A Willie Wagtail story

A long time ago, in years,  I was a simply a Landscape Photographer.   I happened to live quite near the Woodlands Historic Park, just opposite Melbourne Airport.   The Moonee Ponds Creek has its head waters in the area, and the Creek at this end is not permanent water, but draws from the surrounding hills and channels the water down toward the Yarra.

The watercourse was, and still is a prefect habitat for the majestic River Red Gum, and there are many fine examples of these trees in the park.  Some of them no doubt older than European Settlement.   It is pretty awesome to stand under these wonderful trees and ponder all the things that they have seen come and go.

Now, as I mentioned, in days of yore, I would roam these paddocks and valleys in search of the right light, the perfect moment, the touch of mist or the brilliance of the light upon the massive trunks to make great landscapes.   I also in those days had a huge tripod, which I seemed quite capable of lugging for miles.  Some of you won’t have heard of Filum, but it’s not a four letter word alone, it was the medium of preference for photographers all those years ago.   Big filum.  Large sizes.  No megapixels, and remarkably heavy and slow lenses to use on equally heavy and awkward  cameras.

But times change.

I moved to digital very early in the development. (Easy to say, worked for a company that had both a foot embedded in the filum market, and dabbling in the development of digital technologies.)

But my love of light, shapes, tones and textures that make those landscapes work still drove me.

Until.

One morning, about 10 years back, I was returning to the carpark, and stopped to take a break at a park picnic table.   A Willie Wagtail flew past.  Not the first one I’ve ever seen, but it flew back again.   After a few minutes I became aware of a lot of Wagtail chatter going on about 20 m, away and decided to see what it was all about.  To my delight, surprise, awe and enchantment, the two Wagtails were hard at work building a nest, and explaining in Wagtailese to one another the finer points of nest building.  Nor did they seem at all concerned by my presence.  So, wandering back to said tripod, (I was still using for the digital cameras.) I picked my longest lens (a 200mm f/2.8 ) and moved it all close enough to take some shots of this activity.

Willie Wagtails are a remarkable combination of Black and White.  The two most difficult tones to reproduce well. As any formal wedding photographer, or rock band enthusiast, or vehicle photographer, or just about anyone who photographs high contrast subject will tell you.   Still on the point.  I was thrilled to see the nest develop, and came back the following day, sat with the birds and watched them at work.  The following day, she had laid an egg, and then next couple of days began the process of hatching the young. In the end, flying 4 big fat juveniles.  More to photograph.

Now this monologue better go somewhere.  From that moment on, I was hooked on photographing birds. So every word and image you see here, and ever pic thats on Flickr and is in mags, calendars and cards is the result of two squabbling little birds.

The only thing I’ve leaned about bird photography is its obsessive.  I no longer even attempt to explain.  “Oh, I’m obsessed”, is my standard answer.

Which bring us to a trip along the track at The Office, and a Willie Wagtail that came across the paddock to first harass me, then to settle, and then to follow me down the fence line taking insects as it went.   Most every  birdo will have come across a bird on a fence. It’s about 3 posts away. Too far for a good shot.  You move in.  The bird moves 2 more posts.  You move in, it moves 2 more posts. etc etc, until 10 posts seperates.

And this Wagtail was no exception.  But, by not hurrying, I managed to get the gap down to about 2 posts. Then things changed.  The game became: How close can I let this dude get, before I show my disdain and move on.  And still I kept advancing on its position, until we were 1 fence post apart.  Then for its own reasons, it began to feed in the road and grass verge near me.  Still I advanced and in the end, this amazing bird for no reason other than its own, landed by my foot, hunted, and then kind of flew around me, landed and repeated the process.  Now it would land on the fence wire and I could move in to fill the frame.  “Do you think this side, or that side suits me best?” Should I wag my tail? And so my love for these delightful little birds was rekindled.

Now its true I could fill Flickr with heaps of shots of wagtails, but rather than do that here is a short selection from a delightful 3o mins or so with a very elegant and relaxed bird.

Too close, too close, fly away.
Too close, too close, fly away.
Never to sure about you humans. You all look the same to me.
Never too sure about you humans.
You all look the same to me.
At moment of launch.
At moment of launch.
Wow, look at what I caught. Thanks for stirring it up.
Wow, look at what I caught. Thanks for stirring it up.
To deal with these little beasties, one must change the sharp end around.  Claws work.
To deal with these little beasties, one must change the sharp end around. Claws work.
Gotta be careful of the sharp bits.   Snip, snap.
Gotta be careful of the sharp bits.
Snip, snap.
Now you see it now you don't
Now you see it now you don’t
Well, stir up some more.
Well, stir up some more.
Is this my best side?
Is this my best side?

