Big Year blues

I must admit to struggling a bit with motivation now we've hit the "dead period" of the year. As I alluded to in our last blog post it can be hard to try and focus on what we should be doing with our time now that we've seen quite a few of the birds already this year that are in easy reach. Most of the remaining species we need, we'll need to travel much further afield to see and that requires more time off work than we're getting now. Even then some of those birds we'll have to wait until spring before having a chance to get to grips with them. All of those birds have been planned for and our holidays are already booked for the rest of the year, so its a matter of just sitting it out until those trips come around.

There was a report of Northern Shoveler from Hindmarsh Island that would have been a great addition to our Big Year lists and an Oz tick to boot, but we got that info too late and we were stuck at work for the week. Even still, despite being seen on the Monday it could not be found by other observers who searched throughout the rest of the week. In the end and in the absence of any further reports, we decided not to waste diesel looking for it ourselves.

We still have a number of pelagic trips we're booked on each month but there's no guarantee any of those will go such are the vagaries of the Southern Ocean at this time of year. We were due to go on one last weekend but unfortunately the weather conspired against us and despite reorganising the trip from Sunday to Monday it ended up getting cancelled. We had three days off too, so trying to work out what to do with that time was a challenge. Well in the end we thought we'd split our time with a search for Bassian Thrush and a trip out to the Mallee.

Saturday saw us out and about in the Pine forests around the southern shores of South Para Reservoir. In autumn/winter Bassian Thrushes can sometimes be seen foraging for invertebrates in the moist pine needle leaf litter inside these forests.............sometimes...........but not this time! We did enjoy the walk and it always amazes me just how many native species can be found in Pine forests especially Scarlet Robins and White-throated Treecreepers. These birds seem to be doing quite well in these artificial habitats and we must have seen at least six pairs of Robins at least. At the end of the day we beat a retreat as the wind began to pick up quite significantly and both of us had commitments that evening anyway.

Plenty of Scarlet Robins in the Pine forests around South Para Reservoir

Sunday we spent doing domestic chores instead of driving down for the pelagic we should have been going on but the weather started to show exactly why we weren't going. Quite wet and windy conditions all day .

Monday came and we decided to go up to Brookfield Conservation Park out in the Murray Mallee. This time of year is not particularly good out there compared to Spring, but in the absence of anything else more pressing we thought we'd just do some general birding anyway as we hadn't really spent much time in that habitat yet. There had been some good birds reported recently with Olive-backed Oriole and Painted Honeyeater being very noteworthy, but it was unlikely either would still be around. So in the end we thought it would be a good opportunity to get Sue some catch up birds I'd seen earlier in the year and perhaps get to see one of my all time favourite birds we still needed. To start off we managed to get a small family group of about 7-8 Chestnut-crowned Babblers which was a nice pick up for Sue and there seemed to be lots of Mulga Parrots and Bluebonnets around on the entrance track. A nice female Crested Bellbird sitting up on a branch was encouraging. It's good to see those are still around this close to Adelaide.  After stopping for a cuppa once in the mallee proper, we had a walk around, seeing and hearing a number of nice species but nothing new for either of us

Blue skies in Brookfield CP at least initially!

Towards the eastern boundary we walked up the track beyond the vehicle access where you start to get Bluebush as a major component of the understory. We've seen some good birds in this general area before and it wasn't long before we came across a good loose feeding association that surprisingly had White-browed Woodswallows in it, another catch up bird for Sue.

Lovely out of season male White-browed Woodswallow

Given the amount of activity here I wasn't surprised when Sue spotted a Southern Scrub-robin scuttling between the bushes. Quite often when there's lots of activity with birds in these loose winter feeding flocks, like various Honeyeater species, Pardalotes and others around they are often accompanied by other more cryptic ground dwelling birds. So we started looking carefully on the ground ahead of us as we walked.

