Bright sunny days obscured by the smoke of the season’s first bushfires up in the Blue Mountains heralded the arrival of a new spring in Sydney. The building tempo of wildlife courtship and breeding offered another big cue for the change of seasons.
Tawny Crowned Honeyeaters are among the most inconspicuous wildlife of the coastal strip. Last weekend that sedate approach to life changed with small groups chasing one another all over the heath. It started with two or three of the honeyeaters landing in the same bush for a bout of competitive singing. The elaborate whistling calls quickly degenerated into noisy scolding, which in turn degenerated into a physical squabble followed by a high speed chase over and around the original perch. The mid air confrontations had a wonderfully balletic quality, with the birds twisting through matching manoeuvres before turning to grapple claw to claw.
Whether it was about territory or mates, the competition between Tawny Crowned Honeyeaters continued throughout my morning on the coast. Despite the showy battles they were far from the most obvious wildlife on the coast, with hundreds of New Holland Honeyeaters foraging along the cliff tops. They were perching right on the rocky cliff edges, intently searching for insects blown out to sea by the westerly winds. The honeyeaters caught most of their tiny prey within a couple of metres of the cliff edge, although I occasionally saw them sallying twenty or thirty metres out to sea.
The level of activity was amazing, with the birds rarely still for more than a few seconds at a time. The conditions obviously suited this foraging technique, with the wind blowing the insects off the heath and into the open, and the honeyeater were clearly keen for as much of the high protein packages as possible. Perfect for putting on condition and raising chicks.
Over the last few weeks the male Superb Wrens have been looking really motley as they moult into their bright breeding plumage. Crossing a creek on my way back to the car i noticed a flock of Superb Wrens buzzing around the dense creekside vegetation. Waiting beside a exposed branch produced several chances to photograph first the male, now resplendent in full breeding plumage then the accompanying females.
Leaning back at home with a cup of coffee I noticed the bobbing green form of a Praying Mantis in a verandah pot plant. Another sure sign that insect activity was on the rise. A quick lens change and a couple of shots before the mantis took exception and flew off.
Late on Sunday I headed back to the coast in the hope that the smoke from the Blue Mountains fires would make for an interesting sunset. No such luck, but what I discovered was that the frenetic honeyeater of the morning before was continuing unabated into the evening. The New Holland Honeyeaters were still the most abundant species, however there were also plenty of Little Wattlebirds hawking for insects. The New Holland Honeyeaters catch tiny insects that are barely visible in flight, while the Little Wattlebirds were capturing much larger flying insects, easily visible in the rapidly darkening conditions.
Photographing birds in flight is always technically challenging. It can be difficult to get your subject in focus, especially against ‘busy’ backgrounds. Accurate focus is no guarantee of a sharp photo, you also need a fast enough shutter speed to freeze at least the head and body of the bird. A fast shutter speed needs to be balanced against a wide aperture, which limits depth of field, and a high ISO, which creates a grainy appearance that further reduces sharpness. All of these factors reduce the dynamic range and vibrancy of the image, producing colourless images with low contrast. It is always a balancing act that demands lots of compromises.
Perversely, this all gets much easier as the light drops. The reason is that, instead of trying to capture a sharp and colourful image of a bird in flight, anything that is silhouetted against the glowing sunset becomes a sharply defined outline. It is a bit like photographing flying shadow puppets. It was even possible to capture the outline of the insects the Little Wattlebirds were chasing.
The action on the cliff tops was all about the impending arrival of spring. A couple of nights before the weekend I had a stark reminder that winter still has a hold on many other species of local wildlife, with a cold dive at the entrance to the Hacking River. The upside of the cold is that the plankton densities are at their lowest point of the year and the water is wonderfully clear. A very welcome sighting early in the dive was a large Eastern Blue Devil, a spectacular fish of temperate reefs. Other regular winter fish included Sergeant Baker, Yellow Finned Leatherjacket and Blue Lined Goatfish. It is always enjoyable finding and photographing sleeping fish (they don’t tend to swim away) but the real highlight were all the Sea Cucumbers out on the reef.
These echinoderms look like huge fat slugs during the day, but at night they creep to a high point on the reef and a wide array of tentacles emerge from the oral cavity at one end. Each tentacle splits into a myriad of smaller tendrils that lock together into a dense net. They methodically curl the tentacles into their mouth one after another, ‘licking’ off any captured debris.
While I was photographing a Sea Cucumber a very pregnant Port Jackson Shark swam past and bumped into my shoulder. It should be only a week or two until the baby sharks start appearing around the estuary, my time very favourite sign of spring!