John Newman and Craig Morley

As the much-anticipated February 29th of the leap year came and went, the realisation that summer had technically passed was duly noted. With days shortening and nights getting cooler this late summer/autumn season has a special appeal to birders – a time of migration for several species. Unlike the en masse movements in preparation for winter we associate with many species in Europe and North America the avian movements in our part of the world have much more subtlety. Some of our local bird species vacate the cool and wet coastal mountains of Otway Ranges forests and foothills after breeding. This trend is highlighted when we look at the number of sites where birds are reported in January-March compared to July and we have chosen three of our local species to emphasise these movement away from localities and elevations where survival would be a challenge. These species leave their breeding grounds and move through the farmland, saltmarsh, and across the Barwon River floodplain the heading towards the lowland and riparian forests of central Victoria and beyond to the tropical north.

The Bird Observations section of the Geelong Field Naturalists Club web-site https://www.gfnc.org.au/ highlights interesting sightings submitted by members as does a more detailed look at the observations on the eBird Australia web-site https://ebird.org/australia/home where you may wish to use the “search species” option (Please remember f you would like to learn more about using this option and other aspects of eBird please let us know.

The Australian Rufous Fantail (Fig. 1) is always a delight to behold as they ‘move through’ sporting their vivid plumage – a mix of rufous, brown, black and white. Usually hugging the shadows in the moist understorey, they move into less dense forest starting, sometimes, as early as January, particularly through February, with records in peri-urban, suburban and sometimes urban areas. The Geelong Botanic Gardens is one of the more reliable sites where birds can often be observed on migration accompanied by good numbers of the closely related Grey Fantail. The eBird maps (Figs. 2-4) (N.B. these maps show the number of locations where records were submitted not the number of records) show the very clear movement of birds from the deep Otways in January, beginning to break out in February and by April they are largely gone from the Otways into more moderate terrain. By May, there are no records in our region as they have continued to move further north for June-July. 

Another species with well recognised autumn movement is the Flame Robin (Fig. 5) the much-anticipated harbinger of the cooler months our widely loved ‘robin red-breast’ with the male birds sporting their bright orange-red chest and belly and slaty grey upper parts. A stunning bird, it is often seen on fence wires and ploughed fields. Breeding mostly in upland eucalypt forests and woodlands, most will move through March-May into more open habitats in lowlands including grasslands, saltmarsh, farmlands and more open forests with a grassy ground cover. It is in these months that they may be seen in loose groups of 10 or more birds, probably the only Australian Robin to form flocks. The female and immature birds are a sandier brown bird with grey-brown underparts and can be quite unobtrusive when standing in ploughed fields. The eBird maps (Figs 6-7) show this beautifully with the peak of summer birds being mainly in the higher Otways, dispersing through February into more coastal areas and through March into the lowlands and Bellarine Peninsula and by April-May they have largely left the Otways and are widespread through farmland and the more open eucalypt woodlands. It is worth spending some time when passing these open habitats, especially recently ploughed fields and seeing of you can spot them perched on top of soil clods looking for insects.

The third selection for our migratory trio is the captivating Eastern Spinebill (Fig. 8) A small, active honeyeater with a long, slender down-curved bill, its presence is often announced by its distinctive rapid piping whistle, the audible flick of the wing-beats and the flash of the white tail-margins.

The eBird maps (Figs. 9-10) show the widespread distribution over summer, as typified by the January map, through the Otway Ranges and hinterland and, by May, most have left the higher altitude parts of Otways and are found through much of the woodlands and lower altitude riparian areas including many urban areas.

Please keep recording your observation of birds so that the data accumulates enabling important data to be extracted; it’s all important whether it be from your yard, local park or street and beyond! Please continue to note interesting sightings in the Observations section of the GFNC website and eBird for others to enjoy.