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.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Sunshine Coast Pelagic January 2018

Grey Noddy
Grey Noddy, Streaked Shearwater, Gould's Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird and sharks up close and personal were the highlights of an excellent Sunshine Coast pelagic on Sunday January 7, 2018.
We departed Mooloolaba Marina at 6.40am under sunny skies which were the order of the day with a maximum temperature of 30 C, a swell of half a metre, and a gentle easterly breeze that struggled to get beyond 5-8 knots. Normally such smooth seas would not bode well but this was one of those days when we were blessed with the delightfully unexpected.

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters
We had a few small groups of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters as we headed east with a smattering of Hutton's Shearwaters and a single Flesh-footed Shearwater among them.

Hutton's Shearwater
We weren't two-thirds of the way to the shelf, 20 nautical miles offshore, when we saw a Cookilaria-type Pteredroma petrel somewhat distantly. Luckily Chris Wiley managed a few unavoidably blurry images and we were able to confirm it as a Gould's Petrel. An excellent start to the day.

Gould's Petrel - Pic by Chris Wiley
With several delays to check out the shearwater flocks we stopped off the shelf at 9.35am, 34 nautical miles out in 350 metres (26.4034S, 153.4253E) and began laying a berley trail. It wasn't long before we saw a Tahiti Petrel, surprisingly the only one for the day.

Dusky Whaler Shark
We saw a Brown Booby distantly and a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters sailed past. A couple of Dolphin Fish and at least three Dusky Whaler sharks entertained us at the back of the boat as they snapped up the berley.

Pomarine Jaeger
A White-tailed Tropicbird, again annoyingly distant, brightened up the day as it became obvious in the late morning that the forecast 10-15 knot easterly was not going to eventuate. We had a couple of Pomarine Jaegers put in an appearance before we decided to head west, laying a second berley trail in 90 metres 20 nautical miles offshore.

Grey Noddy

Grey Noddy
Not much else turned up so we began heading back slowly, a course which proved to be highly productive. Just 12 nautical miles offshore in 50 metres we found a Grey Noddy in a feeding flock of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and were able to follow the bird for some time. This was a first for a Sunshine Coast pelagic and a lifer for quite a few.

Streaked Shearwater
Not long afterwards we spotted a Streaked Shearwater sitting on the water amid another flock of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters; another nice one under the belt.

Common Tern & White-winged Tern
As we headed back in we saw a mixed flock of Common Terns and White-winged Terns, returning to the marina at 3.45pm. Once again everyone was impressed with the comforts and utility of Crusader 1 - operated by Sunshine Coast family company Sunshine Coast Afloat - and the efforts of crew members Toby and Zoe. Elist.


Gould's Petrel 1 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 200 (60)
Flesh-footed Shewarater 1 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 9 (6)
Streaked Shearwater 1 (1)
Tahiti Petrel 1 (1)
Brown Booby 1 (1)
White-tailed Tropicbird 1 (1)
Pomarine Jaeger 3 (1)
Crested Tern 15 (3)
Grey Noddy 1 (1)
Common Tern 4 (4)
White-winged Tern 8 (8)

Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphin 6 (3)

PARTICIPANTS:  Greg Roberts (organiser),  Toby Imhoff (skipper),  Zoe Williams (deckhand), 
Margie Baker,  Tony Baker,  Scott Baker,  Sarah Beavis,  Luke Bennett,  Julian Corlet,  Ken Cross,  Phil Cross,  Jessica Drake,  Alex Ferguson,  Steve Grainger,  John Gunning,  Nikolas Haass,  Mary Hynes,  Bob James,  James Martin,  Bernie O'Keefe,  Maggie Overend,  Jim Sneddon,  Raja Stephenson,  Chris Watts,  Chris Wiley. 

