End of 2012 Big Year Tally: 745 


Beautiful Lord Howe Island, with the twin peaks – 
Mt Lidgbird (left) and Mt Gower in the distance.
The final eventful chapters of my Birding for Devils Big Year have passed. Lord Howe Island in early November yielded the Woodhen and White-bellied Storm-petrel, but despite combined efforts with LHI guru Ian Hutton and birding sage Andrew Silcocks, a comedy of my own errors brought me only frustratingly close to real-live Little Shearwater. Although Ian and I did find one on my final night on the island (where Andrew and Ian had seen two sitting outside burrows the night before my arrival), it was freshly killed and mostly devoured, apparently by a feral Masked Owl. When I learned that a Little Shearwater was found trapped in the tennis court of the accommodation complex where I’d been staying at, on the very morning after my departure, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

The timing of my November trip to North Queensland 
allowed me to watch the total eclipse of the sun from 
the front yard of my good friend and reptile-man 
Peter Krauss in Mareeba. The 14 November 
event was something I’ll never forget.

From the Sydney airport I drove down to coastal Victoria to easily twitch the well-publicised vagrant Franklin’s Gull there. Then a final (unsuccessful) shot at Buff-breasted Buttonquail at Mt Molloy, before visiting the northern Torres Strait Islands for the second time. Between Boigu, Saibai and Dauan Islands, I encountered no rare vagrants, but managed to score a couple of widespread species that were new for my year-list. I photographed the three speciality birds: Red-capped Flower-pecker, Collared Imperial Pigeon and Singing Starling, and got a tantalising but too-brief view of a harrier-like raptor disappearing behind the Dauan cliffs.


My November return trip 
to Torres Strait gave 
me the opportunity 
for much better views of Red-capped Flowerpecker (above) and 
Collared Imperial Pigeon (left).

After the Torres Strait Islands, Robyn joined me for my second Christmas and Cocos Islands trip. After great results in February, and the traditional influx of vagrants each November, I was very optimistic. Unfortunately, Christmas Island yielded nothing new for my list. Incredibly dry conditions may well have been a factor. The Fairy Pitta that had been reported a couple of weeks earlier had apparently moved on or been munched. Fortunately, conditions on the Cocos Islands proved to be much better, and so was the birding. I found three ‘new’ vagrants for my list: Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo, Asian Koel, and Tiger Shrike. I also found a female Watercock, a probable Large-hawk Cuckoo, a probable Pin-tailed Snipe, an Asian-race Dollarbird, and several Oriental Cuckoos, but none of these were new for my year-list. The long-serving, oft seen and photographed Eurasian Teal at Bechat Besar swamp was there on cue, along with a grey teal.

This Asian race of Dollarbird 
was being hassled by 
territorial white terns on 
Horsburgh Island, Cocos.  

The Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo
was a wonderful surprise
on the main (West) Island.
The Tiger Shrike I stumbled upon 
(almost literally) on Home Island, 
Cocos was immensely satisfying, 
and a species that I’m unlikely 
to ever see again.

My next trip was aboard the 55 passenger Russian ice-breaker Spirit of Enderby, as commissioned by New Zealand based Heritage Expeditions. The first leg of this three-week passage was from Albany to Hobart, and was attended by a good number of ‘real’ sea-birders. The trek across the Australian Bight was a great experience, with the bonus of providing two new ‘ticks’ - Gould’s Petrel and Little Shearwater (whoo-hoo!). I only hope I can retrace the route one day during the winter months, when Antarctic species would be much more likely.

The Professor Kromov aka Spirit of Enderby is commissioned by Heritage Expeditions on a 
year-round basis to circumnavigate planet Earth on a seemingly endless pelagic voyage.

King Penguins on the beach at Sandy Bay, Macca:  Crikey.

Long live the King.
From Hobart, I was joined by a changeover set of eco-tourists, including Robyn, to sail southwards into the heart of the Southern Ocean and magnificent Macquarie Island. After Macca, we would depart Australian waters, and ‘tickable’ birding, visiting the magical Sub antarctic islands of New Zealand, before disembarking at Invercargill. It would be hard to overstate how wonderful the entire experience proved to be. A day out of Hobart we encountered three separate flotillas of Broad-billed Prions, each comprised of between 500 and 1,000 individuals. Other great seabirds included Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross and Mottled Petrel. Extraordinary encounters on land with the ‘big four’ species of Penguins and Elephant Seals rivalled any expectations generated by Attenborough-genre documentaries. The armies of Royal Penguins and Legions of King Penguins will never be forgotten!

