Friday, 30 November 2018

Werribee Water Treatment Plant, back for seconds (and thirds!)

Back in Melbourne for a week and the obvious thing to do was to get the key to allow me access to Werribee Western Treatment Plant again. I mean it is rated one of the best wetland sites in Australia so crazy not to go again, and it worked out pretty well actually, the first two weeks I was there I only saw one new species for my Aussie list, yet this week I managed to add several. Key to this success was finally working out where Crake Pond was, and this provided me with not only with about four Australian spotted crakes and three Baillon's crakes, but also a pectoral sandpiper and nearby an Australian hobby. In the final analysis, Werribee WTP provided me with 103 species during my stay in Melbourne.

Seeing southern emu-wrens

One of the highlights of my holiday from a birding point of view was finally seeing southern emu-wrens. I didn't get any photos of the birds for reasons I will explain, but it was such a great experience that it's worth recounting.

I'd heard that there were southern emu-wrens on Anglesea Heath at the start of the Great Ocean Road and decided it was worth a look, if for no other reason than it was somewhere new to visit. I headed for a small and little known botanical reserve called the Mary D White reserve which lies about 1km west of Anglesea and is accessed from the Guvvos beach car park. I had spent about an hour in the area and seen a few superb fairy-wrens and best of all a new species of honeyeater for me, white-eared, but was starting to lose hope with the emu-wrens. I'd looked for them before around Port Lincoln without a sniff of the birds and this looked like it would be a repeat no-show.

Then suddenly I heard the faintest of calls, a high pitched steet. Was it and insect, was it a bird? Surely an insect, it appeared to be in the vegetation almost under my feet! I waited patiently for several minutes, hearing the call again occasionally and eventually started catching glimpses of a very small bird moving through the undergrowth right alongside me. Eventually I realised that there were about five birds close by, and finally I got an excellent view of a stunning male with sandy brown plumage and bright pale blue throat and long tail. A stunning little bird. Not surprising that I'd found them so difficult in the past if I could initially not see them in vegetation that barely covered my shoes! And then they were gone, not to be seen or heard again.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Bellarine Peninsula

So back in Australia and I found myself some decent self catering accommodation in Werribee and then contacted Melbourne Water and managed to get hold of the required key for the rest of the week. However, not wanting to spend all of my remaining time at the water treatment plant, today I decided to visit the Bellarine Peninsula near Geelong and about 110km south west of Melbourne CBD. It's a really impressive place full of great birds, impressive wetlands and glorious beaches.

However the first place I visited on the way to Ballarine was Jerringot Wetlands in the city of Geelong where I managed to see a few Latham's snipes which were new for me. This is a species which breeds in Japan and spends the northern hemisphere winter in Australia.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Return to Aus!

Great to be back in Aus after a brief visit to North Island, New Zealand, and one of the most obvious differences are the very visible Australian mammals which help make the country so special to me.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Muriwai Australasian Gannet Colony

I cut short my visit to Tiritiri by a day in order to make sure that I got to Muriwai before I left New Zealand. I've been to gannet colonies before at places like Bass Rock, St Kilda, Noss, Fair Isle, Herma Ness and Flamborough Head and I wanted to see how this compared. I was not disappointed.

It might not have the numbers of birds, just a couple of thousand pairs I believe, but still really impressive.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

The Sadness of Tiritiri Matangi

I spent five days in New Zealand and didn't see a single native passerine except those that I saw on Tiritiri Matangi, a fact which I find very depressing. It appears that the only way large parts of terrestrial native wildlife can survive in New Zealand is by uprooting it and moving it to a completely managed island and removing all alien pests. It was on Tiritiri, an apparent idyllic paradise that the first seeds of doubt were sown in my mind.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Hauraki Gulf Pelagic

New Zealand storm petrel
Another awesome pelagic trip today, this time into the Hauraki Gulf, North Island, New Zealand. Completely different to the pelagic I had with Josh on Sunday, but just as good. Whereas Sunday was about albatrosses and whales, today was about petrels, especially New Zealand storm petrel. This is a species which for 180 years was considered extinct until the people who run this pelagic rediscovered it and today I saw about 10.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Wrybill at Miranda

I had an enjoyable visit to Miranda today, if a little frustrating because I got my timings all wrong and arrived at low tide rather than high tide and then had a six hour wait for the action to begin. Eventually though it did begin and in amongst the thousands of bar-tailed godwits, knot and other waders, at least 47 wrybill.  This is an iconic New Zealand endemic, with a bizzare bill which bends to the right of the bird. Also today, white-fronted terns, New Zealand Dotterel and pied stilts, which included at least one pied x black stilt hybrid.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Wanderer at 6 o'clock!

