Dancing in the sun and shade

Just ‘closing the loop’ on Spotted Harrier observations on the Moolort Plains.

The three youngsters featured earlier this month have been honing their flying and hunting skills. Spotted Harriers not fast but they are very acrobatic and can wheel and dive rapidly when required. They are also adept at chasing and hunting down prey; such as small birds, reptiles and insects, on the ground.

Typical harrier hunting behaviour involves low-level quartering over cereal crops and stubble, interrupted (when food is abundant) by regular short descents to the earth to snatch their prey. The initial strike is not always successful and the raptor is quite happy to chase down its quarry ‘on foot’.

The youngsters were having a terrific time practising their acrobatics over the sun-drenched paddocks, while a little later I watched one of the juveniles prancing in the shade emulating the ground-foraging behaviour of the parents … there was no obvious prey in sight but it won’t be long before the technique is more serious.

Juvenile Spotted Harriers, Moolort Plains, 18th January 2020

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Juvenile harrier ground hunting

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Hunting on the wing

The passing parade

On these baking days the best strategy is just to sit and wait and the birds will come to you … especially if you can find a quiet bushland pool.

Brown-headed Honeyeater, Muckleford State Forest, 17th January 2021

Common Bronzewing

Diamond Firetail

Spotted Pardalote (female)

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater

Superb Fairy-wren (male)

Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Grey Teal

Falcon moments

In recent weeks I’ve enjoyed some time with juvenile Spotted Harriers on the Moolort Plains.

A number of times now while observing the young harriers the peace has been disturbed by the sudden arrival of a falcon, on one occasion a Black Falcon and twice by a Peregrine. Each time the arrival of the raptor was announced by a burst of alarm calls from the local residents and some rapid and haphazard scattering of nearby galahs and corellas.

Galahs are a common prey item of the Peregrine Falcon, as evidenced by my observation near the Moolort Silos. I disturbed the falcon as it stood over its kill in the middle of the road. It returned some minutes later to drag the unfortunate Galah some distance (allowing a quick and blurry image) before departing to perch in a distant tree. Both of these falcon species are extraordinary flying machines, the Peregrine is faster by a reasonable margin, whereas the Black Falcon exudes power and speed on the wing.

Peregrine Falcon, Moolort Plains, 15th January 2021

The ‘not so lucky’ Galah!

Distant and fleeting views of the Peregrine Falcon with its prey

Black Falcon

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Life on the grass stems

After a good year’s flowering and seeding, there is an abundance of old grass stems in our yard at Strangways. These stems are a surprisingly popular venue for invertebrates by night.

One grass stem provided a bed for a Halictid bee which I think was well asleep as it was very unfazed by my bright lights.

Halictid Bee on grass stem.

I also found a few bugs which look like more advanced versions of a Stenophyella nymph that I posted a little while back. These are seed eating bugs which explains their interest even though most of the grasses have already sent their seed off on the winds.

Stenophyella perhaps?

Weevils are also on grass stems in numbers. I suspect they are feeding on the stems.

Weevil – Cryptorhynchini perhaps.

And where there are herbivores, there are also carnivores. This spider was so flat against the grass stem when I found it that I thought it was just a discolouration of the plant. Anything unusual is always worth a look.

Spider laying in wait on a grass stem.

Elsewhere, I found a species of Horned Treehopper that I’ve not seem before. Most summers I see quite a few Acacia Horned Treehoppers on our wattles, with a perfect green camouflage. These were Brown Horned Treehoppers, also on a Golden Wattle stem and to me they looked so other-worldly.

Brown Horned Treehoppers

Three … no less

As I suspected the Spotted Harrier clan on the plains includes no less than three juveniles – a wonderful result.

The youngsters are doing well it seems , chasing food on the ground and from the air. The adults have been absent during my visits … I suspect they are watching their offspring and the photographer from a distance.

Spotted Harriers lay two to four eggs in a clutch, although to raise three healthy juveniles is, I reckon, a little unusual and a sign of an abundance of food this season.

