Better late than never ...

To: ausbird <>
Subject: Better late than never ...
From: "Hicks, Roger" <>
Date: Wed, 19 Feb 1997 08:53:00 +1000

Traditionally New Year's Day has been a bird-watching 'big-day' and 1
January 1997 was not going to be an exception. As in recent years the
search for birds would be limited to an area within 10 km of home but
there the similarity ends. Having only recently arrived in the southern
hemisphere, last new year's day was spent in the depths of darkest
Hertfordshire (southern England) where the temperature only barely
exceeded zero and visibility was rarely greater than 50 m. Despite the
prevailing conditions, 60 species were recorded of which the highlights
were a Dipper (unusual in lowland England) and a pair of Common (River)
Kingfishers. Along with the change of hemispheres came the change of
seasons and associated length of daylight; at least in the northern
hemisphere the first dawn of the new year was not much before 08:00
allowing at least some recuperative sleep after the celebrations!

Home for our first year in Australia has been the small suburb of
Seaholme, sandwiched between Williamstown and Altona, to the west of
Melbourne, Victoria. Taking Seaholme Station, only 100 m from home as
the centre of our home range, then Melbourne+s western suburbs occupy
the north-eastern quadrant while much of the south-eastern quadrant is
covered by the waters of Altona Bay. The coast and Marybyrnong River
form the southern and eastern boundaries with Point Cook R.A.A.F. base
the southernmost point. The western border was formed by the
Derrimut/Hopkins Road (north of Werribee) while to the north we did not
cross the Western Highway. This area can offer a range of habitats
including  suburban gardens, grassland, wetlands and coast but little in
the way of woodland.

It was still dark when the alarm sounded at 05:00 on the first morning
of 1997, but the sky began to brighten while we sipped a refreshing cup
of coffee. Like us some birds were active before it was fully light.
First awake were Common Mynas closely followed by House Sparrows. The
next few birds were all species we had seen regularly from our garden
over the last 10-months; Red Wattlebirds breakfasted in a red-flowering
eucalypt (we are still struggling to get to grips with the
identification of Australian trees but think it might be ?); a female
Blackbird possibly one of the pair that nested under our porch, fed
along the edge of a flower bed tossing wood chips to one side as she
searched for grubs; Spotted Turtle Doves were also active feeding on the
grass verge while flocks of Silver Gulls flew towards the coast and a
male Greenfinch sang briefly from his perch on an overhead cable.
Starlings were perched on the rooves of houses across the street and
White-plumed Honeyeaters visited the tree frequented by the Wattlebirds

The plan was to walk round my local patch first, following the railway
line east, crossing the Cherry Lake overflow before continuing along the
shore to Kororoit Creek. Shortly after leaving home, two Common Terns,
in winter plumage flying over the houses of Seaholme were a bit of a
surprise. I had expected to see them later, but not over suburbia.
Little Wattlebirds visited another flowering gum while two juvenile
Goldfinches, lacking the red-faces of adults, twittered from a phone
line. As usual there were a couple of Australian Pelican incongruously
perched on the lamp-post by the boat ramp, surely not waiting for a free
hand-out at this early hour. Little Raven, Australian Magpie and Magpie
Lark foraged on the grassy expanses just behind the beach. Pacific Gulls
landed on another lamp-post near the Pelicans. Welcome Swallows swooped
low over the waters of Cherry Lake over-flow. They had nested under the
railway and road bridge, but no longer seemed to be caring for young. A
Song Thrush perched on a fence was the first I had seen in this area for
several months and  the twentieth species of the day. Of these 20 no
fewer than eight species had been introduced to Australia.

Once across the Cherry Lake overflow  we made our way to the seashore.
Two Royal Spoonbills headed east along the coast towards Kororoit Creek.
As we crossed the rough ground masquerading as cricket pitch we
disturbed a Willie Wagtail and seven Yellow-rumped Thornbills that had
been feeding amongst the grasses. The high-pitched contact calls of
Superb Fairy Wrens were heard from the nearby bushy perimeter of Altona
workers club and two Masked Lapwings flew up from the middle of the
cricket pitch where the outfield is continually dug up by the large
population of rabbits. The calicivirus does not seem to have reached
Altona yet. Skylark, another introduced species sang on high reminding
us of summer (and not new  year+s day) back home. The tide was high and
several Black Swans swam close in shore. No other birds were seen west
of the rocky point but a single, pale Brown Falcon perched on top of a
bush in the area of grassland and scrub known as Altona Coastal Wetland.
Up to 300 Red-necked Stint were roosting on the exposed rocks and among
them were a few Curlew Sandpipers. A careful check through the telescope
revealed that none of the waders were wearing leg-flags. Six Australian
Shelduck flew  over, the first time I have seen them at this site. Black
Swan were more numerous in the bay between the rocky point and Kororoit
Creek with 149, all adults, being counted. Is this a flock of
non-breeding birds or a moulting flock? A solitary Greenshank fed at the
water+s edge and two Little Pied Cormorants stood on a sandbank with
their wings out to dry. Earlier in the season the song of Golden-headed
Cisticolas had been a common feature of the grassland, but now the
breeding season is almost over only one male was seen performing his