Snowy albatross
"Wanderer at 6 o'clock!", the cry went up and sent shivers down my spine. This was the moment I had been dreaming of for years, the appearance of a great albatross during a southern ocean pelagic. We'd been at sea for six hours, we were 35 miles offshore from Port Fairy, Victoria, over the edge of the continental shelf and the sea bed was nearly a kilometer below us. We'd seen many albatrosses already, but they were all of the smaller type, in this region often referred to as molyhawks. Four species in fact, shy, black-browed, Indian yellow-nosed and Campbell albatross, all with wingspans of 2.5m or less.

The new arrival was considerably bigger, a wandering albatross with a wingspan of up to 3.5m, the longest of any living bird. This awesome and majestic bird glided past the boat without a single flap of the wings, dwarfing the nearby molyhawks and taking my breath away. Over the next hour or so the bird stayed with us and was joined by an immature bird, as well as two other species of great albatross.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Koalas on the Great Ocean Road

On our way to Port Fairy from Melbourne for a pelagic, we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up on the Great Ocean Road. Really beautiful scenary, if a little busy at the Twelve Apostles. My favourite stop was at Kennett River where we saw about 20 koalas, some with babies, a tawny frogmouth with a baby and several Australian king parrots.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Long Forest

White-plumed honeyeater

Long Forest is about 30 miles north west of Melbourne and is an area of gum tree and eucalyptus scrub known as mallee. I visited it today just to try to get a few new species on the list and to check out a new area. In the end I added three new species, white-plumed honeyeater, buff-rumped thornbill and best of all speckled warbler. It's an interesting area with lots of potential and well worth a look for any birder in the Melbourne area.

Westgate Park, Melbourne

Hoary-headed grebe

I "discovered" Westgate Park today. Its a couple of pools and some scrub  below the Westgate bridge in Port Melbourne. I was surprised at how good it was for birds, I recorded 37 species in a couple of hours. I was particularly pleased to be able to get some half decent photos of hoary-headed grebe, a species I have struggled with in the past. Westgate park is obviously not in the same league as the Western Treatment Plant, but if you're in Melbourne for a day or two with limited birding time available, it's a decent place to visit.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Dandenong Range

The Dandenong Range lies just to the east of Melbourne and offers an opportunity to visit temperate rain forest within easy reach of the city. Huge Australian mountain ash trees, which are actually a type of eucalyptus, are the largest flowering plant in the world and there are prehistoric tree ferns which grow up to 12m. Birding is always difficult in this type of habitat and today was no exception, but there are a few decent birds here.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Common Ringtail Possum at Finns Reserve

I was walking along the River Yarra at Finns Reserve today when I came across this common ringtail possum watching me from its drey. It was only at head height in a loosely constructed drey in a small spindly bush. This is a common species in Australia, but a first for me. I also have a resident brushtail possum in the garden of my apartment and a grey-headed flying-fox flew over tonight. I counted three platypus on the river this evening and the wombat was back after an absence of several days.

