Tuesday, 30 December 2014


What a great year it has been!  I started with 735 Australian birds on my lifelist, had to remove the Variable Goshawk (as it was deemed to be just a race of the Brown Goshawk and no longer a species in its own right), yet finished the year with 755 birds.  I am quite delighted.  Some years ago, I thought I may never reach 600 birds, then I feared I'd never get to 700.  I was quite sure I'd never achieve 750.  Yet here I am at 755.  It's wonderful.

My hopes for 2014 were quite modest:  I wanted to see my 3 bogey birds:  the White-necked Petrel, the Slender-billed Prion and the Rufous Scrub-bird.  I tried unsuccessfully for the petrel in Wollongong in January and Port Stephens in April.  Both pelagics were cancelled.  I tried for the prion off Port Fairy in July.  It was not to be.  However, thanks to Mick Roderick, I did have great views of the Rufous Scrub-bird in Gloucester Tops in October.  I'd been looking for this bogey bird since 1984, so you can imagine how pleased I was to finally add it to my lifelist.

Other contenders for the 2014 Bird of the Year were the Common Redshank (which I had once flown to Broome to try to see and come home sadly redshank-free; but which George Swann finally showed me last March); the Yellow-browed Warbler (I saw on Ashmore Reef in March, perhaps the third record for Australia); the Long-billed Dowitcher (which took two trips to Kerang to see); the Saunders' Tern (that I'd dipped on in 2007 and had desperately wanted to see ever since); the Javan Pond Heron (which was my 750th Australian bird); or the Chinese Pond Heron (which involved a scary long wade through shark-infested waters).  There are others too.  Vagrants such as Red-throated Pipit and Red-rumped Swallow.  Birds I had dreamed of seeing such as Pin-tailed Snipe (what views we had!) and House Swifts.  Then there was that cooperative Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoo sitting quietly showing us his beautifully barred tail.  What a year!

I have so much to choose from when selecting my Bird of the Year.  But I think it has to be the Rufous Scrub-bird.  I have put so much time and effort into trying to see this bird over so many years and finally, thanks to Mick Roderick, I had fantastic views of a male singing.  It really was the treat of a lifetime.  And certainly my best bird of 2014.

Now for 2015.  Again, I have modest desires.  Two bogey birds remain:  that wretched White-necked Petrel and Slender-billed Prion.  I'm also hoping that Richard Baxter will get me a Herald Petrel next September and that Rog will find time to drive me across the Nullabor to see the Quail-thrush some time in winter.  And I also hope to squeeze in a trip to Tasmania for the Morepork.  That's not too much to hope for, is it?

Sunday, 28 December 2014


This morning I completed my second set of ten walks in each direction from my home:  north, south, east and west.  As previously noted, to add interest to my daily constitutional, I record all the birds I see and hear on each walk.  The results overall are unsurprising, although I had hoped that as the weather warmed, I'd see more birds.  This has not been the case.

The most common birds were, as previously reported, Spotted Dove, Rainbow Lorikeet, Red Wattlebird, Australian Magpie and Common Myna, followed closely by Noisy Miner, Little Raven and Common Blackbird.

I only saw Willie Wagtails on the north walk (8 out of 10 walks) and saw Brown Thornbills on about half of my walks in each direction.  I did not see Spotted Pardalotes at all, which was disappointing, as I certainly looked when I heard them, which I did on only three occasions:  once north, once south and once east.  I did not see any Silver Gulls, but saw Welcome Swallows in every direction.

I recorded Grey Butcherbirds about half the time (north:  4; south:  4; east:  4; and west:  7) and was quite surprised to note that this was more often than on my previous walks.  Had I not kept records, my memory would have been that I saw and heard them more in August and September than in October and November.  Can't trust my memory!

The north walk, which ends in a large park, remains the most productive (average of 13 species).  The other three are about the same (average 11 each).  My highest score was 16 species, predictably on a north walk.  I don't seem able to do any better than that, however, as summer progresses I will continue to try!

Thursday, 25 December 2014


Roger and I had the most marvellous Christmas Day.  We spent it at the Werribee sewage farm.  The weather was fine.  There were thousands of waders, ducks and terns and we saw just one other car, which was leaving as we arrived.

I had been there on Saturday, just five days before, and had seen so many Great Crested Grebes, Banded Stilts and Glossy Ibis that I was confident they'd be on our list.  They were not.  Nor were Cape Barren Geese, Brolga, Australasian Pipit or Pacific Black Duck, all of which we saw on Saturday.

