Tumut's "Riverglade Wetland" Bird Watch Reports
October 3 1997 - August 6 1999
Tumut & Adelong Times
1 October 3, 1997
Welcome to the first of a series of regular articles on bird watching at the Tumut Wetlands. It is proposed each month to feature items of special interest to the many readers of the Tumut & Adelong Times who have an interest in the environment.
It is hoped the articles will be of interest to adults and children alike and will help to develop an understanding of the importance of suitable habitats for all of those creatures who share our land.
September has been an exceptional month with a number of unusual sightings. The current tally of bird species officially recorded at the Wetlands site is 76. Of these 37 are water birds noted for the Murray Darling Basin water bird survey. During September, 23 of these birds were once again recorded but there was one new arrival and that is the feature article in this months Bird Watch.
To the ornithologists the new sighting was Calidris ferruginea but to us simple bird watchers is was a Curlew Sandpiper. What makes this bird special is that normally it only spends Summer in Australia having flown more than 12,000 kilometres from its breeding grounds in the wastes of Siberia. While it is one of the most common migratory birds visiting Australia it rarely visits the Riverina Highlands.
The normal path taken by this 210 mm sandpiper splits when it reaches northern Australia. From there flocks of up to 2000 birds may head down the coast of Western Australia or perhaps turn east and follow the coastline of Queensland south to New South Wales, Victoria and even Tasmania. The greatest number, however, fly directly south across the vast expanses of central Australia before dispersing along inland waterways and southern shorelines.
A long down curved bill distinguishes the Curlew Sandpiper from its relatives. The bill is black, as are the legs, and in non-breeding plumage the feathers are grey/brown above and white below with some grey on the breast. There is a broad white wing bar and a white rump. The eye is dark brown and there is a clear eye stripe. Sexes are similar.
At the time of sighting, the bird was in the company of a pair of Black-fronted Dotterels and all were engaged in probing the mud at the edge of a pond for aquatic worms or molluscs. A delightful sighting. It should be noted that it took two experienced bird watchers, using binoculars and a scope, more than half an hour to be sure of the species. At one stage an approach was made to within five metres of the Sandpiper which showed no alarm.
On the same day another event occurred which thrilled those involved. While walking around a pond in the Tumut Wetland a family of Australian Wood (Maned) Ducks was observed. These birds, having an appearance much like a goose, are common in the Tumut area, often being observed feeding adjacent to farm dams.
The bird watchers had approached very close to the Wood Ducks before the family was noticed. Both male and female were lying quite still on the banks of the pond and between them were nine ducklings only a few days old. After some moments a movement alarmed the family and, while the parents headed in one direction, the chicks took to the water in another and paddled flat out for the centre of the pond. The parents then put on a magnificent diversion, pretending to be injured, flapping their wings on the water and generally creating havoc while their young escaped the danger.
But it wasn't over yet. Other water birds had observed the commotion and the unguarded flotilla of chicks. Two groups of Grey Teal headed for the family and it looked as though a slaughter was about to take place. At the last moment the parents flew to their offspring, arriving when the Teal were no more than a metre away. The male duck showed his displeasure with the neck feathers fully extended and it was clear that nothing was going to get near his family.
If you have a moment like this to share with others, or an unusual sighting, or perhaps a bird you can't identify, just leave a note at the Times office.
In the meantime, good bird watching. - Jabiru
2 November 4, 1997
Thank you for the positive comments about our first Bird Watch article. It is nice to know that people care about our Wetlands and the wildlife which depends on it.
Before our promised description of a popular wetland bird, a quick story about a sighting of a different species just out of town. A couple of years ago a friend, from a property down Nimbo way, noted an unusual sound which seemed to come from a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. After much chasing around paddocks we finally identified a small group of Little Corellas which are somewhat smaller than the cockatoo and with a harsher call. This is as far east as they have been spotted and we now have the third sighting in as many years. Hopefully we will be able to do another count and see if their numbers have increased.
With the arrival of the warmer October weather, certain areas of the Tumut Riverglade Wetlands come to life with a rather loud and raucous call usually described as "Crotchy, Crotchy, Crotchy". Numerous small dark forms are seen flitting through dense stands of common reed (Phragmites australis). It is the Clamorous Reed-warbler preparing for yet another breeding season.
Since their departure in March/April, the reed beds have browned off and largely collapsed into the supporting ponds. Nests have become ragged or totally derelict and the food source of insects has largely disappeared, but October brings a new sense of urgency to the wetlands.
A rather, small bird (16-17 cm), the Clamorous Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus) has a warm to dark brown upper body and a creamy throat blending into a light buff-cream lower body. The bill is slender, being dark above and pale below. Legs are a pale slate colour. A cream eyebrow is evident under a darker head.
As the reed beds recover from the ravages of winter, usually in November/December. The reed warblers build tight, dense nests of fine grass, slightly turned in at the top. The nests are usually constructed 1.5 to 2 metres above water level. Three or four vertical reed stems are used to support the structure which will hold 2 or 3 speckled eggs. Local observations suggest that the clutch is laid over a four day period.
Hatching occurs during the next 12 to 14 days and young are fully fledged within a further two weeks. As breeding activity peaks the clamour subsides while adult birds sit tight, emitting only occasional contact calls.
By the end of March or early April, dependent upon the prevailing weather conditions, adults and young will have migrated north to warmer climes although little is known about their winter habits.
This cycle will only continue as long as there are appropriate habitats to cater for the needs of such birds as the reed-warbler. Many other species are also totally dependent on wetlands. Take a walk around your wetland; you may be pleasantly surprised.
Before we finish, another quick story from the wetlands reed beds. This type of habitat is often the home of members of the family which includes the Purple Swamphen (about the size of a rooster), the slightly smaller Dusky Moorhen and various Rails and Crakes. One species of Crake is only the length of a sparrow, although with much longer legs. January last year a sighting was made of a Spotless Crake. Even though the bird has been heard on a number of occasions it has only been seen once since - until last week, when it briefly left the shelter of the dark reed beds and foraged for some minutes in the open. It completely ignored the observer, less than five metres away, and displayed to perfection its unusual red eye. The Rallidae will be featured in a later article.
Until next month, good birding -Jabiru
3 December 5, 1997
Masked Lapwing at Riverglade site
One morning last month I glanced out of the window to see seven or eight head of cattle standing in a fairly tight semi-circle, heads lowered, apparently sniffing at something on the ground. Suddenly the scene erupted with the loud stuttering call of ke-ke-ke-ke, as a pair or medium sized birds took on all-comers in defence of their nest and eggs.
Often heard calling at night, who hasn't been aware of the sustained call of the Masked Lapwing?
It is also known as the Spurwinged Plover, the Wattled Plover and the Australian Alarmbird. This confusion highlights the need for a universal scientific name, hence Vanellus novaehollandiae.
Never far from water, its habitat includes grasslands, parks and mud flats. Consistent spring nesting has been recorded on the Riverglade site, although usually restricted to two, possibly three, breeding pairs. Light brown on back and wings, the neck and body are white except for a black mantle on the crown which extends behind the neck to the sides of the breast. The most prominent features are the yellow facial wattles and protruding wing spurs which the bird can use defensively to great effect.
Where have all the Egrets, Spoonbills and Herons gone? To cleaner, healthier wetlands I presume.
Water birds are usually an infallible guide to the condition of a wetland. They seek an adequate food supply appropriate to their special requirements. In the case of the birds mentioned above this means healthy mud for probing and pollution free water for sifting out waterbugs and other aquatic life forms. When these conditions are not available the birds leave.
Additionally they need suitable habitat, free from disturbance, to meet their breeding requirements. Often these two necessities are not available at the one site and birds have to cope by utilising whatever is on offer.
