Thursday, 24 March 2016

Heathland beauties

There are many types of heathland. Croajingolong National Park in East Gippsland has some excellent coastal heathlands with salt laden mist and strong winds adding to the leached infertile soils and fire as major forces shaping a unique and surprisingly rich plant community/ecosystem. Whenever visiting Mallacoota in Gippsland’s far east I can never resist at least one visit to the heathlands at Shipwreck Creek.

Driving out to Shipwreck there is time to think about the bird species I am hoping to find in the heath - they include Eastern Ground Parrot, Southern Emu-wren, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, Beautiful Firetail and Tawny-crowned Honeyeater. All of these somewhat uncommon and elusive species are to a great extent associated with heathlands and all can be found on the Shipwreck Creek heathlands.

On a recent visit the conditions were far from promising with cool windy and overcast weather and frequent light showers blowing in from Bass Strait.

As I crossed the bar across Shipwreck Creek on my way to the heathland just west of the creek the weather looked far from promising.
As light showers blew in from Bass Strait I searched the heathland for Ground Parrots and Emu-wrens.

My first target species encountered was a pair of Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters. The pair seemed engrossed in chasing one another and from time to time perched on dead branches still standing since the last deliberate fire (aimed at preserving heathland).

Tawny-crowned Honeyeater perched on dead branch with charcoal showing this small tree died in the last fire. Morecombe’s description of them includes “Secretive, keeps low, occasionally calls from high perch.”
Pizzey describes this honeyeater as “…slender, graceful, long billed…”. I agree – they are very attractive.
This bird was singing – a little unusual given it is autumn and the day was rather bleak. Their songs are beautiful and have been variously described as, lilting, flute-like, wistful, mellow, from softly muted to loudly ringing. I enjoyed the bright song as it drifted across the sombre heathland.
The bird moved and I followed – it continued to call from a new perch.

There were only two pairs of Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters on this section of heath – I was very lucky to have got close enough to one of them for some photos.

As I moved about the heath I ran into a Beautiful Firetail, or perhaps there were several, certainly not many, and single birds only at each brief encounter. They proved to be hard to approach for photos.
This fairly distant shot of a Firetail in poor light was tantalizing.

Eventually I found another Firetail, or perhaps the same earlier one. After several attempts to get close for photos I got lucky.

Not a bad photo but that stick in front of the bird would be a time consuming challenge to remove from the image.
The bird moved to a new perch close by. I moved up slowly, it continued to perch.
The bird looked my way as I took some photos.
The bird was relaxed enough to have a quick preen, or was this a nervous reaction?

Pizzey describes the Beautiful Firetail as a sturdy finch however this bird looks particularly plump with it feathers fluffed up in the cool conditions. Being mostly ground feeders they certainly have sturdy looking legs.

Given the conditions I was feeling pleased I had managed to capture some reasonable images of this elusive finch.

As another shower approached I moved towards the shelter of some Melaleuca ericifolia on the edge of the heathland where I was a little surprised to encounter more beauty in the form of four Spotted Pardalotes. These birds do not frequent heath and were probably making their way along the edge of the heath from one patch of forest to another. I couldn’t resist photographing one.

A bright jewel on a dull day at the edge of the heathland.

As another shower set in I decided it was time to leave the heathland. Against the odds I had been richly rewarded with several great bird encounters with some satisfying images safely stored on the camera card to take away with me. I had flushed one Ground Parrot and followed it for a couple more flushes before it disappeared. No sign of Emu-wrens or Heathwrens. Both species are there but were staying warm and dry out of sight low in the heath.

On the way back into Mallacoota I decided to stop at the Betka River estuary to check on the progress of a pair of Hooded Plovers with three chicks I had read about in “The Mallacoota Mouth” the local newsletter. Alas it was clear that all was not well – a large storm has wiped out the protected area and there were no chicks to be found in the company of two adult pairs of Hoodies at the river mouth.

The protected area was no protection from the storm waves which swept across the bar.
MK one of the parent Hooded Plovers at the Betka River estuary. I am guessing MK is one of the parents based on its behaviour at the site. Along with its mate they looked very nervous and dashed about the area. By comparison the other two adult birds were very relaxed and far less concerned by my presence.

A sad note to end a successful morning on the Shipwreck Creek heathland. Life is tough on an ocean beach and raising young is a great challenge. The locals had done a terrific job in providing protection for the chicks from people visiting this very popular area – I can imagine they would have felt particularly saddened by this outcome.

Post script on the Hooded Plovers:

Subsequent to publishing this post I sent a link to Renée Mead, Beach-nesting Birds Project Officer at BirdLife Australia, who kindly provided extra details based on information supplied by the local dedicated beach-nesting bird volunteer monitors. Here is the story copied from Renée’s email:

MK was not the parent of the chicks. There are x2 pairs (at the Betka Beach estuary) which battle over territory, and not uncommon to see them together, making sure that each pair stay in their ‘invisible boundary lines’.  x2 unbanded birds had the chicks. (Not the banded bird MK plus mate as I had assumed).

The nest was found on 15th Feb, and the 3 chicks hatched on the 14th March. The chicks at Betka River have an advantage, and that’s the estuary. When the surf gets too big, or the threats too extreme, they can retreat onto the river side of the beach. The nest would have been in that enclosure which you photographed, but the chicks don’t stay in there, so they survived that high tide. One chick survived for between 23-24 days old. The other two chicks survived for 6 days and 8 days. They cannot fly until 35 days.
(So 2 of the chicks had perished by the time I visited the site on the 22nd of March but one was still present). 

The notes in the data (collected by the local volunteer monitors) state that it was likely that a predator took the chicks. Not sure which type, fox, raven, magpie, bird of prey. Too hard to tell unfortunately (All are possible suspects at this and many sites).

So the chick was likely in hiding when you spotted the x4 hooded plovers together on the beach.

Sadly this last chick perished on about the 6th or 7th of April. As I said in the post “life is tough on an ocean beach” so hoodies need all the help they can get. Volunteer beach - nesting birds monitors are so important to help tip the balance in the birds’ favour. We all owe them a great debt of gratitude.

This case demonstrates how it is next to impossible to work out what has become of birds following an incident like a storm. Near daily monitoring is needed to be able to know how beach-nesting birds are fairing and when disaster strikes, to know what happened, so lessons can be learnt to help improve the management of these endangered birds.

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