After a hectic January within which I saw 251 species, the Hunter Big Year
really did hit the skids during February. This was to be expected, due to the
fact that we’d visited the vast majority of “sites” in the first month (“we”
referring also to Dan Williams who is on the Big Year with me as well).
Moreover though, the skid-hitting has been exacerbated by what can only be
descried as poor conditions for birding in the region.
The rain out west has really taken its toll. The conspicuous absence of many
species and a sharp drop in numbers of common birds (e.g. Grey Teal) is
presumably in direct correlation with the conditions in western areas caused by
the recent rains that continued to fall during February. We are hoping many
birds return in spring and are trying to convince ourselves that the situation
out west will result in breeding events and that we’ll be picking up dispersing
youngsters later in the year!
Notwithstanding, we were able to add some good birds to our list during the
On the 3rd of Feb there was a report of a Sooty Tern flying around over
Stockton Breakwall, so I headed out to Nobby’s (other side of the harbour)
after work to investigate. I could see nothing of interest flying over
Stockton, except for a couple of local birders (Drongo’s to be exact) with
scopes set into the bight. About 200m shy of the end of Nobby’s Breakwall I
almost stepped onto a Sooty Tern! The bird was clearly injured but could fly
well enough. I didn’t have my mobile with me so I couldn’t alert the pair at
Stockton – even star jumps and coo-ees didn’t work as they kept their attention
to the north. Dan Williams had the same theory as me about Nobby’s and he
arrived at speed on his pushie to see the bird just as I was leaving. There was
a spate of Sooty Tern records along the NSW coast at that time, including
several others from the Newcastle area.
From there a few other new birds trickled in, including Nankeen Night Heron
whilst waiting to go in to the HBOC AGM, Western Gerygone out at Goulburn River
NP and finally a view of a Stubble Quail the same day (a bird that I’d heard
nearly every time I’d ventured out the door!). A flock of 20 Chestnut-breasted
Mannikins on Kooragang on the 12th Feb were a welcome sight, as was a Brahminy
Kite on the Hunter River the day before.
Next came an unusual report of a Bush Stone-curlew loitering around the beach
access track to Horseshoe Beach at Nobby’s. I investigated the report and sure
enough, there was the bird, standing metres away from the busiest leash-free
dog beach in the region! After much discussion between various experts and
authorities we decided to relocate the bird to a safer place in Port Stephens.
Again, Dan got the pedals pumping in his lunch break to come and see the bird
before it was transported away, as did Grant Brosie – one of the Drongo’s who
had dipped on the Sooty Tern.
A tantalising report of a Eurasian Curlew at the Stockton Sandspit on the 19th
Feb had a crowd gathered there on the high tide of the 20th. Alas, no unusual
Curlews were seen that day (nor on subsequent days by several other birders)
but an Eastern Osprey was bird #262 for the Big Year, leaving only Black Kite
and Pacific Baza “to get” for the year in terms of diurnal raptors.
A trip to Seal Rocks picked up Eastern Reef Egret, as well as a few “gimmes’
that I’d managed to avoid thus far (such as Variegated Fairy-wren and Eastern
Whipbird). Several Spotted Pardalotes were heard and I did my best to overt my
eyes – I want to see how far I can get before adding this bird.
The highlight of the month though was during a lunch-break seawatch at Nobby’s
on the 23rd. A southerly change had just hit and workmate / fellow Home Brewer,
Lucas, suggested we go for a look. There were huge rafts of Wedgies in close
and things looked great. Incredibly, within 30 seconds of getting out of the
car a Streaked Shearwater was seen flying around with the Wedgies. It was a
great moment as I have spent countless hours at this site seawatching and only
having a handful of (common) species to show for it.
The potential for something unusual to arrive on Ash Island was too much for
Dan and I to bear, so we organised an induction to access the ponds. A few
other local birders have done this as well – but we can all vouch for the fact
that no-one is missing out on anything there at the moment – it is disturbingly
quiet. I did add Spangled Drongo on the day, but that aint no Yellow Wagtail!
The end of the month was shaping up to provide a highly productive end to our
“first summer” of the year. I had arranged a periodic seabird survey off Port
Stephens with the local Marine Parks Authority for the 26th and a full-blown
pelagic to the shelf on the 27th with a local charter boat. Having read the
recent trip reports from Southport and Eaglehawk I couldn’t help but have high
expectations, especially for the shelf trip.
The survey day was fairly slow, but we had only gone a few miles offshore. I
did add Little Penguin, Fleshy-foot and Long-tailed Jaeger, the latter being
one I was fairly pleased with.
Alas, the pelagic on the 27th was not much better. It was a very disappointing
day diversity-wise and I was only able to add 3 species to the year list;
Great-winged Petrel, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel and Hutton’s Shearwater. There was
only a single “unusual” bird, and it got away on us. A Fregetta-type
Storm-Petrel graced the slick (apologies to any Jefferson Airplane fans!) for a
few brief moments but unfortunately no-one was able to get good enough views of
the critical features due mainly to the light conditions. It appears highly
likely that it was a White-bellied – dang!
I’m now sitting on 274 birds for the year. With quite a lot of non-birding
commitments in March, I will be again pinning my hopes on a double-header
pelagic that I have planned for the end of the month. I’m hoping some of those
Pterodromas decide to “head Hunter” at the time.
Trip report to follow soon for the pelagic trip on the 27th Feb.
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