Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

South Pacific Cruise Part 2: Lifou Island & Port Vila

Metallic Pigeon
We had two landings during our recent South Pacific Cruise – Lifou in the Loyalty Islands and Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.

Easo, Lifou Island

Pacific Dawn, Lifou Island 
On Lifou, part of New Caledonia, we were ferried to shore in the village of Easo in tender boats from the ship, Pacific Dawn. Here I waved down a driver who took me 6km north to the village of Mukaweng, where I walked further north birding along the road to Joking for about 2km. I had gleaned from trip reports and Google Earth that this might be a good area for the two endemic white-eyes.

Small Lifou White-eye
Lifou Island: Mukaweng-Joking Road
Small Lifou White-eye was common and easy to find, as was the distinctive Lifou Island race of Silvereye.

Large Lifou White-eye
Large Lifou White-eye was harder to track down and is often missed by observers, but after 1.5 hours I finally heard its call and found two birds. Of particular interest also was a single Phylloscopus warbler seen in two places on the island; as far as I am aware no leaf-warblers are known from the Loyalty Islands. I also saw a New Caledonian Friarbird, which is not supposed to be on the Loyalty Islands.

Dark-brown Honeyeater
Other birds included Dark-brown Honeyeater. Brown Goshawk, South Melanesian Cuckoo-shrike and Cardinal Myzomela. A single Melanesian Whistler was seen. I arranged to meet the driver who dropped me off late in the morning (I was on the road for a total of 2.5 hours) to return to Easo and the ship; I paid the driver $A20 for his troubles. Ebird list for Lifou Island.

Port Vila Harbour

Port Vila - at the Summit Gardens
At Port Vila we hired a taxi for 3 hours for $80 and drove to the Summit Gardens outside the city. From here there is a spectacular view over the scenic harbour, and some nice forest where I was able to find my only two possible lifers in this part of the world – Yellow-fronted (Vanuatu) White-eye and Tanna Fruit-Dove.

Pacific Imperial-Pigeon

Yellow-fronted White-eye
Other birds included Pacific Imperial-Pigeon, Melanesian Whistler (supposedly the same species on the Loyalty Islands) and Red-bellied Fruit-Dove.

Markets at Port Vila
Later in the afternoon I walked through a forest patch along a road behind where the ship is berthed. This was very birdy indeed with the above-mentioned species recorded along with others including Metallic Pigeon and Melanesian Flycatcher. Birders alighting from a cruise in Port Vila need look no further than the scrub behind the port. Elist for the Port Vila port site is here. Seabirds seen on the cruise are covered in a separate post.

Melanesian Flycatcher female

Melanesian Flycatcher male



Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Long-toed Stint in Brisbane



A Long-toed Stint turning up in Brisbane was hard to resist as this species is a very rare visitor to Queensland. A Long-toed Stint was first found by Ged Tranter at Tinchi Tamba Wetland in northern Brisbane on January 17. It appeared to have left the site when Michael Daley found a stint at Kedron Brook Wetland, not too far away, on January 21. Since then two Long-toed Stints have been seen together at the latter site.



I was at Kedron Brook yesterday and Chris Attewell was kind enough to point us in the direction of where the bird had been hanging out. Over the next couple of hours the stint showed nicely as it foraged among Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints and Red-kneed Dotterels at the southern end of the wetland.


With that toe showing
The bird occasionally flew short distances from this area when chased by Sharp-tailed Sandpipers but would return soon after. The stint however gave as good as it got, chasing both Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers at times. It was easy to steady the lens on the scope and watch the birds across a short stretch of water without disturbing them. It was not until later in the day it emerged that two birds were present, so I am not entirely sure that all of my images were of the same individual.

With Red-kneed Dotterel
I've seen this species in Queensland just once before – a single bird with Chris Corben at what is now Lake Bindegolly in January 1972, which at the time was the second record for Queensland.  

With Red-necked Stint

With Red-necked Stint & Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Sunday, 21 January 2018

South Pacific Cruise Part 1 – The Seabirds

Red-footed Booby
We've just returned from a week-long South Pacific cruise aboard P&O's Pacific Dawn. Gusty northerlies in Brisbane delayed departure from the Hamilton cruise terminal by 7 hours which meant missing our first port of call, Noumea in New Caledonia - no great loss as we've been there before. Our two other landings – the New Caledonian island of Lifou and Port Vila, Vanuatu – are the subject of a separate post.

