The Varied Triller

small black and white bird
Varied Triller in the poinciana tree

I have been looking out for all the different birds in my (suburban Townsville) garden for several years now, so I know all the regulars and most of the usual visitors quite well, but I still see new species occasionally. The latest, a couple of days ago, was the Varied Triller, Lalage leucomela. When I saw it my first thought was that it was too small to be a Magpie-lark and might be a biggish honeyeater or robin, but when I checked Slaters Field Guide none of them matched. In the end I identified it with the help of the Bird Finder on Birds in Backyards. Mine is a male; females are brownish.

Trillers are in the same family, Campephagidae, as the somewhat larger Cuckooshrikes and feed on ‘insects, fruit and nectar in trees’, to quote Slaters. They are ‘uncommon nomads’ in coastal areas from central NSW to the Kimberley and up into New Guinea.

With just one sighting I count myself lucky to have taken even the one useable photo you see above; Ian Montgomery has far better shots on Birdway. Birds in Backyards doesn’t have such a good photo but does have an excellent fact sheet on the species.

Big Crystal Creek

view of forested mountains
Looking up towards Mt Spec

Last Sunday we went for another walk in the bush with the local Wildlife Queensland people – a bit further from home than our first, and more interesting in that it took us to a place we knew about but hadn’t visited before. We know Paluma, and Little Crystal Creek on the road up the range to it, but had somehow never diverged from that road to visit Big Crystal Creek and Paradise Lagoon. It’s easy enough: turn off the highway as if you’re going to Paluma but then follow the signs (about 7km) to Big Crystal Creek instead of turning left to go up Mount Spec to Paluma.

two yellow-fronted birds on branch
Lemon-bellied Flycatchers

We parked at the Paradise Lagoon picnic ground and walked up the road to the Water Slides area. WQ will soon have a full report on the walk (now here) so I will concentrate on the bugs and leave most of the plants and birds to them. I’m still going to put one bird photo here, however, just because the birds were obliging enough to pose for a series of portraits (as usual, click on it for a full-size image).

As well as these Flycatchers (Microeca flavigaster) we saw a tiny Scarlet Honeyeater and several other birds. Insects and spiders were also abundant, from the mantis and preyed-upon grasshopper I spotted before we even left the carpark, to the grasshoppers preying upon flowers of the native hibiscus (see them here), to the spiders waiting patiently in their webs above the fast-flowing rocky stream. There were lots of butterflies, too – we saw Blue Triangles, Clearwing Swallowtail, Common Crow, Eurema, Common Eggfly, Blue Argus, a Pierid which was probably a Migrant, and an orange butterfly which may have been an Australian Rustic – but they are all species which I have already photographed lots of times and I didn’t try too hard to catch them this time.

spotted beetle
Acacia Longicorn Beetle on twig. They eat bark, so this one is probably responsible for the damage we see here.
mantis with a grasshopper
Mantis and prey
A slender spider, Tetragnathidae, suspended above rushing water
A slender spider, Tetragnathidae, suspended above rushing water
Another slender spider, Cyclosa species, in its web. The strand of 'rubbish' consists of egg sacs (near top), spider and (lower middle) and camouflage including prey remnants
Another slender spider, Cyclosa species, in its web. The strand of ‘rubbish’ consists of egg sacs (near top), spider  (lower middle – head down and with front legs extended) and camouflage including prey remnants.

We returned to Paradise Lagoon picnic ground for lunch and a short walk to the swimming hole:

rocky swimming hole
Paradise Lagoon

The Borrow-pit near Ross Dam

pond with waterbirds
A view of the borrow-pit at the end of the Dry season, with spoonbills and ibis in the small pond in the foreground

Articles about bird-watching around Townsville routinely mention the Town Common, Ross Dam and the Borrow Pits. I have known the first two for years but never quite located the third until a trip to Kelso a fortnight ago presented me with an opportunity. Finding a map that shows it is harder than finding the the pondage itself so here is Ross Dam at lower right and the Borrow-pits – nameless – on the other side of Upper Ross River Road:

View Larger Map

dam with pelicans
Borrow-pit, with pelicans, at the end of the Dry. The ridge in the background is the side wall of Ross Dam

The area is not particularly prepossessing unless you happen to be a water-bird. There are a couple of benches and shelters, and a rough track runs around the pond a little above high water level, and that’s about all. A half-hearted attempt to make it more attractive to human visitors is remembered primarily by a sign at one of the entrances: the project was “due for completion” ten years ago. The birds love it, though: in a visit of less than half an hour I saw Pelicans, Ibis, Spoonbills, Black ducks, Cormorants, Stilts and Greater Egret around and on the water, and Hawks, Crows, Peewits, Friar-birds, Peaceful Doves and unidentified parrots nearby.

My favourite photos from my visit are a short sequence showing a Stilt taking off and landing but I’ll add a couple more to this post too.

black and white wading bird
Black-winged Stilt, Himantopus himantopus, coming in to land
tiny bird pursuing larger one
Woodswallow harassing a hawk; picture orientation is correct – the hawk is flying vertically upwards in its effort to escape
brown hawk in flight
Hawk – perhaps the same one – flying to a tree
wind-ruffled pelicans
Pelicans having a bad-feathers day

More information

The borrow pit probably gets a mention in Jo Wieneke’s birders’ guide, Where to Find Birds in North-East Queensland, too although I can’t check because I haven’t (yet) got the book – I only found out about it while researching this post. Soon!

Update, September 2014: Where to Find Birds in North-East Queensland is now an e-book. Ian Montgomery’s name has been added as co-author and the book is advertised on his site, Birdway – see for a preview and downloading links.

Birdwatching with the Conservation Volunteers

View across the Common from the elevated hide. Cattle Egrets in foreground
View across the Common, with Cattle Egrets in foreground

Conservation Volunteers Australia has a new summer programme (pdf here) of excursions open to everyone and we went along to one this morning – birdwatching on the Town Common. A CVA worker met us at the park gate and took us or led us, by mini-bus or our own cars, to the bird hides where members of the Bird Observers Club were waiting with identification checklists and telescopes.

It was my first visit to the bird hides on the Common and I was impressed by their siting and construction. From the first of them we saw Pelicans, Black Cormorants and a young Jabiru quite close to us, with the adult Jabiru and some Brolgas in the distance. Here are Black Cormorant (represented by a neck sticking up out of the water) and Pelicans fishing together. The Cormorant are divers while the Pelican spear from above, so each scares prey towards the other – a win-win strategy, except from the prey’s point of view.

Pelicans and Cormorant
Pelicans and Cormorant fishing together

From the second, elevated, hide we saw dozens of Cattle Egrets and a scattering of other birds – Glossy Ibis, Jabiru and Brolga, Honeyeaters, Grebes – as in the top picture. I didn’t use my checklist but I know I saw several more species, too.

The children with the group enjoying ticking off their checklist and some of them were very good at spotting birds for us. Right at the beginning, while we were waiting at the gate for the group to assemble, one of them pointed out a family of Tawny Frogmouths – adult and two well-grown chicks – in a pandanus palm ten metres from the road.