After reading multiple reports over the past fortnight of Azure Kingfishers being spotted along the Yarra River, I was determined to see one, and so planned a multi-stop birding day out in bushland within an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s CBD.
The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of a light drizzle in the morning, which seemed to me like good enough odds for a dry day. Oh how wrong I was, because that translated into a 100% chance of a wet morning along the Yarra River! When we arrived at the ‘Grotty Pond’, just off Banyule Road at Banyule Flats, there was a light and persistent drizzle which we dismissed and proceeded to search for Spotless Crakes. However, I forgot how pernicious this type of precipitation was during my time in London, where it would ‘spit’ for days: without even realising it, cameras, glasses, binoculars, hats, shoes, and clothes were soaked within 10mins!
The Grotty Pond, so named because of all the rubbish that accumulates in this small pond, seemed to have been recently cleared of obstructing vegetation, and so we had clear views of prime crake habitat. We ticked Purple Swamphen, Spotted Dove and Crested Pigeon, before Imka shouted “Crake!” (turns out it was a juvenile Dusky Moorhen), and then two minutes later screamed “Crake!” again (but it was a Buff-banded Rail). In her defence, they were easy mistakes to make because the lighting was poor, lenses were misted over, the drizzle was turning into rain, and both birds were skulking through the reeds as we would expect of crakes. We had given up on finding a crake, and were about to leave, when suddenly a large brown bird flew up from behind a large clump of reeds and landed on a branch: it was a Nankeen Night-Heron! We had only ever seen this species a couple times before, and since we had never recorded one at this location on more than a dozen visits, its presence was both unexpected and thrilling. It really is a fascinating bird and although we didn’t see any crakes this time, we were most pleased with the 5min heron experience.
Our next stop was the main pond at Banyule Flats, accessed from the carpark near the sports ground at the end of Somerset Drive. We walked to the pond with our cameras shielded in our jackets the way criminals in the movies try to hide sawn-off shotguns or samurai swords in trench coats as they walk ‘casually’ down Main Street. We quickly ticked Silver Gull, Eurasian Coot, Common Starling, Black-winged Stilt, Chestnut Teal, Welcome Swallow, Hoary-headed Grebe, and a couple Latham’s Snipes – the latter being a target species. I was secretly hoping to see the Azure Kingfisher that was reported on the bank of the pond a fortnight earlier, but it didn’t make an appearance. By now visibility was reduced to a few dozen metres as the rain bucketed down, and after hearing “I thought you said “light drizzle”?” for about the sixth time that morning, we decided to return home for a change of clothes. 🙂 Our cats were most perplexed to see us returning home after just two hours, and one even refused to leave the warmth of her igloo to greet us.
After drying our shoes with a hair dryer (!) and changing into clean clothes, hats, and socks, we were off again for ‘Yarra River Birding: Take Two” with the next stop being Bonds Road, Lower Plenty. Birders had tipped us off that Mistletoebirds were fairly reliable along the Main Yarra Trail near the powerlines, and since it had been a bogey bird for some five years, we were determined to track down this species. There are some fabulous, million-dollar houses sitting on thousands of square metres of well-manicured gardens in this neighbourhood, so it’s worth a drive here just to sightsee at least.
As soon as we started walking in a westerly direction along the Main Yarra Trail, it started raining again, and we were drenched by the time we got to the first mistletoe-covered tree, but not before we ticked Striated Pardalote. We were immediately drawn by the unmistakeable call of Mistletoebirds, and in our haste to find them, we spooked a small flock of well-camouflaged Common Bronzewings which were foraging on the floor just metres away. Our target species was calling from high in the canopy, and with the poor light, it was near impossible to spot them, until Imka, with her 150-600mm Tamron lens called me via walkie-talkie to say that she found them. I rushed over to where she had her camera pointed skyward, and there on a bare branch, was a female Mistletoebird, as clear as can be on a cloudy day. We were determined to see a male, and right on cue, a brightly coloured and vocal male landed near the female, affording crippling views of a species that eluded us since we first started birding. They stayed long enough for us to get distracted by a large mob of kangaroos in a paddock crawling under a fence, and a pair of (male?) kangaroos engaged in a boxing match. We had only ever seen this behaviour on wildlife television documentaries, and so we stood there mesmerised, as two large males boxed, grappled, and kicked like schoolboys on a playground, fighting over a female which probably ran off with another male in the mob! Soaked through and through, we returned to the car with smiles on our faces as we added another lifer to our list.
An Azure Kingfisher was reported at Pound Bend a week prior, so this was our next ‘up-river’ destination. After a pitstop at the relatively decent toilet blocks, we made our way towards the tunnel, where I was most amused to see a group of about a dozen young men in high spirits emerging from the tunnel on inflatable toys. We then backtracked and headed along the river walk, looking towards the river for kingfishers, and towards the trees for anything else of interest. We ticked White-eared Honeyeater, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Red-browed Finch, Laughing Kookaburra and White-browed Scrubwren, to name a few, but still no sight of kingfishers. I ventured off-path when I spied a little bird flying down to the forest floor and back up again; while photographing what turned out to be an Eastern Yellow-robin, a small parrot landed on a branch not 2 metres above my head. It didn’t seem too bothered by our presence, and after some debate in the birding community, it was later identified as an escaped juvenile Scarlet-chested Parrot! It was a most thrilling, albeit untickable, find for us that compensated for the ‘kingfisher drought’.
Our final stop was the Wonga Park Wetlands at the base of Mount Lofty and just north-east of the golf course. We parked at the end of Lower Homestead Road and proceeded eastwards along the river, armed with pinpoint directions from a birder who had seen the bird and reported it on Eremaea just the day before. I was most pleased with the large number of birds flitting through the trees, across the river, and along the floor. My jaw dropped when I discovered that the first bird I focused on with my binoculars was none other than a male Mistletoebird: a species that eluded us for years and was first ticked just a couple hours earlier! Such is birding: once you see a species once, they start showing up everywhere!
Right where the Azure Kingfisher was spotted the days before, our hearts skipped a beat when we saw a blue kingfisher on a branch. It was ‘only’ a Sacred Kingfisher, but it was such a beautiful specimen, with its iridescent blue feathers sparkling in the intermittent sunlight, that we were happy to enjoy its presence for 5 minutes. As we made our way further along the path, we ticked other birds we had seen elsewhere for the day, and were elated to see an Olive-backed Oriole high up in a tree. Tall grasses obscured the view of the wetlands from the birdhide, but a quick wander off-path allowed clear views of the lake and its ibises and cormorants. After an hour and a half, we left without seeing the Azure Kingfisher, but still in high spirits. Far too much of Melbourne’s best Cherry Pork Spare Ribs for dinner rounded off a rewarding day where the sterile tally of “51 birds” simply doesn’t capture the memorable experiences we shared with amazing birds in stunning bushland, less than an hour’s drive from the city centre.