Sunday, 1 November 2015

Birding in Australia: Swans, Geese and the Ducks...

Birds of Australia held my fascination for a some time now. This island Continent got separated from the mainland some million years ago and the Birds and Animals developed in an unusual way in their own right. Then one day I decided that I have to just get up and go. As I had expected the birding in Australia was a fantastic experience - intact once a lifetime experience. The chosen area was the Eastern Coast - and I, along with my uncle did a very hectic trip covering Daintree in the North along the coast and Twelve Apostles in the South. 

The list of Swans, Geese and Ducks of Australia are as given below. I had a great opportunity to see a great majority of them. I could photograph almost all expect a few species that just ignored me or were too far away for any meaningful photograph, though I could see them - the pictures were a no no.

Let’s first see the list of birds that are there in this category and the ones that I saw. Then I shall try to pick up some best pictures of these birds that I got there and put them up here. Well there are 24 birds that are in the category of Swan, Goose or Ducks in Australia. 

Serial No Name Seen Photo Remarks

Magpie Goose
Magpie Goose Yes Yes

Swan, Geese & Ducks
Spotted Whistling-duck No -

Plumed Whistling-duck Yes Yes

Wandering Whistling-duck No -

Musk Duck Yes Yes

Freckled Duck Yes Yes

Cape Barren Goose Yes Yes

Black Swan Yes Yes

Mute Swan No -

Radjah Shelduck Yes Yes

Australian Shelduck Yes Yes

Australian Wood Duck Yes Yes

Pink-eared Duck Yes Yes

Cotton Pygmy-goose No - Seen in India
Green Pygmy-goose No -

Garganey No - Seen in India
Australasian Shoveler Yes Yes

Northern Shoveler No - Seen in India
Grey Teal Yes Yes

Chestnut Teal Yes Yes

Northern Pintail No -

Northern Mallard No -

Pacific Black Duck Yes Yes

Hardhead Yes Yes

Blue-billed Duck Yes No


In addition to that there is one, the Magpie Goose that does not fit in anywhere really. It is neither a Swan nor a Goose so it is put up somewhere in these categories but does not fit in really. That takes the score to 25. Well out of these I was lucky to see 16 and photograph 15. Well then there are three of the ducks that are migratory and I had seen them earlier in India - well well well, that’s not a bad score by any means. This is one category of birds that I am really happy with. That is perhaps because of the two great birders who took me out birding and of course we were trailing all along the East coast helped.

The Magpie Goose: The odd living fossil. It is a species found in Northern Australia and in Southern New Guinea. Magpie grease are the birds with black and white plumage and yellowish feet. The feet are partially webbed and needs on plants in water and on land. Unlike the true geese, the moult is gradual, and there is no flightless period. 
The 100mm Lens could not do justice to the amount of birds at this place.
Foreground: Plumed Whistling-ducks
background: Magpie geese

The lone Magpie Goose picture where the partial webbed feet can be seen.

 These geese are found in a variety of open wetland areas such as floodplains and swamps. They are colonial breeders and can form large flocks upto thousands of individuals. I saw this bird (a few hundreds of them) along with the Plumed Whistling-duck at the University of Queensland (Gatton Campus) lake. It was a great sight. I also saw a few specimen at one odd place in Northern Queensland.  Seeing the bird was a great experience. I had read about this bird but was not sure that I would be seeing this. It was a great experience - especially seeing it in these numbers.

Four young swanlings or cygnets. They are more greyish-brown
with pale edge feathers visible in this picture.
The Black Swan: The Next was the Black Swan that mesmerised me. Ofcourse I knew that the birds existed, I saw the pictures here and there - but I was not prepared for what I saw - the grace, the beauty - I was with my mouth open and staring. Well it so happened that we were driving for the 'Twelve Apostles' south of Melbourne, infant the southernmost point we intended to visit. I saw these birds and I was not on the wheel. I immediately told my uncle, who was driving the car to slowdown and get on a road branch that led to a huge pond. As we came closer the bird grew in size - till it was huge - standing almost more than 1m tall. The black swan grows 1.1 to 1.4 m. Next day was my full day birding day in Melbourne and I saw literally thousands of them in the water treatment plant of Melbourne.

