Canary Islands part 2: Gran Canaria: 2nd – 5th February 2018   2 comments

The last post dealt with our first day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. This post covers our remaining three days on Gran Canaria and is mainly concerned with sightseeing although a few bird photos, both wild and captive, sneak in.

 

We were using Tony Clarke and Dave Collins’ Canary Islands book as a site guide, but it was published in 1996 and is out of date for some areas. They gave details of a tidal lagoon in Maspalomas known as the Oasis which often hosts waders. However all we found in this area were posh hotels and this concrete canal. However the palm trees near the hotels contained large numbers of Rose-ringed and Monk Parakeets and the scrub surrounding the canal held Sardinian Warblers whilst a number of near-endemic Plain Swifts and a single Barn Swallow zoomed about overhead.

 

We also saw a few of the introduced Common Waxbills in the area.

 

We thought we would visit the ‘bird park’ at Los Palmitos some way up in the mountains, partially to see the captive birds and partially because birding was said to be quite good in the area. The scrub around the car park held a number of species including the trips only Blackcaps (of the non-migratory race heineken which ‘refreshes parts other Blackcaps cannot reach’). From Blackcaps in the car park we moved to white Peacocks in the park itself.

 

I didn’t take many photos of the captive birds as I hate to see photos with bars in the background, but this rare Helmeted Guan from Venezuela proved an exception …

 

… and I couldn’t resist a close up of the facial features of Saddle-billed Stork.

 

We also went to a flight display of various birds such as this Red-legged Seriema but it started to rain and the handler said that all the flying displays would have to be cancelled because the birds of prey in particular wouldn’t fly in the rain.

 

The park has obviously diversified into a small zoo with quite a few mammals on display, an orchid house …

 

… and an aquarium, I don’t know what this bizarre species is …

 

…. but these days, after an entertaining cartoon film, most of us are familiar with Clown Fish!

 

But the most popular and most entertaining show was at the Dolphinarium. Six Bottle-nosed Dolphins (one is underwater) put on an excellent show with their trainers …

 

… catching balls …

 

… lifting their trainers up out of the water …

 

… or propelling them underwater …

 

… or into the air.

 

Two young girls in wet suits were taken around the pool on a raft (I don’t know if they were related to staff or volunteers from the audience) but they must have got a surprise when two dolphins leapt over their heads. This was all very entertaining and enjoyable but I’m not sure that keeping animals like dolphins (or any cetacean) in captivity is ethical. I know some people are very opposed to dolphinariums and I tend to agree with them. They told us that the dolphins were all captive born, I’m convinced they are well looked after and have a lot of stimulation in their lives and they do give many people a chance to see these lovely creatures that otherwise would have no encounters with them at all, but they are very intelligent creatures and the pool is a poor substitute for the open sea.

 

The following morning we drove into the mountains but soon got waylaid by an attraction that tried to recreate the Neolithic (late stone age) living conditions of the Guanches, the original inhabitants of these islands. Phoenician, Carthaginian, Greek and Roman sailors seem to have landed in the Canaries in antiquity (the Romans in 1st C AD) and reported buildings, yet saw no people. The Romans encountered dogs and named the island Insular Canaria after them. Clearly the dogs didn’t swim on their own accord from Africa and indeed archeology places a date of around 1000 BC for the initial colonisation of Berber-like people from North Africa. Spanish colonisation in 15th C led to wars and the annihilation of the Guanches. The tourist site was nicely set out but the information boards were poor (the English translation looked like it had been done by ‘Google Translate’) there was little mention of the origins of these people, no timeline and the disappearance of the Guanaches was put down to the arrival of ‘later invaders’!

 

The site was quite good for birding though and I was able to photograph several species. A common bird in the area, indeed throughout the Canaries was Collared Dove. In my two visits to the islands in the 80s I didn’t see a single one, now they are everywhere.

 

The Canary Islands are one of the few areas where Spanish Sparrow rather than House Sparrow is the common species (a few House Sparrows, probably ship assisted, occur around Maspalomas but we didn’t see any). Spanish Sparrows are far from common in mainland Spain. The male Spanish Sparrow is a handsome beast, much more strongly marked than House Sparrow …

 

… but the female Spanish Sparrow can be hard to tell from it’s House Sparrow counterpart. Well marked individuals such as this one are paler with a whiter belly, have well-marked streaks on the mantle, a narrower and more distinct supercilium and better marked pale fringes to the wing coverts.

 

Berthelot’s Pipits were common in the area …

 

… and we had great views of Atlantic Canary, the bird that derived its name from the islands, not the other way round.

 

A male Sardinian Warbler was singing and I think I got some of my best ever views of this common but inveterate skulker.

 

With a range from the Canaries across southern Europe and North Africa as far east as Turkey, ‘Sards’ are common in scrubby habitats, but all is usually seen is a small bird with a long tail diving into cover.

 

Surprisingly the wind was now dropping and the sun was shining.W e wanted to pay at least one visit to Maspalomas and Playa del Ingles famous beach so headed back down the mountain …

 

… and went for a walk on the edge of the mighty sand dunes. The towers of the church at Oasis de Maspalomas can just be seen rising above the sand.

 

Any hopes that the weather was improving were short-lived. The wind increased, whipping sand into our faces and it was far too cold for those traditional beach activities like sunbathing or going for a dip. However one or two brave souls were in the sea!

 

We retreated to a nearby covered area for lunch, although gusts of wind blew over stall holder’s stands and caused chaos among the assembled holidaymakers. Later following up a suggestion from the Clarke and Collins guide that the Playa de Arinaga and Playa de Pozo Izquierdo areas might hold Trumpeter Finches we headed north-east.

 

You knew the area was usually windy from the plethora of wind turbines …

 

The promenade at Playa de Arinaga was battered by the waves …

 

… these guys just avoided getting wet whilst photographing the waves …

 

… unfortunately I didn’t!

 

Local surfers were taking advantage of the powerful surf …

 

… including this young guy who seems to have mastered the art perfectly.

 

We found no finches of any description but did locate these salinas. Commercial salt pans often are havens for shorebirds in arid areas but we only found two individuals, single Grey Plover and Sanderling although both were additions to the trip list.

 

On our last full day on Gran Canaria we drove north to the capital Las Palmas and then westwards along the northern shore. Our destination was the north-western tip of the island (in the distance in the above photo) where we might see some newly arrived Cory’s Shearwaters back from their wintertime pelagic wanderings. We were probably a month too early as we didn’t see any, indeed the whole area was of little interest, just a far from completed tourist complex in the middle of a banana plantation. Stopping briefly at a small harbour on the way back I noticed this cat staring wistfully out to sea. Remembering Meryl Streep on the Cobb at Lyme Regis in Dorset at the start of the 1981 film adaptation of John Fowle’s book, I have titled this photo ‘The French Lieutenant’s Cat’.

 

Having had little success in the north-west we headed inland. The views of the north-east towards to Las Palmas were impressive. Margaret’s daughter and two grandchildren used to live on a yacht in the marina and we had wanted to see where that was. However once there we found no easy parking in the area so just did a drive by. As a result our only photos of the capital were from this vantage point and from the plane as we left the island.

 

The outer islands of La Palma, El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife (plus Madeira) have extensive areas of the type of laurel forest that once cloaked much of North Africa. However on Gran Canaria the only remnant left is in this valley and that is pretty degraded.

 

But we did see some new birds including the endemic races of European Robin and Common Chaffinch. The latter, pictured above is quite different from European races and many have wondered why like the Blue Chaffinches they haven’t been split. Recent genetic work has shown a complex picture of repeated colonisation of the Atlantic Islands by European and/or North African birds leading to a confused picture with no clear-cut division into species.

 

Normally receiving more moisture than the south, the northern slopes were greener more cultivated than the centre of the island or the south. As we climbed we left the grey skies of the north behind and saw the clouds spilling over into the drier centre and evaporating.

 

It was now a glorious day, the best of the trip. We drove southwards until we reached Artenara, the point where we turned off westwards on our first day. Unfortunately the road to Tejeda was closed and we had to make a big detour. However I don’t know if the word ‘unfortunate’ is really applies to driving for another hour in such wonderful scenery!

