Ross River waterbirds

A bike ride from home to the Palmetum yesterday rewarded me with sightings of many waterbirds and photos of some species I don’t see very often.

Magpie goose in flight
Magpie Goose in flight

The Magpie Goose, Anseranus semipalmata, is one of the largest of our waterbirds – not as big as the Pelican but bigger than our ducks and ibis and much heavier than our egrets. They seem to be coming  to the coast now as the inland dries out, like many other birds; certainly, I don’t usually see them along our Ross River parklands but there were lots yesterday.

Bird on waterlily leaves
Comb-crested Jacana on waterlily leaves

The Comb-crested Jacana,  Irediparra gallinacea, is a smallish bird with a chicken-like comb and the most extraordinary feet. Its lower legs are disproportionately heavy, and each of its toes is nearly as big as its shinbone, an adaptation which allows it to forage on floating vegetation in rivers and lagoons by spreading the weight over a large area. It is Australia’s only Jacana, although an Asian relative has been sighted in WA.

Dark birds perched on a branch
Fishing mates: Australian Darter (left) and Little Black Cormorant

The Australian Darter, Anhinga melanogaster, and Little Black Cormorant, Phalacrocorax sulcirostris, are relatively common along Ross River. These two, perched on a branch over the water, were obviously on the lookout for lunch.

Airlie Beach birds and walks

view of Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach

Fifty years ago Airlie Beach was a sleepy little town tucked in between the hills and the sea but it has grown exponentially with the rise of tourism, building up the hills and back into the hinterland (map).

Most of the growth near the sea is holiday accommodation of various kinds and the result, from a distance, is strangely reminiscent of far older towns in Italy (e.g. Positano) and Greece. The tourist dominance continues in the main street (souvenirs, travel agents, food and drink, backpacker hostels).

A nicer result of the same focus is the ‘boardwalk’ which follows the water’s edge from the main beach all the way back to Cannonvale beach, winding past the marina and occasional resorts but running mainly through parks when it has to part from the beach. I kept my eyes open for wildlife of all kinds when we did the walk. There weren’t many insects (midwinter, of course) but the birds made up for that – seagulls, of course, an Australasian Darter drying his wings on a rock near the marina, Black Ducks and a mixed group feeding on flowering gums, paperbarks and palms in parkland:

Great Bowerbird feeding on palm seeds
Great Bowerbird, Chlamydera nuchalis, feeding on palm seeds

Rainbow Lorikeets and a bird which may have been a Varied Honeyeater were also feeding in the palms.

Yellow honeyeater feeding on paperbark blossom
Yellow honeyeater, Lichenostomus flavus, feeding on paperbark blossom

We saw a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in the flowering eucalypt nearby, and a Forest Kingfisher (very like the Red-backed Kingfisher I saw out West recently) perched on a power line to look out for prey; a small hawk, perhaps a Nankeen Kestrel, preferred a street light as her perch. We did occasionally look out to sea …

boats off Airlie Beach
Looking out from Airlie’s main beach

Another easy walk from the centre of town takes you into the hills, following Airlie Creek (only a trickle at this time of year) upstream through the rainforest to a small waterfall. Birds in the bush are almost invisible but I managed photographs of butterflies feeding on flowers in sunlit spots, and a few colourful plants (fig, bitter melon).

Birds of Rainsby

Rainsby is the Western Queensland cattle grazing property I visited over Easter and described here. There were lots of birds and I managed to capture a good number of species with my camera, though not all at a quality I would inflict on innocent browsers.

The species fell neatly into two groups with little overlap. The lightly timbered grassland around the house supported one group, Torrens Creek had all the waterbirds, and the birds of prey (at least two species) soared high above both areas. Small photos on this page are linked to larger versions, as are most of the photos on Green Path – as usual, just click on them.

Around the house

A flock of Crested Pigeons in dead trees
A flock of Crested Pigeons in dead trees near the house

• Crested Pigeon, Ocyphaps lophotes
• Black-faced Woodswallow, Artamus cinereus
• Yellow-throated Miner, Manorina flavigula
• Red-backed Kingfisher, Todiramphus pyrrhopygius
• Willie-wagtail, Rhipidura leucophrys

Crested pigeon
Crested pigeon
Black-faced Woodswallow, Artamus cinereus
Black-faced Woodswallow
Yellow-throated Miner, Manorina flavigula, on hibiscus
Yellow-throated Miner
Red-backed Kingfisher, Todiramphus pyrrhopygius
Red-backed Kingfisher
Red-backed Kingfisher, Todiramphus pyrrhopygius
Red-backed Kingfisher

I also saw Magpies, Magpie-larks, Galahs and Hawks (Black Kites, I think, and one that may have been a Peregrine Falcon) but don’t have satisfactory photos for one reason or another.

