Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Togetherness.....Banded Stilt

     Driving back from South Arm a couple of weeks back, I noticed a group of predominentlyy white birds a hundred or more metres away which I couldn't readily recognise. I stopped and investigated and found six Banded Stilt feeding in the shallow water of Ralph's Bay. I was already late for an appointment, and reluctantly drove on, persuading myself that trying to photograph these birds on a wide and open beach would be difficult if not impossible anyway--that was to prove false. I made a note to return on a full tide and try when they were roosting.
     An email from Eric Woehler (Chair Birdlife Tasmania) a few days later, telling me that Mark Holdsworth and Sue Robinson had also reported them, "fired" me up, and high tide or not, I'd try my luck.
      There have been several recent reports of sighting around the state, from Moulting Lagoon, Bruny Island, and not forgetting the "few thousand" seen at Logan's Lagoon on Flinders Island. Given the number of sightings/birds involved, you might be wondering why the excitement. Well Banded Stilts are usually described as "rare", "casual" or "vagrant" visitors to Tasmania, and the last time I saw them in Tasmania's south-east, was back in the '80s, and prior to that, my only record was a solitary bird at Lauderdale in 1976/8.
       On a bright, clear morning, with the thermometer hovering in the low single figures, I donned gum boots and wandered off with hope, but little expectation, of getting somewhere close enough to 'meaningfully' photograph this group of stilts feeding avidly in a few inches of water out in the centre of the bay. A few distant "record" shots and a slow approach worked well and I closed to within 15 metres or so. By sitting on my haunches and being very patient, they closed on me until they seemed to suddenly 'notice' me and scurried past to resume feeding a little farther on.
       As you can see in the accompanying photographs, they fed together, walking line abreast, picking up unseen prey from the shallow water. Subsequent viewing of images, showed the prey was almost entirely of small snails (salinator fragilis has been suggested, a very common snail here). They were very jumpy, and even an alarm call of a distant Noisy Miner obviously "worried" them, although they took my presence in their stride. At one point they all stood upright and milled about in all directions, so I turned and walked away from them fearing I was causing them some distress. On turning round they had gone! I soon found them a few hundred metres away, and the 'cause'--a passing Swamp Harrier high overhead. They had formed a flock with Pied Oystercatchers and White-faced Herons, but within a few minutes they were back feeding.
         Banded Stilt, an Australian endemic species, breed in the salt lakes of inland Australia, primarily in Western Australia, but also in northern South Australia. Their chief food there are the numerous brine shrimps and I'm assuming that the habit of feeding in line abreast is a very effective method of maximising their 'catch'. 'Old habits' obviously die hard, as the local snails are not known for their fast getaway!
        It's very hard to determine how many snails the stilts were consuming, but a quick estimate was that they caught (all 6) between 20 and 30 a minute, possibly more, which seems a lot! But I suppose the actual amount of meat, as opposed to shell, is quite small in this snail. After about 30 minutes of photography and just watching them, they stopped, preened and roosted no more than 20 metres away, quite remarkable.
           The first recorded sighting of Banded Stilt in Tasmania was also in Ralph's Bay, back in June 1854, when seven were shot! I assume they were considered "fair game' back then and eaten. Which reminds me, if you're considering photographing them, do it with consideration. If you are causing them to continually change the direction that they are feeding, you are too close. Stay your distance and be patient.


Carole M. said...

good that you could return for these great shots of the lovely stilts feeding

BirdingTas said...

Thanks Carole,
I did rather overlook the fact that these are really quite beautiful birds. As these birds disperse from the Australian inland, we might expect that more will arrive during the coming winter.

Unknown said...

Hello Alan, they are beautiful photos of very stunning birds! I would be curious to try and see them, not to photograph as I am not capable or set up in that area, but just to see them in the flesh. Would you suggest high tide or low tide would be better, and do you think it is possible without a scope? I take on board your comments about staying your distance and not interrupting their feeding. Mona

BirdingTas said...

Hi Mona,
They are indeed "stunning birds", something I seem to have omitted from my story! I think the best option for these birds is, as I did, go at mid to low tide and walk across the mud flats (gumboots necessary, but only shallow mud) and close on them and use binoculars. At 50 metres you will not unduly disturb them. I've actually no idea where they roost! Thank you for your comments.

Unknown said...

Success! I saw the flock of 6 banded stilt this morning, after a couple of extremely pleasant hours birding on the mud flats. I started at the northern end and worked my way slowly south - I am a novice at waders so spent a long time trying to identify everything. I had pretty much given up hope of finding them but decided to just drive on a little further, and found them where the water crosses over the road. Thanks again for the photos and the helpful advice.

Swan Pond said...

Lovely pictures. I love the third one. It's like they are drinking through straws.

Penny said...

Hi Alan, Thankyou for this very informative post. I followed your excellent advice and waited at a distance and was rewarded as the birds eventually fed less than 10metres away from me seemingly unfazed by my presence. A truly remarkable experience.

BirdingTas said...

Hi "Swan Pond",
Interesting that you should mention that as, watching them, I think that is how they take food up! They don't take more than a second, literally, to get the snails from water to mouth. So I'm guessing that they "suck" them up.

BirdingTas said...

Hi Penny,
Yes they are a delight to photograph and there is no need to hassle them in doing so. Like you, they came very close (too close to photgraph!) Glad you enjoyed the experience.

BirdingTas said...

Hi Mona,
Glad you eventually found them! I purposely didn't go into too much detail about their whereabouts on the blog, for fear of photographers (rather than birders) hassling them. So I'll keep my fingers crossed. I wonder what it must be like to be confronted by them in their 'thousands', as has happened on Flinders Island?