Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bowra Bird Banding

Bowra Station is a property that up until a few years ago was run as a family grazing operation, just outside of Cunnamulla in outback Queensland. Now it is owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy as a nature reserve, and birds are especially bounteous.

It is in the heart of the mulga country of south-west Queensland, and hosts such mulga specialties as Halls’ Babbler, Bourke’s Parrot and Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush, but also includes a range of other habitats and boasts a bird list of just over 200 species. Bowra has been a revered location for birders for a long time, and was included among the top ten birding sites in Australia in the most recent edition of Australian Birdlife, BirdLife Australia’s magazine.

Hall’s Babblers (Pomatostomus halli) are not uncommon at Bowra but are shy and like to keep their distance. This bird carries a band and is presumably one of the birds Dean Portelli banded as part of his PhD research in 2006-09.
We managed to catch and band two Hall’s Babblers in the “Western Paddocks” part of Bowra. This one is looking a little ruffled and somewhat disgruntled just before being released.

We (Karen and I) made the 1,000 km drive from Canberra to Bowra to participate, as part of the Canberra contingent of banders, in an Easter / ANZAC week of bird banding organised by Jon Coleman from Brisbane. Other Canberrans were Mark Clayton, and Richard, Mark and Brett Allen, but the bulk of the effort was made up of another 20 or so people, mainly from Queensland.

We saw quite a few Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) on the drive up to Bowra, as well as on the property. These ones, attracted to seepage from a water trough, were our companions through much of our second day of banding. 
Australian Bustards (Ardeotis australis) are always a highlight, nobless personified. We were lucky to pick up on this one in the long roadside grasses as we whizzed by at 110+.

The weather was perfect (it is Queensland, after all!) with temperatures just edging into the low 30s on some days, and dropping to a refreshing 13 or so overnight. The region had received good rains in February, with follow-up rains in March, so the vegetation was looking fabulous, but we were blessed with beautiful sunny days and clear starry nights.

Our camp site by the billabong was idyllic – glowing reflective moonrises (and sunrises on the few days we hadn’t already de-camped before dawn to get an early start with the banding), and the all-night serenades of several species of frog, the strident cackle of the Masked Lapwings (Karen’s unfairly deplored “ugly-bird”), the soft yelping of the White-headed Stilts, and the “sweet-pretty-creaturing” of the Willie Wagtails all adding to the atmospherics.

Our campsite at Bowra Station, between the billabong and the shearers' quarters.
We pitched our tent less than 10 m from the edge of the billabong and were treated to its various moods. This moonrise, with Scorpius ascending, is at a bit of an angle as, in the absence of a tripod, I balanced the camera on a gas cylinder wedged into the fork of a tree; and I didn't want to rotate and crop as that would have deleted Pi Scorpii (the right nipper) from the image.
Sunrises over the billabong were beautiful and serene.
And the suffused pink of sunset foreshadowed the arrival of the mosquitoes!

Three of our four days there were solidly taken up with banding activities. All up, the Canberra team banded something over 400 birds. Finches made up the bulk of our catches, thanks to some nets being strategically placed close to water at each of the sites where we banded, but we caught a wide range of species, some of the highlights being Hall’s Babblers (2), a Crested Bellbird, a budgie, Diamond Doves, a Restless Flycatcher and the three local Fairy-wrens (Variegated, Splendid and White-winged varieties).

The banding station in a quiet moment - Karen, Mark and Brett.

Male Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata.
Double-barred Finch Taeniopygia bichenovii.
Male Plum-headed Finch Neochmia modesta.
The line-up: male Zebra Finch, Double-barred Finch and male and female Plum-headed Finch.
A male Crested Bellbird (Oreoica gutturalis) - frequently heard but less often seen let alone captured.
A male Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii) - common but always stunning!
Brown Honeyeater (Lichmera indistincta) - the facial markings are anything but indistinct when seen this close.
A female Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) - what a stunner!

A very uncooperative Australian Ringneck and several excruciatingly loud and sharp-clawed Apostlebirds inflicted the worst damage, but all wounds have now healed satisfactorily!

