Bird Identification – Robins

Robins are common and widespread throughout the district. Some of them, like the Hooded Robin, are quite distinctive and unlikely to be confused. Others however, such the red-breasted ones can be a little challenging, especially when dealing with female and immature birds.

Yellow Robin

Best walks to see: Most sites in the area

Yellow Robin

Juvenile Yellow Robin

Probably the most widespread in the Yellow Robin. It is very adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats. Both male and female are quite similar, but young birds can be a little confusing.

Scarlet Robin

Best walks to see: Rise and Shine, Muckleford Forest, Gowar, Pilchers Bridge

Male Scarlet Robin

Female Scarlet Robin

The male has a distinctive scarlet breast and the female has a less showy colour which is rather more orange than the male. Not to be confused with the Flame Robin whose colour extends further up the throat – see below.

Flame Robin

Male Flame Robin

Flame Robin – female

Best walks to see: Muckleford Station, Walmer, Newstead Cemetery

Flame robins, as their name implies, have more of a flame or orange colouring. The colour also extends right up to its chin, unlike the Scarlet.

A migrant to this area, the Flame Robin is generally to be seen from Autumn until early spring.

Hooded Robin

Hooded Robin – male

Hooded Robin – juvenile

Best walks to see: Rise and Shine, Mia Mia, Mount Lofty

Less common than most of the robins in the area, this species tends to favour the drier and more westerly sites, although a population can be found at Mount Lofty at the eastern edge of its range here.

Red-capped Robin

Red-capped Robin male

Female Red-capped Robin – just a hint of red on the head

Best walks to see: Rise and Shine, Tarrengower

The Red-capped Robin is a striking bird that can be seen in some locations in the district, especially in autumn and winter. The photo above was taken in Castlemaine in my garden. This bird stayed for over a week before moving on.

And of course the complications such as the Mistletoebird. Although it has a bright red breast and is about the same size as robins this species is quite different to the robins. It is widespread in the area, and is the name implies, has a preference for Mistletoe.

Best walks to see: Kalimna, Muckleford Forest, Gowar, Rise and Shine

Mistletoe Bird

Exploring and recording data

A lot of birders and researchers use two main web sites to record bird information. Birdata is maintained by Birdlife Australia and Ebird is maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA. This has allowed the development of very detailed datasets of bird distribution, breeding, populations changes, the impact of changes to the environment, the impact of fire and such like. Birders also use them to share information about the location of rare and unusual species and of course to maintain records of their birding.

For beginners or those interested in finding a particular species these resources provide excellent information about current locations of individual species.

The databases can be accessed by anyone and are free. They can be accessed via websites and also via smartphone Apps.

http://birdata.birdlife.org.au

http://ebird.com

If you want to find out more about the birds of the area both sites provide up-to-date information. You can use them without registering for an account, but it is a good idea to register so that you can contribute your own bird lists. Both sites have their strengths and weaknesses – see the book for a discussion of this.

Note: Search results for a particular species will vary between these two sites as most people use only one site to record their data. However, a lot of my older eBird records have now been loaded into Birdata. Still – it is best to check both to be sure. The examples below have specified a date range of 2013-2018 to limit searches to the more recent records.

You can adjust these settings to suit. For example, some birds are migratory and will only be found in certain months. A good example is the Flame Robin which visits this area in Autumn-Winter. Other birds, such as many of the cuckoos, are summer visitors. It always pays to check sites in advance if you are looking for a particular species.

eBird  –  ebird.com

Find a particular site
Explore –> Hotspots –> Type in search term –> View details

Most of the walks in the book are in eBird along with a lot of other sites.
These lists give you an idea of what has been seen, how often and dates. Useful to help you plan a visit.

Explore a region:
Explore –> Explore a Region –> try: Victoria, Australia –>

This gives you all checklists. Click on the map in the top right corner and drill down (double click on map or click + button) to any area you are interested in until you see individual birding reports that appear as coloured markers. Click on a marker to get more information.

