Saturday, December 14, 2013

South-west Western Australia

My birding trips usually start way in advance of leaving home. They start with research, bird lists, maps, timetables and bucket-loads of rose-tinted hope splashed over the whole lot. Everything is planned so that, on arrival, I can head down the road with a very good idea where, hopefully, each bird is going to be found. As if! My well formed plans are actually controlled by the birds, not me, and rarely last more than a day or two.

On this trip my plans fell apart as soon as I arrived in Albany. There was a howling easterly blowing, and it kept blowing for the whole week I was in the south-west. The weather forecast said 20 to 25 knots gusting to 30. That’s roughly 35 to 45 km/h gusting to 55. That is so strong it is hard to walk into. That is so strong that every self respecting bird hides in the bush and doesn’t come out. That is so strong that all my plans had to be re-written immediately.
Maned Duck. The mane can be seen and these are a tree-hollow nesting duck, Chenonetta jubata

The first target for my two days in Albany was to find a Rock Parrot. They are small green/brown birds that camouflage so well with the grass and seaside herbs that they are hard to see in the best of conditions. With the weather that met me in Albany the job became almost impossible because they huddle down and hide, that is, if they had even left the nearby off-shore islands where they spend the nights and breed.
Left to right, Black-tailed Native-hen, Eurasian Coot and Dusky Moorhen

All was not lost though because Western Australia has plenty of other good birds. The second bird on my list was the Western Whipbird, a renown skulker of the coastal heath. I headed to Two People Bay on my first morning and after about 2 hours of walking, listening and watching I finally saw one - for about 2 seconds - as it jumped up on a low branch, looked at me and then dropped back into the heath. Ah well, with a bird as hard to find as this one I counted myself lucky and claimed the tick. I had actually seen part of a Western Whipbird last time I was in WA so together the two sightings seemed good enough to make one reasonable view. At least this time I had seen the head; last time all I saw was from the legs back to the tail-tip as the bird dropped from view.
The Western Whipbird sat briefly in the base of this little, windswept tree and looked at me before dropping out of sight
White-caps in Two People Bay, whipped up by the strong easterly wind

In Albany I also found a Western Corella with a pair of very pale galahs that displayed many aspects of the corella’s plumage so I believe that they were hybrids. Sadly the wind was blowing so strongly that I hadn't taken my camera in case the lens got sandblasted. This again confirms one of my Rules of Birding ... "If you want to see a common bird doing something interesting, leave your camera in the car".
Galahs feeding in the sand dunes

Galahs over Middleton Bay at Albany. The seaweed and seagrass in the foreground was piled about 1 metre deep all along the beach

Young Australian Magpie race dorsalis which had a very different call to the Magpies I am used to in eastern Aus

At the end of the day my bird list was at 53 which, allowing for the atrocious conditions, was not too bad. Jet and time lag from Melb helped my birding because by sticking to Melbourne time I was getting up at 0430 each morning and going to bed at about 2100. That gave my day an early start and good birding at first light. An example was that on my last morning in Albany I was packed up and on the golf course by 0500. 
Flowering Banksia. They start out green and mature to a beautiful yellow

I was on the golf course not for golf but because the night before as I lay in bed I had realised that Rock Parrots are in the family Neophema, and these are sometimes known as “grass parrots” and, therefore, what I needed to find was grass. And where better to look for lovingly maintain grass than on a golf course, and the Albany golf course was right across the road from the Big 4 campground where I was staying. Perfect.
Red-capped Parrot at the Albany golf course

The sun was out and the wind had dropped to about 10 - 15 km/hr. I drove down to where I had found that dog walkers had opened a path through the bush to the fairways and parked the car. As I walked out onto the fairway two Neophema parrots took off and flew to the next fairway. I followed them but the wind was picking up again and they were very flighty. After much walking and stalking I found them again and got close enough for some id photos. A bonus was finding that the golf course also had Elegant Parrots and these were not quite as flighty. 
Elegant Parrot

By 0600 the golfers were out on the course and the parrots had gone so by 0630 I was in my car again and headed for Perth to collect a birding friend, "Biggles". I was picking him up because we had arranged to drive to Esperance to look for Western Ground Parrots (WGP), one of Australia's rarest and hardest to see birds. I arrived at the airport at 1130, just as his plane was landing and by 1230 we were on the road heading for Esperance. We arrived just after 2100, so after leaving Albany at 0630 I had done just on 1,200 km and 14 hours of driving. I was tired.