During October a small group of people under the guidance of our local Landcare Co-ordinator, Jo Stone, surveyed the waterbugs in the main pond on the Riverglade Wetland (or Common) area.
Using the stream pollution index of the Department of Land and Water Conservation, Riverglade water quality rated poor, the lowest rating listed. Large carp, although not part of the survey, were abundant.
Regular surveys of both birds and waterbugs should provide benchmark data for the inevitable and much needed rehabilitation of our wetlands. We look forward to many more sightings of Egrets, Spoonbills and Herons as the rehabilitation is put into place.
At the end of the month the usual tally for the Murray-Darling Bird Count was undertaken and, we were honoured by a visit from a Pink-eared Duck. A rare and very welcoming sighting at our wetlands. Other water birds included in the November count were Grey Teal, Black Duck, Australasian Shoveller, Hardhead, Black Swan, Maned Duck, Hoary-headed Grebe and Eurasian Coot, to name but a few.
Until next month, good birding. - Jabiru
4 December 30, 1997
We continue to receive many comments and questions about the birds featured in the Jabiru articles and about the condition of the Tumut Wetlands. Thank you for your interest and keep the questions rolling in.
The strong winds experienced during November played havoc with the nesting endeavours of the Clamorous Reed-warblers in the reed beds at the sewerage ponds. Many of the early starters had their nests destroyed and some lost clutches of eggs. Early December saw the first broods hatched at various locations throughout the reeds.
If you see a V-formation of birds flying above Tumut with necks outstretched it is likely to be a flock of Ibis. All the birds in the formation flap their wings at the same time, then all glide together and often they reach great heights.
On the ground they can easily be distinguished as Straw-necked Ibis or, the subject of this article, Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca. They are regular visitors to the Riverglade wetlands, either roosting in tees or feeding in pastures adjacent to the ponds.
The most distinctive feature is the long down-turned black bill which is larger on the male than the female. The overall body length ranges from 65 to 75 cm and the black bill blends in to the naked skin on the head and upper neck. The legs are reddish brown and while there are black feathers on the tips of the wings and dark plumes on the lower back, the bird is predominantly white.
The call is a hoarse drawn-out croak often emitted in flight. Anyone who has visited the breeding colonies in the forests along the Murray River will be aware of the din that thousands of these birds can make.
Normally by this time of year there have been numerous sightings of ducklings on the sewerage ponds, but this year there have only been a few families, mostly Wood Ducks. Whether this is a reflection on the poor health of the Tumut Wetlands remains open to speculation, but there is certainly cause for concern.
The numbers of adults, of many species, continue to fluctuate but still one of the most common of these is the Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa.
The Black Duck is probably the most numerous duck in Australia and is more widely distributed as a breeding species than any other. In the Riverglade Wetlands they usually intermingle with Grey Teal, but they are slightly larger at 47-60 cm and are not so often found resting in dead tees in the water. When distributed they will quickly leave the area, usually in a flock and their flight clearly shows the dark colouration offset by the pale underwing and the purple-green flashes (speculum) on the wing.
Despite their name, Pacific Black Ducks are dark brown in colour and the feathers are edged with lighter brown. The crown is quite dark, the legs are yellow-green, the eye is brown and the bill is lead-grey. The most distinguished feature is the dark stripe which runs from the bill through the eye and which is offset by creamy-white stripes above and below.
The Black Duck is typical surface-feeding duck. Often seen with its head submerged and tail in the air, it takes its food from the water by dabbling, dredging and upending. It also strips seed from emergent plants and growth along the edge of the water. Not all of its food is vegetable matter as it is partial to such delicacies as yabbies and aquatic insects.
At the December count for the Murray-Darling Bird survey the number of Black Ducks recorded was 30 which compares with a maximum monthly count of 98 for one month in 1995. The total count of waterbirds for December 20 was 450 of which 254 were Grey Teal.
We were pleased to note that this count included one family of five Black Duck chicks. It also included our first confirmed sighting on the wetlands of Australasian Bitterns. A final item of interest was the flock of four Dollar-birds hawking for insects above the ponds.
Until next month - the compliments of the season and good birding. -Jabiru
5 February 10, 1998
The word "wetland" is something of a misnomer in Tumut at the moment. The common ponds and lake are bone-dry and waterbird numbers are down considerably on past counts.
Consequently, the sewerage ponds continue to be the primary source of support for most waterbirds, with Grey Teal numbers up around 285 this month. Strangely enough, species have increased 50 percent on the effluent pond since December. This surely highlights the worsening drought situation in the region as waterbird habitat continues to disappear - keep pushing those buttons!
As reported in December, our solitary Pink-eared Duck Malacorhynchus membranaceus) continues to socialise with Grey Teal and Black Ducks on the effluent pond.
What an asset these Pink-ears would be if habitat conducive to their needs, was established at the "Riverglade'' site. Two years ago at Lake Cawndilla near Menindee, counts of up to 55,000 birds were reported.
Pink-eared ducks are characteristic of healthy wetlands in inland Australia. They rarely breed near coastal areas. Their distribution is probably controlled by the need to feed in shallow water supporting large populations of aquatic invertebrates. These are taken by filtering the water through their bills which are spatulate in form and distinctively square-cut at the end. Deep water is used as a refuge in dry periods, when seeds form a large part of their diet.
It is often described as the Zebra Duck due to the striking plumage on its sides. A small pink ear-patch is discernible directly behind the eye.
Carp continue to be a menace in both the sewerage ponds and the Riverglade wet areas. By early December '97 the oxbow lake had dried to a small pond near the caravan park, exposing 38 carp stranded in the mud, each approximately half a metre in length.
One wonders at their obvious capacity to survive as a species, taking into account the fact that the same pond dried out in February of the same year. Little is wasted in nature. Within days Whistling Kites were feasting on the remains. More of that in a future column.
Confession time: We reported last month on the sighting of Australasian Bitterns - a first confirmed record for our wetlands. Red faces all round! Further sightings, including adult birds in mature plumage proved these birds to be without doubt Rufous (Nankeen) Night Herons, also a first for the site. No excuses - but they are hard to identify in juvenile plumage from fleeting glances gained in dappled light.
Until next month good birding, from a much chastened - Jabiru
6 March 6, 1998
In December we referred to the bird family Rallidae, which includes the Purple Swamphen, the slightly smaller Dusky Moorhen and various Rails and Crakes. At that time we promised to provide more information and so this article features two of these birds.
Although the Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) is outstanding in appearance, and even though it often struts around open areas seemingly oblivious to spectators, it is a very difficult bird to count. This is because of its habitat of dense reed-beds into which it can disappear at a moments notice.
While there is a large population of Swamphens in the Tumut Wetlands, their numbers are always understated and there are no records of breeding even though it obviously occurs on the site as juveniles have been sighted.
While this bird is native to Australia it is found throughout much of the world. It has a black head with a brick-red bill and frontal shield and red eyes. The upper body parts are black while the under parts range from a deep blue to a purple-black. The undertail coverts are white and are flicked up and down when the bird is on the alert.
When disturbed it will run quite rapidly or fly, but rarely does it swim. At first the flight appears laboured. but it is in fact a strong flier.
The Swamphen has a most interesting feeding habit as it frequently grasps its food (reeds, frogs and molluscs) in one large red foot and lifts it to its bill.
Another member of this family is the Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa). While on holidays last year at Ballarat, the author was privileged to observe a recently hatched Dusky Moorhen chick feeding in the wetlands on the western foreshores of Lake Wendouree. This delightful area has paths through the reed-beds which allow close observation by the public and we can only hope that similar facilities will soon be available to the Riverglade site.