 

In the distance we could see the rock stack of Roque Nublo ….

 

… whist we got a lot closer to Roque Bentayga.

 

Deep barrancos ran westwards towards the Atlantic Ocean ….

 

,,, where winding roads connected remote villages.

 

Further south still we came across areas of Canarian Pine forest …

 

… and photographed the Gran Canaria endemic race of Great Spotted Woodpecker (although it didn’t look that different from the ones we see at home).

 

The final descent into Maspalomas and back to our resort was through the arid hills of the southern slope.

 

Well that was it for our week-long adventure in the Canaries. A few mishaps in the earlier part of the trip but great birds and wonderful scenery. The following day we left mid morning for the airport and were back at Hurn by late afternoon. Here is a view from the plane just after take off …

 

… and one of the peninsula of La Isleta in the north-west and the capital Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

 

But I’ll conclude with another panorama from the mountainous centre of this spectacular island.

 

The Canary Islands part 1: Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura: 29/01/18 – 01/02/18   Leave a comment

This post and the next one cover a recent week-long trip to the islands of Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura. The first describes our first full day on Gran Canaria and our two days on Fuerteventura. The next will cover our final three days, all on Gran Canaria.

We were looking for somewhere to have a quiet week together without long flights, having to travel to Heathrow etc. It seemed a good idea to take a break during the winter as we had few other commitments at this time of year. Gran Canaria was an obvious choice, partly because I had never been there but mainly because the Blue Chaffinch on that island has recently been split from the much commoner and easier to find Blue Chaffinch on Tenerife, which I saw back in 1984.

We chose a package deal that flew from Hurn Airport (now often called Bournemouth Airport in spite of the fact that it’s at Hurn and not Bournemouth) and booked a hire car for the week. As well as some birding we hoped it might be warm enough to go to the beach and maybe even take a dip.

On the birding front things became more complicated when a Dwarf Bittern from tropical Africa turned up on nearby Fuerteventura. Although I had seen this species in Uganda it was only a flight view and besides, it would make a good Western Palaearctic tick. In addition, on my 1989 trip to Fuerteventura our view of Houbara Bustard was very distant. This didn’t bother me at the time as I had seen it well (or so I thought) in Israel in 1982. However in the 90s the Asian and the African forms of Houbara were split and I was left with just this unsatisfactory view of the African form.

Logical thing then was to fly from Gran Canaria to Fuerteventura for a couple of days, even though this meant doubling up on hotel and car hire costs.

All in all it was a successful trip, however even for experienced travellers like us, this ‘easy’ holiday threw up a number of pitfalls.

 

The Canary Islands, also known as the Canaries are an archipelago and autonomous community of Spain located on the Atlantic Ocean, 100 kilometres west of Morocco at the closest. The seven main islands are (from largest to smallest in area) Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro. The archipelago’s beaches, climate and important natural attractions, especially Maspalomas in Gran Canaria and Teide National Park and Mount Teide (a World Heritage Site) in Tenerife (the third tallest volcano in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor), make it a major tourist destination with over 12 million visitors per year, especially Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. (Information copied from Wikipedia). I visited Tenerife and La Gomera in July 1984 and Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in February 1989.

 

The recent split of the critically endangered Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch meant that seeing it was the top priority on the trip, but with four days at our disposal I didn’t think it would be a problem. However we came out of our hotel on the first day and found our hire car had gone. Apparently they had tarmacked the area in front of the hotel overnight and had towed our car away! The drive to the forest of Pajonales near El Juncal took far longer than I expected due to steep and winding roads, so it was about 1000 by the time we arrived. Although it was obviously going to be colder than the coast, I hadn’t expected it to be 4c, thick mist and heavy rain and we weren’t really dressed for those conditions. Given the late hour and the dreadful weather I concluded that today would be just a recce …

 

… however just 200m from the car I was pointing out at Great Spotted Woodpecker (endemic race) to Margaret when she said ‘what’s those small birds above it?’ Yes, they were the Blue Chaffinches. They are separated from their cousins on Tenerife by the dark band over the bill, white wing bars, greyer plumage and quite different call note – a monosyllabic uit compared to a disyllabic tchap-chie. Photo credit: see below.

The song of the two species is very different too.

Here is the Common Chaffinch like song of Gran Canaria Blue Chaffinch taken from Xeno Canto: https://www.xeno-canto.org/356448

And here the song of the Tenerife Blue Chaffinch:  https://www.xeno-canto.org/354887

 

Here is the female. Our birds were not colour ringed (apparently many are in order to aid ongoing research into the survival of this threatened species with an estimated population of just 200 individuals). Our initial views were quite poor as the birds were high in the tree and our binoculars soon got covered with rain but about 500m further on we saw them (or another pair) again, this time lower down and we were able to scope them. Of course given the conditions I didn’t get any photos, so these two shots have been copied from Wikipedia and were taken by Miguel Angel Pena Esteve.

 

Another species we were to see in the Pajonales was the African Blue Tit. A recent split from Eurasian Blue Tit, it is comprised of four races in the Canaries and two in North Africa. Two of the races, the one on La Palma and the one in NE Libya have been tipped as possible future splits. The La Palma form could easily be seen in the future but getting to NE Libya safely might be a different matter. The races on the central Canaries differ from the others by the lack of a wing bar and also, in the case of the the La Palma birds, by the lack of a white belly. Again conditions were too poor for photos so this is taken from the Internet Bird Collection and was photographed by Erkki Lehtovirta on Gran Canaria. https://www.hbw.com/ibc

 

Once we were away from the forest the weather improved somewhat. It seems like the valley was channeling up moist air from the Atlantic and dumping it as rain on the forest. Perhaps this is why it remains the largest area of surviving pristine Canarian Pine forest on the island and why nearly all of the Blue Chaffinches are found here.

 

We soon came across our first Canary Islands Chiffchaff. When I visited Tenerife in the early 80s this was just a race of Chiffchaff and was undoubtedly given little attention. With species status comes critical examination and it was great to note the very different song, brown colouration with paler underparts, long thin upturned supercilium, very short primary projection (the birds are of course non migratory so evolution will favour a shorter wing) and as a result the comparatively shorter tail.

More from Xeno Canto:

The familiar song of Common Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/396148

The call and then song of Canary Island Chiffchaff: https://www.xeno-canto.org/45371

 

Although the rain had eased our time in these scenic mountains was still hampered by low cloud.

 

Occasionally the spire of Roque Nublo would appear through the mist.

 

Other birds we saw in the mountains included Berthelot’s Pipit which is endemic to the Canary Islands, the Salvages and Madeira …

 

…. and of course the Atlantic Canary which is endemic to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries. It is generally thought that the name Canary Islands derive from these birds, but that is untrue. Roman sailors who landed on Gran Canaria in the 1st C AD found many dogs (although apparently they didn’t find the dog’s owners who must have remained in hiding) and they named the island Insula Canaria or ‘Isle of Dogs’.

 

Eventually the sun broke through the clouds giving views of the volcanic spires and buttes. The Canaries are, of course, of volcanic origin and three islands Lanzarote, Tenerife and La Palma still show some activity today or in the recent past.

 

Small towns and villages nestled on steep slopes were the norm.

 

We debated whether to return the way we had come from the south (as there were a number of scenic lookouts that we had just driven past without stopping) or to continue northwards to Artena and then descent to the west coast. We chose the latter.

 

The westward descent through the Barranco de la Aldea was long and tortuous …

 

… with many towering side canyons and increasingly arid conditions.

 

So steep was the barranco in places …

 

… that locals had cut directly into the cliff face to build their homes.

 

However there were a number of reservoirs in the valley but we found nothing on them except a few Coots and Yellow-legged Gulls.

 

Eventually we saw the Atlantic ocean ahead of us and in due course we arrived in the town of La Aldea de San Nicolas.

 

If we thought that was the end of our mountain drive we were mistaken, the onward road to Mogan involve numerous steep climbs and hairpin bends, albeit on a wider road.

