I've just returned from my annual trip north looking for White-necked Petrels. This bird (so beautifully depicted on the masthead of this blog by photographer Brook Whylie) is becoming a real jinx bird for me. Each year since 2008 I have driven north to Wollongong to do a pelagic either in February or March, when White-necked Petrels are supposed to be present. Or, more accurately, each year since 2008 Roger has driven me to Wollongong. Last year, we visited Wollongong in March, then went further north to Port Stephens to try again in April. I joined the pelagic from Nelson Bay on a Saturday. As usual, I came home disappointed. The boat went out the following day and got the bird!
This encouraged me to try again this year. I booked the trip months ago and waited impatiently for April to arrive. I emailed Mick Roderick (who arranges the Port Stephens pelagics) asking rather cheekily if anyone local might help me to see their local grass owl while I was in the vicinity. This grass owl was another bogie bird of mine. I've spent many evenings looking for it in various parts of Queensland. Then, just to make sure that the trip had every chance of success, I decided to spend a few days looking for the Rufous Scrub-bird at Barrington Tops.
On the way to Port Stephens, I birded at Wonga Wetlands (too little water, too few birds), The Rock outside Wagga Wagga and Migurra Walk near Cootamundra. We also did some touristy things - photographing Henry Lawson's birthplace at Grenfell, visiting The Dish at Parkes and spending some time at the Dubbo open plains zoo.
The Rock is one of my top 100 birding spots. I'm surprised that it's not better known. The birding is usually pretty good. This was the first time I've ever been there without seeing Speckled Warblers. To make up for this omission, I did see lots of Scarlet Robins. I was impressed with a sign in the car park.
One interesting observation I made on the Migurra Walk outside Cootamundra, was of female Golden Whistlers. According to the field guides, this bird should be the same race as the one I'm familiar with from my parents' property in north central Victoria. However, the Cootamundra birds had much more lemon on their undertail coverts. Nothing as dramatic as the Queensland females, but certainly more yellow than I'm used to.
The best bird I saw on the drive from Dubbo to Port Stephens was an impressive Grey Goshawk, very white and very beautiful, sitting on the electricity wires.
When I arrived at Port Stephens, Mick rang to say that the weather was unfavourable and the trip was cancelled! Taking pity on my having done such a long drive for nothing, Mick kindly offered to take me out owling. I was delighted.
We went to Hexham Swamp, Mick fully prepared with spotlight and owl recordings. We waited until dusk, then Mick played his tape. Almost immediately an owl flew overhead. I couldn't see its dangling legs (the diagnostic feature of grass owls) and Mick cautioned that Eastern Barn Owls were also in the area. I was surprised at how dark the bird was. I'd been expecting a large white owl. Before I had time to regret that I hadn't had a better look, another beautiful owl appeared, this one with obvious dangling legs. Seen in the spotlight, it was indeed a large white owl. No doubting its identity: it was an Eastern Grass Owl. Yippee! A lifer! Thank you, Mick!
Of course I regretted the absence of White-necked Petrels, but the grass owl more than made up for it. I know I will see the petrel one day.
Rog and I then drove to Gloucester. Several members of the Hunter Bird Observers Club (Mick is the president) had been extremely helpful in giving me information about where to see Rufous Scrub-birds in the Barrington Tops National Park, and, more importantly, how to see them. I've looked for them several times before, both at Lamington National Park and at Barrington Tops. I've heard them on many occasions, but have never come close to seeing them. I knew April was not the best month to look (October is best, when they are singing most territorially) but I figured seeing these birds is simply a matter of luck, and the more time I spent looking, the more likely I was to be lucky.
Thanks to the Hunter experts, I knew of seven territories, and over three days, visited each of them at least three times, some sites up to five times. In all this time, I heard one bird call. It was about 25 metres away in very dense scrub. (They're not called 'scrub-birds' for nothing.) I tried to go closer, but the scrub was too dense for me. So then I tried to encourage the bird to come nearer to me, with various (I thought endearing) noises - whistling, pishing and so on. The bird remained quite indifferent to my pleas, and did not move one millimetre closer. After 45 minutes I was all pished out and gave up. This may sound as if I gave up too easily, and, if the bird had moved a metre or so nearer, I would certainly have kept trying. But he didn't move at all, and I could see no point in continuing. I will try again in October in Lamington National Park. I should have more luck then (especially as I have already arranged a professional guide to show me).
Ticks are becoming harder and harder to come by. I came home, not disappointed at the lack of White-necked Petrels and Rufous Scrub-birds, but absolutely thrilled to have seen an Eastern Grass Owl.
To be continued.