Eaglehawk Neck, Tassie part one...

The view from Pirate's bay lookout

The view from Pirate's bay lookout

In April this year, Louise and I headed down to Tasmania for a five day break. The exact destinations were a mystery to me as Louise had planned the entire trip and was resolute at keeping the details a surprise. We picked up a hire car from the airport and headed off... two hours later we pulled into the driveway of a remarkable wooden octagonal house (in what I would learn was Pirate's Bay) where I was surprised by two familiar faces popping up from their hidden positions! It was our good friends Jo and Jason, fellow nature nerds who knew the area well from their many visits and who had arrived the day before. (You can find Jason's photography here)

After the drive down we needed to stretch our legs, so we strapped on our binoculars and all went for some fresh air and a wander down the track to Pirate's Bay - there are 14 endemic Tasmanian birds and I was itching to get spotting. We were not disappointed, we got some excellent views straight away of Dusky Robin, Yellow-throated Honeyeater, Tasmanian Thornbill and Green Rosella. By day's end we had also picked up Black Currawong, Tasmanian Native-hen and while not an endemic, the Beautiful Firetail in the jetty car park added another lifer to the tally.

The following day was the start of Louise's secret activities schedule; we were all off on a four hour privately chartered (oooh la di da di, how posh!) boat trip heading out of Eaglehawk Neck. Now if any of you have read the account of my previous pelagic experience you would know this was going to be a great test. This was exactly the purpose as Louise has previously experienced savage sea-sickness and was very reluctant to get on a boat, despite her real desire to see albatross. I had stocked up on a couple of recommended drugs, and this was going to be a solid road, or should I say wave test of their efficacy.

We hit the jetty early to meet Damo from Wild Ocean Tasmania and hopped aboard his prowler boat, hoping the calm, still day would not keep the albatross too far offshore. Within the first half an hour all of Louise and my fears were assuaged; with the drugs pumping through our system and the low, incredibly stable boat neither of us felt in the least bit queasy. Under the expert skippering of Damo we explored along the sheer cliff faces, occasionally entering some of the large caves that perforate the coastline. The scale and unique geology is really something to behold!

One of the big bonuses of Eaglehawk Neck is the very close proximity (in relation to the Victorian coast) of the continental shelf - basically the hotspot for all of the really cool pelagic birds! I was amazed to see our first albatross come in when we were not far off shore at all - after heading further out to sea and following the banking silhouettes of some Shy Albatross we came across little hotspots of feeding activity. Short-tailed Shearwaters shared the air with Kelp and Pacific Gulls, Crested Terns joined the fray and rafts of seals floated with one flipper aloft as if to welcome us to their domain. One of the highlights was the appearance of a Common-diving Petrel. The day was really delivering for us all and my breakfast remained firmly, and confidently ensconced where it should be. Bloody marvellous! By the end of the session we were heading back to dry land with Louise having happily ticked four species of albatross: Shy, Black-browed, Yellow-nosed and Buller's.

In the evenings, we would take ourselves off into the pitch black night to go spotlighting with the aim of finding ourselves some night birds. Whilst we were not successful with finding the owls we were after, we were very excited to come across Eastern Barred Bandicoots foraging on the side of the roads. The conservation status of the EBB is critically endangered in Victoria - the wild population sadly extinct with all hope reliant on some reintroduction sites  - and vulnerable in Tasmania. You can read further about these brilliant little mammals here including finding out about the mind-blowing duration of their gestation period! (You can click the photos below to see them properly if you'd like)

Our two days went extremely quickly and we are keen to get back as soon as we are able, but we were off to Bruny Island... another spot we had been excited about exploring for some time! We highly recommend checking out Pirate's Bay and Eaglehawk Neck, as well as heading out on one of the Wild Ocean Tasmania trips - you will be in excellent hands and will be supporting their fantastic conservation efforts.

 

Hot on the trail of Painted Button-quail

For birders, there is very little that matches the thrill of seeing and 'ticking' a new bird - or a 'lifer' in birding vernacular. The only thing that can really enhance this experience for Louise and I, is for that lifer to be found on our own slice of bush... and that is what happened this long weekend.

We left for Finches Gully with plans for a productive, long weekend of work on our cabin. As we entered through the gate, Louise spotted the partially obscured figure of a bird fossicking around in the leaf litter... we grabbed our binos and peered through the windscreen, soon realising we had in our sight the highly elusive Painted Button-quail! Another bird was seen before they promptly disappeared as I exited the car with my camera. Typical.

Our best laid plans went out of the window and were instead replaced by two days of slow, quiet and steady stalking; with CB radios ready we split up to cover more ground (which for Louise included sitting up a large Yellow Gum for a while as you will read below) and our newly focused attention was rewarded with a further four sightings over Saturday and Sunday in two areas of the block. It's hard to say how many individuals there were but we saw two birds at any one time in either location, with their different markings we believe them to be pair(s).


Note from Louise...

I first learnt about the Painted Button-quail (Turnix varius) when doing work experience with Connecting Country in Castlemaine. It is one of "The Feathered Five” focal species that they ask landowners to keep a track of because they are very susceptible to the pressures that are causing woodland birds to decline. Although I didn’t see them in the week I spent doing bird surveys with Tanya Loos, Woodland Bird Project Officer, she told me about the little clues they leave behind. 

As they forage for insects in leaf litter, they scrape the dirt away with their feet and form a circle of bare earth called a platelet. I found a few platelets near our track (see below), then kept following them up towards our fence line and found a load more. I decided to climb up and get settled in my favourite Yellow Gum, allowing a slightly elevated view of the area. I felt sure this would coax out the little blighter, whoops, I mean bird. But no! And my arse went numb after a while so I jumped down and went back to searching on foot. 


Back to me...

