Wednesday, 20 December 2017


On Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, together with Steve Casten, Philip Jackson and James Mustafa, I travelled to Old Bar on the New South Wales coast to twitch the recently reported Aleutian Terns.

A great way to end the year.  Any tick is uplifting, but some are more special than others.  It's nice to cross off a bird from your 'Not Yet Seen' list, but it's even more special to add a bird to your lifelist, which hitherto has not even been on the Australian list.  Very special indeed.

Philip organized our bookings.  We were flying to Newcastle, hiring a car, driving to Old Bar, ticking the terns and returning the same night, arriving back in Melbourne before 9 p.m.  Ha!

As usual, I was totally organized.  Everything ready to go the day before.  Bag packed, clothes out, alarm set.  The plan was:  I was to drive to Philip's, arriving at 4.45 a.m., and James would drive us both to the airport.   I spent a sleepless night, listening to the radio and wishing 4 a.m. would come so I could get up and start the day.  Eventually I hopped out of bed to check the time, to see how much longer I had to lie there waiting.  It was already 5 a.m.!  I was seriously late.  I would have to tell the others to go without me.  I rang James and he told me that he'd pick me up.  I have never dressed so quickly.  I was standing on the footpath outside our house, still buttoning up my shirt, when James and Philip arrived.  Good friends that they are, they didn't curse me.  James drove skillfully and quickly.  We parked close to the terminal and ran to the gate.  Those gates are a long way in T4.  Breathless, we arrived just in time.  Steve was there already, waiting impatiently for the three of us to arrive.

I calmed down on the plane and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Newcastle.  We picked up our car and drove to Old Bar.  The temperature climbed gradually to an unbearable 43 degrees.  When we parked in the carpark, there were several cars there already, but no indication whether they belonged to birders, surfers or fisher people.

We'd read that it was a kilometre walk along the beach.  It seemed much further to me.  It was already hot.  One interesting phenomenon was a large number of dead and dying cicadas on the beach.  Where did they come from?

Signs informed us of nesting Little Terns, so we carefully avoided this clearly fenced area.  Hard to believe that not all birders would walk around a tern colony.  You can (perhaps) understand nonbirders taking a short cut, but I cannot comprehend anyone who calls himself a birder walking through a colony of nesting birds.  And, before you object, let me tell you that they are all hims!  I've never witness a female doing such a thing.

We arrived at the bar.  There were waders, terns and cormorants.  We made our way to a small group of birders and enquired about the Aleutian Terns.  I think they said a light plane had flown low over the birds and the terns had been spooked.  Aleutian Terns, which had been present earlier that morning, were now nowhere to be seen.  There was nothing for it but to wait for them to return.  Suddenly, it seemed much hotter.

David Stowe was one of the birders present.  He was not prepared to wait patiently like the rest of us, and wandered off looking at birds.  Bless him!  Amongst all the terns and waders, he quickly found an Aleutian Tern!  We all hurried along the beach and all managed to admire the bird through a friendly birder's scope.  Tick!  

Our bird flew to another sandbar, and was soon joined by several other Aleutian Terns.  Notwithstanding the presence of an osprey, the terns remained, giving us all good views and the photographers good photos.  Of course, the photos were never good enough and the photographers had to wade into the water to get closer.  Such is the nature of photography.  There is always a better photo if only you get a little nearer.
Aleutain Terns, photo by Steve Castan

That's the story really.  The drama of Newcastle airport being closed because of lightning strikes, many flights cancelled and expecting to be stranded overnight does not seem quite so important any more.  We were not stranded.  Our flight was delayed.  Then delayed some more, but finally left.  Thanks to James I was home safely at 1 a.m.

Thanks, Philip, for all that organizing.  Thanks, James for your driving.  And thanks Steve for your photos.  A wonderful way to end the year.

Sunday, 3 December 2017


I had looked forward to my trip to the Coral Sea for years.  As it approached, I felt more and more anxious about it, but at the same time I was still very excited and keen to see what rare seabirds we might encounter.  Few birders visit the Coral Sea and we really didn't know what might be there.  My anxiety was due to the fact that we were leaving from Port Moresby.  We were due to arrive there on 31 October, the very day that the detention centre on Manus Island was scheduled to close.  I thought there might be some anti-Australian feeling overflowing from Manus to Port Moresby.  There was also some doubt about the procedure for obtaining an entry visa.  Different websites had different information.  It was hard to know what to believe.  Recent news reports told of people being refused a visa on arrival, and returned home.

There were twelve of us travelling with Richard Baxter's Birding Tours Australia, including his son Damien.  More than half of us were in the 800 club.  I knew it would be an absolute privilege to spend eleven days with some of Australia's top birders.

Eight of us were from Victoria.  We met at Melbourne airport early in the morning.  We were to fly to Brisbane, then on to Port Moresby.  Our plan was to apply for our visas together, and, if necessary, assist each other through the bureaucracy.

I'm told it is unwise to go grocery shopping when you are hungry.  You buy more food than you need.  I think I should probably not write a posting here when I am feeling particularly pleased with myself, as I am right now.  This morning I saw a Pacific Koel on my morning walk:  a new bird for my annual list.  You could expect that anything I wrote at the moment would be seen through rose-coloured glasses.  Please bear this in mind:  my report is more positive than I felt at the time.  There was nothing positive about my trip to the Coral Sea.

Our flights to Brisbane, then Port Moresby, were uneventful.  Our trepidation about our entry visas proved quite unnecessary.  Our passports were stamped in routine fashion, and together we boarded the courtesy bus to the Ela Beach hotel.  

My room overlooked a building site.  We were informed that this was our taxes at work.  A future APEC meeting in Port Moresby required that Australia construct a venue.  Naturally.  Where else but Ela Beach?

That afternoon we visited the local supermarket to purchase alcohol and snacks for the trip.  Richard had ordered taxis.  When they didn't arrive, we took the hotel's courtesy bus.  I didn't take any local currency, but I had no trouble buying alcohol with my credit card.  In my ignorance, I thought I would not need any snacks.

The boat we were to sail on had been changed four times.  It didn't make much difference to us.  We hadn't seen any of these proposed vessels.  In the end we sailed on M. V. Surveyor.  Remarkably, the next morning, we boarded on time, and sailed at 7 a.m.  

