The Sydney forecast was a bit of a shock so early in October, four days of hot westerlies producing temperatures in the mid to high thirties. I’d planned a bird watching trip to the upper Hunter Valley over the long weekend but the thought of camping in the heat was enough to scuttle the idea. A better option for seeing some of the woodland birds I’d hoped to see further inland came in the form of an early morning trip to Scheyville in western Sydney.
Scheyville became a national park in 1996. Once cleared paddocks and playing fields, it is now a grassland with a sprinkling of mature trees along the creeks. Stands of saplings are expanding across the park, however the park retains an open character with long views towards the Blue Mountains. The mosaic of habitats is a fantastic place for woodland birds.
Our first stop was a derelict wheat silo that often houses a pair of barn owls. No such luck on this visit. Inspecting a nearby stand of eucalypts I noticed a tail dangling below a branch. It was a Tawny Frogmouth. The frogmouth sat in frozen stillness, eye narrowed to a slit and mottled plumage impersonating a broken branch. It didn’t move a millimetre even when I used the camera ‘s flash to light it amongst the dense foliage.
It struck me that this bird looked very different from every other Tawny Frogmouth I’ve seen. Instead of a rotund bird that looked back with a confident stare, this one was so sleek it was looked half the size. I realised that I normally see frogmouths at night with their feathers fluffed out like a mobile doona, not in daylight with the thermometer climbing into the thirties.
A cacophony of birdcalls was coming from the trees along the creekline. My brother in law, an very experienced bird watcher, identified one of the calls as a White Throated Warbler. White Throated Warblers were once a common throughout Sydney but have now disappeared from the suburbs and coastal bushland.
They certainly hadn’t disappeared from Scheyville. Several different pairs calling along the creek, and we found a pair constructing a nest next to a bridge over the creek. White Throated Warblers build a nest of fibrous materials bound together by spider web. All of my previous sightings of the species have been high in the canopy. This pair provided a much closer view. On one side of the track they had found an insect cocoon, which they were dismantling thread by thread. Beak full of silken threads they flew a couple of metres to the tall sapling where the nest was under construction. I could have reached out to the cocoon, and they showed no sign of being disturbed when I stood a couple of metres away at the lens’ minimum focus distance.
Leaving the warblers to their building we walked to a old farm dam surrounded by the thorny remains of blackberry bush. A loud call was coming out of the tangle, incredibly loud considering that the caller was a tiny Golden Headed Cisticola. They are a bird that prefers long grass and sedges around the edge of creeks and wetlands, places that normally make it difficult to get close. This one stayed in place as I snuck around the edge of the dam wall, creeping within about 5 metres for a shot of the cisticola singing its little heart out.
More bird calls were coming from up the creek, this time from a dispersed group. Once again Ian identified them by call before we saw them. They were White Browed Woodswallows, a bird of the semi-arid woodlands on the western side of the Great Divide.
Woodswallows catch flying insects just like swallows, martins and swifts. Compared to those strict insectivores woodswallows have another string in their bow, a brush shaped tongue to feed on pollen and nectar. This flock were sitting high in a stand of flowering gums. There seemed to be a dozen or so, mostly White Browed Woodswallows but also a few Masked Woodswallows, another western species.
Suddenly the flock took to the air, at which point we realised that there were at least two or even three hundred individuals. They flew away in a tight group. A Brown Goshawk glimpsed overhead explained the panic. The goshawk was carrying something in a talon. My photo was blurry with distance, but clear enough to see that it was a small bird such as a thornbill or wren.
The woodswallows flew a circuit then descended into the canopy of a large flowering eucalypt. A few moments later a Little Eagle flew over. The woodswallows hardly responded to the eagle, perhaps knowing it was far less likely than the goshawk to chase after such fast and agile prey.
By the time we reached the tree they’d moved again, spreading out along the creek. The morning was rapidly warming and the westerly wind growing in strength. Some of the woodswallows started to ride the rising thermals, while others waited on a perch to spot passing insects.
The increased activity provided lots of ‘bird in flight’ photo opportunities. As always when shooting up into the sky most of the images were of underexposed blobs of bird against the bright sky, but a few ventured low enough to capture against a darker background.
The hotter it got the more active these birds from the west became. We responded by retreated under the trees to get out of the heat. Zipping below the canopy was another species usually associated with the western slopes, Fuscous Honeyeater. Fuscous are found around Sydney but not usually in large numbers. This large group included a number of juveniles, suggesting that they’d bred nearby.
Many of the environmental characteristics of western Sydney’s Cumberland Plain have more in common with the western slopes than the coastal strip. That sense of the Cumberland Plain as Sydney’s patch of inland NSW was certainly reinforced by the arrival of the hot westerlies, accompanied by the birds from the west.
Odds and Sods of the week