I was really keen to put up yet another Wagtail Nursery set, as we’ve several along the river at the moment.
But perhaps a change is a good thing, so here’s a Swamp Harrier.
Perhaps the most challenging of the raptors that we work with. These birds are have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to humans, and most often what we see is the white tail feathers of a Swampie disappearing in front of us.
This one came up the paddock toward us, but was searching for an updraft and as soon as it reached it the bird rose at a great rate with hardly a flick of the wings.
Which caused me to ponder that little bit, that how do they sense where the updrafts are happening? Eagles, Pelicans, Kites, Ibis and many others seem to be able to work their way along and then rise with the thermal.
Unknown, but still things that make going out and watching a most pleasing experience.
Mostly we think of Swamp Harriers as pretty serious birds, going about their serious business and always on the look out for the next meal.
So we were a bit taken back to find a couple of Swamp Harriers, engaged, in what can only be described as games.
It’s often seen among the Whistling Kites and Black-shouldered Kites, but Swamp Harriers seem to be very much the solo bird.
These two took it seemed great delight in working the air, and making passes at one another. They remained at it for at least 10 minutes, and stayed around the river edges, so we were able to follow them along for much of the time. In the end, both swept away, to see what they could find among the ducks now congregating along the ponds.
Time to add another chapter to the Complete Guide for “Sneaking” up on a Swamp Harrier.
By now we have established some golden rules to ‘sneaking’ up on a Swamp Harrier.
For those who skim read, here they are.
Rule 1. You Don’t Sneak up on a Swamp Harrier.
Rule 2. None known in the universe.
We adopted a new technique the other evening. Find a spot to park, setup chairs, open picnic basket, ignore Swamp Harriers. Actually the real reason of course for the visit was the ever elusive White-bellied Sea-eagle.
The tide, Mr An Onymous had revealed to me in a private conversation was a low-low tide around sunset.
Armed with this vital piece of data, EE and I decided a picnic evening meal watching the sun set over other bay would be as good as any reason to travel down to the WTP, so as the Banjo has often been quoted. We went.
To Picnic Point. Well its actually 175W Outflow and there is a big blue sign there warning of E coli and all sorts of other nasties, (but not about Swamp Harriers), but for the sake of the exercise we’ll call it Picnic Point from here on.
The technical term, low-low tide means this is one of those tides that makes those funny tidal graphs drop really low on the page. And it means in practice that the water level drops dramatically and reveals the mud/sand flats out several hundred metres. With such exposed areas, the small shore birds, (waders), come in their tens of thousands to gobble up as much rich food as they can.
And because of that low-low tide, the Sea-eagle can patrol looking for an easy snack, either to take alive, or to find carrion. Its an either/or for said Sea-eagle, and if all goes well, from our Picnic Point, it will patrol along the mudflats in great light, in close and will do some really clever Sea-eagle activity and we’ll get some good images.
Which of course as you can see leads us to sneaking up on Swamp Harriers.
Not to be out done the Clever Brown Bird has also worked out the low-low tide might just bring it the snack it so deserves.
We are hull down among the bushes. The Swamp Harriers patrol through the scrub.
From previous chapters, its pretty obvious to me that the Swampie has the area well and truly mapped. Nothing is a surprise to the average head-down hunting bird. There is no “Oh look a fox killed duck, I might just swoop down and pick it up”. No, it knows the carcass is there, because it wasn’t there the time before. And humans, well they either drive around in circles or are large blobs standing against the horizon and easily spotted and avoided.
And for those fortunate souls picnicking at Picnic Point, well they stand out among the bushes as much as anything and from a distance can also be avoided. Needless to say, based on these facts. We didn’t get a close encounter with a Harrier all evening. But. We did see a Sea-eagle.
Given that chapter one was a runaway success, I decided to continue in the theme of “Sneaking up on a Swamp Harrier- The Completely Gullible Edition”
First of all find your Swamp Harrier. Seems logical enough and those big pools of water with the reedbeds seem the most obvious place to start. And from a Russell Coight perspective “Endless reedbeds that stretch as far as the eye can see… And with binoculars, even further”
And of course this classic on Emus, modified for Swamp Harriers
“Swamp Harriers tend to travel in pairs, or alone, or in groups and tend to eat at night or day.”