For individual species:
Explore –> Species Maps –> enter species –> drill down to local area

The map below shows the sites for Speckled Warbler – 2013-2018 in this area. You can click on a site to get the full list

Birdata  – birdata.birdlife.org.au

Explore a region:
Live Data Map on front page –> drill down by double-clicking

Find a species:

Explore –> Select species –> select data range –>  drill down by double-clicking the map or use the + key to zoom down to the local area where you will see lots of dots representing survey points. The map below shows a search for Hooded Robin in this region.

Entering data allows you to contribute to the collection of useful information. And for a beginner they are great learning tools as they provide a check on likely species.

Seen whilst birding

As you may have gathered, I am somewhat obsessed with observing and photographing birds. However, whilst out birding I am sometimes interrupted by other native animals, so I thought I might give an overview of the mammals that can be seen in the area that distract me whilst observing birds. As many are nocturnal they are hard to see, but if you don’t know what is possible you may never realize what is out there.

Although people often think of Australia as the home of the marsupials, in fact we also have a range of placentals. For many years I was involved in mammal survey work which involved travelling all around Victoria. I was fortunate enough to see and handle a wide range of our beautiful native animals. So – let’s have a look at what you can see around this area. All these photos were taken by me, although not all photographs are from the local district.

The Water Rat or Rakali (Hydromys chrysogaster) is far more common than people realize and is often active during the day. I have seen them around here in such diverse places as the Loddon River near Newstead and at Baringhup and further afield on the Avoca River. They are also common in Lake Wendouree in Ballarat in the midst of the tourist area where crowds and noise do not seem to affect them and neither do droughts. Lake Wendouree, The Loddon and the Avoca rivers all dried up in the big drought, but water rats have bounced back. Amazing resilience! I have also seen them swimming in the bay at Williamstown near the dockyards – not exactly a pristine natural environment.

This Rakali was photographed at Newstead.
I was actually trying to photograph a Sacred Kingfisher, but hey, sometimes non-birds do get in the way!

The word “rat” has all sorts of connotations, but in fact Australia has a range of rats related to, but quite different from, the rats you are likely to see around your house if you are unlucky. The house rats that you are most likely to see are the Black Rat (Rattus rattus), or more rarely the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus).

Black Rat – seen swimming in the river.
Can be confused with Rakali, but it does not have a white tip to the tail

However, we also have several native rats. In this region it is possible to see the Bush Rat (Rattus fuscipes) and in damper areas the Swamp Rat (Rattus lutreolus). These two species are from the same genus as the domestic rats, but favour bush areas and along damp zones in the case of the Swamp Rat. Both natives tend to be smaller, darker and with shorter tails (especially the Swamp Rat) than the Brown Rat. For inexperienced observers though it can be hard to tell at first glance.

Swamp Rat – can be seen during the day if you are quiet (like waiting for a bird to appear). Has a very short tail.

Moving on to the marsupials, the obvious ones are the Grey Kangaroo, ubiquitous even in town at times and the more secretive Black Wallaby that is more often than not solitary, but not uncommon throughout the Castlemaine Digging area. I am often out early in the mornings on my bike and regularly see them along the bush tracks.

Black Wallaby and young.

Of course a Grey Kangaroo is worth showing – a beautiful animal.

We also have a variety of small predators (Dasyurids) – marsupials that can be seen in the area. All have tiny but razor sharp teeth than can hurt if they get a soft spot as I know only too well! Much work has been done on creating nest boxes for the Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan (Phascogale tapoatafa). They tend to avoid humans but can sometimes be seen during the day moving rapidly about the place in search of food. This one ran straight up a brick wall when he saw me.

