The Big Twitch- The Build Up: Part One

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- The Build Up: Part One
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Sun, 22 Dec 2002 16:00:14 +0800
They call it the Build Up. After a long dry season it starts to get hotter and hotter and at the end of each day the clouds gather in brilliant electrical storms, but there is just not enough moisture in the air for it to rain. For that it needs the moist air to come in from the distant Indian Ocean. But that can be weeks, even months away. The tension in the atmosphere becomes as unbearable as the unrelenting heat as everything anticipates the coming of the monsoon to bathe and soothe the parched land.
I entered the Territory on the last day of November, my list on 674. The thunder storms had brought some rain, in some areas quite substantial showers, but the monsoon had yet to hit. 700 birds- it felt as far off, yet as agonisingly possible as the monsoon. To get to 700 there would be no deluge of ticks. From now on they will come in dribs and drabs, a drop here, a couple of ticks there.
First up was Purple-crowned Fairy-wren. All along I had planned to see this lovely species at Victoria River Crossing where I had found them easily on a previous visit. Trouble was, in Kununurra I'd bumped into a couple of British Twitchers who had just come from there and said after the best part of two days they had had no joy. I arrived just before dark. The light had that ominous, surreal tone when the setting sun's rays catch the thickness of a massive stormcloud, casting a blackboard green pall over everything. Drops of rain were beginning to fall ever more frequently from the gloomy sky as I made my way down to the thickly grassed river bank, and within ten seconds, here amongst the six foot high strands of grass I had a party of Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens. The male with his striking lilac head came within a metre of my slack jawed, delighted face. No wonder the Poms are doing so badly at the cricket- they miss everything.
Flushed with success, I made my way across the Top End passing all the sites I had planned to look for Gouldian Finch. There was no way Gouldian's would be coming into drink at these sites now with so much water lying about the place. The sheer improbability of my sighting two days before in Kununurra now seemed all the more miraculous.
By the afternoon I had arrived at Pine Creek and was out along the road to Umbruwarra Gorge, stopping at any likely looking habitat and trying for Chestnut-backed Button-quail. I thought this would be a very difficult proposition and was prepared to put in a couple of day's searching for this one, hoping that I would be compensated at the very least with sightings of Hooded Parrots which also inhabit this area. I didn't really hold out much hope for the Button-quail having never seen it before on previous attempts. Niven McCrie had mentioned Copperfield Dam as a potential site though he said he had never been there to check it out. I found myself there right on dusk and decided to wander around until it got too dark to see.
The woodland there reminded me of areas down south where you often encounter Painted Button-quail- stony ground on sparsely treed hills. But I was seeing no tell-tale platelets on the ground, those little circular scrapes of bare earth that tell you "Button-quail woz here". I then heard a weird throbbing hum.; The sort of noise that a sonic fibretron or other ridiculously named gadget would make in a B-grade Sixties space movie. It was either a frog or a Button-quail, I wasn't sure which. Eventually I tracked it down and saw two shapes on the ground. They moved away from me- a pair of Chestnut-backed Button-quail. I was ecstatic as I got fantastic views of the female in particular. And it actually looked like a Button-quail as it would appear in an episode of Star Trek- like a normal Earth prototype Button-quail but with all these bizarre looking appendages attached. It had stripes and barring and most impressively, an enormous silverish looking beak- a truly spectacular bird.
And then first thing next morning I found those Hooded Parrots- another stunning bird. Things were going well... too well, Mr. Spock. I headed straight for Kakadu. I arrived at Waterfall Creek (aka Gunlom, aka UDP (Uranium Development Project) Falls around nine-thirty. It was now very hot and very sticky, but rather than spend a lovely day stooging around the spectacular plunge pool (as featured in Crocodile Dundee) I decided not to waste any time and head on up to the escarpment which is THE place to see White-throated Grasswren. It was incredibly hot but bird activity was surprisingly high. Very quickly I got the sandstone race of the Helmeted Friarbird and birds I had seen in the Kimberley such as White-lined Honeyeater and Sandstone Shrike-thrush, but it took me a full sweat soaked hour to get onto White-throated Grasswren- a pair which led me a merry dance around the escarpment. They had the advantage of being able to scale a fifty metre vertical sandstone rockface in a matter of seconds while it would take me ten minutes of rock hopping and hauling my sweaty aspect to do the same. But it was worth it as they gave a sensational showing. They are really very striking birds, and much bigger than you'd imagine a grasswren could possibly be. 
Strangely I hadn't seen any Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeons which on my two previous visits to this site had almost had to kick out of the way in my desperate search for the Grasswrens. This time none. But all three guide books I had on me said they were relatively easy at the Nourlangie Rock Art Site, and though I didn't remember ever seeing them there, I thought I would give it a go. Black-banded Fruit-Dove was also meant to be there so it was worth a shot I thought, and besides, I should pick up Partridge Pigeon along the way, thereby completing all the Pigeons I could possibly see.
And so began the great Kakadu Pigeon debacle.
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