 

Beyond Mogan we were able to pick up the GC1 motorway and return to our resort. It had been a long but very rewarding day. Only about 120km of driving, but with the exception of the last bit on the motorway, almost all of it in second and third gear. That evening we checked if resurfacing was going on tonight as we had an early departure. We were advised to put the car in a pay and display car park that wouldn’t be resurfaced. However on our return from a meal in town we found they were closing the entire access road to our resort. ‘Closed until 0700’ was the answer to our inquiry, we would have been in the air by then. We had to move the car but all parking was taken up a km away.

 

The following morning we had to get up at 0350, walk with all the gear to the car and drive to the airport. Of course we got there in good time but you never take chances with being late when you’re flying. We arrived on Fuerteventura just as it was getting light and set off in search of the Dwarf Bittern.

 

After some driving over fairly rough terrain we arrived at Barranco de Rio Cabras, a dry vegetated wadi or gully that runs to the sea just north of the airport.

 

In places the barranco has been dammed producing some semi-permanent pools.

 

Unfortunately our time there was far from comfortable, during the first three hours we were hit with three heavy downpours, the sort that you can see and hear sweeping towards you across the desert. During one of them this Common Buzzard of the endemic race insularum was forced to land and seek shelter.

 

More notable was multiple sightings of Canary Island Chat. This bird really should be called Fuerteventuran Chat as it is found on this island and nowhere else.

 

This is a male, the female is a rather nondescript brown.

 

Fuerteventura still has a population of Egyptian Vultures. This species, like most vultures, has seen a huge decline in recent years.

 

There were quite a lot of birds on the pools in the barranco, Black-winged Stilts, Green Sandpipers, Common Snipe, Little Ringed PLovers plus a couple of Hoopoes. The ones that surprised me though were Ruddy Shelduck, this species was only a vagrant to the island when I visited in 1989, now I understand they are quite common wherever there is water and have been breeding here since 1994. However try as we might we couldn’t find the Dwarf Bittern. After getting wet for the third time we opted to return to the car, dry out and eat some lunch. Unfortunately Margaret fell on the now slippery rocks and so decided to stay at the car and rest. Crossing the barranco was tricky too as the dry bed had now become a river!

 

I returned, but after another hour there was still no sign of it, then a tour group (from the company Heatherlea) appeared on the far side of the barranco and after a while found the bittern. It must have sheltering so close the south wall that it was invisible from above. Try as I might I still couldn’t see it but by returning upstream to the crossing point and then following the rim until I joined them I could make it out sheltering in a bush. It then crossed to our side ….

 

…. and gave some great views. I understand that this bird wasn’t seen after today until the day we departed (5th Feb) probably because there were many other wet areas for it to explore upstream and down. As I said earlier this is a very hard bird to see well in tropical Africa and birders have flown from all across Europe to see this individual, apparently the 6th for the Canaries and for Spain.

 

Margaret opted not to join me back at the barranco so I returned to the car and we set off for the rocky Tindaya plain in the north of the island.

 

Initially apart from a few Berthelot’s Pipits and Lesser Short-toed Larks there was little showing but as late afternoon approached we drove slowly around the tracks looking for Houbara Bustard.

 

 

As I indicated earlier my previous views of this species were pretty distant. Populations east of the Nile Valley have been separated as MacQueen’s Bustard (or Asian Houbara) and I have seen them in Israel where they are resident, western India where they winter and Kazakhstan where they breed. Although I am sure that I did see a Houbara in 1989 on Fuerteventura I have always wished for a decent view and to be able note the differences between it and its Asian cousin.

 

The differences between the African and Asia species are small but significant, involving the crown and black neck feathers and there are differences in the nature of the display and vocalisations during display. It is thought that due to these differences that although birds from each species could cross the narrow habitat divide of the Nile Valley they would not interbreed with each other if they did. We only saw one Houbara whilst a friend of mine who went recently saw up to 12. I wanted to stay on till dusk in the hope of finding more but Margaret wisely said we should find our hotel and return at dawn for more views.

 

We found a supermarket to the north and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch. Whilst Margaret was inside shopping I was in the car park photographing Spanish Sparrows …

 

… and Laughing Doves, a recent colonist from Africa.

 

Nearby we had excellent views of Algerian Hedgehog at the side of the road.

 

With dusk coming on we drove to our booked accommodation just east of the village of Guisguey. Trouble was we just couldn’t find it. We drove up and down the narrow roads, were threatened by one local and graciously helped by others but nobody knew where it was. It didn’t help that phone reception was poor and maps and booking.com who we booked via were no help at all. After an hour or more we decided it was a scam (I think now it was just a case of very bad directions) and opted to look for a hotel in the capital Puerto del Rosario. Trouble was that the rain was now torrential and in the dark it was hard to see the car in front of you let alone find a hotel. We later found that the capital city has only two hotels neither of which were signposted or visible on my phone app!

 

Unfortunately most Fuerteventuran accommodation is in the form of holiday apartment complexes like this, rather than hotels that provide a one-night stay.

 

We found ourselves well south of the capital and south of the airport (photo taken the next day as it was now dark) …

 

… fortunately about 8pm, having been searching for several hours we found this hotel with an all-inclusive dinner and breakfast. Hardly surprisingly we didn’t get to the Tindaya plain for dawn!

 

However we did return as early as we could and saw several Southern Grey Shrikes …

 

… the unusually small but surprisingly common endemic race of Northern Raven …

 

… and the delightful Cream-coloured Courser. This desert bird can be found from the Canaries and Cabo Verde in a band across the desert to western India. It has even turned up in the UK.

 

The right-hand courser might be a little out of focus but the left-hand one shows the remarkable pattern on the nape.

 

We birded at several other localities on the island including the reservoir at Los Molinas where Ruddy Shelduck were abundant and we also saw four Spoonbills …

 

… before calling in at some salinas which have now been turned into a ‘salt making museum’. But at least this means that the Barbary Ground Squirrels habituated and are hand tame.

 

Introduced from North Africa these cute critters seem to be doing well, not surprisingly as all the tourists feed them tit-bits.

 

We also had great views of Southern Grey Shrike. A study some years ago showed that from a genetic basis the ‘great grey shrike’ complex could be split into multiple species, one of which would be endemic to the Canaries. However genetics and morphology don’t really match and no firm decisions have been made. IOC currently recognised four species but this could change in either direction in the future.

 

We got to hear this one sing, something I have never heard with north European Great Grey Shrikes.

 

Well it was now time to head to the airport and return to Gran Canaria, passing over Puerto del Rosario as we did.

 

Although the light was fading we could see the shoreline and the barrancos of the northern part of the island …

 

… before the plane turned to the west revealing the whole western coast of Fuerteventura.

 

So ended our short visit to Fuerteventura, like my 1989 visit before it, it was marred by bad weather. The main draw back was the problem with the accommodation, we really thought we would have to sleep in the car that night. However we saw the birds we came for (other rare migrants remained unseen but we didn’t have time for them) and we saw some dramatic scenery.

We were back at our hotel at about 8 o’clock. With the main birds under the belt we opted to spend the remaining three days sightseeing and that will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

Western Australia part 5: Kununurra, Lake Argyle, Wyndam and the journey home: 25th – 27th September 2017   Leave a comment

This is the fifth and final post about my trip Western Australia in September 2017. In addition I initially uploaded a post about our visit to Christmas Island.

The post covers the last two and a half days based in Kununurra where visited areas close to the town, Lake Argyle and the outskirts of Wyndham.

 

On the first morning in the Kununurra area we took a boat trip on Lake Argyle. Compared to the birding we had been doing onshore, it was relaxing and cool. A most pleasant experience. Lake Argyle is a man-made reservoir a short distance from the town and is one of the largest bodies of freshwater in Australia.

 

We expected to see Little Pied Cormorants …

 

… and Australian Darters …

 

…. but were not expecting a Black Bittern, a species normally confined to dense waterside vegetation and not rocky slopes.

