Back on the Horse … er Bird

The Pacific Gull is a large black and white bird with a large yellow and red billHappy New Year – 2016 is upon us. For me, it was ushered in at Newcastle, at a house belonging to my wife’s cousin and her husband. New year’s day was a quiet affair, sitting in their backyard, playing cards (500) and jotting down a list of every bird I saw as I sat there. The first bird for the year was a Channel-billed Cuckoo, that was heard long before it was seen flying overhead; by the end of the day I had 15 on the list.

Last year I managed to count 277 species of Australian bird species, which was a long way short of my target of 400 species. I did manage to add 37 species to my Australian bird life list, which, although being 13 short of my 50 species target, was very pleasing indeed.

I have set myself the same goals for 2016 – and I am determined to improve on last year’s results!

Although the new year got off to a slow start (mostly due to a few too many New Year’s eve beverages, and getting to bed at 3.00 am – I suppose I should have been looking for nocturnal bird species at that time in the morning, but that was not the case; a scotch for the stroke of new year and a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir to follow). The rest of the day was spent sitting in the shade, rehydrating and playing numerous games of 500. I was recording the birds I was seeing though.

At the end of the first day I had 15 species noted down on the side of my 500 scoring sheet, not a record-pace, but not too bad considering I had not really moved from my seat all day. The next day was a 4 hour drive home, during which only yielded two more species.

The remainder of the week was spent working, and getting ready for a trip to Perth, but I did manage to record a further 13 species, so was already up to 30 species by the 6th of January. I needed to go to Perth for work for around three days, so I organised it so that I could fly in on a Friday afternoon and have the weekend to myself, work for the next three days and then pick my wife and son up from the airport for a little vacation time on the south-west coast. A few wineries and some long walks – just what I needed after the full-on workload of 2015.

An Elusive Noisy Bird

After landing early in Perth on the 6th January, I grabbed the hire car and headed south to Albany (around 450 km away). Western Australia was experiencing some terrible bushfires on the south coast, and that highway was closed, but my route was still okay, albeit a little smoky. My reason for heading to Albany was to try and see a Noisy Scrub-bird. This species was all but declared extinct 50 years ago, but was rediscovered in the Albany region, where the population is stable, but not plentiful. I recorded quite a few good birds on the drive down as well. I arrived at 5.00 pm that afternoon, which gave me two hours of daylight. I got changed, unpacked the camera and set off for Two People’s Bay – one of the main strongholds of the Noisy Scrub-bird. I made slow progress getting there as I kept stopping to look at birds along the way and adding to my list as I went. I got to Two People’s Bay at around 6.30 pm, only to discover that it had been severely impacted by a bushfire around three weeks before. Much of the area I remember from my last trip there in 1992, was either burnt out, or had changed significantly over the 24 years that had passed. Following is an exert from my diary from 1992:

Day 17 – 11th August
A late and restless night, and a very early morning!!! I decided to get up at 4.30 am in the howling wind and pouring rain to go and look for a Noisy Scrub-bird (what an idiot). Needless to say, I didn’t see one – I heard one! But, the morning was not a total waste – 6 new bird species, a lovely walk and a wet bum (and everything else!). 

How different it was this time around – 34 degrees and the area burnt out by bushfires! I spent a bit of time there before it got too dark, but again no Scrub-birds.

The next morning, I got up early – Perth is currently 3 hours earlier that New South Wales, so 6.00am my time, was actually 3.00 am over there! I managed to doze a little longer, but was packed and ready to get out of the door at 5.00 am. I dropped the key in at the office and drove around the streets of Albany for a couple of hours. There were several nice bird sspecies around: Common Bronzewing, Red-capped Parrot, Buff-banded Rail, Red-winged Fairy-wren (a new species for me), Western Spinebill, White-backed Swallow and Pied Osytercatcher. Then I stumbled upon a walking track around Lake Seppings, where I met a lovely lady who had just retired and was very passionate about her photography and, more importantly, I saw Red-eared Firetails (another new species for me), Western Rosellas, Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos and Splendid Fairy-wrens, as well as a handful of other species. I went back out to Two People’s Bay for a couple of hours, but it was very hot by this time and very few birds were active.

I decided to head north, back towards Perth, as I was worried about the fires affecting the only other highway back, and booked into Narrogin for the night. Narrogin is about 25 km fromDryandra Woodland, one of the main biodiversity hotspots from the region. I went for a quick drive out there after I had checked into the motel, but a huge thunderstorm was rapidly approaching, so I high-tailed it back to the motel for a nice shower and an early dinner (steak and salad and a couple of glasses of red wine – very nice).