Brush-tailed Phascogale or Tuan on the move climbing the walls of our old house

Smaller than the Tuan are the Antechinus species. In the drier areas the Yellow-footed Antechinus (Antechinus flavipes) is very common, although rarely encountered unless you are observant. I have often seen them running up and down trees in full daylight at a variety of locations ranging from Rise and Shine, Muckleford, Vaughan Springs and Mount Beckworth near Clunes. Other species that can be seen include the Dusky Antechinus (Antechinus swainsonii), the largest of the group which​ favours wet forests and Agile Antechinus (Antechinus agilis), generally only in wetter areas like down towards Daylesford. All of these species are well known for the wild mating period and the subsequent death of all males, leaving only pregnant females to continue on to the following season.

Yellow-footed Antechinus – common in the dry forests.
This curious fellow was in Rise and Shine amongst fallen timber.

Dunnarts are also to be found in the drier areas to the north. The Fat-tailed Dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata) favours the drier grasslands and woodlands. It is one of my favourite marsupials.

Fat-tailed Dunnart in a typical pose – only likely in very dry areas

Only recently I was surprised to see signs of wombat out near Mount Alexander. These cute animals are more common south of Castlemaine in the aptly named Wombat Forest. They tend to produce almost cubic droppings, but I have no idea why!

Wombat and young

Although quite uncommon in the area, the Koala can be found in a few locations.

This one found a hot day in the Muckleford forest rather exhausting

The monotremes or egg-laying mammals are well known – the Echidna and the Platypus can both be found in the region. The Echidna is widespread throughout the area, but the Platypus can also be seen in various spots like along the Loddon River and Campaspe River near Axedale. Like the water rat, platypus can be found even in noisy urban areas – I have even seen platypus in the Yarra next to a noisy football ground in Heidelberg, but no football followers even knew it was there.

Echidnas are common throughout the region.
At times they can be very curious – this one was exploring the front door of our previous house

And last but not least are the possums. The Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps) is widespread in the area and at times is in competition with Tuans for nesting boxes as you may have seen in some videos on local websites.

Sugar Glider running down the tree trunk

Although considered a pest by some, the Brush-tailed Possum is to be admired for the way it has adapted to human environments – some might say too well.

Brush-tailed Possum

Last, but not least is the Ring-tailed Possum. A quiet and generally slow-moving possum that prefers dense vegetation, but has also adapted to human habitation as well.

Ring-tailed Possum

 

Gardens and birds

Roaming out in the bush does provide lots of fun when looking for birds, but in reality you can observe many species at home if you make some adjustments to your surroundings to provide suitable resources preferred by a range of birds. Some improvements such as extra vegetation takes time, but other changes such as water points and nest boxes can be added quickly.

Rufous Whistler having a good splash on a hot day – I love the way you can see the pink tongue of the bird as he cools off.

When aiming to attract birds to your garden the main things to remember are:

• Water is essential
• Birds will utilize all plants – native and others
• Importance of cover cannot be over-emphasized
• Nesting sites – consider adding some nest boxes

All the photos for this article have been taken in our garden – I have carefully located watering sites close to windows so that the house is really my bird hide. As I sit at my desk writing this I am watching a Crimson Rosella splashing in the water – very distracting when work needs to be done! In time, with a little patience you will see quite a range of birds, even if you live in an urban area. Birds are not fussy as long as you provide suitable resources that they need.


One of the ratbags of the area – a Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Although native plant species are often recommended, in reality birds will utilize a range of introduced species. In our garden the Eastern Spinebills love the Correas, but also spend a lot of time on Salvias and even the Tree Lucerne in flowering season. Silvereyes can often be seen around my fruit trees as well as foraging for insects amongst the roses. The neighbors’ butterfly bush that hangs over our fence attracts a lot of insects as well as a range of honeyeaters.


The closest we have to the flight of a humming bird – the Eastern Spinebill hovering as it takes nectar from a Salvia

Although it may be controversial to the purists, I prefer a mixed garden. In fact, some native gardens with a preponderance of heavy nectar plants can become over-run with aggressive species such as the Red Wattlebird that tends to drive smaller species away. Besides, I like to grow my own food, as well as bird food, so I will never have a purely native garden.


