Thursday, 31 December 2015

To end the year……….

The last day of 2015.  Another hot day to end the year, 37oC forecast and it is 36 as I write this at 1pm. I often ponder on days like this how our feathered friends, especially the small birds, manage to survive the heat. I guess while some do indeed survive the reality is that many must perish on the extreme days or run of days. Of course the high summer temperatures in East Gippsland are nothing compared with inland Australia. 

Imagine 50 plus degree days, day after day, on sand dunes in the Simpson Desert for example. How do tiny Ayrean Grasswrens and other small birds survive these blistering temperatures sheltering in cane-grass on the dune tops? Perhaps they seek refuge down burrows excavated by other dune inhabitants? As we shelter in the cool of our dwellings and air conditioned cars, spare a thought for our feathered friends over the summer period.

To end 2015 here are some miscellaneous photos from November and December that did not make it into blog posts – the brief caption notes explain the photos.

Click on images to enlarge.

Musk Lorikeet, blossom nomads, in Callistemon citrinus (Common Bottlebrush) at Canni Creek Racecourse. The Bottlebrush had a prolific flowering in early November when this photo was taken.
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo at Fairy Dell Flora Reserve – a hard species to find for photographs as they are nest parasites and so are not found in breeding territories – one must rely on chance encounters – this one was found at Fairy Dell in mid November while trying to photograph an equally elusive Red-browed Treecreeper.
Red-browed Treecreeper – a very hard species to find in East Gippsland compared with the very common and usually obvious White-throated Treecreeper. This one was gleaning food from the bark of a Mountain Grey Gum. It flew up the trunk stopping at points of interest as most of the bark is too smooth to get a grip – Red-browed Treecreepers tend to exploit smooth gum barked trees whereas White-browed Treecreepers stick to the rough barked Eucalypts.
Female White-browed Treecreeper at a nest hollow with advanced young in late November.
Female removing a faecal sack from the nest.
Striated Fieldwren singing loudly while perched on top of a small tree at Hollands Landing on the Gippsland Lakes – it pays to keep an eye on the sky when you are small, vulnerable and prominent. It was mid November and this bird was almost certainly a male defending territory.
Black-shouldered Kite in mid November heading to a nest near Hollands Landing on the Gippsland Lakes with a native rat to feed her young. Note the belly feathers and tail are dirty from brooding young and working hard to supply food – indicating this is the female – the females do
all of the brooding.
Pacific Golden Plover – a summer migrant in non breeding plumage – this one was found alone on sand islands in Jones Bay on the Gippsland Lakes in mid November.
A few weeks later four birds were found in the same area.

 The following five photos are a sequence showing a Laughing Kookaburra capturing a crab on Cunninghame Arm at Lakes Entrance on the Gippsland Lakes in late November.

Laughing Kookaburra on power line. It spent quite some time sizing up a prey item in tussocks beside a channel at the east end of Cunninghame Arm.
The camera was getting heavy when the bird finally made the plunge to prey below.
Breaking the descent just above the tussocks.
Lifting from the tussocks with a crab in its bill.
It took some time, but eventually the crab was swallowed claws and all.
Red-capped Plover, adult male on sand islands in Jones Bay on the Gippsland Lakes in late November – I have plenty of Red-capped photos but always find it hard to resist yet one or two more shots of this attractive endemic shorebird.
Red-capped Plover chick.
A few Banded Stilts feeding among over 1000 Red-necked Avocets on the northern section of Jones Bay on the Gippsland Lakes in early December.
Note one of the banded stilts is a juvenile, it has no band.
Something spooked the Avocets and all one thousand + birds rose progressively including the Banded Stilts which were among the last to rise. I managed to track the Banded Stilts for a few seconds and get a reasonably focused photo of the Stilts among the Avocets.
I soon lost the Banded Stilts among the mass of Avocets – this is just a small section of the Avocets in flight. They circled around and soon decided this was a false alarm and settled back
onto the water again.
Every year in late spring a pair of Dollarbirds arrive in our area at Sarsfield for the summer. They usually raise some young before heading back north again to their winter abode
north of Australia in the tropics.
Dollardbirds hunt their insect prey in the air. They perch from high often dead limb vantage points to look for flying insects and when one is spotted they launch out with long slow wing beats. They are not fast and nimble like Woodswallows and Rainbow Bee-eaters which employ a similar hunting strategy. They have a large wing area as this photo shows.
Black-faced Monarch, a regular summer migrant to rainforest and wet gullies in East Gippsland. This one was photographed at the Fairy Dell Flora Reserve in the Lilly-pilly rainforest gully on Christmas morning, one of my last bird photos for 2015.

Thank you for following my blog posts, I hope you have seen at least some of my 2015 posts and enjoyed the photos and associated notes and observations.

Best wishes for a rich and rewarding birding year in 2016.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Small terns on the Gippsland Lakes

Australia has two species of very small terns, Little (Western Pacific Little Tern Sternula albifrons sinensis) and Fairy (Australian Fairy Tern Sternula nereis nereis). In length the small terns fall between a Willie Wagtail and the slightly larger Rainbow Bee-eater. Both species inhabit coastal areas including ocean beaches, coastal lagoons and lakes (such as the Gippsland Lakes) and estuaries.