Red-footed Booby

Red-footed Booby
Typically for tropical sea cruises, it was not unusual for several hours to pass without a single seabird showing. Easily the commonest bird at sea was Wedge-tailed Shearwater, which was nonetheless scarce for much of the time in the Coral Sea, but abundant in waters around New Caledonia and Vanuatu. 

Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Another problem was that our approaches to land were at night, so while at sea we were generally in very deep water.

Red-footed Booby - intermediate phase (L) light phase (R)
The second commonest bird was Red-footed Booby, which first showed in Australian territorial waters on the first day and was a regular presence around the ship. As many as 20 boobies would be wheeling around the vessel, trying to catch flying fish which skimmed across the water as they were disturbed by the boat. About two-thirds of the boobies were dark phase and a third pale phase, with many showing characteristics of both phases.

Red-footed Booby - juvenile
Flying fish

Masked Booby
I also saw just one Masked Booby, about 20nm north of New Caledonia.

Brown Booby
Two Brown Boobies rounded out the booby haul.

Sooty Tern
Sooty Terns were common throughout. I saw 3 White-tailed Tropicbirds and 2 Red-tailed Tropicbirds scattered across the voyage but all were distant and these lousy images were all that I managed. A big disadvantage of cruise ship seabirding is the generally considerable distance between the observer and birds, but birds were not the primary reason for this trip.

White-tailed Tropicbird

Red-tailed Tropicbird
I saw just 4 Pterodroma petrels: 2 Gould's Petrels and 2 that were too far to be identified, with none offering a picture opportunity. Apart from the spectacular antics of the Red-footed Boobies, the highlight of the trip was a White Tern in the Coral Sea on the last day in Australian territorial waters – 24.6797S; 155.5082E – 115nm east of Fraser Island. Unfortunately, as the image shows, the bird was typically distant. I've tried without success to enter this sighting on ebird; for some reason it will not accept any starting time.

WhiteTern



Monday, 8 January 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic January 2018


Grey Noddy
Grey Noddy, Streaked Shearwater, Gould's Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird and sharks up close and personal were the highlights of an excellent Sunshine Coast pelagic on Sunday January 7, 2018.
We departed Mooloolaba Marina at 6.40am under sunny skies which were the order of the day with a maximum temperature of 30 C, a swell of half a metre, and a gentle easterly breeze that struggled to get beyond 5-8 knots. Normally such smooth seas would not bode well but this was one of those days when we were blessed with the delightfully unexpected.


Wedge-tailed Shearwaters
We had a few small groups of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters as we headed east with a smattering of Hutton's Shearwaters and a single Flesh-footed Shearwater among them.


Hutton's Shearwater
We weren't two-thirds of the way to the shelf, 20 nautical miles offshore, when we saw a Cookilaria-type Pteredroma petrel somewhat distantly. Luckily Chris Wiley managed a few unavoidably blurry images and we were able to confirm it as a Gould's Petrel. An excellent start to the day.


Gould's Petrel - Pic by Chris Wiley
With several delays to check out the shearwater flocks we stopped off the shelf at 9.35am, 34 nautical miles out in 350 metres (26.4034S, 153.4253E) and began laying a berley trail. It wasn't long before we saw a Tahiti Petrel, surprisingly the only one for the day.

Dusky Whaler Shark
We saw a Brown Booby distantly and a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters sailed past. A couple of Dolphin Fish and at least three Dusky Whaler sharks entertained us at the back of the boat as they snapped up the berley.


Pomarine Jaeger
A White-tailed Tropicbird, again annoyingly distant, brightened up the day as it became obvious in the late morning that the forecast 10-15 knot easterly was not going to eventuate. We had a couple of Pomarine Jaegers put in an appearance before we decided to head west, laying a second berley trail in 90 metres 20 nautical miles offshore.


Grey Noddy

Grey Noddy
Not much else turned up so we began heading back slowly, a course which proved to be highly productive. Just 12 nautical miles offshore in 50 metres we found a Grey Noddy in a feeding flock of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and were able to follow the bird for some time. This was a first for a Sunshine Coast pelagic and a lifer for quite a few.


Streaked Shearwater
Not long afterwards we spotted a Streaked Shearwater sitting on the water amid another flock of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters; another nice one under the belt.


Common Tern & White-winged Tern
As we headed back in we saw a mixed flock of Common Terns and White-winged Terns, returning to the marina at 3.45pm. Once again everyone was impressed with the comforts and utility of Crusader 1 - operated by Sunshine Coast family company Sunshine Coast Afloat - and the efforts of crew members Toby and Zoe. Elist.

