Wednesday, May 30, 2007

African Boxthorn--Friend or Foe?

Let me say right at the start, I'm not going in to bat for the noxious, invasive weed, African Boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum). Anyone who's had the misfortune to get caught by their long sharp spines, wouldn't quickly want to repeat the performance. It's fairly widespread around the South here, mostly on the more marginal, coastal soils. I believe it was originally imported into Tasmania in the mid 1800s primarily as a hedging plant. I suspect that it was used in place of fences, something it would have excelled at.
I spent a while at Sorell recently, mainly at the Waterview Sanctua
ry and adjoining areas. Around here there are still significant areas of the boxthorn, although largely cleared from the reserve. At present the boxthorn is in flower, but also has ripening fruit, as the shot at top shows. I noted there was a continuous flow of honeyeaters through the area, mainly Crescent and New Holland, but a few Eastern Spinebills, attracted to the flowers on the boxthorns. Additionally, small groups of Superb Fairy-wrens, used them as cover as they foraged across the area. I doubt that many of the honeyeaters would be present if it wasn't for the boxthorn. Additionally, they provide ready cover from predators.
Probably the major users of boxthorns here are those other imports,
House Sparrows and Blackbirds, the latter probably the main culprit in disseminating the seeds. Both certainly use them for nesting in. I recall, that about 30 years or so ago, in the Winter months, the Little Grassbirds could regularly be found in the long hedge of boxthorns by the chicken factory fence, alas, no more.
I've noted elsewhere, that the House Sparrows use them for what I call their 'castles'. Close to where I live in Bellerive the main predator of the House Sparrow is the Grey Butcherbird. If the sparrows are being harried by them, they take cover in these very effective refuges.
So while I'm certainly not advocating keeping or planting boxthorns, there can at times be an upside to them! I should hasten to add that I don't include their use as 'castles' for the sparrows as an upside.
[Images are of New Holland Honeyeater and Superb Fairy-wren, both photographed on boxthorn, at Sorell.]

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Long Time Between Drinks--- Pacific Heron

I set off early this morning, really undecided quite where to go birding. With a stiff breeze, but otherwise fine, I finally opted for a short trip to the Sorell area. After a brief stop at the Orielton Creek bridge, noting a solitary Great and 2 Little Egrets, I moved on to the lake at the Copping Golf course (on the Lewisham road). As usual I scanned the lake from my car, recording a number of Blue-winged Shovellers, several Musk Duck, a few Mountain Duck and about a dozen Chestnut Teal. I moved further down the car park and as I did I flushed a heron from a nearby pond. The heron, a size bigger than the common White-faced Heron, alighted about 30 metres away. A Pacific Heron. Now I expect many Mainland birders won't find that particularly exciting, but I haven't seen one in Tasmania since 1975 and it's not for want of looking! Here in Tasmania they're rare and most often the sightings coincide with irruptions from the Mainland. So for me very exciting.
As you may see from the accompanying images, this
heron, which I've always referred to by it's alternate name, White-necked Heron, was fairly easy to approach. In fact after its initial flight, it walked back to the small pond close to the car park. So here are 3 of many shots that I took. For me a long overdue sighting of any sort of rarity and from previous experience, may herald other sightings of this species around the state.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Gluttonous Gull

It shouldn't come as any surprise just what gulls are prepared to eat, especially when they're feeding on rubbish tips. I watched and photographed this Kelp Gull recently on Lauderdale Canal as it 'fished'.
I had noted that , what I'm sure was the same gull, was always at the same spot at the same time on several successive mornings
. I stopped one morning, actually hoping to get better shots of the Little Egret that's been around,
and photographed this gull while I waited. It seemed interested in the New Zealand Cushion Sea Star Patiriella regularis that it's pictured holding. This sea star is an invader from New Zealand and considered a pest. It picked it up several times and dropped it, seemingly hoping that this would make it more manageable. This was followed by pecking, until having made no impression on it, the sea star was swallowed whole, temporarily changing the gulls outline, as you can see in the middle shot. Quite a feat. If only gulls could make some impression on the much more invasive Northern Pacific Sea Star..... Both these sea stars have made major impacts on related native species, especially in the River Derwent.
Shortly afterwards it started to "foot paddle". That is the rapid up and do
wn, on the spot, foot movement, in this case in about 6 or 7 cms of water. This action, which stirs up the bottom, is utilised by gulls and waders to expose prey. It appeared very successful at whatever it was catching, but as it caught the prey by totally submerging its head, it took a while to see what it was after. I took numerous shots that showed little or nothing, but eventually got the lower shot. I'll have to admit here that although I can see the prey, I'm not at all sure what it is. I think it's what I know as a sand eel, but this covers a large range of possibilities. So if there's anyone who recognises what it is, I would be interested to know. And yes, I did eventually get my shots of the Little Egret.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tripping the Light Fantastic

