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.