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, 16 December 2018

Endangered Red Goshawks netted and tagged during nesting season

Red Goshawk on Cape York (Image by John Young)

The Queensland Labor Government has handed responsibility for a controversial program that nets and tags the endangered Red Goshawk on Queensland's Cape York Peninsula to international mining giant Rio Tinto. The goshawks are caught and tagged during their nesting season.

A Red Goshawk caught near its nest near Weipa in a bow net and fitted with a GPS satellite transmitter in a harness disappeared three months later. The then Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection told north Queensland blogger Tony Nielson in February 2017 that a month after the adult female disappeared, its female fledgling was also netted and fitted with a tracking device; the movements of that bird were being tracked 12 months later.

Queensland Environment Department & Rio Tinto personnel with captured juvenile Red Goshawk
Netting and tagging can provide valuable information about the movements of migratory waders and other birds, but such programs should be conducted in moderation and with great care. An important shorebird roost at Toorbul in South-East Queensland, for instance, was deserted for a considerable time after cannon netting of the birds late last year. A critically endangered Night Parrot disappeared after being caught and fitted with a tracking device in Western Australia in August 2017; its mate vanished soon after. Authorities had made no attempt to estimate Night Parrot numbers at the site before the bird was caught.

At least four Red Goshawks have been caught and tagged on mining leases held by Rio Tinto in the Weipa-Aurukun region of Cape York. The leases span 380,000 hectares – a vast area of savannah woodland that the company boasts is 5.5 times the size of Singapore. Rio Tinto has signalled that more birds will be caught in co-operation with the Queensland Department of Environment and Science and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. The AWC owns Piccaninny Plains, a Cape York reserve described by the organisation as an “important stronghold” for the species.

Red Goshawk on Cape York (Image by John Young)
In a statement in October, Rio Tinto's Weipa Operations general manager, Daniel van der Westhuizen, said that in co-operation with the Queensland Government, the company had been able to refine its tracking and trapping techniques for the Red Goshawk over three years. The capture of birds and fitting them with transmitters had provided “invaluable information” on their movements. No details of that information have surfaced.

Rio Tinto declined to respond to a series of questions I put to the company about the program. Rio Tinto exports 33 million tonnes of bauxite a year from its Cape York leases. A Red Goshawk nest was first detected on a Rio Tinto mining lease in 2015, near Mapoon. Environmental activists have long argued that the company's strip-mining has grave environmental consequences. The Wilderness Society claimed that Rio Tinto's South of Embley bauxite mine, for instance, would have “enormous environmental impacts from total forest destruction, to fundamental disruption of hydrology, to threatening rare species”.

Rio Tinto's Cape York bauxite mining
North Queensland birding guide David Crawford says he is concerned that goshawks are being captured during the nesting season. Crawford claims he was contacted last year by somebody associated with the Red Goshawk Recovery Plan seeking information about nest sites, which he refused to provide.

Says Crawford: “To research something is one thing but to disturb such a rare bird with low populations in the middle of the breeding season is barbaric. The ethics people who authorise this behaviour need to be thoroughly looked at. How is this majestic bird going to struggle to survive with a tracker pack and a 200mm aerial sticking out between its shoulder blades? When contacted about birds and chicks they put trackers on, they say they have proof the data is there on the movement of these birds but it has never been released to the public. Is the science working or are the birds with trackers on dead?”

Another North Queensland naturalist, who asked not to be identified, says he has learned that live Rainbow Lorikeets are tethered to the ground to lure the goshawks so they can be trapped by bow nets. Bow nets are often used to catch raptors: a lure animal is secured on the ground within reach of a spring-loaded bow-shaped net that is set off as the target approaches the bait. It is possible that if the target attempted to fly as the net was sprung, it could be injured or killed.

Red-tailed Hawk caught in a bow net in the U.S.
Red Goshawks are presumably netted during the nesting season because they would be widely dispersed and difficult to catch at other times of the year. When I put a series of questions to the Department of Environment and Science about the program, a departmental spokesperson replied: “I have been informed this project is funded and lead by Rio Tinto. All questions can be directed to them.” (As mentioned above, the company refused to comment.)

