The Last Days of The Big Twitch

To: "Birding-Aus" <>
Subject: The Last Days of The Big Twitch
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Sat, 4 Jan 2003 19:49:21 +1100
You'd reckon that after seeing seven hundred species for the year, I'd be looking to put the feet up and ease off on the birding intensity. Not blooming likely. This was North Queensland after all, and I was still a chance of getting something good to add to the list.

To this end, after having safely ticked off bird 700, I headed down to the coast to Newell beach where I had heard Del Richards had seen a Red-rumped Swallow about a week before. About nine hundred metres along the road to Newell, I saw some swallows roosting on roadside wires. There were both species of Martin, Welcome Swallow and at least ten, possibly as many as fourteen Red-rumped Swallow coming into roost. This was a species I never held much hope out for seeing, but there they were, a new bird for me, and bird number 701 for the year. I managed to get a few shots of them including on with all four species lined up in a row.

Next day was Christmas Day. I was alone and away from home so how to celebrate the day? Just for a change I thought I would go birding. I decided to do a Big Day. After joining in the morning birdwalk with Andrew from Kingfisher Park, I had already seen around seventy-five species. The wheels then began falling off after I spent way too much time moseying around the rainforest up on Mount Lewis. But it was just so lovely up there. I managed to see all the specialties except Golden Bowerbird, including really great, prolonged views of a pair of Blue-faced Parrot-finches. They were  far more tame than they had been the day before and allowed a really close look as they fed on the seed heads of some big purple flowered, lily-leafed plants.
The wheels then literally began falling off when I got a flat tyre coming down Mt. Lewis- my twelfth for the year. It was now quite hot and as I sweated changing the wheel, singing a new Christmas Carol, "The Twelve Flat Tyres of Christmas" I couldn't help pondering whether God was punishing me for not observing his son's birthday in the proper manner. If so, the punishment didn't work as the day managed to be probably my best Christmas ever, with me finishing the day on 158 species having made it to the coast, but unfortunately ran out of time to go for any dry country birds.
I took it fairly easy Boxing Day, but in the evening joined Andrew and Carol and a local ranger in some spotlighting out in the backblocks of Julatten where Greater Glider, (a rare mammal this far north) had recently been reported. No luck with the Glider but we did find a Quoll's lair replete with incredibly pungent odour and piles of plucked feathers. Driving back Andrew caught a glimpse of something out the window, and on reversing we got onto, a Masked Owl! Not only was this bird 702, it was a lifer for me, having eluded me in several states for many years.
I had been planning to look for these birds at Ingham, and failing that, near Brisbane on New Year's Eve, which would have ended the year with a nice symmetry as I had kicked off the year list on Jan 1 with another Tyto, the Sooty Owl. But remembering that saying about birds and hands and bushes I was damn glad to have finally cracked this species. As it was, I found two more examples of this powerfully impressive species out near Ingham a couple of night's later, as well as a Grass Owl at "Tyto Wetlands".
The day before this, with no real possibilities for ticks left in North Queensland (apart from something remarkable like another Grey Wagtail, or House Swift or something else- and I did bump into two different birders who had seen possible rare swiftlets, one a possible Glossy Swiftlet at Finch Hatton near Mackay, the other a couple of all dark swiftlets which may have been Uniform Swiftlet just south of Cairns) I decided to combine business with pleasure and head out on a reef trip. The very slow boat I took is one of the few that goes both to Michelmas Cay and the Outer Reef.
There were only ten people on our boat, and as they were all going to be snorkelling, I thought I would have the seabird colony on the Cay all to myself. But as our little tub labouriously trundled along I could see the mega tourist boat, laden with noisy holidaymakers looming ever so quickly towards us. We just beat them to the island, but within minutes the sands open to the public were chockers with tourists, but within a few more minutes they were all happily swimming in the water leaving me to watch in awe the thousands of nesting terns: Sooty, Crested and Lesser Crested and Common Noddies. I couldn't manage to find any White-capped Noddies, and what at first from a distance appeared to be a Masked Booby turned out to be a nestling Brown Booby that was much much bigger than its parents, but a single Least Frigatebird obligingly hung around.
By now, the 28th, it was time to get moving if I wanted to squeeze in any more ticks for the year. My best chance of new birds was to head back to Darwin to try for the Black-headed Gulls that had turned up just after I had left, putting in en route another effort for Carpentarian Grasswren and Grey Falcon. But I had neither the funds for a plane flight, nor the energy to backtrack two and a half thousand kilometres. Maybe if I was stranded in the six nineties I would have considered it, but now I had reached my original goal my enthusiasm was far more muted and commonsense seemed to be creeping back into my life.
And so, with the painful reluctance,-grief almost- of leaving an old friend, I left Kingfisher Park, Julatten and North Queensland bound for my one remaining possibility. As I headed South rather than count the kilometres I counted off the birds whose range I was now departing. No more Atherton Scrubwren, farewell Victoria's Riflebird, Cassowary and Pied Monarch. A bit further on and adieu to Sunbird. And so it went until the afternoon of the 30th when I arrived in Brisbane.
I met Andrew Stafford and we headed out to the legendary Sherwood Park. Within seconds we had Bush-hen. This time I got a great close up of its head, all vibrant lime green with a flash of tangerine cere- it really has to get with the program: those colours went out of fashion about three summers ago. And then within about ten minutes we had mind blowing views of a male Little Bittern right out in the open, perched above the waterline hunting. After all the grief and disappointment this bird had caused me all year, I just couldn't believe how easy it was to see this day. What also surprised me was how after 364 days of birding and 702 prior species, seeing this 703rd still managed to give me a huge adrenaline rush. Perhaps my aversion therapy theory of this year hasn't worked and I will wake up in the New Year still afflicted with this accursed birdwatching habit.
Little Bittern was to be my last new bird of the year. Try as I might, I just couldn't conjure a Streaked Shearwater off Point Danger the next day and so my total remains on 703. I wound up the New Year with non-birding friends at Byron Bay. As I stood and watched the Year slip away, surrounded by a teeming throng of humanity: hippies, drunks, Hare Krishnas, holiday-makers, gangs of boys from the city looking for some action, gaggles of teenage girls trying to down enough Vodka Cruisers to give the boys a greater chance of success; suddenly my year, my quest, didn't seem nearly so absurd. In fact it seemed to make  a lot more sense than any of the human behaviour that swirled around me.
Thank you and goodnight. 
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