Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Opposite of Lifer High

At times the light was gorgeous, but the winds were extremely strong.

Back at the end of February 2021, I began planning an Eaglehawk Neck Pelagic aimed at the best chance for a Grey-headed Albatross, and perhaps even a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. As I knew, it seemed that the end of May toward early June would be best. I contacted my dear friend Karen Dick and she looked into when the Paulette was available. We could not get it for the weekend of 29-30 May since the Queensland group had booked it, but she arranged with John (the boat captain) for us to have 27-28 May. I contacted friends and quickly we had a full boat. 

As we got closer to our dates, the wind was forecast to be extreme. We had hopes, but the seas were too much even for EHN. We could only do a partial day on the 27th and Friday the 28th was a full blow-out. We did not even leave the jetty. The Queensland group arrived that afternoon and were able to go out on the 29th. They got both albatrosses and even an Antarctic Tern as well as other desirable birds, but those three would have been Lifers for me. I had missed them by one day. 

Yes, it was a horrible feeling of disappointment. The expression “gutted” is quite spot-on. Both of my most hoped for pelagic birds, missed by one day, only twenty-four hours. For all of the wonders, joys and possibilities of Pelagic birding, one must bear in mind that the birding itself is 99.9% luck. Sure, we chose our dates wisely. We knew that there was a better chance of Grey-headed at that time and we were there. We had done our part, but the weather would just not allow us to get out to them. 

I have never liked relying purely on "luck." I loathe gambling games and do not play them. Never, not if it was ever so, will I choose to ‘play’ a game of chance. But I will certainly gamble on more Eaglehawk Neck pelagics. I love seeing my dear, dear Tassie friends, and I love the Tasman Sea and the sheer beauty of the land down under the land down under. The birds are the lure, the carrot-on-the-stick that takes me down there. Whether I see those birds or not is only luck.

I have been very fortunate in the birds that I have seen in my birding life. Whether on land or at sea, I have beheld some truly wonderful birds. I have written a lot about what I call, “Lifer High” (especially in the next book to be released in August 2022). I have not written much about the sadness and the disappointment of missing out. It isn’t something that I am exactly keen on sharing, and honestly, I haven’t experienced it very often. But as we all know, missing out occasionally is always a part of birding. 

To make this trip I spent money I did not have and once again, I broke painfully through the walls of anxiety to go. And then to miss what would have been complete success by one day was gutting. It is okay because it has to be, and make no mistake, I will try again, and I will see those birds when I am supposed to see them. I know this. There is some sort of synchronicity here, it just has not yet revealed itself to me. It will when it is time. Everything has its time. 

And I will close with this… speaking of “just one day” on 14 January 2018, I saw the Juan Fernandez Petrel glide toward, and then along beside the Paulette off Eaglehawk Neck. That had never happened before, nor has it happened since. There will be other Grey-headed and Light-mantled, and I will see them when I am meant to. That’s how this stuff works. Here are a few shots of Juan. 

(Paul Brooks back of camera shot of Juan's underside)

And while I am at it, here are a few pretty random photos of birds I have seen on some very successful birding trips. I am choosing to remember and remind myself how fortunate I have been in my birding. I am truly grateful. It is not just lip-service, it is heart-felt gratitude. 

Princess Parrots September 2018

Orange-bellied Parrots, June 2012

Scarlet-chested Parrot, October 2012

Black Grasswren April 2016

Letter-winged Kite April 2017

I create therefore I exist. I share therefore it’s real. I love y’all because I need to be loved.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Great Grasswren Expedition: Part Two

James' photo of me drinking-in the sunset as I would. I love this photo.

We left the Opalton Bush Camp with very specific instructions provided by a knowledgeable local. He made us a “mud map” with written directions to get to the track up to Lark Quarry going north, and to Windorah going south. This route worked without a hitch and we arrived, safe and dusty in Windorah later that arvo. Before long we heard from Team Soobi. They had driven up to Lark Quarry, seen the resident Grey Falcon on its tower and decided to come on down to Windorah. 

The two teams left the next morning for Birdsville. Team Soobi did a bit of birding on the way and picked up Eyrean Grasswren in the same spot James and I had gotten our Lifers in May of 2018. Team Troopi drove on to the Birdsville Bakery in hopes of curried camel pie (priorities haha). We did arrive before their silly closing time of 2:30pm, but still it was not to be. They would not have any camel until 10 May (it was 4 May). Instead we had kangaroo pies and they were almost as delicious.

Then we checked into the Birdsville Caravan Park. There was a long queue to register, and the flies were intense (see the photo of me in queue wearing a head-net. Don’t laugh, they do work). After over a half an hour, I secured us a powered site in partial shade up the front. The weather was delightful. It can be in the upper 30’s out there in early May, but it was in the low 20’s. We slept well and, in the morning, both teams were off at first light to the birder-famous Grey Grasswren site 91 kilometres south of Birdsville. 