On the second, third and fourth of the five sightings the birds almost literally evaporated into native grass tussocks before my very eyes! On the fourth sighting, the bird was directly between us as I was talking to Louise and trying to zone her in to where the bird was - at the time it was running straight at her and about 15m from her she saw its head and then it dematerialised into the ether.  On the fifth sighting we both had superb, prolonged views as it did a seriously rapid, long loop before flushing (flying away) and never being found again. They are remarkable, bloody quick and so well camoflauged. It was here I snapped my award-winning shots which I have presented at the foot of the page for your ocular gratification* ;)

We have been musing if they have always been around and we just haven’t seen them (it took very active and deliberate scouting to see them after the initial fluke sighting) or have they just decided to come and camp recently? We suspect the latter - either way we are incredibly happy to have seen them and we hope they do decide to hang around.

The Painted Button-quail is listed as vulnerable nationally, and secure in Victoria. That doesn’t translate as easy to find however! You can read more about these most excellent of birds here - http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/painted-button-quail

*I managed to get four photos - that is it and yes, disappointingly these two below really are the best of the four. PBQs are furtive and quick, they hide behind long grasses that your camera wants to focus on and I was doing a rapid, trying to be quiet and invisible canter, and waaaaahhh!. There is a dirty, wee secret us bird photographers like to squirrel away but I will let you in on it now… often, the vast majority of the shots are average and a high number you take are frankly really crap. To the point where you have to consider the existential nature of your existence and wouldn’t it all be more productive if you started making models of the Eiffel Tower out of toenail clippings instead. You see the shots we want you to see, generally you will not see the 99/100 that didn’t make the cut and are of a ‘blurd’ (blurry bird), or a lovely shot of where the bird was a second ago, a super sharp branch with the out of focus ghost of a bird sitting on it, or a dark frame because you didn’t check your settings in the heat of the moment.


Update: 15 September 2017
A week or so after our initial sighting in June, a good friend and fellow bird photographer Warren Palmer managed to catch these incredible shots of one of the female PBQs. As you can imagine, I was absolutely over the moon that he managed these killer shots and I wasn't at all jealous or gutted it was him behind the camera instead of me... no really... ahem.

We have been finding lots of new sites where the obvious platelet activity is high, so we have been placing motion-activated trail cameras in some of these spots with the hope of catching some activity - after watching literally hours of footage of everything but PBQs over the past 6-8 weeks, last weekend in two of the last files in the batch we struck gold!  You may need to watch carefully to see them haha - very exciting nonetheless! Some of the cool distractions we did capture on the cameras though were a Southern Boobook in flight, a microbat, a possum, an echidna, lots of 'roos and a couple of swamp wallabies... and an annoying number of hares - the main one I have now named 'Trigger' due to the amount of times he set the cameras off.

There is a second bird there believe it or not! Whether it is a chick or an adult is hard to tell but we are certainly hoping it is a chick! Fingers crossed we will get some further footage soon.

A critically endangered grassland oasis

Kangaroo Grass at Clarke Road Stream Side Reserve, Caroline Springs.

Kangaroo Grass at Clarke Road Stream Side Reserve, Caroline Springs.

In 2016 I had the pleasure of getting to know a little grassland on the edge of Caroline Springs called Clarke Road Stream Side Reserve (SSR). As part of my studies (Diploma of Conservation and Land Management) I had to choose a natural area to conduct a full site assessment, create a monitoring program and write a restoration project plan. Sitting precariously on the edge of rapidly creeping urban sprawl and soon to be engulfed by a sea of housing, Clarke Road SSR is a haven for native flora and fauna and I quickly fell in love.

Many weekends were spent discovering the variety of native grass species, doing bird surveys and stumbling over rocks to mark GPS points for the grandiose ideas I would map out in my restoration project plan. Now that I’ve finished my Diploma it seems a shame for all that information to sit in a file on my computer. I feel like Clarke Road SSR needs some TLC, so I’ll start by describing it’s features and history in order to share the goodies that I found.  

In the future, by the powers invested in me (as Secretary of the Friends of Kororoit Creek, ha ha!) I hope to encourage local residents to get involved in a revegetation project with funding to be sourced from Melbourne Water’s community grant program. In the meantime, Parks Victoria undertake ongoing weed control throughout the grassland. In addition, we continue to work together on a monitoring program to trial the effectiveness of an organic, plant-derived herbicide on Serrated Tussock (stay tuned for more on this in a future post).

But for now, here is an introduction to a grassland that I’ve developed quite a soft spot for.


Clarke Road Stream Side Reserve is a six-hectare triangular area of remnant native grassland in Caroline Springs, bound by housing development and agricultural properties. It is managed by Parks Victoria, however Melbourne Water are responsible for the bed and banks of Kororoit Creek which runs through the middle of the reserve. Upstream from Clarke Road SSR the creek currently flows through agricultural areas, however most of this will be turned into housing developments in the coming years.

Wallaby Grass dominates the grassland.

Wallaby Grass dominates the grassland.

The Ecological Vegetation Class (EVC) for the majority of this reserve is “132 Plains Grassland”, recognised as Natural Temperate Grassland of the Victorian Volcanic Plains, which is listed as a critically endangered ecological community under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999. The grassland area has a variety of native grasses including Wallaby Grass., Kangaroo Grass, Speargrass and Silky Blue Grass. Other species include Pink Bindweed, Nodding Saltbush and Bluebells

The rocky escarpment is crowned with old Black Wattles and Sweet Bursaria - a magnet for honeyeaters. 

The rocky escarpment is crowned with old Black Wattles and Sweet Bursaria - a magnet for honeyeaters. 

A striking rocky escarpment, roughly four metres high, connects the grassland to the creek area and basalt rocks are dotted along the creek banks. Common Reeds line the creek and the area boasts a number of remnant River Red Gums. Towards the top of the rocky escarpment there are some large, remnant Black Wattle, Sweet Bursaria and Tree Violet.

The remnant River Red Gums attract parrots and birds of prey, and bees have taken up residence in the stump of a dead tree. Every tree is used to it's full capacity here!

The remnant River Red Gums attract parrots and birds of prey, and bees have taken up residence in the stump of a dead tree. Every tree is used to it's full capacity here!

