Author Archives: Geoff Park

A wink, a stretch and a nod

The Barking Owl Ninox connivens, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Winking Owl’.

While the specific epithet connivens is Latin for winking, all owls ‘wink’, so this skill is not unique. Nonetheless the third image below indicates that the moniker is still apt.

This beautiful male was found sitting quietly on a low-hanging limb of  a Yellow Gum, occasionally stirring to scratch or stretch as it readied itself for an evening of hunting. As dusk approached it started to utter a  series of low trills, not the distinctive ‘wuk-wuk’ call the species is renowned for. A loose collection of feathers was found nearby, the remains of a magpie I think. Perching on the hunting ground of a Barking Owl is perilous.

The female was also observed nearby, high in the canopy, smaller and more slender than the male.

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Barking Owl (male), Newstead area, 21st October 2021

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Barking Owl (female)

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Prime suspect … Barking Owl

All in good time …

I’ve been puzzled as to the late arrival this spring of Sacred Kingfishers.

Most years a few birds arrive in the first half of September with the main influx well and truly here by early October. In the past I’ve even recorded the odd individual in August. Despite some serious searching of their regular haunts in recent weeks I hadn’t spotted a single bird … or heard one for that matter. Their distinctive calls are easy to recognise and carry quite a distance – they are hard to miss once they arrive. Finally, last weekend, I came across a pair on the margins of the Sandon State Forest, alerted initially by the calls of the pair as they were investigating potential nesting sites in a massive Yellow Gum. It’s great to have a them back.

The Sacred Kingfisher is a breeding migrant to central Victoria – it spends the cooler months in northern Australia but graces us with its presence from now until at least March.

I’d be interested in whether readers have also noted its late arrival this year … it could just be that I’ve been ‘asleep at the wheel’.

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Sacred Kingfisher, Sandon State Forest, 17th October 2021

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The pair – suspect that is the female at left

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Making that familiar ‘kek-kek-kek’ call

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Great to see you back!

The wanderer

I spotted this Peregrine Falcon last week at Picnic Point. The bold, dark streaking on the breast signify that it’s a juvenile. Almost all individuals I observe locally are seen in adult plumage (see this post from earlier this year).

Both the English and scientific names for this beautiful raptor mean “wandering falcon”… peregrinus is a Latin term for wanderer or foreigner.

Peregrines are nesting locally at present but I doubt that any young birds have fledged as yet. My hunch is that this bird has arrived from further north. Good rains in the interior have triggered ideal conditions for bird breeding and now this youngster is roaming far and wide before it too ‘settles down’.

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Peregrine Falcon (juvenile), Picnic Point, 13th October 2021

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Long time, no see

Almost a decade ago the local Connecting Country program identified a suite of woodland birds, known as the ‘feathered five’, as a focus for conservation actions across Mount Alexander Shire.

The five species selected were Jacky Winter, Hooded Robin, Brown Treecreeper, Diamond Firetail and Painted Button-quail. The ‘feathered five’ were chosen as they have all been declining in number and range in recent years, and are listed as threatened, along with a number of other bird species, in a group known as the Temperate Woodland Bird Community. Furthermore, each species is:

  • easily identified
  • reasonably wide spread across the Mount Alexander region
  • a ground foraging bird  and very susceptible to the pressures that are causing woodland birds to decline.

While four of the five species on this list can be readily found in various local spots, the Painted Button-quail has proven to be extremely elusive in recent years. In fact, I haven’t observed them around Newstead in the last four years – the period immediately following the breaking of the Millenium Drought in 2010-11 is the last time I can recall seeing them in reasonable numbers.

What a delight then to come across a single female in the Mia Mia earlier this week. After having almost stepped on the bird it scurried quickly away as I froze in surprise and then stood transfixed for ten minutes or so as it alternated between careful foraging and sitting to bathe in the late afternoon sunshine. The behaviour of this female suggests it may have a nest nearby, or at least be thinking about breeding.

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Painted Button-quail, Mia Mia Track, 11th October 2021

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Painted Button-quail are often detected by the presence of platelets, saucer-shaped depressions created by the birds turning in a circle as they forage in leaf litter. There were a number of platelets to be found in the vicinity of where I spotted the female button-quail.

