Saturday, 6 April 2019

A NEW BIRD FOR MY WALK LIST

Yesterday was my 1,061st walk.  I do try to walk every day, regardless of weather.  I walk north or south or east or west.  I always like to record more than ten species of birds on each walk.  Today I recorded ten; yesterday I had eleven.

Yesterday was a south walk, not usually a record-breaking occasion.  (I do much better on north walks, where I walk through a large park.)  Yesterday, I was on my way home, thinking of other things, when a small bird darted out from a bush in front of me.  My first thought was 'Eastern Spinebill.'  Spinebills are not common here and I always love to see them.  I tried to identify the bird, but he was most uncooperative, flitting in and out behind the foliage.  Finally, I got him.  It was a Grey Fantail, a new bird for my walk list.


Grey Fantail, photo by Ken Haines.  Not my Kew bird but hopefully the same race.


I have seen Grey Fantails near home before, but never on a walk.  Alas, I don't know the date when I first saw one.  The second occasion was in October 2004 and the third in April 2005.  This bird was my fourth sighting in suburban Kew and it had been almost exactly 14 years since I'd last seen one.  (I say suburban Kew because I'm sure Grey Fantails are frequently seen near the Yarra River in Kew.  This is nowhere near where I live.)

There were two things noteworthy about this morning's walk:  (1) I did not see or hear a Noisy Miner (Hooray!) and (2) I heard a Spotted Pardalote (not rare, but unusual).

Tomorrow is a west walk.  Clearly, too much to hope for another new bird.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

VALE ROGER TAYLOR

In the early hours of Saturday 23 March 2019 my darling husband, Roger, died.  He was in Box Hill Hospital.  No one knows why he died.  He was a diabetic with a bad heart. Nevertheless his death was sudden and unexpected.  The coroner has performed a partial postmortem but no conclusions have yet been reached.

Roger was not a birder, but for the 46 years of our marriage, he drove me to countless birding spots.  He also drove me to the airport so I could fly off on various birding adventures.  We enjoyed sherry from Rutherglen (or recently Wahgunyah) so several times each year, after we'd collected our bulk sherry, Rog drove me around the birding spots of Rutherglen and nearby Chiltern.

As Roger's health deteriorated, I did more and more trips alone.  Four of my five trips to Christmas Island were done without Rog.  He didn't accompany me to the Torres Strait or to the Coral Sea.  I felt guilty leaving him and decided that my recent Christmas Island trip would be my last.

So I was home alone when he made his last trip to hospital.  He'd been there four nights and was scheduled to come home on Friday.  I rang to arrange picking him up and the doctor said that Rog wasn't quite right and they'd keep him in one more night.  That night he died.  

I should thank all my dear family and friends for their wonderful support in recent days and particular mention must be made of my favourite (and only) brother, Richard.

Life will never be the same again.
Roger as I will remember him, photo by Michael Seyfort


Christmas Day, 2013 when Rog took me to Werribee



Wednesday, 6 March 2019

MY TWENTIETH ATTEMPT AT SEEING A WHITE-NECKED PETREL

I probably should not bother writing a blog about my aborted twentieth attempt to see a White-necked Petrel.  There's not much to say.  The boat did not go.  I did not see the bird.

My Graves Disease had returned with a vengeance.   I had no energy at all.  Walking was difficult; stairs almost impossible.   I had booked to fly to Sydney to do the February pelagic out of Kiama, supposedly my best chance of seeing a White-necked Petrel.  I asked the doctor if it would be okay to go.  He asked me how long I'd be away, and when I said 'one night' he agreed I could go.

The month out of Kiama (or previously Wollongong) with most sightings of White-necked Petrels is February.  Of my twenty attempts, five previous attempts have been in February (2008, 2011, 2016, 2017 [cancelled] and 2018).  I've also been told that April out of Port Stephens is good for White-necked Petrels.  I have attempted to do this trip on four occasions (2012, 2013 [cancelled], 2014 [cancelled] and 2016).
White-necked Petrel by Paul Wallbridge, a bird I've tried to see 20 times

So, in February 2019, I flew to Sydney and managed very cleverly to get on the right train, then to change trains at Woolli Creek to Kiama.  Well done, I thought.  With difficulty, I walked to the motel.  I stayed in my room until it was time to leave in the morning.