The Black Swan

By the way, there are some fun facts that goes with these birds, firstly there is a movie named after these birds and then there is a 'Black Swan Theory'. If you have not heard about it then it might be a good idea to google it. There was also a New Zealand Black Swan that I believe has been hunted to extinction. These birds have been introduced as ornamental birds in many countries around the world and those that have escaped the captivity have been known to form stable populations in England, US (Florida) and elsewhere.

The Cape Barren Goose: If there is a competition of peculiar water birds then here is another one -
Cape Barren Goose
As I kept creeping forward the birds were ready to take flight. Fortunately we
entered the hide and the birds continued grazing for some time before taking flight.
the Cape Barren Goose. This of course was one of the target birds that I had requested Mr Tom Tarrant taking me out for birding to show me if possible. He said the chances were 50:50. I guess I was lucky, we were going towards one of the hides in the Water Treatment plants when I held Mr Tom's hand and stood still. He asked me - What ?? and there next to the hide two most beautiful water birds stood. I slowly started taking pictures, click, move a few steps closer, click click and repeat. Finally these remained to be the only birds that we saw that day. The birds were majestic and beautiful in their own sense. The fun fact but these birds are that it is still being debated wether these are to be classified under the 'True geese' or 'Swan' Family. Though these birds have been listed as least concern in their conservation status - these are the rarest of the Geese in the world. I have talked about the Western Water Treatment plant of Melbourne above and would like to clarify for anyone who hopes to go birding there. You need government permission and a key to enter the water treatment plant. The plant is huge and there have been times that people have lost their way once inside.

After these Geese and Swans - let's get down to the ducks.

The Plumed Whistling-duck: India has two Whistling ducks and Australia has three of them.
Plumed Whistling ducks 

Plumed Whistling-ducks swimming wit the plumes showing prominently 
I was lucky to see one of them in Australia. The bird is also called Grass Whistle-duck and breeds in New Guinea and Australia. It has the characteristic plumes arising from its flanks. I saw these birds in Brisbane area while birding with Mr Gavin. I saw these in hundreds and were beautiful. The whistling ducks give a characteristic whistle while flying and that gives this bird its common name. Unfortunately I did not come across these birds anywhere else but I was given to believe that they are fairly common. I saw these birds in good numbers in University of Queensland, Gatton campus lake.

A male Musk Duck with Leathery lobe underneath the bill.
The Musk Duck: Another peculiar duck of Australia, unfortunately for me, Like some other ducks and birds it is the only living member of genus Biziura. It inhabits the southern Australia and Tasmania. A New Zealand relative is now extinct. The bird has a peculiar musk odour that emanates during breeding season and that gives it its name. The bird pictured here is a male and has a distinctive leathery lobe underneath the bill during the breeding season. The female that I sighted did not have this lobe but were easily recognised as this species. Off the breeding season the sexes are difficult to tell apart, i was told. This duck is highly aquatic and stiff tailed. This species prefers deep, still lakes and wetlands with areas of both open water and reed beds. They seldom emerge from the water and are awkward on dry land. They rarely fly: take off is made with difficulty, and landing is a clumsy, low-angled affair with no attempt to lower the feet. However, at need musk ducks fly swiftly and for long distances, with rapid, shallow wing beats.

In the water, musk ducks display an effortless agility, twisting and turning on the surface with both feet and tail. In general, musk ducks remain in the water all day long, alternately loafing and feeding energetically, though they sometimes emerge to sit on a log or on dry land for a while. They stay on the water at night, sleeping well out from land with the head tucked into the body or under a wing.
Musk ducks are very much at home below the surface, slipping under head-first with barely a ripple, and staying submerged for as long as a minute at a time, often resurfacing only for a few moments before diving again. 
A female Musk Duck: Notice the peculiar feathers. (sorry for bad shot)
I only got a few sightings and some record shots of a male and female. Though this bird was on my list - so was very happy to see it but I should have got better sightings...