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Painted Button-quail platelet

Warming up

It’s been an unusually cool start to spring in central Victoria. I suspect this has been welcomed by the birds with good evidence of breeding at present.

I heard my first Rainbow Bee-eaters on Sunday, calling high overhead at the Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, while Sacred Kingfishers remain elusive. There have been a few local reports of the latter but I’ve failed to see one yet in the ‘usual’ spots. Pallid Cuckoos have become vocal in the past week or so, but I’m yet to see a Black-eared Cuckoo. The next month promises to be an excellent time to enjoy nature in the Newstead district.

Apologies (not really!) for the Hooded Robin overload on this post … a favourite woodland bird of mine.

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Dusky Woodswallow, Green Gully, 10th October 2021

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Eastern Yellow Robin incubating – in sapling Long-leaf Box

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Eastern Yellow Robin with Cup-moth caterpillar

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Hooded Robin (female)

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The next generation

In recent years I’ve been fortunate to observe a number of pairs of Barking Owls Ninox connivens in the Newstead district.

They are fascinating birds, less common than either of the other two Ninox owls that occur locally, the Powerful Owl and the Southern Boobook.

Borrowing from the notes of Chris Tzaros in his newly released book, Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country (2nd edition), Barking Owls …

Occur mostly in the eastern Box-Ironbark, especially around Chiltern-Wangaratta (one of the remaining strongholds of the species in south-eastern Australia). Isolated occurrences further west through the north central region, west to around Dunolly. Box-Ironbark population estimated at around 25 breeding pairs; recent evidence suggests ongoing decline … Strongly favour forest edges … along creek lines surrounded by open woodland.

Nocturnal and often crepuscular. During day, roosts among foliage of eucalypts, often Red Box, Long-leaf Box or White Box, or dense wattles … Often hunts at dusk while still light. When breeding, mainly hunts birds, such as magpies, rosellas and choughs, and small mammals, such as rabbits, gliders and bats; takes mostly large insects when not breeding … Calls often at dusk and dawn; distinctive dog-like bark, wook-wook, and occasionally a trembling scream likened to a distressed woman.

It’s really encouraging to see evidence of successful local breeding, the pair pictured below (smaller female at left) with a newly fledged chick having recently departed the nest hollow.

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Barking Owl family, Newstead area, 10th October 2021

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Broughton Pea

While 2021 hasn’t quite matched 2016 as a ‘wet year’, nor come even close to the amazing events of 2010-11, it has nonetheless been well better than average.

As a result there are a few wetlands across the Moolort Plains holding water and that has resulted in some notable observations.

This small freshwater meadow at Baringhup West is one of my favourite spots. It lies at the base of a gentle basalt rise and the wetland itself is dotted with lots of volcanic ‘floaters’ – it has never been cultivated and has been conservatively grazed over generations.

A brilliant purple flower caught my attention on a recent visit, one that I can’t recall seeing on the wetland previously. It is Broughton Pea Swainsona procumbens, a species that is rare in the district, but more common further north where it can be found in areas of heavy clay soils that are prone to seasonal inundation. Like many of the native peas it is extremely palatable to stock – its saving grace is that it can flower and set seed before grazing animals can get access to it.

Broughton Pea has featured previously on Natural Newstead, after Dawn Angliss found a specimen in 2009 at the Castlemaine Golf Course – click here for Frances Cincotta’s article.

The return trip home was also of note, a Spotted Harrier floating over the ripening canola and a pair of Swamp Harriers just south of Picnic Point, a species that is uncommon locally.

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Freshwater meadow, Baringhup West, 6th October 2021

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Broughton Pea

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Spotted Harrier

Where once there were thousands

From almost anywhere on the southern expanse of the Moolort Plains, the most prominent landmark is the impressive Mount Kooroocheang, a large volcanic cone near Smeaton.

Yesterday afternoon it formed part of the backdrop as I sat beside a small lignum wetland on the plains. A flock of Glossy Ibis, seventeen in total were feeding in the shallows of the ‘gilgai-pocked’ wetland, occasionally taking flight as a Swamp Harrier floated through and disturbed the peace.

These days it is a rarity to see this species on the plains, they arrive only in wet years and stay only as long as there is permanent shallow water to sustain their favourite habitat for chasing invertebrate prey. Glossy Ibis are highly nomadic and will travel vast distances across the continent in search of such places.