When we arrived at the dock, the first issue that confronted me was how to board the vessel.  I always have trouble getting on and off boats.  Usually I rely on help from strong men.  On this occasion I was horrified to see the shaky gangplank with no handrails.  I might have met my match.  Others skipped across the gangplank quite happily.  Clearly, any trepidation was my fault.  I soon figured that the only way to board the boat was to hang on to Damien and not look down.  I let Irena go first.  That's me, standing in front of the bus, looking anxious and wondering whether I was capable of getting onto the boat.

Boarding M.V. Surveyor, photo by Jenny Spry

Of course I did manage to get onto the boat.  Thanks to Damien.  I don't think I could have done it without him.

The boat was not comfortable.  Accommodation was not great.  We sat on plastic chairs, which walked across the deck as the boat moved.  Between us, we managed to ruin at least three during the trip.  There were 13 of us.  Even before we'd broken any, there were not 13 chairs.  The upper deck gave great views, but was far too mobile for me.  And there was nothing to hang on to.  I spent most time on the main deck, where there was some shade, at some hours of the day.

And I should mention the food.  The boat had been informed (twice) that I was vegetarian.  Instead of saying that they could not cater for vegetarians, they simply ignored this advice.  For meat eaters, I don't suppose the food was all that bad.  True, there was no orange juice for breakfast and the only coffee looked like International Roast.  The only fruit was one pineapple we were given for breakfast on about day seven.  Three times we were not fed lunch.  Once, the cook was seasick.  The other times he simply couldn't be bothered.  The crew (eight of them, no less!) were fed out the back, while we went hungry.  For me, the lowlight was being given a toasted beetroot and lettuce sandwich for lunch.  This happened twice.

As I say, we left at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.  We arrived in Australian waters at 6.39 a.m. on Thursday.  We saw our first Australian bird at 9.45 a.m.  Appropriately, it was a Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

This is the route we took.

Thanks to Graham Barwell for this image.

Sunday, 20 August 2017


Sherry was running low, so it was time for a trip to Rutherglen, my third this year.  Of course that meant I'd have a day birding around Chiltern - always a thrill.  A friend says 'there's no such thing as a bad day at Werribee.'  He's right of course, but I'd like to add that there's no such thing as a bad day at Chiltern either.

Because my annual total is quite good this year (452) there weren't many new birds I could realistically hope to add in Chiltern.  I compiled a list nevertheless (naturally) and we started the day on McGuiness Road in the Mt Pilot section of the national park, hoping for a Spotted Quail-thrush.  The rain was intermittent but the cold was constant, as was the unfriendly grey sky.  Birds were few, but I managed to see both Brown and White-throated Treecreepers and both Brown and Buff-rumped Thornbills.  I walked along the road until the rain drove me back to the car.  I removed a couple of saplings that had fallen across the road and wondered how often rangers visited the park.  When we encountered an enormous tree across the road, we were forced back.  Rog did a fair bit of reversing before we found a suitable spot to turn around.  My list was destined to remain quail-thrush free.
Yellow-footed Antechinus, an old photo from my archive

We drove to Cyanide dam in Honeyeater Picnic Area.  I walked around the dam.  It only takes ten minutes, so I reckoned I could fit it in between showers.  The resident Australasian Grebe was in superb breeding plumage, but I could find neither his mate nor his nest.  The best thing I saw on my walk wasn't a bird at all.  It was a Yellow-footed Antechinus.  She was lining her nest in a hollow in a gum tree.  She paused and looked at me.  I stood statue still.  She really was the cutest thing.  Eventually she decided I was no threat and continued to take gum leaves into her nest hole.  Reluctantly, I left her to her duties.

I looked for Diamond Firetails at No 1 dam and dreamt of Grey-headed Lapwings at No 2. Of course I saw neither.

In Rutherflen I looked for crakes at the ephemeral water near the tip.  There were dotterels and darters, cormorants and stilts and one splendid male Flame Robin, but there were no crakes.

We drove to Black Swamp where there was lots of water but few birds.  I was pleased to see a significant roadside area sign alerting me to the presence of Grey-crowned Babblers.  Unfortunately the only babbler I saw was the one on the sign.  

We stopped briefly at the entrance to Lake Moodemere.  I've seen Diamond Firetails here in the past.  But not today.  Today I saw Jacky Winters, Grey Fantails and Little and Yellow-rumped Thornbills. (The roads were so wet and slippery I was not inclined to ask Rog to take me to the river, where I often see White-backed Swallows.)

I ended up with a birdlist of 62 for the day, which, given the awful conditions wasn't too bad.  Sadly there was nothing new for the year.  But I can confirm:  there's no such thing as a bad day at Chiltern.

Sunday, 6 August 2017


Of course I was delighted to see a Red Boobook, but that was only a potential future armchair tick.  As we moved on to Iron Range, I was expecting two lifers:  a Spotted Whistling Duck and a Black-eared Catbird.  The whistling ducks were at Archer River and the catbirds were in Iron Range.
Sign at Musgrave Roadhouse

The day we drove from Kingfisher Park to Musgrave Roadhouse, without doubt the highlight was the black form of Brown Treecreeper (race melanotus).  It was darker, but the most noticeable feature was the distinct cream coloured eyebrow.

The next day we met Sue Shepherd and admired Golden-shouldered Parrots.  Phil pulled his car off the road and parked under a gum tree which was full of parrots, including at least two striking males.  Later we saw Little Woodswallows on our way to the Red Goshawk's nest.  We could see the goshawk on the nest, tail poking out one end, head the other.

On Tuesday, we visited a place called Water Tanks, with large native palms, pretty water lilies and lots of Star Finches.  We drove through Coen, with its Sexchange Hotel, and on along dreadful roads to Archer River.  It was dark when we arrived and I couldn't see my long awaited whistling ducks.  The next morning, I was up before dawn, eager to get a look at my 803rd Australian bird.
Me looking at Spotted Whistling Ducks, photo by David Landon

On Wednesday we drove to Lockhart River.  We saw our first Palm Cockatoos for the trip, as well as White-streaked Honeyeaters, Grey Whistlers, White-faced Robins and Eclectus Parrots.  Birds were wonderful, but I was still missing catbirds from my list.

