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.

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.

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!

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.

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…

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!

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.

 

How to Spot the Musk Lorikeet

So those of you who are regulars on “Bad Birding” will remember that I heavily lamented the lack of lorikeets besides the ever-present rainbow lorikeet in the Melbourne Area. Recently, Jason and I added musk lorikeet to our list.

Now I shall divulge our secrets so that you too can see the musk lorikeet! Yay!

1) Go to Royal Park. The most diverse area of the park to see birds is by far the wetland area. However, to spot the musk lorikeet I suggest starting in the area behind the Melbourne Zoo. This is the only place that we have seen this bird, and although we have seen it in other areas of the park, this is the location that we have seen it with the most consistency.

2) Next, check the flowering eucalyptus trees. If you see movement, check out what bird it is. The musk lorikeet is smaller than the rainbow lorikeet and blends in with its mostly green colouring, so you may have to look a bit harder to spot it. Also, don’t discount a tree just because you see rainbow lorikeets feeding on it. We have spotted musk on trees with rainbow lorikeets and noisy miners as well.

3) Listen. The musk lorikeet has a squawk that is higher pitched than the rainbow lorikeet. (This has actually helped me find it, so I mention it here.)

4) If you don’t spot it using the first three steps, don’t despair. Take a walk to the wetland area, look at other stuff, and come back to the area behind the zoo and try again. Sometimes we don’t it at first and then see a small flock flying to a tree later in the day.

Finally Tawny Frogmouth!

 

Our bird books all say the tawny frogmouth is a common bird in the Melbourne area and I’ve been keen to see it for a while. Whenever we go for a walk in Yarra Bend Park I always look at trees and point to a small piece of wood sticking up, believing that I’ve spotted it. Since, after all, the tawny frogmouth’s ability to blend in with eucalyptus bark is nothing short of legendary. Continue reading “Finally Tawny Frogmouth!”