I had arranged to be picked up and driven to the jetty, so there was no walking on Saturday.  My lift arrived, (thank you, Graham!) and, with great expectations, we drove to the wharf.  A small crowd of people stood by the boat.  Immediately we learnt that the trip had been cancelled.  Weather was too bad.  Seas were too rough.

Several Victorians who had made the trip as I had, just for the elusive White-necked Petrel, stood, trying to grasp the fact that their interstate journey had been in vain.  After a little miserable discussion, we dispersed.  I felt cheated.  

Brook drove me to the airport and I arranged an early flight home, feeling the world was against me.

If I took a minute to stop feeling sorry for myself, I would thank Graham and Brook for their invaluable assistance.  What would I do without the help of these wonderful friends?  Alas, they cannot make the bird materialise.

Am I never going to see this bird?

MY NINETEENTH ATTEMPT AT A WHITE-NECKED PETREL

I celebrated Australia Day 2019 with my nineteenth attempt to see a White-necked Petrel.  These birds are supposedly seen in January, February and March in New South Wales and southern Queensland waters.  That's what the books say, but I cannot confirm this from my own experience.  I have never seen a White-necked Petrel.

On Friday, I flew from Melbourne to Sydney and took the train to Kiama where I stayed overnight.  Altogether, the trip cost around $2,000.  This is becoming an expensive bird.

For me, the White-necked Petrel really is a bogey bird.  People use this term loosely.  I often hear birders referring to a bird they happen to have dipped on once or twice as a 'bogey bird.'  I reckon a bogey bird is a bird that all your friends have seen, but you have not, despite trying very hard several times.  And, in my book, travelling interstate on nineteen occasions to see a White-necked Petrel and failing every time certainly qualifies.

Apart from the lack of White-necked Petrels, our day at sea last Saturday was pretty good.  It was sunny, but not too hot and we had a boatful of happy people.  We saw hundreds of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and almost as many Grey-faced Petrels.  A magnificent Mottled Petrel caused much celebration and was a lifer for many people on board.  I was happy for them of course, but their success seemed to underline my failure.
Mottled Petrel by Brook Whylie

The Mottled Petrel was undoubtedly the Bird of the Day.  We had fleeting views of both Wilson's and White-faced Storm Petrels and a couple of Sooty Terns.  We saw one or two Pomarine Skuas and had great views of a couple of Long-tailed Jaegers. There were a few Flesh-footed Shearwaters and just a couple of Short-tailed.  Some people saw Sooty Shearwaters but I did not.  Nor did I see any Hutton's or Fluttering Shearwaters.  I had hoped for a Streaked Shearwater, but it was not to be.  We did see a Gould's Petrel, and I was pleased it was not a lifer, because the view was not satisfactory.

We saw one Shy Albatross, one Australasian Gannet, a Greater Crested Tern and some Silver Gulls, giving me a total birdlist for the day of 13 species.

It was a very nice Mottled Petrel, to be sure.  But it was not worth $2,000.  And it was not worth travelling all that way.

Now I look forward to doing it all again in February!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

WHYALLA'S WAGTAIL

I was hurting.  There was a Citrine Wagtail at the Whyalla Wetlands and I hadn't seen it.  Of course I was delighted to see the Tufted Duck at Werribee on 3 January.  Of course I was.  But the duck's presence did not make up for the wagtail's absence.

Citrine Wagtails have turned up in Australia before.  Notably, in my memory, one turned up in Mudgee in New South Wales in September 2014, when I did not see it.  I visited the Putta Bucca wetlands in Mudgee on 10 October 2014 and the bird had flown.  So I particularly wanted to see this bird in South Australia in 2019.  But I did not want to travel to Whyalla alone.  I emailed everyone I could think of:  did they know anyone who'd like to twitch the wagtail with me?  No one did.  In desperation, I put a note on Birding Aus.  This paid off immediately.  Ken Haines phoned.  Ken is a bird photographer I'd met while boneseeding at the You Yangs.  He takes great photos which he has contributed generously to my last book (Best 100 Birdwatching Sites in Australia) as well as my forthcoming book (Birding Australia's Islands).  Ken said we could drive to Whyalla, leaving on Monday and returning on Wednesday.  It sounded good to me.

