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.