Pressed on whether the state Environment Minister, Leeanne Enoch, was aware her department had handed over responsibility for managing endangered species research to a mining company, the spokeperson added: “The Red Goshawk research project is an example of a partnership to provide better understanding of a threatened species. Rio Tinto is carrying out the research project, with technical support and advice from DES. The company has a permit issued by DES and a memorandum of understanding with DES, and has obtained animal ethics approval.”

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic December 2018

Brown Booby

We departed Mooloolaba Marina at 6.30am on Wednesday December 12, 2018 under clear skies, negotiating a gentle swell as we headed east. The trip had been postponed due to rough weather from Sunday December 9. We saw a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a Flesh-footed Shearwater on the way out. A small flock of Common Terns flew by as well as a Sooty Tern in relatively shallow water before we reached the shelf at 9am. We began laying a berley trail in 340 metres, 32 nautical miles offshore: 26.38.127S; 153.43.577E.

Common Tern
We drifted slowly in a south-westerly direction, trialling our latest berley mix of diced chicken skins, some fish offcuts that had been smashed up pretty thoroughly, and an abundance of tuna oil. We had a good slick with floating berley all day, but birds were few and far between. The forecast easterly of 10-15 knots did not materialise; instead we had barely a breeze the whole time we were out wide, the wind picking up a little on the way back in.

Tahiti Petrel
We had the odd Tahiti Petrel checking us out and a smattering of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters along with the odd Flesh-footed Shearwater, a single Short-tailed Shearwater and a couple of Sooty Terns. We also had a nice if somewhat distant pod of feeding Short-finned Pilot Whales. We turned around at 12.30pm to allow a bit of time to search closer to shore.

Wedge-tailed Shearwater

Short-tailed Shearwater
We threw out a bit more berley on the Barwon Banks and stopped at a couple of spots closer in. A Brown Booby flew by and small numbers of Common Tern, Little Tern and White-winged Tern were seen, along with a couple more Short-tailed Shearwaters.

White-winged Tern

PARTICIPANTS: Paul Beer (skipper), Cory Spring (deckhand), Greg Roberts (organiser), Margie Baker, Louis Backstrom, Tony Baker, Sarah Bevis, Rob Collins,  Phil Cross,  Michael Daley, Robin Duff,  Richard Fuller, Geoff Glare, Simon Husher, Mary Hynes, Bob James, Rob Kernot, Elliot Leach, James Martin, Sean Nolan, Tina Rider, Carolyn Scott, Jamie Walker.

BIRDS: Total (Max at one Time)

Tahiti Petrel 10 (2)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 70 (15)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 4 (1)
Short-tailed Shearwater 3 (1)
Brown Booby 1
Crested Tern 120 (40)
Little Tern 2 (2)
White-winged Tern 6 (4)
Common Tern 25 (8)
Sooty Tern 5 (2)

Short-finned Pilot Whale 8 (3)

Monday, 19 November 2018

Birds flocking back to Yandina Creek Wetland

Black-necked Stork
Six months after floodgates were reopened at the Yandina Creek Wetland on the Sunshine Coast, allowing it to be inundated with tidal water, waterbirds are returning to the site in significant numbers. The owner of the site, Unitywater, is committed to restoring the former sugar cane farmland as a wetland as part of its nutrients offset program. The wetland had been dry since floodgates were repaired and closed in 2015.

Wetland prior to floodgates reopening

Wetland today 
BirdLife Southern Queensland, through BirdLife Sunshine Coast volunteers, is conducting surveys of the wetland as part of an agreement with Unitywater. For some time after the water returned in May, few waterbirds were evident, raising fears that acid sulfate and other contaminants leaching to the surface during the dry years could take years to wash out of the site.

Glossy Ibis
However, increasing numbers of birds have returned to the wetland in recent weeks. During the latest surveys this week, numbers of some species had returned to pretty much what they were before the site was drained. Others had yet to return or were in relatively small numbers. Nonetheless, the trend appears clear: the birds are on their way back, and sooner than some of us feared. Bird images here were taken this week.

Pied Stilt
The wetland was previously the only reliable site in the Sunshine Coast region for Black-necked Stork; at least one bird would nearly always be encountered during a visit and sometimes two pairs were present. This week we had three storks together at the wetland, with a pair displaying.

Black-necked Stork

Black-necked Storks displaying
Spotless Crake is an example of a generally uncommon bird that was formerly numerous at the wetland but initially was sparsely reported after the gates reopened. This week we recorded five birds in two hours.

