Author Archives: Geoff Park

This is no wasteland

The Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, or ‘The Shine’ as it is affectionally known, is one of the best birding spots in the district. A diversity of habitats are packed into this small reserve – grassy woodland, heathy dry forest and box-ironbark forest. In a wet year such as this, small pools and mini-wetlands are dotted throughout. Once a gravel reserve, a source of road-making material for the Newstead Shire, much of original surface has been stripped away, compounding previous degradation from mining.

One distinctive part of the reserve, that locals will instantly recognise, has expanses of bare gravel with the occasional stunted sapling. Sundews are the dominant plant on this nutrient depleted ‘moonscape’. In my time walking trough the reserve (now approaching forty years) it has been home to at least one pair of Black-fronted Dotterels. This tiny wader is renowned for nesting in what appear the most inhospitable sites. While it typically avoids nesting right beside water, the chosen site is generally not too far away from a dam or temporary wetland.

It was the distraction display (used to lure predators away from the nest or chicks) that alerted me to this bird – then to my astonishment I looked down to see the nest at my feet … in a shallow scrape with two beautifully camouflaged eggs. I beat a hasty retreat and the adult soon returned to incubate.

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Black-fronted Dotterel, Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 28th October 2022

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Sitting tight …

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Black-fronted Dotterel eggs

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Distraction display

Teamwork

For the Varied Sittella …one of our most distinctive woodland birds, breeding usually requires teamwork.

The gentle calls of this species, often in the background, are amplified in spring as family parties work together to firstly build the nest and then gather food for the nestlings.

The nest, usually constructed in a narrow fork, is a miniature work of art. The shallow, cup-shaped creation is constructed from slender strips of bark and cobwebs … always beautifully camouflaged against the surroundings.

Family groups can range in size from single pairs to 10 individuals, including offspring from the previous breeding season. There is typically a dominant adult male and female, with ‘helpers’ contributing to nest construction and rearing of the young. Apparently the sub-dominant group members may oscillate between neighbouring groups during the breeding season, while family groups organise into larger clans once breeding is complete.

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Varied Sittella, nest-building, Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 20th October 2022

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Swamphen paradise

This spot will be a swamphen paradise for the next few months.

Tangled Lignum Duma florulenta (syn. Muehlenbeckia florulenta), an extraordinary plant that flourishes when inundated, provides ideal breeding habitat for the Australasian Swamphen and a bevy of other waterbirds.

Australasian Shovelers are visiting again in small numbers, one seen at Lakeside Swamp a week ago, as well as the male pictured below. Hoary-headed Grebes have also arrived. More of a deepwater species than the locally common Australasian Grebe, they often breed in small colonies on flooded wetlands.

Lignum Swamp, 15th October 2022 … click to enlarge

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Australasian Swamphen


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Australasian Shoveler (male)


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Hoary-headed Grebe


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Brown Falcon

Wagtail bounty

Willie Wagtail nesting is at full throttle at present. The wet spring and the promise of more rain will lead to an abundance of insects and this in turn will encourage repeated breeding efforts into summer and the new year.

In times like these Willie Wagtails have been known to raise up to five broods … from two to four eggs are laid in each nesting attempt.

Life for the young wagtails is perilous and few will navigate the tricky path to adulthood.

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Willie Wagtail nest, Bell’s Swamp, 15th October 2022

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Feral cat , Moolort Plains, 15th October 2022

A sign of the times

In times like these anything seems possible.

When the Moolort Plains wetlands filled in 2010/11 we were treated to a string of unusual sightings, including the appearance of small numbers of Blue-billed Ducks. This species is a rare visitor to the Newstead district, although it can be found on some nearby wetlands including Hepburn Lagoon and Barkers Creek Reservoir, where the habitat is favourable. It prefers deep freshwater wetlands with an abundance of aquatic vegetation.

This one, an adult male in breeding plumage, was spotted along Boundary Gully on Friday evening. It was feeding in deep, fast flowing water in the drainage line. Like the more commonly observed Musk Duck, the Blue-billed Duck has a stiff, spiky tail which is periodically raised when alarmed or when the male is displaying. The colour of the bill is extraordinary and allows instant recognition of the male, while the female looks superficially like a Musk Duck.

On my return journey I stopped briefly at Lakeside Swamp where a male Australasian Shoveler was spotted, another uncommon bird that is likely to be seen regularly over summer now that there is water in the landscape.

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Blue-billed Duck (adult male breeding), Boundary Gully Moolort Plains, 14th October 2022

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Two specials

Two very different birds … both very special.

Little Grassbirds appear as if from nowhere when the wetlands of the plains fill. At other times they can be hard to find in dense reed beds along local waterways, but when conditions are ‘right’ they congregate in good numbers to breed in their favourite habitat, lignum-dominated swamps.

