Tuesday, September 9, 2014

SOSSA Wollongong Pelagic 6th September

A TAFE course had booked the Sandra K for a seabirding field trip today, but a few spaces were left over to fit in a couple of birders. Ashwin noticed this on Thursday, and after a very quick mutual agreement and gander at the weather, by Saturday we were waiting at the dock. The attrition rate of the uninitiated students was exceptionally high - over 80% (almost all within in the first hour), so most probably didn't appreciate the exceptional sightings as much as we did. Due to this being a last-minute trip, none of the regulars were on board except Lindsay, which probably annoyed many people because we saw some VERY nice birds.

The main round of excitement was about 30 minutes before reach the shelf, when Lindsay yelled “BLUE PETREL!” off the back of the boat, and the magnificent bird flew around right behind us for ages, often within 2 or 3 metres. About 10 minutes after stopping, I was looking at an albatross and realised that it was actually a Northern Royal Albatross, which stuck around for a while too before disappearing. We also had a large number of Wandering-types around the boat, particularly a nice exulans which gave a good size comparison with the nearby Gibson’s.

The rest of the day was fairly average, though a couple of Buller’s Albatross and a single Cape Petrel were great, especially because Cape Petrel has been very rare in NSW over the last few years. The TAFE students weren’t particularly interested.

Exulans Wandering Albatross: 4 (2)

Gibson's Wandering Albatross: 15 (7), including Antipodean - 2 (1)

Shy Albatross: 30 (8) - both cauta and steadi

Black-browed Albatross: 60 (20) - nominate only

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross: 2 (1)

Buller's Albatross: 3 (1)


Northern Giant Petrel: 10 (6)

Southern Giant Petrel: 2 (1)


Solander's Petrel: 15 (4)

Great-winged Petrel: 1 (1)


Fairy Prion: 40 (30)

White-faced Storm Petrel: 1 (1)

Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 70 (10)

Fluttering-type Shearwater: 15 (3)

White-fronted Tern: 6 (2)

Crested Tern: 20 (5)

Australasian Gannet: 25 (4)

Silver Gull 150+
Kelp Gull 5 (2)
Sooty Oystercatcher (3)
Australasian Darter (2)
Pied Cormorant (1)
Australian Pelican (6)

Common Dolphin - 50
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin - 1
Unidentified x2 (Minkie?)
Unidentified x1 (Rorqual?)
Also 2x seal spp.

Blue Petrel - courtesy of Ashwin Rudder

Northern Royal Albatross - again courtest of Ashwin Rudder (why did I not take my camera...)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Taste of Grasswrens - The Gawler Ranges Return

Hi everyone, it's been a while! Despite a number of good birding forays since last year, neither Max nor I have had the time to get blog posts together. Luckily with July being a whole month free of university for myself, and Max currently being on a gap year, we've had the time to drive all the way into South Australia and back, with a report writeen up promptly by Max. Our Borneo report is slowly piecing itself together, and will hopefully be done before the end of winter (it's only taken 7 months). Without further ado, I'll hand over to Max.

~ Joshua Bergmark


Day 1: 11th July
On the road at 5am, we rendezvoused with Grant and Rob for lunch in Nyngan.  Our raptor tally for the trip got off to a good start with Spotted Harrier, Little Eagle and more than twenty Black Kite all recorded on the drive.
Only an hour after lunch we found ourselves 10km north of Cobar and within 10 minutes  Grant, Rob and I had secured excellent views of Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrush strutting through the mulga as well as a unusually eastern White-fronted Honeyeater. After a bit of shouting and whistling, Josh and Ashwin wandered out of the bush and were able to obtain satisfactory views themselves. Lesson learnt – walkie talkies are essential when birding in a group.
After checking into the Cobar Caravan Park with one target bird already under our belts we set up camp and realised we still had two hours of sunlight left. With that we took the long route to Newey Reservoir south of town. Around the reservoir and adjacent sewerage works our trip list started cracking along with Spotted Bowerbird, Red-winged Parrot, Pink-eared Duck all observed.
We finished off the day with some great Chinese to celebrate Josh’s 19th.

Day 2: 12th July
A frosty morning start was highlighted by eight Major Mitchell Cockatoos feeding in a eucalypt on the edge of the caravan park. The drive west yielded several more Majors feeding by the highway as we made our way to a roadside location for White-browed Treecreeper. After fifteen minutes of searching Josh and Ashwin connected with the treecreeper which performed well for the remainder of the group. It turned out to be a great little patch of mulga woodland, probably due partly to the prolific flowering mistletoe. Red-capped Robins perched obligingly as Varied Sittelas moved through the trees mingling with calling Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters.
On the road again we headed further west through Wilcannia (missing Red-tailed Black Cockatoo here), dodging countless feral goats, observing a mob of 200+ Emu (!) and picking up Hobby and Black Falcon, before arriving in Broken Hill where we quickly grabbed Grant and Rob before driving north along the Silverton Road to a site where Ashwin had previously recorded Rufous Fieldwren.
We soon tracked down a calling fieldwren and where rewarded with great views of this obliging songster who’s stage always seems to be the highest point of a bluebush clump – not that we were complaining. Grant and Rob eventually locked onto the fieldwren too after dismissing several of the ever-present White-winged Fairy Wrens.
Our destination for the night was the yet-to-be-declared Bimbowrie Conservation Park 25km north of Olary. Visiting the park in the limbo stage between being a working sheep station to becoming a protected reserve was a little confusing, but in the end we just pitched our tents on the side of the public road and nobody bothered us.

