Friday, 31 May 2013

Mahabalipuram, Chennai, May 2013

Mahabalipuram, or Mammalipuram if you prefer and have an interest in wrestling, is about 60kms south of Chennai (Madras). This was to have been a cultural jolly with my colleague DN, but there were some birds of note and I managed a couple of pictures. Birdwatching has been difficult this week with temperatures at 40C+ and sites with inconvenient opening times, so a jaunt along the coast seemed like a good way to while away the day.

Mahabalipuram is an ancient historic town famed for its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is home to rock-cut architecture dating back to the 7th century. Wonderful temples have been carved into the granite rock faces and Rathas, representations of chariots, hewn from single monoliths. D has a website that is less ornithocentric and more culturally biased than mine. She is planning a post to explore the wonders of the art and architecture here and I will make the link once she publishes her post for the trip.

The journey was made in around 90 minutes with a few birds seen along the way. Notably the Muttukadu Backwaters (Google Earth ref; 12 48 10.19N 18 14 33.08E) that feed the salt extraction beds held Painted Storks, Spot-billed Pelican and Pied Kingfishers. It is very awkward to stop and get a good look from here, but there is a turn off to the west about 2 kilometers further south. There were numbers of Little Egret here today. In its season, I would bet that there would be some good wader-watching in this area. In the absence of a safe place to stop, this photo from taken from a speeding tuk-tuk and shows some Black-winged Stilt and Cattle Egrets which I did not spot at the time.

The phone lines proved to be the most productive habitat along the road with Green Bee-eaters, Indian Rollers, White-throated Kingfishers and Ashy Woodswallows.

Once at Mahabalipuram, we went straight to the biggest tourist spot, site of the Varaha Cave Temple and Krishna’s Butterball. Painted Storks flew in circles to gain some height from a column of warm air rising above the rocks that were already radiating after a morning in the intense heat.

A couple of Shikras made a fly past around the lighthouse and a pair of White-browed Bulbuls made me check the field guide to see if they needed the red –crayon.

A bird that I initially mistook for a Shikra was perched in the shade of a low tree, but once I got a good look at it, it was obviously a Common Hawk Cuckoo. Also known colloquially as the Brain-fever Bird,its call builds climactically as the monsoon rains approach.

Birds seen;
Painted Stork 25, Shikra 2, Common Hawk-cuckoo 1, Asian Palm Swift 8, Green Bee-eater 5, Coppersmith Barbet 1, House Crow 100, Large-billed Crow 6, Red-vented Bulbul 2, White-browed Bulbul 2.
Painted Stork 80, Spot-billed Pelican 4, Little Egret 15, Indian Pond Heron 1, Black-headed Ibis 3, Eurasian Kestrel 2, Asian Palm Swift 8, White-throated Kingfisher 2, Pied Kingfisher 4, Green Bee-eater 4, Indian Roller 3, Ashy Woodswallow 1, Rufous Treepie 1, House Crow 100.

We were invited to take a ride down to Mahabalipuram by our tuk-tuk driver. However, the authorised drivers from the hotel gazumped him with a lower bid. IR 1,000 was the winning price, but he supplemented his fare by overcharging for tolls and parking. There are some nice-looking beach resorts along the coastal road and we can recommend Ideal Beach Resort for lunch on the return. 

Lotus Flower

Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Theosophical Gardens, Chennai, May 2013

The world headquarters of the Theosophical Society are situated by the river in Chennai (Madras) surrounded by light woodland, palms and huge, ancient Banyan trees. It is a developer’s dream in the heart of the city and one of only a few places that I was able to find where I could get away from the frenetic pace of the city. Members of the Theosophical Society, do not necessarily share the same beliefs, but unite in a common search for the Truth. Theirs is a way of reflection, high ideals and tolerance, so I felt sure that I would receive a warm welcome. Actually, it was shut.

For such a haven in a big Indian city, it is generously open between 08.30 and 10.00 in the morning and 14.00 to 16.00 in the afternoon. Admittedly these are not the perfect times for birdwatching, but in a peaceful place such as this, compiling a big list lost its relevance. The score was not important. This post reflects a couple of visits. The second was in the company of my beautiful colleague, DN, but both were all too brief.
There is no charge for entry, but the opening times are strictly adhered to. Small cameras are permitted, but big lenses are not.

