Archive for the ‘Kimberley’ Tag

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.