The aim of this book is to provide different avenues to enjoy the bush around Victoria. It is intended both for those interested in birds and where to find them, as well as providing a guide to a variety of walks for anyone who wants to get out and about in the bush. Walks vary in difficulty and length, so there should be something for everyone. And for the more adventurous, at most locations suggestions are offered for extensions to the main walk. The book is spiral bound to facilitate having maps open in the field without breaking the book spine. Those with mobility issues who still want to get out and about are also catered for with a guide to suitable walks in the Accessibility section at the end of the book. Several of the walks are suitable for mobility scooters and children in strollers. Of course there is always an element of serendipity when looking for birds, but the aim has been to provide a useful guide to what to look for in each area. The approach is based on my very successful Bird Walks of Castlemaine. Clearly this book struck a chord with many people and now I am expanding my horizons.
Emerging from my Covid-induced hiatus I thought a few updates would be in order. Although my wanderings in search of birds have been constrained, I have been busy. You may have already seen my recent presentation on Birding For Beginners run by Connecting Country. Video available here.
A surprising number of online participants joined this event and we had fully booked bird walks after the talk. Interesting to meet a lot of new people and hopefully I have inspired a few to get out and about.
The book continues to sell, even during lockdowns – thanks to all who have bought a copy.
Before Covid I was already working on a new book – originally it was to be “Birding by Rail”. About ten sites were fully documented before things locked down.
I have always tried to reduce my impact on the environment – not fashionable in some quarters I know, but that is just me. My birding tends to be fairly local. At times though I wanted to expand my birding experiences. Although I have always driven a small, fuel efficient car I realized that wider travel for birding could be relatively easy via trains. So I set out to see if it was possible.
It is all very well to talk about carbon footprints. But actually doing something requires a change of habits and lifestyle. Hopefully this book will give you ideas as to ways that you can take positive action. It can be a lot of fun to change the way you travel. And with kids it can quickly become an adventure.
Being based in Castlemaine, we started off with a simple hop on the train to Kyneton. Worked a treat and allowed us to explore an area along the Campaspe River we had never noticed. A major test was then decided – why not Bairnsdale? Crazy, hey? In fact it proved to be so easy. A train from Castlemaine to Southern Cross and then a direct link to Bairnsdale. No more hideous Melbourne traffic, the horrible tunnel and all its fumes, nor the sheer waste of time sitting in a car. Instead we sat back and chatted, read, wrote bits of this book and caught up on email. We arrived refreshed and feeling way more productive. So the second and third walks were sorted. And so it went.
However, due to changing circumstances I have now expanded it to “Bird Walks of Victoria” given that some people (me included!) are still a little wary of travelling in confined spaces. It will have the same style and format as Castlemaine Bird Walks, just on a bigger scale, but still with the train travel option. I set myself a target of two years to do it. One year has now vanished, but I am still on course to finish by this time next year.
The aim is not to replicate other bird guides, but to offer a curated selection of good bird walks – both near railway stations and further afield. More information to come as I get out and about much more. I will publish a few teasers of walks on this blog when they have been tested a bit more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Photo ID – identification of a bird directly from a photo
Bird ID – a keying-out procedure where you answer questions and the possibilities are quickly narrowed down, which makes identification much easier
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.
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.
There have been reports from a few places around Castlemaine of unusual birds appearing recently. Species such as honeyeaters do tend to follow the blossoms as do lorikeets. Blue-faced Honeyeaters have been popping up in local gardens this week. Although not unknown in the area, it is interesting to see more of this species appear.
Out Campbell’s Creek way there have been reports of Black Honeyeater, another species of the dry country not often seen this far south. There have been reports as far south as Creswick, Ballarat and Colac in recent weeks – so keep an eye out for this bird as movement is obviously occurring, possibly due to dry conditions further north.
Also at Campbell’s Creek this week a King parrot has been reported. Strangely, in the same area as the Black Honeyeater. These beautiful parrots are usually seen in wetter habitats, for example around Blackwood and Trentham. Unusual sighting for this area.
Another unusual species that has been rare in the Castlemaine area is Grey Butcherbird. Common in a lot of different areas both north and south of here, it is an unusual sighting locally. However, there have been recent sightings at Mount Alexander and even in a Castlemaine Garden. Their beautiful carolling call in the mornings is quite an experience.
One of my favourites, the Barking Owl, has been reported on eBird again out Newstead way. Alas I didn’t mange to catch up with this pair as they seem to have moved on already.
And as an aside of ‘Seen Whilst Birding’ I had fun observing a family of young Yellow-footed Antechinus the other day. Great fun to watch.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best walks to see: Most sites in the area
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.
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.
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 – 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 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
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.
The track has recently had some major refurbishment from the start all the way to Colles Road. The surface has been improved and sections have been re-routed to avoid the muddy lower areas of the path. Great improvement for cyclists and those with accessibility issues. Re-routes are minor and do not impact on the accuracy of the map in the book.
Interesting recent sightings
Muckleford Station White-browed Babblers are breeding again
Powerful owls recorded at Botanic Gardens, Newstead and Gowar
A recent walk I ran for FOBIF at Gowar recorded 38 species
Rise and Shine extension walk at Drury Lane has recently had good numbers of Black-chinned Honeyeaters, Diamond Firetails and White-browed Babblers
Brights Lane has good numbers of parrots, probably attracted by the hollows in the big old trees as well as Brown Falcons
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 NatureProject 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.