Red Letter Day: Five new Black-shouldered Kites are on the wing

EE and I had a few spare hours on Sunday morning, but as we went to bed, the outside temps, and the icons on the news weather maps didn’t look all that good, so we decided on a long breakfast.

But looking out the  window in the morning with blue sky, golden sunshine, the only thing was to bolt breakfast and head out.  We decided “The Office” deserved a quick look, and its only a few minutes away, and before you can say, “Let’s go”, we did.

The Werribee River Park, (The Office) is just across  a bridge over the Geelong Freeway, and once  off the tarmac, its pretty much paddock.  Some very old Pines must have been part of a homestead in the area, I suppose, and last week I’d spotted two Black-shouldered Kites sitting together on the tops of the pinecones.    So I figured, that they might have been considering a nesting. How wrong was that!

Not only had they considered, but had just fledged in the past couple of days, two really healthy and vocal youngsters.   The young sat on old stump of the tree and were fed in the sunshine.  Well done Mum.

We’d also noted a pair of Black Kites in the same tree line, and they were still in attendance,  no doubt there is a nest in the offing.

After a few minutes with a lone Brown Falcon a bit further on we stopped at the Park carpark.   And immediately the harsh screech of a female Black-shouldered kite was joined by the higher pitched screeches of young ones.  And then slowly it dawned on me.
I’d been watching and reporting on this pair for the best part of 3 weeks now,  and was pretty convinced with all the activity that they were “planning” a nesting.  But no. Wrong again!!!

She has just fledged, not one, not two, but three, beautifully marked birds.   No wonder the male was so busy catching mice the past couple of weeks.   Put mouse in one end, and out pops a beautifully fledged cinnamon and ginger Black-shouldered Kite.

Now all this activity does not go unnoticed by those who make their living by preying on others.  A Black Kite swept up from the River flats and hung around the young.   At first I thought it might be going to threaten the young, but its true intent was even more devious.  Dad flew in with a mouse and the Black Kite began harassing the much smaller bird,  for his catch.  In the end, better speed, and skilful harrowing, caused the Black-shouldered Kite to drop the mouse.  And the Black moved straight on to it as it fell. But now Mum and Dad were free to harass the Kite and in the end it moved away.   It tried again later, but both birds were not to be caught off guard again, and Mum took the prize to the nest tree and the young followed her down into the top of the tree where the nest must be concealed.  (It’s too far in behind chain fence for me to get a good looksee.)

Then of course, the weather changed, time ran out, and we decided to retreat for the day.
But with 5 young birds in such a small area we’ll no doubt be back.  Oh, and we saw the family of Flame Robins, as well, but didn’t get that close.

"OK, you got me out here, how about something to eat".  One young with harassed adult.
“OK, you got me out here, how about something to eat”. One young with harassed adult.
Just a quick, 'hitch up" of the mouse for better travelling.
Just a quick, ‘hitch up” of the mouse for better travelling.
The beautiful markings of this fledgling are shown as it tucks into some nice mouse.
The beautiful markings of this fledgling are shown as it tucks into some nice mouse.
Yum, the tail is always the best bit
Yum, the tail is always the best bit
That rich ginger and cinnamon deserve a bit of sunlight to see at their best.
That rich ginger and cinnamon deserve a bit of sunlight to see at their best.
Female calling to he young as the Black Kite sweeps by.
Female calling to her young as the Black Kite sweeps by.
Dropped it, or Got it, depending on which kite. Not pinsharp, but the mouse is visible in free fall
Dropped it, or Got it, depending on which kite. Not pinsharp, but the mouse is visible in free fall
The probable nest site. She took a mouse under the canopy and two of the young followed.
The probable nest site. She took a mouse under the canopy and two of the young followed.
Family portrait.
Family portrait.

Working with a Flame Robin clan

This past Sunday was one of those great days for photography.  Beaut sun, a little cloud, some good breeze for the big birds.  I wrote previously about the pair of Australian Kestrels at play, but while all that was going on a small clan of Flame Robins was feeding in the area.

I was sitting on the ground with my feet hanging over the cliffs, like a schoolboy at the pier, watching the work of a Black Kite over the nearby treeline when I heard the familiar “chip chip” contact call of a Flame Robin.  There on the roadway behind me were two males, feeding, with several juveniles on the fence line behind.
I moved to a spot next to a melaleuca shrub, and settled in to see if they would approach.   And down the road they marched.  It gave me the chance to get enough shots to be able to differentiate between them.  One became Mr Yellow Feather because   his bright yellow chest feather, and the other Mr Red, as he is a brilliant Scarlet red.  While they didn’t get very close, it was a start.

