Lawrence Rocks …

The view from outer space (courtesy of Google Earth) shows the guano on Lawrence Rocks. You can also just make out a tiny spot more on Point Danger, the nearest point on the mainland. The cloacas at work belong to these …

Australasian Gannet

The colony on the rocks spilled over onto Point Danger, the only mainland breeding colony of Australasian Gannets. It’s survival has been greatly assisted by fencing that keeps out foxes and other terrestrial predators.

The rocks also provide a resting place for Black-faced Cormorants and Australian Fur Seals. In winter the White-fronted Terns can usually be seen here. Crested Terns are common all year.

Putting Out the Mugarbage …

Not many people get to resign at 93 years of age, Mr Mugabe can put that on his list of outstanding achievements.

Achievements like turning the foodbowl of Africa into a net food importer, reducing the country’s life expectancy by more than 18 years, attaining staggering rates of inflation and unemployment. Simultaneously he and his allies helped themselves to the mineral resources and development funds and looked after themselves very nicely.

Those allies included the Zanu-PF machine, the military and Mr Mnangagwa. They had no problem with kleptocracy enforced by violent suppression of an impoverished and long-suffering people. Their problem was the spectre of the Amazing Grace gathering the reins of power into her hands and cleaning out the old order.

What now for Zimbabwe? Probably more of the same … but it could have been worse.

Sadly, the opportunities for it to be much better were missed long ago.

The border with Zambia … Zimbabwe starts where the paint stops.

The Magic of the Internet …

Stuck in Melbourne between a rehearsal and a gig. Totally bored, and just to prove it …


This is of course the Hollywood version, in real life you die.

Don’t believe me then volunteer for a double blind crossover trial. It is, after all, the gold standard for clinical trials and indeed the subject of a scholarly article in the British Medical Journal of December 2003 …

Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials
Gordon C S Smith, professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Cambridge University, Cambridge CB2 2QQ,
Jill P Pell, consultant, Department of Public Health, Greater Glasgow NHS Board, Glasgow G3 8YU
To determine whether parachutes are effective in
preventing major trauma related to gravitational challenge.
Systematic review of randomised controlled trials.
Data sources:
Medline, Web of Science, Embase, and the Cochrane
Library databases; appropriate internet sites and citation lists.
Study selection:
Studies showing the effects of using a parachute
during free fall.
Main outcome measure
Death or major trauma, defined as an injury
severity score > 15.
We were unable to identify any randomised controlled
trials of parachute intervention.
As with many interventions intended to prevent ill health, the effectiveness of parachutes has not been subjected to rigorous evaluation by using randomised controlled trials. Advocates of evidence based medicine have criticised the adoption of interventions evaluated by using only observational data. We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.   BMJ 2003;327:1459-1461.

Ultra K …

Many birds make long journeys over the sea. They’re not all sea birds, for instance about two-thirds of the migratory song birds of North America cross the Gulf of Mexico twice each year. North-south that’s about 850 km (530 miles). Tiny warblers and hummingbirds regularly venturing further from the shore than many of the birds we think of as seabirds.

So what is a seabird?

Before I launch into a list of characteristics let’s think about the difference between a fish and a scuba diver. One lives in the sea, the other makes special preparations and chooses their conditions for a brief visit. So it is with migratory birds, they fuel up first by laying down fat. They do their best to choose periods when the weather is favorable. Then they make their journey. They don’t eat or drink en route. If they get it wrong they die.

On the other hand true seabirds can feed and drink at sea, withstand the weather and stay out there for long periods, sometimes years. They don’t quite fit the fish analogy because they can’t lay their eggs on the water so they need suitable breeding sites on land.

If you head to the sea and stand on a cliff you see birds like gulls, terns, cormorants and gannets. These are birds of inshore waters, the neritic zone. They can drink salt water and secrete excess salt from a gland adjacent to their nose. They generally don’t venture far from shore, they may wander widely during the non-breeding season but feed locally when they have chicks to rear. Several families of birds fit the bill. Depending on which cliff you choose you may see penguins, auks, gannets, boobies, pelicans or frigatebirds.

