Little Journeys: Meet Spot the Harrier

It has to be said.  They are indeed magnificent creatures.
Totally efficient at what they do, and with an sense of total air control.
We had the good fortune to find one out on near the RAAF Base at Point Cook just recently.

“There,” she cried. And across the paddock in the distance, the familiar wafting flight of a Spotted Harrier rose and fell as it diligently seached the paddock. Anything of interest was re-examined by a turn of the great tail and a flap or two of the wide wings to bring the bird into the best position.

We waited.

Can’t do much more than that with these birds. One of the field guides describes their action as “Languid”.  And it’s safe to bet they are not in a hurry to carry out their meticulous work.

I’m not sure what fascinates me most about them. The wonderful body patterning, or the wing patterns that look like spiderweb, or the stern, but interesting facial mask, or perhaps it’s simply the ease at which they maintain station over the field. We don’t see them often, but the few times we do are alway memorable.

Slowly Spot made its way across the paddock. Would it come close enough, or shy away. They are another bird that I think has the area mapped in great detail. Anything out of the ordinary is either possibly food, or it to be avoided.  Dudes waving cameras about fit in the the latter catergory.

So we stood, nailed to the spot, and waited for Spot.

Must have been a slow food day, but eventually those awesome wings carried the bird in our direction. It sailed along the fenceline on the other side of the road, and… was gone.


A Day at the Farm

Tis true to say that EE and I haven’t been down to the Western Treatment Plant for quite a number of weeks.  The weather, health things, family events and perhaps a touch of sloth just seems to have gotten in the way.

My photo mate Neil, sent me a note about his last weekend trip, and we decided if the weather opened up a bit, we’d at least drive down 29 Mile Road for a looksee.

So this morning after a couple of Tai Chi class sessions,  we loaded up with lunch, a cuppa or two of Earl of Grey and of course the essential cameras and headed out in the warm sunshine, (and to tell all the story, the rather crisp wind as well).

Before we reached Beach Road junction, we spied some Flame Robins, but they wanted to work far out in a paddock, and we could only get glimpses.

Further on down, and a trio of Black-shouldered Kites were keeping the mice on their toes.

And as we sat with lunch at the first corner on the 29 Mile Road, a Spotted Harrier wafted by making some very nervous Swamphens.  As we entered the T Section area, we were looking for Brolga as Neil had sighted them here at the weekend, but we lucked out.

Next we found a single Flame Robin female that was working around a puddle of water on the roadway.

Looking up, I heard the familiar call of a Black-shouldered Kite with a mouse, and as we looked a Black Falcon swept in from no where and after a little evasion from the Kite, the Falcon secured the prize and took off with the erstwhile and very angry kite in hot pursuit, but to no avail.  The Black is just that good in the air.

As we drove back out, lo, the very Brolga had turned up in the first pond and were busy preening, we shared the last of the Earl of Grey and enjoyed their unconcerned wardrobe adjustments.

So for a first day back at the farm, it was a most enjoyable and profitable time.

The fur flies as the Kite prepares lunch
Fast food
Spotted Harrier at work over Swamphen pool
Australasian Swamphen with impeccable table manners
Golden-headed Cisticola
Female Flame Robin
Black Falcon speeds in on a free lunch
Easy to see why the Kite has no hope of winning this battle
Having lost its mouse, it did at least give the Falcon a parting swoop.
Preening Brolga

Saturday Evening Post #002

I want to sing like the birds sing. 
Not worrying about who hears, 
or what they think

For those who’ve seen a Black-shouldered Kite food exchange, you’ll agree that the process is highpowered, high speed and high risk.
The male, with mouse, hangs in mid-air while his mate, barrels up to snatch the mouse, usually knocking him about as she passes.
One one occasion, I saw her lock claws over his, and he couldn’t let go of the mouse, and she was not going to release her lunch.

After a bit of struggling it resulted in them tumbling wing over wing, body rotating around body, as they completely out of control plummeted to ground. And she would not let go.
Finally she, being the bigger of the two, gained enough wing control to halt their descent, which left him hanging or rather swaying upside down. Perhaps she relented her release for a milli-second and he was free to drop away and fly off.
I worked with another pair, the male only had one working foot, and he never did food exchange in the air, and I often wondered if he lost the use of his limb in such an incident.

But, I’ve never seen a Spotted Harrier exchange close up.  Always they happen far out over the paddocks, two birds fly toward each other, exchange and then they fly apart.  The mechanics had eluded me.  Until the other day.

A pair of Spotted Harrier are preparing a nest, and in between collecting sticks and grasses, there is time for top up of food.

For a good part of the morning they had been calling back and forth, a bit like the Three Little Pigs building their house.
Then the call changed, much more warble than the shrill call of a bird of prey.   “That is strange,”, saith I to EE who was on the other side of the vehicle, “There is a change or something is happening.”