Click on images to enlarge.

Adult Little Tern in breeding plumage, note key ID features - dark tip to yellow bill, black lore, white over eye and dark primary flight feathers.

Both species are very similar in appearance and habits, making identification in the field difficult even for adult birds in breeding plumage when there are some distinctive features that help separate the two species. In non breeding and eclipse plumage, identification is nearly impossible.

Adult Fairy Tern in breeding plumage, note key ID features - all yellow bill, white lore, no white over eye and grey primary flight feathers.

The two species largely occupy separate sections of the Australian coast with Fairy Terns found along the south and west coasts and Little Terns found along the east and north coast. This can be helpful for field identification in locations where one species or the other is mainly found. However, there is overlap, particular in eastern Victoria including the Gippsland Lakes, where both species are regularly found and where both species breed.

But for birders on the Gippsland Lakes small tern identification can be a challenge especially at a distance. Adding to the challenge is the fact that non-breeding Little Terns from the Asian population overwinter in Australia. Records of banded birds have shown that birds that have bred in Japan appear on the Gippsland Lakes during our summer, though these birds are never in breeding plumage. It is also suspected that Little and Fairy Terns have interbred, giving rise to hybrid birds. This may also be contributing to the identification challenge of these small terns.

I was recently privileged to make two visits to Crescent island on the Gippsland Lakes south of Paynesville where a breeding colony of Fairy and Little Terns has been established on a recently dredged sand spit. The project to restore the integrity of Crescent Island was a multi- government effort initiated by Bairnsdale based Faye Bedford – Biodiversity Officer, Regional Services, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This is a good news win-win story where channels have been deepened for boats and habitat created and enhanced for threatened species such as Fairy and Little Terns (Fairy Terns are listed as Endangered and Little Terns as Vulnerable in Victoria).

Our transport to Crescent Island - a great way to travel on the Lakes.

Unfortunately for small terns and many other beach nesting birds their preferred sandy beach habitat is also often ideal for human recreational activities. To protect these birds, especially during their critical breeding season, which also coincides with our peak use of beaches, exclusion signage and sometimes fencing is required.

Conducting a survey of the small tern breeding colony at the eastern end of Crescent Island.

Erecting signs at the breeding colony.

About a dozen signs were erected at intervals along the shoreline.

Even with the utmost care it is impossible when visiting a small tern breeding colony to not disturb the birds so our time there was necessarily limited by consideration for the welfare of the birds and their chicks. We kept to the margins of the breeding area to minimise disturbance and to avoid inadvertently treading on eggs which are well camouflaged and therefore very hard to see on nests that are mere scraped depressions in the sand and shell grit.

The following selection of photos captures both species of terns including some birds at nests with chicks.

Little Tern in streamlined flight.

Little Tern showing the dark primary flight feathers - tail fanned.

Little Tern on nest scrape. Little Terns commence breeding a few weeks after the Fairy Terns.

Fairy Tern with small fish to feed a chick.

This tern has some black on lore and dark wing feathers however its bill is all yellow - not sure if this is a Fairy or Little Tern?
Fairy Tern in flight clearly showing all yellow bill, white lore and pale grey primary flight feathers.

Another view of an adult Fairy Tern.

A pair of Fairy Tern chicks - they are obviously very vulnerable at this stage and completely dependent on their parents for protection and food.
Fairy Tern parent on nest with chick. Note the bill still has a small dark tip.

This Little Tern has returned to breeding colony with a fish however it is not clear that the fish is for this chick which given the earlier start to breeding by the Fairy Terns is probably a Fairy Tern chick.
Fairy Tern hovering - both small tern species hover more than other tern species. They often hover to size up fish before diving head first into the water to catch them.
Another view of a Fairy Tern hovering - note the elegant swallow tail.
Adult Little Tern commencing the transition to breeding plumage - note yellowish base to bill. Some primary flight feathers are also moulting.
This shot of an adult Little Tern shows how long their wings are for such a small bird. This bird has a band.
This Fairy Tern also has a band which may help piece together the lives of these terns which are still far from fully understood, especially their movements outside of the breeding season.

The small terns seem so fragile - continued human population growth and development plus sea level rise is a growing threat to their habitat – let’s hope we can wisely manage their environment and assure a future for them.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Tawny Frogmouths nesting - Part 2

This post shows photos of the two young Frogmouths produced by the nesting parents featured in an earlier post dated Wednesday, 14 October 2015:

After observing the adult male incubating eggs by day for some time, they eventually hatched and two young reached the size where their heads appeared above the top of the nest rim.

When the young had reached a size where they could not be concealed within the nest, I became concerned on one visit when I could only see one of the young birds. 

Adult with one young bird visible on nest.

I walked around the tree twice to get different views of the nest to see if the other young bird was there, speculating as I went on what might have become of the missing chick. On a third round I managed to pick up what looked like a small head in the shadow of a branch. Closer inspection with the binoculars revealed the missing young one.