I worked out that the turn around time in the feeding is just about 30 minutes, and there was  a definite pattern to the moving around, with the exception that bike riders and people with dogs would turn them to fly way down the paddock and be inaccessible   So I sat and waited and within the 30 mins they were back.  In this clan there are 4 or 5 juveniles, perhaps 3 females, and the two males.  One of the females is the Matriarch, and  she is the one which controls the clan movement.  One chirp from her and they are gone.

Because of the lack of trees in the area, its much harder photographic work than the birds in a Grey Box forest with plenty of perching locations.   But they manage.  The fence lines are the obvious, and the big patches of grass also work well.

My closest encounter for the day was the Matriarch. She landed in the back of the melaleuca bush behind me and I could hear her distinctly calling to the group, and I may be wrong, but it seemed the conversation went like this.
“See this big dopey photographer, stay away.”   “I don’t like the look of that big eye he keeps pointing at us.”.  “I’m going to get closer for a better look”.  Then an alarm chirrup, and she flew right by my ear,  less than a handspan away.  Heard the little wings coming, but I’ve learned that its best not to react, as the bird already has the flight path worked out. What I noted was the whirring of the wings was normal flight sound, not the fast pulsing sound of a panic mode.

She landed directly opposite me on the fence and another Chrrriip, which I took to be “He’s probably benign, you can ignore him”, then she hunted on the grass on the far side of the fence.   “Benign” is a term that Jon Young uses in his book, ‘What the Robin Knows’ and refers to local birds concluding that the human presence is of no threat, and they will work in settled, not panic mode. A young cheeky juvenile landed near by, and I concluded that the lesson for me was over for the day.

The office.  Looking along the wide river cliffs over the river plain below. In the flood of 2011 water was part way up the cliffs.
The office. Looking along the wide river cliffs over the river plain below. In the flood of 2011 water was part way up the cliffs.
Bold male holding his station  as I approached.
Bold male holding his station as I approached.
Mr Yellow Feather on fence.
Mr Yellow Feather on fence.
Probably a female or juvenile female.
Probably a female or juvenile female.
Matriarch in the field.
Matriarch in the field.
The Matriarch. What she says goes.  She has just done a fly-by to determine my danger to her brood.
The Matriarch. What she says goes. She has just done a fly-by to determine my danger to her brood.

 

The Matriarch, satisfied I was no threat she dropped off the fence to hunt.  Not big panic wing flap here.
The Matriarch, satisfied I was no threat she dropped off the fence to hunt. Not big panic wing flap here.
Mr Red. Brilliant rich red chest.
Mr Red. Brilliant rich red chest.
Mr Yellow Feather, with a hint of his yellow chest feather.
Mr Yellow Feather, with a hint of his yellow chest feather.
Young male, juvenile.  Showing his developing feathers.
Young male, juvenile. Showing his developing feathers.
Matriarch, ready to leave and take the clan with her.
Matriarch, ready to leave and take the clan with her.
Mr Red, with a score.  He came down the fence line toward me to prepare the bug.  I took that as an acceptance. (Of course I could be wrong and it was just a handy perch.)
Mr Red, with a score. He came down the fence line toward me to prepare the bug. I took that as an acceptance. (Of course I could be wrong and it was just a handy perch.)
Bug preparation 101. First belt it a few times on something solid. Bits of bug dust going in all directions.
Bug preparation 101. First belt it a few times on something solid. Bits of bug dust going in all directions.

Australian Kestrel pair building their bond.

Nice to be working in the new “Office”.  I’ve had a few trips now to the Werribee River Park and although its fairly open area with few trees, it does have a bit of activity across its open paddocks.
The river has cut through the old sand hills and river flats and is about 300m or more wide in some places.  Its an easy stroll along the cliff edge, and the birds use the updraft to advantage.   Sitting, watching, drinking Earl of Grey, and the toughest part is carrying in the tripod with the Wimberley head.

Today the weather was a photographers delight, light fluffy clouds and plenty of blue sky for brilliant sunshine, simply add birds.

