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, 20 February 2019

Changes in status of South-east Queensland birds over 40 years – Part 5 , lyrebirds to emu-wren

Southern Emu-wren

This is the fifth post demonstrating changes in the status and distribution of birds in South-East Queensland over 40 years between 1979 – when my booklet, The Birds of South-East Queensland, was published - and 2019. Some changes are doubtlessly influenced by an increased number of observers and technological advances (especially with playback) but many can not be explained by these factors. The list covers only those species where a significant change has been noted over the intervening period. See here for Part 1 (emu to storm-petrels) and here for Part 2 (boobies to hawks); Part 3 (brush-turkey to terns) is here; Part 4 (pigeons to nightjars) can be found here.

Albert's Lyrebird. Described as “moderately common” and localised in 1979, it is perhaps better regarded as uncommon today. Its distribution remains unchanged. A small, isolated population continues to hang on at Mt Tamborine against expectations. The bird is otherwise restricted to the upland rainforests of the McPherson and Great Dividing ranges. I commented in 1979 that there was “considerable evidence” suggesting the species once occurred in the Blackall Range in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. There is today a good deal more scepticism about that evidence. With extensive areas of suitable habitat remaining, especially in the adjoining Conondale Range, it is difficult to accept that the species would not still be present, had it occurred in the region historically.

White-backed Swallow
White-backed Swallow. This bird was “uncommon” in 1979 but known to nest annually in several places, including along the Brisbane River. Today it could better be described as a rare visitor; it no longer nests at sites it had been using for many years.

Russet-tailed Thrush
Bassian Thrush & Russet-tailed Thrush. In 1979 these birds were not recognised as separate species. Bassian Thrush is an uncommon resident in rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest in the higher parts of the McPherson and Great Dividing ranges. Russet-tailed Thrush is a common resident of rainforest throughout the region but is absent from the higher parts of the McPherson and Great Dividing ranges; it undertakes some movement to lowland scrubs in winter. There is a narrow band of overlap between the two species. Reports of Bassian Thrush from Mt Glorious in the D'Aguilar Range are contested.

Hooded Robin
Hooded Robin. Described as “uncommon” in 1979 and known from several scattered areas throughout the region. It appears to have declined, probably due to destruction of its open woodland habitat, and today could be considered rare in SEQ except in the Granite Belt, where it is uncommon.

Olive Whistler
Olive Whistler. This species in 1979 was “rare” and confined to the highest parts of the McPherson Range. That continues to be the case but it clearly has declined along with several other species that reach their northern distributional limit in South-East Queensland. While always scarce, Olive Whistler would once be found reliably during a visit, for instance, to Mt Bithongabel. That's not the case anymore; years have gone by without a sighting. While the bird has been recorded in recent months, its numbers must be perilously low.

White-eared Monarch
White-eared Monarch. In 1979 it was considered “uncommon to rare”. We now know it to be more numerous than was thought previously. It can be described as moderately common to uncommon, primarily in lowland rainforest and vine scrub.

Satin Flycatcher. In 1979 it was described as an “uncommon” summer visitor. The species in fact occurs in the region as a scarce transitional visitor during its annual migration to and from the south-eastern states.

Shining Flycatcher
Shining Flycatcher. It was thought to be “rare” in 1979, with sightings from the Noosa River, Bribie Island and Fraser Island. It is known now to be a moderately common to uncommon resident in mangroves as far south of Pumicestone Passage. It is a scarce visitor south of Bribie Island. It may be one of several northern species to have extended its range southwards.

Spotted Quail-thrush. This species was described as “uncommon” in 1979. It is perhaps better considered rare these days. While it continues to occupy sites near Brisbane where it occurred 40 years ago, it has inexplicably vanished from other places, especially around the Sunshine Coast and hinterland.

Spotted Quail-thrush
Grey-crowned Babbler. Thought to be “moderately common” in 1979, this is another species that has suffered a population decline, probably due to destruction of its open woodland habitat. It could be regarded today generally as uncommon; it no longer occurs in many of its former haunts.

