Sunday, May 20, 2018

700 Part One


Lists. Listing. I love my bird list. It gives me goals. Pursuing those goals and those wondrous birds have taken me into the most incredible, beautiful landscapes in the world. I have seen so much of Australia, and I really owe it to the birds, to my list of birds. Some people do not get it. They do not have to.

On the morning of 10 May, my buddy James Cornelious and I left Victoria and drove north. I had hopes of increasing my life list. James is not only a good friend and a good birder, he is also young and has excellent ears. We were heading for Birdsville, QLD and I wanted grasswrens. They are impossible for me to hear.
My snug sleeping area 'downstairs' in Troopi. James was 'upstairs' in the bed in the poptop.
Thankfully, we had no dramas on the way up, but Robert took a different track out of Cunnamulla and had a puncture. We departed Windorah, QLD on 13 May headed west toward the world famous ‘town’ of Birdsville and the Birdsville Track.

After about an hour of driving a large bird flew across the track just in front of us. Flock Bronzewing! We stopped and it joined about 150 others in a flock. We got out and watched, and loved them. Not a life bird for me, but one for James (he got 14 lifers on the trip). However, they were definitely the best views I had ever gotten of this cool bird.

A bit further down the road, Robert came on the radio and said, “I think I saw Gibberbirds.” He made a u-turn, we stopped, and soon we were all looking at five of these awesome, and often hard to find, little chats. We headed on and in about ten kilometres we saw three birds flying on our left. I was asking James what he thought those were as we all realized… GREY FALCONS! Yes! We had three Grey Falcons flying beside and then over us. Wow. We pulled off the track and marvelled at these stunning and rare raptors.

Our next stop held my hopes for my first life bird of the trip. If I found it, it would put my list at 699. There is a dune ridge about 17.5 kilometres east of Birdsville where Nikolas Haass had eBirded Eyrean Grasswrens last November. We stopped and began to bird down the ridge. James and I headed south. James was occasionally hearing them and I had possibly a fleeting glimpse of one. We were about three-quarters of a kilometre from the road and I discovered that I had mobile signal. I called Robert who was back at the vehicles and he said that he had the grasswrens on the ridge just north of the road! We rushed back through the soft sand and soon were looking at least three Eyrean Grasswrens. Yes! 

We drove into iconic Birdsville, Queensland for Lifer Pie and discovered that the bakery was closed on Sunday. We checked into our cabin. Robert’s brother-in-law, Chris was travelling with him. He had had a stroke a few years ago and needs a ventilator when he sleeps. So we were going to be using cabins and rooms for this part of the journey. We considered heading the 90 kilometres south to have our first try at the Grey Grasswrens that arvo, but we decided it would be better to wait and go early the next morning. We had a Sunday Roast dinner at the Birdsville Hotel (outdoors with a lot of flies, but good) and then settled in our cabin for the night.

The next morning we were heading south before dawn. The 90 kilometres took probably an hour and fifteen minutes or so on the track and we arrived at the spot about 7am. We searched basically two locations: one in the neighbourhood of 90 kilometres from Birdsville and one about a kilometre and a half further down the track. We birded hard in these spots until after 1pm and gave up. I had glimpsed a probable Grey GW and James had possibly heard a few, but that was all. We drove back to Birdsville and arrived just before the Bakery closed at 2:30pm. I did try a Curried Camel Pie and it was surprisingly delicious! I would order it again. We messed about Birdsville and I went over to the bore to see the Pied Honeyeaters that James and Robert had seen there the day before. We supped at the pub and went to bed early.

Eyrean Grasswren Lifer Selfie with James at the Birdsville Hotel

The next morning we packed everything up and left even earlier than the day before. This would be our last shot at Grey Grasswren. I had spoken with Laurie Ross for his advice and he suggested we focus on the area about 92 kilometres south. That was the second area we had birded. We rocked up in the same spot we had parked the day before. It was not even first light yet. We birded that area for a couple of hours. I was birding ‘through’ the shimmering, rainbow arc of a rather impressive visual migraine, something I only occasionally experience. They are not painful and last about a half an hour. James heard grasswrens a few times, but no joy.

