Thursday, 31 October 2013

Great Crested Grebes on the Gippsland Lakes

Australia has three resident grebe species, the Australasian Grebe, Hoary-headed Grebe and the Great Crested Grebe. A fourth grebe, the Little, is a rare visitor (vagrant) to Australia.
The Great Crested Grebe. This bird is found across the Old World including in Australia and New Zealand.
Australasian Grebe - much smaller than the Great Crested. Prefers fresh water.

Hoary-headed Grebe - non breeding. Large numbers can be found in shallow areas of the Gippsland Lakes.
Grebes belong to a group of waterbirds known as Podicipedidae, which means “rump-footed” due to their feet being located near the end of their bodies. This feature gives them great swimming ability, both on the surface and underwater.
Note the legs which are located well towards the end of the body - this gives them great speed for catching fish under water. Also note the powder puff tail feathers which is common on all three grebe species.
Unlike most aquatic birds grebes don’t have webbed feet. To aid swimming their feet are lobed – each toe has a stiff flap on either side. Coots also share this very unusual feature. Grebes can only shuffle when walking so it is not surprising that they are highly aquatic animals rarely seen on land. Their nests are constructed from aquatic vegetation in shallow water.
The lobed foot, unique to grebes and one or two other waterbird species, is clear in this shot. Also note the wing and white panel of feathers.
This bird was preening and scratching its head with the lobed foot - the lobed foot might be good for swimming but for walking and preening it may not be too efficient?

 Grebes are rarely seen flying and when alarmed they usually dive and can swim long distances under water to safety. However they are strong flyers and can cover vast distances when required. The long flights are undertaken at night.

Their diet consists mostly of fish and aquatic insects, which are caught underwater.
All three species are found on the Gippsland Lakes, adjoining wetlands and rivers.

The Australasian Grebe prefers fresh water habitats so it is not often found on the saline Gippsland Lakes.

The Hoary-headed Grebe is happy in saline water habitats and can be found at times in very large numbers on shallow sections of the Lakes. Rafts of up to 300 to 500 birds are not uncommon.

The Great Crested Grebe is a more solitary bird and single birds or pairs may be found on the Lakes, often well away from shorelines. From time to time small groups may shelter and rest together when very rough conditions on the Lakes force them into sheltered locations.
This was the case recently when there was a group of up to twenty Great Crested Grebes regularly resting together in McMillan Strait between Paynesville and Raymond Island. They were resting close to the Raymond Island shoreline and so could be approached closely and photographed from a vehicle. It was a good opportunity to get some photos of this species and spend some time observing them at close range.
There were 14 birds present the morning I paid them a visit. They spent most of the 40 minutes I watched them sleeping with their heads on their backs and their bills tucked under their necks. While they gave the appearance of being asleep I noticed on close observation that their eyes were often open and that they were paddling to maintain their positions against the wind and currents.
This is the sleeping or resting position, the position which all 14 birds spent most of their time in over the 40 minutes or so I watched them. Is this bird asleep?
Now and again one would wake up and undertake some preening, giving me the opportunity to get some shots of this beautiful bird. They have long necks and dagger bills with a sharp point, no doubt an effective weapon for catching fish. Their head is particularly stunning, sporting a dark crest and black tipped chestnut ruffs, which can be held flat or erected for displays of aggression and during their elaborate and extraordinary courtship rituals.
Males and females are very similar in appearance. The females are slightly smaller. Sub adults or immature birds take time to develop the full colour on the crest and ruffs.
The mature bird at top left has erected the ruffs as an aggression or threat display to the immature bird on right which came too close. It is swimming rapidly away from the mature bird and its ruff is flattened, perhaps as a show of submission?
 Here are a few more shots of the Great Crested Grebe.

Great Crested Grebes are not always present on the Gippsland Lakes so when they are here and there is an opportunity to see them up close it is not to be missed. Oh and how did I know the birds were there? A good birding friend who lives on Raymond Island let me know and even provided a cup of tea (but no biscuits!) – thanks RM.
I need to find a breeding pair and get some courtship photos now?????

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Spring Camp at Marlo

BirdLife East Gippsland, a branch of BirdLife Australia, holds two birding camps each year, one in autumn and one in spring. This year the spring camp was based at Marlo, a small town on the Victorian coast at the mouth of the Snowy River.
The camp was organized and managed by Merryl and Ian Wright, and activities were led by our expert local birding guides, Marlo residents and members Jacquie and Len Axen.  From Monday 14th  to Friday 18th October, twenty-nine birders attended with most staying in a caravan park at Marlo.
A wide diversity of rich habitats was visited over the four days including the Orbost Wastewater Treatment Lagoons, Snowy River Estuary and adjoining wetlands, the coast with both sandy beaches and rocky headlands at Cape Conran, coastal woodlands and forests, heathlands, the Yerrung River Estuary and the Cabbage Tree Palms Reserve.

Yet another storm front approaching the Snowy River entrance from the south west. This is a great place to scope birds, including waders, and if you are lucky whales heading south to Antarctica.