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Captive Breeding Programs for Endangered Species Under Scrutiny

Western Ground Parrots - Pic by Perth Zoo

As the sun sets over Cape Arid National Park on the rugged south coast of Western Australia, the silence is broken by a flute-like cadence. A bird on the brink of extinction welcomes the night with a song of rare purity floating above an expanse of knee-high heath ablaze with wildflowers. Not at all parrot-like, this is the call of the western ground parrot, with a total world population occurring nowhere but within the boundaries of this remote national park.

The western ground parrot was once much more numerous. Its range extended historically hundreds of kilometres west and north of Cape Arid to beyond Perth. The species crumbled in the wake of habitat destruction, raging wild fires and predation from introduced foxes and cats; in recent years it has vanished from most of its remaining haunts.

Alarmed by the parrot's precipitous decline, government authorities responded with what has become a standard strategy in Australia to try to bring endangered wildlife back from the brink. A captive-breeding program was established. Wild western ground parrots were caught and transferred to Perth Zoo in the hope they would breed in captivity. Their offspring would be introduced to the wild with the aim of boosting populations; that at least was the plan.

Even more scarce than the western ground parrot is the orange-bellied parrot. The orange-bellied parrot breeds in the wild in one small area around Melaleuca in south-west Tasmania. This summer nesting season, just 19 parrots returned to Melaleuca from the annual winter migration undertaken by the species from Tasmania to the coastal salt marshes of Victoria. The species was described as “locally abundant” a century ago.

Like the western ground parrot, desperate measures are under way to boost the remnant population of orange-bellied parrots with releases from a captive-breeding program. Yet for different reasons, both programs appear doomed to fail. Critical questions are now being asked about the suitability of breeding programs as a key environmental management tool in Australia. Most disturbingly, it is arguable that poorly executed if well-meaning programs may perversely contribute to extinctions.

Estimates of the wild western ground parrot population are accurate because its distinctive calls are monitored by acoustic recording units deployed at Cape Arid. Twelve parrots - almost 10 per cent of the survivors - have been caught and transferred to Perth Zoo since the captive breeding program was initiated in 2014.

Western Ground Parrot. Pic by Perth Zoo
Eight of the 12 captured parrots are dead. One died from injuries sustained during capture; another because it was egg bound. Six parrots died of aspergillosis – a respiratory infection caused by a type of mould. The two parrots caught most recently - both young birds - died of aspergillosis while in quarantine before they could be transferred to breeding aviaries. The zoo has four surviving western ground parrots – three males and a female.

Moreover, not a single nestling has emerged from repeated breeding attempts over four seasons. Ten of 11 eggs laid by the surviving female, Fifi, were infertile; the embryo in one egg died. However, the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions plans to capture more wild parrots for the program in 2018. The number to be caught will be determined following “monitoring of the wild population”, says a departmental spokersperson.

Perth Zoo fauna supervisor Arthur Ferguson insists the captured parrots have not died in vain. “Much has been learned about factors that contribute to aspergillosis in parrots and husbandry and management practices have been refined considerably to minimise such risks,” Ferguson says. “Perth Zoo are experts at native species breeding, having helped reverse the fate of species on the brink including Australia’s rarest reptile, the western swamp tortoise, and the western quoll.”

The project's poor track record is sobering nonetheless. “We are very disappointed that there has been no success,” says Anne Bondin, chairwoman of Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, a community group trying to raise $85,000 for the project.

Says Perth ornithologist Frank O'Connor: “Without a successful captive breeding program I believe the species is doomed, possibly within a decade.”
On the other side of the Great Australian Bight, the orange-bellied parrot is on an even faster track to extinction in the wild. A long-running captive-breeding program in Tasmania has failed to boost the dwindling stock of wild orange-bellied parrots, notwithstanding an important difference from the western ground parrot experience.

Orange-bellied Parrot . Pic by Save The Orange-bellied Parrot
Unlike the western birds, orange-bellied parrots breed well in captivity; about 350 birds are thriving in aviaries. The problem is that the captive-bred parrots are not good at surviving in the wild. They continue to be released at the Melaleuca breeding station – 23 parrots raised in aviaries were freed this season – but the program is faltering.

