Volunteers Needed: Conservation of locally occurring nest of Pied Oyster Catchers

The Pied Oyster Catcher (Haematopus longirostris) is currently listed as endangered in NSW and a rare visitor to Sydneys shores. This species is distributed around the entire Australian coastline, being found more commonly around the coastlines of the southern states of Tasmania and Victoria. In NSW this species is in decline with fewer than 200 breeding pairs estimated to occur with in this region.

 

Mating pair of Pied Oyster Catchers (Haematopus longirostris).

Mating pair of Pied Oyster Catchers (Haematopus longirostris) – Photo  by Toni Burnham

 

Pied Oyster Catchers will choose nesting sites mostly in coastal situations, on estuarine beaches and occasionally saltmarsh or grassy habitats. Nests are often exposed shallow scrapes in sand above the hightide mark, often amongst seaweed, shells, and small stones. The eggs of the Pied Oyster Catcher are sandy coloured and rely on camouflage to avoid detection of predators. They are particularly at risk of being trampled by people, especially children and dogs.

 

Pied Oyster Catcher eggs

Pied Oyster Catcher eggs – Photo by Toni Burnham

 

3 days ago a pair laid eggs on a local highly touristed beach and are currently trying to nest (Picture of eggs is actual nest site). We are looking for passionate people that can be present on a rotational basis to keep people away from the nest and keep an eye on it over the next 30 days, especially through the busy school holiday period. The site is located within the Sutherland Shire region.

If interested please email Toni Burnham on burnhamtoni@gmail.com

The Casuarina Corridor of Life

At this time of year the days are becoming colder and most animals are becoming less active, or migrated north. This stillness and quietness of winter becomes evident. However there are a few specific vegetation communities which can occasionally provide an abundance of life in the onset of winter, and it’s all controlled by food. One of these vegetation communities are the Casuarina swamp lands which line undisturbed river lines in eastern Australia. Most inland rivers are cloaked by the River She-oak (Casuarina cunninghamiana), usually 20 meters each side of the bank, but sometimes more or sometimes less depending on the geological architecture of the area.

 

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

Tree top view of a Casuarina swampland along Wollondilly River.

 

 

These Casuarina swamp lands can become a very important niche for many different species of birds during the onset of winter. The reason for this does not lie with the Casuarinas specifically, but surprisingly a parasitic plant which lives on the Casuarinas. These plants are known as mistletoes. While mistletoes have adapted to mimic a multitude of different host tree species, the mimicracy displayed by the Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei) is extraordinary. This mistletoe has evolved to mimic Casuarinas and Allocasuarinas, and does a remarkable job of disguising itself amoung the Casuarina needles. Unless you are a mistletoe expert, the only sure-fire way to discern mistletoe from Casurina is to witness the Needle-leaf Mistletoe in flower (which are incredibly beautiful and unique!). Casuarina flowers are much different from mistletoe flowers and look like small fluffly red or brown parts on the leaves (needles), while the Needle-leaf Mistletoe flowers have large bright red anthers that a readily distinguishable, and are probably that bright to attract the birds!

 

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei)

 

The Needle-leaf mistletoe usually flowers at the beginning of spring, however I must of been at the right place at the right time as thousands of Needle-leaf Mistletoe were in flower, giving the Casaurinas bright red highlights which contrast well among their dull foliage. This earlier flowering could probably be due to the large quantities of rain south eastern Australia has had in the preceding months. With waning nectar resources from other tree and plant species, it seemed all the nectar feeding birds in the area decided to take advantage. We were treated to an avain frenzy of tweets and feathers. There were many bird species I didn’t manage to get a photo of and many bird calls I couldn’t identify, but below are some notable entries.

 

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

Yellow-faced Honey Eater (Lichenostomus chrysops), preparing for flight.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

A Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), flutter around the canopy tops in the Casuarina.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis), eyeing off a flowering mistletoe target.

