Birds & birding in the Blue Mountains & Capertee Valley, Australia

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Sensational! | Signs of winter | Yellow Box gone crazy | Chasing Birds at film festival | BIRD NOTES: autumn 2008 | The drought breaks... | BIRD SIGHTINGS: spring-summer 2007-8 | Tree planting in 2008

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Message regarding bushfires in the Blue Mountains
October 2013

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December 2012: Now on Twitter @carolprobets



Sensational!

Life and work are as hectic as ever but I really had to add a quick note about the sensational birding at the moment. For example, one day last weekend in the Capertee Valley among about 100 species we had both Regent Honeyeaters and Plum-headed Finches nest-building, Turquoise Parrots in several locations, Rockwarblers right where we looked for them, and the first Painted Honeyeater of the season.

The Black Kite is a rare visitor to the valley so it was quite unexpected to see one cruising over Genowlan Road on the 27th September.

On my own block of land, sitting by the dam provided a show of non-stop action as birds of many species came to drink. Continuous, enthralling... who could ask for more? Well we did get more along the track back to the cabin when a pair of Spotted Quail-thrush appeared with a fledgeling!

Recently with another visitor I started the day in the upper mountains with a flock of 45 Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos flying directly over our heads – truly exhilarating – and within minutes we'd also had great views of Gang-gangs and Glossy Black-Cockatoos.

The return Yellow-faced Honeyeater migration has been moving along for weeks now. Flame Robins have returned to their mountain breeding sites. Flocks of White-browed Woodswallows have arrived, Rainbow Bee-eaters and all the cuckoo species are back... and each day more of the summer migrants arrive from the North – it's like seeing old friends again.

The well-known Satin Bowerbird at Leura has moved his bower – the last time I was there he was adding the final twigs to the walls. Another bower at Blackheath has been furnished with fresh yellow daffodils. The Tawny Frogmouths have a nest in the same tree where they have nested the last three years, and at home in Katoomba the Grey Shrike-thrush is singing incredibly elaborate and melodious songs.

The extra rain we've had this year has really spurred things along. Actually, we haven't had a huge amount of rain, but compared to the recent long drought years it seems like a lot – and it's turning into a very good season.

-3rd October 2008


Signs of Winter

  • Huge winter flocks of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos. We recently counted about 150 on Kings Tableland.
  • Pilotbirds and Rockwarblers are relatively easy to find in the clifftop areas.
  • Many honeyeaters, including the lovely Crescent Honeyeater, feeding in flowering banksias.
  • Flame Robins out in the open country and valleys to the west of the mountains.
  • Satin Bowerbirds forming large groups around the mountain townships, raiding gardens.
  • On some days at Katoomba the sky fills with huge, noisy travelling flocks of Pied Currawongs going west.
  • Many resident species are already starting to nest.
Updated 4th August 2008


"The Yellow Box have gone crazy"

While we were busy watching the White Box trees (Eucalyptus albens) for signs of flowering which would signal good conditions for nectar feeding birds in the Capertee Valley, the Yellow Box (E. melliodora) snuck in with an unexpected frenzy of blossom! And there are still many trees in heavy bud. Yellow Box normally flower in spring or summer. Arriving at the Capertee River on 8th June we were greeted by a cacophony of sound and activity with hundreds of Little Lorikeets and White-naped Honeyeaters feeding in the flowering Yellow Box. Even better news, at least a dozen Regent Honeyeaters have moved in and are now showing signs of establishing breeding territories. We're hoping this year is a bumper breeding season for them... it's about time!

Elsewhere in the valley, we've been seeing Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, Painted Button-quail and a Spotted Harrier, in addition to all the other usual Capertee Valley birds.

-20th June 2008

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Chasing Birds at Sydney Film Festival


In October 2003 my team-mates and I were filmed dashing around the countryside as participants in the NSW Twitchathon. The result is now a 52-minute film by Gina Twyble and Greg Woodland of Luminous Films which has been accepted for screening at this year's Sydney Film Festival! Chasing Birds follows three teams – the Whacked-Out Woodswallows (that's us in the pic above), Hunter Home Brewers and Hunter Thickheads – during the crazy 24 hour race...

