Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Ubiquitous Silvereye

At this time of year Silvereyes must be one of the most abundant birds about in many parts of Tasmania, often in large flocks. They're so common that I rarely even bother to photograph them. So usually when I do I know things must be quiet! In this instance that wasn't quite so.
I was making yet another trip to Gould's Lagoon, hoping that the water level had dropped to the point that the crakes might be tempted to feed outside the reed beds. I was particularly after some shots of Spotless Crakes, the shyest of the two species seen at Gould's. I had managed a few distant shots a week or so before, but on this day I was out of luck, scrambling only a few distant shots of an Australian Crake, a species I have frequently photographed here before. The crakes seem to be especially timid at present, perhaps caused by recent cutting of the tall roadside vegetation. There was plenty of other birds to see, including 2 Pelicans and a group of Little Black Cormorants "communally" fishing. A passing Caspian Tern, an infrequent visitor, made a noisy pass at a juvenile Swamp Harrier as it hawked over the lagoon, many Chestnut Teal (including a pair with small ducklings), and the usual Black Duck and Shoveler. A Great Egret roosting with the cormorants was possibly a recent arrival.
Finding no 'Spotless' on the main lagoon, I wandered over to the railway embankment where I have occasionally seen them, but more in hope than expectation. So I wasn't disappointed! There were sizeable flocks of Greenfinch and Goldfinch feeding on rose hips and thistle seed heads. There was also a loose flock of Silvereyes, numbering over 50; flocks sometimes number in the hundreds. Walking back along the water's edge, I found myself among a number of tall Fennel plants that had gone to seed. They're a common weed around the Hobart area, growing mainly on disturbed ground, and although they can be eaten, locals rarely bother with them. Seeing a small brown job, which turned out to be a Brown Thornbill, I ventured farther into the Fennel where I was soon joined by the Silvereyes. As they soon gave me every opportunity to photograph them, I obliged.
Back home with the images on the computer, I was somewhat surprised to notice that they weren't eating the Fennel seeds as I had assumed. Looking closely at the images (such as the one above) I could clearly see that they were after the greenfly and whitefly that was liberally coating the Fennel seed heads. Since many gardeners and grape growers often see Silvereyes as "pests", perhaps finding that they also feed on greenfly and whitefly, they may be looked on just a little more kindly.

Siberia Bound.....Red-necked Stint

Now looking decidedly portly, and having shed their drab greys, most of the local Red-necked Stint are preparing for their annual, epic journey. These small waders will shortly be winging their way back to their breeding grounds in north-east Siberia, several thousand kilometres away, stopping occasionally to top up their fat reserves. Weighing less than 30 grams when they arrived in our spring, by now most will have put on as much as 15 grams for this journey. Only the juvenile birds, born last northern summer, will overwinter here in Tasmania, and in other parts of Australia.
Most of the stint that I observed a few days ago, both at Lauderdale, where I took the accompanying images, and along the South Arm Neck, were showing variable degrees of breeding plumage, but none had yet attained their full rich colouring.
The flock at Lauderdale numbered around 150 stint, together with a dozen or more Double-banded Plover, 30 plus Red-capped Plover and a solitary Red Knot. The stint numbers being the highest I've noted at this venue this summer. South Arm Neck had many more, around 400, but I also noted a distant flock in flight, out of West Bay, that had perhaps as many again.
Ralph's Bay at Lauderdale also turned on another of those feeding frenzies common at this time of year. Large numbers of Silver Gulls, a few Crested Terns and over 40 Black-fronted Cormorants were chasing some unseen prey, probably small fish, all over the bay, even to the shallows alongside the road. The sheer exuberance and persistence of the birds during these events, makes exciting viewing.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Clear Lagoon.....Black-fronted Dotterel

