Thursday, 18 October 2012

Black-winged Stilt

At the start of each year, while other people are formulating their soon-to-be-forgotten New Year's resolutions, I'm planning which birds I hope to see during the next twelve months.  In 2012, I had high hopes.  The first bird I wanted (expected) to see was a White-necked Petrel.  Although this is officially classified as a vagrant, it is sometimes seen off Wollongong in summer, so that was a chance.  But better, I had been promised that if I went to Port Stephens in April, it was a cert.  So they were the first trips on the agenda.  Then, in winter, I planned to go to South Australia.  First stop was to be a pelagic off Port MacDonnell, hoping for a Slender-billed Prion, then to Adelaide for a wretched exotic Barbary Dove.  Then I planned a quick trip up the Birdsville Track to mop up some birds I'd missed on previous trips.  I was expecting to see Short-tailed, Grey and Eyrean Grasswren and Banded Whiteface.  If I was exceptionally lucky, I might manage a Grey Falcon.  Then I'd return to Adelaide and travel north towards Coober Pedy, going just as far as necessary to see a Chiming Wedgebill.  I booked into four other pelagic trips too, without target species, just hoping for a rarity.  So that was what I'd planned for 2012.  Targetting eight ticks.  Not too ambitious, but difficult enough to keep me on my toes.

Having determined what I want to do, my next challenge is to convince my husband, Roger, that he wants to do this too, and, more importantly, that he wants to chauffeur me to all my selected locations.  Sometimes this takes some subtle negotiating, but usually he is exremely amenable.  In 2012, he accepted my proposed itinerary without a wimper.

Now 2012 is drawing to a close, and I can reveal my successes and failures.  More important, I can start planning for 2013.

Australian King-Parrot

My first trip for the year was to Port Fairy in February.  I wasn't after anything in particular:  any rare seabird would do.  There are six seabirds on the Australian list I haven't seen (not counting vagrants) and they are not easily ticked.  For example, there is nowhere I can go to at the right time of the year to tick a Kerguelen Petrel.  I just have to continue doing pelagics and hoping.  There's no other way.  So the aim of my Port Fairy trip was simply to have a pleasant day, get the year off to a good start and cross my fingers that something rare would turn up.  Something rare did turn up, but I had already seen it.  It was a Great Shearwater.  Sadly, I did not photograph it.  Shame on me.  It sat beside the boat obligingly for quite some time.  It is time for me to confess that I am not very mobile on small boats.  When I go on a pelagic, I tend to sit down in the one spot all day.  Moving around is for others.  If I attempt to stand up, I am liable to fall over, which is undesirable, not to say embarrassing.  Anyway, I guess my aims for my February Port Fairy trip were met:  I had a pleasant day and got the seabird list for the year off to a start.  Sadly, no ticks.

Setting out from Port Fairy

In March, Rog took me to Wollongong, for a pelagic with SOSSA aboard the wretched Sandra K.  How I hate that boat!  Trips are made worthwhile because of the people on board.  They are friendly, knowlegeable and helpful.  This was my first serious trip for the year, hoping for a White-necked Petrel.  These birds breed on Phillip Island off Norfolk Island, but  a few sometimes visit the south-east coast in late summer-early autumn.  I had travelled to Wollongong in summer before on several occasions hoping to see one, but had always been disappointed.  This trip was no different.  It was a pleasant day.  I enjoyed catching up with people on the boat.  But I did not see my target species, so I went home disappointed.

In April, Rog and I set off for Port Stephens.  Richard Baxter (yes, he deserves to be named) had promised me that if I did a pelagic off Port Stephens in April, I would certainly see a White-necked Petrel.  It was a Saturday when I did my one and only pelagic off Port Stephens.  The captain fell asleep and the boat drifted.  Consequently, we were quite late home.  As I walked back to our motel, alone in the dark, I had no happy memories of White-necked Petrels to cherish.  I did meet some lovely people on the boat, and some excellent photographers (which was of enormous help with my next book, that I came home to write).  I was irritated that I did not get my quarry, but what made it a thousand times worse, was that the boat went out again the following day, Sunday, without me aboard, and they did see a White-necked Petrel!

Australian Pelicans

My next trip for 2012 was scheduled for June, and I had great expectations of South Australia.  First stop was a pelagic out of Port MacDonnell, where I was hoping for a Slender-billed Prion.  Now this bird is the only "easy" seabird left on my want list.  It is reputedly common off south Australia in winter.  Alas! I was stymied at every turn.  The pelagic was cancelled.  It was first transferred to Port Fairy, then cancelled.  So no Slender-billed Prion for me in 2012.

Black Butcherbird

So Rog and I toddled off to Adelaide in search of the introduced Barbary Dove.  I had allowed two full days to search for it before I joined Peter Waanders' tour up the Birdsville Track in search of grasswren.  I got it relatively easily at Marino Rocks.  The year was half over.  I had my first tick for 2012 and it was plastic.  Nevertheless, it was a tick.  It counts as much on your lifelist as a grasswren.  So I celebrated.

Then I joined Peter Waanders and set off in search of grasswren.  We had fantastic views of Striated, Thick-billed, Grey and Eyrean, but sadly, search though we might, we could not raise a Short-tailed.  However, we did see Banded Whiteface and, quite unexpectedly, we saw two Grey Falcon!  They were very svelte beside the chunky Brown Falcons beside them.  They were sitting high on a communication tower on Cowarie Station and I was absolutely delighted to see my final raptor on the Australian list.  I cursed having to return for the Short-tailed Grasswren - a bird I had looked for unsuccessfully on many previous occasions - but I was thrilled to finally sign off on the raptors. 

Back in Adelaide, I rejoined Rog and we set off for my last "easy" landbird - the Chiming Wedgebill.  These birds look identical to the Chirruping Wedgebill, but are identified by their quite different call.  Chirruping Wedgebills are seen easily at the Arid Lands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta.  I had seen them many times and so I knew what I was looking for.  In fact, I found it incredible that, with all my travels, I hadn't seen a Chiming Wedgebill before.  They are classified as common.  Thanks to the internet, I had several good sites to visit.  Our aim was to get the birds as soon as possible and not to travel any further than we had to.  I had read that they could be seen near Dresley Creek, south of Coober Pedy.  Dresley Creek is just a creek (and a pretty poor example at that).  Rog pulled off the highway.  I jumped out and, immediately, I heard a Chiming Wedgebill!  As easy as that.  Rog read his paper and I scurried after the call.  It took perhaps ten minutes to get a really good look at the bird, which, true to the field guides, looked precisely like his chirruping cousin.  That was on 3 July, and I haven't had a twitch since.
Wandering Albatross

In September, Rog and I flew down to Tasmania and did a pelagic out of Eaglehawk Neck with Rohan Clarke.  It was fun, but very cold and no ticks.  Then Virgin cancelled our plane home.  They bused us to Launceston and flew us to Melbourne from there.  I don't see how Virgin will ever attract business customers when they treat their patrons like that.

As I write, I look forward to launching my new book, "John Gould's Extinct and Endangered Birds" in the National Library of Australia on 27 November.  Then I have another pelagic out of Eaglehawk Neck with Rohan in December.  I could be lucky.  And we certainly won't be flying Virgin.

And, as the year draws to a close, I start thinking about all the good birds I'm going to see next year, and all the ticks I'm going to get.

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