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

A Band of Banded Brothers

Came upon a small band of Banded Stilts and Red-necked Avocets the other morning.

We had been looking for some locations for subjects for my book on “How to Sneak Up on a Swamp Harrier”. Needless to say the next chapter or two will for the short term be blank pages.

On one pond we happened in the best of traditions on a flock of Banded Stilts, and some companions.

So we settle down for about an hour or so.   While we were enjoying the birds, the sunshine and a cuppa, we were joined for a short while by a hunting party of Black Kite and a Black Falcon. We counted around 25 Black Kites and there were plenty spiralling down from a great height that we didn’t count any more.
Sort of added that sparkle to the day.


Blogging 101 Week 2 Day 4

Impressionist, Pictorialist, opportunistic or just too late.

Yesterday after a spin around the block, I came upon the site Hoof Beats and Foot Prints and today Emily has posted a few shots and a bit of musing on “Impressionistic” results. When sometimes the wrong settings are the right settings.  See Here  A Friends Filters

Which is as it turns out fortuitous as today’s Blogging 101 assignment was to write a post on thoughts that linked from yesterday’s visits. As coindicene goes, I’d put this picture of a Black Falcon in flight up on Flickr.

Impression: Black Falcon at speed

And one of the comments from Peter pointed out that sometimes we do indeed become over emphatic about getting the clinical result.  I follow Ming Thein, and he too from time to time explores out beyond the formal result.

My thoughts on gaining an impressionistic feel or a “pictorial” atmosphere is that its just as difficult to get a great artistic alternative, as it is to make the clinical shot.
Sometimes even more difficult as we have balance, subject movement, shutter speed selection, composition, lighting and exposure.  It’s why it’s easier to stick it into ‘photoshop’ and mess with the controls there.  Or look through the blurry shots destined for the waste bin and rescue one, tart-it up and try and pass it off as really a Strong storytelling impression  of the movement and mood.

Or plan for it!

One of the elements I always think make it work is it approximates what we would have seen had we been standing there.  The motion. That fleeting glimpse of the bird as it passes.

Further pondering lead to really thinking of two possible opportunities.  One is panning with the bird.  At least part of the bird should be sharp, and depending on the shutter speed, the backdrop should be  streaky to milk smooth.

The other is the bird movement.  And again the street smarts would say that part of the subject area should be sharp to highlight for the eye the impression of movement.

Well my Black Falcon doesn’t fall into much of any of that. The ugly truth is that we were simply too late, too late too late.

Had we entered the WTP in our usual way from Paradise Road, we’d have encountered the birds, the harvesting, and the right evening light.  I’d have had a bit of a chance to work out the bird’s movements, where they turn with the tractor, where they perch between flights, and would have set up to get the best from that.   But, we were too late.

The sun was setting as we drove by.  Birds were all over the sky,  Black Kites, Whistling Kites and one lone solitary aerial speedster.
“A Black Kite” she called.  “Yes,” said I, slamming on the brakes and opening the door and grabbing the camera and trying to find the streaking black dot in the gloom.

Oh, 1/50th at ISO 400.  Who am I kidding?

It sped past, dropped onto a branch nearby, and glared at some Black Kites.  Slowly I advanced, knowing it was futile. But. I wanted at least one record shot to show that Black Falcon is in WTP over the summer.

So did it make the waste bin?  It is just a dolled up average shot.  Or does it give an impression of the beauty of this bird of speed.

Over to you.

Another photographer who has struggled and succeeded with the impressionist approach is William Neill  check out his work here.

William Neill

And I’ve included a couple of shots from other days.  Welcome Swallow at high speed wingflap.

Brown Falcon a few weeks back, in about the same sort of light “We might have had!!!!”. And about 2 km from where the harvesting was taking place and about an hour earlier so the light was ‘golden’.

Such powerful direct flight.

Such powerful direct flight.

Might have missed the light, but the old dude can still manage to pan successfully!
Might have missed the light, but the old dude can still manage to pan successfully!
Approach for landing in a resting perch.
Approach for landing in a resting perch.
Now imagine what the light might have been like.
Now imagine what the light might have been like.
Really, my favourite of the unfortunate series. The wonderful milky smooth backdrop is delicious.
Really, my favourite of the unfortunate series. The wonderful milky smooth backdrop is delicious.
They are flying in and picking insects of the flowers. As the light deteriorated as the sun set, I watched the shutter speed disappear.
They are flying in and picking insects of the flowers.
As the light deteriorated as the sun set, I watched the shutter speed disappear.
What might have been. Brown Falcon in that light about a week earlier.
What might have been. Brown Falcon in that light about a week earlier.


