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 :)

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!

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.