Going a little batty

As someone who regularly goes out spotlighting in the forests around Melbourne I regularly encounter large numbers of microbats flitting around, particularly on warm Summer nights. Aside from the large and audible White-striped Freetail Bat these largely remain unidentified to the casual observer and at best get filed under microbat sp. There are apparently some 16 species recorded in the Greater Melbourne area (although only 5 make it into the inner suburbs) so I was keen to look at ways of exploring this under appreciated part of our mammalian fauna. A bit of googling found the excellent work done by Robert Bender and Steve Griffiths at Wilson Reserve and Organ Pipes with the ongoing bat box monitoring and bat banding programs – https://batboxes.wordpress.com/ On the website I noted that monitoring was on Saturday at Wilson Reserve so I came along to see what it was all about. Wilson Reserve is well known in birding circles as an excellent spot for Powerful Owls although I did not have a chance to have a look this time. At 3pm a couple of cars with ladders rolled in which I rightly assumed meant they were here to check the bats. Robert was very personable and quickly made me feel welcome and I was given the very important job of holding a bag of “important stuff” while we went around and checked the various bat boxes. There are 26 boxes up at Wilson Reserve over a space not much larger than a couple of acres and are roughly split into a forest and a meadow area. My group was given the task of checking the forest area which consisted of Robert climbing the ladder to a precarious height of 5 to 6 meters and reporting on the content of the boxes. In the forest area there was little found aside from a few Huntsmen guarding eggsacs. We moved on to the last few boxes in the meadow where we found two boxes with about 10 bats each – mostly Gould’s Wattled Bat and a few Eastern Broad-nosed Bats. It is not til you see these in someone’s hand that you realise how small they actually are. The bat’s are caught, bagged and taken back to Robert’s house for processing – this clearly does not stress these bats too much – they have been doing it for years and regularly retrap the same bats and have to follow strict ethical guidelines.

Gould's Wattled Bat ready for processing

Gould’s Wattled Bat ready for processing

Processing ran like a well oiled machine and I must admit I felt like a bit of a third wheel for a while until I found my niche as an umbrella holder shading the processors. To handle and process bats you need to have a complete rabies vaccination and some training which Robert and Steve are more than happy to help with. In addition to the processors there are scribes who record all the measurements and more importantly remind the processor what is missing – when there are over 50 bats to process this is very important. I was fortunate to meet “white-spot” – a female Gould’s Wattled Bat who has been around the 5 years of the WIlson Reserve banding program and has been re-caught over 40 times. There were 2 species caught across the day – the majority Gould’s Wattled Bat (~50) and around 5 Eastern Broad-nosed Bats. The EBN Bats are noticably smaller than the Gould’s and clearly occupy a different ecological niche – so much so that they are tolerated in the same boxes as the larger Goulds. There is a fantastic body of knowledge being built up through this program and a lot of thanks must go to Robert and his tireless work. Eventually I graduated to scribe duties where Robert gave me advice on the acceptable ranges for measurements to help eliminate human error in the records.

Eastern Broad-nosed Bat

Eastern Broad-nosed Bat

Gould's Wattled Bat

Gould’s Wattled Bat

I get the feeling that these programs – https://batboxes.wordpress.com/ – are running from the smell of an oily rag so always need volunteers – so if you are curious and want to get involved, come along and have a look – even if it is just to hold an umbrella or carry a ladder. I know I will be bringing Lucas along sometime soon to have a look at these fascinating mini-beasts.

Checking status of Gould's Wattled Bat

Checking reproductive status of Gould’s Wattled Bat

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to see the bats released in the evening although I will certainly do so in the future. From the leafy suburbs of Ivanhoe I drove east an hour and half to Powelltown where I met up with Steve Davidson –  http://www.themelbournebirder.com/ and Jono Dashper – Flickr for a spot of spotlighting. Neither of them had seen Leadbeater’s Possum so that was to be the primary target for tonight’s somewhat limited time budget. We headed out north of Powelltown and reasonably quickly found a couple of Leadbeater’s Possum which gave good views although the photographic opportunities were limited. After a great experience we moved on – hearing a distant Sooty Owl at one site and encountering some Bobucks and YB Gliders at another. After a few frogs we left for a relatively early, but successful night.

Leadbeater's Possum

Leadbeater’s Possum

Litoria ewingii - recent morph

Litoria ewingii – recent morph

Epic couple of days

At the start of last year if you told me I would have had been able to see and photograph a wild Leadbeater’s Possum at close range I would probably not have believed you. But thank’s to the excellent field skills of Rohan Clarke – http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/ – I was able to spend a number of nights out in the Mountain ash forests around Melbourne having close encounters with Leadbeater’s Possum and even getting a couple of reasonable images. If it was possible to get good photos of the “critically endangered” Leadbeater’s Possum we wondered if the same could be done for another endangered possum – the Mountain Pygmy-possum. I spent a fair bit of time researching online information and chatting to some people in the know and hatched a plan to try and see Mountain Pygmy-possum in Victoria – Simon Mustoe http://simonmustoe.wildiaries.com/ was particularly helpful. Rohan and I had set a few days aside at the start of the New year to have a crack in the Victorian High Country but the report of the first Paradise Shelduck for the mainland turning up at Lake Wollumbulla in NSW caused a change of plan. The Shelduck is usually only found in New Zealand and there had been no confirmed mainland records for Australia so the bird was well lost. We would drive up to Lake Wollumbulla on New Years Day, twitch the duck and then head to Kosciusko National Park for one night trying to find the Mountain Pygmy-possum – sounds easy really.