Spotless Crake
Black Swan had nested commonly but was slow to return, though numbers again are slowly increasing. Good numbers of ducks were present at the wetland this week, including an Australasian Shoveler. Australasian Swamphen was one of the most numerous waterbirds at the wetland and the absence of this hardy species for weeks after the gates were opened was particularly alarming; happily it is now back in substantial numbers.

Black Swan

Australasian Shoveler & Grey Teal
The wetland was a critically important habitat for Latham's Snipe with 100+ birds regularly recorded. Although there's still a long way to go, seven birds were seen during this week's surveys.

Latham's Snipe
Similarly, fair numbers of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper were back at the wetland, indicating the site is on track to resume its previous position as an important feeding ground for migratory shorebirds.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Little Grassbird is another bird to have disappeared but is returning with gusto, with about 10 birds seen and heard in flooded reeds this week. Other species regarded as scarce in south-east Queensland that were encountered included Lewin's Rail, Glossy Ibis and White-winged Triller.

White-winged Triller
Reasonable numbers of cormorants suggest that fish are finding their way back into the wetland. Species like Great Egret and Royal Spoonbill, once common at Yandina Creek, are making regular appearances in small but gradually growing numbers.

Royal Spoonbill

Great Egret
White-throated Needletail and Pacific Swift were hawking insects overhead and bushbirds such as White-breasted Woodswallow, Tawny Grassbird and Red-browed Finch were plentiful. 

White-throated Needletail
To sum things up, the future is looking bright. The southern sector of the wetland remains high and dry, however. Hopefully Unitywater will reopen the remaining floodgates before too long so the site is fully restored. Another problem is the ongoing presence of foxes and feral dogs; the carcasses of several waterbirds, including a Black-necked Stork, have been found at the site. Note there is not yet public access to the wetland; only observers participating in the BirdLife surveys are allowed entry on dates approved in advance by Unitywater. Public assurances that the site will be opened eventually to the public have been given repeatedly by Unitywater but no timeframe has been set.

White-breasted Woodswallow

Friday, 16 November 2018

Camping at Tin Can Bay November 2018

Black Bittern

An excellent haul of birds during a three-day camp-out to Tin Can Bay included Black Bittern, Radjah Shelduck, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Sanderling, Eastern Ground-Parrot, Little Bronze Cuckoo and Shining Flycatcher. We camped at the Tin Can Bay Holiday Park in Trevally Street; when we were last here in 2013 we were impressed with the place. Out the back of the van we had Little Bronze Cuckoo after setting up – a good start.

Little Bronze Cuckoo
In the afternoon I visited the little-known shorebird roost at high tide at Cooloola Cove, about 1km along the foreshore north of the end of Bayside Road; look for a track through fence posts inland a short distance to the tidal flats. The first bird I saw was a Broad-billed Sandpiper on the water edge. It was joined by a smattering of Red-necked Stint, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Red-capped Plover.

Broad-billed Sandpiper with Red-necked Stints

Broad-billed Sandpiper

I walked around the end of the inlet to the main body of shorebirds on the northern shore. Here I found a single Grey Plover among large numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit, Eastern Curlew, Great Knot and Lesser Sand-Plover. A single Black-tailed Godwit was also present.

Grey Plover with Eastern Curlew

Grey Plover

Great Knot

Lesser Sand Plover
Back at the caravan park, a couple of Lewin's Rail were vocal in the swampy vegetation but failed to show. We were very surprised to see three Radjah Shelduck strutting between the caravans, obliviously tame and looking for hand-outs. Locals told us they were regular visitors to the park and had been resident around Tin Can Bay for several years, nesting on the golf course nearby. I visited the golf course and found four shelducks by the main pond. As I approached, they immediately walked towards me, anticipating a feed. There are a couple of ebird records of the species from Tin Can Bay but I was not aware they were resident - probably the only site in South-East Queensland where that is the case. Bush Stone-Curlew and Southern Boobook were calling at the caravan park at night.

Radjah Shelduck

Radjah Shelduck
Early in the morning I was off to the traditional “Thomas & Thomas” wallum heathland site in the Cooloola section of the Great Sandy World Heritage Area. I saw a couple of Common Bronzewings on the way in and later heard a Brush Bronzewing near the Rainbow Beach road turnoff from the Tin Can Bay Road. I flushed two Eastern Ground Parrot from the heath and was fortunate to snare a couple of record shots.

