Monday, 29 July 2013


Townsville and the surrounding area are renowned for birding. A guide to bird watching produced by the Townsville City Council in conjunction with BirdLife Townsville lists 320 species of birds recorded in the area and provides details for ten separate birding locations. The guide, titled “Experience Townsville’s bird watching – life on the tropics”, is available from Tourist Information Centres and other locations such as caravan parks.
We have spent seven days in the area, including two on Magnetic Island (see previous post) and during that time have visited six of the ten locations listed in the guide: the town common, magnetic island, oak valley reserve, alligator creek – bowling green national park, lake ross and ross river.
It is the dry season now and the vegetation is generally dry and much of the grass dead. There is still water in many of the wetlands and creeks however most of the migratory shore birds are away in the northern hemisphere breeding. Also many terrestrial birds migrate north to New Guinea during the dry season. So I would say the best birding time would be over the summer wet season period. That said we have still found plenty of birds to keep us interested.
Here is a selection of bird photos from the area together with comments and observation included in the photo captions.
One of about 40 Nutmeg Mannikins in a flock at the Town Common. An introduced species which is increasing its range. In amongst the flock was one native Australian Finch, a Chestnut-breasted Mannikin - see next photo.

It is rather sad that this native Chestnut-breasted Mannikin was outnumbered 40 to 1 by the above introduced finch.

The common and widespread Double-barred Finch - so far we have only found these a few times and in small numbers.
At first I thought this was a Black Falcon however later determined it was a dark morph Brown Falcon. This bird was at Lake Ross. It is focused on a prey item in the long grass below the pole.

The Falcon dives into the long grass where it disappeared  from view.

The bird emerges from the long grass. It was there long enough to have eaten something, perhaps a grass hopper or other large insect.

Rainbow Bee-eaters are very common here. They like to perch on a high clear perch, such as power lines or this guy wire, from where they can spot insects which they are masters at catching.

The bird in photo above has dived to gain speed before effortlessly catching an insect in flight.
There are many thousands of Magpie Geese in the wetlands around Townsville, especially at The Town Common. The field guides don't mention discoloured white feathers like this bird has. Most of the birds were stained this colour.
A Lemon-bellied Flycatcher at Alligator Creek picnic area Bowling Green National Park - south of Townsville. They look like a yellow tinged version of a Jacky Winter.
A White-browed Robin on a post at Alligator Creek picnic area. They cock their tails often. A typical robin - quite confiding and of course extra friendly as the ones here are no doubt used to lots of people
The Black-necked Stork, aka Jabiru, Australia's only stork. These are very imposing birds and common in and around wetlands up north.
Olive-backed Sunbirds are common here. This one was systematically visiting spider webs to pick insects - stealing really.
The Forest Kingfisher and once again a common species here along with the similar Sacred Kingfisher.
The Blue-winged Kookaburra, a large kingfisher, is similar to the Laughing Kookaburra which is also found here. The calls of these two species are very different - both are amazing to hear.

The Varied Triller is hard to see as it forages in the tree canopies however once you learn its distinctive call you can easily detect their presence. The White-winged Triller is a summer migrant to the south. The Varied does not visit Victoria.
This is the northern form of the Masked Lapwing, aka Spur-winged Plover. The northern form has much larger yellow wattles and more yellow skin over the eye.

The Spectacled Monarch - a very active bird and hard to pin down for a photo.
We have been finding lots of Leaden Flycatchers in a wide range of habitats.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Magnetic Island Queensland

