Saturday, May 27, 2017

Murray-Sunset Magic

I had really wanted to get out to the western edge of Victoria and look for Red-lored Whistler and Striated Grasswren (the striatus one). The RLW was not a bogey bird, but it was one that I had previously put quite a bit of effort into without success. The same goes for that grasswren. With a bit of work, luck and info from Mark Carter, Lynn and I had gotten the “Striated” Sandhill Grasswren subspecies, oweni, out in the Red Centre. However, despite excellent gen from Tim Dolby and others, we had dipped on the ‘regular’ Striated at Murray-Sunset earlier in that year of birding. My buddy, Bill Twiss, also wanted both birds (one a lifer and one a Victoria tick) and a few others of that mallee region. So we made a plan to go out there for a few days.

On Tuesday morning, 23 May, I headed out to meet Bill in Ouyen, Victoria on the far eastern side of Murray-Sunset NP. After a anxious start, with Troopi having an “issue” that was gratefully resolved quickly at the local auto repair, I left. That did put me a couple of hours behind schedule and I arrived in Ouyen about 3pm. We decided to drive to the western side of the park on the main roads and enter the 4WD tracks from there. We left Bill’s car parked at the Ouyen Pub and drove west. As we entered South Australia, it was getting dark. We decided to stay in a tiny 10 dollar a night caravan park in Paruna and go into Murray-Sunset first thing the next morning. We were safe, sound and Troopi was running fine. I was grateful.

We took a route about 30 kilometers straight across through Meribah to the junction of Millewa South Bore and Pheeny’s Track in Murray-Sunset. This route did not show on some of the maps, but it turned out to be a good unsealed road. We were soon birding on the Millewa South Bore Track.
On the corner of Pheenys and Millewa South Bore Tracks.
We followed the suggestions of my trusty, beat-up but indispensible, copy of Tim Dolby and Rohan Clarkes’, “Finding Australian Birds.” As the book suggested, we stopped and listened every so often when we were in what looked to be the right habitat. We were looking for mallee woodlands with a sparse, open canopy, some good understory, and some spinifex. We tried several spots before, lo and behold, we had a Red-lored Whistler! It was an immature male. It visited us, singing beautifully a few times, over the next fifteen or twenty minutes. The bird consistently perched frustratingly backlit, or slightly obscured by branches. However, I had very good looks through my bins as I followed it and I managed a couple of recording shots. I was very grateful! Red-lored Whistler! YES! Lifer Pie coming soon.


After our RLW success, we tried a few more spots along the South Bore Track. We found one of the coolest spiders I have ever seen. It was Red and Blue! My friend Lily informed me later that it was a Red-headed Mouse Spider. It seems that it was marching down the track on a mission to find a girlfriend. I read that they hold their long pedipalps (carrying the mating organs) extended forwards when they are looking for a lady spider in her burrow. As you can see in the photo, he was holding his pedipalps out. We followed him at least 15 meters and finally left him still heading south on the track. I hope he finds his girl. I drove very carefully around him as we moved on.

It gets dark early and the day was definitely getting away from us. We decided to do the Pink Lakes area in the morning. As we headed out of the park toward Pink Lakes, we stopped in Pinnaroo. We ended up staying there in a nice (cheap) little caravan park and having a celebratory meal at the pub. The fish and chips were really good.
Before leaving the park we also had a lovely little group of White-browed Babblers

And a Common Burrowing Cockroach with really cool feet.
Speaking of “Finding Australian Birds,” I talked with Tim Dolby that evening regarding the Striated Grasswrens at Pink Lakes. He suggested a specific area for us to look. I cannot overstate how generous and patient Tim has been over the years with information and advice. He is a treasure. First thing Thursday morning, we headed over to Pink Lakes.
It has been literally all the way around AUS and more with me. Indispensable. Do not leave home without it!
We stopped at an area just the other side of the lakes on Pioneer Dr. Parking Troopi on the roadside, we walked basically north. We were walking in to a point about 500 or 600 meters in from the road. The technology of the map GPS on my phone was guiding us (and comforting to have) as we headed deeper into the bush. Tim had suggested birding by walking sort of a “grid” pattern. Going in several hundred meters and then to the side, and then back out. We were about two thirds of the way back to the road when we (even I) heard a Grasswren. We stopped and looked at each other in excitement and disbelief. We heard it! And then there it was running across the ground! YES!

