That was 2017, part 2

We got back to the cold and wet in early July. While we were checking up on the Bridgetown house, I was lucky enough to see a Restless Flycatcher on the back patio – such a beautiful bird.  July also saw a mad dash to Canberra for my daughter’s graduation, sadly without my camera. Back in Perth, I did get to Herdsman Lake a few times as the house we are renting is not far away.

In August I flew to Adelaide for the awards night for the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year competition. I was super excited to find out my “Windblown Egret” was the winner of the Animal Portrait category, at a great evening where I met many amazing nature photographers in person. It was a surreal experience seeing my image on banners in front of and inside the South Australian Museum.

After the awards I was lucky enough to have a day or two to explore the region, seeing the stunning little Diamond Firetails and some other great birds.

Perth had plenty of of rain this winter and Herdsman Lake has been lovely and full, providing many photo opportunities in spring.

School holidays in October gave me a bit of time to get out and capture more birds doing their reproductive thing, from Tree Martins collecting nesting material in Bridgetown to Moorhen chicks at Herdsman.

Going through all my images has made me realise I found time to take photographs – what I struggled with was time to sort and process the images. In November, I was out of action for a few weeks when I was in hospital and recovering; on my first outing with my camera I did feel lots of sympathy for this poor Willie Wagtail who had lost all its tail feathers, possibly in defending its nest from a family of Australian Ravens.

2017 finished in a lovely relaxed fashion, spending some time at our house in Bridgetown, enjoying all the birds who visit the bird baths and sprinklers, and watching a pair of Tree Martins very busily feeding their chicks who were somewhere in our roof space. Two of the Tree Martins fledged the day before we left; so adorable.

Thank you for reading. I’m really hoping to get a few more blog posts out in 2018, so you don’t have to wait until this time next year. In the meantime, wishing all my followers a wonderful year.

That was 2017, part 1

Way back at the beginning of January 2017 I was planning to be diligent about posting on my blog this year, envisioning at least one post a month. That idea fell by the wayside rather quickly. In my defence, we have had a bit of a crazy year, what with selling our house, moving, travelling and so on. I did manage to squeeze in a fair amount of photography along the way so have decided to share some highlights of 2017.

In January I spent a lovely morning watching the Fairy Tern colony at Rous Head, where these endangered birds raise their chicks on a small patch of fenced off land in the middle of Fremantle’s busy port (see here for more information).

We spent many weekends during 2017 in Bridgetown, working on our new house,  particularly the landscaping. In February I practised some macro photography on subjects found while gardening and moving soil. March was not a great month for photography as we decided to sell our Perth house and I spent most of my time painting, cleaning and de-cluttering. One thing I did manage was experimenting with taking bird’s-eye-view images of leaves and insects floating on the surface of the pool (probably when I was supposed to be keeping it clean). I was very happy with how an image of bleached bougainvillea flowers turned out (called “Floating Trio”). It has done well in a couple of competitions, netting a Silver Award with a score of 87 in the Revealing Nature category of the 2017 Better Photography competition.

Our Perth house sold in April, which was a great relief. I was lucky to get a week off from the chaos, visiting Far North Queensland with my daughter. We hired a campervan and explored the area near Cairns, managing to make it to the Daintree, one of my bucket list destinations. Although it wasn’t the ideal time of year for birding we saw heaps of interesting things, including a couple of very special birds on an amazing boat cruise with Ian “Sauce” Worcester on the Daintree River.

May was a mad rush of packing and moving, with some stuff going to Bridgetown and some to a rental in Perth. We did get a bit of time to enjoy autumn down south.

Once the moving was all done, we set off in our camper trailer for a long-awaited month of long-service leave, travelling north from Perth all the way to Broome and back (about 2400 km each way). We saw some amazing landscapes, met interesting people and saw lots of birds and other animals.

Highlights included some amazing station stays at Wooleen Station, in the Gascoyne, Hamelin Bay Station near Shark Bay, Quobba Station north of Carnarvon, Bullara Station on the way to Exmouth and Pardoo Station on the northern coast. In Broome we stayed at the awesome Broome Bird Observatory and on our way back south we detoured to Millstream-Chichester National Park in the Pilbara.

 

 

 

Carnaby’s chicks on campus

Carnaby's dad feeding his chick
Carnaby’s dad feeding his chick

Carnaby’s Cockatoos are endangered parrots endemic to the south-west of Western Australia, usually seen around Perth from late summer through to winter, when they move inland to breed. So it was a big surprise last summer when observant students discovered two pairs of these iconic birds breeding on a local university campus. As mentioned in this article, this is the first record of Carnaby’s breeding in Perth since European settlement.
As part of ongoing monitoring of Carnaby’s Cockatoos by conservation agencies, both chicks were extracted from their hollows, weighed, measured and banded on one leg with special stainless steel bands bearing unique identifying numbers. The university students set up camera traps facing the hollows to record the parents’ comings and goings and hopefully the timing of the chicks fledging. I was very lucky to be able to take some photos as part of the monitoring. The first chick, known as Chappie, was in a hollow that was difficult to see clearly, particularly in the evening. The parents come in to feed the chicks quite late in the day, when the light is very low on the horizon.