Following the screening there will be a question and answer session from the audience. The film is also expected to be aired on TV later this year.

Chasing Birds
Sunday 15th June 2008 at 12.15pm at Dendy Opera Quays Cinema, East Circular Quay.

SOLD OUT

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BIRD NOTES: autumn 2008

Some quick updates on what's around.

24th May: The Spotted Quail-thrush were out in force for the Cumberland Bird Observers Club visit to the Megalong Valley. Normally a shy and elusive bird, everyone had prolonged views of both male and female at the Megalong Valley Reserve (pony club), where they were particularly vocal. A female was also seen well on the Six Foot Track. Other highlights included Red-browed Treecreeper, Crested Shrike-tit, Scarlet Robin and Diamond Firetail.

More recent rain in mid-May and plenty of lerp in the Capertee Valley, and the result is an increasing number of Regent Honeyeater and Swift Parrot sightings. Yellow-faced Honeyeaters flying west through the Blue Mountains throughout autumn also point to 2008 being a good "inland year". Visit Lynda Hyde's blog for the report of her Regent-Swiftie surveys in the valley, 16th May.

4th May: The highlight from the tree-planting weekend in the Capertee Valley was at least 4 Regent Honeyeaters feeding on lerps, calling frequently and giving a group of 16 volunteers great views while a flock of about 9 Swift Parrots flew over in a tight group near Port Macquarie Road.

White-headed Pigeon, from a photo
by Nevil Lazarus.

Silvereyes are currently moving around in flocks and conspicuous in gardens, feeding on insects and small fruit. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
April: White-headed Pigeons have been numerous in the Blue Mountains throughout April, seen at several locations from Valley Heights to Katoomba, with many on the powerlines beside the highway at Springwood and Valley Heights.

Yellow-faced and White-naped Honeyeaters and Silvereyes were migrating steadily though the mountains in the rain and heavy fog that blanketed the area through the second half of April. Usually I see very little migration on overcast or rainy days but this season has been an exception. I guess they don't have much choice in the matter. Silvereyes are particularly noticeable at the moment and can also be heard migrating in the dark early hours of the morning.

16 April: Had awesome views of a Square-tailed Kite flying low over houses at Pitt Town, near Windsor.

15 April: Woken in the middle of the night by a noisy late-migrating Channel-billed Cuckoo – my last for the season. (I'm pretty sure I didn't dream it!)

12 April: This morning at 10am, saw 4 White-throated Needletails flying west over Katoomba. This is possibly the latest I've seen them – usually the last ones come through around the end of March or 1st April. In general there have been relatively few needletail sightings this season.

A flock of 16 Gang-gang Cockatoos seen this morning in west Katoomba.

The honeyeater migration is now in full swing with thousands of Yellow-faced and a few White-naped Honeyeaters moving through yesterday and today.

11 April: Treated to the beautiful sight of 12 Glossy Black-Cockatoos enjoying the morning sun on the powerlines at Kings Tableland. Large numbers of migrating honeyeaters flying along Narrow Neck.

11th April: Regent Honeyeaters return to the Capertee Valley! Lynda Hyde reported 7 Regent Honeyeaters drinking at her birdbath today. In Lynda's words: "The valley is positively humming at the moment!" Visit Lynda's blog Bird Hyde for photos and more info.

2 April: A very busy mixed flock near Blackheath, 16 species together including Rockwarbler and Rose Robin.

30 March: Report received via Blue Mountains Bird Observers that an Emerald Dove had flown into a window at Woodford on 30th March. Initially dazed, later recovered and flew off. As far as I'm aware this is the first Blue Mountains record of this species excluding the Colo River/Hawkesbury area.

29–30 March: Robins arrive in Capertee Valley: Red-capped and Scarlet Robins seen. Weebills building a nest. Many finches about.

