I love the dry country we have here in Australia. Most of my birding has been done in areas of Australia which have an average annual rainfall of under 250mm (10 inches). Some of this country is marginal farming country, sometimes cereals, and often sheep and cattle. I grew up on such a farm and still cherish my childhood adventures in the mallee bushland near my home.
On the road again
Earlier this week my wife and I travelled from our home in Murray Bridge, South Australia, to Sydney. We are currently staying with my son and his family. The grandchildren love having us stay with them. At ages 7 and 4 they are already showing an interest in the birds they see in their garden, and in the parks they visit. My interest has rubbed off on them.
The car journey from home to Sydney is over 1300km, two long days of driving. In future, we think we might take three or four days to get here, stopping more frequently at the many interesting places along the way. There are many national parks, reserves, botanic gardens and bushland on this route and we just have to drive right on by, often with a groan of despair at what we might be missing.
One of the places we drive through is the large rural town of Hay, located on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. The birding along this river can be excellent. But before we get to Hay we have to pass through about 130 kilometres of the Hay Plains, a dry region consisting of few trees, much saltbush and some grassland. I find this drive to be fascinating because it often reveals odd collections of birds. On one trip we saw hundreds of Emus grazing on the low vegetation. On another trip, after heavy rain in that area, we saw thousands of ducks, mostly Australian Wood Duck and Grey Teal. They were taking advantage of the long stretches of water still lying along the edges of the highway.
As we travelled along at 110kph my wife suddenly pointed out an interesting sight. It was a gathering of dozens of waterbirds: Australian Pelicans, White Ibis, Straw-necked Ibis and Yellow-billed Spoonbills. Harassing all of them from only several metres overhead was a Swamp Harrier. As we rushed by I didn’t have time to take in the presence of any other birds. I am sure that if we had had the time to stop, I would have recorded several species of ducks, perhaps coots, swamphens, egrets, herons and lapwings, cormorants, and maybe even some crakes and rails.
This was a very surprising collection of birds for what is essentially very dry country. The reason for their presence is explained by the presence of wide irrigation channels. The water is pumped from the nearby Murrumbidgee River into a series of channels, some of which are 5 or more metres wide. The water is then used to either flood irrigate large expanses of land, or pumped through long, overhead sprinkler systems. This area grows large amounts of hay, wheat and cotton, all irrigated from the channels. The fact that this also provides a perfect environment for numerous birds is a pleasant by-product. Further east there are large expanses of fruit orchards as well.
- Australian Pelicans overhead
- White Ibis at Dubbo Zoo
- Straw-necked Ibis Adelaide Zoo
- Yellow-billed Spoonbills and the birth of a birder
It has a been a long time since I wrote a basic post about birding.
Some years ago I wrote a series of 21 articles called How to be a Birder.
This post is not an update on that series. This is just a heads-up to new readers of this site. I was encouraged to write this in response to an article I recently read here. That article is for American readers. What I have to say is largely for my Australian readers – but the same principles apply nearly worldwide.
Birding is really easy
Birding is quite easy. Just glance out of the window into your garden. Do you see any birds? Perhaps you can see a pigeon or a dove or possibly a sparrow. You’ve just become a birder. One of our common birds here in South Australia is a Crested Pigeon, shown below. (Okay – some of you will know it as a “Top Knot” Pigeon, but strictly speaking, that official name belongs to a bird found in the eastern parts of Australia.)
Binoculars and Bird Baths
I usually keep a cheap pair of binoculars handy where I can get to them quickly. We often spend a good part of the day in our sunroom which overlooks a part of the garden. A large picture window in this room gives us a great view of several bird baths. The binoculars give me a great view of any birds which come for a drink or a bath. Installing a bird bath in your garden, even a small garden, can help to bring the birds closer for you to watch – birds like the honeyeater in the next photo.
Into the garden
A short stroll out into the garden or even down the street can reveal plenty more birds. Keep a watch out for any movement in plants, bushes and up in the branches of any trees growing nearby. Pay special attention to any flowers you see – Australian honeyeaters and parrots love the flowers of both native Australian plants as well as exotic plants. The Noisy Miner shown in the photo below is sure enjoying a feed from a red hot poker flower.
