Sunday, 6 October 2013

Looking for the Hooded Robin in Gippsland (Victoria)

The male Hooded Robin is a striking black and white bird and the female, like most other robin species, is a more sombre grey and dull white. They are found in every mainland state and territory but not in Tasmania. There is even a Tiwi Islands sub species which is Critically Endangered and possibly now extinct. Their preferred habitat is open woodland in drier and arid areas.
The male Hooded Robin
There are four sub species of Hooded Robin recognised in Australia. Melanodryas cucullata cucullata (the South-eastern sub species) was once found in West Gippsland, the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas and French Island. It is now probably extinct in these areas. They were also found in many other areas of Gippsland in the past however over the last thirty years or so have declined to the point of now being absent from west of Morwell in the west, across the Gippsland Plains and to Orbost in the east.
A small group of Hooded Robins was regularly recorded by East Gippsland Bird Observation and Conservation Group (EGBOC – now BirdLIfe East Gippsland) at Canni Creek Racecourse near Buchan over a number of years however the last sighting of this group was recorded on the 15th of October 2007. Regular outings to Canni Creek Racecourse since 2007, a great birding location, have failed to record the Hooded Robin there. Regular bird surveys by BLEG in the Bairnsdale region have not recorded any Hooded Robins in the last five years. Other sources of bird records such as Eremaea Birds also show no records of Hooded Robins in Gippsland in recent years.
The decline of the Hooded Robin in some areas of Victoria, particularly south of the Great Dividing Range, is most likely due to loss or alteration of habitat. Hooded Robins prefer dry woodlands with an undisturbed ground layer for feeding and nesting. Land clearing and habitat fragmentation plus fire wood collection and inappropriate fire regimes in remaining suitable habitat can over time remove the ground layer rendering the habitat unsuitable for Hooded Robins and other woodland bird species.
I have been pondering the loss of this species from the Gippsland area for some time and wondering if there are any Hooded Robins still in Gippsland. The most likely habitat where the Hooded Robin may still exist would be in large areas of undisturbed dry woodland. Gippsland happens to have such an area north of Buchan in the upper Snowy River rain shadow area. This remote and rugged mountainous area is dry and relatively undisturbed. The geology of the area is dominated by the so-called Snowy River Volcanics, which erupted in the Lower Devonian period of the Palaeozoic era some 400 million years before the present. Granites are also present from an even earlier period.
Remote rugged mountains in the Snowy River rain shadow area. 
Note Cypress-pine and White Box clad hills in foreground.
Rocky mountain side above Suggan Buggan.
The unique combination of soils, steep topography and low rainfall has resulted in the establishment of hundreds of square kilometres of woodland dominated by White Box (E albens) and White and Black Cypress-pine (Callitris columellaris and endlicheri respectively). Some of the woodlands are pure stands of box and some cypress but mostly they are mixed box and cypress woodlands. The understory is sparse and often grassy so walking through the woodlands is easy however there is a good quantity of accumulated litter from fallen branches and leaves creating ideal habitat for small woodland birds such as robins.
Cypress-pine and White Box beside the Snowy River Road north of Suggan Buggan.
Fortunately in Victoria much of the Snowy River box – cypress woodland is protected within the Alpine and Snowy River National Parks and across the border in NSW within the Kosciuszko National Park.
The most direct access to this area from Gippsland is north from Buchan through Gelantipy and then north on the Snowy River Road (this road is called The Barry Way in NSW which ends at Jindabyne). From Hamilton Gap at the northern edge of the sub alpine Wulgulmerang sheep and cattle grazing country, the narrow winding unsealed road descends steeply into the box – cypress country to the remote Suggun Buggan settlement on the Suggun Buggan River. The Suggun Buggan River, a tributary of the Snowy, has its origins in gazetted wilderness areas on the eastern flanks of Mt Cobberas (Victoria) and Mt Pilot (NSW), both peaks are over 1,800 metres elevation and snow clad over the winter months. From Suggun Buggan the road climbs to Mountain Hut Saddle before descending again to Willis, a locality only with a camping area, on the Snowy River near the NSW border.
The southern end of the Snowy River woodland can be accessed by taking the McKillop Road east from the Wulgulmerang area. The road passes the Little River Falls and Gorge before descending very steeply to McKillops Bridge on the Snowy River. The road crosses the Snowy River on the famous McKillops Bridge circa 1935. The road continues on to the Deddick farming area and Bonang beyond. In Victoria there are only two bridges crossing the Snowy, one on the Princes Highway at Orbost and the other is McKillops Bridge.
Waterfall on the Little River. 
From here near the McKillop Road the river descends over 600 vertical metres 
to the Snowy River passing through the Little River Gorge on its way.
Little River Gorge viewed from lookout accessed off the McKillop Road. 
The falls in the previous photo are beyond the top right hand corner of this photo.
Rain shower over the Snowy River valley viewed from McKillop Road. 
The Little River valley is at the bottom right hand side of the photo.
McKillops Bridge on the mighty Snowy River. It would be interesting to see the Government Report that justified building such a grand bridge in this very remote area in 1935?
Driving north in the Alpine NP on the Snowy River Road (The Barry Way in NSW) 
