Category Archives: Moolort Plains

Afternoon, the plains

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Plains country … click to expand

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Great Egret @ Picnic Point

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Australian Hobby, Moolort Plains, 6th May 2022

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Wedge-tailed Eagle and grumpy magpie

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Plains country #2

Smoke and raptors

I was surprised earlier in the week to see a rising column of smoke on the Moolort Plains. Stubble burning largely finished a few weeks back, prior to the autumn break.

As is often the case, where there is smoke there are often raptors.

Sure enough Whistling Kites and Black Kites were hunting above the burning stubble, a number also chasing insects across the burnt ground. The highlight though was a pair of Black Falcons, the first I’ve seen for almost 12 months. Distant views but exciting nonetheless.

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Stubble burning, Moolort Plains, 2nd May 2022

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Black Falcon

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Whistling Kite hunting in stubble

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Black Kite

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Not that ‘old chestnut’

Chestnut Teal have been in healthy numbers on Cairn Curran this year. While still outnumbered by Grey Teal, I’ve observed several pairs on most visits. This pair, spotted near Picnic Point earlier in the week, show the clear sexual dimorphism in the species. The male has a rich chestnut breast and iridescent dark-green head, while the female lacks the contrast but is a deep brown all over … much darker than either male or female Grey Teal. Both sexes have a deep red iris.

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Chestnut Teal (pair), Picnic Point, 15th December 2021

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I was intrigued by the colour of this Australian Pipit. This individual has taken on the colour of its red earth home, presumably the result of being covered with wind blown dust. The species is normally pale buff in colour but this one looked particularly striking as it posed on a volcanic boulder at the edge of a dam.

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Australian Pipit, Moolort Plains

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Flying high

Harvest has started on the Moolort Plains.

This means there will be good opportunities to observe a variety of raptors over coming weeks.

Black Kites and Whistling Kites are two of the larger species that profit at this time of year.

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Black Kite, Moolort Plains, 18th November 2021

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Whistling Kite

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Plains notes

As spring unfolds Galahs and Long-billed Corellas are busy feeding in patches of thistles on the Moolort Plains. The flowers set seed quickly as the weather warms and the birds are ready to feast. Both species are feeding nestlings in nearby woodland areas, happy to fly some distance in search of nutritious morsels.

Brown Songlarks, spring migrants to the open country, have arrived in good numbers this year. Their rousing display flights are an enjoyable sight.

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Galah feeding on thistles, Joyce’s Creek, 31st October 2021

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Long-billed Corellas

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Australasian Pipit

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Brown Songlark display flight

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.

Familiar friends and a mini-mystery

The bird in the image below has me somewhat confounded.

It’s clearly a tern, but which species?

I spotted it late yesterday afternoon on the Moolort Plains. As I quietly watched a distant feeding Brolga, it must have passed directly over my head, observed briefly in fading light as it headed north.

Whiskered Terns are the most commonly observed birds from this sub-family (related to the gulls) and can be seen in wet years on freshwater wetlands and regularly on Cairn Curran, along with the much larger Caspian Terns.

It was a fleeting glimpse but this individual looked intriguingly like a Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, a reasonably common species in northern and southern Victoria, but one that I’ve never observed locally. The overall appearance was of a bulkier bird than a Whiskered Tern, with less buoyant flight. Adult breeding Whiskered Terns have a black cap and nape, as do Gull-billed Terns, but have a red bill, not black and their underparts typically are sooty. The upper parts of the Gull-billed tern are almost white, rather than grey. Another clear difference is the bill shape – slender, with a less pronounced ‘gull’ conformation than the G.nilotica.

I’ll put this observation in the maybe category for now and would be interested in any reader thoughts. Sadly, the image below is the best one I have!

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A mystery tern … maybe?

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Brolga

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Nankeen Kestrel (female)

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Brown Falcon

Postscript: The view from a number of expert birders is that the tern is in fact a Gull-billed Tern, a rare visitor to central Victoria. One was reported at Lake Eppalock (near Bendigo) on the 9th September.

A Brolga on the plains

What a wonderful sight to observe a Brolga once again on the Moolort Plains. This area is home to a small number of pairs, perhaps no more than two, an isolated population between its stronghold in south-western Victoria (635 birds were counted there in 2019) and the northern Victorian irrigation region, which supports reasonable numbers of Brolgas (probably less than 100 individuals).

While I’ve received regular reports over recent years this is my first observation since around 2016 – the last time the Moolort wetlands held a significant amount of water.

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Brolga, Moolort Plains, 1st August 2021

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Plains country after the storm

A wet and wintry week put paid to any birding.

The highlight was admiring wonderful views across the Moolort Plains after a storm rolled through on Friday afternoon.

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After the storm, Moolort Plains, 25th June 2021

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Dusk over Baker’s Swamp

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Looking north from near Frogmore Swamp to Gough’s Range

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Looking east towards Bald Hill and the Pyrenees