Breeding colonies of Royal Penguin pepper the coastline of Macquarie Island. We were ashore
at Sandy Bay for several hours, free to mill amongst the Penguins and Elephant Seals.

After missing out previously, I was 
rewarded two days after Christmas 
with long and bittersweet views 
of a pair of Orange-bellied Parrots, 
a species with a limited future in 
the wild. That same evening I scored 
my last ‘tick’ of the year, White-
throated Nightjar north of Brisbane.
After a four-day family Christmas break, I was ready to make a final mad dash for new birds. Since there had been no recent reports of accessible vagrants anywhere in in the country, I was limited to a meagre list of six remaining Australian bird species to choose from, of which only two - Orange-bellied Parrot and White-throated Nightjar were relatively easy. The other four - Australasian Bittern, Buff-breasted Buttonquail, Western Ground Parrot and Night Parrot ranged from ‘highly unlikely’ (the Bittern – a late December search for this species is dumb) to ‘crazy-impossible’ (the three others). I’d spent a lot of effort unsuccessfully searching for all four of these holdouts, and didn’t like my chances, even with the Bittern. But that was OK - I was already on 745 species for the year, and I liked the sound of 747 for a final figure, what with the Boeing inference to flight. On the morning of December 27th I took the bush-flight from Hobart to Melaleuca in the southwest wilderness, where I easily located, and watched for a half hour or so at the artificial feed station, two of the final 20 surviving Orange-bellied in the wild. It was a difficult experience watching the pair interact and preen one another, contemplating how many more summers the feed-station at Melaleuca would provide a last-chance look at these elegant birds.

I made Brisbane by late afternoon, and enjoyed views of a White-throated Nightjar in the backyard of birders Tom and Marie Tarrant shortly after nightfall. Two mainland ticks in one day – that hadn’t happened for a very long time.

My Year-count took a hit when I realized that
the Christmas Island Goshawk (pictured here)
 was recently ‘lumped’ with Brown Goshawk.

The next morning on my Brisbane to Adelaide flight (aboard a 747 – no kidding), while scrutinising my 747 sightings against the current IOC list, I realised that I’d neglected to remove Varied Goshawk (from Christmas Island) from my list after it was ‘lumped’ together with the widespread Brown Goshawk. Augghh! With that blood on the floor, my mind returned to lingering concerns about the ‘self- sustaining feral status’ of the NSW population of Ostriches that I’d ticked. Worries about the validity of that tick had reverberated around in my head for months, and I guess I knew all along that I was never going to feel right about it. And so, in applying the dreaded ‘de-tick’ process for the second time that day, I’d slipped right back to a likely end of year tally of 745!

Still, hope springs eternal, and I was determined to give it my best shot at finding an Australasian Bittern in the Bool Lagoon SA to Portland Vic Bittern hot-spots, that at least during Winter months, provide a descent shot at a sighting. If that exercise came to fruit (highly unlikely in post-fledging late-December and current high water levels), I’d shoot up to north Queensland for a final wild stab at Buff-Breasted Buttonquail. Best case scenario: 747 (again!). Unfortunately, hope wasn’t enough, and despite enthusiastic hands-on assistance from Portland Victoria based birder Rob Farnes, as well as Bob Green on the South Australian side of the border, the Aussie ‘Bunyip bird’ was not to be. And so, my final tally of bird species viewed within the Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) of Australia during the 2012 calendar year stands at 745 (or 733 species for those who follow the 2008 Christides & Boles taxonomy).

Wading without results through Portland Victoria swamps. Finishing the year without the Australasian Bittern despite many dedicated attempts over the course of the year reminded me to not confuse setting a Big Year record with birding prowess. The former requires ambitious planning, tenacious enthusiasm and endurance; the later requires lots of experience and, I suspect, plenty of natural ability – neither of which I am generously blessed with.