Kororoit Creek provides habitat for a variety of birds, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. It is also an important source of food and water for many species of fauna including Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Swamp Wallabies. Considering the size and isolation of this reserve, a wide range of birds were observed, including:

  • Red-rumped Parrot
  • Flame Robin 
  • Brown Falcon 
  • Southern Boobook
  • White-faced Heron 
  • Little Pied Cormorant 
  • White-plumed Honeyeater 
  • New Holland Honeyeater 
  • Superb Fairy-wren 
Serrated Tussock, a Weed of National Significance, is present in the grassland.

Serrated Tussock, a Weed of National Significance, is present in the grassland.

The main threat to the biodiversity of the reserve is pest plants. There are five Weeds of National Significance on the reserve, Serrated Tussock, Chilean Needle Grass, Gorse, Prickly Pear and African Boxthorn. Declared noxious weeds include Artichoke Thistle, Fennel, Sweet Briar and Spiny Rush. Dumped garden waste is also introducing new weeds to the grassland such as Kikuyu Grass and Couch Grass.

Residents and visitors may not be aware of the European history and Indigenous cultural heritage values present in the reserve. Prior to European settlement this area would have been used by the Wurundjeri people as an important source of food and water due to the creek and the high biodiversity of flora that thrived in the grassland. Evidence of European cultural heritage exists in the form of a dry stone wall along part of a boundary of Clarke Road SSR, and it is protected by a Melton City Council Planning Clause 52.37. Having an understanding of how this reserve was used in the past can help the community appreciate the value of the small area that remains today. 

A dry stone wall is protected by a local council planning clause. 

A dry stone wall is protected by a local council planning clause. 

In addition, residents and visitors may also be unaware that this reserve is dominated by remnant native grassland which is classified as critically endangered under the EPBC Act. Similar grassland reserves, such as Evans Street Grassland in Sunbury, have used grassland flora and fauna species as a feature when designing interpretive signage. If funds were available in future, a similar approach could help to raise awareness of the special plants and animals in the reserve, and give residents a sense of pride for this rare natural feature in their suburb.

Bluebells cascade out of gaps in the rocky escarpment.

Bluebells cascade out of gaps in the rocky escarpment.

Clarke Road SSR showcases the surprisingly high level of biodiversity in flora and fauna that can still remain in small pockets amongst suburban sprawl. However as urban development expands in the coming years, the threats and pressures surrounding this isolated grassland will increase. Fostering community engagement and encouraging a sense of pride and ownership for this special area will play a key role in raising the profile, public awareness and protection of Clarke Road SSR.

By protecting the biodiversity of this critically endangered ecological community and encouraging active and ongoing community engagement with the reserve, Clarke Road SSR has the capacity to survive, and possibly even thrive, amongst future urban growth. 

- Louise Nicholas. 

Pulling a Swifty...

The Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor) is classified as critically endangered federally, and endangered in Victoria with estimates at the remaining population only being approximately 1000 breeding pairs. As one of only two migratory parrots in the world (the other of course being the Orange-bellied Parrot who also migrates seasonally from Tasmania) it is an extremely special bird, as well as being a very beautiful one!

Ordinarily these magnificent parrots would undertake the treacherous crossing after breeding in Tasmania, arriving on the mainland for autumn and winter. I'm sure you can understand our amazement to be looking at several birds on our bush block in the middle of January! It is presumed they simply chose to stay last year and avoid the round-trip across the Bass Strait which is understandable - it's hardly a walk in the park.

A friend of ours, Warren, had visited our block and photographed a lone Swifty on the Wednesday evening and taking bragging rights for probably the first Victorian (or mainland?) sighting of 2017. Jealous? Ha ha, yes but also ecstatic at the same time - the excitement levels were through the roof and we were itching to get up to the block at the weekend... the next couple of days felt like months! On Saturday evening, with three sets of eyes and ears and after no sightings during the day I was mostly resigned to the fact that it had probably just passed through. At around 7.30pm however the clear call of a Swifty rang out and was picked up on by our mate, Wilson. Shortly afterwards we caught sight of one dashing across the sky - woooohoooo!! To then realise it was being closely followed by a second bird just increased the adrenaline immensely. We watched the pair sitting in the very top of a large Yellow Gum preening for some time before they flew off and circled back to a lower tree nearby. It was then we realised there was a third bird with a fourth calling... a proper Swift Parrot jackpot! In the end we saw and photographed three birds over the course of about an hour as they tentatively moved closer from inspecting the water, to drinking.

We have previously recorded 9 birds on the road leading to our block in August 2013 but to have them at this time of year when there is a complete lack of flowering gums is truly remarkable. When we first placed a covenant on the block, our fantastic Trust for Nature Stewardship Officer, Kirsten, mentioned that if we were extremely lucky the habitat could attract three very important birds: Diamond Firetails, Swifties and the Square-tailed Kite... we have now had all of them grace us with their presence! (Note: you can read about the Square-tailed Kites visit here)

The utterly bloody awesome guys at Team Swift Parrot have been running some crowd-funding projects to support the preservation of the Swift Parrot and also the Orange-bellied Parrots... I cannot urge you enough to please assist with their work in any way you can. https://www.facebook.com/teamswiftparrot/

We also want to acknowledge and thank the experts in the Swift Parrot Recovery Group who work so tirelessly so that random birders such as ourselves can get to enjoy these stunning parrots, and hopefully for many more years and generations to come.

