05 March, 2013

Is it a bird? Is it a snake?

Sunday morning at 8am the weather was perfect for an easy run around the Barwon, so that's what we did. It was sunny without a hint of breeze and the surface of the river was like a mirror.
By 2pm things had warmed up a little. A light breeze had sprung up and it was perfect weather for a paddle, so that's what I did.
With limited time (and energy!) and not wanting to go too far afield, I hit the water in town at the boatsheds and headed upriver. Considering the weather was pleasant it was remarkably quiet on the river. A couple of speedboats pulling skiers were keeping the ducks on their toes, but once I rounded the bend at the head of the rowing course, it was just me and the coots and darters and cormorants and ducks and...well, you get the idea.
As this is probably the most accessible part of the river both on and off the water, I've spent hours here and taken hundreds of photos over the last few years. As a result there wasn't too much that was new in the way of scenery for me to snap, however I wasn't in a hurry and the water was reasonably still so I was able to get up close and personal with the colony of Australasian Darters which nest in the elms near the Princes Bridge.
For obvious reasons, these guys are also known as snakebirds. They are very adept in the water, diving to catch fish which they spear with their sharp beaks. When they swim, only their long snake-like necks are visible.
The Snakebird
Darters are always reasonably common on this part of the river, but when they are nesting there seems to be a darter - if not two - on every branch and that is certainly the case at the present time.
Adult male Australasian Darter
There are several nests in the branches overhanging the river (the preferred position for darters when it comes to nesting I'm told) with chicks of varying ages.
Female Australasian Darter with very young chick in the nest

Very young Australasian Darter chick
The nests initially consist of an array of eucalypt twigs and leaves, however as time progresses, the leaves fall off and the sticks take on a bleached white appearance thanks to the frequent and plentiful application of darter droppings which cover not only the nests, but the surrounding branches, giving the entire area a rather particular odour.
Both adults and young have very active digestive tracts as I can attest firsthand!
Older darter chicks yet to shed their downy coats
The weather as I mentioned was quite warm which allowed me to observe one of the most obvious examples of "gular flutter" I have yet seen as these chicks wobbled their throats in an effort to cool themselves down. 

Gular fluttering
 Also no doubt trying to stay cool and certainly keeping a very close eye on proceedings from one of the higher branches, I spotted this Nankeen Night Heron. Three hours later when I returned to take a few more shots - and had a chat with another bird-snapping kayaker - he was still there.
Nankeen Night Heron in the branches
 And in a bid to get the perfect shot - and learn a little about aperture and shutter speed on my not overly sophisticated camera - I headed back again today (Tuesday). The weather was pretty much identical to Sunday. The river was calm, the sun was shining, there was lots of gular fluttering happening and after more than an hour sitting in my kayak in the middle of the river, I was considering giving it a try myself!
Despite the heat and the photographic complexities of birds insisting on standing in partial shade at all times, I did manage to get a few interesting shots, including some more of the three chicks from Sunday (shown above).

The same three chicks photographed on Sunday (as above)

In general, there was more activity within the little colony today too. I arrived just in time to see - but not photograph - a young darter which was being strongly encouraged to leave not only the nest but the branch on which it was perched. The "fledgling" had other ideas and as both parents pecked, pushed, flapped and squawked at their reluctant offspring, it clung to the branch with claw and then, as a last resort, beak, before flopping into the water, only to scramble quickly onto a low-hanging branch and then clamber awkwardly back to its original perch.
Meanwhile, on another branch, it was lunchtime. As I watched some nearby birds, there was a sudden disturbance amongst three larger chicks as the mother returned. After a bit of jostling and quite a bit of noise, the middle bird in the line up wound up the winner and proceeded to help itself to whatever was on offer.


After observing proceedings for some time, I headed to the opposite bank for some lunch, but not before snapping a few shots of the somewhat less obliging Little Pied Cormorants which have also chosen to nest in these elms...but that had better wait....

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