 

The shallow, vegetated areas were full of birds: Magpie Geese, Wandering  Whistling Duck, Glossy Ibis, Pied Heron and Intermediate Egret in this photo alone.

 

The boat took us near an island where a pair of Black-necked Storks were nesting.

 

The male (identified by its dark iris) was on the nest ….

 

…. and hunkered down as we passed.

 

The female, with a yellow iris, was feeding nearby.

 

In the waterside vegetation we had good views of a Baillon’s Crake (a bird that occurs in Europe and may even have bred in Britain, but is normally very hard to see) …

 

… and the rather more showy White-browed Crake, which occurs in much of SE Asia, New Guinea, northern Australia and some Pacific islands.

 

Comb-crested Jacanas showed off their combs …

 

…. whilst White-breasted Woodswallows collected nesting material.

 

We had close up views of a Freshwater Crocodile devouring a catfish.

 

We moored up by a low-lying island and waded ashore, fortunately there were no crocodiles here! (I know Alison is wading in the wrong direction, but if I’d have taken the shot as we disembarked rather than when we got back, all I’d have photographed was backs).

 

The bays were full of birds, more Magpie Geese …

 

… Grey Teal …

 

… and Rajah Shelduck.

 

We circumnavigated the island seeing many birds …

 

… ranging from the now familiar White-headed Stilts and Pied Herons …

 

… and Australian Pelicans …

 

… to the more seldom seen Australian Pratincole …

 

… and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a migrant from Siberia.

 

Overhead we saw White-bellied Sea-eagles …

 

… but our main quarry was Yellow Chat, a rare and restricted range species that is actually a honeyeater and not a chat, like say, the Old World Stonechat.

 

They were quite furtive and hard to approach but I did capture the striking black band on the chest (even if it was partially hidden by a twig).

 

Suddenly we came across a group of 58 pigeons feeding in front of us. They were directly into the sun and very flighty. Scope views yielded what I had hardly dared hope for, Flock Bronzewings, a nomadic and elusive pigeon of the northern interior, here at the very edge of its range. My photos show little more than bumps on the ground so …

 

… as my photo is so poor I have used one of a group of male Flock Bronzewings taken by ‘Salvadori’ in the Northern  Territory see: https://www.hbw.com/ibc/species/flock-bronzewing-phaps-histrionica 

 

On our way back we saw the much more sedentary, but range restricted White-quilled Rock Pigeon. Known only from the Kimberley region, we also saw this bird on the Mitchell Plateau (see previous post).

 

We also had very close views of Short-eared Rock Wallaby.

 

Any closer and I would have been unable to focus!

 

Around Kununurra there are large areas of cultivation crisscrossed by canals used for irrigation. This area is very attractive to finches and we spent much of the afternoon searching for species like Crimson Finch …

 

… Chestnut-breasted (four birds) and Yellow-rumped (2nd from bottom on the left) Manikins.

 

We also saw Zebra Finches …

 

… and the lovely Star Finch.

 

Several Spotted Harriers circled over the fields.

 

During our time at Kununurra we paid a couple of visits to the ponds and woodland near the golf course seeing many birds like this Yellow Oriole …

 

… Fairy Martin …

 

… Sacred Kingfisher …

 

… White-winged Triller (a species of cuckooshrike) …

 

… and two species of cuckoo, Brush Cuckoo …

 

… and Pallid Cuckoo.

 

Some populations of Dollarbird (a species of roller named after the pale circles or ‘silver dollars’ in its wings) breed in Australia, others are migratory arriving from as far north as Japan.

 

On the ponds we had good views of Australasian Grebes …

 

… Dusky Moorhens …

 

… the enormous Australasian Swamphen …

 

… and the trips only Green Pygmy Geese.

 

Our late afternoon at the golf course ended with a spectacular sunset.

 

The following morning we set off early for Wyndham, a former gold rush town on the coast to the north of Kununurra. The area has quite a high indigenous population which is commemorated by these giant statues of an aboriginal family.

 

We headed for a campsite where a riverbed usually has a number of pools where birds come to drink. Whilst waiting we saw a spectacular dawn flight of many hundred Little Corellas leaving their roost.

 

We saw many birds in the area ranging from the ubiquitous Willie Wagtail (a species of fantail) to a Pacific Swift which Andy declared to be probably be ‘the first to be recorded in the whole of Australia that spring’, having flown all the way from north-east Asia to escape the northern winter.

 

The pools in the riverbed had dried up but people at the campsite had filled up metal containers for the birds to drink from. We had cracking views of Double-barred Finches …

 

… and Rufous-throated Honeyeaters (this was one of the very few individuals that actually sported a rufous throat).

 

In this photo we can see (L-R) two Double-barred Finches, a Long-tailed Finch, a Striated Pardalote and a Masked Finch.

 

As the mercury rose we were obliged to get out of the open. Fortunately there was some shade by the camp site shop where a Straw-necked Ibis strolled round in the open (note the straw-like feathers on the lower neck).

 

We were lucky that the staff had placed some drinking containers outside the shop and as the temperature rose to over 37 degrees a steady stream of birds came in to quench their thirsts. Here is a Peaceful Dove …

 

… and here a Bar-shouldered Dove.

 

Other visitors included Little Friarbird …

 

… a Silver-crowned Friarbird …

 

… the inevitable Magpie-lark …

 

… Blue-faced Honeyeater …

 

… Bar-breasted Honeyeater …

 

… Yellow-tinted Honeyeater …

 

… and the rather drab Olive-backed Oriole.

 

If there was one bird I really wanted to see in the Kununurra/Wyndham area it was the exquisite Gouldian Finch, named after by ornithologist John Gould after his wife Elizabeth. These drinking bowls were our best chance but we also visited an area where some nest boxes had been put up for them. It was my turn in the front seat of the lead vehicle and as we arrived I caught a glimpse of four finches in flight with a strikingly banded underparts. These may have been Gouldian Finches but no-one else saw them well and we will never know for sure. Later back at the camp site we waited and waited ….

 

… what we hoped for was this …. (photo was taken from the factzoo.com website)

 

… what we eventually got was this – a very plain juvenile Gouldian (sorry to include a photo of captive individuals in the previous photo, but it does show the three different colour morphs). This juvenile proved to be the ‘disappointment of the tour’, ok I got the tick but I didn’t get the ‘value’. It was a was a shame to end the tour on this note, but hey, there’s a good reason to come back!

 

That wasn’t quite the end of the tour, the following morning we had time to check some woodland by this ford where we found the last new bird of the tour – a Shining Flycatcher.

 

From here we drove to the airport and said goodbye to Andy and Stuart who had to drive the hire cars all the way back to Broome. This time they took the longer (1000km) but faster tarmacked road that lies to south of the Kimberley. The rest of us flew home by various routes. Most went back to Perth before flying on to Europe but I went the other way on to Darwin.

My original route was: Kununurra – Darwin – KL – Heathrow; which was a lot more direct than going back to Perth. However I later found that Malaysian Airlines had ceased to offer the Darwin – KL flight so I was routed: Kununurra – Darwin – Melbourne – Dubai – Heathrow; a much longer journey which took the best part of three days!

At least staying overnight at a very hot and humid Darwin allowed me to see a few more birds like this rather tame Orange-footed Scrubfowl.

 

The onward flight to Melbourne took me across the entire continent from north to south.

 

Much of the flight was over the Red Centre …

 

… and afforded spectacular views of the desert …

 

… and as we approached Melbourne the view changed to one dominated by agriculture.

 

The tour of both southwestern and northwestern Australia plus Christmas Island had been excellent. I personally recorded 377 species and had seen about 50 life birds. There are still several areas of Australia that I wish to visit and I hope to be back there before too long.

 

 

 

Western Australia part 4: Derby to Kununurra: 21st to 24th September 2017.   Leave a comment

This is the fourth (of five) blog posts about my tour of Western Australia, in addition there is a post on Christmas Island which was offered as a pre-tour extension.

The post covers our journey along the Gibb River Road from the town of Derby (close to Broome) to Kununurra near the state border with the Northern Territory.

