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.

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!

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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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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