Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Happy Hour" at Gould's Lagoon.

Nearly a week ago, with rain forecast for later in the day, I decided to make a dash out to Gould's Lagoon in the hope that there might be sufficient exposed mud for the crakes to put in an appearance. In that regard I was out of luck, and there was little on the lagoon to excite me, with only 40 odd Coot, and a few duck, mainly Chestnut Teal. I wandered down to the bird hide, (which I think the council has given up on cleaning, and who can blame them!) From the hide I noted a few Purple Swamphens, 2 Kelp Gulls, and the roost of Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants in a tree overlooking the lagoon. I emerged from the hide just in time to note a passing Caspian Tern, a species I've rarely recorded here, but is often seen hawking over the nearby Derwent Marshes at this time of year. A little deflated by the lack of birds, I drove back to the highway, parked, and start my rounds of that side of the lagoon, just as the sun came out. This seemed to mark the start of a hive of activity, starting with a fly by over the nearby marsh, of a White-breasted Sea Eagle, hotly pursued by a number of Kelp Gulls. Perhaps it was this that started a procession of ducks, mostly Black Duck and Chestnut Teal, with a few Blue-winged Shoveler, winging in from the Derwent River. As I walked along the side of the highway, the 2 Black Swan pictured at top, came low over the road and alighted among the reeds. A few steps later and several Crested Terns, including a few juvenile birds, started hunting over the open water, occasionally diving, seemingly unsuccessfully, while their young sat atop posts, calling for food. The large gathering of Masked Plover sitting on top of the railway embankment started to get very agitated, calling loudly. I stopped and looked around, half expecting to see a Swamp Harrier, a common sight during the Summer, but most have departed. Deciding that whatever had disturbed them had passed on, I nearly missed the high speed pass of an Australian Hobby. My reaction was to try to photograph it, which really was a nonsense! It flew very low, very fast, over the northern end of the reserve, heading towards the river, picking up yet more speed as it passed the rail line, and down to the marshes. A fantastic sight, and the first time I've recorded this species here. (I think I should just mention at this point that I thought I sighted a wagtail! My view was against the light, and near the railway embankment, and very briefly, as it flew in the typical undulating flight, disappearing over the bank. I did look for it, without success, and the probability is that I was mistaken.)
I ambled back towards the car, stopping to photograph a male Blue-winged Shoveler (bottom right), a species that is a regular here and in the nearby Derwent Marshes. As I stood there, I heard the unmistakable screeches of an approaching Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Landing among the 50 odd roosting cormorants, still screeching, proved too much for the cormorants, and they took flight, circling the lagoon. A bonus for me, as I took numerous shots as they passed. The roost was largely composed of Little Pied (c.30) and Little Black (c.20), and a few Great. While I was here, I also photographed 2 individual Little Black Cormorants carrying 'vegetation', one of which is illustrated at lower left. This suggests to me, that they may well be breeding nearby-- both birds flew off heading North. This species has been recorded breeding locally before, but there are relatively few recent breeding records for Tasmania.
The above episode had taken less than an hour, so despite missing out on the crakes, I think I can justifiably say that I had indeed had a "happy hour" at Gould's!
[NB Before someone corrects me, the Blue-winged Shoveler is now known as the Australasian Shoveler--at least it is according to my field guide!]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Long Haul to Fledging.......Pied Oystercatcher

I've watched the progress of two Pied Oystercatcher chicks over the past few months as they've grown. They are the progeny of a pair of POs that nest close by the oyster sheds at Pipeclay Lagoon. Their first attempt was most probably washed out, as they nested on a shingle bank close to the high tide line. This is a familiar fate for many oystercatcher nests, and with global warming bearing down on us, this is a potentially serious threat. I never found these chicks at the newly hatched stage, and I'm guessing that the age of the two at top right, is about a couple of weeks. The shot taken around the third week of January. As you can see, they're both in the water, and the high tide strategy against predators, is to swim away. PO young are accomplished divers too, and will dive, as a last resort, when hotly pursued.
The shot of the 2 youngsters running, was taken on the 8th February, and by now there is a marked difference in their size. Less than 2 weeks later, towards the end of February, one runner had disappeared, and I can only speculate on the cause. Given the size difference, perhaps it was food related, but predation from a range of likely suspects, ranging from harriers to gulls is possible, as is the possibility they were taken by cats or dogs. The latter a real possibility, as I've seen dogs being exercised off lead, along this very narrow stretch of beach.
By the end of the first week of March, when the shot of the remaining chick with one of its parents was taken, the chick is approaching fledging, but still dependent on its parents for food. This juvenile was soliciting the adult for food, constantly walking round and round its parent. Occasionally it would flex its wings, and the primaries were clearly not fully developed for flight. By the 18th of March, success, it could finally fly! Rather hesitantly, and somewhat reluctantly, but it could fly. So after around 8 weeks it had made it, but its still dependent on a parent to feed it.
I'll continue to keep an eye on its progress.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Walk on the Wildside