Late afternoon view from French's Narrows looking west along the Estuary towards the Snowy River Entrance and Marlo.
For each of the sites visited, the bird species and the number of birds were recorded. This data is sent to BirdLife Australia for inclusion in the Atlas database. A total of about 136 bird species were recorded over the four days, a good total given the highly variable and at times wild and wet weather with very strong winds and big seas along the coast.
So the conditions were not always ideal for bird photography, however the bird photographers in the group were afforded some good opportunities over the four days.
Here are a few of my shots from the camp.
Striated Thornbill:
A small group of thornbills in coastal woodland tested our identification skills. The birds turned out to be Striated and not Yellow Thornbills.
Striated Thornbill in Coastal Tea-tree at Marlo.
Rufous Songlark:
There was a further identification challenge with Australasian Pipits and Rufous Songlarks present at the Orbost Treatment Lagoons with a further possibility of an introduced Eurasian Skylark. The Rufous Songlark in the photos below was calling in flight between rests on fence posts. This bird finally settled long enough for a close enough approach to get a couple of shots, with one flight shot. The flight shot was captured by waiting for the bird to fly from the top of a fence post.
Rufous Songlark at Orbost Wastewater Treatment Lagoons.
The bird is calling as it ascends from the fence post.
This image has been cropped from the photo above. Note the rufous rump which gives this Songlark its name and is one key to identification of this species.
Caspian Tern:
A Caspian Tern entertained us on the Snowy River Estuary at Marlo one afternoon by diving and catching a good sized fish. It then flew around with the fish until it decided to join two Pied Oystercatchers on a sandy beach close to us where it dealt with the significant task of arranging the fish head in its mouth before it was swallowed whole. When a large fish is caught and can’t be swallowed when the bird emerges from the dive at the water’s surface, other birds often give chase in the hope of stealing an easy meal. In this case the Tern was safe from the Oystercatchers, as large fish are not part of their diet.
Caspian Tern looking for a safe place on the beach to swallow its meal.
White-bellied Sea-Eagle:
There are good numbers of Sea-Eagles along the Gippsland coast and we saw several birds over the four days, some sub-adults and others fully mature. The bird in the following shot, a sub adult, was captured as it flew over French’s Narrows, at the eastern end of the Snowy River Estuary.

It takes five years for Sea-Eagles to reach full maturity.
Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo:
We heard many Shining and Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoos in various habitats over the four days. They are hard birds to see and even harder to photograph. The one in the following shots was hunting for caterpillars in heathland at the back of the primary coastal dunes near French’s Narrows. Also in the same area, and on one occasion in the same bush, were a pair of Striated Fieldwrens and pair of Superb Fairy-Wrens and nearby, a White-fronted Chat. 
Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo found in heathland between the Snowy River Estuary
and coastal dunes near French's Narrows.

I watched the bird as it went from one stunted Coastal Wattle to another
finding caterpillars in each bush it visited.
Striated Fieldwren:
We managed to find several pairs of Striated Fieldwrens in the heathland between the Snowy River Estuary and the primary coastal dunes east of the Snowy River entrance. They were hard to approach and reminded me of grasswrens the way they ducked into dense low shrubs and sometimes ran between clumps of vegetation.
The Striated Fieldwrens were hard to get close to for a photo.
Spotted Harrier:
While trying to photograph Striated Fieldwrens I noticed a raptor approaching from the east. It flew low, closely following the undulating dunes, often disappearing from view as it drew closer. It finally came into view and within camera distance, so close to me that I only had a few seconds to get one shot and see that it was a Spotted Harrier before it was past me and flying into the sun.

These birds have a characteristic hunting flight style where the bird appears to almost float weightless on outstretched wings using the slightest breeze with very few wing beats. The broad dark brown tipped flight feathers obvious in the photo may partly explain why this bird gets such good lift with seemingly so little effort.
Spotted Harrier - note the broad knife blade shaped flight feathers with dark brown tips.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper:
A lone Sharp-tailed Sandpiper still partly in breeding plumage and probably not long back from the northern hemisphere breeding grounds was found feeding by a small creek outlet pool at the top of the Sailor’s Grave beach, East Cape Conran. It allowed fairly close approach as it fed, no doubt ravenous after a long trip. On the beach nearby were three Sooty and one Pied Oystercatcher, a lone Hooded Plover, a couple of Pacific Gulls and a small party of Little Black Cormorants resting on the beach.
A lone Sharp-tailed Sandpiper feeding in a fresh water pool at top of beach at
Sailor's Grave East Cape Conran.
Musk Lorikeet:
In the caravan park, noisy groups of Little and Red Wattlebirds and Rainbow and Musk Lorikeets fed and fought over nectar-rich blossoms in the Callistemons.
Muck Lorikeet feeding on a Callistemon flower in caravan park at Marlo. Flowering native shrubs and trees we plant in our gardens and public places are magnets for
nectar feeding birds such as honeyeaters and lorikeets.
The same bird having a very brief rest from nectar feeding. Does a high sugar diet
explain why Lorikeets are such energetic and rowdy birds?
Thanks to Merryl, Ian, Len and Jacqui, we all thoroughly enjoyed another successful BirdLife East Gippsland birding camp with good company, a scenic location, many types of habitat and plenty of bird species.

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.