Superb Fairy-wren. Considered in 1979 to be “moderately common”, occurring as far north as Eidsvold. The species has increased in urban areas around Brisbane and the Gold Coast, where it is common. While the bird occurs throughout western parts of the region north of Brisbane, it is oddly absent from the coast and hinterland north of the city.

Grey-crowned Babbler
Southern Emu-wren. In 1979 it was “rare” and known only from the coastal heaths of the Noosa Plain, Cooloola. That hasn't changed. What has changed is that the birds are no longer threatened with plans to destroy the heath for pine plantations, as was the case in 1979; its habitat is now World Heritage-listed national park. Notwithstanding the presence of plenty of suitable habitat, the bird has not been recorded elsewhere in South-East Queensland. A distance of about 400km separates the Cooloola birds from the nearest population to the south, at Evans Head in NSW.

Superb Fairywren

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

New England National Park - February 2019

Spot-tailed Quoll

We had a pleasant camp-out by the Styx River, at the entrance to New England National Park, in September 2015. This time we opted for a four-night stay in The Residence, one of two very reasonably priced lodgings operated by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service at Banksia Point, 1km before Pt Lookout in the national park. It's a beautiful spot, with the lodgings set amid a glorious assortment of Nothofagus trees, wet sclerophyll forest and montane heath.

Nothofagus forest, Banksia Point

The Residence, Banksia Point
Our priority was to find a Spot-tailed Quoll. This species is known to visit the lodgings in search of hand-outs but a sighting is by no means guaranteed. Entries in the visitors' book signalled it is not encountered far more often than it is. We looked hard, day and night, but did not see a quoll until the last morning as we were preparing to depart, when a large male appeared on the verandah.

Spot-tailed Quoll
The animal was skittish and soon disappeared under the verandah floorboards. Eventually it reappeared and climbed a few metres to the fork of a tree, where it sat nonchalantly for another half-hour or so, evidently hoping for a feed, until we left. This was a thrill as it's only the third time I've encountered Spot-tailed Quoll in the wild (the other sites being near Boonoo Boonoo in NSW and Mt Bithongabel in Lamington National Park, Queensland).

Spot-tailed Quoll under verandah
Worryingly, however, this quoll had a clearly dislocated lower jaw. How this injury came about is anyone's guess: it could have been injured in a fight with another quoll, hit by a car, or kicked by someone it approached too closely. I've written to the NSW NPWS suggesting they consider veterinary treatment for the animal.

Spot-tailed Quoll
The second stand-out critter for the area was Superb Lyrebird. The lyrebird is common here and largely indifferent to people. In light rain or mist (we had a mix of fine and damp weather) it will patrol the open areas around the lodgings. Two males were displaying near the house during our visit; this would be the beginning of the nesting season. One bird in particular was quite approachable and I managed a short video and a few images of it displaying - something I've tried without success to do in the past.

Superb Lyrebird

Superb Lyrebird display
Superb Lyrebird display
Flame Robin is another nice bird that's quite common in the area. They were about the lodgings and up the road at Pt Lookout.

Flame Robin
Olive Whistler was heard a few times and one bird was seen briefly skulking in the undergrowth. The Pt Lookout area was previously a major site for Rufous Scrubbird, but I'm not aware of any records for many years. During this visit there was not a whisper. It's curious that Olive Whistler has largely disappeared from higher parts of Lamington (Qld) and Border Ranges (NSW) national parks, where they were sympatric with the scrubbird. Yet the scrubbirds are still at these sites – the reverse of the situation in New England National Park.

Olive Whistler

We went downhill from Banksia Point to the Styx River where we were surprised to flush a female Red-chested Buttonquail twice from well-grassed open woodland. Less surprising but always nice to see were a party of Red-browed Treecreepers nearby in a patch of thick forest. Striated Thornbills were foraging in the same area and a couple of Forest Ravens were seen.

Red-browed Treecreeper

Striated Thornbill
Other critters about the lodgings included Bassian Thrush (common), Swamp Wallaby and Eastern Water Skink.

Bassian Thrush

Eastern Water Skink

Swamp Wallaby
On our way home we checked out the delightful Ebor Falls in Guy Fawkes National Park.

