Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Western Australian Big Year 2015

A Big year on a small budget (Part 1)

If you haven't heard of a "Big Year" then search around in the bargain bin in the local DVD shop and find the "The Big Year" starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. I think it just about covers it all, although being an American Big Year, it doesn't have any crocodiles!

A Big Year in birding terms, is trying to see as many bird species as you can in a single calendar year. The area you cover is up to you, some people do World Big Years, others do countries and I chose my home state of Western Australia (even though it's only a state, it is larger than many countries and twice as hot).

Why, you ask??? Well, why not! Birders talk about doing things and sometimes just never get around to it and that had been the case with a WA Big Year since Archaeopteryx decided to take to the wing. I was going to be the first, which has positives and negatives.........first you've bound to get the record but on the other hand you have no benchmark to aim for.  I pored over the maps and books and came up with a rough target. I reckoned a birder with bottomless pockets and all the time in the world could get 450+  (probably closer to 460) in WA, those with either limited time or money could get 435 and those less fortunate could get 420 it was! I decided on a couple of rules, to only includes birds I saw and identified myself (no heard only records) and to not use "playback". Living in Perth, the southwest of WA would be where I would have to find the majority of the species. A rough calculation produced a figure of around 300 species within a days drive of Perth, added to that I had a total of 4 weeks holiday when I could venture further afield.

New Year's Day came around and before the crack of dawn I was ready at Lake McLarty (RIP) to try to start the year with some waders. Luckily for me the lake had one more day left before it baked dry, the birding gods were smiling on me and I managed to see a good selection of waders including Pectoral Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint with the bonus of a Ruff at a nearby wetland. I spent the rest of the day racing around to various habitats and by nightfall I had a total of 110 species, a good start to a very very long race. The rest of January was spent gradually picking off the relatively easy species and by the months end the total was up to 175. February held the exciting prospect of adding some seabirds to the list with pelagics scheduled in Albany (on the south coast of WA).

Black-browed Albatross - Albany pelagic 8th Feb 2015
With fingers crossed I drove the 5 hours south to the town of Albany, the weather was good and the trips were GO. Two days on the Great Southern Ocean blessed with good weather and I saw some excellent seabird including such tricky birds to see in WA as Long-tailed Skua (such a fantastic bird), Sooty Terns and Short-tailed Shearwaters. A quick trip to nearby Cheynes Beach (famous for the 3 skulking endemics resident there) on the morning after the boat trips and when a Western Bristlebird hopped across the track in front of me, I had my 200th species for the year!

March............what can I say, maybe it was a severe lack of iced coffee or maybe my mind was focussed on planning a trip away in April but it was a very quiet month. A weekend away at Dryandra Woodland (a go-to place for birders visiting Perth) failed to find the Crested Shrike-tit, though at one point I could hear 3 calling but they weren't in the mood to be seen. Further trips to a Crested Shrike-tit site closer to my house also failed to bring success (eventually, after 6 trips, I managed, in September to finally catch up with this beautiful bird). A total of only 6 new species for the month, definitely time for a trip north. I booked my flights and meticulously planned my trip to Carnarvon and Monkey Mia (900km north of Perth) and looked forward to my first real expedition of the year. Little did I know that Olwyn had also decided that it would be great to visit Carnarvon too.......... Tropical Cyclone Olwyn!. Luckily she dropped in to pay a visit a week or so before me but she sure left her mark. Regular birding spots were flooded, Chinaman's Pool was more like Chinaman's Torrent and Rocky Pool was gone with the surrounding vegetation stripped bare by the wall of water that had charged down the river.

Off to Bibbawarra Bore.....who reads the signs anyway?