Ronnie’s hollow was in a much better spot and I was able to get some lovely images of him peeking out of his hollow and of his Dad coming in to feed him just before sunset. Anyone familiar with Carnaby’s will know that usually you hear their distinctive call well before you see them; when they are coming in to an active nest they are much more discreet and can suddenly appear as if from nowhere.

It was such a privilege to watch the last few days of Ronnie’s time in his hollow – the parents would call to him and he would think about leaving and then change his mind, and get his wings in a tangle trying to get back in to the hollow. I was expecting that when he fledged he would climb out of the hollow and spend some time on one of the nearby branches before flying away but he didn’t. His parents called to him a few times and he just launched himself out of the hollow over our heads (one of the students was with me) and disappeared over the campus.

Sadly there was no happy ending for Ronnie’s story. A few months later, we found out that he had been found injured on the side of a major road. He was taken to the Perth Zoo but was too badly hurt (probably hit by a car) and had to be euthanised. Car strikes are a major problem for Carnaby’s in urban areas – they often feed on native shrubs planted on roadsides and their tendency to take off low to the ground puts them in harm’s way. Hopefully Chappie will be luckier.

A few more fairy-wrens

White-winged fairy-wren in breeding plumage
White-winged fairy-wren in breeding plumage

Nine different species of fairy-wren call Australia home – and I’d love to see all of them. So far I’ve found five – the two well-known ‘blue wrens’ and the three I will focus on in this post: Variegated, Red-winged and White-winged. White-winged Fairy-wrens are fairly easy to identify if you see a male in full breeding plumage, as in the opening image. In contrast, the females and non-breeding males are very pale and dull, with no eye-ring or coloured lores. Walking along the coastal path between Ocean Reef and Burns Beach north of Perth is a good place to see them. If you are lucky enough to visit Dirk Hartog or Barrow Islands, you might see the nominate race of the White-winged Fairy-wren – the breeding males are very dramatically black with white wings.


The last time I found White-winged Fairy-wrens I captured some interesting behaviour – even though the beautiful brightly coloured male was offering up a blue petal as part of his courtship display, he was ignored by the female in favour of a very scruffy male just starting to moult into his breeding plumage. This seems to be a fairy-wren strategy; although they are ‘socially monogamous’ and have a strong pair bond between the main male and female of a group, they appear to be sexually promiscuous and will mate with other individuals. The behavioural ecology of fairy-wrens looks an interesting area of study.


Variegated Fairy-wrens are found across most of Australia and in many places are the only fairy-wren with a chestnut shoulder. In the south-west of Western Australia we have to be careful as there are two other possibilities. The Variegated breeding males have a distinctive small patch of purply-blue on the sides of the upper breast, usually showing between the black bib and the red shoulder. Female Variegated Fairy-wrens have a chestnut mask formed by the lores and eye-ring, quite a bit darker in colour than the tan bill – this shows well in the photo above.
The other two species with chestnut shoulders are the Blue-breasted and Red-winged – I have yet to see or photograph the Blue-breasted. The differences between the two include preferred habitat (Blue-breasted generally in drier areas) and the shades of blue in the breeding males (when I see/photograph a Blue-breasted I will make a call on how easy they are to separate using that!). The females are easier to split as the Red-winged has chestnut lores, no eye-ring and a black bill while the Blue-breasted has a darker rufous colour that is the same across all three features. I can recommend Birdlife Australia’s article Fifty Shades of Brown for help in sorting out the differences between the female fairy-wrens. I was pretty sure the birds I saw in Donnelly River were Red-winged because of the habitat (jarrah and karri forest) but it was good to confirm with the colouration of the females.

Australian “Blue Wrens”

Male Splendid Fairy-wren in full breeding plumage at Joondalup

Brightly-coloured male Fairy-wrens in their nuptial plumage can stop many an Australian birder in their tracks. The birds may be tiny but they more than make up for it with showiness. Most familiar are the two “Blue Wrens’ – the Superb Fairy-Wren (Malurus cyaneus) of the east coast and Tasmania, and the Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens) found across the south-western and more southern central areas.