If you would like to read more about the Swifties, or join Birdlife Australia to also help with their fantastic work in protecting and advocating for our feathered friends... http://www.birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/swift-parrot


UPDATED!
We decided to spend Australia Day eve up at the block as we had a couple of tasks to do and as I had been keen to try out the WiFi capabilities of my new camera, I thought I'd fill a storage tub with some water as I could hear lots of honeyeaters flying around. I chucked the camera on a low tripod and an old green t-shirt over the camera expecting the birds to be extremely trepidatious of this new water source and the odd thing with the big glass eye next to the tub. How wrong I was! What I did not expect was that within twenty minutes of moving away from the camera (and setting up my iPhone as the remote preview screen and shutter trigger) we would have the beautiful Swift Parrots arrive for a visit! As it happened so quickly and I hadn't had a chance to review this trial set up, there are a few focus shifts which I will be sorting out on future filming efforts. I was sure they would have most likely moved on in the fortnight since we saw them, so to be able to watch them again from so close and capture a brief bit of footage made our weekend :)

Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park excursion: Rise of the Mozzie Overlords

The weekend after Melbourne Cup, myself and a small but intrepid band of bird photographers convened at Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park in North East Victoria, a superb area of Box-Ironbark forest. The group of nine members from the Feathers and Photos bird photography community consisted of six Victorians, two New South Welshmen who had separately undertaken the long drive down, and a lone Queenslander who arrived at the airport in flip-flops and shorts… who says optimism is dead. Luckily for him it coincided with one of the few great Spring days we have had so far. From the airport, we headed straight to the Warby-Ovens National Park (which is en route and west of Chiltern) to catch up with two of the ensemble who had been scouting around since early morning. The weather was hot, dry and the light utterly dreadful for photography. The guys had not had a great deal of joy through the day with the conditions against them, and unfortunately they had not sated the appetites of the mosquitos who continued to feast on us for most of the remaining 72 hours and triggering that particular brand of ‘Bush Tourettes’ especially felt by predominantly city-dwelling wusses like myself…. “Fuck off!! FUCK, PISS OFF! Geddofffuckinghellfuck OFFF!”

Stopping at Spring Creek Picnic Area inside the park we found a significant number of Brown Treecreepers, several of them newly fledged juveniles; masses of Rufous Whistlers (a bird that was to remain prolific in voice and numbers throughout the weekend), a few Flycatchers and the first sightings of the stunning Turquoise Parrot, a bird now sadly classified as near threatened in Victoria. I was very fortunate to happen upon a female peeping from a hollow.

With the sun beating directly down on our heads and the fragrant aroma of Aeroguard wafting gently through the bush, we decided to head to Chiltern to check in and meet the rest of the group. A quick recce at Cyanide Dam (at the Honeyeater Picnic area which was ludicrously devoid of many honeyeaters) gave us an indication of what the rest of the weekend would be like… very, very quiet. Aside from nesting Australasian Grebes and Willie Wagtails, the area was not exactly jumping with bird life. It was interesting seeing the two adult Willie Wagtails taking turns to forage for food before returning to the nest and swapping places with their partner before feeding the voracious chicks, and then sitting on top of the nest until it was their time to swap again. (Note: you can click on the photo thumbnails to get larger images)

We all congregated early on Saturday morning to head into the park to see what we could find, starting with Bartley’s Block which delivered ~30 species that included some stunning views of a pair of Turquoise Parrots and some industrious nest building by a pair of White-throated Gerygones.

I was particularly happy to break my drought in seeing a Speckled Warbler for more than a fleeting ID sighting, with extended and fantastic views of three birds breaking the curse of this bogey bird. Whilst they were not obliging my camera I still walked away very happy before being able to steer two other members of the group onto their first sightings also. The spring weather had brought out quite a few Rufous Songlarks with one showy bird determinedly serenading us for most of our morning stay, flitting around above us and alighting in several photogenic perches demanding to be photographed. This was to be the third and last of the lifers I saw over the weekend (Speckled Warbler, Rufous Songlark and White-throated Gerygone).

We left Bartley’s to explore more of the park but frankly the lack of birdlife anywhere was a bit disappointing and not to put to fine a point on it, incredibly selfish of the birds not to be putting on a special display for us and our eager cameras. Do these feathery bastards not know who we are?! We stopped at Greenhill Dam where I decided to explore the bush opposite; the highlight was accidentally flushing three sets of quail (I believe to be Stubble Quail), the first birds to flush nearly causing a coronary and soiled trousers. Wherever we went in the park there was a notable absence of any flowering gums – not even one rogue outlier was found – which undoubtedly reduces the chance of seeing many of the emblematic birds of the area such as the Regent Honeyeater. Even an evening of spotlighting returned no nocturnal birds other than a Tawny Frogmouth. As with most of Victoria following the consistent, big rains we have received, the birds seemed greatly reduced in volume and diversity as they disperse to wider ranges to exploit the newly soaked territories that have been dry for so long. 

Anyway, to cut short what could end up as quite a rambling waffle, this blog piece could quite easily have been called “How I came to spend a weekend at Bartley’s Block with a group of people off the internet” as we pragmatically decided to save ourselves the trouble of chasing wild geese and to ensconce ourselves at Bartley’s. There’s no doubt the birding and photography could have been more prodigious but to spend a weekend in such fabulous forest with a group of passionate and like-minded people is always an enriching experience. To be able to properly watch and learn more about birds that I have maybe seen infrequently was a great opportunity as I committed a few new calls to my memory and saw some behaviours that were new to me.

It wasn't all birds causing excitement. I was low on the edge of a large dam, hidden behind rushes and reeds taking some photos of a nesting Australasian Grebe when in my peripheral vision I saw a ripple in the water a couple of metres away. I expected it to be the second Grebe surfacing from a dive so was startled to say the least when I realised it was a very fast moving Red-bellied Black Snake heading to the corner near where I lurked. It's pretty disconcerting seeing how well they swim, but I was also struck with great respect... as I slowly and carefully beat a pragmatic retreat. Ambling back I found a small patch of Cape Weed being cruelly predated on by some savage Meadow Argus butterflies. Honestly, the way they were carrying on you would think nectar wouldn't melt in their proboscis.


Highlights: The Turquoise Parrots, breaking the Speckled Warbler curse, and getting a clearish shot of a male Rufous Whistler (they’re normally high up and obscured by clutter!)

Dips: not being able to get eyes on this taunting bloody Painted Honeyeater we could hear, and missing the Olive-backed Oriole others got cracking shots of while I was away on a solo wander.

You will find more photos in the bird gallery under photography... you can also read more about Chiltern on Tim Dolby’s fantastic blog here - https://timothydolby.com/2016/05/11/chiltern-winter-2013-australias-best-winter-forest/

The weekend my Spider Orchid cherry was well and truly popped.