Juvenile Spotted Harrier, Moolort Plains, 15th January 2021

Juvenile #1

Juvenile #2

Juvenile #3

Constant calling is a feature of young Spotted Harriers

That ‘owl-like’ face!

Reed-warblers along the Loddon

It’s been an excellent season for Australian Reed-Warblers.

A ‘wettish’ winter and spring has meant good growth for their preferred habitat along the Loddon River – Cumbungi and Common Reed, along with a host of other wetland plants. This beautiful migrant songster will be with us for a few months yet before departing to northern climes in the autumn.

A few lazy minutes sitting quietly by the river is time ‘well-spent’ if you’d like to see a reed-warbler or two.

Australian Reed-Warbler, Loddon River @ Newstead, 13th January 2021

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Spotted success

Back before Xmas I reported a pair of adult Spotted Harriers hunting on the Moolort Plains. In a pleasing development it looks like this pair has raised two, and possibly a third, juvenile.

Young Spotted Harriers have quite different plumage to the adults, rich buff is the overall impression. They do, however, share the same distinctive features as their parents that makes them instantly recognisable – long slender legs, extended narrow wings, barring on the tail and flight feathers and the owl-like facial disc.

Juvenile Spotted Harrier, Moolort Plains, 11th January 2021

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Visitors to the waterhole

Just a selection of visitors to a small, drying waterhole in the Muckleford bush at the weekend.

I’m on the lookout for Black Honeyeater and Yellow-plumed Honeyeater – no luck so far but late summer is the time when these dry-country specialists are likely to turn up.

Rufous Whistler (male), Muckleford State Forest, 9th January 2020

A splendid colour-banded Eastern Yellow Robin

Black-chinned Honeyeater

Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Striated Thornbill

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Just a little thing

On a drive across the plains earlier in the week a flash of crimson caught my eye, enough to cause me to stop and linger for a while amongst a roadside stand of Bulokes.

The crimson was from Buloke Mistletoe Amyema linophylla, a rare parasite that grows on only two hosts, Buloke Allocasuarina luehmannii and Belah Casuarina pauper.

Buloke Mistletoe is only found on a small proportion, perhaps less than 5%, of the Buloke growing on the plains. The host is the signature tree of Buloke woodland, once a widespread and common ecosystem, now extensively cleared and consequently threatened. Buloke woodlands of the Murray Darling and Riverina are of major conservation importance.

As I admired the splendid mistletoe a flock of Yellow Thornbills appeared above me. Also known as the Little Thornbill, the party foraged happily for a while before moving on.

I’m pleased that I bothered to stop.

Bulokes, Moolort Plains, 6th January 2020

Buloke (male flowers)

Buloke (female flowers)

Buloke Mistletoe

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Yellow Thornbill in Buloke

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The waiting game

Sitting by a pool of water with the camera is one of my favourite pastimes.

The ‘trick’ is to be observant and patient, as many species of birds will soon become accustomed to your presence and resume their natural patterns.

Honeyeaters, of which we have a multitude of local species, are without doubt the most frequent visitors and locally its Yellow-tufted and Fuscous Honeyeaters that tend to dominate proceedings.

From time to time something special appears, perhaps a Yellow-plumed Honeyeater or Black Honeyeater if you’re really fortunate. In the sequence below I’d estimate that over a period of two hours there were 200+ visits from Yellow-tufted and Fuscous Honeyeaters before the Black-chinned Honeyeater dropped in. It was well worth the wait! This species is by no means rare locally, I hear it on most visits to the bush, but it is seriously outnumbered by other honeyeaters and always a delight to observe.

A couple of days later at the same spot, a real highlight – a juvenile Black-chinned Honeyeater – evidence of successful local breeding.

Fuscous Honeyeater, South German Track, Muckleford State Forest, 3rd January 2020

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater

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Black-chinned Honeyeater

Juvenile Black-chinned Honeyeater, 5th January 2020