How NOT To Spot An Owl

After trying numerous times in the past year to spot the Powerful Owl and Southern Boobook in Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens, I can confidently tell you how not to spot an owl. In fact, after a last ditch attempt to spotlight the Barn Owl at the Western Treatment Plant, Jason and I hit a Bad Birding low. (Or a Bad Birding high I guess, because it was wildly unsuccessful. Perspective.)

So, here’s how NOT to spot an owl in the Melbourne area, so you can NOT spot them too:

1) Watch ebird religiously. Once the Powerful Owl has been spotted recently for several consecutive days at the Royal Botanical Gardens, go. Immediately. Don’t hesitate! Owls like punctuality. Fortunately, so do construction workers. Don’t worry, a construction project will just have started in Fern Gully where the owl is known to frequent. The day you arrive, so will construction workers, and the owl will leave forever. Hurray! You’re guaranteed NOT to see it! However, you will get to check plenty of construction equipment off your list instead. As the Powerful Owl would say, “Woo-hoo!”

Some not-owls roosting in a dead tree at the Royal Botanical Garden.

2) Ask Royal Botanical Staff about the resident Southern Boobook (a small Australian owl). Get one of those handy free paper maps the garden hands out like candy to babies, and get the friendly staff to draw a map to Boobook’s favourite palm tree. Then, learn from friendly staff that Boobook most likely was eaten!!! How do they know? Boobook feathers at the bottom of the palm. Who ate it, we wondered. Probably the illusive resident Powerful Owl, we speculated. “Woo-hoo!”

None of these palms at the Royal Botanical Gardens are Boobook’s favourite.

3) Look for owl pellets in Yarra Bend Park. Find fresh owl pellets along the trail in similar spots for weeks. Look up into surrounding eukalypts. Ensure to strain your neck for maximum effort. Don’t worry, owls are so good at hiding in broad daylight you’ll never find them! Success!

No neck straining required! Not-an-owl in not-so-dense foliage in Yarra Bend Park.

4) Don’t stop by Shepherd’s Bush on the way back from the Dandenongs. The Powerful Owl is frequently spotted there. You might actually see it! Avoid Shepherd’s Bush like the plague!

But don’t avoid the Dandenongs! Go there and spot this non-owl instead!

5) When camping at Terrick Terrick National Park and you hear a dog barking in the bush and later the creepiest screaming banshee noise of your life, whatever you do, avoid the dogs and banshees and keep you and your flashlight safely in the tent. You’ll also avoid spotlighting the Barking Owl!

Make sure only to explore Terrick Terrick during the daylight. Then you’re guaranteed to find the non-barking-screaming residents like this quiet Swamp Wallaby.

6) Finally, go to the Western Treatment Plant at night. Make sure to go in the winter time–it gets dark earlier and you don’t have to wait long. Bring your fancy flashlight that’s military-grade. Bring your dinner. Watch the sunset. Wait along a deserted road by some farm land until it gets pitch black and the sun has disappeared over the horizon. Get hungry. Start eating. See a black owl-like shape hovering over a field next to the car. Don’t worry, your hands are so full of sandwich you won’t be able to grab your flashlight or camera in time to determine whether the hovering night-bird was the Tawny Frogmouth or Barn Owl. The Reader’s Digest Book of Australian Birds will suggest that the hovering behaviour is indicative of the Barn Owl, but you’ll never know for sure. Phew! Owl spotting averted!

Is this white blob in my picture a barn owl or a juvenile black-shouldered kite? Fortunately, we’ll never know for sure!

Despite NOT spotting many owls, Jason and I did manage to spot one species of owl in Australia: the Rufous Owl at the Darwin Botanical Gardens.

Rufous Owl!

We only spotted the Rufous Owl, because we ran into a couple of guys wearing binoculars along the Rainforest Walk who were talking (fortunately for us) about spotting an owl. They were kind enough to point the pair of owls out to us. Without their help, it would have been a tricky endeavour, as you had to tilt your head just so as you looked through the rainforest to glimpse the birds. This was the only owl we ever spotted in Australia!

More recently in Canada, we were fortunate enough to spot a Great Horned Owl in an urban park merely by chance.

Great Horned Owl!