A pair of Striated Grasswrens ran, hopped and flitted around us for about ten minutes. One eventually perched up on a dead stick giving us wondrous views. After about a minute of posing, it hopped back down and was off. We left its area in peace. Bill and I fist-bumped and grinned like idiots. We had a bit of mobile signal and posted a back-of-camera shot on facebook. I was, and am, incredibly grateful.

See why they are called the Pink Lakes?
As it was only late-morning, we decided to pack it in and head for our perspective homes. With the wonderful birding “high” going on, I drove us back to Ouyen and we went our separate ways. Both our main targets were achieved and Bill added a beautiful look at a Mallefowl on the roadside (as well as two other brief glimpses in the bush- so SA and VIC).

Troopi will go anywhere, but she is slow on the highway and does use a bit of diesel. A five-hour drive can take about six. On the way home I did not stop for fuel. I switched to the sub tank and made it back to the tiny house in five and a half hours. I was tired but exceedingly grateful. It was about 1400 kilometers, two nights camping and a wonderful experience. And most importantly, I got out amongst it! And... I got Red-lored Whistler and Striated Grasswren! I am so very grateful.
My Lifer "Pie" supper of Brisket Burger at Millars Restaurant back in Lara, absolutely delicious!
Peace. Love. Birds. Gratitude.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Epic Sunday Pelagic Mega

Before this last Sunday’s trip, I had done five pelagics in Australia. One was out of Wollongong, NSW, one out Eagle-hawk Neck, Tassie, and three out of Port Fairy, the most recent being this past March. I had certainly gotten some good birds, but in general, most of my pelagic trips were fairly ordinary (Long-tailed Jaeger and Little Shearwater not withstanding).

For me, something important was missing. Ever since I became a birder I have been fascinated with albatrosses. In the Patrick O’Brian books, Dr. Stephen Maturin speaks of them many times in glowing terms. And of course, I longed to behold the true king of the Albatrosses, the Wandering. They have a wingspan of over 10 feet. They are truly the most magnificent of all pelagic birds. I had not yet seen one.
Look at those wings!

Since it is less than three hours from Lara, I decided to do another pelagic out of Port Fairy. I managed to get a space on the 23 April trip, but I was just getting over a bad cold and decided that I should not go. Those who went had a great trip with both types of Wandering Albatrosses and other awesome birds. I contacted Neil, who schedules the trips, and asked for a space on the next one. I was able to get a spot for Sunday 14 May. Yay!

I arrived in Port Fairy late Saturday arvo and checked into The Stump pub/motel. It is very basic, but I had stayed there on the previous trips (better the devil you know) and it is only 5 minutes from the boat. I ate a sandwich in my room and then wandered over to the pub to see who was around. I immediately bumped into Kevin Bartram, Scott Baker, and then Simon Starr- all good friends through Facebook and brilliant birders. I got a text from my dear friend, Bill Twiss, saying that he was also going as well. Bill has had several very good sea birding trips, so he is a bit of a “pelagic whisperer.” It was shaping up to be a good group out there. I retired to my room, applied my behind-the-ear seasickness patch and went to bed.

After a fitful night’s sleep (not unusual for me), I got out of bed about 4:30 and began to administer caffeine to the best of my abilities. After getting down a couple of mugs, I headed over to the boat. It was just past 7am when we chugged out to sea. It was a little bumpy out there, but the patches were doing their job. I did not feel well, but I had no trace of seasickness. Such are the patches for me.

We were still within sight of land when I missed what would have been my first lifer of the day. A Diving Petrel appeared, dove and then disappeared. But shortly after that, a tern was spotted that was tentatively identified as a White-fronted, and then as a Common, and then an Arctic. Photos taken by Scott Baker later confirmed it as an Arctic and thus it was my first Lifer of the day! Although, I would not know this for sure until the next day.
On the way with Kevin Bartram, grey beards...
We continued out over 50 kilometers to the spot where we would stop and begin to berley (chum). Almost immediately I heard the word that I had listened for on all the past pelagic trips, “Wandering!” And a young Wandering Albatross came gliding by the boat and into my heart. I was about to post this blog entry, when I realized that I needed to write more about this moment. To behold this graceful, winged behemoth is one of the highlights of my life. I have seen many magnificent birds, but none have filled me with more awe and appreciation. I was thrilled to my core and I am grateful! But it got even better.