And that's what we did.  Ken picked me up at 4.45 a.m. on Monday and we drove directly to Whyalla, arriving at 5.15 p.m.  We went straight to the wetlands.  We knew which pond the wagtail had been seen in and we stood at the edge expectantly.  There were over a hundred Black-tailed Nativehens.  There were avocets, stilts and sandpipers.  There were ducks, both domestic and wild.  There were grebes and cormorants and dotterels.  But there was no wagtail.  We walked around the pond.  We searched every muddy inch of the water's edge.  There was an island in the centre of the pond, where Silver Gulls were roosting, but it did not look particularly inviting.  We looked, we waited, we walked around.  We began to feel that we'd driven 1100 kilometres for nothing.  Neither of us dared to articulate our fears.  The light began to fade, but we persisted.  And, at 6.25 we were rewarded!  The wagtail appeared.

It was very active and very obvious.  I don't believe we could have missed it, had it been present for the previous hour and ten minutes.  I believe it was hidden in the vegetation, perhaps amongst the reeds, perhaps under the bushes.

I was delighted, of course.  As far as I was concerned, it was mission accomplished.  But a photographer requires photos.  Ken had lovely shots of Wood Sandpipers, but that wasn't what we'd come for.  So we returned on Tuesday morning at 6.15.  The scenario was much as the day before.  Lots of waterbirds, but no wagtail.  We'd talked of reassessing the situation at noon.  I feared we'd be there all day.  If the wagtail didn't appear again until 6.25 p.m., when the light was not optimum for photos, would we have to stay another night in Whyalla?

We walked around the pond, again neither of us daring to say what we were thinking. The hours ticked by and there was still no wagtail.  What was a little surprising was that there were no other birders there either.  We were the only people looking for the wagtail.  Lots of joggers and dog walkers passed by, but no birders.
Citrine Wagtail, photo by Ken Haines

Then, just as suddenly as it had yesterday evening, at 11 a.m. the bird appeared!  Not only did it put in an appearance, it was coming towards us!  It wanted its photo taken.  It hopped onto a dead tree in the water and made its way along the log, in jerky wagtail fashion.  At the end of the log, it stopped to preen and give us a good look.  Not that Ken was looking.  He was too busy taking photos to enjoy the spectacle.  His camera was clicking away with excited machine-gun repetition.
Citrine Wagtail, photo by Ken Haines

That's the story really.  Ken got his photos and I got my bird.  We drove home in a leisurely fashion, each of us feeling that we'd just achieved something special.  And we had.  We'd driven 1100 kilometres to see a vagrant wagtail.  And a very beautiful wagtail it was.  Thank you, Ken.

Friday, 4 January 2019

A WHOLE NEW YEAR OF BIRDING

Here we are in 2019.  A whole new year ahead of us, in which I plan to see lots of birds.  A new year with renewed enthusiasm and heightened expectations.

I'm hoping I might see five new lifers in 2019:  a modest enough target I hope.  Most years I achieve more than that.  The last couple of years, I've managed 11 ticks each year, including a couple of splits last year.  But, as my total grows, the possibilities for new birds diminishes.  Funny that.

Surely, if there is any justice in the world, I'll see my White-necked Petrel this year.  Another bird quickly gaining the status of bogey bird for me is the Black-eared Catbird.  I've spent more money looking for that than I care to calculate.

Only once have I managed to see a lifer on the first of January.  That was in 2008 on the Abrolhos, when I saw my first Lesser Noddy.  Other January lifers include the White-throated Nightjar in Bunyip State Park in 2004, a whole host of Bamega specialties in 2006, the Hudsonian Godwit at Werribee in 2009, the White-rumped Sandpiper at Lake Wollumboola in 2015, and the Paradise Shelduck at the same spot a year later, the South Island Oystercatcher at Broadwater in 2017 (my 800th bird), the Lesser Black-backed Gull at Buffalo Creek the same year and the Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Lake Murdeduke also in 2017.