While the Purple Swamphen prefers the edges of the reed-beds and nearby open areas, the Dusky Moorhen is much happier in the water, although it is also quick to disappear into the reeds at the slightest sign of danger. When disturbed it will often fly immediately above the surface of the water, with much splashing and shrill calling before it disappears from view or it reaches deeper water.
It shares the tail flicking habit of the Swamphen, but its white undertail coverts are separated by a black stripe which makes it quite distinctive. It is slightly smaller than the Swamphen and its red frontal shield and bill has a yellow tip. Its eye is olive, the body is generally slate-grey with browner areas on the rump and wings and the tail is black. The legs are red at the top, but are mainly olive.
This bird is mainly found in Eastern Australia, although it also abounds in south western Australia and has been recorded in the lands to our north.
We await with interest the results of Council's deliberations on the treatment of water from the sewerage works. The future of Swamphens, Moorhens and the many other water birds featured in our articles will be very much affected by the manner in which the existing ponds and reed-beds are treated.
It is extremely encouraging to note that Council established a Wetlands Committee and we would like to see all those with an interest in water birds contribute to the work of that committee. Comments can be sent to the writer via the Tumut and Adelong Times.
Until next month - good birding and we hope that the regular drying out of the oxbows in the common will soon be replaced through good autumn rains. - Jabiru
7 April 24, 1998
Many bird species other than the so-called 'waterbirds' form a large part of the diverse fauna found in wetlands.
Among the most common, and familiar to most people because of their call, is the Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) otherwise known as the Pee-wee or Mudlark.
A moderately sized bird of approximately 27 cm, bill tip to tail end, this black and white bird is found extensively throughout most of Australia. Essential to successful breeding is access to mud for nest building.
The nest is often attached to the bare limb of a tree and is sparsely lined with soft grasses, coarse hair and a few feathers. Sometimes a little ingenuity is used in the location to meet optimum feeding conditions.
Three to four pearly-white eggs are laid, irregularly spotted a dark purplish-red at the apex. The young are fed by both parents and consume considerable quantities of insects, which also form the major part of their diet when full grown.
The sexes are similar in size and colouring. However, the female is readily distinguishable by her white face and throat, and lacks the white eyebrow of the male. Juveniles retain all of these colour characteristics for about three or four months, but lack the whitish eye-ring.
Modern ornithological thinking, based upon DNA testing, links this species with the Monarchs and Flycatcher families - the Dicruridae.
The rarest of Australia's ducks, and considered to be among the ten rarest water fowl in the world, the Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) relies heavily on the ephemeral wetlands of inland eastern Australia. These temporary swamps, together with swampland within the Murray-Darling Basin, form the main breeding areas for this uniquely Australian bird, which has taxonomic characteristics resembling both swans and the stiff-tailed ducks.
Its scientific name reflects its spotted or dappled appearance on an otherwise dark brown body. In breeding periods the base of the male's bill becomes bright red. Reports indicate that it breeds in the Murray-Darling Basin usually from September through to December, and in some other areas outside this period, dependent upon flooding or heavy rainfall.
Preferred nesting habitat appears to be freshwater swampland, heavily vegetated with reeds such as Phragmites and Muehlenbeckia.
During the non-breeding season, it would seem to favour more open habitat, including saline lakes with sandy islands, often lacking much vegetation or shelter. Although totally protected by legislation, the Freckled Duck is too often mistakenly killed as a game species. Its status is rare and this bird needs to be nurtured if it is to survive in the long term.
Footnote: Although not so far recorded on the Tumut Wetlands it could conceivably be attracted by current habitat restoration proposals.
Until next month - good birding. -Jabiru
8 June 16, 1998
Since the inception of this column we have featured a picture of Cygnus atratus, the Black Swan. This handsome bird, with its long slender neck and white tipped wings is a common resident at the Tumut Wetlands, although it usually only numbers one or two pairs.
Although many people only think of the swan as the emblem of and a resident of Western Australia, it is widely distributed throughout southern Australia, including all New South Wales.
The birds are usually seen in pairs, often with flocks which can be quite huge in the summer months when moulting causes them to congregate on open waters.
The males can be distinguished from the females by the slightly longer necks and by the deeper, more resonant and longer call. During the last bird count at the wetlands the two calls were very much in evidence.
The males are generally about 1300 mm in length with the females just a little smaller. The feathers are black, but often have a grey/brown tinge. The wing feathers are tipped with white, which displays to perfection when the birds are in flight. The bills are red (sometimes almost orange) and have a white tip.
While breeding has not been recorded at the Tumut Wetlands there is hope for the future. Most people think of their nests as large collections of vegetation floating in the water, but they do build nests on islands and have been known to use dry sticks in bad times.
An occasional visitor to the Tumut Wetlands is the Red-rumped Parrot, which is more common on the grasslands of nearby rural areas. Last month, the wetlands were blessed by the presence of a large number of these pretty birds, whose scientific name is Psephotus haematonotus and which are commonly referred to as Grass Parrots.
These birds congregate in flocks, but within flocks they stay in pairs. They have a strong flight and can often be heard giving a shrill two-syllable whistle as they fly overhead. Their overall length is about 270 mm, including a 130 mm tail.
The male is green with a red rump, a yellow shoulder patch and abdomen and the green wings and tail feathers edged with blue. The female is more olive green and lacks the red rump.
When observed at the last count the birds were feeding on grass seeds on the verges of the metalled road around the sewerage ponds.
An unusual sighting was a hybrid Grey Teal/Black Duck. The observers were somewhat confused at first due to the body size (larger than a teal), the slightly different plumage colours and the medium sized bill which was more blue than slate grey.
Research has confirmed the identity of the bird and has revealed that this hybrid like many others, is not unusual, but also not common.
A final note on the invasion of the sewerage treatment area in recent times by cattle being agisted on nearby lands. Evidence of their occupation abounds and the Wetlands Birdwatch Committee will watch with interest the effect their feeding on the common reed at the water edge has on such birds as the Clamourous Reed-warbler in the next breeding season.
Perhaps that reduction in vegetation has also contributed to the killing of an unidentified bird in the same area. It is not uncommon to record kills, but his bird was of a large variety (maybe an Ibis) and it is suspected the predator was a fox.
Until next month - good birding. - Jabiru
9 July 10, 1998
The wetland areas of the common have been in a sorry state since December, 1997. Lack of substantial rain has meant that lake and ponds have totally dried out, to the detriment of waterbird feeding habitat.
This isn't altogether bad news so far as wetland management generally is concerned, but it will have a catastrophic effect, from a wildlife point of view, if an area like the common cannot cope more effectively with drought conditions in the future. This view is particularly valid if the adjacent effluent ponds, are reclaimed in the future for expansion of the Sewerage Treatment Works. Hopefully the Shire Wetlands Committee will come up with the answers.
Occasionally seen sweeping across the Riverglade wetland or soaring impressively on powerful wings, is the White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucagaster).
Ranging from India through south-eastern Asia to Australia, this magnificent bird is thought to have extended its range in Australia due to the ever increasing abundance of so-called European Carp in our inland waterways. Adult birds are white bodied with grey back, upper wings and the base of the tail.
At least one pair of sea-eagles have successfully bred close to Blowering Reservoir in recent years. Young birds were often seen during 1996 circling the sewerage ponds and nearby impoundments. Juveniles are much browner overall, with paler markings on head and rump. As with most eagle species, the female is larger than the male, in this case by approximately five to eight centimetres beak to tail tip, with a wing span close to two metres. These figures vary somewhat in available literature and may be related to geographical location.
Although recorded as breeding more numerously in coastal areas of eastern and northern Australia, they are nevertheless often sighted near inland impoundments, lakes and major waterways. Whilst fish are undoubtedly an important item of their diet, the percentage taken varies considerably according to location. Records indicate that it also preys on other bird species including Shearwaters, Penguins and even Cap Barren Geese. Reptiles, Flying Foxes and carrion have also been recorded as a food source.
