Tag Archives: Complete guide to Australian Birds

Australia May 2022 : The Birding – it’s Different! (Part 1)

The casual, non-birder observer could easily come to the conclusion that Australia’s birds fall into three basic groups –

  • A majority that are various combinations of black and white or shades in between and can be found hanging about just about anywhere – in trees, on lampposts, in the garden, in town, at the sea – you get the picture
  • A lot that are vividly coloured birds, that in any other country would most likely be sitting in a cage in someone’s kitchen saying “hello – polly wants a cracker” or suchlike
  • The rest – a variety of smaller, often nondescript birds that don’t seem to seek the limelight as much as the above two groups and take some effort to find as they skulk in the bushes and trees

That’s a gross simplification of course, so to put it into some perspective, this is what the author of The Complete Guide to Australian Birds, George Adams, has to say in his introduction –

Australia is one of the world’s ten mega-diverse countries and is fortunate to have a rich diversity of birds and an unusually high number of endemic species found across its many, equally diverse and beautiful landscapes. The jabbering of parrots, the laughter of Kookaburras, the song of the Magpie or the trilling warble of Fairy-wrens all bestow a real sense of ‘place’ that is uniquely Australian.

Having just returned from our second visit to Australia (the first was in pre-pandemic 2019) I can associate with his description of the birding experience that this fine country has to offer.

The only problem is, with Australia being such a vast country, and considering that our two visits to date have been restricted to a relatively small part of one state – Victoria, in the south-east corner of Australia – means we have hardly touched on that rich diversity.

The majority of this massive continent and its birdlife therefore remains a mystery for the time being, with my only knowledge of it gleaned from the abovementioned guide.
Farmlands, Wurruk, Sale Victoria

However, having spent a total of some two and a half months during the two visits we have made to Sale, Victoria where our son and family have settled, there has been ample time to observe the neighbourhood birds and those in other places we visited, in the process getting to know some of the common birds quite well.

Which brings me back to those three basic groups, starting with …..

Black and white – and shades in between

Starting with the “all-blacks”, one of the most obvious and widespread is the Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, loudly pronouncing its presence with its “aark” call and often seen from a distance gliding across the landscape

The Common Blackbird Turdus merula, a much smaller species of thrush size and common in the UK and Europe, favours gardens – the female is a mottled brownish colour

Largest of all, the Black Swan Cygnus atratus, (yes, even the swans are black in Australia) which looks all black when swimming but shows white flight feathers when flying

Australian Raven Corvus coronoides, Sale Victoria
Common Blackbird Turdus merula, Sale Victoria
Black Swan Cygnus atratus, Sale Common, Victoria

The “black-and-whites” make up a large proportion of the birds seen generally, with the Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen leading the way (by a couple of furlongs) – it is just everywhere and the family in Aus were quick to mention how aggressive it can be especially during breeding times. I was quite intimidated by one during our road trip along the Great Alpine Road (more about that in a future post) when I found one perched on our rental car’s mirror one morning, giving me a glaring look of “Who’s car is this anyway?”

They do have a very different song, curiously tuneful and sounding like it’s being produced by some sort of electronic instrument.

One of my favourites is the Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoluca, a glossy black-and-white medium sized bird which spends most of the time foraging on the ground, often in gardens. Also known as the “Peewee”, presumably based on its liquid call, it is neither Magpie or Lark but is related to Flycatchers, which it shows by its buoyant fluttering flight when chasing insect prey

Another favourite is the Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, which looks like a slightly smaller edition of the Magpie, although it has less obvious white colouring confined to a white band on the wings and a white-tipped tail. The voice is a distinctive, ringing “cur-ra-wong” which is why it carries the unusual name

Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen, Sale Victoria – “Who’s car is this anyway?”
Magpie-lark Grallina cyanoleuca, Sale Victoria
Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, Sale Victoria

Also in this category are the two common Ibises, both of which are combinations of black and white and both occur in flocks of anything from a handful to a hundred or more. One morning I counted over 20 on the lawn of our son’s house, enjoying a temporary “wetland” caused by recent heavy rains.

Firstly, the one that has the impressive name of Australian White Ibis Theskiornis molucca, but is colloquially known as the “Bin Chicken” due to its habit of scavenging from rubbish bins in the cities. They make a grand sight at dusk when they fly in numbers in V-formation on their way to roost for the night.

