28 October Update (very abbreviated!)


A Big Year record for Australia!

The 'big one' - Semipalmated Plover, 
a day or so after its return from who-knows-where,
just in time for a BIG YEAR record twitch: 721
After a tipoff from Broome birder Adrian Boyle, that the annually returning Semipalmated Plover had arrived in Broome yesterday, I joined a group of expectant birders to locate the ‘SemiP’ at first light along Simpson’s Beach, Broome this morning. David Hair located the long-travelling vagrant at about 5:45 this morning, several hundred metres away from where I was searching, and kindly alerted me with a phone call. This brought the ‘Birding for Devils’ total to 721 – and a new Big Year record.
This result nicely finishes a very hectic three months since my last blog entry (sorry!). I do hope to write up various trip reports for this productive stretch, which saw me targeting a few important species near home, in Sydney to Hunter (with valuable much-appreciated help from Mick Roderick); out on the Tasmanian waters for three separate weekends, where I seemed to begin sprouting sea-legs for the first time in my boat-phobic lifetime – and it seems that I’ve actually begun to enjoy sea-birding! (highlights: Grey Petrel, both Royal Albatross species and Soft-plumaged Petrel) back up to the Brisbane region (highlights: Lewin’s Rail [finally!], 

A single Middendorf's Warbler on West Is
resided in area of dense spinifex grass

southern ssp of Marbled Frogmouth, Eastern Ground Parrot and King Quail); Darwin and Kakadu with co-lunatic off-sider Tim Faulkner (with a HUGE result with White-throated Grasswren, as well as Little Ringed Plover); across Vic and SA with nary a sign of Australasian Bittern (ducked up to Gluepot Reserve to get the Scarlet-chested Parrots without skipping a beat); across the Nullarbor (got the QT on the run) to SW WA (where my best efforts over a three day period in search of critically endangered Western Ground Parrot at Cape Arid failed to produce the goods nor two half-days search for Bitterns, but I had fun, being joined at Albany by Robyn for a relatively laid-back week revisiting the SW skulkers, and tracking down a few remaining birds, including SW ssp of Crested Shrike-tit, both ssp of Western Corella, and the discordant yet oh-so-elegant Mute Swan); then successive daily marathon-drives northwards through WA, zig-zagging thousands of kilometres to round up Western Quail-thrush at Mt Magnet, the Shark Bay population of Western Grasswren, and the western ssp of Striated Grasswren (A. s. whitei) at Newman [which proved surprisingly tough to locate].

A kazillin Roseate Terns on
Lacepede Islands in the Indian Ocean

A Lesser Noddy was found grooming itself 
in a sea of Common Noddies

And finally this morning’s ‘Mega’ - the freshly returned wayward (Russian?) summer resident, the much-twitched and well-travelled Semipalmated Plover. The tiny lonesome wader put me over the line at 721 species seen this calendar year, eclipsing Sean’s decade-lasting Big Year record (by IOC list) - and equally providing yet another big highlight for an increasingly unbelievable year. And two more wild and crazy months yet to go! Next week Lord Howe Island, then Cairns and Torres Strait again, Cocos and Christmas Islands again, the ‘super-pelagics’ from Albany to Hobart, then Hobart to Macquarie Island and beyond, then a final nine day sprint on the mainland to finish the year off, hopefully with successful hunts for a good proportion of the few outstanding species.

Common Redshank at Crab Creek, Broome
I don’t know when, but I will try to find time to write some proper trip accounts for these past few months - whenever the action slows down. Yeah, right.

28 June - 3 July – Darwin again

After refuelling the Jeep and restocking the tuckerbox from one of Kununurra’s two 24 hour supermarkets (the wild-west pioneer nature of this working-town sure has softened since my first visit in the 80s), I started the long drive to Darwin. I had plenty of time to psyche up for an all-out assault on that mud-skulking glorified game-bird that had so far eluded me. I couldn’t even consider continuing homeward from Darwin without first ticking the Chestnut Rail box and I made a commitment to myself to devote up to three days in the mangroves if need be to get the job done. Neil Young saw me through to the Victoria River Roadhouse campsite.