SPECIES TOTAL (MAX AT ONE TIME)

Gould's Petrel 1 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 200 (60)
Flesh-footed Shewarater 1 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 9 (6)
Streaked Shearwater 1 (1)
Tahiti Petrel 1 (1)
Brown Booby 1 (1)
White-tailed Tropicbird 1 (1)
Pomarine Jaeger 3 (1)
Crested Tern 15 (3)
Grey Noddy 1 (1)
Common Tern 4 (4)
White-winged Tern 8 (8)

Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphin 6 (3)

PARTICIPANTS:  Greg Roberts (organiser),  Toby Imhoff (skipper),  Zoe Williams (deckhand), 
Margie Baker,  Tony Baker,  Scott Baker,  Sarah Beavis,  Luke Bennett,  Julian Corlet,  Ken Cross,  Phil Cross,  Jessica Drake,  Alex Ferguson,  Steve Grainger,  John Gunning,  Nikolas Haass,  Mary Hynes,  Bob James,  James Martin,  Bernie O'Keefe,  Maggie Overend,  Jim Sneddon,  Raja Stephenson,  Chris Watts,  Chris Wiley. 












Saturday, 6 January 2018

Captive Breeding Programs for Endangered Species Under Scrutiny


Western Ground Parrots - Pic by Perth Zoo
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN OF 6-7 January, 2018

As the sun sets over Cape Arid National Park on the rugged south coast of Western Australia, the silence is broken by a flute-like cadence. A bird on the brink of extinction welcomes the night with a song of rare purity floating above an expanse of knee-high heath ablaze with wildflowers. Not at all parrot-like, this is the call of the western ground parrot, with a total world population occurring nowhere but within the boundaries of this remote national park.

The western ground parrot was once much more numerous. Its range extended historically hundreds of kilometres west and north of Cape Arid to beyond Perth. The species crumbled in the wake of habitat destruction, raging wild fires and predation from introduced foxes and cats; in recent years it has vanished from most of its remaining haunts.

Alarmed by the parrot's precipitous decline, government authorities responded with what has become a standard strategy in Australia to try to bring endangered wildlife back from the brink. A captive-breeding program was established. Wild western ground parrots were caught and transferred to Perth Zoo in the hope they would breed in captivity. Their offspring would be introduced to the wild with the aim of boosting populations; that at least was the plan.

Even more scarce than the western ground parrot is the orange-bellied parrot. The orange-bellied parrot breeds in the wild in one small area around Melaleuca in south-west Tasmania. This summer nesting season, just 19 parrots returned to Melaleuca from the annual winter migration undertaken by the species from Tasmania to the coastal salt marshes of Victoria. The species was described as “locally abundant” a century ago.

Like the western ground parrot, desperate measures are under way to boost the remnant population of orange-bellied parrots with releases from a captive-breeding program. Yet for different reasons, both programs appear doomed to fail. Critical questions are now being asked about the suitability of breeding programs as a key environmental management tool in Australia. Most disturbingly, it is arguable that poorly executed if well-meaning programs may perversely contribute to extinctions.

Estimates of the wild western ground parrot population are accurate because its distinctive calls are monitored by acoustic recording units deployed at Cape Arid. Twelve parrots - almost 10 per cent of the survivors - have been caught and transferred to Perth Zoo since the captive breeding program was initiated in 2014.

Western Ground Parrot. Pic by Perth Zoo
Eight of the 12 captured parrots are dead. One died from injuries sustained during capture; another because it was egg bound. Six parrots died of aspergillosis – a respiratory infection caused by a type of mould. The two parrots caught most recently - both young birds - died of aspergillosis while in quarantine before they could be transferred to breeding aviaries. The zoo has four surviving western ground parrots – three males and a female.

Moreover, not a single nestling has emerged from repeated breeding attempts over four seasons. Ten of 11 eggs laid by the surviving female, Fifi, were infertile; the embryo in one egg died. However, the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions plans to capture more wild parrots for the program in 2018. The number to be caught will be determined following “monitoring of the wild population”, says a departmental spokersperson.

Perth Zoo fauna supervisor Arthur Ferguson insists the captured parrots have not died in vain. “Much has been learned about factors that contribute to aspergillosis in parrots and husbandry and management practices have been refined considerably to minimise such risks,” Ferguson says. “Perth Zoo are experts at native species breeding, having helped reverse the fate of species on the brink including Australia’s rarest reptile, the western swamp tortoise, and the western quoll.”

The project's poor track record is sobering nonetheless. “We are very disappointed that there has been no success,” says Anne Bondin, chairwoman of Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, a community group trying to raise $85,000 for the project.