Featherheads (Ptilotus macrocephalus)

Featherheads (Ptilotus macrocephalus)

A trip to the Grampians would usually muster thoughts of adventures through forests, hiking up the peaks of mountains and gazing at waterfalls, but not this time. We were a small team of plant nerds on a mission to inspect vegetation along isolated roadsides, in old cemeteries and forgotten small-town commons in search of native wildflowers in the tiny remnants of grassland left in the Western Plains of Victoria.

Wielding cameras with macro lenses, field guides and multiple blocks of chocolate, we kicked off our expedition at Rokewood Cemetery. Despite the sun having risen hours earlier, around nine o’clock we caught a native bee having a lazy snooze in a Golden Moth Orchid. Carefully treading through the Kangaroo and Wallaby Grasses, we spotted plenty of Sundews, Rice Flowers, Milkmaids and Sun Orchids, which would open once the day had warmed up sufficiently. As an extra bonus, on our way out we saw a small patch of the endangered Hoary Sunray! 

It was a promising start, so we drove on and followed our noses, screeching to a halt at patches of roadside vegetation that caught our attention. We saw hundreds of Featherheads bobbing in the wind and Everlastings with a beautiful golden glow in the mid-morning sun. I’m sure most drivers zoom past this scene every day without realising quite how special and rare it is. 

Arriving in the sleepy town of Woorndoo, we used the less than salubrious toilet facilities before exploring the “common”, an area of reserved land between some houses. It was impossible to step through without squashing Sundews, Sun Orchids, Bluebells, Scaly and/or Wiry Buttons, Chocolate Lilies, Bulbine Lilies and fat tufts of native grasses. I’d never seen such a variety of wildflowers in such huge numbers! It was truly something to behold and photos can’t quite capture the scale.

Back on the tarmac, more emergency braking procedures were practiced when we were confronted by a vast carpet of purple on the right. It was literally thousands upon thousands of vibrant Sun Orchids! We wandered around, generously donating blood to the mozzies while soaking up the moment, feeling lucky to be there at the right time to catch it. 

Staying in the Grampians that night was everything you could wish for when camping: a warm fire, great company and a sound sleep in a tent that didn’t leak or collapse - always a bonus! Dessert was expertly toasted marshmallows, shoved into one’s gob with a piece of nutty chocolate at the same time (a Smore minus the biscuit). Delicious!

I woke up to the sweet sound of Magpies warbling and my tent smashing into my face. The wind had picked up considerably and the sky was an ominous grey but that didn’t stop us, Lake Fyans beckoned… 

I was promised Spider Orchids and I wasn’t disappointed, this grassy woodland was teeming with them! I can honestly say my Spider Orchid cherry was well and truly popped. The wind and clouds were making photography tricky, but a new toy (a ring flash) helped to offset the challenging conditions. I managed to capture a pollinator hard at work, a dragonfly caught in a Sundew and a tiny insect exploring the depths of a Green-comb Spider Orchid. All these little details that usually go unnoticed were spotted in milliseconds with our band of eager-beaver-botanists scouring the ground. 

The journey home was a bit melancholy at times as we pondered what the landscape would have looked like before Europeans arrived. The plains would have been covered in vast swathes of wildflowers, just like the ones we’d seen small patches of. It put into perspective just how much the environment has been altered and how important those small remnant areas are now. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share the weekend with like-minded nature nerds who were keen to show me these special spots.

I look forward to continuing this tradition next spring and introducing other people to the wonderful wildflowers of western Victoria!

Such delights, a pair of Square-tailed Kites!

The Square-tailed Kite (Lophoictinia isura) is listed as a threatened species in Victoria, so to see one is a very special experience... to see a pair is 7.2 times more special. I'm not sure how the maths really works on that one but trust me, that is almost a FACT!

Over three of the past four years we have seen a Square-tailed Kite fairly regularly around the third weekend in September; I'm not sure what happened for the year it didn't appear - maybe it had a cheap last minute weekend up around Bendigo. Due to the changing economy* because of Brexit probably, the date for "BLOODY HELL, LOOK IT'S A SQUARE-TAILED KITE" weekend was brought forward a few weeks much to our immeasurable pleasure. *Or it might be the early Spring. Anyway, they are a fairly distinctive bird of prey with a pale face, occipital crest and a long, rangey wingspan which is prominently barred across the 'fingers' of the primary feathers. They also have noticeable black carpal crescents on the underwing, and a dark terminal band on their square tail. They generally tend to soar around above the canopy of open woodland looking down at mere mortals and trying to impress upon any spectators just how utterly bad-arse they are. They do this without much visible effort and rather convincingly.

We were working on the ongoing building of our cabin when we first saw a largish bird of prey come cruising over the block, we both rushed to grab our binoculars and were pretty happy to ID it as a Square-tailed Kite (STK) and it circled for about five minutes before it disappeared over the tree-line. I managed to fire off a few quick frames as I like to get even fairly shitty record shots as even a pretty poor photo can sometimes yield some interesting information. The bird had a couple of very helpful ID marks with a secondary feather missing in its right wing and also a small patch of white feathers just off-centre on its breast (interestingly when reviewing previous years photos, we believe this is the same bird from 2014). We carried on with what we were doing and it wasn't long before I heard Louise shout out that it was back - excellent! I ran to get my binos and we realised this was actually a different bird, and sure enough the original bird then came in behind it before they both settled in to soar in laps around the block, occasionally dipping out of sight and offering tantalising glimpses through the eucalypts.

It would be an understatement to say that we were absolutely rapt to be watching this pair of elegant raptors and the afternoon was punctuated by their appearances where we would literally drop everything to watch them, both with massive grins on our faces. I didn't know the day was going to get even better.

