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.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

AN EURASIAN CURLEW AT AUSTRALIND

I was booked on Richard Baxter's Cocos/Christmas Island tour in December 2016, so I arranged to have a day in Perth beforehand, in the hope of seeing a Crested Honey Buzzard.  Then I learnt that friends were visiting Cheynes Beach for a couple of days before Richard's tour, and, even though it was to be a very rushed trip, the opportunity was quite irresistible.  

I don't know how many times I've been to Cheynes Beach, probably half a dozen, but despite many hours of trying, I've never managed to see the local Western Whipbird.  I've seen this bird on Kangaroo Island and on the Eyre Peninsula, but both WA races have always eluded me.  

So, before Richard's tour, I had one day in Perth and two nights at Cheynes Beach.  I expected one lifer:  the Crested Honey Buzzard.  And I wanted to see at least one WA race of Western Whipbird.

The buzzard has been turning up in WA regularly each summer for the last five years.  It usually appears around 15 November.  I thought I'd call in on 29 November, giving it a couple of weeks leeway.  But, this year, the year I wanted to see it, it decided not to come.  Doesn't it realize how much I wanted to admire it?  Doesn't it know how much money I spent to include it in my itinerary?  For whatever reason, the buzzard was a no show.

My mate Steve Reynolds, who was going to show me the buzzard, refused to accept its absence and took me to Lake Joondalup where it usually hangs out.  We thought it would be amazing if we were the first to report the buzzard this season.  Of course that was a fantasy and the buzzard refused to show itself.  Steve then drove me to Northam to admire the Mute Swans.  I'd seen them in Tasmania decades ago, but I'd never seen them in WA.  Unlike the buzzard, the swans appeared on cue, carrying nesting material under their wings, as they swam elegantly on the River Avon.  HANZAB reports that, when swimming, Mute Swans 'have jerky, surging progress, paddling with both feet at the same time.'  I must say, I didn't notice this.  I thought they looked very graceful, quite worthy of their regal heritage.
Mute Swan, photo by Steve Reynolds

The next morning, my mate James Mustafa arrived at 6 a.m. and, with Steve, we set off for Cheynes Beach.  First stop was Australind, just north of Bunbury, where an Eurasian Curlew had been in residence for several months.  We could see waders in the distance, too far away to identify, so there was nothing for it but to wade a bit closer.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I don't like getting my feet wet.  But, what's a girl to do when there's a possible tick in the offing?  Without a word of protest, I took off my shoes and socks, and joined the boys in the water.  I did not like it.  We didn't know how deep the water would get, we didn't know anything about tides or rips, and the curlew may not be with the waders we could see in the distance.  After a very few unhappy steps, Steve jumped.  He'd been nipped by a blue swimmer crab, invisible just under the sand.  Yet another reason to hate the water.  Then James jumped.  Now I was really unhappy.  Steve jumped again.  And again.  I thought this was a really stupid idea.  It took a few minutes for the boys to realize that I was right.  They had both been nipped several times.  I escaped altogether.

Back on terra firma, we drove around some more, examining several inlets, hoping for more waders.  I was aware of the time.  We had a many miles to travel that day.  Several lifers were awaiting James further south; we couldn't spend all day looking for a bird that both Steve and James had already seen.  Finally, Steve parked the car and we jumped out for one last look.  I was feeling disappointed.  The buzzard had let me down.  Now the curlew that everyone else in the world had ticked, had suddenly disappeared.  It wasn't fair.  Suddenly, Steve was gesturing at me from the top of a rise.  I ran as fast as I could up the hill and there was the bird!  Yippee!  It was right beside a Far Eastern Curlew, just to emphasize the difference.
Eurasian Curlew next to Far Eastern Curlew, photo by Steve Reynolds

At Rocky Gully township, we paused to photograph Muir's Corellas, a lifer for James.

Next stop was the Stirling Range Retreat, which (so Steve assures me) is a good spot for Western Shriketit.  Here we met the fourth member of our gang, Steve Castan.  It was a bit windy so we didn't spend time looking for Western Whipbirds here.  We did, however, find a Western Fieldwren for James.  Then it was on to Cheynes Beach, where we sat in deck chairs, sipping wine and nibbling potato chips, waiting for the Noisy Scrub-bird to run across the road in front of us.  Which it obediently did.
Noisy Scrub-bird, photo by Steve Reynolds

White-breasted Robins played near my cabin and Western Wattlebirds and White-cheeked Honeyeaters were prolific.  We saw several Western Bristlebirds and lots of Heath Monitors.  At Two People's Bay, I glimpsed a Western Whipbird.  At last!  The bird that had eluded me for decades.  At Waychinicup, Steve produced a beautiful Red-eared Firetail, right on cue.
Western Whipbird, photo by Steve Reynolds
Red-eared Firetail, photo by Steve Reynolds

