Friday, 20 February 2015

Organ Pipes National Park

The small 121 hectare Organ Pipes National Park is located about 20km NW of Melbourne City on the Calder Highway opposite the Calder Raceway. While this park is best known for its geological features - Jacksons Creek has deeply incised the 2.5 – 2.8 million year old New Volcanic Group to expose impressive basalt column structures - the vegetation and associated birdlife is equally attractive.
For more information about the park and its geology and other history check out link:
The Organ Pipes - Jacksons Creek has exposed the basalt columns.
During a morning visit, 17 species of birds were seen on the short walk which descends steeply from the basalt plain and then follows Jacksons Creek in a narrow steep sided valley. The sign posted walk commences at the car park where there is a visitor information centre, picnic and toilet facilities.
The morning was cool and overcast however the birds were active affording a number of photo opportunities, though the low light was not ideal. One draw back to this park is its location just north of Melbourne Airport and being right under the flight path there was a regular stream of large passenger jets with engines roaring as they worked to gain altitude. The birds however showed no sign of being effected by the noise.
Path approaching Jacksons Creek and the Organ Pipes.
The park was created in 1972 based on 65 hectares of donated land, with additional land added the area is now 121 hectares. The degraded landscape has since been restored with removal of weeds and planting of many trees, shrubs and grasses. As a consequence there is an absence of older hollow bearing trees, so many nest boxes have been installed. A number of these were occupied by Common Brushtail Possums.
A scratch on the tree trunk with a stick below the nest box soon brought this possum’s head out to investigate the source of the scratching. Many birds and possums respond in this way, as they have no doubt been conditioned over thousands of years of evolution by predators such as Lace Monitors, which systematically search tree hollows for prey.   

While trying to identify some honeyeaters feeding high in a flowering eucalypt we found the somewhat elusive Crested Shrike-tit lower down in the same tree searching the bark for insects and spiders. This bird specializes in gleaning food from bark.

Crested Shrike-tit foraging for insects and spiders in the curled bark.
A couple of Dusky Woodswallows were busy just short of the Organ Pipes viewing area. The cause of their activity was soon discovered; they were feeding one young bird in an exposed nest located near the track in a dead wattle. On this visit by one of the parents, the young bird was keen to be fed however the adult bird had no food, it was just being protective at my approach. Feeding however did resume shortly after these photos were taken.
Feed me! The Dusky Woodswallow loose tangle nest is usually located in a tree hollow. As hollows are in short supply here this exposed location in a dead wattle had to do.
Sorry, no food this visit!
Some white wash on the basalt cliff above the organ pipes drew my attention as they indicated a possible raptor nest, especially a Peregrine Falcon nest. Scanning the cliff face a lone adult Peregrine was soon spotted resting on a rock ledge.
A perfect Peregrine resting and viewing ledge on cliff above the Organ Pipes and Jacksons Creek.
Lift off. I was lucky to capture the face and talons in focus as this shot was taken from quite some distance in low light with camera set on ISO2000, f/5.6 and shutter speed 1/500.
The Rosette Rock is a striking radial array of basalt columns. 
New Holland Honeyeater
New Holland Honeyeater with white beard showing.
At the viewing area for the Rosette Rock a small group of New Holland Honeyeaters were resting and preening following a bath in the creek. The photos show clearly why this species was once called White-bearded Honeyeater.
As we climbed back up the path to the car park three Rufous Whistlers followed close beside us as they foraged for insects in the dead wattles by the track. The male came close enough for some photos.
This male Rufous Whistler's pose looks like the bird is looking at me, however with eyes on the side of the head it is more likely looking for predators in the sky or for food on the nearby branch.
Perhaps the Whistler is now looking at me?
About 50 Tree Martins were busy hawking above the valley for small insect food and at times they came in close however their fast and erratic flight was beyond my camera’s auto-focus speed in the low light so no flight shots were possible. However one young bird, note the yellow gape, stopped for a rest in a dead tree by the track giving a photo opportunity, albeit against a bright sky background.
Juvenile Tree Martin.
As a nature escape from inner urban Melbourne I will definitely be visiting this small gem of a park again.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Tawny Frogmouths

