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NORTHERN PINTAIL (Anas acuta) - SECOND FOR AUSTRALIA
Rob Wilton - 06 Aug. 2000
The twitching scene is still in it's infancy in Australia. I would say it's at the same stage as British birders were in during the late eighties i.e. Birdlines were a new thing. Here there is a birdline of sorts which caters mainly for eastern state birders. As for pagers, don't make me laugh, 10 years time maybe.
Most rare birds down under concern seabirds which makes sense, pelagics are a monthly event from most ports. The fact that terrestrial rare bird sightings are often rarer than the bird may explain why birders are prepared to twitch huge distances to get that all important new Aussie tick. Certain birders drop everything at the news of a good bird and fly to the location, driving would take days. To twitch a bird on the west coast from the east coast is like twitching a Grey Hypocolius in Israel from Holland! (see the Israel trip report).
It is therefore not surprising that a drake Northern Pintail generated much excitement. Eastern state birders went quackers when on Aug. 3 one turned up at Cowan Ponds, Clarence Valley, Northern Rivers, NSW. This is only Australia's second. Pintail is, apparently, pretty rare in the southern hemisphere. Northern Pintail have an extensive breeding range across the northern Palearctic and Nearctic, and is highly migratory, with the American birds quite happy to cross large expanses of ocean to reach Hawaii and other Pacific islands; though most still winter north of the equator. There are two isolated resident populations on the sub-antarctic Kerguelan and Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, evidence of long range vagrancy in the past in sufficient numbers to establish viable new populations.
The first Australian record came from Chadela Swamp, 50km north-east of Perth, WA back in July 1985. Both records are considered genuine, as Pintail are not kept commonly in captivity. Escapees (birds not prisoners!) aren't so much of a problem as they are in the UK, so this has been ticked off by a few people. With that said though a few sceptic old' sods (those who haven't seen it) have still raised a few questions. Some are salient points. Such as why is a Pintail in full breeding plumage in August when they should be in eclipse. The pro pintail camp (those who have seen it) have answered the critics with arguments such as reverse migration. and if the bird has been in Oz for a couple of years then it should (theoretically) be coming into summer plumage.
I have heard loads of amusing twitching stories from Oz. My favourite regards a John Grant / Andrew Easton style birder who like the aforementioned can't keep his peas and carrots down when on the sea. Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata) is an enigma, a mega rare bird anywhere let alone Oz. When one was found wrecked on a beach in the south-east a few years back our landlubber birder saw his chance and took it. Arriving at night after driving several hundred k's to the site, the car headlight's were flicked to full beam and he saw the 'albert' on the beach!
Australia has been good for rarities recently. A Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis) at Darwin sewage works at the end of last year was a first for Australia and only last week a Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) was reported in South Australia. In case you are wondering I haven't twitched any of these blockbusters during this holiday! Although I'm optimistic about seeing Southern Pied Oystercatcher (when I hit the east coast). This is variously considered a species in its own right (Haematopus finschi), a race of Eurasian Oystercatcher (H. ostralegus) or a race of Australian Pied Oystercatcher (H. longirostris). This was a new bird for Oz last year when two of these New Zealand endemics were found on the eastern seaboard. From the latest reports I understand that up too six have been seen recently at one high tide wader roost. This has aroused suspicions of local breeding.