We went spotlighting several times and saw Large-tailed Nightjars, Marbled, Papuan and Tawny Frogmouths, a Barking Owl and a Barn Owl.  We also saw a Striped Possum and a Southern Common Cuscus.  We saw a Grassland Melomys with two babies and a Common Spotted Cucus in daylight.  We also saw several Bare-backed Fruit Bats during the day - they were huge.

On Thursday we had great views of Green-backed Honeyeaters, Yellow-billed Kingfishers and Magnificent Riflebirds.  On Friday morning, when at last I thought we might look for catbirds, five Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds turned up on our lawn and demanded our attention.  Then we were entertained by a hobby attacking a pair of Grey Goshawks.  The rainforest echoed with the rich, fluty call of Green Orioles and the attention-grabbing whistle of Magnificent Riflebirds.  Sadly, there was no mewing of catbirds.  We saw Frilled Monarchs and Wompoo Fruit-Doves and breathtaking views of Chestnut-breasted Cuckoos.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017


We did a walk in Lake Eacham National Park where we saw a Wompoo Fruit-Dove on its nest and a Victoria's Riflebird displaying to a female, who, unimpressed, rejected him.  A Pied Monarch displayed his spectacular frill and a very angry Northern Dwarf Crowned Snake threatened us.  It was only about 40 centimetres long, but half of this was reared up, perpendicular to the ground, quite intimidating enough for me.  Had he been a little larger, he would have been truly terrifying.  In the afternoon we drove to Lake Barrine, where we saw a beautiful Shining Bronze-Cuckoo and a magnificent male Superb Fruit-Dove.  After tea we went spotlighting and saw nothing but a bandicoot and brush-turkeys roosting absurdly high in the canopy.  We heard Lesser Sooty Owls and Southern Boobooks, but, most frustratingly, they refused to show themselves.  Back at Chambers, we saw Sugar Gliders and a pretty Striped Possum.

The next morning, at a small park outside Malanda, we saw a Tooth-billed Bowerbird.  We paused at Bromfield Swamp on our way to Mt Hypipamee.  Here we admired the Golden Bowerbird's bower, then saw the bird as well as Mountain Thornbill.  We had great views of a bird I'd once thought I'd never see, and have now seen really well on three separate occasions - the Fernwren.
Common Brushtail Possum

The next day in Dinden National Park we saw White-browed Robins and Northern Fantails, and, most excitingly, a Red Boobook!  Robert Nevinson, our other guide, rubbed a stick against the trunk of a likely tree, and, to our delight, the boobook flew out.  It sat glaring at us, demanding to know why we'd disturbed its rest.
Looking at a Red Boobook, the northern race of the Southern Boobook

We had lunch in Kuranda where we saw the second thrilling snake of the trip - a Green Tree Snake.  It wasn't green and it wasn't in a tree.  It was beside the track, black with a yellow belly, with white flecks on its back.  It was thin and about a metre long.  It slithered away and suddenly all the white flecks disappeared and its back became a uniform dark colour.

Spotlighting that night gave us one Green Ringtail Possum and one Barn Owl.  My bird count was 178.  We then moved on to part two of the tour:  Iron Range.


In July 2017, I saw more species of birds than I have in any other July since I've been keeping records:  323.  That's because, as well as crossing the Nullarbor in search of Naretha Bluebonnets, I travelled to Cape York with Philip Maher. The tour was in two parts: Atherton Tablelands and Iron Range. For the first part of the tour, we started in Cairns, then went on to Lake Eacham and Kingfisher Lodge.
We started with an early morning wander along Cairns Esplanade, giving my birdlist a healthy kick-start with 30 species.  Highlights were a Great-billed Heron and a Beach Stone-Curlew.  Also worthy of mention were the Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, the Torresian Kingfisher and a most obliging Mangrove Robin that allowed us to admire it without actually going into the mangroves and exposing ourselves to Cairns' veracious sandflies.  We saw the only Tree Martins for the trip and the only Scaly-breasted Munias, about fifty of them.  Then we paid our compliments to a sleepy Rufous Owl roosting in a huge fig tree at Les Davie Park, before visiting Machons Beach at Redden Island, near the mouth of the Barron River.  Here we added 14 species to our list, most notably Black-necked Stork, Lovely Fairywren and both Black-faced and White-eared Monarchs.  We had lunch at Centenary Lakes, where we added Black Butcherbird, Papuan Frogmouth and a stunning Little Kingfisher.  There was also the only Striated Heron of the trip.

Magpie Geese at Centenary Park

Birding with Phil is always hard work.  Participants are simply expected to keep up, whether it's bush-bashing through impenetrable rainforest, climbing through vicious barbed wire fences or crossing preposterous creeks wider than my largest practicable long-jump.  The upside is, that when you go birding with Phil, not only do you see great birds, you also enjoy Trisha's unsurpassed cuisine.  Every meal was a delight.  Thank you, Trish!

We spent the night at Chambers Rainforest Lodge, where Spotted Catbirds and Victoria's Riflebirds came delightfully close to eat fruit strategically placed to entice them in.  Here, while we were admiring Double-eyed Fig-Parrots (race macleayana), Topknot Pigeons flew over, and I didn't know where to look.  To feast on the fig-parrots or forego them for the pigeons?
Track at Lake Eacham

ng.  In the afternoon we drove to Lake Barrine, where we saw a beautiful 

Sunday, 9 July 2017


After my first unsuccessful attempt to see Naretha Bluebonnets in May 2016, I knew I'd have to try again.  Now, July 2017, I've just returned from my second attempt.  This time I went with Bellbird Birding Tours and my guide was Steve Potter.  In my opinion it was the perfect sized tour:  one carload.  There were three of us:  Don, Dave and me.

We left from Adelaide on Sunday 2 July 2017 and returned the following Saturday, having travelled a very comfortable 4,000 kilometres in our brand new Toyota Prado.

The first stop on that first Sunday morning was coffee by a roadside dam at Port Wakefield.  We clocked up quite a good birdlist here, including Australian Shoveler, Freckled Duck and Peregrine Falcon.  The others saw a Black Falcon, but somehow I managed to miss it.  I soon realized I was in the company of very good birders and hoped I wasn't going to miss out on too much during the rest of the week.  What if they saw Naretha Bluebonnets and I didn't?  

