Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bogey no more!

Today marks a pretty amazing day for me. I've been looking forward to birding this week because the forecasters promised sunshine. I drove home from work this morning, sun shining all the way, only to get home and have it be overcast. Call it what you will, fate, a birder's instinct, perhaps insanity, I went birding anyway. 

Altona CSR Landcare Reserve: 

In some ways, I'm lucky to still be at a point with my birding where visiting local patches still occasionally gives me lifers. My first highlight I came across as my eyes passed over the vegetation on one side of the walking trail. I wasn't looking for anything, in fact I was turning my gaze to see a bird on the other side. But a shape caught my eye, a shape in the dark circle of a hollow. I knew instantly what it was, an Australian Owlet-nightjar, not my bogey, but I was ecstatic. I have often heard these birds, but have never before seen one. Turns out they're a little bigger than I expected. I took my time approaching the hollow, which was just above head height. The bird retreated a little way in but was still visible (likely the hollow didn't go any deeper). I made sure to stay behind the trunk of a small tree, even though it didn't block me from view, it would still be an obvious physical barrier between the bird and I. I had to put the camera on live view mode and lift it above my head to get the image, so I'm pretty pleased with it. 

Australian Owlet-nightjar

After a couple of snaps, I went to leave the bird, I turned around to walk away and as soon as I did so the bird flushed from the hollow. I feel awful about it because I had tried so hard not to flush it, not really knowing if nightjars were prone to flushing from their hollows. It didn't fly far and perched amongst the leaves of a nearby tree, so I left in the opposite direction to ensure I didn't flush it again. 

My next highlight was a Black-shouldered Kite. Common, and frequently seen while driving, but I've never been so close to one (despite the height difference) and one has never sat around for a photo before. I came to realise that this was because it had a mouse in its talons. Even when it was swooped by a Kookaburra, the kite still stuck around for some photos, at a steep angle, against the light, with an overcast sky behind it. Perfect conditions for photographing white birds... 

Black-shouldered Kite with prey

So we come to the star of the show. I had decided on this day to walk every loop trail in the park, often I only walk 1 or 2, but this time I thought bugger it, and walked all three. There's that birder's intuition again. No more than 50 meters along the 3rd and final loop I see movement to my left. A whistler-sized bird with its back to me in the fork of a eucalypt, "cool" I think, haven't got a whistler on today's list yet. A moment later, the bird turned its head and the vibrant white facial markings were an instant give-away. Crested Shrike-tit, my bogey bird. On the inside, I screamed and jumped up and down. On the outside, that behaviour scares away birds so I whispered "oh my gosh" while I fumbled with my camera. I somehow managed to take a photo, only for it to be of the fork of a eucalypt and nothing else. You would need Superman's x-ray vision to be able to see the bird that had moved around to the far side of the branch. 

Fortunately, the bird decided that a tasty meal was to be had below the eucalypt so it re-emerged a moment later. Having never encountered them before, I was unsure of the comfort zone of this species, so I approached cautiously at first. The bird seemed quite at ease so I approached until I was no more than 10m away while he continued to forage in front of me. And I must say, wow, what a spectacular looking bird. He made some of the soft "chucking" calls that I've heard so much about (and listened to online on many occasions) and a second bird responded from nearby. I'm not surprised that I haven't heard these calls up until now, they're quite soft and seem to serve mainly (or only?) as a means of contact with nearby birds. He got to forage, I got to gawk. He posed nicely on some exposed branches of a golden wattle, I took some pictures. While I would have liked to have had some sunlight for my photos, I think I'll take the fact that the bird was at chest height over sunlight, as I'm aware that these are often very much birds of the higher branches and canopy. I didn't manage to see the other bird. The whole experience lasted about 4 minutes, before he dived into a kangaroo thorn and emerged from the other side never to be seen again. How a vibrant bird like that manages to disappear so easily, I'll never know. 

Male Crested Shrike-tit

So it ended up being a very productive day and I snagged 42 species of birds at the reserve with two new lifers in one, which made me pretty pleased. Not to mention catching up with the bird that I've been trying so hard to find for so long. No longer a myth, and now I know where to start my search for them next time I visit.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beautiful Boolcoomatta

Over the Easter long weekend this year, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Boolcoomatta with the Field Naturalists Society of SA. 100km West of Broken Hill, it's a beautiful undulating landscape with mallee, broad red-gum lined creek lines, sand dunes and vast chenopod plains. The place was absolutely stunning, having been de-stocked for 6 years and after receiving some good rains. Needless to say, it's beautiful and I love it.

Aside from the mammals and reptiles that I hoped to glimpse from our trapping efforts, I was there for the birds. Raptors were abundant, which speaks wonders for the health of the system if there's enough food to go around. My priorities were Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, Cinnamon Quail-thrush, any Chat species, Cockatiels, and Budgies. Mammal-wise, I was hoping to see a red kangaroo or two.