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Glossy Ibis, Moolort Plains, 2nd October 2021

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The entire flock of seventeen birds

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Settling into a small patch of flooded Lignum wetland

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Glossy Ibis flock, with Mount Kooroocheang in the background

At one point the flock wheeled in front of Mount Kooroocheang and I was reminded that there was once a large freshwater wetland at the foot of the mountain, to the north-east. Almost 100 hectares in size, this wetland was apparently drained some time after 1948. The first image below (a present day pre-1750 EVC map) shows the extent of the wetland (the blue blob in the centre of the image). The next image, from Google Maps, clearly shows the current drains (just south of the patch of remnant bush) in what would have once been a glorious freshwater wetland. The final image, a 1948 aerial photograph, again clearly shows the shape of the wetland, but no sign of drainage – my guess is that it would have been a pretty much fully-functional wetland around this time. In wet years, it would have hosted flocks, not of mere dozens, but thousands of waterbirds, including that beautifully iridescent wanderer, the Glossy Ibis.

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Pre-1750 EVC map of Koorocheang area (source: NatureKit 2.0)

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Satellite image of Kooroocheang – 2021 Google Maps imagery

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Aerial photograph of the Kooroocheang area – 17th September 1948

Footnotes:

  1. I’d be keen to learn more about the history of Kooroocheang Swamp
  2. Local historian Barry Golding has written extensively (and beautifully) about this area, with a focus on the period of the first three decades of contact between Dja Dja Wurrung people and the invading, mainly British ‘explorers’, squatters, ex-convicts and economic refugees – click here.

Orioles in the Mia Mia

Olive-backed Orioles are back in force for spring breeding.

I recently came across a nesting pair in the gully line alongside Mia Mia Track. This area is a favourite breeding ground for the species, with this nest in a typical site.

The raggedy cup-shaped nest has been suspended amongst the foliage of a Grey Box sapling, about 3 metres above the ground.

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Olive-backed Oriole, Mia Mia Track, 23rd September 2021

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The nest is a deep, cup-shaped structure …

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… suspended in a Grey Box sapling

Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country … 2nd Edition

Many readers will be familiar with the wonderful book by Chris Tzaros, Wildlife of the Box Ironbark Country, first published in 2005. You may well have a well-worn copy in the car or on the bookshelf, or perhaps have tried in vain to find a copy in bookshops. In recent times they have become like ‘hens teeth’.

The terrific news is that the second edition will be available very soon, in October.

The new edition is certainly well deserving of its tag line … A comprehensive overview of the ecologically significant Box–Ironbark habitats and their wildlife.

Victoria’s Box–Ironbark region is one of the most important areas of animal diversity and significance in southern Australia. The forests and woodlands of this region provide critical habitat for a diverse array of woodland-dependent animals, including many threatened and declining species such as the Squirrel Glider, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot, Pink-tailed Worm-Lizard, Woodland Blind Snake, Tree Goanna and Bibron’s Toadlet.

Wildlife of the Box–Ironbark Country gives a comprehensive overview of the ecology of the Box–Ironbark habitats and their wildlife, and how climate change is having a major influence. This extensively revised second edition covers all of the mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs that occur in the region, with a brief description of their distribution, status, ecology and identification, together with a detailed distribution map and superb colour photograph for each species. The book includes a ‘Where to watch’ section, featuring a selection of national parks, state parks and nature conservation reserves where people can experience the ecosystem and its wildlife for themselves. This book is intended for land managers, conservation and wildlife workers, fauna consultants, landholders, teachers, students, naturalists and all those interested in learning about and appreciating the wildlife of this fascinating and endangered ecosystem.

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The book will be available from all good bookstores in October 2021 – $49.99. Further details here publish.csiro.au/book/7945

About the author
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Chris Tzaros is uniquely placed to write about the fauna of Victoria’s Box–Ironbark country. Brought up near Bendigo, he has had a passionate interest in wildlife since childhood. Chris has 25 years’ experience working on wildlife research and conservation projects, largely focused on threatened woodland birds, for both government and non-government environmental and conservation organisations. He is an award-winning wildlife photographer and has produced the majority of the photos in this book. Chris is currently an independent wildlife ecologist and nature photographer based in north-east Victoria but enjoys working among nature right around Australia.

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