Volunteer raptor nest searches on Yourka Reserve

By Keith Fisher 
about  Yourka 
on 19 Aug 2014 

Volunteer Keith Fisher recently spent a fortnight conducting dedicated raptor nest searches on Yourka Reserve in far north Queensland. This is his account of the experience.

I couldn’t believe my luck when a volunteer position came up asking for someone wanting to survey for raptors nests at Bush Heritage’s property, ‘Yourka.’ 

I arrived just before the Queen’s birthday weekend, on Thursday June 5. For the first night, I stayed with Paul and Leanne Hales, at their house near Malanda. Paul dropped me at the local pub to catch the end of a seminar on bettongs and tree kangaroos. After getting to the Hales home, before bed, I heard from Paul, tales of lesser sooty owls that ‘bomb-whistle’ the night away in the forests near the house. To be honest, I was too tired to go to look for them but I got the sense that this was my kind of place.

The next morning I got my supplies together in Atherton. In the afternoon we picked up Kieran Palmer, a Year 12 student at Mareeba State High School and a young naturalist. Kieran has the ability to sniff out serpents in the landscape, and to identify all kinds of invertebrates. When I first met him he brought a scorpian to the school and insisted that I put it on my hand - assuring me it wouldn’t bite. Thankfully he was right.

On the way out, on an open plain, was a large group of brolgas, with a few sarus cranes mixed in. A wedge-tailed eagle was perched on the edge of this zone, perhaps on the lookout for a sick or injured bird. In the previous fortnight, Paul witnessed a white-bellied sea eagle take a corvid from a powerline also in this area.

On my first weekend a number of scientists and their partners arrived to learn about Yourka from Paul and Leanne, and to do some exploring for themselves. After a talk with images from Leanne we all went up to the lookout for drinks and nibblies. On Saturday night we shared a meal prepared by Leanne and then went glider spotting: two greater gliders showed themselves. Kieran pointed out the spiders, along the track, whose eyeshine is considerable, as we walked home.

Paul led a few of us down to the River Circuit on Sunday, and Kieran and I took the buggy, which was to be my transport for the next 10 days. We found one solid raptor nest up high in the Herbert River, probably the work of whistling kites, and I got a taste of what was ahead for me, as we found our way along the wooded creek banks.

In fairly glum overcast conditions, a wedge-tailed eagle called above us as it swept low along the treeline by the Herbert, its presence an annoyance to the local torresian crows. On Sunday night, most of us took part in a campfire, with Hales children helpfully putting the marsh-mellow sticks in the fire for the adults, delivering the goods, taking the sticks away for someone else to use, and bringing them back. I wasn’t a partaker for long: anxious to get to bed and see the new day.

Monday was Kieran’s last day at Yourka. We took the buggy around the river circuit once, stopping for a look at one end of Rocky Lagoon. Conditions were overcast, with periodic showers. Suddenly, as we crossed the woodland in the southern section, I spotted three raptors gliding among the foliage. Pacific Bazas! I hadn’t expected to see this species here, though on reflection it really isn’t too surprising to have found them there.  Like most people, I’m used to seeing them on the edge of sub-tropical woodland of higher tree density, or in pockets of bush in parkland, or in suburbia itself around cities and towns. This section had no understory, with generally 10 to 15 metres between trees. The Bazas were having no trouble at all grabbing prey from clumps of foliage, and on one occasion from the barren trunk of a dead tree. Taking the easy option for myself, I gave Kieran my camera, and he crossed the fence by the track so that he could follow these wacky bug-eyed beauties.

Half an hour later, when the Bazas had moved off, I asked Kieran how many flights, approximately, the birds had made during the time. He reckoned 50. I thought around 30. So that’s somewhere around one flight per minute, for the three of them. Or one per three minutes per bird, maybe a bit less: contrast this with other medium to large sized raptors, that may make only a few actually hunting attempts per day. When the books describe Bazas as active hawks, they ain’t kidding! Another kilometre or so on we saw a pair of kestrels flying lower over the woodland. Travellers? I wondered. I didn’t really see it as kestrel habitat.

Tuesday saw me alone for the first time and things started very well. Around 10am, not long after reaching the turn-off to Rocky Lagoon, I stopped for a pair of raptors circling just above tree-top height: square-tailed kites. I jumped out of the buggy and my camera clicked away in the dim light. That was actually about it for raptors that day. As the week went on, I only found one solid nest: another probable whistling kite nest on Sunday Creek. On Wednesday, I looked up while weaving through thick grass on the banks of Sunday Creek, to see a soaring brown falcon - a slight surprise in this habitat. Again, probably a traveller. The next morning, a little farther on, the same bird (presumably) was perched on a dead tree not far from the Yourka sheds, but moved off.

Nearly every day of the first week, I saw one of the pair of dark old wedge-tailed eagles that Paul told me have a territory on the Yourka side of the Herbert. On one occasion, at the north-eastern boundary of the River Circuit, I came on a pair of younger eagles perched together in a dead tree. I filmed this pair and they let me close enough that I could hear the whirring of wings from one of them when it gave itself a thorough shake.

On the weekend, I decided to do a rough section of the Herbert inside Rocky Lagoon: the going was rough, but I was enjoying myself. I photographed a whip snake whose morning I nearly interrupted. It flickered its tongue and I found an alternate route.

I was picking my way through a particularly thick patch of undergrowth, when I looked up just in time to see a large broad-winged, short-tailed raptor, with a straight edge to the rear of its tail, passing overhead down the Herbert: black-breasted buzzard! Great! Frustratingly though, it didn't circle back and so evaded my camera.

Preceded by the sounds of a fuss from lorikeets and red-winged parrots, early in my last week, a pair of brown goshawks flew over the campground. I called out to Geoff and Rose, fellow volunteers helping with maintenance and we watched them going over. No feather detail or colour could be seen in the grey conditions, but this pair wasn't interested in hunting. They ripped along adjacent to one another in an obvious pair-bond type flight, disappearing in 30 seconds or so.

Geoff and I went out together that day, and we put pink tape around the base of some of the nest trees that I did find. We saw a young white-bellied sea eagle as we had morning smoko - another large raptor using the Herbert River as a corridor for travel.  

On one of the last few days, I saw the kestrels again at the southern end of the River Circuit, among widely spaced trees with no understory and short grasses interspersed with open ground. Perhaps they were in residence after all.

My time on Yourka came to an end without an encounter with the red goshawk. Nor did I find a nest that I could confidently say belongs to this iconic species. However sightings continue and perhaps some of the nests that Paul, Geoff, Kieran and I found will have a positive surprise in store next breeding season: there’s certainly a few things in the logbook for monitoring.

Many thanks to Bush Heritage for giving me this work, and to the Hales family, and to Geoff and Rose - my new volunteer friends.