Mark, Richard, Mark and Brett had arrived a day earlier than Karen and I did, and left a day earlier, so we spent our final day looking for birds rather than banding them. I was very keen to find a Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush but unfortunately was not successful. In fact I didn’t get a single new species for the whole trip. But the birdwatching, both at Bowra, and on the way to and from, was nonetheless very satisfying and I logged a total of 131 species for the trip.

Of these, the ones that stand out most for me were the numerous emus along the route; the single bustard we saw just south of Cunnamulla; the many Plum-headed Finches (which I also saw at the Nyngan “waterbird wetlands” aka the sewage works); the Mulga Parrots, Bluebonnets, Red-winged Parrots, Superb Parrots, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos, and flocks of Cockatiels and Budgerigars; a swirling mass of 300+ Black Kites, a hugely dark Black-breasted Buzzard lifting off from a carcass just in front of the car; and an exquisite view of a male Spotted Bowerbird bathing at the campsite billabong with its bright pink nuchal crest glowing brilliantly in the sunshine.

White-headed Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus) at the campsite billabong.
Male Splendid Fairy-wren (Malurus splendens).
A pair of Brown Falcons (Falco berigora) at "Stony Ridge" kept a close eye on me. 
On the way home, we watched this male Plum-headed Finch at the Nyngan sewage works take two large feathers to its nest in the rank grasses on the levee of the settling pond. Probably the bird of the trip for me.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Capricornia Cays Survey Holiday – 4. Fairfax Island’s Brown Boobies

The morning of the final day of our trip would be taken up with surveying the Brown Booby colony on East Fairfax Island, just a short sail to the north of our overnight anchorage at Lady Musgrave Island, and by 8:00 am we had made a crunching corally beaching in the tender and were marvelling at the sight of thousands of boobies both in the air and on the ground.

We were greeted to East Fairfax Island by a swirling throng of Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster).
The Fairfax Islands comprise East Fairfax and West Fairfax Islands, each quite small and separated only by a narrow channel. West Fairfax, which we didn’t visit on this occasion, appears to be reasonably well vegetated with pisonia, but East Fairfax is quite different in nature and feel to the other islands we had visited. It has little sand and consists essentially of an undulating expanse of coral rubble of cobble-sized chunks and shingle, which does not make for easy walking. On the windward side this is piled up by wave action into low cliffs. There is only sparse and low vegetation over most of the island, generally composed of resilient, weedy, pioneering species, with just a narrow strip of trees along the lee side.

The edge of the Brown Booby colony on East Fairfax Island. The Reef Heron is in the background, and the taller vegetation in the top left corner of the photo is on north-east tip of West Fairfax Island. 

This distinctive landscape is essentially the consequence of the islands being used for target and bombing practice by Australian military forces from 1943 through to the 1960s. The islands are now off limits to the public, only partly due to unexploded ordnance that almost certainly still exists on the islands, and it was a privilege to be able to visit for the purposes of checking out the Brown Boobies.

The windward side of East Fairfax Island. The shallowly undulating nature of the island is the result of it being used for bombing practice during and after WWII. A large crater near the island's central windward edge is filled with brackish water to form a small lake. 

The booby colony covers the entire area of East Fairfax, and in the central portion of the island nest sites are densely packed, many only pecking distance from their neighbours. Nests are a simple affair being little more than a slight depression in the rubble; nest décor is minimalist, seemingly based on whatever might have been close to hand (beak!), and sadly, including a range of plastic detritus.

Under bright, tropical skies, the pure white down of the booby chicks merges with the bleached whiteness of the coral rubble. This mother has amassed a comparatively large amount of dried vegetation to pad the nest. 

The breeding period can be fairly extended, and there was everything from birds on eggs to fledged young to be counted. Because of the sheer numbers of birds involved, to achieve this we split into pairs with each team counting a different age class – Chris and I were counting young at the ‘fluffy chick’ stage, others would count juveniles, or sub-adults, or adults etc, based essentially on plumage characteristics. Counts were made in ‘blocks’ or ‘sectors’ as we slowly circumnavigated the island in an anti-clockwise direction, from which the overall size and composition of the colony would be estimated.

