by VIC JAKES
For many years I have been eagerly observing the dams on my property, hoping for a visit by one of the smaller and, in my opinion, more attractive members of the plover family. Unlike many others of the species, they very much prefer freshwater environments such as shallow freshwater ponds, dams and even sewerage treatment plants, while normally avoiding saline coastal watersides.
Widespread throughout Australia, and in more recent decades an uncommon but established resident of both islands of New Zealand, this little bird can readily be seen in a favoured location where it is generally sedentary, with small family groups remaining on an almost permanent basis. Some birds do, however, travel considerable distances to food-rich environments, and for this reason my optimism has been sustained that a home sighting of the black-fronted dotterel (Elseyornis melanops) might one day be achieved.
This delightful bird, with a distinctive large black ‘V’ on its chest, black-tipped bright red beak and significant black eye-stripe within which prominent red rings surround its eyes, is only 16cm-18cm long. It is most likely to be seen as it forages along the damp waterside edges where it will run in short bursts, walk or stamp its feet gently in order to disturb the small aquatic and terrestrial insects, worms or crustaceans that, together with some seeds, form the bulk of its diet. Arrival at the waterside is often announced by a sharp ‘tip-tip-tip’ call, sometimes delivered while still in flight.
Breeding here on the Sunshine Coast is likely to occur from August through until the year-end, with two or three pale greyish-yellow eggs, heavily flecked with brown and lavender, being laid in a shallow scrape not far from water. The eggs are incubated by both parents for about 26 days and the chicks are able to leave the nest after only a day. However, they will continue to be cared for by the adult birds for a further month or so and, during this time, potential danger to the youngsters will see the parents feigning injury to lure any predator away. Certain years, when conditions are good, may see more than one brood produced.
Having for many years observed the fotterels along the shores of a small pool at the local waste recycling centre just over 5km from home, I continue to hope for their arrival at one of my dams. I am, however, gradually reaching the conclusion that either the waterside vegetation is insufficiently sparse or the waterline is too steeply sloping to appeal to these wonderful little birds, so I will just have to enjoy sightings wherever and whenever they occur.