Conversely, we did see Buff-banded Rail, Red-kneed Dotterel, Red-capped Plover, Blue-billed Duck (quite a few), a Black Falcon (which upset the terns and waders as we had our lunch at the Borrow Pits) and a Spotted Crake:  all birds we did not see on Saturday.  The Spotted Crake, which I initially identified as a Baillon's Crake because it looked so small, was uncooperatively hiding in the undergrowth along the river bank.

We did see Common Greenshank on both days, but on Saturday they were in unusually large numbers.  On Christmas Day, they were back to normal numbers.  We saw Zebra Finches on both days, a pretty little bird that always excites me.  Of course there were thousands of stints and sandpipers, along with Whiskered Terns.  The cisticolas sang to celebrate the season, while the avocets satisfied themselves with looking stunning.

There really could not be a better way to enjoy the festive season.

Roger celebrating Christmas at the Borrow Pits

Saturday, 20 December 2014


Lots of Pink-eared Ducks
Yesterday I had a wonderful day at Werribee.  The weather was perfect, as was the company, and there were thousands and thousands of birds.  As usual in summer, there were huge numbers of Australian Shelducks and Pink-eared Ducks.  Grey Teal were in good numbers too, and there was just a sprinkling of Musk Ducks and plenty of Pacific Black Ducks.  I'm told there were several Blue-billed Ducks in the lagoon near the birdhide, but we didn't make it down there.

There were also plenty of waders:  mainly Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, but there were good numbers of Curlew Sandpipers too, and I don't think I've ever seen so many Greenshanks.  I saw just one Marsh Sandpiper and others reported Black-tailed Godwits.   We saw several Glossy Ibis and just two Brolgas.  There were also several Great Crested Grebes - always hilarious with their spiky hairdos.

Perhaps there weren't quite as many raptors as usual.  I didn't see any Black-shouldered Kites, which might be a first, and I saw just one Brown Falcon.  There were plenty of Swamp Harriers and Whistling Kites.  Others saw a Black Falcon.

We drove the bumpy road to Kirk Point and, for our troubles and discomfort, saw:  absolutely nothing.

I was disappointed that we did not see any crakes all day, but it is hard to remain disgruntled when you have seen Glossy Ibis, Great Crested Grebes, Brolgas and thousands of waders.  It's certainly hard to beat Werribee in summer.  In fact, Werribee at any time is hard to beat.

Thursday, 18 December 2014


Yesterday I returned from a delightful all-too-short trip to Rutherglen.  We managed to avoid the bushfires and in a very short time recorded over 80 species of birds.

We left on Tuesday.  It was hot and horrible and I feared I would not see anything of interest.  My fears were vindicated, when my bird total for the day was a miserable 15 species.  I thought I'd probably have had a larger score if I'd stayed at home.

I started Wednesday with an early walk around Lake King.  The temperature was very pleasant and I managed 30 species before breakfast.  I lamented the fact that I'd missed Blue-faced Honeyeater, Red Wattlebird and (one of my favourites) White-breasted Woodswallow, which I usually see here in summer.  Still, I enjoyed the Black-fronted Dotterels at the lake and the Eurasian Tree Sparrow in the main street.  

First stop after breakfast was Bartley's Block.  Here I was greeted by a very vocal Western Gerygone.  I decided it couldn't get any better than this and he would be my Bird of the Day.  The Rufous Whistlers, Grey Shrike-thrushes and Olive-backed Orioles were vocal too, filling the air with music.  A young Red-capped Robin wanted to make friends and Brown-headed Honeyeaters played cooperatively in the gum trees at eye level.  A big noisy flock of Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters seemed to be mobbing something.  I climbed through the fence but as I approached, they quietened down.  A little later, as I was admiring a treecreeper, the honeyeaters appeared in hot pursuit of a small grey bird.  The bird fell to the ground and I thought the honeyeaters would kill it.  As it lay immobile, the honeyeaters lost interest and left.  Stupidly, I approached the bird on the ground, to see if it was alive.  I should have left it alone.  It may have had an opportunity to recover and escape.  As it was I frightened it, it flew and I have no doubt the honeyeaters would have resumed their persecution.  Alas, I did not identify it.  It was a young bird, it had no tail.  Its back was striated and it had a black stripe over its eye.  Truly, a mystery bird.

