Saturday, 22 March 2014

Croajingolong heathland = Emu-wren + Ground Parrot

The coast of Gippsland east of Marlo is fairly remote with many patches of heathland along the coast, much contained within the Croajingolong National Park. This heathland is home to a number of specialist heathland birds such as Southern Emu-wren, Eastern Ground Parrot, Striated Fieldwren and the Eastern Bristlebird (found east of Mallacoota Inlet).
Looking west across Shipwreck Creek - note heathland.
There are healthy populations of Emu-wrens and Ground Parrots, however these birds can be very hard to find, especially the Ground Parrots.
We have been in Mallacoota for the past week attending a BirdLife East Gippsland Autumn birding camp. One morning birding on the heathlands both east and west of Shipwreck Creek we found six separate groups of Emu-wrens with some parties/families containing at least six birds. Only one Ground Parrot was flushed.
Emu-wrens are hard to hear and see in the dense heath, however once found they are often inquisitive and will come up to vantage points to see who the strangers are in their territory and if you’re quick there may be some photo opportunities.
Following the camp I went back to the Shipwreck Creek heathlands to see if I could get some Emu-wren photos. The weather was cool and overcast with a moderate southwest breeze, not good conditions for finding heathland birds!
A female Southern Emu-wren - a typical view of these birds as they check you out from the heath.
The female stops briefly in the open.
 The males are very attractive with sky blue eyebrows and bib matching the rich rufous colours of the body feathers. They have long filamentous tail feathers which look similar to emu feathers, hence the name emu-wren. Their very small and weak wings only allow feeble short distance flight with a distinctive long trailing tail.
The male Emu-wren - appearing briefly above the dense heath.
The male again - note the sky blue eyebrow and bib, the rich rufous crown and long tail.
Detail from above photo - note the short weak wings.
The Ground Parrot is very hard to find and most often is flushed when it rises from the heath and flies at speed some distance before dropping back into the dense cover of the heath. They have a very distinctive call, which is nothing like most parrot calls, and this is often made at dusk to contact other Ground Parrots. To find and survey Ground Parrots, the best method is to listen for their calls at dusk.
While wading through the heath following a pair of Emu-wrens I managed to flush a Ground Parrot that fortunately only flew about ten metres before dropping into a relatively open patch of grass among the taller stunted Casuarina. Noting where it landed I was able to slowly move up and find the bird which was fairly nervous. I hoped it would settle down and then go about feeding however after a few quick photos the bird burst into flight and was gone in a flash, flying well over 100 metres before it was lost from sight.
Heath where Ground Parrot was flushed - note coast walking trail.
Here are a few of the photos of this very elusive bird.

The Eastern Ground Parrot - I was lucky to find it and get a few photos.
The bird was quite nervous, stretching its head up for a better look at me.

Note the small red patch on the forehead and the feather colours which allows this ground dwelling bird to blend in so well with its habitat.

A rewarding morning on the heath – hopefully I have no ticks?

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Shy Albatross

The port of Lakes Entrance at the eastern end of the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria is not known as one from which birders make regular pelagic trips out to the edge of the continental shelf. Well known pelagic birding trip ports include Port Fairy and Portland in western Victoria to access the Southern Ocean and Wollongong and Newcastle in NSW to access the Southern Pacific Ocean. The ocean off Lakes Entrance is the Tasman Sea and is also often referred to as Bass Strait, though the Strait begins further west.

Continental shelves, the area where the relatively shallow coastal seabed plunges to the ocean depths, can be “hot” places for pelagic birds where upwelling of water from the deep can create a rich food chain. From Lakes Entrance, the edge of the shelf is some 80 kms out – a return trip to the shelf of 160 kms is one good reason why pelagic birding trips are not undertaken from Lakes Entrance.

We did not have to go this far to see pelagic birds, in fact the maximum distance we travelled south from the entrance was about 12 kms. Large pelagic birds such as albatross can be found here close to shore, even in calm weather, which is a blessing for birders with uncertain sea legs and makes bird photography a lot easier. 

