On the road again

We are on the road again – once again to Sydney so we can spend time with the grandchildren during the school holidays. Such a hard life.

I haven’t been able to add much here on this site in recent weeks. Between my wife and I we seem to have been on the road so many times in recent weeks in order to keep doctors’ and specialists’ appointments, most of them in Adelaide about 80km from home. Now we have a 4 week window we had blocked out on our calendar to undertake this current trip to Sydney. While most of our time will be spent with the family, I am sure that I will get a few opportunities to do some birding. I also have had a few good sightings at home in recent weeks that I must write about too.

I am writing this from our cabin in a caravan park in Hay in far western New South Wales, just over 700 kilometres from Sydney, another day’s journey to go. Just west of Hay we traversed the Hay Plain, a long, extremely flat landscape dominated by saltbush and little else. Usually the birding on this stretch of road is very interesting, and I often ask my wife to drive that section – so I can watch out for and record the birds I see going along.

Today was a little disappointing. Usually we see dozens of birds of prey: eagles, hawks, kestrels and kites. Today the count for the 135km stretch was a solitary Nankeen Kestrel. To make up for this poor showing I saw the following species:

  • Australian Ravens
  • White-necked Heron
  • Little Egret
  • Dozens of Emus
  • Australian Magpie
  • Magpie Lark
  • Pied Butcherbird

It’s not a great long list, but it was enough to more or less keep me happy.

Murder in the garden

Many people enjoy seeing birds, especially those that visit their gardens. People also enjoy seeing birds in parks and reserves, on the beach or along rivers. They are variously described as “cute”, “pretty”, “delightful”, “wonderful” and many other such “nice” words.

Rarely are they described as gory, or brutal or even dangerous. The stark reality is that while many birds are indeed stunning in their colours, amazing in their survival instincts and quite fascinating in their behaviour, some species do have a gory, brutal (in human terms) side to their lives.

A few days ago I was hanging up the washing on the clothes line – or getting it off – whatever – and there was a sudden noisy kerfuffle in the trees nearby. The various honeyeater species were totally upset – and with good reason. A Collared Sparrow-hawk flew ponderously to a branch nearby, clutching a struggling bird in its talons.

The sparrow-hawk proceeded to gouge chunks of flesh off the hapless bird, feathers scattering in the breeze and all the while the rest of the avian community voiced their disapproval – or fears. I tried to sneak up for a closer look. I quickly dismissed the idea of racing inside to get the camera. It appeared to be a White-plumed Honeyeater being eaten.

This is the reality of life in the raw.¬† To survive, the sparrow-hawk must eat. One bird’s death means another bird’s survival. In human terms it seems cruel and gory, but this is the way of web of life.

I didn’t get a photo, so I’ve included one below that I took some years ago.

This article was last update on 10th October 2015.

Collared Sparrowhawk

Yellow-billed Kite, Ethiopia

Yellow-billed Kite, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

On my recent trip to Ethiopia I had the opportunity to spend quite a few hours birds in the grounds of the international  school where my daughter was teaching. She lived on the campus and we were able to stay with her in her apartment. The school campus was quite large and included a football ground (soccer) and a small forest of eucalyptus trees.

By far the most obvious birds visiting the school were the Yellow-billed Kites. At first I thought that they were Black Kites as we have them in large numbers here in Australia. The Yellow-billed Kite (Milvus aegyptius) is regarded as a sub-species of the Black Kite which also occurs in Ethiopia. The one shown in the photo above does not appear to have a yellow beak, so it is almost certainly a juvenile bird.

The kites were in abundance every day both on the school football ground and soaring overhead. Sometimes I could see 20 – 30 soaring on high and just as many low over the oval or actually on the ground.

This was the first of many “lifers” I saw on my trip. (“Lifers” = bird species seen for the very first time and so eligible to go on one’s “life list“. )

Yellow-billed Kite, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Australasian Pipit, Hay Plains, New South Wales

Hay Plains, western New South Wales

Sydney Trip Report June 2011

When we travel to Sydney to stay with family we usually have to drive over the Hay Plains. This very flat region is in western New South Wales. I guess most people find this drive boring and try to complete this leg of the journey as quickly as speed limits allow. The road is very good and you can maintain 110kph for several hours without having to slow down – unless you get behind a slow moving car towing a caravan.

My wife and I don’t find this drive at all boring. In fact I look forward to it. The region has very few trees; the photo above is a typical view. Trees are usually only found around the few farmhouses and along water courses. The Murrumbidgee River to the north and the Murray River to the south are some distance from the highway, so trees are few.

Despite this limitation, the birding is often wonderfully good, especially as far as raptors are concerned. On our most recent crossing of the plains earlier this year I recorded the following birds of prey:

  • Wedge-tailed Eagle (two only)
  • Nankeen Kestrel (common)
  • Black-shouldered Kite (common)
  • Black Kite (common)
  • Little Eagle (one only)

Other species seen include:

  • Australian Raven (common)
  • Australian Magpie (common)
  • Australian Magpie Lark (common)

Probably the most outstanding sighting was of the Australasian Pipit (see photo below). I’ve never seen so many in one day before. I’m used to seeing the odd one or two on the road or on the roadside verges. I didn’t do a count but there must have been several hundred present over about a 50km stretch of road. All of them were on the road, not the edges, and would only just fly out of the way of approaching vehicles.

Interesting behaviour; I’m guessing that they were feeding on road kill. This area is rich in insect life and fast moving vehicles account for many insect deaths. This area had recently experienced a locust plague with some remnants of that time still around. It must have been a veritable smorgasbord for them.

By way of contrast, on our return trip over the same route two weeks later, I didn’t see any pipits at all.

 

Australasian Pipit, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia

Nankeen Kestrel, Corny Point

Nankeen Kestrel, Corny Point, Yorke Peninsula

One of the most common birds of prey seen while driving in rural Australia is the small kite known as the Nankeen Kestrel. In fact, on a recent trip driving from home in South Australia to Sydney, a distance of just over 1300km, I saw more of this species than any other bird of prey. Although I didn’t keep a count, I seemed to see one every few kilometres.

Despite it being so common I have been frustrated in not being able to get a good photo of this species. I’m still frustrated; the photos on this post are far from perfect because they were taken in poor light late in the day and during fine drizzle which accounts for the haziness, but they are better than no photos at all. I’ll just have to keep trying.

The Nankeen Kestrel is widespread in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and occasionally in New Zealand. It is very easy to identify with the diagnostic brown colouring on its back. It is also very easy to see driving along because of its habit of hovering on the air watching for its prey, perhaps a grasshopper, beetle, small lizard or even a mouse.

The individual shown in these photos posed nicely for on a roadside fence post during a shower of rain just as we were leaving the Corny Point Lighthouse on Yorke Peninsula. He appeared to be quite wet and cold from the terrible weather conditions of the day.

Nankeen Kestrel, Corny Point, Yorke Peninsula