Out beyond the continental shelf is the pelagic zone. Out here one family dominates, the Procellariiformes, procella being Latin for storm. In English the tubenoses or albatrosses and petrels. They wander long distances even when feeding young which means just one chick every year or two. They produce an oil in their stomach which is stored in the proventriculus. It is composed of wax esters and triglycerides and is solid at room temperature. At 9.6 kcal/gram it is a very efficient way of storing energy with the advantage over fat that it can be regurgitated. It can be fed to their chick or sprayed over predators. The smell is said to be very offensive and very persistent.

Long lives, delayed reproductive maturity followed by low birthrate, stable population size are all features of a life strategy designated as K. Plague locusts and mice have short lives, many off spring, population boom and bust. These and many others are R stategists. Procellariforms are very K. If their population is depressed because of an increased mortality rate soon extinction beckons.

The White-chinned Petrel, Procellaria aequinoctialis, is a fairly typical tubenose that was numerous off Portland the other day. They breed on many of the subantarctic islands. The species is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, the main threatening processes are long-line fishing and habitat degradation on the breeding islands.

White-chinned Petrel
White-chinned Petrel

All At Sea …

… again, from Portland this time.

Portland is close to the western extremity of the Victorian coast. It was settled illegally by the Henty brothers back in 1834. It provides a reasonable harbour which has been important in whaling and fishing and these days live meat and woodchip exports.

The attraction for the sea bird enthusiast is its proximity to the edge of the continental shelf, where the lighter blue meets the darker blue in the image above. Most of Victoria’s coast is deep water deprived. Upwelling water at the shelf edge brings in the long distance wanderers of the sea, the true pelagics.

So eight birdos assembled on the dock in the early morning looking like they had been dressed by a Salvation Army Op shop and carrying about 80,000 dollars worth of optics. Tragics in search of pelagics.

The sea was initially a metre plus slop on top of almost no swell whatever, reasonably comfortable for the 50 km ride out to the shelf. Once there the dispensing of handfuls of shark liver soon attracts the birds which are then continuously and thoroughly depixellated to the machine gun like sound of overheating motor drives … for about four hours.

It was not a day of great variety. White-chinned Petrels dominated the scene with Shy Albatrosses running second, two flavours of Shearwater showed themselves at various times along with the odd Fairy Prion and a few also rans.

Shy Albatross
Fairy Prion

The wind and sea picked up as the day wore on heading towards a forecast 30 knots. We had a less comfortable and fairly wet ride home.

On the way we stopped for a look at Lawrence Rocks just off Point Danger at the entrance to Portland Bay. It is home to a massive breeding colony of Australasian Gannets and a good place to rest for a variety of terns, cormorants and fur seals.

Lawrence Rocks
Australasian Gannet

Natural Newstead …

Well I’m back from Broome, life is back to normal. I was wondering how to conjure up a post from the ordinary, the  humdrum. It occurred to me to post some recent photos of Australian Reed-warbler.

For those of you who enjoy the natural history side of the blog, there is an excellent blog run by Geoff Park called Natural Newstead.  Geoff limits his observations to the area around his home, also in the Victorian Goldfields, about 40km from mine. It’s well worth a visit.

Just as I was delving in my catalogue Geoff posted this …

I’ve been trying for years to get some decent images of Australian Reed-warblers, especially that iconic shot of one perched sideways on the stem of a reed. It remains an ongoing project.

Like these perhaps …

and two for the price of one …

They’re even harder to get in flight …

Now with explosives …

I met Chris Hassell in 1996. We were in Broome, WA, to take part in an Australian Wader Studies Group expedition to catch and band migratory waders on the north-west Australian coast.

The leader of the expedition was the legendary Clive Minton, father of cannon netting in Oz, and there were some big name ornithologists along including Professor Theunis Piersma from the University of Groningen, Holland. Chris and I were just foot soldiers.

Chris, like me, is a pom. He comes from the midlands, not far from Leicester. He’d hardly settled in Oz when he set off for Broome.

The exercise we were engaged in involved setting nets just above the high tide mark in a spot where the birds would rest when the sea covered their feeding grounds. The nets were furled, camouflaged and attached to cannons that would shoot them over the unsuspecting flock when the time was right. The birds were then measured, weighed and banded with a numbered metal ring and released.

The work was hot and physically hard and the process considerably more nuanced than the summary above conveys. It ran for six weeks visiting Roebuck Bay, Ninety Mile Beach and Port Hedland. When it comes to cannon netting a good supply of willing volunteers comes in very handy.

Chris stayed on in Broome. For  a while he was a warden at the Broome Bird Observatory, then he founded and ran Turnstone Nature Discovery Tours, showing visiting bird watchers and other interested visitors the delights of the region. Because of his knowledge and considerable ID skills he became sought-after for ecological research and census work.

When Birdlife and the Global Flyway Network needed a researcher on the shore of Roebuck Bay he was their man. He now has a little army of volunteers of his own. No longer a foot soldier, in my view he has surpassed the mighty Minton as a catcher of birds. Chris, very modestly, disagrees.

Chris Hassell

One of his volunteers, a primary school lad named Daniel Aspey, wrote the catch report for September 24, 2017, and here are some excerpts …

Do I like birds? If I tell you that last week I went to our school book parade dressed as the Field Guide to Australian Birds, with a bird bath on my hat, does that give you a big enough clue?
This was my sixth cannon netting and there’s always a story. At school they tell us a good story has to have a problem. This time we had three. Firstly, the day was windy, which makes the birds flighty. Secondly, there were two Brahminy kites circling over head. And thirdly because of the big high tide, the net had to be set below the
tide. Listening to the pre-catch talk about how to deal with this was therefore very important.
What we didn’t reckon on was the fourth problem. One of the cannons didn’t fire . There are three cannons, right? Surely, two would do the job? But most of the birds (over 300) were in one corner of the net, while the cannons that worked, beautifully captured the 14 birds that were in the other corner.
Chris was very brave. Very, very brave. Even though this is the second time this has happened this season, he didn’t swear in front of the kids, or cry in front of the adults. He did disappear for quite a bit, though.
As there weren’t so many birds in the net, Chris gave us a great demonstration in tagging, banding and measuring the birds we caught.
What’s in it for us kids? Well, firstly, if you can be quiet and still, you sometimes get to go with him to the hide, which means you
actually see the net fire. You get to race to the net to get it out the water and help get the birds out and into the boxes. This time though, as there were so few birds, all the kids got to carry one to the cages, where the birds settle before tagging. If you’re calm and steady, you get to fetch the birds to the adults for measuring, and then release them in groups afterwards. Best of all, you get to take pictures of the birds up close. I really loved seeing the Ruddy Turnstone, the Grey Plover and the Greater Sand Plovers (who love pecking you).
People say you should never work with kids and animals, but at the cannon-netting they do both, and with explosives too!

There’s a great future for that kid. And the reason this work is done is to ensure that there’s a future for the birds as well. I’m sure someone has thought of putting a marina in Roebuck Bay, maybe a five star hotel and a golf course. Research gives us an understanding of population trends, longevity and breeding success. These are essential ingredients in any argument to sway governments towards preserving the bay.

Stops along the migration route are also invaluable links in the chain that determines the survival of migratory shorebirds. When the birds take off for their breeding grounds Chris takes off from Broome bound for Bohai Bay in China where he helps monitor their passage. This year’s Bohai Bay Report can be found <HERE>.

Could be a bad summer for Chris this year, he still supports the English cricket team, no future for him in parliament.