Owlet-nightjar

Not many people have seen the Owlet-nightjar in the wild, but in my experience this beautiful little bird is actually much more common than you think. And interestingly, it is also more active during the day than you might expect for a nocturnal bird. Next time you are in the bush, spend a bit of time looking at likely spots. In my experience these birds can be found in a variety of hollows in many different areas. I have seen them in a range of habitats: Castlemaine in Kalimna Park, Rise and Shine out past Newstead, Wyperfeld, Horsham and Terrick Terrick north of Bendigo, as well as in Melbourne suburbs. You have probably seen nest boxes around the bush, but next time look a bit closer. This cute fellow was a bit sleepy but still kept a careful eye on me. This was mid-afternoon on a sunny day in winter when this bird was soaking up a bit of warmth.

This nestbox was probably intended for Phascogales or Sugar Gliders, but instead was the home of an Owlet-nightjar

Owlet-nightjar at dusk in Wyperfeld National Park

Camping in Wyperfeld towards evening I heard a mob of honeyeaters making a racket so I went over, expecting to see a Goshawk or similar, but instead was surprised to see an Owlet-nightjar fending off some angry White-plumed honeyeaters.

Broad daylight – Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, Clydesdale

Walking at the Rise and Shine Reserve near Newstead on a warm summer day I heard the sound of wing beats behind me and suddenly this little fellow landed on a branch right in front of me giving great views.

A typical spot in a horizontal branch – Terrick Terrick

Hollows of various types are a preferred roosting spot, often near a water source. I have seen these birds in diverse locations ranging from nest boxes to rotten fence posts as well as tree hollows. Next time you are wandering in the bush keep your eyes open – you never know what you might see. At night, have a listen for the call – usually just a single note repeated regularly. More than once this has alerted me to their presence in an area and I have later returned during the day to look for likely hollows. Spotlighting will not show them up, as unlike owls and possums, the eyes of the Owlet-nightjar do not reflect light.

Hard to spot from a distance – snoozing in the afternoon sun. Yarra River, Heidelberg. This hollow was next to a footbridge frequented by dozens of walkers, but this bird seemed unfazed by people walking by, all of whom had no idea what was there.

Recording Birds of the Night

In the Castlemaine district at the moment there is an intrepid bunch of people exploring night birds via the use of ‘Song Meters’ – recording devices set up in the forest for a week at a time, recording bush sounds from dusk until dawn. The aim is to expand our knowledge of all species, gain an idea of distribution and numbers and hopefully breeding. This is part of the Communities Listening for Nature Project developed by the Victorian National Parks Association and is run locally with involvement from Connecting Country.  Analysis of data collected is being done via  Museums of Victoria who are assisting with several community projects recording bush sounds.

A local “Detectability Study” has been completed at 30 sites on both public and private land to confirm which species can be reliably identified with this equipment. It is early days yet, but at quite a few  locations Powerful Owls have been recorded along with Owlet Nightjars and Tawny Frogmouths amongst others. We also have a few records of White-thoated Nightjars, Southern Boobooks  and Barn Owls.

A Song Meter

The project is now into the second phase with six Song Meters being deployed at a range of sites across Key Biodiversity Areas in the region – in particular the Muckleford Forest, the Rise and Shine area and the Sandon Forest. For more information on KBA’s check out the Birdlife KBA site.

The aim is to cover the breeding season of a variety of night birds.  If you are interested in further details about local night birds I have compiled a summary of all species, calling times and breeding seasons. See the attached PDF.

Night-birds-summary

Owlet Nighjar

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