Wednesday, 25 May 2016


Buoyed by my success in sighting the Copperback Quailthrush, Rog and I set off westwards, confident in our quest for the recently split Naretha Bluebonnet.  This bird has an interesting distribution, with two discrete populations:  one centred on Rawlinna and Naretha along the transcontinental railway and the other further south, from Cocklebiddy to Border Village, straddling the Eyre Highway.  It is found in pairs or small parties up to ten birds, and inhabits myall, with bluebush, mulga, belar or sugarwood.  Forshaw says:  'It shows a definite preference for certain species of trees and one can often predict its presence merely by the vegetation.'  I've spoken to people who've seen Naretha Bluebonnets at Rawlinna and at Border Village.  I was aware that the bird was classified as moderately common to common, so why not be confident?

We started looking as soon as we reached Border Village, which is located (appropriately) on the Western Australian/South Australian border.  We stopped at every roadside stop.  I walked in every easily accessible stand of myall.  We spent the night at the Mundrabilla Roadhouse.
Eyre Highway from Eucla

I am too old to make basic mistakes.  Or I should be.  I have been birding for too many years to go anywhere without my binoculars.  And yet I did.

The next morning, while we were having breakfast in the Mundrabilla Roadhouse, I saw a parrot fly past the window!  I dropped my knife and fork and rushed outside, pushing past the bewildered tourists milling about in the shop.  Of course the parrot was no longer in sight.  It had flown to the east.  My binoculars were in our room, in the other direction.  Now, what should I do?  Chase the parrot, and not be able to identify it without binoculars?  Or go and collect my binoculars and risk losing the parrot in the meantime?  I opted to get my binoculars.  I ran (yes, ran) to our room.  Hardly dignified I know.  But this was a possible Naretha Bluebonnet.  A lifer.  My uppermost thought was, how delighted Roger would be if I saw the parrot now and he could go home!  I grabbed my binoculars and returned to the tree where I'd last seen the bird.  It was still there!  But, before I could focus on it, it flew again.  Alas!  I could see immediately that it was not a bluebonnet.  It was too big, with an extremely long tail.  It was, without doubt, a Princess Parrot!

The parrot flew over the buildings, never to be seen again.  I returned to Roger and enjoyed cold scrambled eggs more than I ever have before.  Or probably will again.

Roger was reading a newsletter from Norseman, which announced that the Cocklebiddy/Rawlinna Road was to be sealed.

We drove on to Cocklebiddy, where we were told that the road to Rawlinna was impassable. People instead took the road to Haig, which was slightly better and took five hours.  I had with me an extract from Finding Australian Birds, A Field Guide to Birding Locations by Tim Dolby and Rohan Clarke.  At page 425, it states:  'A good spot to search for [Naretha Bluebonnet] is 10 km north of Cocklebiddy. . . the Blue Bonnet often perch in stands of Sheoke (Allocasuarina) in this area.'   I asked the helpful fellow at Cocklebiddy if we could make it up the Rawlinna Road for 10 km.  He said that we could.

And so we did.  We drove up the Rawlinna Road as far as the Arubiddy homestead.  (We had phoned Arubiddy before we left, to inform them of our plans.)  Alas, I did not see any casuarina at all.  There were few trees.  All I identified were myalls.   There were certainly no 'stands of Sheoke.'  (I've always said 'she-oak,' but I defer to Dolby and Clarke.)  Disappointed, we returned to the Cocklebiddy motel, and planned a trip up the road to Haig the following day.

When we walked to the diningroom in the dark at 6.30 the next morning, it was cold but fine.  While we were eating breakfast, the fog rolled in.  Our departure was delayed.  The roads to Rawlinna and to Haig are not signposted.  There is a star picket in a 44 gallon drum at the intersection of the road to Haig.  It is off-road, half hidden in tall grass.  It is difficult to see in daylight, without fog.  In the dark and the fog we had no chance.  We waited.  I admired many spider webs outlined in dew, very pretty in the fog.
The spider webs were beautiful in the morning fog.

Finally we left, but I knew in my heart of hearts that this trip to Rawlinna via Haig was doomed from the start.  The road was not in good condition, forcing Rog to crawl along frustratingly slowly.  The gates were extremely difficult to open.  In fact I could not open them:  I simply was not strong enough.  At the fourth gate, we'd been driving for an hour and had covered 12 km.  We weren't going to make it in five hours as predicted by the helpful fellow at Cocklebiddy.  It was 130 km to Haig, and from there we'd have to go to Rawlinna.  For us the trip was impossible in a day, even if we had not suffered a fog-induced late start.  We turned back.

As I'd ticked the Copperback Quailthrush thanks to local knowledge, I decided to seek some local knowledge to help with the Naretha Bluebonnet.  I phoned the Eyre Bird Observatory to ask about sightings.  There was no answer.  I left a message, but my call was never returned.

When we realized we could not make it to Haig, then to Rawlinna and back in a day, we repeated our earlier plan.  We drove up and down the Eyre Highway, stopping at every roadside reserve, or accessible stand of acacias, and having a good look.  Unidentified perched birds brought us to a halt.  They were usually Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, and once, a pair of Welcome Swallows.  Once I saw a parrot.  I jumped out of the car and scrambled over hills I would usually have thought too steep.  But I found the parrot.  It was an Australian Ringneck.  Wedge-tailed Eagles and kestrels dominated our bird list.  

I'm not sure whether I am in a position to dispute that Naretha Bluebonnets are moderately common to common along the Eyre Highway, but I can say with confidence that there were none in the places I looked for three long days between Cocklebiddy and Border Village.  Rog had had enough and we turned for home.  We spent the night at Border Village.  The mallees were flowering.  I wandered around in the national park, enjoying the honeyeaters, and wishing just one of them was a parrot.  The most common bird was the Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater.  There were also two species which were present which were well outside their recognized range:  Brown Honeyeater and Brush Bronzewing.

I was very disappointed.  It is human nature.  Rather than celebrate my Princess Parrot, I mourned the lack of Naretha Bluebonnet.  The ultimate irony was watching Eastern Bluebonnets as we had coffee at Lake Tyrrel on the way home.  I did not enjoy them as much as I usually do.

Roger jokes that each new tick costs $1,000.  This trip cost roughly $8,000 for both of us, so that's $4,000 for me, and I got two ticks.  Seems like the cost of a tick is now $2,000!   I suppose it makes sense, that birds get harder and hence more expensive as your lifelist grows.  I shouldn't complain about that.  But still, we travelled around 5,500 km, and I worked hard.  I felt entitled to my bluebonnet!

I came home to learn that my piece about Noisy Miners had been broadcast on the ABC and that the Eaglehawk Neck pelagic had recorded Southern Fulmars.  My plans for 2017 were starting to form.

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