The three Australian species of frogmouths (1), along with nightjars, the owlet nightjar and owls are strictly nocturnal, that is night active birds roosting by day and only becoming active after dark. The Tawny Frogmouth is possibly the most well known Australian night bird followed by the Southern Boobook and the Barn Owl.
Frogmouths and nightjars are not related to owls. On the taxonomic list of Australian birds (2) they are placed between pigeons and swifts and are probably most closely related to swifts. Owls are much further down the list coming well after raptors and after herons, ibis and spoonbills and before kingfishers. So frogmouths and nightjars evolved earlier than raptors and the more recently evolved owls.
Frogmouths derive their very apt name from their large bill and gape which when held wide open is very like the large mouth of frogs. In the past the Tawny was also called a Morepork or Mopoke, onomatopoeic names based mistakenly on the call of the Southern Boobook Owl. The Tawny Frogmouth’s common call is a “resonant, low, pulsing oom-oom-oom-oom, slow or rapid” (voice description taken from Pizzey and Knight).
The frogmouths and nightjars have evolved quite amazing camouflaged plumage, driven primarily by the need to remain undetected by predators during daylight hours when they are inactive and sleeping. In the case of the frogmouths their plumage matches the dead wood on which they mostly perch during the day. In addition to the colour match, frogmouths have developed another concealment strategy and that is to adopt an upright, bill pointing to the sky, dead limb pose. This pose is further enhanced by remaining very still, keeping the eyes closed to a slit and holding the feathers in close to the body to better resemble a tapering broken off branch. 
Note: enlarge photos with a left click of the mouse and then use the mouse wheel to scroll back and forth through the photos (can't view captions in this mode)
A male and female Tawny Frogmouth pair roosting together in a redgum woodland in mid July at the start of the breeding season.
Roosting together is a sign they are going to breed. At other times they roost alone.
The female has a brown shoulder and the male on left is striking the classic dead limb pose.
A pair perched together is a good sign that they are bonding ahead of breeding, which normally takes place between July and December – the two above were photographed on the 19th of July 2012, the start of the breeding season. Of course perching together tends to reduce the effectiveness of their dead limb disguise; I guess the need to procreate over-rules self interest, as any human parent knows.
Pair photographed at Tenterfield NSW on a very cold July morning. Their feathers are fluffed up for extra insulation. Again an adult pair roosting together at the start of the breeding season.
Very cold conditions are also a reason to over-rule the dead limb pose with feathers fluffed up for extra insulation as the birds in the photo above show. They were photographed at Tenterfield, NSW, which is high in the Great Dividing Range just south of the Queensland border. These two birds are roosting together in mid July, the start of the breeding season.

This bird was photographed just after dark at our campsite on Kilcowera Station located between the Hungerford – Thargomindah road and Currawinya National Park in remote outback Queensland. Even though it was a warm night the bird has fluffed up its feathers, as the dead limb pose is not required at night.
A pair roosting together in mid February well after the end of the July to December
breeding season.
A closer view of the pair in the photo above.
This pair were photographed in a redgum woodland near Eagle Point on the 9th of February 2015 well after the end of the breeding season when adult birds would not normally be roosting together.
Roosting pair from above photo taken from the opposite side in sunlight.
Downy feathers are visible on the right hand bird in this enlarged/cropped image.
On closer inspection of this cropped image of the two birds photographed from the opposite side, with a little sunlight on them, it became obvious that the bird in front, or on the right, still has some downy feathers showing through the plumage, indicating that this is a juvenile bird. Also the open eye is another pointer to a young inexperienced bird. An adult would look through a slit and would not open its eye and give away its disguise. So I conclude that the pair are sibling young which might explain why they are roosting together. Further evidence for this was the presence of two other birds roosting separately on nearby branches in the same tree. These are assumed to be the adult parent birds.
Adult bird roosting alone on a nearby branch in the same tree as the two young birds.
I think this is the all grey male.
The other adult bird roosting alone in same tree.
The hint of brown on side of face suggests this is the female.
Along with many other Australians who know the Tawny Frogmouth, I share a soft spot for these amazingly adapted birds of the night.
(1) The three Australian frogmouth species are: Tawny, Marbled and Papuan. The Tawny is widespread across Australia whereas the Papuan is restricted to Cape York Peninsula down to around Cairns and the Marbled has a population near the top of Cape York and another in North East NSW and South East Qld.
(2) The taxonomic list of birds (Christidas and Boles 2008) is arranged in descending order starting at the top with the Emu and Cassowary, our oldest or earliest evolved bird species and ending with finches as the most recently evolved species.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Bird bands and flags

