Saturday, 27 August 2016


In autumn 2014, I had the privilege of travelling to Ashmore Reef with George Swann on the Reef Prince.  It was a fantastic experience.  (I made a posting about it on 7 April 2014.)  Most trips to Ashmore go in spring; this particular autumn trip was a bit of an experiment to see what we could see.

I came home with three lifers:  Bulwer's Petrel, Jouanin's Petrel and, most exciting, a Yellow-browed Warbler.  We saw lots of other birds of course.  In particular, I remember a Red-necked Phalarope swimming in the ocean, and lots of nesting seabirds on various islands.

People go to Ashmore to see storm-petrels, and as we missed out in autumn, I knew I'd have to return in spring.  This is the year!
Brown Booby chick, taken at the Lacepedes

In November, I plan to board that wonderful boat, the Reef Prince again.  This time I expect to see both Matsudairas's and Swinhoe's Storm-Petrels.  With a bit of luck I might manage a Leach's Storm-Petrel as well.

A birding friend did the Ashmore trip last spring, and he saw Pechora Pipit, Middendorff's Grasshopper-warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, Tiger Shrike, Siberian Thrush, Chinese Sparrowhawk, Siberian Blue Robin, Pallas's Grasshopper-warbler and Nicobar Pigeon.  Howzat!

If only we could see all them this year!  There are other birds too, which are possible on Ashmore.  The Indonesian Collared Kingfisher is one.  There's also:  Swinhoe's Snipe, Lesser Coucal, Grey Nightjar, Island Monarch, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Grey Wagtail, Black-crowned Night Heron, Brown Hawk Owl, Pale-headed Munia and Arctic Warbler.  I'd have mentioned House Swift too, if I hadn't already seen one.

Not a bad list of possibilities.  I'm going for two storm-petrels.  Anything more is a bonus.  But what a list of possible lifers!  Extraordinary!

There are still places available for this November's trip on the Reef Prince.  We leave from Broome on 2 November, and return to Broome on 10 November.  If you'd like to come, contact George Swann:  Some of Australia's best birders will be there.  And I will too.

One added benefit of an Ashmore Reef trip, is it leaves from Broome!

Monday, 25 July 2016


Roger and I had run out of sherry (or apera if you must) and planned a quick trip to Rutherglen to remedy the situation.  Although it was winter, I thought I could enjoy a day's birding in Chiltern.  Amidst the rain, I was walking towards No 2 dam, when my phone rang.  It was James Mustafa, ringing to say that there was a Laughing Gull in the caravan park at Venus Bay in South Australia, and that it was easily tickable.  His plan was to fly to Adelaide, pick up a hire car and drive to Venus Bay, tick the bird, drive back to the airport and fly home.  Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Venus Bay is 662 kilometres from Adelaide.  Roger said I was mad, but of course I was up for it.  A possible tick was all I could think of as we hurried back to Melbourne with our cargo of sherry.  The next day, Sunday, James and I had an uneventful flight to Adelaide and picked up our hire car from Avis.  Luckily, they did not add any silly conditions such as that we couldn't drive at night.  We left the airport at 11.20 a.m., and drove directly to Venus Bay with just a couple of petrol stops.  Food was a secondary consideration.  Traffic was good, there was a little rain and some pesky roadworks to negotiate, but all went well.  It was dark by about 5.30 p.m. and we arrived at Venus Bay by about 7.  Street lights are not a major part of the infrastructure of Venus Bay.  Nevertheless we found the caravan park quite easily. 

The charming woman in the office told us that the bird had been around since May, but had only been identified the previous week (21 July).  Birders were now flocking to the caravan park, and we were made to feel most welcome.  I knew the birder in the cabin next door, so we knocked on his door to get the latest news about the gull.  He assured us that he'd seen it that morning, but it had been absent all afternoon as the weather had been wet and gusty.  Until then, I'd had no doubt that we would see this 'easily tickable' bird.  Now the doubts started to set in.

It was a cold night.  I tossed and turned, worrying that the bird would not appear.  At what time should I persuade James that we must return home?  How much time could we give this bird to put in his appearance?  

We were up early, waiting for it to be sufficiently light to identify gulls.  At 7.30, we joined a couple of other eager twitchers, and sauntered over to the gulls hanging around the foreshore hoping for a free feed.  I'm ashamed to say that we obliged.  We threw them unhealthy bread and encouraged them to make as much noise as possible.  We had about twenty Silver Gulls and one or two Pacifics gathered around us enjoying our carbohydrates.  I was nagged by doubt.  We should really leave by 9, I thought.  But how would I possibly persuade James to leave if the bird had not appeared?

