East …

Some birds are residents, some are migrants. Some birds just wander around in response to conditions, none of them care a fig about state boundaries. So if you hang out near the borders of your state or territory your list will grow.

I live in the western half of Victoria where sooner or later you can expect to find Budgerigars, Diamond Doves, Black and Pied Honeyeaters and other occasional visitors. These are birds that spill out of the more arid interior.

Over in the east of the state their counterparts are birds of the east coast forests that wander around the corner from New South Wales, usually in summer. There have been reports recently of a few congregating in one particular front yard in the little town of Metung. It seemed a good time to put in some time in the Gippsland Lakes region. The weather gods thought it might be a good time to visit the same area.

The Fig Trees of Mairburn Road deserve to be as famous as the Flame Trees of Thika. In the space of half an hour I saw Koel, Channelbill Cuckoo, Topknot Pigeon, White-headed Pigeon and Figbird. All in or close to two enormous Morton Bay Figs thoughtfully planted as ornamentals in somebody’s front garden. Thanks, mate.

These three were new to my Victorian list …

Channel-billed Cuckoo
Topknot Pigeon

You can’t spend all your time pointing your binoculars and telephoto lens into fig trees in people’s front gardens. You have to consider the Grevilleas in their back gardens …

Eastern Spinebill
Little Wattlebird

and maybe even wander into the forest …

Spotted Pardalote

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.

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

“I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross!” – Robert Cushman Murphy, 1912.

Murphy, ornithologist, ecologist, conservationist, was writing to his wife from the whaling brig Daisy in the vicinity of South Georgia. He describes the Albatrosses “Lying on the invisible currents of the breeze” which beautifully portrays their flight in light airs but it’s when the wind rises to a gale that I find them most impressive. When your hands are clasped tightly on the ship’s rail and you hope your pyloric sphincter will maintain an equally strong grip on your gastric contents, the Albatross passes elegantly by demonstrating a complete mastery of its elements. I saw my first Wandering Albatross just outside Sydney Heads and I remember it well.

The Albatross family is one of the four (extant) families making up the order Procellariiformes. When you go to the seaside you encounter numerous seabirds, gulls, cormorants, and gannets for instance, but most of them don’t venture too far out to sea. The procellariiiforms are true ocean goers, they may spend years at a time without coming ashore something that they usually do only to mate.

To get amongst them you have to go to sea. This weekend I did exactly that sailing about 30 nautical miles south of Port Fairy to the edge of the continental shelf.

Shy Albatross

The largest albatrosses are the Wanderers and the Royals but they didn’t put in an appearance this time out. The largest on this occasion were the Shy Albatross. They were present in good numbers and not at all shy. Slightly smaller and rather more numerous were the Black-browed Albatross …

Black-browed Albatross

The black margin on the underwing is broader, the bill a different colour. They come in two subspecies (full species according to some) which can be distinguished by the colour of the iris, yes you do need to get reasonably close. One has a dark eye, the other is honey coloured, both were present.

Smaller still is the Yellow-nosed Albatross …

Yellow-nosed Albatross

Sea birds tend to be black, white, gray or combinations of black, white and grey! Diagnosis has its challenges. Albatrosses are actually the easy ones.

All the procellariforms have tubes leading to their external nose. If you look at the top close up of a Shy Albatross you can see that there is a small nostril on the side of its beak. The Albatrosses all have two quite small nostrils, in all the other families that make up the order the tubes merge into a single opening on top of the beak.

The four families are :-

  • Family Procellariidae (shearwaters, fulmarine petrels, gadfly petrels, and prions)
  • Family Diomedeidae (albatrosses)
  • Family Hydrobatidae (storm petrels)
  • Family Pelecanoididae (diving petrels)

and at least one member of each family turned up. Here are a few of them …

Grey-faced Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
Fairy Prion

Volcano Envy …

Australian landscapes are ancient, the heady days when rift valleys tore Gondwana apart, and sea floor spreading propelled its fragments around the globe are long gone. It’s hard to imagine a Mt Nyrigongo popping up and obliterating Adelaide. And I do so miss her warmth, the twinkle in her magma and her sweet sulphurous perfume.