On Friday, we returned to Perth.  It had been a rushed trip, but very successful.  James and I were eager for our next adventure:  Cocos and Christmas Islands.  We both had great expectations.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

VERY PARCHED ASHMORE REEF, NOVEMBER 2016

I was excited at the prospect of visiting Ashmore Reef again.  I expected to see lots of new birds.  The first time I visited was in autumn, and I only saw three lifers.  This time, in spring, I expected to do much better.  If I'd visited in 2015, I'd certainly have seen ten new birds and might have managed eleven. Before I set out, I studied all the reports from previous trips and noted all the birds I might hope to see.  I compiled a list of the most likely.  I included only birds which had been seen multiple times, and that had been seen in 2015.  I was trying to be realistic, and not create unreasonable expectations.  There were eight birds on my list:  Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel; Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel; Collared Kingfisher; Grey Wagtail; Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler; Arctic Warbler; Asian Brown Flycatcher; and Island Monarch.  

Silly me!  I should know better at my age! 

Of the birds on my list, I managed only two:  the first and last.  I also saw (thanks to Colin Rogers, who found it) an Edible-nest Swiftlet, so I came home with exactly the same number of lifers as last time.  Just three.

Earlier, I had hoped to add Leach's Storm-Petrel to my list, but there were no recent records.  In fact, now the experts were expressing doubts about all the early records.

Dipping on Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel was a real disappointment.  I remember when I visited Ashmore in 2014, Matsudaira's had been seen on 15 out of the previous 19 trips.  When we didn't see it, I was told that was because it was autumn.  If I came in spring, I would be sure to see it.  Of course I know that nothing is sure in the bird world.  Nevertheless, I did expect to see it.  After we dipped, the theory was that we were too late.  If we'd been there in October, we would have seen it.  Birders are great at inventing retrospective explanations.  

I was also disappointed to miss out on the Collared Kingfisher and the Grey Wagtail, both of which I had thought would be relatively easy.  Alas!  It was not so.

Ashmore Reef is hard work.  It is hot.  Walking is not easy.  The horizon is always misty because of the extremely high humidity.  And there's the issue of getting in and out of little boats.  Always such a joy.  And on this occasion we suffered very rough seas.  I was seasick.  Yes, I managed the Antarctic, and even Macquarie Island without a hint of illness, but I couldn't make it to Ashmore Reef.  I'd been before.  I thought it wouldn't be rough.  I didn't take medication.  You'd think I'd know better!  In fact I was ill on the first day and the really rough seas were on the way home.  Some experienced sailors said our last night was the roughest they'd ever spent at sea.  Everything in my cabin that could fall down, did fall down.  And then rolled across the floor.  And back.  All night.  But by then, I'd taken medication, and I was fine.

Our boat, the Reef Prince, a luxury catamaran, relieves the torture and makes Ashmore Reef bearable.  Now I must face up to another visit, to try again for Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel.  I think I will have to wait until they take the Reef Prince again.

On Melbourne Cup Day (1 November) I flew to Broome, where I spent the night.  The next morning, George Swann picked me up at 6 a.m. and took me to Entrance Point, where a tinny took us to the Reef Prince.  We were welcomed aboard and instructed that we must drink Gaterade every day.  It would be available beside the water fountain.  Water on board was desalinated, so was pure and missing essential salts.  We left at 8.45 and spent all day Wednesday and Thursday cruising towards Ashmore Reef and arrived after lunch on Friday.  I had cramp on Thursday night and asked for Gaterade.  I was informed they were running low and I should take magnesium tablets!
The last remaining tree on West Island

On Friday we were eager to explore West Island, the only vegetated island on the reef, and the spot where the vagrants are found.  We could see the one remaining palm tree from the boat, and when we waded ashore from the tinny, we were immediately confronted by two things:  the island was incredibly dry - most of the vegetation was dead; and the ear-shattering noise, like loud static radio, of seabirds.  A few steps off the beach revealed a colony of 25,000 Sooty Terns!  Seabirds had nested on East Island and Middle Island, but in the past they had left West Island alone.  That had changed with a vengeance.  As well as Sooty Terns, there were Bridled Terns (about 100), Crested Terns (62),Black Noddies (900), Common Noddies (800), Lesser Noddies (20) and Red-footed Boobies (12).  The boobies sat up high in the bushes, and the sun shone through their feet like red Christmas lanterns. No doubt more Red-footed Boobies will move in and destroy what is left of the umbrella bushes.  This is only the second confirmed nesting colony of Lesser Noddies for Australia; previously they were thought to nest only on the Abrolhos.  A few active burrows of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters showed that they, too, were nesting.  Their chicks would have to overcome attacks by red fire ants.  We saw ant trails in several places on the island, confirming that attempts to eradicate the ants had failed.
Fire ants on West Island, photo by Cathy Mahoney