As told in Chapter Twelve, it is the spot where I saw my 700th Australian bird. It is a very special place to me. I saw that bird only because of James’ ears. I cannot hear grasswrens at all. According to an audiologist, I have severe hearing loss in my right ear and moderate hearing loss in my left. That was three years ago, and it has gone further downhill since then. A lot of loud rock and roll and a lot of performing with amplification over the years. I used to turn my right ear to the monitors, and I reckon that is how I got most of the damage. As you know, I had my hearing ear boy with me. 

We pulled off onto the side of the track by the same spot where we had parked Troopi on 15 May 2018. We were able to drive off the track and onto a small open area to park back then, but now there is a ditch preventing that. It did not matter; we were in the right place. We began birding and by birding, I mean that James, David and Alan were listening, and I was following them around. Soon we were at a large lignum bush in which they could hear grasswrens. I took their words for it and we stared at that bush. 

And then David saw a Grey Grasswren inside the bush. Now we knew for sure it was in there. We stared some more and other tiny glimpses were achieved, but that was all. They were hearing other GGWs behind us as well and we changed lignum bushes. By now my back was screaming at me. Just standing around makes my back ache as it has done for years (probably from having such poor posture). I walked over to Troopi and got my old camp chair and returned to watching the bush. The others were now on camp chairs too, except James. I have called James the ‘squat king’ because he can squat for hours. I can no longer squat. My knees just don’t do that anymore and if I did manage it, I do not reckon I could un-squat. 

We stared at that lignum bush. I was sitting down, and I was wearing a fly-net. It was pretty easy birding. I glimpsed the grasswren move about inside the bush. And then, it popped out and dropped down to the ground. I could hardly believe my eyes! That is an expression I have often heard but rarely experienced. This was that experience. I could hardly believe I was seeing a Grey Grasswren out in the open! It was moving fast, but there it was! and I got some recording shots. It was quite a thrill for me to see my 700th bird again and even make its photo. I was very pleased. I reckon that Grey Grasswren is easily my favourite grasswren. They are incredibly beautiful and difficult to see. These are things that birders tend to like, and I certainly do. Here are some photos.



We had decided to only go as far as Mungerannie and camp there. It is an unpowered camp, but they do have showers and toilets. I called and spoke to the owner, Phil, the day before. I had met him the afternoon after seeing the Grey Grasswren in 2018, so admittedly I had been in the best state of Lifer High at the time. Regardless, I remembered it is a pretty cool place. I chatted with Phil and told him we were coming there the next day and even asked if a bit of power could be sorted. He said, “Yeah, come on down. We’ll figure out something.” Cool, it was all sorted. So we took our time getting there. 

After a few stops, which included looking at and photographing a cute as Gibberbird, we arrived at Mungerannie. As James finished topping off Troopi’s main tank I had gone in to see Phil. However, he wasn’t there. He was not ‘seeing people.’ The seemingly disinterested lady behind the bar said, and I quote, “Phil is not the best version of Phil today.” She really said that, whatever that might mean. I told her what I had spoken to him about and she said she knew nothing about any of that. Then she told me that their water was broken, and the showers and toilets did not work. At this point, James came in to pay for the diesel on his card. He does not carry cash. She said their Eftpos machine wasn’t working. In the meantime, in what I remembered from three years ago as a very friendly place, the punters at the bar were eyeing us like they were extras from the film Deliverance. It was actually creepy (and I even like banjo music haha). The continuingly unhelpful lady then said that Marree, which was the only possible next accommodation or caravan park, was "only" two hundred kilometres down the track. She also mentioned that the track was in pretty good shape down to there. I got the feeling that we weren’t really wanted and that was an unusual as well as an uncomfortable feeling for me. && This is the exact opposite of my first visit there. And bear in mind that by now it was about an hour to sunset. Just as team Soobi arrived we all decided leave for Marree. I ate two muesli bars by way of dinner as I drove. We would not reach Marree until at least 7pm which is a bit late for my acid-reflux issues. 

About a half an hour before we reached the town, James and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a family of Inland Dotterels standing on the track. I hit the brakes and James got another Lifer. There were about six birds, including a very cute chick that we made sure was safely away from the track before we left. We also took its picture. Alan and David saw the chick as well. It was also a Lifer for Alan. 

As we reached our first mobile reception since Birdsville, we began trying to contact either of the two caravan parks. As is sometimes the case, neither park could be bothered to answer their phones. Over the radio (we did have radio communication between the vehicles) David said that several years ago he had stayed at the old hotel. It was a historic building built in 1883. I rang them and the very helpful and very friendly young lady (two qualities that had been sorely lacking back up the road) said that she could provide us accommodation, although they were quite full. There were tour groups rolling in. These were tourist tour groups, not birding tours. There is a big difference. 

