I arrived at Merries reef at sunset. Barely enough time for a few shots of Double Banded Plovers in the last rays of sunlight before the shadows descended. Wishing I’d been faster on the first leg I turned towards the glowing horizon and started the long walk back to Cronulla.
You never know how a sunset is going to turn out. Sometimes the intense colours blow your mind; other nights all that happens is that it gets darker. Even a subdued sunset, such as this evening, improves when reflected off the wet sand of a shallow beach. Despite wanting to get back before pitch dark I stopped every few moments to photograph the fading light on beach and sky. By the time I’d reached the half way mark I was the only one on the beach, the hundreds of walkers, runners and dogs of the late afternoon departed.
One last image of the beach and I put camera in the backpack. A couple of minutes later I saw two birds wading around the edge of the waves. Pied Oystercatchers, silhouetted against the last glow of the sunset, probing for pipis in the retreating water. I watched the pair extract one shellfish after another, so efficiently that it them took longer to prise open and eat each pipi than to find the next one.
Maybe pipis come closer to the surface after daylight, or perhaps I chanced upon the perfect stage of the tide for the oystercatcher’s technique. My strong suspicion, however, is that the bird’s arrival after sunset had everything to do with the departure of the beachgoers. I reckon they were taking advantage of the gap between sunset and dark, a precious half hour when the beach could belong to them.
Needless to say it hadn’t got any brighter since I decided it was too dark for photography. My only option was to crank up the ISO (light sensitivity) to 6400, knowing full well that the result would be noisy, grainy images. Oh well, at least they’d be images. A few minutes later the light had dropped so far all I was capturing was a vague blur in the frame. I flicked up the flash, waited for one of the oystercatchers to crack open another pipi and took a shot. The birds dashed ahead, one more photo and then I left them alone to finish their feeding.
Peregrine Falcons are found different habitats across the world, but first and foremost they are birds of the coastal cliffs. The thin edge between land and sea provides the uninterrupted air space they need to dive in pursuit of prey, along with a passing parade of seabirds. Cliffs combine high vantage points to scan for prey along with security from terrestrial threats such as people.
Over the last couple of months I’ve watched pairs of Peregrine Falcons setting up territories along segments of the Sydney coast. Most of the pairs were spotted sitting near one another on a protruding section of cliff edge. Approach and they disappear over the edge to find a less visible perch. The abundance of secure perches along the cliffs allows a very wary animal to live in close proximity to high disturbance areas such as walking tracks.
Last weekend and the only Peregrines I saw were solo birds. I suspect they have started nesting and the other birds are sitting on eggs. Half an hour of cautious maneuvering around Marley Headland provided three different views of the waiting male. At one point he dove down after a passing Great Cormorant, a bird at least twice his weight. The strike missed and the cormorant dropped into the sea. It swam down the coast, seemingly more confident of its ability to avoid the threatening falcon in the water than air.
Little Pied Cormorant
The way birds behave on Merries Reef depends on the tide. At low tide the waders spend their time searching the exposed edge of the rock platform for food. As the tide rises only permanently dry rocks remain. Those areas make poor pickings for the waders so they take time out to rest. Flocks of terns and gulls often join them for the high tide snooze.
An exception to all the sleeping and preening is Little Pied Cormorants. As the tide rises water flows into small gutters and pools on the rock platform, and amongst that flowing water are lots of small mullet and other juvenile fish. Several times over recent months I’ve watched Little Pied Cormorants weaving their way between the flocks of roosting waders and seabirds to fish in these tiny patches of water, most of which are less than ten centimetres in depth. It’s fascinating watching the cormorants in action in these small spaces, heads rising and tossing back to swallow silvery fry.
I hadn’t dived for several weeks, not since the last big east coast low turned the Sydney coast to murky soup. The drift around the southern headland of Botany Bay was a nice return to the water, featuring some of the most abundant reef growth of any of the local sites.
The impact of the huge seas that accompanied the storm was very much in evidence, with boulders down to ten metres showing evidence of movement and abrasion. Deeper down lots of kelp and sponges had been removed. I decided to swim along the sand line, the junction between the reef and sand, rather than take my normal meandering path over the reef.
Also sticking to that edge were several Weedy Seadragons. Improbably ornate relatives of seahorses and pipefish, seadragons specialise in the capture of tiny shrimp. These shrimp concentrate on the edge of the sand, allowing the slow moving seadragons to herd them against the reef before sucking them down their long tubular snouts. Specialist morphology and behaviour that only works in that thin strip of habitat.
Pied Oystercatchers that arrive once the beachgoers depart, Peregrine Falcons that haunt the cliff tops, Little Pied Cormorants that catch fish in the shallowest of temporary waters and Weedy Seadragons that haunt the thin line between reef and sand. Wildlife that lives in the corners, the gaps they find in a busy world.
Odds and Sods