Out of 62 captive-bred parrots released between 2013 and 2015, according to data seen by Inquirer, just seven were spotted 12 months after their release, having survived the hazardous winter migration to the mainland. In 2016, 23 birds were released but 10 were recaptured and returned to aviaries for the winter; just one of the other 13 returned this season.

Zoologist Mark Holdsworth, who has been closely involved with the program for many years, says on average about half the wild parrots would naturally survive the migration, but the proportion is much lower for captive-bred birds. Holdsworth believes all parrots born at Melaleuca this season – whether or not their parents were captive bred - should be captured. Twenty fledglings were produced last year at Melaleuca but only four returned to the breeding station post-migration. “If nothing is done this season to improve survival then the species is likely to be extinct in the wild by next season,” Holdsworth says.

During the 2015 season, 19 nestlings and one adult at Melaleuca tested positive for the often fatal psittacine feather and beak disease, believed to have originated in aviaries. Of the 19 birds to return this season just three are females, one of which was captured because it was thought to have a disease. Australia's leading authority on native parrots, Joseph Forshaw, says a “total rethink on our approach to saving this species” is needed.

But the Tasmanian Government continues to back the program. Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment policy manager Andrew Crane says the parents of one wild-born parrot which returned this season were captive bred. “This is a good example of the significance of the breeding program and one which is not immediately obvious from the raw data,” Crane adds.

Eastern Bristlebird - northern race
A rare Australian songbird, the eastern bristlebird, is faring a little better than the parrots; the population of bristlebirds in southern NSW and Victoria, although in decline, numbers several hundred. However, the distinctive northern population of the species is critically endangered, with less than 30 birds surviving in the mountains of the Queensland-New South Wales border area.

A captive-breeding program for the northern bristlebirds began at the David Fleay Wildlife Park on the Gold Coast in 2004 but was discontinued in 2009. Eight birds raised in aviaries were released in the wild. Four that were set free at Spicer's Gap in Queensland in 2008 were dead within 12 months of their release; the fate of another four released in NSW is uncertain.

A second breeding program for the birds was established in 2015 at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, also on the Gold Coast. The sanctuary says on its website that plans to collect the eggs and chicks of wild birds are under way so captive-bred birds could “provide a sustainable boost to this endangered population”. An English springer spaniel has been trained to track down the handful of nests of surviving wild birds so their eggs and chicks can be removed.

Herein lies the dilemma that is central to the captive-breeding program strategy. When numbers of an endangered species are critically low, might that species be pushed over the brink if the survivors are caught for a breeding program which may not succeed? Or can authorities reasonably assume that a species is doomed to extinction in the wild anyway, and reason that its only chance for survival is captive-breeding?

Lord Howe Woodhen. Pic by NSW Office of Environment & Heritage 
Breeding programs have had some outstanding successes. The flightless Lord Howe woodhen is found only on Lord Howe Island. After the island's settlement in the 1830s, its population crashed in the face of an onslaught from introduced rats, cats and pigs. By 1980, when a captive-breeding program began, just 15 birds survived on the summits of two mountains.

Three woodhen pairs captured for the program produced 66 chicks. Today, with introduced pests eliminated, the woodhen has recolonised the island. Birds are commonly encountered in the gardens of the island's settlement. The estimated population of 240 is probably close to what it was naturally.

Australia has the world's highest rate of mammal extinctions; birds have only recently begun to catch up. The Lord Howe woodhen was brought back from the brink, as have several endangered species in New Zealand, a world leader in pioneering captive-breeding. Such successes have led to a widespread view by authorities in Australia that breeding programs are a panacea: a solution to arrest the country's appalling wildlife extinction record. That view may in some instances be gravely misplaced.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Cooroy Treatment Plant Update

Cooroy treatment plant this week
The Cooroy sewage treatment plant was once the Sunshine Coast's top wetland site for birds before it was extensively renovated in 2014-2015. Since then Unitywater has closed off the area with a barbed wire-topped fence, but it is possible to obtain permission to bird there by phoning 0409 512523 when you are at the site entrance gate. To reach the plant, turn right down a short dead end road off Mary River Road just before Jarrah Street; you will see a sign to a camping ground at the turnoff but no mention of the plant.