A Shy Albatross. The long narrow wings are perfect for gliding - they can travel for huge distances without flapping their wings using the wind to conserve energy.
I suspect one reason why pelagic species can be found so close to shore is due to the operation of a large fishing fleet from Lakes Entrance. As the trawlers return to port the catch is sorted and the by-catch is thrown overboard. The larger sea birds have learnt to follow the boats in for an easy meal. There was a good example of this on one trip out.

The narrow dark edge to the otherwise white under wing and dark patch on the leading wing edge where it joins the body are a guide to identifying this as a Shy Albatross.
As we were leaving the entrance a large fishing trawler was just entering the entrance and right behind the boat were about 12 albatross gathering the unwanted fish being thrown overboard, even at this late stage. It was too dark to identify the species of albatross and there may have been more than one species present, however we only encountered Shy Albatross later that day so there is a good chance these were also Shy’s.

Coming in to land - the webbed feet are almost transparent with the light behind and blood vessels can be seen in the webs. Note this bird has a metal band in its left leg.
Same bird as previous image about to land - note metal band on left leg.
Other species of albatross regularly seen off Lakes Entrance during late summer and autumn include Buller’s and Yellow-nosed Albatross. Other species would be present during the winter and spring months.

The Shy Albatross is the only albatross to breed in Australia – on Albatross Island in Bass Strait. The scientific name is Thalassarche cauta. The genus name Thalassarche means ruler of the sea and seems appropriate. The species name cauta was given by John Gould in 1840 and means cautious or wary - from Latin cautus meaning cautious or heedful. As with many bird names shy seems inexplicable given this albatross is far from shy around boats, which they will readily approach, especially if a free feed is on offer. A number of very similar sub species are now recognised, White-capped (steadi) and Chatham (eremita).

The bird from previous image at rest on the water.
There are three sub species Shy (cauta), White-capped and Chatham. You can tell this is a Shy by the yellow base of the upper bill ridge.
The bird behind is an immature Shy Albatross - note the dark tipped grey bill. The adult bird has a fleshy coloured bill with a yellow tip.

Albatross are magnificent birds and with huge wingspans they certainly rule the southern ocean, however long line fishing has decimated their numbers, particularly for some species. Lets hope changes can be made to fishing methods and gear to reduce the losses and allow the populations of these long lived slow reproducers to recover in time.

Sunday, 2 March 2014


I never cease to marvel at the beauty of birds and their ability to cope with life. They are so supremely adapted and so diverse. Since the demise of dinosaurs some 60 million years ago birds, which descended from them, have evolved over tens of millions of years into thousands of species, conquering the skies and occupying every continent and ocean on earth. Pelagic birds have managed to adapt to life living at sea, only coming to land to breed. It is hard to envisage a more hostile environment for a bird to call home than a vast featureless ocean where there is no fresh water and no shelter from fierce storms.
And yet oceans are home to a large number of bird species including the very small and seemingly frail Storm-Petrels. These birds are about the size of a Willie Wagtail and weigh less than 60 grams and apart from visiting land to breed they spend their entire lives out at sea, far from land.
A Wilson's Storm-Petrel - possibly the most numerous bird species on the planet, yet how many of us have seen one live?
A White-faced Storm-Petrel - like the Wilson's, small and dainty!
Most Australians will know the Willie Wagtail but apart from seafarers and birders who venture out to sea looking for pelagic birds very few would have ever seen a live Storm-Petrel even though the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel may well be the most numerous bird species on the planet.
There are about 20 species of Storm-Petrel worldwide and about five species can be seen off the southern Australian coast. We saw both Wilson’s and White-faced Storm-Petrels off Lakes Entrance recently.
The Wilson’s Storm-Petrel breeds across the southern ocean in remote places such as Heard Island, Cape Horn, the Falklands and even along the Antarctic coastline. The White-faced breeds in warmer locations including on islands along the southern Australian coast with one colony breeding on Mud Island in Port Phillip Bay Victoria.
Storm-Petrels are swallow-like and have an effortless and weightless feeding style when they appear to dance or walk on water with wings outstretched and legs dangling as they bounce or patter over the surface picking up tiny food items.
We put out an oily fish burly trail to attract birds to the boat. The Wilson’s and White-faced Storm-Petrels worked their way up the trail towards the back of the anchored boat skipping erratically here and there picking up small pieces of fish as they approached.  Unfortunately they were wary of the boat and often peeled off well short of camera range.
Here are a number of photos taken of the White-faced on the recent trip followed by photos of the Wilson’s, which were taken on an earlier trip (on the last trip out the Wilson’s would not come close enough for photos).
A White-faced Storm-Petrel - they appear to dance or walk seemingly weightless on water as they feed.
At times they appear swallow like.
These small birds like other larger pelagic species are supremely adapted to life on our oceans.
Standing on water - the slightest breeze keeps them up as they pick up tiny food items.
These wings carry this bird over vast oceans through fine weather and foul.
A Wilson's Storm-Petrel looking dove like in this shot.
A typical walking on water feeding position - this bird has just picked up a tiny piece of fish from our burly trail.
This bird is picking up a larger piece of fish.
 Albatross, the subject of the next post in this pelagic series, are magnificent birds however I think I have developed a soft spot for the tiny Storm-Petrels!