The study of birds has long been aided by banding, as it is especially useful to learn about their movements, range and how long individuals live.
Small, light and durable metal bands imprinted with a code/number and possibly contact details are fitted to bird’s legs. Obviously to fit bands, birds must be in the hand, which means they must first be captured. The easiest way is to capture birds is as chicks, before they fly, at nests or in breeding rookeries for example. For older birds, mist nets or canon nets are required to catch flying or resting birds respectively.
Juvenile Crested Tern with metal band on right leg.
This Crested Tern is a juvenile and it has a metal leg band. The bird was photographed on the ocean beach at Lakes Entrance on the 14th of June 2012. Obviously it is not possible to read the imprinted information on the band unless the bird was either recaptured or found dead. To determine when and where the Tern was banded would require the number on the metal band.
In this case the Victoria Wader Study Group (VWSG) were able to advise that this juvenile bird, along with 649 other chicks, would have been banded by them at Corner Inlet in late 2011. They also advised that Crested Terns move east after breeding so finding one at Lakes Entrance five to six months after the banding is consistent. They also continue east and then north with some reaching as far as the Queensland border.
More recently birds are not only being banded but are often fitted with coloured plastic tags or flags which has the great advantage of allowing individual birds to be identified in the field with binoculars or a spotting scope or the details can be captured with a digital camera as the following photos show.
There are two methods for the use of plastic flags.
One method involves up to three small coloured flags often with one on the leg with the metal band and two on the other leg. The colour combination allows identification of an individual bird without the need to recapture it.
The colour leg flags on bird at left tells us this is Om/OLg. The middle bird is a juvenile and the other two are adults (fully black hoods). They were photographed at Mushroom Reef Beach, Flinders, on the Mornington Peninsula
The history of the flagged bird was tracked down via Dr. Grainne Maguire, BirdLife Australia, Project Manager, Beach-nesting Birds.
This bird is Om/OLg and it was banded at Berrys Beach on the 11th of February 2010 by Phillip Island Nature Parks. It was last seen at Kitty Miller Bay on Phillip Island on 17/07/12. From November 2012 onwards it has been resident at Flinders beach where I photographed it on 31/07/14. So the bird was 4.5 years old and for about the first 2 ½ years this bird lived on Phillip Island, then for the last 2 years at Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula. This bird was reported to have made several nesting attempts at Flinders Beach but alas all were unsuccessful.
Little Tern with flags, Jones Bay, Gippsland Lakes. This is the same three flag method used for the Hooded Plover above. I have no information for this bird.
The second flagging method involves just one flag with engraved letters and or a letter/number code, which enables individual birds to be identified.
Hooded Plover with flag CS at St Andrews Beach, Mornington Peninsula National Park.
Once again Dr. Grainne Maguire was able to advise that this bird was tagged in 2011 making it about 3 years old when it was photographed. The interesting information provided in this case was that CS was not a juvenile as the streaky head colour suggests but is a leucistic bird. For years it was being counted in the area as a young bird and over inflating breeding success values.
Hooded Plover LC at St Andrews Beach, December 2014.
 Hooded Plover LC was one of six adult HP’s on a section of St Andrews Beach, which at the time were breeding with one chick hatched and another bird sitting on eggs.
Juvenile Caspian Tern D3 with banded adult (parent?).
Juvenile Caspian Tern D3 was photographed with a parent bird, which is banded but not flagged, at Storm Point, Lake Victoria on the Gippsland Lakes on 5/02/15. Another adult bird was also close by so perhaps this was a young bird with its parents.
The sighting was reported to the Australian Government bird and bat banding scheme (ABBBS). In due course I received a letter advising that the bird was banded and flagged by the VWSG on the 12/11/2014 on Mud Island in Port Phillip Bay. The bird is about 3 months old and it has moved approximately 268 kms east since it was banded.
Tracking birds is now moving beyond bands and flags into a very high tech era with geo-locators being fitted to birds, which are then tracked by satellites. This has allowed the amazing migration flights of waders to and from their northern hemisphere breeding grounds in the high arctic to be mapped in exquisite detail.
But still, on the ground, much of the bird tracking via banding is achieved by the efforts of hard working and dedicated volunteers. The key to the success of all banding is to retrieve the bands or obtain reports of flagged birds throughout their lives. So when we see a flagged bird it is really useful to try and capture the colour and code and report it to ABBBS.
Or email photos and details to:

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.