By Steve Waller
It promised to be the most perfect morning. At the end of Ohern’s Road Cragieburn, the crowd of excited long lenses and digital cameras swirled excitedly around their chattering owners. Beyond this group Craigieburn Nature Reserve itself stretched toward the horizon. Its rich autumn tones of ripe native grasses, exotic woody weeds and plentiful birdlife awaited under a blue-vaulted sky. The group eagerly anticipated a rich photographic harvest of scintillating Cisticolas, titillating Thornbills, even a Quail or two, and raptors without end. All of this and more, if only we could finally get everyone to the right meeting spot!
The group waited patiently. Those that were lost (or simply confused by the misinformation on Oherns Road in Google Maps) were driving in circles of steadily decreasing diameter guided by Peter Bennet’s expert directions over the phone. Finally just past 9am we all assembled, completed the roll, and headed out into the Grassland.
Galgi Ngarrk is the name given by the Wurunjuri people to the Nature Reserve also known as Cragieburn Grasslands. It means ‘backbone’, indicating its central position in the string of parklands along the Merri creek, collectively called ‘Marran Baba’ (body of mother).
Heading east from Ohern’s Road, the by-now rather strung out group crossed the Merri Creek and toiled up a stony slope to the Grasslands proper. A few branched north at this point to pick up any water birds using the creek.
Up the top, there was immediately some avian action. The first of many Zebra and Red-browed finches were spotted along with a distant flock of Eastern Rosellas. At this point, a Brolga sighting (unconfirmed) on the creek bank galvanised the waiting photographers. Almost immediately it took off and peeled away southwards leaving those slow off the photographic mark wondering what might have been.
Not long after, a smaller group turned north along some grassland regenerating after a recent fire. While easier walking, it did not turn out to be overly productive in the avian sense. However, this area did provide the only raptor sightings – a Brown Falcon and Brown Goshawk. It also turned up a new record for the Grasslands – the positive sighting of a Grey Shrikethrush. Of interest also was the sighting of a single Australasian Pipit. White-Faced Herons, Chestnut and Grey Teal, Pacific Black Ducks were present down by the creek, while a Little Grassbird was heard as well.
The other group patrolled the sides of Curly Sedge Creek, a West-flowing tributary of Merri Creek. The open grassland with occasional copses of trees provided sightings of New Holland Honeyeaters, more Eastern Rosellas, the usual assortment of finches and a cornucopia of Thornbills: Brown; Striated; Yellow; and, Yellow-Rumped were seen. The bright flashes of yellow tails as the latter flew off bringing to mind their colloquial name of ‘butterbums’. Golden-headed Cisticolas were common here, and on the way back to the car a pair (or is it a brace?) of Brown Quail were flushed from the grass.
Arriving back at the car, the preliminary bird count stretched to some 50 species. Not a bad effort. Anticipating lunch at Yan Yean Reservoir the party performed a more focused getaway, abandoning the expansive reaches of Galgi Ngarrk for the altogether more watery surrounds of Yan Yean Reservoir.
By the time of lunch the bright sunlight of the morning was quickly turning to high cloud. Gathering under a friendly eucalypt, lunch was had in convivial fashion before heading along the dam wall towards the top lookout. A series of small and thickly-vegetated ponds below the dam wall yielded some interesting sightings: a mother Australasian Grebe with 4 chicks; Musk Lorikeets; and, a pair of Golden Whistlers. Circling overhead were several Australian Pelicans, White, and Straw-necked, Ibises.
The slopes of the lookout provided good opportunities for improving duck identification skills. Even through binoculars, large numbers of waterbirds were just black dots. However, Musk ducks (both adult and juvenile) were close enough for a positive ID, as were Hardheads, Black Swans and the usual assemblage of Eurasian Coots, Grey teal, Chestnut Teal and Pacific Black Ducks. However, the cormorants and egrets on the nearby shore provoked the most discussion. Unable to see over or through the boundary fencing generated an unseemly to and fro regarding exactly what birds were there. The final result (at the risk of reopening old wounds) was confirmed as a group of Little Black Cormorants, a few Little Pied Cormorants and a Great Egret or two (I think).
The group was moving upslope towards the top lookout toilets when the raptor ‘event’ of the day exploded. It began with an observation of a Peregrine Falcon chasing a Great Egret by a nearby non-group bird photographer. None of us observed that interaction. However, while we were admiring his photos, an adult and juvenile White-bellied Sea Eagle were sighted high over the reservoir. Next, in the same vicinity a Whistling Kite and a Wedge-tailed Eagle also appeared and we had good views as all circled overhead.
As the raptors spiralled out of view, our group moved in search of more photograph-able prey. A well known and nearby pine tree full of Nankeen Night Herons proved to be just the thing. Easily within telephoto range, basically stationary, yet somehow regal and other-wordly, these Herons provided the swan-song to a great day. The presence of a sleeping fledged juvenile was a highlight. Its brown spotted plumage so unlike the adult but yet perfectly camouflaged.