Little Egret are usually described as uncommon in Tasmania, but at least during the colder months you may usually find a few about some of the local coastal areas and nearby lagoons. Apart from a group of 5 at Marion Bay during March, I've only seen single birds. This week I've recorded singles at Sorell and Lauderdale, where I shot the accompanying images.
The group of shots here were shot as the egret fished. Having stood in the one spot for nearly an hour, it suddenly seemed 'possessed' as it half ran, half flew in all directions chasing its prey, which proved to be small fish. Quite a performance. My only regret was that this all took place at extreme camera range. The pictures give just a taste of the action, before it made a final, successful stab at the prey as seen in the lower right image.

[ The expression 'to trip the light fantastic' is attributed to John Milton in a 1645 poem 'L'Allegro'. It refers to dancing.]

Monday, May 21, 2007

Raptor Morning--Sorell

Dropped into the Waterview Sanctuary at Sorell over the weekend. This sanctuary, once the local tip, was at one time a 'not to miss' site for wader watching over the bay, but sadly waders have largely been replaced by gulls and ravens. I still go there, perhaps more in hope than expectation these days, but it can surprise. As I got out of the car, I was immediately aware of a number of Forest Ravens kicking up a fuss. Walking towards the ruckus, based in an old acacia overlooking the bay, 2 raptors took flight in opposite directions pursued by ravens. One immediately disappeared from view, the other alighted in a nearby acacia, giving me my first opportunity to ID it. As I suspected, it was a Brown Goshawk, a species I've recorded here several times recently. It remained in the centre of the tree, with ravens mobbing it from a safe distance. As I approached, it took flight, this time landing on the chicken factory perimeter fence, as seen at middle left image. It changed position several times within the factory boundary, before flying to the Blue Gum plantation. I took the shot at top as it flew past. No sooner had it disappeared, than the ravens again became quite disturbed, and searching for the cause was just in time to see a Peregrine Falcon stooping at some speed across the nearby paddock. Whatever it was after, it missed, climbed, circled briefly before disappearing to the West.
I wandered round the coastal edge of the reserve for about a quarter of an hour, before the Kelp Gull flock, around 500 metres away, took flight circling and
calling. Guessing it was probably a Sea Eagle, I scanned the distance with my binos, eventually finding a soaring Sea Eagle, by now over 5 Mile Beach. Within minutes, another buzz among the local birds made me aware of yet another predator, this time a Brown Falcon, flying in from the West. I managed a quick photograph, (bottom) as it passed at some speed, for a "brownie", calling as it did. The call was returned by another Brown Falcon almost overhead, before they joined in flight and disappeared over the township. So if you're lucks in, this site may still be worth a visit!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Great-crested Grebe in Tasmania

Crossing the Sorell Causeway a few days ago, I noticed a number of birds fishing on either side. There was a fair bit of traffic about, and it's not the road to take your eyes off (or stop), but I did note that some of them were Great-crested Grebes and fishing fairly close in to the causeway. So I drove to the Midway Point end and walked back along the Orielton Lagoon side, hoping for a chance to photograph a species that has eluded me so far. In part that's not true, as in the halcyon days when there was water in Lake Dulverton, at Oatlands, I photographed them on a number of occasions, albeit on slide film. By the time I had walked back to where I'd seen them, they were no longer close in, so the shot at right isn't quite what I'd hoped for. There were about a dozen fishing, mainly in the lagoon, along with a similar number of Musk Duck, and a few Little Pied Cormorant. I also noted 2 Royal Spoonbill on nearby Suzie Island, now almost permanent residents.
The Great-crested Grebe, often now known just as Crested Grebe, is an uncommon species in Tasmania. They are to be seen at times at Orielton/Sorell area, occasionally numbering as high as 70 or so, the Derwent River at Granton, and on the Tamar River in the North. They've also been recorded on Moulting and Rostrevor Lagoons on the East coast. They regularly bred on Lake Dulverton, and in the 70s I can remember seeing 6 or 7 occupied nests, usually between December and February. As far as I know, this was the sole breeding site in the state, so we have lost this bird as a breeding species, at least until, or if, we get significant changes in the weather patterns, and see Lake Dulverton filled once more.
[Footnote: It appears that they may have bred at Rostrevor Lagoon in the early '90s, so I may have prematurely written them off as a breeding species in Tasmania.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Peter Murrell Reserve and 40 Spotted Pardalotes

