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.

Friday, 31 May 2013

Raptors of the Maroochy River Canelands

Peregrine Falcon
The sugar cane flatlands in the vicinity of the Maroochy River on the Sunshine Coast have proven to be a magnet for various species of diurnal raptor. They are attracted to waterbirds and rats inhabiting the wetlands and grasslands in the area. This adult female Peregrine Falcon has been a regular visitor in recent weeks.

Peregrine Falcon
I've watched the falcon hunting Purple Swamphen and Pacific Golden Plover. Flocks of Red-kneed Dotterel and Black-fronted Dotterel presently in the area appear to be in a constant state of alertness, presumably due to the presence of this and other raptors.

Peregrine Falcon
Peregrines can be difficult to photograph but this bird has been co-operative.

Mt Coolum
The bird is likely one of a pair which has been nesting on the cliffs of the south-western slopes of nearby Mt Coolum, pictured here from where the falcon was photographed. There has been some controversy recently about whether the activities of rock climbers may be interfering with the birds' nesting.

Australian Hobby
Australian Hobby is a regular visitor, often perching on roadside telegraph poles.

Brown Falcon
Today I had this Brown Falcon near Bli Bli. The species is an infrequent visitor to the area.

Brown Falcon
Nankeen Kestrel
Nankeen Kestrel is somewhat more common. I saw three today.

Spotted Harrier
Spotted Harrier is a resident of the canelands. Although regarded as a rare visitor to coastal south-east Queensland, I see them on most visits to the area in all plumage phases and at all times of the year. I saw two birds today.
Swamp Harrier
With the cooler months here, Swamp Harriers are about in numbers; they are a winter visitor to south-east Queensland. I saw 3 today in the Maroochy River area. Often the two harrier species are seen quartering the grasslands in close proximity to each other.

Grey Goshawk
Grey Goshawk continues to be a regular visitor to the grasslands, often perching conspicuously in the open. By contrast, Brown Goshawk and Collared Sparrowhawk are less frequent visitors that keep to cover, never perching in the open.

Black Kite
Black Kite is one of several predominantly western species that have invaded south-east Queensland in recent weeks. The kite is presently one of the most numerous raptors about the Sunshine Coast, including the Maroochy River canelands, where today I saw several. I have seen up to 20 together near Nambour in recent days.

Black-shouldered Kite
Black-shouldered Kite is the most numerous raptor in the canelands, where several pairs nest annually. Today I saw 8 birds.

White-bellied Sea-Eagle
Three White-bellied Sea-Eagles were seen today. They often feed over the grasslands as well as along the river.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mary River Crocodile Newspaper Article

My local paper took an interest in my excursion to find the Mary River saltwater crocodile in my kayak - see here for the link. I thought the star of the show was the croc, not me!

Sunshine Coast Daily 

Hmmm - a river, a kayak and a croc. What could go wrong?

Wildlife enthusiast Greg Roberts set off in a kayak in pursuit of the Mary River crocodile.
Wildlife enthusiast Greg Roberts set off in a kayak in pursuit of the Mary River crocodile.Contributed
PADDLING down the Mary River in a two-metre kayak in search of a 3.5-metre crocodile is not everyone's idea of a great morning out.
But for Sunshine Coast wildlife enthusiast Greg Roberts, it was a dream come true.
Having spent many years in Darwin, Mr Roberts is no stranger to corocodile sightings, but the chance to see the reptile that has made the waterways around Maryborough its home and defied capture for more than a year was too good to pass up.
"It was a difficult decision, frankly. There were three cases of people in kayaks or canoes being killed or seriously injured by crocs,'' he said. "I knew that there was an element of risk.
"On the other hand, I had a lot of contact with the rangers up there and I was satisfied that this animal was very shy and absolutely steered clear of people."
Combined with the knowledge that the croc was well-fed and it was not mating season, Mr Roberts set off.
He had started to relax after a couple of hours of paddling when he suddenly saw the snout and eyes of the elusive croc a mere 15 metres from his kayak.
"The crocodile had evidently been on the river bank and slipped into the water when it saw or heard me approach. It had then taken a look at the cause of the disturbance," he said.
"I confess to a panic attack. I got out of the kayak and dragged it up on to the mud.
"I hauled myself up the river bank on my hands and knees as fast as I could, but the mud was thigh-deep. It was very slow going and exhausting.
"I looked constantly behind me.''
With adrenaline pumping and covered in mud, Mr Roberts waited on the steep bank for an hour before clambering back down and paddling the 3km back to the Beaver Rock boat ramp.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Blue Whale Newspaper Article

My yarn in The Weekend Australian Travel section this weekend about the blue whales we saw off the southern Sri Lanka coast ( see here  for earlier post).

