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.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

North-East India Part 2: Sela Pass to Sangti Valley

Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler
As the sun rose early (4-4.30am) it became the habit on our trip to north-east India to rise at an ungodly hour each day, especially when we had to drive some distance to birding destinations. So it was for our visit to Sela Pass from the Himalayan hill town of Dirang (see following post). We were blessed with a bright sunny morning on this day as we had breakfast by the road a few hundred metres below the pass. Our driver flushed a male Himalayan Monal which offered dazzling views as it flew a short distance below us, calling loudly.

Below Sela Pass
Other birds about included Grey-sided Bush-Warbler, Indian  Blue Robin, Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin, Snow Pigeon, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Dark-breasted and Himalayan White-browed Rosefinches, Himalayan Griffon and White-winged Grosbeak.

Himalayan Griffon
We were pleased to find a group of Crimson-browed Finches foraging in the small pine trees.

Crimson-browed Finch
We headed on up to the pass, where prayer flags and the physical features of local folk reminded us that we were not that far removed from the border with Chinese Tibet. This spot is a major site for Grandala and dipping this species was the major disappointment of our trip. Tony managed to glimpse a Snow Partridge.

Sela Pass
We checked out the western slopes on the other side of the pass but the presence of the Baisakhi Army Base limited birding opportunities.

Our guide, Abid, at Sela Pass
Nesting Rose Pipits were common along with White-collared Blackbird, Black-faced Laughingthrush and White-capped River-Chat, while Blood Pheasant was heard.

Rosy Pipit
We saw a Winter Wren of the distinctive regional race, Red-billed Chough, Plain Mountain-Finch and Rufous-breasted Accentor. The weather fogged up by late morning and we were forced to retreat lower down to the subalpine area where we had breakfast earlier. Here we had excellent views of a male Fire-tailed Myzornis - one of the major targets of the trip.

Fire-tailed Sunbird
Other birds here and lower down the road included Blue-fronted Redstart, Whistler's Warbler,  Brown-throated (Ludlow's) Fulvetta, and Rufous-vented, Green-backed and  Coal Tits - the latter of the distinctive regional race. The spectacular Fire-tailed Sunbird was common and a showy male Golden Bush-Robin was appreciated.

Golden Bush-Robin
By now we were beginning to become accustomed to the unnervingly steep slopes that dropped dramatically below most of the narrow roads we were to traverse in the Eastern Himalayas. We lunched on noodles in the roadside home of a local family and birded some bamboo lower down before returning to the hotel in Dirang, where a Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo called continually but refused to show. Like most meals on the trip, dinner was a combination of rice, dahl, and a couple of curries, usually including chicken and vegetables of some sort.

Spotted Laughingthrush
The next morning saw another early departure, this time for the Mandala Road. Birds in the forest at lower and middle elevations included some of those that we saw the day before such as Grey-winged Blackbird, Chesnut-tailed Minla, and Rufous-vented and Stripe-throated Yuhinas. The first of numerous Hill Partridges to be heard throughout the trip were calling.

Chesnut-tailed Minla
We headed up to the pass at 3300 metres, seeing Spotted Laughingthrush below it, while Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler and Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler showed nicely in bamboo clumps at the summit. Chesnut-capped Bush-Warbler was an unexpected find while Russet Bush-Warbler was more anticipated.

Mandala Road Locals
The first of many Gold-naped Finch and Green-tailed and Gould's Sunbirds to be encountered on the trip were seen. We saw our first Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie for the trip before having breakfast in another roadside home of a local family, where we were to return for lunch that included a serving of yak.  In the higher altitude forests, Skulking White-browed Shortwings, Chesnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias put in brief appearances, while Golden-breasted and Rufous-winged Fulvettas were more co-operative. Cuckoos were vocal throughout the trip in the mountains - with Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Himalayan Cuckoo, Common Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo all calling commonly. Spotted Nutcracker and White-throated Needletail showed near the summit, which was just 30 kilometres from the Bhutan border.

Darjeeling Woodpecker
We saw a Darjeeling Woodpecker and an unexpected Dusky Thrush at the summit. As we began our descent, a Bar-winged Wren-Babbler showed nicely while a skulking Blue-fronted Robin took more effort to see briefly but well.

Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher
A pair of Ultramarine Flycatchers were seen along with Slaty-blue and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers. Black-throated and Yellow-cheeked Tits were added to the list and Grey-sided Laughing-thrushes were common.

Arunachal Macaque
We were happy to connect with a family of Arunachal Macaques - a scarce primate discovered relatively recently.

Marijuana - Sangti Valley
Our third morning in the Dirang area saw us in the Sangti Valley, where we looked unsuccessfully for Black-tailed Crake in a marshy area from the roadside, but saw a Slaty-breasted Rail, while a Long-billed Plover was found in fields nearby. We finally scored with the crake after moving to another site that Abid knew about, obtaining excellent views. Less expected in the area were extensive clumps of marijuana growing wild. We then moved on to Eaglehawk Wildlife Sanctuary.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

North-East India Part 1: Kolkata to Dirang

Greater Adjutant
A three-week trip to the north-east Indian provinces of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015 by myself, Tony Palliser and Bill Watson was organised through locally based company Jungle Travels India - Our guide was Abidur Rahman and we can highly recommend the services of this capable and affable young man.

Streetside Kolkata

Access to the region is reached most easily through Kolkata, and we arrived a day early to recover from jetlag before the trip and a have a quick look at India's most populous city, visiting local attractions such as Victoria Museum and the Eden Garden Cricket Ground.
Victoria Museum, Kolkata

Coppersmith Barbet

Indian Pond-Heron
Coppersmith Barbet and Indian Pond Heron were among the common south Asian species we saw in the museum gardens. We took an early morning flight to Guwahati, where we were met by Abid and taken to the local rubbish tip - a traditional first port of call for these trips.
Greater Adjutants at Guawahit Rubbish Tip
Here, standing incongruously atop huge piles of rubbish, were 300+ Greater Adjutants - an endangered species for which this unlikely site has become a major stronghold. Foraging in the refuse for saleable scraps alongside the adjutants were a large number of poor villagers, mostly from Bangladesh. The adjutants were oblivious to these folk but quaintly were quick to fly away when we westerners approached. Also at the dump were Striated Grassbird and Citrine Wagtail.

The Show Gets on the Road - Greg, Tony, Bill

Nameri Eco-Camp
We moved on to Nameri National Park and the pleasant Nameri Eco Camp. On the way, birds
seen included the only Black-bellied Terns of the trip and several Lesser Adjutants among the numerous Asian Openbills in the wetlands, grasslands and paddy fields of the Assam lowlands. In and around the grounds of the camp were some nice critters including Asian Barred Owlet, Red-breasted Parakeet, Great Hornbill and Capped Langur.

Capped Langur

Great Hornbill
In the afternoon we strolled to the nearby Jia Bhoreli River, which borders the national park. Indian Cuckoo was common. Nice birds at the river included River Tern and River Lapwing. Birds in the camp that evening included Spotted Owlet and Brown Hawk-Owl.

Nameri National Park
Early the next morning we crossed the fast-flowing river in a canoe. Present on the stony river flats and along the river edge were Great Thick-knee, Little Ringed Plover, Bengal Bushlark and Sand Lark.

Bengal Bushlark
We headed into the lush green sal forest, accompanied by an armed park ranger, to the well-vegetated pools that were the habitat of our main target here: another endangered species, White-winged Duck. We managed to find one of these large ducks at the first pool, with most of the group securing good, close views. We heard but failed to see White-cheeked Partridge here, our efforts frustrated by the arrival of a group of wild (and potentially dangerous) Asian Elephants, which necessitated a quick retreat.
White-winged Duck Pool - Nameri
Other nice birds that morning included Greater and Lesser Yellownape, Pale-chinned Flycatcher, White-throated Bulbul, Puff-throated and Abbott's Babblers, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Ruddy Kingfisher (heard), Vernal Hanging-Parrot, Hooded Pitta (heard), and Velvet-fronted and Chesnut-bellied Nuthatches.
Tokay Geckos
Also of interest were some big tokay geckos. We also came across the fresh footprint of a tiger, while fresh elephant droppings were everywhere.