I spent a very still, sunny morning in the Peter Murrell Reserve earlier this week. I usually opt for just such a morning to visit here, as those conditions make it so much easier to pick up the Forty-spotted Pardalotes in particular, but of course, many others species too. I feel rather cheated if I haven't at least picked out a few 40 spots, wistfully hoping that a photo opportunity might even present itself. It usually doesn't! As usual I walked round the top of the upper dam (at the carpark), before setting off down the main South heading track. At this stage I noticed a fellow walker, with dog, following me, having walked past the notice quite clearly indicating "no dogs". Which reminds me that I also had a run in with another dog owner here recently, this time with a dog quite legally off lead. However, the 'substantial' sized dog attempted to jump up at me, something that I objected to. The owner told me that this was a dog exercise area, and if I didn't like dogs I shouldn't be there! Please note, this is a conservation area first and foremost, set aside for it's natural heritage. I'm glad I got that off my chest!
From the dam, I could see flocks of Black-headed Honeyeaters and a solitary Yellow Wattlebird feeding overhead. Three Tas. Native Hens swam past,
(displaced by the dog)--they're actually quite accomplished swimmers, and in this reserve they get plenty of practice. A group of Superb Fairy-wrens, feeding among the Bulrushes, stayed long enough for a photograph. On the second dam there were 2 Hoary-headed Grebes, a solitary Australasian Grebe and a pair of Black Swans. A lone Brown Falcon flew past above the trees. In quick succession, I recorded a male Golden Whistler, Grey Shrike-thrush, numerous New Holland, Crescent and Yellow-throated Honeyeaters, Eastern Spinebills, Brown Thornbills and Silvereyes. They were all putting up a racket at an unidentified 'being', which turned out to be a Kookaburra. Turning down the track at the gate, I could hear numbers of Spotted Pardalotea high above in the canopy, but still no 40 spots. Near the creek, I found Dusky, Flame and Scarlet Robins hawking from the fence. I can't recall seeing all 3 together before. Along the creek line there are numerous, mature eucalyptus viminalis, the White Gum, much favoured by the 40 spots. It was here that I finally tracked them down, in loose association with the Spotted Pardalotes. The Spotteds are usually quite easy to find as their contact call is almost incessant. Scanning them , I realised that there were several Foryspots feeding with them in the canopy. If you listen carefully you can often hear the 40 spots calling with their much quieter and less often given, monotone double note call. Here, their calls were overwhelmed by their cousins. The next hour was occupied watching them and the accompanying images were taken as a few ventured lower down. In the bottom shot, you may be able to see, what I'm reasonably sure are, bits of lerps adhering to the bill, (you may need to click to enlarge), one of their favoured foods. (Lerps are the protective covers of psyllids which excrete honeydew from leaves, and are found on the underside of leaves). The shots aren't great, but I rarely get the chance to take any. As far as I could tell, most of the 40 spots were paired, at least that's the impression I had. Walking back parallel to the creek, I found more 40 spots also in loose association with Spotteds, in all probably totaling around 30 birds. So if you're looking for 40 Spots, I suggest the mature White Gums along the creek below the second dam is a good place to start.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Elusive Little Grassbird