It was somewhat strange to go to a New Year’s Eve party and hardly drink but it meant I could be up at a reasonable hour on New Year’s day for the trip up the Hume. We arrived with a couple of hours of daylight left and quickly found the duck and were able to spend a fair bit of time with it without interruption. We were somewhat surprised at the lack of people looking for the duck but I guess the Sydney locals would have already twitched it and the interstaters were still coming. At this point I realised I could no longer claim to have never gone interstate to twitch a vagrant bird – the start of a slippery slope towards becoming a twitcher perhaps? On the way out in the increasing gloom we managed to pick out the other famous vagrant at the site at the moment – the Hudsonian Godwit – a bird that more normally inhabits the Americas. I had seen a couple of times before in Victoria but it was still very nice to see. We spent a few hours spotlighting in the State Forest and National Park south of Lake Wollumbulla without much success – most of the forest roads were gated and there was ridiculous amounts of traffic on the roads for the time of night.

Paradise Shelduck

Paradise Shelduck – a long way from home

Up at dawn we were back at the duck and were able to spent a good couple of hours observing and photographing the bird. It was very wary and alert which made approach difficult and again was a point to it being a wild bird. Lake Wollumbulla is a great place with tonnes of birds and with the extra attention of birders is bound to turn up more interesting sightings over the next few years. As we left the first birders started to arrive with quite a crowd building up. The drive to Kosciusko was interesting, passing through a number of National Parks and reserves. At Jerrawangala National Park I saw my first Rockwarbler in over ten years at a site which must be getting close to the southern most part of their range.

Rohan approaching the duck

Rohan approaching the duck

After a stop off in Cooma for lunch and supplies we made it to the might Kosciusko National Park with plenty of time for reconnaissance and exploration. I had never been to this area before and it is quite spectacular – will need to return sometime to further explore. We identified a couple of rocky boulder/scree slopes with low heathy vegetation that is supposed to be the preferred habitat of the pygmy-possum. On dark we setup in locations with a good view of area to listen, watch and wait. The weather was closing in fast and the radar showed significant rain on the way. The first small mammal seen was a Bush Rat which seems to be quite common at this altitude. White-striped Freetail Bats were clicking around, several times nearly running into me – with no tree canopy they were much easier than normal to get a spotlight on. Eventually after hearing many soft little noises of small mammals we were able to get fleeting then excellent views and even photographs of the Mountain Pygmy-possum in between squalls of wind and rain. This had to be one of my best wildlife experiences to date and there were two very happy observers! I was extremely happy to get the few photos below – I missed the tail but I can live with that. I was quite surprised how chunky the animals were but I guess they need serious fat reserves to survive winters at this location.

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum playing peekaboo

We ended up being quite fortunate with the weather because no sooner had we packed up the camera gear and got in the car that the rain really started to pour down. We spent a bit of time driving around in the rain listening for the endangered subspecies alpina of the Verreaux’s Tree Frog without any luck – all we heard were a few Crinia’s. Still we could hardly complain after the cracking success of the evening! Further spotlighting and slow driving found some more common mammals including Wombat, Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Red-necked Wallaby, Swamp Wallaby, Brush-tailed Possum and near the park entrance a small group of Fallow Deer expanding their range. We drove the back route through the south of Kosciusko National Park to get home the next day which was impressive and had a brief stop at Burrowa-Pine National Park in NE Victoria which will require further exploration in the future. All in all a very successful couple of days and now time to work on the next target 😉

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum coming out to play

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum is curious

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum posing on stage

A record of Australian Sea Lion in Victoria

On the 10th of January on a monthly BirdLife Australia pelagic trip we found an adult female Australian Sea Lion hauled out on Lawrence Rocks near Portland. Australian Sea Lions are Australia’s only endemic pinniped and are considered rare visitors to Victoria with only rare stragglers occasionally seen on beaches and at fur seal colonies in the SW of the state. Their nearest breeding sites are on Kangaroo Island with other sites around Port Lincoln and in southwest WA. We previously had another female Sea Lion on Lawrence Rocks on October 7th 2012. Lawrence Rocks also had its usual crew of Australian (Cape) Fur Seals as well as at least one New Zealand Fur Seal which together with a number of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and a small pod of Long-finned Pilot Whale made for a good mammal day at sea. Unfortunately birds were of low diversity across the day with 6 Wandering type albatross being the main interest.

Australian Seal Lion - Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion – Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion - Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion – Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Probable adult female antipodensis Wandering type albatross

Probable adult female antipodensis Wandering type albatross

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