Saturday, February 25, 2012

Shag Bay Bluewings & more

A passing remark by my son, an occasional, but experienced birder, about seeing "bluewings and firetails" at Shag Bay, inspired me to visit this spot at the next opportunity. So a few days ago, on a clear but initially cool morning and not long after sunrise, I set forth. The walking track starts on the northern side of Gielston Bay (on Hobart's eastern shore) and meets the East Risdon Nature Reserve at Shag Bay. It's many years since I walked this area, but I set forth with some expectation following my son's comments.
The lightly wooded area around the entrance soon produced flocks of 'tanging" Silvereyes, family groups of Black-headed Honeyeaters in the outer branches of the eucalypts, the strident calls of Yellow-throated Honeyeaters, and the less welcome sounds of a family of 5 Grey Currawong tearing bark off trees in their search for insects. As the trees thinned out and still within cooee of the entrance, I flushed a group of 5 or so Blue-wing Parrots, that I had failed to see on the track. Elated in finding them so soon, I followed them up the hillside, closed on one, but again failed to see the rest only a few metres away and again flushed them. Happy that I'd seen them I rejoined the track and walked on.
On leaving the light woodland, the track diverges from  the coast and crosses an open expanse of, at present dry, grassland, with the occasional eucalypt, including dead ones, thickets of acacia, and along the coastline, many she-oaks. An immature Yellow Wattlebird feeding in a distant tree soon caught my attention and as I stopped to watch, a covey of 5 Brown Quail burst out of the nearby grass, I followed them with my bin's until they disappeared back into the grass. A solitary Australasian Pipit hopped along the mown areas adjacent to the track and for a brief moment I thought I might have a photo opp., but no, it was off and away.
I decided to try the coastal strip and left the track in the hope of finding the aforementioned firetails and almost immediately spotted a lone bluewing, sunning itself in the warmth of the early sun, atop a dead branch. As I neared it, I found a group, usually referred to as a cluster, of young Dusky Woodswallows, also sunning and preening themselves while they waited to be fed by their hard worked parents. This clustering is a well known phenomenon, although the reason for it is debated, and I have seen and photographed this on many occasions. This group of only 6 birds, is small and I have seen groups of 18 youngsters huddled together. I moved on, closing the sunning bluewing, taking a few distant shots on the way. A few steps more and I flushed another covey of Brown Quail, only 3 this time, but it also flushed what I had assumed to be a lone bluewing, revealing that there were in fact 7. I watched them alight in a nearby tree and occasionally drop into the grass to feed, but they were understandably wary and I enjoyed just watching them go about their business.
Moving into the coastal strip above Shag Bay, I observed a Little Pied Cormorant fishing in the bay below and above it, in a tall eucalypt, a watchful White-breastd Sea Eagle.Once in among the scrub, while watching passing pairs of feeding Spotted Pardalote, I heard the mournful double 'contact' notes of a Dusky Robin. I followed the sound and found a family group of duskies. They gave me a brief chance at photographing them  before moving on. Like many bush birds at the moment, they weren't at their best, being in various stages of moult, but worthy of a shot or two nonetheless.
Returning briskly along the track, I occasionally stopped to watch bluewings, some passing overhead "zitting", others atop dead trees, ever watchful. Something "stirred" the bluewings at one stage, and I counted a total of 22 birds rapidly wheeling in a single flock, quite a sight. A single Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike made low forays for insects close to the track and an immature Grey Butcherbird caused some panic to another family of Dusky Robins, and they took refuge in an acacia thicket. I walked over to the thicket, spotting the robins within, but was surprised to see that 3 bluewings were roosting inside. I left them in peace. Nearing the end of the track, I noticed the group of parrots that I'd seen early into my walk were back feeding trackside. I suspect that seed, their main food source, is blown or 'gravitates' down the hillside and collects on the track at this spot--sure beats 'trolling' among the grass! I slowly closed on them taking a few shots as I did, before they spotted me and flushed into the trackside shrubbery. In the last few metres, I added Green Rosella, New Holland Honeyeater, a stray Crescent Honeyeater and Brown Thornbill to the morning's list. Alas no firetails, but a pleasant morning's birding, and a note to revisit soon.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Cooperation.......Little Black Cormorant

A heavily overcast day, threatening rain, I opted to catch up on one of the many chores that I usually put off to go birding. This one entailed a visit to a garden centre at Lauderdale, but with an eye to a quick birdwatch.  Purchase concluded, I made the short trip to the canal, having decided that with the tide well out, there would be little to see on the spit. The canal is less than a kilometre long, around 10 metres wide and perhaps a metre or so deep, lined with large well spaced eucalypts--it is blocked at one end. Its days as a short cut from Ralph's Bay to Frederick Henry Bay lasted a few days. A storm blocked one end and it was never re-opened. This results in small fish entering on the high tide and  provides a great place for herons, egrets, terns and cormorants to get a quick feed as tide recedes.

        As I scanned the length of the waterway, I noted a gathering of Silver Gulls near a drain about half way along, and on closer inspection I could make out a number of diving cormorants. These turned out to be a group of around 20 Little Black Cormorants, and not the usual Black-faced and Little Pied. Although Little Blacks are by no means uncommon, they are the least likely to be encountered, at least in the south east. A cormorant roost at Gould's Lagoon at Granton, is the best local spot to see them, where they share the roost with Great and Little Pieds, or in Derwent Marshes nearby. Where they are seen they are usually in flocks numbering in the tens of birds, but occasionally in the hundreds.

   Although I had my trusty camera with me (no I don't take it bed), the conditions were marginal for photographing black birds in 'dark' water, and I was content to just watch. Little Blacks work cooperatively, 'herding'  fish together or, as in this case, into shallow water, before rather frenetically diving into the school to catch their 'share'. The gulls hung around hoping to get the leftovers, and a White-faced Heron raced back and forth along the bank in excitement, but only managing to seize an occasional fish and was in turn set about by the Silver Gulls, who, despite their efforts went largely unrewarded. It was fascinating to observe the interaction between the species. An occasional Crested Tern put in an appearance, and I noticed a Pacific Gull with a small fish, which I suspect  had been pirated from a cormorant.

   So where did the photographs come from? Well I returned the following day in the hope they would return, and initially I was disappointed and went elsewhere to birdwatch. Returning a few hours later I found them drying out on the canal bank, possibly having fished in one of the nearby bays. Watching them for some 20 minutes, they must have noticed fish surfacing because they suddenly half flew, half fluttered 50 metres down the waterway and started fishing. They bunched together, one or more with head submerged, swimming rapidly. If one dived the others would quickly follow. Trying to get decent shots during this operation proved elusive as they frequently changed direction, dived or flew several metres and recommenced their efforts. It was all over in minutes and they emerged to dry out again further down the canal. I did manage the image at centre, with the bird apparently "washing". Most cormorants do this before roosting, especially the Black-faced. I had previously concluded that it was indeed "washing", but I'm pretty sure that I'm wrong. I think they are probably fluffing their feathers to get the air back in them. This would improve body insulation and aid drying. I would be pleased to get other people's thoughts on this.