The Big Twitch-

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch-
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2002 18:51:45 +0800
Driving along the Gibb River Road- reputed to be one of the roughest in Australia- I encountered very few problems and in fact it was a relatively smooth ride. The Central part was showing evidence of recent rains with water puddling across the road, but the rest was still relatively dry and firm. A few days after I had been through there were some serious storms so I was probably pretty lucky in my timing.
Not so lucky was my timing for Gouldian Finch. During the dry they can be easily seen coming into drink at the Wyndham Caravan Park. By the time I arrived there was too much water about the general vicinity and the Finches had dispersed, though I did see Helmeted Guineafowl wander in from the scrub, (I wonder how wild these birds are) and a Swinhoe's Snipe on a small dam immediately behind the park. The Marlgu Billabong at nearby Parry's Lagoon was also almost dry but it still held a few waterbirds and around its edges I found my first Star Finches as well as Yellow Wagtail and a single, male Yellow Chat.
The Ord River irrigation project was set up in the early Seventies - a kind of precursor to Alan Jones idea of turning the deserts green. Thirty years on the massive irrigation project still hasn't paid for itself, (or so I believe) and has come at a rather steep cost to the natural environment. However, arriving at Kununurra after days in the dry Kimberley, the verdant green of the scheme is a massive relief, and it does have the benefit of attracting vast numbers of water loving birds- the Lake Argyle boat cruise is said to be one of the best wildlife experiences in Australia, not that I would know as there was enough to keep me busy for the next three days.
First up it was off into the irrigated sugar cane fields where hundreds of finches gather, and within minutes I had my first ever Yellow-rumped Mannikins hanging out with similar numbers of Chestnut-breasted Mannikin (only found one hybrid between these two closely related species) and Star Finch.
Looking at my notes I found two mud maps that Frank O'Connor had drawn me. The first was the most likely site for Little Bittern, and despite checking it out every dawn and dusk, had absolutely no luck. Am seriously regretting that mad dash in February down to Tarree for the Kentish Plover because if I had spent my last day in Brisbane as planned I would have both Little Bittern and Bush Hen on my list. Both species elude me. Sure I got the Kentish, but it then hung around for another four weeks, which would have allowed for a leisurely amble to tick it off.
Frank's other mud map was clearly written- it just didn't have which bird it was for. As far as I could work it out, it may have been a site for Pictorella Mannikin, or perhaps for Gouldian Finch or even Red-chested Button-quail. For all I could remember it may have been where he'd lost his keys. But I thought it was still worth checking out. It was an open, grassy woodland simillar to every other patch of open, grassy woodland in within a hundred kilometre radius. But I walked through it nonetheless, still at a loss as to what was supposed to be here when from my feet flushed a female Red-chested Button-quail which stayed airborne long enough for me to get a fantastic view of what for me was another lifer. So ecstatic was I that I pumped the air with my fist in a victory gesture so emphatic that I threw my back out and spent the next two days hunchbacking my way around Kununurra. (Strangely, I fitted right in.) It was while in this agonised position that I noticed a set of keys with the initials FOC, lying hidden in the grass. Turns out they weren't Frank's.
Even though I had sites lined up in the Top End for Gouldian Finch, I was despairing of seeing them because with so much water around they would have no need to come into their regular dry season haunts. I thought the same may also apply to Pictorella Mannikin, but with no better option I followed the Golden Gate track down along the WA/NT border looking for a location where Tony Palliser had told me he'd seen hundreds a few years ago.
Only about 3 km along the track I saw some finches fly up. They turned out to be Long-tailed, a nice bird, but pretty common up here, and not what I was after. Disappointed I was about to drive off when I heard an odd call and stayed on to watch a pair of Spinifex Pigeons in a courtship display. Again about to leave, out of the corner of my eye I saw something small fly up into a sapling by the side of the road. I was about to put the bins onto it when I heard what I thought were Mannikins off in the distance. I started towards the sound but thought at the last moment that I better check out what this small thing in the sapling was .
The image that focussed in my binoculars was a male, red-headed Gouldian Finch  which was soon joined by a female red-head and a black-headed male. These birds, apart from being rare, are extra special because they have to be the most incongruously beautiful bird doing the rounds. Their incredible soft yet bold colouring of purples and yellows and emerald greens and blues and reds and blacks sits at odds with the the stark ochre colours of their harsh surrounds. It is an evolutionary strategy that has paid off until recently, when those very colours have almost brought about their undoing as trappers sought them out in massive numbers for the aviculture trade. That, on top of habitat destruction, changed fire regimes and disease, has caused this wonderful bird to teeter on the edge. Lets hope it can come back from the brink.
A few ks down the road and I finally caught up with Pictorella Mannikin, which seemed drab by comparison, but it was another entirely new bird for me, and bird number 674 of The Big Twitch.
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