New Year's Day 1999 (long)

To: "'Birding-Aus'" <>
Subject: New Year's Day 1999 (long)
From: "Hicks, Roger" <>
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1999 08:43:00 +1000

Our third New Year+s Day down-under was spent on a bird-watching +big-day+.
As in previous years, both in England and Australia, we limited ourselves to
an area within 10 km of home. During our first year in Australia we lived in
Seaholme and spent our first new years day (1997) birdwatching within 10 km
of Seaholme station. Although we moved during 1997 we decided to use the
same area for our New Year+s Day bird-watch in 1998, and again on 1 January
1999. Seaholme is a small suburb, sandwiched between Williamstown and
Altona, to the west of Melbourne, Victoria. Taking Seaholme Station as the
centre of our home range, 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 offers a range of habitats including suburban gardens,
grassland, wetlands and coast but little in the way of woodland. In this
area, on the first days of 1997 and 1998 we recorded 74 and 85 species
respectively. This year our aim was to beat our 1998 score and our dream was
to record 100 species which should be possible if our luck held. To maximise
our chances we changed our strategy from last year. We would still start
with a walk round Truganina Swamp, my local patch, followed by a drive
around various sites such as Newport Lakes and Laverton grasslands before
ending the day at Point Cook and Laverton saltworks.

Andrew and I surfaced at about 05:00 on a cool, calm new year+s morning
while Jenny, my wife and Matthew, our younger son opted for a lie-in. By
straining our ears we picked up the call of a Willie Wagtail for our first
bird of 1999 followed shortly by the carolling of an Australian Magpie.
Breakfast of a crunchy muesli bar was taken while wandering around a still
dark garden but nothing was heard until the munching abated. Rule 1 for the
aspiring big-day birder, forget the crunchy muesli bars. Then, Skylarks
could be heard singing from nearby Truganina Swamp and Blackbirds from
closer rooftops while Silver Gulls called as they flew overhead. As the sky
slowly lightened other birds gradually joined the dawn chorus; the raucous
calls of Common Mynas, the soft coos of Spotted Turtle Doves and the
whistles of White-plumed Honeyeaters from surrounding gardens were joined by
the harsher calls of Red Wattlebirds in trees bordering the swamp. House
Sparrows feeding in a neighbour+s garden as we made our way towards
Truganina Swamp became the first birds seen on new year+s day. The swamp has
been my local patch since we moved to Altona Meadows in mid-1997 and forms
part of Melbourne Water+s drainage system acting as a retarding basin to
prevent flooding. Laverton Creek flows through the middle of the swamp and
has been widened to facilitate flood control. For much of the time the swamp
has been dry grassland due to lack of rain but currently the north-east
corner is flooded. There are areas of salt marsh and reed-bed, the latter
mainly to the east of the creek, and a small freshwater pond/swamp behind
Mount St. Joseph+s school which in contrast to last year is full of water.
Kooringal Golf course, to the south-east, is well wooded but there is no
access from the swamp.  The Western Purification Plant, to the south-west,
is similarly out of bounds but the settling tanks can be viewed through the
fence and often hold concentrations of ducks and gulls.

As we approached the swamp Superb Fairy-Wrens were heard calling from the
long grasses and a flock of mostly immature Common Starlings, some moulting
into winter plumage, flew out from the housing estate and settled in some
boxthorn bushes before dropping to the ground to feed. We were still hearing
more birds than we were seeing so we stopped at the edge of the swamp for a
listen. A Purple Swamphen squawked from the reeds growing alongside Laverton
Creek; Magpie-Larks called from nearby suburbia; Golden-headed Cisticolas
buzzed and Little Grassbirds whistled from the taller stands of grass and
reeds while Masked Lapwings complained, I don+t know what about,  from the
centre of the swamp. Rabbits are common around here despite various control
measures and were the first mammal seen followed shortly after by a solitary
Hare, the only other mammal we recorded all day. New birds were coming much
slower than at the same stage last year. As we followed the cinder track
down the west side of Laverton Creek a party of Little Ravens flew over,
heading towards the trees of the golf course. Where the creek broadens out
there was a flock of six Greenshanks standing in the shallows, plus our
first wildfowl of the morning; a couple of Black Swans, a pair of Grey Teal
and Chestnut Teal plus a few Pacific Black Duck. Three White-headed Stilts
waded amongst the duck delicately picking items from the surface of the
water and 4 White-faced Herons foraged along the creek bank while a Common
tern in non-breeding plumage patrolled over the creek. The wheezing song of
a Greenfinch was heard from the pines bordering the golf course and a pair
of Little Lorikeets screeched overhead.

As last year the settling ponds and surrounds of the Western Water treatment
plant brought a rush of species.  Australian White Ibis and Straw-necked
Ibis stood on the grassy banks where a pair of European Goldfinch fed at a
thistle head. The tanks held numerous Grey and Chestnut Teal plus
Hoary-headed Grebe, Eurasian Coot, a small flock of Hardheads and a lone
Australasian Shoveler. A single Little Black Cormorant and an Australian
Pelican sat on the pontoons separating the ponds. We paused just long enough
to complete a count for the Victorian Wetland database before continuing
towards Queen Street.  As we crossed the bridge over Laverton Creek a party
of Musk Lorikeets exploded noisily from a flowering tree where they had been
feeding and a pair of Feral Pigeons circled over the nearby netball and
basketball centre. Following the edge of the golf course northwards we
disturbed a flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills and then some Crested Pigeons,
the latter flying away with an audible whirring of their stubby wings while
overhead an Australian Hobby soared on stiff wings. From the golf course
woodland we heard the calls of Galah just before two flew over and then had
our first surprise of the day when an Eastern Rosella, only previously
recorded once, was seen clambering through the casuarina trees that edge the
golf course where there were also several New Holland Honeyeaters.

