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!

The Wet Northern Queensland

We just came back from Northern Queensland, targeting three areas: Cairns, Kuranda, and Cape Tribulation. Our trip spanned March 10-17, which is near the end of the wet season. We had a few near planning mishaps: the Daintree ferry was out of operaton the previous week and heavy rains made many roades impassable. Thankfully, by the time we needed to use these roads, the flooding had receded.

Cairns

We spent two nights in Cairns.

We went to the Jack Barnes Mangrove Boardwalk after picking up our rental car. It was a great way to stretch after our flight. There are two walks, both providing wonderful views of the mangroves, crabs, and mudskippers.

We found this colourful crab in the mud of the mangrove forest floor.

Possibly because we did these walks in the middle of the day, we didn’t find many birds. We did get one new one: Pacific Golden Plover, feeding in the small field next to the start of the shorter walk. However, had we come earlier, we might have missed the crabs because of the higher tide.
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Blue-billed Duck and Freckled Duck at the Western Treatment Plant

Pretty much every duck in Victoria can be see at the Western Treatment Plant. The only exception might be the Plumed Whistling Duck, which is not easy to see in Victoria at all.

However, there are two ducks that you have a chance of seeing but are not so easy at all: Freckled Duck and Blue-billed Duck. If you do see them, chances are you’ll see 1-2 individuals, compared to the thousands of Australian Shelducks in the summer. Actually, you have a much better chance of seeing them at Lake Lorne in Geelong, but if you don’t want to make a detour there, here’s something you can try at the Western Treatment Plant.

Go to Lake Borrie via the first entrance on Point Wilson (Gate #5). After going through Gate #6, go in the direction of the red arrow:

As you pass the the head of the arrow, look to the right. For some reason, this smaller inlet seems to be a haven for these rarer ducks. Now you pretty much have to scan every duck with binoculars. Look around quickly because these ducks have a tendency to swim away if they can tell that you’re there. Here is a Blue-billed Duck we saw the last time we were there, and we’ve seen it more than once:

Yes, it’s a male Blue-billed Duck! Keep in mind that the Blue-billed Duck can dive underwater so it pays to look at every area a couple of times. The Blue-billed Duck has an intricate mating display that involves water splashing but we’ve never seen it.

If you can tick the Blue-billed Duck and Freckled Duck, then the other ducks in Victoria should be a piece of cake. After that, one trip to Cairns and the surrounding areas should allow you to see every duck in Australia! (I’m excluding the Northern Mallard here.)

Recent Yarra Bend Park Walk: Frogmouth and Rat

Even though the Yarra Bend Park is urban, some cool things can still be found in it. For instance, this week we went for a walk and we found four Tawny Frogmouths! Here are two:

As bad birders we often look for things that aren’t birds. So on this same walk we were thrilled to see this Water Rat (Hydromys chrysogaster) dragging a huge fish onto the bank:

It took several bites and just swam away!

Hey, I don’t have a problem sharing my freckled duck.

Whenever we go to the Western Treatment Plant, the goal is to get a super sharp photo of a new species of bird that we haven’t seen before. However, I usually end up taking pictures not just of the birds, but of the scenery around the birds, which is stunning. Whenever I tell our non-birder friends that we visit a sewage farm, they raise an eyebrow or two. In fact, if they had more than two eyebrows I think they’d probably raise those as well. Anyway, I don’t care, they can pinch their nose or hold it high. Just means more pelicans at the plant for us birders to enjoy alone.

Don’t these pelicans look like ships coming into the harbour? You can also see a royal and a yellow Spoonbill just slightly off centre as well.

Of course, for every sharp picture I take, there are at least ten other blurry ones. Thank goodness for digital cameras. Often these blurry pictures still amuse me, such as this one of australasian pelican and silver gull:

Look, they’re snuggling! They’re friends!

And sometimes, the blurry pictures look impressionistic. Such as this one of all these black swans swimming in the sun:

Sparkly!

However, I can’t really call my picture of the freckled duck impressionistic. But since our blog is called “Bad Birding,” I figure the standard is low enough that nobody really expects to see a National Geographic-quality freckled duck. Unlike Jason, I’m so proud of our find that I want to showcase it on the blog. I’m not ashamed of my picture. That’s right! I’ve been trying to find the freckled duck in Lake Borie for almost a year.

