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.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Time to double the size of Yandina Creek Wetland

Red Fox at Yandina Creek Wetland
It has been close to 12 months since Unitywater reopened some floodgates connecting the Yandina Creek Wetland to the tidal of waters of Yandina Creek and the Maroochy River. The move has allowed half the once flourishing wetland on the Sunshine Coast to be restored.

Last weekend, BirdLife Australia surveys confirmed that birds are returning to the site in numbers. A pair of Black-necked Storks appears to have set up residence. Spotless Crakes are quite common in the reed beds. Small flocks of migratory Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were among species recorded along with some birds in the images in this blog post.

Black-necked Stork pair
This is an excellent development. Many thought the wetland was lost forever when it was drained by its former owners in 2015, but Unitywater's acquisition of the 200-hectare site in August 2016 for its nutrient offset program was a turning point.

Spotless Crake
However, only the northern-most gates along Yandina Creek are reopened, so only the northern half of the site is replenished. The southern half remains high and dry, almost four years after it was drained. Unitywater has been unsettled by a small number of residents along River Road who complain that  restoring the wetland means they will suffer from hordes of mosquitoes.

Yandina Creek Wetland - northern half nicely replenished 

Yandina Creek Wetland - southern half is high and dry
The residents' complaints ignore the fact that mosquitoes were there for many years before the wetland was drained, apparently without causing undue concern. The homes are several hundred metres away at least from the wetland and are already surrounded by tidal waterways with their attendant insects. As well, Unitywater has been undertaking environmentally friendly spraying at the wetland, which has seriously reduced mosquito numbers.

Royal Spoonbill, Australian Pelican & Pied Stilt
It would be a truly gratifying development if Unitywater was to reopen the remaining gates. The southern half  of the site was home to many of the uncommon waterbirds of the wetland and provided refuge to large numbers of Latham's Snipe and other migratory shorebirds. Instead, the area has become a desolate landscape of weeds and regrowth and importantly, a haven for the Red Fox.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Foxes have become common at the wetland and BirdLife Australia volunteers have witnessed numerous bird victims of this introduced pest. Foxes have an ideal refuge in the dry southern half of the site; their habitat would be much more restricted if the entire wetland was restored. As well, restoring the whole wetland would give the birds a greater area in which to forage and roost.

Several pairs of Black Swan are back
My observations suggest that water levels in the replenished northern half of the wetland are significantly higher than they were prior to the 2015 draining, with reduced areas of exposed mod and other bird-friendly habitat. It seems likely that restoring the southern half will allow excess water to spread over the site more evenly.

Hopefully Unitywater, perhaps in conjunction with the Sunshine Coast Council, will embark on a much-needed fox eradication program in addition to restoring all the wetland to its former glory.

Sacred Kingfisher


Monday, 25 March 2019

Sunshine Coast Pelagic March 2019

Common Noddy

We departed Mooloolaba Marina at 6.45am on Sunday March 24, 2019 with a degree of trepidation as the forecast of a 10knot north-westerly did not bode well. We soon encountered good numbers of birds close inshore, however. Among them were substantial flocks of Common Terns, evidently attracted to schools of bait fish.

Common Tern
Quite a few Little Terns, Hutton's Shearwaters and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were among the flocks and we picked up at least two Black Noddies and two Brown Noddies as well. We spotted three Brown Boobies perched atop a fishing trawler.

Black Noddy

Brown Noddy
After spending more time than usual inshore, we heading east to beyond the shelf and began laying a berley trail 31 nautical miles offshore in 400m. A mild swell of under 1m and a gentle W-NW breeze of 10knots was the order of the day, pretty much as predicted. Very little was about, with a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and the occasional Flesh-footed Shearwater checking out the boat.

Flesh-footed Shearwater
A Tahiti Petrel appeared, followed by another a little later. A Bronze Whaler shark was a welcome visitor. With so little about we decided to turn around at 12.10pm and try our luck closer to shore.

Bronze Whaler

Tahiti Petrel
We saw a Pomarine Jaeger and a Brown Booby in flight as we headed west.

Brown Booby

Pomarine Jaeger
As we approached the coast the tern flocks reappeared, albeit in smaller numbers than in the morning. Brown Noddy and Hutton's Shearwater were again in the mix, along with a few White-winged Terns. A Green Turtle showed nicely if briefly. The wind picked up sharply to 15 knots in the afternoon but from the same direction. We returned to the marina at 3.30pm.

