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
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
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
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...