It should be stated here that this trip was organised to find 29 species which my travelling companion, Phoebe Snetsinger, had not seen on her previous visits to this country. She hired me as I was highly recommended to her as the man for the job. Hence many of the more usual sites were not visited and we did not try to record as many species as possible so there are many fairly common species missing from our final species list. Also I did some birding around Sydney and Cairns before Phoebe arrived, and I have included those species as well as the species recorded by both of us. Anything seen by Phoebe and not by myself has also been included so as to give a complete picture of what was seen on the trip.
The itinerary was carefully planned by me to maximise our time available and to give at least two chances, all be it on consecutive days, at each of the target species. The target species included some of the hardest to see in Australia, but also a few easier ones which should have been recorded on previous trips. As our travels covered a large part of northern Australia we also recorded many highly sought-after species which can be very difficult to find or observe. The 29 target species were as follows: Red Goshawk, Grey Falcon, Buff-breasted Button-quail, Red-necked Crake, Banded Fruit-Dove, Flock Bronzewing, Partridge Pigeon, Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Glossy Black-Cockatoo, Princess Parrot, Golden-shouldered Parrot, Hooded Parrot, Rufous Owl, Lesser Sooty Owl, Spotted Quail-thrush, Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren, Black Grasswren, Carpentarian Grasswren, Rock Warbler, Tropical Scrubwren, Dusky Gerygone, Regent Honeyeater, Eungella Honeyeater, Mangrove Honeyeater, White-streaked Honeyeater, White-fronted Honeyeater, Grey Honeyeater, Yellow Chat and Plum-headed Finch. Apart from these species we were also concentrating efforts on seeing many of the different subspecies within the areas we visited in case the phylogenetic species concept becomes more widely accepted for world listing.
Phoebe arrives on time at Cairns international airport having flown from Los Angeles via Aukland, New Zealand. After checking in at the Trade Winds Esplanade hotel she goes with Andy Anderson to look for Rufous Owl whilst I collected the 4-wheel drive and did some last minute purchases of camping equipment for the harder parts of our trip. In the afternoon we both went with Andy to try for better views of Rufous Owl and then after a brief stop for a cup of tea with Dawn and Arnold Magarry (local birders) we made an attempt for Red-necked Crake along the rainforest walk in Centennial Lakes. The result of which was one bird heard very close but not seen.
An early start from Cairns as we were expected at John Squires house near Kuranda to look for Red-necked Crake at 07.30. Unfortunately we dipped on the crake but we were compensated with excellent views of a female Cassowary with two chicks as well as superb views of some of the commoner rainforest species that visit Johns' garden. We then met up with Lloyd Nielson at Mount Malloy to try for Buff-breasted Button-quail. This was perhaps the most fortunate event of the whole trip as after a short drive we parked the vehicle and flushed a Buff-breasted Button-quail within 20 metres. Not only did we flush it once but we managed to flush it again. We continued to look in this spot for another few hours but we did not flush another quail. We also tried another site, along Bakers Road, but the length of the grass here was far too long for Buff-breasted Button-quail, and so we gave up. We then drove on to Kingfisher Caravan Park at Julatten where we had reserved a chalet for the night, and we still had time to look for Red-necked Crake just before dark. I saw one on the first pool but unfortunately Phoebe was on the second pool, and by the time I had got her attention it was too late, my bird had gone. After a brief try at dusk at Kingfisher Park for Lesser Sooty Owl and a good meal at the Homestead Tavern on the corner of the Mount Lewis road we started our first long search for Lesser Sooty Owl. The weather was not good for spotlighting, with rain, mist and wind, but we tried on Mount Lewis road, without luck, until about 1 a.m. before retiring to bed.
Phoebe started early in another vain attempt for Red-necked Crake, whilst I had the chance to get a couple of hours extra sleep. The rest of the day was spent getting supplies for the next few days with a little bit of birding thrown in. The evening was a success for Phoebe with Red-necked Crake and then we went spotlighting with Sandra around Kingfisher Park. After another good meal in the tavern we tried Mount Lewis again for owls. Both Kingfisher Park and Mount Lewis failed to produce views of Lesser Sooty Owl except for a brief fly over which I saw at Kingfisher Park. However we did see a Papuan Frogmouth at Kingfisher Park and the 'Red' Boobook on Mount Lewis road. This 'Red' Boobook, race lurida, is a bird which is likely to be split in the future and is confined to the rainforest areas of NE Queensland.
Another early attempt for Lesser Sooty Owl and another failure!!!! For what is supposed to be a fairly easy bird to find it has really given us some problems. So after a brief chat with Phil Maher, who had arrived the previous night whilst we were on Mount Lewis, we left Kingfisher Park and headed north on the Peninsula Developmental Road towards our next port of call, Windmill Creek, for Golden-shouldered Parrot. We stopped on the way at Laura and rang Sue Shepherd at Artemis Station to arrange to be taken to see the parrots. (This was purely to save a little time.) On our arrival at Artemis Station we were informed by Sue that there was no point in looking before 15.30 as the birds would be roosting so we birded a little around the station in order to kill the remaining half hour or so. At about 15.45 Sue took us out to a recently burnt area near to Windmill Creek, and sure enough there were the parrots, 17 including 3 stunning males. Phoebe offered Sue something for her trouble, and once Sue was out of ear shot declared "that's the best ten dollars I've ever spent." This quote was the basis of some amusement for the rest of the trip. We left the parrots after about half an hour and continued north to Coen. It was here that we stayed the night in the Exchange Hotel.