 

As I mentioned before all of the journey was on dirt roads, this was particularly tricky if you were in the second vehicle and were driving into the sun (as we were driving to the north-east this occurred in the morning).

 

Guess which vehicle was in the lead and which was following!

 

We had spent much of the morning birding in the Derby area so the afternoon was taken up with the long drive to Mt Elizabeth Station. We arrived at 1700 so there was only a short time to had time for bird around the guest chalets, but we did see a number of Agile Wallabies ….

 

…. and Black-faced Woodswallows.

 

The following morning near the Station we saw our first Silver-backed Butcherbirds. Formerly lumped with Grey Butcherbird which replaces it to the south, this species is actually more closely related to Black-backed Butcherbird of New Guinea and the Australia’s Cape York Peninsula.

 

We birded along the Gibb River Road the following morning and then turned north on the Gibb River-Kalumburu Road. We arrived at our accommodation at Drysdale River Station mid-afternoon (a ranch of a mere million acres) but didn’t stay long as we had some birding to do at a nearby billabong ….

 

…. but the sign that greeted us as we left didn’t fill us with confidence!

 

The partially dried up river bed (or billabong ) was a great place to bird.

 

The water levels were low but marks on a tree by the river bed reminded up of just how high the flood water can reach.

 

The area was home to several species of kingfisher, Sacred ….

 

…. and the diminutive Azure.

 

Also during our travels in the north we came across a number of the enormous Blue-winged Kookaburras, one of the largest kingfishers in Australia.

 

Along the edge of the billabong we saw some Paperbark Flycatchers, a recent split from Restless Flycatcher and named after the paperbark trees of the northern woodlands.

 

Our main target was the exquisite Purple-crowned Fairy-wren a declining species that has become quite hard to find in recent years.

 

Crimson Finches …

 

… and Double-barred Finches enlivened the proceedings.

 

We stayed on till dusk …

 

…. and not only saw but were able to photograph a restless pair of Barking Owls.

 

The following day was one of the most exciting of the whole tour. We had been warned from the outset that there would be a very early start, but even so the announcement of a 0100 departure was a bit of a shock. We headed northwards bumping along the Gibbs River-Kalumburu Road in the dark. A few of the grou saw Spotted Nightjar on route and we all saw a female Bush Stone-curlew with two chicks in the middle of the track that she tried protect by hiding them under her wings. We arrived at the remote Mitchell Plateau just after 0500. I say remote, but there was a well-developed campsite and a helicopter service that took tourists to see a nearby waterfall. The area can become very hot and we were warned that we must not wander off on our own (as has happened in the past), drink lots of water and protect our skin. To get to this rocky outcrop was a bit of a scramble …

 

… but soon we reached level ground which afforded great views over the surrounding forest.

 

Our target birds fell one by one, the restricted range White-quilled Rock Pigeon …

 

… Kimberley Honeyeater, which is endemic to the Kimberley region …

 

… and the more widespread Sandstone Shrikethrush.

 

But the outstanding sighting, indeed the main reason for making the long drive through the night, was to see the diminutive and elusive Black Grasswren. The eleven species of grasswren (related to the fairy-wrens) are some of the most skulking of Australia’s birds, usually only affording brief views as they scuttle through the undergrowth. Most trips to the Mitchell Plateau just glimpse the bird as it runs from one rock to another but we had a pair out in the open singing and we saw it well long before the area heated up to it’s 40 plus degree norm.

 

Even the leader Andy, who had made this trip several times, had never seen them so well. It was not surprising that this was unanimously voted ‘bird of the trip’.

 

We spent a while overlooking the lake and scanning the distant horizon and saw some distant displaying Pacific Bazas and a number of cockatoos, but with all species except Partridge Pigeon (which I have seen before in NT) under the belt we left by 1020, hours earlier than on most previous tours.

 

The early return gave us plenty of chances to stop and bird on the way back. Rainbow Bee-eaters showed well …

 

… as did this singing Leaden Flycatcher.

 

White-throated Honeyeaters were no big surprise …

 

… but this was! We walked an area of dry eucalypt forest in the hope we might flush a Chestnut-backed Buttonquail. We didn’t flush a single one – but we found a group of six feeding out in the open. So good were the views of this normally mega elusive species (well mega-elusive family to be more precise) that it got voted number two ‘bird of the trip’.

 

We were back at Drysdale River Station by mid-afternoon. Some opted to rest after the extremely early start but the rest of us returned to the billabong where we saw much the same as the afternoon before.

 

One species we didn’t want to see was the infamous cane toad. The introduction of these toads to Australia has been described as the worst decision in the country’s history. Cane toads, native to the Neotropics were introduced to coastal Queensland in 1935 to control the native cane beetle which was damaging sugar cane production. Cane Toad numbers now exceed 200 million and have spread as far west as the Kimberley. They have failed to control cane beetles but due to their poisonous neck glands, which can clearly be seen in the photo, they have almost wiped out native predators like quolls, goannas and snakes and have killed many cats and dogs plus some humans who have inadvertently come into contact with their poison. They predate many smaller species and compete with others for food supplies. By killing goannas the number of crocodiles has risen due to reduced predation of their eggs and a huge decrease in dung beetles due to the toad has resulted in a massive increase in cow dung which may lead to disease outbreaks in cattle.  They are a classic example of the folly of introducing a predator into a region where the native wildlife has no natural defense against them.

 

So it was back to the chalets at Drysdale Station and an early night to catch up on sleep.

 

We heard from the staff at Drysdale Station that there were some recently arrived Oriental Plovers on their airstrip.

 

We also found a very dark falcon. Hopes that it was the rare Black Falcon (which would be a lifer for me) were soon squashed and it proved to be a dark example of the much commoner Brown Falcon.

 

The drive through the desert scrub was long and at times uncomfortable, but who would have expected a sign advertising scones, jam and cream out in this wilderness!

 

This area was populated with a number of boab trees, the name an Australian contraction of the African name baobab. This genus (of nine species) is found only in Africa and in particular in Madagascar. Probably evolved too recently to be a Gondwanaland relict, the species probably reached Australia as seeds in rafts of vegetation carried on sea currents.

 

More birds were seen on our journey, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos ….

 

…. and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos,, a bird that looks very like a Black Kite in flight.

 

A distant Brolga, a species of crane that largely avoided the photographers on this tour, was seen in this creek.

 

Here we found a group of Pictorella Mannikins, a new bird for me although they were hard to photograph well in the heat haze and glaring light.

 

Hardly surprisingly given the rough road conditions, we had a puncture. We then realised that sharp shale fragments had been used as a road dressing and this had caused the flat. We met several other vehicles all with the same problem along this stretch.

 

A river crossing had a few pools along its edge, home to this group of Magpie Geese. This species is so different from all other wildfowl that it’s in its own family.

 

Also by the river were a number of the gorgeous Spinifex Pigeons. This made it as number three ‘bird of the trip’ even surpassing the amazing Noisy Scrub-bird by one point.

 

Eventually we reached an open area with views across the Pentecost River flood plain towards Kununurra …

 

… and another hour or so of dirt road driving got us to the tarmac on the Wyndham – Kununurra highway, a route that will take you all the way to Katherine in the Northern territory if you wish.

 

We arrived at Kununurra just after dark for a three night stay. The past four days had been a bit tough on hot, dusty and bumpy roads (but I’ve known worse) but we had traversed some real wilderness and seen some great birds.

Our time around Kununurra, Lake Argyle and Wyndam will be the subject of the final post in this series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western Australia part 3: Broome: 19th – 21st September 2017   1 comment

This is the third post about mainland Western Australia (the fourth if you include Christmas Island) and deals with the area around the town of Broome on the northwest coast.

We flew from Perth at 0700 and arrived at Broome at 0920 and after collecting the vehicles and dropping baggage off at the hotel we were straight out birding (well we were hardly going to rest in the shade with so many top quality birds to see!).

 

The flight from Perth to Broome took us over some amazing desert scenery which helped pass the time.

 

We arrived at Broome mid morning ….