I checked out early again the next morning. The air was very smoky and I really felt bad for the people who were being so badly affected by the fires; I was about 150 km away from the fires, and I felt it hard to breath when walking around. On the way to Dryandra Woodland I saw White-cheeked Honeyeater, Port Lincoln Parrot and Laughing Dove, the list was growing quite fast. Dryandra is a great place to go, but the roads through it are dirt and can be quite rough with corrugations – I was quite worried actually that the heavy rain from the night before might stop me from accessing the area, but that was not the case. My biggest problem was to be the thick smoke in the woodland that seemed like a thick fog which, apart from being unpleasant to breath, made photography very difficult indeed. I still managed to see some great bird sspecies though: Western Thornbill (another new species), Rufous Treecreeper (again another new species for me), Elegant Parrot, Western Yellow Robin, Fairy Martin, Rainbow Bee-eater, Striated Pardalote, Brown Honeyeater, Yellow-plumed honeyeater and Chestnut-rumped Thornbill. Also got to see a very cranky Shingleback lizard!

That afternoon I drove to Perth and checked in to another motel. On the way I saw Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and Spotted Harrier, and I also passed a botanic gardens, which I decided would be worthwhile visiting again later, after I checked into the motel. The Araluen Botanic Park are quite extensive, but I only had an hour to spend, so I headed for the quietest spot away from the main recreation area. There I managed to see and photograph Scarlet Robins.

The next three days were spent working, so no birding – although I did see a Rock Dove at the warehouse I was working at! My wife and son arrived Wednesday night, and we stayed in the city of Perth. The next morning we headed south (luckily the coast road was open again) to Margaret River. It was very saddening to drive through the burnt out region. Two people had lost their lives in the fires, and I felt quite emotional as I drove through the area. It probably wasn’t helped by my wife putting on an Ed Sheeran playlist in the car and “I see fire” just happened to come on as it drove through the worst affected area!

I spent the next two days on the south-west coast of WA. It is a beautiful part of the world, the water is magnificent, the coast spectacular and the sun setting on the water is simply breathtaking. I managed to add a few new birds: Southern Emu-wren, Pacific Gull, Hoary-headed Grebe, Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo (yet another new species for me), Sooty Oystercatcher and both Pied and Little Pied Cormorant. I also managed to visit a three wineries and two breweries – which is always a bonus.

I left the unique beauty of the Margaret River region and headed off to Fremantle, for a trip to Rottnest Island, and caught sight of an Emu on the way (bonus). Rottnest is the home of the Quokka – Australia’s smallest macropod (kangaroo). I was not able to get good pics back in 1992, so this was my main aim. I was also trying to get a few bird species while I was there, such as Rock Parrot (which I had not yet seen) and Ruddy Turnstone. Long story short, I got the latter, but not the Rock Parrot – bugger. While I was there though, I did manage to see a few other good things: Australian Shelduck, Indian Peafowl, Australasian Gannet (on the ferry ride over) and Red-capped Robin.

By the time I flew out of Perth the next day (18th January) my list had grown to a healthy 118 species. I was starting to get very excited!

Back Home

Since I have been back at home, I have made two trips to Lake Wollumboola (a wader lovers paradise), first time was just to have a look around and try and get some more wader images but, while I was there, I saw a several photographers with rather large lenses. This time last year we had the rare vagrant White-rumped Sandpiper turn up there – this year it is the Hudsonian Godwit. These are identified from the normal Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits that we get here, by their darker underwing and tail pattern. I spent a long while waiting for any suspect birds to fly or flutter its wings, but did not spot it. I did spot some other nice birds though including: Red-capped Plover, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Intermediate Egret, Lesser Sand Plover and Little Tern.

On Australia Day I shot out to the local ponds at Hayward’s Bay where a Little Bittern had recently been sighted, but had no success. I did see a few good birds (European Goldfinch, Australian Reed-Warbler, Golden-headed Cisticola and Hardhead) and bumped into a fellow photographer, Paul Lynch, who I had been corresponding with over social media for quite a while, but had not had the privilege of meeting. An added bonus!

On Friday the 29th of January, I managed a quick trip (after work) to Mt Annan Botanic Gardens. Plumed Whistling-ducks had been seen there recently, so I was hopeful of getting these. Sadly, i was not able to find them, but I did see Royal Spoonbill and the resident Bell Miners. On the way home I called in to Barren Grounds Bird Observatory, home to the Eastern Ground Parrot, but the mist rolled in as I arrived and visibility was terrible. I did get to see Spotted Pardalote, Rufous Whistler and Eastern Bristlebirds while I was there though.

The second trip to Lake Wollumboola on the 30th, was in the company of fellow wildlife photographer, Chris Farrell. He was on the hunt for birds of prey, so we were heading to Sussex Inlet, one of my favourite spots for White-bellied Sea-Eagles, and called in to Lake Wollumboola on the way. Still no Hudsonian Godwit, but I did get: Fairy Terns, Common Terns (another new species for me – and my fifth for the month), Eastern Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper and Masked Lapwing (I was sure I had seen Masked Lapwings elsewhere, but had not written them down).