From Eungella, instead of retracing our track back east down Pioneer Valley to Mackay, we headed west into another much drier world of grasslands and grassy woodlands, remote country, big cattle stations with few fences. The change from lush tropical rainforest and fertile valleys with intense sugar cane farming to dry grassy woodlands is rapid and dramatic. Within a few kilometres the landscape had abruptly changed. We passed Eungella Dam as we headed west towards the Bowen coal basin and the mining town of Collinsville, camping over night on the Bowen River about 35km from Collinsville. From Collinsville we drove due east to Bowen and then north to Townsville where we planned to stay for a week or so and visit Magnetic Island.
As the weather was good we decided to head over to Magnetic Island on Wednesday 24th of July and avoid the weekend crowd. We took our vehicle over on the Fantasea barge, a 35 minute trip, which was cheaper than the passenger ferry plus car hire and much more convenient. We stayed at Horseshoe Bay.
The island is very scenic with rugged terrain and many large granite boulders dotted with dry vine scrub and pines (Norfolk Island pines?). Being the dry season we found very few birds away from the much lusher dry rainforest patches adjacent to the many sheltered bays. We also noted there were very few sea birds. On the trip over we saw some Crested Terns, Silver Gulls and one Brown Booby, our first sighting of this species for the trip.
Horseshoe Bay Magnetic Island
One of many small secluded bays - Magnetic Island
 Magnetic Island is a good place to see Bush Stone-curlews as they are plentiful here due to the absence of predators. Being a ground feeding, roosting and nesting bird they have become rare or absent in much of their original range due to habitat destruction and introduced foxes and cats. They are largely nocturnal and spend most of the day resting, often in small groups. I found five on a vacant residential allotment not far from where we stayed in Horseshoe Bay. Their cryptic colouring makes them hard to see, even when they are standing in the open. Their night time wailing calls are very evocative and must have stirred the emotions of early pioneer settlers. I couldn’t resist photographing some of the group of five birds, which are easy subjects as they allow close approach and stand very still.
One of five Bush Stone-curlews resting together on vacant allotment at Horseshoe Bay Magnetic Island.
This bird was laying down. Their feather colours and patterns help them blend into the background.
This bird was resting on its knees - unlike our legs their legs below the knee can bend forward.
Another birding highlight on Magnetic Island was watching a pair of Eastern Reef-Egret’s fishing at Arcadia Bay. The Reef-Egret can be found in two colour morphs, white and dark grey. The ones I watched, and you will see in the photos, were dark morphs.
Their hunting method was to perch on a rock above the water and watch intently for fish. When a fish or school of fish came within range, the Egret, or sometimes both Egrets, leapt into the water and lunged out with their long necks and sharp bills. I managed to capture some of the action including a couple of shots which show one of the birds with three fish in its bill and others leaping from the water where they have just been pounced on.
The pair of dark morph Eastern Reef-Egrets found hunting fish at Arcadia Bay Magnetic Island. They watched for fish with intense focus.
A successful pounce and capture.
Back on the rock it was time to move the fish into position so it could be swallowed head first.
The fish is about to be swallowed.
The fish is going down.
After the above sequence I photographed another pounce.
The bird has leapt into a school of small fish and is heading back to the rock. Look closely and you will see several fish in its bill and other fish scattered in the air.
A close up from the shot above showing three fish in its bill and another to the right of its head.
The bird has just leapt from this spot back to the rock leaving in its wake many startled fish momentarily out of the water.
One fish remains. All of the others made a lucky escape. Note the long extended neck which is mostly folded, giving the bird an almost neck-less appearance.
This pair of Reef-Egrets made fishing look easy. I did not see too many human fishers on Magnetic Island and certainly none doing as well as this pair of birds.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Platypus and cormorant feeding together - Eungella Queensland

From Rockhampton we travelled north to Mackay where we restocked our food, wine and fuel supplies before heading about 80km due west to Eungella. This is a small hamlet at 860m elevation surrounded by sub tropical rainforest and the Eungella National Park, in the Clarke Range at the head of the Pioneer River valley. The valley is mostly taken up with sugar cane growing and the drive takes you past a large sugar refinery. The last 7km or so is a very steep ascent on a narrow road.
In the birding world Eungella is famous for the Eungella Honeyeater, a relatively new species which was split from the Bridled Honeyeater in 1983. Anyone wishing to see this bird must come to this area as it is confined to the rainforest around Eungella and the adjacent Crediton State Forest.
I am hoping to see and photograph this bird however it is reported as “wary” and not easy to find, so my chance of success is low.
By the time we arrived at the small caravan park in Eungella it was nearly dark and the mountaintop was shrouded in fog. Over night it rained and was still raining on and off during the morning. Midmorning we set off in thick fog to drive 5km south to the Broken River site in Eungella National Park where platypus can be reliably seen in the Broken River.
We found two couples from Europe on holidays in Australia watching a platypus in the river. As we watched the platypus feeding it quickly became obvious that a Little Pied Cormorant was also feeding with the platypus and was in fact using the platypus to assist it to find its food. As we watched these two very different animals the extent of the interaction became even more apparent as the Cormorant was forcing the platypus to dive for food by pecking it. When the platypus dived so did the cormorant.
This action by the cormorant appeared to be very effective as the cormorant often surfaced with a food item, which it then swallowed. When the platypus surfaced again the cormorant joined it and once again encouraged it to dive.
It seemed to me that the relationship was a master servant one with all of the benefit going to the cormorant. It may be that the platypus derived some benefit from the relationship however it was not possible to say from what we saw. I even felt a little sorry for the platypus as it was being harassed by the cormorant however I would have to say the platypus did not look distressed in any way and made no attempt to avoid the cormorant.
However we need to be very careful interpreting animal behavior - it is all too easy for us to put our human and emotional spin on what we see.
We wondered how unique this interaction was and so when we returned to the van for lunch I Googled “platypus and cormorant feeding together” and to my surprise found a number of sites with information and even some videos. The following link will take you to a good video showing a Little Pied Cormorant doing what we witnessed.
The following photos show the cormorant and platypus together. I have also included a couple of close up shots of the platypus. According to a Park Ranger at Broken River the local population of platypus are relatively small. We noticed the size difference compared with ones we have seen in Victoria.
Broken River Eungella National Park - this is where the cormorant and platypus were observed feeding together.
The cormorant and platypus - feeding companions.
The cormorant approaching the platypus.
The cormorant is about to peck the platypus to make it dive for food.
The peck delivered, the pair dive together.
The cormorant's assistant. Was there any benefit in this food foraging arrangement for the platypus?
Close up of the bill, the term used to describe this part of the platypus anatomy which clearly has no connection with bills as we understand them in birds.