The Freckled Duck: A dark duck  with a peaked crown and deeply scooped bill profile. This is a moderately large, broad-bodied duck native to Southern Australia. Although protected by law in all states, Freckled ducks continue to be poached. During the 1979–83 drought the population was reduced by 5 percent. There have been steps taken to require shooters to pass a waterfowl identification test in Victoria (the state where freckled ducks are most vulnerable) and to make pre-season surveys of freckled duck numbers in wetlands so as to temporarily close areas to shooting. 
The Freckled Duck. Check out the profile of the bill as described. (female and only bird I saw)
This duck is protected by law. It is a dark coloured duck with fine off-white speckles all over. It is easily identified by its large head with a peaked crown. In dry years, the ephemeral wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin and Lake Eyre disappear and freckled ducks migrate to permanent water in coastal regions. This concentration in populated areas, coupled with their habit of circling repeatedly at low altitude when disturbed (even when being shot at) makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting. 
The base of the bill of the male is red in colour unfortunately I saw only one specimen and that too a female. This was the last target bird of the day and I almost got late as I was to fly out that day to India. But I am glad that I did see it, though in a hurry.

The Radjah Shelduck: A beautiful bird that I saw in the extreme North of my visit to Daintree in Australia. I was t ago for a river cruise of the rainforest with Mr Murray (the Boatman) and arrived (like always) early. There while waiting for Mr Murray I saw a family with three chicks, a duck found in New Guinea and Northern Australia along with some islands of Maluku.
Radjah Shelduck

The Rajah Shelduck with Chicks.
Though a least concern, it is a protected bird in all states of Australia and there are penalties for harming or disturbing these birds. The problem is the destruction of habitat of this bird. I have come across so many birds at so many places that seem to sense that there is protection for the birds at a particular place and they shed the fear of man and gives a great opportunity to share a bond with them. This was the only sighting of the bird I had in Australia.

The Australian Shelduck:  A graceful goose-like bird that is once again protected
The vary group of Australian Shelduck. The females are with white around the eye.
under the National Parks and Wildlife act (1974). The males are mostly dark with a chestnut breast. They have white neck collars and dark green heads. The females are similar but with white around the eye. The birds breeds in Southern Australia and Tasmania and move further north in winters. It is an extremely vary bird. Though the birds were at a distance - still peering from my Binoculars I almost fell in love with the bird. This bird was sighted by me in Water treatment plant, Melbourne.

The Australian Wood Duck: If there was a water bird that I saw as common as the Rainbow Lorikeet, then it was The Australian Wood Duck. I saw this bird virtually along the entire East coast of Australia - other than the extreme north of my visit in Daintree. t has the range covering almost the entire Australia and Tasmania with some small exception of extreme North Australia and South Central Australia. It is also known as the maned duck or the maned goose. This 45-51 cm duck looks like a small goose. The only relative to this duck was the New Zealand flightless duck presumed to have become extinct around 1870. It is classified as a game bird in Australia and licensed hunting takes place of this bird in Australia. 
Australian Wood Duck
I have a wonderful experience seeing this bird and a wildlife marshal in Sydney. We had just arrived at the Sydney Opera house and decided to walk to the Botanical park also. Enroute there was one pair of Australian Wood duck pair that was acting very aggressive and appeared to be looking around.
The Wood Duck clicked with mobile in Sydney
Botanical Park
The wildlife warden who was on round came and saw the duck and started checking the drains around there. Suddenly one person on a bicycle came and took out a chick from his pocket - that chick has probably dropped sea ward through a drain and this person pick up the chick from the pier and got it up. The family suddenly complete ran to greet the chick and another one popped from underwing of the female. It was great seeing the person who recovered the chick, the warden who was troubled by this behaviour of the ducks and the ducks themselves. I was so engrossed witnessing this that forgot that I had a camera and the mobile to capture the story so perfectly. I did take some pictures of the pair with my mobile but - missed as the story thereafter presenting itself.

 The Pink-eared Duck: is a species of duck found in Australia. It has a large spatulate bill like the Australian Shoveler but is smaller at 38–40 cm length. Its brown back and crown, black and white barred sides and black eye patches on its otherwise white face make this bird unmistakable. Juveniles are slightly duller, but otherwise all plumages are similar. Its vernacular name refers to a pink spot in the corner formed by the black head pattern; it is only noticeable at close distance however, making the seldom-used Australian name of zebra duck more appropriate.
The closet shot I could corp out of the Pink-eared Duck. The pink is very prominent.

The flock of the Pink-eared duck was fairly large and this is one of the shots
Unfortunately all ducks had their bills in water so not a great shot but will do.
 It is the only living member of the genus Malacorhynchus; a closely related, but slightly larger extinct form from New Zealand was described as Scarlett's Duck (Malacorhynchus scarletti). This peculiar duck may be most closely related to the shelducks but its relationships are enigmatic. Widely distributed throughout Australia and highly mobile, these ducks can appear anywhere there is standing water, especially in dry inland regions, where annual rainfall rarely exceeds 15 in (380 mm).