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Little Grassbird, Lignum Swamp, 9th October 2022

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Hardheads are diving ducks that prefer deep, freshwater wetlands. I occasionally observe them on Cairn Curran, but like the Little Grassbird they will breed in wetlands with dense cover, such as lignum. A nomadic species they are sometimes called the White-eyed Duck  – the male has a distinctive white iris that contrast with the rich chocolate head. The female has a dark iris and is paler overall than the male.

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Male Hardhead

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Female Hardhead

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Male Hardhead

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Almost in September

Rainbow Bee-eaters have returned to the Newstead district.

I observed my first birds in Green Gully on the 3rd October (5pm). This is the earliest arrival I’ve recorded since 2010 (see list below).

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Rainbow Bee-eater, Green Gully, 8th October 2022

2010 – 27th October
2011 – 22nd October
2012 – 19th October
2013 – 13th October
2014 – 21st October
2015 – 5th October
2016 – 16th October
2017 – 29th October
2018 – 27th October
2019 – 23rd October
2020 – 14th October
2021 – 10th October
2022 – 3rd October

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Courtship update

A interesting time last weekend, watching treecreepers in the Mia Mia.

Both of our resident local species, the Brown Treecreeper and the White-throated Treecreeper, can be easily observed in this spot.

While the White-throated Treecreeper favours somewhat moister micro-habitats than the Brown Treecreeper, both co-exist happily in the gully lines of the Mia Mia.

Brown Treecreepers forage on fallen logs and on the ground as well as tree trunks and branches. The White-throated Treecreeper rarely comes to ground and tends to favour eucalypt trunks and large branches in search of prey.

As these images show, spiders form a significant part of the diet of both species.

The Brown Treecreeper in the first image is a female (note the rufous feathers on the upper breast). It paused on the trunk of a small Grey Box and began to flutter its wings on the approach of the male. In a flash the male passed a spider to the female, to complete the act of courtship.

The male White-throated Treecreeper was observed inspecting a potential nesting site, high up in a large Grey Box. As it checked out the hollow it captured a spider and then flew off, presumably in search of its partner.

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Brown Treecreeper (female), Mia Mia Track, 8th October 2022

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Courtship feeding (male at right with spider)

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White-throated Treecreeper (male)with spider

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Not so pallid …

Pallid Cuckoos, usually the last of our species of migrant cuckoos to arrive back in the box-ironbark, have become vocal over the past week or so. I heard my first birds in late September, with a few fleeting observations since then.

At the weekend I observed a fascinating ‘passage of play’ in the Mia Mia, involving a pair of Pallid Cuckoos and the resident Fuscous Honeyeaters.

The first image is of a female (I think) Pallid Cuckoo, the rusty colours around the neck and mantle tend to be diagnostic. The bird was lurking in a copse of Silver Wattle, occasionally dropping to the ground to snatch a caterpillar. Eventually it flew too a high perch where a male Pallid Cuckoo (not pictured) dashed in briefly to bring a caterpillar of its own to the female … an instance of courtship feeding.

This brief interaction triggered a frenzy of attacks from a small group of Fuscous Honeyeaters, a common host species for this species of cuckoo.

On a side note … Rainbow Bee-eaters arrived back on 3rd October, a very early return. More on that later in the week.

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Pallid Cuckoo (female), Mia Mia Track, 8th October 2022

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Mobbed by Fuscous Honeyeaters

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Botanically diverted …

A brief diversion from ‘things with feathers’.

Such a wonderful spring – abundant rain and mild weather have created ideal conditions for native plants. I visited a favourite wetland on the Moolort Plains earlier in the week and was delighted to see a mass flowering of Broughton Pea Swainsona procumbens. This glorious native pea was once common across the volcanic plains but has sadly diminished from the effects of overgrazing and cultivation.

Two other wetland species were also spotted, both unfamiliar to me, so I had to ‘phone a friend’ to confirm the identification (thanks Higgo!).

White Purslane Montia australasica is widespread in cooler parts of Victoria, occurring mainly in perennial or seasonal swamps and slow-moving rivers in the lowlands, and in seepage areas or on bare gravelly or rocky ground in the alps (Source: Flora of Victoria).

Woodland Swamp-daisy Brachyscome paludicola occurs along the Murray River and its tributaries south to near Bendigo, in a belt north of the Grampians and south of Little Desert, on the western outskirts of Melbourne, and at a few scattered localities between Melbourne and the Grampians on inundated clay soils, commonly in Eucalyptus camaldulensisE. microcarpa or E. largiflorens woodland (Source: Flora of Victoria).

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Broughton Pea Swainsona procumbens, Moolort Plains, 2nd October 2022

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White Purslane Montia australasica

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Woodland Swamp-daisy Brachyscome paludicola

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