The Big Twitch Reaches 400

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch Reaches 400
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Wed, 17 Apr 2002 15:01:54 +1000
Having seen Scarlet-chested Parrot at Gluepot, my plans for Easter were now up in the air as I had been planning an Eyre Peninsula trip for this species. I decided to stay closer to home- give me a chance to take a holiday from taking holidays!
But before Easter I headed off to Terrick Terrick National Park north of Bendigo to join Chris Coleborn in his Plains Wanderer count. A few years ago several paddocks of native grassland were added to the recently declared Terrick Terrick National Park. How these paddocks had avoided the plough for the hundred and thirty odd years of settlement is a minor miracle, but it meant that a small parcel of habitat had managed to survive. The area had been lightly grazed by sheep, but the structure and composition of the native grasses had survived so that the site has become a refuge for plains species that were once common across much of Southern Australia.
Chris organises a regular count of Plains Wanderer with the local Department of Natural Resources and Environment officers and allows birders keen to tick off this enigmatic species to tag along. So even though I was going for a new bird, I could salve my conscience by helping out in an "official" population census.
As I headed out onto the dry plains I flushed a Black Falcon from a roadside fence. It landed in a bare paddock, giving me a good look to make sure it wasn't just a dark phase Brown Falcon- a bird that has confused me many times in the past. This bird was in magnificent condition. I hope it hadn't been fattening up on Plains Wanderers.
I stopped further on to admire the native grasslands in the fading light. Many people would find it hard to admire such a habitat, particularly at this time of year when it is bone dry and all the grasses seem to have died off. But even though this grassland looked parched and barren, the plants were still standing, unlike the nearby paddocks where the exotic grass species had completely died off leaving big bare swathes of exposed soil in the landscape just waiting to be blown away by the next big wind.
Chris and a car load of birders including Bob Way and Bruce Cox pulled up having just checked out a population of melanistic magpies. Chris asked if I needed  Black-faced Woodswallow and pointed out a fenceline about a kilometre up the road, saying they were often there. Sure enough in the area he pointed out was a small flock of Black-faced Woodswallow. You can't beat local knowledge.
A group of about twenty birders, locals and DNRE staff gathered at the old homestead site in a steady drizzle. This was the first substantial rain in the area for about three months, and it didn't let up. The method for finding Plains Wanderer is to wait until dark, jump on the back of a ute with a spotlight and criss cross the paddocks in formation. The birds are less wary at night and more likely to flush whereas in the day they stay put in the grass, relying on their incredibly cryptic colouring to avoid the patrolling Black Faclons and Spotted Harriers.
Well that's the theory on how to find them. As we headed off into the pouring rain I had my doubts. Yet within 200 metres we had found our first Plains Wanderer- a single male. This was to be the first of a bonanza of Plains Wanderers. By the end of the night we had seen twenty of them- a phenomenal return including two brilliant females and a male with three chicks, quite a late breeding record. Other birds spotlighted were Stubble Quail, Little Button-quail and Singing Bushlark as well as House Mouse and Fat-tailed Dunnart. A night well worth the soaking.
Easter arrived with my total on 387. On the night before Good Friday I went and watched a bunch of Magpies get slaughtered by a pack of Tigers, a very depressing sight indeed, and one that I fear I will be witness to for another 22 weeks. Maybe once duck season is over I can get Laurie Levy and his mates to run out onto the MCG every weekend and stop the carnage.
I did do a bit of birding over the Easter weekend, (I have now got so into the habit of birding that even on my weekend off I couldn't help myself) heading out to Point Cook on the Sunday and Werribee on the Monday. Not a great deal at Point Cook, but it is always worth a look. The purpose of the Werribee trip was to put in a bit of an effort going through the lagoons looking to see if the Northern Shoveller seen last year was still around. Rumours abounded that it had been seen since it had moved off Lake Borrie last Spring, but our reasonably intensive efforts failed to find it.
We did however see masses of waterfowl. Pink-eared Duck and Aussie Shoveller were most numerous numbering in the tens of thousands, with lesser numbers (ie thousands only) of other species, including a major highlight of 90 Freckled Ducks. (Apparently as many as 120 had been seen that week.) Add to that big numbers (80+) of White-winged Black Tern and 3 Cape Barren Goose, made for a great days birding. We then checked out the T-section/Austin Road Lagoons which had thousands of roosting waders including Knot, Black-tailed Godwit and Double-banded Plover. As the light was fading we decided to call it quits even though we still had a few hundred waders to scan through, and head off to check up on the Banded Lapwings out the back of Laverton. As we were leaving we bumped into Andrew Dunn and Danny and Ken Rodgers. They asked us what was around and we told them, adding that there was nothing of particular significance. They went and found five Pectoral Sandpipers! And to make matters worse, Danny got photos just to make me feel even more gripped off.
If only we'd stayed and looked through those last few hundred birds. Now there's a crucial lesson to all aspiring Big Twitchers- never turn your back on an unidentified bird; it always could be something new, something rare. We did however find the Banded Lapwings and they, like the Plains Wanderer had young. The site I usually see them at is the only regular place around Melbourne I know of for Banded Lapwing. My site is in a horse paddock- the birds seem to like the short cropped grass- but you can see the encroaching suburban developments creeping inexorably forward like a modern day Burnham Wood. I hold little hope that we will have Banded Lapwings at all around Melbourne within ten years.
So I begin April with the total on 389. There are still quite a few birds I can add in Southern Victoria (Striated Field Wren being one that I heard yet again at Werribee but failed to actually see) but as I am not planning any trips for a while, the four hundred looks like it could be a few weeks away.
What I didn't know was at that very moment, Trevor Ford was peering at a very odd looking gull on Bribie Island, South East Queensland....
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