Counting young Brown Boobies with the aid of binoculars. (Photo courtesy of Chris Lloyd)

While surveying, we ourselves were constantly being surveyed by inquisitive adult boobies.
Brown Booby chick - almost full sized, but still entirely in fluffy white down - with dad.
Wing and tail feathers are first to emerge from the down. 
An intermediate-plumaged young bird between mum on the left (yellowish bill with small blue spot in front of eye) and dad on the right (with blue facial flush to most of the bill).
Like teens of some other species, they can look a little scruffy...
The full range of plumages from downy chicks to smartly brown and white adults.
I'm not sure at what stage the young take their first flight but it is clearly well before adult plumage is attained.
Adult female in flight. 
The degree and intensity of the blue facial flush of an adult male Brown Booby varies, presumably related to the stage of breeding. 
Walking back along the lee side of East Fairfax at the end of the booby survey. 

Apart from the Brown Boobies, the island also supports a range of shorebirds and seabirds, and we recorded Bar-tailed Godwits, Ruddy Turnstones, Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers, Black Noddies, Silver Gulls, Bridled Terns, Black-naped Terns, Roseate Terns, a Buff-banded Rail and Capricorn Silvereye. Overhead, we also saw a pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles and an amazing 16 Great Frigatebirds.

No fewer than 16 Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor) flew over as we completed the survey. These 'pirates of the air' are large skilled fliers and harass other seabirds into disgorging their hard won catch.
The adult male frigatebird lacks the white throat and breast of the female, instead having an expandable bright red throat sac (neither expanded nor visible in this photo). 

For anyone who may have read this far and is interested, below is a summary of our itinerary and a map of our course between the various islands.

Day 1     Tue 7 Jan 2014 - Arrive Gladstone, meet the team.
Day 2     Wed 8 Jan 2014 - Gladstone to Northwest Island; set up camp, establish protocols.
Day 3     Thu 9 Jan 2014 - Northwest Island, surveys.
Day 4     Fri 10 Jan 2014 - Northwest Island, surveys.
Day 5     Sat 11 Jan 2014 – Finish Northwest Island surveys; head down to Heron Island.
Day 6     Sun 12 Jan 2014 – Heron Island surveys; explore; relax.
Day 7     Mon 13 Jan 2014 – Back to Northwest to pick up volunteers; down to survey Masthead  Island; volunteers back to Northwest Island; rest of us back to Heron Island.
Day 8     Tue 14 Jan 2014 – Heron Island to Lady Musgrave Island; survey LMI in late morning;  explore island in afternoon.
Day 9     Wed 15 Jan 2014 – Lady Musgrave Is to East Fairfax Is; Brown Booby survey; return  to Gladstone.

It was a brilliant trip and a fantastic opportunity, one that I will think back on frequently, from the wonderful people I met, to the many close encounters with birds and turtles, for a long time to come. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Capricornia Cays Survey Holiday – 3. Heron and Lady Musgrave Islands

Walking back along the white coral sand of Northwest Island after a day of surveying. (Photo courtesy of Jade Fennel)

On our final day on Northwest Island (Saturday 11 January) there were a small number of survey transects still to finish off and while that was being done, a few of us did some more burrow occupancy methodology testing. After 32 burrows we headed back for a slightly early lunch.

At this point, we (the ‘Parkies’, the ‘birdies’, and the film crew) would be leaving the Wild Mob group and heading to Heron Island. The Wild Mob volunteers were staying on for a couple of days of rest and recreation on Northwest before we returned to pick them again in a day or so to survey Masthead Island.

Preparing the back deck of the Reef Heron for departure.

We got underway in the Reef Heron at about 12:45 h and powered through choppy seas and stiff winds to arrive at Heron Island about an hour and a half later. I spent most of the trip lying in my cabin, eyes closed, relaxed despite being tossed about to the thud and noise of water slapping against the hull, and feeling good that I felt good and not the slightest bit nauseous. It was a valuable lesson – I’d always though the best way to avoid sea sickness was to stay on deck and keep an eye on the horizon, and avoid being cooped up inside the cabin at all costs. But, at least in this situation, it seems that an enclosed cabin is fine so long as you don’t try to read or otherwise concentrate too hard.

Visitors to Heron Island are welcomed by the wreck of the HMCS Protector, placed strategically to keep the access channel open and to afford opportunities for diving and snorkeling close to shore. 

View from under Heron Island jetty at low tide.

Black-tipped reef sharks regularly patrolled the waters around the jetty. I counted 13 at one point, but they are essentially harmless to divers. Eagle Rays were also common and made spectacular leaps out of the water.