Being a bird photographer is a funny old hobby; you can have days where you tromp around for hours and hours, only to get home with a pissed off expression on your face and a few frames of some blurry bird's vent in your camera... and then you have days like Sunday 4 September! I would say that I am primarily a birder who carries a camera around rather than a photographer whose subject is birds; I make this distinction because sometimes I feel that is important - if my camera was broken I would still be out birding and I get immense pleasure from watching birds and trying to gain an understanding of them. However, there is also an exquisite pleasure and satisfaction (that is an added layer to birding) that you feel when getting some great shots of the birds you have been watching; in the past couple of years having a camera with me helped speed up my fieldcraft and sharpened my observations of bird behaviour in order to try and predict how/where I might get the shot I wanted without intruding on the bird(s). I have taken this self-indulgent digression because I want to give the impression of some level of premeditation and structure for the close shots rather than sheer bloody luck ;)

I was up a ladder with a Bosch impact driver in hand when Louise shouted to me again they were back, so gracefully and with great athletic majesty, I dismounted the ladder, grabbed my camera and sprinted off into the block following the STKs. I started to get really excited when I saw one of them had actually landed in a Yellow Gum, I got even more excited when I was getting stealthily closer and it was remaining in a relatively open position and allowed me more shots. That is the general tactic I use when photographing a bird... shoot, move nearer, shoot and move nearer, repeat...

One of the really striking things about them when they are perched is the length of the wings past the tail. I have left the photos below uncropped so you can get an impression of the environment, etc. These were from the first time it/they settled in the trees.

I ran back to the car to grab my tripod, I virtually always handhold my camera when birding but I wanted to try and get some video - by the time I got back to the other side of the gully both birds were settled in within a couple of metres from each other. I only managed a bit of shaky handheld footage before a Magpie-lark with nunchucks and steel-toed boots on chased off the bird in the photos above, leaving me to get some video of the very distinctively marked bird below.


After the bird had flown, leaving me rocking backwards and forwards over my camera ecstatically whispering "yesssss" like some demented avian-loving Gollum, I started to head back to the cabin but stopped in my tracks when I realised Bird #2 was back... let's call it Twoey. Twoey had decided as most birds do, to sit quite high up with a glarey sky behind it. I tried to surreptitiously circumnavigate the trees and gain a trajectory that would not only afford me the sun behind my back but better views of the bird. To do this I decided to use the cover of a very large, V-shaped Yellow Gum to block my approach. With great delicacy I would take a couple of steps and peer round the tree to see how I was going and as I was close to the trunk I caught out of the corner of my eye, Twoey fly down and towards the tree - I had seen them both hit the ground earlier and I assumed it had taken some small prey again so you can imagine my surprise as I reached the gap in the V shaped trunk and there it was on a small horizontal branch about 5m away and only a foot above my eyeline!

Luckily, I mean with great forethought and skill I had not dropped the camera away from nose level so I was able to slowly raise it and fire off a raft of shots, ease the screen low enough to check settings, and then raise it again and fire off a load more. I also just stood watching - no need for binoculars due to the ridiculous proximity - and drank in the sheer, outstanding beauty in front of me as it scanned the ground looking for a morsel to pounce on and eat. When this ended, I raced back to speak to Louise and in her words, she didn't know if I was "going to have a heart attack, cry or wet yourself" and I must admit all three seemed simultaneously likely as I hyperventilated trying to explain what a phenomenal encounter I just had. I actually think 879 photos was pretty light.

Needless to say, we have been buzzing with joy at this experience and are hoping they are actually seeking a nesting spot but thanks, Twoey and Oney - what a beautiful day you gave us!

Sundews - Not as delicious as they look…

When I first discovered Sundews (Drosera sp.) I thought they were pretty little plants, glistening in the morning sunlight, heavy with dew. Later in the day, after it had warned up, I noticed they still had their wet “dew” so I figured it must be sweet nectar and swooped in for a lick. 

Yuck! Not nectar! Eventually I learnt that Sundews are carnivores whose leaves are adorned with tentacles coated with a secretion that lures, traps and digests insects. Fooled me too!

The name Drosera comes from the latin word “droseros” meaning “dewy” and at Finches Gully we have a few different species.

Scented Sundew (Drosera aberrans) grows low to the ground with green leaves that turn red with age. In comparison to the leaf size, their white flower is quite large, forming patches of stunning red and white carpet in winter and spring. 

Scented Sundew (Drosera aberrans)

Scented Sundew (Drosera aberrans)

Pale Sundew (Drosera hookeri) and Tall Sundew (Drosera auriculata) both produce pale pink or white flowers and look quite similar when not flowering so I’m having trouble telling the difference between them (if anyone knows please feel free to help!). 

Pale Sundew (Drosera hookeri) or Tall Sundew (Drosera auriculata)?

Pale Sundew (Drosera hookeri) or Tall Sundew (Drosera auriculata)?

After zooming in on my photos I noticed that there is an insect trapped in one of the leaves, gruesome! 

A Sundew digesting dinner.

A Sundew digesting dinner.

Here is a cool video of Droseras in action at dinner time...

I may be thick, but do you know a quick trick to stop me getting sick on the Port Fairy Pelagic?

pe¦la|gic [pɪˈladʒɪk]
ADJECTIVE

  1. technical
    relating to the open sea: "the kittiwakes return from their pelagic winter wanderings"
    synonyms: water · sea · marine · maritime · saltwater · seawater ·
    (of a bird) inhabiting the open sea and returning to the shore only to breed.

NOUN

  1. a pelagic fish or bird.

I was going to call this blog something (questionably) witty like “A sickeningly good time at sea”, or “A Port Fairy Pelagic… like my breakfast, I’ll be back!” but that would really have only worked if I had actually been physically sick – which I wasn’t. Let’s just clear that up before we start.

I did not throw up, spew, hurl, vomit, puke, chunder or any other synonym for being sick. Ergo, miracles truly happen.

Before I regale you with the story of how I came to lose my ‘Pelaginity’, let’s start at the beginning. When I was younger I had a secret alter ego who I called Albert Ross which should give you some indicator why for some time now I have wanted to do a sea birding trip. Albert Ross came a few years after my unsuccessful attempt at getting my school mates to call me by what I assured them was a long-standing nickname (it wasn’t – I’d just decided at the time) of ‘Osprey’. If anyone would like to take this up, albeit 35 years later then feel free to do so!