My conclusion from these experiences on how to spot an owl is the following:

  1. Ask the guy with the binoculars. If he’s talking about owls, he’s probably seen one.
  2. Alternatively, you don’t spot an owl. The owl will spot you.

 

Note: Since owls are often threatened and fragile species, it is always important to look for owls ethically. We never use call play back methods, give the birds lots of space (I use a zoom lens), and for our spotlighting attempt were going to follow Birdlife Australia’s ethical birding guidelines.  Since we never wound up pointing our flashlight at the potential Barn Owl, this was somewhat of a non-issue. However, if we had managed to get our act together, we were going to shine the light briefly (a few seconds) at minimum power. In some ways I’m glad that we were unsuccessful, since it seems like barn owls in Victoria are currently having a hard time.

Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Park

Site Location: Melbourne, Australia

The Yarra Bend Park is the largest green space in Melbourne. Although it is urban, you can find quite a lot of fascinating things there.

Not just for birds!

Having once lived only a few minutes walk from it, we quickly became the eBirders with the highest number of submitted checklists for the park. I suspect that will change in the next year or so. Given that we’ve been so many times (far more tha indicated on eBird), this location post will be a little more detailed than the typical one. Due to where we walked, I will be talking about the following areas indicated by numbers on this map:


Before going to this park, I must emphasise that this park is a little seedy at times, with graffiti artists doing their thing and other odd elements. This is also a dog-friendly park, and sometimes there can be a lot of dogs, including many poorly-trained ones. The best times to avoid the dogs is definitely in the morning. However, many dog owners in this park also don’t pick up their dog feces, and we’ve stepped in it more than once despite trying to be careful.

Despite that huge warning, this park is definitely worth a look. You can minimise the weird stuff by going on weekdays, early in the mornings, during colder months, not during school holidays and definitely not around christmas.

Grey Butcherbird is one of four butcherbirds that can be seen in Australia, and it is the only one that can be seen in Melbourne.

Continue reading “Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Park”

Britannia Conservation Area and Mud Lake

Site Location: Ottawa, Ontario (Canada)

I didn’t have high hopes for Britannia Conservation area, which is a 2.5km trail around Mud Lake. About 15km west of Parliament hill, Mud lake is a surprisingly good find for us. Here is the trail map that is also displayed at points along the trail:
When we first arrived here on a Saturday, there were dozens of cars parked along Cassels street. It looked so crowded I was convinced it would be a bust and I was half-ready to just go home and not even check it out. Luckily we tried anyway. It turned out that most of the people there (which I believe was a bunch of birdwatching groups) were sticking mostly to the trail north of Cassels street.

We parked at the water treatment plant parking lot, and went clockwise around the lake. As soon as we started, I was pleasantly surprised at how few people were on the trail, which to me hinted that not all the birds would be scared away. Right at the beginning, we found Hooded Merganser. We read that this place attracts ducks during fall migration, and Hooded Merganser is certainly not a bad start.

A little bridge at the beginning of the walk is a good place to see Black-capped Chickadee.
The path around the lake is excellent, and gives a surprising illusion of wilderness for such an urban area. There are several good lookout points along the way, and it makes good sense to look for any unusual species. We found American Wigeon for the first time here.
Continue reading “Britannia Conservation Area and Mud Lake”

New Video: Wildlife in Northeastern Queensland!

Jason promised you all a cassowary mating video in his comprehensive post about our trip to Northeastern Queensland in March. Well, finally after an international move to Canada, I am ready to deliver the goods. My nature documentary of our trip contains lots of birds such as the afore-mentioned cassowaries, but also includes some crabs, mudskippers, and lizards. I hope you all enjoy it! Such a beautiful place in the world, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Basically in this video I’m like my idol, David Attenborough, if he was Canadian, female, and had less high tech camera equipment (so basically I’m nothing like David Attenborough)! All photographs and video footage taken by me, except for the infamous photo of the white-tailed rat which was taken by Jason Polak. And yes, that’s my voice. 🙂 Thanks to all the friendly Australians and like-minded naturalists we met on the trip who were so enthusiastic with sharing their birding tips and tricks with us. You helped make this a trip to remember.

PS: If you like this video, you may also like my nature documentary of our trip to the Northern Territory.