Apart from a range of Kites, Whistling, Black and Black-shouldered, along with a particularly vocal Brown Falcon, there is at the moment a pair of Australian Kestrels working in the fields, but a long way from the road way.    But, the raucous shriek of the female, and the piping hunting call of the male, alerted me that something was going on.   I eventually located them and they were preforming mock battles, he mostly coming in from above, she turning to repel him with her outstretched talons.  The duet was both vocal and aerial, and I kept hoping it would drift towards my location, but, typical of Kestrels, they kept control of their position in the sky and stayed well down field.
None the less, I thought you might like to see a little of the ballet.
The images are pretty large crops, and I apologise for that.  No Mr Darcy and Elizabeth here.
For those who can peer closely enough,  the Male is the smaller, and has a single bar on a grey tail. She is dressed in her best brown, cinnamon, and has the swept back tail with the multiple bars.

Enjoy

View from the Office window.
View from the Office window.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.
Australian Kestrels Aerial Ballet.

Black-shoulder Kite Hunting

I’ve discovered a new park area (new for me), closer to home. It cuts along the ridge of the Werribee River plain near the Werribee Mansion.  Its called the Werribee River Park, and is run by Parks Vic.  It butts up to the very eastern edge of the Western Treatment Plant. I’ve looked at the area on a map a number of times and pondered how to get there as it seems to have  bike track that connects to the Federation Bike Track that runs all the way back to Altona and beyond.    Not wanting to lug all the gear in over 3 kilometres or more I’ve been thwarted by no road access.
But, it seems, wrong I was.  A road access to a small carpark at the top of the ridge is indeed available, and as it runs on the WTP boundary, has lots to offer the raptor photographer.   And.  I may not have mentioned this elsewhere, but it also has a population of Flame Robins in residence for the winter. So what’s not to like.
Access is via New Farm Road, past the Melbourne Water Discovery Centre and over the Geelong Freeway, and just before a very well locked and secure gate a small dirt road marked with an explanatory sign “Werribee River”  leads onto the road to the carpark about another kilometre in.  Out of the car, and the first thing I discover is a pair of Black-shouldered Kites who are obviously thinking seriously about a nesting run.
I suspect that the run of very warm weather has helped the mouse population and Mrs Mouse has seen it as her bound duty to extend the population as much as possible.  To of course the great delight of the Kites.

Had an hour or so to myself and decided to see what the afternoon sunshine would bring.   No great load up here, simply put in the lens and camera, drive for 15 mins and sit in the carpark.  About as hard as bird photography can get.

Said pair are quite along in the relationship,  the female has probably completed the nest.  I would hazard a guess at its location from her perching positions.  He on the other hand now has to prove his ability to provide food.  So while she sits high on the tallest dead limb, offering him her screeching cry for both encouragement and direction, he sets out to provide the snacks.

The river has cut through the old sand here and at this point is several hundred yards wide, and the cliffs are 20 m or so high.  The grassland is an obvious place for Mrs Mouse and her tribe and so the Male is readily able to fly along the old river flat and  hunt.  When he is over the plain he is probably not much more than 30m or so over the ground, which for a photographer on the top of the bank is such an advantage as he is directly in front or below my camera line.

All I have to do is wait.  And not for long.  I reckoned he was getting a mouse about every 10 minutes.  His hunting time was down to a minute or less. And out of about 8 strikes I saw he was successful on 6 of them.

So he hunted and I watched.   Swinging the 300mm around became a bit of a chore, so next time, the tripod and Wimberley head will be part of the deal.
Enjoy.

 

Evening sunshine gives nice shadows for him to work in.
Evening sunshine gives nice shadows for him to work in.
I noticed he always works with the light over his shoulder. My Mum's best advice to budding photographers.
I noticed he always works with the light over his shoulder. My Mum’s best advice to budding photographers.
The legs down are part of the balance and positioning.
The legs down are part of the balance and positioning.
Closing in.
Closing in.
That little dude is down there somewhere.
That little dude is down there somewhere.
All concentration
All concentration
Turning into the light to come round for another run.
Turning into the light to come round for another run.
Another one bites the dust.
Another one bites the dust.
DSC_5329
All feathers and legs at work gaining the balance for the stationary head.
No, I'm not on the tucker list.
No, I’m not on the tucker list.
So great to be able to almost reach out and touch him.
So great to be able to almost reach out and touch him.

One day, Six Robins

As opposed to 3 days and no robins.

Had to motor to the northern subs today for a doc appointment.   Well I got that out of the way, and EE and I decided to make use of the time and take a trip down to Woodlands Historic Park and see if the Flame Robins had learned how to fly over the off limits to humans, Backpaddock.

