Wednesday, May 23, 2018

700 Part Two

I was over the moon.

We had done it. I had seen 700 birds in Australia and the seven-hundredth was one of the more difficult and sought after birds in Oz, the Grey Grasswen. It had worked out. When we began the trip, James and I had discussed hoping to get the Eyrean first so that Grey would be my 700th and that is what we did! As told in Part One, we found it on our second attempt, thanks almost entirely to James’ ears! Joy!

After seeing that wonderful grasswren, the two Troopies headed south down the Birdsville Track. We were going to stop for lunch at Mungerannie Hotel. It is a truly cool place. I would not have minded a bit more time there and I would have happily stayed, but we had decided that we were going to press on for Lyndhurst. There is also no mobile coverage in Mugerannie which is a drag. I was dying to share the news of my 700th bird. I was still on an almost illegal Lifer High for the Grey Grasswren and my 700th Aussie bird. Wonderful. 

Chris, Phil and me (photo by Robert Shore)

Chris, me and James making a "700" in front of Mungerannie (photo by Robert Shore)
By the way, the “twins” (depression and anxiety) were nowhere to be seen during this period. They are strong and determined, but they are no match for Lifer High. Unfortunately, I have not learned how to keep them at bay indefinitely. As I write these words almost a week after returning, they are very much lurking in the shadows. I will continue to work toward running them off permanently.

Before leaving Mungeranne, Phil (the owner of the hotel and an outback icon in his own right) put a plug in a small leak in one of Robert’s tyres. He ended up putting a double plug in the tyre and would not accept payment for either. Such is the wonder of old school outback. It is a different, and in many ways a far, far, better world out there. As the US news plays on the television here (never my choice of viewing) I long to be back out amongst it. To be where living is more alive and people are more genuine. The land is perhaps harsher, but so much more beautiful. The outback is everything you have heard about it and more. I love it.
The Birdsville Track... love it.
We rolled on. I was looking forward to Lyndhurst which is yet another iconic spot, but another of Robert’s tyres went flat. The plugged one was fine, but a rather worn one had bitten the dust (no pun intended). The dust was amazing out there and was pretty much coating everything inside the backs of our Troopies. You cannot keep that fine dust out. 

With the tyre changed, we headed on and arrived at the Lyndhurst Hotel at sunset. It was a very beautiful sunset too. 

Troopi at the diesel pumps at Lyndhurst at sunset (photo by James Cornelious)
We took two rooms, a large three-person room and a tiny single. I was very happy with the tiny single. There was no ensuite, but it was only a couple of metres across from the amenities. I was very comfortable for the night.

We ate there at the hotel. I had fish and chips and it was very good. And I bought everyone Lifer Pie ice creams on a stick. I was still riding that lifer high. There was mediocre mobile coverage on the veranda outside the pub and I sat out there to catch my long distance friends up on my news.

I slept well in that room, but awoke even earlier than usual with my chest filled with joy. I was up and out on that veranda with my coffee just past 4am. Yes, I was still very excited and I was happy. I was able to communicate even more online as no one else was up and using the network. I watched first light begin to creep into Lyndhurst. Man, that is being alive.

We headed southwest toward the next possible lifer for Robert and me. James already had seen Copperback Quail-thrush from a visit to Lake Gilles, SA a while back, but Robert and I both had put quite a few hours into that area without joy. It had “almost” attained bogey status, but not quite. We were only about five hours from the location and hoped to be birding that arvo. And then Robert’s Troopy lost some gears. 

He made it to the corner of A1 just outside of Port Augusta before he had no gears at all. We pushed him to the side and he called the Auto Club. His Troopy has well over a half a million kilometres and it has been through a lot. There was nothing else James and I could do there, so we pressed on to Lake Gilles. We tried the spot recommended to us on the road into the lake without hearing or seeing any Quail-thrush. Although James did pick up his lifer Western Yellow Robin. 

I suggested we go over on the south side of the main road to the track into the two dams. This is about 14 kilometres from the lake road. I mainly just wanted to show James the area since it is lovely out there. We started down the track and less than 100 metres in James spotted a bird. We stopped. We hopped out and in moments he said, “That’s the bird.” And it was. Number 701! Yes! It was a female and she was soon joined by a male. Then they promptly disappeared. But James could hear them making contact calls (of course I could not hear them at all). They had moved a bit to the right, but were still around. James refound them and we got wonderful views. Joy.

We contacted Robert and found out that he was being shuffled around accommodations in Port Augusta. I offered to drive up and get him, but he suggested we stay in Whyalla and hit the Conservation Park in the morning in hopes of getting James a lifer or two. We did. Although the Western Grasswrens were no-shows, the Slender-billed Thornbills were very cooperative.

Robert was going to try and catch a ride down, but the dramas with his accommodations continued (the town was mostly sold-out and the Auto Club had to move him and Chris from hotel to motel- not an easy thing as Chris is not fully mobile). So we stopped by and bid farewell to them for the time being. Then James and I headed off for Murray Bridge. One more sleep and back to Lara. At this point, we were both a bit weary. Our cabin accommodation in Murray Bridge was one of the nicest (and reasonable) in which I have stayed in all my Australian travels. I will return there.

Our route was an impressive 9 days of travelling, with two nights in Birdsville. We saw some of the most wonderful birds possible and the company was excellent. We met some awesome people. I went over 700 birds! I look forward to more travels with James. He is more than my hearing-ear boy; he is a good friend and a good travelling companion.

Sending love as I do…

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.