From the entrance on Besant Ave (Google Earth ref; 13 0 28.19N 80 15 58.42E) I wandered with no particular direction, following the most likely roads and bird calls, quickly finding Rose-ringed Parakeets, Coppersmith Barbet, Black-rumped Flameback and Yellow-billed Babbler.

Soon I came to a big Banyan Tree. A large branch had been propped up by a metal support, but was no longer connected to the trunk which had begun to rot away. Instead, it was now supported by the aerial roots which had, over many years, grown to the ground and become trunks of their own. The shock of the day was a small group of Spot-billed Pelicans which flew over from the nearby river.  I only realised that they warranted the red pen when my software blew a fanfare as I entered them onto the list. Similarly the Loten’s or Long-billed Sunbird provoked the brass. This was unexpected as I thought that I had seen one on a previous visit to the area. Checking back, I had entered the very similar Purple Sunbird which was also present in the gardens.

Away from the noise of the road it was easy to follow bird calls and the Coppersmith Barbet could be heard throughout the gardens. An Oriental Magpie Robin called sweetly from a low branch and a Hoopoe flew across the road. 

There was an even bigger Banyan Tree further in that covers about an acre of ground. The trunk and original branches of this tree have completely rotted away, leaving just the aerial roots supporting themselves. A male Asian Koel flew in and sat long enough for a good look. Beyond this point is Leadbeater Ave which is a private residential area and a security guard gently called my attention to this.

Besant Avenue

It is possible to enter the gardens at the gate on Besant Avenue and exit at the gate close to the southern end of Thiru Vi-Ka Bridge (Google Earth ref; 13 0 37.51N 80 15 33.48E) or vice versa if you prefer.

Immediately across from the gate on Besant Ave is another area of pastoral calm in Besant Gardens. I left the gardens at 16.00 as visiting hours require and popped my head through the gate to see if it was possible to walk there. A guard there appeared not to be concerned and I asked in my best Tamil Nadu dialect (which is actually just English, loud, with an accent) if I could use my camera here. He didn’t object which I took as tacit approval.

A path leads round to the left from the gate. I followed this and noted many of the same birds that I had seen in the similar habitat across the road. Soon I came to an open playing field and flushed a couple of European Thick-knees.

The path took me in a circle back into the trees and past a small pond. White-throated Kingfishers appeared to adorn every perch with three of them within 10 feet of each other.

Beyond here was a Mango orchard and a palm grove which made part of a small farm that also kept a few cows. Even the dogs here, which normally bark their heads off when a stranger passes, were subdued and peaceful. They came out to check me over and escorted me a short way along the path, but they were not at all threatening in the way of many street dogs.

I was a bit surprised that the gardens on the south side of Besant Avenue were not subject to the same visiting hours as the main gardens and I wonder if the guard was feeling especially generous this evening.

Bird seen; 21

Spot-billed Pelican 3, Indian Pond Heron1, White-breasted Waterhen 1, Eurasian Thick-knee 2, Rose-ringed Parakeet 35, Asian Koel 4, Greater Coucal 1, White-throated Kingfisher 3, Green Bee-eater 3, Eurasian Hoopoe 1, Coppersmith Barbet 5, Black-rumped Flameback 3, Rufous Treepie 1, House Crow 60, Large-billed Crow 1, Red-vented Bulbul 4, Yellow-billed Babbler 5, Oriental Magpie Robin 1, Common Myna 14, Purple Sunbird 4, Long-billed Sunbird 2.


Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Dairy Farm Nature Reserve, Singapore, May 2013

My intended site today was to have been Bukit Timah, the forested hill in the middle of Singapore. A worn track up the side of an embankment caught my eye however and I found myself, unexpectedly at Singapore Quarry.
The approach to Bukit Timah passes under what I had previously assumed to be a railway bridge, but I had never paid much attention to it and had never seen a train crossing it. 

A worn track led me up to it and revealed that it was the old Malayan Railway, now disused, but with remnants left as a reminder (Google Earth ref; 1 20 44.15N 103 46 31.32E). Now it is a path that leads around the base of Bukit Timah on its eastern side. Unlike the very popular reserve, this path was very quiet and I walked it for an hour without seeing a single person.

The path is thickly wooded on the reserve side with trees and bushes screening a housing estate on the other side. Pin-striped Tit-babblers and Yellow-vented Bulbuls were seen in the low down vegetation and a Lineated Barbet called and was eventually found in a lightly leaved tree.