Saturday, 1 March 2014


Shearwaters can sometimes be seen in vast numbers off Australian coasts. Huge numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters, aka Muttonbirds, breed on Bass Strait islands each summer.
A Short-tailed Shearwater, aka Muttonbird.
Their numbers were even greater in the past. Late in 1798 Matthew Flinders was in Bass Strait, which was then un-named and in fact it was not known at the time if Tasmania was part of the mainland or an island separated by a strait. He was with George Bass on the 25 ton sloop the Norfolk, to determine which was the case and of course they found there was a strait which was subsequently named after George Bass. Flinders’ diary entry on the 9th of December 1798 records his thorough and carefully documented estimate of the number of Muttonbirds that passed by the Norfolk, an astounding 151 million birds. Alas we will never see this unimaginable number of birds in Bass Strait.
Now and again we witness seabird wrecks when large numbers of dead or exhausted birds wash up on coastal beaches during storms, the last one occurred in spring 2013. In southeastern Australia the wrecks are mostly Muttonbirds.
A dead beach washed Muttonbird, one of 314 counted along two 2km sections of beach east of Lakes Entrance in November 2013 during a survey to assess the
2013 Spring Short-tailed Shearwater wreck.
Offshore from Lakes Entrance recently we saw no Short-tailed Shearwaters. I think they are busy feeding young elsewhere in Bass Strait. We did see and were briefly visited by a large brown shearwater, which we could not identify at the time, however later with photos and after some consultation with fellow birders and field guides it was determined the bird was a Flesh-footed Shearwater.
A shearwater approaches the back of the boat.
The bird landing behind the boat.
Sizing up some fish we have thrown overboard.
The bird lunges for a piece of fish - there was a Shy Albatross
just to the left that had the same intention.
There are two populations of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, one in the Indian Ocean and one in the Pacific Ocean (western side in both hemispheres). The Pacific Ocean birds breed on Lord Howe Island and around the north island of New Zealand between September and May so the bird we saw can’t be breeding this season.
The same bird at rest behind the boat.
Same bird again - its colour varied with the light angle.
Another group of shearwaters seen off the southeastern Australian coast include Fluttering, Hutton’s, Manx, Little and Audubon’s. They are closely related and not easy to distinguish from one another. Fluttering are the most numerous species followed by Hutton’s.
We saw good numbers of Fluttering recently, hundreds of birds altogether. There were possibly Hutton’s among them however it was impossible to tell them apart under the circumstances. As with previous trips out of Lakes Entrance the Fluttering Shearwaters flew in strings of up to 50 birds on a direct southeast coarse, flying low with bursts of rapid stiff wing beats followed by brief glides. Unlike other shearwater species, which readily follow boats, they rarely come near boats so getting photos of these fast low flying birds is difficult.
Fluttering Shearwaters breed on islands around the North Island of New Zealand between August and March so the birds we saw were non-breeders.
Here are a few photos – they may not all be Fluttering Shearwaters???
One of hundreds of fast flying Fluttering Shearwaters - this one came close enough for a photo.
Another one came by showing the the white under body
characteristic of this group of shearwaters.
Most of the birds ignored us as they continued on their direct southeasterly course - a few executed a fast circuit around the boat before resuming their journey to who knows where?
Are the first two birds above a different species from the birds in the last two shots,
or are they all Fluttering Shearwaters?