The skies were grey and the wind cold as 17 assembled in the car park. But the rain wasn’t more than the lightest sprinkle and everyone was dressed for the weather. Jane Moseley, our leader, was recovering from a broken arm and was assisted by Pat Bingham. Never let a physical challenge stop a bird watcher. As often, the car park birding was very productive and Silver Gull (probably courtesy of the stormy weather), Crested Pigeon, Superb Fairy-wren and New Holland and White-plumed Honeyeaters were common.
The sports grounds yielded large flocks of Rock Doves and House Sparrows with a few Australian Magpies and Magpie-larks. Australian White Ibis flew overhead and then keen eyes noticed another species – a Black-shouldered Kite –flying near and hovering above. Across the road and into the western side where Little Wattlebirds foraged in flowering gardens and drank and bathed in a rain gutter.
A couple of Galahs called as they flew over and a female Golden Whistler challenged many to locate her in the thickness of a tree canopy. The lake showed Australian Grebe (diving as is their wont) plus Eurasian Coot with a few Pacific Black Ducks and rather more Hardheads. Little Grassbird called forlornly from the bank but only a couple witnessed a bird flying from shelter to shelter.
Purple Swamphen contrasted with Dusky Moorhen in size and colouring while Grey and Chestnut Teal were compared for their detail. Musk Lorikeet flew past swiftly and we were left contrasting their calls, flight and appearance with those of the more numerous Rainbow Lorikeets. A noisy panic among the smaller birds accompanied the appearance on an Australian Hobby, which, however, did not stay for long. We moved toward the oval again, noting the swooping flight of Welcome Swallows in the calmer conditions and then trying to identify an unfamiliar bird.
After several guesses field guides were consulted and an identification which was quite unexpected was noted – the unexpected was undoubtedly The Bird of the Day – a Black-eared Cuckoo. We surmised that the recent gales from the north had brought it down to Melbourne’s latitude. The tall masses of lignin growth would have provided shelter. The cuckoo was a most obliging vagrant, it returned twice further during lunch, coming closer each time and giving everyone excellent close-up views.
After that the presence of a Tree Martin over the oval in August was not quite the surprise it would otherwise have been. A few people needed to leave at lunchtime but the majority stayed to walk, adding a Black Swan and a Grey Butcherbird and improved views of Noisy Miner and Spotted Pardalote.
The mud nest of a Magpie-lark was spotted high in a tree near the ovals. Avoiding silent, speeding cyclists, we returned to the cars and did the final bird call, listing 47 species for the day. Our enthusiastic thanks went to Jane and her support team for the work which showed several of our number the potential for an area that many had not known about. We decided to finish the day under darkening clouds at 2 pm. This proved a very good decision as 15 minutes later the heaviest, most violent rain for the day arrived.
John Barkla has many years of birding behind him having started as a boy. He has been a member of Birdlife Australia and it’s antecedents for 40 years. He has held several operational positions and remains Vice-President and Chair of the Finance and Audit Committee. He has been on Melbourne Water’s Biodiversity Conservation Advisory Committee at the Melbourne Treatment Plant, Werribee since 1986, and lately it’s Chair. In recent years he has traversed the continent with his partner, Alison Street, a dozen times and came to relate to us a composite of those journeys, Twelve Journeys across the Nullarbor 2008-2015. The audience had gathered to hear his favourite birding spots and to see John’s magnificent bird photography.
Leaving Melbourne on day one their destination is often Hattah-Kulkyne NP. Birding is always good here and a visit to Lake Mournpall may score Apostlebirds, which rarely can be seen in South Australia. Mallee Emu-wrens have declined 90% in Victoria due to habitat reduction and fires. John recommends a drive along the Nowinji Track which runs on the east and west of the highway, listening carefully for their faint call –“virtually impossible to locate by sight”.
The next stop is Birdlife Australia’s Gluepot Reserve, reached by crossing the Murray River at Waikerie SA. This marvellous area of Mallee and Triodia (spinifex) is not only great for birds but is home to 52 species of reptiles and over 150 species of ants! The habitat is perfect for Striated Grasswren, and again John winds down the windows to pick up their soft contact call. He also finds that Red-lored Whistler is best located by their distinctive call – and not to be confused with Gilbert’s Whistler. The critically endangered Black-eared Miner are tricky as they hybridise with the Yellow-throated. The hybrids retain the yellow throat feathers but lack black head marking over the ear. Other great birds to see at Gluepot are Shy Heathwren, Scarlet-chested Parrot (recently breeding at Gluepot), Regent and Mulga Parrot, the barnardi race of the Australian Ringneck, Chestnut Quail Thrush, Black Honeyeater and Spotted Nightjar.
At Port Augusta John and Alison always call at the Arid Gardens, did you say for lunch? White-winged Fairy-wren can often be seen beside the road in, and Chirruping Wedgebill are common in the garden.