We drove on for lunch at Wild Dog Hill in the Whyalla Conservation Park.  Some Eastern Bluebonnets flew towards us and settled, so we could see their red bellies, yellow vents and dark blue faces.  We looked for grasswren but could only manage fairywren (Blue-breasted).  
We spent the night at Port Lincoln and I went to bed with a birdlist of 55 species.  We all agreed that the bird of the day was one cooperative Black-eared Cuckoo that sat up in the top of a dead tree so we could admire him properly.

On Monday it rained on and off all day.  We started the morning looking for Western Whipbirds in Lincoln National Park.  Last time I'd looked for these birds (with Phil Maher in October 2011) it had been uncomfortably hot.  This morning, by contrast, was uncomfortably cold.  We heard the bird.  It was very close, but quite impossible to see in the dense undergrowth.  I glimpsed a whipbird flitting fast and low, but no one had a tickable view.  We also heard Southern Scrub-robin, but couldn't see them either.  Disappointed with our failure, we walked to the coast, hoping for Rock Parrots.  We dipped there too.  This was not an auspicious start!  To cap it off, I was cold.

The next stop was Venus Bay caravan park, on the agenda because of the vagrant Laughing Gull that has taken up residence there.  I'd twitched this bird in June 2016, but I was interested to see it again, to see how its plumage had changed.  When I saw it last year, it turned up early in the morning.  We arrived at the caravan park in the middle of the day and there was no sign of the gull.  We watched pelicans holding their bills open in the rain, getting an easy drink.  We walked up and down the foreshore.  There were Pacific and Silver Gulls, Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers, about a hundred Greater Crested Terns, some Singing Honeyeaters and a couple of Red-necked Stints, but no Laughing Gull.  We had many miles to travel and could not really afford to wait around.  We were told that a woman (Joy was her name) fed the Laughing Gull (Chuckles is his name) each day at 4 p.m.  If we waited until then, how could we possibly reach our destination, the Nullarbor Roadhouse, by tonight?  It was about 500 kilometres from Venus Bay.  Steve was adamant.  He wasn't leaving without seeing Chuckles.  So we had lunch and walked around some more.  Then at 3 o'clock, an hour early, we saw Joy feeding gulls.  Sure enough, there was Chuckles flying in for his free fish.  Delighted, we all admired him appreciatively, then resumed our journey in a much more positive frame of mind.

Instead of driving 500 kilometres, we changed plans and spent the night at Ceduna.  Simple.  The next morning, we set off early to make up some distance and get back on schedule.  At the Nullarbor Roadhouse, we drove up the track beside the fence and very soon saw three Nullarbor Quailthrush.  One male sat on the track ahead of us and posed, showing us left profile, head on, then right profile.  This made me feel a little inadequate as it had taken me several attempts before I'd seen my first Nullarbor Quailthrush.  Here was Steve driving up and ticking them within minutes.  I felt a little better when we met some other birders who'd been driving up and down without a hint of quailthrush.  I'm sure they were envious of our success.

All I really cared about was seeing Naretha Bluebonnet, so I wasn't deeply upset at missing out on Western Whipbird and Rock Parrots (birds I'd seen before).  Missing the Black Falcon was entirely my own fault.  Steve told us that Naretha Bluebonnets had been seen in the Nullarbor National Park, 100 kilometres west of the roadhouse.  I wanted them on my lifelist, I didn't care which state I saw them in - South Australia was just as good as Western Australia as far as I was concerned.  If we did see them in South Australia, it would save some 1200 kilometres of driving.  So we drove into Nullarbor National Park, and travelled 13 kilometres up Koonalda Track to the old homestead.  We checked every tree, but there was no sign of bluebonnets.  We had lunch and looked again.  We had great views of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes and Crested Bellbirds, but sadly no bluebonnets.  There was nothing for it but to drive on to Western Australia.
Paul Taylor's photo of Naretha Bluebonnets on the Koonalda Track in Nullarbor National Park, May 2017.

We saw a flock of Major Mitchell Cockatoos at Madura.  Otherwise, it was a long, uneventful drive to Cocklebiddy.  We arrived at 7 p.m. South Australian time.  Our phones all automatically registered Western Australian time but, confusingly, Cocklebiddy enjoys its own time zone called 'Central Time.'  Steve summed the day up:  we had driven 800 kilometres, seen the Nullarbor Quailthrush and spent some time looking for Naretha Bluebonnet in South Australia.  We went to bed, optimistic that tomorrow we would finally crack it.  Wednesday was to be the day of the Naretha Bluebonnet.

We left the roadhouse at 7.15 a.m. and took the Rawlinna Road through Arubiddy Station.  Last time I'd done this journey the road had been impassable.  We'd made it to the station, but could go no further.  Luckily, the rain we'd had at Port Lincoln had not come this far west.  We could see that after rain the track would be extremely difficult.  In fact it was much better than I'd expected.  At Arubiddy Station, we spoke to some men, who told us the road was 'pretty bad.'  I was anxious that we'd have to turn back, but Steve negotiated the wheel ruts perfectly, and we found that the road wasn't bad at all.  We saw pipits, Grey Butcherbirds and magpies.  There were kestrels, Wedge-tailed Eagles and Brown Falcons and both Rufous and Brown Songlarks.  I felt like a child on Christmas Eve:  very soon good things were going to happen.  Altogether, we passed through 13 gates, each with its own confusing mechanism.  The twelfth gate was on the dingo fence, the boundary to Rawlinna Station.  At the thirteenth gate, a sheep was entangled in the wire, still alive, just.  The ravens were beginning to peck it.  We tried to free it.  We attempted to undo the wire at the gatepost, but it was firmly fixed in place.  There was nothing we could do.  Reluctantly, we left the poor sheep to the ravens and its inevitable painful death.

Soon afterwards, on the left, we saw a couple of windmills and a tank, and a little after that, another tank and a large stand of western myalls.  This was the spot.  We turned left and parked beside the tank.  It was 10.45 a.m.  Eagerly, we jumped out of the car and looked around for parrots.  Steve led us around the myalls, circling the tank and inspecting every tree.  After we'd looked in every direction, our optimism began to fade.  We had lunch, trying to pretend that the birds could fly in at any minute.  I had thought that the difficulty in seeing Naretha Bluebonnets was in getting to this spot.  People who dipped on the bird, could not negotiate the track.  I had thought that everyone who made it through, saw the birds.  Now I began to wonder.  Did people not report failed attempts?  We drove from the tank to the windmills and the silence in the car was palpable.  We each nurtured our own private thoughts of failure.  At 2.45, we'd been looking for the birds for four hours, and I began calculating what time we'd have to leave to get back to the roadhouse in daylight.  I wasn't very happy.
The spot to look for Naretha Bluebonnets, a tank surrounded by western myalls.