Tiger Paw Print

Puff-throated Babbler
Late that afternoon, while Abid and I were strolling near the lodge, another White-winged
Duck (most unexpectedly) flew close overhead. The next morning, we headed north towards the Eastern Himalayas, crossing the border from the state of Assam to Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong. As we headed slowly uphill, passing through an area of bamboo we saw a group of (Indian) White-hooded Babblers and the often difficult Rufous-faced Warbler. Other welcome additions to a rapidly growing trip list were a singing Yellow-vented Warbler and a White-breasted (Greater Rufous-headed) Parrotbill. Soon after, a skulking Long-billed Wren-Babbler showed well by the road.

White-breasted (Greater Rufous-headed) Parrotbill
The birds of the Himalayan foothills did not disappoint along the road to our destination - the hill town of Dirang. Those bird groups for which the Himalayas are renowned were well-represented this day: laughing-thrushes (Bhutan, Striated, Chesnut-capped and White-crested) ; yuhinas (Striated, White-naped, Whiskered and White-bellied); niltavas  (Large, Small and Rufous-bellied) and babblers (Golden and Grey-throated). A party of Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers (this race soon to be split) put on a show while the first of many Rusty-fronted Barwings seen on the trip was impressive. More common fare included Himalayan Black Bulbul, Short-billed and Grey-chinned Minivets, and Great and  Golden-throated Barbets.

Himalayan Black Bulbul
We were pleased to see our first Blyth's Swift, Yellow-throated Fulvetta and Beautiful Sibia, the latter proving to be one of the most numerous birds of the Eastern Himalayan forests. A Blanford's Rosefinch was an unexpected find while Grey Peacock-Pheasant was heard only.

Beautiful Sibia
Other birds included Chesnut-bellied and Blue-capped Rock-thrushes, Common Green Magpie,
and more of the numerous small warbler species we were to see over the next three weeks: Lemon-rumped, Blyth's, Large-billed, Yellow-bellied, Grey-cheeked, Grey-hooded and Black-faced. Many of the Phylloscopus warblers were nesting and vocal during the trip. Rufous-fronted and Rufous-capped Babblers were both chalked up during the drive to Dirang, as was Plumbeous Water Redstart and Nepal House Martin. A White-tailed Robin flicked across the road. We arrived at Dirang (altitude 1400 metres) at our accommodation, the adequate Hotel Pemaling, early that evening, looking forward to heading higher into the mountains in the coming days. We then explored Sela Pass and Mandala Road

Friday, 1 May 2015

Drainage Works Begin at Yandina Creek Wetlands

Drainage Works Underway at Yandina Creek Wetlands
Work has begun to drain the Yandina Creek Wetlands on the Sunshine Coast, notwithstanding federal and Queensland government investigations into the potential implications of such a move under environmental protection laws. The move comes as the Sunshine Coast Council continues to consider a proposal to acquire the wetlands - regarded as nationally and, very likely, internationally significant under federal guidelines - for an environmental reserve.  The purpose of this post is to explain why drainage work has begun; the implications of the work; and what government authorities are doing about it.
Drainage Works Underway at Yandina Creek Wetlands
A decision on a proposal to acquire three properties totalling 200 hectares under the council's Environment Levy Acquisition Program will be made later this year. The properties were formerly used for sugar cane production until they were sold about a decade ago. Since then, they have been inundated by tidal water from the Maroochy River as canal floodgates fell into disrepair - a development which effectively restored an excellent example of the wetlands that were naturally widespread in the area before the development of the sugar industry last century.

Royal Spoonbill at Yandina Creek Wetlands 
The wetlands are home to a large population of waterbirds of many varieties, including endangered and threatened species, and migratory shorebirds which are protected under international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. As was reported last month (see here) the landholders of the largest property - Lot 3RP148079 - leased their land recently to the sugar cane growers who owned it originally; the growers said then that they plan to again grow cane on the land after draining it later this year, probably in September. This was a significant change of plan by the landholders, who had indicated their intention to graze cattle on the land - a move which would have required considerable land-filling and flood mitigation operations.

