The Big Twitch

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Fri, 12 Apr 2002 13:15:56 +1000
Arriving back from Christmas Island, tired but content as I hadn't dipped out on anything that I was hoping to see, I had only a few days to rest up, wash out my sweat soaked gear, unpack a few boxes in my new house ( as the Big Twitch will see me away from home for about two hundred nights this year, I kind of had to find somewhere with much cheaper rent for my Melbourne base) before heading off to another Wollongong boat trip. My plans had been to get to Lord Howe Island around this time so that I would be able to get both the winter nesting Little Shearwater and the summer breeding White-bellied Storm-Petrel at the same time. But the thought of missing out on another great pelagic like they had just had in Sydney and Brisbane was too much to bear, so I rang Lindsay Smith and got a berth on the Sandra K for Saturday.
Then South Australia put up its hand, and plans had to be changed. Reports began surfacing that Scarlet-chested Parrots had been coming in to drink every morning at the Homestead Dam at Gluepot. With the Hudsonian Godwit just down the road in Adelaide, I had no choice but to change plans again and head off on a big S.A. twitch.
My history of twitches to South Aus has been mixed. I dipped on the '87 Northern Shoveller, but had success with the '89 Grey Phalarope. And then there was the New Year's 1987 trip which has to be the biggest rare wader bonanza this country has ever seen. How's this for a twitch: Hudsonian Godwit, Little Ringed Plover, Red-necked Phalarope, Cox's Sandpiper (as it was known then) and Baird's Sandpiper. I think all of these birds had been found by John Cox, and he managed to show us all of these and more on one of the most brilliant birding weekends in Aus birding history.
I hadn't seen John Cox since then, but speaking to him on the phone he remembered me and was quite happy to get me into the saltfields to try for this year's Hudwit which had been found by David Harper. He even reckoned he could get me Pec Sand and Long-toed Stint as a bonus, as both species had spent the summer "just over the back fence" of his house at Dry Creek.
So the plan was set. Accompanying me was Peter Lansley who had never seen Scarlet-chested Parrot before, one of three or four breeding species he hasn't got for his Australian list. The idea was that we would leave Melbourne around six in the evening and drive into the night, arriving at Waikerie sometime after midnight. We would then sleep in the car and pick up the key to Gluepot as soon as the Shell servo opened at six, and hopefully be at the dam by 7:30 when the parrots had been coming in to drink.
The plan didn't exactly pan out that way. We sort of didn't leave Melbourne till about 7:30. Then we realised that as we would be camping we'd better buy some food. So after stopping at Gisborne for dinner and supplies (if only these country towns were aware of how much money idiot birders like us pump into their struggling economies) we were now about three hours behind schedule. By the time we stopped for a drinks break at Ouyen (still close to three hours from Waikerie) it was well after midnight and it didn't look as if we would get to our destination till about four A.M. All I had to show for it was a Barn Owl on the outskirts of Sea Lake.
As I was stretching my legs I could hear a hissing sound. "That bloody Lansley, you can't take him anywhere." I thought, but instead of Peter taking a leak against the car, it was the rear tyre slowly deflating. I had probably punctured it pulling into the servo. Grumbling at my puny physique I began the arduous process of changing a tyre on a Land Cruiser. Struggling and cursing with the wheel, all I could think of was that it we wouldn't get any sleep.
Here's a tip. If you have to change a tyre, try not to do it when you are dog tired. I finally got the flat tyre off and was trying to place it on the mount on the back of the car, the tyre slipped, crushing my finger and gouging out the nail. Maybe if I had been less tired I would have been more aware, maybe if I wasn't such a puny wimp I would have been able stop the wheel from falling. Whatever the reason, I now found myself in casualty in Mildura Hospital at five in the morning, all hope of getting to the dam by dawn completely gone.
As it turns out, the parrots hadn't made an appearance that morning, which was lucky, as I had to hang around Mildura waiting for a precautionary x-ray. We finally got going all bandaged up and across the Sunset Country into the Murray Mallee adding for to the list: Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Yellow-throated Miner, Emu, Blue Bonnet and Southern Whiteface.