Final thoughts about the Birding for Devils Big Year

Dipping on the Australasian Bittern in the final days of 2012 wasn’t all bad – I enjoyed the experience immensely, reminding me that much of the joy of birding (for me, at least) comes from the search itself, beginning with the planning process. That of course is not to say that I don’t also get immense satisfaction from quietly watching birds – I do. It remains the most effective way I know of to take in, and seemingly become part of the peaceful stillness of nature. I actually spent a lot of time in 2012 silently ‘bird-watching’ in the non-listing sense, and look forward to a full resumption of slower-paced ‘peace time’ birding in 2013. 

The Ashmore Reef crew
So far as surpassing Sean Dooley’s Big Year record, I remain humbled by the fact that of the 745 species I saw during the year, 19 were seen only during my Ashmore Reef trip in October and my Hobart to Macquarie Island trip in December – two trips that Sean was not able to undertake during his 2002 effort, when, in current IOC taxonomy, he saw 720 species. Had Sean been blessed with the same travel opportunities I was afforded to visit those two remote and bird-laden locations, his record would have been a lot tougher to exceed. Sean also has reported a few narrowly missed ‘almost-tickable’ views of additional species – so who knows what his total could’ve been.

Sometimes a fleeting glimpse is all you get. This unidentified raptor on Dauan island tested my frustration limit.

Of course I accumulated my own set of ‘could’ves, should’ves’, and would’ves during 2012 that impacted upon my final tally. I would’ve expected more Asian monsoon driven bird vagrants on the remote territories I visited, considering how many missions I ran; I should’ve encountered more pelagic species - considering my 44 days at sea comprising 19 trips; and I could’ve seen another four or five species with a tiny bit more effort, luck, or with a lower incidence of dumb decisions and untimely brain-snaps. Painful examples included two near-misses for Arctic Tern, the first being the widely-reported individual lazing about the Newcastle baths in early November (I missed it by a couple of days – and I can live with that). The second missed opportunity for Arctic Tern stings a bit more: On the Albany to Hobart pelagic in early December, perhaps a day out of Albany, a single Arctic Tern reportedly floated left to right over the back of the boat. The upper-deck birders all had killer views, but were too busy high-fiving to think of alerting those of us who were positioned ahead, until it was too late. Once alerted, I ran to the back of the boat to see, at best, a vanishing white speck on the horizon. A week later, rough seas thwarted the intended landing of the same ship at the Macquarie Island settlement where a group of Antarctic Terns consistently reside – I could see small white flecks along the distant shoreline – but did I bring a scope along? Additionally, there were a few sightings over the year that fell into the ‘almost saw well enough’, perhaps the most painful being the Ringed Plover on the Norfolk Island airstrip which I definitely, kind of, absolutely thought I saw. Again, if I’d brought my spotting scope, I’d probably have had success. In most instances I could follow-up my ‘almost’ ticks with additional fieldwork to achieve success, but returning to Norfolk Island was not on the cards. 

I saw very few mainland vagrants during 2012,
but the Franklin’s Gull at the Paynesville Victoria
marina provided a fantastic highlight of my year.
2012 turned out to be a year with relatively few vagrants reported on 
the mainland. Of the few that did show up, my only scores were the Little Ringed Plover (a regular at Darwin), the Semi-palmated Plover at Broome 
(a summer regular at Broome), 
and the Franklin’s Gull that graced the coastal town of Paynesville, Victoria 
in October. I missed the Hudsonian 
Godwit at Perth by a single day in February. My flight to Lord Howe Island to swoop on the South Island Pied Oystercatcher was aborted due to engine trouble and rescheduled for 
the next morning. In the meantime 
the SIPO took advantage of shifting afternoon winds, an hour or two after 
I could’ve/should’ve’/would’ve seen it, to begin the long flight back to New Zealand. I couldn’t get the Buff-banded Sandpiper that showed up at the Price Salt-works in South Australia in December due to the site being declared off limits to birders after a twitcher ran afoul of the complex OHS rules of the site. 

Notwithstanding the glass-half-empty analyses of birding mishaps recounted above, and a fair few other misadventures and mini-disasters scattered throughout the year, it all proved to be flesh-wound stuff. Nothing went wrong enough to threaten my ability to keep on birding. The truth is that I benefited from almost impossibly good fortune throughout the year, with more lucky breaks than I could have reasonably expected. On most occasions it seemed like I was on the front foot – and success in finding the bird was there for the taking, given a bit of extra effort from time to time.