An immature ‘Bar-breasted’ Honeyeater
without the name-sake barring

Cortez the killer

No luck at Chainman/Chinaman Creeks, so heading north from Katherine I revisited Copperfield Dam looking to find and photograph Chestnut-backed Buttonquail on the unburnt side of the access road. I gave it a good effort, trudging several kilometres from the car, but didn’t flush a thing. Upon climbing the last incline, before reaching the parked Jeep, two police officers suddenly appeared in the waist-high straw-like grass – one holding binoculars in her hands, the other with a hand against his holstered pistol, “Hold it right there please!”.

It unfolded that they were considering the possibility that I was Jonathon Stenberg, a fugitive from NSW and the subject of a massive NT man-hunt. Mr Stenberg had been accused of chopping off a mate’s head and had been ‘living off the land’ in the region for a week or so. The officers were soon convinced I wasn’t the bad-man, the red hair no doubt helping for once. When I explained about the CBBQ shortage due to the burnt out condition of the recreational reserve, the male policeman invited me to check out a covey of quail that he said resided at the Elliott Police Station (Brown Quail). At the Copperfield reservoir itself I was very pleased to find a Bar-chested Honeyeater (tick).

Arafura Fantail

Back on the Rails 

Reaching the Arnhem Highway, 40 km south of Darwin by early afternoon on June 28, I indulged in a nice long session of birding at Fogg Dam. It truly is one of the best birding sites I’ve experienced, up there in the clouds with Mt Lewis, Iron Range, Bruny Island and Werribee STW. I got great views of a whole bunch of species, including Little Kingfisher, Arafura Fantail, Rose-crowned Dove and many more. By late avo it was time to get moving towards ‘the big one’ – the famed Buffalo Creek boat ramp site for Chestnut Rail.

A Fogg Dam specialty – Green-backed Gerygone

Arriving at the Buffalo Creek boat-ramp a couple of hours before sunset, with pre-game jitters, I was pleased to see the outgoing low tide so low - as forecast. Apart from the previous week I’d been here a number of times in the past – but always at night and always in search of water snakes, not birds. The mud banks of the river and adjacent sandy beaches are widely known as one of the most accessible places for several Homalopsid species (rear-fanged Colubrid snakes). I can honestly say that on this current occasion I had no interest in seeing any scaly creatures whatsoever, no matter how elongate and scarcely seen. I followed the well-worn pathway through the mangroves upstream, perhaps half a kilometre, to a vantage-point I’d identified previously as providing the most strategic view of mangrove frontage on both sides of the river. Along the way I encountered some great birds, including Mangrove Gerygone, Canary White-eye, Mangrove Golden Whistler (female only), and surprisingly, in a clearing at an outer edge of the mangroves, a Beach Stone-curlew. Positioning myself on the edge of the mangrove ‘front’, with the steep grey incline of the river bank at my feet, I crouched and maintained vigil in the fading light. Half an hour later, to the right - on ‘my’ side of the river, I became aware of a Chestnut Rail down nearly at water level, just as sunset conditions were turning to twilight. To get there it had to have been in my line of sight for at least thirty metres – I don’t know how I missed it. Never mind: a ‘tick’ is a ‘tick’. I fired up the special effects ‘Big Foot/UFO’ camera for the umpteenth time of the year and took a series of nearly identifiable photos of the busy rail as it hacked around near the water’s edge, conducting some sort of rail-business in the mud. I triumphantly emerged from the mangroves sky-punching just as darkness closed in. Wouldn’t be dead for quids.

Barely discernible photograph of super-shy Chestnut Rail

The next day gave me a chance for another exhausting high-knee romp through the head-high grass at Holmes Jungle Swamp looking for Red-backed Buttonquail. This is the place where ‘everybody’ gets RBBQ and somehow avoid twisted ankles in the deep and hardened mud impressions of wading cattle hooves, legacies of the previous wet season. Still, seems to be my curse, I flushed a single small Buttonquail into the direction of the sun that I just couldn’t see well enough nor get the bins onto quickly enough. I also kept an eye open for Zitting Cisticola at Holmes, and later searched several other known hot-spots heading west on the Arnhem Highway near Mary River - but no certain IDs. There certainly were plenty of Golden-headed Cisticolas calling and not a proper peep (‘Zitt’) from a Zitter. I found the Golden-heads to have a nasty little habit of hanging around in the vicinity of Crimson Finches - which to my untrained ear has a call in its repertoire that is not far off that of Zitting Cisticola.