 

…. and after collecting the 4×4 cars and meeting Stuart who was to be be second leader and second driver on this section of the tour, we made a quick visit to the hotel to drop off our gear ….

 

….. and headed down to a jetty in the mangroves.

 

…. a site of local historic importance as the pearl lugger fleet used to disembark and unload here.

 

There were plenty of Fiddler Crabs on the mud below us but the birds tended to be elusive in the 35 degree late morning heat.

 

However at a nearby overflow pipe Red-headed Myzomelas, a tiny species of honeyeater, arrived for a drink.

 

Magpie-larks were common throughout the town ….

 

….and we had a real treat when we scanned a cricket pitch in the town centre, a group of eight Oriental Plovers fresh in from Mongolia were giving excellent views.

 

This enigmatic species can be hard to find but I have been lucky to see this species on two previous trips (Java and Australia’s Northern Territory) and saw it at three locations on this trip, but I have never encountered it in its gorgeous breeding plumage. However I will be visiting Mongolia in May this year so should catch up with that plumage at long last.

 

Also on the pitch were a number of resident Masked Lapwings.

 

We spent some time at the water treatment works where an elevated platform had been erected to let you watch the birds. There were many species here, ducks, waders, terns and these Australian Pelicans.

 

Among the many birds we saw were Royal Spoonbill ….

 

…. and Australasian Grebe.

 

Later that afternoon we visited nearby mangroves and walked along the sandy beach ….

 

…. and admired the rocks carved into bizarre shapes by wind and water.

 

Our main target here was the ‘Kimberley Flyrobin’, a very plain race of Lemon-bellied Flyrobin that was once treated as a separate species. The two subspecies group look different, occupy different habitats and are allopatric so there is no gene flow between them. The Handbook of the Birds of the World ‘Illustrated Checklist’ treats them as full species, its a shame IOC doesn’t as well.

 

Other mangrove species we saw in the area were Mangrove Fantail ….

 

…. White-breasted Whistler ….

 

…. and Dusky Gerygone, a species of Australian warbler.

 

We were back in a nearby area the following morning but our main targets were now waders (or shorebirds as they are known in North America).

 

A few White-headed Stilts were seen along the tide line. This species/race is found throughout Australasia. If we exclude the very different Banded Stilt of southern Australia and the similar but all-black Black Stilt of New Zealand, we are left, worldwide, with four stilt ‘species’; White-headed, White-backed, Black-winged and Black-headed, all of which differ only in the exact distribution of black and white on the head, neck and back. In the contrary situation to the Kimberley Flyrobin, IOC splits them all and HBW lumps them all. Obviously I like the idea of having the extra life birds on my list, but in reality I think the days of having four ‘pied stilt’ species are numbered.

 

The vast majority of the waders (or shorebirds if you are from North America) were very distant but as the tide rose we headed back along the track ….

 

…. to a number of lookouts where we could scope them (note the wader flocks along the shoreline, especially behind the grass).

 

 

…. although any attempt to get closer just resulted in flushing them. In this photo a few Black-tailed Godwits, tattlers and others can be seen in flight but the majority are Great Knots with a few Red-necked Stints in the foreground.

 

However in a few locations we could at least photograph the flock, if not individual birds.  Great Knots predominate in this photo as well. There is one still in partial summer plumage at about 10 o’clock to the centre. Like many of the species present, Great Knots breed on the tundra of eastern Siberia and winter in Australia.

 

This photo shows mainly Red-necked Stints, plus a few Curlew Sandpipers and sand plovers.

 

And there’s more! Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints and a few Terek Sandpipers are illustrated here.

 

A lot of Grey-tailed Tattlers, plus a few Black-tailed Godwits and Turnstones were roosting on the rocks, and a Pacific Reef Egret is taking shelter from the ferocious sun ….

 

…. as was this Great Egret.

 

On this sand spit smaller waders are joined by the odd Whimbrel, Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwit. Also in the photo are a number of Gull-billed (or gullible as I like to call them) Terns. These are interesting, as the HBW Illustrated Checklist treats the Australian population macrotarsa as a separate species based on its larger size, differently shaped bill and nomadic and kleptoparasitic behaviour.

 

Also in the high tide roosts were a number of Crested Terns, Silver Gulls ….

 

 

 

…. and the odd White-faced Heron.

 

 

The roosts at Broome are one of the great wader gatherings in the world. Destruction of coastal wetlands in Korea and China has led to a marked reduction of the population of some species (most notably Far-eastern Curlew and Little Curlew of which we only saw fifteen and one respectively) and the general opinion was that we were too early and there were still enormous numbers of birds still to arrive. That said, our estimate of wader numbers in Broome area was amazing and an estimate of numbers is given below: (an asterisk indicates that the species was mainly seen away from the high tide wader roosts).

Bush Stone Curlew* 1
Pied Oystercatcher* 10
Sooty Oystercatcher* 4
White headed Stilt* 1
Masked Lapwing* 10
Red-kneed Dotterel* 2
Pacific Golden Plover 50
Grey Plover 80
Red-capped Plover* 10
Lesser Sand Plover 1000
Greater Sand Plover 500
Oriental Plover* 8
Black fronted Dotterel* 5
Black-tailed Godwit 50
Bar-tailed-Godwit 800
Little Curlew 1
Far Eastern Curlew 15
Whimbrel 30
Marsh Sandpiper* 2
Greenshank 500
Common Redshank 4
Wood Sandpiper* 1
Grey-tailed Tattler 200
Terek Sandpiper 200
Common Sandpiper 12
Ruddy Turnstone 30
Great Knot 10,000
Red Knot 5
Broad-billed Sandpiper 3
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper* 10
Curlew Sandpiper 200
Red-necked Stint 1000

 

Back at the hotel for lunch and a chance to scan over the mangroves and see birds like

 

…. Brahiminy Kite ….

 

…. and White-bellied Sea-eagle.

 

During the afternoon we watched a number of roadside pools which was surprisingly successful with a nice range of species like Red-winged Parrot ….

 

…. Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (the red panel in the tail can just be seen on the foremost bird) ….

 

…. and Great Bowerbird, although this individual looks more interested in collecting pebbles to decorate its bower than coming for a drink).

 

Dabbling around the edge around was a trio of Pink-eared Ducks. You have to look hard to see the ‘pink ears’ but can just make out a small pink area behind the dark surround to the eye.

 

On the 21st we packed up and left Broome and drove towards Derby (a town that is presumably named after the British city where I spent much of my teenage years.). On route we saw our only flock of Budgies.

 

Seeing wild Budgerigars is always a high on the wish-list of any birder visiting Australia, but the species is nomadic, travelling from one area that has had rainfall to the next and the flocks are restless and not prone to posing for photos.

 

Whistling Kites were quite common (primary moult in this individual gives it an unusual outline) ….

 

…. and at a river crossing we saw the magnificent Black-necked Stork ….

 

…. the equally magnificent Australian Bustard ….

 

…. and the more mundane Intermediate Egret.

 

Other species seen on route included the delightful and diminutive Diamond Dove ….

 

…. the ubiquitous Magpie-lark (a relative of the monarch flycatchers and not either a magpie or a lark) ….

 

…. and another common bird, Torresian Crow, which replaces Australian Raven, Little Raven and Little Crow in the north.

 

Yellow-throated Miners (a species of honeyeater) ….

 

…. and Little Corellas also kept us company.

 

In due course we reached Derby, had a very late breakfast and then headed west along the Gibb River Road. We weren’t far out of the town when we ran out of tarmac.

 

We wouldn’t see a paved road again (apart from a few short stretches over bridges) until we were almost at Kununurra in three days time. It was a given, especially for those in the second vehicle, to be enveloped in dust at all times. Note the radio aerial on the left of the bonnet has snapped of from all the vibration.

 

Our drive across the Kimberley region will be the subject of the next post, however I like to end with an eye-catching shot (mainly because Facebook has stopped selecting a photo at random and now choses the last one to head up a post). This sunset was photographed at the rocky beach at Broome where we visited the on the first day to look for Kimberley Flyrobin.