Beside the creek

Herons perched on dead branch
Three kinds of heron on one high branch: White-necked Herons, a White-faced Heron, and a juvenile Nankeen Night Heron

The photo above is a somewhat fluky capture of three species of heron together – two White-necked Heron, Ardea pacifica; a White-faced Heron, Ardea novaehollandiae; and a young Nankeen Night Heron, Nicticorax caledonicus. For good measure, there was an adult Nankeen Night Heron on the branch below these four but it was obscured by leaves and therefore cropped out of the image.

Chicks in nest

There were lots of nests in the trees along the banks of the creek and in one of them, just above our picnic spot, I noticed two large but still very immature nestlings. I’m not at all sure of their identity but they must belong to one of the larger species – White-necked Heron or Australian Darter, Anhinga melanogaster, perhaps.

Australian Darter
Female Australian Darter

Very late in the afternoon I saw a pair of Pale-headed Rosellas, Platycercus adscitus, flying in to a big old gum tree on the far bank of the creek and enter what was obviously their nesting hole. I would have loved a photo but unfortunately there wasn’t enough light.

An unexpected visitor

I was in the garden with my camera yesterday morning, on the way to taking a photo of a beautifully flowering wattle tree, when I heard screeching, a flutter of wings and a thump on the wall of the house just above me. I turned quickly enough to see a big grey bird sliding down the wall – exactly as cartoon characters slide down a wall after running into one at top speed! – and get a vague impression of another, slightly smaller, bird flying off unharmed.

The grey bird landed in the garden bed and lay there with outspread wings trembling. When, after a little time, I moved towards it, it dragged itself across the garden onto the front of the concrete under the house (a high-set Queenslander, remember?) and stood there looking totally dishevelled and confused:

Channel-billed Cuckoo
Not at its best.

From there it flap-hopped its way to a nearby bottlebrush and gradually up to the top of the tree, then it managed a slightly longer hop into the thick foliage of the poinciana where we lost sight of it.

cuckoo in tree
Nearing the top of the bottlebrush.

Kindly local experts identified it for me as an adult Channel-billed Cuckoo, Scythrops novaehollandiae (and definitely not a juvenile, by the way, because the red around the eye doesn’t develop until adulthood). Slater’s Field Guide notes that it is ‘often chased by crows’ (to which we must add ‘and other birds’), but this one has clearly been systematically persecuted: its main wing feathers are looking very ragged, and it ought to have long tail-feathers but they are completely gone. This is what it should look like (thanks for another great pic, Ian!) and Slater’s confirms that it is actually a bit bigger than a magpie or crow.

New telephoto lens

Brown butterfly on poinsettia
Common Eggfly on poinsettia, courtesy of my new telephoto zoom lens

Most of my insect photography so far has been done with my Canon 100mm macro lens, and I love it: it lets me get big, clear images of anything I can get close enough to.

But that last bit can be problematic, of course. Dragonflies and many other insects don’t take kindly to having a person or a camera lens too close to them, and they take off. Sure, I have taken some good shots of skittish subjects – but I have missed many more. The solution, of course, is a telephoto lens which lets the photographer fill the frame with a smaller or more distant subject. After a fair bit of research online and some advice from more experienced photographers I settled on an image-stabilised Canon 70-300mm zoom lens. I got it two days ago and took it for a walk beside Ross River yesterday afternoon.

First impressions are that its image quality, so long as I do everything right, is very nearly as good as my macro lens – great! – and that it does make flighty subjects much easier to capture – terrific! The butterfly above (click on it for a larger image, as usual) exemplifies both points. Dragonflies were far easier, too, and I got some little crabs which would normally have vanished into their holes in the mud before I got close enough.

I also had birds in mind when I went shopping, and you can expect more birds on my blog from now on. I watched a Great Egret fly in and land in the shallows of Ross River far enough away not to be bothered by me but close enough to for some good shots. (25.2.12: they are now here.) Distant landscape subjects are also good: I can’t read a numberplate a kilometre away but I can get perspectives which would otherwise be impossible.

Downsides? None that are too significant. I need to remember to keep shutter speed up – even with the stabilisation, 1/160 sec is often blurred at 300mm, hand-held (on the other hand, the rule of thumb for an unstabilised lens would recommend going down to at least 1/300 sec). I also have to get used to the idea that I may need to step away from the subject to be able to focus on it, since the minimum focus distance is about 1.5 metres. That’s about all, really. My macro lens will still be best for very small, close subjects but the telephoto zoom lens will see a lot of use.