Although not commonly seen these eagles are a joy to watch if the opportunity presents itself.
References and further reading include: The Atlas of Australian Birds (Blakers, Davies and Reilly), Field Guide To The Birds Of Australia (Simpson and Day), Field Guide To The Birds of Australia (Pizzey and Knight).
One of the most identifiable and endearing of our native birds is the superb Blue Wren (Malurus cyaneus) commonly found in the Riverglade Wildlife Refuge.
Known to all and sundry is the brilliantly coloured male, hop searching through leaf litter in attendance with up to ten or twelve "little brown birds".
They forage the ground cover for small insects, their main food source. Study of these brown members of the family group, preferably through binoculars, will show some birds as having brown tails with a greenish-blue tinge, red-brown bills eye rings and lores. The lores are those areas between the eye and the bill. These birds are the females.
The younger immature males show a black bill and lores and a brown tail.
Their tails take on a blue colour before their first winter and full coloured plumage appears during the first breeding season. Males in eclipse plumage have tails of deep blue with black bills and lores. Confused? Don't be, practice makes perfect.
These family groups are comprised of the dominant breeding. pair and usually last season's young, who help with the care and feeding of the current brood. A male in eclipse plumage will come into full colour if he establishes his own territory or disaster befalls the dominant in his group.
Alternating open grass and dense shrub cover offer these tiny birds the ideal habitat, as their weak powers of flight often have to cope with a quick dash to safety from a variety of predators, including grandma's cat.
Until next month - good birding. -Jabiru
10 August 7, 1998
With spring fast approaching and plenty of recent rains, one could be forgiven for thinking there would be an abundance of waterbirds at the Tumut Wetlands. That certainly is not the case with the July count numbering only 210, well down on previous years. Perhaps the rains have provided alternative resting and feeding sites or maybe the chemical dosing of the effluent ponds is having some affect on the food supply of our feathered friends. Time will tell.
The bird watchers were not bored however, as there was a great variety of small birds in evidence. The winter morning sun certainly highlighted the Double-barred Finches, Firetails and Yellow-rumped Thornbills and particularly two male Flame Robins. Perhaps the females were there too, but their less distinctive colours did not stand out in the crowd.
Sometimes there is confusion in identifying the various robins but, with a little care, the differences become quite apparent. Points to look for include white on the forehead, black or red on the throat and black or dark grey backs. The male Flame Robin (Petroica phoenicea) has quite distinctive flame red throat, breast and abdomen. It has a small white patch on the forehead and its back is a slaty grey.
Like most of the Robins, the black wings have striking white markings. The female shares these white wing markings, but they are on grey/ brown wings and overall she is brown with a buff abdomen. Both birds flick their tails and wings and forage along the ground with rapid darting movements. There is little more stirring than a group of Flame Robins on a fence facing a late afternoon sun in spring.
An occasional visitor to the Tumut Wetlands is the Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) which is quite often referred to as the snake-bird.
The most usual sighting is when the bird is drying its wings, as it holds the wings out from the body when perched. This habit is caused by the fact that its plumage does not repel water. It is an unusual sight when feeding as it mostly has the body completely submerged, with only its long neck and bill above water. While its diet may include tortoises, water insects and plants, its main food is fish. Although a powerful swimmer it does not swim after its prey. Instead it waits, with its long neck poised in an S-shape and then spears its victim on its sharp bill.
The male is almost entirely glossy black although there may be some grey. There is a small white stripe from the bill part way down the neck, and there are also white or cream markings on the wings. The brown eye is surrounded by a naked yellow patch which extends to the bill. The large webbed feet are also yellow, as are the legs. The female and immature are generally grey/brown above and much paler below. Anyone wanting to view the platform nest, generally in a tree above water, would be well advised to take trip to Lake Cowal, between Forbes and West Wyalong, where they have been recorded breeding all year round.
If you are interested in the development of the Tumut Wetlands tell a committee member now or contact Teresa Morey at the Council. Have your say!
Until next month, good birding. - Jabiru
11 September 8, 1998
Winter rains during the latter part or June and through July and August have replenished ponds and the oxbow lake on the town common. After a dry spell of some six months when ponds were bone-dry, it will be interesting to monitor the revival of the so-called European Carp. At the start of the total dry period in December last, many carp were stranded in the mud, all around a half metre in length. These fish apparently attained that length in about ten months. Or did they 'cross over' from the effluent ponds, or hatch from eggs left in the dried mud? No flooding occurred during that period. Theories abound, ask your fishing mates.
Recently recorded on the Riverglade Common area, the Royal Spoonbill (Plataea regia) is a rather large white wading bird with a distinctive black, spatulate bill and facial skin. The legs also are black. It can be seen "scything" through shallow water, sifting out small fish and invertebrates, its main source of food.
Often reported in small groups, birds recorded on the common over the past five years have consisted of single birds or an occasional pair. Plumage changes in the breeding season produce, in both birds, flowing white nuptial plumes from the back of the head and a small reddish-orange mark on the skin of the forehead. A conspicuous rich yellow mark develops above each eye and the breast takes on a light buff wash.
The nest is a shallow platform of sticks, often built over water in company with other waterbird species such as Ibis. Eggs usually number three and are dull white, spotted yellowish red-brown in colour. Young are fed by regurgitation of food by the parent.
Records of their movements are not well documented, although one banded bird was recorded during the Atlas Scheme as having traveled 1440 kilometres. Numbers of Royal Spoonbills are generally far fewer than those of the related Yellow Spoonbill. In Atlas surveys conducted about ten years ago, it was found that the Royal was outnumbered by approximately 20 to 1 in the Southern Murray-Darling Basin region.
By no means common in our area at present, it is occasionally seen in flooded paddocks around Tumut. Restoration of the Town Common, with suitable shallows and mud flats would undoubtedly attract the 'Royal' and with the appropriate vegetation it could possibly be induced to breed here - a sight well worth the effort.
A relative newcomer to the Riverglade Refuge, at least in terms of numbers, is the Australasian Grebe, probably more commonly known as the Little Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae). The smallest of the Australasian Grebes, it has a short, rather dumpy body with powerful legs, set well back, enhancing its swimming and diving abilities. Rarely seen on land, it relies on these aquatic skills to gather food and escape from danger.
In breeding plumage its head and upper neck are black and this extends down the nape as a black stripe. An oval yellow facial mark or patch is prominent, pointing down and forward, away from the eye. Flanks vary from pale grey to pale rufous.
Sexes are alike although males tend to be heavier, which is difficult to determine on the water. In winter the facial marks disappear and birds become much duller. Juveniles are dull, varying shades of grey, with striped black and white head and are often mistaken for Hoary-headed Grebe. The eggs which are pointed at both ends are a pale bluish-white, but quickly become stained brown. Young are moved away from the nest soon after hatching and often remain under the parent's wing, even when they dive.
It is without doubt the most frustrating of birds to survey. The ability to dive and stay underwater for quite long periods of time, emerging only briefly many metres from the dive-point, has been the cause of many arguments about overall numbers. The dive consists of a very quick, small forward movement with a downward swing of the neck.
They prefer to swim and dive their way to safety using powerful lobate feet and fly only in extreme circumstances during daylight hours. However, a common method of escape when disturbed, is to 'scud' across the water surface in a shower of spray using wings and feet.
Grebes inhabit mainly freshwater ponds of varying size, preferring water depths of up to 1.3 metres, with little or no low emergent vegetation. Fringe vegetation is often used for concealment when nesting, although a nest anchored to thick emergent vegetation surrounded by open water is probably the preferred nesting habitat. Nests or eggs have not yet been recorded at Riverglade.
