The Big Twitch- Bristlebirds, Boat Trips, Blow-outs
and Big Bad Bustling Barry Hall.
For those of you that are fans of the Sydney Swans an apology-
Swans star Barry Hall doesn't feature at all in this message, I just got carried
away with the alliteration.
Added bird number 401, Striated Fieldwren at
Werribee with Stuart Cooney on a search for Orange-bellied Parrot. We did
actually find one as I heard its diagnostic call (reminds me of marbles being
rubbed together) above the din of the engine as we cruised a track near The Spit
(not ON The Spit as some people interpreted Stuart's posting about the
sighting). Unfortunately by the time we got onto the bird it
was a mere speck in the sky so I couldn't tick it under Big Twitch rules which
privilege confirmed sight records over confirmed sound records.
Heading up to Wollongong for another boat trip on April 27th,
I must have been pre-occupied with thoughts of Anzac Day as I began to see the
progress of The Big Twitch as like a battle. In the initial flurries I knocked
off heaps of new birds as they came at me in waves. Now the battle has reached
stalemate and I have to content myself, sniper like, with picking off the
birds one by one. Before these militaristic thoughts got out of hand I was
brought back to reality by the car swerving across the road. A tyre blow out!
As I pulled over to the shoulder on the Hume just outside of
Yass, and checked out my shredded, steaming rear passenger side tyre, I thanked
Godwit that it hadn't been the front tyre as it could have been a lot more
difficult to control the couple of tonnes of machine beneath me as it hurtled
along the bitumen.
In fading light I had to change the tyre, realising I wouldn't
get into the Gong until much later than I had hoped. Then it came to put the
old, lacerated tyre on the same rear wheel mount that had claimed my finger a
month ago. Gun shy, I tried for twenty minutes or so to hoick the tyre up there
without endangering my still slightly sore finger, all the time the cadaver of
the old nail sitting as a gruesome reminder of what happened last time.
Eventually, frustrated, tired and unsuccessful I then did possibly one of the
dumbest things I have ever done in my life (apart from maybe embarking on The
Big Twitch or agreeing to go on a date with that girl that had just broken
into my house) I decided to abandon the tyre on the side of the freeway.
I figured the tyre was so far gone it would need complete
replacing, and as to the littering issue, I rationalised that a road crew
would be by the next morning to remove it from the side of the road. I know it
was wrong and no correspondence will be entered into, and anyway, as you will
see later it came back to bite me on the bum bigtime.
On a typical day at sea, especially off the east coast, the
birds follow a usual pattern with high numbers inshore dwindling off as you
cross the medium depths (dubbed the Abyssmal Plain) with numbers rising
dramatically at the continental shelf break where the colder, deeper, more
nutrient rich oceanic waters mingle with the warmer inshore continental waters.
Today followed this pattern exactly, except in two respects: as well as being no
birds whatsoever on The Abyssmal Plain, there were also no birds inshore or at
I did add Providence Petrel to my list and
they were definitely a highlight in their smart fresh plumage- I have only
previously seen them later in the season when their plumage is worn and they
take on a dull greyish-brown hue. Another highlight was a Shy Albatross of the
New Zealan steadi form, the finer points of distinction between that
and the Australian cauta form were pointed out to us by Pete Milburn. I
hope Pete gets around to publishing a paper on these details soon as I've
forgotten most of what he said, and many other seabirders are yet to be
convinced these birds can be separated satisfactorily in the field.
The next day I went into Wollongong itself to pick up a new spare tyre.
They had to courier one in from Sydney and while I waited I drove to the top of
Mt. Kiera, the flat crowned mountain that overlooks Wollongong. I'd remebered
somewhere that this was a good site for Lewin's Rail, but couldn't really find
any habitat that seemed suitable. I did, however get good views of Gang Gangs,
White-headed Pigeon, Satin Bowerbird and Bassian Thrush. I also
heard but couldn't track down, Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze Cuckoo.
By late afternoon, the tyre had arrived and the bloke at the tyre shop
asked where the hub was. Then it dawned on me- not only had I left the blown out
tyre by the roadside, I'd also left the hub. The tyre alone cost me two hundred
and fifty bucks, who knows how much it will be to replace the hub. There you go.
Stupidity never goes unrewarded.
I arrived late at Barren Grounds, right on last night just as the Ground
Parots were giving the last of their crazy little calls- an ascending bell-like
call that keeps going up and up until you think their little heads are going to
explode. I was too late that night to see any birds, but over the next couple of
days at Barren Grounds and nearby Budderoo National Park, I got plenty of
great birds and in huge abundance.
This part of the world (and the Illawarra in general) is an absolute
surprise and delight and I can't work out why I haven't spent any time here
before. Barren Grounds itself (site of the Birds Australia bird observatory) was
chock full of honeyeaters and I got some views of what are normally elusive
heathland skulkers like Eastern Bristlebird (one running over
my feet), Beautiful Firetail and Southern Emu-wren as well as other birds such
as Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, a dive bombing Peregrine Falcon sounding like
an Exorcet missile whooshing past, and finally, a Fan-tailed Cuckoo.
But the Ground Parrots remained tucked away from sight.
I tried further afield for the Ground Parrot, in Budderoo National Park
where word had it, some had been coming into drink at a puddle along one of the
tracks. So reliable was the site that recently a David Attenborough film crew
had been there to get footage. Bloody David Attenborough, the birds behave for
him. For me, sitting for an hour in the early morning chill no sign. Walking
further along the track in disappointment, what should flush from the thick
heath by the side of the road than a Ground Parrot. It flew
along the track for about five seconds giving me enough time to get the bins on
it, an OK, but not brilliant view.
Or so I thought. Speaking to Brendan, the warden at Barren Grounds, he said
this view was about four seconds longer than most visitors to the Observatory
ever got. During my stay I was constantly amazed at Brendan's enthusiasm for the
job. I've always thought of these warden's positions as dream jobs. Until I saw
how many of the same questions and requests he has to field. Every birder who
arrives at Barren Grounds would ask the same questions: "Where are the
Bristlebirds?", "Where can I find a Ground Parrot?" Brendan seemed top never
tire of helping people out, pointing them to the prime spots for their quarry,
and always seemed delighted in their success. If it was me, grumpy bugger that I
am, after the two hundredth request I would be snapping, "Find them your self,
you bunch of slackers."
Luckily Brendan is the opposite to that and actually volunteered
information on birds I hadn't even asked him about. He told me of a burnt patch
of heathland that had been a good spot for heathwrens. I bashed through the
blackened stumps of dead banksias and hakeas, emerging an hour later, my blue
jeans turned to black, but with no heathwrens to show for it. Then, on the
track, feeding within metres of my car was a single Chestnut-rumped
Heathwren. Maybe I should have checked along the track in the place.
But Brendan had one last trick up his sleeve. A bit further out, at
Bomaderry Creek near Nowra he said was a good site for Rock Warbler. And sure
enough after checking out the creekside for a couple of hours, a lone
Rock Warbler made an appearance on the rockface on the cliff
opposite. In all the times I've seen this enigmatic bird, I don't think I've
ever seen it feeding on a horizontal surface. Unlike many bird names such as
Mountain Duck (rarely found near mountains), Victoria's Riflebird (rarely found
in Victoria), or Fairy Penguin (rarly found in Sydney's Mardi Gras Parade) Rock
Warbler is aptly named, though perhaps Vertical Rock Warbler could be even more
With ridiculous thoughts such as these swirling through my head, I thought
I'd better head back to Victoria before anybody noticed, my total now sitting on