 

Western Australia part 2: Albany, Wave Rock and the Kalgoorlie-Kookynie area: 16th – 18th September 2017   Leave a comment

This post continues my travels in south-west Australia on Birdquest’s Western Australia tour. Previous posts have covered my time in Christmas Island and the drive from Perth to Albany.

One of our first birding sites in the Albany area was Emu Point, where there was a notable lack of Emus and I suspect that has been the situation for a considerable time.

 

Overlooking the bay we saw a number of terns, gulls and waders as well as some Bottle-nosed Dolphins.

 

Overhead we saw an Osprey, recently the Ospreys east of Wallace’s Line have been separated off as a separate species based on their smaller size and different face pattern. They are named, somewhat unimaginatively – Eastern Osprey.

 

Australian Pelicans gave good views but most of the other birds seen here were too distant for photography.

 

Lawns and other grassy areas invariably held Australian Magpies ….

 

…. whilst a path by a nearby lake gave us views of another SW endemic, Red-eared Firetail.

 

We made an early departure to get to Cheyne’s Beach for dawn. This site, about an hour’s drive east of Albany is famed as the location to see three of SW Australia’s most difficult birds. One the Whipbird we had already seen (although the birds here are a different race) the other two are Western Bristlebird and Noisy Scrub-bird. This short dirt road to the beach is considered to be the best spot to see the mega-elusive Scrub-bird which seldom flies, but rather runs from cover to cover like a rodent on performance enhancing drugs. We had quite a long wait with just some Western Grey Kangaroos as company, then on a couple of occasions the Scrub-bird shot across the path. It was a real ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ experience and I have to admit on a couple of occasions I did just that.

 

Fortunately we returned later in the morning and one was seen skulking in the grass by the path. Then it shot across the road like a bullet and incredibly Rainer Ertel was able to fire off about half a dozen shots. one of which was actually in focus. Perhaps the fastest reaction to a birds appearance that I have ever seen from a photographer. There are only two species in the scrub-bird family, the other one, Rufous Scrub-bird of the Queensland rainforests is possibly even more elusive and my views in 1999 were brief to say the least, although I did hear it well. It was therefore a great relief to get satisfactory views of a member of this tricky family. Photograph by trip participant Rainer Ertel.

 

With one mega under the belt it was time to look for the other two so we headed for the adjacent heathland. The Western Whipbird showed briefly but wasn’t photographed (see last post for a shot of this species) but a little persistence resulted in ….

 

…. views and photographs of skulker number three – Western Bristlebird. Bristlebirds are another of those ancient relict families that can be found in Australasia. Remember that the whole passerine order probably originated in Australasia and there are many ancient families with just a handful of species each peppered across Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand. There are three species of bristlebird, the other two occur in eastern NSW and southern Victoria.

 

So with the targets sorted it was time to ‘relax’ on the beach. Of course when a birder goes to the beach they don’t put a towel out and reach for the sunscreen they grab scopes and check the gulls and terns and look for pelagic seabirds!

 

In the dunes we saw a couple of Australian Pipits, a bird with a checkered history, once lumped in with Richard’s Pipit of Siberia, then split off with the New Zealand birds as Australasian Pipit they now are a species in their own right.

 

Far away in the bay a Southern Right Whale and her calf frolicked in the shallow water ….

 

…. whilst on the beach the huge-billed Pacific Gull was seen.

 

We retreated to some shade for our lunch and were able to photograph Brush Bronzewing ….

 

…. Common Bronzewing ….

 

…. and the SW endemic White-breasted Robin.

 

Later in the day we headed back to Albany ….

 

…. stopping on route to see another SW endemic, Western Wattlebird.

 

On our second full day around Albany we visited Middleton Beach early morning and in the afternoon and also drove to The Gap, a lookout that faces the open ocean.

 

From the platform you could peer down to the raging surf below.

 

From the platform and from near this natural bridge we did some seawatching and were able to add Black-browed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, some very distant shearwaters and a Brown Skua to our lists.

 

A few distant whales were seen, both Southern Right and Humpback. This somewhat confusing image shows a distant Humpback breaching the moment before it hits the water. It is coming down on its back with the huge pectoral flippers extended on either side of the body.

 

We had most of the endemics sorted but one eluded us, Rock Parrot. We tried numerous locations and the most reliable site, Middleton beach, was visited three times. We walked the dunes at dawn wandered around the golf course and scanned the hinterland, all to no avail.

 

But in spite of the fact that we had a long drive ahead of us we tried yet again for Rock Parrot on our final morning. Arriving at sunrise we saw three flying over the car park. Never has a minibus decamped so quickly.

 

Along the tide line we watched a number of Red-capped Plovers ….

 

…. before the horse riders and dog walkers booted them.

 

Well we never photographed Rock Parrots but there were plenty of gorgeous (yet widespread) Galahs in the area …

 

…. indeed whilst walking the dunes we were accompanied by a blizzard of pink.

 

The commonest bird in the coastal scrub was New Holland Honeyeater, a bird that we soon tired of, as every movement in a bush or distant perched bird proved to be this species.

 

I’m sure whoever put this bench in place so walkers could enjoy the wonderful view over Frenchman Bay was well-meaning, but a little maintenance is required to keep it that way!

 

As soon as we had finished at Middleton Beach we left Albany. We had a long drive ahead of us as we were heading north-east towards Hyden and the famous Wave Rock. We had a pit-stop back in the Sterling Range where we had good views of Regent Parrot, certainly an improvement on the flight views we had on our way south.

 

We also encountered the flock of ‘white-tailed cockatoos’ again. Judging by the upper mandible this one is a Baudin’s. The books say that the two species don’t form mixed flocks but although the majority appeared to be Baudin’s there were a few undoubted Carnaby’s in there.

 

We also had great views of Sacred Kingfisher in the Sterling Ranges. We subsequently stopped a number of times as we drove north but although the birding was good there was little of real note.

 

However in the late afternoon we reached the stunning Wave Rock near Hyden ….

 

…. and added a number of new birds to our list such as this White-eared Honeyeater.

 

The following morning we headed well off the beaten track. Signs like this are a reminder that you need to be well prepared when travelling in outback Australia.

 

From now on most travel would be on dirt roads. This part of the trip was added to the trip itinerary for the first time in 2017 and it was well worth it as produced  many new species to the list (even if we had to drive over 1000km to see them). Most notable were two species of quail-thrush both of which we were to see today. We would be travelling through the Great Western Woodland, the largest intact area of deciduous woodland in the world, at 16 million hectares it is larger than England.

 

I love that there are four categories of alert greater than HIGH!

 

We arrived at McDermid Rock soon after dawn and soon found the amazing Copper-backed Quail-thrush skulking in the dry scrub. A recent split from Chestnut Quail-thrush, this is a member of the Psophidae, a family that includes the quail-thrushes, whipbirds and New Guinea jewel-thrushes. I have a long-standing ambition to see/hear 50% of all of the world’s bird families and this I had done with the exception of the owlet-nightjars and the Psophidae. With the addition of the Western Whipbird and the two quail-thrushes then its just the owlet-nightjars left.

 

There is relatively little sexual dimorphism in this species, this female is just a slightly washed out version of the male.

 

We also saw the pretty little Redthroat, a member of the Australian Warbler family.

 

The long drive took us further north-west, past the mining town of Kalgoolie and away from the deciduous forest and into semi-desert scrub or mulga ….

 

…. often characterised by the red earth that gives the ‘Red Centre’ its name.

 

We were approaching our destination, the former town of Kookynie, when the leader Andy  spotted something at the side of the road, once again we all piled out in seconds flat and there was quail-thrush number two ….

 

…. the seldom seen Western Quail-thrush, which showed even better than the Copper-backed had.

 

There wasn’t much left of Kookynie. Once a prosperous mining town, just a few ruined buildings, the odd static caravan and ….

 

…. the Grand Hotel, situated beside the long disused railway station, remained. It was quite literally a ‘one-horse town’.

 

The interior spoke of past glories and events never to be repeated, a quaint if rather sad situation.

 

We were up at dawn (of course) and exploring what was left of the town.