Day 3: 13th July
Our primary reason for visiting Bimbowrie was to follow up promising records of Thick-billed Grasswren in the northern section of the park. Before heading off we picked up Chirruping Wedgebill, Elegant Parrot, Chestnut-crowned Babbler and Black-eared Cuckoo all within a few hundred metres of our camp.
Driving along the unsealed road northwards a brief stop allowed us to connect with calling Redthroat, thanks to Ashwin.

Elegant Parrot by Ashwin Rudder

We soon arrived at an area 10km north of the homestead which was reputably a good place to find grasswren. After two hours searching across a large area of saltbush plain and creekline habitat we had failed to find any hint of our target. We had however obtained excellent views of more Rufous Fieldwren, White-backed Swallow, stunning, but wary male White-winged Fairy Wren and Little Crow – except for Josh, the one person still without this bird on his life list.
We decided to try at a spot over the hill where there had been additional records. Taking the rough dirt track further north we had a brief glimpse of a Cinnamon Quail-Thrush darting across the track. We promptly bailed out of our vehicles and followed the bird up the nearby slope. Eventually the majority of us were only provided with brief glimpses, but we hoped to see this species again.
Our next grasswren site turned out to be a well vegetated, but dry dam with a creekline snaking away from it in two separate directions.
It took some time, but eventually Josh managed to locate two Thick-billed Grasswrens approximately a kilometre north of the dam in the creekline vegetation. Soon we found ourselves slowly creeping through the saltbush straining our ears for the absurdly high-pitched and undistinctive call. Eventually we managed to practically corner a grasswren into a bush, but we were frustratingly given only split-second glimpses as it hopped out and back in before literally vanishing. We now realised this was a truly challenging species.
Slightly deflated we made our way back to camp via two more sites with previous records. On the way Grant spotted Cinnamon Quail-Thrush at the same spot where one had crossed the road earlier. We were soon watching a pair of these striking ground birds trot across the gibber and even allow some photo opportunities. It seemed likely that they had a nest in the area so we left them in peace once we’d had our fill.
Our next grasswren spot yielded nothing, but a possible heard bird. It’s probably worth mentioning that we had been contending with a stiff breeze most of the morning that seemed to be getting worse, certainly not ideal when searching for such a species.
Our last hurrah for the day had absolutely no hint of grasswren however we did chance across a moving flock of about 20 Pied Honeyeater mingling with some Black-faced Woodswallows. The prior a tick for myself and not one that I had been counting on this trip.
With our birding patience spent, I agreed to accompany Josh and Ashwin over to one of the rocky hilltops just south of our initial grasswren site. It was here that we had fantastic views of numerous Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby. As we made our way back down the hill I had to agree with the other two, if you were going to try see any marsupial this had to be one of the very best.

Day 4: 14th July
The first day of the week dawned marginally overcast and with a cool breeze making its presence felt. With this in mind we opted against trying for grasswrens reasoning that within a few days, on the return to Sydney, half of us would be back here for another try anyway.
The route to Port Augusta involved a fairly boring stretch of the Barrier Highway and then through fertile cropping land around Peterborough and Orrorro before a twisty descent in the ranges west of Wilmington took us to the edge of the Spencer Gulf.
Our arrival in Port Augusta was highlighted by a hundred or so Banded Stilt mixed with lesser numbers of avocet feeding beside the road. We then followed up a report of Purple-crowned Lorikeet at the Big4 caravan park in town and found several of this species feeding low down.
It was here that the decision was made to drive straight to Mount Ive rather than bushcamp at Lake Gilles due to the impending weather. This turned out to be a wise choice in terms of dodging a miserable cold front that would have hampered our grasswren searching had we of arrived a day later.
The drive to Mt Ive involved dipping at our first site for Western Grasswren and Slender-billed Thornbill near the mining town of Iron Knob – yes, really, that’s what it’s called. The 126km of excellent dirt road to the Mt Ive homestead provided some excellent birding over the course of the afternoon. It was quite apparent that the area had received some substantial rains in the past month and as a result the native grassland along the road was looking superb. We soon encountered roaming flocks of Crimson Chats with the males appearing as blood-red gems atop the saltbush. At every place we stopped Brown Songlarks buzzed overhead, their metallic chortling a constant background. A host of other birds including a few Pied Honeyeater, White-fronted Chat, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Southern Whiteface, Hooded Robin and Black-faced Woodswallows added to the very springlike theme of the drive. A large dam with a good area of overflow water revealed a surprise in the form of two Musk Ducks which was complemented by a skittish flock of 176 Black-tailed Nativehen alongside numerous Red-kneed Dotterel.
Upon arrival at Mt Ive, Josh, Ashwin and I went in search of our primary target Short-tailed Grasswren without hesitation. An hour later we returned slightly disheartened after traipsing through rocky spinifex in the wind without return, though at least had heard at least one probable individual. We hoped tomorrow would be different.