We were it turned on the look out for the elusive Sea-eagle. So suitably stationed on what we considered to be one of its flight paths we waited. And.
And had a cuppa, and waited.
In between, the only Brown Falcon for miles sat on a boxthorn bush and waited.
Then along the shore line scrub a Swamp Harrier appeared. Deep in concentration it was simply following its road map. Anything that was out of the ordinary was checked out. I am convinced, that they are not looking for things so much as comparing the current data with previously collected data. A bit like google mapping without the old out-of-date photos. You know the ones that show the empty paddock down the road that is now a supermarket and carpark. Or the open land by a creekline that is now 6 laned freeway.
In the same way that astronomers used to look for comets in photos by comparing night sky shots, I reckon Swampie has a visual shot of the bushes and is really looking for anything that is different on this pass. Such as a new hatched Purple Swamphen, or a sleeping Eurasian Coot. (which according to Russell Coight, “Most Coots generally sleep with their eyes shut…….unless they’re open……or they’re awake.”)
Down the scrub it came. Head down. No need to look up, it knew where it was going. And no other bird is going to stop in its way, and make it turn to the left or the right. It rules the skyway.
And unless this is your first post, esteemed reader, you’ll know what happens next. The map is compared, “What are those humans doing there!!!!!”, and it turns away 180 degrees and is gone.
Russell Coight Quotes: All Aussie Adventures. (Website address a bit dubious)
Oxymoron: (def). is a figure of speech that juxtaposes elements that appear to be contradictory.
Hence “Sneaking up on a Swamp Harrier”.
And just to be sure that I am clearly not misunderstood; there is no Book.
Just my bemused attempt of dealing with a bird that seems to be lightyears ahead of my feeble attempts to get a good shot. If there was such a book it would be very short on in pages. A real theoretical experience. And the first chapter would be the last. Sneaking and Swamp Harrier are not compatible.
They are the masters of the bunds along the Treatment Plant. Wafting in the breeze, dropping on unsuspecting prey, harriering the water birds until exhausted they fall easy pickings. And, I believe, they have the area ‘mapped’, so that anything out of place is either open to inspection or senses danger and the bird shys away. Do I then have some respect for these birds. Absolutely.
wouldn't you know it that was the moment the autofocus in the camera decided to recalculate and settle on the reed beds
So take your average evening light, hope its sunny, sit among the reeds and wait. Trying to chase them down only results in a flurry of white tail feathers disappearing over the next bund, and they don’t return.
The spot we’d chosen was on a short bund, with plenty of reed cover. The car was about 150m back buried in some more reeds. We set up the cameras and waited. There are some rules about this- not mine, just the birds. First: Don’t move. Second: Don’t Move Third Don’t MOVE.
Riders to said rule. Don’t get all excited and exclaim to no one in particular. “Look, its coming toward us”.
And don’t make that the moment that you move the tripod/camera for a better shot, or swing said camera toward the bird.
A head down searching Swamp Harrier is a committed bird. It knows what was down there last pass, and knows if anything looks out of place. And will react accordingly.
After about 15 minutes, (no fidgeting please), along the far bank a lone Swamp Harrier began its run. And about the same time, the sun slipped for the last time behind some cloud and the light went to porridge. Enough to make me prepare to go home.
However, back to said bird on said bund. By now it had worked its way along about half of the 300m or so of reedbed. I’d begun to take the occasional shot. Too far away for much detail, and not enough light now for much interest.
Mark Knofler (Dire Straights) wrote lines for such occasions. “Too far away from me. ” and “It’s just that the light was wrong, Juliet” (apologies for word change)
Because of the moderate breeze blowing, the most amazing thing was in the over 300m of its flight path, it didn’t flap a wing once. Just turned its body on an angle and simply sailed along like a kite in the breeze, or canoe crossing a fast running water.
Not sure what I was most impressed by, but the almost energy-less movement was certainly something to behold. With unconscious awareness it came on.
When it reached the end of the bund line, it changed direction, and wing tactics and began to pull up the reed bed in our direction. Lower now, because of the need for wing flapping, and also because the reeds were blowing over.
We waited. (see above)
And sure enough on it came. Head down, completely absorbed; in eloquent silence.
