Friday, March 18, 2016

A Western Australia Big Year 2015 (Part 2)

A Big year on a small budget (The Kimberley)

 I was ready to put the final preparations in place for our 2 week odyssey in the Kimberley! Unfortunately, my plans were a little sabotaged by influenza. My daughter went down with it first and I became full time nurse for a very sick and grumpy 12yr old. Four days out from the trip and I woke with a sore throat...........oh oh............ I went to the doctor and got some antibiotics (and even though I took them for 2 weeks they proved to be as effective at fighting the flu as crossing your fingers).

 To be honest, I can't really remember the flight to Broome or picking up the hire car, but the adrenaline kicked in once we got out of the airport. It was "game on" and I needed to focus. New birds for the year came thick and fast, Little Curlews on the town oval, Red-headed Honeyeater in the court gardens, Red-collared Lorikeets feeding in the palms. We booked into the Broome Bird Observatory and then promptly left, to head down the highway to see Flock Bronzewing (a species I had never seen before). Our second day in Broome proved to be even better, having got the tides completely wrong, we arrived at the beach to find the tide so high that all those thousands of waders that Broome is famous for, were nowhere to be seen! Disaster...........until, we found a small group of waders in a secluded cove. In amongst them was a Eurasian Curlew! A mega-rare bird for WA and a completely unexpected find. Add in a couple of Redshanks and the disaster had turned into a success. The day got even better when searching for Eastern Yellow Wagtails at the caravan park, when we came across a stunning breeding plumage Yellow-headed Wagtail (a race of Western Yellow Wagtail). Having never been officially seen in Australia before, this was without doubt one of the two best birds of the whole year. On our third and final day in Broome we went out birding with George Swann, what he doesn't know about birding in the Kimberley isn't worth knowing! We had a whistle-stop tour of the various wetlands and lakes, picking up Little Ringed Plover, Swinhoe's Snipe and White-throated Gerygone amongst others.


Swinhoe's Snipe - Lake Eda (near Broome)

Late on that 3rd day we received the news that the Semipalmated Plover had returned (from places unknown). This amazing North American wader first turned up in Broome in October 2009 (it was the first ever recorded in Australia) and has spent the following summers in and around Broome Sewage Works. It disappears around March each year and returns almost like clockwork at the beginning of October. We searched in vain that evening and even though we had a long journey the following morning to Fitzroy Crossing via Derby, we again searched the poo ponds before we left, again without success. Reluctantly we decided to cut our losses and head North.... Derby and Fitzroy Crossing were beckoning. A Black Falcon in Derby and a Buff-sided Robin in Fitzroy Beer Gardens (there is nothing like sitting in the shade with a cold drink watching a lifer hop about a few metres away) were the highlights of a very hot and windy day. The next day saw us in Halls Creek. The town may have limited attractions, but the sewage ponds are a little oasis in the desert. Waders, Terns, Parrots, Doves, Honeyeaters.......the whole place was just alive with birds.


Varied Lorikeet - Halls Creek Sewage Ponds

But we couldn't linger, as Kununurra was calling us. Situated 40km from the NT border, it surely is a must-visit location for anyone attempting a Big Year in WA. There are a hoard of species that only really occur in Kununurra and nearby Wyndham......Gouldian Finch, Forest Kingfisher, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Green Pygmy-goose, Comb-crested Jacana, White-browed Crake, White-quilled Rock-pigeon and the list could go on and on.

White-quilled Rock-Pigeon - The Grotto
 

Wyndham was, to put it frankly, a terrible let-down in terms of birds, it was hot and windy and apart from some Helmeted Guineafowl, it seemed rather birdless on our visit. Nearby Parry Lagoons is ranked as another "must visit" site for visiting birders, supposedly, with thousands of birds present on the flooded pools. We however, were horrified to find it virtually dry on our visit and you could count the total number of birds on your fingers and toes. A major disappointment to say the least! Kununurra, though, continued to produce new species and I felt we had missed quite a lot when we had to leave for Lake Argyle. This man-made flooded lake is truly massive and feels more like an inland sea. The village is a great spot for Northern Rosella, which feed on the watered lawns, and the boat trip on the lake was one trip I won't forget in a hurry (thanks Nick)! Alas, it was soon time to cross the border into the Northern Territories and have an involuntary break from the Big Year for 5 days.

Spinifex Pigeon - Wyndham Port

As soon as I got home from Darwin, I  checked my year list. I had seen almost exactly 100 new species for the year on our Kimberley adventure and was on 393 for the year. A "day" trip to Esperance added Malleefowl, Cape Barren Goose, Black-faced Cormorant and Common Starling.


When I set on out my Big Year, I wanted to set a challenging total for others to beat, not some half-hearted effort that my granny could better! A total under 400 was just not going to cut it. There was only a slight possibility that I would pass the 400 mark by staying around Perth for the last 4 weeks of the year. So, another trip was required. But where to go? A trip to Broome would get me 6 species relatively easily (hopefully including the Semipalmated Plover)  but very few other possibilities. Or I could venture back to Kununurra, where there was a chance of 20 species, but none of them were guaranteed. Go for the safe option or the risky choice? It had to be a return to Kununurra! It was the bold approach. Early December in the east Kimberley is even hotter than October was. With temperatures averaging in the low to mid 40's C and with the build-up to the Wet Season there was a serious risk of rain, storms and serious flooding, all of which would be a disaster for my trip. I booked a 4 day trip and hoped for the best!