This was the beginning of the time of year when some people about my age (I hate to admit) will gather in large groups and hire someone to show them stuff. Their “adventures” are seeing the things that we see on our way to see things. The birds lead us into awesome and I am grateful that they do. These tour groups also do a lot of eating and drinking. The restaurant at the motel was a madhouse and it took us ages just to get checked in. I was glad I had eaten my rather sparse dinner a few hours earlier. Our rooms were quite dear and not particularly nice, but they seemed mostly clean, and the mattress wasn’t bad. And I do not think it was haunted. 

We all left the next morning bidding a very fond farewell to our good friends of Team Soobi. It had been a very successful expedition. Sadly, Alan had discovered a flat tyre on his Subaru. It must have been a slow leak as they did not notice anything amiss as they were driving in, but merely saw that the car was leaning at an odd angle after it was parked in front of the hotel. They were headed for a tyre repair down the road. James and I headed south for the Arid Lands Park just north of Port Augusta. 

But first we called in to the Lyndhurst Hotel. I do love that place. We had stayed there on that wonderful day in May 2018 as is told in Chapter twelve of this book. It was as friendly and welcoming this time as it had been the first time. Laurie Kalms is the owner and in both my visits there, made me feel very welcome. I like him. I will also mention that their diesel was quite reasonable for the outback. We topped off Troopi’s tanks.

Continuing south, we arrived at the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden just north of Port Augusta around midday. Our friend Sam Gordon who lives in Adelaide, had given us suggestions to help James find a Chirruping Wedgebill. They suggested the scrub along the entrance road, particularly near the track over to the lookout. After maybe fifteen minutes looking around, near that track even I heard it “chirruping.” Soon we were both looking at this small, loud, grey bird with a crest. James added another Lifer. It stubbornly moved about inside the large bush and did not come out for photos. But it gave James some good Lifer views. Sweet. 

We headed along to Port Germein and took a site at yet another of my favourite caravan parks. As I was checking in, I told Des, the owner, about his park being in my book. He wanted to see it and I showed him. He was pleased. He ended up trading us a powered site for the copy. That was kind of cool. I autographed it for him. I had an excellent night’s sleep there. 
James' photo of the view out the front of the caravan park

The next day I discovered what was to become another favourite caravan park. The Port Wakefield Caravan Park was excellent, and our reasonably priced, powered site faced a gorgeous lagoon. My friend, Michael Greenshields came to the park and collected us to take us in search of a Grey Plover for James. There had been a couple of the waders being seen at two beaches near Port Wakefield. Michael lives close by and knows the area. I had thoroughly enjoyed being on his podcast, The Birder’s Guide, with him a few months ago. We had a great time birding with him, although the Plovers were just not around. 

We returned to the caravan park and experienced a beautiful sunset right out of Troopi’s back doors. It truly was stunning. James took a photo of me just gazing at it. I hope to use his picture as the back cover of this book. We will see. It has now become one of my favourite photos of me. Even though it is of my back, it still captures me, an old long-haired hippie drinking-in the sunset. That is who I am. It is a good photo of my life at present. Yes, I will always appreciate sunsets and sunrises, even if I have learn to do it alone. I deeply appreciate my dear friend James’ company and his artistic eye for seeing this photo and taking it. He was behind me and asked me to just stand there for a moment and he took that photo. He captured me in that moment. It was a good moment, thank you, buddy. 

James' photo again. I hope it will be the back cover. I may even frame it for my study.

The next day we looked briefly around Adelaide for a Barbary Dove for James, but it began to pour and pour rain. We will see it another time. We drove on to the Keith Caravan Park where I had reserved one of the very comfortable and yet so inexpensive cabins. We stayed there in Chapter Thirteen of this book and I will stay there again. We headed back to Lara the next day. The sun had set on the Great Grasswren Expedition. It was time to get back at my old desk and write about it. 

I will leave you with this. The outback is a melody that not everyone can hear but those who do, hear it in their very souls. It resonates within us like the drone of a digeridoo. It is as much a vibration as it is a sound. It is a part of the beating of my heart. 

She rolled past 400K and neither she, nor I, are done yet.

The actual mileage was more like 5,500 K. I could not include the whole route on Google maps (some of it did not exist haha).

A reminder that my first book, "An Australian Birding Year" is available worldwide and also as an eBook.

I write therefore I am. I share therefore it’s real. Love is all there is.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Great Grasswren Expedition: Part One

It was about a year ago when the IOC first gave the Rusty Grasswren full species status and renamed it the Opalton Grasswren. It had been a subspecies of the Striated Grasswren, and it was only to be found in the (well duh) Opalton area of western Queensland. I thought I’d be able to get up there in a couple of months as soon as that virus thing settled down. Little did I know how long that would take. There were a few trips planned that ended up cancelled. This autumn, I was finally able to make a solid plan for a trip up there with my buddy James. We were to leave the end of April and were going to be joined on the expedition by our friends, Alan Stringer and David Adam. It seemed like this time I was really going to go. 