Eastern Ground Parrot

Eastern Ground Parrot
Lewin's Rail was again vocal here but not showing and a flock of White-throated Needletail hawked over the heath, where Tawny Grassbird was common.

Tawny Grassbird

White-throated Needletail
I moved on to Inskip Point where I quickly connected with a Beach Stone-Curlew at its usual hang-out before walking out to the point. 

Beach Stone-Curlew
Here I saw two Sanderlings busily working the shoreline in the company of a solitary Red-necked Stint and a Red-capped Plover.

Sanderling with Red-necked Stint & Red-capped Plover

The following day I took to the kayak for a 2km paddle up Snapper Creek in Tin Can Bay to a spot where I briefly saw Black Bittern five years ago. I saw five Shining Flycatchers without much trouble; they clearly are not uncommon here.

Shining Flycatcher
Then I heard a Black Bittern growling in the mangroves in response to flycatcher playback. An adult bittern flew over the channel to the mangroves opposite before flying back to its original position. I've long wanted to photograph this elusive species and the encounter was doubly satisfying because the bittern was the 300th species I'd photographed in the Sunshine Coast region this year (more on that later).

Black Bittern
We visited the wharf on Tin Can Bay's foreshore where visiting Australian Humpback Dolphin are fed every morning. Just a single male turned up during our visit. This show is rapidly becoming an international tourism drawcard; many foreign tourists were among the crowd.

Australian Humpback Dolphin

Australian Humpback Dolphin 

Monday, 12 November 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic November 2018

Providence Petrel

We departed Mooloolaba Marina at 6.25am on Sunday November 11, 2018 under sunny skies with an unusually cool south-easterly (for this time of year) that kept up for the rest of the day at 10-15 knots. As we headed east we encountered a few small groups of migrating Short-tailed Shearwaters heading south and several Wedge-tailed Shearwaters before coming across an unusual congregation of four Pomarine Jaegers over the Barwon Banks.

Pomarine Jaeger flock
We stopped over the shelf at 9am in 600m, 32 nautical miles offshore (26.42.645 S; 153.42.689E), where we began laying a berley trail. A mild swell of about a metre and a small chop in the sea with steady winds made for pleasant conditions. We saw our first Providence Petrel shortly before stopping and quite a few were about out there, although it is getting late in the year for this species.

Providence Petrel
We had a new berley mix with extra tuna oil and finely chopped chicken skins that float well. We soon had a good slick behind the boat which was checked out by the odd Wilson's Storm-Petrel. The birds generally however did not appear to be hungry.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel
We saw more Short-tailed and Wedge-tailed shearwaters as the morning progressed and a Sooty Tern turned up.

Short-tailed Shearwater

Sooty Tern
We had just two Tahiti Petrels for the day, a surprisingly small tally. Also of interest was the very small number of Crested Terns.

Tahiti Petrel
Another Pomarine Jaeger showed before we turned around at 12.30pm after drifting 4 nautical miles to 350m. We stopped a couple of times on the way back to try our luck. We had a couple of Brown Boobies perched atop a trawler and a single Flesh-footed Shearwater, along with more Short-tailed and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. We returned to the marina at 3.25pm.

Brown Booby
PARTICIPANTS: Paul Beer (skipper), Zoe Williams (deckhand), Greg Roberts (organiser),
Louis Backstrom, Margie Baker, Tony Baker, Jane Cooksley, Jo Culican, Robyn Duff, Cecile Espigole, Paul Fraser, Richard Fuller, John Gunning, Nikolas Haass, Christian Haass, James Hermans, Andy Jensen, Sel Kerans, James Martin, William Price, Trevor Ross, Esme Ross, Raja Stephenson, Carolyn Stewart.

SPECIES: TOTAL (Maximum at one time)

Providence Petrel 25 (4)
Tahiti Petrel 2 (1)
Short-tailed Shearwater 80 (20)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 30 (3)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 1 (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 12 (3)
Brown Booby 2 (2)
Pomarine Jaeger 5 (1)
Sooty Tern 1 (1)
Crested Term 2 (1)

Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphin 3 (2)