An adequate night out

With Simone safely shipped off to Paris, Lucas and I headed down to Seaspray for a few nights with Mum and Dad at the holiday house.The water levels at Seaspray were as low as I have ever seen them and aside from an impressive 500+ Banded Stilt there were no waders of note. I did spend an afternoon and then a few hours spotlighting in Giffard FFR and surrounding areas of Mullungdung State Forest as I had heard tasty rumours of Masked Owl and i was keen to check the swamps for Uperoleia tyleri which had been photographed a couple of years back. However the swamps were bone dry and the forest largely silent after dark with many foxes and three cats being a concern – the only nighttime observation of note were 14 separate wombats (all alive for a change) and the only frog calling was Crinia signifera.

Red-bellied black snake

Red-bellied black snake

After a couple of excellent mornings at the beach with Lucas I had a leave pass so decided to duck off a mere three hours up the coast to Cape Conran for a touch of spotlighting. On the way I stopped at an old favourite, Fairy Dell and while it was in the heat of the day I still had some nice birds including Leaden Flycatcher and Black-faced Monarch. A further brief stop at Cabbage Tree walk added Scarlet Honeyeater and Brush Cuckoo as well as the more usual suspects. I didn’t do any targeted daylight birding in Cape Conran Coastal Park but still managed some nice birds including a couple of Turquoise Parrots on Cabbage Tree Road and a nice pair of very vocal Beautiful Firetails. A work mate was staying at Conran Camp Ground so I dropped in for a few beers and an excellent evening meal. I set off a bit before dusk to drive to my “secret spot” arriving as the Crescent Honeyeaters were Egypting themselves to sleep. The Crescents were still calling as the White-throated Nightjars arced up, bubbling away in the distance – I did have a brief flyby but I had more impressive targets on my mind. Pretty soon a Sooty Owl called and a large female owl landed quite a way back. I could tell she was agitated as she kept looking around and was not really interested in my squeaking and would not come closer for photos. The reason for the agitation became apparent as two Masked Owl called from either side of the location, first hissing and then cackling repeatedly. The Masked Owl that I decided was male flew in cackling and the Sooty Owl immediately decamped, flying off into the night screaming her displeasure – for the remainder of the time I was here she remained perhaps 150 meters away screaming every few minutes – this is a call I rarely hear closer to Melbourne so I assume it is threat related.

Sooty Owl - taken last year in same location

Sooty Owl – taken last year in same location

High above my head I had a second Masked Owl cackling away and I was able to spotlight what I assume was the female circling high above like a seagull. She seemed to be darker than the first bird and eventually she had enough and flew somewhere up the hill where she continued to hiss intermittently for the next half hour. Which left me with the male – he was in for the long haul and continued to cackle repeatedly – any noise would set him off – even me explaining to him what a pretty boy he was and he would cackle repeatedly. I had a good half hour with this magnificent owl as he occasionally changed perches but all the while cackling to me as I first squeaked and then just started talking to him. Eventually I said enough was enough so I bid him adieu – he continued to cackle at me as I got into the car and drove further afield.

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

I drove to another site a few kilometers away towards Orbost and lay back on the bonnet of the car and listened for a time until I heard a distant scream. A quick call and I very quickly had two Masked Owl cackling and circling well above my head. They eventually settled well away and continued to hiss but with the scrub being rather thick and already having good shots I moved on. I was also on the lookout for frogs and as I was driving along I heard Litoria nudidigita calling from a roadside wetland so pulled over for a poke around. Almost immediately I heard what I believe to be a Uperoleia calling – here it is likely to be the very rare and range restricted martini which I was very keen to see and photograph. A quick switch to macro lens and I started to poke around – I was sure I could hear two frogs calling. Unfortunately I quickly ended up in the water and despite the heat of the recent days it was dark, dank and very cold and around scrotum deep. The calls of the frog are quite ventriloquil and were calling from deep inside thick vegetation and eventually I had to admit defeat although I will return better prepared and with backup.

I continued to pot around and eventually looped back to the Cabbage Tree Walk where a Boobook and Sooty Owl were calling incessantly. By now the moon was well up and it was past 2 am so I rolled out the swag, quite satisfied that I had had an adequate night.

Masked Owl says goodnight

Masked Owl says goodnight

Pilot Whales off Portland

Well here it is – first post on a new blog – lets see how we go.

Last Sunday 13/12/2015 a group of 10 birders were out on the “Timaru” from Portland in South-west Victoria. This is a new boat for us so we are still training the crew on what is required for a successful pelagic birding trip and they are learning fast. Unfortunately on this trip we had no shark liver and only fish frames for berley which may have affected our ability to attract and hold birds around the boat. However conditions were very calm, with very little swell or wind and on such days birds are often reluctant to feed anyway. After an uneventful trip out (aside from good numbers of Great-winged Petrel well inside the shelf) and first stop beyond the shelf it was decided to move out deeper looking for birds.

Great-winged Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

We were motoring to a second spot when the call went out for “Whales!” The boat quickly stopped and through binoculars I immediately saw the curved dorsal fin and bulbous black head of what I was sure were pilot whales. Over the next 15 minutes we observed many animals around the boat but all kept at least 100 meters away at all times. It was hard to estimate numbers but there was at least 20 animals but probably more. There was clearly a variety of sizes ranging from very small where the dorsal fin barely came above the water to very large with big hook backed fins. Many bad photos were taken due to the distance but zooming in we could see the distinctive white saddle behind the dorsal fin on some animals which combined with the bulbous head confirmed them as pilot whales. The next question was “what kind of pilot whale?”, as the two species, long-finned and short-finned are notoriously difficult to split in the field. it would seem that short-finned pilot whale has never been recorded in Victoria, being a largely sub-tropical and tropical species while there are many records of long-finned pilot whale, particularly in the Bonney Upwelling where we were. In addition experts who have looked at the photos agree they are long-finned, so long-finned they are! A new mammal for me and suddenly the pelagic was looking right up. The animals lingered for perhaps 15 minutes, mainly logging on the surface before quietly slipping from sight. Cetaceans aside from Common Dolphin are a special event on Portland pelagics and these pilot whales joined a list of others I have seen in recent years including Blue, Fin, Southern Right, Humpback and Killer whales.

Pilot whale Pod

Pilot whale Pod

Pilot whale

Pilot whale showing saddle

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Once the pilot whales disappeared things did improve on the birding front. Across the whole day a highlight was the large numbers of Great-winged Petrels – conservatively we would have seen at least 250 including disturbing some large rafts but the number could easily be higher than that. Other highlights included three White-headed Petrels, only the second time I have seen these on a Victorian pelagic and a very nice Wandering Albatross with a nearly white tail. On the boat we decided this was an “exulans” or true Wanderer and was a very nice bird that made several passes. A good bit of time at Lawrence Rocks and we made it back to Portland. With the promise of shark liver on the next pelagic I am looking forward to January.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross + sea lice

Wandering Albatross + sea lice

Wandering Albatross cruising by

Wandering Albatross cruising by

My old blog

Previously I have been using Blogspot for my random, sporadic blog posts going back a a few years but I will start to use this site.

My old posts on such things as Owls, Norfolk Island and Mt Isa can still be found here – http://tim-bawden.blogspot.com.au/