Always hell bent on finding out what you're up to Southern Scrub-robins are great characters
With Shrike-thrushes and Scrub-robins hopping along on the ground I nearly missed the bird we were hoping for. Just up ahead and not making a sound I saw a bird running between two clumps of bushes. We got closer to it only to discover a pair of beautiful Chestnut-backed Quailthrush. These are my all time favourite birds in the mallee and one of my favourite bird families anywhere in the world. We managed to get great walk away views. Hopefully we'll get to see another two species of these exquisitely marked birds later in the year.

My favourite bird in the Mallee

This female Chestnut-backed Quailthrush seemed quite curious.

The clouds were starting to scud in and so with the main target bird under our belts we decided to drive up to Morgan to see what else we could find. Nearing the Cadell turn off we had a nice Pied Butcherbird on the overhead wires as we drove past and Sue was able to add this one to her list. Morgan Conservation Park was very quiet and we saw none of the hoped for birds like Little Friarbird and Regent Parrots. These birds are far more reliable in Spring/Summer so it was hardly surprising we missed them. Heading home from Morgan we took a popular back road that comes out at Mt Mary that has some good birds on it especially in Spring with Black and Pied Honeyeaters being quite regular............. but this wasn't Spring. There had been a recent report of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes and that would have been nice but we didn't see any. Several stops along this road produced some good views of  Redthroats and a nice Black-eared Cuckoo. Not normally found at this time of year, the Cuckoo came as a big surprise and it sat nicely for a photograph.

An out of season Black-eared Cuckoo
So we ended the day back in a rain soaked Adelaide with one new year bird for me putting me on 305 and Sue getting 4 new birds. A week of 24 hour standby for work will put paid to any birding aspirations this next weekend but it will give us a chance to clean and restock the command vehicle. Our next opportunity to get out will be the June long weekend where we hope to chase winter breeding Powerful Owls and a couple of other species down the far south-east. After that, another pelagic. Fingers crossed!

Big Year Sunday filler

This time of year the birding tends to slow down a bit. All the waders have gone back to the Northern Hemisphere, the majority of local species are no longer breeding and the bush goes a bit quiet. Autumn and winter does have a few birds to chase though mostly made up of interstate migrants that make sporadic but unpredictable appearances, but there aren't really many of those.

Seabirds are worth spending the time on but pelagic trips only take up one day and only go once a month. So what to do? Answer? Start looking to fill holes in our lists. There are always some birds that slip through the net in the initial mad rush at the start of a Big Year so we decided to chase a couple of birds that we still needed that are available year round. So after spending Saturday on domestic chores and purchasing a new camera body for me after drowning mine on a boat trip, we decided to head down to Victor Harbour on the Sunday.

Arriving early morning we first headed over the causeway out to Granite Island in bright sunshine and warm conditions

Heading over to Granite Island

Granite Island is a popular tourist destination that used to have a thriving Little Penguin colony, but as is so common these days the colony has suffered from predation and vandalism. Such a shame but that's not why we where there. Another normally secretive and furtive bird, that for some strange reason, can be seen with relative ease on the Island in the cooler months was our target. Once on the Island we headed around to the right, away from the breakwater and cafe to the western side. We climbed up to a more secluded track that cuts through a group of shrubs and seaberry saltbush understorey and it wasn't long before Sue noticed some birds feeding in the shade on the side of the track. A pair of Brown Quail were foraging without any fear in the open just a few metres in front of us. These birds used to be super rare in SA but recent good seasons has seen their numbers build up and we seem to be bumping in to them all over the place.

The ubiquitous Brown Quail

While watching the quail I heard the unmistakable call of our target bird but back in the scrub off the track. We couldn't see it at all even after waiting a while, so we moved off to see if we could find another more cooperative bird somewhere else. Despite hearing another bird at a spot further up the hill we ended up going back to where we saw the Quail. This time we decided to give a short burst of the call on Sues phone. Initially nothing, but after a relatively short interval out popped a Buff-banded Rail on to the track. Strutting around like a small bantam chicken it casually crossed over in front of us then decided to come over and check us out as bold as brass.......nice! That constitutes the last of the Crakes and Rails for us to see in SA now.

