The Big Twitch Gets A Bogey Bird

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch Gets A Bogey Bird
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Sun, 28 Jul 2002 11:41:58 +0800
Yes, its true, "The Big Twitch" now has an official bogey bird. Sure, there's been contenders before such as Gould's Petrel which turned up on boat trips I wasn't on; and others such as Antarctic Prion which turned up on boats I was on, but didn't get good enough views. But you expect that with pelagics. They are always something of a raffle- you get out there and you take your chances. 
With Spinifexbird, I now have a bona fide bogey bird. I knew it would be tricky, but thought it would be pretty gettable. Oh how wrong I was.
It all started off benignly enough with a run from Watarrka to Uluru- not so much for the birds but taking my friends to do some banking, the nearest branch to them being at Yulara Resort. A six hundred kilometre return trip to the bank- welcome to the future for all of us if current banking practices continue. The trip did give me the excuse to go and have a gawk at the rock, which is one of the few things in life that lives up to the hype. Seeing it rise out of the sandplains you can't help be impressed and reminded just how unique the thing is.
I also got two new birds for the list- Pink Cockatoo and Bourke's Parrot both seen by roadside early in the morning. This was a much more pleasant encounter with the latter species than the last time I came this way in 1988. I was asleep in the back of the bus when the driver ploughed through a flock. When we stopped, I walked to the front of the bus and there, flattened up against the grille, was a dead Bourke's Parrot. Not only was it distressing to see the little fella squished like this, but I wasn't to see a live Bourkie until last August, a full thirteen years later.
After Watarrka I headed into the West MacDonnells-Welcome to Superlative Country. The scenery here is absolutely awesome. I found myself at every stop mouthing the kind of hackneyed phrases that TV sports presenters always use. I won't bore you with my impressions here, suffice to say the words "magnificent", "awe-inspiring", "amazing" and f***ing brilliant" were on high vocabulary rotation throughout my travels. (Palm Valley and Ormiston Gorge particular highlights.)
Peter Wilkins, one of the authors of "Where to Find Birds in the Northern Territory" had told me that Tnorala (Gosse's Bluff), the comet crater that rises from the surrounding plain was THE best spot for both emu-wren and Spinifexbird. He did add a caveat that since he had left the area there had been a fire so he didn't know whether the habitat would be affected. Let me assure you it was affected. There is now no habitat there for Spinifexbird, save for some in the sacred site area which is off limits.
This state of affairs continued right throughout the MacDonnells. A massive fire has swept through the spinifex belt for much of the Western half of the Range. Ormiston Gorge now has no habitat. (Though it did have Grey-crowned Babbler, Western Bowerbird and the Golden-backed race of Black-chinned Honeyeater in the campground, along with dingoes and masses of very bold Feral Cats.) There is also no habitat left at the Ochre Pits or the two other sites I had for this bird. The Dolomite Walk at Ellery Creek Big Hole is also wiped out, but fortunately the spinifex plain there is still in tact. (Ellery Creek Big Hole- sounds like the name of a police snitch in a Raymond Chandler novel.) 
I spent the best part of two days here moving through that spiky plain. I bumped into a British twitcher, Neil, who was after Rufous-crowned Emu-wren. As luck would have it, I managed to see one- a female. He didn't. But do you reckon I could find bloody Spinifexbird?
Hot, tired, and with my legs covered with more pricks on them than a [insert favourite joke target group here ie a busload of parking inspectors] I retired to the swimming hole at Ellery Creek. The water there is the coldest I have ever been in. You know those parties where you fill up the laundry trough with ice, and at the end of the night you're sure you've got one more beer left and you plunge your searching hand into the ice and water mixture- well it was exactly that temperature.
I gave it another shot the next morning and after another three hours of spiking, I was trudging back defeated when what should fly up from the spinifex ridge in front of me? No, not Spinifexbird, but a flock of thirty Painted Finch, bird number 489. So this is where they go and feed. In all my trips to the gorges where they were supposed to congregate, I had heard not a peep.
By the time I got into Alice I was getting desperate. I'd remembered that John Cox said he'd got them virtually in Alice itself, above Heavitree Gap. So I booked myself into the motel below and made the arduous climb up the ridge five times, once, for the first time in my birding life even forgetting my binoculars, that's how flustered this little mongrel was making me.
It was really starting to get me down. If I couldn't get a moderately common, though cryptic species like this, what chance did I have of getting all those other skulking buggers out in the Australian bush.
And then, to interrupt my pessimistic ruminations, I got the call from Adelaide. Franklin's Gull still there. What a dilemma: stay and look for the Bogey Bird or risk a mad dash of 1600 kms for the American vagrant.
Will let you know next time, Sean
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