The second Ibis has the interesting name Straw-necked Ibis Theskiornis spinicollis, but the reason for this name is not immediately obvious until you zoom in on the photos taken and notice that, indeed, the neck does have a straw-like appearance

Australian White Ibis Theskiornis molucca, Sale Victoria
White Ibis as depicted on the cover of a children’s book in the bookshop
Straw-necked Ibis Theskiornis spinicollis
The “Straw” that gives it the name

A bird which I had only a glimpse of during our 2019 visit but which afforded me some cracking views this time around is the Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus. “Honey, I shrunk the magpie” comes to mind as it has all the features of the larger Magpie, scaled down to about half the size. In fact the Magpie and Butcherbirds belong to the same genus so the similarity is easy to understand. The Butcherbird name derives from its habit of impaling prey for later consumption, much like we see in South Africa with the Fiscals (which are also referred to as butcherbirds)

Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus, Sale Victoria

That covers the black and white birds that are most often seen – excluding the smaller birds and water birds which I will introduce in further posts. That leaves the “vividly coloured birds” and “the rest” for a follow up introductory post on my Australian birding experience

Straw-necked and White Ibises together

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 3

Concluding the summary of the birds seen during our trip to Australia earlier this year, listed by general habitat ……

Fields and Farmlands

Whether out walking or on a drive, we found that open fields, parklands and farmlands attracted numerous species, most likely looking for that tasty worm or insect as they moved in small and large groups across the terrain

Eastern Cattle Egret (Bubulcus coromandus) – this common bird only arrived in Australia in 1948 but is now widespread over most of the country except the northwest and interior (which is vast). Looks identical to the Western Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) of southern Africa and has the same habits.

Masked Lapwing (Vanellus miles) – there is something about Lapwings that makes them one of my favourite groups of birds, and this attractive species is no exception. I think it has to do with their pleasing proportions, their neat appearance and the fact that they spend much of their time at ground level, like all respectable humans do. The Masked Lapwing has distinctive yellow wattles, much like the Wattled Lapwing (Vanellus senegallus) and White-crowned Lapwing (Vanellus albiceps) of southern Africa. It’s distribution is mainly over the eastern half of Australia. According to the reference book the one found in Victoria and photographed here is the subspecies novaehollandiae, told by the black hind neck and sides of the breast, as well as smaller wattles

White-faced Heron (Egretta novaehollandiae) – the most commonly seen heron in Australia, this species is found near water according to the reference books, but the few times I saw it was in fields such as the photo following.

Australasian Swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus) – now you may be wondering why I have shown this species under “Fields and farmlands” rather than lakes and rivers. Being used to seeing its southern African cousin skulking amongst waterside vegetation, I expected to have only fleeting glimpses of this species, if at all, so it was a surprise to encounter groups of them in parks and fields, walking about in the open and as common as our Hadedas.

Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca) – found across most of Australia, this Ibis is equally at home in and near water or in parks and pastures. Said to be nomadic, with young birds dispersing, usually northwards, up to 1200 km

Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) – a common endemic, this raven is similar in appearance to the other all black ravens and crows that make up the family Corvidae. I was able to narrow this one down by looking at distribution, habitat and the finer details such as the shaggy “beard” that sets the Australian Raven apart.

Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) – An endemic and Australia’s most common Ibis, which we can vouch for as we saw it in numbers wherever we travelled in Victoria.

Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) – this endemic Goose has a limited distribution on offshore islands and the adjacent mainland in the far south of Australia. We came across it on Philip Island during our visit to the site of the Penguin Parade

Raptors, Swallows and others

Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) – an endemic and well-known species, the Kookaburra belongs to a grouping of 7 dry land “tree kingfishers” with the Laughing Kookaburra being the largest of them. Pairs produce an iconic chorus of loud “laughter” in the mornings which is unmistakeable and eerie at the same time as they are not always visible. They are mainly found in the eastern third of Australia as well as the southwestern corner – their natural habitat is forest edges, woodlands and parks but we saw them a few times perched on roadside telephone wires.

Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus axillaris) – so that’s why the southern African Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus) was recently renamed Black-winged Kite! Presumably to differentiate it from the Australian species of the same name but different genus. The look and habits of this endemic are very similar to the one we know from SA, hovering and dropping onto prey, which is more often than not the introduced house mouse

Welcome Swallow (Hirundo neoxena) – the only swallow I saw and in small numbers except for one afternoon when a hundred or more were foraging for insects over Lake Guthridge in Sale, swooping and diving above the surface of the water

Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus) – common over most of Australia, I had several sightings of this handsome raptor, often in effortless wheeling flight over farmlands and wetlands. The photo below was taken while walking on Sale Common, just after I saw the Kite landing in a tall tree

Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) – Yet another endemic species, widely distributed over Ausralia except for the northern third. I came across this species just once while walking to the local supermarket – it was calling from within a dense tree and all I had was my cellphone to capture an image, thus the poor quality photo. Their name comes from their habit of hanging larger prey in a tree fork, then dismembering it with their sharp hook-tipped bill (much like some of the Shrike family of southern Africa)

Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincia harmonica) – we had just the one sighting of this common species during a drive out of Apollo Bay. It popped up onto the fence where it waited for me to get my camera in position, then just before releasing the shutter it flew down to the ground and off into the nearby bush leaving me mildly frustrated yet glad I had seen it

Azure Kingfisher (Ceyx azureus) – another one that eluded my camera – we were on the Sale Canal cruise when I was the first to spot it down river, the azure colour standing out against the green background. Next moment it flew up to the boat and perched on an open branch just long enough for everyone on the boat to see it, then flashed off upriver leaving me holding my camera in despair. Classed as moderately common, it is found along the northern and eastern parts of Australia

Nankeen Night-Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) – this mostly nocturnal species (asleep but wary during the day as you will see from the photo below) occurs over most of Australia, roosting in colonies near water. They leave the colony in unison and forage during the evening and before dawn for fish and other aquatic prey

Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys) – the name wagtail is a tad misleading as it is in fact classified under the Fantails and is the largest of the fantail family. They are well-loved and for good reason with their chirpy attitude and cute sideways wagging of the fanned tail – they would have easily taken to the Twist dance of the 60’s (which is also the only one I could master). Apparently fearless in defence of their nest, they will take on all-comers and are often seen chasing away eagles

Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax) – we had just one brief sighting of this eagle as it soared above the road while driving to Philip Island. It is classed as common and its distribution covers all of Australia. The largest of Australia’s raptors, it is easily distinguished by the wedge-shaped tail

The Colourful Birds (Like, Everywhere!)

Australia is famous for its colourful species such as Parrots, Cockatoos, Lorikeets and such like, and rightly so – they are literally everywhere, often in surprising numbers and are a feature of birding in this amazing country. It’s also an interesting fact of nature that the more colourful the bird, the less attractive their song seems to be – not always true of course but many of those that we encountered produced the most grating, unattractive calls.

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus moluccanus) – this was the first of the colourful birds that we saw and we enjoyed almost daily sightings of them in the suburbs

Galah (Eolophus roseicapella) – this common endemic is a ground feeder and all of our sightings were of it walking about on lawns, when not in flight to the next grassy area

Little Corella (Cacatua sanguinea) – classed as locally common, we came across large flocks on a few occasions, as shown in the featured photo at the top of this post. They are found over most of Australia and are also ground feeders

Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) – a common endemic which is confined to the southeastern corner of Australia and favours tall eucalyptus trees. The crimson colouring is quite breathtaking in its intensity and combined with the rich blue on the wings and tail makes for a spectacular bird

Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius) – another common endemic and like the above, confined to the southeastern corner of Australia. Despite the vivid colours it is surprisingly well camouflaged when among foliage – we had just one clear sighting on Raymond Isand

Australian King Parrot (Alisterus scapularis) – this endemic parrot is found in the southeastern parts of Australia and migrates to coastal plains in winter from its favoured habitat of mountain forests, parks and gardens

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (cacatura galerita) – this noisy and conspicuous species is impossible to overlook, occuring in large flocks and often foraging on the ground or gathering in trees in surburbia. South Africans of a certain age (let’s leave it at that) will remember the NBS adverts that featured this bird demonstrating how it can raise and lower its bright yellow crest

And that concludes the pleasurable task of listing all the birds seen during our visit to Australia – roll on the next visit!

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 2

Continuing the summary of the birds seen during our trip to Australia earlier this year, listed by general habitat ……

Lakes and Rivers

Sale in Victoria, our base for the time we were in Australia, is blessed with a sizeable lake – Lake Guthridge – which is bordered on the one side by a main road and on the other by parkland and botanical gardens. A smaller lake – Lake Guyatt – adjoins it and the nearby river and Sale Canal all add to the abundance of water within walking distance of the house, providing plenty of opportunity to view the birds that favour these habitats.

Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) – A familiar species, almost identical to the Red-knobbed Coot we know so well in SA, the only obvious difference being the absence of the red knob. Found over most of Australia, there were huge flocks on Lake Guthridge at times

Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa) – Another very familiar looking species, with small differences between it and the Common Moorhen of southern Africa, such as reddish instead of yellow legs and the lack of the white wing flashes. Australian distribution is limited to the eastern half of the continent.