The "highly secretive and furtive" Buff-banded Rail

Happy with that it was time to head off to look for another bird that can be found in this area So after a spot of lunch we ended up at one of those great birding destinations that can be found throughout the world and arguably attracts more birders than birds themselves.........sewage ponds!! Only this time we weren't looking for shorebirds or any other kind of "waterbird" normally associated with such salubrious habitat but instead we were looking for a Honeyeater. A very rare one at that. Needless to say we drew a blank despite searching the surrounding district and the lower Inman River Valley.

Sue on the lower Inman River failing to find a Black-chinned Honeyeater

Never fear we knew another spot where people had seen a bird recently in some street trees right in the suburbs of Port Elliot. Parking the car on a side street we played the call once or twice to see if it had any effect on any birds nearby. Almost immediately a juvenile Black-chinned Honeyeater marked by the green skin above its eye flew in to an adjacent tree. Before I could get a decent photograph it was seen off by the far more aggressive New Holland Honeyeaters.

Still a nice day out with two more birds for our Big Year lists putting me on 304. Next weekend promises to be another belter if we can get out on the pelagic, so tune in next week to see how we get on. Don't forget you can get live updates from the field by following along on Twitter at Sue@Tytoalba

The Big Blue Paddock MkIII or 300 up!

After spending the previous weekend on a family social event, we were keen to head out on another pelagic from Port MacDonnell. The previous trip  (See previous blog post) was an absolute cracker, and in the wash up it was determined we had seen Northern Royal Albatross after an inspection of photographs taken at the time. So we headed down the south-east on a revised total of 297

We thought we'd bird through the Bangham/Geegeela area on the way down, as there are still a number of species that we could have potentially seen in that area. Despite driving the boundary tracks of both Conservation Parks we failed to come across any of those species at all so we continued on to Port MacDonnell to meet the other participants

Down at the wharf again on the Sunday in time for a 7:00am departure The boat rounded the breakwater and headed south in to a 1.5m swell out of the south-west with a slight 5-10 knot South easterly breeze causing a cross chop, so a bit bumpy. It was at this point I discovered my camera was dead! Absolute disaster. It's one of the fun elements of a boat trip to take loads of pictures and I was going to be denied the opportunity. This time we were going to have to rely on Sue for all the blog pics.

Rounding the breakwater the excitement was palpable

Less than 1 or 2km's offshore I noticed a small Sterna type tern tracking on a parallel course just behind us. Calling for the skipper to slow down so it could catch up several people got some shots of it. Initially I called it as an Arctic Tern as the cap was quite dark and it appeared to have a dark trailing edge to the primaries but the rest of the details on the bird were difficult to pick up as conditions were dull and overcast. It was only after some pics were posted online the following morning that interstate birders noticed the distinctive markings of a juvenile Antarctic Tern on our bird. These details were only brought to light with the magic of photoshop and were impossible to see in the field. This constitutes the first pelagic record in South Australia of this bird and only the third ever record in the State

3rd South Australian record of Antarctic Tern and very unexpected

Heading out through inshore waters towards the shelf we started picking up a few birds here and there with Fairy Prions being notable along with a lone Yellow-nosed Albatross, the only one of the trip. Reaching the berley point there were a few light showers scudding around making conditions a little damp on the back of the boat but they passed quickly. Again it wasn't long before the birds started to appear on the slick with Campbells Albatrosses rapidly outnumbering Black-browed Albatrosses and a swag of Great-winged Petrels. Soon Wandering Albatrosses started to appear with both nominate and New Zealand type birds present, jostling for positions at the back of the boat. A lone Sooty Albatross came in from downwind and while coming close it seemed to ignore us and continue on its way. A Soft-plumaged Petrel came whizzing past, making several loops over the berley slick to the delight of the paparazzi on board. Amongst the building numbers of Wilsons Storm-petrels I noticed a flash of white on a bird in close that turned out to be our first Grey-backed Storm-petrel of the year, nice!