Whale of a tail out of the blue

Whale watching
A whale watching boat full of tourists in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. Picture: Alamy Source: Supplied
THE proportions are mind-boggling - a tongue the size of an elephant; a heart the size of a small sedan; a song louder than a jetliner. The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is quite something.
The southern coast of Sri Lanka has emerged as the place to view these giants. Whaling has reduced the global population from an estimated 350,000 to about 12,000. In Sri Lanka, blue whales frequent deep waters relatively close to shore and a thriving industry has blossomed as whale watchers flock to picturesque fishing villages.
We gather before dawn at the village of Mirissa, not far from the World Heritage-listed fort city of Galle.
At the harbour, we negotiate our way through a throng of fishermen to board our vessel, Jayasawura II.
We head out to sea as the sun rises over coconut-fringed white-sand beaches. There is an element of luck involved in whale watching. Trips are often cancelled due to bad weather in the October-April season or boats are forced to turn back early by strong winds. Sometimes, of course, the whales simply fail to show.
As we tackle boxed breakfasts provided as part of the ticket (about $65), young crew members move to the bow, on the look-out for the telltale spray from the blue whale's blowhole. We have been motoring for an hour when the shout goes up. A spout of water as high as a three-storey building looms above us. The blue whale is not immediately in view; a tense few minutes pass before the murky grey water is broken by the elegant arch of its back. Through binoculars, the size of the creature is apparent. I have seen many humpbacks and other species, but the creature before us, about 20m (blue whales grow to about 30m), is massive, about 15 times the size of an adult elephant. In a few long seconds, the blue whale (and it is indeed blue) ploughs through the water, then submerges. As a last hurrah, its huge tail rises above the sea, slapping the water lazily as it disappears. A metre-long suckerfish attached to the tail looks like a minnow.
We are just 15km offshore, but over depths of 1500m, when we spot the whale. The closeness of the continental shelf to land is the key to the convenient presence of the creatures here, including the sperm whale of Moby Dick fame, and numerous spinner dolphins. There is no land between us and Antarctica, 11,000km to the south.
An upwelling of nutrients arises from the meeting of cold shelf waters and warm tropical currents off the coast. Conditions are ideal for krill and tiny shrimp, the main food source of the blue whale, which consumes 3500kg a day. During our morning at sea we see at least six blue whales, including a mother and calf. We also see a steady line of cargo ships on the horizon. The world's busiest shipping lane skirts the whales' feeding grounds, and the carcasses of cetaceans killed by propellers wash up regularly on beaches. In Australia, vessels are prohibited from approaching within 100m of a whale; there are no such restrictions here and boats jostle to get as close as they can. Sri Lanka's whale-watching industry is expanding by 20 per cent a year and experts believe it's time to take stock of the implications.
Mirissa Water Sports operates daily whale-watching excursions in season (October to April). More:
Colombo-based Birding Sri Lanka organises whale-watching trips in conjunction with visits to Yala National Park, two hours by road north of Mirissa, and other destinations where elephants and native wildlife can be seen. More:

Friday, 10 May 2013

In Search of the Mary River Saltwater Crocodile, by Kayak

Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Qld Department of  Environment & Heritage Protection
Apex predators – lions, bears, sharks, that sort of thing – have long fascinated me. Australia’s apex predator is the saltwater or estuarine crocodile, so when one turned up in the neighbourhood, the opportunity to try to see it was sorely tempting.

The saltwater crocodile is a tropical species that is rarely encountered even at the southern end of its eastern Australian range – Rockhampton in Queensland. So it was highly unusual for a 3.5-metre crocodile to take up residence in the Mary River, 350 kilometres south of Rockhampton and on the cusp of the state’s heavily populated south-east corner.  The crocodile has been there for at least 13 months, defying all attempts to remove it.

Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
My dilemma in wanting to see the animal was that I would need to take to the river in my kayak, a humble vessel a bit over 2 metres – well short of the size of my target. Was it safe to go chasing a large crocodile in a kayak?  Most crocodile victims in Australia were swimming, snorkelling, fishing or wading through water when they were attacked. However, a man was killed by a crocodile in 2005 on Cape York – see here for further details - after his canoe was overturned by the animal, so I was mindful of a degree of risk.

