Swift Parrots at Mount Annan

After the trip via the M5 tunnel to Mount Annan south-west of Sydney it was refreshing to see the large and well cared for grassland, gardens and bush remnants of the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. This was a follow up (16 August) to reports that there were still Swift Parrots in the Banksia Garden at the park’s rear. There were indeed at least a dozen birds, feeding high in the eucalypts. They sped in small flocks of four or five through the trees and moved rapidly from flower to flower in keeping with their name.

Swift Parrots breed in Tasmania but travel north as far as Brisbane in winter, arriving in May and leaving for the trip south again in August. Their main food in Tasmania is nectar from blue gum flowers. Clearing of blue gum forest and old trees with nesting hollows threatens the future of these birds. An additional threat is predation by sugar gliders introduced into Tasmania in the 1800s. As a result, Swift Parrots are now listed as endangered and have an Environment Australia recovery plan.

Swift Parrot at the Banksia Garden, Mount Annan, 16 August 2019

Swift Parrot at the Banksia Garden, Mount Annan, 16 August 2019

An Australian export - New Zealand's iconic Takahē

The iconic Takahē is as imposing as it is a legend; widespread on New Zealand’s North and South islands when Maori people arrived seven hundred years ago but presumed extinct by the late nineteenth century, the decline caused by habitat loss and hunting. Then there was the dramatic rediscovery in 1948 in the remote Murchison Mountains near Lake Te Anau. There are now over 300 birds, in the Murchisons plus those bred in sanctuaries.   

I am greatly enjoying reading “Birds of the West Wind” written by Garry Sheeran, on the origins of New Zealand’s birds. Sheeran postulates that 110 of New Zealand’s current bird population arrived or are descended from Australian birds blown by the prevailing westerly winds across the Tasman sea, some species arriving multiple times over the past twenty five million years.  In fact it appears most of New Zealand’s birds have arrived this way. 

The Takahē evidently evolved from a proto-type Australian Purple Swamphen that took the Tasman route perhaps 10 million years ago. It grew larger in size and developed digging tools to graze on alpine grassland. Like many New Zealand birds it lost its ability to fly. The Purple Swamphen has repeated the feat within the last 500 years and found recently cultivated lands to its liking. As a bird that is very similar to its Australian ancestor, this second invader has become what is now the New Zealand Pukeko.

One of two Takahēs at the wonderful Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington.

One of two Takahēs at the wonderful Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington.

Barn Owl back at Centennial Park

Eastern Barn Owls have often been seen in Sydney’s Centennial Park over the last five years; during the day they roost underneath the foliage of Canary Island Date Palms. Numbers in the park seem to be increasing, with a peak count of five birds seen last year. Powerful Owls and the Southern Boobook are also seen in Centennial Park.

The Barn Owl is one of the world’s most widespread birds, found across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. They are well adapted to agricultural areas but their numbers may be increasing in the city too. 

This bird was seen on last week’s winter survey, the first sighting for several months.

Eastern Barn Owl roosting under crown of a Canary Island Date Palm

Eastern Barn Owl roosting under crown of a Canary Island Date Palm

Low bird numbers at Cowra Survey

It is rash to draw conclusions from the bird survey counts of one cold windy winter’s day. However last weekend’s bird counts were very low with zero birds on three of the sites surveyed. This was the first time I had made counts of zero and it was surprising to do so at several sites.

The Cowra Survey had shown a dramatic decrease in bird numbers during the Millennium drought (2001 - 2010) and then an healthy increase afterwards as the countryside recovered. From the comments of experienced birders it appears the current drought is affecting bird numbers across all the woodlands areas, perhaps to even lower levels than seen in earlier droughts. Drought-wise Cowra is actually faring better than many inland towns, with 60 mm rain over the last two months, and although creeks and dams are still empty there were puddles, and paddocks had a flush of green. 

The Cowra surveys were inspired by a landowner who noticed a decrease in the number of Babblers he was seeing on his farm. The project has inspired tree planting and the regeneration and protection of existing bush lands in addition to the invaluable information generated by the survey itself.

So it was a welcome consolation to see several Babbler families over the weekend, busy in their Babbler ways.

Grey-crowned Babbler at Morongla cemetery near Cowra

Grey-crowned Babbler at Morongla cemetery near Cowra

Going, going, gone

The Duck Pond in Sydney’s Centennial Park is a city haven for its water birds and its visitors from the bush in times of drought. It is fed from storm-water runoff and is part of a catchment which feeds the Botany Wetlands extending six kilometers downstream. 

