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

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