The Australasian Shoveler: The Australasian shoveler is a species of dabbling duck in the genus Anas. It ranges from 46–53 cm. It lives in heavily vegetated swamps. In Australia it is protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. They occur in southwestern and southeastern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. 
The Australasian Shoveler: a record shot only - highly cropped.
The male has a blue-grey head with a vertical white crescent in front of the eyes. I saw a few ducks but do not have a shot that I can call - a good one. All the same I am inserting here for record sake. A fun fact: Courtship flights are common in the morning & evenings mostly, where the duck is followed in a short rapid flight by one or more (usually two) drakes. This tests the speed & agility of the drakes. The duck may be biased in picking the 'winner' in these tests however, especially if she has paired with one of the competitors. She will even sometimes excrete mid-flight on a perusing male if he is especially not to her fancy. There is a clear & unexplained sex ratio difference with a lot more males to females. This difference is not present in broods of ducklings however. Males with a lot of white breast feathers are not usually paired. These white feathers are often a sign of an older shoveler as first year males almost never have them.

The Grey Teal: It is a dabbling duck found in open wetlands of Australia. This is a mottled brown duck with white and green flashes on its wings. The male and female grey teal share the same colouration, in contrast to the related chestnut teal, whose male and female are strikingly different.
Grey Teal. Though I saw this duck a number of times - the only picture I clicked was this one and recognised the species only once I was post processing this picture.
The grey teal has almost identical colouration to the female chestnut teal and the Grey can only be distinguished by its lighter coloured neck and paler face. The grey teal is a gregarious species. In Australia it is nomadic, rapidly colonising suitable habitat following rain. In 1957, large numbers fled Australia, moving to New Zealand to escape drought. It is widespread throughout its large range and is evaluated as a least concern. This bird can be mistaken for a female Chestnut Teal.

The Chestnut Teal: A dabbling duck found in Southern Australia and is protected bird of Australia. It is slightly darker and bigger than the Grey Teal. The female - as written earlier is almost identical to the grey teal.
Chestnut Teals in the foreground with a lone male in the right side.
This teal is commonly distributed in the South-eastern and South-western Australia while the vagrants occur elsewhere. This bird prefers coastal areas and is indifferent to salinity. The fun fact about this bird is that the female Chestnut Teal has a loud penetrating 'Laughing' quack repeated rapidly nine times or more.
The Chestnut Teal at the Twelve Apostles
I saw this bird South of Melbourne in the water treatment plant and at the Twelve Apostles, the southern most point of Australia I visited. 

The beautiful Pacific Black Duck: Pictured in Eynsebury
The Pacific Black Duck: A fairly common duck that I saw in Australia (not as commonly seen by me as the Australian wood duck - but nevertheless common). It is also a dabbling duck found in mush of Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and many islands in the southwestern Pacific.
Pacific Black Duck (Record Shots)

It is called Grey Duck in New Zealand. The New Zealand subspecies has declined sharply in numbers, at least in its pure form, due to competition from and hybridisation with the introduced mallard. Rhymer et al. (1994) say their data "points to the eventual loss of identity of the grey duck as a separate species in New Zealand, and the subsequent dominance of a hybrid swarm akin to the Mariana Mallard.

The Hardhead: Its a funny name if you think about it - Hardhead. (Also known as white-eyed Duck)
The Hardhead: Pictured in Eynesbury
and is the only true diving duck found in Australia. It is a member of Pochard group. Small ducks (45cm), they are coming in the South-East Australia and I saw this bird during my last day of birding in Australia in Eynesbury. 

The Blue-billed Duck: I did see one female blue-billed duck in far distance and am not including it as a good sight so would like to see it again if I was to ever get an opportunity. It is supposed to be a small Australian stiff-tailed duck The male is known to exhibit a complex mating ritual and has been listed as Near Threatened due to drainage of deep permanent wetlands and peripheral cattle grazing, salinisation and lower of ground water.

So well that's it, a great birding trip to Australia, but like I have said so many times before - birders like me are extremely greedy people - always asking for more. If I ever get an opportunity in my life - Australia I am coming back...

Next I will try and cover some more birds that I saw in Australia...

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