Once again James and I were Team Troopi. Alan and David in Alan’s Subaru Outback became Team Subi (pronounced ‘soo-bee’). I like that. We left on Wednesday 28 April and travelled north to our first over-night at Merriwagga, NSW. It was a very nice, old caravan park. I will return sometime. Next, we were planning to stay at a park just south of the Queensland border. We arrived there and none of us could receive any functional mobile signal, even though the WikiCamps app listed the park as having Telstra. We decided to move along to one of my favourite parks in Oz, the Warrego Riverside Tourist Park in Cunnamulla, QLD. I really do love that park. 


Alan and David even picked up a lifer or two there. It is a great park for birders. Thanks to James, I even got a Lifer frog, the Red Tree Frog. Now I keep little lists of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, but my main focus remains on birds. Speaking of birds, on the entire expedition Alan added 19 Lifers and David picked up seven. The birding around that caravan park really is excellent. David said he would like to come back and stay there for a few days. Everything about that park is first rate.

The next morning, we rolled along to Tambo, QLD and took rooms at a nice little motel with beautiful bottle trees around it. I wanted an easy, comfortable night’s sleep. We would be leaving very early and (we thought) going ‘straight’ over to the Opalton Bush Camp. We were soon to discover that Robert Shore had been correct in his warning that navigation devices are incorrect between Longreach and the bush camp. We wandered around for hours trying to find a route that went through. 

However, at one point far down yet another track that did not lead to the seemingly mythical Opalton Road, we pulled into a nice little spot to discuss our options. Just in moments, David noticed a couple of Opalton Grasswrens! Yes! We were all quickly out of our vehicles and taking photos of the main target bird of the trip, and my only Lifer target of the expedition. We had accidentally found them where no one else had seen them before (that we know of anyway). I am not sure exactly where we were, but as best I know, the coordinates were: -23.4952161,142.8355741. Somewhere out there we also saw a group of babblers that turned out to be Hall’s Babblers! Those were a hoped-for target for James and the others as well. 

We may have been on private land. There was a gate involved but it was not signed. We merely closed it, since it was closed when we had gotten to it. That is the rule out there. If it is closed, reclose it. If it is open, leave it open. 

We rejoiced in the grasswrens, but we continued to try and find some route up to the bush camp. We never did. We decided to drive back to Longreach. We arrived there just before dark and stayed at a truly woebegone caravan park run by a literally loony anti-vaxxer lady. I did not have to talk with her. I just paid her and moved quickly along. David and Alan were not as lucky, and they got an earful about pig DNA, mutations and insane conspiracy talk. Later I said that at my age, almost any mutation would probably be an improvement. 

The next morning, we drove north to Winton and came down to the Opalton Bush Camp (or Bush Park, it gets referred to as both). The road is unsealed and occasionally rough, but at least it exists. We arrived at the camp in the early arvo. We found a nice spot to set up next to a little one-room, green building that James and I called the “vampire house.” We had joked about there being vampires in Queensland. I mean, not really, but it was funny at the time. There are no vampires in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia or New South Wales. The jury is still out on the NT though. They are quite possibly up there as well as in Queensland. 

We headed just across the track to bird an area recommended to us by several people who had been there recently. It was along the trail into Glenn’s house. He is basically the local of that area and a nice guy (and definitely not a vampire). James and I continued out to his place and had a short visit with him. When we returned, we discovered that David and Alan had found numerous Rufous-capped Emu-wrens. We marvelled and took photos. We had not yet seen the Opalton Grasswrens in their official area though. 

We decided to try a spot five or so kilometres down the track to the west. We still did not find the grasswrens, but we did see a Spinifexbird. Yet another target for the guys. As the day faded, we headed back to our camp. 

After one of the best night’s sleep that I had on the expedition, we went back across the track from camp again and quickly we were seeing those beautiful grasswrens. Several years ago, for various reasons, I stopped taking tonnes of bird photos. I used to occasionally shoot over a thousand in a day maybe eight or ten years ago. I took quite a few photos of the Opalton Grasswren and the Rufous-crowned EW, but certainly not a thousand. I am still not ‘about’ the photo, but I like them. It is a very personal and important choice for me, about me and how I enjoy birding. These are recording shots and memory shots. They are to supplement my words, not replace them. There are bird photographers. I know some brilliant ones. At this point, I am not a bird photographer. I am a birder and a writer that also likes to get a photo of a bird when he can.

I leave you with James' photo of me standing by Troopi as the sun sets on Opalton. I dearly do love it out there.

I write therefore I am. I share therefore it's real. Sending love. Part two coming soon...