 

We saw a Western Bowerbird, here at the extreme edge of its considerable range. Pics of the bird were not useable but the rather more static bower was easier to photograph. It needs emphasising that this is not a nest but a display ground, carefully constructed, maintained and decorated with shells by the male in order to impress a female.

 

Other birds seen in Kookynie or the quail-thrush area included Red-backed Kingfisher ….

 

…. the wonderful little Red-capped Robin ….

 

…. Little Woodswallow ….

 

…. a close up view of a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles and many more birds typical of the interior of the continent. I wish we had a second night in this area as there was much to see but the tour was already quite long. It’s a shame we couldn’t swap the extra day on Christmas Island where we were just marking time for another day here.

 

On the way north we had skirted the mining town of Kalgoorlie and just seen the spoil tips and massive excavations. On the way back we stopped in the town for fuel and were able to admire the 19th century architecture of the town centre.

 

Australia has five regularly occurring corvids and they are all pretty similar. In the south-west the regularly occurring species is Australian Raven (above) but in the Kalgoorlie area we did see (and hear, as voice is one of the best ways to tell them apart) the very similar Little Crow.

 

And so we continued the mega-drive back to Perth, nearly 700km in total. First we passed through desert scrub or mulga, then the deciduous forest and finally through the wheat-belt and intensive cultivation. We arrived back in Perth at 1830 for an overnight stay.

 

Do readers remember when if you drove a fair distance in the UK then your windscreen would be covered with bugs? Well now pesticides have killed all the insects so your windscreen remains clear but the birds have nothing to eat. Fortunately bugs and birds still exist in good numbers in Australia and long may it remain so.

 

So I’ll finish this post with another shot of the magical Western Quail-thrush. The south-western part of the trip was over with all the endemics seen (except of course the mythical Night Parrot) The following day we were to fly to Broome in the north-west for the next chapter of this extraordinary tour.

 

 

 

Western Australia: Perth to Albany. 10th – 13th September 2017   Leave a comment

This is the second post about my trip to Western Australia. The first post detailed the pre-tour extension to Christmas Island, this post covers our journey from Perth to Albany.

I have made two previous private trips to Australia, concentrating on the east, north and centre of the country.  On this occasion I decided to travel with Birdquest due to their comprehensive coverage of the state of Western Australia.

 

After the tranquility of Christmas Island, Perth’s freeways, traffic, high-rise buildings ….

 

…. and multi-lane underpasses came as a bit of a shock. Two more clients, Alison and Brian (who had accompanied me on two previous trips) joined us for the main tour.

 

Our first stop was Herdman’s Lake, a lovely wetland reserve within the city limits. we arrived just as the sun was rising ….

 

….. silhouetting the Great Cormorants hanging their wings out to dry.

 

There were plenty of waterfowl on the lake, the common Pacific Black Duck ….

 

…. the bizarre Musk Duck, the male of which has a huge black dewlap under the bill ….

 

…. the aptly named Blue-billed Duck ….

 

…. the rather shy Pink-eared Duck …..

 

….. and the inevitable Black Swans and cygnets.

 

Other waterbirds included Australian Darter ….

 

…. Yellow-billed Spoonbill ….

 

…. White Ibis ….

 

…. and a juvenile Nankeen Night Heron nicely showing off its spots.

 

Australian Purple Swamphens fed on the verges completely oblivious to the joggers and cyclists passing by.

 

Buff-banded Rails are far more retiring but high water levels had forced them out of the reeds allowing good views.

 

Great Crested Grebes looked quite like the ones back home, if a little darker, however they do not go into winter plumage leading some to consider that they may represent a separate species.

 

The lakeside reeds held Australian Reed-warbler, formerly considered a race of Clamorous Reed-warbler, now split as a separate species.

 

In the eucalyptus we found a Magpie-lark on the nest

 

As well as a nesting Tawny Frogmouth. Frogmouths are a nocturnal essentially SE Asian family that have spread to Australia where three species occur. Tawny Frogmouth is by far the commonest and most widespread of the three.

 

With plenty more places to visit we left the lakeside and returned to where we had left the minibus ….

 

…. but we found to our dismay that the window of the sliding door had been smashed (see the broken glass in the doorway). Fortunately no suitcases had been taken but some of the other clients lost hand luggage containing cameras, clothes, credit cards etc. Reporting this to the police, getting a replacement minibus and all the associated paperwork took us the rest of the morning. This is only the second time that such a break in has occurred in Birdquest’s history so we were pretty unlucky to have it happen to us.

 

We set off for the Dryandra Forest on route we saw a few Laughing Kookaburras. This is such a well know Aussie bird that it came as a bit of a shock to find out that they are an introduced species in Western Australia.

 

Other additions to the list included this Grey Currawong ….

 

…. and Ringnecked Parrot of the so-called ’28’ race.

 

We had a bit of time in Dryandra Forest before dusk ….

 

…. and after dinner we returned for a bit of spotlighting. It was quite windy and surprisingly cold, not the best conditions for night birds. and the only species seen was Tawny Frogmouth (which we had seen so well in daylight that morning). Of the mammals, we had hoped to see the rare Numbat but drew a blank, I had a brief view of a Southern Brown Bandicoot but the only mammal that stuck around was this Common Brushtail Possum with a baby clinging to its back.

 

We were back in a chilly Dryandra Forest early the next morning.

 

Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters were abundant ….

 

….cute Dusky Woodswallows were seen in the trees or in flight ….

 

…. and we had great views of Rufous Treecreepers. This species is perhaps the least arboreal of all the Australian treecreepers and is often seen foraging in the leaf litter.

 

We also saw Western Whistler, a recent split from the widespread Golden Whistler.

 

Mammal interest was provided by a few Western Grey Kangaroos.

 

We moved on to the Sterling Ranges ….

 

…. stopping on route at a lagoon where we had great views of the range restricted Hooded Plover, a bird I have only previously seen in Tasmania.

 

And here we saw our first Wedge-tailed Eagles of the trip.

 

We arrived at our accommodation in the Sterling Ranges in the afternoon and soon tracked down some goodies like ….

 

…. the aptly named Splendid Fairy-wren ….

 

…. and another bird which lived up to its name, Little Eagle ….

 

…. being little bigger than a Buzzard. There was a pair nesting nearby and we were to see them regularly whilst in the area. Whilst I have never had problems in seeing Little Eagle the same cannot be said for its New Guinea counterpart Pygmy Eagle (with which it was formerly lumped), even after three visit to New Guinea I drew a blank on that one.

 

The following morning was bitterly cold, just above freezing and with a strong wind. I realised that I hadn’t brought enough warm clothing when the others started donning down jackets and ski gloves. Our target on the road to Mount Trio ….

 

…. was the mega-skulking Western Whipbird. Although easy to hear they can be a devil to see and I was delighted when one popped into view and I was even more delighted once I had thawed out.

 

Around the swimming pool at our accommodation we found a Southern Scrub-robin, a species that was completely off my radar as it had never been seen on this tour before. Only in Australia would you expect to see a sign like this ….

 

…. or a product with this name in the local shop!

 

The following morning was even colder and we had to scrape ice off the minibus before we could leave, however there was no wind and it soon warmed up. Not far from the Sterling Ranges we came across a large flock of hundreds of ‘white-tailed cockatoos’ (this is just part of a much larger gathering).

 

Closer examination showed that the flock consisted of two species, Baudin’s and Carnaby’s Cockatoos ….

 

Although very similar, differing only in the length of the bill, they are undoubtedly good species, feeding on different fruits and invariably pairing with their own kind. This pair (the dusky-billed bird on the left is a male) are the longer-billed Baudin’s)

 

Whilst this is most likely the short-billed Carnaby’s but unless the bill is open it is hard to be sure.

 

Later on as we drove ever further south towards Albany we found the localized Western Rosella.

 

On arrival at our motel in Albany we saw another south-western speciality, Western Rosella feeding in the grounds, this is a female ….

 

…. and here is the brighter male.

 

The next post will cover the rest of our birding in the Albany area and then our journey inland to the Outback before returning to Perth.