Masked Woodswallow
Arriving at the Mary River Caravan Park late afternoon, I made a preliminary walk along the Bamboo Walk, which runs along the Mary River and a number of associated billabongs. Some good birds, including Little Shrikethrush were nice to see, but what I was there for would have to wait til nightfall: Rufous Owl.

From sunset til maybe 10pm, I worked the length and breadth of the winding Bamboo Walk, which has apparently ‘always’ been good for Rufous Owls. Experimenting with playback, I had no response. Continuing a pattern I’m adopting for owls with some success, I hit the hay and returned to the track much later – this time at 3am. Whamo!  Only a few hundred metres from the campsite, shortly after playing a short blast of playback, I heard a large bird land on a branch several metres directly above my head. In the torchlight I saw for the first time a larger-than-life and truly spectacular Rufous Owl (tick).

Riding a wave of Top End wins, I decided to have another go at White-throated Grasswren at Plum-tree Creek Kakadu on July 1 and threw everything I had at the effort.

What a bird! Rufous Owl at Mary River Park
Unfortunately, you can’t make steak from mince, and though I hope to be proved wrong, I don’t think the grasswrens are present in the few semi-mature patches of spinifex still hanging in there.

Hope springs eternal though, so I hit the Gunlom Falls site the next morning hoping also to photograph Helmeted Friarbird along the way. I only found one willing Helmeted Friarbird and several White-lined Honeyeaters, but without working too hard, concluded that there was little or no mature spinifex to be found on the plateau and I lost heart early in the piece, getting back down the falls-track back to the car by mid-afternoon.

Magic view of Kakadu from the top of Gunlum Falls

It was time to head back to the tropical Queensland coast for another go at photographing Grass Owls, and to follow the east coast homeward. I had to call into Mt Isa to pick up the Reptile Park’s box trailer, which I’d stored at a servo, since the end of the epic grasswren trip with Tim and Scotty in May, for the cost of two cartons. Wanting to make up for no photo of Carpentarian Grasswren from the above-mentioned trip, I returned to the Lady Loretta site and with some difficulty, got onto a group of grasswrens and fluked a photo.

Loretta Mine Road: Home of Carpentarian Grasswren

I spent the night in Isa and next morning went to the Pamela St site for Kalkadoon Grasswren, which played hardball by comparison to my previous experience there. Only one bird seen – smack in the spot described in Tim Dolby’s recent trip report. I heard at least one bird in the opposite gully, to the left of the road/track, opposite the Dolby left turn between the tanks.

The elusive and camera-shy Carpentarian Grasswren

21 – 27 June – Finches and Grasswrens, East and West Kimberley

West to the Kimberley

Since I’d failed to find Gouldian Finches and Yellow-rumped Mannikin (YRM) at any of the well-known Katherine sites, I headed west with renewed hope. Although stops at Victoria River Roadhouse, Policeman’s Point (great site!) and a couple of other likely spots along the Victoria Highway yielded plenty of finches, no Gouldians nor YRMs were seen. Arriving in Kununurra late-avo on June 21, I set up the scope at Kimberlyland Caravan Park to search the promising vista of reed-beds lining the Lily Creek Lagoon. I’d heard that the White-browed Crakes mix it up with the plentiful Comb-crested Jacanas there, walking Jacana-like across mats of water-lilies. As the sun went down, I watched plenty of big-footed Jacanas actively foraging throughout the scope-view, but no Crakes. That was until the approach of sunset, when a White-browed crake skirted out of the reeds and into view for a very few seconds. I had good scope views before deploying my trademark UFO/Big-Foot blurred-imaging camera to record nearly identifiable images of the crake in the fading light.

