The Big Twitch- A Grasswren in the Ointment

To: "birding-aus" <>
Subject: The Big Twitch- A Grasswren in the Ointment
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Wed, 25 Dec 2002 13:31:36 +0800
Leaving Darwin, with a quick stop at Howard Springs to get the race simplex of Grey Whistler just in case they ever split them out again, I was confronted by a massive storm at Adelaide River. The rain fell so hard it was impossible to see beyond the bonnet of the car. Perhaps the Wet has finally arrived?
Heading off next morning, no sign of cloud, the land feeling refreshed and vibrant, I finally got a decent, tickable view of Varied Lorikeet just outside Katherine. A minor detour of about two hundred and fifty kilometres to a known Grey Falcon site failed to yield any Grey Falcon.  Gee, what a surprise. But there was still a chance,  (has this year taught me nothing?) heading into the Barkly Tablelands. My main quarry was Flock Bronzewing but a stray Grey wouldn't go ... astray. Well it would hopefully, and I would be there to see it. As I was in the general area, I decided it was worth visiting the sandstone country near Borroloola to try my luck with the Carpentarian Grasswren, even though I planned to put in a full blown search near Mt. Isa where they are said to be much easier to get.
I only logged three hours searching at Borroloola, but wasn't unduly worried at my lack of success. (Fool.) And besides, I wanted to get onto the tableland proper for dusk when the Bronzewings would be coming in to drink. As dusk approached, each "turkey nest" dam I checked was either dry or had no sign of Pigeons coming in from the surrounding, astonishingly featureless plains. 
A little frantic now, I could see a windmill marking a bore halfway to the horizon (the only feature in view) and made my way there. As I approached a party of about fifteen plump birds were circling the bore and yes, they turned out to be Flock Bronzewing. Certainly not the forty thousand plus I could have seen near Birdsville, but these fifteen wheeling about the sunset were about the most welcome sight I have come across all year.
And so on the 12th of December, my dander considerably up with the total now sitting on 687, I arrived at the MacNamara's Road Grasswren site about 70 km north of Mt. Isa. Arriving around midday, I didn't think I had much chance, but pressed on into the forty degree heat anyway. And so began four of the hottest, most fruitless and frustrating days of my birding career.
I actually heard a bird at around four o'clock, but it would not show itself. Next morning I was up and out for the dawn chorus which consisted of Spinifexbird calling twice. This time I fleetingly saw a Grasswren type object at the same site but it was gone before I could get the bins to my eyes. Over the next two days my luck was exactly the same- another heard and another oh so untickable glimpse.
One evening I drove into Mt Isa to refuel and to put in a call to Bob Forsyth to find out what I was doing wrong. I passed a certain fuel outlet where I could get a discount. I did a u-turn and was followed into the servo driveway by a police car. The officer got out and asked me why I had done the u-turn. Trying to remain polite I pointed out the obvious and said I was coming to get fuel. He proceeded to tell me that as there was no sign permitting a u-turn I had committed a traffic offence. I said having just arrived in the state I was unaware of such a rule. Handing me a fine he smirked that it was an expensive lesson for me wasn't it.
Didn't he realise he was dealing with a twitcher who had just spent some long, very hot days dipping on a crucial bird- it's like putting a tasty German tourist in front of a Crocodile- they are bound to snap and someone is going to get hurt. Luckily (for me as much as for him) the officer retreated to his car before I had fully launched into my invective. I turned to get me some of that cheap fuel only to find that the attendant had closed up. When I asked why, she sneered at me "We close at eight-thirty!" I was fully expecting her to add "derr" at the end of her sentence. I looked around. There was absolutely no sign indicating hours of opening. I rang Bob- he was in Cairns. I was really loving this town.
Even  more so when I also looked like dipping on Kalkadoon Grasswren. I went to the recommended Mica Creek site, late one afternoon. Climbing up the boulder strewn hill I heard the birds call. I had almost called them in, they were just over the next ridge, when down below, a group of motorbike riders turned up and began revving their machines and it became impossible to hear me scream "@%#* off bikies!", let alone hear the barely audible squeak of a Grasswren.
Next morning the birds were not calling at all. Scrambling like a rock wallaby across those steep, boulder-strewn slopes, in the ever hotter sun, I reached the ridge's peak and the end of my tether when a smirking Kalkadoon Grasswren hopped out onto a nearby boulder checked me out, gave a call and hopped away again. Can't wait for this species to be officially added to the new checklist.
Now I was free to move on. The quickest way down, I figured, was straight down the steeper side of the ridge. This was working fine until I jumped onto a boulder which broke loose and began to tumble down the steep slope. I jumped to the next boulder and it did the same, as did I, rapidly descending, front first, towards the sharp rocks below. Pulling out a maneuver that would do an Olympic gymnast proud, I managed a mid-air 180 degree spin and grabbed onto the side of the hill, stopping my downward momentum. But I had plunged my clutching hands straight into the middle of clump of spinifex.
Two weeks later and I am still removing the spikes from my hands. But at least I lived to tell the tale and on December 15 with the list on 687, I set off towards North Queensland and Twitching destiny.
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