As it turns out, kangaroos of several varieties were abundant. We saw reds every day, multiple times a day, western greys, and even a few euros. The reds looked majestic against the landscape with their ochre and grey coats, and we saw a magnificent male on the second to last day that was by far the biggest roo I have ever seen in my life.

Red Kangaroos 

Big male and a female barely half his size

Over the course of the 6 days, I was repeatedly alerted to birds by my friend calling out "Look, budgies!" Time and time again, I failed to see them, or only saw a flock of tiny blurs flying away that were too quick for me to make a definite call on. At long last, on the 5th day, I saw them... well, one of them. A lone budgie flew by and perched in a nearby tree where we were able to get a closer look. I was ecstatic. It made my trip seem more complete after having seen Cockatiels the day before.

Male Cockatiel

My first and only Budgerigar

In regards to other bird species that I wanted to see, I dipped out on Major Mitchell's Cockatoo and Cinnamon Quail-thrush. However, I saw several others instead. I managed to see Blue Bonnets, which I was alerted to by their call, and Rufous Fieldwren, which my friend and I spent a long time stalking just to locate from call so that we could get some distant glimpses. Little Crow, White-winged Fairy-wren and abundant Chirruping Wedgebills made up some more new species for me.

Chirruping Wedgebills

After many glimpses of possible birds, I finally added Orange Chat to the list in the form of a female bird. I thought I glimpsed White-fronted Chat at one point, but was hesitant to call it. A close encounter with a Mulga Snake occured on Day 4, much to the dismay of the herpetologists as it was the only snake encountered for the whole trip. But they got their own back at us when they saw a Plains Wanderer.

While Diamond Doves, Black-tailed Native Hen, and Pallid Cuckoo rounded off a nice set of 11 new birds for me for the trip, I couldn't go past a close encounter that my friend and I had with a Wedge-tailed Eagle. We'd driven out to the Western end of the property and climbed a rocky hill to admire the view where we were looking at a Bearded Dragon that was sunning itself. My friend pointed to the sky and I looked up to see a golden brown Wedge-tailed Eagle soaring in towards us. The eagle just got closer and closer until it was right above our heads, we could see the light in its eyes, the fluttering and detail of every feather yet there was no sound and it was simply an amazing moment.

After being satisfied with whatever it found out about us, the eagle soared back the way it had come to join two others. A moment later, one of the eagles split off from the group in a dive towards the ground and we saw a female red kangaroo and her joey racing away. The eagle took a pass at the joey but nothing came of it.

All up, we saw seven raptor species; Wedge-tailed Eagle, Nankeen Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, Whistling Kite, Black Kite, Brown Falcon and Spotted Harrier. We also heard Southern Boobook and Spotted Nightjar (a call that I have been wanting to hear for years). Emus were abundant almost to excess, as were Little Corellas and Galahs. The homestead was a flurry of bird activity with ducks and grebes on the dam, Yellow-throated miners nesting and families of Apostlebirds, and we saw Zebra Finches and fairy-wrens almost everywhere we went. We also saw rabbits, cats and fox tracks everywhere we went too. My friend even captured an image of a feral cat peering into a pitfall bucket, twice.

In total, 58 birds species, 11 newbies for me, and an abundance of enjoyment and "wow" moments. I love the arid zone, it seems harsh, but it's teaming with life and I can't wait to go back.

 Part of the homestead (airstrip in background)

Little Corella

Monday, March 19, 2012

Highlights from the USA

Since I'm a bit behind here, it's time to play catch-up! I thought I would just post some images from the remaining time I spent in Florida. Most are shore birds as they were pretty easy to photograph on Captiva Island, as opposed to warblers and other birds which I constantly struggled with.

Big pluses were definitely the Hooded Mergansers, which I managed to see many of on several different occasions, and getting to see and photograph Black Skimmers, which although very unusual looking are quite an incredible bird. Getting a decent photo of the Black-bellied Whistling Duck was also an achievement as I'd been hoping for quite some time to find them in a location were I could photograph them.

By far the most exciting though was the Burrowing Owls, I have wanted to see these birds for years and I finally got the chance to see them. We checked out the recommended spots for them on our way to Captiva, but without any luck. We checked the same haunts again on the way home, the first yielded no birds but the second site gave us a few sightings, and despite little to no light and crappy photos, I'm pleased as punch about having seen those delightful little owls.

Onto the images:

Hooded Merganser (male)

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Red-shouldered Hawk

Bottlenose Dolphin taken from a cruise

Royal Tern

Great Blue Heron

Bald Eagle (3rd year bird)
Interestingly I saw a 4th year bird use the same small copse of trees on a following day.

Sanderling (The Red-necked Stint of Florida)

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Brown Pelican preparing to dive for fish

Black Skimmer

Sandwich Tern


Burrowing Owls (a terrible photo but still burrowing owls!)