Gould's Lagoon and the nearby marshes hold a good number of Little Grassbirds. During Spring and Summer their thin plaintive tee tee tee call can often be heard. But apart from an occasional, usually brief, view of them as the fly low from reed mass to reed mass, you seldom get much of a sight of them. But this morning I finally managed to get a reasonable shot of one.
With still, sunny conditions prevailing I thought that Gould's Lagoon might be worth another visit. A sighting of a Swamp Harrier quartering the Derwent Marshes as I approached the lagoon seemed to be a good omen. The reality was rather more mundane, with few waterfowl present. These were mainly Coot, a few pairs of Blue-winged Shoveler and the odd Black Duck. I think the high water level may have contributed to the low numbers, as even the Purple Swamphen were feeding on nearby grassed areas as well as the front gardens of nearby houses, as were a few Tasmanian Native-hen. I had hoped there might still be Clamorous Reed-warbler present, as I have a feeling that, contrary to the generally held view, they don't all migrate. I thought I heard their short contact calls, but couldn't be sure. Disappointed with the lack of waterfowl or obviously present Reed-warblers, I resorted to photographing a pair of Superb Fairy-wrens that were actively feeding among the reeds near the bird hide. It was while taking some shots, that I noticed a third, similar sized bird among the reeds and close to the wrens. By sheer luck I used the camera, rather than my binoculars to identify it. It briefly appeared on the outside of the reeds, just long enough to take the shot shown above. In a few seconds it was back in among the reeds, although I did notice it fly to another clump of reeds some time later.
Little Grassbirds do seem to have a more restricted distribution in the South East of Tasmania these days, probably as a result of recent dry years. I can recall seeing them at Sorell around the Waterview Reserve, both on the island and among the South African Boxthorns, as well as Rushy Lagoon, but are now almost certainly absent from both venues. There are still good numbers along the Derwent shore around Granton, and at Lake Meadowbank, to name a few spots. Anyone contemplating looking for this secretive bird would be well advised to learn the call first, and perhaps wait until Spring when they become much more vocal, but perhaps, like me, you could just be lucky.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Rise and Rise of the Spotted Turtle Dove

A while ago now, I received an e-mail from a reader, who as it turned out, lives close by. She was enquiring whether there were two species of Turtle Doves in Tasmania, as she had a plain coloured bird as well as the 'ring necked turtle doves' in her garden. She had looked for references but couldn't find any information about the local species. I was able to tell her that we had only the one, the Spotted Turtle Dove, and by chance I found a 'spotless' dove in the garden the following day (first one I've ever photographed) and sent here a copy of the shot. She confirmed this was the same as her bird. The bird is a young Spotted, as you can see in the shot at top right. She also went on to mention that they were locally prolific.
As in other parts of Australia, the Spotted Turtle Dove is an introduced species. Locally they do seem to have increased fairly dramatically of late. I have put this down to what I call the "de-greening" of much of this suburb. Most of the blocks are the 'standard' quarter acre, that are now being infilled with multiple dwellings on each
block. The upshot of that is that there has been much thinning and removal of mature trees, often replaced by concrete or lawn. In the past, mainly during the Winter, we had goshawks and sparrowhawks, and even the occasional Australian Hobby, using the nearby trees as a launch pad for attacks on birds. On several occasions, I have seen Brown Goshawks chasing Turtle Doves. Coupled with their ability to breed almost year round, and that they are often fed by householders (I have to admit to doing so myself), and it's little wonder that they're doing so well. They do gather together at times, either to roost or to feed, although they rarely fly around in flocks. Locally I've seen as many as 30 feeding under mostly introduced trees, such as oaks. The oaks are in drives, so I presume they were eating crushed acorns. They do seem to be slowly increasing their distribution to outer Hobart suburbs, and to nearby towns. As there doesn't appear to be any native species in Tasmania that they're likely to be in competition with, they're unlikely to pose a threat.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Opportunity Knocks--Spotted Pardalote

It hasn't exactly been ideal birding weather lately. Firstly several days of stillness and drizzle, followed by gale force winds and showers. Well the birds have to endure whatever comes along and sometimes that produces photographic possibilities. In windy conditions I often resort to going out to nearby headlands and trying for in-flight shots of gulls and other sea birds, and yesterday I put in a stint on Bellerive Bluff, overlooking the Derwent River.
It proved rather a frustrating time. True, I did see many passing birds, Pacific, Kelp and Silver Gulls aplenty, Black-faced and Little Pied Cormorants, a few Crested Terns, and even a solitary Gannet, but as for photography, just frustration! They were either too far away, too fast, occasionally even too close and I managed few images. In my frustration I decided to scramble up the bank onto the old Bellerive Fort, built to keep the Russians out, but now largely used by the locals to "exercise" their dogs. It did enable me to get a better all round view, but didn
't improve my photographic opportunities. One of those days when "over there" always looks a better proposition. As I pondered whether to cut my loses and go, I heard the faint calls of a Spotted Pardalote barely audible above the sound of the wind through the She Oaks. The pardalotes seem to be here year round, and I suspect that they nest in the outer wall of the Fort. All thought of sea birds passed as I tried my hand at photographing this pair. The Spotted Pardalotes, one of the smallest Tasmanian birds, are common enough, but do seem to spend most of their time in the canopy of eucalypts, giving little opportunity to photograph them. Here, aided by the fact that I'm standing on a bank, almost looking into the tops of the fairly stunted trees, I took the accompanying shots. The upper image is a female, the lower, male. I guess that, in photography, as in life, you just have to take your opportunities as they arise.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

