Sunday, September 23, 2012

Top 10 Mistakes by Visiting Birders :D

We all know how difficult it can be birding in a location far from home, with lots of bewildering new birds and a limited selection of field guides to identify them. And then there’s that awkward moment when you confidently post your sightings, only to have some sneering local shoot them down in flames. Well, here at Leeuwin Current Birding we’ve done the shooting and sneering in advance, to compile the top ten mistakes we regularly see made by visiting birders. We hope these are helpful and will be taken in educational spirit they are intended - we’re not laughing, honest! Hey, we’ve all been there!

In no particular order, the top ten are:

1. Paying for lighthouse entry to get Rock Parrot at Cape Leeuwin
This seems to be on the touring circuit of every visiting birder, who dutifully stump up their hard-earned to get a shot Rock Parrot – without realising the best way to see them is to wait near the freshwater pool below the petrified waterwheel – which is outside the fence!

Rock Parrots drinking at the petrified waterwheel near Cape Leeuwin

2. Red-tailed Tropicbird colony that was, but isn’t any more
A recent addition (and very forgivable to be fair as most references have not been updated to reflect this change) - Sugarloaf Rock near Dunsborough remains a favourite location for visiting birders keen to catch up with the well-known colony of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that breed there. Less well-known is that the colony is no more, having been apparently abandoned since the mid-late 2000s (with the exception of a couple of sightings of a single bird in the 2010-2011 season). News of this has been slow to filter out though, judging by the number of trip reports in the last few years detailing (unsurprisingly) unsuccessful tropicbird stake outs at Sugarloaf.

3. “It had a long bill, so it must have been a Baudin’s”
Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo have long bills. Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo have REALLY REALLY LONG bills. The rule of thumb here is, “if you only *think* it’s long, it’s probably a Carnaby’s” - good views of a Baudin’s bill will leave you in absolutely no doubt that it’s long! A better criterion, and usually more easily observed, is the width of the bill – see this previous ID feature for further hints on Black-Cockatoo ID. Expect any reports of Baudin’s from the Perth coastal plain to viewed with suspicion by locals.

To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, "...that ain't a long bill, THIS is a long bill". Baudin's Black-Cockatoo feeding.

4. Familiar White Wagtails
Reports of White Wagtails come in almost annually from visiting Europeans, usually accompanied by a disclaimer something along the lines of “I am very familiar with the species”. Without wanting to cast any aspersions on their birding skills, these records more likely relate to the fact that they’re *not* familiar with male White-fronted Chat, which is rather similarly-patterned and often seen strutting along the ground. White Wagtails are very rare vagrants but certainly can occur in Western Australia, most recently a long staying bird that showed up at Perth’s Lake Gwelup and Lake Joondalup in Jan-March 2012. So while we certainly wouldn’t want to discourage reports, please don’t be offended if any confident claim of being “very familiar with the species” prompts instead a little bit of skepticism – history tells us this is a common and understandable error.


White Wagtail race leucopsis. Photo form Wikipedia (J.M. Garg), used under a Creative Commons License
White-fronted Chat. Photo from Wikipedia (JJ Harrison), used under a Creative Commons License.
5. Little Crows in Perth
‘Little Crows’ are rather frequently recorded by birders visiting Perth, leaving locals bewildered as to how we could be so unlucky as to virtually never see them? Or perhaps more likely, this is a forgivable mix-up over our distinct Western subspecies of Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides perplexus), with its almost Little Raven-like smaller size, finer bill, shorter throat hackles, and more clipped nasal call compared to the Eastern nominate. Further confusion may lie in that immature Ravens have an even smaller bill and less obvious throat hackles. [Note: Authors of a recent corvid genetic study [1] concluded the ‘Western Raven’ is distinct enough genetically to warrant splitting as a full species – so don’t forget to tick them while you’re here!].

Genuine Little Crows are now almost never seen in Perth or further south. Despite a series of summer invasions to north-eastern Perth documented by Ian Rowley throughout the 1970’s, there has been only a handful of validated sightings since - a change possibly related to closure of the Midland abattoir [2]. Little Crows do not become at all likely until deep into the wheatbelt (around Wongan Hills is the perhaps the closest to Perth), and don’t become common until beyond the eucalypt-mulga transition.

