birdwatching

The Fab Five: Finches of Victoria

Finches have captured our attention for aeons, and around the world a number of similar-looking bird families have come to be commonly referred to as finches. They have a habit of living in small sociable groups, and are often cloaked in a striking plumage of resplendent reds, subtle olives, or delicate polkadot spots (sometimes all three!). This makes them very pleasing on the eye and great fun to watch as the finch party goes about its business. As biological history goes, it's quite lucky that these birds are so easy to watch, as the observations Charles Darwin made of finches on the Galápagos Islands formed a key part in his derivation of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Victoria's native finches may not be as famous as the finches of the Galápagos, and you might not earn a reputation as esteemed as Darwin’s for watching them, but I highly recommend you get out and find them for yourself. It is possible to see five species of finch native to Victoria.

Red-browed Finch

For most readers, this is likely to be the species that you are most familiar with. They live in wetter parts of the state in the grassy habitats of forest openings, stream banks, and parks and gardens. If you live in the heart of Melbourne and think you will have to make something of a getaway to see this species, think again. Red-browed Finches can be easily found foraging among overgrown grasses along the Merri Creek Trail, Main Yarra Trail, and maybe even your own backyard if it has an 'untidy section'. Although the bright flash of red from its rump and brow can often give it away, more often than not it forages unobtrusively among the grass and its little peeping calls are what belie its presence.

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses.  Image: Rowan Mott

Red-browed Finches can often be found feeding among seeding grasses. Image: Rowan Mott

Zebra Finch

These charming little birds may also be familiar to you because they are often kept as pets in aviaries. They breed prolifically in captivity, provided they are well cared for, which has lent them well to scientific research. In fact, Australia's Zebra Finches have become the second most studied species of bird behind the Great Tit, and have been used to study subjects varying from neurobiology and development of song, to sperm competition and quantitative genetics.

This species inhabits drier country and their movements are influenced by local conditions. They can be nomadic and move across the landscape in search of favourable foraging conditions, particularly in response to rainfall. Victoria's Zebra Finch population hotspots are Hird Swamp Wildlife Reserve, Kerang Lakes, and Winton Wetlands. If you live in Melbourne and can't spare the time to trek to the north of our state, Zebra Finches can usually be found along Point Wilson Road and Beach Road near Avalon Airport, and in the You Yangs.

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology.  Image: Rowan Mott

The many studies conducted on Zebra Finches have taught us much about bird biology, and some of the findings even have implications for human biology. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamond Firetail

Humans have long-prized diamonds for their beauty and rarity. Although Diamond Firetails have been beautiful for as long as they have existed, the last century or so has seen these woodland denizens become quite rare. Suffering from the combined effects of habitat loss and habitat degradation, particularly in the core of their range along the inland side of the Great Dividing Range, populations of Diamond Firetails are in decline. For your best chance of seeing this true gem of a bird in Victoria, head to the Lurg Hills to the east of Benalla, Terrick Terrick National Park, or Little Desert National Park.

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Diamonds are forever, so the saying goes, and you are sure to remember your first sighting of this beautiful finch forever. Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetail

I often hear people complaining about how birds are named. For example, 'Why do we call it a Pink-eared Duck when the spot of pink is so small you can hardly see it?' In the case of the Beautiful Firetail, no such argument could be laid. Every bit of this bird is beautiful and to reinforce this point, not only does its common name include the word beautiful, but the species part of its scientific name, Stagonopleura bella, also translates to beautiful. In Victoria, Beautiful Firetails primarily inhabit wet coastal heathlands. They can regularly be found at Cape Liptrap, Cape Otway, and away from the coast in Bunyip State Park.

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds.  Image: Rowan Mott

Beautiful Firetails, as the name suggests, are surely one of Victoria’s prettiest birds. Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finch

Double-barred Finches qualify by the merest of margins as a Victorian finch. They are common in open woodlands and scrub across northern Australia, but their range extends south to capture only a sliver of north-east Victoria. If you wish to add this species to your Victorian list (and why wouldn't you?), hillsides around Wodonga offer your best chance. Like the Zebra Finch, Double-barred Finches may also be nomadic as they search for favourable conditions. For this reason, you may want to check eBird for recent Victorian sightings before making the journey up to the north-east.

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them.  Image: Rowan Mott

Double-barred Finches occur in only a very small proportion of Victoria. However, their striking plumage makes it well worth putting in some effort to find them. Image: Rowan Mott


download.png

Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

Life on the Merri

This is a guest post by Michael Livingston.

