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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.

Gannet
Gannet

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.

Birds on the move

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.

Blue-faced Honeyeater in a Castlemaine garden this week. It was in the company of a juvenile.

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.

Black Honeyeater at Campbell’s Creek

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.

King Parrot (male) – a striking bird

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.

A young Grey Butcherbird on Mt Alexander recently

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.

A pair of Barking owls

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.

Young Yellow-footed Antechinus

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

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.

Out and about – updates

Forest Creek Track

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

 

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

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