Steve suggested we try one more walk.  Sitting in the car was downright miserable, so I jumped at the suggestion of something to do.  Steve and I set off, while Dave and Don remained at the car.  We were attempting to retain a positive outlook, while gloom was descending inevitably.  Then a Rawlinna Station ute turned up and we were pleased at the opportunity to tell them about the distressed sheep caught in the fence.  Unfortunately, they had no local knowledge about where to find bluebonnets.

The ute left and Steve and I continued on our walk.  I tried hard to think positive thoughts.  How lucky we were that it hadn't rained.  Perhaps we wouldn't have made it here, if there'd been a downpour.  But what did it matter if we had made it to the tank, if there were no bluebonnets?  Suddenly, Steve whistled.  He'd seen Don in the distance, looking for us.  Dave was looking at a pair of Naretha Bluebonnets, and Don had come to get us!  Funny how one minute, you're tired and lethargic, and the next you're full of energy.  We ran all the way back.

They weren't just another tick.  They were beautiful birds.  I stood apart from the others so they couldn't see me crying.  We all admired those bluebonnets, then it was high fives all round.  No one had mentioned the turquoise face to me.  It is quite different from Eastern Bluebonnets.  The birds were much brighter and prettier than I'd thought they'd be.  But perhaps my vision was tempered by relief.

We were all delighted and set off back to the roadhouse at 3.20 p.m.  But the day wasn't over yet.  The first drama was a flat tyre.  I was accompanied by three very competent fellows who could change a tyre blindfolded.  Except that the spare was secured by a locknut.  Eventually (using the cunning device of reading the manual) we discovered the key, and those three competent fellows took precisely 14 minutes to change the tyre.  By now the sun had set.  The second drama was a kangaroo that jumped in front of the car.  Luckily, it jumped off and I hope it recovered fully.  We arrived back at the roadhouse, triumphant, at 6.30.  I needed a drink.
It took just 14 minutes for 3 competent blokes to change a tyre.

The damaged tyre was mended overnight, and we faced Thursday with four objectives:  (1) to see the Naretha Bluebonnet in South Australia; (2) to see whales at the Head of the Bight; (3) to photograph the Nullarbor Quailthrush; and (4) to see a Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat.  We achieved none.  Both the bluebonnets and the quailthrushes were a no show.  We arrived too late to see the whales (the gate closed at 5 p.m.).  And, when we went looking for wombats in the dark after tea, all we saw were a couple of Tawny Frogmouths.

On Friday, we drove to Kimba, changing our itinerary to visit Yumbarra Conservation Park to look for Scarlet-chested Parrots.  I'd seen them here with Phil Maher in October 2011.  Alas, I was not to see them in July 2017.

Saturday saw us looking for Copperback Quailthrush in Lake Gilles Conservation Park.  We had an early start and it was extremely cold.  The spinifex was covered in frost.  Steve knew several spots for quailthrush, and we checked out each one.  We saw Rufous Treecreepers and Western Yellow Robins, but not a hint of quailthrush.
The spinifex was covered in frost.

We had lunch at Arid Lands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta, one of my very favourite places in South Australia.  I enjoyed a glass of wine to celebrate a very successful trip.  We hadn't seen everything we'd set out to see, but I'd seen my Naretha Bluebonnets and I was perfectly satisfied.

Singing Honeyeaters

Sunday, 25 June 2017


I'm reading a book called Birders, Tales of a Tribe by Mark Cocker (lent to me by my birding mate, Philip Jackson).  It's crammed full of birdy anecdotes (all of which would mean more, I'm sure, if I knew either the people or the places).  Cocker mentions the first Collared Doves seen in Britain on 3 July 1956 at Overstrand in north Norfolk, discovered by a chap called Michael Seago.  At the time, Cocker tells us, this was a very exciting discovery.  But, very soon, the doves had invaded the country and colonised everywhere from Cornwall to Shetland.  The bird became the tenth most common bird in English gardens.  Spare a thought for Michael Seago.  His once momentous discovery has evaporated into no more than a distant memory.

That's how I feel about my SIPO.  Yes, my South Island Pied Oystercatcher.  This species used to be rare in Australia.  In 1994, Christidis and Boles did not mention it.  It simply was not on the Australian list.  In 2008, Christidis and Boles included it as a vagrant.  A vagrant used to be defined as a bird that had been recorded fewer than ten times. Today, you can see my SIPO about an hour's drive from Melbourne.

It's not as if Christidis and Boles left it out in 1994 because the bird had not been discovered.  It is not a recent split.  It was named in 1897 by Martens.  The type specimen came from Saltwater Creek on the South Island of New Zealand.  And it kept itself mainly to New Zealand.  Occasionally one would visit Australia.  I remember looking for one on the Gold Coast with Tom Tarrant in 2001.

In January this year, Philip and I flew to the Gold Coast, hired a car, and with a little effort, admired a handsome SIPO.  It was my 800th Australian bird.  It felt very special.
This is my SIPO, not at Stockyard Point in Victoria, but at Broadwater Beach in NSW in January 2017, alongside the taller Australian Pied Oystercatcher for comparison.

Yesterday, Philip and I drove not much more than an hour from Melbourne to Stockyard Point, where, with twenty or so miscellaneous birders, we watched the very same bird, on the beach amongst two dozen Australian Pied Oystercatchers.  It didn't seem special at all. (I know it's the same bird as it has an identifying tag on its leg.) 

We noted both races of Gull-billed Tern and one very beautiful Double-banded Plover in breeding plumage, then I persuaded Philip that we must rush back to the car before the tide came in completely and we had to swim back.  I found walking back difficult.  The beach is strewn with fallen trees.  Clambering over these slippery limbs with the waves constantly mocking me, hurrying to beat the tide back to the car, is not my idea of a fun day out.

