Bad Birding’s Video Debut – Wildlife in Northern Australia

I’m sure all of you thought that this blog now belonged solely to Jason and that my posts had gone the way of the Paradise Parrot. Well, never fear – I’m back with post about our trip up north!

I made a nature documentary featuring some of the birds we saw in Darwin, Fogg Dam and Kakadu. There’s also a special guest appearance from a non-winged critter, the salt-water crocodile. It’s basically like low budget David Attenborough except, you know, female and Canadian sounding. Enjoy!

Kakadu Yellow Water Cruise and Platform Walk

The Yellow Water is a massive river-wetland habitat in the heart of Kakadu. Visitors to Kakadu are privileged to have two ways to see it: there is a short walk of a few hundred meters along a platform that gives great views of a limited portion of the habitat, and the two-hour Yellow Water Cruise that gives extensive views of the habitat.

However, even though the platform walk is short, it actually gives pretty good views of wetland birds. On this walk, you can see Great, Intermediate, and Cattle Egret in large numbers. Other waterbirds like Magpie Goose, Nankeen Night Heron, Plumed Whistling Duck, Green Pygmy Goose, Australasian Darter, Comb-crested Jacana, Radjah Shelduck, and Royal Spoonbill are pretty much guaranteed. We even saw two Brolga mates. If you also visit other wetlands on a NT trip like the impressive Fogg Dam, Mamukala, and Anbangbang, you’ll probably see around 90% of all the possible wetland birds you could theoretically see without actually having to go on the cruise.

We had a great view of this Nankeen Night Heron right from the end of the Yellow Water Platform walk, with no need to go on the cruise.

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Melbourne’s Royal Park

My favourite birding site in Melbourne is Royal Park. It is less busy than Royal Botanic Gardens and not at all seedy like Yarra Bend Park. It is also one of the largest areas of green space in Melbourne and is one of the few places where you can see a few honeyeaters besides Noisy Miner and Red Wattlebird. On a typical hour visit we see around thirty species.

Much of the park is not interesting. In fact, when I first went to Royal Park I thought it was a waste of time, and that is because I went to the wrong spot. The right spot is the area starting from Royal Park Station heading to Trinwarren Tam-Boore wetlands and is a goldmine for birds. Start along the shared bike-pedestrian Capital City Trail, where one of the first birds you’ll probably see is Bell Miner. Crested Pigeon is also common along this path.

Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys) is easy to find and is a pretty much guaranteed sighting. Just follow the unmistakeable bell-like calls. Photo by Jason Polak.

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Five Myths About Watching Birds

1. You need to get up early

You can absolutely see many birds without ever getting up early. It’s true that birds are often more active in the earliest of mornings, and some species might only be seen then, but there are also hundreds of species that you can see at 11AM as well. As long as you travel around a bit, you can literally find new species for years before having to get up early.

Instead of getting up early, why not go birding in the evening and enjoy the sunset at the same time? Photo by Jason Polak at Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Darwin.

2. You must travel to exotic locations

Definitely false! Of the 219 species we’ve seen in Australia so far, we’ve seen 61 in Melbourne, though Melbourne was not always the first place we saw them. Just check out eBird and see how many cool birds are spotted just around the corner. Birds are everywhere. That’s the cool thing about them.

But don’t expect to see the Night Parrot in Melbourne. Eventually you’ll probably want to travel a bit: we’ve driven almost 5000km just to get up to 219 species (and counting)!

This Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) was seen right in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. No traveling necessary! Photo by Jason Polak.

3. You need to know the difference between scapulars and tertials to be a birder

That is, you need to know about bird anatomy. A little technical knowledge can enhance bird appreciation but it is not at all necessary for the vast majority of bird identification problems. Most birds are easy to identify. All it takes a field guide and some patience.

Can you tell whether this Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) is male or female? Cause I sure can’t! Photo by Jason Polak.