And sure enough she sprang out of the nest tree and headed across the paddock. About then, I caught sight of the male, who stopped and Harrier-like hung in mid air about 50-60 metres from where we were standing.
She then wafted in as a good Harrier would, and they danced about one another in the air for a moment or two, then she raised the wings and ever so gently slipped in under his, and took the mouse in a total surgical move. Simple, almost ballet like. He watched to be sure all was well, and then just slid away. She returned to the treeline to enjoy her snack

Amazing to see the completely different approach to food handling.


To the WTP on a whim

Sometimes the best ideas are those that come with out lots of planning and forethought. Just go out and do it.

With a small cool change coming in, and the wind shifting in from the south, we packed the picnic, grabbed some Earl Grey, and phoned the WTP birding line and booked for an evening down by the sea

To our delight the young Spotted Harriers were still on the roadside, and parking carefully to avoid any likelihood of mishaps with trucks at 110kph, we took our time to get the best lighting on the bird perched on the top of the cyprus tree cones.   Then tired of begging, it took advantage of the strong breeze and launched, drifted upwards to the top of the treeline and then without a wing flap, sailed along the treeline and back.   Not exactly hard photography as it turned in the evening light.  The great tail moving one way or another like a large oar or rudder to keep it almost stationary in the air.   With barely a wing flap, it simply enjoyed the moment.  So did we.

When we got to The Spit, Murtcaim (n)  we found a number of Swamp Harriers at play.   Interesting to watch their games from a distance, but not much hope of being able to get close enough of great shots, but highly entertaining none the less.

Further down the road we came upon a pair of Brolga, but they were just too far away to do any real work, so we headed back to Lake Borrie. And then first came upon some Yellow-billed Spoonbills, and a Great Egret sitting on a fence rail.   While EE got moved for a clear shot of the Egret, all the seagulls in the world- or at least the 10,000 or so on the seaside took to the air with a broadcasting squawk.

A White-bellied Sea eagle had made a sneak attack along the grasslands, and had swung up over the hapless gulls.  Each gull to itself seemed to be the answer, and someone’s relative went home for dinner with the eagle.  I managed to find the camera by the time the action was all over.

Probably enough excitement for a mere whim.


Young Spotted Harrier expecting dinner to arrive soon.


Time to stretch those wonderful wings in the evening breeze.


One of many White-fronted Chats that seem to work as a flock at the moment


Waiting for its turn at the Swamp Harrier Games.


This one drifted almost up to our camera position.


Knocking one another of fence posts must be a raptor game, they all seem to indulge in it.


Cautious Brolga checking that the right protocol distance is being maintained.


Great Egret to wing.


Bulking up for the trip to the summer breeding grounds, the waders, mostly Sharp-tailed Sandpipers here, are hard at work getting as many calories as possible.


White-bellied Sea-eagle with its own method of calorie collection.

Taking the early morning run to Western Treatment Plant

With the weather man predicting only more heat wave conditions, and the WTP being closed on Total Fire Ban days because of OHS issues, and good on ’em as far as I’m concerned.  Don’t want to be driving around in the heat trying to find birds hiding from the heat

We found a bit of a break in the hot days, and decided and early morning start was the best thing.  Rather than cover the usual spots we headed down to  southern end, known among birders as 29 Mile Road, T Section or the Spit. Also Murtcaim(n) and Pond 9.  The Brolgas had been seen among the ponds there and we thought it a good look see.

Here’s the way the day progressed.


Found one of the Spotted Harriers up in the early morning mist.  That’s Avalon Aircraft Repair workshop in the distance.


The second young one also put up, and we got some good views even if the light was against  us.

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Golden-headed Cisticola came by to be sure we weren’t thinking of taking over its territory, and gave a us a good lecture just to prove its point.

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We did manage to find the Brolga engaged in team precision preening, but they were too far away, and the heat haze even in the early morning was a curse.

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A strong breeze really surprised these Golden-headed Cisticola, nearly blowing it off the rail. The leaning into the wing and wide stretch of the legs was all it could do to prevent it being swept away.


Another great find were a pair of Cape Barren Geese, they did a great little head nodding performance before taking to the air.    I always feel a bit sad when I’ve partly been the cause of a bird taking flight.


No such feeling with Swamp Harriers.  This bird had no intention of letting us get close under any circumstances and led us on a merry chase along one of the bunds, flying a brief spell, sitting until we caught up, and then wafting on down the road a hundred metres of so.


At the moment, there is alway a Whiskered Tern or two to keep photographers amused and waste lots of time trying to nail that elusive best tern shot.  Its not that the birds don’t try hard enough.


And that pair of Geese just would not sit still when we were around.


My bird id skills let me down sometimes and the little grass birds are a good example, but this is a Horsfields Bushlark  (I hope).  It adopted a different technique to stay on the post, by crouching down.


