The sight of flocks of birds winging their way across a volcanic landscape evokes ‘images’ of times long past. These Black Swans would have been in their hundreds, accompanied by Brolgas, ibises and a myriad of ducks.
Black Swans in flight over the Victorian Volcanic Plain, Tullaroop Reservoir, 17th April 2021
Great Crested Grebe
It’s a while since I’ve visited Tullaroop Reservoir.
The weedy shallows at the northern end of the storage have a nice selection of waterbirds at present, including good number of Musk Ducks and Great Crested Grebes.
Musk Ducks are fascinating birds. Despite their apparently limited powers of flight they are capable of moving reasonable distances in search of suitable habitat and once a good location is found they’ll stay for many months if conditions remain to their liking.
They are carnivorous, feeding on aquatic invertebrates, including yabbies and mussels and will even take baby ducklings apparently. Diving for their prey they can remain under water for a number of minutes, surfacing at a different spot which might be 100 metres from where they originally dived. The male is unlike any other local duck, with a large, leathery lobe that hangs beneath the bill. Females lack this feature but share the stiff, spiky tail of the male. Blue-billed Ducks have a similar tail but the bill shape is quite different – the bill of the Musk Duck is somewhat triangular while Blue-billed Ducks have an elongated, concave bill.
Musk Duck, Tullaroop Reservoir, 18th April 2021
Female Musk Duck preening
Almost vestigial wings
That distinctive tail
Musk Duck with yabbie
Musk Duck aggression
Earlier in the week I was poking around the wetlands at the southern end of the Moolort Plains, near Campbelltown.
Whilst the Red-gum wetlands are dry, there are some low-lying freshwater meadows holding water and attracting a nice range of birds. Black Swans are nesting, various species of ducks (Grey Teal and Pacific Black Duck are most numerous), herons feeding in the shallows (White-necked and White-faced) as well as good numbers of Black-winged Stilts.
A lone Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia was a nice surprise. This species is a summer migrant from the northern hemisphere (they breed in Siberia). In Australia it is most abundant on the coastal fringe but good numbers can be found inland as well. I see one or two most years around Newstead and hope to get a closer look this season. This individual was about 150 metres away when I spotted it amongst the stilts..
Common Greenshank, Moolort Plains near Campbelltown, 26th August 2019
Black Swan on nest
What a difference a drop of rain makes!
As mentioned previously it hasn’t been a particularly wet year, but just enough to encourage a few local freshwater meadows to spring into life.
Just how birds such as the Black-winged Stilt find these oases is a mystery to me … clearly not to the birds.
Black-winged Stilt, Moolort Plains @ Campbelltown, 19th August 2019
White-necked Heron and Yellow-billed Spoonbill
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.
The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:
- The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.
- The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).
- The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.
Last weekend I visited a lovely shallow, freshwater wetland on the Moolort Plains, at the southern end of the plains near Campbelltown. Two things surprised me, firstly that the wetland was close to full (it’s been an ‘average’ winter but not especially wet), and secondly, that there were five active Black Swan nests scattered across the wetland. This is a great result and demonstrates the ability of this species to breed opportunistically when conditions and habitat are suitable.
Black Swan on nest, near White’s Swamp on the Moolort Plains, 4th August 2019
Black Swan sentinel
One species that has been conspicuously absent during a wet winter and spring has been the Great Egret. During our last wet period (2010-11) individuals could be seen reliably on larger wetlands and around the shores of Cairn Curran, but not so until recently.
It was no surprise though to finally observe one at Cairn Curran last week, a lone bird fishing in the shallows near the highway bridge at Joyce’s Creek. On Sunday evening I spent a glorious half-hour with one (possibly the same individual) at Picnic Point.
Great Egret, Picnic Point, 26th February 2017
White-faced Herons tend to be a solitary species, although it’s not unusual to see a modest gathering when food is concentrated, perhaps in a flooded paddock or on the margins of a wetland.
To capture twenty-three in one frame though, is in my experience at least, worth a mention.
White-faced Herons, Lignum Swamp, 4th January 2017
White-faced Heron at Lignum Swamp
Chestnut Teal Anas castanea are more striking than Grey Teal, or at least the male is. Depending on the angle of prevailing light the head of the male can appear black to bottle-green (the true colour) while that of the female is similar but darker in hue to a female Grey Teal. The underparts of the male are a rich chestnut, with a white flank (just visible in the second image below). After breeding the males assume an eclipse plumage and look much like a dark female. In flight the overall markings are very similar to Grey Teal but the birds look generally darker. Chestnut Teal form tight pairs, but often associate with large flocks of Grey Teal and are less common in our district – it can be a challenging business to sort out who’s who!
Chestnut Teal pair (male at left), Bell’s Lane Track, 16th March 2016
Chestnut Teal in flight over Walker’s Swamp, 2nd January 2017
Maler Chestnut Teal over Walker’s Swamp
Chestnut Teal ‘pair’ with male below – the top bird is possibly a female Grey Teal
Grey Teal for comparison – note the pale neck and throat
Returning home after a fortnight away means that I’ve missed the last phase of drying of the Moolort wetlands. It has been a wonderful event, one which I hope is repeated again soon.
This Black-fronted Dotterel is one of the birds that exemplifies the beauty and fragility of this significant ecosystem.
Black-fronted Dotterel, Walker’s Swamp, 2nd January 2017
Walker’s Swamp, 2nd January 2017
With the Moolort wetlands full over spring a number of duck species have taken the opportunity to breed. There are now lots of families of Australian Black Ducks, Grey Teal, Wood Duck and Australian Shelducks to be seen in the district.
To cap things off nicely I came across a pair of Pink-eared Ducks Malacorhynchus membranaceus with their brood at Walker’s Swamp earlier in the week. Small numbers of this distinctive small duck, notable for its spatulate bill, have been spotted over the past few months. It can gather in huge congregations when conditions are ‘right’ – the numbers of less this year than back in 2010/11 there I cam across a few flocks of between fifty and one hundred birds.
Pink-eared Duck, Walker’s Swamp, 2nd January 2017 – the pink ear spot clearly visible
There were six ducklings in total (five pictured here)
The spatulate bill is obvious even at the duckling stage
White-faced Herons have also been enjoying the swamp