Monday, 4 June 2018

Vale Philip Jackson

Philip Jackson died peacefully yesterday morning, with his family around him.  The cancer we all thought he'd beaten, returned with a swift vengeance.  

I'd only known PJ for a short while, but we became good birding companions and had many happy birding trips together.
Philip ignoring authority, Lockhart River January 2018
I met Philip at the Long-billed Dowitcher twitch at Lake Tutchewop in November 2014.  We each turned up, to look for this exciting bird - and failed.  A week later, after more reported sightings, we each separately drove up to Lake Tutchewop again, from memory about four hours from Melbourne.  This time we were successful.  I hadn't enjoyed the drive up - aquaplaning on black ice in my new car.  Glowing in my success at seeing the dowitcher, I asked Philip where he lived.  'Ivanhoe,' he said and I confessed I came from Kew.  We were practically neighbours.  It was obvious.  We should have driven up together.

My cheeky question was the beginning of a great friendship.  Together we birded as much as we could.  I've lost count of the number of times we visited Werribee's Western Treatment Plant.  We birded at Banyule and at Wilson Reserve.  I took him to Tara Bulga to see Pilotbirds.  We went to Kamarooka for honeyeaters, to LaTrobe for Swift Parrots and to Braeside for the Pectoral Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint.  Last January we visited Iron Range together and he achieved several lifers.  Together we twitched the SIPO at Broadwater in January 2017 (my 800th bird), then in December, the Aleutian Terns at Old Bar in New South Wales.

I loved his irreverence and his quince jelly.  He loved Essendon Football Club.  I will miss our birding trips and our political discussions.  My thoughts are with Sue, Claire and Bill.

Monday, 28 May 2018

EAGLEHAWK NECK MAY 2018

It's getting harder and harder to see new birds, but I get more and more pleasure out of each new sighting.  Last weekend I visited Tasmania and did two pelagics out of Eaglehawk Neck.  The highlight was seeing a Westland Petrel - a new bird for me.  We had good views on Saturday, then, just for fun, more sightings on Sunday.  There were other exciting occurrences too, my first 'brocken spectre' from the plane on the way down, Sooty Albatross (more than one!), White-headed Petrels (always a favourite) and others on the boat (not me, sadly) saw a Black-bellied Storm Petrel - as far as I know, never recorded before here in May.
Westland Petrel, photo by Els Wakefield

My friend Els Wakefield was picking me up from the airport in Hobart and she said 'Come early, and we'll have a day's birding.'  She didn't have to say that twice!  I was up at 5.30 and on the 8.15 plane.  Weather was fine as we took off and flew through the cloud cover.  Above the clouds, as far as I could see in every direction was fluffy white cotton wool.  Then I saw a magnificent spectacle.  A pink ring on the clouds, with the shadow of our plane in the centre.  It was breath taking.  Clever Els told me it was called a 'brocken spectre.'  I'd never heard of it and certainly never seen one before.  A good omen I thought.

Els and I had a lovely day birding on Friday.  We saw 53 species and had a delicious lunch at the Waterfront Cafe in Dunally.  Els was delighted to show me a couple of Pink-eared Ducks - a rare vagrant in Tasmania.  I always love pinkies, but I'm afraid I didn't display as much enthusiasm for this common Victorian bird as Els thought they deserved.  For me, the highlight was a couple of Hooded Dotterels on the beach at Marion Bay.  We saw several Flame and Scarlet Robins, but dipped on Dusky.  I was a bit disappointed to see a total of 16 kookaburras during the day - I don't remember seeing that many on previous visits to Tasmania.  Laughing Kookaburras (along with Superb Lyrebirds) were introduced to Tasmania and don't belong there.

At Eaglehawk Neck, we stayed at the Lufra.  It was a special jazz weekend.  The hotel was full, the atmosphere was cheerful and the music was fantastic.

On Saturday morning, we arrived at Pirates Bay before 7, but far from the usual sleepy cove, the place was humming.  There was a fishing competition on and there must have been 50 fishing trailers all trying to launch their boats simultaneously.  There were fishermen, boats, and four wheel drives bumper to bumper.  The small group of birders who usually had the wharf to themselves had to weave their way between fishermen.  I managed to board the Pauletta without falling over - always an achievement for me.