Says Perth ornithologist Frank O'Connor: “Without a successful captive breeding program I believe the species is doomed, possibly within a decade.”
On the other side of the Great Australian Bight, the orange-bellied parrot is on an even faster track to extinction in the wild. A long-running captive-breeding program in Tasmania has failed to boost the dwindling stock of wild orange-bellied parrots, notwithstanding an important difference from the western ground parrot experience.

Orange-bellied Parrot . Pic by Save The Orange-bellied Parrot
Unlike the western birds, orange-bellied parrots breed well in captivity; about 350 birds are thriving in aviaries. The problem is that the captive-bred parrots are not good at surviving in the wild. They continue to be released at the Melaleuca breeding station – 23 parrots raised in aviaries were freed this season – but the program is faltering.

Out of 62 captive-bred parrots released between 2013 and 2015, according to data seen by Inquirer, just seven were spotted 12 months after their release, having survived the hazardous winter migration to the mainland. In 2016, 23 birds were released but 10 were recaptured and returned to aviaries for the winter; just one of the other 13 returned this season.

Zoologist Mark Holdsworth, who has been closely involved with the program for many years, says on average about half the wild parrots would naturally survive the migration, but the proportion is much lower for captive-bred birds. Holdsworth believes all parrots born at Melaleuca this season – whether or not their parents were captive bred - should be captured. Twenty fledglings were produced last year at Melaleuca but only four returned to the breeding station post-migration. “If nothing is done this season to improve survival then the species is likely to be extinct in the wild by next season,” Holdsworth says.

During the 2015 season, 19 nestlings and one adult at Melaleuca tested positive for the often fatal psittacine feather and beak disease, believed to have originated in aviaries. Of the 19 birds to return this season just three are females, one of which was captured because it was thought to have a disease. Australia's leading authority on native parrots, Joseph Forshaw, says a “total rethink on our approach to saving this species” is needed.

But the Tasmanian Government continues to back the program. Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment policy manager Andrew Crane says the parents of one wild-born parrot which returned this season were captive bred. “This is a good example of the significance of the breeding program and one which is not immediately obvious from the raw data,” Crane adds.

Eastern Bristlebird - northern race
A rare Australian songbird, the eastern bristlebird, is faring a little better than the parrots; the population of bristlebirds in southern NSW and Victoria, although in decline, numbers several hundred. However, the distinctive northern population of the species is critically endangered, with less than 30 birds surviving in the mountains of the Queensland-New South Wales border area.

A captive-breeding program for the northern bristlebirds began at the David Fleay Wildlife Park on the Gold Coast in 2004 but was discontinued in 2009. Eight birds raised in aviaries were released in the wild. Four that were set free at Spicer's Gap in Queensland in 2008 were dead within 12 months of their release; the fate of another four released in NSW is uncertain.

A second breeding program for the birds was established in 2015 at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, also on the Gold Coast. The sanctuary says on its website that plans to collect the eggs and chicks of wild birds are under way so captive-bred birds could “provide a sustainable boost to this endangered population”. An English springer spaniel has been trained to track down the handful of nests of surviving wild birds so their eggs and chicks can be removed.

Herein lies the dilemma that is central to the captive-breeding program strategy. When numbers of an endangered species are critically low, might that species be pushed over the brink if the survivors are caught for a breeding program which may not succeed? Or can authorities reasonably assume that a species is doomed to extinction in the wild anyway, and reason that its only chance for survival is captive-breeding?

Lord Howe Woodhen. Pic by NSW Office of Environment & Heritage 
Breeding programs have had some outstanding successes. The flightless Lord Howe woodhen is found only on Lord Howe Island. After the island's settlement in the 1830s, its population crashed in the face of an onslaught from introduced rats, cats and pigs. By 1980, when a captive-breeding program began, just 15 birds survived on the summits of two mountains.

Three woodhen pairs captured for the program produced 66 chicks. Today, with introduced pests eliminated, the woodhen has recolonised the island. Birds are commonly encountered in the gardens of the island's settlement. The estimated population of 240 is probably close to what it was naturally.

Australia has the world's highest rate of mammal extinctions; birds have only recently begun to catch up. The Lord Howe woodhen was brought back from the brink, as have several endangered species in New Zealand, a world leader in pioneering captive-breeding. Such successes have led to a widespread view by authorities in Australia that breeding programs are a panacea: a solution to arrest the country's appalling wildlife extinction record. That view may in some instances be gravely misplaced.