The paddock is a secure area of about that is part of the Eastern Bandicoot Re-establishment programme. Currently locked because a fox has managed to get into the area and threaten the bandicoots.  One bandicoot making not much more than a take-away snack for a hungry fox.   Fox,by the way, was let into the area, by some banana-boat who propped the secure gates open. The team from the Conservation Volunteers and Park staff have been working since the incursion in early April 2014 to nail the little critter. Apparently at this stage without success.

Grew up in the country, (The Mallee), we had a Fox-terrier Blue-heeler Cross.   She was able to smell a fox spore from out the back of a ute.  Took about half an hour to find said fox.  And little more than a few seconds to despatch it. Quick, clean, neat, and cost effective.    Now, “Dog” (that was her official name.  Said so on the council paper) is of course no longer with us.   But given her efficiency, many a scalp hung on the fence line.  Dog would explode off the back of the ute and be on the job in about a millisecond.  So I’m personally a bit non-plussed that in this day and age, its taken from April to now (early June) to find, locate, and despatch a fox that is within a fenced off area.

I can’t imagine someone is standing in the middle of the park calling ‘Foxy, Foxy” or expecting said criminal to come out with its paws up.    No doubt the foxes of the 21st century have GPS and close contact radar warning and other technical stuff to improve their efficiency.

But, I digress.

Public Disclaimer:  The team working on the Bandicoot programme have done some fantastic work, in spite of some complex issues and I sincerely wish them all the best  of success.  My poor bird photography doesn’t come anywhere in the scheme of things.  Good on ya Travis. 

We went instead to visit Jack of Eastern Yellow Robin fame.  And about as fast as “Dog”, Jack came bounding out to see us.  It was more like him visiting us, than the other way around. Took great delight in sharing a bath in some water EE had tracked in, and then spent time preening before speeding off.  And so did we.  Not much else happening in that area, Except, funnily enough, as  we were walked back to the car,  just down toward the rangers work area, we spotted two Foxes.

Pretty easy to pick. Brown looking things, with long tails and sharp teeth.  We watched them go about their respective businesses and smiled that poor old “Dog” would not have been allowed in the park to deal with them.

Back at the car we travelled further out and were able to find our new friend “Ambrose” and he looked resplendent in his lovely rose red dress.   Then to our surprise he had a friend,   A female  Pink Robin.   She was a little less enthusiastic for the camera, but it was a good find.   Think we also have Ambrose’s lady,  “Rosy” in there somewhere too, but couldn’t make the connection. On to the further east toward Sunbury and we found several Flame Robins, and the figured it was lunch time, so moved on again.

After lunch it was time for home, and EE suggested why not go back past Woodlands, call into Providence Road and have a look for the Red-caps we’d seen  on a previous trip.  Suits me. On the way down to the dam area, we came across a family of White-winged Choughs. Very intent about their business, and we were soon surrounded by about 30 birds.  Lots of choughness going on.  And even mutual preening.

And then, “Peter” the male  Red-capped Robin turned up, and his lovely little lady. She is without doubt the smallest Red-capped Robin I’ve ever seen. Minute, not petite. To top if off a pair of Scarlet Robins came down the roadway, and we’d the chance to write up 6 different Robins for the day. Not a bad effort considering.

Dog would have been pleased with our hunting experience.

Jack, the Eastern Yellow Robin,  The cocked tail is not for my benefit, he's connecting with Jill a little further in the scrub.
Jack, the Eastern Yellow Robin, The cocked tail is not for my benefit, he’s connecting with Jill a little further in the scrub.
Ambrose.
Ambrose.
Pink Robin. Female.  Nice to see.
Pink Robin. Female. Nice to see.
Contemplative Flame Robin.  Perhaps he's wondering why we aren't working with his family in the back paddock.
Contemplative Flame Robin. Perhaps he’s wondering why we aren’t working with his family in the back paddock.
Female Flame Robin.
Female Flame Robin.
Two Flame Robin blokes, have a bit of a discussion about photography.  Not often to see them in the same tree, but they were chatting away.
Two Flame Robin blokes, have a bit of a discussion about photography. Not often to see them in the same tree, but they were chatting away.
Scarlet Robin, male, not the best I've done, but nice to see him.
Scarlet Robin, male, not the best I’ve done, but nice to see him.
Hiding, but I found her.  Scarlet female.
Hiding, but I found her. Scarlet female.
All Choughed up and now where to go.  A sentry took time out for a bit of choughcleaning.
All Choughed up and no where to go. A sentry took time out for a bit of choughcleaning.
Peter, the Red-capped Robin.  Almost working with me now.
Peter, the Red-capped Robin. Almost working with me now.
Such a tiny female Red-capped Robin.
Such a tiny female Red-capped Robin.