No matter what, the fun of experimenting is one of the great challenges and true joys of our medium.

Rockin’ and Rollin’ in Raptor Alley

Just a quick look at any weather forecast over the past two weeks would draw the conclusion we’ve been having a spot of weather at the moment.  And you’d be right.  The mushy cloud days, the biting cold, the wind and the rain. And mostly the lack of Sunshine.

Its not much fun for a  photographer to venture out for small birds as the forest is wet and its hard to get much light in under the canopy.  Big field birds become grey blobs against even greyer backdrops.

So it was a bit unusual last Wednesday afternoon to see the sunshine sweeping along streets.   “Grab the cameras and let’s go to Twenty Nine Road”, EE suggested.

So we did.

Two of the major roads that run through the Western Treatment Plant complex,- and don’t require a permit-, are The Beach Road, and Twenty Nine Mile Roads.   They both have huge paddock areas that these days are no longer used for the original purpose (the disposal of the waste from Melbourne), and are now farmed over for a range of farm products.  (Not for human consumption).   One of the crops is maize and it is ready for harvest. I assume they use it to feed the stock cattle.

One of the benefits of all this production is off course that the mice see the left over and dropped seed and corn as an indication of bounty, and begin to multiply.  And as they do, the raptors, not likely to forego a mouse dinner move in to match the increase. Which of course helps the mice produce more, and more raptors move in. …. fill in the blanks.

On a sunny afternoon, its nice to be able sit along the roadway near the harvested paddocks and watch the various hunting techniques.   Kestrels and Black-shouldered Kites hovering.  Whistling Kites and Black Kites hunting from the air, Goshawks swooping through prepared for anything that moves, and of course the Kites being prepared to wrestle food from the smaller hunting falcons.  Add to that the pair of Black Falcons who believe any food is rightfully theirs and are prepared to out-fly anyone to get it, and a fine afternoon’s entertainment is assured.

So, rather than ramble here is a small selection from a few hours work.

Raptor Alley. The Beach Road looking toward the bay. The sharp eyed might even note a Black-shouldered Kite high on the rhs tree
Raptor Alley. The Beach Road looking toward the bay. The sharp eyed might even note a Black-shoudlered Kite high on the rhs tree
Delightful to watch them in the air
Delightful to watch them in the air
Australian Kestrel with an afternoon snack
Australian Kestrel with an afternoon snack
Taking a spell from hunting
Taking a spell from hunting
Another mouse down
Another mouse down
First time I've ever seen a Goshawk just sitting.
First time I’ve ever seen a Goshawk just sitting.
When I grow up I want a nest just like this. Superb Fairy-wren sitting in a disused Magpie Lark's nest
When I grow up I want a nest just like this.
Superb Fairy-wren sitting in a disused Magpie Lark’s nest
Pair of Black-shouldered Kites resting together
Pair of Black-shouldered Kites resting together
These are the bird of my youth, Sitting on a gate post
These are the bird of my youth, Sitting on a gate post
A hard turn into the breeze
A hard turn into the breeze
In bound for a tree rest
In bound for a tree rest
Australian Kestrel, tail preening in the sunshine
Australian Kestrel, tail preening in the sunshine
Black Kite landing. The post is an old sluice to control the waste.
Black Kite landing. The post is an old sluice to control the waste.
Fresh catch
Fresh catch
How tough is this mouse
How tough is this mouth
Female Australian Kestrel
Female Australian Kestrel
A late entry into the field Brolga at sundown
A late entry into the field Brolga at sundown

Black Falcon(s) up close and personal

It has been said by some, that, “I’ve lost my bird Karama,’ or more particularly that I’ve used it all up.  And given that I respect the insight of such greater thinkers, then it probably is true.  And no doubt the facts are on their side, most certainly in the case of hunting down the ever elusive White-bellied Sea-Eagle. My mate Lynzwee reckons it more a matter of wearing the incorrect “Bird Repellant”.  He might be right too.

But. That doesn’t stop me so much from going out and trying.  Well at least I rationalise that I can enjoy the fresh air and a well brewed Earl of Grey.

So as the weather turns we found ourselves on The Beach Road at the Treatment Plant.  Rumour had it that some Cattle Egrets were down there. (Truth be told, and don’t spread it around, we too had already seen them in the area, so didn’t go completely blind.)

The cattle have been let in to graze on the recently harvested maize stubble.  I think I talked about this in the “The Curious Tale of the Clever Kestrel”.

When we settled the car in close to the fence to get a good look at the Cattle Egrets, we also noted that said Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kites, Whistling, Black and Brown Goshawk were also working in the area.  Along with an ever increasing number of cars with birdos and photographers pulling up to share the action.