The mysterious Hidden Valley NP, tucked behind the Kununurra township.
The next morning gave me my first opportunity to explore several well-known Kununurra birding sites, including Hidden Valley NP and the famed irrigation canals north of town. I saw hundreds of finches at the latter: Star Finches, Masked Finches, Long-tailed Finches, Crimson Finches, Double-banded Finches, Zebra Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins. But apart from some false-starts (immature CBMs and Stars) –no Yellow-rumped Mannikins. I tried walking up and down other canals, including the big ‘main’ one, but no cigar. I did see an Australian Hobby stoop-and-swoop to nail a Long-tailed Finch, in what looked like a high-tech military jet strike.

A little bit disheartened, I decided to suspend further searches in the Kununurra/Wyndham area and hit the road again, to pursue four West Kimberley specialties: Black Grasswren, Kimberley Honeyeater, White-quilled Rock Pigeon and the northern race of Crested Shrike-tit, a possible ‘future-split’. The two elusive finch species could wait a week or so until I returned on the way back to Darwin.

The Mild Mild West

My interest in Kimberley reptiles has taken me to many remote corners of the northwest over a long period of time - extended through more than 20 trips. As the present trip would bear out, the seasonal influx of visitors to what is now Mitchell River National Park has absolutely exploded and the associated noise generated by helicopter and Cessna joy-flights has become quite a part of the dry-season experience. After this particular trip, I’ll be returning to my usual wet-season timing for Mitchell Plateau visits (hint – you can fly to Mitchell Plateau airstrip cheaply throughout the fabulous wet season on the mail-plane – March is unreal).

A non-birding mate – and talented workmate at the Reptile Park, Chris Wallace had joined me earlier in Darwin for the tail-end of my time there, mainly to participate in the Kimberley-bashing phase of my year. He’d heard all the stories from other staff members who have been on various supposed life-and-death misadventures in the search for Rough-scaled pythons and other Kimberley-endemic reptiles. I’d explained that ours would be a very tame adventure, with the closest thing to hazardous misadventure perhaps confined to the risk of being invited by colonies of ‘grey nomads’ to campsite sing-alongs. I also made it clear that I was on a mission, if it didn’t wear feathers, I didn’t want to know about it. He’d be on his own if he wanted to chase reptiles – and of course that would be fine.

Perhaps the biggest birding challenge in the Kimberley –
the northern subspecies of Crested Shriketit 

Great tits – shame about the beak

Not far out of Kununurra on June 22, Chris and I passed through the regal Cockburn Ranges on the rough Gibb River Road, before experiencing my fourth flat tyre of the year. Turning north, the road deteriorated to bone-jarring status, so the timing was good for a half-hour birding break (well, birding for me and ‘herping’ for Chris) at what is possibly the best chunk of woodland along the entire Kalumburu Road. Sections of relatively closed woodland with particularly mature trees and reasonably complex understory persist on either side of the Gibb River and have been known to yield the hard-to-find northern subspecies of Crested Shrike-tit in the past, particularly a bit further north at Drysdale Station. Plenty of birds were seen, including some good honeyeaters, a Black-tailed Treecreeper and yet another unidentifiable button quail (!) - but no Crested Shrike-tits.

When I got back to the car Chris had apparently given up on finding Frilled Lizards and Black-headed pythons and was looking through the Slater field guide. Awaiting my return he’d been playing calls from his iPhone of the three or four bird species we hoped to see in the days ahead. He recounted to me that when he played the Kimberley Honeyeater call, a “black and yellow” bird appeared to respond. He hadn’t found it in the honeyeater section and was looking for the Golden Whistler image when he saw the picture of Crested Shriketit.

Oh dear
You beauty! We played a snippet of more targeted playback, and within ten seconds had a pair of Northern Shrike-tits eyeing us from a nearby tree. As far as I’m concerned Chris earned his birding stripes right there and then. Northern Shrike Tit is a notoriously difficult race to find and I certainly hadn’t presumed to see it during my Big Year. Back on the road, with hopes of making it to Mitchell River by nightfall, Chris’s inevitable school-boy variations of the obvious theme peaked with ‘Best tits in the Kimberley’ before the fully-laden roof-rack slipped forward during a particularly dramatic stop, crash-landing on the bonnet of my poor Jeep – once again completing the inexorable Ying/Yang cycle.