One of lots of Fairy Prions working the slick

Very photogenic Soft-plumaged Petrel that made several passes of the boat

The sheer size of a Wandering Albatross needs to be seen to be believed

The only Grey-backed Storm-Petrel of the day

By now we were seeing a few "Whalebirds" amongst the Fairy Prions working the slick and an analysis of photos while on board enabled us to determine we were seeing both Antarctic and Slender-billed Prions. Unfortunately for me because I wasn't taking pictures, I couldn't be 100% confident I was seeing the same birds, so the Slender-billed will have to wait for another trip! At this point the sky cleared a bit and the sun shone through giving photographers an opportunity to take some creative pictures when this full rainbow appeared behind the boat

No gold at the end of this rainbow but certainly cool birds

I picked up another all dark Albatross tracking in from downwind and as this one came closer I could see the paleness and greyish tone to the overall body color and I was sure it was a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. A careful look at the key identifying marks and a consensus was reached by those on board. Indeed it was, albeit an unusually marked immature bird and a lifer for both Sue and I and many others on board. It was fair to say everyone on the boat were pretty stoked with getting that but no more than me as it was a great bird for number 300 for the Big Year.

Our first Light-mantled Sooty Albatross

Light-mantled Sooty Albatross completely oblivious to the clicking cameras

After enjoying the birds for a few hours it was eventually time to head back to Port. Just as we began to cruise back I noticed another Sterna type Tern crossing paths with the boat. I managed to get a good look at this one in good light and the full black cap, strong black trailing edge to the primaries and small "spikey" beak all pointed to adult Arctic Tern. Unfortunately most people had started reviewing their pictures for the day and no one got a photograph of this bird.

Motoring back to shore. Time for some "chimping"

Another great day on the boat despite not having a camera, hopefully I'll have that sorted in time for the next one. A hot cup of coffee and a debrief back on shore before the long drive home. So we finished with 4 year ticks each and a lifer giving me 301. Can't wait for the next one now.

A mid week trip for work to Mildura had me driving through the Riverland for the first time this year. Nearing the turn off for Banrock Station a single Pied Butcherbird was seen perched up in a tree giving me another year tick for number 302. 

The Big Blue Paddock MkII

Sue and I are really starting to look forward to pelagic trips for our Big Year and with four trips in six weeks we'll get our fair share. Last weekends trip from Port MacDonnell was another belter.

You wait with nervous anticipation in the days leading up to a pelagic carefully perusing the Bureau of Meteorology website trying to analyse the predicted weather conditions and worrying as to whether the boat is gonna go or not!. In this case we got the confirmation late on Thursday night, it was on! Friday came and while enduring the last working day of the week I received a timely message from Luke Leddy based in Padthaway in the south-east. "Did we need Flame Robin"?.........did we ever! A winter visitor to South Australia this species has suffered a marked and steady decline over recent decades and can prove difficult to find. No matter, as Luke had found a small group that had returned to a regular spot he had seen them in previous years. Armed with this information we headed off in the trusty 4WD early on Saturday morning.

Stopping at Keith for a "tail gate lunch" I nearly choked on my cuppa soup when a Blue-faced Honeyeater popped in to view in the tree right in front us. I've seen these birds here before but they had been absent so far this year in our travels down this way so it was nice to pick that one up. Leaving there and following Lukes' instructions, we easily found the spot he had told us about and just as easily found the birds. A stunning male Flame Robin along with his harem of two females showed quite nicely

Gorgeous male Flame Robin near Bool Lagoon

 With two year ticks already under the belt we carried on straight through to Port MacDonnell where we were staying for the next two nights. Everyone on the pelagic usually meets in the Victoria Hotel in town for dinner the night before the pelagic to have a meal and swap wish lists about what we're going to see on the boat the next day. An early night usually ensues and Sue and I retired to our tent with eager anticipation.