We ran out of bread, and James said he'd return to our cabin to replenish supplies.  I told him to bring the Laughing Gull back with him.  Obedient fellow that he is, he did!  He yelled to us that the gull was flying in, and we turned to admire it fly over his head and come down to join our flock of Silver Gulls.  I was delighted and relieved.
Laughing Gull at Venus Bay, photo by James Mustafa

We spoke to it.  We admired it.  We thanked it for appearing.  Shame on us, we even fed it.  It did not fly up to catch thrown bread as did the Silver Gulls.  It stood stupidly waiting for the bread to come to it.  It opened its black bill to reveal a very pink mouth and mewed.  It did not laugh.  Someone said that Laughing Gulls only laugh at their breeding sites.
Me (very naughtily) feeding gulls, including the Laughing Gull
Photo by James Mustafa
Laughing Gull photo by James Mustafa
Paul Newman, me and James admiring the Laughing Gull
Photo by Paul Taylor

I had no problem dragging James away.  We admired the bird.  He took his photo.  We congratulated each other on our extreme brilliance and exceptional birding abilities in managing to see a rare gull precisely where we'd been told it would be, then we set off home.  

We left at 8.15 a.m.  A few kangaroos hopped across our path on the road out of Venus Bay.  This was Monday and there were road trains to contend with on the Eyre Highway that hadn't bothered us yesterday.  It rained sporadically and some selfish caravans thought that 40 kph was an appropriate speed to travel on the highway.  We paused for lunch at noon at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta (site 47 in my Best 100 Birdwatching Sites in Australia).  It was cold and windy, but we had a quick walk to the bird hide nevertheless.  James photographed a Chirruping Wedgebill, and his sharp eyes picked out a pair of Spotted Harriers, a male White-winged Fairywren, and a Rufous Songlark as well as the usual honeyeaters and babblers.
Chirruping Wedgebill at Arid Lands Botanic Gardens
Photo by James Mustafa

Then, it was on to the airport to wait for our flight home.  It was all quite easy really.  That dear little Laughing Gull gave us more pleasure than it will ever know.  Roger still thinks I'm mad, but he has to concede that I got my tick!

Sunday, 17 July 2016


Because recent pelagic trips had been producing such exciting sightings (and mainly because the latest Port Fairy pelagic had recorded Antarctic Tern) Neil Macumber put on a special trip on Saturday, 16 July, 2016.

An enthusiastic group of birders gathered on the wharf in the dark and boarded the Perceive with hungry anticipation.  Neil had mentioned the possibility of Kerguelen Petrel.  Most people wanted Antarctic Tern.  I was secretly hoping for a Southern Fulmar.

The first bird we saw was (appropriately) a Shy Albatross.  I've never done a pelagic out of Port Fairy (or, indeed, Portland or Port MacDonnel) without seeing Shy Albatross.  They are beautiful birds and should not be overlooked because they are common.

The next bird that flew into sight was a Crested Tern.  We saw several Crested Terns throughout the day and I don't remember terns ever being exposed to such scrutiny.  No matter how we examined them they remained stubbornly Crested Terns and refused to morph into anything else.  We did see one Arctic Tern later in the day, but apart from that, every tern was Crested.

We saw both Fluttering and Hutton's Shearwaters - large rafts of both, close to the boat.  I saw just one Sooty Shearwater - the keen-eyed youngsters probably spied more.

There was a sprinkling of Australasian Gannets throughout the day.  There were Fairy and Slender-billed Prions, a handful of Grey-backed Storm-Petrels and three or four Northern Giant-Petrels.  I saw one Great-winged Petrel.

And then there were albatross.  We'd have had a hundred around the boat at a given point in time.  Magnificent!  We had Black-browed, Campbell's, Yellow-nosed, a couple of Northern Royal and one young clown - an immature Wanderer.

There were two metre swells on the way home and a few people were queasy.  One unfortunate fellow spent the day on the deck.  The rest of us proclaimed it a good day at sea.  If we'd managed to chalk up a lifer, it would have been a great day at sea.

On board the Perceive with two metre swells,
One man on the deck (he'd forgotten his Quells).
Albatross, shearwaters loving the weather
Soaring with pleasure, not ruffling a feather.
We saw several terns, all of them Crested.
Cold and uncomfortable, patience is tested.
Wet through from seaspray and feeling quite queasy,
Getting a lifer was not meant to be easy!