An hour later, with the roof-rack mounts repaired and the load re-established, we continued onto Mitchell River NP, reaching the campground not long after dark. Although I knew the area well from non-peak season visits, I was in for quite a shock. The enormous camping area was chock-a-block full of tents, SUVs, caravans and giant 4wd buses. Intruding renditions of ‘Kumbaya My Lord’ and the like persisted well into birders’ night-time.

Early bird doesn’t always get the worm

I got up at 5am (I thought) to get onto the walking trail to the famous three sets of falls well in front of the punters. Arriving at the first of the three sets of falls - Little Merten’s (I know this site well as the type-locale for Rough-scaled python) I wondered where the creeping dawn was hiding. A glance at my watch indicated that it was 3:30, not 5:30. I’d used the alarm clock app on my iPod to awaken – but it hadn’t been time-adjusted for the western time-zone yet. Back to camp for a snooze, then off again at first light to creep up and down the walking trail between the campsite and Big Merten’s Falls – the second set of falls on the circuit – which reaches a crescendo at Mitchell River Falls a bit further again.
Top of Little Merten’s Falls, epicentre of Black Grasswren sightings of the past.
White-quilled Rock Pigeon
With ears tuned in and eyes open, I crept around likely habitat, veering off the beaten path from time to time, and sat tight for periods of ten minutes or so at particularly likely spots in hope of hearing something. By 10am I’d had no luck with the Grasswren but I did hear at least one Kimberley Honeyeater along the stretch of trail that drops down into the cover of paperbarks and Pandanus along Merten’s Creek on the way to Big Mertens (I’ll call this section of the walk Pandanus Gully). Unfortunately I couldn’t follow these up successfully. During the course of my stay I saw quite a few interesting birds in the gully, including a Buff-sided Robin and several Green-backed Gerygones. By noon and heading into the ‘dead zone’ time of day I’d had enough of buzzing helicopters and heavy foot traffic and took an overland side-trip to a section of the Mitchell River that I knew well. The remarkable caves there have very impressive galleries of Bradshaw-type paintings. Some of the images are like old friends and it was very nice to catch up again.

The mighty Mitchell River

In the Groove 

Reinvigorated after a cave-snooze, I made my way back towards the maddening crowd via the ‘other’ side of Pandanus Gully and the associated billabongs that feed Big Merten’s Falls. While watching a feeding group of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, I was relieved to hear, then plainly see a mature Kimberley Honeyeater (tick) with an immature off-sider jumping from tree to tree. A half-dozen or so Little Woodswallows were as cute and cheeky as always, and a range of other good birds were seen.

The endemic Kimberley Honeyeater proved to be
surprisingly difficult to locate.

The billabongs that feed Big Mertens Falls
proved to be very bird-friendly.
Chuffed with the Honeyeater encounter, I hiked to camp with attentive ears, but again failed to detect any grasswrens. By late afternoon most of the happy campers had straggled back from the falls, so I set off to search the track for grasswrens again. Nothing along the way to Little Mertens Falls, through the sections where most sightings have been reported in the past.

Further along however, a couple of hundred metres before Pandanus Gully I thought I heard a grasswren call. A bit of patience was rewarded with a definite call before a brief visual of a Black Grasswren (tick) at 4:30pm.

Continuing on, after rounding a corner on the other side of Pandanus Gully I all but stepped on a very surprised group of at least five Black Grasswrens that beat a hasty and raucous retreat in multiple directions. The likely king-pin of the group headed right onto a waist-high sandstone shelf to lecture me from a safe distance. Wish that some of the other grasswren species I had been chasing earlier in the year had been so argumentative. Internal high-five.

How sweet it is – the very special Black Grasswren,
another Kimberley endemic

With both the Kimberley Honeyeater and Black Grasswren in the bag on day one and with only the western race of Partridge Pigeon remaining for me to see in the north Kimberley, I decided to forgo the pigeon and start back for Kununurra. Chris and I packed up and tackled the very rough track to Drysdale Station, where we retrieved our repaired tyre, filled the petrol tank (in exchange for a wheel-barrow full of dollars) and set up camp in another sea of tents and caravans - and more singing tour groups.