Welcome Swallows and Eurasian Tree Sparrows belatedly put in a welcome
appearance, they are normally common around home, where had they been
earlier? As last year Red-capped Plover and Marsh Sandpiper were the only
new birds seen on the shallow salt marsh. At 07:42 a burst of Clamorous
Reed-Warbler song from the reed bed in the north-east corner of the marsh
brought up our half-century,  some 34 minutes later than last year. Two
juvenile Black-shouldered Kites, still showing some pale rufous markings on
the underparts, perched on top of a tall pole near Mount St Joseph+s pond
where only Dusky Moorhen was added to the list. In contrast to last year the
pond remained full of water and this year there were no muddy margins to
entice crakes into the open. However, a portion of the north-east corner of
Truganina Swamp has been flooded and during December I had regularly seen
Buff-banded Rails here. We were not disappointed on New Year+s day. As we
headed home across the northern end of the swamp a Striated Fieldwren popped
up onto the fence bordering the track. This is a species that has eluded us
on previous big days and is only irregularly recorded from the swamp, so it
was doubly pleasing to see it this time. The mournful whistle of a Brown
Quail was heard from the grassland where a party of White-fronted Chats fed
on the shorter sward. Nearer home Purple-crowned Lorikeet, the commonest of
the three smaller lorikeets fed in a flowering eucalypt where there was also
a Little Wattlebird. Although birds seemed to be coming at a slower pace
than in 1998 we had completed a circuit of my local patch at about the same
time and with about the same number of species, 58 in 1999 cf 61 in 1998.

After breakfast, Jenny and Matthew joined Andrew and I for a drive to more
distant parts of our home range. A Song Thrush perched on the overhead wires
near home was the first new bird. This species can be surprisingly elusive
so it was nice to get it under the belt without too much hard work. A small
flock of Fairy Martins swooped over rough grassland south of Laverton and a
shallow stretch of Skeleton Creek in Hoppers Crossing held a Black-fronted
Dotterel and a Latham+s Snipe. Richard+s Pipits were common in the
grasslands north-west of Laverton where we also found some Banded Lapwings
near their regular site. Singing Bushlarks were back in residence and where
one had imitated a Galah for us last year, this year we were treated to a
fine rendition of a Goldfinch calling. Continuing west along ? road we could
not repeat the luck of last year when we discovered a male Brown Songlark
but were treated to a fine collection of raptors. Every other telegraph pole
seemed to offer a perch for a Brown Falcon but one had been claimed by a
magnificent Peregrine which allowed us two minutes to admire his finery
before effortlessly powering away over the fields. A pale-phase Little Eagle
soared over the Derrimut-Hopkins road which marks the western edge of our
territory and nearby another smaller bird of prey also soared on high - but
too far away for me to identify. A Nankeen Kestrel was our last new bird
from the grasslands.

Newport Lakes is an old quarry that has been made into an attractive park
featuring wetland and some native bush. We visited it as a guaranteed site
for Australasian Grebe, but we also pleased to add Darter and, our second
surprise of the day a  Great Crested Grebe in immaculate breeding plumage.
At Jawbone Point, part of the Williamstown wetlands on the north shore of
Kororoit Creek we saw Pacific Gull, Pied Cormorant (our 75th species at
11:39) and Little Pied Cormorant perched on rocks just offshore and a Royal
Spoonbill roosting in the reeds with its bill tucked under its wing. Crested
Terns off Altona were our last new birds of the morning.

Only Andrew and I ventured out after lunch, first visiting Cherry Lake,
where we recorded Silvereye and Red-browed Firetail in the waterside
vegetation and numerous Australian Shelducks on the lake. Next we visited a
lower section of Skeleton Creek, near where it enters Laverton saltworks,
but saw no new birds. Finally we drove to Point Cook Metropolitan Park where
we intended spending much of the remainder of the day. Singing Honeyeaters
were numerous around the picnic site carpark and a male Swamp Harrier flew
over Spectacle Lakes where there were a pair of Wood Duck. Sadly, the
Pink-eared Duck and Black-tailed Native-hen that I had seen at this site on
Christmas Day were no longer in evidence.  At the gate to Laverton saltworks
we met the ranger Bernie McGarrick who kindly offered to drive us around, so
saving us a fair amount of leg work. Most of the waders were roosting on one
pond where we saw Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
and Pacific Golden Plover but, disappointingly, could not pick out any other
species. However, with 87 species we had now beaten our 1998 total although
we were struggling to think where new birds were going to come from. A
Whistling Kite in wing moult soared over the saltpans; the buzzy calls of a
White-browed Scrub-Wren were heard near the Point Cook Homestead and an
adult Gannet was seen off-shore from Point Cook. So we ended New Year+s Day
1999 on 90 species. We were a little disappointed not to have made the ton,
especially as this will probably be our last new year down under (at least
for a while), but we really could not think where we could have found
another 10 species.
Post Script: On 23 January 1999, on one of my regular walks around Truganina
Swamp, I recorded six species that we did not see on New Year+s Day. These
were Musk Duck, Pink-eared Duck, Little Egret, White-necked Heron, Great
Cormorant and Horsfield+s Bronze Cuckoo.

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Roger Hicks                     Tel :   03-9369-6023 (home)
4 Hakea Court,                          03-9865-7051 (work)
Altona Meadows  
Victoria 3028                   E-mail: 
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