A Big Day (And a Bloody Hot One)

To: "Birding-aus" <>
Subject: A Big Day (And a Bloody Hot One)
From: "Sean Dooley" <>
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2006 16:51:57 +1100

Due to the fact that some of us actually now have lives, the Bush Turkeys last 
year missed the Victorian Twitchathon for only the second time in ten years. 
You'd think a year off from spending 24 hours cramped together in a car 
manically charging aorund the countryside in a desperate search for generally 
unco-operative birds would be something you'd be glad to miss but a couple of 
months down the track and we realised we needed a stupidly pointless twitching 
fix. And with all the good birds around in Victoria at the moment we decided it 
might be a good idea to try for a Big Day. Fools.

A Big Day is like a twitchathon but held within the one calendar day. In 
Victoria the twitchathon is usually held between 4PM Saturday and 4PM Sunday. 
With our usual twitchathon route, honed after years of practice, anything less 
than two hundred species is now a disappointment but, we wondered, could we 
reach that target without the luxury (?!) of being able to drive overnight to a 
completely new destination to start adding birds.

A quick glimpse over my records showed that my best ever one day result had 
been 158 on one of the Sundays of a twitchathon and on Christmas Day in North 
Queensland during my Big Twitch year. Well short of the Vic Twitchathon best of 
226. As far as we knew there was no record for a Victorian Big Day but the 
Aussie record is a staggering 249 held by Andy Anderson et al in the Wet 
Tropics about ten years ago. Using the calculation that on a normal thon we 
usually see about 67% of what birds it was possible to see I figured that we 
were likely to see around 187 species in the one day. Close enough to two 
hundred to tempt the others into trying and so after work on Friday the 20th of 
Jan the three founding Bush Turkey members, Peter Lansley, Paul Peake and 
myself were joined by interloper Chris Tzaros and headed out of Melbourne to 
set our own Big Day record the next day.

We decided Saturday would be the go as Sunday was forecast to be 42 in 
Melbourne. Apart from the comfort factor we reasoned there would be no point 
attempting a Big Day if the temp was going to be over 35, so with Melbourne 
supposed to be 31, Saturday was the day to try.

We decided to start spotlighting for nocturnal birds in the Bendigo region and 
as we drove to Bendigo the sky was illuminated all around with fierce 
electrical storms. Turning on the radio we were greeted with the warning that 
people should avoid travelling to Bendigo at all costs due to the fierce 
storms. There were trees all over the road, close to flash flooding and half of 
Bendigo was blacked out but by the time we finally arrived at our designated 
starting point the weather was absolutely calm. The storms however had made the 
side roads impassable so we were unable to access our one and only site for 
Barking Owl- not an auspicious start.

We did something we never do on a twitchathon and pitched tents to have a bit 
of kip before we got started- we must be getting soft in our old age. Up at 
half past two, we soon added Barn Owl, Tawny Frogmouth, Owlet, Spotted and most 
suprisingly for this part of the world, White-throated Nightjar.

We were already behind schedule by the time we arrived at Terrick Terrick 
National Park for some grassland spotlighting. We may as well have not bothered 
as the only birds we got onto were Singing Bushlark and Pipit, both of which we 
would see come daylight. So we left theTerricks rather disappointed at twenty 
to five and with no time to stop anywhere else if we wanted to get to Goschen 
before the sun had risen. Goschen is near Swan Hill and while not as far north 
as we usually go on a twitchathon, we were still hoping to add some dry country 
species we wouldn't be likely to get further south.

Even though there was no eromophela in flower meaning no Black Honeyeaters or 
the like, there were still plenty of birds around and within half an hour in 
the gloriously still mallee dawn we kick started the list along with such gems 
as: Little Button-quail, Hooded Robin, Budgie, Rainbow Bee-eater, and 
White-backed Swallow. The drive through to Lake Boga netted us Pied 
Butcherbird, Zebra Finch, White-breasted Woodswallow and our only Red-kneed 
Dotterel for the day. Taking a punt on a report from Simon Starr we came across 
the sensational sight of more than a hundred Banded Lapwing in a paddock near 
Lake Tutchewop but things almost came unstuck as we almost got both lost and 
bogged in the salt flats at the north end of Lake Kelly unsuccessfully looking 
for the Crimson Chats Simon had reported.

To save time we skipped on our usual site for Pied Cormorant and Darter 
assuming we'd get them later in the day at Werribee if not before. We did the 
former but the Darter became the first of many almost inexplicable dips for the 
day. An unscheduled stop where the Murray Valley Highway crosses the Loddon 
River at Kerang to look for riparian birds rewarded us with at least seven 
Latham's Snipe, a bird we never normally see on the twitchathon and coming 
across a pair of roosting Wedge-tailed Eagles, a lone White-winged Triller and 
a colony of Grey-crowned Babblers the other side of Kerang had us most 
optimistic of a good day's total. By the time we arrived at Gunbower Island at 
nine o'clock we were sitting on 91 species.

Then things started to subtly fall apart. Only two of us managed to get onto 
Noisy Friarbird and hoped for birds such as Azure Kingfisher and Western 
Gerygone failed to materialise. Half the group even managed to miss out on 
Blackbird! But at this stage we still weren't worried.

