Western Cape 2018

Autumn 2018 (in the Southern Hemisphere) saw us in Southern Africa again, beginning our trip in the Western Cape to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday with family. We did spend a couple of days in Cape Town, visiting the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simonstown and walking around Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on a very windy day (not very good for bird photography) in between catching up with family and friends.

Most of our time in the Western Cape was spent with my parents in Montagu, a small town in the Little Karoo region. I had fun stalking birds in their garden when the weather wasn’t too miserable. The Pepper Tree (Schinus molle – not a native tree) had lots of little red berries so was very popular, as was the Liquidamber in the front garden. I got to practice my identifications, with both Common Fiscal (aka Fiscal Shrike) and Fiscal Flyatcher making an appearance, and a cute but elusive Fairy Flycatcher playing hide and seek in a large tree.

I did do a bit of exploring around town – the lei-water dam and the Nature Garden were good spots, and I found a Gymnogene (African Harrier-Hawk) in a palm tree in the primary school grounds (not easy to get a good angle though). There were lots of Red-winged Starlings around and I was happy to get one in flight, showing where their name comes from.

FNQ 2 – Port Douglas and Daintree Village

A subtle sunset and a lovely meal on a tropical veranda in Port Douglas ended a great day – although I later realised that maybe I was a bit too close to the water’s edge when taking the image above, having forgotten about the crocodiles. Oops!

The following morning saw us up bright and early for a boat trip to the Low Isles, an easily accessible part of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately the weather was not kind – very choppy seas and gloomy skies are not much good for visibility when snorkelling. We did enjoy the morning trip but it wasn’t exactly a highlight.

Next stop was the quaint Daintree Village, where we camped at the Daintree Riverview Park. While Sarah napped off the effects of getting up so early, I went for walk around the village and found a few interesting birds along the way. The light wasn’t the best but at least I didn’t get myself and my camera wet.

We had another early start the next day but a much more worthwhile one – a highly recommended cruise on the awesome Daintree River with Ian”Sauce” Worcester. Being a quiet time of the year, we had the boat to ourselves which made it even more special. A few more ‘lifers’ were seen, with the most exciting being Papuan Frogmouths and a Great-billed Heron.

Far North Queensland

This time last year I was lucky enough to spend a week in Far North Queensland, exploring the Cairns area with my daughter. I’ve always wanted to visit this area, largely because of the interesting birds that can be found there. The first day started well, with a new species (White-breasted Woodswallows) before I’d even left the airport . Once I had collected the camper van and Sarah had arrived from Sydney, we paid a quick visit to the Cairns Esplanade. Not the best time of day to bird by that stage, but the sun was shining and I managed a few decent images of another new species, a Peaceful Dove.

Then we set off to find our campsite for the first couple of nights. We stayed at the Speewah Conservation Park, a lovely spot near Kuranda. Definitely not recommended for caravans though – the road in is pretty steep in places. The first morning there were lots of birds calling in the rainforest, which got a bit frustrating as they were often really hard to spot. The Brown Cuckoo-doves were friendly and I got to know their call quite quickly. I do find birding in completely new places can be challenging if the vegetation is dense, as I don’t have any idea what all the calls belong to (Shazam for bird calls would be great).

We decided to stay up on the escarpment for the day and explore some of the waterfalls a bit further south. As you can see below, it was a very overcast (and sometimes wet) day so not the greatest for photographing birds. We had a fun time though, swimming at the Elinjaa Falls and seeing a good range of new birds, including the strange Pheasant Coucal. I have added the rather poor photo of  a Grey-Headed Robin to show the challenges of birding in the rainforest – no light and so many leaves for the birds to hide behind!

The following day we explored Kuranda and the Barron Gorge area, and then headed for Port Douglas on the coast. Sarah was not impressed with the beaches we stopped at – we are very spoilt in Western Australia – but we did find Port Douglas very attractive. After waking up to more interesting bird calls (I did spot one of the culprits – the Yellow Oriole), a visit to Mossman Gorge was in order. On the shuttle bus into the gorge, some tour guides were talking about an unusual sighting – and although we had gone for the self-guided option, we were lucky to be in the right place when they were pointing out the very cryptic Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko to their clients. We waited for everyone to move on and had a good look – I don’t how someone spotted it on the lichen covered tree trunk.

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).

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.

Following the Murrimbidgee (sort of)

Rennix Trail sunrise in Kosciuszko National Park
Rennix Trail sunrise in Kosciuszko National Park

The most direct route to the Snowy Mountains from Adelaide (the A20) quite closely follows the Murrimbidgee River, the second longest river in Australia. Our best look at the river was at an overnight stop in Wagga Wagga, an unusually large town for inland Australia. The Murrimbidgee looked lovely and cool at the end of an extremely hot day. I had a relaxing time watching some of the birds on its banks, as well as a colony of flying foxes or fruit bats – unfortunately they were a bit far away on the opposite bank to capture well.


From Wagga we left the river and headed directly for the cooler climes of the Snowy Mountains, the source of the Murrimbidgee. A bit of an issue with the tyres on the hired campervan delayed us in the small town of Tumut – luckily we were in town when we noticed the problem and the guys at Tumut Valley Tyre Service were able to get us on our way as quickly as possible. We just managed to make it to Jindabyne in time to get a campsite for the night. After a day revisiting Kosciuszko National Park, we decided to camp at Kosciuszko Mountain Retreat near Sawpit Creek, a lovely site nestled in among the eucalypt trees. The area was also heavily populated with fierce horseflies, as we discovered when we went for a walk along the Waterfall Track – it is quite tricky taking photos of scenery or birds when as soon as you stop walking you get attacked by vicious insects.

Early next morning I dragged my son out of bed to accompany me on a sunrise expedition – we explored the beginning of the Rennix Trail which is where the opening image was taken in beautiful morning light. Stopping in Jindabyne for delicious pies, we then headed for the ACT and Canberra. We lived there for a year in 2002 so it was a bit of a trip down memory lane, although our main goal was to leave David at the Australian National University to begin his Honours year. Once he had checked in to his hall of residence, I dropped the boys off for their last golf game of the trip and headed for one of my favourite places in Canberra, the Australian National Botanic Gardens. A birder’s paradise, it also features lots of interesting plants (naturally) and a reasonably tame bunch of Australian Water Dragons (Intellagama lesueurii) that sun themselves on rocks and make great photographic subjects when they’re not getting underfoot at the café.

I enjoyed photographing birds I hadn’t seen since we lived in the ACT, like the funny White-Winged Choughs with their messy digging habits and the striking Crimson Rosellas. I did manage to see my favourite Australian parrot, the Gang-Gang Cockatoo – but wasn’t lucky enough to get any photos. All too soon, it was time to say goodbye, find space for the tripod in the suitcase and head for Sydney and our flight home.