Of course we made it to the car without falling into the sea, and had an uneventful drive home.  I settled down with a drink to contemplate SIPOs and the world's injustices.  I sent empathetic vibes to MIchael Seago.  The phone rang.  It was James Mustafa, telling me that there was a Little Stint at Stockyard Point!  Thank goodness the Little Stint is already safely on my lifelist (Werribee, 2008).  I don't fancy returning to do battle with those fallen trees and taunting waves.  Of course, if the Little Stint was not on my list, I'd have no choice.

Saturday, 3 June 2017


On 3 June 2017, I was returning from my morning walk, contemplating my monthly bird total.  I thought I'd seen every species of bird that was easily seen in walking distance from my home, except Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Magpie-lark and Feral Pigeon.  I had not seen House Sparrow or Silver Gull, but I don't usually get these so close to home.  The large flock of Little Corellas that invaded my area in March, seems to have moved on.  My June total was 14 species and I figured I could expect just three more.  No sooner had I registered this thought, than a pair of Masked Lapwings flew overhead, calling.  I hadn't counted on them!  I had heard a Spotted Pardalote on 31 May, but, try as I might, I could not see it.  If I could manage to see it, it would make a welcome addition to my list.

Later in the day, I was sitting, reading, when the Noisy Miners started a war outside.  They sounded in a frenzy.  Anyone who knows me, knows what I think of Noisy Miners.  Their population has exploded beyond natural bounds.  They are extremely aggressive.  In the interest of biodiversity, they should be culled.  I went outside to see what was causing the commotion.

A small flock of miners, ably assisted by two magpies, was bombing a Tawny Frogmouth!  It sat innocently in the neighbours' almost leafless silver birch, pretending to ignore the chaos around it.  A bird I had not expected to add to my June list.
Tawny Frogmouth in the neighbours' silver birch

I've seen frogmouths at home just once before, about ten years ago.  An adult appeared in our oak tree, together with its half-grown young.  They sat in the oak for a few hours, then moved to a low evergreen shrub, at about eye height.  The next day they had gone.  Of course I looked around about, but I could not find them.

I don't see frogmouths every year.  We used to look for them at the You Yangs, around the information centre, but they are not always there.  My cousin often has them near her home in Blackburn.  Once I saw a pair at the Melbourne General Cemetery.  I have seen them nesting at Blackburn Lake, and I sometimes see them in various places at Banyule, but they are never guaranteed.  How wonderful to have one at my own back door.  Sadly, it did not stay the night, and this morning I could not find it anywhere.

Monday, 29 May 2017


I'd done ten pelagics out of Eaglehawk Neck before, but I'd never been out in May, and May is supposed to be the magic month for Southern Fulmar.  I steeled myself to be cold and wet.  I knew the sea would be rough, but I didn't mind, as long as I saw my fulmar.  The boat had been out the previous weekend, and all present had not only seen my wished for fulmar, but Westland Petrel as well.  Now that would be an added bonus.

I flew to Hobart on Friday 26 May and arrived, safe and well, no thanks to Qantas, who cancelled my flight and transferred me to Jetstar.  In Hobart, I was met at the airport by the wonderful Els Wakefield, who drove me down to the Lufra at Eaglehawk Neck.  It was dark and all sorts of wildlife with a suicidal bent hopped across the road in front of the car.  Quite accustomed to this zoological display, local drivers chose not to slow down.

On Saturday morning, we set off in the dark in good spirits.  There's always something special about leaving before sunrise.  It's as if, having made the effort, you deserve to see something good.  Kelp Gulls and Sooty Oystercatchers watched unimpressed as three big blokes helped me onto the Pauletta.   I like to think that I didn't make too much of an exhibition of myself.  It was cold and the sea was more choppy than I'd have preferred, but we were all energised with expectation.  There were twelve of us on board, plus the captain and crew.

Very soon the first Shy Albatross put in an appearance, followed closely by a Buller's, then a Northern Giant-Petrel.  The day was starting well.  And the birds kept coming.  There were lots of Fairy Prions and Cape Petrels, and just a couple of Common Diving-Petrels and Great-winged Petrels.  Whenever a tern flew into sight, all binoculars were concentrated on it, hoping for something unusual.  However, the only terns we saw all day were Greater Crested and White-fronted.
White-headed Petrel, photo by James Mustafa

We saw a couple of Slender-billed Prions, a few storm petrels (all Wilson's, apart from one Grey-backed) and several other albatross:  Campbell's, Black-browed, Yellow-nosed, and a magnificent Wanderer.  We saw a Brown Skua, one Australasian Gannet, a few Black-faced Cormorants and several petrels:  Grey-faced, White-chinned, Soft-plumaged, Providence, Grey and, for me the highlight, a White-headed.  These are truly beautiful birds.  The Grey Petrel was a hit with everyone, spending a fair amount of time around the boat and giving us all a chance to admire it properly.  It was a good list of petrels.  Shame there wasn't a Westland.
Grey Petrel, photo by James Mustafa

We had quite a good bird list for the day.  I recorded 31 species.  We saw just two shearwaters:  a Sooty and a Short-tailed, and they didn't put in an appearance until the afternoon.  I try to be philosophical.  But 'quite a good bird list' is not the same as seeing a lifer, whichever way you look at it.  I consoled myself that the fulmar had not been seen the previous Saturday.  It waited until Sunday to show itself.  Perhaps it's a Seventh Day Adventist and refuses to work on Saturdays.  I told myself, I had a good chance tomorrow.
Kelp Gulls watched disdainfully, photo by James Mustafa

We were up in the dark again on Sunday.  Some Little Penguins scuttled in front of the car on our way to the jetty.  Despite predictions, it wasn't as cold as yesterday.  We'd been told to expect much worse weather.  But it was not so.  The Kelp Gulls again watched disdainfully as big strong men were required to get me onto the Pauletta.  I sat in my accustomed spot and tried to be unobtrusive for the rest of the day.  Clouds decorated the mountain tops, looking very pretty.  There was a little rain, but it didn't last long.  The seas were much calmer than the day before.  And our bird list was not as good.  I recorded just  20 species.  We visited the Hippolytes (it had been too rough yesterday) and saw a sea-eagle perched on top.  The colours of the rock were spectacular:  oranges, browns and greens.  We had a good look at a Southern Royal Albatross, which was recorded on the official trip report for the day before, but as I had not identified it myself, it wasn't on my list.