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Quick Top End Trip Summary

We recently took a twelve-day trip to the Top End of the Northern Territory: three days in Darwin, then the rest mostly in Kakadu returning with a stop at Pine Creek and Litchfield before returning back to Darwin to fly to Melbourne.

The Magpie Goose is rare in Victoria, but seeing hundreds is guaranteed in the Top End. Photo by Jason Polak.

Although I plan to write more posts on the trip including a detailed guide of Kakadu NP, readers may be interested in our complete bird list to get an idea of what is possible:
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Point Addis: Hey Rufous Bristlebird

Coming from the east, Point Addis is the first stop along Great Ocean Road. Surpisingly for such a small little area, it provides all sorts of outdoor entertainment: ocean cliff views, a sandy beach, and great birding. Point Addis is so nice that it would be a great place to go even without any birds.

Let’s take a look at the great features of Point Addis:

1. A Superb Lookout Point

This lookout point has a lovely walk to the edge where you can see pure ocean.

Just look at that inviting view! Photo by Jason Polak.

Some of the sights here and at the nearby Airey’s Inlet Coastal Reserve already give a pretty great sample of some the Great Ocean Road views. The lookout point is reputed to be a great seabird-watching area. As a matter of fact, we did see Black-browed Albatross, our first albatross! It was not easy to see much detail, and you might need a spotting scope or a 600mm lens to get a good view. The succulent scrub pictured is a good place to see New Holland Honeyeater as well. The star of the birding show is of course the Rufous Bristlebird, one of only three birds in the family Dasyornithidae in the world, and all three are in Australia!

Us: Hey Rufous Bristlebird, we woke up at 7AM for you! Rufous Bristlebird: Yum yum yum. Photo by Jason Polak.

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Book Review: Dolby and Clarke’s “Finding Australian Birds”

Long-time readers probably know that we only have two guaranteed years in Australia, so I’ve been strict with myself with regard to buying books. I know that any book I buy will be one I’ll have to take with me or get rid of, and getting rid of books is not something I do easily. So, it must mean something when I bought “Finding Australian Birds” by Tim Dolby and Rohan Clarke.

This book is a summary of hundreds of birding sites across Australia, including those crazy little islands I’ll sadly never visit. I found it in a public library, and after taking it out and renewing it about a dozen times I finally decided I had to buy it.

Yes folks, this book is good. It’s primary purpose is to give you a solid idea of some great birding sites around different places you might visit or live in. Each site starts with a list of “key species” (i.e. species we never see) and “other species”. The description itself usually say something cool about the place, a little about how to navigate it, and what birds you can find. In short, Finding Australian Birds is an excellent first approximation to all your birding adventures. With pictures on almost every page, it also provides a nice mind-trip to those spots that you might not ever get a chance to visit.

Is a book like this still relevant in this day and age of eBird? Absolutely. A book like this is an excellent complement to eBird. Unlike eBird, Finding Australian Birds gives a compact but detailed overview of an area, its birds, and its general feel. eBird then can be used to fine-tune plans with its continuously updated data. In my mind, this book and eBird make a superb team.

Along with a field guide, Finding Australian Birds should be on every birder’s shelf in Australia. Will it help you find the Night Parrot? No. But it’s a good start!

Warby-Ovens National Park

Warby Ovens is a beautiful park located about 230km north and slightly east of Melbourne. It has some great walks like the Friends track, a nice walk up to the summit of Mount Warby. This walk features interpretive signs along with a variety of habitats and good specimens of the slow-growing Austral Grass Trees, some of which are over a hundred years old! We also tried Pine Gully track. It has a nice view of the forest of the park without any glimpse of the endless farmland that covers much of Northern Victoria.

At Warby-Ovens we saw six new birds. We found Buff-rumped and Striated Thornbill. In typical thornbill fashion, these were hard to see clearly. Without taking several pictures of each we would not have been able to identify them. The thornbills are typically in the higher elevations of the park: a good place to look for them is along the Friend’s track and the driving tracks at higher elevations.