By breakfast time we were at the Archer River Roadhouse and then continued on towards our next destination which was the heathland areas between Archer River and Iron Range National Park. Our target species for this area being White-streaked Honeyeater which is endemic to the Cape York Peninsula. Having crossed the rather deep Pascoe River we stopped in the first area of good looking habitat and played the tape. We got an immediate response and although the bird did not come in to the tape we were able to locate the species only about 50 metres or so into the vegetation. So onwards to Iron Range and what should be an easy-to-find target species, Tropical Scrubwren. Having pitched camp on the West Claudie River we drove to the large Mango tree on the right of the road to Portland Roads just before Gordon River and explored the trails in this area. After about half an hour we found a pair of Tropical Scrubwrens and returned to our vehicle for a drink. Whilst at the vehicle Phoebe tried the tape of Tropical Scrubwren, and we soon had at least 4 birds in the trees above our heads. We did some general birding in the area and then went to the junction of the Portland Roads road with the Coen road at dusk to look for parrots flying over. We saw Eclectus Parrot but not the one we really wanted, which was Palm Cockatoo. We had both seen this species before but agreed that it was a bird that we should really try to see again as it is so impressive. Still tomorrow would be another day. Just before dusk we recorded White-throated and Large-tailed Nightjars, Australian Owlet-Nightjar, and three and a half hours of hard work after dinner eventually gave us superb views of the marmoratus race of Marbled Frogmouth.
Although scheduled for a two day stay we had no target species remaining in the area and so decided to spend the morning birding around the Iron Range/Portland Roads area and then to return to Coen for the night. This would give us an extra day to try again for the Lesser Sooty Owl on the Atherton Tablelands. Highlights of the day included superb views of Palm Cockatoo at Lockhardt River Aboriginal community, a Pacific Swallow at Portland Roads and hearing White-streaked Honeyeater in numerous places on our drive out from Iron Range to the Pascoe River. We spent the night back at the Exchange Hotel in Coen.
Drove from Coen back to Atherton with a brief stop at Windmill Creek for another look a Golden-shouldered Parrot. It was not a good time of day but we did find 2 immature birds in the vegetation near the dam. We booked into a motel in Atherton and then went to The Crater (Mt. Hypipamee National Park) and prepared for spotlighting for Lesser Sooty Owl in a different area to where we had tried before. Unfortunately it was the same story as Julatten, not a sign of a Lesser Sooty Owl, so we moved onto Wongabel State Forest and at last a response. However the response was close but brief and we were unable to locate the bird with our torches. We returned to Atherton rather depressed but decided to get up early in order to try again before dawn.
Up at 04.00, and immediately I heard a Lesser Sooty Owl calling from a small patch of roadside forest near our motel. It did not respond so off we went back to Wongabel and The Crater. It was the same old story: not a squeak out of a Lesser Sooty Owl. We returned to the area near the motel for the last few minutes of darkness but failed yet again. After breakfast and catching up on a little sleep we went to the area known as Plath Road to look for White-cheeked Honeyeater which was a new subspecies for Phoebe. We saw this species easily and then drove to Julatten for our final attempt at the Lesser Sooty Owl. Despite a big effort by Geoff (Sandra's husband) going around many areas where he had recorded the bird before we missed for the final time and drove back to Cairns for a short sleep before catching the flight to Mackay in the morning.
We checked in at Cairns airport and the flight to Mackay departed on schedule at 06.45. There was one minor problem, and that was the carrier was not Ansett as expected but Flight West who use small aircraft and have a baggage allowance to match, 16kg. Excess is charged at a % of the full adult fare and only carried if the space is available, but we were lucky as we were not charged excess, and the bags were carried with us. We picked up a car from Avis, which had been reserved in advance, and headed out to Eungella. As you can probably guess our target species here was the relatively recently described Eungella Honeyeater, and we began our search at the traditional site at the end of Dalrymple Road. After about an hour of total failure we decided it was time to try elsewhere, and so we headed back down Dalrymple Road and turned off into Chelmans Road. We drove 3.5km to where Chelmans Road finishes at a forestry gate and within 5 minutes had seen Eungella Honeyeater. We then went to Eungella township to get ourselves some accommodation, but for some reason everything was fully booked. So we drove back down the range to Finch Hatton and got an on-site caravan for the night. The late afternoon was spent looking for Duck-billed Platypus from the observation platform at Broken River. All I can say is that mammals are just as unreliable as birds because this particular afternoon/evening they didn't show. A good meal and a few beers in the Criterion hotel in Finch Hatton were a good end to another successful day.
A phone call to Tess Brickhill in Mackay last night gave us a site for our target species today, Mangrove Honeyeater. So after breakfast we headed for the mangroves at Mc Ewans Beach to the south of Mackay. The Honeyeater was one of the first species we saw in the area, so we did some general birding around the mangroves and the swamps by the side of the road just before Mc Ewans Beach before going back to Mackay to get some accommodation. We booked into the Boomerang Motel and had the rest of the day free. This proved to be a good opportunity to get some laundry done and to catch up on a bit of sleep.