An old man and his hearing-ear boy (photo by Robert Shore)

We were sticking to that area and had worked our way back behind where we had parked the Troopies. Then James heard the grasswrens. He crept slowly (and he can creep really slowly) toward the contact calls that he was hearing. After several minutes he put his bins up and looked. He turned back to me and said, “I’ve got them!”

I will never forget the look on his face. Anyone who has birded much has seen it, the pure elation that beams from the face of someone who has just seen a difficult bird. I knew he had them. Now I needed to see them and one popped up! I saw it, but it was only for a fraction of a second. They were across the track from us. We headed over and after about fifteen minutes following James’ ears, I saw one perched low in a saltbush. YES! It was a heart-touching view of a Grey Grasswren. Then it dropped to the ground and I thought I would get a photo. Haha! It had been right there and then it was gone. It had disappeared into a hole in the space/time continuum as they do. But I had seen it. I had seen my 700th species of bird in Australia. As I walked back to the Troopies, there were tears in my eyes.
Grey Grasswren Lifer Selfie 700! (Yes, there were flies).          
Robert and me and the flies (photo by James Cornelious)

I had always considered 700 to be the number goal of my bird list. I know there are quite a few birders who have gone over 800 now, and a few who are even approaching 900. However to me, 700 is the truly a magical number. It is a celebration number, perhaps even a tattoo worthy number. It means a LOT to me and I am so very grateful. More to come in 700 Part Two.

Sending Love from Oz...

Monday, April 23, 2018

An Unexpected Journey Part Two: Ups and Downs

I went back to the caravan park to turn in my key and see whether the manager really meant it when he suggested refunding my money. I had already packed everything up since I was not confident in the cabin door’s ability to be locked securely. I was carrying the key and the parts of the spring that had fallen out of the mechanism in the palm of my hand. The manager saw me coming and did not even ask what happened, he just stated rhetorically, “How did I know?” And we walked into the office where he said to his wife, “Refund his money” and walked out.

This was unpleasant. He had suggesting the fucking refund, I had not asked for it. He was gone and his wife asked me, “Why are we refunding your money?” I said, “Because he said to. It was his idea.” And she still asked, “But why.” And I asked her, “Remember coming to let us out of the cabin last night? The door lock did not work right.” And she wrote, “broken lock” in a ledger and gave me a refund. She was not smiling. I told her that I had travelled all the way around Australia for a year and had never asked for, nor needed a refund. I said my wife and I were travelling and birding.

And then it all changed. She got her bird book out and was asking me about Gouldian Finches (everyone asks about Gouldians). And then she was telling me there was a bowerbird bower on the property. I finally had to cut the chit-chat short so that I could get going. She had gone from adversarial to amiable through the bird connection. That was nice.

And with that refund, I figured I could splurge and stay the night at one of my favourite places in Australia. I was only about an hour away from Mataranka and Bitter Springs.

I stopped at the Woolworths in Katherine and got some stuff. During The Year, I had gone to that grocery several times. I “knew” that store. It is so cool to me that I am familiar with grocery stores, servos, caravan parks etc. and so on, all across Australia. I experienced this familiarity throughout this journey. In Alice Springs, in Tennant Creek, in Kimba, in Waikerie, in Murray Bridge… parts of the whole continent are like my extended neighborhood and I think that is a wonderful thing. It truly is.

Mataranka is a magical place for me. It is not the springs, although they are beautiful and very cool (although quite warm). It is the total vibe of the place. We stayed a night in a cabin there when we were in the Top End with friends in 2012. I loved those cabins then and they have not changed. I phoned from the car park at Woolworths and reserved a cabin. I said that I would be there in about an hour and asked that they start the air con. I rolled into Bitter Springs Cabins and Camping and by 11am I was checked into my literally and figuratively cool cabin.

