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.

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.

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.

Continue reading “Five Myths About Watching Birds”

Why does this blog exist?

It might surprise you to know that a year ago, I wasn’t interested in birds. Coming to Australia changed that. Pretty soon after Emily and I arrived, we started ranking up species, starting with the Common Mynah and Rainbow Lorikeet. Now we’ve been here for nearly a year and we’ve got 138 species, the latest being the Crested Shrike-tit.

Birding is something we do in our spare time and we’re only here for two years in total, so we want to see as many birds as possible. One of our goals is to see 200 species, so we have 62 more to go. I hope we’ll probably see more than that.

This blog exists to chronicle some of our efforts. So do check back every once and a while and follow our progress!

A City Filled with Lorikeets

It wouldn’t be bad birding, if I didn’t comment on how many lorikeets we’ve seen.

Now, the number of lorikeets we’ve seen is simply astounding. The other night we were going for a walk in Yarra Bend, and we must have seen at least 50.

And they all were rainbow.


Now, I have nothing against the rainbow lorikeet.

In fact, it’s thanks to this beautiful bird that we became interested in birds at all. Jason spotted them first in Fitzroy Gardens and we were like, “Is that a parrot? I think that’s a parrot.”

And then later, I started thinking, “Okay so we saw a parrot. But what kind of parrot was it?”

Then I found the answer on birds and backyards. Next I had to look up every single other parrot-like bird we saw (sulphur-crested cockatoo, red rumped parrot, gallah), and then that turned into having to look up every bird we saw, and then Jason came on board, and then you know it became serious.

However, in the spirit of bad birding, we haven’t found any lorikeets besides the rainbow lorikeet. And not for lack of trying. There’s supposed to be the little lorikeet, the musk lorikeet, and the purple crowned lorikeet living among us in Melbourne. Yet, we haven’t seen head, tail, or feather of them.

Meanwhile, some dude’s busy mocking us by posting a sighting of musk lorikeet at Melbourne uni! Following in his footsteps we checked out the System Garden at the university and found… rock dove.

So other lorikeets, where are you hiding?