Dusky Moorhen, Sale, Victoria

Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) – An Australian endemic, this is a species that has been successfully “exported” to South Africa and for years we had a pair on one of the small dams in our residential estate in Pretoria, brought there by one of the well-meaning residents. Good to look at but I am never comfortable having exotic species in places that they don’t belong. So it was a pleasure to see so many of these elegant birds in their natural environment and the sight of a group of them flying off to their roost at dusk, long necks outstretched, black bodies contrasting with white underwing will long remain in my mind.

Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa) – this is the most abundant of Australia’s ducks, found in pairs or small flocks on most open waters. The iridescent speculum shows in flight or, if you are lucky as I was, while preening

Chestnut Teal (Anas castanea) – Australian endemic, common in southwestern and southeastern Australia, we encountered this distinctive medium-sized duck regularly on lakes and rivers

Blue-billed Duck (Oxyura australis) – I only had one sighting of this distinctive Australian endemic during our visit to Raymond Island, but that was enough to have it imprinted on my mind. Said to be moderately common, it is found mainly in southeastern Australia. It is a completely aquatic diving duck almost unable to walk on land and remains well out from shore

Maned Duck (Chenonetta jubata) also known as the Australian Wood Duck – Yet another endemic, this duck is unusual in that it prefers walking about on the grassy banks of the river or lake rather than taking to the water. We had several sightings of these ducks and never saw them in the water

Australasian Grebe (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) – a small cute Grebe found over most of Australia but restricted to sheltered fresh water

Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) – such a cool name for a duck! It could easily be the name of a pub in one of those cosy villages in England. I was probably lucky to spot this endemic duck on the lake fringes on the last day of our visit to Australia, as the book gives its status as “Rare” with patchy distribution across eastern Australia

Australasian Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae) – widespread across Australia and moderately common, it is also known as the “snake-bird” for the same reason as its African cousin – it swims with body submerged and its snake like head and long neck visible

Australian Pelican (Pelicanus conspicillatus) – A species which is hard to miss and surprisingly common on larger bodies of water, swimming and dipping in unison in their characteristic manner. Despite their large size, but perhaps because of their 2,3m wingspan, they are adept at riding updrafts of warm air to heights of up to 3000m and travelling long distances.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill – (Platelea flavipes) – A common endemic, found across most of Australia. Like all spoonbills it wades in shallow muddy waters, slowly sweeping the water with its spatula-like bill for fish, shrimps and crustaceans

Eastern Great Egret (Ardea modesta) – On the face of it this egret is identical to the Great Egret that we know from Southern Africa, but the books show its species name as ardea modesta, whereas the SA species goes under the name ardea alba, so clearly the boffins have decided there is enough evidence to separate it. Strictly speaking the SA species should perhaps be known as the Western Great Egret.

Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) – largest of the Australian cormorants and also widespread on rivers, dams, lakes and estuaries

Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) – common on inland waters across most of Australia

Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucus) – smallest of the Australian cormorants, often abundant on lagoons, dams and lakes

Coastal

We spent most of our time inland but a week-long road trip included the Great Ocean Road and Philip Island near Melbourne, which afforded some opportunities to find species which prefer coastal habitats

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaeholandiae) – the most common gull in Australia, this striking bird is found along the coast as well as on inland lakes

Pacific Gull (Larus pacificus) – classed as moderately common, this endemic gull is found along the southern and eastern coast of Australia. We had just one sighting of a juvenile gull

Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator) – I was excited to find this species offshore at Cape Otway Light station, having previously seen its African and North American “cousins”, all very similar looking. It was too far offshore for a decent photo so I have added one from the reference book

Sooty Oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus) – I was hoping to see this species during our Great Ocean Road trip and was thrilled to find a pair on a rocky stretch of the coast. It is classed as moderately common and found along Australia’s coastline

Crested Tern (Thalasseus bergii) – The only tern seen during our trip happened to be one that I am very familiar with, as it is the most common tern seen when we spend time at our Mossel Bay home

Little Penguin (Eudyptula minor) – I have written about the “Penguin Parade” in previous posts so won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say that this species is a major tourist attraction and money-spinner for the authorities that control the viewing experience on Philip Island.

Australian Adventure – The Birds of Australia – 1

Our trip to Australia was primarily to spend time with family, but being the avid birder that I am, I was particularly looking forward to seeing and identifying as many Australian birds as circumstances would allow. Keen birders will know that thrill that comes with visiting a new part of your home country and it is doubly so when you visit a new country, specially one known for its variety of birds.