Ebor Falls

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Remaking Nature - A story about Yandina Creek Wetland

Yandina Creek Wetland looking towards Mt Coolum
Brisbane naturalist and journalist Andrew Stafford has written a fine piece, Remaking Nature - Novel strategies in modified landscapes, for the current edition of Griffith University's highly regarded Griffith Review. Sections of the story relating to the Yandina Creek Wetland are reproduced in this post. See here for the full transcript of Andrew's piece, which also discusses how species such as Australasian Bittern and Powerful Owl can benefit from human interaction.

Yandina Creek Wetland
IN LATE 2014, Greg Roberts, a semi-retired journalist, was bird-watching along River Road in his local patch of Yandina on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. It was an area he thought he was familiar with. He’d known the freshwater wetlands near the eastern edge of the road to be a haven for a number of threatened species for two years, and had been lobbying the local council for its protection.

One day in November he ventured beyond the road and into the adjoining private land to survey the full extent of the wetlands. He was amazed by what he found. "Flocks of migratory shorebirds flew about; a pair of stately black-necked storks strutted their stuff; scores of egrets, spoonbills, pelicans and other waterbirds graced the horizon in every direction," he wrote on his blog

Roberts was especially struck by the shorebirds. There were large numbers of Latham’s snipe, a Japanese migrant, as well as the similar but unrelated, and endangered, Australian painted snipe. There was also the once abundant curlew sandpiper: a bird that breeds in Siberia, now critically endangered due to habitat destruction along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, a migration passage stretching from Russia and Alaska to Tasmania and New Zealand. There were aquatic mammals such as the rakali, or water rat, and terrestrial ones including the swamp rat. Along with the thousands of smaller birds, they provided abundant prey for a variety of raptors: common species like black and whistling kites, and scarcer ones including spotted harriers, grey goshawks and peregrine falcons. At night, the rare eastern grass owl patrolled the verges of the marsh.

Roberts was a naturalist of repute. In a Brisbane share house in 1974, he’d borne witness to the bizarre breeding biology of a curious, recently discovered frog, a female of which he and some friends kept in an aquarium. One evening, to their astonishment, the frog began vomiting live, fully developed baby frogs from its mouth: it had incubated them in its stomach. The southern gastric brooding frog is now extinct (as is its northern congener). The southern gastric brooding frog had lived under rocks along the rainforest streams of the Conondale Range in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

Latham's Snipe
In 1976, Roberts rediscovered the isolated southern race of the nocturnal and cryptic marbled frogmouth, a bird long feared extinct, in the same area. At the height of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s development-mad rule of Queensland, Roberts became a player in the fight to protect the ranges from logging.

In 2015, Roberts stepped up his campaign to save the Yandina Creek Wetlands. Having worked for decades in the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Bulletin and The Australian, he knew how to connect with stakeholders, politicians and the media. But whereas the Conondale Ranges featured some of the best remaining subtropical rainforest in Queensland, the boggy river flats along the Maroochy River was no wilderness. Moreover, it was privately owned. The land had been occupied by cane farmers before it was sold to developers in the mid-2000s, after the Nambour sugar mill shut down.

A few years later, the farm’s ageing floodgates failed, inundating the area with tidal water from the river and Yandina Creek. The accidental result was a refuge for native and migratory birds and other animals whose habitat elsewhere on the Sunshine Coast had mostly been destroyed. It was a classic example of a novel ecosystem: a heavily human-modified landscape that nonetheless retained significant natural environmental value. The failure of the floodgates meant that the land returned to something like what it might have looked like before sugarcane was planted, creating what Roberts said was one of the best wetlands in Queensland, with a variety of sedges, grasslands, deep pools, mudflats and mangroves.

