Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tasmanian Birding Stalwart Dies

On Thursday 28th July, following a protracted illness, Dr. W.(Bill) C. Wakefield died. Many people in the northern suburbs of Hobart will remember him as their local GP, but probably didn't know of his passionate interest in birds. In recent years, Mainland birders would have met him on one of the many seabird trips that he organised or participated in, out of Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula.

Although our paths rarely crossed in recent years, for over 40 years I've always considered Bill a close friend. I and my family still have fond memories of our holidays at Coles Bay that we shared with both his and Mike Newman's family. Of Bill, Mike and myself pushing his "tinnie" across Moulting Lagoon on an extremely hot day, probably wondering why we were doing it, only to find a small flock of waders that included both a Little and Long-toed Stint, both first records for the state! Of the wee drop (or two) of Glenfiddich that he produced to round off the day.

I first met Bill at Bird Observer's meetings (forerunner to Birds Tasmania), but got to know him better during the heady days of the Tasmanian Shorebirds Study Group in the 70s, when the group started cannon netting gulls and waders. Our enthusiasm sometimes got the better of us as I recall the pair of us using a small cannon net on Lauderdale Beach to catch and band Silver Gulls. I assumed he had the necessary "authority" by way of permits, and he assumed I had--suffice to say that neither of us had! I also recall that he insisted on continuing long after dark, and we could only read the band numbers by the light cast from a neighbouring petrol station.

I have many other memories of course, and they all illustrate Bill's great enthusiasm and care about Tasmania's birds. I, and I'm sure many others, will miss him. My condolences go to his wife, Els, and his three sons, Gavin, Andrew and David.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thank Goodness for Auto-focus

About a month ago, I received an email telling me about a sighting of 4 Crested Grebe at Orielton Lagoon, seen during the annual winter gull count conducted by Birds Tasmania. The note mentioned 2 adults, an immature and a juvenile. The latter quite unusual here. Crested Grebe are not that common in Tasmania, with most sightings from Lake Dulverton, the Derwent River in the Granton area and at Orielton Lagoon. At times, at the latter site, they have numbered up to 40 or more, but in recent times, they have been conspicuous by their absence.
I've found that early morning on still days is the best, or at least the easiest time to look for ducks and grebes at this venue. As luck would have it, the day following receipt of the email, was ideal if cool (around freezing point) and I set forth.
Early morning on Sorell causeway is not the ideal birding spot, with the commuter traffic whistling past, but fortunately there's a 'lay-by' mid way from which much of the lagoon can be scanned. (Watching from within your vehicle is a good option here). A quick look suggested that there wasn't much about, save for several Musk Duck and a raft of Hoary-headed Grebe, numbering perhaps a dozen. The numbers of both the Crested and Hoaryheads have been low recently, and I suspect that the high Mainland rainfall is to blame. The numbers of grebes and also the Eurasian Coot seen in Tasmania, fluctuate widely, and they only breed here in small numbers, so it's reasonable to assume that most are Mainland bred birds. When I first came to Tasmania, over 40 years ago, I didn't see a single Coot for over 2 years, and this puzzled me as Sharland's Tasmanian Birds declared it to be "generally common". But when they did appear they were 'everywhere', with some flocks in the Derwent River consisting of over a thousand birds.
A visual sweep of the lagoon showed no sign of the Crested Grebes. Alongside where I had parked, a single male Musk Duck was diving for food. I haven't had much luck trying to photograph this species, not that they rate highly on my "must do" list, so I thought I'd give it a go.

I've been waiting for minor eye surgery, as luck would have it, on my "good" eye, the right--I can't actually see whether the image is in focus or not, something of a handicap using a telephoto lens. The low angle light didn't help photographing an all black bird either. Well as you can see from the accompanying images, I did manage a few shots, nothing to write home about, but definitely thanks to the benefits of auto-focus. One of the images shows the duck eating a crab, and in the several dives that I witnessed, crabs were obviously the food of choice. I'm not sure what I thought Musk Duck's diet is, but I didn't expect it to include crabs. Literature suggests aquatic insects, but also crayfish, so perhaps crabs aren't that unusual. The lower shot taken as the bird dived, shows the stiff tail, peculiar to both this species and also Blue-billed Duck.
Later views of the lagoon suggested that the sought after Crested Grebes had moved on, but it's often worth a look as you cross this causeway.
[I've had my eye surgery and I can "see" again, what a difference!]