A flock of Asian Glossy Starlings were seen feeding in a berry tree. The flock had members at various stages of maturity including insistent chicks and a sub-adult which had almost attained its adult plumage, but still retained a youthful streaking on its breast.

Since my inquisitive nose had paid off earlier, I trusted it again and took another path-less-travelled-by that led up by the support of a bridge that crossed the path (1 21 18.54N 103 46 10.60E). The bridge is disused now, but led me up to a road which curved round to Singapore Quarry.

Despite finding it by sheer dumb luck, I recognised it immediately as a site mentioned in my new odonata book for Singapore. Decking juts out into the water and provides a great platform for dragonfly watching in the vegetation which has been sympathetically planted around it.

A group from Singapore’s N Parks division were conducting a wildlife survey including birds, butterflies and dragonflies. What luck to stumble upon them! The bird expert, Ryutah, informed me that they had seen the Blue-eared Kingfisher this morning which I was very keen to find so I staked out the birds preferred branch and within half an hour, it flew in, stopped for a moment and flew on.

Olive-winged Bulbuls were seen in the grasses in the water, but I could not get a decent picture of one until it came in close to join me in the shade.

As well as a red-letter kingfisher, the quarry brought a delightful bronzeback snake. Although one of the wildlife group called it as an Elegant Bronzeback, I suspect that it may be a Blue Bronzeback as the eye is not too big and the black streak does not extend onto the lips. I am very happy to be corrected if anyone knows for sure.

Follow the road around from the quarry and after a kilometre, you will find the Wallace Education Centre (Google Earth ref; 1 21 37.16N 103 46 37.72E) which includes a trail that is unfortunately impassable at the moment.

The centre is built in the old Dairy Farm buildings and celebrates the contribution of Alfred Russel Wallace to the study of evolution by natural selection and geographical influence. The quarry and the 60 acres that make up the light green in the map above are collectively known as the Dairy Farm Nature Park.

Birds seen;

White-bellied Sea-Eagle 1, Changeable Hawk-eagle 1, Spotted Dove 11, Zebra Dove 2, Pink-necked Pigeon 12, Blue-eared Kingfisher 1, Collared Kingfisher 1, Lineated Barbet 1, Common Flameback 1, Common Iora 2, Pied Triller 1, Black-naped Oriole 8, House Crow 5, Pacific Swallow 11, Yellow-vented Bulbul 12, Olive-winged Bulbul 4, Dark-necked Tailorbird 1, Oriental White-eye 10, Pin-striped Tit-babbler 6, Asian Glossy Starling 31, Javan Myna 32, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker 1, Olive-backed Sunbird 1, Crimson Sunbird 3, Little Spiderhunter 1, Eurasian Tree Sparrow 8, Nutmeg Mannikin 2.

Return to the junction of Dairy Farm Road and Upper Bukit Timah Road for the best chance of finding a taxi to take you to the nearest SMRT station.

Visit the dedicated Oriental Page for more posts from Singapore including; Paser Ris and Bukit Timah.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Uloola Trail, Royal National Park, Sydney, May 2013

Royal National Park can be found south of Sydney Airport. The Uloola Trail runs into the park from Waterfall train station which can be seen at Google Earth ref; 34 8 6.32S 150 59 43.75E. The trail runs for nearly 6kms through eucalypt woodland mixed with coastal heath and scrub. At the end of the trail is a waterfall which can be dry during the summer.

During the hot months this can be a hard walk with no facilities and no water, but the Austral summer is over and the mild weather was extremely pleasant for birding today. The cooler morning brought a slight mist and a grey sky which made the early pictures a little dull, but the Rainbow Parakeets brightened them up somewhat.

The trailhead is signed from the station car park on the east side of the tracks. It is a narrow path at the start, but opens out onto a meadow which may be the local Aussie Rules oval during the season. From here it joins the wider trail that is wide enough for vehicles, though a barrier prevents public access by car.

Birds were seen almost immediately. Yellow-faced Honeyeaters were especially common in the gum trees, often accompanying other birds in mixed flocks or escorting the Red Wattlebirds about their business. Wattlebirds are also honeyeaters and feed on nectar using their long brushy tongues, so I wondered why the Yellow-faced Honeyeaters felt the need to keep such close tabs on them. They also include insects as part of their diet, but I can find no mention of them being a potential threat to other birds.
The mixed flocks contained Striated Thornbill, Scarlet Myzomela, White-naped Honeyeaters and Eastern Spinebills.