With the establishment of the main effluent pond in the Sewerage Works, Grebe numbers, which were previously down to one to two birds whose presence could never be guaranteed, skyrocketed to over 80 birds during our surveys. Perhaps more importantly, they continue to inhabit the pond throughout the years since it came on line during 1994.
12 October 13, 1998
I hope that self-congratulations are in order because we are celebrating our first birthday. Yes, it was in October last year that the first Wetlands Birdwateh appeared and we still have so much more news to bring you.
On this occasion we thought the many interested readers, and in particular those who talk to us about the column, might like to review the past year.
Our first column featured the Curlew Sandpiper. This bird would have flown more than 12,000 kilometres from its breeding grounds in the wastes of Siberia and we still do not have a second sighting. Has anyone else recorded this attractive bird in the reading area?
Also included in that first article was the story of a family of Australian wood ducks, a species which is common in the area. Avid readers will remember the tale of the family lying doggo by the side of the water until the danger became too much and subsequent actions of the parent birds in protecting their offspring from humans and birds alike.
Since then we have had stories about 17 varieties of birds while the overall count of species on the site has increased to 78. Of the birds featured only one, the Freckled Duck, has yet to make an appearance on the Riverglade Wetlands. Occasional visits have been recorded for the Pink-eared Duck, White bellied Sea-Eagle and Darter.
Species featured in our articles which are normally resident in the area include such water birds as the Purple Swamp Hen, Dusky Moorhen, Grey Teal, Black Duck, Masked Lapwing, Clamorous Reed-warbler, Straw-necked Ibis, Royal Spoonbill, Australasian Grebe and the Black Swan.
Other birds which have fluttered through this column include the Magpie-lark, Superb Blue Wren, Flame Robin and the beautiful Red-rumped Parrot.
During this time we have referred many times to the need to protect the habitat of all these birds and so it is pleasing to note that the Tumut Wetlands Committee has now been in existence for over six months. Much activity is now anticipated and we can only hope long-term restoration of the area will prove to be of benefit to all concerned naturalists, the users of the town common, our indigenous citizens and in particular the flora and fauna.
Well, it has happened again! The frantic activity of recent times amongst our feathered friends has resulted in another increase in the bird count at the Riverglade Wetlands. Despite the continuing low number noted on the site there were eight recordings of duck families. The broods ranged from two to eight and the species included the Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal and Wood (Maned) Duck.
On a negative note, there were no sightings of Australasian Grebe or Hoary-headed Grebe. It's not all that long since there were more than 80 recorded in the area.
Another species which seems to have reduced its occupation of the wetlands habitat is the Little Pied Cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos). On the wetlands it is usually a solitary bird, but in extreme feeding conditions (as occasionally seen at Blowering Dam) it will flock in large numbers. In eastern Australia it is the most numerous of the five cormorant species and it is also the smallest. Often it is seen on the Tumut sewerage ponds in company with the Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) but at no more than 55 cm in length it is even smaller than its black companion.
Generally the bird is black above and white below with no variations between the male and female and little with the juveniles. The white extends from under the body to above the eye and to the base of the bill. The black cap often raises into a small crest. The face has naked yellow skin with the bill also yellow but shading to a brown on top. The eyes are also brown while the feet and legs are black.
When feeding the Little Pied Cormorant dives and swims underwater where it prefers yabbies and insects. On the surface it is low in the water due to the ability of the plumage to absorb water, thus making swimming underwater easier. In order to fly efficiently it is necessary for the feathers to be dry and therefore it is commonly seen on a tree branch with its wings spread after having shaken most of the moisture from them.
Until next month, good birding. - Jabiru
13 November 10, 1998
Martha died at 1 p.m. in Cincinnati, USA On September 1, 1914, aged 29 years.
Never has the extinction of a single species been so well documented. That species was the Passenger Pigeon, found on the American continent.
Certainly not a water bird, and certainly never recorded at the Riverglade Wildlife Refuge.
Martha's story nevertheless highlights the need to value and preserve the most commonplace of species. These thoughts crossed my mind the other day when somebody said to me "Why worry about few ducks on Riverglade; they are everywhere!"
Martha's story really says it all. A bird of passage, hence the name Passenger Pigeon, it roamed the virgin forests of North America in unbelievable numbers.
A handsome bird, up to about 45 cm bill-tip to tail, a mid-brown to chestnut colour with iridescent spots on the neck, its eyes a bright fiery orange. At nesting time the birds gathered in huge flocks of up to estimated 50 million pigeons.
Droppings covered the ground to a depth of several inches, leaving a scene of awesome destruction when the flocks moved on.
One such breeding colony was recorded as covering an area of some 120 square miles.
Numerous stories by well established naturalists of the day attest to their numbers. Early last century a Scottish ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, observed a column of flying birds more than a mile wide, moving at a rate of a mile a minute for four hours. He calculated three pigeons to the cubic yard, or 2,530 million birds in the flock!
Enter Homo Tyranicus. Birds were slaughtered in their tens of millions with seemingly little effect on their numbers. The American population doubled between 1800 and 1820 and doubled again by 1845. Railroads began to criss-cross the continent. The immense forests were fast disappearing. As the forests disappeared the breeding cycle of the pigeons was totally disrupted.
Paradoxically the fertility of the Passenger Pigeon had never been great, each pair producing only one egg per brood. The key to their profusion was simply the absence of natural enemies and an abundant supply of food with their habitat.
A state legislature bill to protect the birds was proposed in Ohio in 1857, but the committee reported, "The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection; no ordinary destruction can lessen them". Man proved to be extraordinary. The last of the great hunts took place near Michigan in 1878.
Nearly a billion birds were slaughtered for the table and for pig food. Three hundred tons of birds were killed in one month. Five freight car loads a day were shipped east, every day for 30 days. This was a nesting colony, so many thousands of squabs died of starvation in the nest. The last breeding colony was reported in Michigan in 1896. It numbered only a few dozen pairs. From then on it was downhill all the way.
The Passenger Pigeon was arguably the most spectacular casualty of "progress" close to our time. It was entirely eliminated in two or three generations. Extinction is forever, a sobering if not an original thought.
I realise that I have wandered far from the original intent to present a Riverglade water bird in this column. However, the message is clear. Life would surely be a lesser experience for a variety of reasons if there were not a few teal and "woodies" about the place.
Support your local community wetland committee and ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Reference: Vanished and Vanishing Creatures. R. Silverberg.
Until next month, good birding. - Jabiru
14 December 15, 1998
Since the beginning of these monthly features on birds the authors have used the pseudonym Jabiru and it seems appropriate to feature this handsome stork even though it has probably never visited the Riverglade Wetland.
This is the only stork found in Australia and until recently is was called Jabiru, but the official name is now Blacknecked Stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticius).
Its distribution is a little vague as it has been sighted on occasions in Victoria, but it is generally confined to the coastal area north of Sydney and then right across the northern coastal areas through Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. This writer was fortunate enough to live near a breeding ground in what is now a National park on the Macleay Valley in northern NSW.
The habitat is usually lakes, swamps and lagoons that supply food in the form of fish, frogs and small mammals. Being a large bird, from 112 cm in length and standing to 120 cm, it has a voracious appetite and will also eat carrion, lizards, insects and molluscs.
They stride through the shallow waters, probing the mud for food and occasionally darting forward to catch a fish. They nest on stick and reed platforms which may be in trees or on the ground but are always surrounded by water. They are sedentary and pair for life.