Yandina Creek Wetlands
The landholders were advised earlier this year by the federal  Environment Department that redevelopment of the land would potentially breach Commonwealth laws relating to protecting endangered species and migratory shorebirds. The move to lease the land for sugar cane production is presumably intended to bypass those laws because although no sugar has been grown there for many years, a "continuing use" for the property could potentially be claimed by the landholders, thereby exempting the cane growing plan.

Last week, the cane growers abruptly moved their drainage plans forward, constructing a 300-metre long wall of compacted mud and dredge spoils along the eastern boundary of Lot 3RP148079. The move is intended to prevent inundation at high tide, effectively assisting to drain the wetlands so sugar cane can again be grown. At the same time, pipes and other equipment have been moved to an area adjacent to the major floodgate on Yandina Creek that had fallen into disrepair, signalling that work may be planned to restore the floodgate to prevent further inundation of tidal water.

Yandina Creek Wetlands
It is not certain that the landholders and cane growers can avoid potential implications under the federal Environment Protection and Diversity Conservation Act. The Environment Department is investigating whether in fact the drainage works presently underway are exempt. What is certain is that neither the landholders nor the cane growers sought clearance from the department before proceeding with the drainage works.

At the same time, the new Queensland Environment Minister, Steven Miles, is examining whether the works have implications under the Nature Conservation Act for endangered and threatened species. The minister has also been asked to take urgent steps to determine if the landholdings should be designated a Wetland Protection Area - a move that would require state intervention to protect the wetlands.

Pipes and Other Equipment in Place - Yandina Creek Wetlands
Fisheries Queensland is also negotiating with the landholders to determine if the drainage works breach the provisions of the Fisheries Act. Drainage would kill a substantial area of protected mangroves at the eastern end of Lot 3RP148079.

However, while stopping all drainage works is the priority of those concerned with protecting the wetlands, regrowing the area with sugar cane is a better option than cattle pasture development.  Retaining walls can be dismantled and land can again be inundated. Restored floodgates can be removed. Even if government investigations suggest that a "continuing use" prevents intervention at this time, moves to acquire the properties for an environmental reserve would not necessarily be affected adversely. While those efforts continued, ongoing monitoring could ensure that more serious land use options (such as cattle grazing) were not pursued in future.

Google Earth View of Yandina Creek Wetlands
Meanwhile, the landholders have not made clear their long-term plans for this land. It is presently zoned rural and cannot be subdivided under local council planning rules or under the state's South-East Queensland Regional Plan. Companies owned by the landholders of the two main properties covering the wetlands are associated primarily not with cattle or farming, but with property development and investment.

Long Term Plans for the Wetlands - Another Maroochy River Canal Estate?
The landholders may be hoping that the land has a future in the long term as a canal estate or similar development if the council and Queensland Government have a change of heart. Government and council sources familiar with a long-standing debate surrounding the future of the Maroochy River canelands stress that this is highly unlikely. Importantly, the landholders have left the door open to an acquisition offer from the council.

Many of those concerned about the future of the wetlands have written to various authorities. Now is the time for those efforts to be escalated. A more detailed report on the case for protecting the wetlands can be found here.

The federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt - - can be congratulated for his interest in the matter to date, but again be asked to ensure that the requirements of Commonwealth law relating to endangered species and migratory shorebirds are complied with. Mr Hunt could also be asked to order an inspection of the wetlands by departmental officers.

The Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles ( - with any communication copied to his electoral office ( - can be asked to ensure that the provisions of the Nature Conservation Act are complied with, and to launch an immediate investigation into the potential designation of the wetlands as a Wetland Protection Area.

Sunshine Coast Mayor Mark Jamieson - - can be again asked to approve Nomination Number 100 under the Environment Levy Plan. If cost is an issue, Lot 4RP148079 - which presently is unaffected by drainage works - contains the best wetlands and could be considered for acquisition in isolation.  

Finally, the local state MP and Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, Peter Wellington - - can be asked to use his influence with the minority Labor Government to move to protect the wetlands.