It was a great day.  I had a list of 35 species which had ever been recorded here in May.  Of these I saw 23 on Saturday.  Other people saw more.  I saw 26 on Sunday and again, others saw more.  I didn't see the Grey Petrel others saw or the aforementioned Black-bellied Storm Petrel.  The Sooty Albatross we saw on Sunday was not on the list.
Southern Royal Albatross, photo by Els Wakefield

A Crescent Honeyeater landed on the aerial while we cruised past the Hippolytes.  I didn't see it.  I was busy watching a peregrine attacking a sea eagle.  Saturday was a day of albatross and Sunday was a day of prions.  At one stage on Saturday, we had over 50 Shy Albatross sitting around the boat.  We also saw Buller's, Campbell's, Wandering and a Southern Royal, and a couple of Sooties on Sunday. We saw several Common Diving Petrel, lots of Cape Petrel, a sprinkling of Northern Giant Petrels (with just one Southern on Sunday).  There were Soft-plumaged, White-headed, Great Winged, Grey-faced Petrels and of course, most importantly, the Westland.  As to Storm Petrels, I saw Wilson's and Grey-backed.  Others saw White-faced and, exceptionally, Black-bellied.  I was sorry I missed the Grey Petrel - it didn't hang around - but I had an inward glow from my Westland and I wasn't complaining.
Soft-plumaged Petrel, photo by Els Wakefield

It was cold.  In fact, I don't remember ever being so cold.  On Sunday, I borrowed a jumper and a neck warmer, and they helped.  So did the second cup of coffee that the skipper kindly gave me.  I must have been cold because I ring I have worn since 1970 fell off my finger.  That's never happened before.  I lost it in Els' car, but (bless her!) she found it.  We had expected choppy seas on Sunday, but it wasn't too bad at all.
White-headed Petrel, photo by Els Wakefield

Altogether a very successful weekend.  Let's face it, any time I get a lifer, it's successful.  But this was particularly enjoyable.  The Eaglehawk Neck pelagics are always very friendly and usually produce a good birdlist.  We did well.  Thanks to Paul Brooks for organizing the pelagic, to Els for all her help (and her photos), and to everyone on the boat for making it such an enjoyable weekend.

Of course, the main reason for my trip, was to see a Southern Fulmar, and in that I failed miserably.  I'll just have to go back in 2019.  What a shame.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

TORRES STRAIT MARCH 2018

At last my luck has changed!  Finally, I've seen a new bird in 2018.  In January, I dipped on the Black-eared Catbird and the White-necked Petrel.  In February, I missed the petrel again.  In March I visited the Torres Strait and I had great hopes for some new birds.

I'd visited Boigu Island briefly in January 2006 with Klaus as part of his Bamega Bird Week.  A decade later I visited both Boigu and Saibai with Richard Baxter's Birding Tours Australia.  We saw some great birds (including such megas as Zoe's Imperial Pigeon and Coroneted Fruit Dove) but we dipped on Coconut Lorikeet.  I thought I was unlucky to miss this relatively easy bird and this was my main target when I returned this year.

In March 2018 Richard ran four back to back tours.  The first tour had magnificent sightings, including Mimic Honeyeater and Pink-spotted Fruit Dove, and, I was delighted to note, Coconut Lorikeet.  The second tour did not see any birds that would have been new for me, and, worse, they dipped on Coconut Lorikeet.  I was on the third tour, the only one scheduled to visit a third island, Ugar.

We visited Boigu first.  It was muddy.  The Mimic Honeyeater had gone home to New Guinea.  As I stepped gingerly through the mud, hoping I wouldn't fall over, I was thankful the mosquitoes were not in the plague proportions they had been two years earlier.  Alas, I saw no lorikeets.
Enjoying Torres Strait weather, photo by Joy Tansy

We moved on to Saibai and the temperature increased.  The Pink-spotted Fruit Dove had also returned to New Guinea.  We stood for hours hoping that lorikeets would fly over.  Others in the group were getting ticks.  We saw Gurney's Eagle and Uniform Swiftlets.  But no lorikeets.  

As the time approached for us to move to Ugar, Cyclone Nora put in an appearance.  Seas would be rough.  We had no choice.  Ugar was off the agenda.  Instead, we sheltered in the channel between Saibai and Kaumag.  I was on the upper deck with Jen Spry when a pair of lorikeets flew over, calling.  With her fantastic eyesight, Jen identified Red-flanked Lorikeets.  At the time, I confess I'd rather they'd been the much more common Coconut variety.

Later, I was standing, chatting, on the lower deck, when I heard Richard call 'lorikeets.'  I looked where I'd seen the Red-flankeds.  Nothing.  Everyone else was looking the other way.  I turned, but the birds had flown.  I'd missed out!  The one bird I'd come to see, and I'd missed it.  I could not believe it. 