The Red-browed Finch is common in our garden and is often to be seen in groups of a dozen or more foraging on the ground in search of seeds

Feeding birds

On the vexed question of feeding birds there is a lot of controversy. Some take the hard line of “never”, which I feel will only alienate people. If you have ever visited RSPB reserves in the UK you will see a lot of bird feeders – in fact it is very common for people to feed birds in their gardens. In my view, it is important to have people interacting with wildlife and the home garden is a great place to start. We need to encourage engagement, not put people off with rigid rules.

Clearly there are bad practices and disease risks but on balance, limited provision of resources can be a plus for both people and the birds. If you are interested in recent research on supplementary feeding of Australian birds have a look at the work of Professor Daryl Jones of Griffith University. See:

http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/sites/www.birdsinbackyards.net/files/page/attachments/doc_13_guidelines_review.pdf

In summary, Daryl Jones recommends:

Ensure that the feeding station is cleaned daily and is located out of reach of potential predators such as cats.

• Provide high quality food. Do not provide bread, fatty meat or honey and water mixes. Instead use nectar mixes, good quality seed or meat with a low fat content.
• Vary the type of food provided and when it is available. Alternate between
nectar mixes and seed for example. Set it out at different times and not every day.
• Monitor the types of birds using the feeder. If introduced birds are becoming more common or populations that are visiting the feeder are becoming very large, then take a break from feeding for a while and then recommence with a different food type.
• Provide a bird bath

The single best thing to encourage birds is a supply of water. A simple flat, shallow bowl kept topped-up with fresh water will attract a range of birds. Make sure that the water bowls are sited near some cover, as smaller birds are often reluctant to approach open water sites – they prefer places where they can quickly dive back into cover. The image below ​shows a Rufous Whistler and a White-naped Honeyeater sharing the same bowl. It is interesting to watch different species sharing the same water source at times, particularly in hot weather.


Rufous Whistler and White-naped Honeyeater share the water bowl

Striated Pardalote

The Striated Pardalote breeds regularly in our garden – this year inhabiting a hollow in the wall. I must get some proper pardalote-friendly nesting sites ready for next season.


The Common Bronzewing with its trademark underwing pattern in full view

These birds prefer a deeper water source than the shallow bowls frequented by our honeyeaters and thornbills. They seem to like foaraging beneath our fruit trees and a group of Tree Lucerne for the seeds.


A tiny Spotted Pardalote

Has nested beneath my raised vegetable garden beds, digging out quite a deep tunnel for the nest.

The Silvereye is one of the more common birds in our garden, often seen in small flocks of a dozen or so foraging amongst the fruit trees, roses or anywhere else for that matter.

All of these birds can be seen in our garden near the centre of town – you don’t need to be out in the bush to enjoy the birds!

Birds of the night

Although not often seen, it is worth keeping an eye open and an ear cocked for the birds of the night. In my wanderings around Castlemaine and district I have come across a wide range of nocturnal birds. Often I am initially made aware of them by their calls – even right in town I have heard and seen a few different species. At times it is not the calls of the nocturnal birds, but rather the calls of harassing species such as honeyeaters or ravens that alert me to the presence of these cryptic birds.

So it is worthwhile to make sure that you are familiar with the calls of night birds so that in daylight you can have a look around in likely roosting sites. If you have one of the smartphone apps like Pizzey or Morcombe, it is worth becoming familiar with the various calls of the night. If you don’t have these apps, it is still possible to familiarize yourself with the calls via the bird call web site: http://www.xeno-canto.org – just do a search by name and you will get a variety of calls along with maps. One thing that will become apparent is the range of calls of each species. For example, the Southern Boobook is generally known from its distinctive two-tone call, but in reality it has a range of calls and the Xenocanto website is a good place to check these out as it provides a wide range of calls for each species.

Calls can vary with geographical location, time of the year and age of the bird, so to avoid confusion check these out. Then next time you hear an odd call at night you might be able to work out what it is.