Tuesday, 16 July 2013

On the Tropic of Capricorn

We are now based at Rockhampton just north of the special latitude known as the Tropic of Capricorn.
The Tropic of Capricorn’s latitude is about 23° 26' south of the Equator. 
The Tropic of Capricorn is the southernmost latitude where the sun can be directly overhead and is the dividing line between the Southern Temperate Zone to the south and the tropics to the north. (copied from Wikipedia and modified by Avithera)
At this latitude we should start seeing more tropical bird species though of course the natural world does not change because of a line on a map. So while the line has an astronomical basis we recognise this latitude as a divide between two different worlds, the southern temperate zone and the tropics.
On Tuesday the 16th of July we made a day trip from Rockhampton out to Yeppoon on the coast. There were two birding highlights for the day.
As if to affirm we are now north of the Tropic of Capricorn we found our first Magpie Geese for the trip. A large number - at least 600, were on a wetland come farm storage dam with water lilies beside the road not far north of Yeppoon on the road to Byfield. While Magpie Geese can be found further south, to my mind they are a typical top end tropical species. Also on the dam were Comb-crested Jacana, another tropical species that specialises in walking on water lilies, again our first for this trip. Also seen were Glossy Ibis, Intermediate Egrets (at least 40) Cotton Pygmy-geese, a range of duck species and other typical wetland birds.
A section of the wetland with some of the Magpie Geese and Intermediate Egrets.
The second highlight was a small flock of about 20 to 30 Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos. I say small because I have seen this species in very large flocks of 300 to 400 birds in the past. This group was on the coast just south of Rosslyn Bay, the port used to access the Keppel Islands and the Great Barrier Reef further off shore.
The Red-tails gave me a chance to take a number of photos as members of the group fed, groomed and generally cavorted about in a fresh on-shore breeze. There were opportunities for flight shots as both males and females in small groups of two and three enjoyed some flight acrobatics in the breeze. As they came in to land on slender twigs at the top of a casuarina they spread their wings and tails, revealing bright intense red tails for the males and yellow barred tails for the females and juveniles. 
This is either a female or a juvenile bird. Note the seed pods on the left side of photo. 
This is what the Red-tails were feeding on.

These three birds were resting and quietly grooming. I guess they were trying to ignore the antics of the acrobats in the group - see later photos.
High on slender stems at the top of a Casuarina, the female on the left has successfully landed and two males are trying to land on the same stem to the right.
This female has made a successful landing.
Wow, this is fun! The boys seemed to be chasing the girls and not doing as well - nothing new there.
Settled birds not part of the action had to watch their backs as others gamboled about recklessly.
Staying upright on slender stems waving in the breeze is not easy.
Most of the birds had tatty feathers - did they need to moult new ones or just settle down and do some grooming?
Coming in to land.
This male has misjudged his landing, requiring a rather inelegant recovery.
There were many near collisions.
 Today's highlights again showed that when traveling, special bird experiences are not hard to find.