And that is what we all got.  At one stage 20 or more Kites were sitting post by post on the roadside and landing within arms reach of the bird counters in the car.  The photographers were using up lots of memory card space and batteries inbetween bouts of stories,  “Oh, I remember I was backpacking along the Birdsville Track and a Black Kite with a water bottle dropped down and gave me a drink, saved my life.” “Oh, I saw a Budgerigar attack a white morph Black Kite once”, and “Oh, look there’s a Light Morph Juvenile Brown Falcon with a mouse.”,” No, I think by the colouring on the left wing primaries that its a Dark Morph Light Brown Falcon, and what its got is a field mouse, probably one of a litter of 12 or 15.  You often see them, when…”

My eyes glaze over.

Another convoy arrive.  “Have you seen the Bittern, we’re looking for the Bittern, anythingheretosee”,  said while swinging Swavoroskis around nearly knocking me over. “There are some Cattle Egrets,” I volunteered.  “Where!”

“They’d be the big white things over there in the paddock with the cattle,” quoth I.  EE kicked me in the ankle under the car door.  “No Bittern”, Insert Sound of Departing convoy Here.

Fast!  Let me tell you.

It went over my shoulder, and I never even saw it coming.  (Most of the bird discussers never saw it going either), At that rate, and that shape, I got the camera up, grabbed several frames and called “Black Falcon, A pair”.

To which the flurry of cameras, binoculars, smart phone apps and someone still writing things on a field note book all searched the surrounding sky, grass, fence and paddock.
“Oh, look a Black Falcon,” cried one. “A Black Falcon,’ cried another. We’ll ignore the numbers of “Where?” as they outnumber significantly. Another flotilla of Land-cruisers and Subaru Foresters pulled up.  “Oh, look a Black Falcon”, cried one of the new comers.  “We must have frightened it up when we arrived”. (big sigh here).

“There is a pair”, quoth I.

“look look look, there’s a second one,”,  At last!

‘Our’ pair sailed down the Beach Road at fence height putting to flight all the dozing kites on the fence. Something about a black shape at 60kph bearing down on you to awaken your feathers and wing muscles enough to get airborne.

A foolishly lone Little Raven got a right dusting up by both birds as they barrelled across the road.  Mostly I think it was all in fun. They were just out for an afternoon’s entertainment.  A Magpie with some food also got a pretty good chase about, but no damage was done, and Magpie eventually made it off the paddock with its prize.

Then, they streaked back up the paddock, amused perhaps by the photographers, app users or maybe they wanted to admire the emerald green Subi.

No matter how I write it, it was the right place, the right light and the right distance.  All one had to do was point the camera, press the shutter and follow the action.  That is except for those who took a shot, then spent the next 10 seconds ‘Chimping’, you know, hunched up looking at the rear LCD image and going “ooh, ooh, ooh”

Now one Falcon is pretty awesome two, outstanding.   But off course everyone was following the one that had zoomed overhead and was now rattling down the paddock away from us.  As I looked about, (I’ve learned to do that), the second one came ever closer and was soon filling my viewfinder.  In the end, I called “the other one is closer now!”, to which all eyes peering down the little tunnel of the viewfinder had to readjust to the bright light and try to re-position the camera for a second series.

Bored with messing with our minds, (and let’s face it, that didn’t take long), they spun round overhead and headed off across the paddocks. Leaving us with. “Well, its probably a second year bird with a juvenile, … ” “I’ll have to get on birdline and report this.’, and “Let’s go. We are due home for dinner”.   INSERT CAR DOORS SLAMMING HERE


I offered EE another Earl of Grey and we waited for the Cattle Egrets to come back.


Right time, right place, or Time and Chance happen

Weegee was a great New York newpaper photographer.  See Here,

His specialty was recording the darker side of New York life.  His images depict for a large part the inhumanity of man to man.  Death and destruction were his staple image set.   He was called “Weegee” because of his almost uncanny ability to arrive at a crime scene sometimes before the law enforcement.  He had a  special police radio built into his car and constantly monitored the radio calls.  He patrolled the streets armed with THE press camera of the day, a venerable Speed Graphic camera and a pocketful of Double Darkslides, that held 2 sheets of 4×5 inch film. No Spray and Pray multi burst for Weegee.

Among many of his apocryphal quotes is this one. When asked “Oh, Weegee,  On the camera, what settings do you use?”  His response, ” f/8 and be there!!!!

And its seems to me that bird photography sometimes is just like that.  You need to be there. And there of course is where-ever the birds happen to be engaged in some amazing activity.