Especially after we hit the Terrick Terricks. It was quite simply humming with 
birds and within minutes we had added Southern Whiteface, Diamond Firetail, 
Red-capped Robin and Gilbert's Whistler. Forty minutes later in the Bendigo 
Whipstick the birding bonanza continued as we mopped up some top birds such as 
Shy Heathwren, Inland Thornbill, Varied Sittella and Tawny-crowned and 
Purple-gaped Honeyeaters. In fact Purple-gapeds had never been more abundant or 
showing more readily at our mallee site.

But then came the Box-ironbark, always our downfall in the twitchathon for us 
as our itinerary dictates we only get there in the middle of the day when 
things can be way too quiet and the habitat can resemble a biological desert. 
Our route this year saw us arrive at our first box-ironbark site about an hour 
and a half earlier than normal but as we got out of the car we could really 
feel that the temperature had ramped up and there wasn't much stirring. We 
started to miss out on several expected species: Black-chinned Honeyeater, 
Olive-backed Oriole and the like but we were compensated for these in the form 
of White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Crested Bellbird, Square-tailed Kite and even a 
Spotless Crake at a forest dam!

By the time we left the area, heading for the coast it was a quarter to two and 
we were on 140 species. We didn't see another new species until half past three 
when we arrived at Werribee. It was rather strange, we hardly saw a single bird 
of any sort on the drive down- no expected Corellas, nor even could we nail 
down a Spotted Turtle-Dove. It turns out they were all resting in the shade as 
unbeknown to us the temperature had climbed to forty degrees!

Luckily for the waterbirds at the Western Treatment Plant (Werribee) there was 
nowhere else to go and despite arriving at low tide there were still plenty of 
waders and waterbirds about. In two and a bit hours at Werribee (a mere brief 
visit for this enormous place) the list looked like it was getting back on 
track with the addition of thirty-one birds including Cape Barren Goose, 
Striated Fieldwren and Little Egret. While we dipped on some of the waders that 
have been seen recently (Pectoral and Broad-billed Sandpipers) we did pick up 
Wood Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint and Red-necked Phalarope at the conservation 
ponds, Black-tailed Godwit at Walsh's Lagoon and Pacific Golden Plover at Point 
Kirk. We didn't have time to do everywhere we would have liked and now know 
that others that day saw birds we missed including Black-tailed Native-hen and 
White-winged Black, Fairy and Little Terns but we left Werribee with two and a 
half hours of daylight left needing only 29 to make two hundred.

We decided there was not enough time to make our scheduled stop at the 
Melbourne Botanic Gardens and as we travelled up the Geelong Freeway we debated 
where we could make up the urban birds we would miss there. Our best makeshift 
effort was to burn the Night Heron, Darter and Song Thrush we had hoped for 
there and make a little detour into Altona North in the hope of Rainbow and 
Purple-crowned Lorikeets, Little Wattlebird and yes even Blackbird which by 
that stage all of us had seen, just not at the same time.

This detour didn't quite go as planned as we only added the wattlebird with 
only two of us seeing both Rainbow Lorikeet and Blackbird. As we headed out 
towards Gembrook along the South Eastern Freeway despite craning the urban 
skies we could add neither the Rainbows nor the Blackbird. Could it be possible 
we would spend a day birding in Southern Victoria and not see a Blackbird? At 
least we managed to pick up Spotted Turtle-dove.

It still must have been close to forty degrees when we arrived at Gembrook, 
still hopeful of cracking 200. It was a struggle though. Even though the wet 
forest gullies were a lot cooler some common birds were simply not active. We 
even struggled to pick up Blackbird- the first time we heard it, it turned out 
to actually be a Song Thrush imitating one. We would have to wait another 
twenty minutes to tick that one off. We did dip though on usually gettable 
birds such as Crescent Honeyeater, Rose Robin and Eastern Whipbird. We heard 
Brush Cuckoo which bizarrely enough turned out to be our only cuckoo for the 
day. This was the pattern of the last hour or so of daylight, we weren't seeing 
much but what we were getting on to was pretty special: Bassian Thrush, Superb 
Lyrebird, Red-browed Treecreeper, Pilotbird and best of all an immature 
Beautiful Firetail which came in very close to investigate Chris's imitation of 
its call.

But as the sun went down on the Mountain Ash gullies we had to admit two 
hundred was out of the question. We fairly easily got Boobook, Sooty and 
Powerful Owls, with a great albeit brief view of the stunning Sooty Owl but by 
then with the total on 194 we seemed out of options.

By the time we got back to Melbourne there was still half an hour till midnight 
so rather than give up we searched possible lorikeet roosts and tried to 
spotlight Night Herons along the Yarra, all for nought and as the clock ticked 
over to Sunday we were still stranded on 194.

Between us we actually saw 197 birds for the day but following the same rule as 
on a twitchathon where only birds seen or heard by a majority of the team we 
could only claim 194. Aside from Rainbow Lorikeet, our worst dip would prabably 
have been Black-fronted Dotterel, though Fantailed Cuckoo, Long-billed Corella 
and Eastern Whipbird would have come close. Not a bad total I guess, 
particularly when we learned we had been birding in forty plus heat for much of 
the day. Perhaps on a cooler day we would have cracked the double ton. At least 
we all got a new personal day record.

And I reckon come the twitchathon in November we might just about have 
recovered from our Big Day.

Sean Dooley
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