Sunday, 17 January 2016

Latham’s Snipe

Latham’s Snipe (Gallinago hardwickii) are medium sized migrant shorebirds (waders) which breed in northern Japan, nearby Sakhalin and Ussuriland and winter in south eastern Australia. This snipe, once common is southeast Australia, was first described by John Latham (1740-1837) ornithologist (1), from a specimen collected in Tasmania.

Latham’s Snipe showing bold patterns and subtle colours – the rich rufous central tail feathers are not always as visible as they are in this shot.
 While Latham’s Snipe display bold patterns at close range they are cryptic in the field, blending in beautifully with their marsh and rough tussock - grassland habitats usually located in or near fresh water wetlands. They can be found in coastal wetlands and in suitable inland habitats, including high alpine grasslands and bogs.

They are extremely wary birds, mostly found by flushing when they burst into rapid jinking (zig zag) flight accompanied by a rasping ‘chak’ alarm call, often diving into dense cover not far from the flush point. Once a legal game bird in Australia, it is not surprising they are cautious and hard to approach. The word “sniper” once referred to a man who could shoot snipe.

On the other hand, they are sometimes found resting in relatively open situations along wetland margins during the day including public parks in urban areas where they become a little less wary when acclimatised to the presence of humans. They are mostly dawn, dusk and moonlight night feeders however this is not always the case as the bird in these photos demonstrates.

The bird in the photographs of this post was found during a Latham’s Snipe survey I volunteered for. The subject bird, somewhat atypically, was out feeding mid morning on a mowed grass vacant allotment at the Toonalook Waters housing estate in Paynesville.

Western section of Toonalook Waters Estate lagoon taken from bridge.
Unfortunately, once the estate is fully developed there will be little suitable Latham’s Snipe habitat left. The development and use of backyards shows little appreciation of the wetland habitat – perhaps the main attraction for owners is a pretty view of water and the rest is problematic, even a threat, to be fenced out.

The bird was engrossed in feeding and the light was just right, a perfect photo opportunity too good to pass up for this hard to photograph species. So I took the liberty of driving onto the vacant allotment to get close enough for photos. Motor vehicles often make great hides as many bird species do not see them as threatening and do not recognise the humans inside. I would certainly have had no hope approaching on foot to get close enough for good shots.

The bird continued to feed, probing the grass with its long straight bill and from time to time “jack hammering” at some tasty morsel buried in the soil. I tried to capture photos of the activity, hoping to get some shots with food items visible in the bill for identification before they went down the hatch.

Probing the grass for food items.
While probing for food an eye is looking out for predators.
Bill still partially open following consumption of a food item I tried to capture in the bill before swallowing – the bird was too fast for me.
Eventually after several failed shots this photo just caught the food before it was swallowed – the tail end of a Cockchafer larva (3rd instar) is clearly visible.

Latham’s Snipe consume a wide range of foods including insects, spiders, earthworms and also seeds. However, on this occasion I think the bird’s probing and hammering was focused on Cockchafer larva.

Snipe have relatively large eyes which are no doubt useful for foraging at night and the eyes are set high on the head, giving these ground dwellers an exceptionally good view of the sky above. Also the eye position allows vision to the rear. They seem to have all angles covered.
This was my last photo, I was way too slow to capture the amazing burst of speed as the bird launched and then rocketed off over the Cumbungi to an island in the lagoon.

The bird was spooked and it stopped foraging.  It is about to take flight; the body is tilted forward.

(1)  You can see more on John Latham here:

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Baillon’s Crake

Baillon’s Crake (Porzana pusilla) is the smallest of the three Porzana genus crakes found in Australia and is named after Louis Baillon (1778-1855) a French professional naturalist. This species is widely distributed across Eurasia from Spain to Japan and is found in the Southern Hemisphere in East Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Click on images to enlarge.

Adult Baillon’s Crake
These water birds inhabit dense vegetation generally around the margins of fresh or saline wetlands. As for most rails and crakes, their secretive and wary behaviour, plus their very small size, makes them hard to find and see as they often only venture to the margins of their preferred dense vegetation habitat early in the morning or late in the day. They are easily frightened and retreat rapidly into cover. When they do emerge into more open habitat to feed, often along the margins of dense vegetation at the water’s edge, they move rapidly and nervously forward, only stopping very briefly to pick up and consume a food item.

So getting photos of these birds is challenging.

When I only knew the crakes from images in bird books and field guides I had the mistaken impression that crakes are much larger than they actually are. So when I saw my first crake, an Australian Spotted Crake (19-22cm) I was somewhat shocked to find they were only about the size of a Common Starling (20-21cm). I suspect this is a common experience. The Baillon’s, at 15 to 16 cm long is even smaller, about the size of a Sparrow or a Red-capped Plover. So when in the field looking for crakes we need to think small and pay close attention to their visually complex habitat, ideally with great patience from a concealed position.

I recently had the opportunity to photograph an adult Baillon’s Crake and its young chicks on a local farm dam. A hide was required to get close enough for photos and to allow observation without frightening the birds into cover.

View from the hide to a section of the dam where the Crakes in this post were photographed.
This dragonfly perched on the camera lens hood for most of the photo session.
While I observed the adult and the young crakes at the dam for a total of about 3 hours during two separate sessions in the hide, I was only able to get reasonable photos in one location during a 10 to 15 minute period. The adult only put in one appearance for less than a minute. The chicks were a little more obliging being clearly, but perhaps foolishly, less cautious. The chicks need to grow rapidly through that period when they are very vulnerable which means paradoxically they have to spend more time foraging for food in the open.

It was hard to estimate the number of birds present as it was impossible to see them all at once in one area. However, it appeared there were two adults (a rather obvious requirement I guess) and up to five young (clutch size 4-8). There looked to be young at three stages of growth. So if these different sized chicks are all from the one brood, this is possibly explained by the fact that the hatching of the eggs is asynchronous. In other words, incubation starts with the first egg laid, with eggs laid at 24 hour intervals.

Finally one of the adult birds puts in an appearance.
The bird did not stop at any stage as it walked about briefly in the open.
This photo is a little soft however has been included because it shows clearly the large feet which are used very effectively to walk across floating vegetation.
One of three chicks foraging in this area.
This chick stopped briefly to preen and stretch.
The chicks also have large feet.
The chicks rarely stopped, so many of the photos are taken of birds on the move.
A brief head-up stop to survey the immediate area.
The areas they searched for food ranged from up in the long grass above the dam edge and in the water when they often plunged their heads in to pick a food item.
This was my last and closest photo of a foraging chick.
The last photo above was taken just before a small gust of wind swayed the grass and reeds and the young birds took fright and disappeared into the thick vegetation – they did not emerge again. Some 15 minutes later, I called it quits and packed up the session thankful to have been able to get some photos at last and observe these cute but shy birds at close range.

There are of course always other animals and activity to view from the hide while waiting for the target species to appear. A lone Australasian Grebe kept me entertained as it moved about the dam diving for food and foraging amongst the Cumbungi.

The grebe has just popped up from a dive.
Encounter between the Grebe and a Long-necked Turtle.
As I drove away from the dam I was closely watched by two Swamp Wallabies.