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
On a drive across the plains earlier in the week a flash of crimson caught my eye, enough to cause me to stop and linger for a while amongst a roadside stand of Bulokes.
The crimson was from Buloke Mistletoe Amyema linophylla, a rare parasite that grows on only two hosts, Buloke Allocasuarina luehmannii and Belah Casuarina pauper.
Buloke Mistletoe is only found on a small proportion, perhaps less than 5%, of the Buloke growing on the plains. The host is the signature tree of Buloke woodland, once a widespread and common ecosystem, now extensively cleared and consequently threatened. Buloke woodlands of the Murray Darling and Riverina are of major conservation importance.
As I admired the splendid mistletoe a flock of Yellow Thornbills appeared above me. Also known as the Little Thornbill, the party foraged happily for a while before moving on.
I’m pleased that I bothered to stop.
Bulokes, Moolort Plains, 6th January 2020
Buloke (male flowers)
Buloke (female flowers)
Yellow Thornbill in Buloke
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
Mistletoebirds are active and vocal at present.
I was alerted on the weekend to a breeding pair at Green Gully.
Local resident Paul, an astute observer, has thoughtfully set out a small basket of superfine merino wool that the female Mistletoe bird is happily relocating into a nearby nest, suspended in a small Grey Box sapling. The wool has been used to form the superstructure of the nest, while spent Golden Wattle flowers have been incorporated with other material such as cobwebs to make this marvellous home.
As we stood observing the ‘comings and goings’ a flock of five Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos passed overhead, travelling north-east … almost certainly the same party seen the previous day in the middle of the Moolort Plains.
Mistletoebird (male), Green Gully, 11th October 2020
Female Mistletoebird gathering nest material
The almost complete nest, suspended in a Grey Box sapling
The female shaping the nest … the ‘escape hatch’ will be sewn together next
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos … from the plains to woodland
There is an old bush saying … When you see the black cockatoos flying towards the mountains, or away from the mountains for that matter, it’s a sure sign that your team will emerge victorious.
This adage proved its worth again on Saturday night!
Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos, Moolort Plains, 10th October 2020
Adult male Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo
Female or possibly a juvenile bird
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