Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Townsville and the BIG WET

Some plans look really good when you are sitting at home with a cup of tea and a field guide. Our flights for Norfolk Island had been changed and we had to fly back through Brisbane. Now, everyone knows that Townsville is right next door to Brisbane, right? well nearly, just a few thousand ks away. So, if I had to come back to Melbourne via Brisbane I might as well do a short detour to Townsville and tick off a couple of easy birds.

I needed a zitting cisticola, a rufous owl and a pale-vented bush-hen. Simple. I would allow myself a day and a half each for the cisticola and bush-hen and 3 nights for the owl. Easy. I booked my flights and relaxed.

On Saturday afternoon we arrived back in Brisbane and my friend Ian and I boarded the plane for Townsville. Ian lives just north of Townsville and had been very polite about my chances of seeing the 3 birds in 3 days. He didn’t even laugh. I am a born optimist so I was still confident, but the weather forecast said it was raining in Townsville. We got off the plane and there was no rain, just a few puddles. We drove to Ian’s and later, as I lay in bed, the heavens opened.
iPod photo of the rain from Ian's veranda
On Sunday morning it was raining hard so I thought I would just check out a few places and come home. I went to the Town Common and drove in. About 500 metres in the road was covered in water and the radio was telling me 200 mm of rain had fallen since Saturday morning. Not a problem, I will come back tomorrow when the water level drops, I thought.
Bush Stone-curlew sheltering on the flooded golf course
Next stop was the Palmetum to check the owl roost. The owl was not in the roost tree and it was raining again. Hard. Very hard. Ah well, I thought, I might as well stay in the car and go to Giru for the cisticola. The man on the local ABC radio was now telling me about flooded roads.
Flooded bunker at the 18th and fairways turned to lakes
At Giru I turned onto Hodel Rd and headed for the cisticola site, down near the boat ramp. The rain was still bucketing down and at one point there was 25mm or so of water over the bitumen. I remembered the ads I had seen on TV. Don’t drive through floodwater, but I could still see the white lines, and it wasn’t flowing, just a big long puddle, I would take a chance. The road turned to gravel with potholes filled with water. I passed a windmill on a rise and ahead the road disappeared into brown water. This time I listened to the ads and turned my diminutive hire car around.
Masked Lapwing race miles in a flooded turf farm
Back down the road there was a sign that read “Carrick Plains Wildlife Refuge” and in the grassland on either side of the road both the zitting and golden-headed cisticolas were calling loudly. After an hour of listening and looking but seeing nothing except golden-headeds, at 1500 a few zitting cisticola finally decided to do some display flights for me. Without warning a bird would be high in the sky doing short zit calls and hovering on a blur of brown wings before plummeting back down to earth. Photos eluded me as drab brown birds against a grey, stormy sky in the rain are very hard to focus a camera on. And anyway, if I had pointed the camera toward the sky the lens would have turned into a swimming pool in seconds. Still, one bird down, two to go.
iPod photo of Carrick Wildlife Refuge Zitting Cisticola habitat

Zitting Cisticola habitat above which they were displaying

On Monday morning at 0630 I left the house and headed for the Town Common. The ABC radioman told me that 200mm of rain had fallen on Saturday and 237 more on Sunday. This was late March, this was not meant to be happening. At the Town Common the road was still under water and the bush-hens were hiding under a leaf somewhere. At 0800 the ranger closed the gate to the common. What next? The radioman said the Ross River dam was flooding over the spillway. Time for a look. I drove out to the dam but all the roads were torn up for repairs and the rain was bucketing. I decided to try the Palmetum again but still no owls, so I went home. Bother. Just one day left and I still need 2 birds.
Male Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo race banksii  
Tuesday was worse. The power in the house was off. A mini-tornado had torn up a suburb in Townsville and it was still raining really, really hard. Giru school was closed and the town was cut off. One location had had 375 mm. The Town Common was still closed. The Palmetum was now closed too. The Bruce Highway was cut on both sides of town.
Female Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo race banksii 
There was only one thing for it. I called past the local supermarket and bought two big tubs of premium grade ice cream, one caramel and macadamia and one chocolate cookie, and went home. Ian brewed us some really beautiful coffee. Sigh. There is nothing like comfort food to compensate for bad birding weather. Another 200mm of rain had fallen in Townsville. That made over 800mm in four days. Nearly a metre of rain in just four days. Unbelievable. Spectacular.
A wet Blue-winged Kookaburra taken from the veranda
By the time I left on Wednesday morning I had seen 52 species of birds. I had watched roads go under water. I had seen a zitting cisticola, which was a tick. I had experienced a massive wet season storm so that was another tick. I had had three days of extreme birding. I scored the visit as a big success. 

And missing the owl and bush-hen just means that I have a good reason to go back, I am sure that in fine weather they will be just too easy.

Female Pheasant Coucal - in the rain
Male Pheasant Coucal - in the rain
Female Eastern Koel - in the rain
The pair of Brolga at Giru were very wet so ...
this stick throwing display may have just been frustration
Helmetted (Hornbilled) Friarbird. Out of focus but beautiful back markings - in the rain

Contorting to feed and green wing marking not shown in some guides - in the rain

Rainbow Lorikeet - in the rain
Photos all © Jen Spry and not to be re-used without permission

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