The Big Twitch- The Build Up, Part Two

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- The Build Up, Part Two
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Sun, 22 Dec 2002 17:03:49 +0800
Having missed out on both Black-banded Fruit-Dove (again) and Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon (surprisingly) at Gunlom, possibly my favourite spot in all of Australia, I decided to search elsewhere. First up I thought I would try what several people and guidebooks had referred to as Stag Creek. Arriving at what I presume was the site, a big sign reminded me of what had already been told me, that this was a former mining area. What I hadn't been told was that they had mined high grade uranium here. The sign gave a dire warning that any injury or illness suffered here was entirely your own responsibility. Now here was a unique dilemma: if I proceeded I faced the serious risk of exposing myself to dangerous levels of radiation; if I go back I could dip out on on a new bird. The choice was clear. And after half an hour's search, all I had to show for it was the shadow of a Fruit-dove fly above me... oh, and the third testicle is coming along quite nicely.
Driving to my base at a deserted Cooinda I managed to see what turned out to be my only Partridge Pigeon  for the trip. Still, I only needed one. At least that part of the pigeon triumvirate had played its part.
Nourlangie Rock, a massive sandstone outlier from the main Arnhem Land escarpment, has some of the finest, oldest and most awe inspiring rock art sites in the world. Over two days I constantly walked past them with my head up, looking up the towering rockface and monsoon gullies for pigeons, but even I couldn't but help take humble note of their presence. Particularly striking was the mighty spirit figure who, the interpretive sign assured us, was most feared in Aboriginal culture as he would descend from the heavens and kill women with a yam. I await the day when the Government announces the yam buy back scheme and we can all sleep safe at night.
After a full, hot day of fruitless searching I took one final walk along the trail and there feeding quietly on the berries of a small rainforest tree were two Black-banded Fruit-Doves. This exquisite black and white and grey pigeon had eluded me on three previous trips to Kakadu so I was understandably ecstatic. But there was still the problem of those Rock-Pigeons.
Dusk saw me out at yet another sandstone outcrop not seeing the birds. At the lookout was someone who worked in the park and she said she saw them all the time at East Alligator. That night at Jabiru (where I did see a Jabiru) I spoke to Niven McCrie who said the same thing. So first light saw me heading out to the Bardedjilidji Walk at East Alligator which follows a small, relatively flat sandstone outcrop. And guess what? I didn't see them.
A couple of hours later (around nine o'clock) I did the walk again and ended up seeing at close quarters at least three Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon. At last, bird number 681. With nothing more to add in Kakadu I headed straight for Darwin, the madness of my enterprise brought home yet again as I turned my back on one of the truly magic areas of Australia.
A stop at Fogg Dam netted me White-browed Crake, feeding conveniently under the bird hide. And then at Howard Springs on the outskirts of Darwin, Rainbow Pitta- an amazingly stunning bird.
All year I had planned to spend at least a couple of weeks in Darwin seeking out rarities. But arriving as I was on December 5th, the impetus to push on was too great. There were by now only a couple of species for me to pick up around Darwin, so I would get those and skidaddle. I ended up staying five days. Not that I minded as the friends that I was staying with had a pool, a glorious invention, almost as good as air-conditioning which they didn't have, which meant that if I wanted to cool off day or night, (which with heat and humidity that had even born and bred locals complaining, was pretty much constantly) I would have to take a dip. What a chore.
The Zitting Cisticola was pretty forthcoming out at Holmes Jungle Swamp. Seemed like dozens of the males were doing their little doodle-bug mating flight giving what I think is far more of a "tink" than a "zit" call. Apparently they had only begun displaying the week before- for the rest of the year they are notoriously difficult to spot. (Spot the zit, get it? Get it? Sorry, its very hot.)
My other target birds were less forthcoming. Niven had seen a Little Ringed Plover out at the sewerage ponds on the Wednesday before I arrived. I dragged him out there both days of the weekend but alas it had gone. Thousands of Whistling Ducks and quite a few Yellow Wagtails, but no Plover.
But that was nothing compared to the grief that the Chestnut Rail gave me. Five days I looked for it. Five days in mangroves at Buffalo Creek, Sadgroves Creek, Palmerston Sewerage Farm and no sign of the bird apart from a distant call at the latter site. They had been showing well up until September but hadn't been seen since. Perhaps they were on nests. Perhaps they are just evil and enjoyed tormenting me. Finally, on the last morning I could possibly stay on in Darwin, I was down at Sadgroves Creek, right on the edge of yet another waterside housing development that in my living memory was a mangrove swamp- why does the great Australian Dream Home invariably involve destroying the homes of other Aussies? And I heard the birds call. I responded with a tape and a Chestnut Rail  suddenly appeared looking quite perplexed within metres of me.
Joy, relief, ecstacy. The Build Up was ending and I was back on the road. It was December 9 and I was on 685 species.
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