Generally nocturnal birds are quite cryptic, but in time you can become familiar with likely locations. Generally dense cover is preferred by species such as the Boobook and Powerful owl, whilst hollows are the preferred spot for the Owlet-nightjar. For others, such as the Barn owl, even buildings can be a popular location.

So – what are you likely to see around Castlemaine? Even at our home near the heart of town we regularly hear the Boobook and the Barn Owl.

Barn owl – in the trees at Bells Swamp

The round white face is characteristic of this bird. To me this is a beautiful and delicate species. I have seen one in broad daylight flying up Lyttleton street being pursued by an unkindness of Ravens, a very aggressive bird. We often hear them calling at night up behind our place in town.

Best walks to see: Bells Swamp, any farming areas along the roads

Southern Boobook

The Boobook is another bird that I regularly hear calling at night in town. It can be found roosting during the day in dense thickets such as wattles. Their distinctive call can be heard in different parts of the town as well as out in the bush.

Best walks to see: Botanic gardens, Mt Alexander, Kalimna

Powerful Owl and chick

Our largest owl, this is a magnificent species to see. It is widespread and even pops up in towns.

Best walks to see: Botanic Gardens, Loddon River at Newstead, Pilchers Bridge

Owlet-nightjar – more common than you think – just hard to see

The Owlet-nightjar is a nice bird to see, often out sunning itself in warmer winter’s days. Although nominally nocturnal, this beautiful little bird is often out and about in daylight hours. Nest boxes are always worth checking as this species like to use them. See the back cover of the book.

Best walks to see: Kalimna, Rise and Shine, Walmer

Barking Owl – rare across the state

Although rare in this region now, the Barking Owl is one to look out for, or more likely to hear at night​, with its distinctive wuff-wuff call. Recently seen out Newstead way and heard at Rise and Shine.

Best walks to see: Rare but Newstead Rotunda, Rise and Shine, Mt Back Rd Tarrengower

The Tawny Frogmouth – sometimes referred to as an owl, but in fact quite a different species. They are fairly common in the area, but because of their cryptic behaviour often go un-observed. They like to hang around street lights in quieter areas to catch moths and other flying insects.

Best walks to see: Most places if you are observant, near street lights hawking moths

A young bird watching the world go by

White-throated Nightjars are very hard to see due to their cryptic nature. However, they have a distinctive call at dusk that you can hear in season between November and February. Sorry – no photos as I have never got close enough!

Best walks to see: Red, White and Blue, Gowar, Mia Mia

The related Spotted Nightjar has been recorded at Pilchers Bridge.

Bird Identification – Thornbills

Continuing with extensions to the book – how to sort out the thornbills…..

The thornbills are a charming and engaging group of birds when you manage to get close to them. But for beginners they are rather tricky to see – let alone identify. It helps to know what is likely in the area. If you become familiar with them via bird books or smartphone apps you will be able to narrow down the possibilites which makes it easier. Around Castlemaine you are likely to see:

Brown Thornbill
Striated Thornbill
Buff-rumped Thornbill
Yellow-rumped Thornbill
Yellow Thornbill
Weebill
White-browed Scrubwren
Speckled Warbler

However, with a bit of practice and a little bit of knowledge it is fairly easy to separate the different species. From a distance some species look rather similar. However, always take notice of behaviour and location. Some, like the Striated Thornbill, generally prefer being up in the canopy. The Brown Thornbill tends to be down lower in shrubbery as does the Buff-rumped Thornbill. The Yellow-rumped is more often seen on the ground and its bright yellow tail is obvious when they fly.

Brown Thornbill

Best walks to see: Widespread in the bush – Gowar, Kalimna, Coliban water race tracks and gardens in town

Brown Thornbill – side view where breast striations are hard to see

Brown Thornbill – striations are clear on the front. Little marking on the head. Sharp, pointed bill.