A distinctive feature is the bill, which is long, thick and black while the long legs and feet are red. The head and neck, the tail and a large part of the wings are glossy black which shimmers with green in certain lights. The remainder of the wings and the body are white which contrasts well resulting in a most striking effect. The only difference between the male and female in the eye colour. In the female it is yellow while the male's eye is dark.
The regular count of water birds for November had some interesting results. It was pleasing to see an increase in overall numbers but this was long overdue.
Grey teal were on the increase, with a considerable number of chicks and juveniles from various duck families and at last a grebe was on the ponds - and a hoary-head at that!
On the down side, there was not the normal chatter from Clamorous Reed-Warblers nor were any nests sighted. Perhaps that was because the paths have been slashed and nests may have been destroyed in the process. We will check the area regularly for the rest of the year and expect to record the first nesting and breeding very shortly.
Also of note was the number of dead carp, partly eaten, spread around the sewerage ponds. Our first thought was of foxes (and there was a dead fox on site), but it seems more likely that someone has been catching carp and leaving the remains.
Finally, we were thrilled to record three juvenile Dusky Moorhens on the sewerage ponds. While it has been quite clear they have bred in the area every year, this is the first time in over five years of official counting that we have recorded the young of this species. That's the thing about bird watching, there is always something new.
The first bird sighted in the latest visit to the Riverglade Common was Australia's only member of the Roller family, the Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis).
Wintering in New Guinea and adjacent areas, it returns to Australia each spring and summer where it breeds, usually in a tree hollow where several white eggs are laid. The Tumut wetlands are common habitats for these birds.
Like so many birds this creature sitting on the top of a dead gum tree appears to be a dull brown or grey and of no particular interest.
In fact is a most attractive bird, with bright red beak, legs and feet, a blue throat, green wings and round white patches under its wings from which it derives its name (from the silver dollar). Apart from these outstanding features the remainder of the feathers are dull, predominately grey-brown and with the female just slightly paler than the male.
The other distinguishing feature of these birds is the manner in which they feed and also, it seems, display during the mating season. From a lofty perch they will launch themselves into the air and, with huge gape wide open, hawk for moths, cicada, beetles and other flying insects. Having caught them by maneuvering through the sky, often rolling upside down, they return to the branch and batter the insect before devouring it.
A most attractive and entertaining visitor to our Riverglade Wetlands.
Until next month - good birding. -Jabiru
15 January 8, 1999
The Double-barred Finch (Taeniopygia bichenovii) inhabits a wide variety of habitats throughout most of northern and eastern Australia.
It is rarely found more than about two kilometres from water and obviously gains some advantage from settlement by frequenting parks, gardens and the like.
On "Riverglade" it is most often found on the seed heads of reeds found on the sewage ponds.
The local bird is the white-rumped race, as opposed to the black-rumped race found west of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Very compact in appearance, these "owl-faced" finches are pale to mid-brown on the upper body and crown of the head, with fine bars across markings of dark brown, culminating in a black band across the rump. The upper body is a faint creamy-buff colour. The white face is bordered in black as is the chest.
Bluish-grey in colour, the bill is a typical seed-eating shape. Black outer wing feathers are spotted white. Nests are rather small rounded affairs, occasionally having a small entry tunnel. The lining consists mainly of soft grasses.
To the best of my knowledge nests have not have been recorded on the "Riverglade" site over the past five years. Although only about ten centimetres in length, the Double-bar is certainly a most engaging little finch.
References and further reading: Australian Finches (Klaus Immelmann); Field Guide to Birds of Australia (Simpson and Day).
Occupying a somewhat different niche on the 'Riverglade' site is the Black-fronted Dotterel (Elseyornis melanops), often referred to as the Black-fronted Plover.
Found on the muddy margins of shallow ponds and pools, this small wader is probably the most widespread of our Plovers. Colonies of up to eighteen birds have been recorded around the Tumut effluent ponds.
A relatively small, slim bird some 16 to 18 centimetres in length, it is readily identifiable by the red beak tipped with black and the heavy black eye stripe and red eye ring. The crown of the head is dark brown, bordered by a thin white band extending from either side of the forehead to the nape. This encircling band does not join at the forehead. The black forehead points back into the crown.
Throat and body are white, with a bold black vee on the breast. Legs are flesh-pink in colour. Upper parts are brown with a horizontal shoulder bar of chestnut, usually only discernible through binoculars. Both sexes are similar in appearance but immatures lack the breast band and black forehead and are generally duller in appearance. The tail is short, not extending past the wing tips.
In flight, which is fast and erratic, the wings appear proportionately oversize. Its stance has been described as "horizontal" and first sightings are often due to their quick head-bobbing behaviour and short. fast running action. Often this movement is first detected by reflection at the water's edge.
The nest is a mere scrape in the gravel, usually only a few metres from water and contains two to three pale stone-coloured eggs with a dark brown scribble pattern. Several of these nests containing eggs have been found in the Riverglade refuge.
Shallow pools and mud flats on the Common area, free from disturbance, would surely attract these personable little waders and help restore their number on this site.
Reference and further reading: HANZAB (OUP for the R.A.O.U); Field Guide to Australian Birds (Pizzey and Knight).
Until next month, good birding. -Jabiru
16 February 9, 1999
Although distributed worldwide, the Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) is nevertheless a welcome sight on the Riverglade sewerage ponds and occasionally on the common oxbow lake.
Incidentally, oxbow lakes are by definition old river pools in flood channels and are often crescent-shaped. They are normally only connected to the main river during floods. In our case the lake is not connected to the river anymore, relying on storm water discharge from the town.
Back to the Coot. A gregarious, medium-sized waterbird about 38 centimetres in length, the Coot is easily distinguishable from the other waterbirds by the large white frontal shield on the forehead.
Head and neck are glossy-black. with the rest of the plumage a marginally paler slate-black. The white bill tends towards a tinge of blue-grey. A striking feature through binoculars is the bright red iris of the eye.
Sexes are similar in appearance although the male is slightly larger. The contact call is a loud sharp crark.
Flattish lobes on the feet, similar to Grebes, give it a powerful swimming and diving action. Coots dive well, but only for short periods, unlike the Grebe. They swim high in the water with rounded backs and small head jerks back to front.
Their habitat preference is for shallow permanent or ephemeral wetlands with a variety of submerged or emergent aquatic vegetation surrounded by or adjacent to deeper open water.
The nest is a large bulky structure built up well above water level and often anchored to rushes or similar vegetation.
Clutches of five or six eggs are usual, appearing rather close-grained in texture and oval in shape. The incubation period is anything from 23 to 26 days, the chicks being downy brown with a red bill tipped with black.
Flocks numbering thousands have been recorded in other parts of Australia, although Riverglade numbers rarely exceed eight to ten birds.
The status of the Coot is certainly secure at present and should remain so whilst ever suitable wetland habitat is appropriately maintained. When funds become available perhaps some positive action initiated through the Shire Wetlands Committee will provide a regional wetland that sets the high mark for others to follow.
References and further reading: Hanzab (OUP for RAOU), Australian Waterbirds (Dr Richard Kingsford).
Native to eastern Australia, the Red-browed Finch or Firetail (Neochmia temporalis) is no stranger to the Riverglade Wildlife Refuge.
When the sewerage ponds reeds (Phragmites australis) are in seed, flocks of up to an estimated 500 birds have been seen feeding through the tops. This is, of course, exceptional in terms of flock numbers. More common are locally nomadic, non breeding flocks of 20 or 30 birds.
A small finch, approximately 11 centimetres in length, it is immediately identifiable by the scarlet rump, eyebrow and sides of the bill. The upper parts are coloured olive-green, the body a soft ashy grey and the tail below the scarlet rump is dark brown.
Sexes are similar in plumage, the contact call a very soft drawn-out "Seeee".