29 March, continuing through April: A pair of Bassian Thrush very easy to observe on the lawn at Leura Cascades picnic area. It's always good to see these beautiful birds.

27 March: The first migrating flocks of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters going north over Katoomba.

March 2008: The mistletoe is flowering well in the Capertee Valley and attracting large numbers of Noisy Friarbirds.

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It's been a good breeding season for many birds such as this pair of Zebra Finches in the Capertee Valley. Photo by Lip Kee Yap.


The drought breaks....or does it?

What a difference some decent rain makes! The rivers and creeks which for the past few years were merely dry channels are flowing strongly. Paddocks that were once brown and dusty are now green and bursting with rampant growth of grasses, flowers and weeds. We've had widespread rain, and lots of it, some parts of the country suffering devastating floods in recent months. Spectacular storms have been a regular occurrence this season.

It doesn't take long for a multitude of tiny creatures to respond to the conditions. First it was the flies! Spring 2007 was one of the worst fly seasons I can recall. All my international visitors quickly learnt the "great Aussie salute" (a nonchalant wave of the hand in front of the face, designed to stop the flies landing). Some of them adopted the habit of wearing a fly net, which is great if you're not trying to use binoculars. I don't know if they believed me when I tried to assure them it's not always that bad. Of course, the situation in the Blue Mountains was much better than the warmer Capertee Valley, and that was nothing compared to the flies out in western NSW! At least bush-flies don't bite, they're just supremely annoying! Still, by the time 2007 neared its end everyone was relieved to see the fly numbers dwindling.

A male Australian Wood Duck takes advantage of a
flooded paddock in the Capertee Valley, Feb 2008.
Photo Lip Kee Yap.

Then it was cicadas. Some years the cicadas are so loud in places that even the birds go elsewhere. This year I've been noticing many of the smaller species of cicada, which have much more agreeable calls than the larger, louder types. It prompted me to embark on a quest to try and learn to recognise some of the cicadas by call – now THERE'S a challenge! Much more difficult than birds.

Beautiful orb-weaving spiders have also been numerous, especially during late summer this year. The well-named Golden Orb Weavers spin a huge web that shines like gold in the sunlight. Suspended in this web is a large female whose abdomen can be almost the size of a wine cork and legs that could encircle a small bird (though I've never seen them prey on birds), often sitting there at face-level to make things interesting for whoever's walking in front through the forest – usually me! Despite their large appearance they're not dangerous to humans. The web is a complex 3-dimensional creation which, in addition to the female, houses a number of tiny male spiders each with its own small web within the larger structure, forming a veritable spider-city suspended between trees.

Moist earth, flourishing vegetation, plentiful invertebrates. It all serves to illustrate that rainfall does influence the ecology very quickly, and the bird populations shouldn't be too far behind.

After six long years of hardship for farmers and the environment alike, people are referring to the current La Niña as "drought-breaking". The area of NSW drought-declared has now been reduced to 46%, compared with more than 90% a year ago. However, let's not get too comfortable too quickly. According to the Bureau of Meteorology Drought Statement (4th March 2008): "The deficiencies ... have occurred against a backdrop of decade-long rainfall deficits and record high temperatures that have severely stressed water supplies in the east and southwest of the country. Several years of above average rainfall are required to remove the very long-term deficits."

At least we're on the way.

-CP, 10th March 2008

[Click here to see Lynda Hyde's photos of the Capertee River after heavy rain.]

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BIRD SIGHTINGS: spring–summer 2007–8

The spring and summer just past was a busy one for me with much time spent in the field and good numbers and diversity of birds, with the exception of honeyeaters. A lack of significant flowering – especially in the Capertee Valley – meant that most nectariovores were a bit harder to find than usual. With luck, the current La Niña conditions might see an improvement soon.