Anyway, I digress. I had tried unsuccessfully to get on the October 2015 pelagic but that was cancelled due to bad weather – a fate that ~50% of all proposed trips meet. At the beginning of the year I was looking at my bird list and thought about those magnificent sea birds that I would only see while on a boat and so checked the upcoming schedule, February was booked out so that left Sunday 20 March as the next available option. I mentioned to my mate Steven that I was thinking about it and as soon as he said he was free that weekend and up for it, we were on like Donkey Kong. A quick phone call later and we were booked on… now to wait with no small degree of nerves and impatience to see if the Friday before phone call confirmed we would be going out and YES! We were.

Saturday 19 March: Bouncing around excitedly, and already having been to the shops to buy a shedload of food and dry snacks for the boat the next day*, I checked my binoculars and camera gear for the 214th time. After lunch Steve arrives and we load the car up and head off; I’m like a kid in a candy shop as I’m aware that pretty much every single bird I see on the trip will be a new one but it is the albatrosses that I am especially looking forward to seeing. My emotions are looping between high-spirited anticipation and a nervous worry and dull trepidation about how my sea-legs would fair. The majority of people I had spoken to had said that your common garden variety Kwells would keep the ‘mal de mer’ at bay so I had stocked up and ensured I had them with me. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t fucking work)

I was rapt to have Steve as company as not only is he a superb birder, I knew we would have a good laugh on the over three hour drive down to Port Fairy and he’d recommended a couple of stop-offs en route where I might pick up a few lifers. Sure enough he delivered up four new birds by way of Forest Raven (at Floating Island); and then Kelp Gull, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone (a bogey bird vanquished and in incredibly beautiful colours too) at Killarney Beach where we bumped into two other Melbourne birders who were also going to be on the boat – Scott and Kevin. A group meal at the local pub closed off the day and like a child awaiting Santa’s arrival I eventually got some sleep after taking my preliminary Kwells.

Ruu

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)


Sunday 20 March aka P-Day: At some awfully hideous hour of which I normally only see the PM version, we are sat in the gloom at the marina, peering through the darkness as I issue feeble greetings to the collected group whilst trying not to shit myself after having seen the size of the boat we were going out on. This isn’t Jaws though and there is no bigger boat. Plus, I’d already handed over my cold hard cash and if there is anything as motivating as having already paid for something then I haven’t found it yet. We clamber on board, jostle for positions and with expectation of reasonable weather the boat takes off out of the marina and heads to our destination about 30-35 nautical miles (~65km) off coast – the continental shelf.

It’s pretty invigorating having the sea air filling your lungs, the salty spray misting your face and the dawning realisation that you won’t be touching land again for over 8 hours regardless of how much you cry and plead.

The day’s timeline went approximately like this: -

7.30am: Cruise out of marina, “oooh Black-faced Cormorant, nice!”
7.45am: This is going to be so bloody good! Camera ready, binoculars on… open water coming up.
8.30am: First lifers! Distant flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters cresting the waves; wow, those waves are impressive. Hold on, feeling a bit queasy. You’ll be right, you’ve had your Kwells.
8.32am to 2.50pm: Alternate between – “Why the fuck did I ever sign up to this I want to die, am I dying? I’m going to be sick” and “LOOK! Look at that INCREDIBLE BIRD, HOLY SHIT THIS IS AMAZING, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS”
*madly takes 100’s of photos*
2.51pm: Oh thank you, Captain.. we’re going home
2.55pm to 4pm: Starting to feel slightly more human again and can manage more than four dual-syllabic words in a row; enjoying soaking up the last vestiges of bird life and beginning to acknowledge I may actually survive this and live to tell the tale (or complete this blog)
4.05pm: If I would have had the energy I would have pulled a Pope manoeuvre and kissed the sweet, glorious crust of terra firma.

In all seriousness, it truly was one of the most conflicted days I have ever endured. My body thought it had been poisoned and just wanted to be prone on a comfy bed somewhere while my mind was telling it to stop being such a fucking whinger and enjoy this unique and genuinely awe-inspiring experience. Luckily my head is stronger than my traitorous stomach who was trying to undermine me at every rock and yaw of the boat, and believe me there were many. At times when we were at rest and subject to the full swirl, rock and roll of the ocean I was struck catatonic and could literally not manage a single word as I desperately fixated on not succumbing to the seasickness – I’d guess there were probably about four or five occasions of possibly 30-45 minutes apiece – I would try and just keep my eyes on the horizon. That sounds easy apart from when the swell is so large all you can see is the sea, the roll of the boat is so pronounced you can only see waves and roof, and you are hanging on to the metal frame of the canopy to save from being foisted overboard into the cold water.

At its deepest I was told the water was 600m deep at one of our stops. The colour of the water is just stunning, seeing it transition as you move further from shore is very interesting indeed; the anonymous mid-greys then dark navy and obsidian giving up different sets of birds as we progressed. If you are put off so far by my descriptions make no mistake, it really is a mind-blowing experience when someone shouts “albatross!” for the first time and you see this majestic bird on the horizon and it disappears from view as the waves rise and interrupt your views (this happens several times) before it is close enough and circles the boat. To have large numbers of mixed albatross and small seabirds in a flock around you is beyond brilliant and I can utterly see why people find it such an enthralling experience.


The sequence of things is all a bit hazy but some of the first birds of the open water we saw are the beautiful and balletic Fairy Prions. These cracking birds are a pretty array of greys and a real nightmare to try and get a shot of against the equally grey waters, but watching them skimming in like water-skiers was a real delight. Steve very accurately described them as dancing across the surface and this movement was also echoed by the other small birds that we saw through the trip. It looks as though they are running across the surface; too ethereal to break the salty meniscus as they go about their feeding business. To see such slight birds – some only a small margin bigger than house sparrows - in choppy, open water with the strong winds is to understand that Mother Nature rarely bodges her plans! To this group lay the three Storm-Petrels which I enthusiastically ticked off in my head (as I was incapable of scratching into my notebook).

