The Big Twitch- South By South-West (then North, East,
and South-West Again)
As I sat in the departure lounge of Perth Airport on July the
First, the clock ticked over to midday and I realised that "The Big Twitch" was
now at the half-way point. My total now stands at 463, quite a few behind
where I thought I would be at the start of the year, but with only three
birds I would consider to have definitely dipped out on. I'd added
thirty-two on this South West trip, but it wasn't quite the 32 I'd originally
anticipated. Here's how it unfurled...
This was only my second trip to the South West (apart from a
brief stopover en route to Christmas Island), and with the first being fifteen
years ago, it was like viewing the place with fresh eyes. It was interesting
coming here so soon after a Tasmanian trip, as both regions had a similar feel
for someone based in Victoria. Though distinctly Australian, there are
sufficient differences in both places that you get the odd feeling of visiting a
new country. And the South West is -biologically at least- like Tasmania, an
island, with its different forms of familiar birds and replacement species for
As soon as I arrived in Perth on the 23rd I headed South. The
original plan was to spend around five days in the Albany area getting most of
the South West endemics including that trio of elusive skulkers, the Western
Whipbird, Western Bristlebird and Noisy Scrub-bird. First stop was to the
Busselton area where the Grey Heron had been seen in May. Though it hadn't been
seen since, I figured that as I was here, it was worth a poke
around. No Heron of course, but I did see my first endemic, the Western
Thornbill in the Tuart Forest north of Busselton, as well as other
additions, Inland Thornbill and Western Gerygone.
I noted in the Tuart Forest, there was a Parks notice boasting
of the preservation of this patch of magnificent trees, saying it was unique to
Western Australia, and how little of it left there was. And then right next to
the park where there are still mature Tuart trees, an even bigger sign
advertised "Your own bush block" in a new subdivision. Somewhere down the road,
some body may plant an equivalent amount of Tuart trees and feel very proud
of their efforts in helping to save this species, and in about two or three
hundred years we will have the same amount of mature trees we are
losing now, though whether the other species associated with a
Tuart forest ecosystem will have survived is another question.
The next day I made my way down along the coast, stopping at
both Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin and points in between. Despite the strong
winds there were very few seabirds to be found from the shore, although three
Black-faced Cormorants near Cape Leeuwin were quite unusual- apparently
they are very infrequent East of Albany.
Just out of Margaret River was a flock of about forty
Black-Cockatoos which obligingly remained feeding along the roadside
trees (and even some on the roadside itself) to give me great views of
their very long mandibles, confirming them as Long-billed Black
Cockatoo. I was to see the very similar Short-billed
Black-Cockatoo the next day in a some heathy woodland further north,
and the South West race of the Red-tailed
Black-Cockatoo further south. Further south
also, at the first patch of Karri forest that I came across, a quick stop saw me
add Red-winged Fairy-wren, White-breasted Robin and
Western Rosella, birds I saw at virtually every stop I made in
these towering forests.
That night I had reached Pemberton the heart of Karri Country
and got a phone call from Mike Carter. "Where have you been?" Mike
"At Busselton, looking for the Grey Heron."
"You're looking in the wrong place you know..."
"It's just been seen at Geraldton."
After I had let out a "What" that shook the entire South West,
and picked myself up off the floor, I got the details. Now here was the dilemma.
If I went for the Heron, (eight hundred kilometres north of Pemberton) I
wouldn't have time to go for the three skulkers at Albany (two hundred
kilometres to the South East). The Heron had been seen three days before and
no-one had looked since. So do I risk three probable species for only one
possible, no matter how much of a crippler it is?
You bet I do. As if I'd want to dip out on a bird that may
take another hundred and fifty years to make an appearance. So after driving all
day I arrived at Geraldton just after dark. Next morning I was out along the
Chapman River, scouring the banks for the Heron. By the time Mike Carter and
Frank O'Connor arrived (Mike having flown from Melbourne, Frank merely driving
from Perth) I still hadn't found the bird. And we didn't find it. I did however
see some very interesting stuff around Geraldton including Banded Lapwings in a
suburban park, acting like Masked Lapwings, and new birds for the list,
Roseate Tern, White-backed Swallow and Pallid Cuckoo.
The Terns were particularly interesting as they were in breeding
plumage and feeding fledged young. That they had bred at this time of the year
was a surprise to me, but as Mike suggested, the fact that the young were in the
harbour area, suggested that they hadn't bred too far away. their closest
known breeding grounds are on the Abrolhos Islands, sixty kilometres away.
The young were still dependant on the adults to feed them, so it seems odd that
they would follow their parents some sixty kilometres at that age- no other sea
birds do that as far as I am aware.
Working on the theory that if the Heron was the Busselton
bird, it must be slowly heading northward, back to Asia, so our best chance
would be to go north to the next patch of likely habitat - the Murchison river
at Kalbarri, one hundred and seventy kilometres away. No Heron here, but
Kalbarri with its swathes of heathland and surrounding dry country provided many
birding highlights including Splendid Fairy-wren, Western Yellow Robin,
Black-eared Cuckoo, Little Woodswallow and Tawny-crowned
The Woodswallows were unexpected, and the cuckoo most welcome
as though this bird has a wide distribution across Australia, nowhere is it
easily twitchable. And we were privy to a pair of the Robins mating. The female
sat on a horizontal branch, quivering her wings seductively, and as the male
approached she gave us a full view of all her bits before he hopped on and did
the deed. Decorum prevents me from further description, but suffice to say
the brevity of the proceedings gives hope to all us blokes- just compare
yourself to a male Western Yellow Robin and you're looking pretty darn good in
the bedroom stakes.
With Frank heading back to Perth, I managed to con Mike into
coming along with me inland, where I thought I ought to make the best of
being this far north. On Frank's advice we headed for Yalgoo to his site
for Grey Honeyeater but alas no luck. Yet another dip on a "Grey" bird. So much
for Grey Power.
But out in the mulga at both Yalgoo and Mount Magnet we did
have a couple of days of pretty good birdwatching, catching up on birds that
neither of us had had all that much experience with, amongst them the chestnut
flanked race of Southern Whiteface, the rufous vented form of Grey
Shrike-thrush, Little Crow, Slaty-backed Thornbill, Crested
Bellbird, Redthroat and Western Bowerbird.
Along with Grey Honeyeater we also failed to
find Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush. For those who blindly rely on
bird guide books there was a salient lesson here. Thomas and Thomas mention the
"golf course" at Mount Magnet as a site for the Quail-thrush. We looked here as
well as other places and not only failed to find it, but the road out of Mount
Magnet has been re-aligned, making the directions to the golf course somewhat
misleading. While handy, my experience this year is that guides such as this
should be just that: a guide only, as conditions can change so rapidly that one
person's experience at a particular time can soon become obsolete or irrelevant.
Much better to learn to read the landscape for likely habitat. Having said that,
any advice on any of the birds I still need to get for the year is most welcome,
in fact I'm working with the government on a bill to make it compulsory for you
to tell me.
While it was great to get a taste of inland Australia, we had
to head back to Perth in time for the pelagic mooted for Sunday.
So it was southward ho.
Fill you in on that part of the trip soon,
As soon as we hit