Silver-eyes often made up part of the mixed flocks, but were also seen in their own single-species flocks.

As the trees gave way to heath and scrub, New Holland Honeyeaters became the predominant species. They responded quite well to “pishing” but were not easily approachable during the earlier part of the morning.

As the day wore on, they appeared to become less wary and I was able to watch them as they hawked for small insects that flew above them.
Eastern Yellow Robins and Yellow-tailed Black Cocakatoos were seen in the more thickly wooded areas, with Aussie Ravens, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Pied Currawongs recorded as flyovers.

The birds were so prolific today that I moved very slowly along the trail. It very quickly became obvious that I was not going to make it as far as the waterfall and back in time to catch my homeward flight. Thus, without a definite target to achieve, I could afford to dawdle and enjoy.
Birds seen; 15
Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo 2, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo 5, Rainbow Lorikeet 40, Eastern Spinebill 25, Yellow-faced Honeyeater 200, Red Wattlebird 25, Little Wattlebird 1, Scarlet Myzomela 4, New Holland Honeyeater 130, White-naped Honeyeater 15, Striated Thornbill 25, Pied Currawong 2, Golden Whistler 1, Australian Raven 2, Eastern Yellow Robin 2, Silver-eye 80.
Waterfall Station is about an hour south of Sydney on the South Coast, Illawarra Line. This line passes through the city and I caught it from Town Hall.
There is a local train which stops at all the small stations en-route. The express train is much quicker.
The fare was Aus$9 for a day return ticket. There are no facilities along the trail, but toilets and a cold drinks machine are available at the station.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Bi-Centennial Park, Sydney, May 2013

I don’t know how I previously missed this little short cut from Powell’s Creek Park into Sydney’s Bi-Centennial Park. A small bridge leads from the northernmost tip of Powell Creek Park, crossing the creek’s western fork into Bressingham Park. A grassy plateau looks down onto playing fields to the southwest and the creek to the east. 

A Black-shouldered Kite watched over the rough grass, on the lookout for any small thing that moved. A path passes beneath the motorway and into Bi-centennial Park at Google Earth ref; 33 51 2.46S 151 4 52.46E. From here, it may be as well to explore the freshwater Lake Belvedere to the west, but I didn’t quite have my bearings and continued north towards the mangroves.

A small flock of Galahs fed on grass stalks, but it is probably too late now for the 10,000 Birds Pink Weekend. Noisy Miners called from the tops of mangroves by the path, upset by a pair of Australian Ravens that had just passed over.

I was heading north, towards the lagoon, but had to pick up the pace through the mangroves as a large group of school children were gathering and I wanted to stay ahead of them.

I was slowed by a Willie Wagtail, Yellow Thornbills and a Spotted Pardalote.

There were plenty of Grey Teal and Chestnut Teal on the lagoon. I sometimes struggle to separate Grey Teal and Chestnut Teal, but today they appeared obviously different. Perhaps this was a non-breeding male, but it stood out distinctly from the light-faced greys. 

Australian Pelican, Black Swan and Australian Grebe were also present in smaller numbers. With a field guide, I might have tried to make a Hoary-headed Grebe, but in their winter gear, I wasn’t confident.

From the hide at the northern end (Google Earth ref; 33 50 8.87S 151 4 43.77E) I could look out over the lagoon and count the Pied Stilt, Black-fronted Dotterel and Superb Fairywrens.

Homebush Bay was used in the past as a wrecking site for old boats. The rotting hulks are still there and usually provide a good roosting spot for cormorants and gulls, but there were only very few today.

From here, I retraced my steps along the path that runs bedside the lagoon and cut right onto the Badu Mangrove boardwalk. The boardwalk has never been terribly productive for birds, but the freshwater ponds that lie at the far end are usually interesting (Google Earth ref; 33 50 40.32S 151 4 35.95). Royal Spoonbills can often be found here and sure enough, one flew in to join another that was preening on a small island.

At the southern end of the freshwater pond path open lawns lead up and over a small rise. The lawns are usually a reliable place to find Masked Lapwings. Thence to Lake Belvedere, where cormorants and Australian Darters were still tending young in their nests. Four species of cormorant were seen here with Welcome Swallows, Dusky Moorhen and Pacific Black Duck. In the trees by the car park a flock of Little Corella made my third cockatoo species of the day.