Off to Sussex Inlet and the White-bellied Sea-Eagles. I had recorded them there on the 23rd, when I visited the area to pick my dog up from my parents’ house, but Chris wanted pictures of them (and so did I!). Well, we saw one over the water a fair distance away and decided to wait for it to come closer. As we waited we flushed a Striated Heron from the water’s edge – cool. The Sea-Eagle seemed to land somewhere near the point, so we raced back to the cars and drove out that way. We parked near the point and wandered down a track, not knowing if we were in the right spot, when it took off and flew straight over our heads! Snapped off a couple of shots of its bum, but nothing decent. Just as we were talking about the lost moment a Grey Goshawk flew out of the same area and away, again with no pics obtained. This was not our lucky day. We strolled around for a while, walked on the beach and then drove up a really bumpy 4WD track to the point. Saw a few bird species out there (Red-browed Finch and Eastern Yellow-Robin were new for my list), and saw another White-bellied Sea-Eagle cruise through the treeline and over the beach but we were in the car at the time and could not get the cameras ready quickly enough to get any decent pics.

All in all a great month, with 161 species in total, including 6 new species for my Australian species life list. What a great start to the year. Last year I had saw 79 in January, including 4 new species, so I am well ahead of 2015. As a matter of fact it took me until the end of May to get past the 160 mark last year, so getting very excited about reaching my goal this year.

January’s New Hatchlings for my (Bigger) Big Year List:

Emu
Indian Peafowl
Musk Duck
Black Swan
Australian Shelduck
Australian Wood Duck
Grey Teal
Chestnut Teal
Pacific Black Duck
Hardhead
Australasian Grebe
Hoary-headed Grebe
Rock Dove
Laughing Dove
Spotted Turtle-Dove
Brown Cuckoo-Dove
Common Bronzewing
Crested Pigeon
White-throated Needletail
Australasian Gannet
Little Pied Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Little Black Cormorant
Pied Cormorant
Australian Pelican
White-necked Heron
Eastern Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Striated Heron
White-faced Heron
Nankeen Night-Heron
Australian White Ibis
Straw-necked Ibis
Royal Spoonbill
Eastern Osprey
Black-shouldered Kite
White-bellied Sea-Eagle
Whistling Kite
Brown Goshawk
Grey Goshawk
Spotted Harrier
Swamp Harrier
Wedge-tailed Eagle
Nankeen Kestrel
Brown Falcon
Australian Hobby
Purple Swamphen
Buff-banded Rail
Dusky Moorhen
Eurasian Coot
Australian Pied Oystercatcher
Sooty Oystercatcher
Black-winged Stilt
Red-necked Avocet
Red-capped Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Masked Lapwing
Black-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Eastern Curlew
Common Greenshank
Ruddy Turnstone
Red-necked Stint
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
Curlew Sandpiper
Little Tern
Fairy Tern
Common Tern (New)
Caspian Tern
White-winged Black Tern
Crested Tern
Pacific Gull
Silver Gull
Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo
Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo
Carnaby’s (Short-billed) Black-Cockatoo
Baudin’s (Long-billed) Black-Cockatoo (New)
Galah
Long-billed Corella
Western Corella
Little Corella
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
Rainbow Lorikeet
Musk Lorikeet
Australian King-Parrot
Crimson Rosella
Western Rosella
Australian Ringneck
Red-capped Parrot
Red-rumped Parrot
Elegant Parrot
Eastern Koel
Channel-billed Cuckoo
Laughing Kookaburra
Sacred Kingfisher
Rainbow Bee-eater
Dollarbird
Superb Lyrebird
White-throated Treecreeper
Rufous Treecreeper (New)
Satin Bowerbird
Superb Fairy-wren
Splendid Fairy-wren
Red-winged Fairy-wren (New)
Southern Emu-wren
Eastern Bristlebird
White-browed Scrubwren
Yellow-rumped Thornbill
Western Thornbill (New)
Inland Thornbill
Brown Thornbill
Spotted Pardalote
Striated Pardalote
Eastern Spinebill
Western Spinebill
Singing Honeyeater
White-eared Honeyeater
Yellow-plumed Honeyeater
Bell Miner
Noisy Miner
Little Wattlebird
Red Wattlebird
Brown Honeyeater
New Holland Honeyeater
White-cheeked Honeyeater
Eastern Whipbird
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike
Golden Whistler
Rufous Whistler
Australasian Figbird
Black-faced Woodswallow
Dusky Woodswallow
Grey Butcherbird
Australian Magpie
Pied Currawong
Grey Currawong
Grey Fantail
Willie Wagtail
Australian Raven
Little Crow
Magpie-lark
Scarlet Robin
Red-capped Robin
Hooded Robin
Eastern Yellow Robin
Western Yellow Robin
Golden-headed Cisticola
Australian Reed-Warbler
Silvereye
White-backed Swallow
Welcome Swallow
Fairy Martin
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Common Blackbird
Common Starling
Common Myna
Red-browed Finch
Red-eared Firetail (New)
House Sparrow
Australian Pipit
European Goldfinch