As a bit of an aside from my usual posts about wildlife in Gippsland, I recently had the chance to enjoy a week on a houseboat, cruising along the Murray River out of Renmark, South Australia. The bird life on the Murray was quite amazing and, even though most of that bird life was fairly common to Eastern Australia (and perhaps Australia overall), it gave me an opportunity to take photographs that would otherwise have been much more difficult to accomplish from land. Because I was moving along the river, changing locations all the time, I frequently managed to get photographs from unique perspective and one that often didn’t disturb the birds.
Surprisingly, Swallows were the first of the birds that we encountered, I guess because our houseboat was home to a mating pair that flew about all day. In fact, it was only the next day that we realised that these two had a home on the houseboat, as they were never far away and tended to fly around it all day long, only occasionally landing on a railing for a rest. It was a real challenge to get any photographs of these two in flight, as they flitted about incredibly fast. Oddly enough, at various spots along the river, these two were joined by other swallows and, in the late evening, we could see large numbers above the tree tops feasting on what must have been flying bugs.
Pelicans were everywhere along the river, sometimes in larger groups, more often in groups of two or so and sometimes solo (the solo ones coming close to see if we had any fish available). Pelicans have to be one of the most relaxed birds in flight; barely moving their wings as they glided above the river and often mere tens of centimetres above the water’s surface, gliding for what seemed like hundreds of metres with not a movement of wing to be seen. I really wanted to get a photograph of a Pelican landing in the water, as this is such an interesting sight, but every time it happened I was in the wrong place, angle or too far away.
One of the most prolific of birds on the river would have had to be the Ibis. They were pretty much everywhere along the entire length of river that we managed to travel in that week (or half a week, as we had to come back to whence we started). The Ibis were always in large groups and generally found where the river formed small estuaries or billabongs, sheltered from the winds and where plenty of dead trees were to be found, and obviously food as well. While the Ibis appear somewhat ungainly while roosting, in flight they can be quite elegant.
Pied Shags were also quite common, but I only saw the occasional Cormorant and, on one occasion, one lone soul being chased away by a Shag. The Pied Shags could always be spotted bobbing in and out of the water as we travelled along, sometimes being mistaken for a fish rising to the surface. I suppose this is the nature of Shags and Cormorants, to be diving for fish rather than waiting for one to appear near the surface, which is what Pelicans seem to favour and so do the Kites, as they were always hovering over the water.
Another regular was the Whistling Kite. All along the river banks you could see the large nests high up in the trees, with the Kites flying or gliding above the open waters where the updrafts made it easy to maintain height and move about freely. Because of the speed with which the Kites could change direction and altitude, it was quite a chore to get decent photographs of them in flight. And because there was so much usually going on, I invariably had the wrong lens on when an opportunity arose. I was beginning to think that the Kites were playing with me, for when I had my large telephoto lens attached, they would come in close, diving around the houseboat where this lens was simply too unwieldy to move around quickly and easily. Then when I attached my shorter telephoto lens, they would be flying high in the sky, well out of reach.
It was on one of these occasions where having the right lens would have made things much easier when drama unfolded on the river. A duck and her seven ducklings had chosen to cross the river and were quickly spotted by a pair of Kites while halfway across. What evolved was a life and death struggle for the ducklings, as one of the Kites repeatedly tried to seize one of them. Every so often, one of the Kites would strike and the ducklings would dive underwater and mother duck would rise out of the water in defence. This went on for several minutes as the troop slowly made their way to the bank while under constant attack. While it’s all part of nature and survival, for both parties, I think everyone gave a cheer when the underdogs made it to safety amongst the reeds of the riverbank.
And, finally, while they aren’t riverbirds, on our final leg back to our starting point this week, we spotted a large mob of Emus on the riverbank that must have come down for a drink. It must be a hard life for some in this part of the world, as the places where we stopped each night, were extremely dry and barren in most part. While trees were to be found inland, everything seemed to be desolate and the heat was oppressive, even on a milder day. On two of the 44C days we had, going off the houseboat and away from the river was not something you did for very long.
Given more time and the ability to just loiter around at will would have provided many more opportunities for some great photographs. I had no idea as to what to expect from this journey and the wild life along the Murray River, but being able to do what I did was a most fortunate experience. I’m wondering whether something similar could be achieved on the Gippsland Lakes, which would be a lot closer to home.