The morning was used up with flying from Mackay to Mt. Isa via Brisbane. Upon arrival at Mt. Isa we picked up our car from Avis and booked into a motel for two nights before driving out to the Lady Loretta Project road and beginning our search for our next, and one of the most difficult, species: the Carpentarian Grasswren. As we approached the site, we met Phil Maher who had just seen two of these birds with his group, so with high hopes for success we reached the area in which the birds had been seen. After a rather frustrating half an hour or more we located one which gave very brief but acceptable views. We continued to search the area for the rest of the afternoon hoping for better views, but all we got were flight views of another individual. Perhaps they would perform better in the morning. So with that thought in mind we went back to the motel, had another excellent dinner and retired very contented to bed.
Dawn saw us back at the grasswren site, and we started walking through the spinifex grass with a new sense of hope. How foolish can you get? I for one should know how difficult grasswrens can be to see and particularly Carpentarian. We tried for about 3 hours to find these birds but had to give up without any improvement on the views we had yesterday. After some lunch we went to the Mica Creek area to the south of Mt. Isa to look for the ballarae subspecies of the Dusky Grasswren. As with the morning search for Carpentarian the afternoon search for Dusky was just as successful, total number of grasswrens seen was 0. This had certainly been the worst day of the trip, and all this on American independence day. Let's hope we don't get any more days like this one.
Due to the timing of the flight we had some time to go birding in the morning, and so we went out to Lake Moondarra. The rest of the day was spent getting from Mt. Isa to Alice Springs. Both flights were delayed as the whole airline computer system crashed, and when we finally got to Alice Springs Territory Rent-a-Car were not waiting for us at the airport as we would have expected. Still after a not particularly polite phone call to them it was arranged that we make our own way to the Mount Nancy Motel, where we were staying, and they would bring the car to us and refund our taxi fare. Next problem, no taxis anywhere to be seen at the airport so we used the airport shuttle bus and eventually got to where we were staying. Phoebe went straight to bed, but I sorted out the car hire and then went for a meal and a few beers to relax after what had been a rather stressful last couple of hours.
Dawn found us on the road to Hamilton Downs Youth Camp, just after Kunoth Bore on the Tanami Road. You can take it from me that it was cold compared to the temperatures we had got used to earlier in the trip. The actual temperature just before dawn was -20°C and we needed to put on virtually all the clothing we had in order to keep warm. We were searching for Grey Honeyeater but we did not have a tape of this species, so it was back to traditional methods for finding birds. We checked everything that moved and after about 1 1/2 hours we were rewarded with some superb views of what is probably one of Australia's hardest-to-see species. After about 09.00 activity really died off, so we went back to Alice and thought about what to do for the rest of the day. It was decided that birding around Simpson's Gap and Ellery Creek Big Hole National Parks would be the best thing to do as we had an outside chance of Grey Falcon and White-fronted Honeyeater which were both wanted species. We didn't see either of these, but we did get excellent views of Dusky Grasswrens and Painted Firetails at Simpson's Gap. As usual the evening meal was excellent and the beers went down well.
Again we were on the Hamilton Downs Youth Camp road at dawn, and today after about an hour we saw two Grey Honeyeaters, but just like yesterday the activity died off very rapidly at about 09.00. The rest of the day was used up with a bit of free time and visits to Simpson's Gap National Park and the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds area.
Because of the problems we could possibly have experienced with Flight West we decided to get to the airport in plenty of time for our flight to Tennant Creek in case of problems with our baggage. We need not have bothered as the check-in desk for Air North was not going to be attended until 1 hour before the flight. Phoebe stayed at the airport with the bags, and I went and had a quick look at the Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. Air North have a baggage restriction of 13kg per person, and we had about 30kg each!! We anticipated having to redirect one bag straight to Darwin and to pick it up later, however we were informed that as we were international passengers then we would be allowed 20kg but would have to pay an excess kilo charge of $2 per kilo. We paid the extra, and that was that -- no more problems with the bags. This time when we arrived at Tennant Creek the Territory Rent-a-Car representative was waiting for us, so we were able to get underway very quickly. We were heading for the Barkly Tablelands and our next target species, Flock Pigeon. We made a couple of stops en route before getting to the Barkly Homestead Roadhouse. Here we tried unsuccessfully to get accommodation for the night, so we paid for the camp site and headed for the Playford River crossing on the Tablelands Highway. Just as it was beginning to get dark, a Flock Pigeon decided to fly around quite close to us. The bird was a female/immature, but as Phoebe did not see any real features apart from the distinctive shape we would have to try for better views in the morning.
Sunrise found us at the bore on the east side of the road 21km north of the Playford River. The first half hour or so was unproductive so I decided to walk around the bore and see what I could find. This took all of about five minutes, but as I returned to where Phoebe was standing I picked up four very distant Flock Pigeons. Having made careful note of where exactly they had landed I went to give Phoebe the good news. As we set off in the direction of the birds I had seen, Phoebe noticed a Flock Pigeon on the ground only a few metres in front of us. Obviously this bird had been here all the time and we had not managed to see it until we disturbed it. In fact there were two, both females, but excellent views, and then a few minutes later two males flew in briefly just as a bonus.
