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