Day 5: 15th July
After a night of fearing our tent would be blown away with us in it, the morning dawned to already stifled enthusiasm. That is, for everyone except Josh of course. Without a shred of breakfast he was off up Mt Scott in search. I caved minutes later and was off after him leaving the remaining three to eat breakfast hovering around the walkie talkie.
Mt Scott is located less than 300m from the camping area, but its steep rocky grade pinpointed with spinifex clumps makes it more of a challenge than first impressions might hint.  It came to my surprise then that I made out Josh waving frantically from the crest of the hill not ten minutes after starting out. Although Josh had gotten a glimpse of our target, it took us a further twenty minutes and the arrival of Ashwin, Grant and Rob before we eventually pinned down a pair of Short-tailed Grasswren. These birds proceeded to completely eliminate my previous illusions of how frustrating grasswrens can be (with particular reference to Thick-billed) with the display they gave us over the following ten minutes or so. Suffice to say I had to lower my binoculars several times because one bird perched on an exposed rock barely moving for more than five minutes…
Short-tailed Grasswren by Ashwin Rudder

We all came away from the experience with unforgettable views and renewed enthusiasm to hunt down more grasswrens.
As convenience had it, a second species of grasswren lived at Mount Ive and was ‘reputably’ very easy to find. The recently split form of Thick-billed Grasswren – Western Grasswren – inhabits much the same habitat as its cousin with a preference for bluebush dominated plains rather than creekbed vegetation. Unfortunately our efforts were hampered by the abundance of vegetation around the Mt Ive homestead dam due to the recent rains. Where we would have normally found sandy soil around the base of shrivelled bluebush, was now a healthy looking layer of green groundcover interspersed with plump bluebush clumps.
We did have a fairly enjoyable time searching for the grasswren, with good views of male Splendid Fairywren, Hooded Robin, Crimson Chat and Black-eared Cuckoo heard, marred only by the lack of grasswrens and the unwanted discovery of an offal pit by Ashwin.
It was time to bid Mt Ive farewell, and after a well-earned breakfast and giving Grant the chance to photograph the confiding Short-tails (which he did superbly) we were on our way.

The drive south to Kimba, again along very nice dirt roads, was marked by very similar birds to the drive in with the addition of Dusky Woodswallow, Grey Currawong and the local race of Varied Sittella.
After refusing Josh’s pleas for a photo opp next to ‘the big galah’ in Kimba we began the drive back east and were soon in the mallee of Lake Gilles CP. Although the weather was rapidly deteriorating we managed to connect with Western Yellow Robin and several other woodland/mallee species along the road that connects the lake shore with the highway. A couple of k’s further east at a pull-in, Ashwin was able to tick his second ‘West Australian’ species – Rufous Treecreeper.
Completing the trifecta with Blue-breasted Fairywren was not to be however, despite Ashwin’s valiant efforts in the rain at another pull-in further east.
While Ashwin was off getting soaked the decision was made to head for Whyalla where we’d stay the night in a motel with the intention being to maximise our chances for Western Grasswren and Slender-billed Thornbill at Whyalla CP the next morning.
We drove through the rain and checked into the Foreshore Motor Inn where we were greeted by a swearing, but friendly receptionist. The evening was highlighted by a disappointing foray into the culinary offerings of Whyalla and year-ticking Black-faced Cormorant at the harbour.

Day 6: 16th July
Our last chance at Western Grasswren started well with a calm, crisp morning giving way to a blazing sun as we made our way to Whyalla CP just 12km north of the township. We aimed to focus our efforts on this apparently ‘easy’ species around the base of Wild Dog Hill in the far-western section of the park. On the drive in we watched a Stubble Quail by the edge of the road briefly before it flushed unfortunately denying Rob tickable views. Another flushed bird in the form of a Brush Bronzewing also eluded views for all but Grant near the carpark.
The wind arrived at Wild Dog Hill around the same time we did, but we began our search nonetheless, all taking different directions with walkie talkies in hand. Josh and I eventually found a small party/pair of Western Grasswren on the sloping eastern edge of the hill. However, by found, I mean picking up on their high-pitched contact calls and glimpsing all but the most fleeting of views as they burst from bushes and ran across open areas. It was apparent that here, like at Mt Ive, recent rains had promoted substantial vegetation growth and as a result the grasswrens we tracked at the eastern edge were able to evade with ease us by sinking into thick bluebush/tall grass clumps.
After much searching we were at least able to obtain good views of a single Slender-billed Thornbill thanks to Grant. A plain thing that responded wonderfully to a quick burst of playback and undoubtedly a critical tick for the trip.
After a further hour of searching we were looking desperate. Four of us, with the exception of Josh, regrouped at the carpark for a break where we soon interrupted by a call from Josh – was he finally onto a confiding Western Grasswren? We raced over to his location, a few hundred metres east of the carpark to find the telltale calls of those secretive buggers kicking about in a stand of Western Myall with a bluebush understorey. The next few minutes of tense searching revealed that when hunting grasswrens in a group, tickable views are ultimately dependent on each individual’s ability and luck. By unknowingly separating a pair of grasswren, Josh and I eventually succeeded in securing views by carefully herding the birds towards one another. However it wasn’t until Ashwin tracked a bird flying into a bluebush clump that we were all able to understand what seriously crafty birds they were. Dismissing the usual theory of grasswrens operating an intricate underground tunnel system, I followed the trail of the grasswren to its last known bush and astonishingly after poking my head into some prickly bluebush found myself staring eye-to-eye with a Western Grasswren sitting calmly not 20cm from my face! I hurriedly ushered Ashwin over and he also got fantastic touching-distance views of the bird that eluded us so well up to this point. Unfortunately before the other three could get over the grasswren realised its mistake and beat a hasty exit between Ashwin and I. Thankfully it didn’t go far and even found the low branches of a Western Myall to its liking allowing Grant and Rob views and record shots.
We all exhaled in celebration after many tense hours of searching and made our way back to the cars with a noticeable spring to our steps (though not before the bird again chose to hide in the same clump of bluebush for Josh to get his 20cm views, though the iPhone photo didn’t turn out).