Go for a picnic
Another good way to become a birder and to begin enjoying our birds is to go for a picnic. This could be to a local park, a nearby river, lake or beach or to your nearest botanic gardens. In these places, you are sure to find a good variety of birds, especially if there is a water feature or natural body of water. Becuase such places often have crowds of people, many of the birds will have become quite accustomed to humans and you will be able to get up quite close. Near and in the water you will find ducks, geese, herons, egrets, grebes, coots, moorhens, cormorants and many more that I haven’t listed here.
Although it may be tempting and satisfying, please do not feed the birds. Human food, especially bread, is not suitable for Australian birds. In fact, it can kill them.
Go hiking or camping
Australia has hundreds of National Parks and Reserves in every state. These locations are almost always excellent places to go hiking, having a barbecue or picnic or even camp overnight or for longer. Because these areas are usually natural bushland, the birding can also be wonderful, especially in spring here in Australia when many birds are nesting. Keep on the lookout for birds in the bushes and any vegetation, as well as higher up in the branches of the trees. The photo of a Galah shown below was taken at a wetland area near my home. The wetlands area is actually a sewage installation, beautifully landscaped with many bushes and trees.
Birding while travelling
Warning: keep your eyes on the road and on the traffic all around you!
Yes, I also watch out for the birds I see while travelling. We have relatives and friends in many parts of Australia and visiting them sometimes entails many hours – and sometimes days – of travelling our countryside. As we go along I keep my eyes on the traffic and road conditions, but over many years, I have also become adept at watching out for any birds on the side of the road or flying over the road. Birds of prey like eagles and hawks are common along our country highways, as are ravens, choughs, magpies and currawongs. Sometimes this can be frustrating when it comes to identifying them as we speed by in our car, only getting a brief glimpse of the bird.
From time to time, it is safe to stop and get a closer look at a bird, even getting a photo if I have the camera handy. A few years ago I was driving slowly in an Adelaide street after dropping off my wife at a hospital. I was able to stop safely and quickly and get the photo of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo which I have shown below. There was a small flock of these lovely birds right there in a suburban street tree.
Birding at night
For some people, this might be a little difficult, depending on the environment surrounding their home. It possibly wouldn’t work if you live in a high-rise apartment in the heart of a city. On the other hand, we live on the edge of a large country town with plenty of natural and planted scrub all around. We quite often switch off the television at night; there’s often nothing worth watching anyway.
The area around our home is often very quiet with very little traffic. On these occasions, we occasionally hear nocturnal birds such as owls, frogmouths or nightjars calling. The Southern Boobook Owl shown below was photographed in our garden some years ago.
Birding while commuting
One way of usefully using the time spent commuting is to do some casual birding from the bus, tram or train. I haven’t done this much in my life because I always drove a car to work. To illustrate my point, we recently did a bus tour of Morocco. Wonderful country. Along the way I was able to see quite a few birds while travelling along, even getting the occasional photo, such as the egret shown below, taken from the bus. On the other hand, travelling at 300 kph in the high-speed trains in Spain is just a little too fast to be watching out for any birds. Exhilarating, yes, but difficult.
More unusual birding places
In Bed: I like lingering in bed some mornings, trying to identify the bird calls outside without actually seeing them. This is particularly enjoyable when out bush camping, or in our caravan.
In church: I must confess that I have taken notice of birds while sitting in church. Our church has several windows which give me a good, but limited, view outside. Not getting distracted from the sermon can be a challenge.
At a funeral: Again, I confess to sometimes being distracted by birds at a funeral, especially during the committal if this is held outdoors. I refrain from taking my camera or binoculars on such occasions. The same applies to when I am in church.
In a plane: It is possible to see some high flying birds from planes, but I am talking about birds seen on the tarmac while waiting for the plane to leave, or while taxiing on the runway. I managed to see birds from the window of a plane in Adelaide, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Addis Ababa. Now if you add birds seen from the terminal while waiting for a flight, the list gets longer.
On a canoe, boat or ship: I have watched birds from my canoe on many occasions. I have also taken many photos from a friend’s boat on a nearby lake (see the pelican below). I even did some birding while travelling on a ship (ferry) from Morocco to Spain.
In hospital: Thankfully, I have only been in hospital on a handful of occasions. I have, however, visited people in hospital. Whenever there is a suitable window with a garden outside, there is always the potential to even be a birder while recuperating in bed.
How about you?
- Over to my readers; where do you like to go birding?
- What unusual places have you been birding?
- Leave a comment or two; I would really appreciate that.
Postscript: In a restaurant: we stayed in a beautiful riad in Marrakech, Morocco. Because it was open to the sky, the birds were free to fly into the restaurant area. The owners even put out seed to attract them. See the photos below.