Birds seen; 46

Black Swan 3, Pacific Black Duck 2, Grey Teal 120, Chestnut Teal 50, White-eyed Duck 1, Australian Grebe 5, Hoary-headed Grebe 2, Little Black Cormorant 5, Great Cormorant 6, Pied Cormorant 40, Little Pied Cormorant 8, Australian Darter 6, Australian Pelican 6, Great Egret 2, White-faced Heron 7, Little Egret 2, Australian Ibis 1, Royal Spoonbill 2, Australian Kite 1, Brown Goshawk 1, Purple Swamphen 15Dusky Moorhen 35, Eurasian Coot 350, Red-kneed Dotterel 1, Black-fronted Dotterel 8, Pied Stilt 120, Silver Gull 30, Spotted Dove 10, Galah 7, Little Corella 35, Rainbow Lorikeet 15, Superb Fairywren 35, White-plumed Honeyeater 2, Noisy Miner 8, Red Wattlebird 1, Spotted Pardalote 2, Yellow Thornbill 20, Australian Magpie 6, Pied Currawong 2, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike 3, Australian Figbird 1, Willie- Wagtail 2, Grey Fantail 2, Magpie-lark 3, Australian Raven 2, Welcome Swallow 15, Silver-eye 20.

For Bi-Centennial Park, take the Northern (red) Line towards Epping and get off at Concorde West (Google Earth ref; 33 50 52.69S 151 5 7.10E). Exit to the west and follow Victoria Ave for 250m. Pass under the motorway and “Voila!”

For previous posts from Bi-Centennial Park, follow the links below;

Visit the dedicated Australia Page for more posts from Sydney including North Heads and the Sydney Botanic Gardens.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Powell's Creek Park, Sydney, May 2013

Powell’s Creek Park can be visited at the same time as Sydney’s Bi-Centennial Park (Olympic Park). It encloses a much smaller area, but often provides the missing species that might otherwise have been seen in the bigger preserve.

The approach (turning south from Victoria Ave) brought White-faced Heron, Masked Lapwing and a Magpie Lark that sat out very boldly. On the water, I was concerned to see that it was very quiet, but many of the birds had collected at the far end. Black Swans, Grey Teal and Chestnut Teal were roosting in the early morning light. The temperature in Sydney was on the turn this May morning and the birds may have been basking in the early sun to drive off a slight chill.

The sighting which gave me the most pleasure was the Red-kneed Dotterel, a bird that I had not seen for many years.

New Holland Honeyeaters and Yellow-Thornbills were seen in the path-side trees and a Great Egret flushed from the near bank..

At the top end of the reserve is a small patch of woodland that quickly became the main focus for my camera (Google Earth ref; 33 51 21.56S 151 4 57.77E). A Golden Whistler called strongly, but I was reluctant to put its ID down on paper until I could get to a field guide and confirm it.

There was no such problem with the Red-browed Firetails which had gathered in a small flock to sunbathe amongst the dewy fronds of grass.

A Grey Fantail and a flock of Silver-eyes passed through at the same time and the copse appeared to be full of birds.

At Google Earth ref; 33 51 8.59S 151 4 54.98E, is a small bridge crossing the creek. This leads to Bressingham Park and then under the motorway to Bi-centennial Park.
Birds seen; 28

Black Swan 2, Grey Teal 60, Chestnut Teal 15, Great Egret 1, White-faced Heron 1, Dusky Moorhen 3, Eurasian Coot 12, Masked Lapwing 3, Red-kneed Dotterel 3, Spotted Dove 5, Crested Pigeon 4, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo 2, Rainbow Lorikeet 10, Superb Fairywren 15, Noisy Miner 6, New Holland Honeyeataer 2, Yellow-Thornbill 6, Australian Magpie 2, Pied Currawong 2, Golden Whistler 1, Grey Fantail 2, Magpie-lark 2, Australian Raven 2, Welcome Swallow 6, Silver-eye 8, Common Myna 6, European Starling 6, Red-browed Firetail 25.

Take the Northern (red) Line towards Epping and get off at Concorde West (Google Earth ref; 33 50 52.69S 151 5 7.10E). Exit to the west and follow Victoria Ave for 250m. A sign will direct you left (south) to Powells Creek which you will find over a small bridge on the right after 500m.