and James saw quite well.  I suspect it was an Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, but we will never know.  It was perched in a tree above James' head, it flew, calling, over my head, and passed Mike Carter, who saw it too, before it disappeared over the fence.  James ran around the fence and saw it again, so you'd think it would be possible to identify it.  Mike said it could have been a paradise-flycatcher.  All I saw was a small bird with white underneath, but later, when Richard played a recording of an Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, I thought that was the call I'd heard.  It is human nature to regret the one that got away, when, on any measure, we all enjoyed many wonderful new birds.

Wednesday was my first day of the trip without a tick.  Very bravely, I waded through water above my waist, to an island looking for Common Kingfisher, and sat in the hot sun for over an hour.  The kingfisher did not keep his appointment.  Thursday was my second day without a tick and I began to wonder if I'd see any more new birds at all.  We were back on West Island again, and everyone else departed to see Saunders's Tern and Eurasian Curlew.  I'd seen both these species, so I stayed at home, to watch at the swamp for a Northern Pintail that I'd been told sometimes put in an appearance.  The Eurasian Teal that has lived at the swamp for some years now, was present among the Pacific Black Duck, but, despite many visits, I had so far missed out on the pintail.
Tree Pipit, photo by James Mustafa

On Friday, at the airport, we saw a pipit, in exactly the same spot as I'd seen my first Red-throated Pipit on my previous trip.  Mike Carter thought it was an Olive-backed Pipit, which I thought would be very exciting, giving me a second OBP on my birdlist.  The bird was extremely cooperative, giving us all wonderful views, and thanks to the photographers present, we had excellent proof of what we saw.  In the end, everyone agreed it was a Tree Pipit (791)!  
The swamp where I saw Northern Pintail - eventually

James and I visited the swamp again (my ninth visit) and this time we're rewarded with the Northern Pintail (792), making a fabulous eleven ticks on the Cocos Islands.
Northern Pintail, photo by James Mustafa

On Saturday, we flew to Christmas Island.