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusila)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris)

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

A mating pair of Turquoise Parrots (Neophema pulchella) take off.

 

The last bird shown above is the Turquoise Parrot which is threatened in NSW. This was an especially great find! They even landed for me to take a photo, however they chose the ugliest invasive weed species to land on, I was in any case excited.

 

Turquoise Parrot (Neophema pulchella)

 

While the bird life was astonishing, there were other appearances which you usually only get to see in areas which are healthy and remote from urban development. The area harboring this biodiversity is situated between Nattai NP and Yerranderie Conservation Area along Wollondilly River, which gives wildlife to solitude it needs to become especially diverse and abundant. The healthy sections of this river is known to be home to the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), which I was especially lucky and excited to witness. The photo isn’t great but I was able to view it with binoculars as it would emerge and submerged for ten meters. On the banks of the river I was also able to see a healthy Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) grazing, and well as huge amounts of butterflies fluttering around, which turned out to be the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) and Lesser Wanderers (Danuas chrysippus). I am unsure if these butterflies were here for the mistletoe nectar or for some kind of migration.

 

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

Platypus frolicking in Wollondilly River.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

A healthy looking wombat, seemingly untouched by the current wombat disease epidemic, mange.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). This butterfly is a male, which is distinguishable by the pair of black dots on the lower wings.

 

 

To witness this spectacle of nature was an inspiring reminder that there are still untouched oases of life which escape the reach of man with the addition of wonder with how many features of animal ecology remains unknown.

 

 

Birds of Broughton Island

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Broughton Island, it is a relatively small island (a touch over 100 hectares) a part of Myall Lakes National Park, off the east coast of Australia. This small island has retained some interesting natural heritage, with having the second largest population of Green and Golden Bell Frogs in the world and also one of the few places to find the critically endangered Storm Petrel. Broughton Island also boasts nesting populations of Wedged-Tailed Shearwaters (also known as ‘Mutton Birds’), and also Fairy Penguins which are occurring on the island close to the northern limit their distribution. Broughton Island provides good coastal habitat and heathland habitat which is used by a considerably large variety of different bird species. The island attracts both sea birds, raptors and even land birds which have retained their permanent positions. This makes it a popular spot for bird enthusiasts where they run annual Broughton Island ‘twitching’ events to count how many bird species are present and see if they can spot any new ones. While I stayed at Broughton conducting bell frog surveys I went to do some twitching in my spare time and this is what I found:

 

1. The first bird to great me on the island is an easy guess considering this is a coastal island: the Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which most people just refer to as the ‘Sea Gull’. They were in a large noisy colony where the fishers huts reside.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

 

2. The second bird I quickly realised were in abundance on this island were the Welcome Swallows (Hirundo neoxena). There were dive bombing insects and speeding around the main cabins, occasionally taking a pit stop on a twig or branch.

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena)

 

3. The next bird I became aware of was the Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae), which were cheekily and quietly jumping and rummaging around the grass and seaweed, presumably looking for invertebrate snacks.

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

Australasian Pipit (Anthus novaeseelandiae)

4. After a heading out to one of the bell frog sites, many small birds were sighted in the Broughton Island heathland. One of them I failed to get a photo of which was the Silver Eyes (Zosterops lateralis) but the other common heathland bird was the Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis), which occasionally perched in the open to let out alarm calls as we approached their territory.

Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

A Male Tawny Grassbird (Megalurus timoriensis)

5. Before leaving the heathlands we keep sighted small ground dwelling birds scuttling in the bushes before we got close. My 300 mm lens proved them to be Brown Quails (Coturnix ypsilophora).

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

A family group of Brown Quail (Coturnix ypsilophora)

6. When arriving to the beach, the next bird sighted was darting in and out of the seaweed clumps with fast legs. They turned out to be Red Capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus), which are are common occurrence on the coasts of Australia.

