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
Juvenile harrier ground hunting
Hunting on the wing
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
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
Constant calling is a feature of young Spotted Harriers
That ‘owl-like’ face!
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
The Newstead district is home to a number of pairs of Barking Owls Ninox connivens.
I was very fortunate to be able to visit a local site yesterday where one pair has taken up residence. We have three Ninox owls locally – the largest is the Powerful Owl and smallest the Southern Boobook. The Barking Owl is intermediate in size but its habits are more akin to the Powerful Owl, feeding on mid-sized mammals such as Sugar Gliders and rabbits. They have been locally reported on a regular basis in recent times, possibly the result of folks being more alert to their presence, especially their signature woof-woof calls.
The birds usually perch close together during daylight hours, choosing dark canopied trees, often along drainage lines. Roost sites are easily recognised by the collection of whitewash and ejected pellets, containing the minced up remains of their victims.
Barking Owl, Newstead area, 27th December 2020
Barking Owl pellet – a mixture of beetle exoskeleton, bones and fur
Excreta (whitewash) under the roost site
Barking Owl in River Red-gum
A late afternoon jaunt across the plains has become something of a ritual – the week is not complete without at least one circuit. Yesterday afternoon was looking like a largely fruitless excursion until I turned the car for home.
A large raptor caught my eye, hovering low over a ripening cereal crop. Instantly recognisable as a Spotted Harrier Circus assimilis, it hunted in typical fashion for 15 minutes or so as I watched in awe from the roadside. An absolutely gorgeous raptor, the Spotted Harrier feeds on small birds, mammals such as mice and rabbits, as well as insects. The harrier disturbed numerous small birds, including Horsefield’s Bushlarks and Australian Pipits, as it wheeled low in small circles – dropping to the ground regularly in pursuit of a meal. This species will successfully chase its prey on the ground as well as via a direct pounce. As I continued my homeward journey its mate was encountered a little further along – this individual was significantly smaller, confirming that the first bird was a female and the second a male. Spotted Harriers nest regularly on the plains, raising their young at this time of year when food is most abundant.
Spotted Harrier (adult female), Moolort Plains, 18th December 2020
Adult male Spotted Harrier
The Brown Falcon caused quite the commotion last evening at the Newstead Cemetery, scattering a small party of Southern Whiteface (7 in total) and making the Rainbow Bee-eater look twice.
I suspect the quarry was a rabbit kitten … lets hope so!
Brown Falcon, Newstead Cemetery, 7th December 2020
Cairn Curran Reservoir is now at 50% of capacity – this is the point when the storage starts to provide some nice wetland habitat for birds.
It’s been a good breeding season for ducks – Pacific Black Duck, Wood Duck and Australian Shelduck can be seen with youngsters at present. Raptors, like this Whistling Kite, are adept at picking off ducklings so the numbers decline as nature takes its course. A few Black-winged Stilts are enjoying the grassy shallows and I’m on the lookout for the first of the northern hemisphere waders over coming weeks.
Whistling Kite @ Joyce’s Creek, 30th October 2020
Pacific Black Duck family
I suspect this will be one of, if not the one, highlights of 2020.
Black Falcons are a very special bird.
Until now on the Moolort Plains, my sightings have always been of solitary birds. On one occasion, sadly, I came across a dead juvenile, apparently a road kill victim.
This pair, including the female with what appears to be a ‘dodgy eye’, is currently raising a youngster … seen from a safe distance sitting proud in a stick nest on a dead mistletoe clump.
A memorable encounter.
Black Falcon (male), Moolort Plains, 5th October 2020
Black Falcon (female)
Black Falcon nestling
Is it any wonder that small birds, such as this Golden-headed Cisticola, are forever alert and alarmed … with hunters like the Australian Hobby constantly on the lookout for a morsel, the life of a cisticola is not one that I envy.
Golden-headed Cisticola, Joyce’s Creek, 26th September 2020
Australian Hobby #1
Australian Hobby #2
Australian Hobby #3