NOT Little Crows - two 'Western Ravens'

This IS a Little Crow, note shortish but straight bill, steep forehead, and very short hackles.

6. Driving to Shark Bay to twitch ‘newly split’ Western Grasswren
A trap for the unwary: wow, that’s a hell of a long way to drive only to discover that the ‘new grasswren split’ is actually between two adjacent former subspecies in South Australia, one or both of which you have already seen. Though modestus is the true ‘split’, it kept the old Thick-billed name, while the re-named Western Grasswren confusingly has two very widely separated subspecies, textilis at Shark Bay and myall in South Australia.

7. Black-faced Cormorants
Another species mysteriously only ever reported by visitors, while verified sightings remain very rare anywhere west of Hopetoun. Given its description as “by far the most sedentary of Australian cormorants” [3], these spectacularly out-of-range records are more likely explained by the black-faced stage of late immature Pied and Little Pied Cormorants, perhaps because this immature plumage type is poorly described in most field guides.

Immature Pied Cormorant - note the larger, pale bill, and yellowish loral patch. Such birds may account for Black-faced Cormorant records out of range in the south-west.

Black-faced Cormorant, in range on the Tanker Jetty at Esperance.

8. Ticking Indian Peafowl on Rottnest
Sorry to deny you all a tick, but the bad news for twitchers is that Rottnest’s long-standing feral Peafowl colony has been systematically exterminated. The one remaining male hanging around the bakery is almost certainly wild-born, but is no longer part of the requisite ‘self-sustaining colony’ to make it legit – so I guess it comes down to how fussy you are! Northam’s Mute Swans are breeding again but remain rather suspect as well – see our previous post on these two ‘ghosts of twitches past’.

9. Bandless ‘Kelp Gull’
Kelp Gull are yet another species recorded curiously more often by visitors than by locals, often accompanied by a careful description of the “diagnostic lack of a tail band”. Unhelpfully, most field guides (Pizzey being the notable exception, which warns: “Beware”) fail to mention that adults of the very much more common Pacific Gull may also lose their black tail band completely at a certain stage of moult, and that the western subspecies georgii has less red on upper bill tip. Distribution maps in field guides are also rather unhelpful - Pizzey says “casual at Jurien Bay”, while Slater says “possibly increasing…around south coast north to Perth”. It seems this looming invasion was never realized, because Kelp Gull remains a major rarity anywhere west of about Esperance. Apart from a rash of spurious records on databases like eBird, the most recent verified records from the south-west are from Alfred Cove in 1989 (WABN 53) and from Cheynes Beach in 2010 (winning Best Bird in the Twitchathon that year!).

A 2nd-year immature Pacific Gull - immatures are more difficult to separate from Kelp Gull but note the massive meat-axe of a bill wielded by the Pacific.

And lastly, to probably the most mis-identified bird in south-west WA…

10. Western Corella – tick!
A quick Google Image search will probably turn up photos of all three corella species masquerading as Westerns, and many visiting birders (and the occasional local) fall into the trap of assuming corellas in Perth (and some other areas in the south-west) are Western. Indeed even the Australasian Bird Image Database (ABID) has photos of all three species labeled as Westerns! This is not entirely surprising as all three species are superficially similar (look out for our upcoming ID feature!), and most of the major field guides don’t help the situation by not showing introduced urban populations of Little and (Eastern) Long-billed Corellas. Plus it just seems somehow right that the corellas in the western-most capital city in Australia would be………..well, Western! In reality though, Western Corellas are unusual in the Perth area (except perhaps the far NE around areas like Bullsbrook) and the vast majority of corellas around the metro area are Little or Long-billed. The same is true of several other urban flocks in the SW, most notably in Busselton. To have a good chance to see genuine Western Corellas, visitors need to travel out of town a little, to areas like Rocky Gully and the Muir-Unicup Wetlands east of Manjimup (southern race), or Wongan Hills, New Norcia and Moora (northern race) – though those chasing the northern race still need to wary as Little Corellas can also occur in these areas, sometimes in mixed flocks with Westerns.