Before I got too settled, I decided I would finally go for a swim in the springs, something I had not done on my previous visits. I have had my dive bag with my snorkel gear tucked behind the seat in Troopi for ages. I got it out and I went to the springs. The water is very warm and it is gorgeous down there, but underwater, there is not a lot to see. I saw a few tiny fishes and lots of grey/brown algae covering everything. Doing things like that alone is not my way, nor would it be my choice, but I was there, and I was alone. I somewhat enjoyed it and I was glad that I did it. I often do things because I know that afterwards I will be glad I have done them. However I do not really enjoy them in the moment, not alone anyway.

After only about forty-five minutes I was back in the comfy cabin and spent the rest of the day just hanging out. I showered and even took a short nap. I had not had one of those in a while. Then I had a couple of non-alcoholic beers and a lot of pistachios while fiddling with the laptop. The internet, that electronic companionship that helps keep those of us who are the antithesis of loners from losing our minds (maybe).

I had my usual sandwich and some potato chips. Then I had an ice cream on a stick for my Lifer Pie. They had only had one kind at the office/store and it was Connoisseur Murray River Salted Caramel with Macadamia. That was the go-to Lifer Pie ice cream on a stick during The Year. That was perfect.

I had a lovely evening and the best and longest night’s sleep of the journey. The next morning I drove on to Tennant Creek and stayed in the Tennant Creek Caravan Park. We had stayed there twice during The Year and now I was staying there a second time on the Unexpected Journey. Familiarity.

My next stop over was Alice Springs. I arrived in Alice, went to its very familiar Woolies grocery downtown and then checked into the G’day Mate Caravan Park. I liked that park. The heat was dropping and I had a shady spot. I took a nap. I took a shower. I was sort of content. Not a feeling I experience a lot. I do like it. I just don’t achieve it very often.

The next morning I drove to Coober Pedy for the night. The twins (Depression and Anxiety, as mentioned in Part One) although with me, had stayed in the background most of the time. I had been on a quest, and even alone, questing is something that suites my brain. I was leaving the NT and would be two days drive away from another try at the Copperback Quail Thrush. It did not have the quest feeling of the dash up to the mannikins. I am not sure why either, possibly because I had my doubts about finding the bird. 
Leaving the NT
And it was also my sobriety birthday the next day. On Monday 16 April 2018 I turned 28 years sober. Instead of feeling any sense of accomplishment or joy it just hammered home my sadness and solitude. The twins were completely running the show. It was a shitty, emotional drive down to Lake Gilles. I arrived there at a beautiful spot (although rather too many flies- see photo below). I know that the Quail-thrushes are consistently seen there. I birded that area hard for several hours until dusk without a glimpse of a QT. I decided to drive the twenty minutes into Kimba to the nice free camp for the night.
Lord of the Flies

I find the mallee incredibly beautiful. 
I slept fitfully and was up before 4am and back out at the birding site before first light. It was unexpectedly drizzling and foggy. Regardless of the wet, I birded that gorgeous area of mallee until about 10am at which point I gave up. I had had no sign, nor sound of a Copperback. Robert and I had searched for them two weeks before. I had come back and searched for them (Lynn and I had also looked for them in 2016 on the way back from Venus Bay). So as the Yellow-rumped Mannikin bogey bird was ticked, a new bogey was beginning to be created.

I think anyone who is a serious birder has a bogey bird (or two). If I counted pelagic birds as bogies, Common Diving Petrel is definitely in the running for me as well. But pelagic birds are a different kettle of fish (no pun intended). I do pursue them, but with a different attitude than I have about terrestrial birds.

