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
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.
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