We were treated to a remarkable seven species of albatross – the first in were (ironically) the Shy Albatross to then be joined by Indian Yellow-nosed, Black-browed, Buller’s and Campbell’s. Now all of these are very impressive in their own way – the Shy and the Black-browed by their size and elegance; the Indian Yellow-nosed from their incredible bills which look like extruded plastic toys with their vibrancy; the striking pale grey of the Buller’s head and neck and the astonishing golden iris of the Campbell’s (which is considered in some lists as a sub-species of the Black-browed) is quite something to see – BUT, they all pale into the shadows of the great albatrosses of which we were also blessed to see.

If you have been lucky enough to see one of the large eagles somewhere, be it a Wedge-tailed Eagle or a White-bellied Sea-eagle, or maybe in the northern hemisphere a Golden Eagle you will know that calm awe and respect that comes over you when you see something with such size cruising the thermals above you. That is the start of the sensation you feel when you see something breaching the horizon with barely a flap as it covers the visible distance with minimal fuss or effort and it’s obviously one of the ‘proper’ biggies. My brain was still revelling in the glut of mixed albatross which were following the boat in way vaster numbers than I ever thought or could imagine we would have before it was stunned into a whole new perspective by the arrival of a Wandering Albatross, and then later a Northern Royal Albatross. These birds are bloody VAST with wingspans of 3-3.5m for the Royal and 2.5-3.5m for the Wandering. The day was wrapped up by the arrival and close inspection of an obliging very old Snowy Albatross – a bird that looks quite prehistoric and had an air of nobility and a peaceful demeanour (anthropomorphise much??) about it. It also made me think of the shape of Dodo’s heads. One piece of amazing avian engineering I wasn't wholly aware of at the time, and only really noticed when reviewing my photos is the incredible way albatrosses have to fold their mighty wings. Due to the sheer length of the span they cannot simply fold in half like normal birds, they tuck them away with great care and precision in several jointed folds as you can see in the photos below of one of the two Wandering Albatross.

I’ve skipped over some of the mid-sized birds because I have realised this entry will have gone on longer than the actual trip if I don’t stop waffling! That doesn’t mean to say they are not equally as interesting and exciting because they most definitely are – seeing the anatomy of these birds’ bills is fascinating with their bizarre nostril(s) and adapted plumages. The sighting of an Arctic Tern was also one of the many, many trip highlights. All up I got back to land with 19 new birds from that day (listed below) and a new respect for people that spend their working days out on the ocean and in a lot of respects jealousy of the world that exists beyond us land lubbers' understanding or interactions. The rest of that night, even when I got home, my body was still reacting to both the physical and visual effects of nine hours of big swells on a small boat; solid surfaces morphed and swirled seemingly moving and dropping, the floor felt like it was shifting and tilting like a trampoline and I found my walking unsteady and communication laboured. Not entirely unlike what one may hypothetically feel if one were coming up on a big bag of special mushrooms. Pretty glad I had a good mate to share the driving and the experience with.


Pelagic lifer list

  • Arctic Tern
  • Black-browed Albatross
  • Buller's Albatross
  • Campbell Albatross
  • Fairy Prion
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater
  • Fluttering Shearwater
  • Great-winged Petrel
  • Grey-backed Storm-Petrel
  • Hutton's Shearwater
  • Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
  • Northern Royal Albatross
  • Short-tailed Shearwater
  • Shy Albatross
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Wandering Albatross
  • White-chinned Petrel
  • White-faced Storm-Petrel
  • Wilson's Storm-Petrel

*Oh yeah, I just found the asterisk I left up there somewhere in the Saturday entry. I didn’t manage to eat a sodding thing I had bought whilst on the boat; in fact, I couldn’t even face drinking any fluid until we were heading back to shore with the boat under full steam and (relatively) stable when I managed to gulp down a few mouthfuls of the coffee I had diligently made a big flask of. I managed to make up for that by scoffing a big bag of Sweet Chilli crisps into my face on the drive home. So would I do another pelagic? Shit, yes! I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The luckiest Hobby in the West

Australian Hobby

Last year Michael and I had the honour of rescuing an injured Australian Hobby that we often see hunting around Sunshine West. In fact Michael has taken photos (as above) of what we think is probably the same bird, chomping on a Spotted Dove. I wrote a story about this special bird of prey and it was published in a community newspaper called The Westsider. Check it out here...

http://thewestsider.com.au/the-luckiest-hobby-in-the-west/

Ps. I have a habit of bringing home injured animals, mainly birds, but sometimes dogs and cats too. One of the first rescues that Michael was subjected to was when we first started living together, in Brighton, UK. I brought home an injured pigeon and named him Griffin. Because we were in a sharehouse, Griffin stayed in our bedroom and I fed him porridge for a few weeks until he was well enough to be released. I have fond memories of Griffin but I'm not sure Michael felt the same way, ha ha!

Our photography gear (for the curious and the nerdish!)

Michael:

  • Canon 7DMKII with Meike battery grip
  • Canon 5DMK4 with Vertax E20 battery grip
  • Canon 500mm f4L ISII
  • Canon EF400mm f5.6L USM
  • Canon EF24-105mm f4L IS USM
  • Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD
  • Sigma 50mm f1.4 DG HSM Art
  • Canon 1.4x mkIII Teleconverter
  • LowePro 500AW Flipside
  • LowePro Pro Runner 350AW bag

Louise:

  • Canon 70D
  • Sigma 105mm f2.8 EX DG Macro
  • Yongnuo YN-14EX-C Macro Ring Lite
  • LowePro Photo Sport 200 AW bag
  • Crumpler 4 Million Dollar Home bag

Other bits and pieces:

  • Jobu Algonquin Tripod and Jr 3 Deluxe gimbal head
  • Yongnuo 500EX flash
  • Yongnuo 568EXII flash
  • Better Beamer
  • 3x Yongnuo YN-622c (wireless triggers)
  • Syrp Variable ND filter
  • Syrp Genie Mini (timelapse gizmo)
  • Triggertrap (Timelapse trigger)
  • Manfrotto 055C tripod with 029MKII head
  • Weifeng WF-6615B-M Tripod & Monopod
  • LowePro Adventura 160 bag
  • 24" soft box and light stand

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions, or want to know about a certain piece of equipment.