Hutton's Shearwater
PARTICIPANTS: Toby Imhoff (skipper), Greg Roberts (organiser), Eric Anderson, Louis Backstrom, Margie Baker, Tony Baker, Sarah Beavis, Luke Bennett, Judy Coles, Graeme Collum, Richard Fuller, Nikolas Haass, Catherine Hirsch, Mary Hynes, Bianca Keys, Sue Lee, James Martin, Maggie Overend, Julie Sarna, Raja Stephenson, Marie Tarrant, Brad Woodworth, Matt Wright, Jasmine Zeleny.

SPECIES: Total (Max number at one time)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 80 (10)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 2 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 50 (15)
Tahiti Petrel 2 (1)
Brown Booby 2 (1)
Pomarine Jaeger 1
Crested Tern 200 (80)
Common Tern 600 (300)
White-winged Tern 6 (4)
Little Tern 10 (4)
Common Noddy 4 (1)
Black Noddy 2 (2)

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (4)

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Where to now for the Night Parrot?

Night Parrot (Image by John Young)
Updated 29 March 2019

Management plans to bring the Night Parrot back from the brink will need to be revamped and the birding community is set to be deeply divided after Australia's biggest private conservation group dismissed a raft of records of the critically endangered bird claimed by north Queensland naturalist John Young.

The move by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Young's former employer, means authorities will be forced to consider whether the Night Parrot may be restricted to tiny, remnant populations in the Pullen Pullen Reserve - owned by Bush Heritage Australia in Queensland's Channel Country - and two widely separated sites in Western Australia.

Young obtained the first photographs of the Night Parrot in 2013 at Pullen Pullen - before the property was acquired by BHA - on what was then the Brighton Downs cattle holding. His discovery was of international significance; for more than a century, the species was known from just a handful of sightings and separate findings of two dead birds.

Young eventually fell out with BHA and his co-researcher on Pullen Pullen, Steve Murphy. Young was hired in 2016 by the AWC to continue researching the parrot in Diamantina National Park, which adjoins Pullen Pullen. Young subsequently reported finding several nests and egg clutches of the parrot in the park along with numerous sound and sight recordings. He also reported the Night Parrot from Goneaway National Park, east of Diamantina, and from Kalamurina, an AWC-owned property in northern South Australia.

Last year, Canberra scientist Penny Olsen suggested in her controversial book, Night Parrot, that the parrot photographed by Young in 2013 had an injured wing and was set up for a staged photographic session, perhaps in an enclosure. Young and fellow naturalist John Stewart, who was with him at the time, insisted the bird had not been captured. They indicated they were surprised it did not fly off at the time, instead allowing numerous photographs and video footage to be obtained of the bird on the ground. Young tells supporters that the parrot may have been injured, which would explain its reluctance or inability to fly.

Last year, the National Audubon Society in the United States published a lengthy article on John Young and the Night Parrot. An image of the 2013 parrot, provided by Young, showed a portion of wire netting in one corner, prompting critics to claim that he had, after all, caught the bird and stage-managed photographs. Young insists to supporters that the netting was a corner of a cat trap that was strategically placed between spinifex tussocks to prevent the parrot from scurrying away while photographs were taken.

John Young
Amid a furore on social media as critics and supporters of Young battled it out over who was telling the truth, Young resigned from the AWC last September. His supporters say he was sacked. The organisation insists he left of his own accord, adding: “John Young was not dismissed. He offered his resignation numerous times and AWC finally accepted.”

Young's critics upped the ante by circulating fresh allegations against Young on social media. Young had claimed in 2017 to have discovered the Night Parrot at Kalamurina. A camera trap at the site captured an image of a bird that was thought to be a Night Parrot in 2016. A feather found a year later in a Zebra Finch nest by Young, subsequently sent to the South Australian Museum, was said to be confirmation of the parrot's presence at Kalamurina. However, critics raised doubts about the provenance of the feather.

A Night Parrot call from an acoustic monitor at the site in 2017 was downloaded and published on the AWC website. Critics pointed out that the recording was identical to that of a bird found in the East Murchison area of Western Australia earlier that year. 