But the reality is that western Victoria is littered with volcanoes. It’s just the timing that’s out of kilter.

Ken Grimes, of the Hamilton Field Naturalists Club has written a very nice paper on the subject which you can find <HERE>.

In the Western District there are mainly three types of volcano, though combinations of these also occur. About half of the volcanoes are small steep-sided scoria cones built from frothy lava fragments thrown up by lava fountains. Most of the remainder are broader but flatter lava volcanoes formed from relatively gentle flows of lava welling out of a central crater. A group of about 40 maar craters
near the coast formed from shallow steam-driven explosions which produced broad craters with low rims. These now often contain lakes.
These are the New Volcanics, they started about 5 million years ago. The most recent eruptions occurred about 5000 years ago. They seem to have occurred about every 5000 years so we may be due. According to Ken they erupt for a few weeks or months and never again, the next eruption being at a new site.
Melbourne University’s Professor Joyce anticipates that the next eruption would be “the sort of thing that would be interesting for tourists”. I’m sure it would, and Dr Lin Sutherland of the Australian Museum reassures us that
… no panic is needed. It probably would be a small discharge and a temporary nuisance, rather than the large eruptions we see in the Pacific ‘Rim of Fire’.
This assumes that it isn’t a Phreatic (15 points, more if you can get it on a double or triple word square) eruption. Boil one cubic meter of water and you have 1,600 cubic meters of steam. If magma comes into contact with ground water the result is an explosion. Such
explosions crush the overlying rocks and launch them into the air along with steam, water, ash and magmatic material. The materials usually travel straight up into the air and fall back to Earth to form the tephra deposits that surround the crater.
Thus producing a maar, these are usually a few hundred to a thousand meters in diameter and less than one hundred meters deep. Nothing to panic about.
Tourists do enjoy them but not until they’ve settled down a bit! My favorite is at Tower Hill near Port Fairy, incidentally this vicinity is high on the list for the next eruption.
It’s probably about 25,000 years since it went bang. It is now a very attractive game reserve, home to koalas, emus and kangaroos. Interestingly, you can’t take your dog there but during duck season you can take your gun.
Koala – Tower Hill
Emu – Tower Hill
Eastern Grey Kangaroo – Tower Hill

So there you have it … photographic evidence of life on maars.

Rakali …

After Africa it’s harder to keep the dopamine flowing. No lions, no leopards, the only primates are wearing clothes and driving cars. But still life has its little surprises. Like this guy …

Hydromys chrysogaster

The latin name translates as water mouse with a golden belly. Lots of species are blessed with the name chrysogaster, it fits the Orange-bellied Parrot much better than this rat.

Its name was changed from Water Rat to Rakali to improve its image.

It is a rodent and it is native to Australia and New Guinea. It lives in rivers, lakes and sheltered marine bays. They’re quite omnivorous but prefer animal food when they can get it. They’re nocturnal when it’s warm enough for them but in Victoria in winter they feed during the day.

Which is how I came to find this one in Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree, yes this is the rat from Ballarat. It is quite widespread as you can see from the distribution map which I have shamelessly filched from Wikipedia …


Mount Mitta Mitta …

AKA Mt Mittamatite is a little over 1000 metres and has its very own web page. Dogs are welcome on a lead and fires are permitted in the fireplaces provided. Camping is possible at the summit and at Emberys Lookout. There are no bookings and no fees. There is an aircraft navigation facility on top.

The view from Emberys (above) is impressive, it is a popular launching site for the hang gliding fraternity. You have to work a bit harder for a view at the summit.

I was hoping for more mist and less cloud. I’ll have to go back.

The weather was closing in with a vengeance. Yesterday’s snow was the start of a southerly outbreak which was only going to get worse. Time to head for home.