We drove back to the Barkly Homestead and then 50km west to an area of flowering trees which we had looked at the day before. We were hoping for a White-fronted Honeyeater but it was not to be. So back to the Tablelands Highway and the north again but this time as far as Cape Crawford after a brief stop at McArthur River. We had already reserved our accommodation here, and so after yet another good meal and the customary few beers we retired to bed. Our plans for tomorrow have been changed as whilst birding around the gardens of the Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford, Phoebe was given a site for Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren at the Borroloola Boat Ramp, so we are going to try this before driving to Katherine.
Another early start as we had to get to Borroloola for dawn. Mind you it all seemed worth it when we located our first Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren along the creek near the boat ramp, even if it was only a female. Also along the creek we found an eclipse male and another couple of females plus a surprise encounter with a group of Blue-breasted Quails that we flushed. Happy with our rapid success with the wrens we headed back to our vehicle but decided to try another final time for the wrens in a different area. We attracted a small group of about 8 individuals that responded well to the tape, and in this group was a male but not in completely full breeding attire, still better than one in eclipse. Most of the rest of the day was taken up with the drive to Katherine but we did have time to try Chinamans Creek for Hooded Parrot in the evening. Admittedly this is not the best time of day to look, and not surprisingly we did not see any. Still our best chance for this species would be in the morning at Fergusson River. On the drive back to Katherine I saw a pair of Hooded Parrots fly up from the roadside, but we were unable to relocate them due to failing light. We were joined for our meal this evening by Phil Gregory of Sicklebill Safaris and a friend of mine from way back in the UK. We all had a very entertaining evening but had to wind things up relatively early as it turned out that we were all heading for Kakadu National Park early in the morning.
Today dawn found us at the Fergusson River crossing on the Stuart Highway. The pools of water in the river bed were numerous and quite extensive, and I was a little worried that the Hooded Parrots may have too many pools to choose from for drinking. We walked east along the river and positioned ourselves on the old bridge over the river as this was a good vantage point to see the birds flying in, if they came. My worries were unfounded as about half an hour after sunrise I picked up two Hooded Parrots which flew in and perched in a dead tree. Over the next hour we watched many birds come and go, but they did not drink from the pool we were watching. The maximum I counted at one time was a flock of about 45 birds although we must have seen quite a few more during our observation period.
Content with yet another success we drove on to Kakadu and our first stop at Gunlom, better known as Waterfall Creek or UDP Falls. As we were here in the middle of the day we had no intention of walking up the escarpment to look for Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon but instead did a little birding around the pool hoping that a Banded Fruit-Dove might fly over. As we were about to leave, Phil Maher appeared with his group having returned from the escarpment where they had seen both the pigeon and White-throated Grasswren. We made a mental note of where they had seen the pigeon just in case we failed at the more easily accessible site, Nourlangie Rock. After making sure of some accommodation at the Kakadu Frontier Lodge in Jabiru we went back to Nourlangie Rock for the last couple of hours daylight. Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon did not reveal itself to us, but from the lookout we did see two Banded Fruit-Doves perched in a distant tree. We had seen another of our target species but the Rock Pigeon looked like it might be surprisingly difficult to get to grips with.
Nourlangie Rock is not supposed to be open before 08.30 so our efforts at first light were concentrated around the Bowali Visitors Centre south of Jabiru. It was here that we connected with another one of our target species, Partridge Pigeon, before going out to Nourlangie Rock to try for the second time for Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon. We arrived at the gate at 08.15 but it was already open and so we proceeded straight to the car park at Nourlangie. After the early morning success our hopes were high, but after an hour or so we resigned ourselves to the fact that Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon is not as easy to find as other people would have you believe or as I had found it in the past. We looked at our options and decided that a change of location could be a good idea.
Phil Gregory had told us last night that he had seen the pigeon at Ubirr, so that was where we were to try next. The results here were the same as at Nourlangie, and by now it was the middle of the day and not a good time to look for anything. We did see the Lavender-flanked form of the Variegated Fairy-Wren, and although this was a new subspecies for Phoebe it did not really make up for dipping yet again on the pigeon. All was not lost though, on the drive in to Ubirr I had noticed an escarpment that came very close to the road and thought that it looked as good a place as any to have another go for the pigeon. In a rather subdued mood we drove back to this escarpment, and no sooner had Phoebe got out of the car there they were. A small flock of about 8 Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeons that were quite obliging and gave us the opportunity to get them in the 'scope.
The pressure was off, and so we drove to Kakadu Holiday Village at South Alligator, with a brief stop en route at Mamukala Billabong to try to add a few species to the trip list. After the vain hope of finding a Red Goshawk by patrolling the Arnhem Highway we spent the last hour of daylight at the boat ramp on the South Alligator where the highlight was good views, fortunately at a distance, of two or three Estuarine Crocodiles.
Most of today was spent travelling. Firstly with the drive to Darwin and then the flight to Kununurra, but we did manage to squeeze in a quick look at Fogg Dam and the Botanic Gardens in Darwin. The birding highlight of the day was undoubtedly a roosting Rufous Owl in the Botanic Gardens although it is always nice to see the spectacle of so many waterbirds at Fogg Dam. Little did we know, but we actually drove past three Letter-winged Kites that had been present in the Fogg Dam area for some time. Still that's the way it goes sometimes. It was already dark when we arrived in Kununurra, and after sorting out the 4-wheel drive for the most adventurous part of our whole trip we checked-in to the Kununurra Hotel.