We visited West Island on a total of eight occasions, each evening leaving at sunset while hermit crabs swarm towards the sea.  We walk around the island twice, a total of 5 kilometres, then it's another difficult kilometre wading through shallow water back to the tinny.  We saw Eurasian Tree Sparrows (just three birds) every time we visited.  Also Sacred Kingfishers (which I examined closely, trying to turn them into Collared Kingfishers), although not as many as I remembered from my previous trip.  Rainbow Bee-eaters were common, as were Red-tailed Tropicbirds.  We saw Yellow Wagtails on most visits, as well as Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo.  Reef Egrets were abundant, both white and dark morphs, approximately in a 70:30 ratio.  We saw Nankeen Night-Herons every day, and Buff-banded Rails roosted in trees, or ran around the edge of the colony stealing eggs wherever possible.  There were also waders every day:  Pacific Golden Plovers, Greater Sand Plovers, Whimbrels, Red-necked Stints, Common Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones.  We saw the Island Monarch several times and once watched him consume a large ghecko.  Just one Oriental Cuckoo put in an appearance, and one Barn Swallow flew over.  We did enjoy good views of two Indonesian races of our Australian friends:  the Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove (which did not have a rose crown and is called the Grey-capped Fruit-Dove) and the Arafura Fantail (under some taxonomies regarded as a full species, known as the Supertramp Fantail).

While we visited West Island in the early morning and late afternoon, we ventured further afield in the middle of the day.  On Saturday, we visited East Island, admiring hundreds of juvenile Lesser Frigatebirds.  On Sunday, we went to Middle Island and Horseshoe Cay.  Last time I was here, we were not allowed to disembark on Middle Island because of the ant eradication program.  This time going ashore was permitted.  I don't think we saw anything we could not have seen from the tinny circumnavigating the island.  Here we saw one leucistic or perhaps albino frigatebird - very pretty.
Seabirds on Middle Island, 2014

On Tuesday morning, before 9, we set sail for Browse Island and arrived at 11 p.m.  West Island is 23 hectares; Browse is 14.  Unlike Ashmore Reef, Browse is officially part of Western Australia. On Wednesday morning, as we prepared to visit Browse, the seas were very rough.  I arrived at the back of the boat to clamber onto a tinny at 10 to 5.  The first tinny was leaving already.  I waited for it to return, wondering if Browse would be as dry as West Island.  I still had a chance of a rare bird.  Or so I told myself.  The captain came back for his second load, and warned anyone who was not sure-footed not to go.  Two people had fallen into the sea as they tried to get off the first tinny.  I was not the oldest person present, but I was perhaps the least agile.  I decided not to go.  I waved them goodbye, and tried very hard to hope that they had good sightings.

I could see Browse Island from the boat.  There was a lighthouse, but little else.  It did not look exciting.  And (I'm ashamed to admit) that I was pleased to see that the figures I could see through my binoculars wandering around the island did not look very excited either.  Soon I was distracted by two young very healthy-looking Indonesian fishermen, paddling a dugout canoe, and attempting to board the Reef Prince.  'Hello, missus!' they greeted me cheerfully.  'I'm sick.'  Sick they did not look.  I told them to wait and I'd inform the crew.  I'm not sure what the captain said to them (I was busy doing something essential in my cabin at the time) but I never saw them again.

Eventually, everyone returned from Browse Island to report that they had seen a pair of Chinese Sparrowhawks, and that, because of the presence of the raptors, there was nothing else.  I heaved a sigh of relief, having seen Chinese Sparrowhawks on Cocos Island in 2014.

Wednesday was a very rough, sleepless night, and on Thursday we arrived back at Broome around 1.30.  Given how much I hate small boats and hot weather, I enjoyed the trip very much.  I was, of course, very disappointed to achieve only three lifers, but it was fascinating to be so close to nesting seabirds.  Whichever way you look at it, Ashmore Reef is a big adventure.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

YELLINGBO, RUTHERGLEN AND MORE

I haven't had a lifer since that lovely Laughing Gull in Venus Bay in July.  I've had a few interesting sightings, I attended a Helmeted Honeyeater workshop in Yellingbo and I've just returned from a wonderful couple of days in Rutherglen.

