Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cheynes Beach: Twitching in a skulkers paradise

Cheynes Beach is a superb birding location, best known for its opportunities to encounter the ‘Big Three’ endemic skulkers of the south-west: Noisy Scrub-bird, Western Bristlebird, and nominate race Western Whipbird. Prime target for most birders is the scrub-bird, which is generally a little easier to see here than at nearby Two Peoples Bay, as the birds here are more habituated to humans (note that’s easIER, not easy). However there are many other treats hidden in the scenic, botanically-rich heaths, and nature-lovers shouldn’t leave disappointed even if they don’t manage to glimpse one or more of the famous skulkers - which is certainly a possibility!

The track to Back Beach (Loop Track), with Baxter's Banksia (Banksia baxteri). NSB habitat to the left (dense cover and reeds), bristlebird habitat to the right (long-burnt low open heath). 

The locality 
The area is usually referred to as Cheynes Beach or Cheyne’s Beach (possessive), though confusingly the official locality name is just Cheynes (plural), sitting at the end of Cheyne (singular) Rd, on Hassell (not Cheynes) Beach. There is no town as such, just a couple of beachfront fishing shacks, one street of sleepy holiday homes and one caravan park selling basic supplies & fuel. The caravan park (which also has excellent cabins) is the only accommodation option, and needs to be booked well in advance for peak periods. Staff are used to birders’ inquiries and should be able to give you directions to the latest hotspots, or loan you one of their famous ‘Bird Files’ with recent sightings. Beach or bush camping is not possible, though there are a limited number of small campsites at nearby Waychinicup Inlet (worth a visit in its own right). Alternatively Cheynes is only a short (<1hr) drive from Albany. From Perth, Cheynes is 470km via Albany Hwy and South Coast Hwy. The 18km Cheyne Rd turns off the highway 8km east of the small town of Manypeaks (which also has a small fuel & supplies store). 

The caravan park and townsite are surrounded by the magnificent Waychinicup National Park, which joins with the imposing but largely innaccessible Mt Manypeaks Conservation Reserve to the east. The large trees of the caravan park tower above the surrounding heaths, which appear bleak at a distance but are stunningly ‘floristically rich’ up close. The main emergent trees here are banksias (particularly Baxter’s Banksia B. baxteri), small stands of mallee, and WA peppermints (Agonis flexuosa) in the gullies. The dense heaths also hide some special mammals, including honey possums and a healthy population of mainland quokkas.

Banksia attenuata (left) and Banksia coccinea (right) in the rich heaths around the caravan park (the tall trees far right).

The Big Three and how to find them

NOISY SCRUB-BIRD Atrichornis clamosus

At most times of the year you are almost guaranteed to hear NSB at Cheynes, often at close range, but seeing one is another matter. The scrub-birds here have gradually spread across from birds translocated to Manypeaks in 1983 (7 pairs) and 1985 (16 pairs) as part the management plan for this endangered species. The translocation was extremely successful and this population (Manypeaks-Cheynes) has at times held more birds than the source Two Peoples Bay population.
NSBs are very interesting taxonomically, an “Old Endemic” songbird most closely related to the lyrebirds. Their thick muscular legs and lack of a bony furcula (wishbone) provide anatomical evidence of their virtual flightlessness. But the strongest link to lyrebirds is in their ‘menuroid’ syrinx and extraordinary vocal ability, described by Gilbert as “so exceedingly loud and shrill as to produce a ringing sensation in the ears” [1].  Males sing their piercing crescendo in defence of permanent territories, so calling increases in both frequency and volume in the breeding season (May-October); females call very rarely. The best (and most long-established) territories have dense cover, often along a watercourse, with rushes for nesting - at Cheynes this means most of the short peppermint-covered gullies will have one resident singing male, which spends most of its time patrolling a small central area, maybe 100m square. Immature males establish temporary territories centred on small stands of eucalypts in the more open heath areas - sometimes quite close to the caravan park.

An immature male Noisy Scrub-bird prepares for the dash…

…and bolts across the road on its well-muscled legs.