At Forest camp we also found Yellow-tufted and Fuscous Honeyeater. Although somewhat slower moving than the thornbills, these also were elusive, preferring the high canopy of the ironbark forest. I couldn’t get satisfying shots of them, but we got fairly good looks including a head-on view of the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater that really shows the tufts.We saw Grey Shrikethrush. It’s supposedly quite common closer to Melbourne but we’ve never seen it there.

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater. It has tufts! Photo by Jason Polak.

Our final find was a little controversial in my mind: two emus. Can anyone claim these fine creatures? They were quite curious and friendly. Since they were in a fenced field, I wasn’t sure if they were wild and hence counted for our list. Quite a few nice individuals responded to a message I posted on the Bird-Aus mailing list about it, and most agreed they were sufficiently wild, even if they might have long ago descended from some captive Emus. Although there is no way to be sure in a case like this, with a little reluctance I added them to the list.

Getting back to obviously wild birds, what about the key species of Turquoise Parrot? Sadly, we saw neither the Turquoise Parrot nor the Swift Parrot. But we did see Galah, Australian King Parrot, Crimson and Eastern Rosella. Besides parrots we also saw Pied Currawong, White-winged Chough, Eastern Spinebill, Jacky Winter, and Laughing Kookaburra.

If you can’t see birds, look at the stars! Photo by Jason Polak.

There were also some gems in the farmland bordering the park. As we were leaving, we saw White-faced Heron in the grass, and nearby was a Masked Lapwing and few Australian Wood Ducks. Another field had dozens of Straw-necked Ibis: an odd and pretty sight. Sometimes we saw an ibis near a cow. Now that’s weird. A multitude of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were also present, and flew away unusually quickly when we tried to observe them. Maybe they thought we were going to shoot them?

Warby-Ovens is definitely a nice place to visit, and we hope to return one day to find the Turquoise Parrot. Highly recommended!

These currawongs were sad to see us go. Photo by Jason Polak.

My Favourite Bird

Want to know my favourite Australian bird? White-throated Needletail? Sure, that was a cool chance encounter that lasted all of five seconds, but it wasn’t my favourite. What about White-winged Black Tern? Again, neat, but it looks like all the other Terns except it turns black sometimes. In fact, my favourite is the Purple Swamphen!

The Purple Swamphen. Drawing by Jason Polak.

Although common, the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) has a lot of character. Once at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens we saw it slowly advance on a Dusky Moorhen until the moorhen was forced backwards off the lawn into a pond. Another time we flushed one and it ran like hell into the reeds, instead of flying like a typical bird. Just take a look at this Purple Swamphen party at the Western Treatment Plant:

A Purple Swamphen party, with lots of attitude. Photo by Jason Polak.

Don’t they look like they’re having fun?

An Ode to a Flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos

As I look out of my window at my desk, I hear a glorious high-pitched shriek. There – at the top of the tallest fir tree – are five yellow-tailed black cockatoos.

The birds leap into flight, careening through the air with a devil-may-care path. They swoop over my window with their yellow cheek patches flashing like a logo on a fighter jet. Their beaks open in a classic cockatoo smile.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen them this winter in Melbourne, but still something leaps in my chest, not unlike joy.

The first time was at the beginning of June. Our building’s gate wouldn’t open and we had to make an impromptu walk through Yarra Bend park. My mood was bitter and cross.

Suddenly, soaring across the trees, a flock of fifteen yellow-black cockatoos screamed into sight like a noisy team of gulls. They flew across the property and looped back into the park.

We raced after them – forgetting our earlier irritation with the gate – and ran across the wet grass. They settled in a group of eucalypts and turned perfectly silent, listening to the bark for tasty grubs.

Each time I see these birds, I experience the exhilaration of flight, because in Australia you don’t need any wings at all to fly.