Since my last update in early October, more migrants arrived including the Dollarbird at Coxs River (by 12th Oct) and Satin Flycatchers at Lithgow (by 10th Oct) and at Katoomba (16th Oct). A male White-winged Triller was back at Wentworth Falls Lake by 9th October. Channel-billed Cuckoos were very numerous in the mountains throughout October and November, while Black-eared Cuckoos, which had arrived in late August in the Capertee Valley, were still calling on 9th Dec and again on 26th Jan.

One of the most interesting sightings I heard about was a new species for the Capertee Valley in the form of a Red-backed Kingfisher seen by NZ birder Bruce Keeley at April Mills' property "Binalong" in October. This is normally a bird of areas much further west, although interestingly, there was another October report of this species well east of its normal range on Birding-Aus with a bird seen along Upper Colo Road, north of Windsor.

Between September and December much excitement was generated by the first breeding record of Square-tailed Kites in the Blue Mountains. The nest was clearly visible from the backyard of local bird observers Sandy and Lyle, across a forested gully in the lower mountains. Sandy and Lyle kept tabs on the birds' progress and kindly allowed a stream of birders to call in and have a look. The female parent was sitting from 5th September, and by 22nd October there were 2 chicks which fledged successfully in the first week of December.
[CLICK HERE TO SEE NEIL KIRBY'S PHOTOS OF THE NESTING KITES]

A male Darter demonstrates why it's sometimes called the 'snake-bird'. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
Wentworth Falls Lake has had a succession of waterbirds passing through with movements no doubt triggered by the widespread rain. These included Royal Spoonbills, a Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Darters, a Great Crested Grebe, and early in February, 11 Black Swans. Two Cattle Egrets were also seen in the Capertee Valley in November. Latham's Snipe had arrived at Lake Wallace by 8th November with 2 or 3 seen that day; a Spotted Crake was seen there in October, a Blue-billed Duck on 2nd December (with several Blue-bills also still at the Lithgow STW) and a majestic White-bellied Sea-Eagle on the 3rd. A Square-tailed Kite was a bonus for 24th Nov, seen while travelling through Little Hartley.

Flame Robins have a preference for recently burnt forest and the bushfire of late 2006 created some ideal habitat around the Grose Valley. Many of my visitors had the thrill of seeing a very obliging and beautiful male which established a territory near Evans Lookout for the spring. It would often feed on the road surface in the early mornings or sit high on an exposed branch to sing. We last saw it on 7th December feeding a recently fledged young. However in more recent weeks there's been a mysterious absence of sightings of these beautiful birds in the mountains.

Evans Lookout was also the place where we had some great views of Gang-gangs and Glossy Black-Cockatoos. The former species we were able to watch closely as it extracted and fed on the seed kernels from Persoonia (Geebung) fruit in a low shrub by the roadside. On 10th February we counted 18 Gang-gangs here. Glossies are specialist feeders on Allocasuarina seeds and at Evans Lookout it's A. littoralis, the Black She-oak, that they favour. In mid-December one particular female was seen with an extraordinary amount of yellow in her plumage (much more than the usual amount for an old female).

It was here also that we were surprised to see a White-throated Treecreeper eating a large, venomous Red-back Spider on 8th February.

Gang-gang Cockatoo. Photo Lip Kee Yap.
Gang-gang Cockatoos became more numerous in early February from Cullen Bullen to Katoomba, to Bilpin and the Mt Tomah Botanic Gardens. At Mt Tomah, an Australian Brush-turkey made a surprise appearance, according to one of the staff at the botanic gardens, and as of early February was being seen on the Plant Explorers Walk. This is the first record I'm aware of south of the Bell's Line of Road, though they are frequently seen at Mts Wilson and Irvine.

Before 2006 I'd never had any records of Cicadabirds in higher parts of the Blue Mountains, but this spring like the previous, they turned up in a couple of unexpected places: Blackheath Rhododendron Garden on 16th Oct and Kings Tableland on 29th Nov. Southern Emu-wrens are stunning little birds which usually require a bit of time and effort to see. This season we tracked them down at North Lawson Swamp and Kings Tableland. We continued to hear and see the Sooty Owl at my favourite spotlighting site, and a very good record at Katoomba was a White-throated Nightjar, heard at dusk on 30th October, but not since. This nightjar is also a regular summer migrant in the Capertee Valley and was heard there last month.