Despite the flooding everywhere  (did I mention the water?)  and the billions of flies that were my constant companions (you know it's bad when even the locals are complaining), I found Carnarvon to be a real gem of a place for birding, friendly, lots of different habitats and very different species from Perth. Standing in the mangroves one morning I counted, in one hour, over 2,000 Budgerigars flying south. Whilst the Cyclone had brought chaos and destruction, it had also watered a very dry land and the birds were flocking to the area in droves. Chiming Wedgebills, Rufous Songlarks and Crested Bellbirds were everywhere and  I felt sure that amongst all those birds there would be something unexpected and so it proved, a stunning beautiful Grey Falcon. I had waited a long time to see one and it was worth every minute of the wait. Flying across the road and landing in a tree, it looked at me for a brief second before continuing on with it's journey.  The other abiding memory I will take from Carnarvon, was driving around & across the golf course (with the caretaker's permission!) in search of Slender-billed Thornbills. I was told "oh yes, look for them by the 9th hole" and sure enough, there in the low scrub beside the fairway were a family group, feeding in the early morning light. A quick dash to Monkey Mia (700km round trip) and I was searching the resort carpark for Western Grasswren, another gorgeous little bird. Not the best of settings but I'll take a lifer no matter the lack of the ambience! Flying home I had pushed my year list up to 253.

Orange Chat at Carnarvon Golf Course
In my humble opinion you just can't have too many pelagic trips so May saw me back in Albany for another weekend of pitching and rolling on the ocean. Hoping for a slightly different flavour to the seabirds now that winter was approaching, we left harbour at 5.00am and headed south into deeper water than usual. My main targets on the trip were South Polar Skua and Black-bellied Storm-petrel, both passage migrants seen as they travel from their breeding areas in Antarctica to winter in the northern Indian Ocean and Artic Tern which is leaving Antarctica to breed in the northern hemisphere.  I saw all 3 target birds and throw in a couple of Albatross species and some petrels and I had seen another 8 to add to the list.

Northern Giant-petrel - Albany pelagic 23rd May 2015

Snowy Albatross - Albany pelagic 23rd May 2015
A quick weekend at Charles Darwin Nature Reserve (350km NE of Perth) didn't go quite as planned with the lowlights being "almost" seeing a Shy Heathwren and seeing the tracks of a Malleefowl but the company was good and whilst a Big Year is generally a pretty solo affair, it is always great to go out birding with your friends.

June, July and August were quiet months, I spend much of the time trying to see any species that was within driving distance of home. I started my great Mallard Quest (more on that later) and made plans! My friends and I had been planning a road trip from Broome (NW Western Australia) to Darwin (Northern Territories) a distance of 1,900km. The only drawback would be that the last 5 days would be outside the state but hey, nothing is perfect. I spent hour upon hour reading the books, searching the internet, contacting people until I had a target trip list of 120 species I needed for the year. So the plan was simple I just needed to get to 300 species before we set off for Broome then get 120 on the trip and voila  I would be on 420 for the year..........Optimism is a most wondrous thing!

As September approached it became clear that I just wasn't going to get anywhere near 300 species by the time I set off for Broome. An "emergency" trip was needed and I knew just where to go. Positive reports had been coming back that the Cue area of WA was "going off" with  recent rains the normally dry dusty region was blooming and huge numbers of birds were flocking to the area. I packed my bags and set off for a weekend around Cue and Payne's Find. The reports proved correct and the bird was amazing, Crimson Chats, Budgerigars, Mulga Parrots, Masked Woodswallows (accompanied by a couple of rare White-browed Woodswallows), even Bourke's Parrots were everywhere. The only thing I couldn't find was Ground Cuckoo-shrike and even though I searched long and hard over the remaining months of the year, it was a species I wouldn't catch up with in 2015.

Spotted Nightjar - Kirkalocka Station 14th September 2015
It was an amazing trip, the red earth was covered in a carpet of wildflowers and the sheer number of birds was mindblowing but a Big Year is at it's core a numbers game and I came away with an extra 13 species.

Now the far north of Western Australia was beckoning, the Kimberley, an amazing region with deserts, beaches, mangroves, rainforest and lakes, all teeming with fabulous birds, I could hardly wait......................

To be continued in Part 2


  1. It sounds like you had a very productive trip and I really enjoyed reading about all of the birds. It's so interesting how the Night Jar seems to camouflage itself with the earth.

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