Wednesday, November 26, 2008

'Zweep' for rare wagtails

The Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) pops up as a summer migrant along most of the eastern coastline down to Victoria. The birds are usually of the race simillina (from E. Russia), less often taivana (Asia, Japan).

Rarer still, mostly, are Citrine, Grey, Black-backed and White Wagtails. If there be a wagtail heaven in Australia for birdwatchers it is Darwin, where almost all races of almost all species may turn up.

Want to find a rare wagtail? Do not follow the guide books to playing fields, airstrips and other mown areas. Instead, take their sometimes advice and get yourself near sewerage lagoons, spread sludge, or water treatment ponds. Not so easy in many places and cases.

Or wait till someone else finds one. Or two. Or three. Or four. Perhaps even five. You've guessed it! I am that someone else.

Took a late afternoon drive yesterday to some ponds and in the breaking gloom of distant thunder clouds heard a high, sweet 'zweep zweep'. Focussed too late on small bird ascending rapidly off muddy area of pond and climbing high before disappearing west.

But the Yellow Wagtail's 'zweep' is not too different from the Australasian Pipit's call. The area is base to two or three pairs of pipits (a bird which normally flies low when disturbed and returns to ground quickly).

After a hectic morning watching Euro soccer (lucky Arsenal!), fixing bicycle, getting in way of water blasting the caravan (oops, partly inside!) and seeing a false roof fitted (less heat, fewer leaks, reduced rain noise), I headed off hoping to confirm wagtail's presence to the east.

No joy on first patrol of pond system. Then, more 'zweeping'. Forty metres away, a rather yellow Yellow Wagtail. On the algal green surface of a drying section of pond mud. Quick pictures. Race off for tripod. Return to find Black-fronted Dotterels chasing wagtail. More quick pictures before bird quits under dotterel harassment.

Trudge off in 35C heat and tons of sun in pursuit. Criss-cross dried weed-filled pond. Chase after possible two birds. Much more 'zweeping' and see four or five birds leave ponds and go to ground in waist-high sugar cane.

Two birds then head off to nearby trees. Two return toward where the chase began. More hot trudging. No birds on the mud. But more sounds heading back toward the cane.

Trudge back and find non-yellow Yellow Wagtail calling from a mass of dried floating pond grass. Better pictures, but unable to get really close before bird lifts off and disappears west.

My experience suggests the birds will stick around so long as the mud areas continue to be uncovered. However, much of the ponds' cane grass and bulrush were dug out this year, and some ponds are also carrying high water levels. Experience must often give way to changed conditions.

But between now and the beginnings of the Wet I'll somehow sneak close to one or two of my four or five Yellow Wagtails. It's on my Xmas list!


Snail said...

Well done! A good catch.

Years ago someone brought in a dead wagtail to the Museum of Tropical Queensland. It was such a long time ago that I can't remember which species but I suspect it was a yellow wagtail. Poor little devil had been hit by a car. Luckily someone recognised its significance.

Tyto Tony said...

Seems somehow sadder, coming so far alive and dying on a far-flung road.

Duncan said...

Well done Tony, I'd like to see just one!

Martin C said...

Hi Tony, which ponds are you talking about? the ones at the mill wetlands or others?
I'd love to see these birds and the school holidays are approaching so I have time to do some prowling.

Tyto Tony said...

Hi Martin:

Um. This is a bit delicate. If you've already got mill permission, no problem.

My deal with management is access and passing on info - without drawing attention to the precise locations. Hordes of birdos are unwanted.

So, for example, my sighting awaiting posting on Eremaea does not mention mill at all.

FYI: Birds not at ponds early today, but one flew away from the Hinch Community Wetland ponds when I popped in there.

Cheers, Tony

Mosura said...

Nice one! I couldn't even find a yellow wagtail when I was in Britain. (too far north) Plenty of greys and pieds though.

Tyto Tony said...

Gidday Duncan and Mosura:

I didn't get so lucky today.

And I've killed some software, which took with it all pathways to my DVD/CD :-(

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