I think it's behind the green leaf

It was here that we parted ways with Grant and Rob who would head to Adelaide and then across to the border country mallee of Gluepot and Hattah before driving back to Maitland. We on the other hand would retrace our steps back through Broken Hill, with one slight difference.
That difference was to be Boolcoomatta CP and after a considerable drive from Whyalla we arrived on dark at this newly created reserve located 20km north of Mingary, just on the SA side of the border with NSW.

We were directed to our campsite, a few k’s from the homestead, after a pleasant introduction from the reserve manager who excited us with recent sightings of several of our target birds. Once we’d set up camp and had dinner by the fire under one of the best night skies we had ever seen we were off in search of one of our targets – Inland Dotterel.
With three spotlights at our disposal it didn’t take us long to pick up an Inland Dotterel by the side of the track leading to the eastern grassland area. Although the bird flushed and looked to have gone, Josh made a quick search on foot and managed to pick the bird up again, this time allowing views down to 3m! The bird turned out to be a juvenile, but being such a cracking species and found so easily it hardly mattered.
Apart from some jumpy pipits, we didn’t encounter much else on our first brief spotlighting venture at Boolcoomatta, so we returned to camp and rested up for another battle with Thick-billed Grasswren…

Day 7: 17th July
We took various back roads from Boolcoomatta to Kalabity station and finally into Bimbowrie again to reach the dam area where we had first encountered Thick-billed Grasswren – Orange Chat on the drive was a nice trip tick.
Our search started well as Josh and I soon came across what we believed to be the same pair of grasswren we had failed to get real views of several days ago. Our playback strategy enticed one bird to sing several times in response, but not from anywhere visible. A further ten minutes passed with brief snippets of call, but this pair of grasswrens managed to outplay us yet again.
With some help from chief-of-maps Nathan Ruser, we secured GPS locations for several additional grasswren records. These turned out be about a two kilometres north of the dam and so off we went.
After a long morning spent traipsing through the saltbush in the wind we had little to show for our efforts. Even Ashwin’s good deed of releasing a kangaroo from a wire fence didn’t convince the birding Gods that we were worthy of grasswren views. It was time to admit defeat.
We relaxed during the middle of the day around camp until Josh couldn’t bear it anymore and forced us into the car. Our plan was to drive to the furthest eastern point of the property, have dinner and then make our way back while spotlighting.
At one point we had a pair of Spotted Harrier quartering over an area of particularly good looking grassland near the eastern edge and after a quick scout further east where we picked up Australian Hobby, we decided the harrier spot would be a good start for spotlighting.
It took longer than we anticipated to get dark so as the wind howled and rain passed through we duly waited in the relative warmth of the car with a couple of beers.  As darkness arrived we made our way north away from our initial spot which turned out to be sparser in vegetation than we first thought. West of a dam we started searching on foot through some much better looking habitat. Unfortunately after considerable searching we failed to find anything more exciting than five Little Buttonquail which only allowed Ashwin the briefest of views as they flushed from his feet anyway (of course he was the only person who didn’t need this bird for his life list). Although a very unexpected solitary Red-capped Plover was worth noting. A couple of Banded Lapwing closer to the homestead were the only other notable species.

Day 8: 18th July
A day of driving with a couple of brief interludes for birding. We left Boolcoomatta with a small donation and our bird list before we headed for Broken Hill.
On the edge of Broken we took a slight detour over to the tip where we picked out one Black Falcon amongst a hundred or so Black Kites swooping over the refuse. Out past Living Desert Reserve Josh and I added Chirruping Wedgebill and Redthroat to our NSW lists thanks to Ashwin’s site knowledge from a previous visit to the area.
Not much else of note on the drive east of Broken Hill. We decided to make camp by the roadside at our White-browed Treecreeper spot, some 70km west of Cobar due to the failing light and a yearning for one last campfire.

Bit of art with the remains of our fire

Day 9: 19th July
A very cold start was improved by a quick foray into the surrounding woodland where a good selection of the birds typical of this habitat showed well.  After Ashwin had melted most of the ice on the windscreen with his bare hands we began another big day of driving.
The first notable species being a small flock of Superb Parrots about 50km east of Cobar and likely the same Spotted Harrier we had seen on our first day at a spot north-west of Narromine.
Eventually after a long day we found ourselves in the familiar territory of Pierce’s Pass in the Blue Mountains. It was here that we achieved our trip list target of 175 in style with Red-browed Treecreeper – our fourth treecreeper species for the trip. A calling Pilotbird failed to show, but we were content with our efforts and very pleased to be back home after a very successful endeavour into the outback with at least 7 lifers for each of us.

~ Max Breckenridge

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Summer Days

Apologies for the lack of pictures in this relatively long report - summer birding in central Australia is tiring enough without worrying about photos! All the following were taken with my iPhone (when I get around to uploading them...)

What better way to spend summer than in the desert? Ashwin Rudder and I headed out for a few days to Lake Cargelligo in central NSW to search the mallee of nearby Round Hill, Nombinnie and Yathong Nature Reserves for interesting birds and herps.

As we headed west over the Blue Mountains at 5am, we beheld the recent fire damage, and were pleasantly surprised that much of the bushland was not burnt to death, and many of the trees were still alive, partially because it seemed the fire had mostly not crowned. We were also pleased that one of our favourite birding spots, Pierce's Pass, had escaped the fire... by 10 metres. It seems the firefighters used the road we use for birding to put out the fire, so the creekline had been saved and we saw a single Pilotbird very well, plus a few Beautiful Firetails and Ashwin got onto an Owlet Nightjar.