Back along the Point Wilson Road, one of the young Spotted Harriers had returned to the nest tree for a bit of a spell.


And down along the rocks, the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were ready to get down to work when the tide lowered a bit.

By late mid morning, the temp was up, the heat haze was reducing very expensive lens to the quality of my Mum’s Box Camera and coffee and a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich (not a bad alternative to a poi.), at the Highway Lounge. How could I resist

Sunshiny day at WTP

At last the weather gave a bit of relief, and with an onshore breeze, a resonably low tide at around mid-day, it looked like a good time to re-visit the WTP.
So we loaded up the car, picked up Dieter early in the morning and progressed to see what was happening.

We found a Brown Falcon that has mastered the art of hovering.  Mostly Brown Falcons hover like a house-brick, but this one has been able to figure out the technique.  We’ve seen it down around the Kirk Point area before exhibiting its skills.  A Swamp Harrier had made a kill and had been pursued by a number of Ravens, and had dropped the victim. This Brown Falcon had been somewhat in the middle of it all and was pretty certain that a free feed was waiting somewhere in the grass.  It was completely oblivious to our presence and hunted quite close going over Dieter’s head at only a few metres.  It was a great few minutes to watch.

Further along we came across a Spotted Harrier, ‘Languidly- that’s how its described in all the books’ making its way along one of the small channels. It passed quite close to the car and seemed un-preturbed by us.  It has a primary feather that is loose, perhaps its moulting.

A second Spot turned up with what looks like a Eurasian Coot as its lunch.  The coot can weigh upwards of 1 kilo, so it must have been quite an effort to get airborne, and maintain a steady course.

All in all a good day out with the birds and with plenty of Black-shouldered Kites and Nankeen Kestrels on the wing there was always something to be photographing.

Dipped on the Oriental Pratincole, which is always too far away to get great shots anyway.

Hovering Brown Falcon. It skimmed over the waters edge looking for the prey dropped by a Swamp Harrier. It didn’t have any success in the few minutes we watched. Perhaps the mouse or rat escaped for another day.
Spotted Harrier casually making its way along a water channel at WTP
Another Spotted Harrier, this time with takeaway lunch.

Spot the Harrier

On a bit of a spur of the moment decision we decided on a trip to the WTP.

We left a little later in the afternoon and the cloudy old morning gave way to lovely filtered sunlight and it was one of those times when it is a joy to be a photographer.

We made a quick detour down through 29 Mile Road and Avalon airfield and were impressed to find a Whistling Kite making its way along the tree lined fences.

We went back up to the 15 W roadside, and after a little bit of hunting about, found not one  but two Spotted Harriers in the late evening sunshine.

One took off to harrass the Australian Shelduck populations, the other continued to hunt in the nearby paddocks.

A number of Ravens took exception to this and harassed it mercilessly.  Then all of a sudden, it turned what can only be described as a cartwheel, long legs swinging out to pendulum around and attack the ravens. Now we have used the word “languid” to describe its usual flight, but this was far from that and would best be described as “Rapid”. In moments it closed the gap to the ravens, who, clever creatures that they are, sensed a change of fortune and with tail between legs headed for the nearest shelter.  A casuarina just across the road.  They all arrived just about the time the harrier did, and it made a near vertical ascent to the top of the tree,and hovered in the breeze for a minute or two before wheeling about, and using the breeze, landed on a fence post just opposite the casuarina.  If the distance had been a little further, no doubt the Harrier would have caught up with them. No   noise from the ravens  It preened for a few minutes and the took off to resume its hunt. The ravens slipped quietly out the other side of the tree and went off to find other things to do.

Had we been a few minutes earlier we might have placed ourselves with the light behind us rather than having to shoot into the light, but the spectacle was worth it anyway.

In a few minutes a prey was located and there was  merry dance around the bushes and finally it settled in to eat.

After a bit of a preen this Harrier took to the evening air to continue its hunt

More pics of the evening here.

Spot the odd one out

We found a Spotted Harrier at the Treatment plant yesterday pm.

It was hunting along a fence line and in the light breeze seemed even more casual.  My bird reference book calls it flight “languid” and I think that is stretching it.

It seems to have the ability to turn on a blink of an eye and to be able to fold up the wings and then sway its legs down all in one movement which is hard to describe, but seems so effective in putting it on the spot it’s looking for.

I’ve put a few other pictures here on a page.

The local vigilante committee of  Willie Wagtails made it easy to locate the bird everytime it went to ground. Relentless little pursers that they are.

Spotted Harrier and friends
Spotted Harrier and friends.

Also found a couple Spotted Crakes in one of the water channels down near gate #2.  Would have been able to improve the shots as they didn’t seem to be fussed by us sitting but the arrival of a 4WD and slamming of doors sent them both packing back into the grass on the edge.

Here’s a pic

Dorothy also found 4 more off in the distance on a shallow pond in the same area, but too far to photograph.