What do you get if you cross a snake with a panda?

Darter from behind close crop shorter

The geometric art on the Australasian darter’s back

Things I learned from last weekend’s paddle from Lake Macquarie’s Shingle Splitters’ Point to Dora Creek:

1. When kayaking on the largest permanent salt water lake in the southern hemisphere, always remember fetch.  Fetch can defined as the distance of open water over which wave-creating winds blow. Where does the word “fetch” come from, I hear you ask?  From the cries of sinking kayakers as they disappear behind the white tops: “Fetch the emergency services!”

(Don’t be deceived by the apparent smoothness of the lake surface here – once the wind picked up I was too busy thinking about staying afloat to take any pictures)

Big lake

Heading across Lake Macquarie from Shingle Splitters’ Point

2. The lyrics of Kenny Rogers’ immortal song “The Gambler” don’t just apply to card sharks, but also amateur bird photographers.  “You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”.

Because the few seconds you spend checking to see if that wildly optimistic over-the-shoulder shot caught the hunting osprey mid-dive, will be ones in which the hungry raptor wheels around and splashes down again, right next to your boat.  And flies off before you can get the lens cap off your camera.

Osprey bum bigger long

Departing osprey

3. While adult Australasian darters are the most sinuously elegant of birds, poetry in snake-like motion, their offspring are actively disturbing.

What is it about these baby darters?  They’re very very fluffy.  Like a gorgeous soft baby panda.  A delightfully fluffy decapitated panda with the head of a snake. A sweet duo of snake-panda in a nest white-washed with guano. And they didn’t think much of me either.

In South America, they’ve found are darters in the fossil record that weighed 17 kilos – more than eight times as heavy as these not-insubstantial characters.  Just imagine how unnerving it would be in a kayak under that humungous reptilian chick when it let fly.

There’s no danger of modern darters – anhinga to give them their formal name – vanishing like their massive forebears. Like humans, darters like deep, still water not choked with vegetation, as long as there are overhanging trees to nest and perch on.  And they don’t mind introduced fish like carp and perch, so they’re doing better than birds that prefer marshy wetlands or are fussier about their diet.

A few weeks back, my brother and I watched with a fine male hunting from the shore of Lake Macquarie in the golden light of the late afternoon.  Even after the bird vanished below, we could follow its progress by the tiny fry that leapt from the water.  The sinuous head reappeared moments later, a fish impaled on its beak.  It took him a few goes, but finally he managed to flick it into the air and gulp it down.

I’ve seen plenty of snake birds, as they’re sometimes called, over the last couple of years as I’ve paddled around the lower reaches of the Hawkesbury and the rivers and lagoons along the Central Coast.  Familiarity hasn’t dulled my enthusiasm for them – the males geometric abstracts, the females russet in the sun, their elegant necks holding poses as striking and absurd as those of modern dancers.  But I’ve never seen the young ones before.

Darters breed erratically, it seems, whenever and wherever conditions are good.  They will fly long distances – up to 2000 ks in the non-breeding season – and will nest inland when floodwaters linger.  Maybe the stretch of Dora Creek where I saw them is a regular breeding spot.  In one fecund tree I saw two empty nests, along with two brim full of snake-pandas and guano.   Or perhaps the vacant real estate belonged to other waterbirds, since darters seem to like to nest in company.  Down the river, egrets, cormorants and partly-fledged juveniles were hanging out on a branch together, not far from this perturbed looking male with his runaway egg.

One way or another, the younger chicks seem to prefer intimacy to solitude, finding comfort, as they crouched in their absurdly flimsy nest, in the softness of their siblings’ breasts and the predatory encircling of each others’ snakey necks.

Three darter chicks snuggling crop tighter

Juvenile Australasian darters snuggled together in what remains of their nest

 

Encounters with eagles

May I present this week’s sea eagle?

As yet on my estuarine adventures, I haven’t seen a score of sea-eagles on a single morning (although I can imagine a battalion of them, flying in formation), but an encounter with an eagle has become as much a regular feature of my kayaking expeditions as the ubiquitous white-faced heron. Those cryptic little passerines in the riverside scrub are hard to spot even if you’re not short sighted and half deaf.  So three cheers for the white-bellied sea eagle “large and conspicuous” “easily sighted when… soaring… in search of prey“.  Haliaeetus leucogaster, you are the middle aged canoeist’s friend.

