Some memories of the Western Treatment Plant

By now we’ve spent hundreds of hours birding and have seen 359 species (yes, I should update the official list). My favourite place by far is still the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) in Victoria, Australia. It requires a permit and it’s just for birders. It smells like sewage at times, but what I wouldn’t give to smell that sewage once more.

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

One of the first birds we saw here is Welcome Swallow. These can be seen in many places in Australia from parks in Melbourne all the way up to Northern Queensland. The Western Treatment plant is the first place I saw them by the thousands eating freshly spawned insects. It was also the first place I saw them perched.
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Book Review: Birds of Ontario by Bezener

I found Birds of Ontario by Andy Bezener at the local public library about a week ago. The book is part field guide and part reference, with one page devoted to each species. Having used various bird guides and books, I found this book to be a very convenient guide for Ontario.

I am very partial to books that give more than just the basic identification and species information. Bezener’s book is one of these because it includes a large paragraph for each species that gives interesting behavioural information not strictly necessary for identification. I have enjoyed reading many of the entries so far.

This book also has a very handy reference guide with small thumbnails at the beginning as well as an introduction to birdwatching. It also contains a small description of some of the most popular sites in Ontario. We will probably find this very useful, as we actually have done the majority of our birding in Australia where we first became interested in birds, and we are only just getting introduced to Ontario.

The book is illustrated by Ted Nordhagen, Gary Ross, and Ewa Pluciennik. Each species has one or (in the case of tricky species) two illustrations. As a guide, I would say that it would be definitive for the majority of species, with only very few sightings needing a second source. It also has the advantage that it concentrates on Ontario, which is more efficient sometimes than consulting a more massive North American guide.

I would recommend this book for anyone who regularly birds in Ontario.

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.

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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.
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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.