"Deep South" Visit

Early on Monday morning, tired of sitting in front of a PC, I opted for a visit to the Arve Valley, south of Hobart. As it turned out, it probably wasn't the best day for birding, with fairly constant light drizzle and fog much of the time. The turn off to the Arve Valley is at Geeveston, but my approach coincided with a minor downpour, so I decided on a quick visit to the Hastings Caves area, further south, hoping to see the Superb Lyrebirds. That turned out well, as I sighted my first Lyrebird shortly after leaving the reception area at the Thermal Springs. It was a male, which on first sighting from some distance, I thought was a Forest Raven! That was largely because it hopped sideways across the road, before flying, when its long tail gave it away. I have almost always seen at least one Lyrebird from the boardwalk on the approach to the caves entrance, and sure enough, I sighted a female almost immediately. This bird was scratching around alongside the track, before crossing the walkway and disappearing into the scrub on the otherside. There were few other birds about, but I noted a flock of Strong-billed Honeyeaters, several Green Rosellas and a solitary Grey Shrike-thrush. Returning back towards the reception centre, I found another male Lyrebird on the roadside, which made a quick exit into the bush only to emerge almost immediately to cross to the other side. I followed it, hoping to get a photograph, but all in vain. However I did have the consolation of hearing it call--fantastic! It went through a repertoire that included Grey Shrike-thrush, Green Rosella and Black Currawong, and its own 'liquid' call. The sheer tonal quality and volume of the mimicry, far exceeds the call of the birds mimicked.
Back to Geeveston and with the weather barely improved, I set off down the Arve Road, finally deciding on a stop at the riverside picnic reserve, having seen very little apart from numerous flocks of Green Rosellas feeding alongside the road. Here there is a 10 minute walk through the rainforest, which I took, as it seemed the best option in the conditions. I saw little apart from Strong-billed Honeyeaters, Tasmanian Thornbills and a passing flock of Yellow-tail
ed Black Cockatoos, until I was almost back to the car. At this point, among the tree ferns skirting the road, I came across a flock of about half a dozen Scrubtits. Although practically dark, photographically speaking, I tried my hand at photographing them. I wound the ISO reading up, and hoped for the best. The accompanying shots of Scrubtits are the only ones that were close to being any good, and they were shot at 1/40th second exposure, hand held! Despite that, I had the enjoyment of being among this flock as they went about their business. I did notice that they spent much of their time feeding low down on trunks of trees and ferns, and often on the ground, mostly picking up insects, one of which appeared to be a species of flying ant. This contrasted with my usual experience of them feeding well above ground level, but perhaps the weather played its part there. They were joined briefly by a few Tasmanian Scrubwrens that, unlike the Scrubtits, found me, and spent several minutes scolding me, before moving on. A male Pink Robin also put in a brief appearance, I think probably coming to see what the scrubwrens were on about.
I stopped off at a water point, a small dam, on the way back, hoping to add a few more species. I found no more birds of note, but I was rewarded with a close 'swim by' by the Platypus pictured. So a pretty fair mornings outing, despite the conditions.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sad News

I have just received an e-mail from Eric Woehler, Chair of Birds Tasmania, outlining the following sad news.
Denis and Barbara Abbott were involved in an horrific road accident a few days ago, resulting in the death of Barbara, and critically injuring Denis. Denis is presently in hospital in a serious but stable condition.
Denis is a long time and stalwart member of Birds Tasmania, and some may recall a few articles on this blog, where I have accompanied Denis on outings. I'm sure all will wish him a speedy recovery and offer their condolences both to him and their two sons, James and Farley.