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.