Extreme birding – Pelagics

If you are interested in expanding your bird knowledge and seeing species rarely seen near land, then a trip out to the deep ocean is worth it. The pelagic zone begins at the low tide mark and extends out to the open ocean. It is an ecosystem largely dependent on the phytoplankton inhabiting the upper levels of the sea where most ocean organisms live.

Shy Albatross
Shy Albatross

However, it is not for the faint-hearted – or those who suffer from sea-sickness. Even on larger boats the open ocean can be quite rough and you need to hang on tight!

But the experience is worth it to be up close and personal with the likes of Albatross, Giant Petrels and Great-winged Petrels along with the delicate Fairy Prions and Storm petrels. These birds glide effortlessly across the wave tops. Species such as the Wandering Albatross have wingspans exceeding 3 metres – a majestic sight to see. The flight control that they demonstrate is truly remarkable. Rarely flapping their wings, gliding and soar at wave top height, changing direction or altitude with just a flick of their feathers.

Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross

To me, though, what is way more remarkable are the tiny Prions and Storm Petrels. Seeing such small and apparently fragile birds more than 40km from the nearest land is truly astonishing. How do they survive and thrive in such conditions?

Watching such delicate birds as the Wilson’s Storm Petrel and the Fairy Prion dancing across the water in search of food is wonderful to see. Note that these images were taken over 40km from the nearest land, south of Port Fairy in Victoria. How do such tiny birds do it?

The Fairy Prion weighs around 100g and has a body length on around 25cm and a wingspan of only 55-60cm. And yet you will see flocks flying close to the surface, often with legs dangling as they delicately dance across the surface feeding. In strong winds they soar up.

Fairy Prion
Fairy Prion

Even smaller than the Fairy Prion is the Grey-backed Storm-petrel which weighs in at less than 50g and has a body length less than 20cm. You will see them gliding and dancing across the waves, even in rough weather. A fantastic sight to see.

Grey-backed Storm-petrel
Grey-backed Storm-petrel ‘dancing’ across the waves

Apart from the Albatrosses, you are likely to see other large ocean-going birds such as the Great-winged Petrel and the Northern Giant Petrel. Much larger than prions or storm-petrels, these birds glide effortlessly above the waves.

Northern Giant Petrel
Northern Giant Petrel
Great-winged Petrel
Great-winged Petrel

All these ocean-going birds are referred to as tubenoses because of the tubes on the top of their bills. You can just see them in some of the photos above. Pelagic seabirds drink salt water and then excrete the excess salt via these tubes or specialized glands or tubes. The glands also draw out just enough water to dissolve salt into a highly concentrated saline solution, which runs out through the bird’s nostrils.

Gannets can also often be seen far from the coast, but they are not pelagic as they return to land every night. These birds are great to watch as they dive vertically from quite a height to catch unsuspecting fish.


Merlin Bird App

The Merlin Bird App has been around for a while, but until recently lacked any Australian data. This has now changed and it has two data sets covering northern Australia as well as the east coast and southern Australia. The App works on both Apple and Android devices, and it is free.

The data sets are based on information and images collected via eBird. If you have been an eBird contributor you have been part of it all. From the Apple Appstore or Google Play Store, just download the App and the relevant data files, such as South-eastern Australia, for your area. The data files are quite large and take a while to download.

Unlike the other available bird apps, Merlin provides two very useful functions that provide assistance with identification:

  1. Photo ID – identification of a bird directly from a photo
  2. Bird ID – a keying-out procedure where you answer questions and the possibilities are quickly narrowed down, which makes identification much easier

Photo ID

You don’t need to have the image on your phone. It works on images displayed on your camera back or a printout.

Having tested the app on photos on my phone, camera back images and even the cover of my book I can say that the results are impressive, although not yet 100%. Oddly, it failed to identify a clear image of an Owlet Nightjar, but correctly identified many species that I threw at it, such as robins, thornbills, a Barking Owl and even a mixed image of a Powerful Owl with downy chick.

If it can’t identify an image it offers to let you assist with your suggested identification and sharing of your images if you wish. In this way it will gradually become more accurate, based on the input of a range of people.

You can download two different data sets – north and east-south. It pays to make sure you have set your location as this helps with the accuracy of the App. The large data download ensures the ability to use the software without a network connection, which is handy when you are in more remote areas.

Bird ID

When you don’t have a photo, you can answer questions about a bird . These include:

Location – you can use GPS on your phone, enter a location manually or select from a map
Date – helps with migratory species
Size – a comparison set of outlines is provided
Colour – main colour that you select from a palette
General habitat and behaviour – fence or wire, trees, bushes and such like

And then you a provided with a list of potential species along with images, calls, distribution and general information. Again, you can confirm the accuracy, which helps improve the App.

Although not a full taxonomic key, the keying-out process is simple and easy to use. It should help beginners get going, and well as assist more experienced birders to narrow down possibilities.

What else can I say? It works as expected, is quite accurate and will quickly become more so as increasing numbers of people contribute. And more significantly it demonstrates the power of citizen science in producing very useful tools.

Raptors of the district

Black Kite – note the forked tail

With open plains, water bodies and forests this area is home to a variety of raptors. Like other bird species, a little knowledge of behaviour and habitat can help in identifying the various species, some of which are hard to separate at times.

Widespread across the open plains and farmland the most common species are the Whistling Kite, Black Kite, Brown Falcon, Kestrel and Black-shouldered Kite. If you are lucky you might also see the Australasian Hobby or the Black Falcon. The best raptor country is around the Moolort Plains and a little further afield on the road from Newstead towards Clunes.

Nankeen Kestrel

Black-shouldered Kite juvenile – note brown head

Both the Kestrel and the Black-shouldered Kite hover over the ground as they hunt for food. They are expert at holding a position with hardly a wing flicker if the wind is blowing. Quite remarkable to watch.

Whistling Kite

To give some idea of scale here is a Wedge-tailed Eagle being harassed by a Whistling Kite

The Brown Falcon has a variety of colour gradations from very pale to quiet dark. Although a falcon like the Peregrine and Hobby, it is a much slower flier. It is common in grazing areas and open country and is known to be a good snake catcher.

Brown Falcon – pale morph

Brown Falcon – dark morph

Swamp Harrier 

Bothe the Swamp and the Spotted Harriers can be seen in the district. Both favour areas around water but can also be seen quartering pastures and gran crops looking for food. The Swamp Harrier has a distinctive White rump. Flight tends to be slow on upswept wings.

Brown Goshawk

The forests are frequented by the Brown Goshawk and Collared Sparrowhawk. These two species are quire hard to tell apart – even experienced birders sometimes have trouble as evidenced on Facebook groups concerned with bird identification. Both are also common around town in Castlemaine. We often see them in our central garden.

Another lesser know forest dweller is the Square-tailed Kite. It can be seen skimming the tree-tops in search of prey. In this area it can be seen around Rise and Shine and the Muckleford Forest. It has a white head which helps in differentiating it from the Whistling Kite.

Square-tailed Kite

More likely to be seen near cliffs and high vantage points is the spectacular Peregrine Falcon – the fastest bird clocked at 390kmh in a dive. In this are it can be seen around Mt Alexander, although I have also seen it out on the Moolort Plains. They also breed on tall building in cities with a well-known site in Melbourne.

Peregrine Falcon

Also to be seen in open country is the Hobby – in some ways a smaller version of the peregrine, with pointed wings and rapid flight. The Hobby can be identified by its brownish breast.

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


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.


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
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


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.


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