Technically, novel habitats can be defined as almost anything altered by human hands, whether through ingenuity or wanton destruction. The Anthropocene has ushered in Earth’s sixth mass extinction, an event the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal called a "biological annihilation"" constituting a threat to human civilisation. Almost half of 177 mammal species surveyed had lost 80 per cent of their habitat between 1900 and 2015. The fauna and flora most vulnerable to extinction through human land usage and occupation are the specialists: obviously, species that occupy limited ecological niches are the most vulnerable to habitat loss or disturbance. But others are doing their best to hang on, some by adapting as best (and as quickly) as they can to whatever landscape, whether modified or natural, enables them to find enough food, shelter and opportunities to breed.

Roberts’ initial proposal to the Sunshine Coast Council that the land be acquired and protected had already been rejected. He then approached Queensland’s Minister for Environment and Heritage Steven Miles and then federal environment minister Greg Hunt, arguing that threatened species were protected under state and federal laws, with migratory shorebirds being afforded additional support by Australia’s membership of the East Asian– Australasian Flyway Partnership. Miles and Hunt were unenthusiastic. To them, Roberts was trying to convince them of the aesthetic and environmental values of a low-lying swamp. They declined to intervene, on the grounds that the wetland was human modified.

In July 2015, the floodgates were repaired, preventing tidal inflows. Within days, the swamp had been drained, leaving hundreds of waterbirds, many of them nesting, literally high, dry and in many cases dying. The story of the Yandina Creek Wetlands is an environmental parable. There are parallels elsewhere.

Yandina Creek Wetland
GREG ROBERTS DIDN’T give up on his fight to preserve the Yandina wetlands after their drainage in 2015. He found an ally in Peter Wellington, the speaker of the Queensland parliament in Annastacia Palaszczuk’s minority government. Steven Miles was persuaded to visit the site in person. Roberts also wrote a series of features for his former employer The Australian, not normally known for its environmental advocacy. He compiled a mailing list, and community groups – from national bodies like BirdLife Australia to local ones including the Sunshine Coast Environment Council – joined the campaign. Other media organisations jumped on board.

The landowners, who had leased the property back to cane farmers to repair the floodgates with the intention of establishing continued use, eventually signalled a willingness to negotiate with the government. The game changer was the involvement of Unitywater, chaired by former Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley, who became aware of the site via BirdLife Australia. Unitywater, responsible for water supply and sewage on the Sunshine Coast, found that by reopening the gates, nutrients from the Maroochy River would be released into the wetland, offsetting releases by the local sewage treatment plant, while providing rich pickings for birds.

The landowners sold the property to Unitywater for $4 million in August 2016. The Yandina Creek Wetlands were officially opened in November 2017. Unitywater said that it purchased the 191-hectare site as a "green alternative to upgrading sewage treatment plants in the area", with Steven Miles saying the wetlands would act as a natural filter, removing over five tonnes of nitrogen from the Maroochy River per year.

In May 2018, the floodgates at the northern end of the wetlands were reopened for the first time since December 2015. Birdlife Southern Queensland volunteers will be undertaking quarterly surveys at the site for the next three years. As the Maroochy River tide flows back in over summer, hopefully the birds – many of them returning from Siberia – will return with it, along with everything that sustains them.  

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Changes in status of South-East Queensland Birds over 40 years – Part 4, pigeons to nightjars

Marbled Frogmouth

This is the fourth post demonstrating changes in the status and distribution of birds in South-East Queensland over 40 years between 1979 - when my booklet The Birds of South-East Queensland was published – and 2019. The list covers only those species where a significant change has been noted over the intervening period. Some changes are doubtlessly influenced by an increased number of observers and technological advances (especially with playback) but many can not be explained by these factors. See here for Part 1 (emu to storm-petrels) and here for Part 2 (boobies to hawks); Part 3 (brush-turkey to terns) is here.

Superb Fruit-Dove
Superb Fruit-Dove. Thought to be “rare” in 1979 and recorded from just five sites, it continues to be considered scarce but is known now to be a summer visitor. It is recorded from several other localities, especially around the Sunshine Coast where it is a regular visitor in small numbers.

White-headed Pigeon
White-headed Pigeon. Considered “uncommon” in 1979, it could now be described as moderately common generally and common locally. It seems to have benefited from an abundance of introduced camphor laurel trees and has become a frequent visitor to bird feeders.

