Thursday, 6 June 2013

Twitchathon Report by Ted Thornley

Bird Observers of the North East (BONE) began a little over three years ago. Initially a small dedicated group of birders with the full range of knowledge and skills from the beginner to the very experienced, it has grown and has become an exciting focal point for anyone interested in birding regardless of prior experience. For each of us it has been richly rewarding and even socially challenging due to our need to show a degree of restraint at our post observation outing morning teas. These are of such a high and competitive standard that the normally reserved bird observers risk turning into ravenous Neanderthals with the way the array of food is attacked.

BONE meet once a month, usually at a rich avian environment. The locations are decided well in advance and cover the full range of habitats. A list is made of all sightings and the regular members are becoming very skilled at recognising our Tasmanian birds using whatever indicators are available i.e. birdsong, flight patterns, size, plumage, beak shape, colour and habitat etc.

Last summer we had our first twitchathon which was hugely successful. We began at 9.00am outside the Bayside Hotel in St Helens and went till 11.00am. We had two groups of approximately five members each. The aim being to positively identify as many birds as possible within the two hour time frame. To confirm a sighting at least two people had to agree with the identification. One point was given for each bird observed and an extra point for those species sighted by one group and not the other, an extra point was also awarded for rare species. There were fifty seven different species identified at this event with several common species not seen, the highlight on this occasion was a Grey-tailed Tattler seen at Beer Barrel Beach.

Due to its initial success it was decided to run another twitchathon in the first week of winter as it would make an interesting comparison with that run at the onset of summer. Although the beautiful sunny days of early June made it difficult to accept that the season had changed we went ahead with our winter twitchathon. There were a similar number of people bound by the same rules, with the addition of prizes and other related paraphernalia provided as further incentive. However most would argue that this was unnecessary as the excitement and camaraderie of those events are rewards in themselves.

Des, the master of Tasmanian bird sound led group A, and Liz our founder and shorebird guru headed group B. On the dot of 9.00am we began. The scribes scribbled madly as both teams were surrounded by Sparrows, Blackbirds, Starlings, Silver gulls, Black Swans, Pacific Gulls, Chestnut Teal and many other regulars that work the estuary of Georges Bay. A frenetic beginning as all eyes had been scanning prior to the 9.00am start. After the initial rush we went our separate ways to whatever locations the groups decided would produce the greatest variety. Our first stop (group B) was a couple of hundred metres from the start.  All binoculars and a spotter scope were trained on the waders in the shallows of Georges Bay. This resulted in several more additions including Bar-tailed godwits, unfortunately their frequent companions the Red Knots were not there. From here we drove within the speed limit to Stieglitz where we saw several woodland species then on to the sewerage ponds where many water birds were waiting. The highlight here was a Freckled Duck which we knew was in the area. Anatomically ancient this dinosaur of ducks is a rare mainland visitor and a jewel on our list. A couple of days later we may well have been able to add a Blue-billed Duck. While at this location we were amused at the courtship antics of a male Musk Duck who persisted in splashing his irresistible charms trying to attract a half-submerged (female I presume) plastic bottle.

Then it was back in the car and off towards The Gardens. We’d no sooner passed the St Helens sewerage ponds on the road to Binalong when Cherylyn’s voice came clearly from the back seat “what’s that big bird in the paddock?” One could be forgiven for thinking it was a scene from “Sesame Street” as for a few seconds pandemonium reigned. The car skidded to a halt and Liz tumbled from the vehicle trying to untangle her seat belt and focus the camera at the same time when Cherylyn’s voice came clearly from the back seat again “you know I’ve never heard Liz swear before!” As it turned out the excitement was justified as frogging in the rushes was another mainland visitor, the beautiful White-necked Heron.  The last time I had seen one of these in Tasmania was at Falmouth during cyclone Larry’s devastating onslaught onto Australia’s east coast. Further sightings of this bird or a friend have occurred recently in the area since then including St Marys.

With some excellent pictures we again headed towards The Gardens spotting more species along the way especially some raptors. We parked in the Swim Cart Beach car park and headed along the old tramline over swampy low coastal scrub. We sighted many Beautiful Firetails and Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters but were disappointed not to confirm Southern Emu-wrens. We know they are there and thought we could hear them but could not confirm the fact for this event. This was also the case with the beautifully camouflaged Ground Parrot, we knew it could possibly be there as previous sightings have confirmed it’s presence on the east coast but today it was not meant to be, early morning and dusk being the best time to experience both these wonderful species.
 Two hours were rapidly being used up and we were due at Deny and Joy’s for morning tea at 11.00am sharp. As we approached the oyster lease facility we stopped the car to see if we could register some more shorebirds as there were many common species we had not yet scored. As we alighted we flushed a bevy of Brown Quail, a species we had hoped to see but had all but given up on.
With our lists combined with Deny, Joy and Nat’s garden list we had positively identified sixty two species in the St Helens area in the two hour period with many common species not sighted. During the presentation and the apr├Ęs feast it was decided that twitchathons are so much fun that the times be extended for our next venture, hopefully with more groups.

On the way home Jo dropped me off at Paddy’s Island as it was low tide it was a great opportunity to walk to Scamander. It was as though I had arrived at shorebird heaven, too late to add to the list but a delightful bonus to add to the day’s activities. There were several Red-necked Stints, the smallest of our migratory species and well past their leave by date, also some families of Hooded Plovers and Red-capped Plovers, not to mention six sightings of Sooty Oystercatchers, particularly at Shelly Point. Between Shelly and Scamander there was a Swamp Harrier working the dunes and an immature Pacific Gull displaying Crested Tern like behaviour lifting a couple of metres from the surface and plunging head first into the shallows, making me fantasize on his being fostered by Caspian Terns.  At Wrinkler’s Lagoon there were four Kelp Gulls possibly having a scrub up after leaving the Scamander tip where competing tribes of Pacific Gulls and Kelp Gulls are often seen scrabbling for the scraps. The one common species that seems to appear at long weekends and holiday periods which I did not see on the beach was the ‘red necked turkey’, usually perched on a trail bike or quad bike and even clasping the wheel of a four wheel drive seemingly searching out shorebirds as they tear all over the beach above the high tide line. Although an unwelcome feral species they are very hard to control.

What a great day it was and enjoyed by all who participated. We eagerly await our next twitchathon date and duration yet to be announced. Why not join us or have your own as you will be amazed at the number of birds around us every day.

Ted Thornley. Scamander. 

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