Soon the boat was surrounded by Albatrosses and other sea birds. We had Shy, Black-browed, Campbell, Northern Royal, Wandering and NZ Wandering (Gibson’s). We had Northern Giant Petrel, Fairy and Antarctic Prions, and Wilson’s, White-faced and Grey-backed Storm-Petrels among others. It was wondrous! But after a while, our birds began to leave us and we spotted a trawler several kilometers further out. It was swarming with birds. We headed over to look.

In amongst the hundreds of birds in the air and on the water behind the trawler, Kevin Bartram, and or Scott Baker, noticed a dark Petrel. It flew up and by our boat. The word, “Westland” began to be shouted. It stayed with us, landing on the water and flying around the boat. It was indeed a Westland Petrel, the first record of a living bird in Victoria. Even the hardcore pelagic birders were getting a tick. We had us a MEGA! There was much joy. I am so grateful to experience this beautiful rarity!

It was a day of seven Lifers for me. They were… Arctic Tern, both Wanderings, a Northern Royal, a beautiful Cape Petrel, Antarctic Prion and Westland Petrel. Yes, Westland was the Mega, but the Wandering Albatrosses really stole my heart (Cape Petrel is pretty damn special too). My Aussie life list is now 684. I am only 16 away from that magic number, but they are only numbers. It is the birds and the experiences that matter.  Here are more photos beginning with the stunning Cape Petrel.


The long trip back to terra firma seemed shorter than usual. Once back in Port Fairy many of us had a quick cuppa and a nibble at the coffee house. Then I accepted Bill Twiss’ kind invitation to stay the night at his and Debbie’s house in Warnambool. I was quite tired and still “woggy” from wearing the patch, but I slept well and contentedly (unusual for me). I am so very grateful.
Lifer Selfie with my dear friend, Bill Twiss

Peace. Love. Birds. Gratitude.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

WTP Gratitude

The world famous Western Treatment Plant is where I first truly identified as a birder. It is now minutes from my doorstep. It is hard to fully realize, but I do know that I am grateful.

My friend, James Cornelious, and I did a bit of birding around the WTP Friday afternoon. Then on Sunday, James, Oakley Germech and I birded there with Karen Weil for her birthday! Lynn was still a bit under the weather and did not join us. However, we all went back to the tiny house for a lovely visit at the end of the day. And it was a wonderful day indeed. I am grateful for my friends!

We had a lot of good birds on both days. We had White-bellied Sea-eagles, Musk, Blue-billed and Freckled Ducks. There was a flock of gorgeous White-winged Black Terns (that defy my photography abilities). We also saw many of the usual suspects as well as the resident rarity, Terek Sandpiper.
White-bellied Sea-eagle with the You Yangs in the background.
We also had two beautiful Orange-bellied Parrots fly over us just as we were beginning to leave the Borrow Pit. I stopped at the edge of the carpark and Oakley said, “Let’s have one last look.” And just as he began that look, two OBPs came flying toward, and then over both vehicles. Oakley shouted something. Although his exact words were lost in the excitement, they included, “Oh My God!” and possibly the phrase, “There they are!” Regardless, he alerted us all and we all saw them. I have no idea whether they were released birds (more likely) or birds that had arrived from Tassie (present in the area). It did not matter to me. I just loved seeing these small, critically endangered gems of the parrot world again. And what a fitting Birthday present for Karen! I am grateful.

And we also had two magnificent Brolgas fly over us on Sunday. These massive cranes are one of my (admittedly many) favourite birds. I saw my lifer Brolgas at the WTP on 2 January 2011, a date that added 17 birds to my early Australian Life List. I do remember that day, Ruff and Terek Sandpiper were among the new birds for me. It would be 6 years before I saw another Ruff in Oz.

Here are some photos from Friday and Sunday at the little piece of heaven we sometimes affectionately refer to as the Poo Farm. I am grateful for the Western Treatment Plant.

White-winged Black Terns, beautiful, but not as impressive when I photograph them.

Musk Ducks are very cool
Pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles in Lake Borrie
Terek Sandpiper... such a cool bill

Black-faced Cormorant at the "cormorant jetty"

Peace. Love. Birds. Gratitude.