It was 10:00 by the time we finally arrived at Back Yamma State Forest (not before ticking off Superb Parrot on the roadside between Cudal and Eugowra), and although the temperature had picked up significantly, we still had a number of good birds including Painted Button-Quail, Western Gerygone, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill and of course Turquoise Parrot.

Roadside birding as we continued west proved productive, with some flowering eremophilas producing Cockatiels, Black Honeyeaters, Crimson Chats and White-browed and Masked Woodswallows by the hundreds. We will not speak about the Brown Goshawks which caused our socks and shoes to become very painful due to the spiky weeds...

We eventually arrived at Lake Cargelligo, where we stocked up on ice for the esky and checked out the sewage works (of course), which was surprisingly dismal, with not particularly noteworthy birds recorded, however spiky weeds and heat were abundant! On arrival at "the wheat field", we soon realised how difficult the birding would be over the coming days. No birds except Southern Scrub Robin called until after the sun had set, and those which eventually did proved particularly elusive. A quest up to the big Round Hill itself yielded only Spotted Nightjar calls and an unidentified Gecko. We spent another few hours spotlighting, however only turning up a single variegatus gecko. In the end, this first day left us with a trip list of 149 species, which is exceptional for a day of pretty much constant driving and hot conditions.

The next day was probably our most sucessful. Early morning back at the wheatfield netted us Chestnut Quail-Thrush, Gilbert's Whistler, various honeyeater species (not Black or Pied unfortunately), Painted Button-Quail (a surprise find), Shy Heathwren, Mulga Parrot, and Splendid Fairy-wren. I also saw a baby Malleefowl (about the size of a fat Bar-shouldered Dove) for less than 3 seconds as he ran onto the road, saw me, and ran back into cover before Ashwin could see him.

At 8:30am we gave up and headed over to Whoey Tank to set up in the shade for the middle of the day. After breakfast (and eventually finding an elusive Horsfield's Bronze Cukoo), we found some flowering mistletoe in pair of large overhanging trees and stayed there until 3pm. Few birds of course, but Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Mistletoebird, Speckled Warbler, Chestnut-rumped and Yellow-rumped Thornbills and Woodswallows showed up every now and then.

FINALLY 3pm arrived and we headed back in to Lake Cargelligo to stock up on more ice and check out the STW again. Chat Alley was dead (again), with only White-winged Fairy-wrens. The STW was even quieter than the day before, however we did see Spotted and Baillon's Crakes, plus a young Tawny Grassbird, which was 400km out of range for this coast-hugging species, possibly the most inland record ever.

As dusk approached we headed back into Round Hill, seeing numerous Brown Songlarks and a single Horsefield's Bushlark on Murrin Bridge Rd. As we drove slowly towards the railway crossing, I was literally about to comment on how we'd probably not see a Malleefowl for a few kms because of the lack of ground cover, when I had to slam on the brakes and exclaim "MALLEEFOWL!" as a single bird stood just off the road, trying to decide if we were a threat or not, before eventually running at full pelt and taking off in front of us, disappearing into the mallee on the opposite side of the road. Two Malleefowl in one day! It was not for a few more kms before I again cried "FOWL!" and we added our 3rd Malleefowl to the day list. Exceptional for this rare, skittish, and elusive bird!

Dinner was at the wheat field, where we saw a Spotted Nightjar briefly, and our spotlighting foray until 11:00 was very sucessful, with intermedius, Beaked and Beaded Gecko all observed.

With all our targets under our belts except the impossible Red-lored Whistler, we decided to head over to Yathong in search of Striated Grasswren, which to our knowledge hasn't been recorded by birders for a few years due to the relatively small (or nonexistent) number of people who visit. Needless to say, we left Grasswrenless, but a few trip ticks like Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, and some new reptiles were consolation. A slight miscalculation meant that we almost ran out of petrol in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception, but we managed to just make it back to Lake Cargelligo, with only a few kms left in the tank. The heat of the day was spent at the wheat field attempting to sleep as the flies attempted to stop us from doing so.

Dinner was at a Red-lored Whistler site 5kms from the northern entrance to the reserves, however we remained whistlerless. Spotlighting was absolutely fantastic tonight, with Spotted Nightjar seen fairly well (without a torch though), and 8 individual geckos (2 Barking, 1 Eastern Stone, 2 Intermedius, and 3 Beaded. Also a Desert Skink.

Our last morning was a last ditch attempt for Red-lored Whistler. We checked a few known sites but ended up with naught. However just after we began driving down the main road, I slammed on the brakes and we had a fantastic look at our 4th trip Malleefowl as it slunk away into the mallee. Our waterhole/ditch/puddle which had been good for honeyeaters and emu over the last few days had almost dried up, but it left us with an excellent farewell group of 5 Diamond Doves drinking in the dawn light.

After reaching Bathurst in the evening, we headed out very early to allow us to reach the Capertee Valley by sunrise. As we travelled the road north to Glen Alice, we had some cracking birds such as Diamond Firetail, Black-chinned Honeyeater, and on arrival at Tambo Rd, one of Australia's critically endangered and extremely striking birds, a pair of Regent Honeyeaters! We travelled back south, fluking a few White-backed Swallows, Plum-headed Finches, and a male Hooded Robin on the way. We dipped Painted Honeyeater at the Genowlan Bridge site, but luckily had one just before leaving at Coco Creek Bridge, doing a weird abnormal call which we wouldn't have recognised had I not been whistling the normal duuu-dwiiii honeyeater call for 5 minutes!