The morning saw us up before the sun devouring some toast and cups of tea before making our way down to the wharf to get on the boat. With everyone aboard it was time to head off checking out the birds roosting inside the breakwater as we went. Lucky we did as there were several White-fronted Terns loafing with the regular Crested Terns on the rocks. Rounding the breakwater we immediately headed in to the forecast 3-4 metre swell from the south west. With only light northerly winds this didn't prove to be too uncomfortable for most and we made good speed out to our spot over the continental shelf. A few lingering Short-tailed Shearwaters inshore kept us interested but the unidentified Whalebird that whizzed past on the way out proved frustrating! Starting the tuna oil slick and throwing suet over the side soon attracted a plethora of oceanic wanderers to the back of the boat, starting with Great-winged Petrels and a few Shy and Black-browed Albatrosses, soon to be joined by Campbells Albatross. A few Wilsons Storm-petrels started to appear on the slick too, along with the odd White-faced Storm-petrel, but a few Fairy Prions made there presence felt although not approaching the boat closely for good photographic opportunities

Fairy Prion, one of several that cruised up and down the slick

Right out over the shelf break we had a few Sooty Shearwaters come to the back of the boat and we marvelled as they upended and literally dived under water almost as efficiently as a Cormorant

Sooty Shearwaters can dive under water up to depths of over 50m!

We were soon joined by the first of what would prove to be over 20 Wandering and New Zealand Wandering Albatrosses of several races and its always fun trying to ID them with major differences in size and bill shape even between males and females of the same species

Possible adult female New Zealand Albatross race gibsoni?

Possible female "gibsoni"?

Probable old male "gibsoni"?

Probable near adult female Wanderer "exulans"
We had several first year "Gooneybirds" with this one dwarfing the majority of all the other birds at the back of the boat

It wasn't long before the first of what we estimated to be six or seven Sooty Albatrosses throughout the day that graced us with their presence. These birds are elegant to say the least compared to the other Albatross species and their lithe body shape and thin wings enables them to scythe through the air with ease

Arguably the most graceful of the Albatross. 

Based on careful analysis of photos we had up to seven different Sooty Albatross pay us a visit

The activity at the back of the boat was quite frenetic at this stage with loads of birds milling about over the slick but one in particular caught my eye as it banked away. Soft-plumaged Petrel was the call and everybody managed to get on to it without too much difficulty

One of two Soft-plumaged Petrels that made passes over the slick

At this stage it was decided to motor back up the slick for a bit as it had spread quite a long way and birds were becoming spread out. Stopping again and continuing to berley it was evident a continuous stream of birds were being attracted by the smell from way down wind and we continued to get new birds coming in The first of these was a single immature Northern Giant-Petrel that kept darting in amongst the larger Albatross to snatch food showing little fear

The reddish orange bill tip gives this birds identity away as a Northern Giant-petrel

Not to be outdone a Southern Royal Albatross appeared that flew straight to the back of the boat looking for its share of the handouts

Southern Royal Albatross

While keeping a close eye on the few Prions that were scudding through out wide a single Prion with very little black on the tail grabbed my attention as it flew past. With my camera having packed up from getting wet I called out for someone to "get that bird"!!! Colin Rogers managed to get a few shots and an analysis of the photo showed the bird to be an Antarctic Prion. A lifer for both Sue and I

Antarctic Prion by Colin Rogers

That proved to be the last of the new birds for our Big Year on this boat trip. We headed back into Port with a brief interlude inshore as we came across a large mixed group of Terns, Short-tailed-Shearwaters, Fluttering Shearwaters and Australian Gannets working a school of feeding Tuna. A terrific day at sea despite the heavily overcast and drizzly at times conditions. Fortunately my camera came back to life after it dried out the next day.

Heading home on the Monday we decided to return via the Bangham area to look for some key species we still needed. The day proved to be rather wet and overcast but while driving along the road adjacent to Geegeela Conservation Park and stopping to look at some Honeyeaters, Sue noticed some movement on her side of the car. A pair of Painted Button-quail were wandering around trying to not drown in the sodden under growth. We managed to get reasonable views before they scooted off in to the vegetation.

Perfectly camouflaged in amongst the vegetation a Painted Button-quail plays hide and seek
Can you see it???????

So a very successful weekend gaining us some valuable year ticks and both of us getting lifers with one for me and four for Sue. A break this weekend before getting ourselves ready for yet another pelagic trip that promises to have a cast of thousands. With loads of Seabirds still to see we're looking forward to it.