And then:  the Tufted Duck at Werribee's Western Treatment Plant on 3 January 2019!

Tufted Duck, photo by James Mustafa
This makes my hopes of five lifers for the year seem eminently achievable.  Who would have thought that a Tufted Duck would turn up in Victoria?  I've seen them in the UK, but that didn't give me anything like the excitement of getting them on my Australian list.

Let's hope some more exciting vagrants get lost somewhere near here some time soon!

Thursday, 20 December 2018

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, DECEMBER 2018

On Friday, we flew to Christmas Island.  Of course the plane was late.  Eventually we arrived, adjusted our watches to accord with the half hour time difference from Cocos and drove to our accommodation.  We were staying at Cocos Padang.  I hadn't stayed here before and it was most acceptable. 

The group divided into two:  those who had visited Christmas before and those who hadn't.  This was my fifth trip to Christmas Island, so I fell comfortably into the first group.  We drove around the island and were shocked to see how very dry it was.  Richard had warned us that things were dry, but hearing about it and actually witnessing it were two different things.  Finding new birds in these conditions was going to be difficult.
There were many more Island Thrushes than on my previous visits.

There has been a concerted effort to remove feral cats from Christmas Island and we saw several cat traps on our travels.  This is paying off.  I saw just two cats on the island - both of them domestic moggies in the township of Settlement.  More noticeable was the increased population of Island Thrushes.  They were abundant, and I'm sure this is a direct result of the cat eradication program.
Cat Trap

Kestrels and Christmas Imperial Pigeons were always abundant.   Other birds we saw every day were Christmas Island Swiftlets, White-tailed Tropicbirds (including Golden Bosunbirds), Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigatebirds and Christmas Frigatebirds.  Alas, the Red-billed Tropicbird I had searched for on my previous visit was no longer present.
The poinceanas were looking beautiful.

The poinceanas were in flower and looking beautiful.  The red crabs were migrating.  Many roads were closed and some were open that should have been closed.  On several occasions we had a few spots of rain, but not enough to get properly wet, and certainly not enough to satisfy the rainforest.

At Swift Alley we enjoyed lots of Abbott's Boobies, but no swifts.  On the road to Dolly's Beach, white-eyes, thrushes and Common Emerald Doves enjoyed pools of water on the road, provided by a natural spring.  We visited the farm, hoping to see the Yellow Bittern that was present a fortnight ago, but it was nowhere to be seen.

We went spotlighting a couple of times, first to see the endemic boobook, then looking for nightjars.  We saw the Christmas Boobook, but there was no hint of nightjars.  My one hope for a lifer on Christmas had been a Savanna Nightjar, which I had heard calling on two separate occasions on previous visits.  It was not to be.

I saw Yellow Crazy Ants on the handrail at Margaret Knoll.  Millions of dollars have been spent trying to eradicate these pests, and it is unclear whether or not the program will be successful.  The ants were introduced from South America, arriving early in the twentieth century, and were not a major threat for some decades.  Then, for some reason, they formed supercolonies, and immediately became a major problem, killing red crabs and destroying the environment.  The national parks experts are attempting a biological control of the ants, using a tiny wasp that destroys the ant's main food source, an introduced scale.  Let's hope it works.

Rob and I attended a fascinating talk about the captive breeding program for two lizards, both extinct in the wild.  One was the Blue-tailed Skink and the other Lister's Ghecko.  The idea is to breed them up in sufficient numbers to re-introduce them to their former home.

Although this was my fifth visit to Christmas Island, I did two things I've never done before:  I walked to the Dales (which was lovely) and I took a boat trip around the island (which was most enjoyable).  The boat trip was predominantly organized for snorklers, but I admired the scenery and the birds and certainly got my money's worth.

Despite being so dry, the island is always a very special place.  The rainforest is serene, the frigatebirds are mesmerizing and the crabs are fascinating.  It's sad to see the casino deserted.  I will have to go back.  Apart from anything else, I have an appointment with a Savanna Nightjar.