Needless to say, my fulmar chose not to show itself.  I came home disappointed.  I've put my name down for next May.  Perhaps he'll show up then.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017


Since my three lifers in January, birding has been quiet.  My mate, Philip Jackson and I spent a day at Werribee in March (well, half a day to be correct) and came away very pleased with a score of 83 species, or 84 if you count the scrubwren Philip saw that I didn't.  Or, 85 if you count the four Australian Pratincole we both reckoned we saw flying off into the distance never to be viewed through the scope.
Philip at Point Addis

April was disappointing.  Philip and I visited Point Addis, hoping for Rufous Bristlebird.  Philip saw one; I didn't.  Then,at the last moment, I rushed up to Southport to do a pelagic, hoping for a White-necked Petrel.  This was my fourteenth attempt to see this bird.  We saw a Tahiti Petrel and a Lesser Frigatebird, but nothing even vaguely resembled a White-necked Petrel.  So much for April.  And so much for White-necked Petrels.

I spent Tuesday 2 May birding around Rutherglen, and in that one day, saw more birds than I had for the whole of April.  I usually start my day at Rutherglen with a walk around Lake King before breakfast.  This is the lake adjacent to the caravan park.  In summer, I usually see White-breasted Woodswallows and reed warblers here.  I can look for Black-fronted Dotterels and Blue-faced Honeyeaters at any time.  So on Tuesday, I set off optimistically.  About the first bird I saw was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow, then a large, noisy flock of Pied Currawongs and far too many Common Starlings.  At the golf course, I turned towards the lake.  Four magpies on the ground gave me the evil eye, but they were on the ground.  Magpies on the ground never do any harm, I thought.  Anyway, it was only May.  Magpies don't swoop in May.  I ignored them.  But not for long.  The four of them flew up, took aim, and swooped at me!  For a second I stood in disbelief.  Then I ran.  One magpie meant it, the others were merely going through the motions.  I hot tailed it back to my motel and forgot about Lake King.  Not a good start to the day.

After breakfast, Roger drove me to Chiltern No 2 dam.  We stopped first at the ephemeral water near the Rutherglen tip.  I've seen good birds here over the years:  both sorts of snipe, several crakes and Turquoise Parrots.  Near here, people have reported Red-backed Kingfishers, but I've never seen them in Rutherglen.  This morning there were about a hundred Straw-necked Ibis, and about twenty Yellow-billed Spoonbills.  A couple of cantankerous Whistling Kites were fighting above, and a few teal, cormorants, and Australasian Grebes were mucking about in the water.  On the bank, some bored looking Maned Duck (we used to call Australian Wood Duck) loafed, with one Pink-eared Duck.  

My bird count was 30 before we arrived at No 2 dam.  It was cold but fine, so I elected to walk to the bird hide.  I was accompanied by several vocal Willie Wagtails and a couple of Restless Flycatchers.  There was a large group of Masked Lapwing standing around doing nothing, but I could see no ducks and no cormorants.  Not even a Whistling Kite, usually guaranteed here.

Then we drove to No 1 dam, where we watched Black-fronted Dotterels and Yellow-billed Spoonbills.  I often see Diamond Firetails here, but not today.  As we left, I looked for a Pied Butcherbird on the electricity wires, but all I saw was a kookaburra.

On Lake Anderson in Chiltern, a Great Egret put on a most elegant flying display for us.

We drove on to Cyanide Dam at Honeyeater Picnic Area in the Chiltern/Mt Pilot National Park.  Red Wattlebirds dominated the landscape.  I walked around the dam, admiring ubiquitous Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters and a pair of gorgeous Crested Shrike-tits.  Back at the carpark, I made coffee and hoped that Brown Treecreepers would appear.  They are usually very common in this carpark, but I'd missed them on my last visit in January, and as this species is one of the woodlands species classified as near threatened, I didn't like to think it was missing from one of its favourite haunts.  I could hear treecreepers, but I could not see them.

As soon as I had a cup of coffee in my hand (with nowhere available to put it down quickly) it all happened at once.  A pair of Scarlet Robins appeared.  I put my coffee on the ground, only spilling a little.  As I raised my binoculars to admire the Scarlet Robins, an Eastern Yellow Robin was visible behind them, and, in the same instant a treecreeper crept up the very same trunk occupied by the yellow robin.  Alas, it was a White-throated, not a Brown.  I admired the robins, and they were joined very quickly by three female Flame Robins.  Brown Thornbills gambled in the gumtrees above.  I'd quite forgotten the malicious magpies of a few hours ago.
Greenhill Dam

We drove to Greenhill Dam, the spot where I saw my first Regent Honeyeater many years ago.  We saw White-winged Choughs and Fuscous Honeyeaters.  Then it was on to Bartley's Block.  Here, I had a list of (I thought) easy requirements.  I wanted a Jacky Winter, a Red-capped Robin and a Turquoise Parrot.  I met some birders at the gate, who told me there'd been a recent release of Regent Honeyeaters.  They'd seen a female Red-capped Robin on the hill.  I thanked them and set off towards my robin.  I saw Grey Fantails, Little and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Eastern Spinebills and a gorgeous male Golden Whistler, but no Red-capped Robin, no Jacky Winter and no Turquoise Parrot.  A Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike flew over, distracting me.  I saw a large bright orange fungus.  Then, amongst a flock of thornbills, I saw a Speckled Warbler.  These are one of my favourite birds.  I've seen them on Skeleton Hill, but never before on Bartley's Block.

We drove up Fishers Lane looking for Grey-crowned Babblers, but had no luck.  Rog noticed that the signs that used to alert people to the possible presence of babblers had gone, and I realized it had been a while since I'd seen them here.  Later, at home, I consulted my records and found that I had not seen Grey-crowned Babblers in Chiltern since March 2009.  We deduced that they'd gone.  It was always a small flock, and their demise seemed inevitable, with no new recruits to the group.  Nevertheless I was sad.  Babblers are such happy characters.

I always think of quail-thrush when we drive along McGuiness Road, in the Mt Pilot section of the national park.  It was very quiet this morning, although, at last, I did see my Brown Treecreepers.  And I saw a very handsome male Flame Robin.