During the past year, usually when I scanned the waters they looked like this:

This water gives so many ducks, but sadly not freckled ones.

Finally, just before the year was up, that rare little duck showed its cute freckled ski-slope head in part of Lake Borie just before you reach the Bird Hide. And there were two of them! Even better. Ladies and Gentlemen, here they are:

Swimming in the front with three hard head friends.

Even though we’ve seen the blue-billed duck at the Western Treatment Plant, it was even farther away than these guys and I’d love to get a closer look sometime. Well, hopefully with some luck and persistence we’ll get a decent sighting of the blue-billed duck as well. Any tips?

These little black cormorants on a log remind me of Jason and the Argonauts.

Rails and Freckled Duck at the Western Treatment Plant

Last week when we visited the Western Treatment Plant we woke up at 5:30AM to hopefully get a glimpse of rails before everyone else scared them away. In the Lake Borrie area we took a short break to apply some sunscreen and a Buff-banded Rail (Hypotaenidia philippensis) scurried out to cross the path! Not too long after a second one ran across as well. Cautiously approaching the area we found it in the bushes:

The secretive Buff-banded Rail is found mostly near the coast all over Australia…if you can find it at all!

This image shows the secretive nature of rails. You can see its lovely patterned plumage through the reeds. Just a little after another small crake ran across a different path but unfortunately we didn’t get a good enough glimpse of it to identify it or appreciate its mystical quality.

Nearby singing was a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo (Chalcites basalis):

This Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo is likely to have been raised by a Fairy-wren!

We also got a great glimpse of the Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa)! Sadly, my lens wasn’t long enough to get a shot I would consider showing on this blog. We’ve been looking for the Freckled Duck for a year!

There were a few differences between this early morning and some of the later times we visited. For one, there were many more Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia guttata) scurrying about on the ground, rather than the few we usually see.

A male Zebra Finch.

Another difference was that we saw an unusual number of rabbits, which was unfortunatley introduced into Australia in 1858. This mammal has caused significant ecological damage since then.

Wyperfeld and Little Desert NP

In October we visited two national parks in Northwestern Victoria: Little Desert and Wyperfeld. Both parks have many beautiful walking-only tracks and can be reached from Melbourne in five hours. Spring is a good time to go because of the wildflowers, and Wyperfeld is a great place to see some inland parrots. I would say that these two parks are probably the best parks in Victoria.

Little Desert NP

Kiata campground is close to many of the walks. We picked up our first new species on the short loop near this area: the White-browed Woodswallow. We also saw White-browed Babbler, Crested Pigeon, and Diamond Firetail, Weebill, and Brown-headed Honeyeater.
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Hear Me Howl: No Mallee Fowl!

Jason and I recently went for a springtime camping trip in Little Desert and Wyperfeld National Parks. The flowers were beautiful, although I think that we were too late for orchids since we didn’t see any. I’m sure Jason will report on our latest birding finds, so I won’t say much except one hint. It goes: what’s pink and white and squawks all over?

Instead, I am here to report on what we didn’t find in true “Bad Birding” fashion. Despite a lovely tip from a birder just outside of Little Desert, we did not see the endangered mallee fowl at the recommended site. Now, I must admit we didn’t stay by the mound very long as it was super hot and we were sweaty and the sun was quite harsh. But I’d hoped for a glimpse of the male tending his mound by adjusting the sand to the right temperature. However, we did see the mound itself so that was enlightening. Now you can see it too!

Spot the absence of the mallee fowl in this picture!

After that we tried briefly again at Little Desert Nature Lodge. We went for a lovely walk on the property. Again, it was extremely hot so we sought refuge and shade in a tiny bird hide along the trail. Plenty of new holland honey eaters, one lone white-plumed honey eater, and one brown-headed honey eater. Would mallee fowl come to drink?

No. Mallee fowl would not.

Even though we didn’t see the mallee fowl we decided that it was for the best. They are endangered and having a hard time of it out there, so probably it was extremely happy not to see us. Still, if we had seen it… If only…