This morning we took Golden Gate Road to the northern shore of Lake Argyle where we began our search for Yellow Chat. After a good 2 hours of scouring the vegetation around the lake shore we admitted defeat and headed back to Kununurra. The rest of the day was taken up with buying supplies and whatever equipment we thought necessary for forthcoming trips into the Kimberley and along the Canning Stock Route. In the evening Phoebe birded Lake Kununurra, mainly looking for Black-backed Bittern which has been split by some authors. She failed to see this species but was slightly compensated with good views of 2 White-browed Crakes.
We started early as we wanted to get to Parrys Lagoon in order to try for Yellow Chat again before driving in the direction of the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley. We spent at least three hours searching both the shore of Parrys Lagoon and the surrounding flood plain, but it was the same story as the northern shore of Lake Argyle, no Yellow Chats. Rather disappointed we left Parrys Lagoon and after a long, and at times rough, ride we arrived at the Drysdale River about 16.00 hours. This river crossing is a site for the Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren and after a short time we located a pair, the male was in full breeding plumage -- a real stunner. We continued driving until we reached the turning off the Kalumburu Road to the Mitchell Falls about 100km north of Drysdale River. It was here where we camped for the night.
Another early start but this time it was because we wanted to reach the Mitchell Falls area as soon as possible, so we could begin our search for our next target species, the very localised Black Grasswren. After about two hours of climbing over boulders and through spinifex we decided that the time of day was no longer in our favour, and so we decided to try another area where the species was reported to be common. This second area is called Surveyors Pool, and according to both Bransbury and Thomas & Thomas it is reached by driving north from the Mitchell Falls turn off on the Warrender Road for about 19km and then taking a rough track for 6km. What neither of these references point out is that even if you could drive to the car park, we couldn't as the track was washed out about 1km before the car park. It is then a 4km walk to Surveyors Pool and the surrounding spinifex-covered escarpment and boulders. Bransbury also states that if you can't find the grasswrens here then it is time to hang up your binoculars. Well I guess that Phoebe and I should give up birding because despite our effort to get to the area we dipped all except for a fleeting glimpse that I had of one bird. Still we both agreed that the setting was one of the most beautiful, and spectacular, that either of us had seen in Australia. As you can imagine, the walk back to the vehicle was not quite as much fun as the walk out, and we had to set back before the best time for the grasswrens, otherwise we could have got very lost trying to walk back in the dark. We drove back to the Mitchell Falls and camped there for the night. Tomorrow would be an all out spinifex bash and boulder jumping to find our target.
Soon after dawn we were scrambling over rocks and through spinifex whilst playing a tape in an attempt to provoke a response from a Black Grasswren. It was beginning to look as though we were going to miss what was supposed to be one of the easier-to-see grasswrens when I heard a distant call which I recognised as a grasswren-type contact call. As I was not 100% certain I did not say anything to Phoebe but suggested that we headed in that general direction. As we got closer I was convinced that it was indeed a grasswren contact call, and then suddenly it gave a more recognisable call. By now we were only a few metres from the bird but still could not see it. Then there it was dashing between two clumps of spinifex and out in the open running across a rock. Phoebe missed it but a few seconds later it appeared again and was joined by a second individual. Both birds were females, and we got good views as they ran around the boulders for the next minute or so before disappearing into the spinifex. What a relief, and somehow yesterday's efforts all seem worthwhile.
It was with a great feeling of success that we returned to the vehicle, packed up camp, and started the drive out. Little did we know that the biggest surprise of the trip was going to happen this afternoon. Just about 1km north of the turning to Doongan there is an unnamed dry creek crossing and it was here that I needed to stop to make a call of nature. As we drove off Phoebe asked me to stop as she had seen a perched raptor which was probably only yet another Whistling Kite, but it was worth checking just in case. I hadn't even raised my binoculars when Phoebe said that she wasn't certain what this raptor was. Jokingly I said that it must be a Red Goshawk, as any raptor that can not be immediately identified is a Red Goshawk. Imagine my surprise when a couple of seconds later I did raise my binoculars, and there staring back at me was a Red Goshawk!!!!! It remained in full view for at least five minutes before flying off low through the trees. The whole of this time we had the bird in the scope, and you could not have asked for better views. The rest of the drive back as far as Home Valley Homestead seemed to pass so quickly, as all we could think about was the Red Goshawk, and how lucky we had been to see such a rarely observed bird. We stayed the night at the Home Valley Homestead where the people were very friendly and so were the frogs!!!!!
Just behind the homestead is a surprisingly large pool which is an obvious attraction for birds in the surrounding area and a fairly regular haunt of Gouldian Finch. We did not have all that much time, as we needed to get to Halls Creek to replenish our supplies, but still we were able to have a quick look at what birds were coming to drink. The highlight was a Golden-backed Honeyeater, as this was another of our target 'species' which had eluded us for a long time. Personally, my highlight was an immature Gouldian Finch which decided to come into the homestead garden whilst we were saying goodbye. Unfortunately the visit was too brief for Phoebe to see this bird. We drove onwards towards Halls Creek but made a brief stop at Emma Gorge as the escarpment looked good enough for an occasional Grey Falcon. I am sure they have occurred here but not for us in the half an hour or so that we were looking.