Roger would rather read his newspaper

At Greenhill Dam, all I saw was a Peaceful Dove, so we drove on to Cyanide Dam.  Here Roger happily read his newspaper, while I walked around the dam.  The water level had dropped from my previous visit, and the grebes had left.  But there were Fuscous and White-naped Honeyeaters, as well as those ubiquitous bullies, Yellow-tufted.  I stood looking at the water, when a male Turquoise Parrot came down for a drink.  He was breathtakingly beautiful.  I wondered whether to go back and tell Roger, but I realized that he'd rather read his newspaper, so I enjoyed that parrot all by myself.  It really can't get better than that.  He assumed the title of Bird of the Day.

A kookaburra laughed and an Eastern Yellow Robin sat quietly observing me.  This may be the only time I have ever visited this dam without seeing a Brown Treecreeper, a bird that stubbornly remained off my list for the whole of this trip.

Then it was off to Chiltern Number One Dam (pelicans, cormorants and spoonbills) then Number Two Dam (reed warbler, Tree Martins, Dusky Woodswallows, Little Grassbird).  I thought I heard a cuckoo and chased it down to reveal, not a cuckoo at all, but a pair of shrike-tits.  Wouldn't you think, that after fifty years of birdwatching, I'd know the difference?

Then Rog took me to lunch at The Terrace at All Saints, which is always quite delicious.  In the afternoon, I was treated to a birding tour by a Rutherglen local.  Local knowledge is always an opportunity to grab with both hands.  We drove a little way out of the township, and I saw, for the first time in my life in Rutherglen, a flock of about two hundred Plumed Whistling-Ducks!  They are not a common sight in Victoria, although I have seen them at Serendip, and at Deniliquin in New South Wales which is not that far away.  They wheeled over our heads and whistled at us.  It was a real treat.  Then we drove to Shaw's Flat, admiring Zebra Finches on the way.  We looked for Dollarbirds along the Murray, but weren't able to locate any.  I finished the day with 69 species, not bad given that I'd taken a few hours off birding to enjoy a long lunch.

On Thursday, I again started the day with a walk around Lake King, thinking that I wouldn't be able to do better than yesterday morning's score of 30.  I managed 36!  I picked up the three that I'd missed yesterday (Blue-faced Honeyeater, Red Wattlebird and White-breasted Woodswallow) and I saw swamphen with young of various sizes, one Nankeen Night-Heron, heard Striated Pardalotes and I saw a bird I've never seen at Lake King before:  a Baillon's Crake.  Wow!  

After breakfast I added Pied Butcherbird to the list, and on the way back to Melbourne, I saw Brown Falcon, Black Kite, Little Eagle and Little Pied Cormorant.  Altogether a great trip.  I don't know whether the highlight was the Plumed Whistling-Ducks or the Turquoise Parrot.  Let's call it a draw.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


On Monday I spent a very pleasant morning at a friend's property at Healesville.  Welcome Swallows and Striated Pardalotes were nesting under the eaves of the house.  One male whipbird called without an answer from his mate.  I can only assume he was a bachelor.  Several Rufous Whistlers sang loudly and happily and at least one gorgeous Golden Whistler joined in.  More than one thrush added mellifluous music until kookaburras overwhelmed the entire valley with their loud laughter.  A fat young yellow robin sat out in the open, vulnerable, unprotected, and somehow humorous without a tail.  A male Superb Fairy-wren lived up to his name.  Yellow-faced Honeyeaters dominated the canopy while scrubwrens chattered in the undergrowth.  A White-thoated Treecreeper piped loudly as he spiralled up a treetrunk.  We quickly compiled a list of over twenty species and I wondered what nightlife would inhabit the enormous manna gums after dark.  My friend has seen Powerful Owls, but I'll bet there are others too.

A delightful bush haven so close to Melbourne.


Eastern Yellow Robin by Jim Smart
Under the expert leadership of Merrilyn Serong, a group of happy birders gathered last Saturday to remove boneseed from our allocated patch in the You Yangs Regional Park (site 31).  We were not deterred by intermittent misty rain, although at times the poor light drained all colour from the most colourful birds - Eastern Rosellas appeared as monochrome black silhouettes.

New Holland and Black-chinned Honeyeaters cavorted in the gum trees, while Musk Lorikeets flew overhead.  Weebills sang with a disproportionately loud song for such tiny birds.  A Jacky Winter waggled his tail, happy to be alive, and for the second time since I've joined this group, we saw a koala while we were birding.