The Duck Pond is home to numerous Hardhead ducks, Eurasian Coots, Black Swans, Australian White Ibis, Pacific Black Ducks, Dusky Moorhens, Darters, Great, Pied, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants, White-faced Herons, Nankeen Night-Herons and Purple Swamphens with total numbers often exceeding 200 birds. Occasional visitors include Black-fronted Dotterel, Royal Spoonbills, Freckled and Pink-eared Ducks, Shovelers and a recent Shelduck.

The pond is also home to European Carp, considered a pest but also food for the water birds. This Great Cormorant has chosen a rather large fish for lunch however managed it well as seen in the photos below. 

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The Lake Wollumboola Key Biodiversity Area

Lake Wollumboola, located 200 km south of Sydney, is a shallow intermittently closing and opening coastal lake with extensive sand and mud flats, rocky reefs, sedge and coastal salt marsh with adjoining Swamp Oak and Melaleuca forests.  

Lake Wollumboola has been designated a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) because of its importance for migratory birds such as Godwits and Sandpipers and its large populations of Black Swans and Chestnut Teal. KBAs are “sites contributing significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity” registered with “The International Union for Conservation of Nature” (IUCN), an organization formed in 1948, with Australia as a signatory.  

Over 100 bird species have been recorded including 16 threatened species and total birds on the lake can number over 20,000. Rare birds make their way here, recently the Paradise Duck from New Zealand and the Hudsonian Godwit. Some common species found at Wollumboola can be seen at the link below.

Caspian Tern at Lake Wollumboola

Caspian Tern at Lake Wollumboola

Superb Lyrebirds at Granite Falls in Morton National Park

Superb Lyrebirds have been vocal the past few weeks, their characteristic calls and clever mimicry ringing across Morton National Park, South Coast NSW. The bird shown below was scratching at the turnoff sign from 12 Mile road to the Granite Falls car park.

Superb Lyrebird at Morton National Park

Superb Lyrebird at Morton National Park

Granite Falls is an easy walk from the car park through robust stringybark, red bloodwood and turpentine trees. There is evidence of tin mining from the 1900’s, then the falls are a spectacular 63 metres into a forested valley. After a week of patchy rain with some local heavy falls there was only a trickle flowing down the polished granite rock-face.

The Viewing Platform at Granite Falls

The Viewing Platform at Granite Falls

Visit to Shoalhaven Heads and Comerong Island

Shoalhaven Heads 150 km south of Sydney is a good place to see shorebirds and waders. It is one of the key NSW sites for migratory birds over the summer. 

At this time of the year, late May, it is reasonably quiet. When I visited last week there were Black Swans, Grey and Chestnut Teal, Red-capped Plover, Sooty Oystercatchers, Masked Lapwings and a White-faced Heron on the mudflats. Two White-bellied Sea-Eagles appeared, one carrying what appeared to be a hapless Australian Raven while two further Ravens attacked. They flew low over the sand hills before disappearing on the town side of the river. 

The mouth of the Shoalhaven River is often blocked by sand and you can walk across to Comerong Island Nature Reserve, which lists over 150 bird species. While walking at the high tide mark I disturbed a Buff-banded Rail. It flustered off then peered back through the tussock. There were Yellow and Brown Thornbills, Brown Gerygones, Silvereyes and a Bandicoot quite happy to dig its holes along the path ahead, oblivious to my presence.  

White-bellied Sea-Eagle with Australian Raven at Shoalhaven Heads

White-bellied Sea-Eagle with Australian Raven at Shoalhaven Heads

Randwick Environment Park productive despite dry conditions

The 13 hectares of Randwick Environment Park, nestled behind Sydney Eastern Suburb’s low coastal hills, is an island of bush in the city and haven for an unexpectedly wide range of species. The east has had more rain than most of Sydney over the past two years but not sufficient to reinstate the park’s two hectares of shallow lake and wetlands.

 In August 2017 a survey of the wet area described exposed mudflats and 20 bird species including Grey Teal, Pacific Black Ducks, Grebes, Dusky Moorhen, White Ibis, Coots and a White-faced Heron. By April 2018 the same area was described as dry and there were no water birds counted among the 11 species but there were 16 Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos. More recent counts have listed only four or five species including Magpies, Kookaburras, Ravens, and Currawongs in the now dried out wetland.

 Last week’s survey of the previously wet area was another low count; five species including two Yellow-rumped Thornbills which might be another marker of the dry conditions. However this park continues to surprise and the junction of the oval and walking track was swarming with small birds. Forty or fifty Silvereyes, two dozen Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Red-browed Finches, more Yellow-rumped Thornbills and then Starlings and Common Mynas, Eastern Spinebills, Red Wattlebirds, New Holland Honeyeaters, Spotted Pardalotes, a Golden Whistler, Willie Wagtail and a Restless Flycatcher all in a small area.