So onwards. We arrived in Halls Creek with enough time to spare, which was fortunate as I noticed that we were loosing air from one of the tyres. Can you believe it, hundreds of kilometres on rough dirt roads, and we get a puncture on the main highway just out of Halls Creek? Still it was a good thing that I noticed it now and not tonight or first thing in the morning. Whilst I was fixing the tyre Phoebe did some last minute shopping. We returned to the motel and then had what was probably the best meal of the trip. Phoebe retired to bed, but I waited up in order to meet David Andrew off the bus from Darwin. David would be joining us on the next section of our trip -- the Canning Stock Route.
Up early in order to pack the vehicle and then the easy drive to Billiluna, which is an Aboriginal community at the northern end of the Canning Stock Route (CSR) and the last place to buy fuel. We took with us 100 litres of water and 80 litres of fuel, plus our vehicle was a Land Cruiser P.C. which had a dual fuel tank and total capacity of 180 litres. A diesel vehicle is essential as a petrol one would use up the fuel too quickly, and you would have to carry a lot of extra fuel which obviously increases the overall weight and drops the fuel consumption even lower!! So onto the CSR. The first 100km as far as the turn off to well 50 is in pretty good condition, and speeds of 80km per hour or faster are possible but then the driving becomes more difficult. We got as far as well 46 where we camped for the night having driven the last 20km or more in the dark. The birding highlights of the day included excellent views of Pied Honeyeater, a new bird for David, Black Honeyeater, and a White-fronted Honeyeater which would have been a new bird for Phoebe but unfortunately her views were not good enough. Today we managed to cover 425km from Halls Creek, 252km of which were actually on the CSR, and what sand dunes we encountered were no trouble to get over. Mind you, the biggest ones are still to come.
Our intention today was to get as far as well 40 which was only a distance of 200km, but it was over the highest dunes and would certainly be the hardest driving of our trip. As it turned out, the dunes were not as difficult to handle as I had anticipated but we did have to deflate our tyres in order to get some extra grip for conquering the biggest ones. However, we did meet some people who were still using virtually normal tyre pressure and successfully getting over the dunes. We stopped for a lunch break at well 42, Guli Tank, and it was here that we had a chance encounter with one of our target birds, Grey Falcon. We had just stopped at the well and were admiring the flocks of Budgerigars and Zebra Finches that were coming down to drink, when I noticed a large falcon coming to make a pass at these small birds. I had no hesitation, even without getting bins on the bird, to shout 'Grey Falcon'. Phoebe and Dave spun round, and we were all treated to excellent flight views of this very widespread but also very scarce species. It circled the area a couple of times before slowly disappearing and becoming nothing more than a dot in the scope. All of a sudden the rather normal lunch stop turned into a celebration rather than a necessity. Filled with euphoria and adrenaline we continued on our way.
Further down the track I stopped for yet another call of nature, and David got onto a White-fronted Honeyeater. Eventually Phoebe got some good scope views, and another target bird bit the dust. After a couple more stops just before well 40 in search of our main quarry, Princess Parrot, we arrived at the well in time to do a little birding as it was getting dark. We then set up camp, cooked ourselves a basic meal of spam, eggs and noodles, washed it down with a few beers and retired to bed. Tomorrow would be our first major search for Princess Parrot ,but from what everybody has told us they should not be too hard to find, as they go around in conspicuous and noisy flocks.
At dawn we drove out to the junction of the CSR and the turn-off to well 40 which was one area where the Princess Parrots had been seen in previous years. On this short drive we were surprised to get unbelievably close views, on the ground and in the open, of a pair of Red-chested Button-quails. We waited around the well 40 junction for about half an hour, and there was no sign of any parrots; this factor plus the cold temperature made us decide to try another area. This time it was the southern shore of Lake Tobin, so we drove across the dry lake and parked in the stand of Desert Oaks. As this was an extensive area of habitat, we split up and went in three different directions having agreed to meet back at the vehicle in half an hour. As I returned to the vehicle my heart sank as I could see Phoebe standing with David. One or both of them had seen the parrots. It turned out that both of them had seen Princess Parrot, David had seen two perched briefly, and Phoebe had seen six fly passed her but not very well and only briefly. Still they had seen them, and I hadn't. The rest of the morning was spent searching the area in a fruitless attempt to relocate the birds.
We returned to camp at mid day for lunch and to catch up on a little sleep before going back to the southern shore in the afternoon. The afternoon's search of the same area produced nothing, and we had a rather subdued drive back to camp for dinner. Apparently I was looking decidedly suicidal, but we had got the whole of the next day and if necessary the following morning to continue our search. One thing that had become clear to us was that this year the birds were not going around in conspicuous and noisy flocks or even groups, as the birds seen by David and Phoebe had been silent.