Little Grassbird
The site is not quite what it used to be. The bungs that provided easy access to various pools are replaced by sheet iron fencing. The nice muddy margins to reed beds are gone. However, some good aquatic revegetation has taken place and things are starting to look up. When I visited the plant this week I saw a Baillon's Crake in the same pool where they had once been regular summer visitors; I was unable to get a picture but here is one at the same place a few years ago.  A pair of Little Grassbirds were nesting in a small reed bed nearby and I saw a few Latham's Snipe.

Baillon's Crake
Apart from the pools, the surrounding woodlands are quite birdy. Below are some of the images from my visit this week. Ebird list.

Magpie Goose

Red-browed Finch

Variegated Fairy-wren

Wandering Whistling-Duck
The Botanic Gardens just north of Cooroy on the western shore of Lake MacDonald are worth a look with birds this week including Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Barred Cuckoo-shrike and White-throated Needletail.

White-throated Needletail

Barred Cuckoo-shrike

Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove

A little to the east of Cooroy, two spots worth checking are Frogmouth Lane and the Cooroy-Pomona Lions Park, where Fairy Gerygone this week was among the birds seen.

Fairy Gerygone

Friday, 22 December 2017

Aleutian Tern for Christmas

Aleutian Tern
Aleutian Tern had long been high on my wishlist. I expected to see them in Anadyr on our Russian Arctic cruise and was not happy to learn that one was hanging around the ship in the harbour before we left, but nobody bothered to announce it.

Aleutian Tern
So when Liam Murphy reported last week that he had found as many as 14 Aleutian Terns at Old Bar on the NSW Central Coast, there wasn't too much decision-making to be made. Liam's find is quite extraordinary. He found the birds at the same spot this time last year but their identity was not known until we was trawling through photographs two months ago. The species is a scarce visitor to Indonesian waters but had not been recorded in Australia previously.

Aleutian Tern
I was daunted by the prospect of a 9.5 hour drive to Old Bar. So I flew to Sydney from Sunshine Coast Airport, caught the train to Gosford and hooked up with my friend, Kathy Haydon. From there it was a 3-hour drive to Old Bar, where we arrived at 4pm, bumping into the first of quite a few twitchers to be encountered over the next couple of days.

Aleutian Tern

Aleutian Tern
We walked 1.5km north to the end of the fence that marks the Little Tern breeding area, then a short distance inland to sand bars where the terns gather. We quickly found a ground of 9 Aleutian Terns gathered together, with a tenth bird nearby. The birds were readily approachable, with a bit of knee-deep wading required, and appeared to be quite settled.

Aleutian Terns
Occasionally some of the birds would fly a short distance and regroup, sometimes in the company of Common Terns, Little Terns and Crested Terns. Often however they would roost separately from other terns.

Aleutian Tern
We booked an overnight "family cottage" in the pleasant Lani's Caravan Park, a short distance from the site; it could have slept 4 people for $120 per night. We returned early the next morning and found just 2 Aleutian Terns. They were by themselves initially before joining a larger tern flock. The flock was put to flight by an ultra-light plane and when the birds resettled, the Aleutians were nowhere to be seen. We learned from others that they did not return until late-morning. This seemed to be a pattern: 1 to 3 birds are there in the early morning before heading out to sea, with the bigger group returning towards the middle of the day. Most of the terns appear to hang about for much of the afternoon.

It was low tide on our first visit and high tide on our second. Conditions were pretty much the same, as the sand bars are separated from the sea except during very high tides. Access initially was a shorter distance from south-west of the bars but the NSW authorities requested beach access to minimise disturbance to the Little Tern colony. I checked the lay of the land from the other side of the inlet and thought it would not make any difference; the shorter route in fact is probably less disturbing to nesting birds. And walking the beach at high tide means dodging 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Common Tern
About 20 Common Terns were present. After some initial sorting it was easy to distinguish them.