The next morning, everyone else enjoyed a boat cruise in the tenders, but I stayed on board the mother ship to search for Coconut Lorikeets.  I was not disappointed.  I saw dozens of them, in flocks of from four to about a dozen, screeching overhead at various heights, sometimes showing colours, sometimes just black silhouettes.  Once two birds perched in a mangrove.  I had my Coconut Lorikeets at last.  The world was a better place.  I was going home with two ticks.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

ANOTHER DISAPPOINTING KIAMA PELAGIC

2018 is not being kind to me.

I dipped on the Black-eared Catbird, and now I've dipped on the White-necked Petrel for the second time this year.  That's it for WNP attempts for me this year, as I'll be in the Torres Strait in March.  (Best time to see these petrels is January, February and March.  They are recorded in April - in fact I've been told that Port Stephens in April is the best time to see them - but the records do not seem to back that up.)
Long-tailed Jaeger, photo by Brook Whylie

It was a disappointing day at sea.  The weather was better than expected - it was warm, there was a little wind and some rain as we returned to port.  We expected heavy seas, but they really weren't too bad.  It was a little rough as we headed to the shelf, but not nearly as bumpy as had been forecast.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie 

In January, when I did the Kiama pelagic, I decided the Bird of the Day was the bulbul I saw on the way to the boat.  Yesterday, it was easy to select the Bird of the Day, as there were so few contenders.  I added three seabirds to my list for 2018:  Wilson's Storm Petrel, Shy Albatross and Long-tailed Jaeger.  The storm petrel flew past just once, wanting to get himself onto our list, but not staying to chat.  The albatross also did not linger.  It flew in to the berley, grabbed breakfast and departed immediately.  The jaegers were more cooperative.  There were several big fat Pomarine Jaegers throughout the day, but I'm told there were only three Long-tailed Jaegers:  an adult, a juvenile and an immature.  They stayed with us for most of the day, flying overhead and showing off their different plumages.  Indisputably the Bird of the Day.
Hutton's Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

We saw the usual list of shearwaters, a few Grey-faced Petrels and a sprinkling of terns.  I think any birder would have classed it as an unsatisfactory birdlist.
Grey-faced Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

It was a disappointed wet group of birders who disembarked from the boat when we returned to Kiama.  I believe there were a dozen birders on board.  At least five of us had travelled up from Victoria with the sole purpose of admiring a White-necked Petrel.  It was my eighteenth attempt to see this bird. I wonder how many more times must I travel north in search of a bird that is not supposed to be rare.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

WHAT A DAY WE HAD AT WERRIBEE!

Yesterday, my birding friend, PJ, and I visited the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee.  It was our first visit for 2018, so we expected to get lots of ticks for our year lists.  We saw nine species of ducks and five species of terns.  We saw several (five I think) very dark young Swamp Harriers, each looking very handsome.  We saw Glossy Ibis, Baillon's Crake and a Black-faced Cormorant (a bird we rarely see at Werribee).  We had great views of a very friendly Little Grassbird, and, to cap it all off, a Peregrine Falcon and a pair of wedgies put in appearance as we were leaving.

We arrived at about 11 and left around 3.30.  In this time we clocked up 83 species, notwithstanding wind and rain.

Luck seemed to be with us.  We started at the T Section where the roads had all been graded and gravelled.  We were most appreciative of this when it started to rain.  All the usual suspects were here (waders, ducks, coots, cisticolas, finches, chats) as well as one confident and confiding Baillon's Crake, one Glossy Ibis and our friendly Little Grassbird.

Next, we drove to Western Lagoons, where we always add Red-capped Plover to our list.  We were admiring waders here, when a couple of Brolgas flew overhead - always an inspiring sight.  We were pleased to see a Marsh Sandpiper foraging beside a Common Greenshank, making a useful comparison.

We stopped along Beach Road to admire our first Black-shouldered Kite for the day, and saw a large flock of Zebra Finches with a few European Greenfinches tagging along, and Yellow-rumped Thornbills hopping amongst them.  All birds we'd hoped to add to our lists for 2018.

We drove to the boat launch and I said I'd like a Pacific Gull.  Obligingly, PJ pointed to the left.  Then I requested a Pied Cormorant and immediately PJ produced one. While my luck was in, I said an Australasian Gannet would be good and one flew unusually close right in front of us!  Howzat!  Perhaps I should have requested a White-necked Petrel!

As we drove through the gate on Beach Road we could see ducks loafing on Freckled Duck Rock.  We drove closer and confirmed they were Freckled Ducks.  This was once a reliable spot to see them, but I haven't seen them there for years.
Male Freckled Duck - I confess I did not take this yesterday

We took the coast road to the Borrow Pits, then drove out along Paradise Road, where Cape Barren Geese were grazing.  Our bird list was round about 80 and we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.  Then the peregrine appeared, right beside the car, and a couple of wedgies soared overhead as we drove through the final gate.