Clear Lagoon, situated at Sandford (but only a stone's throw from Ralph's Bay at Lauderdale) is probably best described as a shallow, ephemeral water body, certainly in the last 10 or so years its few hectares have been totally dry. Good rains last Winter and early Spring filled it to capacity, attracting waterfowl from far and wide. A few Chestnut Teal and Black Swan managed to breed there, as apparently did a pair of Hoary-headed Grebe, surprisingly, given how shallow the lagoon is.
Predictably, after the recent warm Summer, the area of water has been drastically reduced, but it's surrounded by mud, glorious mud.
A few days ago I stopped along Forest Road, which runs along the southern side of the lagoon, to 'scope' the area. Distantly I could see 2 or 3 hundred waterfowl roosting in the remaining water and on closer inspection these turned out to be almost all Chestnut Teal, with a group of a dozen or so Wood Duck and a solitary Black Swan, the latter I suspect has been injured. I could also see a few grey blobs, which from their number I guessed were probably Red-necked Stint that had flown over from Lauderdale. Anyway it was worth a closer look.
My initial concern on entering this reserve, was to avoid flushing the waterfowl, since the duck shooting season had started the previous weekend. (Why oh why do we still allow duck shooting--and call it 'sport'!). When I got a better view of the "stint", they turned out to be Black-fronted Dotterel, in fact 44 of them, one of the largest groups I've seen in Tasmania. Among them was a solitary Red-necked Stint and a Double-banded Plover. By the number of juvenile plumaged blackfronts, they've had a good year.
I can still recall my first Tasmanian sighting of a blackfront. It was in the Tasmanian Midlands at Tunbridge. I was crossing the Tin Dish River (a stream) and flushed a bird from the stony shore. It flew a few metres (yards actually, this was in the Summer of 1971) and propped, giving me a chance to identify it. I have the event recorded in the margin of my copy of Sharland's "Tasmanian Birds", a bird he described as "uncommon". Since that time there has been a modest increase and they can no longer be considered as uncommon in the drier parts of the state.
After counting the dotterels ( I usually call them plover, but I was taken to task after my blog on them. In my defence, I feel it's only a matter of time that they, like other past "dotterels" will be renamed plovers), I wandered around the perimeter, noting the swarms of insects, which in turn was attracting good numbers of Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins. Flocks of White-fronted Chats were at the feast too, although getting close enough to photograph them in an area with little cover, proved a challenge. Small flocks of Australasian Pipits and Yellow-rumped Thornbills flushed from the dry grass as I passed. A group of the blackfronts that had been feeding out on the mud started to feed on the lagoon edge too and briefly gave a 'photo opp', as did the sole Double-banded Plover. So it was pleasing to once again add Clear Lagoon to my list of places worth a visit after so many dry and, from a birders perspective, barren years.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Morning at Orielton Lagoon

I have to confess that I seldom bird Orielton Lagoon these days, mainly because I have fond memories of its hey day back in the 70s and early 80s. Changes to the waterflow, brought about after serious algae blooms, altered the area drastically. Despite all that, for wader buffs in particular, it's still one of the best sites in southern Tasmania.
I have a routine that I invariably follow. First stop is Cemetery Point on the eastern side of the lagoon. From there I can scan the shoreline, and on this visit a few days ago, I quickly found a group of 5 Pacific Golden Plover, roosting close to some 60 plus Red-necked Stint. I managed a distant shot of 2, "glowing" golden in the early morning sun. While watching these, a pair of Great Cormorants flew close by, and I noted the white patches on their "thighs" denoting that they were in breeding condition, and berating myself for missing a photo opp.. I needn't have worried, because another pair followed shortly after, and a few minutes later a flock of 20 or so followed them, all showing the white patch.
Next stop is the northern end of the lagoon, approached via the stile on Shark Point Road, Gum boots are advisable here, at least if you intend to get to grips with the waders. I scattered a small flock of Australasian Pipits, and the odd rabbit, but little else until I reached the wet mud. A quick scan found 2 flocks of Red-necked Stint, totaling around three hundred or more, and several small groups of Red-capped Plovers. The latter seems to have had a bumper breeding year, with good numbers at several coastal sites. Closing on the waders, I picked out several Double-banded Plovers, hidden amongst the drying pancakes of mud, recently arrived, no doubt, from their breeding grounds in New Zealand. On the outer edge of the mud, I counted 21 Eastern Curlew, and although they were still several hundred metres away, they took flight. To the east I could see a few remaining adult Kelp Gulls, and the odd juvenile, still occupying their breeding grounds. Beyond them a solitary Little Pied Cormorant and 8 Australian Pelican, were roosting on the creek bank. The Kelp Gulls spotted me and, as usual, flew around me calling loudly. Not to be outdone, a pair of Caspian Terns briefly joined in. I wandered over towards the golf course, hoping to find more Golden Plovers, but only turned up a pair of Pied Oystercatchers (and several golf balls).
My third stop was, as usual, at the outfall works at Midway Point, on the western side of the lagoon. At high tide, this spot is the favoured roost site for the Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Greenshank. The tide was only of moderate height and they were not on the favoured small spit, but walking further along the shoreline, I found them on a sand bar, around 30 Bartails and 20 Greenshank, a few of the Bartails attaining breeding plumage. With care, they can often be fairly closely approached, although I did note the fresh paw marks of an errant dog (the lagoon is a RAMSAR site). I decided to take to the water, hoping to get closer without undue disturbance, as I have many times in the past. Everything was progressing well until I realised that I was fast sinking into the silt, something I hadn't encountered before. Panic by me as I flailed around trying to extricate myself from my predicament, followed by first the greenshanks flying off, and shortly after that by the Bartails, something that I had hoped to avoid. I 'righted' myself long enough to get a parting shot of the Bartails, before returning to the task of extrication. I succeeded only after filling my gum boots with mud and water. Fortunately, the 2 species flock alighted close by, but I was not about to cause them further disturbance, and anyway, I had had enough excitement for one day.
[RAMSAR is the international convention signed at Ramsar, Iran in 1971. It's aim is the conservation of important wetlands. There are 65 such sites in Australia]