Kayaks and canoes are very easily overturned.  A kayak is roughly the same shape as a crocodile, so it might be regarded as competition by a territorial male.  A kayak might bump into an animal resting in the murky shallows, prompting an angry response. Large crocodiles often prey on mammals, so a tasty morsel perched atop a flimsy piece of plastic 15 centimetres above the water surface might be of some appeal.

A saltwater crocodile shot at Tiaro, 30km upstream from Maryborough, in 1964
The skin of the Tiaro crocodile minus tail in the Bauple museum
There was much to contemplate, but I simply could not resist. I had to try to at least see the crocodile, and hopefully photograph it. I had seen plenty of wild saltwater crocodiles previously in north Queensland and the Northern Territory, but to spot one so close to home, and so out of range, would be what we wildlife enthusiasts refer to as a megatick.

The Mary River animal turned up at Beaver Rock, a popular boat ramp 15 kilometres downstream from the busy regional centre of Maryborough, in April last year. It is Queensland Government policy to remove any crocodile found south of the Boyne River at Gladstone, so the Mary River beast has for the past 13 months defied numerous attempts by wildlife rangers to trap it. It has shown no interest whatsoever in the wild pig carcasses left in traps as lures.

Head of the Mary River saltwater crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
When the crocodile was first seen, authorities did not believe it would hang around for the relatively cold south-east Queensland winter, but it did. Even extensive flooding in the Mary River earlier this year failed to move it. All sightings of the crocodile since it arrived have been within a 12-kilometre stretch of river.

Shortly before my kayaking foray, I learned from local Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection rangers that it had recently been spotted on the southern bank of the Mary River opposite Brothers Island, 3 kilometres upstream from where it was first seen at Beaver Rock. The animal was sunning itself at low tide at a site where it had been spotted several times. On this and other occasions when the crocodile was encountered, it slid from the muddy bank into the river as soon as it became aware of human interlopers.

Mary River crocodile - picture by Qld Department of Environment & Heritage Protection
Several friends, including one or two who know a few things about crocodiles, tried to talk me out of the idea. I was advised to at least not be alone, or to hire a motorised dinghy, a sturdier vessel.

I decided to proceed with my plan after careful consideration. The time of year – the end of April – was after the crocodile breeding season so there was little reason to worry about territorial aggression.  The crocodile had been ignoring baits so it was presumably feeding well on the abundance of barramundi and other food in the river; it was evidently not hungry. Significantly, the animal gave every indication that it was shy of people and keen to avoid them. Problem crocodiles elsewhere exhibit quite different behaviour.

Foot imprint in mud of Mary River crocodile - Picture by Lindsay Titmarsh
There was something more to my decision - the buzz, the adrenalin. The stuff you get from abseiling down cliff faces or parachuting out of planes; an element of risk.  Kayaking excursions are conducted in St Lucia, South Africa, in waters infested with crocodiles and hippos.  I’d read exhilarating accounts of experiences from people who had taken the ride. I was also aware of less alluring yarns from Africa.  In 2010, Ugandan tour guide Hendrik Coetzee was dragged from his kayak by a crocodile and killed (see here for story).

Mary River upstream from Beaver Rock boat ramp
I decided to paddle the 3 kilometres from the Beaver Rock boat ramp on the southern bank of the Mary River to where the crocodile was last seen opposite Brothers Island. I intended to be there at low tide in the hope it would be sunning itself on a river bank. From the ramp, the enormous size of the Mary River was apparent; it seemed a very long way across to the northern bank.

Fishing trawler destroyed in 2013 Mary River flooding
The day of my little adventure began with one of those sunny, warm south-east Queensland autumn early mornings, with a nip of winter in the air. From the boat ramp I could see a large fishing trawler on its side in the mud on the river bank – a victim of the recent floods. On the bank at the top of the ramp is a fresh sign planted by the wildlife authorities   a gentle reminder, it read:  “Crocodiles inhabit this area. Attacks may cause injury or death.”  I was able to make good time paddling upriver, easily recognising the spot from photographs where the crocodile had been seen.  

Newly planted sign at Beaver Rock
I decided it would be prudent to paddle as close to shore as possible as the water was shallow and if necessary in the event of an attack, I could scramble up the river bank to safety. This may have been wishful thinking. Typically, when a crocodile launches an attack on a victim on or close to land, it lunges at great speed, propelling itself from deeper water. This is what happened to naturalist Val Plumwood during a 1985 attack in the Northern Territory. Plumwood was in a canoe at the time -  see here  for her own extraordinary account of what happened.

