The Big Twitch in the Pilbara

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch in the Pilbara
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Thu, 5 Dec 2002 17:22:51 +0800
Driving inland from Geraldton into the furnace of outback WA, the record of 634 species now achieved, this was still not the time for resting on any laurels. The previous record holder had not done any birding in the external territories (Christmas, Lord Howe, Norfolk Is) so my next goal was to see 634 on mainland Australia. And I received an e-mail from a (presumably) British birder who had done his own Big Year out here a while back and clocked up 619 species. How many other twitchers I'd never heard of may have travelled similar paths? To be assured I conclusively had the record I needed to put a big distance between me and 634.
To this end I headed into the blazing interior to mop up the few species I had missed on my previous outback jaunt. I camped that first night under the incandescent Milky Way just outside of Mt. Magnet. Next morning saw me dip on Chiming Wedgebill at one of Frank O'Connor's sites, a situation I was to become all too familiar with over the next few days.
I eventually managed to track Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush on a desolate stony plain near Cue. The wind was up, it was getting increasingly hotter and I was despairing of ever seeing this bird which had brought me such grief in Western Queensland. But finally I fluked upon a solitary female huddling beneath a small acacia. Finally, all the Quail-thrush were now accounted for- this family had  caused me more trouble than almost any other. But they're worth it as all of them are surprising little jewels of birds that are always a thrill to see.
About the only bird that had given me more grief than the Quail-thrush was the Spinifexbird. Ten sites I had looked for what I thought would be a straightforward tick. Ten sites had failed to produce. Six had been totally burnt out, and I spent hours of lung bursting exertion clambering over the others with nothing to show for it other than an improved level of fitness and thighs as hard as roadhouse pasties.
So imagine my delight when, in the spinifex clad hills immediately behind the caravan park at Newman, a largish small bird (if you know what I mean) popped up from the spinifex and flew off. Brownish bird, longish tail- it had to be a Spinifexbird. Then it hopped up onto a distant bush and began singing- a call I didn't associate with Spinifexbird, but I couldn't figure out what else it could be. I had all but ticked Spinifexbird off when I thought I should take a better look, just to be safe. On closer inspection it turned out to be the Pilbara race of the Striated Grasswren. These birds are massive- almost as big as a White-throated Grasswren. Has anyone investigated their taxonomic status? Because going by the size and call, I would have thought they were every bit as distinct a form as the Short-tailed Grasswren in the Flinder's Ranges. Suffice to say when I saw an actual Spinifexbird the next morning I made absolutely sure I got close views, and luckily the bird was more than obliging- I could have reached out and touched it.
Same couldn't be said for the Wedgebill. I drove on from Newman stopping every so often listening for their distinctive call. I did this right through the Pilbara, coming out on the other side near Wittenoom, site of one of Australia's most shameful industrial tragedies where virtually an entire town's population has been struck with lung diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma because the mining companies did little to stop the blue asbestos fibres they were mining from getting into their lungs. The mine is now closed, the town a mere shell, and the imposing, unforgiving mountain range looks impassively down on the hot, unforgiving plain at the folly of mankind.
It was here I had a tragedy of my own. For consulting the maps I realised that Chiming Wedgebill is only found south of the Pilbara- I had come too far north. If I wanted to see the bird I would either have to backtrack or head to the west and then south again. I chose the latter even though it would take me hundreds of kilometres in the wrong direction. I just couldn't bare dipping out on what should have been a relatively easy bird.
And so I headed to Onslow, where the books suggested  was the northern extremity of its range.  I had absolutely no luck. And for the next day and a half I kept moving south, totally in the wrong direction, getting more and more frustrated yet perversely more determined to see this...this... you know I actually began to hate this bird. To loathe it. The very thought of it was starting to make my blood boil. I should be in Port Headland now, should be in the tropics, should be in Broome, but here I am, heading in totally the opposite direction, stopping at every likely desolate patch of clapped out scrub, and still not seeing it. Even seeing small flocks of Oriental Plover did little to alter my ever blackening mood.
When I did finally catch up with a Chiming Wedgebill singing its heart out, only seventy-two kilometres north of Carnavon, I could have sworn it wore an _expression_ of
angelic innocence on its face. Don't be fooled, it is the devil's bird I tells ya.
It was only after I was about an hour's drive further north that I could finally begin to forgive it. After all, with Chiming Wedgebill safely tucked away I now had seen every bird in Australia that does not get into the tropics. By the time I got into Karratha, at ten in the evening, after having been on the road since 5 AM, I was well satisfied.
And then I checked my messages. It was the first time I had been in mobile range all day. Adrian Boyle had rung from Broome. His message, almost breathless with excitement went something like, "Dools, you won't believe what's just turned up here!..."
To be continued...
<Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread>
  • The Big Twitch in the Pilbara, Sean Dooley <=

The University of NSW School of Computer and Engineering takes no responsibility for the contents of this archive. It is purely a compilation of material sent by many people to the birding-aus mailing list. It has not been checked for accuracy nor its content verified in any way. If you wish to get material removed from the archive or have other queries about the archive e-mail Andrew Taylor at this address: andrewt@cse.unsw.EDU.AU