Young's critics also cast doubt on the naturalist's many reports of the species from at least seven sites in Diamantina National Park by turning their attention to photographs published on the AWC website. A clutch of eggs from one nest was asserted to be fake by some, including Olsen, and questions were raised about whether a nest in another photograph was that of a Night Parrot.

The AWC responded by establishing an inquiry into the claims by a panel of four scientists: Peter Menkorst (chair), James Fitzsimons, Richard Loyn and John Woinarski. The panel did not investigate the wire netting in the 2013 photograph because that event preceded Young's employment by the AWC. The results of that investigation are now revealed.

In relation to Kalamurina, the panel found that the feather lodged with the South Australian Museum was not the same feather photographed in the finch nest, adding: “Consequently, the panel concluded that the feather provided significant but, given some unresolved issues, not definitive evidence of Night Parrots at the site.” Young tells supporters the Zebra Finch feather was genuine and that it was sent to the AWC and forwarded from there to the museum; he has no explanation for why the wrong feather was dispatched to Adelaide.

The panel confirmed that the recording was the result of playback of publicly available recordings of the Western Australian birds. The panel concluded: “At present, there is no reliable acoustic evidence for the presence of Night Parrots on Kalamurina. This conclusion may change as results from all deployed acoustic recorders are downloaded and analysed.” That process is continuing. Young tells supporters he may have played a recording of the WA call in the field at Kalamurina, which would have been picked up by the monitor, but he has no recollection of doing so.

Potential Night Parrot habitat in Diamantina National Park
Referring to claims about nests and eggs, the panel noted there were “very few Night Parrot nests and eggs ever sighted as a basis for comparison”. The claim about false eggs was referred to nine ornithologists with “wide experience on the nests and eggs of Australian birds”, along with a long-term poultry farmer and a distinguished bird veterinarian. Although not unanimous, a majority of those approached concluded that the “observable physical characteristics of the eggs in one nest were not consistent with natural eggs”.

The eggs in two other photographs were small parrot eggs and “not inconsistent” with the eggs of the Night Parrot, but did “not constitute robust evidence of the presence of breeding Night Parrots”. The panel found the nests were inconsistent in structure and placement, with one nest being “substantially different” to the few confirmed nests. The report of that nest should therefore be regarded as unconfirmed until a larger number of nests are found, the panel found, to achieve a greater understanding of the variability in nest structure and positioning. Young insists to supporters that all his nest and egg records are genuine and that we would never have photographed fake eggs or manufactured a nest.

The AWC responded to the findings by wiping all of Young's parrot reports from its records. AWC chief executive officer Tim Allard said: “Due to the findings, AWC is retracting records of the Night Parrot published by AWC. The methods used in this work were not consistent with AWC’s usual procedures... We are disappointed that our processes in relation to this work were not sufficient, and we are committed to ensuring that all of our staff implement and comply with appropriate standards for recording significant scientific data.”

However, the AWC is ditching not just the parrot records but any other material gathered by Young, including the reported finding of nests and eggs of the extremely rare Buff-breasted Buttonquail in north Queensland.

Where to now? Sight and sound records of the species in Diamantina National Park reported by Young, who provided a statement to the panel, were corroborated by a number of independent observers in the field. The records are now discarded, although the bird was reported in the park by Murphy, Young's former research colleague, and one of the two dead birds came from there.

It was in response to Young's records that the Queensland Government declared half the vast 500,000-hectare park off-limits to the public, threatening jail sentences and hefty fines for anyone entering its eastern sector. The state government has yet to indicate if it will revoke this declaration, which arguably will hinder further searches, in light of the AWC findings. The AWC will not say if it has passed those findings on to Queensland authorities with the self-evident recommendation that access restrictions in Diamantina National Park can now be lifted. 

Dismissed also are records of the parrot that Young claimed further east in Goneaway National Park, again in the company of other observers.  Knowledge of what could be critically important insurance populations of the species is extinguished. Banished also are the reports from South Australia. The AWC has given no indication it is prepared to resume Night Parrot research.