My first thrill was being presented with a fine Australian Bird book by Stephan and family on arrival and I was soon into it, marking up with a green highlighter all the birds that could reasonably be found in the State of Victoria.

For the first few days birding was limited to what I could pick up in the small garden and the surrounding neighbourhood, as well as on short trips into town. Once I got to know the area better I took longer walks to the local parks and lakes which expanded the birding opportunities greatly. Thereafter it was a matter of “taking my (birding) chances” when they arose.

So, just to sort the 68 bird species that I saw into some sort of order, I decided to list them by general habitat, starting with……

Gardens and suburbia

Common Myna – It just had to be the first bird on my list – that brashest of all species, strutting about the garden and stealing Maggie’s food (she being the family pet dog). They occur in abundance all along the east coast of Australia and are a declared pest, having been introduced in 1860 in a failed attempt to control insects. Little did they know……. The bird book actually suggests that you “destroy nests, trap and dispose of birds where possible” which is what a lot of people in South Africa would like to do!

Common Myna, Sale, Victoria

Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) – a much more pleasant species with a pleasing voice – known for and named after the melodic “curre-wong” sound that one hears from afar. Common endemic which occurs along the east coast and inland areas of Australia, forming flocks in winter.

Pied Currawong, Sale, Victoria

Common Starling (Sternis vulgaris) – another species introduced into Australia, also in the 1860’s and also declared a pest, (We could learn from the Aussies). Abundant in the SE of Australia (No photo)

Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera caranculata) – an attractive species that we came across in parks, woodlands and gardens in several places. A common endemic and the largest honeyeater in Australia, which occurs from east to west along the southern side of Australia. Nomadic, with small to large groups following flowering events. This bird reminded me of the Cape Sugarbird which comes into our garden in Mossel Bay, both in appearance and actions. It’s named for the red wattles that hang on the sides of its face but are not always noticeable.

New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) -I first came across this bird in the park and subsequently saw it a few times in gardens. I was immediately entranced by its bold colouring and active nature. A common endemic whose reliance on nectar makes it protective of its chosen source and it will energetically chase other birds that may venture too close. That intimidating eye should be enough warning on its own!

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) – another species introduced in the 1860’s, its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia

Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Female), Apollo Bay

Australian Magpie (Cracticus tibicen) – widespread and common, this distinctive large bird is found in suburbia and just about everywhere else. It has a variety of calls, often melodious and complex. There is a “computer-generated sound” quality to their calls at times

Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) – One of my favourite visitors to the garden, where it forages for insects on the ground, this striking bird is common across Australia.

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) – introduced from China, this dove is present in coastal eastern Australia.

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) – yet another introduced species from the 1850’s but its distribution is limited to the south east corner of Australia. Visits the garden and, typically thrush-like, forages amongst the leaf litter. Not easy to photograph as they are very skittish.

Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) – I enjoyed the few sightings of this species which looks unlike any other dove/pigeon with its prominent thin upright crest. Occurs over most of Australia and an endemic to boot!

Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera) – we had just one sighting of this handsome pigeon, while viewing Koala Bears on Raymond Island. An Endemic, it occurs across Australia but is a shy and wary species

Parks, fields and farmland

Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) – the familiar “Blue-wren” of southeastern Australia, this endemic species can be tricky to see as it works its way briskly through dense thickets. One has to be patient and follow its movement until it hops into view, usually briefly. In non-breeding plumage it is far less colourful but still an attractive species to see

Superb Fairywren, Lake Guyatt Sale

Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusilla) – endemic species that forages in mid to upper foliage and also requires some patience in order to get a photo. Distribution covers the southeatern coastal and inland areas of Australia

Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) – the name is apparently based on its raucous “pee-pee-pee” call but I never heard it call despite several encounters in parks. Endemic and a vigorous defender of territory.

Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa) – a common endemic which occurs over most of Australia, this species did its best to elude my binos and my camera as it actively made its way through the lower canopy, frequently fanning its tail (Photo from Complete Guide to Australian BIrds)

Grey Fantail

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris) – another common endemic, this is one of the more distinctive and handsome birds that I came across and found to be quite accommodating in perching in an open position for a reasonable photo. Found in the southeastern parts of Australia, its fine, long, down-curved bill identifies it as a nectar feeder.

The second part of The Birds of Australia will cover the birds of Lakes and Rivers, Coast and Sea – not to be missed!