Restless Flycatcher at Randwick Environment Park

Restless Flycatcher at Randwick Environment Park

Cowra Woodland Birds Survey four years on.

The autumn Woodland Birds Survey at Cowra was held last weekend, with over thirty surveyors counting birds at 93 sites. As discussed previously, this survey has been running for 18 years and generates important information as to how woodland birds are responding to the challenges of development and climate change.

Four years ago the Cowra survey was my first entree into the world of birds, bird photography and bird surveys. As a novice surveyor I opened gates, pointed helpfully at birds and enjoyed the beautiful countryside. I gained great respect for my fellow surveyors and their expertise and enthusiasm. Since then I have studied bird profiles and tried to learn their songs. I bought a camera in 2015, a Canon EOS 7D II with a Canon 100-400 IS USM lens and found an absorbing and fascinating new hobby - the results of which adorn this website. After four years of surveying I hope to trade my learner surveyor’s plate in for a “P” plate at least.

Last Friday, before the surveys, I went to Conimbla National Park for a pre-view of Cowra birds. At the Wallaby Picnic Area I saw Golden Whistlers, an Eastern Yellow Robin, Red-browed Finches, Superb Fairy-wrens and took my first photo of a Speckled Warbler.

Speckled Warbler at Conimbla National Park.

Speckled Warbler at Conimbla National Park.

NT Five Day Bird Tour

Last August I was very lucky to take a fabulous birding tour in the Northern Territory with NT Bird Specialists. It involved five days travel, starting in Darwin, travelling to Kakadu, then Pine Creek and Edith Falls near Katherine. It was my first guided bird tour and it exceeded expectations. Our guide was passionate about birds, a professional guide in every way and an exceptional host during our time together. We saw many of the endemic and rarer birds and enjoyed stories of the NT flora, fauna and history.

Among many highlights, especially memorable was breakfast up a remote valley of the Kakadu escarpment watching Banded Fruit-Doves feeding, with sights of a Peregrine Falcon, Jabiru and Pacific Baza flying over. Others were close up views of a Red Goshawk, Little Kingfisher, Hooded Parrots and Gouldian Finches.

Cattle Egrets and Water Buffalo on the Yellow Water, NT boat cruise.

Cattle Egrets and Water Buffalo on the Yellow Water, NT boat cruise.

Lake Seppings in Albany, Western Australia

It was exciting to see two of Western Australia’s endemic birds at Lake Seppings, Albany; the Red-winged Fairy-wren and the Red-eared Firetail. Lake Seppings is in a 17 hectare nature reserve only three kilometres from the centre of Albany. The reserve is very accessible and supports a good list of water-birds in the lake and bulrushes, reeds and sedges that surround it. Blue-billed Ducks, Musk Ducks and Hoary-headed Grebes were among the mornings sightings. There is also well established bush (banksias and melaleuca) around the lake providing home for woodland and forest birds

After excellent views of an adult Red-eared Firetail I spotted a group of three finches feeding on the path. From the distance they looked like the Beautiful Firetail only seen in the eastern Australia. They really had to be juvenile Red-eared Firetails but I was unable to confirm this. Despite the unlikely prospect of them being anything different I put the photo below up on the “Australian Bird Identification, (ABID)” web-page on Facebook.

This site is a wonderful resource and usually the identity of birds is revealed within minutes of posting a photo. In a short space of time one of the knowledgeable contributors to this site commented “As estrildids [finches] have no immature stage, it is a Red-eared Firetail transitioning from juvenile (plumage) to adult (bill colour)”.

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Herdsman Lake in Perth, West Australia

Herdsman Lake is only a few minute’s drive from the centre of Perth and provides home to many water birds and small birds. It consists of dredged ponds that were once part of a chain of wetlands that extended from north of Joondalup to south of Cockburn. There are dense wetland rushes dominated by Bulrush, fragments of remnant paperbarks and Flooded Gum woodlands, and grass parklands.  

The Wildlife Centre at the southern end of the lake is managed by the WA Gould League and runs bird walks, information nights, night stalks and wildlife excursions. The Olive Seymour boardwalk there provides for excellent bird viewing.  

Sightings from a short visit to the park included Australasian and Great Crested Grebes, Australian Shelducks, Grey Teal, Cormorants, Pelicans, Laughing Turtle-Doves, Australian White and Straw-necked Ibis, Black Swans, Western Gerygone and New Holland Honeyeaters. Another sighting on the boardwalk: a curled up Tiger Snake! And lots of entertainment from the Great Crested Grebes and their families, pictured below.

