Archive for January 2018

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.

 

 

 

Christmas and New Year celebrations: December 2017 – January 2018.   Leave a comment

With 2017 fast receding and the New Year well underway I’d better post something about our time leading up to and during the ‘festive period’ before its too late.

This post deals mainly with social events. I’ll upload another with an account of my winter birding/ringing activities shortly.

 

Christmas: the time of the year when it’s perfectly acceptable to fill a balloon with your virus and bacteria infected breath and then release it via a nozzle that emits long fart-like noises over the heads of fellow diners!

 

As neither of us have a work ‘do’ to go to we joined members of the Phoenix organisation at a Christmas dinner-dance at a Bournemouth hotel. I wasn’t very impressed with it this year. The hotel had packed so many tables in the room it was hard move away from your seat and it was very noisy. The food was ok but quite a few people didn’t get what they ordered. We found that other rooms already had their tables cleared and folks were dancing before our dessert was served. With no sign of any imminent dancing by 10.30 we made our apologies and left. Oh well, better luck next year.

 

Just before Christmas we went to see the folk-rock band Steeleye Span at the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne. I first saw the band in Leeds in 1970 when the admission fee was a mere two shillings (10p). I became a firm fan and have seen the band many times since. This is the third time Margaret and I have seen them in the last eleven years.

 

The only band member who has been with them for most of the last 38 years is vocalist Maddy Prior (she left for a few years in the 90s) although several of the current line up have been with them for a very long time ….

 

…. such as drummer Liam Genockey, whilst violinist Jessie May Smart has only been with the band since 2013. I love their versions of traditional folk material played mainly on electric instruments and feel they have made a massive contribution to folk music revival.

 

And so to Christmas. As with the last few years we spent it at Margaret’s daughter Anita’s place in Maldon, Essex. This year there was a big difference, many of Anita’s husband John’s family were arriving from South Africa, London or other parts of the UK. With our Dorset contingent as well there would be 25 for Christmas dinner! Obviously that created problems with accommodation, some slept at John’s sister Lois’ place nearby, all rooms in the house were filled with inflatable mattresses whilst we slept in a caravan in the front garden. That would have been ok except for the fact that the next door neighbour’s Christmas lights flashed off and on all night. By night two when found a way to block out the light with towels we slept soundly and kept quite warm in spite of the cold wind.

 

If finding beds for everyone was an issue, finding a place to eat wasn’t thanks to John’s spacious man-cave (aka double garage). Rather than expect everyone to bring a present for everyone else, Anita instructed us all to buy a single present and add it to the mix. Gifts were then exchanged by a complex series of exchanges at the end of which I found I had received a large supply of biltong that Margaret had purchased!

 

Then of course there was the issue of catering for 25. Being mainly South Africans the traditional braai (BBQ) was called for. John and his brother and brother-in-law spent all Christmas Day morning constructing this apparatus …

 

…. made from an old bike, a length of rubber tubing and an old washing machine motor. In the cold and windy conditions it took four hours to cook the meat but it was absolutely delicious. Fortunately our fears that the motor might switch to fast spin mode and send the meat into orbit were not realised.

 

Between the food and the many party games there was time for photos. Here John (left) is joined by sister Lois, sister Heather and brother Paul. The first three live in Maldon but Paul flew over from South Africa. The fifth sibling, Andrea stayed in South Africa with their elderly father.

 

In this shot the four siblings are joined by Anita (on John’s lap), friend Angela and (standing) Lois’ husband Gavin.

 

Many of the younger generation were there – Heather’s three daughters (L-R) Erin, Lana and Sheena.

 

The three sisters were joined by (standing L-R) Paul’s son Alex, Lois’ son Lyle and far right, distant cousin Kim. Sitting between Sheena and Lana are Lois’ daughter Shan and Paul’s daughter Elisha.

 

With Anita and Margaret are granddaughters Amber and Kara …

 

…. whilst I couldn’t resist photobombing this shot. Janis, Margaret’s other daughter (and mother to Amber and Kara) was present but had a bad cold and retired after the meal.

 

Among the many games played was one where we divided into lines and each line to rearrange itself in order of say, height, shoe size etc. Here Shan (L) tries to organise the line of girls (presumably by shoe size judging by their gaze).

 

Boxing Day was much quieter and I went out for some birding accompanied by Heather. Like her father, Heather knows the birds of South Africa well, but has having just arrived little idea about identifying British species. Over the period she accompanied me to Abberton Reservoir and the Blackwater Estuary where we saw a wide range of waders and wildfowl.

 

We left early on the 27th to drive to my brother’s place near Derby. It was raining when we left Maldon but that soon turned to snow. By the time we reached the M11 it was affecting the traffic flow and by the time we were on the A14 it had slowed to a crawl. Fortunately we turned north on the A1, not the parallel M1, as we had to pick a friend up at Nottingham, The section of the A14 between the A1 and M1 was blocked by a jack-knifed lorry and snow. If had gone the other way we wouldn’t have arrived until the evening.

 

We met our friend Nigel in the centre of Nottingham about an hour later than planned. Down from Leeds, he had been visiting his sister over Christmas. We drove the short distance to Breedon-on-the-Hill to visit Di and Steve (seating far end of the table). I have known Di since the early 70s as I shared a house (and later a profession) with her first husband Clive who tragically died in a motorbike accident in 2001. When ever I see their daughter Hannah (front left) I am struck by how much she looks her father, my dear departed friend. Also in the picture, Hannah’s husband Karl (standing,) daughter Mai, Nigel (between Hannah and Steve) and of course Margaret.

 

Di’s granddaughter Mai is almost three years old and of course is a bundle of fun. Her sister Rosa is only born a few weeks ago and slept through most of our visit.

 

We spent a couple of nights at my brothers just north of Derby and visited friends that I have known since school days. We also went to the picturesque Carsington Reservoir for a bit of birding on a beautiful, sunny yet bitterly cold day.

 

Back in Dorset, on the 30th I joined friend and fellow ringer Ian Alexander (left) and my friend from Shetland Paul Harvey (back in the south to visit his family) for some Dorset birding. There has been a substantial arrival of Hawfinches this winter and we were able to watch a series of flocks that numbered somewhere between 80 and 120 individuals (hard to sure when the flocks kept moving, merging and splitting apart.) More about that in the next post.

 

We just stayed in and watched the TV on New Year’s Eve but on New Year’s Day we joined the New Year Bird Boat that Mark Constantine kindly puts on for volunteer Webs (wetland bird survey) counters. This year a smaller boat was required as we cruised up the Wareham Channel and Frome River almost to Wareham. The number and variety of birds seen was staggering and the final total from everyone’s sightings combined amounted to 95 species.

 

Here we pass Brownsea Island Castle on our way to view the lagoon. Many agreed that it was the best New Year bird boat ever.

 

More on birding and ringing during the winter will be posted shortly.

Posted January 3, 2018 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized