Back to Braeside …

Braeside Park was a regular haunt when I lived in Melbourne. It’s located in the eastern suburbs not far from the bay. The land has been used for a sewage treatment plant and then for horse agistment and training. There was a beautiful old stable there years ago. Every time I drove past I would say to myself “must take a photo of that”. I never did, can’t now. It burnt down. Let that be a lesson.

These days it’s an oasis of nature sandwiched between residential and commercial development. It preserves some River Red Gum grassland, some heathy woodland on an old sand dune and a wetland rich in swamp paperbark. It’s great place to watch birds. A three hour circuit will generally turn up at least 50 species.

This morning I concentrated on the wetland.

Great Egret
Royal Spoonbill

Darters and Little Pied Cormorants are nesting in the Paperbarks out on an island.

The woodland is home to a number of species. The ubiquitous and aggressive Noisy Miner and a bird that can hold its own against a pack of them were kind enough to pose …

Noisy Miner
Grey Butcherbird

The highlight, however, was a bird that I rarely get to see. It is probably more common than we think but it mainly skulks in the reeds. When it does venture out it is always ready to bolt at the slightest alarm. Photos … forget it , you won’t get close and you won’t get time … unless luck is really on your side.

Baillon’s Crake

Spoony …

Scientific names are modern constructions of Latin or Greek or even Chinese. In fact there are almost no rules governing their construction. Even where they are in Latin or Greek in they would rarely convey much more than a vague description to a native speaker of the classic languages. Eucritta melanolimnes, for instance, translates roughly as “creature from the black lagoon”. The names would  convey even less where someone’s surname has been given a faux Latin ending. Which centurion would ever guess that Baeturia laureli and B. hardyi are species of cicada?

Platalea is an exception, it means Spoonbill and was used by Cicero in his De Natura Deorum (45BC).

There are six species of spoonbill in the world. Australia has two.

Platalea regia
Platalea flavipes

The Royal and the Yellow-billed Spoonbill. In breeding plumage the Royal does look the more aristocratic of the two.

They both spend a fair amount of time standing on one leg with their bill under the opposite wing. This is when it comes in handy to know that their legs are a good match for their bills. The scientific name of one of them is half way there, flavipes means yellow foot.

They have in the past been called Yellow-legged and Black-legged Spoonbills which had the benefit of being usefully descriptive and avoiding tautology. If I’ve told you once not to repeat yourself I’ve told you a dozen times.

 

Christmas Decorations …

Diamond Firetails are occasional visitors to the neighbourhood. They feed on the ground usually on the margins of open woodland. A small flock will turn up, stick around for a while then move on. In winter flocks may coalesce and transform a familiar place. Next time you visit you may not find any.

I found this group on the outskirts of Maryborough where irrigated farmland abuts some Box/Ironbark Woodland. There were some youngsters among the adults.

Stagonopleura guttata

Quality …

On New Year’s Day many a birdwatcher likes to get their list off to a good start.

This year I decided to go for quality rather than quantity. I have in the past rushed around near home amassing a big list of birds. But these are birds I can go and find any time. This year I opted for a longish drive and a shortish list.

Lake Tyrrell is Victoria’s largest salt lake (20,860 hectares or ~51,550 acres) although there are far larger examples in other states. It is surrounded by saltbush and samphire which provides a home for some birds that are fairly restricted in their requirements. I was pleased to find White-winged Fairywrens, Rufous Fieldwrens and White-backed Swallows.

So what is a quality bird? Start with a bit of rarity and add some good looks. In Victoria this is a quality bird …

Black-faced Woodswallow

although further north in Oz Black-faced Woodswallows are commonplace.

If it can be persuaded to pose and maybe do something interesting it is even better.

You can usually find them at Lake Tyrrell and I have rarely seen them anywhere else in Victoria.

Lake Tyrrell is 360km northwest of Melbourne on the Calder Highway. If visiting do not venture onto the tracks around the lake after rain. Gates have been installed recently to help you make a smart decision but if you should find them open and the tracks wet don’t drive off the bitumen unless you want a prolonged stay. And please never drive on the lake bed itself.

Let them eat fish …

A recent post, Game Drive, has been a big winner. With the tags travel and Africa it has attracted a lot of attention. Some posts are like that. This post is about a trip to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, it’s a great destination, it gives you a chance to get at the shore of Lake Victoria, three species of monkey are well represented and there is also a fourth, it’s a great place to find birds in a big city but it really doesn’t lend itself to a sexy title.

And some of its denizens are certainly not sexy …

Marabou Stork

Others are way more attractive …

Black-headed Heron
Great Blue Turaco
Striped Ground Squirrel

The squirrel stays close to its hole in a termite mound.

The three regular monkey species are Blue Monkey, Vervet Monkey and Colobus. There is a solitary Red-tailed Monkey as well, an escapee from the nearby zoo. The Vervets are adorable …

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey

Just ask them.

What on earth does all this have to do with fish? Miracles and fish have a close relationship. It’s a miracle this Pied Kingfisher could catch and then fly with this fish. If you click on the first photo you can step through the process of swallowing it. First turn it around so that it’s head points down your throat …

 

Shoebill …

Many years ago I went to a farewell dinner for a surgeon. Naturally he gave a speech. He was a surgeon who was retiring but he was no retiring surgeon. In the space of a few minutes he had mortally offended every catholic in the place and alienated every woman. Hospital managers, health insurance funds, nursing staff all got a serve. If he ever regretted his retirement there was little chance that he would be welcome back.

But his ultimate scorn was for birdwatchers. You could safely assume he would not be spending the twilight of his days bird watching.

I can understand that. Bird watchers are weird. They are socially awkward and compare sizes … of lists that is. Now, of course, this is a bird watcher’s blog but it’s not a birdwatching blog, if it were it would consist of endless lists and no sane person would read it. You can find such blogs.

Lists, though, are remarkably democratic. A House Sparrow, a feral pigeon and the rarest bird in the world all contribute just one to the list. But are they really all equal? Would a birder ever send a photo of some trash bird to a birding friend and say “Look what I just added to my life list”?

On the other hand if it were rare, limited in range, five feet tall and known to include crocodiles in its diet …

It was about an hour and a half’s drive from Entebbe to the papyrus swamp at Mabamba Bay. We had been advised that our chance of seeing Shoebill was about 70%. To improve our odds we would go twice.

Our transport awaited …

We sent a sharp pair of eyes up into the crow’s nest …

And after a couple of hours we found our quarry …

Balaeniceps rex

King of the whale heads. Just standing there looking down at us. Which is what they do for long periods, waiting for some unsuspecting lung fish or baby crocodile to swim within reach, or even a duck. Then it’s all action, it lunges into the water, engulfs a bill full, ejects everything that it’s not interested in swallowing before decapitating anything that it is interested in swallowing and then swallowing it. Or so they say, just finding one is hard enough, it would be a rare privilege to witness what The Handbook of the Birds of the World calls its “violent method of fishing”.

Where the Shoebill fits in the evolutionary bush is uncertain. It was once lumped with the storks, it shares some characteristics with the herons but it is more likely, though, that its nearest relatives are the pelicans. For the moment it is a single species in a unique genus in its very own family, the Balaenicipitidae.

Heads up, camera ready …

It strides to the water’s edge …

and plunges, eyes protected by a nictitating membrane …

Up it comes, spilling water. Then discards vegetation until after a few minutes working on the contents of its bill it discards everything left in its mouth. It seems to have been unsuccessful and flies off to find a better spot …

I wasted no time sending the photos to my birding friends around the world. They gnashed their teeth and howled in pain.

Daintree River …

One of my favorite memories from previous trips to the wet tropics is birding with Chris Dahlberg. On seeing some interesting bird he would say “Come with me …”, and of course we would, we were after all confined to a small boat. Chris has moved on to another phase of his life but one can still take an early morning cruise on the Daintree River with Sauce Worcester at the helm.

It is essential to book in advance, cruises leave from the jetty right in the Daintree village. In theory cruises last for two hours but Mr Worcester is very generous with his time. He takes you up stream and down and pokes around in the little creeks. Some much sought-after birds like Little Kingfisher, Black Bittern and Great-billed Heron are quite often seen on the cruise and Sauce is pretty good at getting you in the right place for a photo. You will finish the trip with a good list.

Here is a Black Butcherbird, not radiantly attractive to look at and of less than endearing manners, it is an aggressive nest predator, but it does have a lovely voice.

Black Butcherbird

The Azure Kingfisher, on the other hand has better manners and is delightful to look at. Its voice is a rather depressing and monotonous kek …

Azure Kingfisher

And this guy is rarely heard and something of a struggle to see …

 Papuan Frogmouth

It’s in there somewhere. It is a Papuan Frogmouth, they feed at night. Unlike owls their feet are weak, they capture prey ranging from large insects to small mammals by seizing them in their beaks. During the day they do a very good impersonation of a branch. This one is sitting on a nest, a flimsy construction of sticks. It’s the male that sits during the day, the sexes alternate at night.

One often sees some very impressive crocodiles on the cruise but November is not a good time for them. It is mating season, none are sitting out lazing the day away, the large males are patrolling their territories and everything else is hiding from them.