The scrub-bird technique
Scrub-birds are devious masters of concealment and you are very unlikely to see a singing bird by pursuing it into the heath - it will always stay unseen a few tantalising metres ahead of you. Nor are you likely to tempt it out using playback, which is banned in the park anyway (though Thomas & Thomas [2] claim loud squeaking has some effect). The only reliable technique is to find an area where a territory is transected by a track or road, and patiently follow a calling bird from a distance until it breaks cover to dash across. The best place for this is a gravel track cutting through from Cheyne Rd to the beach ~100m west of the corner of the caravan park, a 2nd gravel track looping eastwards off this, and also this section of Cheyne Rd itself. There are a few other gully territories up the hill cut by sand tracks (look for rows of peppermints and reeds) but these are harder. Check these tracks regularly and settle into a suitable vantage point when you hear a calling bird on the move nearby - and be prepared to wait! Note it will often stop calling for up to 20 minutes as it musters the courage for the dash, so just be patient – NSB twitchers must play the long game.

This gravel track to the beach bisects a well-known Noisy Scrub-bird territory and has rewarded many patient birders.

WESTERN BRISTLEBIRD Dasyornis longirostris

Though overshadowed by the famous NSB, this is one of Australia’s rarest birds, particularly after a large fire through Manypeaks (most recent population estimate 315 pairs in 2005 [3]). It looks superficially like the scrub-bird but with obvious pale scalloping on the body and a grizzled face, and like them spends almost all of their time on the ground. However unlike scrub-birds, bristlebirds will fly short distances when surprised, feebly skimming the heath for 5-10m with a fanned tail before diving into cover - though they are more likely to run (rather fast) from an approaching threat. Their sweet song is brief and infrequent, answered less than half the time by a second bird usually assumed to be the female of a pair. Two main songs are described, a primary ‘A’ song universally transcribed as “chip-pee-tee-peetle-pet” and an answering/duet ‘B’ call of “quick-more-beer”. However a single bird has been observed giving both calls, so these calls are not necessarily male/female specific. They call throughout the year, with only a small increase in frequency in the breeding season (Aug-Jan). Pairs occupy small territories of 1-2ha and prefer low heath areas burnt between 5 and 10 years previously - this exacting fire requirement partly explaining their decline.

The bristlebird technique
Bristlebirds remain fairly localised unless disturbed, so they can be tracked down by their calls, given in short series (average six times) about 10-15 minutes apart. Listen for a singing bird and move calmly and quietly towards that location to await the next burst of calls. Fortunately bristlebirds are not as shy as scrub-birds, or as obsessed with keeping to cover, making them probably the easiest of the Big Three to see (still with some patience required). At Cheynes the prime area for bristlebirds is a slightly flatter area beginning about 500m up the right-hand track behind the caravan park, recognised by its emergent grasstrees and banksia stags. They are also often heard along the left-hand track (Bald Island Rd) between the caravan park and Back Beach. Morning or late afternoon is usually the best time as they are more likely to be singing and actively foraging. Scan for birds singing from very low perches (eg. 15-30cm off the ground), or watch for birds dropping down cover from such a perch as you approach. The scrub-bird (track crossing) technique also works for bristlebird, so always scan tracks ahead and behind while walking around the area.

If you miss Bristlebird here, there is a well-known site nearby at Two Peoples Bay, where they frequent the general vicinity of the Little Beach carpark.

A Western Bristlebird pauses on the Back Beach track (…yeah, don’t expect great photos of the three skulkers).

WESTERN WHIPBIRD Psophodes nigrogularis

The birds here are the endangered nominate subspecies nigrogularis, which lacks bright subterminal tail bands. Birds at nearby Stirling Ranges are race oberon, split by some (notably Schodde & Mason [4]) as the western race of ‘Mallee Whipbird’. However despite differences in size, plumage, call, and nest architecture, preliminary genetic analysis on a limited number of specimens does not support species-level separation from the nominate. Despite appearances, Western Whipbird are not particularly closely related to Eastern Whipbirds, which are closer to the Wedgebills. Though Western Whipbird are capable of strong flight, they apparently prefer not to, as they virtually never fly and instead run rapidly through cover if disturbed. Pairs are strongly territorial and often call as a duet, beginning softly and slowly building in volume over several minutes. They call much more regularly in winter, but will call less frequently throughout the year.

The whipbird technique
The technique for seeing Western Whipbird is directly opposite to that for the other two skulkers - if you hear a singing bird or dueting pair, move towards them as quickly as possible, as they only call infrequently (30-60+ minutes between sessions). While they are in full/sustained song they tend to be preoccupied, and will typically be sitting on an exposed perch some distance off the ground. Scan emergent branches in the general area of the call, which has a strangely ventriloquial quality and can be difficult to pin down. Nevertheless this is very secretive and elusive bird, and can often be the toughest of the Big Three to see. The best whipbird areas at Cheynes tend to be higher up and on the ocean side of the hills, though they can also be heard around the caravan park area, particularly the stretch of Cheyne Rd between the park and Fisherman’s Rocks, and that end (the clockwise start) of the Loop Track.