Werribee never disappoints, but yesterday was really one out of the bag.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

THE ELUSIVE WHITE-NECKED PETREL

Oh, dear.  Recently I was lamenting the fact that I'd dipped on Black-eared Catbirds after four trips to Iron Range - two of which had the sole purpose of looking for catbirds.  Now I am bemoaning the fact that I've dipped on White-necked Petrels.  Again.

I have looked for White-necked Petrels every summer since 2008.  I've been to Wollongong on six occasions, Port Stephens twice, Southport twice and this was my third trip to Kiama.  In addition to this, four boat trips I've booked on for the sole purpose of admiring White-necked Petrels, have been cancelled.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

We had a pleasant day out of Kiama on Saturday 27 January 2018.  The weather was perfect, the sea was calm, the company was great, but there were no exciting birds.  For me, the best bird of the trip was the bulbul I saw sitting on electricity wires on the way to the boat.  A White-tailed Tropicbird was probably the most unusual sighting we had.  It flew low over the boat, giving good views.  The only jaegers we saw were Pomarines, and I think there were about half a dozen of them.  We saw six species of shearwater:  the most common was Wedge-tailed, then Flesh-footed, with just one or two Short-tailed and Sooty.  We had exceptionally good views of both Fluttering and Hutton's and what was most unusual was they were close enough even for me to tell the difference.
Fluttering Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie


Hutton's Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

Naturally, a White-necked Petrel was seen out of Southport the day after I didn't see one out of Kiama.  All I can do is keep my fingers crossed for February.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

WILL I EVER SEE A BLACK-EARED CATBIRD?

I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iron Range.  On this occasion (as on the last) I had just one aim:  to see a Black-eared Catbird.  Before I signed up for the trip, I asked about catbirds and was assured that there was a good chance of seeing one.  We spent three nights at Lockhart River, and in that time we heard three catbird calls.  Each was a single call.  None was repeated.  Looking back, I don't believe that there ever was a reasonable chance of seeing a catbird.

Iron Range is on the north of Cape York.  It is a long way from Melbourne.  To get there, I fly to Cairns, then fly in a Dash 8 to Lockhart River, which takes 1 hour 40 minutes from Cairns.

My first trip to Iron Range was in June 2008 with Klaus.  We saw Green-backed Honeyeaters, Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots.  Also the northern races of Double-eyed Fig-Parrots (male with red on his face) and Red-browed Finches (with brighter colours).  We saw a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo at Cook's Hut and several Papuan Frogmouths (with red eyes) and Marbled Frogmouths (with orange eyes).  We stayed at a house in Portland Roads and came home one night to a Large-tailed Nightjar sitting on our driveway.  Klaus did a good job and we saw all the birds we'd hoped to see.  I thought I would never need to return to Iron Range.  
Quintell Beach

In September 2015, with Richard Baxter, I stopped briefly at Portland Roads on the way to Raine Island (to see the Herald Petrel).  Again, we admired Double-eyed Fig-Parrots at close quarters, but we had little time for birding and hurried to catch our boat.

Then came the catbird split and I had to return to Iron Range to see the Black-eared Catbird, now given full species status.  In July 2017, I visited with Phil Maher.  We had four nights at the Lockhart River cabins and saw 77 species of birds.  Alas! the Black-eared Catbird was not one of them.

After that, I did not want to go all the way to Iron Range and again miss out on my catbird.  Chook Crawford was running a tour in January 2018, arriving on Friday 12 January and leaving on Monday 15 January.  I quizzed him about catbirds and he said there was 'a good chance' of seeing one.
My cabin at Lockhart River

There were 14 of us on the tour, as well as Chook and his wife, Tracey.  I think 14 is too many for one guide with one scope.  Having said that, I believe everyone on the tour was quite satisfied with the birds we saw.  Everyone that is, except me!  We all saw Red-bellied Pittas, Northern Scrub-robins, Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots, Palm Cockatoos and White-streaked Honeyeaters.  And we had great views of Black-winged Monarchs.  For the first two days, I had vicarious pleasure in others getting life ticks.  Then, when I realized that I was not going to see my catbird, the pleasure waned.
Chook Crawford contemplating catbirds at Cook's Hut

We were lucky that it didn't rain, but the weather was hot and sticky and uncomfortable.  We did a lot of bush bashing for the pittas, something I never enjoy.  They were a good bunch of people and it was great to see some very beautiful birds.  However, I went to see a catbird and in this I failed dismally.

2018 is not starting off well for me.