YRM or bust

We took our time getting back to Kununurra through ‘God’s own’ country on the 24th. The next morning I took Chris to the airport so he could begin his journey home – he intended to do what he anticipated would be “serious herping” in the Darwin area on the way through to Sydney. It was great fun and very helpful to have Chris along. It was also nice to have a technical guru to explain how everything from electronic gizmos to car engines work. A carpenter by trade, Chris is Projects Manager at the Reptile Park while also continuing to play a major role in the construction of Devil Ark www.devilark.com.au - the large-scale Tassie Devil breeding facility in the Barrington Tops.

Chattering Experience

I spent all of the rest of the day unsuccessfully searching some of the best-known Kununurra hangouts for Yellow-rumped Mannikins and Gouldian Finches. Same basic story the next morning, before heading south to Lake Argyle, in part to search for Gouldian Finches. I’d arranged for a boat trip to ‘Chat Island’ later in the afternoon with Greg Smith of Lake Argyle Cruises to look for Yellow Chats. Greg occasionally takes bird groups out to see a range of species on a very speedy outboard ‘Cisticola’. Greg explained that higher than usual water levels the year before had inundated the ‘islands’ and that he didn’t know if the birds had returned to the soggy island now that the water level had dropped back down. But he said that he’d been looking for an excuse to scout the scene out, and upon hearing about my Big Year organised his birding buddy Dave (who was doing a stint as gardener at the village caravan park) and off we went. Ours proved to be a wonderful little adventure, speeding through the guts of this enormous reservoir while skirting around protruding ‘islands’ – which presumably provided cat-free and fire-free refuge for at least some lucky birds.

After a year of submerged habitat, it was heartening to see that at least some
of the resident Yellow Chats had returned
We soon reached our destination and weren’t long on Chat Island before Greg was onto a drab female/immature Yellow Chat (tick) and shortly thereafter spotted a boisterous bright yellow male. After getting my fill of watching the cheeky male chat, my attention shifted to a mixed group of terns roosting near the shore while the boys resumed walking towards the other end of the 200m long island. Greg casually called back to me “Did you see the Painted Snipe?”. “Uh, No…”. Greg and Dave had flushed out a Painted Snipe that landed a short distance further along. No amount of my feverish criss-crossing of the tiny island could entice a repeat performance by this very special bird, leaving me with that empty feeling akin to when the ‘big one’ throws the lure and disappears.

The single male Gouldian Finch observed at Lake Argyle

Still, getting the last of the Aussie chat species out of the way was a great result. Not only that, but Dave put me onto a nearby site for Gouldian Finches. He had witnessed groups of Gouldian’s coming and going on each visit to the subject waterhole, including the previous day. Stepping off the boat I bee-lined to the site and sat til dark. Plenty of Long-tailed and Double-barred Finches dropping in for a drink, but no gaudy flashes of green, blue, yellow, lavender, black and red. So back in the morning to sit and wait. Long-tailed finches came and went over the next couple of hours before a single ‘black-headed’ male Gouldian Finch flitted in and perched 30m away for a brief assessment of the scene, before giving me the thumbs down and splitting. Tick! This proved to be the one and only Gouldian for the trip, and in all likelihood, for my Big Year. It had proved a big day for rare birds, but it was time to get back to Kununurra to get serious about Yellow-rumped Mannikin.

YRM or bust: And this time I really mean it

The end of a hard-fought battle – a surrendered pair of
Yellow-rumped Mannikins near irrigation canal at Kununurra

Arriving at the much-touted ‘third canal’ north of Kununurra by early afternoon (dead-zone time, I know), and as had happened three times previously, I managed to see a stack of finches, but with no Yellow-rumps amongst them. Continuing further along the canal this time, about a kilometre from the car (Ivanhoe Road), a fast-moving band of finches, with a few other bird species mixed in, crossed the path from the direction of the canal heading off to my right and through a small but fairly dense patch of high brush/low timber.

As I followed, most of the birds kept moving through and beyond the thicket. But at least two good-sized finches remained in clear view at the far edge of the thicket. Flitting around at head-height in a single bush, a pair of Yellow-rumped Mannikins allowed me to get to within about ten metres before heading off in the same direction that the other birds had gone. Another drawn-out challenge with a happy ending –
I was elated.