This spot will be a swamphen paradise for the next few months.
Tangled LignumDuma 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.
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.
Blue-billed Duck (adult male breeding), Boundary Gully Moolort Plains, 14th October 2022
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.
Little Grassbird, Lignum Swamp, 9th October 2022
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.
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 PeaSwainsona 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 PurslaneMontia 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-daisyBrachyscome 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 camaldulensis, E. microcarpa or E. largiflorens woodland (Source: Flora of Victoria).
Broughton Pea Swainsona procumbens, Moolort Plains, 2nd October 2022
I had spotted the Wedge-tailed Eagle moments earlier, high in the sky above the swamp. My attention though was on a small party of Purple Swamphens, recent arrivals to the filling wetland, clucking away deep in the lignum.
Then, as if from nowhere, the eagle was in the centre of my view, hovering ‘kestrel like’ less than a metre above the lignum, as the swamphens sounded the alarm. With surprising agility the massive raptor remained hovering for at least a minute, before alighting on one of the clumps of lignum.
A party of ravens appeared and eventually persuaded the eagle to depart. An unsuccessful foray on this occasion but a demonstration of its extraordinary hunting ability nonetheless.
Note: The materials in its talons and beak are, I suspect, from a recent successful kill.
In the past couple of years a once common raptor of the plains, the Black-shouldered Kite, has been worryingly scarce … even as its favourite prey, Mus musculus, has been abundant.
In recent months I’ve started seeing the return of a few of these beautiful small kites and at the weekend I spent an hour in the company of the bird pictured below. Spotted first on a high exposed perch it appeared to be surveying its surroundings for a likely meal. Over the next hour it departed on five occasions to hover over an adjacent area of rough basalt grassland, returning four times with a House Mouse … an 80% strike-rate.
Unlike most other raptors, the Black-shouldered Kite can be quite confiding and this bird allowed me to approach within thirty metres. What a privilege to be able to witness it hunting successfully. After each meal it uttered some gentle contact calls, an effort I suspect, to attract the attention of a mate to share its territory with.
Fingers crossed for a successful breeding season for this charming raptor.
Black-shouldered Kite , Moolort Plains, 18th June 2022
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.