Thank you, bagpipes

The other day we sat down for a rest in Vincent Massey park. Seemingly unfortunately, we were greeted with the sound of bagpipes. Obviously, we couldn’t rest with that kind of sound going off in our ears so we walked to a new spot. A few minutes later this beautiful owl flew into a tree very close to us:

Great-horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

It was truly an amazing view, and we wouldn’t have seen it if it weren’t for those bagpipes driving us away!

This is in fact the second owl we’ve seen on our quest to see the world’s birds (339 and counting). The first was the Rufous Owl that we saw in the George Brown botanic garden in Darwin:

Rufous Owl (Ninox rufa)

Perhaps this means we’ll see even more owls in the future?

Canada, So Far

Canada and Australia: how do they compare in terms of birds? Canada is without a doubt more challenging. The time spent to good sightings ratio is higher. In Australia, great views were easy. There were all sorts of huge, colourful birds practically flying in our face.

But, we’ve made some good Canadian progress. Check out our bird list to see that we’ve seen 39 new species here in Canada (there are a couple more to add, too).

And we’ve gotten some good sightings here, no doubt. For instance, last month we had an amazing view of Northern Cardinal:

The quest for the Superb Lyrebird

We’ve been trying to find the Superb Lyrebird since we first started birding in Australia. What’s the Superb Lyrebird you ask? Only the world’s largest passerine!

It’s not just the world’s largest passerine, though. It can also mimic a huge array of sounds, most of them being other bird calls. Believe me, the sound replication is very accurate. The calls of Laughing Kookaburra, Eastern Whipbird, and Red Wattlebird are all very different. Yet, the Lyrebird’s imitation of them sounds like the real thing!

We recently tried to find the Lyrebird for the last time in the Dandenong ranges, which is a convenient 40km drive from Melbourne. It’s also one of the prime locations for Lyrebirds. We tried to find them three times before…and failed.

Our most recent trip had to be our last attempt at trying, since our time to find Australian birds is running out. If we didn’t find it, we reasoned, we would not get another chance for many years.

We started off early, at 9AM at O’Donohue picnic ground. Typically, after twenty minutes I got discouraged. However, we couldn’t give up. Remember. The last time. Lyrebird.

Late fall is good for visiting the Dandenong ranges. The walks through the forest are nice and it’s not too crowded. And walk we did. After O’Donohue, we went to Grants Picnic Ground and started a long walk. The first hour past, the second, the third. Finally, at lunch time, we heard something. A Whipbird? A Kookaburra?

No. Even though Superb Lyrebirds have outstanding mimicry, they can be distinguished from the birds they mimic by multiple bird sounds emanating from the same location. We stopped and listened for five minutes while a hidden Lyrebird rattled off many bird calls in rapid succession. Now, even if we didn’t manage to see a Lyrebird, we at least heard it, and that was pretty good because its vocal performance is one of its coolest features.

The Lyrebird never came out of hiding. Instead, we kept on walking. A gentleman farther along the track was taking a photo. Did he see the Lyrebird? No, he was looking at some cool mushrooms.

We had been searching for the Lyrebird for over three hours, and we were hungry. It took us a couple more hours to walk back to the car at Grants Picnic Ground. On the way, we saw many White-throated Treecreepers that I kept hoping would be Red-browed Treecreeper. No avail.

Once we returned to the car, we drove back to O’Donohue because Grants was too crowded for a peaceful late lunch. Six hours passed since we had started, and we were resigned to not seeing the Superb Lyrebird, ever. It didn’t like us.

We tried walking around a little and saw a Grey Shrikethrush. Since it was too cold outside to sit, we ate in the car and talked about how the Lyrebird would remain forever unseen to us.

Movement in the bush caught our eyes.

A male Lyrebird with the most beautiful tail walked into the parking lot and began foraging for snacks in the leaf litter! And only a few meters from the car and in perfect view of the passenger window. We scrambled for cameras and got the shot. We rolled down the window and sat silently, appreciating the beauty of this majestic bird.

He kept foraging for several minutes, giving us the perfect Lyrebird experience. A distant car sound coming towards the picnic ground startled it and back to the forest it ran — Lyrebirds prefer running over flying.

After an exhausting six hours, we drove home with the afterglow of our Lyrebird show, which must be one of my top five birdwatching experiences.

