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.