Birding in Castlemaine – a long history

Many people do not realize that birding has a long history in Castlemaine. Neither did I until I began researching the area, spurred on by the enigmatic ‘Leach Bird Fountain’. This still exists in Kalimna – see the book for directions and a picture of how it looks today in the Kalimna Walk section.

Hugh Leach standing at the top of Kalimna – late 1920’s. The cairn is still there.

The well-dressed naturalist of the 1920’s – blue serge suit, spats, stout boots, homburg hat – are you properly dressed for the field? 

 My research initially took a while to get going given the paucity of information. Who was Leach? What did he do? Why was he remembered so? It took a long time and lots of dead ends with some confusions thrown in. There is a well known early bird book written by J.A. Leach, who was more or less a contemporary of Hugh Leach, but no relation.


The Leach Fountain in 1929

The tale of how I tracked down the man is worth telling in summary. It all started when Max Schlacter started asking around and put a short note on the Castlemaine Field Naturalists web site. This elicited a response from a woman in the Grampians who informed us that she was a relative of Hugh. And did we know that Hugh was a keen photographer? Not only that – she had one of his original glass lantern slides – showing of all things a Swift – extremely hard to see let alone photograph. More tantilizingly, in the 1990’s she had seen a whole milk crate full of glass plate negatives and lantern slides.

Regent Honeyeater – photographed in the 1920’s.
No longer to be found here…..

 The hunt was on! Suffice to say that there were wrong phone numbers, people who had moved interstate and a hint that the glass plates were now in Queensland. Finally word must have filtered through the family because I received a phone call from Mike Leach – grandson of Hugh Leach. Not only did he have the milk crate, but he was coming to Castlemaine next week – did I want a look?  What a question…..

 Mike arrived at our place with the box – what a treasure trove of history! Not only were there over 200 slides – mostly negatives, but also some postives which were the ‘lantern slides’ used in very old projectors. It soon became clear that Hugh was a larger-than-life evangelist about birds.

Red Wattlebird – good eating apparently……

Using Trove it became apparent that Hugh was a good singer, captain of the rifle club, won prizes for his roses, was involved in the early stages of the Gould League of Birds and so it went on….. he was Head teacher at St Arnaud North School and later Head Teacher at Barkers Creek School. He also gave public lectures about birds encouraging conservation, illustrated with the lantern slides we now have. Chris Timewell dredged up family records form electoral rolls, newspaper clippings and such like to track movements and flesh out the family tree.

My research into the school records at St Arnaud gave a glimpse of the man through the school council minutes minutes – in books exactly the same as the one below used for his writing. He was clearly persistent with his school council, encouraging them to provide better water tanks for the school and then the construction of a dam to allow garden improvements. But his powers of persuasion were further demonstrated when he convinced the school council to move his house, which was attached to the school, to a separate location. I guess he and his family did not like living attached to the school – or maybe his wife Mary wanted a bit of space – who knows? The council clearly obliged and the house was moved.

Along with the plates was a photo album, with a dedication from the Bird Club.  More interesting were the first three chapters of a book that Hugh had started to write, called ‘The Bird Lover’. Tantilizingly, the notebook was full, but had a ‘to be continued’….. at the end. Alas we have never located any further chapters.

Draft of ‘The Bird Lover’ – written in a recycled School Committee Book – maybe he wrote it during boring committee meetings?

 However, further research has revealed that these chapters, along with many photos from the plates, ended up as articles in ‘The Emu’ – still the leading Australian ornithological journal today. The articles are almost word-for-word with the notebook.

Not an approved method of bird photography today!
Just hold a young bird in your hand to get the parent……

 Research continues with the assistance of Stewart Leach, great-grandson of Hugh, who has paid for the full restoration and scanning of the plates, some of which were a bit the worse for wear. Stewart is still trawling the widespread family looking for more pieces of the jigsaw. Hopefully there will be more to follow.

Hugh A.C. Leach publications

These have quite a few of his photos.

 The Emu

The birds of Central Northern Victoria
H Leach – Emu , Vol. 28 No. 2 Pages 83 – 99, Published 1 December 1928

Hugh A.C. Leach – Emu , Vol. 29 No. 1 Pages 45 – 47, Published 1 September 1929

Notes on the White-Winged Chough.
Hugh A.C. Leach – Emu , Vol. 29 No. 2 Pages 130 – 132, Published 1 December 1929

Honeyeaters and Cuckoos
H.A.C. Leach – Emu , Vol. 28 No. 3 Pages 177 – 182, Published 1 March 1928

The School Paper

Tip, Tip, Top O’ the Wattle
Hugh A. C. Leach – School Paper : Grades V and VI , October no. 265 1920; (p. 132-133)

The Birds of St. Arnaud
Hugh A. C. Leach – School Paper : Grades V and VI , October no. 265 1920; (p. 138-140)

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

Book Contents

The book is a comprehensive guide to walking and birding in the Castlemaine district. There are over 200 pages covering more than 40 walking sites plus a section on ephemeral swamps.

Each walk has the following – site description, how to get there, walking guide, distance and difficulty, detailed map, likely birds, site notes

In addition there are sections on:

Birds and how to identify them
Bird watching – tricks of the trade
Contributing to our knowledge of birds
Getting involved
Record keeping
Accessibility Guide
Gardens and birds
Native mammals of the area
Checklist – Birds of the Castlemaine Region