There was the eagle we saw battling it out with a pair of whistling kites over fishing rights on a fabulous family excursion across the Hawkesbury from Brooklyn, across the surf-line and up the Patonga River.  According to Wikipedia, sea eagles harass smaller raptors like kites in hopes of stealing their prey.  Not today, Josephine.  This eagle was bested by the lowly kite, unwilling to relinquish a top notch fishing spot.  I need to listen to my own advice to my students – don’t believe Wikipedia!

An eagle even made a guest appearance on a modest little paddle down the end of our street.  This was one mellow raptor, its apparent indifference to poorly coordinated amateur photographers splashing around trying to get a good shot belying its rep as a “shy and easily disturbed species“.  Ruth, my companion on the water that day, had seen a sea eagle, earlier, on the very same bare branch, while bushwalking along the ridge above. Same bird or just a popular perch?

Since the rule for my stolen Saturday morning paddles is no more than half an hour in the car, I’ve frequently had this very thought as I spot yet another sea eagle.  Same bird?  Am I being stalked by just one glorious if persistent raptor who’s somehow taken a fancy to my little craft, charmed perhaps by its avian-friendly name?  Or is the Hawkesbury awash with sea eagles?

Even the Department of Environment in its definitive run down on Haliaeetus leucogaster doesn’t seem super sure. Their guesstimate of 500 pairs across the whole country is based on a one for every 40 kilometre of Australian coastline would pretty much mean that all the eagles in my photos are the same dude (or dudette – the females are larger but I find it’s kind of hard to tell if a bird is small or if it’s just far away).

Either way, I’m 100% sure this week’s eagle is a new one, since I saw it at the start of a paddle down Wallarah Creek, seventy ks north of here.  The creek wends its quiet way through bushland past the Wyong North sewage treatment plant to Budgewoi Lake.  What with my burgeoning interest in taking blurry pictures of distant bird-life, it seems I will be spending more and more time hanging around sewage farms – they seem to be the go-to venue for the would-be twitcher.

The Budgewoi eagles seem a bit more coy than the Berowra locals, as you can tell from this dodgy pic on my maxed out zoom.  Or maybe it’s just that this sea-eagle didn’t want to share her supersized snack.

Which, after observing the consequences of fraternisation with humans for other birds I saw on my way up Wallarah Creek, is probably a good thing.

Up until recently, it was thought that carelessly discarded bait, hooks and line were the big killers of waterbirds, and there have been some efforts made to make sure fisherfolk dispose of their scraps in the rubbish rather than leaving them lying around – not such a big ask really.  Some have even argued for the use of biodegradable line and hooks that will rust away (eventually).

But efforts to get fishermen to clean up their act have had surprisingly little impact on the number of waterbirds being injured or killed by fishing tackle.   In fact, research by academics and wildlife rescue organisations in South Australia and New South Wales suggest that the vast majority of birds that get entangled or hooked – often pelicans, but also plovers, gulls and stilts – get caught up when they are close to people actually fishing.

After my trip up Wallarah Creek I can see why.  As I passed riverfront houses with their landing slips and jetties I saw pelicans lounging on back lawns and an excited egret being thrown small fry by a local.  Even the striated heron, normally shy, flew off in the direction of human habitation, not the other way.  The birds around here are familiar with humans, their tinnies, their by-catch and, unfortunately, their fishing lines.

Waterbirds of the Wyong River

Today, further adventures in Quaternary estuarine geology – a paddle along the lower reaches of the Wyong River, where it meets Tuggarah Lake.  With a brief stop at Lake Macquarie to photograph this heron hunting, that makes two young and lovely coastal lagoons in one day.  And both fine places to be a waterbird. After my recent insensitive remarks about coastal lagoons being fed by underwhelming little creeks, I’m a bit surprised we didn’t have any unfortunate upending incidents today.  The mighty Wyong River is forgiving.  And generous with darters.

And egrets, both intermediate and great.  I’ve got a feeling there’s one of each here.  Despite the name, the sure fire way of distinguishing them isn’t size, but a dark line that runs from the base of the beak beneath the eye.  The great egret’s commissural line runs behind its eye, the intermediate’s stops short just below.  But I still think you’re great, mate, despite your middle-of-the-road name and your meagre eye liner.

On the bank amongst the ducks, doing its best to be invisible, a clueless young black bittern.  Obviously it wasn’t listening when its parents gave it the talking to about bitterns hiding coyly in the riverside rushes.

And of course, the contractual obligation pelican on a post.  Thanks your offerings, this sunny Sunday, Wyong River.