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Centennial Park Sydney NSW Bird Survey

The Centennial Parklands and Birding NSW bird survey at Centennial Park started in 2009. It gathers valuable information for park management and the data collected feeds into the national Birdata database run by Birdlife Australia. The survey is conducted four times a year at thirteen sites that are representative of the park’s habitat types. Habitats include Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub, Sandstone Ridge, the large Duck Pond and other pond edges, and melaleuca and pine forest environments.

 The survey counts all bird within a twenty minute period from a set of fixed vantage points to give comparable counts. The total count at the Duck Pond is usually several hundred birds with large numbers of Eurasian Coots, Hardheads and Pacific Black Ducks as well as Cormorants of all types, Ibis, Black Swans, Dusky Moorhens, Pelicans, and Silver Gulls. The park attracts a total list of around 150 species including other water birds, parrots, raptors, pigeons, the larger honeyeaters and some smaller woodland birds, made up by incidental sightings. A highlight last week was the appearance of the Nankeen Night Heron for the survey count.

 After the survey surveyors visit other park inhabitants including breeding pairs of owls and Tawny Frogmouth. The young Powerful Owl pictured below has made good progress and looks to be in good health!  

Young Powerful Owl in Centennial Park

Young Powerful Owl in Centennial Park

How long is a Rainbow Bee-eater’s burrow?

Here is Phil’s novel approach to measuring the length of a Bee-eaters burrow:

"Periodically Rainbow Bee-eaters burrow in the street nature strip in front of my mother's house here in Townsville. A precarious place to nest with parked cars, wheelie bins and pedestrians. But the birds do it repeatedly so it must be safe enough.  This October a pair of Bee-eaters decided to excavate new burrows closer to the house, inside the front fence beside the garden footpath, and safer than in the nature strip. Being close to the smooth concrete path the birds diligently flicked the excavated sand across the path. This presented an opportunity to non-invasively estimate the depth of the burrow from the volume of sand and confirm references citing burrow lengths being an average 82.5 cms and up to one meter as a probable maximum. 

About seven litres of sand was collected in a 10 litre bucket and the burrow diameter appeared to be about six cms. References state the burrow width is typically really close to the width of the bird, whose entering and leaving acts as a sort of ‘plunger' keeping the air breathable. I assumed that the burrow is the same width the whole way (ignoring any increase for the brooding chamber) and the bulk density of the sand in the bucket is the same as in the un-excavated form.The volume of the cylindrical tunnel is Pi times the radius squared times the length, which for the seven litres of sand (7000 cubic cm) gives a length of 2.47 metres. If the error was 30% to account for changes in bulk density of the soil after excavation and the unknown nesting chamber volume, then we still have a length of 1.73 metres, well above the quoted values!”

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Critically Endangered Eastern Curlew at Lake Conjola

The sight of a single Eastern Curlew at Lake Conjola Entrance on New South Wales’ south coast is a poignant reminder of the perils this species faces. Australia is summer home to most of the world’s Eastern Curlew population but they breed in Russia and north-eastern China. They arrive in Australia from mid-July to September taking up residence along the coast.

 I saw this single bird twice over a week in the same area, foraging in the shallow water for its preferred diet of crabs, shrimps and prawns. Numbers of Eastern Curlews have decreased eighty per cent over the past three decades and they are now listed as critically endangered.

 A big factor in this decrease has been habitat loss: in Australia as mudflats were reclaimed to build airports, marinas and housing, and in Asia as development envelops bird “refueling” spots on the great East Asia Australasia Flyway route to Australia. It is outrageous to hear that Australia’s government is still positively considering the huge development project at Toondah Harbour in Queensland, on an internationally protected (Ramsar) mudflat, a site that supports a large population of Eastern Curlews. Another nail in the coffin for the Eastern Curlew!

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Garrad Reserve at Narrawallee, South Coast NSW

Garrad Reserve comprises 66 hectares of beautiful bushland at the Narrawallee Inlet, close to Ulladulla on New South Wales’ south coast. The main vegetation types within the reserve include: Old-man Banksia open forest (Bangalay), Swamp Mahogany swamp sclerophyll forest, and Turpentine, Red Bloodwood, Sydney Peppermint shrubby open forest, as well as Saltmarsh and Mangrove along the river bank. 