We finally returned to the "cooler" climes of Sydney, but not after stopping off again at Pierce's Pass and again seeing Pilotbird, plus it's close relative, the Rockwarbler.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

FATS in the Watagans

Murray Lord kindly offered to drive me up to the Watagan Mountains this past Saturday to attend the FATS (Frog and Tadpole Society) field outing. Unlike most of my attempts at frogging and herping this year, it was quite a successful night (even if the professionals thought the numbers were very low!). Here are a few of my shots.

Southern Dwarf Crowned Snake (Cacophis krefftii)

Southern Barred Frog (Mixophyes iteratus)

Southern Leaf-tailed Gecko (Saltuarius swaini)

Blue Mountains Tree Frog (Litoria citropa)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Returning Forties

Day 9: 23rd November
We awoke early at our anchorage at Campbell Island to scan the shoreline of Perseverance Harbour with Dani's and Rob's scopes for Campbell Teal, but were unsuccessful save for myself and Rob briefly seeing one scuttle off the shoreline into some tussocks from a great distance.

Rob, Dani, Keith and I all very happily opted for the option to make the very difficult trek up Mt Honey to see the Campbell Snipe with Adam. On being dropped off, we walked a very muddy and slippery path before cutting left and bush bashing through the dense tea trees up the hill, many of them very dense and very spiny! We finally reached the open tussock slopes and within a few minutes had great views of one bird (which I accidentally photographed on manual). We kept looking around and had one Southern Royal Albatross near a nest and 3 more Snipe (2 of them being a fat chick and mum). Numerous Campbell Pipits around the area, and a fantastic view! Nobody had a wide-angle lens with them.

Campbell Island Snipe

We opted to follow the creek line back down to avoid the tea trees, which was an excellent decision and took very little effort, though we had to watch out for the deep 2m sinkholes carved out by flowing water underground!

Soon after eventually reaching the path, a call came through the radio that the zodiacs (which we could see down in the bay) were looking at teals. Dani and I with our young legs ran down the mountain back to the bay where we had left the scope (had a couple of near slips and falls on the way), but on our arrival (4 minutes after the radio), the zodiacs were moving away, evidently the teal had gone ashore and hidden, confirmed with a scan through the scope. Rob, Keith and Adam soon arrived, and despite Rob's best pessimistic arguments, I walked around to where I thought the zodiacs had been stopped, and two fantastic Campbell Flightless Teal swam out from behind a rock and, unexpectedly, right towards me. I waved the others over (they ran very quickly!), and we all had amazing views of this pair of rare ducks. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to get both the teal and the snipe in 3 hours, so they are obviously recovering well on their now predator-free island home!

Yep, he is indeed Flightless
Curious female Campbell Teal
Calling Male

Our zodiac ride back to the ship for lunch yielded some very nice close up views of Campbell Shag.

Campbell Shag - I had 11 shags on this trip!

The afternoon was spent hiking up to the Southern Royal Albatross nesting area above Perseverance Harbour and watching the (limited) courtship displays as he afternoon progressed. Had some very memorable views of the albatross, and after lying down in one spot for 15 minutes, heard a trill and turned my head to find a Campbell Pipit sitting 20cm from my face, and he regarded me quizzically before resuming feeding around me.

Campbell Pipit
The lonely outpost
Yawn and Stretch
The Call

Had a few bully sea lions on the way back down too, which a number of the other expeditioners were too scared to walk past. It's difficult when they're sitting on the board walk.

A whole day on Campbell Island, and not a single Campbell Albatross...

ADDENDUM: Don't worry, we saw a few in the dying light at 9:30pm as we headed offshore, along with a few nice Grey-headed.

Day 10: 24th November
Woke up too late and missed Hourglass Dolphins off the front of the boat. Nothing else of particular note for the rest of the day, was so slow in fact that Dani, Rob and I all took the opportunity for a siesta. However "slow" in this definition is only seeing the same birds as the days preceding, which in all honesty are fantastic pelagic birds! The late nights and early mornings were, however, taking their toll.

Day 11: 25th November
Tried to get an early start, but I was in fact one of the last on the bridge due to a miscalculation on my part (sun rose at 5, not 6). The birding began very similar to the previous day, with the addition of numerous Antipodean Albatross, with a number of pale male, typical male and female birds observed, some causing a bit of controversy as they flew alongside Gibson's (why these two subspecies are not split I have no idea). Also had a quick (but close) flyby of two Grey Petrels which I almost missed due to a toilet break!

We arrived at the Antipodes (by definition the other side of the world) at 11:18am, but we had to stew inside as the ship moved around to Anchorage Bay to reduce the danger of loading zodiacs (in the end it was still very difficult, Sue getting drenched up to the waist by a rouge wave, however miraculously remaining dry inside apart from her left gumboot).

Finally, after a quick lunch and much confusion about the surrounding prions, we boarded the zodiacs and headed off. I didn't take the short lens because switching on a zodiac is a terrible idea, but under the blue sky and southern sun, the scenery was amazing, with cliffs towering vertically above us, spotted with the occasional Cape Petrel or LMSA.

We cruised round to a small colony of Erect-crested Penguins (a few Southern Rockhoppers on the way), and while waiting in queue to get in close with our zodiac, I spotted a parakeet fly into a tussock above us. After a tense half-hour, everybody in all five boats had fantastic views of both Antipodes (the rarer species, identified first) and Reischek's Parakeet, the former being very much a luck bird, and often seen only poorly in flight rather than our prolonged views on a ridge! Very exciting, as it is rare that everybody on the zodiacs sees both species!)