120 km to the west is Lake Gilles Conservation Park where it is possible to see the newly separated Copper-backed Quail Thrush.
Gawler Ranges NP is a short detour from the highway. Spectacular scenery can be highlighted further with Crested Bellbird, Black-eared Cuckoo, Southern Scrub-robin, Spiney-cheeked and White-fronted Honeyeaters; and at good times they see Dusky, Black-faced, Masked and White-browed Woodswallows.°°
On one scorching day in January the temperature had risen to 47°C on three consecutive days. John and Alison pulled up at Yantanabie on the Eyre Highway and witnessed several bird species suffering heat stress in the shade of the local hall. They put out water in a bowl and watched; birds drank including 30-40 pipits, while three Ground Cuckoo-shrikes clustered around the sub-floor ducts emitting cool air.
Reaching the Nullarbor Roadhouse, John and Alison invariably head north. The Nullarbor Plain is bordered by the Trans Australian Railway 100km to the north and the Australian Bight to the south, “so you can’t get lost”! The plain is crisscrossed by numerous tracks, but heading north and a tad west you eventually reach Cook. On the way, amongst the low scrub, one should see the Nullarbor Quail- thrush; from this area John also showed Australian Pipit, Inland Dotterel, Australian Bustard, Australian Pratincole, Orange Chat, Rufous Fieldwren and Southern Whiteface.
Having safely reached Cook you might be able to chalk up Little Crow and Black-faced Woodswallow. Next stop, via the Old Eyre Highway, is the beautiful Eyre Bird Observatory south of Cocklebiddy. John was there in 2012 during a mouse plague when the overnight mice catch was offered to grateful Australian Ravens. One could see the gouldii race of Silvereye, also Blue-breasted Fairy-wren, Brush Bronzewing, Brown-headed and Purple-gaped Honeyeaters; but a highlight of a visit to Eyre are the Major Mitchell Cockatoos which daily visit the birdbaths.
From Cocklebiddy John and Alison have taken the track north across Arubiddy Station to Haig and then Rawlinna. One has to phone the station owners to get permission to cross their property. From here the Connie Sue Hwy takes you 400km to Neale Junction where you might be extremely lucky to see Princess Parrot. Alas, not John and Alison. Scarlet-chested Parrots are much more likely plus Grey-fronted Honeyeater, the newly split Sandhill Grasswren; and Redthroat are common.
They head west to the coast, Carnarvon being the southern limit of many northern birds. The Wildflowers en route can be spectacular, such as Wreath Leschenaultia. Near Cue is the monolithic Walga Rock, where you might see Banded Whiteface and Western Quail-thrush. At Monkey Mia the carpark can offer the newly split Western Grasswren; and on the hill behind the carpark one may find the assimilis race of Variegated Fairy-wren. Francois Peron NP is a good site for Pied Honeyeaters.
Having reached Perth the birding does not stop. 200km southwest is the town of Narrogin and nearby, the Dryandra Woodland nature conservation area. John had photographs of Bush Stone-curlew, Western Rosella, Gilbert’s Honeyeater (western species of White-naped Honeyeater), Brown and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters. All these were taken near Magpie Cottage (accommodation) or at the wardens’ birdbath. The dryandra habitat also supports Rufous Treecreeper and Elegant Parrot.
Whilst in Perth John recommends to always check the rarities sightings. At Cervantes north of Perth they have seen Franklin’s Gull. Then they head to King’s Park and other suburban hotspots to pick up the common western birds, which nonetheless may include western races such as the maculatus race of the White-browed Scrubwren, and the semitorquatus race of Australian Ringneck. Around Perth one can also see Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo and the very similar Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo. At Wungong Dam one can pick up White-breasted Robin and Red-eared Firetail. John recommends visiting all the suburban lakes in Perth (e.g. Bibra, Munger, Herdsman, North and Thomsons). You might see the West Australian bellus form of the Australian Swamphen (no longer Purple Swamphen); or Western Corella, not to be confused with the similar Long-billed Corella.
One of their favourite spots is Lake McLarty, 100km south near Mandurah. Here, when the conditions are right, there are huge numbers of shorebirds. But being ephemeral, the lake’s birds fluctuate. John had great shots of Long-toed Stint, Pectoral, Wood and Broad-billed Sandpiper, Ruff and Osprey, all taken there.
We finished the journey at Rottnest Island, always worth a visit. Here they have seen Common Pheasant, Banded Lapwing, Banded Stilt, Fairy Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-capped and Hooded Plover and Sanderling. Rock Parrots are known to occur on Rottnest but John and Alison have never been successful. A Roseate Tern perched on the rocks might be an alternate reward.
John explained at the beginning that this talk was a composite of 12 trips. He highly recommends a trip across the Nullarbor and he is happy to give anyone advice. We thanked him warmly for a fascinating evening.