Several years of relatively wet conditions in arid districts provided ideal conditions for a 'Big Year' for birding in 2012.
Even the timing of my Big Year was lucky: 2012 proved to be an exceptionally good year for finding notoriously difficult Australian bird species. It followed a succession of drought-busting wet years that saw widespread greening of the inland regions of the country, and a dramatic increase in many numbers. But good environmental stories are rarely sustainable, and the inevitable explosion in cat and fox numbers in response to the increased food source once again threatens to slam many native vertebrate species back into the danger zone.

The information and communication revolutions have dramatically enhanced birding in recent decades, and this trend has continued right up to today. The amount of helpful information available over the Internet, in particular, is almost unbelievable. The
Eremaea website, together with related bird-reporting site Birdline can provide a veritable mud-map to individual birds. The blog sites of Tim Dolby and others provide additional valuable advice on how and where to find birds.

Several informative ‘where to find birds’ books also proved invaluable to me over the course of the year, none more so than the classic Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia by Thomas and Thomas. The New Atlas of Australian Birds (produced by Birdlife Australia) contributed to my understanding of where birds are most apparent during the various seasons. The four popular field guides for Australian birds are all simply terrific, and I used them all. Michael Morcombe’s smart phone app version of his field guide was a fantastic companion in the field – except when I drowned or lost my iPhones. The birdsong recordings of David Stewart and others are game-changing, in that one can not only learn what calls to listen for, but on occasions when appropriate, attract the interest of birds by responsible and measured use of playback.

A very welcome outcome during my year on the road was the continuous stream of offers of help. I met many extraordinary birders on pelagic trips, who were willing to overlook my sea-birding ineptness (though I did eventually improve) and ask about my progress, or to offer valuable tips and suggestions. Over the course of the year I received help and encouragement from a veritable list of ‘Who’s Who’ in Australian birding - Sean Dooley included, most of whom I now feel blessed to think of as friends. In my mind, this entrĂ©e into the lives of these people is justification enough for squeezing a lifetime of birding into 12 crazy months, record or no.

Wonderful times in deserts with birding buddies and work mates past and present 
Tim Faulkner (middle) and Stotty Ryan. The success of our 17-day arid inland ‘mission’ in May is still hard to believe.

As for my ultimate ‘secret weapon’, my co-worker at the Australian Reptile Park and Devil Ark, Tim Faulkner helped in so many ways in and out of the field. Most easily recounted is the fact that Tim organised and participated in several wildly successful legs of my trip, including Christmas/Cocos
Part 1 in February; a 17-day arid inland ‘clean sweep’ in May; and an exhausting, but deeply satisfying three-day September search for White-throated Grasswrens at Kakadu. Tim is an incredibly talented birder, and there is no doubt but that my final species count would have been lower without the benefit of having his crazy-perceptive hearing and observation skills along during those fantastic trips. Oh, and he showed me how easy it can be to find a Rufous Scrub-bird. The guy should be registered as a weapon.

My wife Robyn joined me for a total of six weeks in some of the more scenic places: Tasmania, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, Macquarie Island, Cape York, and the southwest of WA. Each of these trips proved to be fantastic experiences for us both, and I’m so glad she came along. Of course, without her support from the get-go, I wouldn’t have been able to undertake a partial year of planning, let-alone embark upon a hideously expensive year on the road, leaving her to run our business and various activities largely on her own.

The end of a mighty big year, with birding mate, kindred spirit and comedian extraordinaire Bruce Richardson. Oh, and THAT tattoo. It was a memorable year – that will now stay memorable well into the Alzheimer’s years.

Lots of birders supported Devil Ark this year by way of sponsorship, maybe in part as a result of my modest amount of publicity as well as discussions on boats (where nobody could escape) and elsewhere. It is becoming increasingly apparent that Devil Ark is the linchpin to any future for the iconic Tasmania Devil, as well as a range of additional marsupial species that may well disappear with the predicted influx in dogs, cats and possibly foxes in the Tasmanian landscape in the rush to fill the ecological vacuum. Visit the Devil Ark website at
www.devilark.com.au to find out where we are at in the aim of capturing and maintaining 95% of the genetic variation of the Tasmanian devil, while retaining wild-type behaviour over a prescribed 30-50 year period. It’s a compelling story – maybe you should sponsor a devil!

John Weigel