The missing young bird was found lying under the other two birds with its head just visible in the shade of a vertical branch – the photo exposure has been tweaked to make the missing bird clear.
 An adult plus two young were last seen on the nest by another observer on Sunday, 8 November 2015. I last saw them on Friday the 6th and when I visited the site on Tuesday the 10th, following a hot Monday, the nest was empty and I could not find any of the birds nearby.

Last photo of the nest with just one young bird visible. The other young one is there - see next photo.
My last photo of the two chicks before they left the nest.
 Hopefully the two young birds left the nest successfully and are roosting somewhere close by.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Royal Spoonbills

The Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia) to my mind, and as the species name suggests, is a regal bird with brilliant white plumage and starkly contrasting black face, bill and legs. They are especially elegant in breeding condition when their heads are adorned with white nuptial plumes.

Portrait of a regal bird.
The Royal Spoonbill is moderately common in coastal and near coastal wetlands in Gippsland where birds may be found singly, in pairs, or in small parties and less often in large flocks. From my experience in East Gippsland a large flock would typically contain between 20 and 30 birds, larger flocks up to 50 or 60 birds are rare.

There are few breeding records for Royal Spoonbills in East Gippsland, for example “The Atlas of Australian Birds” and the “New Atlas” show no breeding records in East Gippsland for this species or for Yellow Spoonbills.

For a number of years now I have been observing Royal Spoonbills in small numbers roosting on the edge of the very large Ibis rookery in Macleod Morass near Bairnsdale and speculating that the Spoonbills may be breeding. This season there have been a larger than usual number of Royals on the edge of the rookery for an extended time so I decided to take a closer look and see if I could confirm breeding.

Part of the Ibis rookery in Macleod Morass.
The Ibis build colonial nest sites by breaking down Giant Rush (Juncus ingens) reed stems to form platforms. The rookery is moved each year to a new location. The Ibis do not nest in Common Reed (Phragmites australis) and Cumbungi (Typha orientalis), the other two dominant aquatic plant stands found in Macleod Morass.

Royal Spoonbills on the far side of the Ibis rookery.

The Ibis rookery contains mostly Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) and a smaller number of White (aka Sacred) Ibis (Threskiornis molucca). The Straw-necked outnumber the White by about 4 to 1.

A typical - though a more isolated - example of an ibis breeding platform on Giant Rush.

 As I walked by a row of large Red Gums a short distance from the rookery at least 20 Whistling Kites and a pair of Swamp Harriers flew out. These and other raptors such as White-bellied Sea-Eagles, have been feeding on Ibis chicks and no doubt earlier on eggs, for the duration of the Ibis breeding event. The chick and egg carnage is quite high, however as there are thousands of Ibis, a majority of young birds successfully reach adulthood.

Close up of a vacated nest platform showing the remains of a number of Ibis chicks - in the wild survival of the fittest rules.

 The Ibis young are now well advanced and have retreated from the more isolated margins of the rookery to form crèches. Adult Ibis continually come and go from the rookery on food gathering forays to the surrounding farm land. Excellent fliers, they are capable of travelling long distances to gather food for their young.

A dozen Straw-necked Ibis have been visiting our paddocks daily for over a month now making a return trip of 28 kilometres from the rookery many times each day.

Young Straw-necked Ibis gathered into a crèche.

In all, I counted 50 Royal Spoonbills at the rookery and I estimate there may have been up to another 10 birds out of sight giving a possible total of 60 birds and more may have been away feeding. As mentioned above, 50 or 60 Royal Spoonbills in a loose flock is from my experience a large gathering of this species in our area. All the spoonbills have nuptial plumes. Seven birds looked to be sitting on nests with two birds out on their own and the others located within the main flock of Royals on the edge of a large section of the Ibis rookery.

Approaching the rookery, I was mindful of not disturbing the Ibis and Spoonbills so I waded very slowly in stages in order to get close enough to the Royals for observation and some photos.  

The Royals appeared to prefer to construct nests in Giant Rush that is not been packed down into a low platform as the Ibis do.  

One of two Spoonbills on a suspected nest isolated from the main flock.

As I photographed a bird on one of the two isolated nests the bird departed giving me a brief chance to check the nest to see if there were eggs or chicks and thereby confirm for sure that the Royals are breeding. Royals typically lay 2 or 3 eggs.

Adult Royal Spoonbill with nuptial plumes at nest. The male and female look the same and both share in incubation and raising the young.

Royal Spoonbill nest with three eggs – note the leg of a young Ibis on the upper edge of the nest.

 The bird soon returned to the nest and resumed incubation.

Two spoonbills at nests on the Ibis rookery with one bird settled on the nest, presumably incubating eggs at this stage.     
Another bird incubating and sleeping at the same time.

The Spoonbills must share the nesting site with the Ibis. 

The Spoonbills have started their breeding late in the Ibis breeding cycle, with eggs still being incubated at a time when the Ibis young are well advanced. It is likely that the spoonbill young will hatch out and grow when the Ibis have left the rookery.

Without the protection of a bigger group, the young Spoonbills will be very vulnerable to the raptor predators now gathered in large numbers for the Ibis breeding event. I will watch the Spoonbills with interest and concern and hope they can successfully raise a new generation of Royal Spoonbills this breeding season.