Saturday, 7 February 2015

Waders on the Gippsland Lakes

On Friday 6th Feb, I spent four hours at one of my favorite birding spots, the sand islands in Jones Bay. These are at the north west end of Lake King, one of the three main lakes comprising the Gippsland Lakes.
The low lying sand islands are surrounded by shallow water so they are highly desirable water bird habitat both for feeding and roosting, but are not suitable for nesting at this stage of their development. The islands are forming in Jones Bay following a flood breach of the famous Mitchell River silt jetties. Floods are now depositing silt, sand and trees in the shallow waters of Jones Bay with new islands and habitat developing which is ideal for water birds including waders (aka shorebirds), both Australian endemic species and international migrants.
Photo taken from some flood deposited trees I was using for cover looking west towards
Eagle Point and the Mitchell River cut with one of the sand islands in the foreground.
The conditions for photography were not ideal as I visited the islands during the middle four hours of the day when the sun was overhead and the light harsh. I was keen to see what birds were about on the islands and to try out a new camera body, a Canon 5D MKIII, and the middle of the day was the only time I had available. For those interested, or technically minded, the lens I used was a Canon EF 300mm 1:2.8L IS II USM coupled to a Canon Extender EF 2 x III, giving a focal length of 600mm for the full frame sensor 5D body.
When I visited, there were large numbers of Red-capped Plovers, an Australian endemic species, Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, both migrants. This post will feature these three wader species.
Red-capped Plover
This small endemic shorebird is widespread around the Australian coast and is also found in suitable inland habitats. Relatively confiding birds, they may be found in small parties or flocks of hundreds. The population is estimated to be around 95,000 birds. There were possibly 100 Red-capped Plovers on the islands when I visited.
Male Red-capped Plover
Male on the run to get through the discomfort zone I was creating.
A female Red-capped Plover - I think this is a juvenile.

Red-necked Stint
This is our smallest migrant wader, which is about the same size as the Red-capped Plover or perhaps for a more meaningful size comparison it is about the same size as a sparrow. Red-necked Stints breed in the arctic tundra from Taimyr Peninsula in north-central Siberia to western Alaska. During the northern winter they migrate south to India and through South East Asia to Australia and New Zealand, a very long distance flight for a bird the size of a sparrow. The over summer Australian population is estimated at 270,000 birds and the flyway population estimate is 325,000.
I estimate there were between 200 and 300 Red-necked Stints on the islands when I visited.
Red-necked Stint probing the sand for food.
A very small food item, seen near the tip of the bill, has been extracted from the sand.
Red-necked Stints feed on dry sand and in the water. Obviously their small size and short legs restrict the depth of water they can forage in. Also their short bills limit the depth they can probe to.
A small section of a large group of Red-necked Stints resting on one of the islands. There are about 57 birds in this image plus three Red-capped plovers.
Here are few of the birds from the above group shown resting/sleeping.
When I approached too close they stood up and typical for waders, stretched a leg and often a wing  ahead of the possible need to take flight. I left this group to continue their rest.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
This small to medium sized wader is found all around the Australian coastline and in suitable inland habitats, however the vast majority of birds are found along the east coast and nearby wetlands through Victoria and South Australia. A summer migrant, they breed in the high arctic tundra of northeast Siberia. The Australian summer population is estimated to be 140,000 birds and the flyway population is 160,000.
There were possibly as many as 200 Sharpies spread out over the islands when I visited.
A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper stretching - see following text for further comment.
A typical wader stretch, on one leg, with the other leg and a wing stretched out. This shot with the wing stretched shows the upper wing feathers, which keen birders who specialize in waders will know. For your information and to give the reader a sense of what is involved, the different feather types starting from the wing tip and working in to the bird’s back include, primaries, greater primary coverts, alula, secondaries, greater secondary coverts, median coverts, lesser coverts, marginal coverts, tertials and at the top of the back the mantle and then below that in order upper, lower and sub scapulars. Many birds have all of these feathers, certainly waders do, and all of these feathers together give waders amazing flight agility, speed and long distance endurance.
Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were on all of the islands in small and sometimes larger groups, sometimes individuals or two or three birds in places, often feeding together with a few Red-necked Stints. This small group were resting in the water on one leg. As I approached they moved away hopping on one leg. They seemed reluctant to end their rest and kept one leg tucked up. Perhaps they did not want to get the tucked up leg and foot wet in the hope they could continue their rest?
A bird’s appearance can change and make ID difficult at times – here the neck is stretched out giving a longer and slimmer appearance. Fluffing feathers out in the cold or holding them in
when its hot can also change the appearance of birds greatly.

Here the neck is drawn in, giving the bird a plump look.

Sharpie feeding in water. The midday sun made it hard to get any eye shine.
When feeding the birds are constantly on the move only stopping for a second to pick up a morsel.
The bird's shadow is directly below it.
Many waders grow new breeding plumage which is more colorful and more distinctive. Unfortunately if we want to see them at their best we need to go to the arctic tundra. We sometimes see breeding plumage in birds returned early from the north and before they set out north again. Here they moult to their non breeding plumage.
During the change-overs, plumage can be variable and make ID difficult in some cases.
Shorebirds, aka waders, are fascinating birds that have evolved to live in tidal zones, fresh to saline wetlands and tundra type habitats. Many have evolved to breed at high latitudes in the northern hemisphere and make long and arduous journeys to spend summer in the southern hemisphere as part to their DNA encoded life cycles.
Across the world, human development has destroyed many wader habitats including tidal zones and wetlands along the migration flyways that are crucial refueling stops for these long distance travellers.
Lets hope habitat destruction can be halted and even turned around so that we can continue to enjoy these truly marvelous birds each summer.

1 comment:

  1. New gear is looking good John, lovely quality images!