Antipodes Parakeets
Reischek's Parakeet
Erect Pair

Spent the rest of the cruise photographing New Zealand Fur Seals (including one male Sub-Antarctic), pipits, penguins, and a few more Reischek's. With the aid of photos, Rob, Dani and I did finally pick out one prion looping around the sea cliffs which was *certainly* a Fulmar Prion.

The Circle of Life
Antipodes Pipit
Male Subantarctic Sea Lion
Artistic-crested Penguin

Currently waiting for dinner in the leeward side of the island and arguing about prion identification.

The other side of the world

And a quick shout-out to the Million Dollar Mouse Project, which still needs the support of a few more donors to reach their goal of eradicating mice from the Antipodes - a truly worthy cause, and something which I hope is indeed achieved as soon as possible! 

Day 12: 26th November
Woke up at the Bounty Islands, greeted by numerous Bounty Shags circling the ship. A sobering thought to think that we were probably the first people to see this species this year, highlighting how isolated we are from civilisation. The true spirit of the Southern Ocean!

Bounty Shag
Salvin's Albatross resting on the water...
With the Bounty Islands behind

Thousands of Salvin's Albatross glided around in the wind (too strong for zodiacs), and Fulmar Prions were abundant (however of course there were still a few Faries mixed in just to confuse us).

Fulmar Prion 1*
Fulmar Prion 2*
Fairyish Fulmar Prion 3*
Fulmar Prion 4*

*Labelled prion may not necessarily be the given species, but I think they are! 

As we headed away from these exquisite islands, we chucked a bit of chum over the side and had hundreds of Salvin's Albatross fighting over chunks of Barracuda in front of us.

The Sunlit Bounty Islands - named for Captain Bligh's ship...
... not for the Bounty of Birdlife here!

Salvin's Albatross 

 To the top deck we have now moved, as we just entered Magenta Petrel and Chatham Petrel territory. Non-stop petrel vigil for the next few days is guaranteed. Signing out for the moment...

... The rest of the day was very slow, with the only identifiable cetaceans being a few Long-finned Pilot Whales, and the birds being the same as previous days in even lower densities. Had some very good views of Subantarctic Little Shearwater and Soft-plumaged Petrels in the evening whilst skipping entree (scoffed the main down in 3 minutes flat to get back out), including two Intermediate/Dark morph birds.

Speaking of which, the food cooked by Bruce and Dean was fantastic for the whole trip, and the lovely serving staff were always knowingly providing Dani and myself with seconds, often even before we asked!!! 10/10 haha!

Day 13: 27th November
4:47am start for crossing the best* stretch of water for pelagic birding in the world - the Chatham Rise. Species such as Magenta Petrel and Chatham Petrel feed in these waters alongside various species of Beaked Whales and dolphins.

Today, it was a desert.

Around 5 hours after our fruitless early wake up, we found out why we were only getting spatterings of albatross, White-faced Storm Petrels and not one single Pterodroma. In the distance we spotted what else but a fishing trawler. And what was behind it but a dense stream of birds stretching for miles behind it, as far as the binocular could see! We estimated more than 30,000 birds. It was an amazing spectacle... which we observed from a distance of 5 miles... And as soon as we turned and started heading over, the trawler turned and steamed away from us at top speed (presumably thinking we were inspectors haha).

The birds in the wake of this ship stretched for so far that we actually picked some up even from the immense distance between us, so we did a little chumming. Had good numbers of both Chatham and Pacific (Northern) Buller's Albatross. Those of us remaining on the top deck were treated to two Sperm Whales popping up 50m away and hanging around for a few minutes.

Northern Buller's Albatross
Chatham Albatross and photobombing NBA
Every man for himself!
Chatham Albatross
It's sharp, but someone's head is in the way...

Our rare petrel vigil remained fruitless as we steamed towards The Pyramid. Rising out of the water just south of the main Chatham Islands, this rock holds almost the whole worldwide Chatham Albatross population.

The... sideways... Pyramid... 
Blogger won't let me rotate these photos...

An unfavourable weather forecast saw Rodney decide to move our zodiacing around South-East Island forward 2 days - a good move! While it was very bumpy, and the light wasn't ideal, we still managed to get some excellent birds including Shore Plover, Chatham Little Penguin, Chatham Tui, Chatham Red-crowned Parakeet , Chatham Brown Skua, and many Pitt Island Shags.

Pitt Island Shags
Shore Plover - one of the rarest birds in the world
Only about 100 left in the wild
The possible future species of Chatham Skua

Frustratingly, the conditions rendered accurate ID of three observed Petroica Robins impossible, although I am always going to be convinced that indeed I have seen both Chatham Tomtit and Black Robin...

This zodiac trip left us running late for our rendezvous with the Horns for Magenta Petrel in the evening, and despite our vigil until we could no longer tell Buller's Albatross from Pterodromas (yes, I made that mis-ID), as the trip currently stands we remain Magentaless... (and Oystercatcherless)

As a consolation, we did conveniently have excellent views of a single Chatham Shag, which flew from the breeding island directly out to the ship before circling three times just above eye level and heading straight back to the island.