During the breeding season, which usually extends from September through January in our part of the world, pairs build a bottle shaped nest of soft grasses, preferably in a thorny bush or thicket. Four or six white eggs are laid and take about 14 to 15 days to hatch.
The courtship display is a treat to watch. The male advances to the side of the female holding a piece of grass in his beak and begins to call and dance in a series of vertical movements. The body is held extremely erect with the beak pointing to the sky. The vertical jumps are so pronounced that the male's feet leave the perch each time.
Relatively unafraid of humans, these finches bathed in a water dish on my back verandah recently, giving me the privilege of watching them for some time.
Until next month ... good birding. - Jabiru
17 March 23, 1999
Departure of survey team member
The bird has finally flown. Well, half the bird at least. I refer of course to one half of the "Jabiru" wetland waterbird survey team who have monitored the Riverglade Wildlife Refuge for the past five years.
Kevin, who wishes to remain anonymous, has relocated to Canberra where presumably the birds are more to his liking.
A well-known gentleman around town, Kevin has over the years, contributed his many skills to a wide variety of Shire activities.
His generous help with the waterbird project, often involving early starts on cold and frosty mornings, has been greatly appreciated. Likewise, the friendship which consequently developed. I am sure that all his many friends wish him well in his new career.
One of the causes of major disturbance (apart from man) on the wetlands is the swift and silent arrival or the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).
The specific Latin name peregrinus refers to the Old World concept of a "wandering" or migratory falcon of the Northern Hemisphere.
In Australia adult birds tend to be sedentary. After the breeding cycle young birds apparently disperse randomly. Falco means a sickle, a reference to the curved talons.
Back to the disturbance. When approximately 400 ducks on the Riverglade effluent pond take to the air simultaneously, headed for all points of the compass, the odds are that a Peregrine Falcon has arrived overhead.
Dark bluish-grey above with black head and cheeks giving the appearance of a helmet, the belly and under parts are cream, flecked with dark brown. The upper leg, tail and under wings are finely barred with dark brown, and the throat in mature birds is white.
Legs and feet are rather heavy, coloured a bright egg-yolk yellow, as it is the cere and orbital patch. Talons are glossy black, The upper beak is tipped with black, fading to bluish grey. Immature birds are browner overall and lack the distinctive white throat and yellow cere.
When a Peregrine dives or "stoops" from a considerable height it attains speeds calculated at around 100 mph. The impact alone is sufficient to knock a sizeable bird from the sky, but the talons are the deadlier weapon.
Some reports indicate a distinct food preference for Grey Teal and Galah, although any flock species such as Starling or Pigeon are regularly targeted.
On Riverglade effluent pond, Grey Teal numbers average 200 to 300 birds - a ready meal there for the taking.
Whilst their habitat takes in most landforms they have a decided preference for large rocky outcrops or cliff faces, particularly for nesting sites. The above photograph (not show here) shows a typical nest with young (somewhere in Kosciuszko National Park). This photograph was taken last year by John Dunn of Adelong, a former ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The full print shows a scattering of galah feathers around the nest.
Clutch sizes average three to four eggs, laid August to October. Incubation takes 33 days with an approximate further 40 days in the nest (Debus). Chicks are a downy white in colour.
References and further reading: Field Guide to Birds of Australia (Simpson and Day), The Birds of Prey in Australia (Stephen Debus).
On to other matters. The Wetland Restoration Committee advises that the first in series "fact file" sheets will be available in two weeks. These publications are free of charge and are designed to reflect the philosophies and objectives of the committee on an ongoing basis.
Constructive comments or financial support for these sheets would be most welcome. Look for them at Tumut Library, Tumut Shire Council Chambers and selected locations around town,
Water quality entering our rivers and consequently the restoration of our wetlands and responsible management of storm water outlets is of prime importance and should be seen as an urgent priority for the whole community. The responsibility is ours.
Until next month, good birding. -Jabiru
18 April 23, 1999
Last month I wrote about disturbance on the "Riverglade" effluent pond due to the presence of birds of prey, in particular the Peregrine falcon. A week later while surveying waterbird numbers on the same pond, who should get in on the act, but two Whistling Kites and one Wedgetail Eagle.
The Wedgetail circled and perched on a dead tree only ten or twelve metres above the water.
The Ducks became very nervous and formed a tight group on the water, as far as possible from the perched eagle. A few birds broke formation and headed for the hills, but the majority option was clearly "safety in numbers".
Some relief from this war of nerves came from five or six magpies who continually harassed the perched eagle.
While this drama was being enacted, the two Whistling Kites circled the site or swept over the raft of Ducks, occasionally perching in a nearby tree.
No birds were taken during the half hour or so that we observed this performance, which incidentally, made it extremely difficult to record species and numbers.
Duck numbers recorded were about half those normally expected at this time of the year, an indication that this hunting expedition had been in play for an hour or so before our arrival.
Scattered bird parts around the pond in recent weeks attest to past successes or was it a fox?
Conditions for waterbirds on the common have been extremely difficult for the past three or four months, the oxbow lake and random ponds have been totally dry over that period, denying food and refuge to a range of fauna.
Substantial rain late March to early April has eased the situation with waterbird numbers increasing from zero to twelve species totaling just over one hundred birds.
The Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) needs no descriptive introduction.
Found all over mainland Australia and Tasmania wherever suitable habitat is available, its distinctive flight and stance is known to everyone. The large bill and pink bill-pouch distinguish it from all other local species.
It prefers large areas of shallow water, either fresh or brackish to saline, occasionally with access to mud flats.
Its movements in inland regions are very much influenced by rainfall, classifying them as dispersive or highly nomadic.
Locally, after heavy rain, they tend to prefer the river side of the oxbow lake on the town common and are very occasionally recorded on the effluent pond. Sightings over the past three years have been very spasmodic, due no doubt to drought conditions and the continuing degradation of the site.
To the best of my knowledge no records exist of pelican having bred in the Tumut region. The nest is a mere scrape in the ground, sometimes lined with a few sticks. On the coast nests are often sparsely lined with seaweed. Two to three chalky-white eggs are laid.
Given suitable conditions, pelicans will breed opportunistically in any month of the year. Unsustained inland flooding often leads to the death of countless young in scattered breeding colonies.
Breeding success depends largely on an abundant supply of available fish and continuity of their aquatic habitat for at least three months. Other food sources include invertebrates and frogs.
Pelicans often soar to great heights, following the thermals to upwards of three thousand metres.
A truly magnificent bird which should be encouraged to inhabit a truly magnificent wetland, hopefully in the not too distant future.
References and further reading: Field Guide to Birds of Australia (Pizzey and Knight) Australian Waterbirds (Richards Kingsford).
Until next month, good birding. - Jabiru
19 June 1, 1999
Musk is a unique bird
The Musk Duck (Biziura lobata) is a uniquely Australian bird.
It is a rather bizarre, heavily-built duck with stiff tail and large thick-set head. The male has a large dark leathery lobe of skin hanging from the lower mandible. This lobe becomes larger during the breeding season, which normally extends from September through December.
The overall body colour is very dark brown, lightly vermiculated with a fawn coloured pattern. The preening gland near the tail of the male bird gives off a musky odour, hence its name.
During the breeding season the male performs a quite spectacular courtship ritual, striking the water hard with a roughly circular motion of the foot, making an easily discernible "plonk" sound followed by a loud grunt or whistle. During this display, the bill which is dark grey in colour and triangular in profile is upraised, prominently exhibiting the lobe. The tail is spread and angled clear of the water.
When disturbed it quickly "sculls" across. the water in a cloud of spray. Although strong in flight they usually prefer to dive or swim underwater if threatened.