towards Willis on the NSW border.
So to pursue the question - are there any Hooded Robins in Gippsland - we planned to spend a couple of days in the area checking the suitability of the habitat for Hooded Robins and searching for the birds. The Snowy River and McKillop Roads, while unsealed and very narrow in places are suitable for two wheel drive vehicles however they are most certainly unsuitable for caravans so we left the van at home and camped with a tent instead.
We set out on Thursday the 3rd of October with strong winds and rain showers forecast, a typical forecast this spring so far, with the promise of a fine day on Friday. We headed to the McKillops Bridge area first and then later in the day drove across to Willis where we camped on the Snowy River for two nights.
The plan as mentioned above was to generally check out the area and its habitat, see what birds were about and hopefully find some Hooded Robins. Thursday as forecast was windy and cold with intermittent rain showers so the birding conditions were not great that day. We did however find plenty of birds, being spring, and enjoyed the magnificent scenery.
Of course finding any target bird species on demand is a challenge and often involves a certain amount of luck in addition to birding skills and knowledge. The Hooded Robin can be particularly hard to find because they can perch motionless and inconspicuously for long periods before darting down to snatch a food item on or near the ground. Also their call, a soft and mellow series of notes, is not issued very often so finding them by their call is not a method that can be relied upon.
As it happened we got lucky because late on the first day as we drove north from Suggun Buggan I spotted a bird as it flew across the road ahead of us. I felt it could have been a Hooded Robin so stopped the vehicle rapidly and jumped out with my bins and headed into some White Box trees beside the road. To my relief I found the bird, a male Hooded Robin, perched on a branch at the top of a dead tree – a good unobstructed view. I raced back to the car for my camera and more luck, the bird was still perched there when I got back, allowing me to take a fairly blurry shot for the record. As soon as I had snapped the shot the bird flew followed closely by another bird I had not seen perched nearby. I am fairly sure this was also a Hooded Robin making two birds on our first day. Under the conditions a very lucky find indeed.
The male Hooded Robin spotted north of Suggan Buggan - a very lucky find.
By the time we reached the Willis campground with rain threatening we only had time to set up camp, get a fire going and cook our dinner. We did however notice several Brown Treecreepers scurrying about our campsite as we set up, at times they were almost under out feet – these birds had clearly learnt to scavenge scraps. This treecreeper species is an arid woodland bird not found further south in Gippsland and a good indication of possible Hooded Robin habitat.
Friday dawned clear and still, a perfect spring birding day.
Our camp on the Snowy River at the Willis campground. 
The eucalypts are Yellow Box which were in flower and teeming with Honeyeaters.
View of country opposite our campsite.
Looking downstream from where the above photo was taken. 
Note White Box and Cypress-pines on hill above river and along edge of river 
just above the flood line are taller Yellow and Apple Box.
We spent Friday birding around the camp area and back along the road to Suggun Buggan, a distance of about 20kms. Over the two and half days we recorded a total of 65 bird species. Of particular note were the woodland birds, which included large numbers of Brown Treecreepers, five species of robins including Hooded (a female bird at the Willis camp ground), Scarlet (many male birds found – females were probably sitting on nests?), Flame (a few females found – most birds have probably moved up to the alpine country by now), Red-capped (not generally found further south in Gippsland – a robin species found in close association with Hooded Robins) and Eastern Yellow Robins, Speckled Warblers (about 7), Painted Button-quail, White-throated Gerygone, several thornbill species including Australia’s smallest bird the Weebill, large numbers of Rufous Whistlers (many pairs calling and doing courtship displays) and Dusky Woodswallows (again many pairs -  distributed across the area in preparation for breeding I think?).
Beyond the Snowy River edge the trees were exclusively White Box and Cypress-pines however in a narrow band just above flood level there were Apple Box and Yellow Box. The Yellow Box were in flower which attracted a good number of honeyeaters including Red Wattlebirds, Yellow-tufted, Brown-headed, Yellow-faced, White-napped, White-eared and of most interest Fuscous, a honeyeater we don’t normally find further south in Gippsland and a bird we think of as being a “north of the divide” bird.
Across the river from our campsite Australian Reed Warblers called loudly from the reeds throughout the day and at night Dingos howled. Feral horses are common in this country and the adjoining alpine country. We saw a small party of six horses including two foals feeding above the river just upstream from the Willis campground. As they need to drink regularly they create trails, which are easily seen and followed through the woodland down to the river.
This photo was taken with my tele lens from about 300 metres away. 
There were six horses including two foals.
Here is a selection of bird photos taken over the two days:
A Dusky Woodswallow. Across the area there was a large number of these birds 
however they were evenly distributed in pairs ahead of breeding.
This Dusky Woodswallow was keeping a close eye on me.
The Scarlet Robin was the most numerous robin we encountered. 
No females were seen so assumed they were on nests.
A male Red-capped Robin, a species generally found north of the divide in dry 
and arid country and often in association with Hooded Robins.