Heron Island and Lady Musgrave Island are quite different to Northwest or Masthead Islands. Both are smaller and more circular rather than long elliptical, and both cater much more to human activity. Heron in fact is more than half taken up by infrastructure including Heron Island Resort, a private commercial operation, a large research facility owned by the University of Queensland, and an extensive Parks and Wildlife ranger station.

As we had arrived early afternoon and wouldn’t be surveying the island until the next morning, we had most of the afternoon to explore. Somehow, despite the island being so tiny, I managed to lose my four exploratory companions after being distracted by something or other, and ended up wandering the beaches alone. Well, not quite alone; there were a couple of university turtle egg researchers I bumped into, and there were birds everywhere. The southern beach is largely ‘beach-rock’ rather than sand and was favoured by Pacific Reef Herons, both white and grey forms, Ruddy Turnstones and many large, green, very attractive shore crabs. The fringing casuarinas and octopus bushes on the back dunes were full of Bridled Terns, Silver Gulls were nesting at their bases, and the sky was full of Black Noddies.

Tattlers and a Pacific Golden Plover roosting on the roof of a building was an unexpected and unusual sight. 

Despite the heat and midday sun, the Black Noddies (Anous minutus) seemed to think sunbathing on the hot sand was a good idea, in groups of just a few to parties of 30 or more.
Heron Island is well named - there would have been about 30-50 Eastern Reef Egrets (Egretta sacra) - also known as the Pacific Reef Heron - scattered around the island. There are two colour forms of this species, with white being more common in northern Australia and grey predominating in the south. On Heron Island white birds outnumbered grey birds by about 3 to 1.
The white form of the Eastern Reef Egret. 
The grey form of the Eastern Reef Egret.

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) were remarkably well camouflaged as they foraged amongst the coral rubble. This flock consisted of about 15 birds.
Ruddy Turnstones are named for their typical habit of flipping stones over, or in this case coral, in the hope of exposing some delicate morsel.

Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialis fulva) were also common on the island.

And Wandering Tattlers kept a wary eye on stray photographers. 

Before dinner, Chris and I took up the kind offer and opportunity to have a proper shower and do some urgent washing in a real washing machine at the Ranger’s HQ. Ah, that’s better!

The reef egrets are clearly used to people - this one came looking for a handout late in the afternoon. 
Heron Island sunset. 

Next day, after the surveying was completed in just a couple of hours, there was the rest of the day to explore and relax – after all it was Sunday! In circumnavigating the island I got a good feel for what birds were about. It was good to see the different stages of development of even a common species like the Silver Gull. Although these are common birds it is rare to see them breeding as they do this mainly on isolated offshore islands.

Silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) at its nest with a hatchling and two eggs at the base of a casuarina tree at the back of the dune. 
Both chicks and eggs are beautifully camouflaged - the egg on the right is just starting to hatch and the 'egg-tooth' on the tip of the chick's beak, used to crack the egg, can be seen. 

Juvenile Silver Gulls - these guys seemed most comfortable at the edge of the water and in the protective company of a parent. 
The patterning of a young Silver Gull is quite distinct from that of the adult. 

As I wandered along, I frequently wished that Karen had been there to share things with. She had been booked to stay at the resort on Heron Island from Friday to Monday, overlapping with the time I was there, but the recent fire that destroyed the resort’s generator meant all bookings had been cancelled.

These shore crabs were very obliging in allowing me to photograph them in nuptial embrace - I'd never seen that before. I'm pretty sure they are Swift-footed Crabs (Leptograpsus variegatus) but of a strikingly green form.
Swift-footed crab (Leptograpsus variegatus), Family Grapsidae.

A giant chiton - these ones were about 12 cm long. Chitons are a limpet-like mollusc from the class Polyplacophora. This is the first time I'd seen any with such a broad 'girdle' of mantle surrounding the dorsal plates.

Apart from being good for herons, Heron Island was also good for terns. Although I had briefly seen a single Roseate Tern on Northwest Island (a new bird for me – my 590th bird for Australia), here there was a group of five on a spit of shingle – four in breeding plumage with bright red bills, and one in non-breeding attire with a black bill. There were also lots of Bridled Terns that were very used to the presence of people and therefore allowed a close approach before taking off, there was a flock of about a dozen beautiful and delicate Black-naped Terns, several Crested Terns, and a single Common Tern that had made a buoy its own, just out from the jetty. 

Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii) in flight - this was my only new bird for the trip, but what a bird!

And Black-naped Terns (Sterna sumatrana) will always be one of my favourites.

After going back to survey Masthead Island on the Monday (see previous blog post), on Tuesday morning we were off early to Lady Musgrave Island. This island is a favoured destination for divers who have a well-established camp site on one end of the island, and it is also a popular island for day-trippers who come over by boat from Bundaberg or Town of 1770 on the mainland.

Lady Musgrave Island is well-frequented by divers and day-trippers.Queensland Parks and Wildlife has done a great job with signage and explanations about the island's inhabitants and ecosystems. 
Weathered fallen casuarina on Lady Musgrave Island.

The small size of the island (about 14 ha) meant the surveying was again completed before lunch. Lady Musgrave has more coral rock than the other islands, scattered in large blocks across the island, like some weird lost archaeological remains in the ‘jungle’, as well as forming sizable outcrops and rock shelves along the windward shore.

Coral rock is scattered fairly extensively about the island. This terrain is not suitable for burrowing shearwaters which are restricted to the more sandy parts of the island. 
Coral rock, also called beach rock on these islands, is coral rubble cemented together with sand. 

Sometimes it's a lot more like coral than rock. 

Lady Musgrave, despite its small size and idyllic appearance, also demonstrated in microcosm just how brutal life on a coral cay can be. Black Noddies, as noted in an earlier post, build a flimsy nest of pisonia leaves and it would appear that they are not the most secure of platforms for a young chick to grow up on. Large numbers of chicks may fall from these nests and as the parenting skills of the adults don’t extend to looking after them on the ground, they tend to sit about quietly awaiting their ultimate fate. It is a very hard thing to witness, and in the first days we would try to perch them on some low branch in the hope that a parent would find and look after them, but it is essentially pointless. The situation is exacerbated by the pisonia trees themselves. The seeds of the pisonia are both sticky and minutely barbed and occur in dense clusters. After a good season, the forest floor may liberally scattered with fallen seeds and Black Noddies, both chicks and adults, are frequently ensnared by them. Once this happens they are doomed to become fertiliser for the pisonia trees.

A Black Noddy chicken fallen from its nest, sadly doomed.
This chick has landed in sticky pisonia seeds and won't last much longer. 
Even adult birds succumb to entanglement in pisonia seeds. 

Eventually they will decompose and be fertiliser for the very pisonia trees that killed them. 

Even something as big as a Green Turtle may be trapped by the pisonia trees. This turtle was not able to extricate itself from amongst the tree roots and would have died a slow and lonely death. All we could do was record its details (it had an identification number). 

Despite the death, life abounds on the islands in a continual cycle of renewal.

A Bridled Tern chick (Onychoprion anaethetus) in the semi shade of a casuarina.
A juvenile Bridled Tern. 
A pair of adult Bridled Terns in pair-bond display.
Mature larva of a hawk moth (Hippotion velox - Family Sphingidae) ready to pupate. The larvae of this species can vary in colour; brown forms were also seen on the island. 
An adult Hippotion velox hawk moth. After our night anchored off Lady Musgrave Island, several of these moths got into the Reef Heron's toilet and left the walls and fittings covered in wing scales. Congo, the skipper, was not amused! 
A species of golden orb spider, (Nephila sp). The tiny male lives at the edge of the much larger female's web. This one looks like he may be seducing her in preparation to mate - always a dangerous act for spiders!

A giant Capricorn Island centipede, about 15 cm long. I'm glad I didn't encounter any of these down a shearwater burrow!

That night we would again sleep on the Reef Heron, our last night aboard. A steady stream of Brown Boobies slipped past the boat against a stormy and darkening sky, on their way back to their nests on Fairfax Island after a day’s fishing. In the morning, we too would make our way over to Fairfax Island to survey the breeding colony, and that is where our thoughts now turned.

The Reef Heron anchored off Lady Musgrave Island with Fairfax Islands in the distance. 

A Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster) heading back to its colony on Fairfax Island after a day's fishing.