Brush Bronzewing
Brush Bronzewing. It is described as “rare, possibly vagrant” in 1979: known from two records in Cooloola and one on Fraser Island. It is now known to be a scarce resident but has not been recorded beyond these two sites (known collectively today as the Great Sandy World Heritage Area) despite an abundance of seemingly suitable habitat elsewhere.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. This species was thought to be “generally rare, though uncommon and regular in northern areas” such as Gayndah and Gin Gin. It remains uncommon in the region but is now known to occur more often further south - being resident in small numbers around Gympie, for instance, and a regular visitor to the foothills of the Conondale and Jimna ranges.

Little Corella
Little Corella. Not recorded at all by 1979, it is now a common resident throughout the region. Like Galah and Crested Pigeon, it has extended its range from the inland to the coast, although for unknown reasons it took its time.

Double-eyed (Coxen's) Fig-Parrot. In 1979 it was described as “possibly extinct” with recent reports unconfirmed. That could be downgraded to “probably extinct” today with recent records still unconfirmed. Many reports of sightings are accepted as valid by Queensland Government authorities that should know better. As I have reported elsewhere, not a single one of these records has been corroborated by follow-up sightings, a photograph, specimen or sound-recording. It is remotely possible (but unlikely in my view) that it survives in very small numbers.

Eastern Ground Parrot
Eastern Ground Parrot. Its status of “rare” remains essentially unchanged from 1979 but it is now extinct in two localities – Calounda and Beerwah – where it was present but rapidly declining at that time. It is hanging on in very small numbers at a couple of other sites on the Sunshine Coast but its stronghold remains further north in the Great Sandy World Heritage Area, especially the Noosa Plain of Cooloola. In 1979, that area was threatened by the planned expansion of introduced Pinus plantations; happily that move was repelled and the Noosa Plain is protected these days as national park.

Crimson Rosella
Crimson Rosella. This was described as “common” in 1979 in rainforest and wet sclerophyll forest. It remains common today but only locally at higher altitudes. It is today much more uncommon than previously in low-lying sites such as the foothills of the Conondale and Blackall ranges. I've suggested this is one of a number of species whose status and distribution in the region may be influenced by climate change.

Paradise Parrot. Described as “possibly extinct” in 1979, it can safely and regrettably today be deemed extinct. I reported back then that the last published observation was in 1927 in the upper Burnett. I've since reported that the last authentic sighting was in fact by Eric Zillmann in 1938 in the Gin Gin area of the Burnett Valley.

Channel-billed Cuckoo
Channel-billed Cuckoo. It was considered “moderately common” as a summer visitor in 1979 but can fairly be regarded as common today; its numbers have clearly increased.

Powerful Owl
Powerful Owl. The species was thought to be “rare” in 1979, recorded from heavily forested areas and streamside thickets. It continues to be regarded as scarce but is now known to be resident in small numbers in the suburbs of Brisbane, where it had previously not been recorded.

Southern Boobook
Southern Boobook. This was “common” in 1979 and while these days it is not uncommon, there is little doubt that numbers are substantially reduced. This may be due to rodenticides, which have impacted populations elsewhere.

Masked Owl
Masked Owl. It was considered “rare” in 1979 in open forest and lightly-wooded country. While it frequents woodland in areas such as the Brisbane Valley, we now know that its favoured haunts are the wet sclerophyll and tall open forests of the region's mountain ranges, where it is uncommon.

Marbled Frogmouth. In 1979 it was thought to be “rare” in the rainforests of the Conondale Range. This was relatively not long after I rediscovered the plumiferus race of the species in the Conondale Range in 1976. It can best be described as uncommon today though moderately common in suitable habitat. It is known also from various sites extending from the McPherson Range in the south to Cooloola in the north.

Large-tailed Nightjar. It was also considered “rare” in 1979 and confined to northern areas – Gin Gin, Bundaberg and “probably” Fraser Island. It continues to be regarded as scarce but is known to occur further south to Rainbow Beach, Cooloola and more recently, the Sunshine Coast.

Large-tailed Nightjar