A nice gathering of Sanderlings was a bonus.

Red-necked Stint
Other shorebirds included Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Red-capped Plover (nesting), Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Whimbrel and Eastern Curlew. This stint looked particularly interesting.

Little Terns were resplendent in breeding plumage. Elist.

The terns at Old Bar

Friday, 15 December 2017

Catching up with John Young

I caught up today for a pleasurable few hours in the Sunshine Coast hinterland with bush naturalist extraordinaire John Young.

John is something of a legend in the birding community. It is well-known that he and I have had our differences over the years, but with the benefit of hindsight, everyone acknowledges they might have done things differently in times past. We move on. Whatever our differences, I've always regarded John as arguably Australia's most skilled bush naturalist. His uncanny ability to track down birds in difficult circumstances is widely acknowledged. John is doing some excellent field work these days as a senior ecologist with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Pale-vented Bush-hen
What we've always had in common is a passionate concern for the environment and a keen interest in birds and other wildlife. Today we listened as a pair of Pale-vented Bush-hens called from flooded grassland near Wappa Dam; a third bird called across the road. One bird was seen briefly; the image here is of another bush-hen seen nearby last year.

Australasian Figbird at nest
While we chatted in the Wappa Dam picnic ground, John spotted no fewer than four nests being attended by Australasian Figbirds in the surrounding trees.

Great Crested Grebe
The resident Great Crested Grebe pair were in full breeding plumage and showing well.

Comb-crested Jacana
As were a few Comb-crested Jacanas.  Earlier today I found this White-eared Monarch in rainforest at nearby Cooloolabin.

White-eared Monarch

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Hervey Bay & Boonooroo – Dec 2017

Pacific Swift
It was time for what has become an annual camp-out in the Hervey Bay area. Waterways and wetlands were full following heavy rains recently. At Arkarra Lagoons, 3 pairs of Magpie-Goose had goslings in tow and another 6-8 pairs were on nests. Other birds included Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Fairy Gerygone and Nankeen Night-Heron. Arkarra Lagoons ebird list.

Of interest at Pt Vernon was a flock of 70 Pacific Swifts hawking for insects along the shoreline, with a handful of White-throated Needletails in the mix.

Pacific Swift

Pacific Swift
A Rainbow Bee-Eater here made short work of a dragonfly.

Rainbow Bee-Eater
Good numbers of Greater Sand-Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover and Pacific Gold Plover were present at the high hide roosts at The Gables and nearby Gatakers Bay.

Greater Sand-Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover, Pacific Golden Plover
A mixed group of Wandering Tattler and Grey-tailed Tattler were together on the rocks at Gatakers Bay.  Pt Vernon ebird list.

Wandering Tattler
I visited Garnetts Lagoon with local birder John Knight but high water levels meant not much of interest was about, other than a couple of Brown Songlarks.   A large colony of waterbirds was nesting on a lagoon in Ann Street, Urangan, near the Hervey Bay Botanic Gardens. All 4 species of egret were nesting along with a few Little Pied Cormorants and Little Black Cormorants, and large numbers of Australian White Ibis.

Cattle Egret

Intermediate Egret & Cattle Egret

Little Egret
After moving on to Maryborough, Brown Songlarks were present also along Dimond Road, where a pair of Pale-vented Bush-hen were flushed from flooded grasslandVery high king tides (3.6m) made the going tough at the shorebird roosts of Boonooroo and Maaroom. Large numbers of Eastern Curlew and Bar-tailed Godwit were present as usual but there was no sign of the Asian Dowitchers which I found during my last two visits. Boonooroo ebird list.

Bar-tailed Godwits

Eastern Curlews
A flock of 50 Marsh Sandpipers were at Maaroom.

Marsh Sandpipers
A male Shining Flycatcher was a nice find in mangroves near the jetty at Maaroom. Maaroom ebird list.

Shining Flycatcher

Shining Flycatcher