Monday, 11 July 2016


Last weekend I had a wonderful time seabirding off Eaglehawk Neck in Tasmania.  Highlights were the albatrosses, so many birds and so many species.  Also several Blue Petrels, a couple of Grey Petrels and (perhaps my favourite) a few White-headed Petrels.  Jaegers were quite absent, there was just one Brown Skua, and very few diving-petrels and storm petrels.  We were on the Pauletta, seas were calm and no one was seasick.  It was cold, but for a winter pelagic off Tasmania, you really couldn't ask for better conditions.
White-headed Petrel, photo by David Mitford

Most people had difficulty arriving at Eaglehawk Neck, because, without explanation or apology, Jetstar deferred or even cancelled just about every flight.  I flew Qantas and arrived on time.  David Mitford, who organized the trip, flew from Sydney.  His flight was cancelled, so he flew to Launceston and another obliging birder drove up from Hobart to collect him.  I flew home with Jetstar and arrived three hours late.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, photo by David Mitford
Sooty Albatross, photo by David Mitford

On Saturday, the albatrosses were nothing short of spectacular.  The most numerous species was Shy, but there were plenty of Buller's too, and close sightings of both Black-browed and Campbell's.  We saw several Wandering Albatrosses and more than one Southern Royal.  Of course, the most exciting were the Sooty and the Light-mantled Sooty.  Altogether, an exceptional array of albatrosses.  Then, on Sunday, the icing on the cake, a Grey-headed Albatross appeared.
Southern Royal Albatross, photo by Andrew Walker

Grey-headed Albatross, photo by David Mitford

We saw both Fairy and Slender-billed Prions, as well as the Blue Petrel, both races of Cape Petrels, and both Great-winged and Grey-faced Petrels.  Each day, just one Sooty Shearwater put in an appearance.  
Blue Petrel, photo by David Mitford

On Saturday evening, after the pelagic, we all drove down to Port Arthur to see the Masked Owl.  We arrived on dusk and waited just a few minutes before the owl appeared.  It flew and was quickly relocated, allowing everyone to have magnificent views.
Tasmanian Masked Owl, photo by David Mitford

Thank you, David, for organizing the weekend and for providing the beautiful photos shown here.  It really was a terrific weekend.  Great birds, great company, what more could you want?

Thursday, 7 July 2016


On my routine morning walk today, I heard, then saw, a single Gang-gang Cockatoo.  It flew into the Kew Cemetery.  This was a new bird for my list for Kew and a new bird for my annual list.

My cousin, who lives in Blackburn, tells me that she either sees or hears Gang-gangs every day.  I've been walking with her along Gardiners Creek hoping to come across these wonderful cockatoos, but we've had no luck.  I grew up in Ringwood and Gang-gangs were quite common then.  I remember they were always exciting to see.  And they still are.
Gang-gang in Cooma some years ago

I was delighted to add this bird to my list for 2016 as I reckon I've been a bit unlucky with my birding in June.  I visited both Wilson Reserve and Banyule looking for the Powerful Owl, but did not see one.  I visited Karkarook looking for a Flame Robin, but did not see one.  With BirdLife Australia, I pulled out boneseed at the You Yangs, but did not see anything new for my 2016 list.  With a friend, I visited Werribee looking for Double-banded Plover and did not see one.  We visited Stockyard Point also after a Double-banded Plover and all we saw was an enormous flock of Pied Oystercatchers.  After this disappointment, we drove on to Flat Rocks at Inverloch where the Beach Stone-curlew had been reported.  It was school holidays and the beach was full of dogs.  There were no waders in sight.

This week we again visited Werribee, this time looking for a Lewin's Rail.  Again, no luck.  Three Australian Spotted Crakes were happily feeding in the open, walking very close to us and seemingly oblivious of our presence.  That was nice, so was a pair of Brolgas that flew overhead, bugling, but they weren't Lewin's Rails!

Now, with my Gang-gang today, perhaps my luck is turning.  Just in time.  This afternoon I fly to Hobart to do pelagics off Eaglehawk Neck on both Saturday and Sunday.  Who knows what we might see.

Monday, 13 June 2016


It was early June.  Melbourne's cold and often miserable winter stretched ahead of me and I confess I was feeling sorry for myself.   I had nothing planned until November, when I was scheduled to go to Ashmore Reef.  How would I survive until then?

I was still missing some easy birds from my annual list.  I wanted Flame Robin, Double-banded Plover and Red-kneed Dotterel.  They are all possible at Werribee.