I needed a Satin Bowerbird for my annual list, so we decided to drive to Lake Kerford in Beechworth.  Rog stopped off at Woolshed Falls, so I could add Striated Thornbill to my list.  They are always present, high in the canopy, giving me a sore neck as I look up to identify them.  And, there in the carpark, playing happily on the ground out in the open, were two Speckled Warblers!  I'd never seen them at Bartley's Block before, and I'd never seen them at Woolshed Falls.  I wonder if it's been a particularly good year for Speckled Warblers.

I did not see a Satin Bowerbird at Lake Kerford, but I did see a Wonga Pigeon, another new bird for my year list.  My birdlist for the day was now at 63.  Not bad for a cold autumn day.

Back in Chiltern, we drove up Donchi Hill Road to Lapin dam.  It was cold and the birds were very quiet.  Nothing was drinking at the dam.  As I walked down the road while Rog read his newspaper, I saw Brown-headed Honeyeaters playing in the gum leaves.

Driving back to Rutherglen, I saw a flock of over fifty Magpie-larks.  Birds that breed in summer, sometimes flock in autumn.  These are the unpaired youngsters from the summer brood.  But I've never seen flocks of Magpie-larks before.  Most unusual.

For a cold autumn day, I thought I'd done very well, notwithstanding the lack of Turquoise Parrots, Jacky Winters and Red-capped Robins.  I have to leave some easy birds for my next trip to Rutherglen, which can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned.

Sunday, 26 March 2017


Just about anyone else who saw a South Polar Skua, a Kermadec Petrel and a Gould's Petrel on the same boat trip, would be very pleased with themselves.  Me, I just can't help thinking it's unfair!  I liked these birds of course, and the close-up and personal views of Grey-faced Petrels and one magnificent Gibson's Albatross were fantastic, but I came home feeling cheated.
Gould's Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

This was my thirteenth attempt at seeing a White-necked Petrel and I did not see one.  What am I doing wrong?  [For those of you of a pedantic nature, my previous thirteen attempts included four trips which were cancelled and nine that went out, being:  from Wollongong:  February 2008, March 2009, March 2010, February 2011, March 2012, and January 2015; from Port Stephens:  April 2012 and April 2016; and from Kiama February 2016.]  White-necked Petrels can be seen (so they say!) from Wollongong, Kiama or Sydney in January, February and March and from Port Stephens you can catch them as late as April.

Roger has (understandably) become tired of driving me interstate to chase a bird I never see.  So, on my twelfth attempt I arranged to drive to Port Stephens in February with my birding mate, Philip Jackson.  Alas! we did not get past 'Go!'  Before we left Melbourne, Mick Roderick (who organizes the Port Stephens trips) rang to say the weather forecast was abysmal and he did not believe the boat would get out.  So we never actually left home.

The January 2017 Southport pelagic saw a White-necked Petrel and the February 2017 Kiama pelagic had unprecedented views of them - several birds, close to the boat.  At one stage, I'm told those present thought one bird might land on the deck.  There's also been some seawatch sightings.  2017 seemed to be the year of the White-necked Petrel.  And I was missing out.

So I turned up for the Kiama pelagic on 25 March 2017 full of expectation.  The weather forecast was pretty good - smooth seas, light rain developing in the afternoon.  All the ducks were lining up in a row.  If only the White-necked Petrels would do the same.

The boat left on the dot of 7.30, full of optimistic, expectant birders.  There were three other Victorians present, all of whom had travelled up to New South Wales, in the hope of seeing a White-necked Petrel.  I couldn't help wondering if they, too, had made twelve previous attempts.  I thought I really had earned that bird.

We started off with lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a sprinkling of Australasian Gannets.  Then some eagle-eyed participant spied a storm petrel in the distance.  It turned out to be Wilson's - the first of several we saw during the day, and the only storm petrel species we saw.

Then a Shy Albatross defied its name and flew close to the boat.  I guess we saw half a dozen or more throughout the day.  Next was a Pomarine Jaeger.  Either the one bird stayed loyal to the boat or we saw six or seven individual birds.  I never saw more than one bird at a time.

There was a buzz of excitement as a skua flew over.  I looked up, viewed the bird in my binoculars and wrote in my notebook 'Brown Skua.'  The bird flew past the boat and all the expert seabirders on board paid it more attention than I did.  Very quickly the call went up 'South Polar Skua!'
South Poloar Skua, photo by Brook Whylie

I've only seen one South Polar Skua before.  That was off Wollongong in February 2008 (when I was actually looking for a White-necked Petrel).  That skua was a delicious iced coffee colour, and, in my ignorance, I thought, if I ever see one of them again, I'll know it.  Now I know that the Wollongong bird was a light phase bird.  Today's bird was an intermediate phase.  If I ever happen to see a dark phase, I'll certainly write it down as Brown Skua.  Traps for beginners.  I recall all the skuas I saw in the Antarctic, and how difficult they were to identify.

We saw hundreds of Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters and scores of Grey-faced Petrels - they seemed to take it in turns to predominate.  Lindsay banded 21 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and captured four that had been banded previously.  He also banded several Grey-faced Petrels and, for the first time, I had eye to eye contact with these beautiful birds.  They certainly look different up close.  They are handsome flying overhead, but they are exceptionally becoming in the hand.

We saw several Providence Petrels that the New South Wales boys insisted on calling Solander's - although I note that the official SOSSA checklist we were given lists them as Providence, with Solander's as an alternative name.

One lone White-faced Heron flew very high and very determinedly out to sea.  Where could he be going?

A couple of Short-tailed Shearwaters flew past at a distance, not hanging around to enjoy our company or our burleigh.

I still hadn't given up on my White-necked Petrel when a magnificent Gibson's Albatross flew in.  She sat on the water so we could all admire her appropriately.  Then Lindsay netted her and we all had the chance of admiring her again, much closer.  Truly, a breathtakingly beautiful bird.

We saw (I think) four Hutton's Shearwaters, but no Fluttering, which was surprising, as they have been seen on every March pelagic until today.  The other surprising omissions from our list were Kelp Gull and Arctic Jaeger.
Kermadec Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

A Kermadec Petrel flew around the boat, giving everyone a view, and a Gould's Petrel did likewise.  If I hadn't had my heart set on a White-necked Petrel, this would have made a very good day at sea.  They were handsome birds.  Birds I don't see every day.  But they weren't White-necked Petrels!