The male blue wrens are easy to identify in their distinctive breeding plumage, but most male Fairy-wrens are only dressed in their beautiful breeding colours for spring and summer; in autumn they moult back into what is called eclipse plumage – similar to the females at first glance. Separating the females, youngsters and non-breeding males is a bit trickier, requiring a close look at the colour of bills, eye-rings and lores. First year males can be confusing as they show the tan eye ring of the females combined with the black bill of a male, while some of the older males will retain their bright colours for the whole year. Often it is thought that the family groups consist of one male with several females but closer inspection usually reveals some birds to be males in non-breeding plumage.

The blue feathers of the males are iridescent, caused by the particular structure of the barbules of their feathers. Its not hard to see where the Splendid Fairy-wren’s scientific name of splendens (shining) came from. I have often noticed this iridescence when photographing the breeding males – usually the images need the contrast and highlights toned down a bit to prevent the feathers looking plastic. The feature image for this article is a good example – not sure how successful I was. The ear-coverts are often the shiniest feather tract – they are used in face fan displays, which appear to be a territorial behaviour (sometimes seen in response to call playback; phishing is a better option).

Corellas and cockatoos

Flock of corellas at sunset
Flock of corellas at sunset

Some of the noisiest and most commonly seen parrots in Australia are the large white corellas and cockatoos – huge flocks can often be found congregating loudly near their roosting sites, like these Little Corellas at Carine Open Space. These birds all feed on the ground and seem to have adapted well to human landscapes, to the point of being pests.

In Western Australia, a feral population of the Long-billed Corella has established after aviary releases. Destructive pests in WA and their native Victoria, they damage crops and chew cabling, reticulation pipes, and even tarmac. On the East Coast, the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos can be just as destructive – I’ve seen them completely wrecking the fittings on street lights, seemingly just for fun. Certainly no-one can watch any of these birds for long and not be amused by their antics. They make great photographic subjects.

Sometimes known as the rock stars of birding, Carnaby’s Cockatoos are loud, messy and very engaging. Endemic to the south-west corner of Western Australia, they (and the closely-related Baudin’s cockatoo) are endangered, threatened by habitat destruction and competition for the limited number of nest hollows. Luckily they do seem to be adaptable with regard to their food requirements, expanding their diet to include the seeds of commercially grown pine trees (see here for a research paper on this topic). They probably still prefer their traditional diet of native plants like dryandra and hakea. As with most cockatoos, they form lifelong partnerships with their mates.

Disregarded by many Australians as a noisy pest, Galahs (also known as Pink and Greys) are a very attractive bird that visitors enjoy seeing. Another species that has benefited from our changes to the environment, they are common in most rural areas of Australia as well as in many urban areas, where they feed on our handily provided green lawns. They usually nest in tree hollows and have been know to debark trees to prevent predators climbing up the trunks. As with most birds in this group, they are noisy but lots of fun to observe.

A celebration of Australian parrots

Cheeky Australian Ringneck hoping for a handout at Donnelly River
Cheeky Australian Ringneck hoping for a handout at Donnelly River

No visitor to Australia can fail to notice and be charmed by the colourful, noisy and endearing parrots found in this country. Some of the most brightly coloured are the beautiful rosellas. They all have a similar plumage pattern, with an obvious cheek patch. My favourites are the Crimson Rosellas, which unfortunately are only found over east. I am always amazed at how such brightly coloured birds can disappear into foliage and be hard to spot.


Another brightly coloured and very noisy species is the Rainbow Lorikeet. Mainly found in the northern and eastern coast regions of Australia, they feed on the nectar and pollen of native plants, but have adapted to garden plants and will raid fruit when it is ripe. Unfortunately a population of these lorikeets has become established in Perth, as they out-compete local species for nest-hollows to the detriment of some of our endangered birds.


The Australian Ringneck is widespread across the country and varies quite a bit in colouration. My images are of the Western Australian races; the one with the red mark on the forehead is also known as the Twenty-eight Parrot (something to do with the call apparently). They can become quite tame/habituated if offered food, like the bird in the opening image which was taken at Donnelly River Village where people obviously often feed them.


Some of the prettiest parrots are very small and quite hard to get close to, such as Rock Parrots and Elegant Parrots (very similar) and the slightly larger Red-rumped Parrots. They mostly feed on the ground and are usually very wary, requiring a sneaky approach. There are some very beautiful birds in this group but many are very rare – maybe one day I’ll be lucky enough to photograph a few more species.

Eyre Highway

Balladonia bushland©Jennie Stock – Nature in focus
First stop on the Eyre Highway after Fraser Range was Balladonia. The golf hole here is named “Skylab” in homage to the bits of the NASA space station that scattered its bits all over the area in 1979. The Balladonia Motel includes a museum with some interesting displays and information, and provided a decent cup of coffee to keep the support crew awake while the men wrestled with the ‘fairway’. The opening image for this post was taken more or less from the tee; if you look carefully you can see a red sign in the centre behind the trees, marking the green’s whereabouts. No signs showing where the golf balls went to!