As we continued along the shore an adult Crested Tern flew  in the
opposite direction while a flock of Feral Pigeons wheeled over the large
storage tanks of the mobil refinery, which dominates the skyline to the
north. A single White-faced Heron fed in the shallows accompanied by two
Australian White Ibis. Six Chestnut Teal, four males and two females
stood at the water+s edge, waiting for the tide to recede so they could
continue feeding. An adult White-headed Stilt disturbed from the head of
a small creek, flew about making its yapping call. Similar agitated
behaviour had been noted on a couple of recent visits and it was thought
to be nesting nearby. This was confirmed on new year+s day when a young
stilt (about half adult-size) was seen running across a bare area of
ground. We left the area quickly, so the young stilt would not be left
alone longer than necessary. A group of White-fronted Chats, one male
and several female plumaged birds flew along the track in front of us.
An obvious  Grey Teal was feeding at the edge of a pool left behind
after a high tide but the six Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were much more
difficult to see. The drawn out whistle-call of a Little Grassbird was
heard but the bird not seen. An adult Black-shouldered Kite hovered in a
laboured fashion over the grassland, soon moving on when mobbed by
several Little Ravens.

At 07:40 we were bird-watching along the lower part of Kororoit Creek.
Just down stream from the ford is a rocky area of the stream with a few
small islands which normally attracts several ducks and other waterfowl.
New birds here for 1997 included Little Black Cormorant, Pacific Black
Duck and Hoary-headed Grebe. Above the ford, which is only affected by
the highest of tides the only new species was a Dusky Moorhen. The small
reed bed which up until Christmas had held a singing Australian Reed
Warbler was ominously quiet.

By now Jenny and the boys had had enough bird-watching and headed home
while I continued up Kororoit Creek to complete a circuit of Cherry
Lake. Two Purple-crowned Lorikeets (a pair?) and several New Holland
Honeyeaters (my fiftieth species at 08:10) were feeding in a flowering
tree beside Millers Road. Eurasian Coots were as numerous as ever on
Cherry Lake; it seems strange that I so rarely record them on Kororoit
Creek. From Millers Road I followed the embankment between Cherry Lake
and the extensive reed beds that line Kororoit Creek. Red-browed
Firetails flew from the track to nearby bushes where some of their old,
bulky, grass nests were seen. The pool formed where the creek widens out
amongst the reeds was a haven for birdlife with 14 species seen there
including eight Red-necked Avocets and three Black-fronted Plovers.
Other waders, apparently using this pool as a high-tide roost as none
were actively feeding were eight White-headed Stilt, 13 Greenshank, six
Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and five Curlew Sandpipers. A short burst of
Australian Reed Warbler song greeted me as I reached the shore of Cherry
Lake, thankfully they had not all given up singing. Purple Swamphens
frequented the reed beds and a Great Cormorant stood amongst the birds
on the point opposite the bird hide. A flock of 67 Australian Shelduck
were spread around the western end of the lake. Several Tree Sparrows
were in the bushes on the south shore from where a Pied Cormorant was
seen to have replaced the Great Cormorant that was there earlier. By
09:45 I had returned home having seen 59 species and looking forward to
a cooked breakfast.

After breakfast it was time to explore further afield. Matthew decided
he had had enough bird-watching for one day, so Jenny stayed at home
with him, while Andrew  came with me. Skeleton Creek, was
disappointingly devoid of waterbirds, as it had been for the
twitchathons back in October and no new birds were seen here. We fared
better at Point Cook disturbing a Richard+s Pipit form the access road
and seeing four Australasian Grebes, two adults plus two full-grown
juveniles, on the small pond near the homestead. A single Pacific Golden
Plover flew along the coast where a Silvereyes and Singing Honeyeaters
called from the bushes and a Whistling Kite flew over the car park
before dropping  into the grasses. The water level in Spectacle Lake was
low  so there were few waterfowl, but Black-tailed Native Hens fed on
the lake+s grassy banks and an adult Red-capped Plover stood at the
water+s edge. An Echidna, ambling across an open space between two
bushes during the heat of the day, was our most surprising sighting.

It was now 15:00 and difficult to think where new birds might be found.
The resident Crested Pigeons could not be found near Point Cook R.A.A.F.
base but a male Australian Kestrel was seen perched on a fence post. We
headed out to the grasslands around Truganina, north-west of Laverton
and explored the many tracks. Singing Bushlarks were reasonably common,
frequently perching on fences and a Horsfield+s Bronze Cuckoo seen in a
patch of scrub took the species total to 70 but bird activity was at a
minimum in the 30oC temperature and blustery, dry wind. Most unexpected
bird of the day was Banded Lapwing, a flock of 13 was seen sharing a
field with several horses from a nearby stables. And with that sighting
we headed for home and tea.

I ventured out alone in the evening. Now that the temperature and wind
had dropped somewhat, the birds were again active. The Point Cook
Crested Pigeons had returned to their usual haunt. From a vantage point
near Skeleton Creek a vixen and two cubs were watched trotting across on
the dried salt pans startling a hare, the fourth animal recorded. The
final birds of the day were two Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrikes flying over
the creek and a flock of 41 Marsh Sandpipers roosting in the shallows.

So ended my first New Year+s Day birdwatch down-under. Few  regularly
recorded species were missed (e.g. Great Egret, Straw-necked Ibis and
Striated Fieldwren) but given the available habitats within 10 km of
Seaholme, the total of 74 species was not a bad haul, although I am sure
more experienced Australian bird-watchers could have bettered it.

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- -  -
Roger Hicks                     Tel :   03-9315-0353 (home)
3 Seaview Crescent,                     03-9865-8613 (work)
Victoria 3018                   E-mail: 
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