Mid week, I had this sudden urge to spend some time birding a buttongrass plain. Having spent many hours walking them, in all weathers, and generally finding them close to a birding desert, I'm not quite sure why I had this urge! (I took part in a fortnight's scientific survey in a similar area, in the SW of Tasmania, in which we only recorded 24 species of birds in a fortnight). I chose to drive out to the Scott's Peak Road, some 30 kilometres West of Maydena, and an area that has numerous, extensive areas of buttongrass. Buttongrass is a sedge that grows on some of the most nutrient poor soils found anywhere. The 'buttons" are the seed heads produced at the top of stems. They are widespread in many poorly drained areas of Tasmania. Turning off the Gordon Road at Frodsham's Pass and on to the Scott's Peak Road, I eventually stopped at a spot between and below, Mt. Bowes and Mt. Anne. It had potential, I thought, with a line of stunted and flowering Banksia marginata along one side of the road, and a buttongrass plain that had been burnt, probably around 12 months ago, the sedge having recovered, on the other. The temperature was still fairly cool, below 10C, and there was a heavy mist hanging over the whole valley, but it appeared to be burning off rapidly. As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear and see that I appeared to have chosen the spot well. In quick succession, I spotted Crescent and New Holland Honeyeaters in abundance, many off them obviously this season's crop, most of them noisily chasing one another. I noted a young Pink Robin (way out of its usual habitat), several Dusky Robins, and a couple of Striated Fieldwrens. Buttongrass plains are to my mind, the habitat for Striated Fieldwrens . In the Spring, you can often find them in abundance, calling from the tops of the sedges, especially early in the morning, and again in the evening. Well I always take any opportunity that presents itself to photograph these elusive birds, so I set off in pursuit, so to speak. They took the opportunity to cross the road and take refuge in the burnt stunted banksias, so I followed. Well actually I would like to have followed, but I was confronted with a 3 metre deep ditch, which I thought I could jump, but decided to look for an easier access point. After much searching, I found a spot and soon found a 'heap' of fieldwrens, many of them running between the tussocks, giving no real chance of photography. As you can see (top left) a single bird took pity on me long enough to get a shot or two. There followed a procession of birds that used the skeletal remains of banksia, teatree and hakea shrubs, as a vantage point to catch flying insects. The female Crescent Honeyeater (pictured top right), alighted close enough for this 'full frame' shot, finally catching a small moth almost off my shoelaces! It was only a few minutes after that encounter that I noticed an orange 'blob', standing out against the burnt teatree some 50 metres away. It was one of those moments that stay in your mind, a quick look through the binoculars, yes! it was a Southern Emu-wren, a bird that you often hope to see in these situations, but seldom do. One of the iconic birds of Tassie's more remote areas. I've seen a good number over the years, and I don't think they're that uncommon in the South West, but they are very elusive, as I was about to find out. I stalked 'them', it transpired that there were 4 or 5 individuals, for sometime, trying to get close enough for a meaningful photograph, and took several record shots as I did. The two images shown here (lower right and left) are all I managed, and that they're even recognisable owes more to the benifits of digital photography, than any skill on my part! Eventually they just disappeared, and although I was quite confident which small piece of scrub they were hiding in, no amount of 'coaxing' drew them out. I guess I'll be revisiting this spot. After all the excitement and concentration, I retraced my steps to the car, realising as I did, that I was heavily covered in charcoal streak marks from the burnt scrub, but thinking that it was a small price to pay for an engaging morning.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