Blue-Winged Parrot: An Exercise in Persistence

Jason and I finally saw the blue-winged parrot after searching for over a year! It wasn’t entirely unexpected that we hadn’t found this parrot considering that it is migratory and listed as uncommon. However, we visited plenty of suitable habitat and never saw a single feather… until now. Hurray!

Jason’s picture of the blue-winged parrot!

Our search began when we took our first trip to Great Ocean Road in February 2017. Being on holiday, we weren’t inclined to wake up at the crack of dawn. We saw many new birds to us on that trip, but completely missed the elusive blue-winged parrot. Perhaps they were early risers? Ebird reports had them at the Aireys Inlet Lighthouse on the exact same day we visited the site. Gosh-dang-blast it! So close yet so far.

We got over this disappointment. After all, we reasoned, we had plenty more opportunities to find the blue-winged parrot at the Western Treatment Plant, since Dolby and Clarke lists them as a key species for the area. A year passed with frequent monthly visits. During the winter, ebird reports showed that every third group visiting the Western Treatment Plant saw the parrot. None of these groups were us.

(Although admittedly I saw a small green parrot fly past our car as we drove to T-section Lagoon last winter. But the sighting was inconclusive. For all I knew, it could’ve been the red-rumped parrot instead. Or gasp, the endangered orange-bellied. We’ll never know the truth.)

We also went to Wyperfeld National Park in the spring, a haven for parrots of all kinds. We had great sightings of the blue-bonnet, regent parrot, mallee ringneck and red-rumped parrot. We also saw Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, as well as sulphur-crested cockatoo. Supposedly this was a reasonable sight for blue-winged parrot in the spring, but not for us. And it also was supposedly the best site in the country for the elegant parrot (a grass parrot very similar to the blue-winged)…but ha ha ha, nope.

It became my goal to find the blue-winged parrot. At all costs.

(Okay, this sounds more dramatic than it is, because our time in Australia is temporary. And time was running out!)

This last time we went to the Western Treatment Plant, I told Jason, “This will be the time we find the parrot!” I said it with more confidence than I felt, but the enthusiasm was there. Jason checked ebird. Yes, someone had sighted the blue-winged parrot the week before. They were there. It was possible. The goal was within reach. I could almost taste it. (Figuratively. I had no interest in eating the cute little things.)

But would we actually find them?

First, we went to Lake Borie. There, we found a group of red-kneed dotterels by the mouth of the river. This was a new species for us so our confidence increased. Also, there were a crazy number of pink-eared ducks and shovelers swimming around in the lakes. Also, we saw the most blue-billed ducks I’d ever seen! They were still very far away, but recognizable.

No parrots though.

We went to T-section lagoon. Lots of Spoonbills and we went for a walk on the gravel tracks. Evening was approaching. We were tired after a day of good birding. It was time to drive back to the city.

“But how about we check the area by the new bird hide first?” one of us suggested. Plenty of grassland surrounds the bird hide. Perfect for a blue-winged parrot.

At this point, we were resigned not to see it. As we hopped back in the car, a flock of parrot-like birds flew overhead. My sighting was diminished by a flock of duck-like birds that also flew overhead. Maybe I was seeing parrots in the ducks, I rationalized.

Still, we drove down the track to the bird hide after opening the gate. We checked the fence wires for parrots and joked about how Dolby and Clarke probably saw 50 of these birds on the fence here in the 80s.

“Should we walk to the bird hide?”

We were discouraged.

“Eh, why not. At least you can get the ultimate pink-eared duck shot.”

As we walked down the path to the hide, we saw a flock of something or other that landed in the grass.

“Those are parrots!”

“They can’t be parrots, their wings are so dark!”

“Those are parrots!”

We stood on the benches on the new bird hide and peered over the top of the grassy-wicker walls blocking the path from view of the lake. There were around 15 blue-winged parrots on each side of the path. They were a dull olive-green and were enjoying their dinner in the very, very dry grass. If you didn’t look carefully, they were almost camouflaged.

We watched them for a long time, taking lots of pictures and observing their behaviour. We even broke out the binoculars to ensure they weren’t the very similar (but rare) orange-bellied or elegant parrots, but no, they were all blue-winged.

Aw yeah! Mission accomplished!