This morning we awoke with a new sense of enthusiasm, especially me, and decided that the best thing to do was to concentrate our efforts on the area where the birds had been seen the day before. If this didn't work then we would have to decide whether or not to try some different areas later in the day. The first hour produced nothing, but then as I was doing some distant scanning I got onto a flock of Budgies and behind them another bird. The extremely long tail and distinctive flight action gave away the birds identity, it was a Princess Parrot. I immediately told the others that I had seen one, but now to get better views. Phoebe and I went back to the ridge on which I had been standing but no sign of my bird. We then went across to the top of the next dune, and within a few minutes a group of five Princess Parrots flew passed us. The birds kept very low, and although we heard them call, if we had been on another dune we would not have seen or heard them. It was with great relief that I returned to the vehicle; we had succeeded in seeing one of Australia's most difficult-to-see species. Unfortunately today it was David who did not see any Princess Parrots but as he said, it was not important for him to have seen them. After packing up camp we discussed our possible options and decided to head back to Halls Creek as this meant we had gained a day which could be of use to Phoebe and I later on in the trip. The long journey back to Halls Creek started with us all in excellent spirits, and the driving was a lot easier than it would have been if I hadn't seen the Princess Parrots. We got back as far as well 46 and camped there for the night.
Today was a day for travelling from well 46 back to Halls Creek. This was achieved and we also managed to fit in a brief look at Wolf Creek Crater which is the second largest meteorite crater in the world. David tried to change his bus ticket to be able to join us for tomorrow's drive to Derby, but he was unable to do so and will just have to hang around Halls Creek for a day.
After some early but non-productive birding around China Wall we returned to Halls Creek. Next came breakfast and filling up with diesel: we had used 190 litres on the CSR trip. We then said our goodbyes to David and we were off to Derby and another target species, Dusky Gerygone. We made one stop on the way at Mary Pool which, although a very pleasant spot, was rather crowded and seemed a little low on bird life. Our arrival in Derby could not have been timed better, and we had time to check-in to a motel before going to the Derby Jetty/Boat Ramp area to begin our quest. It must be pointed out here that this is probably one of the dullest birds in Australia but it is confined to the NW coastal strip of WA. We got out of the car, Phoebe played the tape and within seconds we were watching a Dusky Gerygone. The bird had obviously responded to the tape but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and this was the only sighting we had this evening.
We were at the mangroves by the boat ramp for dawn and again tried the tape for Dusky Gerygone, nothing happened. We were a bit surprised and so kept trying, but to no avail and had to make do with the views we had the previous evening. We did find three Kimberley Flycatchers, the local race of the Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, a very distinct looking bird which has been considered a separate species by some authors. Then it was time to move on again to keep the advantage of the spare day we still had up our sleeves. As we left Derby I suggested that we have a quick look at the Boab Prison Tree which was used for holding Aboriginal prisoners on their way for trial. This was a pure tourist stop, so you can imagine our surprise to see two Princess Parrots fly past us. This location is outside the normal range of the species, but as with other nomadic species they could and do get seen almost anywhere, within reason. After we had realised that we had not been dreaming, we continued on our way joking about if the effort on the CSR had been worth it, or if we should have spent the time at the Boab Prison Tree instead. We had lunch at Fitzroy Crossing and got back to Halls Creek later in the afternoon.
Today was again spent mostly travelling, this time back to Wyndham. We checked-in to the Wyndham Hotel and then returned to Parrys Lagoon to look for Yellow Chat yet again. The result was the same as our previous searches, no Yellow Chats, and so we drove back to Wyndham realising that only a miracle would produce this species. Later that night, whilst packing, I came across some information on a site near Parrys Lagoon that we had not tried. So with my mind set on this site I retired to bed knowing that all was not lost, and we had another chance to see this species in the morning.
As we had already decided the night before to spend the first hour or so of daylight around Three Mile Caravan Park we stuck to our plans. Unfortunately there were no sprinklers in operation, and there was no water in the pools behind the park, so we were confused as to where we should go to look for finches. As we birded near to the Boab tree, a young girl, about 10 years old, approached us and too our surprise informed us that she had seen a Gouldian Finch yesterday only a few metres from where we were standing. She showed us a small fountain that was being used by finches for drinking, so we sat down and waited to see what happened. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes I noticed a male, black faced, Gouldian Finch in the tree near the fountain. It proceeded to come down to drink and gave us some memorable views of yet another highly sought Australian species and a big thrill for us even though we had both seen the species before at Georgetown in Queensland.
This early morning success fuelled our spirits and renewed our enthusiasm for another Yellow Chat hunt. The first problem we encountered was that the directions to this new site were not very accurate, and we could not find the first track that was mentioned. However we had a good idea of the area we needed to look at and managed to find a track that was heading in the right direction. Eventually we found the area we were looking for, a few obvious patches of reeds on the flood plain. The first two areas of reeds were dried out and held no chats, but the third patch of reeds did have some surrounding water and so with high hopes we headed of to check this patch. As with all the other areas we had tried, no sign of a Yellow Chat. Somewhat disappointed we carried on to the fourth patch of reeds and the nearby small lagoon where yet again we failed. We had now done just about all we could to find this species and had resigned ourselves to the fact that we had missed a second species on the trip. We began the rather long and silent walk back to our vehicle, when suddenly there in the third patch of reeds was a stunning male Yellow Chat. The miracle had happened, our moods changed, and the walk did not seem as far as it did before.
