Category Archives: Migrants

On the subject of …

… woodswallows.

My delight in spotting a pair of White-breasted Woodswallows at Walker’s Swamp earlier this week was tempered by the fact that their fellow migrants, White-browed and Masked Woodswallows have been noticeably scarce in the past two years.

White-breasted Woodswallows are almost always observed near water, utilising woodland habitats adjacent to swamps and rivers. Small numbers visit the Newstead district each year, arriving in late spring to breed before departing in mid-autumn.

White-browed and Masked Woodswallows are woodland birds and specialise in the aerial hunting of insects. In central Victoria they typically arrive in mixed flocks (often in the hundreds) on the first hot day in October, carried by northerly winds. White-browed Woodswallows dominate, making up 90-95% of the flocks, with both species often breeding locally. Before this year I would have declared that their local breeding activity is linked with wet years, but the story appears to be more complex than that.

2022 has been possibly the wettest year on record for Newstead, and 2021 was above average. The maps below show the Birdata records for White-browed Woodswallows, firstly for 2019/20 and then 2021/22. Clearly over the last two seasons we have witnessed a significant decline in observations across central Victoria, although numbers in the north-west appear unaffected. So far this season, I’ve not seen a single White-browed or Masked Woodswallow, while last season I can recall one small flock that didn’t hang around.

Click here for a post from 2019 on White-browed Woodswallows breeding in the Mia Mia.

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White-breasted Woodswallow, Walker’s Swamp, 27th January 2023

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Sacred meals

The wet spring and early summer has resulted in an abundance of invertebrates, perfect conditions for breeding woodland birds such as the Sacred Kingfisher. Cicadas are especially prolific at present – I welcome their incessant background humming in the knowledge that the ecosystem is thriving.

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Sacred Kingfisher, Loddon River @ Newstead, 5th January 2023

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Wetlands, plains and rivers

The beauty of this part of the world is that within minutes you can visit a splendid variety of contrasting habitats, all rich in bird life.

Yesterday afternoon, following the arrival of a welcome cool change, I made a series of stops at some of my favourite spots to the west of Newstead. The rewards are pictured below. It was pleasing to get some nice shots of an adult male Stubble Quail. This species is enjoying a good breeding season, evidenced by their oft-heard calls in recent weeks.

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Australian Spotted Crake, Moolort Plains, 28th December 2022

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Stubble Quail (adult male), Moolort Plains north of Campbelltown

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Sacred Kingfisher on the Loddon River @ Newstead

Xmas special

The festive season wouldn’t be complete without some Rainbow Bee-eaters.

As I suspected the eggs have not quite hatched, but it must be imminent as the adults are feeding close to the nests and keeping a watchful eye over proceedings.

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Rainbow Bee-eater, Newstead area, 23rd December 2022

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A robber-fly snared

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Sentry duty over the nest site

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Later than usual?

Around the 25th December each year Rainbow Bee-eaters can be seen bringing food to nesting tunnels, a sign that the eggs have hatched.

This year the timing seems to be a little later than usual. On the 6th December I observed courtship feeding as well as birds refurbishing nest sites. My suspicion is that eggs were about to be laid. With an incubation period of between 22 and 30 days, it might be early January before the first nestlings begin to be fed. The cool start to summer may have caused to birds to delay, ensuring flying insects will be abundant when required.

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Rainbow Bee-eaters, Green Gully, 6th December 2022

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Male – Tunnel inspection

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Courtship feeding

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Female visiting the nest site, 16th December 2022

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A trick of the light

I never tire of watching Sacred Kingfishers.

Spring migrants, arriving usually in late September, they breed in a wide variety of locations around Newstead. Over the years I’ve found nests in disused mine shafts and termite mounds, as well as more typical sites – horizontal tree hollows and earthen tunnels.

A flash of brilliant blue-green or their harsh scolding call alerts me to their presence. The sexes are very much alike, the male is often described as somewhat bluer and brighter, but as these images show (compare the first three with the last), the light can easily mislead. Male Sacred Kingfishers also tend to have buffer underparts as is evident in the first image.

All images are of the same individual. I first spotted it perched on a branch overhanging the river, a skink firmly snagged in its bill. The bird, an adult male, was making a series of advertising calls (skink in bill) – the unfortunate skink a courtship offering. While I didn’t spot the female on this occasion I had observed the pair in the same area the evening prior. I expect they’ll nest in the vertical river bank, freshly eroded after recent floods.

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Sacred Kingfisher (adult male) with courtship offering, Loddon River @ Newstead, 30th November 2022

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Where are the relatives?

Dusky Woodswallows have been back in good numbers after a brief absence during winter. Nesting is now in full swing.

Usually by this time of year we would expect them to have been joined by their relatives, White-browed and Masked Woodswallows. Alas, no sign of these fellow migrants as yet, although they typically appear on the first of the spring northerlies, often in large mixed flocks. Conditions this year have been cool and wet, and would seem to have delayed their movement south.

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Dusky Woodswallow with prey, Bell’s Lane Track, 21st November 2022

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Dusky Woodswallow, Muckleford State Forest, 22nd November 2022

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Early stages of nest-building in a River Red Gum

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Bush craft

The artistic creations of woodland birds are on display in the local bush at present.

The Jacky Winter, a delightful small flycatcher weaves a delicate nest from thin stems of native grass and cobwebs. The structure is a shallow bowl, often placed like this one in the horizontal fork of a small branch.

Olive-backed Orioles contract a more substantial nest, a hanging basket woven together with grass, cobwebs and narrow bark strips (Red Stringybark is a favourite material). The nest is typically suspended in the canopy of a sapling and well camouflaged.

The adobe nests of the White-winged Chough are scattered throughout. These structures can last for decades, sometimes abandoned after one season, other times refurbished with additional rims added to the original structure over a number of seasons.

Painted Button-quail continue to surprise, pleasantly. This one was foraging just north of Mia Mia Track amongst the Rough Wattle that is doing brilliantly in our soggy spring. I’ve now logged five separate locations for this species over the past week.

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Jacky Winter weaving, Mia Mia Track, 13th November 2022

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Jacky Winter … weaving in monochrome

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Oilve-backed Oriole incubating

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White-winged Chough nest

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Painted Button-quail, Mia Mia Track, 13th November 2022

Return to the earth

Since their return in early October Rainbow Bee-eaters have been performing brilliant aerial displays above their breeding grounds.

While I’m yet to see any birds inspecting potential nesting sites, horizontal tunnels in exposed clay banks are in ready supply and awaiting refurbishment.

Pairs perching close together on low perches and uttering their gentle trills is a sign that egg-laying is imminent. The sexes are alike – the female is somewhat duller than the male, with shorter and broader tail streamers.

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Rainbow Bee-eaters, Green Gully, 6th November 2022

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Female Rainbow Bee-eater calling

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Male Rainbow Bee-eater

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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