Me in the kayak
I could see no sign of the Mary River beast on the exposed river bank. I paddled around a large bend in the river, impressed by extensive stands of large mangrove.  I was paddling close to the bank, with Brothers Island perhaps 200 metres away across a deep channel. Eventually I was in a stretch of river under cover of mangroves overhanging the water, and I was negotiating my kayak through a maze of dead trees.

Then I saw the crocodile. About 15 metres away, I spotted the unmistakeable nostrils and snout of a large crocodile just above the water surface before the head of the animal slowly submerged. The crocodile had evidently been on the river bank and slipped into the water when it saw or heard me approach. It had then taken a look at the cause of the disturbance. This behaviour mirrored that witnessed by others who had seen the crocodile.

The spot where I saw the crocodile
I confess to a panic attack, as the animal was very close. I got out of the kayak and dragged it up on to the mud. I hauled myself up the river bank as fast as I could, but the mud was thigh-deep. It was very slow going, and exhausting. I looked constantly behind me, not knowing quite what to expect. However, if the crocodile had wanted to grab me, it had plenty of time to do so. The head was pointing upriver when I saw it and not towards me, so I believe it was intending to get as far away from me as it could.

Nonetheless, just to be sure, I waited an hour on the elevated river bank – there was no further sign of the animal - before returning to the kayak and paddling back to Beaver Rock against the incoming tide. My vessel and I were thoroughly covered with mud.

So how unusual is the occurrence of a saltwater crocodile so far south of its normal range? Not as unusual as we may think. In 1964, a 3.4-metre crocodile was shot at Tiaro, in the Mary River 30 kilometres upstream from Maryborough. Its hide is on display today in the museum in the quaint township of Bauple. A large crocodile was shot in 1905 near Logan Village, 300 kilometres south of Maryborough.

Kauri Creek - one of several local sites where crocodiles have been spotted
The tidal waters and mangrove swamps of the Mary River-Fraser Island- Great Sandy Strait-Tin Can Bay region appear well-suited to the saurians.  In recent years there have been what appear to be well-founded sightings from several spots including Deep Creek, Fig Treek Creek and Bridge Creek along the western shores of Fraser Island.
Animals have been reported from Dundowran Beach near Hervey Bay, on an island in Kauri Creek, on Woody Island in Hervey Bay, in Saltwater Creek (a Mary River tributary a few kilometres downstream from Maryborough) and even at Queens Park in the heart of Maryborough. Others were reportedly seen in creeks north of Point Vernon and in the Burrum River. 

The crocodile shot in the Logan River in 1905 - will this be the fate of the Mary River croc? 
Fishermen in earlier times regularly reported crocodiles in the Mary River. The crocodile presently in residence roams between Beaver Rock and a stretch of river near Maryborough Airport, close to the town centre. It appears to prefer two areas 7 kilometres apart – the vicinity of Brothers Island and upstream in the above-mentioned Salwater Creek. This week, the crocodile returned from Brothers Island to Saltwater Creek.

Three baited traps set at different times and places are ignored by the crocodile, which seemingly is perfectly happy in its new environment.  The authorities may feel forced to take more drastic action to remove it. The  Liberal-National Party Government in Queensland has indicated through various measures that wildlife conservation is not a high priority, so the days of the Mary River crocodile are likely to be numbered.

I would like to thank the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and Mary River land owner Lindsay Titmarsh for their help in putting together this material.



Thursday, 9 May 2013

Masked Owl at Amamoor, Sunshine Coast Hinterland

Masked Owl
Masked Owl is one of the trickiest of its tribe to see in south-east Queensland. It is scarce and calls infrequently. So I was very happy earlier this week to have an excellent encounter with this male Masked Owl.

Masked Owl

I was out looking for Powerful Owl at a spot in Amamoor State Forest, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, where I found a Powerful Owl last year (see here for details). No Powerful Owls, but I heard a Masked Owl calling a little after dusk. Soon this male bird was showing itself very nicely.

Masked Owl
The owl called a couple of times even while I watched it, although it remained fairly high in the canopy. I heard a second owl, presumably the female of the pair, calling nearby but could not find it. Masked Owls are heard much more often than they are seen. I camped that night about a kilometre up the road from this spot and heard another Masked Owl just before dawn but could not locate it. The habitat that the birds were in was a nice mix of open eucalypt forest, hoop pine plantation and rainforest along Amamoor Creek.

Australian Owlet-Nightjar
Around my camp I had a vociferous pair of Australian Owlet-Nightjars.

Dusky Honeyeater
 I checked out the main daytime picnic area at Amamoor in the morning and about 20 Dusky Honeyeaters were in a flowering tree there - a high number for this species at one spot in south-east Queensland.

