Monday, April 11, 2011

Glorious Morning at Allen Road

I remain a humble Pom at heart [aside: for those overseas readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, Pom is an endearing term often used by Australians when referring to those of us who arrived in this country from England]. I find it difficult to resist a wry smile when I listen to the natives, particularly those enamoured of Queensland [the Sunshine State], wax lyrically that this is “God’s own.” More often than not these sentiments are expressed when the ambient temperature is searing in the high thirties to mid-forties, with humidity at 100% or better. No wonder God chose the Middle East rather than Outback Australia as the earthbound home of His only begotton son!

This past Sunday however, we did experience a truly glorious morning. The temperature only grudgingly crawled above 15 Celsius; there was a crispness to the air that invigorated not only the lungs but the entire spirit. A slight mist came up from nearby watercourses setting an eerie tone to the immediate surroundings.

Admittedly the early part of the morning was not the best for birding, vision was limited to perhaps ten metres all around. On the other hand, where visual impressions were perhaps curtailed, aural perceptions seemed correspondingly enhanced.

In those pre-dawn hours before first light filtered through we could hear the distinctive call of the Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae [an owl of the Strigiformes], accompanied by the deep boom of the Tawny Frogmouth Podargus strigoides [a nightjar of the Caprimulgiformes]. Oddly enough the next call we heard, at 0555 hours [70 minutes prior to official sunrise that day] was the rather plaintive call of the Australian Wood [Maned] Duck Chenonetta jubata, followed a few minutes later by the somewhat harsh alarm call of the Masked Lapwing Vanellus miles.

The Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae, often the earliest herald of the dawn, was late that morning; its initial call coming only 42 minutes before sunrise rather than its more customary 50+ minutes prior to daybreak. Almost invariably it was followed by the truly melodic song of the Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen.

By 0546 hours, still nineteen minutes before sunrise, the Yellow-faced Honeyeater Lichenostomus chrysops announced its presence. This honeyeater has featured almost regularly over the past week as part of the “Dawn Chorus”. To gauge the significance of this bird please note my earlier blog, Reflections on Some Honeyeaters.

At 0554 hours the White-winged Choughs Corcorax melanorhamphos announced their arrival at the southern feeder, followed two minutes later by the raucous Apostlebirds Struthidea cinerea and finally, at 0557 hours [eight minutes before the time set for sunrise] a solitary Australian King-Parrot Alisterus scapularis added its sultry tones to the mounting cacophony around us.

That amounted to eighteen species from the first call of the Boobook to daybreak – and all mostly tallied while Fay and I lay in bed enjoying the first cup of tea for the day. Almost all. The earliest birds were down to me and my diabetic insomnia.

With daylight abroad came the Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca and the endearing Willie Wagtail Rhipidura leucophrys. The Common Bronzewing Phaps chalcoptera, Variegated Fairy-wren Malurus lamberti and Little Lorikeet Glossopsitta pusilla added to the morning’s total. Sometime during the mid-morning, with temperatures still well below 20C, the White-browed Scrubwren Sericornis frontalis [see Missing in Action] and Striped Honeyeater Plectorhyncha lanceolata began flexing their vocal muscles.

From somewhere far off to the east Fay, whose hearing is far superior to mine, heard a Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis, a rarity at this time of the year; a little later the Eastern Whipbird Psophodes olivaceus was heard and finally, as we strolled around the dam we spotted a single White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae perched high in a tall gum overlooking the water. It was around 10.30am, the temperature a little above 15C and a long list of chores awaited our attention but it had been a glorious morning for birds with a final tally of 36 species before we laid aside binoculars and notebook.

Try that while sweltering under a blazing sun with the mercury already in the mid to high 20s by mid-morning!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Marbled Moments

Marbled Frogmouth. Image via

Nocturnal species along Allen Road are literally few and far between so you can imagine our excitement when last week [26 March] we heard the distinctive call of a previously unrecorded night bird. It was the seventh night-time bird on our Backyard List.

Diabetes and insomnia go hand in glove. I was wide awake and up in the small hours of the morning, “catching up” on entering my handwritten Backyard List sightings into Bird Journal. The call came from the northwest quadrant and sounded close. My initial reaction had been of a Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae with a sore throat. It wasn’t of course.

Under normal circumstances, if being up and about regularly at around 0300 hours can be described as normal for someone in a diurnal occupation, I would allow Fay to sleep through to breakfast at a more reasonable 0500. On the other hand I have a vivid imagination and could foresee a few uncomfortable moments if I later revealed the presence of a new Backyard List species, indeed a mega addition, and had allowed her to sleep through the experience.

An early morning cuppa and the BOCA discs set to the nightbirds overcame any displeasures Fay may have felt at being stirred [not shaken] before the time set on her alarm clock.

The discs simply confirmed that the identification was incontrovertible. We were listening to a Marbled Frogmouth Podargus ocellatus!

It was the first nocturnal addition to our list since the Powerful Owl Ninox strenua back in October 2008 and that bird had also initially called from the northwest quadrant. And yes, I had been up and about, only on that occasion I was ensconced on the north verandah – October nights can be rather warm and the yellow light bulb helps keep the bugs away.

The Powerful Owl had been the first new nocturnal entry in more than six years. Our Eastern Barn Owl Tyto javanica first appeared on the scene back in August 2002 and has become an irregular feature of the witching hours ever since.

Remarkably enough, the first four nocturnal species were all recorded in our first year at Allen Road [2001]. Top of the List was the Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus and the only entrant that we saw before ever hearing it. Our immediate neighbour [sharing the eastern fence-line] had a large, old tree remnant with a number of suitable hollows along its entire length. We spotted the owlet-nightjar depart from one of the upper hollows a few hours into dusk and thereafter heard it on a regular basis. Sadly, when Fred sold up, the new owners, with two small children in tow, proved to be rather paranoid regarding snakes and wizened trees too close to the house. The old hollowed stump was felled. The Australian Owlet-nightjar disappeared in September 2003.

September 2001 was a comparatively bumper time for nocturnal additions. The Southern Boobook was first heard on the 1st of that month. It has become among the more regular night-callers along Allen Road.

The vision of our first Tawny Frogmouth Podargus strigoides will remain eternally etched in our memories. We’d been hearing the call for some time previously. Back in those days there was no house, only a shed, a campervan and a campfire. A few feet from the campfire is a tall gum with a horizontal branch protruding out perhaps a metre and a half from the base. We’d just eaten and were enjoying the first sip of a rather pleasant shiraz when we were suddenly distracted by a quick movement. There had been no sound, no whoosh of wings, no sighing of bent branches, or rustle of disturbed leaves. The frogmouth simply alighted as silently as a ghost on the aforementioned horizontal branch. It remained perched there for what seemed a age but in reality was probably no more than a few minutes. It seemed as curious of us as we were excited at seeing it. My camera was still in the nearby campervan but neither of us dared move a muscle; we were transfixed.

At the end of December 2001, and again I was out on the north verandah tapping away at the keyboard, we heard the unmistakable booming of the White-throated Nightjar Eurostopodus mystacalis coming from somewhere over the western boundary. We last heard it in April last year [2010].

We prefer to disregard the record of Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis listed on DERM’s Wildlife Species List for the South Burnett region. It is hundreds, nay in access of thousands, of kilometres out of its accepted range and was, anyway, last sighted in 1908.