Balladonia also marks the beginning (or end) of the 90 Mile Straight – one of the longest stretches of straight road (146.6 km) in the world – between here and Caiguna. Definitely not the most scenic drive, although the blowholes near Caiguna were interesting (just not very photogenic). Cocklebiddy was the next stop – this is the launching point for visiting the Eyre Bird Observatory, something I would have loved to do. Unfortunately that would have required a 4WD drive camper and more time than we had available, as the road into this part of the Nuytsland Nature Reserve is really rough. Instead we spent the night at Madura Pass, a much prettier campsite than I was expecting. A highlight for me here was seeing my first wild Major Mitchell’s cockatoos – didn’t get the best pictures but so happy to see them.


We spent a bit of time the next day exploring Eucla, the next stop on the golfing agenda. The hole’s name “Nullarbor Nymph” references an interesting story/hoax about a woman living with kangaroos, cooked up as a publicity stunt for the area. A short drive towards the coast allowed us to explore the ruins of the old telegraph station and the remnants of a jetty once used for bringing in supplies. Blinding white sands made this a tricky location for photography in the middle of the day – thank goodness for polarising filters.


Finally after nearly 1500 km we reached the eastern end of Western Australia at the WA/SA Border Village, a very boring but descriptive name. The sign makes you feel a long way from anywhere!

Norseman and Fraser Range Station

Sunrise at Fraser Range Station
Sunrise at Fraser Range Station

Day Four of our cross-country trip began slowly, as our planned destination was only 100 km away. We began the day with a bit of exploring around Norseman, a much smaller gold-mining town that marks the beginning/end of the Eyre Highway. When heading east it is the last major town in Western Australia before you get to the border with South Australia, 720 km away. Finishing up with a walk at the Beacon Hill lookout, we enjoyed spectacular views of the Great Western Woodlands ( see previous post for more information).


Fraser Range Station was our next golfing and overnight stop. A working pastoral lease and farm, Fraser Range hosts one of the Nullarbor Links holes and offers station stay-style accommodation and camping. After some frustrating golf action, we walked to the top of the rocky outcrop near the homestead to enjoy watching the sunset (and a beer or two). A delicious dinner in the station kitchen was followed by David and I experimenting with a bit of night photography.


Next morning, I was up early (thankfully a bit later than in Perth, due to changing longitude without changing time zone) to capture some sunrise images. A great treat was seeing two Wedge-tailed eagles soaring overhead.

Crossing Australia with golf as a distraction

Wave rock with my son providing some sense of scale
Wave rock with my son providing some sense of scale

Just over a year ago (yes, I know, I’m a bit behind), we began our trip driving across Australia from Perth to Canberra. Wave Rock, one of Western Australia’s iconic tourist attractions, was our first overnight stop. Not one of the easiest things to photograph effectively, the wave is the eroded northern face of the granite formation known as Hyden Rock. I suspect landscape photographers would have to pick the time of year (in other words, the angle of light at sunset/sunrise) very carefully to get great images. It was a lot bigger than I expected and fun to climb up and wander around the top of the rock. I enjoyed a bit of bird photography around the campsite.


Next stop was Kalgoorlie, famous for its goldfields, and the Western starting point of the Nullarbor Links, the world’s longest golf course. This golf ‘course’ kept us entertained for the next six days, with my son and husband playing the holes as we traveled – I just took photos and videos (and did quite a bit of giggling). The first two holes are part of the lovely Kalgoorlie Golf Club – from a golfing point of view, things went downhill pretty rapidly after that!


The next three holes were still on actual golf courses, at Kambalda and Norseman, but they did leave a bit to be desired in terms of grass.


The patches of the Great Western Woodlands we passed through were much more interesting. The GWW is huge, covering about 16 million hectares of Western Australia. Driving through the woodland over a few days really makes you realise how awesome it is – so wonderful to know there are still some trees left on our planet! This information from DPAW’s website is a good summary: “It is regarded as the largest remaining area of intact Mediterranean-climate woodland left on Earth and contains about 3000 species of flowering plants, about a fifth of all known flora in Australia. It includes nearly a quarter of Australia’s eucalypt species, many of which grow nowhere else in the world, and its varied habitats are home to a diverse array of mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds. Aboriginal occupation has been dated to at least 22,000 years and the region has great cultural significance, with Aboriginal people retaining strong links with and responsibility for country.”

This final image was taken just next to the caravan park in Norseman so pretty much in the middle of the Great Western Woodlands, late in the afternoon.

 

Sunset in the Great Western Woodlands, Norseman
Sunset in the Great Western Woodlands, Norseman