I decided to drive over and stay the night in Murray Bridge, SA and from there I could reach Lara the next day. It was the first caravan park where Lynn and I had camped in Troopi, Boxing Day 2015. That also hammered home the loneliness and sadness. The twins were right there with me. I showered, had my last ‘road sandwich,’ got a night’s sleep and was driving east as the sun began to rise. I was back in Lara by 3pm.

After 12 days and over 74 hundred miles, Troopi and I were parked again at the tiny house. It is a house that is too small for two and far too small for four if the twins are visiting, and it seems they are more often than not. 
That is more like 50 Troopi hours. We only go 90-95 kph and the speed limit in the NT is 130 kph.
Lifer Day at my little desk. I had NA beer and pistachios whilst writing Part One of this blog.
I am not sure if this is an appropriate entry for my blog. There is “keeping it real,” but there is also “dragging everyone else down into my personal crap.” So I am not sure. And I will never write a “poor little me” entry. Fuck that. I truly do know how much I have to be grateful for, but sometimes that is what feeds the twins even more. I feel better this afternoon and for that I am grateful. I also want others to know that sometimes you can get through some of this crap, not always, but sometimes.

Peace. Love. Contact.

Friday, April 20, 2018

An Unexpected Journey Part One: Top End Bogey Bird

First, the keeping it real part. I experienced some unexpected and frighteningly dark depression in Tassie in January. A month later, I was attempting to “get back on the horse” with a solo trip up to Queensland. It did not go well. Anxiety and Depression, the vicious conjoined twins, the yin and yang of my unhappy brain had taken over and were running the show. It was not a happy show.

So I called and got an appointment with my GP for early the next week and just headed home. I had only birded about 5 hours up there. Long story short, I got back and saw my GP. Then I saw my neurologist. He gave me botox injections in my head that have now almost eliminated the daily headaches that I had been having for months (and I am very damn grateful for that!). I got in with a psychologist named Sigmund and am beginning the process of climbing, one step at a time, up from that damn dungeon of fear, sadness and nothingness. With Sigmund’s encouragement, I decided I would go off again birding for a few days. It is what I used to enjoy. I am working on beating the vicious twins as best as I can.

My plan was to meet up with Robert at Gluepot (or Waikerie) and then go up the Birdsville Track with the Vic Birder Group that Phil Peel organized. Out and back in a few days and could get three lifers! I arrived in Waikerie, SA after a long ten-hour drive, to discover that the Birdsville Track was flooding. I needed to change my plans.
Crossing the Murray River on the ferry. Troopi and I were the only ones on board at 6am. 

Robert and I decided to travel over to the Lake Gilles area and stay in the excellent free camp in Kimba, SA. It is the little town of “Halfway Across Australia” fame. We were going to look for the Copperback Quail-thrush and then go meet up with the Vic Birder Group in Coober Pedy. Despite having coordinates of a recent sighting, there were no Cooperbacks to be found. We headed on north mid morning. I did a selfie at the Giant Galah and the Halfway Across Australia sign. Lynn and I passed that sign 3 times during The Year.

I arrived in Coober Pedy on dusk. Robert got there a bit later. After a nice night’s sleep, I was up in the dark chatting with Phil and waiting on the sun. Here is a photo of Phil in the dark. It really is Phil.

The sun did rise and soon after we saw the Thick-billed Grasswren! Thank you Phil, Tim, Jack and the group. Younger ears made finding that bird much easier. This was my first lifer in a while. By the way, it is an excellent free camp out there by the monument although during the day there can be a lot of flies.

Thick-billed Grasswren recording shot. It is right there in the middle.

That grasswren was the only bird in the region that would be a lifer for me. The group was heading north to Marla and then to Alice Springs. I was considering just going back south. But, but, but. There were Yellow-rumped Mannikins being seen consistently in Katherine in the Northern Territory. Robert had been banging-on about them. I was painfully aware of them. Friends had been posting gorgeous photos of these finches. Phil and Robert were both saying I should go for them. Even Lynn encouraged me to go. They had been one of two bogey birds of our Year in 2016. We had looked in most of the right places in WA and NT repeatedly and had never seen them. We had backtracked, we had made special trips, a bogey had been established.

