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/