Just as many were hoping the Night Parrot may be surviving in better shape than feared, the result of the AWC probe is to effectively assert that the bird's confirmed existence may not extend beyond Pullen Pullen - where fewer than 30 birds occur - and the two Western Australian sites, where even fewer birds are known. Birds at one of the those sites, in the East Murchison, disappeared after one was netted and fitted with a transmitter by a team headed by Night Parrot Recovery Team chief Allan Burbidge in 2017. Young and his supporters question why that incident was not subject to investigation.

North Queensland naturalist Lloyd Nielsen, who has worked extensively in the field with Young, says he has no doubt about the integrity of his friend's records. “I think it's shameful and very disappointing that all that work has been discarded,” Nielsen says. “These scientists might be experts in their own field but when it comes to finding these things in the field, they've got to rely on people like John. It's crazy to just drop those records. He is one of the best field naturalists that this country has seen.”

Retired James Cook University professor Peter Valentine, who has been in the field with Young in Diamantina National Park, criticised the AWC over the findings. “I wonder what good this will do for the Night Parrot, the supposed focus of their concern?” Valentine asks. “It is indeed disappointing but almost a foregone conclusion given the animosity towards John by some people within the ornithological world. I do not think this will do AWC any good… I am confident the Night Parrot is at Diamantina as I have the evidence of my own ears plus a full account of another person who was with John when nests and eggs were discovered. Will AWC be brave enough to admit error in the future?”

Here is the AWC's statement. This blog post was published a day before the airing on radio by the ABC of its "exclusive" report . Unfortunately, media coverage of the AWC's inquiry has generally been ill-informed and unproductive. As a result, a view is circulating in the public arena that all   records of the Night Parrot in recent years are fraudulent.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Hervey Bay-Maryborough, March 2019

Beach Stone-Curlew at The Gables

A fair haul of birds from a five-day visit to the Hervey-Bay Maryborough area on the Fraser Coast included Lesser Crested Tern, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Wandering Tattler, Beach Stone-Curlew, Black-necked Stork, Brolga, Brown Songlark, Square-tailed Kite and Shining Flycatcher.

On what has become something of an annual pilgrimage to the Fraser Coast, we camped for two nights in Maryborough and three nights at Hervey Bay. Maryborough is a good base from which to check out the shorebird roosts at Boonooroo and Maaroom, which can both be done comfortably around high tide. The first bird I saw upon arrival at Boonooroo was a Beach Stone-Curlew.

Beach Stone-Curlew at Boonooroo
Tides in south-east Queensland have been very high of late and so it was during this visit. Many of the large number of Bar-tailed Godwits were in full or partial breeding plumage. This is a reliable site for Grey Plover and about 40 birds were mixed in with the godwits and Great Knots.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Grey Plover & Bar-tailed Godwit

Grey Plover & Bar-tailed Godwit

Great Knot & Bar-tailed Godwit
At Maaroom, Bar-tailed Godwit and Great Knot were again easily the most numerous shorebirds. Among them were relatively good numbers of Curlew-Sandpipers and a few Red Knots and Black-tailed Godwits. A male Shining Flycatcher was seen in the mangroves.

Great Knot & Bar-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit (centre) & Bar-tailed Godwit

Red Knot (centre) & Great Knot

Shining Flycatcher
I checked out the grasslands along Dimond Road, Beaver Rocks, where a few Brown Songlarks were present. A Square-tailed Kite was quartering the woodland in George Furber Park, Maryborough.

Brown Songlark
At Hervey Bay, a couple of high tide roosts around Point Vernon along Charlton Esplanade – particularly around and just south of The Gables, but also the northern end of Gatakers Bay – are always work a look. I saw a Common Sandpiper at Gatakers in the same spot where I have seen one during previous visits. Wandering Tattler and Grey-tailed Tattler were together on the rocks at The Gables, where Ruddy Turnstone was in good numbers.

Common Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Wandering Tattler & Ruddy Turnstone
A Lesser Crested Tern among Crested Terns at The Gables was unexpected, especially at this time of year. Lesser Sand-Plovers were colouring up well and a few Greater Sand-Plovers were there, albeit in much smaller numbers than during previous visits. The second Beach Stone-Curlew for the trip was also seen here.

Lesser Crested Tern & Crested Tern
Lesser Sand-Plover & Ruddy Turnstone

Greater Sand-Plover
I visited Garnett's Lagoon with John Knight, another favourite hotspot. Water levels were low due to a prolonged dry spell over the Fraser Coast. Reasonable numbers of Curlew-Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint were about along with a few Marsh Sandpipers. Best of the shorebirds was a single Wood Sandpiper, seen here during previous visits.

Marsh Sandpiper & Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper
Two Black-necked Storks were feeding in different parts of the wetland – one immature and the second almost in adult plumage. Two pairs of Brolga were in the area, along with a couple of White-bellied Sea-Eagles displaying nicely. A bedraggled young Water Rat was foraging along the lagoon edge. More Brown Songlarks were seen and heard in the paddocks.

Black-necked Stork


Water Rat

White-bellied Sea-Eagle

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Changes in status of South-east Queensland birds over 40 years – Part 6, bristlebird to bowerbirds

Eastern Bristlebird

Here is the sixth and final post discussing 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. These posts cover 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; Part 5 (lyrebirds to emu-wren) is here.

Eastern Bristlebird. Listed as “rare” in 1979 and confined to montane heath and open forest glades adjacent to rainforest above 600m in the Border Ranges and at Cunningham's Gap. The bird was subsequently discovered in the mid-1980s in the Conondale Range, extending its range north. However, the Conondale Range population is now almost certainly extinct. It has also since disappeared from Cunningham's Gap and Spicer's Gap. Probably less than 20 bristlebirds survive in a couple of remote sites in the McPherson Range. Attempts to boost populations by releasing captive bred birds appear to have failed and the species is facing extinction in Queensland. Reasons for its demise include introduced predators and habitat mismanagement.

Western  Gerygone
Western Gerygone. In 1979 there was a single report from Esk which was unsubstantiated. There have since been a handful of confirmed sightings from the Lockyer Valley and the Murphys Creek area, and one bird turned up in Brisbane.

Fairy Gerygone
Fairy Gerygone. The species was considered “uncommon” in 1979 and restricted to northern parts of the region in areas such as Gin Gin and Round Hill Head. We know now that it occurs as far south as Bribie Island, with a single record from Brisbane. It is a not uncommon resident in suitable habitat around the Sunshine Coast and hinterland. This vocal gerygone would scarcely have been overlooked in these areas in the past, so it clearly has expanded its range southward.

Buff-rumped Thornbill. Thought to be “moderately common” in 1979, this is another species that likely has declined due to the destruction of its woodland habitat. It could best be regarded as uncommon and localised today.

Red-browed Treecreeper
Red-browed Treecreeper. In 1979 it was considered “moderately common” in wet sclerophyll forest at higher altitudes. Like several other birds at the northern end of their distribution in South-east Queensland, it has suffered a steep population decline; it may be the case that climate change is implicated in these declines. The treecreeper was once easy to find in the Blackall and Conondale ranges, for instance. It is now very rarely seen in that region and is gone from once reliable sites. The bird continues to frequent sites in the D'Aguilar and McPherson ranges where it has long been known but generally can be regarded today as scarce and localised.

Regent Honeyeater
Regent Honeyeater. The species was thought it to be “rare” in 1979 and that remains the case. However, while fair-sized flocks were once found occasionally in places like Storm King Dam, most records in recent years are individual vagrants in scattered sites including Ipswich, Rainbow Beach and Stanmore.

Black-throated Finch
Black-throated Finch. The race cincta was regarded as “rare” in 1979 in lightly wooded country, with records from the Gin Gin area. The bird is now almost certainly extinct in the region - another likely casualty of the clearing of woodland.

Nutmeg Mannikin
Nutmeg Mannikin. This introduced species was “common” in 1979 but it has declined significantly and is now uncommon and localised.

House Sparrow. An introduced bird that was “very common” in 1979. It remains moderately common locally these days but is much less numerous.

Common Starling. Another introduced species to have declined. It was “very common” in 1979 but is today much less numerous, being generally uncommon.

Common Mynah
Common Mynah. An introduced species that has increased substantially in numbers. It was thought to be “uncommon” in 1979, being largely restricted to northern parts of the region and the Lockyer Valley. It is today common and widespread throughout the region.

Satin Bowerbird. It was described as “common” in 1979. Although remaining moderately common at higher altitudes, today it is much less numerous in the foothills and lowlands, being scarce in many places where it was formerly common.

Satin Bowerbird