The Merri Creek meanders through Melbourne’s north, running from out past Craigieburn through to Dights Falls in Abbotsford where it joins the Yarra. It’s a wildlife hotspot for Melbourne, running through some of the last remnant native grasslands in Melbourne and providing habitat for platypus, echidnas, endangered frogs, and all manner of birds and other critters. Exploring the creek is a joy, with birding sights behind the wonderful CERES Environmental Park, near Dights Falls and out around the Craigieburn and Cooper Street Grasslands.

The grasslands are probably the least well-known sites, with underdeveloped paths and access via industrial neighbourhoods, but they’re a wonderful place to go birding. Nankeen kestrels are regular breeders there, and wedge-tailed and little eagles are often sighted soaring above the grasslands eyeing off the many local rabbits. Flame robins regularly arrive in winter, while spring sees pallid, shining bronze-cuckoos arrive. Grassland birds like Australian pipits, Eurasian skylarks and golden-headed cisticolas are common, as are white-fronted chats and an array of parrots. Interesting rarities turn up too – zebra finches, black-eared cuckoos and Latham’s snipe have all been seen in recent years. There are massive mobs of kangaroos and plenty of swamp wallabies around as well, plus interesting insects, reptiles and amphibians (including the rare growling grass frog).

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

Things are a bit less diverse around East Brunswick and Northcote, but a wander between Blyth Street and Moreland Road is still likely to turn up a raptor or two – you might see a brown goshawk over the golf course or a peregrine falcon perched above the velodrome – as well as a decent number of bush birds: eastern spinebills, red-browed finches, New Holland honeyeaters and spotted pardalotes are common, while yellow-tailed black cockatoos, crested shrike tits and olive-backed orioles turn up occasionally.

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

The creek is beloved today, filled with cyclists, joggers and nature lovers but many people don’t realise how lucky we are to still have it. As recounted in Graeme Davidson’s excellent Car Wars, in the mid-1970s the Merri was the prime site for a proposed freeway. If not for a group of passionate and organised locals, the creek would likely be a concreted drain beside a massive road, rather than a pocket of green space winding through the suburbs. In 1976, the threat to the creek prompted the formation of the Merri Creek Management Committee, bringing together local environment activist groups, local councils and scientists. This group has advocated tirelessly for the creek and its catchments, successfully heading off the initial freeway proposal, and later managing to limit the impact of the Western Ring Road extension on the significant Craigieburn Grasslands.

Just as importantly, the MCMC and community groups like the Friends of Merri Creek have coordinated major work in revitalising the creek. They’ve coordinated major projects like the transformation of an old garbage dump into the wonderful CERES Environment Park and the development of the Merri Creek Trail that now runs alongside the creek for more than 20km. They also facilitate lots of hands-on work - removing weeds, planting native vegetation, monitoring water quality and regularly surveying key sites to monitor bird and other wildlife. This work has been a major success, resulting in the return of many species to the creek, including platypus, echidnas and, most famously, sacred kingfishers (whose return to the creek is celebrated annually at CERES).

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

Image: Michael Livingston

The Merri Creek is a success story of urban conservation; an example of what happens when motivated and effective community groups can work alongside council and state government. The struggle continues of course, with threats from urban sprawl in particular threatening grassland habitats (the decline of the growling grass frog population is a particularly frustrating example). It’s clear that the work of the Merri Creek Management Committee is more valuable than ever. So come along to a bird survey, get down to a weeding or tree-planting day, or join or donate to the Friends of Merri Creek. It’s a wonderful piece of wild Melbourne, and one that’s worth protecting.

For more information on Merri Creek and the work done to conserve it, follow the links below:


Michael Livingston is a big fan of birds, books and veggie food. He tweets at @wtb_Michael and posts way too many bird photos on his Instagram.

Albatross Amnesia

The power of the albatross to help you forget life’s problems.

I love Melbourne. I did not grow up in this city but it has been my adopted home for the last nine years. I grew up in the country three hours north of Melbourne, and as a young child I had endless opportunities to explore the bush across the road. Catching tadpoles, climbing trees and all of the other stereotypical activities that an inquisitive young boy can get up to fill many of my early memories. It was these experiences that eventually led me to Melbourne where I studied a science degree majoring in zoology and botany.

Sometimes, though, for someone who grew up with a love of natural places, the city can feel awfully claustrophobic. It’s times like these, when the city has become too much for me, that I find myself standing atop the sea cliffs along the coast of Anglesea. I look down at the swirling water as the waves crash into the rocks below, and then I look out further. I lift my binoculars and scan the horizon, looking for the graceful shape of an albatross sweeping just above the rolling ocean. It rarely takes long to spot one, and in an instant everything else you have in your mind is forgotten.