We then drove back to Kununurra where we had already reserved our rooms at the Kununurra Hotel and got some rest before a bit of birding around Lake Kununurra in the evening. The highlight was again a White-browed Crake, but this was eclipsed by the views of a Freshwater Crocodile. This was the fitting end to what was probably one of the best days of the trip. Just because we had put in so much effort for Yellow Chat it was so good to finally connect.
We had a little time this morning for birding before our mid morning flight to Darwin. This was the first time on the trip that we birded in different areas. Phoebe tried a different part of Lake Kununurra whilst I went into Hidden Valley, now called Mirima National Park, and checked a site in the irrigation area for finches. Phoebe failed to see Black-backed Bittern, but I succeeded in finding my three target species -- White-quilled Rock Pigeon, Sandstone Shrike-thrush and Yellow-rumped Mannikin. So back to Darwin, staying in the Airport Hotel.
We spent the heat of the day in the hotel and went birding later in the afternoon. After a quick chat to local birder Niven McCree I discovered about the Letter-winged Kites near Fogg Dam and got some directions to a Chestnut Rail site in Darwin. We decided to try for the Chestnut Rail, but once at the site it became all too clear that in order to increase your chances of seeing the bird you would have to get very muddy. Neither of us were prepared to do this for a species we had already seen, and so we gave up and went to Buffalo Creek for some general birding. We had only been there a few minutes when Phoebe commented that a Chestnut Rail was visible on the bank opposite the boat ramp. Another stroke of luck, and another excellent species for our trip list. I spent the evening with Niven chatting about old times etc. before retiring to bed reasonably early, as we had to be at the airport at 05.20 for our flight to Sydney.
It really is horrible getting flights at this time in the morning. Still the flight left on time, and with the in-flight entertainment the time to Sydney passed quickly. Tony Palliser had left us a tape, which had been put together by Alan McBride, and made a reservation for a car with Avis, so we were soon on our way westwards. Our destination was on the far side of the Blue Mountains and about three hours drive from the airport, the Glen Davis road. I had been here with the Sydney birders before starting on the trip with Phoebe, and so I knew exactly where to look for our three target species -- Regent Honeyeater, Plum-headed Finch and Glossy Black Cockatoo. Regent Honeyeater took us about two minutes to find, and Plum-headed Finch was even quicker. The problem was going to be the Glossy Black Cockatoos, so we started to play the tape and hope. After 20 minutes or so of nothing we were getting a little frustrated when I heard a distant call. It was Glossy Black and it was coming in our direction a few seconds later, and there they were, a pair of Glossy Black Cockatoos. They were most obliging as they chose to perch in a dead tree and gave us some really good views. Then they flew again and again in our direction, Phoebe played the tape again and sure enough they responded by landing in a tree no more that 10 metres from us and began to display. They kept our attention for about 10 minutes before they finally flew off and were soon out of sight. All three target species had been seen in less than an hour, so we drove back to the Blue Mountains and stopped for the night at the Kurrajong Heights Hotel. This situation gave us easy access to Wollemi National Park which was our destination for the morning.
We were at the junction of the road to Upper Colo and the track to Bilpin as it was here we were looking for our next, and penultimate, target species -- Spotted Quail-thrush. We played the tape and there was an immediate response. A minute or so later there was a male in full view on the side of the road. So very pleased with ourselves we began the search for our final species -- Rock Warbler (Origma). We spent the next two hours searching the sandstone escarpments along the Upper Colo road but without any success, so we decided to go to Pierces Pass, which is a site where I had seen the species in the past. We walked from the car park down the steep track to the picnic area but could not find any Rock Warblers, and after about half an hour around the picnic area it was still the same negative result. I offered to go back to get the car as the track was in a driveable condition, and it would save Phoebe having to walk back up the hill. It took me a little longer than anticipated to get back to the car, as the hill was tougher to get up than I thought it would be. Still I got there and drove back down to collect Phoebe. When I got back to where she was waiting I was greeted with the thumbs up sign. She had seen a Rock Warbler, and what's more, good views out in the open. That was it, out of 29 target species we had seen 28 of them, and so we headed back to Sydney. Phoebe got herself a room at the Airport Motel and I went back to stay with Gerry and Lucy Richards. That evening Phoebe, myself, Gerry and Lucy and Tony and Michelle Palliser all went out for a meal and a marvellous time was had by all. I had thought that this would be the end of the trip as Phoebe was returning to the USA tomorrow. How wrong could I be.
Although it wasn't dawn we set off early to beat the city traffic and get to Dee Why lagoon. Tony Palliser had mentioned that it was possible to see Lewin's Rail here, and so we thought we would give it a go. The first area we tried was a total failure, but in a second area, whilst we were discussing the amount of habitat and the numbers of Lewin's Rails that must be here, I suddenly noticed a movement only inches from my feet. It was either a rat or a Lewin's Rail that had been attracted by the tape. Then it made a noise, it was a Lewin's Rail. We saw the bird's back, but it was not easy to see as the vegetation was very thick. Quickly we moved our position, and by using the tape we were able to get a good view of the bird for a short period and so close you did not need to use binoculars. After breakfast in a nearby pie shop we went out to Long Reef and did some seawatching for an hour or so before going back to Brookvale McDonalds for lunch. Then it was to the airport and the end of the trip.
I spent an extra couple of days in Sydney but I didn't do any more birding and certainly didn't see anything extra for the trip list.
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