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

Red Capped Plover (Charadrius ruficapillus)

 

7. Another bird sighted darting amongst the seaweed (albeit somewhat slower and plumper than the Red Capped Plovers) was the  Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), who took flight if approached to closely and directly.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

 

8. After patrolling making it to the rocky coastal areas of Broughton I stumbled upon a bird which frightened me probably as equally as I frightened it. This dark bird make a shreeking call and darted to a rock almost submerged by the surf. This bird turned out to be a Sooty Oyster Catcher (Haematopus fuliginosus), which were occasionally seen in pairs most likely nesting in the rocky areas of the coast of Broughton Island. https://www.flickr.com/photos/126862220@N06/15905334509/   9. I heard small tweets and chirps within a stand of Knobby Club Rush, and manged to shoot off a few photos. The specific chirps and tweets we heard along with the photo confirmed it as a Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis).

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

Golden-Headed Cisticola (Cisticola exilis)

 

The next few species of birds we witnessed were soaring high above where I managed to capture some of them with the long lens. 10. This comorant flying over head is most likely to be the Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Many were seen later on drying their wings on small rock platforms further out in the surf.

10.Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

The Great Comorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)

 

11. The next bird saw flying overhead was the Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans) which was the most common raptor we saw during this trip. One of them were even sighted harassing the gull colony which sent all the adults in the air with attempts to try and drive off the raptor. It looked like the harrier had run off with on of the gull chicks!

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

Swamp Harrier (Circus approximans)

 

12. Another impressive raptor was sighted gliding overhead which turned out to be a juvenile White Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), which was identified using the specific colour arrangements of the feathers as seen from below.

Juvenile White-Bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

 

 

There were other birds sighted which I didn’t manage to get decent photos of which include  two other raptors: an Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus), and a Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), plus some extra additions sighted in the heathland including White-Cheeked Honey Eaters (Phylidonyris nigra). In total (including the birds that I didn’t manage to get photos of), I saw 17 birds which isn’t bad for 3 days of twitching. If I kept that ratio of birds to days up I could get all species of birds in Australia within the year!

A Quick Guide to Common Rails of Sydney

Just to make it clear for people who aren’t familiar with aquatic birds, a ‘rail’ is the common term given to birds within the Rallidae family which also include coots and swamp hens. They are birds which are adapting to swim and stalk in marshes and reeds. Most healthy wetlands will attract one of the species of rail which rely on aquatic vegetation for the staple of their diet.

The rails that you are most likely to see are:

  • Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio)
  • Dusky Moor Hen (Gallinula tenebrosa)
  • Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra)

 

The largest of the rails around Sydney is the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). This conspicuous prehistoric looking bird can be told a part from other rails easily by the size (much larger than the other rails reaching almost 50 cm tall) along with the purple/blue sheen across the neck and belly. The Purple Swamphen requires heavily vegetated wetlands with plenty of sun light. Like the other rails, the Purple Swamphens have a confused and complex mating system. Some times the birds pair up, some times their is co-operative raising of the young by other younger individuals in the family group, where all birds contribute time into egg incubation and nest protection. During spring and early summer you may also witness the antics of the males fighting for dominance, with raucous screams and viscous confrontations. The looser is often chased away.

Some easy spots to see these birds include Audley in the Royal National Park and most of the freshwater wetlands within Sydney Olympic Park.

 

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The other rail you are likely to see and which is probably the most common of the three is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). This rail is smaller than the Purple Swamphen, reaching a maximum of 40 cm tall. This bird is easily distinguished from the Purple Swamphen as it lacks the purple/blue sheen and also has a yellow tipped beaked in contrast to the entirely red colored beak of the swamphen (See photo below).

 

Left - Dusky Moorhen, Right - Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

Left – Dusky Moorhen, Right – Purple Swamphen | Copyright Lucy Kidson & Chad Beranek (2014)

 

The Dusky Moorhen enjoys heavily vegetated wetlands were they forage on aquatic plants. Like the Purple Swamphen, the Dusky Moorhen also has a complicated mating system involving communal nesting. Many of the Dusky Swamphen populations in Sydney currently have babies with them.