It may seem like I'm overdosing on platypus at the moment, but the reason is simple, I'm not here just to tick platypus I'm here to observe them and study them as much as I can in the limited time that I have available. I want to see how they swim, how they dive and what their movements are around the river  as the late afternoon and evening progresses. I can already see a pattern in their movements and I've found the location of at least one burrow. In certain parts of the river I can see them feeding underwater. It's really interesting and fascinating stuff to watch, and very soon I won't be able to do this anymore because I'll be back in the UK, so why not overdose while I can? Platypus are generally difficult animals to see, so the opportunity to get to know them well is one which shouldn't be turned down. In anycase, every time I go I see something else good, for example echidna, wombat, possum and a host of decent birds.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Black-tailed native-hen

No doubting the bird of the day today. Any bird with the name black-tailed native-hen is going to get my vote! It's taken me three visits to Australia and three visits in the past seven days to the Western Treatment Plant to see one but eventually I managed it today, with not one, but four birds together, almost in a mini-leck. Black-tailed native-hens are obviously related to moorhens with a different bill colour, an erect tail and a crazy look in their eyes. Fabulous birds. Other highlights today, an immature white-bellied eagle and spotted and swamp harriers. To be honest though, it's not about any one species, it's about the spectacle.

The Western Treatment Plant is a huge site, around 12 miles (20km) from one end to the other and it's full of lakes of varying sizes and every lake is packed with birds. Goodness knows how many Australian shelducks or pink-eared ducks or hardheads or hoary-headed grebes or black swans or stilts or avocets or sharp-tailed sandpipers or whiskered terns there are, certainly hundreds and probably thousands of each. It really is reminiscent of Donana in Spain during the the rice harvest. And though it's smaller than Donana, it's just as remote, today I didn't meet a single other person all day. Not one person. It's just a staggering place.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Monotremes at the Yarra


Wow what a trip this has been so far for iconic Australian mammals! On Saturday I saw my first ever echidna with Josh as it crossed the road at Wilson's Promontory and today I managed to find my second. I was photographing musk lorikeets when a rustling in the undergrowth immediately drew my attention and the lorikeets were forgotten. There could be no doubt what it was, I could see a ball of spines moving through the grass just a few metres in front of me. It climbed up onto a fallen branch and posed perfectly for photographs, before dropping down and continuing to make its way towards me. Eventually it was less than a metre away and still didn't even seem to notice me, that is until I made a noise when it immediately curled up and dug itself down in a cloud of dust. I just kept quiet again and within 30 seconds it uncurled itself and continued on its way, again seemingly oblivious to my presence. What a tremendous animal.

I stayed in the area until dusk and once again managed to get good views of duck-billed platypus, the echindas closest living relative.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

From the Yarra Bridge

Duck-billed platypus is such an iconic Australian species which so few people ever get the chance to see that when I'm staying within a few miles of a great location for them, it's hard to resist the temptation to go back for second helpings. In fact to be honest, I'll probably end up going back for thirds and fourths!

A footbridge crosses the Yarra at Finns Reserve and from here platypus can be seen in the river below at any time of day apparently, but especially as dusk approaches. They really are fascinating creatures, an early scientific name for them was Ornithorhynchus paradoxus and truly they are a paradox. A mammal with a bill which lays eggs and has no teats, it is also one of the very few mammals which detects its food using electroreception. If all of that wasn't enough, it is also almost unique in being a venomous mammal. Of all the creatures which I have seen in Australia, the platypus still remains top of the pile.

Wilson's Promontory

Josh and I spent the weekend at Wilson's Promontory, the most southerly point on mainland Australia and a place often battered by the infamous wind the Roaring Forties. We stayed at Fish Creek, in the Fish Creek hotel, a wonderful retro style hotel in a beautiful Australian village.

Apart from the obvious scenic attractions, the main reason for going to the Prom was to try to see some of the iconic Australian species which occur there but which have so far eluded me, specifically echidna and wombats. It's not surprising that I had never previously seen the latter since I'd never previously been within the species range, but the same can't be said of echidna which is all over Australia and which I have really tried hard to see in the past to no avail. However within minutes of entering the national park we had to stop to allow an echidna to cross the road! A fabulous creature, three times the size of a hedgehog with golden spines, the closest living relative to the platypus, this is another mammal which lays eggs. An unforgettable experience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Platypus and a wombat at Finns Reserve, River Yarra

I knew that the footbridge at Finns Reserve over the River Yarra was reputed to be a good place for platypus, but I still didn't expect to see them this easy. Two were showing almost immediately I arrived and over the course of the next hour they showed regularly, though never staying on the surface for long. Two locals who I met on the footbridge told me that a few nights ago they counted nine platypus on this stretch of the river. An iconic Australian animal which so few people have ever seen, yet here they are just 18 km up river from Melbourne CBD. A wonderful experience.