Striated Thornbill

Best walks to see: Coliban water race tracks, Muckleford, Folly Track, Tarrengower

Striated Thornbill – this bird is fluffed up after having a bath.
They love coming to bird baths

Another view of the Striated Thornbill

Yellow-rumped Thornbill

Best walks to see: Both Forest Creek tracks, Muckleford Station track, Mia Mia, Rise and Shine, Baringhup

Yellow-rumped Thornbill – often seen on the ground.
Distinctive yellow rump – very obvious when they fly.

Buff-rumped Thornbill

Best walks to see: Mt Alexander, Gower, Rise and Shine, Mia Mia, both Forest Creek Tracks, Campbells Creek Track

Buff-rumped Thornbill – rump is more buff than yellow.
Often low down in the foliage and sometimes can be confused with Yellow-rumped at first glance, but facial markings are different.

Yellow Thornbill

Best walks to see: Kalimna, Cambpells Creek Track, Shicer Gully, Rise and Shine, even in town in winter

Yellow Thornbill – another bird of the lower foliage.
Overall impression of yellow

Weebill

Best places to see: Kalimna, Mia Mia, Rise and Shine, Coliban water race walks

Weebill – often up high like the Striated, but the short, thick bill is diagnostic.

White-browed Scrubwren

Best walks to see: Vaughan Springs, Warburtons Bridge

White-browed Scrubwren – prefers low cover. White brow not always obvious, especially in younger birds.

Speckled Warbler

Best places to see: Shicer Gully, Gowar

Speckled Warbler – often hard to see. Distinctive striations

 

Bird Identification – Whistlers and Shrike-thrushes

The introduction to the book has some information on how to identify birds. Space constraints limited the amount of text. This and subsequent posts will extend the identification guide beyond the example species already covered.

Whistlers

Often noticed by their calls, especially in spring and early summer.

In the Castlemaine area you can find Rufous Whistler, Golden Whistler, Grey Shrike-thrush, Crested Shrike-tit, Crested Bellbird and rarely the Olive Whistler.

Mostly the males of these species are easy to tell apart, although at first glance the  Golden Whistler and Crested Shrike-tit have similarities with golden colours and black and white patterns on the head and breast. However, the Shrike-tit has quite a different bill, and at times the crest is visible. You can see this easily in the two images below.

Crested Shriketit

Best walks to see: Mia Mia, Rise and Shine, Shicer Gully, Vaughan Springs

Crested Shriketit

Golden Whistler

Best walks to see: Folly Track, Mt Alexander, Mt Lofty, Pilchers Bridge, Campbells Creek Track

Golden Whistler – male

The female Golden Whistler is a rather more plain bird with an overall impression of grey.

Golden Whistler male and female

Rufous Whistler

Best walks to see: Campbells Creek Track, Coliban water race tracks, Pichers Bridge, Tarrengower, Kalimna, Walmer NCR

The Rufous Whistler is the most common of this species around this area. In spring the calls can be heard far and wide from the towns out into the bush.

Rufous Whistler – male

The female Rufous Whistler can be distinguished from the female Golden Whistler as it has striations on her breast whereas the Golden has a plain breast.

Rufous Whistler – female. Note the striations

The Crested Bellbird has a distinctive and far-carrying call but is unlike to be confused with the two species above. Its habitat is more restricted and is found generally in the drier forests, particularly around the Mia Mia area (see Mia Mia walk map). It does overlap with the other whistlers, but its call always sets it apart, as does its colouration with a white face, unlike the Rufous Whistler. Its bill is shorter and thinner than the Rufous as well.

Crested Bellbird

Best walks to see: Mia Mia

Crested Bellbird

The Grey Shrike-thrush is widespread in the region for the towns to bushland. It has a remarkable vocal repertoire and its call carries long distances. Quite different colouration to the other species in this group.

Grey Shrike-thrush

Best walks to see: Widespread in most areas

Grey Shrike-thrush

Olive Whistler

Finally, if you are very lucky you might see an Olive Whistler. Rare in this area with the only recent sightings out Chewton way.

Best walks to see: Forest Creek – Golden Point

Olive Whistler – the only whistler more likely to be seen on the ground