Fairy Gerygone
Moving on to Moy Pocket beyond Imbil, I encountered a pair of Fairy Gerygone. While this species is common enough in coastal vine scrub around the Sunshine Coast, it is much more scarce further inland.

Other niceties included White-eared Monarch, which was calling at both Moy Pocket and Amamoor - notwithstanding the time of year - and Wompoo Fruit-Dove.

A bothersome gut ache that morning gradually worsened during the day and at lunchtime I was admitted to Nambour Hospital. My appendix had ruptured! It was removed late that night - 24 hours after I was chasing owls in the forest. It is good that I had not been in the back blocks of Cameroon or Tibet or some such place. 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Sunshine Coast Pelagic Trip May 2013

Kermadec Petrel - dark phase
White Tern, Red-footed Booby, Kermadec Petrel and White-faced Storm-Petrel were the highlights of an excellent pelagic trip off the Sunshine Coast. Also noteworthy was an unusually high number of Tahiti Petrels for this time of year.

Providence Petrel
As we headed out from Mooloolaba Harbour just before 7am on Saturday May 4 aboard our catamaran, Cat-A-Pult, conditions looked promising, with a cyclone in the Coral Sea earlier in the week and strong south-easterlys the previous day giving us hope that some good birds might be about. With light winds, a water temperature of 24 degrees and a maximum of 28 degrees forecast for this sunny autumn day, we were assured of a pleasant time at sea.

Tahiti Petrel
A single Fluttering Shearwater was seen on the way out before a small flock of Wilson's Storm-Petrels grabbed our attention at 180 metres. We were approaching the edge of the shelf at 8.50am at 270 metres, 30 nautical miles from shore (co-ordinates 26,39,920; 153, 42, 124) when we saw a White Tern. Although we had planned to be a bit further out on the shelf before stopping, this seemed a good spot to begin leaving a berley trail of shark liver.

White Tern
For the next four hours we drifted in a south-easterly direction with a mild swell and west-south-westerly winds rarely exceeding 10 knots: perfect viewing conditions. Birds were about us continually. No sooner had the White Tern disappeared when a pair of Hutton's Shearwaters cruised past and the first of the day's Providence Petrels showed up.

Wilson's  Storm-Petrel
Growing numbers of Wilson's Storm-Petrels and then a couple of Tahiti Petrels made their appearance. Tahiti and Providence Petrels in reasonable numbers were around the boat the whole time we were on the shelf. To encounter these numbers of Tahiti Petrel at this time of year was unusual.

White-faced Storm-Petrel     Picture Paul Barden
Our first hour on the shelf was non-stop action. An intermediate phase Red-footed Booby passed by the bow. A White-faced Storm-Petrel joined the Wilson's Storm-Petrels. A dark phase Kermadec Petrel wheeled overhead. A Pomarine Jaeger - again, unexpected at this time of year - joined the fray.

Pomarine Jaeger   Picture Paul Barden
As the morning progressed we found two more Kermadec Petrels, both light phase. A pod of Risso's Dolphins was nice. Two more White Terns showed. At least two White-faced Storm-Petrels were spotted regularly. A few Short-tailed Shearwaters came in.

Short-tailed Shearwater
We turned around at 1pm, when we had drifted about 8 nautical miles, retracing the berley trail for a while and noticing how well-attended it was, mostly by a steady procession of Providence and Tahiti Petrels. Little was seen on the return leg after we hit the shallower water other than a single juvenile Australasian Gannet. We arrived back in the harbour around 3.40pm.

Here is a neat tracking map of our journey provided by Paul Barden.

PARTICIPANTS: Lachlan Tuckwell (skipper), Greg Roberts (organiser), Paul Barden, Ian Barnett, Sarah Beavis, Ken Cross, Robyn Duff, Alex Ferguson, Nikolas Haass, Raja Stephenson, Bob James, Jim Macready, Ross Sinclair, Brian Willey.

SPECIES: Total (maximum number at one time).

Wilson's Storm Petrel 50 (8)
White-faced Storm-Petrel 3 (1)
Providence Petrel 60 (10)
Tahiti Petrel 30 (6)
Kermadec Petrel 3 (1)
Fluttering Shearwater 1 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 2 (2)
Short-tailed Shearwater 4 (2)
Australasian Gannet 2 (1)
Red-footed Booby 1 (1)
Pomarine Jaeger 2 (1)
White Tern 3 (1)
Crested Tern 14 (10)
Silver Gull 3 (3)

Risso's Dolphins 6 (4)
Common Bottlenose Dolphin 2 (2)