On the Move.......Crescent Honeyeater

I had an interesting visit to the Long Spit at Marion Bay a couple of days ago, but not for the reasons I expected. I had chosen an early morning with a high tide, in the hope of seeing waders and terns. I did indeed see Crested and Caspian Terns, together with the usual Kelp, Pacific and Silver Gulls, but the waders were a bit light on, only recording Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers, and a small number of Hooded Plovers.
As I neared the end of the Spit, and right at the end of the vegetation covered dunes, I heard the unmistakable call of a Crescent Honeyeater, and went to investigate. It's not unusual to find honeyeaters among the wattles almost anywhere in the dunes, but they're much more likely to be New Hollands, but this morning there were only Crescents. Crescent Honeyeaters are usually found during the Summer months, in wetter areas, or at higher elevations, moving into the coastal strips and suburban gardens during Autumn. It will probably be a month or two before they return to my suburban garden, but here they were definitely on the move. I sat in the dune and began to photograph them as they reached the last vestige of bush, and several males called from the top of the low growing wattles, stopping briefly to chase one another or the odd female. While I sat there waiting, I noticed that small groups of two or three birds, were actually crossing the Marion Bay narrows to the wooded area several hundred metres away to the South. I had noticed movements of birds across this 'gap' before, but they were mainly New Hollands, Silvereyes and Eastern Spinebills. These Crescents were probably from the Wielangta Forest, several kilometres away to the North, as they were notably absent there on a recent visit. I've often wondered why these honeyeaters are so vocal during the non breeding season, some males singing from the very tops of trees, seemingly competing in song, with other, equally vociferous, males. Possibly they're claiming rights over feeding territory, as generally speaking, these honeyeaters are not a flocking species. The females are noticeably smaller, and as you may see in the lowest image, sport a much plainer plumage.
During my half hour vigil, perhaps 30 birds left, males outnumbering females, to cross the narrows, all being quickly replaced by other individuals. At one point I thought the 'procession' had finished , but they had seen what I had failed to see, a passing White-breasted Sea Eagle. I had my back to it, but should have been alerted to it by the larger gulls calling loudly, with a few daring to harass it. After a few minutes, the flights resumed, but I had had my fill, and moved on to watch and photograph the Crested Terns, perhaps I'll post more on that later.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sandspit River Track

Yesterday, the first half decent day for sometime, saw me heading off for the Wielangta Forest. The weather lately, while not producing much rain, has been blustery and cold--I have to admit to having turned the heater on a couple of times last week, a first for any Tasmanian February that I can recall!
I followed my usual routine, a stop at the picnic area
, and then on to the Northern end of the Sandspit River track. This area is fast becoming one of my all time favourites, only soured slightly by being an hour's drive from home.
The stop at the picnic area produced the usual Pink Robin (top left), and I could hear it calling as I opened the car door. I spent 20 minutes or so here, waiting for an opportunity to get a shot and it graciously allowed me to take a few images. While I waited, I watched several passing Tasmanian Thornbills gleaning insects from the underside of leaves, and listened to the calling Strongbilled Honeyeaters high overhead in the towering eucalypts. Having snared my shots of the robin, it was time to take the short drive to the Northern end of the track.
Another Pink Robin greeted me as I parked, which I took as a good omen. It was still fairly cool, but very still, with warmer air from the sunlit patches, wafting over me as I walked. Little stirred over the next 3 or 4 hundred metres, except small groups of Bennett's and Rufous Wallaby scuttling off through the scrub, and the local Kookaburras putting on a noisy show. I moved quickly, deeper into the forested areas.
As I reached the first of the Man Ferns, I heard, and shortly flushed the first of many Green Rosellas, and I could hear a lone Golden Whistler calling. I stopped and listened at a spot that I had previously seen and photographed Scrubtits. I was glad that it was so still, as I soon realised that, right on cue, I could hear a group of Scrubtits feeding in the light scrub 20 or more metres away, and occasionally calling. A little "pishing" (an imitation 'scolding' bird call), saw them approach to a few metres, and I managed a record shot, but no more. A few Tasmanian Scrubwrens put in a wary appearance too, as did several Tasmanian Thornbills. Moving on, 2 Brush Bronzewings momentarily startled me, as they flushed from among the scrub only a few metres away. But it must have been my lucky day, as I shortly found the Brush Bronzewing (pictured), standing mid track, obviously well aware of my presence, but staying long enough to get a few shots in, before it too, flushed, with much 'clapping' of wings. I was to find several more during the course of the walk, probably totaling a dozen or more, quite the most I've seen in one area, for some years. Another stop for a glimpse of Scrubtits, more "pishing", but this time I only got a response from a lone Olive Whistler. It came and had a look at me fr
om among the dense scrub, and obviously unimpressed with what it saw, disappeared back into the bush! The next highlight was the sight of the first of several Bassian Thrushes, feeding along the track,
culminating in one that allowed sufficiently close approach for some shots. In fact the individual pictured, instead of scurrying off into the scrub, actually chose to run toward me for a closer inspection (obviously a bird with taste!).
With increasing cloud cover, and with a forecast of rain, I thought it prudent to retrace my steps to the car. It had been a great morning, and I had managed a few shots of species that are among the more difficult to photograph. The amount of light penetrating the forest here is low, and all the shots were taken at speeds of less than 1/50th of a second, with a telephoto lens. Those with photographic knowledge will know that is 'pushing your luck' and indeed many of the shots suffered accordingly, but I got away with the few shown here. A recommended walk on suitable days.