Yellow-rumped Mannikin - Kununurra

First thing I did, on arrival, after picking up the hire car was to check out the Sewage Works again. Having been around the place before, I set off on the track around the pools. I only got 50m in when I realised this was a serious mistake.  Even though the track looked the same, on closer inspection, what was previously dusty ground, was now a muddy bog. So only 20 minutes into the trip my nice clean hire car was bogged in the mud! I got out, did some digging and put some old bits of wood under the wheels and crossed my fingers. I had to go backwards, the way forwards was full of deep cracks and more mud. The car began to move back slipping and sliding all the time, I got up a decent speed and was almost back to the safety of the gravel when I slammed into a concrete culvert. I guess reversing sensors don't work well at 40km/h! Luckily the petrol tank, though seriously dented wasn't leaking. I just had to carry on, and so I did. I birded for the rest of the day around the town checking all the target locations. At days end that first day, I had been out in the field for 7 hours and had a total of zero new species!!! Things could only get better (well that's what I told myself that night).


The next morning a Common Koel woke me at 4am, I could hear it calling outside my cabin. It was a species I needed! I quickly got dressed and ran out into the semi-darkness. I could hear the bird calling from across the lagoon, on a completely inaccessible island. No success! But, at least I hadn't missed any daylight by sleeping in! Again I set off working the various sites around Kununurra, the poo ponds, the lagoon, Hidden Valley NP, Celebrity Tree Park, all to no avail, nothing, just nothing. After 8 hours I was still looking for my first new species. I had put in 15 hours of solid birding in Kununurra with no reward. I decided to try further afield, maybe the agricultural areas would be more successful.

And so it was, that I found myself standing by the side of the road, 1pm, 43c (in the shade) thinking this whole trip was the worst idea since Napoléon fancied a holiday in Moscow......when......... something............. just........ clicked. I looked up and circling over me was a beautiful Pacific Baza! I then flushed a button-quail from the grass, a Red-backed Button-Quail and when I went back into town, there was a Forest Kingfisher, Oriental Reed-warbler and a much more obliging Common Koel.

The next day I drove the 100km to Wyndham for a boat trip into the mangroves. On the journey to Wyndham, I saw a flock of over a thousand Oriental Pratincoles flying low across the road and in Wyndham, I finally caught up with  two previously elusive Silver-backed Butcherbirds. I was booked to go on the boat, bright and early in the morning (5am) but that night a ferocious storm came up, probably the most "impressive" I have ever witnessed! All I could hear outside my accommodation was the sounds of breaking glass and things smashing with the most torrential rain, and almost continuous thunder  and howling winds. I had serious doubts about the following morning, but as is often the way, the next morning the rain had stopped and the wind had dropped, so, I managed to navigate through the floods to Wyndham Boat Ramp. It was an excellent trip (I highly recommend Northbound Charters) we saw Black Butcherbird, Chestnut Rail & Spangled Drongo (all extremely hard birds to see in WA) as well as Mangrove Robin and Emerald Dove. We spent the remainder of the trip looking for Great-billed Heron ,without success (probably due to the previous night's storm). We had just decided to give up and turn back, when a Hirundine above us in the sky caught my eye. I turned my binoculars on it to see an Asian House Martin! What a fabulous mega-rare bird, and joint best bird of the whole year. I was a very happy man.

Black Butcherbird - Wyndham mangroves

Chestnut Rail - Wyndham mangroves

Arriving back in Perth, I had seen 20 new species on the trip and broken the 400 species mark! I was on 417 with 2 weeks left (most of which, was taken up with the festive season). With very few target species left around Perth, I refocused my efforts on the great Mallard Hunt and after seeing literally hundreds of farmyard ducks trying to masquerade as the real thing, I finally found one (as well as a bonus Broad-billed Sandpiper) in South Yunderup on Dec 29th! New Year's Eve was spent in a forlorn search for an Australian Painted Snipe and when the year ended I had seen a total of 419 species. My 365 day roller-coaster ride was finally over and a WA Big Year record had been set!

I know that at it's heart, a Big Year is all about numbers but it is so much more than that. I had discovered some wonderful places, seen amazing birds and had experienced all the highs and lows that birding in Western Australia can bring. I am sure my total will be beaten, sooner or later and I believe that 450+ is achievable, given enough money and free time but my memories from that year will remain.

A big thank you to Mark Newman and Nick Brown for being great company on our birding trips during the year.

And remember, as Kenny Bostick said "The birds wait for no man"

Happy Birding!


4 comments:

  1. It's a very nice article ans informative,
    RC Planes

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you Edward, glad you enjoyed it!

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  3. Nice Photos. Thanks for sharing. Have you seen: today Google focuses on birders. Especcially on Phoebe Snetsinger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rt-WgoSApb0
    Good luck and greetings by
    Martin

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks Martin, I did see that, nice to see birders getting a bit of fame!

    ReplyDelete