I decided to contact Philip.  I'd met him at the Long-billed Dowitcher twitch at Lake Tutchewop in November 2014 and he'd proved to be a great birding companion.  "How about a trip to Werribee?" I asked.  Not only did Philip say 'yes' quite enthusiastically, he offered to drive.  We consulted the weather forecast and selected a sunny day.  Unfortunately, it was also a public holiday and it seemed that half of Melbourne's birding community was visiting Werribee that day.

The crowds were attracted by reports of Orange-bellied Parrots and lots of happy birders added them to their lifelists that sunny day.  Philip and I did not see the parrots.  We were disappointed, but not devastated, as we'd both seen them before on many occasions.

We had a most enjoyable day with lots of good sightings, starting with Banded Lapwing in Beach Road.  We had a great view of a Brown Goshawk sitting on a fence post and one Intermediate Egret stood out in one of the lagoons.  The crakes performed well, with both spotted and spotless ignoring us and venturing very close.  We saw a few Tree Martins amongst the Welcome Swallows, a bird I don't often see at Werribee.  We thought we were going to miss out on Brolga, when Philip saw three in the distance at Paradise Road.  We did well with duck species, seeing all the usual species except Freckled Duck.

We saw lots of Black-fronted Dotterels and the Banded Stilts seem to have moved in permanently.  In fact, we saw more Banded Stilts than their Black-winged cousins.

Note that not only did we dip on Orange-bellied Parrots, we did not see any Little Black Cormorants, Cape Barren Geese or overwintering sandpipers - all birds I had expected to see.  Worse, we did not see any Flame Robins, Double-banded Plovers or Red-kneed Dotterels!  So I came home without adding anything to my annual list.  But I can't complain.  It was a great day.  With my batteries re-charged, I can now face Melbourne's winter.

Sunday, 29 May 2016


My sister-in-law, Susie, had never seen an albatross.  I decided that this situation must be rectified, and booked us both onto Neil Macumber's May 2016 Port Fairy pelagic.  The trip planned for 8 May was cancelled due to bad weather, and re-scheduled for 29 May.  On Saturday, 28 May, Susie and I set off together like excited schoolgirls wagging school.

I'd selected the May trip in the hope that Susie might see a great albatross.

I explained to Susie that she must take Travacalm, that the seas would be rough, it would be freezing cold, and we would get wet:  if it did not rain, we could expect to be engulfed in seaspray.  Everything I said was wrong.  The seas were calm; the temperature was mild; the weather was fine; we came home quite dry.  We did not need Travacalm.

The boat left port right on time at 7 a.m.  It was still dark.  Nothing much happened for a while, but I thought it didn't matter.  Susie would certainly see some sort of albatross during the day, so she'd come away happy.  Sure enough, not all that far out of port, a Shy Albatross flew past the boat, giving us all good views.  Susie cheered.  I relaxed.  Mission accomplished.

Then a Northern Giant-Petrel flew past, very close, letting us all admire it without using our binoculars.  Susie made all the appropriate noises.

By the time we got to the shelf at 10.30, my bird list was not long (Fairy Prion, Crested Tern, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Australasian Gannet, Yellow-nosed Albatross, Little Penguin, Great-winged Petrel) but I was happy.  Susie had now seen two species of albatross, and it didn't matter if nothing else appeared.  Susie, who is an artist, was admiring the cloud formations as much as the birds.

Slowly, things started to happen.  There was a Black-browed Albatross, then a Campbell's.  I was delighted when a Wandering Albatross appeared.  It flew around slowly, allowing Susie to drink it in.  It was the first of six wanderers we saw during the day, including one young clown.  Not only had Susie now seen five species of albatross, she'd seen a great one.  What's more, it was a pleasant, calm, mild day.  We were blessed.

Suddenly, a Grey-headed Albatross appeared!  I could not believe my eyes.  It had a very dark head, looking more black than grey.  Then a Sooty Albatross flew overhead!  And very soon after that a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross put in an appearance!  These were birds I'd never dared to hope for.  The albatross were making a special effort for Susie.
Grey-headed Albatross, photo by James Mustafa
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, photo by James Mustafa

The whole boat was in celebratory mood.  Everyone was happy.  We saw a Grey-backed Storm-Petrel and a Cape Petrel.  We'd seen quite a few Fairy Prions throughout the day, and suddenly a Blue Petrel appeared!  On the way back home, there were large flocks of Fluttering Shearwaters, and suddenly, a tern caused great excitement.  General consensus was that it was an Arctic Tern.
Blue Petrel, photo by James Mustafa

What a day!  Several people on board considered it the best pelagic they'd ever been on.  Susie has gone home with quite the wrong idea about pelagic birding.  I should take her again just to show her what it's usually like.