It's been a big year for both Rufous and Brown Songlarks with high numbers in their typical habitats in the Capertee Valley throughout spring, but also appearing in more unusual locations. A Rufous Songlark displaying in song-flight in swampy heathland at Shipley Plateau on 10th Oct was noteworthy. This species is only an occasional visitor to the Blue Mountains (as opposed to the open woodlands and grasslands of the Capertee Valley and west of the mountains). And in November and December, two pairs of Brown Songlarks were found along Coxs River Road, becoming my first record of this species for the Blue Mountains in 27 years.

Stubble Quail were numerous in November and December, often being heard in the Capertee Valley as well as closer to the mountains on Coxs River Road. Also in the Capertee Valley: on 21st October we saw a single Budgerigar in amongst a large flock of White-browed Woodswallows at the river. Plum-headed Finches were seen in many parts of the valley throughout spring and summer, and another highlight was a Diamond Dove near the junction of Port Macquarie Road.

Juvenile Dusky Woodswallow. Photo Lip Kee Yap.
In the new year on my own block of land I saw a Painted Button-quail with at least two half-grown young running along behind. The same day on the Capertee River we listened to a Superb Lyrebird mimicking a Pilotbird – a species not yet on the Capertee Valley list, though it occurs in nearby parts of Wollemi NP.

The Capertee Valley's star bird, the Regent Honeyeater, has had a really tough time during the last 6-7 years. With very little quality eucalypt flowering they simply don't breed, or breeding attempts fail, and except for a couple of false starts and an OK breeding season in 2005, haven't had a really good season since 2000. Last year, 2007, was particularly poor in terms of eucalypt flower. In August they turned up for the tree planting weekend and the monthly survey at one site on the river, but didn't stay long. In September there was a handful of birds in the northern part of the valley, at a location not previously known as a usual breeding site. When the stringybark blossom there finished, the birds promptly disappeared and there have been almost no records in the valley since. (Instead, some did nest outside the area: near Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.) This is the first year since I've been involved with the project that I haven't personally seen a Regent after early October. It's times like this I can't help wondering if perhaps their numbers are even lower than estimated – certainly the drought would have added to their plight. Let's hope, for their sake and ours, that they're not beyond the point of no return.

It's often more interesting to note what hasn't been seen than what has. Another unsettling trend this season has been the scarcity of White-throated Needletails. Usually by January I've had the pleasure of watching a few flocks sailing overhead but this year not a single swift or needletail until 26th Jan; others are reporting a similar scarcity of sightings this year. Here in the Blue Mountains we usually get a peak of numbers around Feb–March, so please keep a look out and report any sightings (date, time, place, numbers and weather) to Mike Tarburton or to Blue Mountains Bird Observers who will forward the details on.

It's been fun looking back over the last few months – a combination of my most memorable experiences in the course of my work, and a few really interesting sightings from others. Here's to the next few months.... 2008 holds promise of being the best year since 2000.



The loud calls of Rufous Songlarks are a dominant feature of the Capertee Valley soundscape throughout spring and summer. Photo by David Stowe.

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Capertee Valley Tree Planting in 2008

This year's Capertee Valley tree planting weekends will be on 3–4 May and 16–17 August. Volunteers are needed to help us replace habitat for the endangered Regent Honeyeater and other woodland species. The May planting will be on a property on Crown Station Road which will link and expand nearby habitat (which is also a good site for Turquoise Parrots and a variety of honeyeaters). It's always a great weekend — the Saturday night dinner being a highlight and there's usually the opportunity to join others in a birdwatching session on the Sunday.

If interested, please register in advance so that you can be allocated accommodation and sent directions to the planting site. To register or find out more, contact Tiffany Mason on email: Tiffany.Mason@environment.nsw.gov.au or phone (02) 6332 7643.

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