A few others that didn’t make the cut:
1. Intermediate Egret
Another rare species in the south-west, though it does occur on occasion and may be increasing with a few confirmed records in the last 5 years. However, the majority of claimed Intermediate Egrets records actually involve Eastern Cattle Egrets or young Little Egrets (which can have pale legs and a predominantly pale bill).

2. Wungong Gorge
For many years Wungong Gorge was the go-to spot for south-west endemics near Perth. But, as we’ve mentioned previously, it isn’t the most attractive location, and more importantly, has declined in reliability for some target species like Red-eared Firetail. Instead of Wungong, we recommend trying Victoria Dam.

3. ChestNOT Teal
The distribution of Chestnut Teal in southern WA is unusual – though they can be very common at some waterways along the far south coast, they (for no apparent reason) become much less regular west of the Frankland River area. Despite plenty of suitable habitat, Chestnut Teal are rather rare in the south-west except for small numbers at a few regular haunts (eg. Vasse-Wonnerup area, Peel, Alfred Cove) - yet they are reported suspiciously more frequently by visiting birders than by locals. In reality any teal with a rusty cast here is probably more likely to be a Grey stained by dissolved iron in acid sulphate-affected waterways (something of a problem here) than a female/eclipse Chestnut – look for the darker head and throat to be sure.

As noted, all the above presented in good humour and with a warm helpful welcome to visiting birders. Anyone having trouble with bird ID or distributions is welcome to email us for help at  We strongly encourage visitors to submit interesting sightings to the BirdLife WA State observations website This is the official conduit in WA for reporting and verification of rare or out-of-range observations in the state, so also a useful site to check for the latest sightings if visiting. We strongly encourage visitors to submit their records to that website (email - and please don’t be offended if the moderator asks for a little more information on some of the above birds!

[1] J√łnsson, K A, Fabre, P-H and Irestedt, M. 2012. Brains, tools,
innovation and biogeography in crows and ravens.  BMC Evolutionary
Biology 12: (72)
[2] I Rowley (2002) Little Cows Corvus bennetti on the coastal plain of south-western Australia.  WA Naturalist 23(3): 211-213
[3] Johnstone RE and Storr GM (1998-2004). Handbook of Western Australian birds (2 vols). Perth, Western Australian Museum.


  1. Great article,

    I'd add Flesh-footed/Wedge-tailed Shearwater ID to that list. Just because it has a pale pinkish bill with a dark tip doesn't mean it's a Flesh-foot(contrary to what some fieldguides say!). Sorry but it's just not that easy

  2. Agreed - great article!

    In fact it should be essential reading for all, particularly novice, bird watchers in their own countries! Glad I don't give my real name on Flickr but I think I did OK on my marvellous trips to the land of Oz!

  3. Just read your comments. Very nicely said. Not sure why you say these mistakes are made by "visiting birders" though? Most of the things you mention would be made by many local birders, and with a range of abilities. It must be a WA thing - I've noticed this a lot. WA birders continually create an us vs them attitude :-) For instance, if this article was written in the eastern states imagine if it was called "Top 10 Mistakes by Visiting Western Australian Birders".

    1. Yeah, fair call Anonymous, but an article "Top 10 mistakes made in WA by novice birders" would be quite a different list! And I think some of your own prejudices are showing here - the article above doesn't specifically mention eastern states birders at all, except in the context of eastern Aus Ravens. But yes, there's no doubt a fair bit of 'us vs them' embedded deep in the psyche of every Western Australian :) In our defence, this is is explicitly a tongue-in-cheek bit of fun that is hopefully slightly educational. And yes we would welcome a similar article for every state of Australia!

  4. Yes, I think you're right Martin, good point, an article for novice WA birders would be very different indeed. I'm with you, I really like this tongue-in-cheek, but information filled, sort of article. And great idea! Similar articles for every state of Australia is an excellent thought! I might just do that. Cheers and thanks. Tim D.