The Big Twitch- South West Qld Part One

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- South West Qld Part One
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2002 09:54:42 +0800
About eleven months ago, in a kind of dry run for the Big Twitch, I journeyed to Innamincka. The Cooper was high and swarming with birds including masses of Night Herons, Songlarks and even Red-winged Parrots which I since have found out is quite a rarity for South Australia. This year the water levels have only dropped a metre or so, but the surrounding country mustn't be as productive, for although there were good numbers of Cockatiel and Budgies (see last report) other birds were conspicuous by their absence, especially the ones I had come here to see.
I headed South East, across the Strezlecki floodplain, and into the dune country. Whereas last year each dune was topped with vigorous cane grass, each swale clothed in grasses, this year the picture was much starker. And the birds weren't there either. No Bustards or Ground Cuckoo-shrike and very few Cinnamon Quail-thrush on the Merty-Merty track, no Flock Bronzewing or Inland Dotterel in Sturt NP.
The one exception was Eyrean Grasswren. Last year it had been too windy and I had dipped, and even though I had seen this birds in the Northern Territory,  I thought that seeing as I was here, it was worth a try. Trouble was, this year, it was still too windy and the cane grass was drastically reduced, giving me pretty much bugger all chance of seeing these most elusive of critters. I even tried the Sean Dooley patented Grasswren spotting method of heading off into the dune with a shovel and roll of toilet paper, but alas, this too failed.
Then I tried a dune about 36 km from Cameron's Corner. Within five minutes I had at least two Eyrean Grasswrens happily bouncing along, right in front of me giving extremely crippling views- so much easier to see when using actual binoculars and not a toilet paper roll as your optical equipment. There were Pied Honeyeaters here too- I now have several sightings for the year yet not a single Black Honeyeater.  Where can they be? Perhaps this may be my most glaring dip, although having said that, I still haven't seen Chiming Wedgebill, Shining Bronze-cuckoo or even White-winged Triller yet!
Last year I made a disastrous attempt for Grey Grasswren at Pyampa Station just over the border in South West Queensland. A disaster because not only did I dip on the bird, but I completely mangled the underside of my (non 4WD) Toyota, costing thousands in repairs. This year, armed with a 4WD and a grim sense of determination, I returned. 
From the reading I'd done on Birding-Aus, I thought the site would be kind of picturesque- an old windmill by a dam in a huge sea of lignum. The reality (at least this year) is the dam is low (dead cow rotting on the muddy edge), there is not a blade of live vegetation anywhere near it, let alone any lignum. The first scraggly lignum bushes are a few hundred metres away, along drainage lines, whilst the actual swamp (now dry and seemingly dead) doesn't really kick in for another two to three kilometres from the dam.
With the morning breeze picking up (not a good sign for seeing these skulkers) I trudged across the desolate plain, each footfall raising a puff of grey dust. I think of all the days on The Big Twitch so far, this was my most dispiriting. For not only was the landscape barren and bereft, this was the first bird with no second chance (apart from the Christmas and Norfolk Island species). If I missed it here, that was it and the growing awareness that I may have to undergo this tedious, fraught process with a dozen or more similar species left me daunted and deflated.
After an hour of these pessimistic ruminations, I finally heard a hopeful tinkle. (Good biography title for a man recovering from prostate surgery.) But with Grasswrens, hearing them is the easy part. Over the next hour the slowest chase in history ensued as it involved me moving about fifty metres in that entire time, at times down on my hands and knees, amongst the grey powdery dust and the cattle dung and the roo pellets peering into every tangled lignum bush in hope of a glimpse.
After another eternity without success, I am seriously considering kicking the lignum to pieces when a movement catches my eye. Somehow the birds had sneaked away without me seeing, despite my hawk-like vigilance, and I had a subliminal view of one. I'm sure it was laughing at me. And then there's two of them, half flying, half scurrying across the open in front of me. I see their streaky backs, and big chunky tails trailing behind them, I even see the black moustachial stripe on one of them- Grey Grasswren! At last. Wanting more, I throw my binoculars to my eyes, but the lens cap that I keep attached to the strap catches beneath my nose and I almost rip my bloody head off.
And the birds are gone. I try for another hour and get nothing. By now the wind is picking up, the sun is high and I've had it. The view I'd had was dismal, but I did see enough salient features for identification  purposes. Tick- number 503. Oh my God, I am turning into a real twitcher.
So I left that Godwit forsaken place, one tick richer, but far from satisfied. But if I thought Grey Grasswren was hard, just wait till I try for Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush.
Sean Dooley, August 9, 503 species.
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