So I decided to drive up to Erldunda, stay the night and decide what I was going to do. I looked on Google maps and saw that I could get to Tennant Creek the next day and then… Yes. I could be in Katherine the day after. In two days I could be looking at my last (for now) bogey bird.
In Troopi, that ends up being about 18 hrs. We only do a little over 90 kph and the speed limit is 130 out there.
I made the journey. My friend, Marc Gardner, who lives in Katherine, had given me spot on directions and a map of the site. Laurie Ross gave me the same gen. I rocked up at the mannikin location about 3pm. It was very hot and humid and as I expected at that time a day, there were no birds around (but I was there, I had to check). I left and took a cabin at a nearby caravan park. I turned on the air con and went to the store. I came back and the air con was “clicking.” I told the manager and he had a look and said that was a bad thing and moved me to another cabin. The air con in there worked fine. I moved my stuff, had a sandwich and then I went back to the mannikin ditch about 5:30. In the late arvo light, I saw a pair of Yellow-rumped Mannikins! I did it! Bogey no more! I had seen all of the finches in Australia. The photos were pretty bad, but I am not about that. I was happy!

I headed back to my cabin and settled in for an early night. I planned to be back in that ditch at first light hoping for more looks at these beauties. About 8pm, I discovered that the sliding door latch was jammed. I was locked in the cabin (and it did not have an en-suite). I tried everything I could think of to no avail. I found the “emergencies only” number and called it. The manager came. He let himself in with his key. Then he explained, as if to a child, how it was not possible for this simple mechanism to jam. He used to install windows and doors for a living. He showed me over and over how this latch locked and unlocked. It could not jam. And I reminded him that it had. He said that it was just not possible.

Then it jammed on him.

Now we were locked in the cabin together. AND his mobile phone was on charge at the office. He had his wife’s mobile so he could not call her to come and rescue us! He finally figured out what his landline number was and called his wife. She came with a key and opened the door. He took the latch apart and left me a screwdriver to fully disassemble it should it lock me in again. He said that if I had any more problems, he would give me a refund.

Exhausted, I went to bed before ten. I had just drifted off as something, possibly a possum, made a scraping and knocking in the metal wall. I bolted out of the bed thinking someone was breaking in. No one was. I went back to bed and maybe an hour later I was awakened by a louder noise of a similar nature. I was up and out again. I checked outside. Nothing. This time the spring popped off the latch and I was unsure that it would effectively remain locked. Long story short, I had crap night’s sleep. And I was up at 4am.

There were a couple more dramas. One was seeing the hairiest human being I have ever beheld. He was brushing his teeth in the amenities. This guy was “circus hairy,” real sideshow stuff (and yet balding on top, go figure). Then back at the cabin, the ten-litre water box exploded as I opened the spout, jetting water as if from a fire hose onto me and the floor. Thank God it had not happened in the back of Troopi where I have opened scores of those boxes without any problems. Regardless, I was back at the ditch at first light and as the sun rose, I saw the mannikins again. Glory. I went back, packed up, and on my way off, I stopped by the ditch about 8:30am and had the best views yet. While I was Facetiming Lynn, the mannikins returned and she saw one through the phone! That was cool. I wish she had actually been there.

Me in the ditch. The first Lifer Selfie in a while and the first solo Lifer Selfie in a long while.
That was Thursday morning 12 April. I had left Lara on Friday 6 April, planning to be gone for a few days and there I was in the Top End. Amazing. I will tell y’all about the second week in the next entry. I wish I could tell you that the ‘twins’ had been left behind, but they definitely kept me company some of the time.

The book, The Year, is almost finished. It should be available in a month or so for real.

Love. Peace. Contact.