Last week we spent several days visiting family in Peterborough in the mid-north of South Australia. The main focus of this trip was a belated Christmas family get together. My son’s family who were over from Sydney for a few weeks was the main focus, but it was also great to catch up with family members on my wife’s side of the family.
The weather was far too hot to do anything other than casual birding in the back yard. The only interesting sighting over the four days was a solitary Little Eagle soaring majestically overhead early one morning. The Peterborough area is an interesting region from a birding point of view. While many of the species seen further south are present, one can also see some of the more arid region birds around the town and in the nearby farming areas. This is about as far south as some of these arid dwelling birds venture.
One spot I always try to check out when visiting Peterborough is Victoria Park. This park, next to the town’s lovely swimming pool and caravan park features an artificial lake (see photo above). On and around this lake I have recorded quite a good range of water birds, one of the few spots in the region with enough water to sustain a small population of such species.
On this occasion we were actually on our way home. We left early to beat most of the heat of later in the day. I only drove though the park and didn’t actually stop. I guess that our visit was no longer than 2 minutes – if that. During that short time I saw the following species:
- White-winged Chough
- Australian Magpie
- Black-tailed Native-hen
- Pacific Black Duck
- Australian Wood Duck
- Australian Magpie Lark
- Crested Pigeon
- Red Rumped Parrot
- Red Wattlebird
- Little Raven
It is not a long list but it does contain two interesting sightings.
While Apostlebirds are quite common in the eastern parts of Australia, they are relatively rare in South Australia. They can only be seen in a handful of places. I have recorded them in the following locations:
- Taplan (SE of Loxton),
- Gladstone (mid-north of SA),
- Laura (just north of Gladstone)
- Stone Hut (just north of Laura)
- Appila (north of Gladstone)
- Peterborough (various locations around the town and district)
- Dawson Gorge (NE of Peterborough)
Several other locations have been reported by other birders in recent years. Peterborough is one of the more reliable spots for this species in South Australia. Over recent years I have seen the species in at least five spots around the town. You can read more about this species – go to the further reading section below.
On my recent visit to Victoria Park in Peterborough I saw about 5 Black-tailed Native-hens. I have seen this species on quite a few visits to this park. While the species is not rare it is unusual to see them in such a dry region as this. I suspect that these birds may actually be a resident breeding species. In some places, if the conditions are right, they can breed rapidly and within a short space of time number in the hundreds and even in the thousands. On previous visit to this park I have seen 20 – 50 birds.
- Apostlebirds in Peterborough
- Apostlebirds by the dozen
- Apostlebirds at Taplan in the Murray Mallee
- Apostlebirds in South Australia
Over recent days I have written about and showed photos of the various birds seen on a visit to the Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo, NSW. All of these birds were actually naturally occurring species; none of them were a part of the actual species on display. The wild birds knew how to benefit from the facilities – like the artificial lake near the visitor centre shown above. They also are quick to feed on any unused food put out for the animals.
Today’s post features to Hardhead – also known as the White-eyed Duck. It is found throughout much of Australia in suitable habitat, such as lakes, swamps, large bodies of water, ornamental lakes and even brackish coastal swamps. It is rare in the drier parts of the interior. Although I have only see this species in small numbers, the field guides suggest that it is occasionally seen in large groups numbering in the thousands. It is often dispersive, moving to areas after good rain.
- White-eyed Duck or Hardhead – together with some comments on the possible origins of the name.
One of the lovely features of the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, New South Wales, is the large artificial lake next to the visitor centre. I think it is wonderful that visitors can come to this part of the zoo without paying the entrance fee. This is particularly valuable to casual passers-by who do not have the time to spend a whole day in the zoo. (Two days are recommended to see everything and entrance fees are valid for two days.)
It is also great for local people who just want to have a picnic on the grassed area next to this lake. From the picnic area visitors get a good view of two exhibits: one with monkeys and another with lemurs. I will post photos of the lemurs in a few days.
The artificial lake featured in today’s post had a good range of water birds present. I am assuming that all of these birds are actually wild birds, and not a part of the zoo’s collection; a bonus add-on, if you like.
Featured in today’s photos is a Pink-eared duck, also known as a Zebra Duck because of the striped effect of the feathers. This species is a fairly common one in most of eastern Australia and much of Western Australia. It is rare in Tasmania and mostly absent from the drier interior. It is a highly nomadic species.