After collecting the key we finally headed into the mallee country towards Gluepot about 12 hours behind schedule. Even before we had got to Gluepot itself we saw a Chestnut Quail-thrush fly across the track in front of us. Getting out of the car, the mallee was alive with bird calls, mainly Yellow-plumed and White-fronted HoneyeaterI saw a black and white bird flying off, and chased after it hoping it would be a White-winged Triller or Hooded Robin, both birds I needed. The bird landed in the top of a mallee tree about ten metres away and revealed itself to be a male Pied Honeyeater, an entirely unexpected find, and a bird that I was not confident about seeing later in the year because it is the kind of phantom species that can be missed despite spending a lot of time within their range. To make this stop even more worthwhile Peter managed to track down the elusive Striated Grasswren, another bird that can be quite tricky.
Once at Gluepot, despite it being in the heat of late afternoon, birds were in abundance including amongst others; Apostlebird, Ringneck and Mulga Parrot, Red-capped and Hooded Robin, Crested Bellbird (heard only), and more Quail-thrush including a pair that wandered through our camp. As the sun began to sink towards the west, we set ourselves up by dam, hoping that the parrots may come in to drink after what had been quite a warm day. Common Bronzewing and the Black-winged form of Grey Currawong came into drink, but no parrots.
Penny Drake-Brockman who was putting in a couple of weeks volunteer survey work at Gluepot wandered over and gave us the bad news that the birds hadn't been coming in for two days now. She seemed incredulous that despite this bad news we still persisted in waiting for the birds anyway, but what she didn't appreciate is that I had come a long long way, had disfigured myself, ruining my lucrative hand-modelling career in the process and I wasn't about to let a small fact like the birds not being there from stopping me.
She was right though, the birds didn't come in. But just before it got dark, an early rising Spotted Nightjar flew a couple of circuits around the dam giving me my best views ever of this species- you could really see how much browner this species is compared to White-throated.
After a night being serenaded by Boobooks and Owlet Nightjars, we awoke at dawn and headed back out to the dam. Having settled down to wait, a Peregrine Falcon swooped in over the dam scaring any birds away. I emerged from the makeshift hide and stood with Peter discussing our options. With the Peregrine around there was fat chance of the parrots coming and I was saying as much to Peter when a female Scarlet-chested Parrot flew in, circled around us and flew out again. It never re-appeared, nor did any of its stunning red chested mates, but we had good enough views to tick off the bird- number 739 for Peter, and number 373 for The Big Twitch.
Satisfied we wouldn't see the birds again, we spent the rest of the morning around Gluepot, adding even more birds such as Regent Parrot, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Southern Scrub-robin, Gilbert's Whistler, and Fork-tailed Swift.
Now it was onto Adelaide for twitch number two. We arrived at John Cox's place to be greeted with the news that the Pectoral Sandpiper that had been there all Summer had disappeared two days before, but that he had seen Long-toed Stint that morning. We went out to the drying wetland just behind John's house and couldn't find the stint. Couldn't find it the next day, and John still hadn't seen it a few days later. Looks like the little bugger which had hung around all Summer had decided to rack off the day I arrived.
Undeterred, we headed off with David Harper out to the Penrice Saltfields to look for the Hudwit. The Penrice Saltfields, right on the outskirts of Adelaide is one of the truly magnificent waterbird areas in the country, on a par with Werribee and in some ways, even better. Aesthetically it looks grander and it seems to turn up good vagrant with remarkable regularity. Driving around, waiting for birds to come in on the high tide from feeding out in the Gulf of Saint Vincent, I got Slender-billed Thornbill, White-winged Fairy-wren, Grey Plover and Red Knot. But no Hudwit.
It was quite a small tide, and there is always the risk that larger waders such as Godwits will roost out closer to the feeding grounds if the tide isn't sufficient to force them off. We only had about half an hour of light left when a flock of Black-tailed Godwits flew in. The Hudwit hadn't been hanging around with these birds, but it was a good sign as at least the birds were coming in. Then someone saw a pair of black underwings and yep, there it was, a breeding plumaged Hudsonian Godwit who had that day decided to hang out with its Black-tailed cousins.
We all retired back to John's house, much relieved, none more so than David who later confessed to becoming very stressed that he might not be able to get the bird for me. I told him that I'd been birding long enough to know you dip a hell of a lot of the time. In fact I always fully expect to dip out on every twitch. It means if I do I don't feel let down, and if I don't, I'm always doubly pleased.
But of course the reality is if we hadn't have seen it, I would have personally held David responsible and would never have forgiven him and besmirched his name at every opportunity. But we did see it so he's a great bloke and a brilliant birder. And I left Adelaide with the total on 382, and another bird (the Hudwit) that at the start of the year I had no expectation of seeing.
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