White-breasted Robin are common and fairly approachable in the Cheynes caravan park

A number of other southwest endemics are fairly reliable at Cheynes, notably:
  • Western Spinebill: Common in the heath areas. Listen for their distinctive calls and flopping wing noise when flying.
  • White-breasted Robin: Common and tame in the caravan park and beachfront thickets.
  • Red-winged Fairy-wren: Easiest around the vicinity of the caravan park itself, but note that Splendid also occur - sometimes in mixed groups.
  • Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo: These often roost in the caravan park trees at dusk.
  • Western Wattlebird: Nomadic and not always present, but can often be found in heathland with banksias.
  • Red-capped Parrot: Moderately common, and can be seen around the caravan park
  • Red-eared Firetail - don’t believe old reports of Firetails posing on powerlines: these are present throughout both the heath and beachfront thickets, but are uncommon, secretive and rarely seen. Learning the call will help.

Red-eared Firetail are present but fairly tricky to locate at Cheynes – listen for their plaintive call.

Other nice birds likely to be seen during a stay at Cheynes include: Flesh-footed Shearwater, Pacific Gull, Sooty Oystercatcher, Brush Bronzewing, Spotted Harrier, Brown Falcon, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Purple-crowed Lorikeet, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, White-cheeked Honeyeater, New Holland Honeyeater, Southern Emu-wren, Splendid Fairy-wren, and White-browed Scrubwren. Brown Quail used to be regular around the caravan park but seem to have declined in recent years. Despite apparently suitable habitat, Rufous (Western) Fieldwren are only occasionally recorded but are worth keeping an eye/ear out for.

White-browed Scrubwren, of the spotted southwestern race maculatus.

 Brush Bronzewing are common and very photogenic around the campground.

Rock Parrot are possible but not reliable at Cheynes, the best area being around Kybra Road (the main beach access road), especially around the freshwater outflow north of the beach access, and any beachside grassed areas in the early morning. Sometimes there are migratory waders in the beach at the creek outflow.

Spotted Nightjar are fairly reliable along Cheyne Rd just after dusk, particularly around the small valley and adjacent stony rises just north of the Waychinicup turnoff.

Flesh-footed Shearwater attracted into Cheynes bay by a commercial fishing harvest. Any large, dark-brown shearwater around Cheynes is likely to be this species, though Short-tailed has been recorded, and Great-winged Petrel breed on Bald Island. 

Approximate indications of the best areas for the Big 3 Skulkers. The Loop track, especially the section to Back Beach passes through territories of all three species so is a good area to focus on, as is the end of Cheyne Rd.

Finally, a bit of a conservation reminder – the Big Three Skulkers are all threatened species (officially Vulnerable, or Endangered for the case of nigrogularis) and Waychinicup NP is important and environmentally-sensitive habitat for them as well as many other range-restricted plants, mammals, and reptiles. There is nothing to be gained by stomping all over the heath trying to flush these birds – it is a completely ineffective method anyway. The best and most effective way to see them is through patience and quiet stealth, using tracks, firebreaks and natural open areas. Birds with territories along roads and tracks are more tolerant of human disturbance, so these are the best areas to search. Similarly, please avoid the use of call-playback on any of the Big Three, not only because of the potential for disturbance of threatened species given the relatively high number of birders visiting the area, but also because playback can be an important tool for surveying populations of these species - overuse can lead to birds becoming habituated and unresponsive.

[1] Serventy DL & Whittell HM (1976) Birds of Western Australia 5th ed. University of WA Press, Perth.
[2] Thomas, Thomas , Andrew & McBride (2011). The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia,  2nd ed. Melbourne, CSIRO Publishing.
[4] Schodde R & Mason I (1999) The Directory of Australian Birds: Passerines. A taxonomic and zoogeographic atlas of the biodiversity of birds of Australia and its territories. CSIRO Publishing.

An excellent Tim Dolby report on the southwest including Cheynes can be found here:


  1. Fantastic post! Now I just need to find a way to get there...long way for weekend trip from the east coast :-)

  2. great information, thank you. I was there in early Sept. 2013 which was probably too early as not much was flowering and honeyeaters, other than new Holland, were absent. Glimpse of 1 Tawny-crowned.. would like to find them again as well as another go at Southern Emu -wren ( seen but no good photos) and Red-eared Firetail ( missed). What is the best time of year, if you come a long distance ( Qld) and have only 9 days?