Then, the moment I had anticipated. It pulled up, saw a change that was unexpected. And turned in an instant. And wouldn’t you know it that was the moment the autofocus in the camera decided to recalculate and settle on the reed beds 250m away. I dream of the days of manual focus.
A bitter sweet result.
Yet I still have the memory of its almost effortless track across the bund. We shall go again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Just look at the calendar! It’s the end of April already. Although I suppose a look out the window at anytime would confirm it is coming on to winter.
I make no excuses, I like to go to the Treatment Plant in the afternoons. The light just runs down the roadways at a better angle. Because there are so many limitations about position in Werribee getting the light direction is one of the keys to great photos down there. So daylight saving is my friend in all this endevour.
But come winter, well, things change a bit. The sun is down by 5 pm, and so there is little time to get about the places we like to work from. So for the next few months, we are back to early morning starts. (No point getting there at lunch time as the birds are past the hungry at all costs mode). The light is harder to work with because the angle of the early morning sun is always lower and 3/4 backlight at best.
So in keeping with all that we loaded the car in the evening, set the alarm, and ventured out just as it was breaking daylight. A better run down the Ring-road too.
As soon as we turned of the freeway onto Point Wilson Road, we found some Red-rumped Parrots. A short distance along and Flame Robins were on the fence. And on the Paradise Road, and the road to Ryans Swamp, past the pumphouse. And a lovely Brown Falcon who sat motionless on a fence post and stared us down. I edged the car past it, on the far far side of the road, and with the long 500mm had to shoot vertically to get it all in. And then it flew. So I got a crop, but am pretty happy with the result.
More Flames down at Chirnside Road gate, and then a fruitless search for Swan J19.
We travelled back along the road to the Bird Hide and in quick succession scored a lovely Swamp Harrier, a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles and a Buff-banded Rail. Not content we stopped near the Outflow from Lake Borrie and were entertained by five Black-shouldered Kites who seemed to be enjoying the light breeze and playing a game of ring-around-a-rosie, from the outflow sign and a large bush. No aggression, just plain fun.
More Flames along Beach Road, and a tree full of lovely yellow/green parrots.
We trundled down 29 Mile Road, and were amazed to find a single male Nankeen Kestrel,- the first we have seen at WTP (I had heard of it from reports on Victoria BirdLine.). It hunted up the paddock, dive-snatched a mouse, and sat on the fence line to consume it. So I moved the car forward a bit, it moved up about 3 posts. I moved again, it moved up 4 posts, I moved again, and it moved even further. A game of diminishing returns for me, and a success for the Kestrel. Still I managed to get a few record shots of it at work. Must go again. Hope its still there. The farm management were in the process of some controlled burns on the grass lands, and amongst the smoke could be seen 5 or 6 Whistling Kites waiting for some action. They seemed to be calling to one another, which is such a great sound, sends shivers down my spine.
We watched the Swamp Harrier making its way up the long grass towards us. Every so often it would make a course correction, or swing down to inspect possible prey. It was so intent on the work that it really didn’t notice two people sitting by the side of the roadway.
As it was close enough to pass over us, it finally saw us and made a swinging attempt to pull away. The large wings and tail scooped around like a parachute, stopping it dead in the air, its long legs began to swing out, to give it a point to turn on.
The first pic shows the wings and tail coming into action, the second the long legs now acting as a fulcrum to turn the whole body almost completely around. The crops are unintentional, the bird was simply too close to get it all in the frame.
The next pics in the sequence show a Swamp Harrier disappearing rapidly in the evening light.
On a very hot February evening we headed on down to the Western Treatment Plant. Because of other commitments, it was now or not until a few weeks time.
The day was hot, the birds were hot, and scarce and who could blame them.
Found this Black-shouldered Kite on a limb near the boat ramp and moved the car into a good position for a shot. Its wings were spread out from its body in an endeavour to keep cool. But it also attacted attention from the local Willie Wagtail harassment team.
As if it wasn’t hard enough now it had to endure constant bombardment from the wagtails. As a team they are pretty relentless, one distracting while another dives or pulls tail feathers or in this case lands on the back.
Not sure if it was the harassment, the heat or the closeness of the car, but in the end it moved off to the tree line along the road to sit in the shade with another kite that was smart enough to avoid the wagtails and sit in the shade.
Also found a Swamp Harrier working along the river with its beak open scooping in air, and its tongue handing out.