Werribee Water Treatment Plant

Royal and yellow-billed spoonbills

I've just spent two full on birding days at Werribee Water Treatment Plant, and what an amazing place it is. An absolute essential visit for any serious birder visiting Melbourne. You may think that you don't want to spend your time in Australia at a sewage works, but it's actually nothing like that,  in fact it's probably one of the best places I've ever been to birding, on a par with Doñana in Spain. Like Doñana, it's not so much the individual species that make it so special, it's the sheer number of birds.  During my visits for example, whiskered terns were everywhere, over every lake, pond, ditch, marsh and even field where they hawked for insects and in amongst them was a scattering of white-winged black terns. Meanwhile on the water was a host of birds, with at least 4000 pink-eared ducks and probably similar numbers of grey and chestnut teal. Sharp-tailed sandpipers were everywhere, on the mud as you would expect, but also in the grass and on the road, I put up countless birds as I was driving around. A breathtaking place. You can contact Melbourne Water for a day permit and key.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Phillip Island and it's Cape Barren Geese

Philips Island is a 90 minute drive south east of Melbourne. It's a proper island but you can drive onto it via a bridge. The day we chose to go was Melbourne Cup day, and in the morning there was torrential rain, so much so that for most of the journey I was wondering why we had bothered setting out. However by the time we arrived the rain was easing and the sky was showing the first signs of hope, and by midday the sun was out and it was pleasantly warm.

Probably the highlight of the day was the Cape Barren geese, especially those that had chicks. When I saw this species in Port Lincoln earlier in the year they were in flocks and behaving pretty much like geese in winter back home. However in summer they leave the mainland and breed on offshore islands, but I must admit that before we saw them it hadn't occurred to me that we might see them with chicks today.

Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens

My first full day back in Australia and most of the day was spent getting my bearings and recovering from jet lag, not that I ever suffer much from the latter. This afternoon I had a walk through Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens and came across many beautiful and interesting birds including my first new bird for the holiday, this stunning eastern rosella.

Monday, 5 November 2018

A tale of two St. Kildas

In 1987 I spent two weeks camping on the remote and spectacular Hebridean island of St Kilda, an archipelago with some of the highest sea cliffs in Britain and home to one of the largest sea bird colonies in the world, with hundreds of thousands of birds. Puffins alone numbered an estimated 250,000 birds when I was there, and there was in the region of 60,000 pairs of gannets and 10,000 pairs of fulmars, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shearwaters and petrels. An awesome spectacle.

Fast forward 31 years and this week and next I’m staying in St Kilda again, but this is about as far removed as it can get from the towering cliffs and crashing waves of the Hebridean World heritage site. The St Kilda I am calling home for the next two weeks is a suburb of Melbourne, on the face of it a nice enough place with a beach, some interesting shops and a distinctly bohemian feel with innumerable small cafes and bars. However it also has a run down tacky side and worse of sex shops, prostitutes and amusement arcades, and the huge laughing face at the entrance to the Luna Park fun fair has very unsettling look that certainly wouldn’t entice me to enter. Even more worryingly, there's an election about to take place and one of the local candidates declares on large posters that he's "the only person who can make St Kilda safe". Worrying.... Australia’s most notorious hotel is here, the Gatwick also known as the Hell Hotel, now closed but formerly the scene of murders, drug deaths and stabbings. Surely then, the only thing that these two St. Kildas can have in common is a name? Well actually no, there is something else that the two places share, the smell of guano! Sure, here in Melbourne the smell is on a much smaller scale, but it is here non-the-less, if you get yourself down to St. Kilda pier. The breakwater rocks right at the end of the pier are home to a small colony of little penguins and their remarkably guillemot like guttural calls combined with that wonderful smell takes me right back to those mighty sea cliffs on the opposite side of the world in the North Atlantic ocean.

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