Flame Robins are altitudinal migrants spending the winters in the foothills 
when the alpine areas they frequent in summer are covered in snow.
There were about seven Speckled Warblers feeding as a loose party on the ground among the fallen timber and leaf litter. This one has found an insect larvae.
A female Painted Button-quail - note the chestnut shoulder. My field guide advises they usually walk away when approached and then run with head held high, exactly what this one did making photos difficult with a subject on the move in poor light. Note the great litter material on the ground - just what many of our woodland birds need to survive.
A Fuscous Honeyeater - not a great shot however I was glad to get one of this species as they mostly spent their time high in the Yellow Box canopies.
There were large numbers of Brown Treecreepers in the woodlands. Unlike the solitary White-throated Treecreeper we see further south in Gippsland the Browns are gregarious and often feed on the ground.
This White-throated Gerygone kept moving closer and I thought I was going to get some brilliant shots however I discovered too late that I had left the the auto focus setting on the lens on 6m to infinity and when the bird moved closer than 6m the lens would not focus. By the time I changed the setting the moment had passed. Bird photography can be very frustrating.

So was it a successful trip? I think it was. We found, in Gippsland, large areas of what I regard as very good dry woodland habitat suitable for robins and in particular Hooded Robins and in addition we actually found three Hooded Robins.
I am confident this area is an important stronghold for Hooded Robins in southern Australia, south of the Great Dividing Range. If habitat and conditions in greater Gippsland were to become suitable once again for the Hooded Robins, this population is a potential source for re-colonisation of an area where they were once found but are now absent.
We also enjoyed exploring close to home a unique area with rugged mountain scenery, an iconic river, a very large and mostly untouched dry woodland and a rich diversity of birds and other wildlife.
We plan to return to the area again later in spring to look again for Hooded Robins and see what other birds are around compared with the species we recorded in early spring.


  1. G’day John,
    This is a great read. Your devotion and commitment to the cause are admiral. Seems a lovely piece of habitat on MY doorstep that I haven’t explored properly yet – oh if one could only live long enough!
    Great to see red caps, Brown Treecreepers, Speckled Warblers, etc and of course hoodeds on the one trip.

  2. Sounds like a well planned expedition, and good to have some good news about the Hooded Robin in Gippsland.