EE, Mr An Onymous, and I had taken the morning down to the Treatment Plant.   Our main plan of intent was to find the furtive Sea Eagle.   The weather person on the tv, y’know, the one with all the icons of what the weather will be in your backyard in the next hour or so, and mostly it will be anything from floods, to thunder and lighting, if not snow, had apparently used up all those icons yesterday, and the only ones left were a few sunny, foggy, misty and clearing.  So she intoned. “Tomorrow will be a little foggy in the morning, changing to a light mist and then sunny for the remainder of the day … Insert plastic smile here!!”

Not known as one that is enamoured by the use of cute little icons to tell me really important things about what the weather may do, I did what any self respecting weather smart person would do, I went outside to see if it was raining. (Winnie the Pooh joke in there somewhere).  Noting the cold, it was pretty certain that the morning offered some promise of clear weather and so rounding up the troops, we set forth.

But… the icons were far from right, and the fog turned out to be about treacle in density and porridge in movement. And it hung around, the Sea Eagle came and went somewhere in the mist, and by late morning, it was pretty obvious that we were out of luck. As we drove toward home we took a bit of a detour south along the 29 Mile Road.  This piece of Realestate separates part of the Treatment Plant farm from some of the last of the wetlands.

Today, Farmer Brown, was out in his big green tractor using up all sorts of farmer stuff that he had in the shed, and sitting high in his air-conditioned palace he was turning the soil into arable land.

Now, a farmer with a tractor in a paddock is a pretty big magnet for an inquisitive Black Kite, and this was no exception.  The kites sat in the ploughed furrows and watched for small creatures to try to escape the oncoming tractor. Those wanting first crack at the startled prey were circling over the tractor as it passed on by.  To watch a Black Kite over a tractor is a pretty awesome experience.  They have mastered the ability to perfectly link up with the speed of the tractor and some hold station at the front of the travel, some to the sides. All just about at tractor height. Anything that moves is pounced upon.

We stopped by the side of the road to watch them at work, farmer and kites.   At first I counted about 15 in the air.  Then noted about another 15 sitting in the furrows waiting for the tractor to pass, and then another 15-30 sitting at a distance on the fence line. Waiting.

As it happened, one of the kites did infact land some prey.  On hindsight, I would venture that it was a Brown Quail.  Big enough, open enough country and we’d seen some earlier in the day back along the track.

Catching it of course is one thing. Keeping it to yourself quite another, and at least four of the brothers flew in to help claim the prize and to wrest it from the successful bird.  In the ensuing battle the quail was dropped and it fluttered to the ground, followed by 6 or so of the circling kites. However, as luck turns, they missed it in the turned over soil.   That done all that was left was recriminations, so they took battle with one another, as presumably a good scrap is as good as a good feed.   So now about 6 or so of them were circling in ever challenging circles.

Meanwhile, I’d noted off in the distance an small black spot that was getting larger.  Then it grew large enough to identify as it swept in over the paddock, past the kites and rocketed skywards.  The unmistakable shape and speed of a Black Falcon.

The Black Falcon gets reported by very excited birding people on Birdline, every so often as an amazing find on 29Mile Road. Black Falcon, or really exciting “Black Falcon Pair”.  To those of us who regularly work along the road, it’s a frequent visitor and a little patience on most days will locate either the pair or at least one of them.  Still it must be amazing to see if you’ve come a long way to the Treatment Plant.

Oh, I digress. We left said Black rocketing skywards.
Then it did the Falcon thing, turned on a wing and ‘stooped’.  Now it was a missile on a mission earthwards. The Black has a particular turn of speed, and is not like its lumbering cousin the Brown, but it may not have the speed of its other cousins, the Peregrine or Hobby.  None the less, a black streak plummeting out of the sky is a heart stopping thing. One of its more favourite foods is the agile Budgerigar so it must be pretty swift and agile to make a meal of them.

All of this of course, I tell in hindsight. I only saw this black thing dropping like a projectile.   It came in with wings drawn back, legs out, and rocked backward, grabbed, attached, and then rocked forward and began to gain height.

At about the time I exclaimed, “it got the prey” five or six of the Black Kites had reached the same conclusion, and were in hot pursuit, not willing that the prey should escape them.

And of course this is where the Falcon has the speed advantage. For every wing beat put it further in front of the pursing Kites.  And eventually they had to admit defeat and watch it, and their lunch, disappear across 29 Mile Road and into the Falcon’s roost tree.  (15th tree down from the corner if anyone wants to check!)

With nothing better to do, the kites settled back in the furrows and waited for the next pass of the tractor.

A couple of the images lack a bit of sharpness because of focus fault, but I’ve added them anyway as I think they fill in the details.