Day 14: 28th November
Bittersweet - birding can be harsh

After our earliest ship-official wake up of the trip at 5:45 (of course on the first day we could have actually slept in!), we headed over to Waitangi on the very wet zodiacs. On arrival, a Chatham Oystercatcher was already scoped, and as we were discussing how to get better views, it flew 1km along the coast and landed only 50m from us - it was great to get this sometimes stressful bird early in the day - there are no backups!

No backups needed - Chatham Oystercatcher

The next few hours were spent at Tuku Reserve, where (with effort) I got good views of Chatham Pigeon, Chatham Gerygone (this bird was much harder to see than expected!), the Chatham races of Fantail and Tui, and also an obliging Buff Weka, an introduced subspecies now extinct at it's source. Rob also got both species (not after a bit of stress) after returning from his Taiko Encounter.

Chatham Pigeon - once almost extinct, now common!
Great conservation work has been done by the owners of Tuku Reserve!

As the wind picked up to 40 knots and the rain began to fall heavily from the heavens, we headed to Waitangi Hotel for a "cultural exchange". After some difficulty and delay, transfer back to the ship was eventually organised and Rob and I cracked ourselves up as Rodney gunned the zodiac across the bay and soaked everyone in the boat from head to toe.

Visibility was poor as we headed south to the area directly offshore from the Taiko Trust breeding reserve. The 40 knot wind made chumming impractical, and birds shot past the boat in less than 5 seconds after appearing through the mist. It was looking grim as dinner was called until from the side of the boat came "it's got a dark hood and white... ... MAGENTA PETREL!!!"

All still on the bridge watched as it flew parallel to the ship for a time before disappearing atmospherically into the mist. Everyone who was skipping dinner had very good (albeit distant) views of the world's rarest seabird, with only 9 pairs currently breeding and a world population of approximately 40 birds - high fives exchanged all round as Dani showed off his proof photo.

Now, after seeing such a bird, most people would be over the moon, which I was until I missed that damn Chatham Petrel flying in front of the bow while I was scanning our wake a few minutes later! Bittersweet indeed, couldn't quite celebrate as much as the lucky few.

Yet, who can't be happy after Magenta Petrel?!?! That is a fantastic bird to cherish indeed!

Three full days at sea en. route to Dunedin will hopefully lift my spirits.

Day 15: 29th November
Surprise! What a way to clean up the Southern Ocean and make our way to the best Birding Down Under list OF ALL TIME! The day started well with huge waves and strong winds, my first tickable cooklaria being Black-winged Petrel closely followed by Cook's Petrel. As the day wore on we continuously checked the cooklarias coming past in the hope of rarities, alas to no avail (yet)...

We repeatedly checked the White-chinned Petrels and after pointing out one to Dani which appeared to have a different jizz, photos confirmed Westland Petrel! A rare bird on this leg of the trip.

At this point, Dani and I had  been discussing the Great Australian Great Shearwater Influx of '11 for a few minutes, and we were still talking about Great Shearwaters when I noticed a very pale Buller's Shearwater right behind the boat and HOLY CR@P IT'S A GREAT SHEARWATER!!! The second mega vagrant of the trip after Chinstrap Penguin and (somehow) Dani's 3rd trip vagrant for NZ (the first being Dunlin, the second being a different Great Shear in the Haraki Gulf... Don't ask me how he managed that).

An ill-timed shower left me Gould's Petrelless (thank god it wasn't a Steineger's as originally called), and at bird log a discussion with Adam revealed that our total trip count of 46 tubenoses was a record for BDU (my count of course now being 44 lacking Exulans Albatross and Chatham Petrel). The next two days will be spent trying to crack 50 - stay tuned!

Buller's Shearwater

Day 16: 30th November
Fairly quiet and relaxing day, but we added Flesh-footed, Fluttering and Hutton's Shearwater to the trip list bringing us to 49, with either Pycroft's Petrel or some mega vagrant like Laysan Albatross needed to bring us up to 50. Also an unexpected double Southern Fulmar today with a number of Great Albatross around the ship which I used to work on my ID skills.

Day 17: 1st December
Summer has arrived, and I can still see Cape Petrels wheeling around with Salvin's Albatross. We have now moved away from the Chatham Rise, and are due to arrive at Dunedin 14 hours early (5:00pm today) - we could already see the snow capped peaks of the South Island before breakfast. Birds are few and far between, with only a few different species, quite a contrast to yesterday. I guess we're slowly being weaned off the spectacular variety of Southern Ocean pelagic species as we all prepare to go home tomorrow. Dusky Dolphins have been seen a few times at the bow, but most people (including Rob, Dani and myself) have given up birding for a well-deserved rest as the wind remains up around 40 knots! The expedition recount in the lecture room was an excellent way to conclude the experience before a final dinner in the dining room.

Day 18: 2nd December
And so this experience of a life time comes to an end. Wow. I know I've written 11 pages of text on my experiences, but I could never fully convey how extraordinary this trip was. Congratulations to the Heritage team and Rodney for pulling off a flawless birding trip. Thank you to the guides and zodiac drivers (Adam, Meghan, Samuel and Agnes) for getting us the birds, the dining staff, the Russian crew, all those who put up with my questions and excessive enthusiasm, and to all the new birding friends I have made - may your future avian endeavors be prosperous! It will probably be a few decades, but the Southern Ocean has hooked me, so I know one day I'll be back (plus the Heritage Far East and WPO expeditions have taken my fancy also!).

Until then, one very happy Enderby Trust Scholarship recipient signing out.

Joshua Bergmark

Of course this Great Albatross is unidentifiable to species* level...
That's how birding in the Southern Ocean works!
* or subspecies - no taxonomic arguments here!