My interesting sightings include a Little Button-quail in Kew on my morning walk!  I flushed it from some leaves on the footpath, and it walked into someone's front garden, never to be seen again.  Since my trip to Venus Bay, I have visited some nice birdy spots.  I've been to Werribee (highlights were Zebra Finch and Ruddy Turnstone), Mt St Joseph's Pond (too overgrown for crakes, did see greenfinch), Eastlink Wetlands (scrubwren, Silvereye, Red-browed Finch, but no waterbirds), Greensborough (Swift Parrots), Banyule (Powerful Owl), You Yangs (Speckled Warbler, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Sacred Kingfisher, Jacky Winter), Trin Warren Tam-boore (Australian Reed Warbler), Bunyip State Park (Golden Whistler, Grey Currawong), Healesville (Eastern Yellow Robin and Australian King-Parrot), and Cape Liptrap (Morepork).

The Helmeted Honeyeater workshop in Yellingbo was run by BirdLife Australia's Threatened Bird Network.  James Frazer from Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater gave us a talk on the bird's ecology, the recovery project and volunteer opportunities.  The Helmeted Honeyeater, Victoria's avifaunal emblem, is a race of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater and is classified as critically endangered.  I was pleased to learn that James was very positive about the bird's future.  The wild population has increased from 60 to around 200 (plus another 38 in captivity).  Although the introduction of some honeyeaters to Bunyip State Park failed, James told us that they have now introduced supplementary feeding during the breeding season and believe this will significantly improve survival rates.  The failure in Bunyip was put down to the drought, which altered the habitat sufficiently to allow for easy predation.  The Helmeted Honeyeater's main problem is loss of habitat:  95% of its original habitat is now lost.  The Friends group runs a significant planting program, not assisted by three species of deer (sambah, fallow and hog).  Evidently eradicating deer is not as easy as you might think.  After James' talk, we did some token planting.  We had all hoped that we might see a Helmeted Honeyeater in the wild, but, as they are breeding at the moment, we were not permitted anywhere near them.  I thought the workshop was most informative.  Such activities can only help our endangered species.

I have just returned from a quick trip to Rutherglen to replenish our sherry supplies.  We drove up on Sunday.  It was grey, rainy and gloomy.  I thought I probably wouldn't see many birds.  However, Monday was delightful:  sunny and calm, perfect birding conditions.  I walked to the newsagents to buy Roger's newspaper and was surprised at the number of Eurasian Tree Sparrows.  Usually, I search among the House Sparrows, looking for one tree sparrow.  But on Monday things were reversed.  I saw two flocks of tree sparrows, and just one or two House Sparrows.  Common Blackbirds were also in big numbers around the town.

After breakfast, we visited Black Swamp, about 15 kilometres west of Rutherglen.  With all the recent rain, it was full of water and lots of ducks with ducklings.  The white cockies were extremely raucous and both mossies and bush flies were irritating.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Sacred Kingfishers, Little Friarbirds and one vocal Grey Shrike-thrush.  Next, we drove to the swamp near the tip in town, which I'm told is known as Bryce's Swamp.  There was too much water, no muddy banks and no birds at all, so we continued on to Cyanide Dam.  Here the sun shone.  There were no mossies and no bush flies.  Just orioles and gerygones singing their hearts out.  As always, there were Brown Treecreepers, yellow robins and Fuscous Honeyeaters.  It was perfect.

However, I had an appointment to go birding with my mate Jim, so we headed back to town.  Jim took me to watch Rainbow Bee-eaters digging their nest holes.  They were gorgeous in the sunshine.  Progress on their nest holes was surprisingly fast, extending three or four inches in the twenty minutes or so we sat watching.  It seemed to me that the females did all the work.  Situation normal.
Greenhill Dam
Rainbow Bee-eater by Jim O'Toole

Then we visited Bartley's Block (Rufous Songlark, Weebill), Greenhill Dam (Whistling Kite), Magenta Mine, then on to Chiltern No 2 dam.  Some stupid or selfish people (or perhaps both) had left the windows on the bird hide open, and the Welcome Swallows were exploring inside the hide for nesting opportunities.  The best bird we saw here was a cooperative Crested Shriketit.  
Crested Shriketit by Jim O'Toole
He played in the foliage at eye height, giving us great views.  Then, Jim took me to the Rutherglen Wildlife Reserve, where we saw more kangaroos than birds.  Vocal Rufous Whistlers were a highlight of the day, singing loudly at just about every stop.

Chiltern No 2 dam

I was sorry I didn't have a week to spend at Rutherglen.  Conditions are perfect at the moment.  But I must prepare for my trip to Ashmore Reef next week.  Let's hope that conditions are perfect there too.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

ASHMORE REEF IN SPRING

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:  info@kimberleybirdwatching.com.au.  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

WHO'S LAUGHING NOW?

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

PORT FAIRY, 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

EAGLEHAWK NECK 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

A GANG-GANG AT LAST!

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

WERRIBEE IN WINTER

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.