We admired both Scarlet and Flame Robins while being serenaded by Rufous Whistlers.  Grey Fantails were determined to get onto our bird list and Striated Thornbills were most cooperative and gave us all a good look.

While pulling out boneseed, I was entertained by a flock of sittellas, several yellow robins and a couple of Dusky Woodswallows.  After I'd completed my self-imposed quota of 300 weeds, as I walked back to the cars, a Black Kite flew overhead.  These once rare raptors in southern Victoria, are now so commonplace, they're barely noteworthy.  Nevertheless, note him I did.

We enjoy birding in the You Yangs and pretend that we're there to remove boneseed.  We come away with a nice bird list and a totally unwarranted feeling of self-righteousness.

A BIT MORE ABOUT COCOS, 22-29 November 2014

View from our motel room on Cocos
On Saturday afternoon we flew from Christmas to Cocos Island, and were settled into our room in the motel by 4 p.m.  It was uncomfortably hot as we convened to investigate a small bird that had been sighted towards the end of the runway.  We flushed the bird several times, splashing backwards and forwards across a small creek.  It kept returning to dense vegetation.  We all had reasonable sightings and, although we did not see a red throat, were happy with the identification of Red-throated Pipit.  
Red-throated Pipit, photo by Roger Williams

Richard had recommended Birds of South East Asia by Craig Robson and it proved to be a most useful guide.  It informed us that the Red-throated Pipit is often found near water, and that first year birds have no red.  This was my 747th Australian bird and I began to hope that I'd reach the 750 milestone on Cocos Island.
White-breasted Waterhen, common on Cocos, photo by Roger Williams

Cocos (Keeling) Islands comprise West Island (where the airport and the motel are located), Home Island (where the Clunies Ross homestead is located and where we saw most of our exciting birds), South Island (home to Saunders' Terns - the reason for my trip), Horsborough Island (an uninhabited hostile place, overwhelmed by dodder) and nearby Direction Island (where the grounding of the Emden is commemorated).

I spent Sunday morning in a state of wretched anxiety because Richard had announced that this was the day we'd take the motorised canoes over to South Island to look for Saunders' Terns.  The first time I'd visited Cocos Islands in 2007, Mike Carter had been there to confirm the identity of this exciting new bird for Australia.  I'd been with Richard Baxter on that occasion too, but no one knew much about tides and tern behaviour then, and no one in our group saw the terns on that occasion.  Richard had told me that he'd seen the terns on every trip since, so I had high expectations of finally adding this bird to my lifelist.  I also had a high degree of apprehension because I knew the expedition involved wading a fair distance through waist-deep water.  I don't have good balance; I don't like getting wet; I'm always anxious around small boats.  From my point of view, this tick demanded a fair amount of dedication.  I was up for it of course (it was what I'd come for) but that didn't stop me worrying about it.

The motorised canoes accommodated just two people each:  one driver and one passenger.  I was allocated to Richard's canoe.  I felt smugly safe in our leader's boat.  He is an expert swimmer and diver, and I knew that no one would be better at operating the outboard canoes.  

The island we were headed for looked deceptively close, but seemed to take a very long time to reach.  We beached the canoes, took our cameras and binoculars and left our dry bags as high as we could reach in the palm trees, expecting the tide to come in while we were off terning.  Then we set off, wading in the warm tropical water, pretending nonchalance at the resident reef sharks, heading for a distant sand bar where we could see a big flock of waders.

The water was much deeper than this on the way back!
Through binoculars we identified the waders as Whimbrels, Eastern Curlews, Ruddy Turnstones and Grey Plovers.  Through Jenny's scope we saw three Saunders' Terns loafing on the sandspit (#748).  Seldom has the sight of a small tern given me such pleasure!  Thanks to Jenny, we each had a quick look at the terns before, for some unknown reason, all the waders and terns flew off.  If Jenny hadn't taken her scope, Richard would have led his first unsuccessful tern hunt since 2007.  As it was, we were all delighted with our sighting.

We celebrated with nibbles and bubbly, supplied by Ash, the bloke who hired the canoes.  When it came time to return to West Island, I learned that Richard expected me to drive the boat!  It is no false modesty for me to say that I was utterly hopeless.  Nor can I blame my alcohol consumption for my total lack of seamanship.  Enough said.  Richard chose to swim rather than share my dangerous canoe.