The reserve was created in 2013 under a NSW Government biobanking agreement which provides the Shoalhaven council with funding to manage weeds, feral animals and access tracks and signs for the public. Biobanking sites create biobanking credits that are usually sold off to offset loss of habitat from developments elsewhere but in this case the credits created have been retired – so there is no development offset against the creation of this reserve. Nevertheless it is difficult to reconcile the large tracts of bush going under the bulldozer right next door, and not to be disappointed that adjacent bush has not been kept to surround and protect this valuable habitat. At the end of the day there is less bush than when it all started.  

Common woodland birds seen at Garrad include Brown and Striated Thornbills, Brown Gerygones, Golden and Rufous Whistlers, Olive-backed Orioles, Brown Cuckoo-Doves, Fantails, Flycatchers, Whipbirds and Woodswallows. Another visitor is the Black-faced Monarch pictured below.

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Eastern Suburbs Sydney

This morning was a catch up in eastern Sydney. Firstly Centennial Park, an oasis close to the centre of Sydney, gathering place for a surprising number of water birds and some bush birds. Checking on the regulars, there is one of the Tawny Frogmouths, a male, together with this year’s fledgling sitting on a higher branch in the same tree. The Intermediate Egret is on the Lily Pond and the Grey Butcherbird is in position to swoop on passersby. At Kensington Pond I do a standardized two hectare, twenty minute survey. Not many water birds, some Dusky Moorhens and a couple of Eurasian Coots. There are New Holland Honeyeaters, Red Wattlebirds, Spotted Doves and Crested Pigeons as well as the usual collection of Superb Fairy-wrens, Australian Magpies, Australian Ravens and Magpie-larks. Highlight is a Sacred Kingfisher sitting on the far bank close to construction work for the Randwick Golf Course Light Rail Station - still going on.

Then on to Randwick Environment Park, a small park formed in 2010 from 13 hectares that had been previously part of Randwick Army Barracks. The park contains endangered remnant Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub and a wetlands covering several hectares at its centre.  At times this park has attracted unusual birds including Latham’s Snipe, White-necked Heron, Australasian Shovelers, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, and Spangled Drongos. However as this year’s drought kicked in the wetland dried and water birds disappeared. Another standardized survey confirms that Australian Magpies, Red Wattlebirds, Laughing Kookaburras (pictured below) and Noisy Miners have taken control of what is now a totally dry area. The highlight was a Yellow-rumped Thornbill, an uncommon visitor to the park.

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Sydney Olympic Park Spring Survey

It’s the second to last week of the Sydney Olympic Park Spring Survey today. So another trip down Paramatta road, not so bad before six in the morning but even so it is a hassle. The survey starts at 6.30 am and it is a beautiful morning.

The Spring Survey is held on eight consecutive Tuesdays with over forty five sites surveyed each time. Again this bird survey has a long history, starting in 2004. When the Homebush area was reclaimed for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 a large area, 300 hectare, was set aside as parkland and for bush regeneration, resulting in a large area treed and landscaped and well served with paths for walkers, runners and cyclists. Habitats include estuarine and freshwater wetlands, remnant eucalypt forest, saltmarsh meadows and woodland bird habitats.

We have been assigned the Waterbird Refuge this year, a pond and mudflat separated from Homebush bay by narrow bushed causeways on two sides. The Refuge is tidal and the water level is controlled to retain a balance between deeper water and mudflat.

Not so many birds today, two weeks ago we counted over 600 individuals. But still an amazing number of Black-winged Stilts, Red-necked Avocets and Grey and Chestnut Teal ducks. In particular, Sharpie numbers are still up - over 40 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers for the second week. No Godwits today, they will be feeding on the mudflats outside the park.

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Cowra Woodland Birds Program Spring Survey

It was encouraging to see a flush of green driving into Cowra and to hear there had been 30 ml of rain. The locals say it was not enough to sustain winter grain crops but hopefully there would be a crop of hay coming on. Walking through the bush, what little grass was left crackled underfoot, and the land still shows the effects of this years short and sharp drought.

It was a good turnout – 25 surveyors for the 93 sites and the usual happy get togethers and renewal of old acquaintances. Many remarked on the absence of smaller birds over the weekend. The birding highlight was the sighting of a White-throated Nightjar. For our team it was seeing an Australian Hobby close up and a cloud of 20 or more bee-eaters.

The Cowra Woodland Birds Program (CWBP) has been working to reverse the decline of woodland birds in the Cowra district since 2001. The survey data is now one of the best records of woodland birds around. I enjoy taking part because the project has practical backing from many farmers and Cowra locals.

On the Saturday we all went out to see a regeneration site that was planted 12 years ago. It was exciting to see a Crested Shrike-tit and Superb Parrots on the site – also the Double-banded Finches shown here. A good weekend.

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