Musk Ducks are strong swimmers, keeping very low in the water in the style of cormorants. They prefer ponds or lakes that are deep enough to allow them to dive freely and favour water with some dense fringe vegetation.
Food consists mainly of aquatic animals, molluscs and available insects. Female birds are considerably smaller than the males with a greatly diminished beak lobe.
Records indicate that it is most commonly found in the south and south-east of Australia, including Tasmania. Strange as it may seem regular sightings have been made on the sea around the southern coast, particularly in the bays and estuaries.
When deep water flooding occurs inland, Musk Ducks rapidly occupy these areas, suggesting sustained powers of flight, which usually takes place at night. Field studies indicate that there is no large scale seasonal movement of birds.
Nests are usually flimsy depressions in the reeds containing from one to three pale green eggs. Their status varies from state to state, but overall numbers are secure at present.
During the past five years only one solitary musk duck has been recorded on the Riverglade Refuge, probably seeking relief from the prevailing drought conditions at that time. Given the appropriate habitat on a restored wetland site, this interesting and unique bird could well become a permanent resident on Riverglade.
Reference and further reading; Atlas of Australian Birds (Blakers, Davies, Reilly); Australian Waterbirds (Richard Kingsford); Birds of Australia (Simpson and Day).
A question often asked of me is "what are the most common waterbirds found in the Riverglade Wildlife Refuge?" The answer of course depends upon several factors.
Presence on a daily basis, disregarding numbers, would include Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Dusky Moorhen, Purple Swamphen and Australasian Grebe. For sheer weight of numbers, Grey Teal and Black Duck in that order, would far outstrip other species the whole year round.
A seasonal influx of Clamourous Reed-warblers during October through February, when conditions are optimum, often takes them into the top three. Conversely, the least common species recorded in the past five years have been the Curlew Sandpiper, Rufous Night Heron, Little Egret, Musk Duck and the Spotless Crake.
Widespread drought conditions often cause fluctuations in individual specie numbers, but the overall number of species often tends to increase. This happened at the Riverglade Refuge in 1995 as ephemeral ponds dried out across the country, highlighting the need in my view, to establish stable refuge ponds and habitat on the common area.
Whilst on the subject of questions and numbers, which is the least numerous of Australian waterfowl and what is its population size?
Answers to that one next month, until then. ... Good Birding. - Jabiru
20 June 29, 1999
Elusive Reed warbler
One of the most interesting and yet difficult birds to closely observe on the wetlands is the elusive Clamorous Reed-warbler.
I say difficult, not through lack of numbers, but because they are continuously on the move throughout the reed beds. Two or three seconds could be considered a good sighting.
A summer visitor to Riverglade, it arrives in numbers usually in September and October. As the numbers build, the noise or "clamour" can be quite incredible, making normal conversation close to the reed beds difficult.
A small brown bird, 16 to 17 cm in length, with fawn to pale rufous sides and under parts, the head crown is slightly raised or crested, particularly when singing.
A variety of rich melodious calls are used - difficult to explain in words, but often culminating in the unmistakable "crotchy. crotchy, crotchy".
Suddenly in mid-December the reed beds fall quiet. Eggs are laid and hatched, young are reared and develop for the long flight north as cool weather approaches. By the end of March adult birds and young have departed.
This has been the pattern for the past four or five years, coinciding with the planting and development of the reed beds (Phragmites australis) on the effluent ponds.
The number of birds has steadily increased over this period, as has the breeding success rate.
Here the success story ends, for the moment at least.
The number of Reed warblers arriving in October through December last year increased by approximately 30 per cent over previous years. Yet not a single nest nor any young were recorded over a five month period.
By early February not a single Reed-warbler remained in the Riverglade reed beds. The question is why?
Two possibilities spring to mind. By the end of November the reeds which normally grow to about 2.4 metres on this site, had only attained a little over half this height. This may have been caused by a sustained drop in water levels in the ponds at a critical period in their development.
Another possible reason is the timing of slashing operations around the pond perimeters, causing serious interruption to the birds' breeding cycle.
Whatever the cause it demonstrates one aspect of the need for consideration in some of our daily activities which impact on environmental issues.
Whilst on the subject of consideration for the environment, the place where we live, let me express a few words of concern for the quality of storm water that enters our wetland on the common.
Far too often, litter in the form of plastic and glass drink bottles, fruit drink cartons together with other forms of pollutants, are washed from our streets and playing fields to ultimately find their way into the Tumut River via the wetlands.
The real answer is for us to dispose of these items thoughtfully.
If, as it appears, this is impracticable, serious and urgent consideration should be given to the design and construction of trash barriers or skimmers at the storm water entrance to the common.
On to lighter matters. Last month I posed the question; "Which is the least numerous of Australia's waterfowl? What is its population size?" The answer is the Freckled Duck, which total population numbers estimated to be around 19,000 birds (Martindale). This estimate can fluctuate considerably dependent upon seasonal conditions.
Today's poser: What are the two primary functions of a Pelican's gular pouch?
The answer to that one next month. Until then, good birding. - Jabiru
21 August 6, 1999
The Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides) is known variously as the Chestnut-breasted Duck, Mountain Shelduck or Sheldrake, Mountain Duck or Grunter. Often these colloquial or common names reflect some aspect of the bird's behaviour or appearance, but are considered inappropriate as they sometimes lead to confusion.
Hence the move to establish a common or preferred English name for all species. "Australian" best describes this endemic species of Shelduck, which is classified as vagrant to both New Zealand and Norfolk Island.
A large-bodied duck with a relatively small head, it is readily distinguishable in flight by the large white patches on the wings, both upper and lower, and located close to the body.
The area behind the upper wing patches, the speculum, is green. Head and neck are a dark blackish-brown with a suggestion of iridescent green, dependent on the available light. A white neck-ring separates neck and breast which is a conspicuous chestnut to dull orange colour, as is the rump on both sexes. The breast colour in the male is slightly more yellow in hue.
The shortish bill is dark grey in both sexes, but white at the base in the female, sometimes merging with the head colour in varying degrees.
A prominent white eye-ring in the female simplifies field identification. Upper and lower body colouring in both sexes is a blackish dark brown.
The Australian Shelduck is found in a variety of habitats ranging from wetlands to grasslands, cropland, riverside park lands and estuarine waters. It appears to be equally at home grazing on aquatic or terrestrial dryland plants, the latter preferably close to shallow water or mud flats. Although found on saltwater estuaries, they need access to fresh water for drinking purposes.
Unlike other Australian ducks they fly in vee formation or occasionally in extended straight lines, often at considerable heights. They swim well and when feeding in water prefer to occupy the shallows, enabling them to upend or "dabble" on the bottom. All things considered, they are an asset to any wetlands.
References and further reading: Field Guide to Birds of Australia. Simpson and Day 5th edition. HANZAB. Volume 1, OUP for RAOU.
Waterbird species and specie numbers continue to fall in our monthly surveys of the sewage ponds and common area. Grey Teal numbers have roughly halved over the past three years. Pacific Black Duck are holding on although they took a decided downturn last month. Even the common White Ibis is apparently finding better fare elsewhere.
Many factors influence bird movements, not the least being the prevailing wet conditions which provide abundant food in sodden paddocks.
Figures probably indicate that the sewage ponds are a refuge in times of drought. However, it would be preferable in my view to create aquatic and landform features of value as breeding and feeding habitat within the common area. What an asset for tourism, education and recreation within the Shire of Tumut!
Last month I posed the question; "What are the two primary functions of a Pelican's gular pouch?"
The obvious first function is to catch and hold fish. The second is thermo-regulation. Overheated birds cool off by rapidly fluttering their throat pouch.
Today's poser: Which aquatic bird is known as the "snake bird" and why? Answer next month. Until then, good birding. - Jabiru