On Monday morning we took the 6.30 ferry to Home Island.  In the gardens of Clunies Ross House we saw a Chinese Sparrowhawk (749), the black wingtips obvious in flight.  After lunch we wandered through a banana plantation, hoping for Asian Koels.  Some members of the group saw both male and female koels.  I did not.  But I did see a Javan Pond Heron - my milestone 750th Australian bird!  In flight its obvious white wings made me think Cattle Egret.

Clunies Ross House
We started Tuesday looking for Watercock on our way to Bechat Besar swamp, where we saw Eurasian Teal (751) and all had excellent views of the Chinese Sparrowhawk.  After breakfast we flushed a Pin-tailed Snipe (752) beside the airport.  We visited the bottle dump, the tip, then the beach for a Common Redshank.  After lunch, we looked for vagrants in the big trees beside the airport, then visited the swamp again.  At dusk we spoltlighted for nightjars, but did not see a thing.

On Wednesday we visited Horsborough Island in a glass bottomed boat.  People wanting to dive, snorkel or swim with sharks all enjoyed this trip.  Then we went to Direction Island, where a large gazebo commemorates the First World War battle between the German cruiser SMS Emden and the Australian HMAS Sydney on 9 November 1914.

Dodder strangling plants on Horsborough Island
Thursday found us back on Home Island.  In the Clunies Ross garden I had wonderful views of Hodgsons Hawk Cuckoo (753).  Later we saw both male and female Asian Koels (754).  After lunch, we went looking for a Chinese Pond Heron.  This involved twenty minutes wading through quite deep water.  One couple declined to go, on the grounds that he couldn't swim.  I can't swim either, but I wasn't going to let that stop me.  We braved coral, clams, unexpected holes, reef sharks, moray eels, a huge sea slug and hundreds of beches de mer.  The sharks frightened shoals of silver mullets into jumping high out of the water - a spectacular sight.  The wind was quite strong and could easily have blown me off balance.  Thank you, Steve, for holding my hand on this very brave venture.  I could not have done it without you.  We walked as directed, I held up my binoculars to look around, and the Chinese Pond Heron (755) flew into view!
Chinese Pond Heron, my 755th Australian bird, photo by Roger Williams

On Friday we added Dollarbird to our list, chasing it around the Quarantine Station until we all had good views.  This is the nominate subspecies that breeds in Indonesia.  The Dollarbird I'm used to seeing on mainland Australia is the race pacificus.

I was ready to head home on Saturday, quite unable to hide my glee at my remarkable score of 755.  I hope it's not another seven years before I return to Cocos again.

Sunday, 7 December 2014


I was on Christmas Island from Tuesday 18 until Saturday 22 November 2014, hoping to see a Savannah Nightjar that I had heard calling on my previous visit in 2007.  However, we had no luck with nightjars of any sort.  We did see all the endemics - the Emerald Dove, the Imperial-Pigeon, the Swiftlet, the White-eye and the Island Thrush were all very easy.  The Hawk-Owl required a bit of work, as did the Java Sparrow.  We searched for Java Sparrows amongst the Eurasian Tree Sparrows where the locals feed them in front of a block of flats over the road from the technical school.  On our last day we learnt that they were seen each morning in the vicinity of the nursery, and that's where we finally caught up with them.

The Golden Bosunbirds were as elegant as ever and, as on both my previous trips to Christmas Island, there were cute fluffy chicks sitting patiently on the ground pleading to have their photos taken.

Golden Bosunbird chick

We also saw Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Great and Christmas Frigatebirds (but not Lesser) and Abbott's, Red-footed and Brown Boobies.  There were about fifty Common Noddies at the wharf in Flying Fish Cove.  Here we also saw one Common Sandpiper and one White-winged Black Tern.

It was a major irritation to have to remove Variable Goshawk from my life total because capricious taxonomists have decided once again to lump it with Brown Goshawks.  Don't these ornithologists appreciate the ramifications of their decisions?

We knew that a Red Collared Dove had been seen on the island, and, thanks to local knowledge, managed to tick it at Rocky Point on the first day.

Red-rumped Swallows flew around in front of our accommodation, mixed with Barn Swallows early the next morning before breakfast.

On Friday Peter Barron arrived with another birding group, and it was thanks to them that we saw House Swifts.  We'd been at a cove below the casino trying to add Striated Heron to our list, when some thoughtful member of the other birding group phoned to say that they'd seen House Swifts.  We rushed to our vehicles and managed to get good sightings at LB4.

Of course I would have liked to have seen Savannah Nightjars, but I wasn't complaining as I climbed aboard the plane for the next instalment of my adventure:  Cocos Islands.