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

The long, down-curved wings of a shy albatross are all grey on top and mostly white below with a thin black edge. Photo: Rowan Mott

There is something romantic about the movement of an albatross that cuts through every other thought and makes you realise that the world is, as you knew all along, a beautiful place. As I extend the legs on my tripod and frame the bird in my spotting scope, all sense of time disappears and I can be captivated for hours.

Many people are surprised to learn that albatrosses can be sighted so close to Melbourne. Others will tell you that they saw one on the beach the last time they were there. The truth is that albatrosses are rarely seen on land unless it is their breeding colony. If we exclude birds breeding in the sub-Antarctic territories of Macquarie Island and Heard Island, there is only one species of albatross that breeds in Australia: the shy albatross. It breeds on three islands around Tasmania and is the most likely species you are to see if you look out to sea along the Victorian coast.

The ‘albatrosses’ that people tell me they have seen on our beaches are usually pacific gulls. They are impressive birds in their own right with their striking red-tipped, yellow bill and a size that dwarfs the silver gull (commonly referred to as seagulls). However, if you consider pacific gulls have a wingspan of 1.5 metres and a shy albatross has a wingspan of up to 2.6 metres, then you begin to get a sense of the true grandeur of the latter species.

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

Pacific gulls are large seabirds and often mistaken for albatrosses due to their imposing size. However, a shy albatross is much bigger and unlikely to be seen on the sands of Victoria's beaches. Photo: Rowan Mott

If you want to increase your chance of seeing an albatross, the best time to head to the coast is after the worst weather. When a storm lashes the coast with strong southerly winds, it frequently results in many birds being pushed towards the shore from out near the continental shelf. The presence of a sea breeze also provides the most spectacular views; it is in windy conditions that an albatross’s mastery of the air becomes truly apparent. In still conditions, they do not receive the up-draft effect, as the wind is deflected upwards over the crest of the swell; when no breeze is blowing, they regularly loaf on the water surface. A strong sea breeze can make it very cold atop the cliffs, so dress sensibly.

Shy albatrosses are typically present in Victorian waters year-round but other seabirds come and go with the change of the seasons. Over the warmer months, you may be lucky enough to see an arctic jaeger harassing gulls and terns, or a flock of fluttering shearwaters out beyond the breakers. In the depths of winter, many species from the Southern Ocean move north to escape the cold. Some of them prefer to stay far out to sea but you may be lucky and spot a brown skua or a northern giant-petrel. If the seabirds aren’t showing, Australian fur seals and common dolphins can always liven things up.

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If there aren't many seabirds around, Anglesea also offers the chance of seeing southern emu-wrens and other heathland gems, just metres from prime seabird-viewing spots. Image: Rowan Mott

If all else fails and it happens to be a very quiet day, you can always turn your back on the ocean and look for chestnut-rumped heathwrens, rufous bristlebirds and southern emu-wrens that inhabit the heathland atop the cliffs. This diversity of habitats is why I like Anglesea but Point Lonsdale and Cape Schanck also offer great seabird-watching. So the next time you feel that the hustle and bustle of the city is all too much, go and find yourself an albatross and, if only for a while, forget your troubles. 

Cover image by Rowan Mott.

The Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina)

Pied Currawong in Marysville. These birds can be found throughout Melbourne as well.  

Pied Currawong in Marysville. These birds can be found throughout Melbourne as well.  

One of my favourite Australian birds, these yellow-eyed locals are one of three species of currawong, and can be found throughout eastern Australia.

Common around Melbourne and throughout Victoria, they spend most of their time in the trees on the lookout for food. They are omnivorous, eating a variety of insects, fruits and berries, and are always eager to steal a careless picnicker’s lunch.

Because they are tree-dwelling, they can afford to share territory with the ground-foraging Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen), with whom they are close relatives. They can be distinguished from magpies by their yellow (instead of red) eyes, dark beaks, black backs, and short legs.

Agile and intelligent birds, the Pied Currawong has a characteristic undulating flight, and a distinctive call that can be heard across the suburbs of our city and from which the bird derives its common-name (Curra-wong).

These charismatic birds usually lay a clutch of three eggs, and tend to be sedentary throughout the year.

Listen out for a pair or group near you!

 

These birds have adapted well to human settlement and are always on the lookout for an easy meal.

These birds have adapted well to human settlement and are always on the lookout for an easy meal.