Some easy spots to see this very common rail include Sydney Olympic Park, the wetland in Louisa Reserve in Bass Hill, Tudar Road wetland in Bonnet Bay, Audley in the Royal National Park, even Camelia Gardens in Caringbah has recently had some Dusky Moorhens move in and successfully raise babies their! This rail species seems to be one of the first wetland birds to move in to newly created wetlands (not including ducks).

 

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Dusky Moorhens in their preferred habitat of heavily vegetated wetlands | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Mother Moorhens feeding babies | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Mother Moorhens feeding babies Persicaria sp. flower buds | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The last rail which is commonly seen is the unique Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra). This rail is easily distinguished from the others as it bears a white beak contrasting with completely black plumage. This bird is perhaps more adapted to an aquatic lifestyle as they have strange webbed feet which is one of their most striking features when you get a closer look. The Eurasian Coot is very adaptable in its foraging and may forage on land, dabble in water or even dive for food. They will eat aquatic vegetation, insects, even birds eggs if they find them. They nest in talls reeds which have died or have been flattened out, where they lay a few young. The young of the Eurasian Coot have a tough life as they are frequently the target of predators such as herons and egrets. Their survival is also at risk from their own parents who are known to be very tough on the hatchlings. If they have no food for them and the young keep begging they will prod their young harshly, sometimes killing them.

 

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Webbed feet of the Eurasian Coot | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) | Copyright Chad Beranek (2014)

 

Some good spots to see this quite common rail species is in Audley, Sydney Olympic Park and Louisa Reserve in Ball Hill.

If you want to see all three of these rails in one day its best to check out the various wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park or the Audley Lagoon in the Royal National Park. Both of these locations have many extra amazing bird life surprises. Hopefully this post has given you enough information to ID some of your local wetland birds!

Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis)

The eastern yellow robin (Eopsaltria australis) is a small insectivorous bird found common in woodlands along the southern east coast of Australia. These small birds are voracious insect predators and display high attentiveness when hunting. They are often easy to spot as they use a particular technique when hunting, where they sit and perch vertically a meter of two on a shrub and wait for a minute, then with a sudden burst of energy, they dive down and capture an insect in the leaf litter.

I have had experiences working in Western Sydney Parklands where they will bravely dive bomb between my legs if it means catching that insect!

 

Eopsaltria australis

Swooping down to catch an insect | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Swooping down to catch an insect | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Perched, awaiting an insect | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

Perched, awaiting an insect | Copyright Lucy Kidson (2014)

 

The eastern yellow robin has been implicated with gradual decline with increasing land clearance, they are still found in any healthy thick bush areas, however studies have indicated that there range is constricting in the north. They are decreasing in numbers in the northern end of their distribution which is currently around Armidale, where up there, they are considered rare.

 

Release of an Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis) during a uni field trip at Stroud | Copyright Chad Beranek (2012)

Release of an Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis) during a uni field trip at Stroud | Copyright Chad Beranek (2012)

 

Like many of the smaller birds (such as fairy wrens and willie wag tails), the eastern yellow robin is often eliminated from urban areas due to the disturbance and clearance of forest. These smaller birds depend on dense woodland with a thick shrub layer. When a bush becomes to degraded and has the shrub layer removed, these small birds get bullied and harassed by birds which are adapted living in open woodland areas which have a minimal shrub layer (such as the aggressive noisy miners).

To ensure the smaller birds can still manage in urban areas of Sydney, try planting a nice thick shrub plant. Plants such as Hakea sp. and Busaria spinosa are optimal shrub plants for small birds and offer them good opportunities for nesting sites and protection. A bird bath placed next to a shrub and they are surely to move in if they are in the area!