We hadn't had time on our 9 hour drive from Perth to buy food for breakfast but we found that Esperance has a Dome Cafe which was excellent. Biggles had poached eggs and I had pancakes. Yum. After the previous day's meals of petrol station pies, sausage rolls and Chiko Rolls this was Michelin Star food!
Esperance is in behind the headland on the left of this photo. Cape Arid and the WGP are off the right side of the photo

A tour of the lakes behind town showed up a pair of Cape Barren Geese for a ticklette, then we were on the road to Cape Arid National Park.  We had a mud map for the WGPs and stopped where we thought the first location was. After an hour or so of bashing through banksia and thick scrub we “thought” we might have heard one. After this we decided to leave our side road and drive on down to the coast for a bit of tourist time and to get our bearings for the remaining marks on the map.
Cape Barren Goose race grisea. This race is only found around Esperance and the off-shore islands.  It is an isolated race more than 2,000 km from Bass Strait and its shores where the nominate race is found.

The wind was back up to 30 knots from the east so the only highlights at the coast were a Pacific Gull and a Caspian Tern sitting on the rocks. Coming back out though we stopped for some honeyeaters and a scrub-wren and were buzzed by a young Rock Parrot which then landed on a banksia flower and looked at us. Very nice.
Immature Rock Parrot at Cape Arid

Driving back up the side road we had a much better view of the landmarks and stopped at another likely WGP location. This time we heard a pair calling and for about 2 hours we circled through the scrub with the birds staying in front of us and out of sight. The best we got was one bird calling from about 2 metres in front of Biggles, but still out of sight. And the 20 +/- knot winds weren't helping either as the rustling leaves and branches drowned out many of the smaller noises the birds make. Sigh. Why did it have to be so windy this week, wind wasn't in my plan at all (smile).
Cape Arid, bottom right, where the Western Ground Parrot can possibly be seen, but not by us.
Western Ground Parrot habitat - waist high banksia heath which it is impossible to see the ground through, and the parrots don't leave the ground and fly, they scuttle around so that even one calling from right beside you can not be seen.
At about 1830 we left the birds and drove back toward Esperance and the caravan park. It was back in the park that I realised I had made a very bad mistake, I had not done enough research! I read in a field guide that WGP can sometimes be seen "fluttering low over the heath just on dusk", which is about when we left. We didn’t see anything “fluttering” at dusk but we should have stayed longer, until it was really dark!!! Bother!
Sand Monitor. This guy was smallish, maybe 1.5 metre long.

The next day was sunny and not too windy but the forecast included a strong wind warning. Bother! ... again. This didn't bode well for finding a notorious skulker like a WGP. Then things got worse. I couldn’t get an extra night at the caravan park, or anywhere else in Esperance. It was the weekend, and the start of “schoolies” week and all accommodation was booked out. In the end I rang Cheynes Beach, back near Albany, and got a room there for two nights. Neither of us really wanted to go there but it was the only "birding" location I could find where we could get a bed. 
Splendid Fairy-wren at the Cheyne Beach campground

One good outcome was that we stopped after 2 birds flew across the road in front of us and, after a few minutes of searching, we found a Western Whipbird. The location was 65 km west of Jerramungup. This was an important bird for me because it was the race oberon, which is possibly going to be split off and called a Mallee Whipbird. It is now in my "bank" as a possible future "armchair tick".
Western Whipbird race oberon

Next morning I was up again at 0500 and out birding. The resident Noisy Scrubbird was silent as were most of the birds. White-breasted Robins were near the gate and Brush Bronzewings were calling from the power lines but that was about all.
Brush Bronzewing with its throat puffed up as it "coos"

The day’s plan was to go down to Betty’s Beach at Wychinicup. On the way in we stopped at a creek crossing and found Western Gerygone and a nesting Collared Sparrowhawk. Then down at Betty’s Beach we came upon a family of Red-winged Fairywren and had an excellent view of another south-west skulker, a Western Fieldwren. 
Female Red-winged Fairy-wren

Male Red-winged Fairy-wren

An afternoon walk found a Western Bristlebird behind the caravan park and down on the main road there was a family of Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo feeding on the seeds of the native geranium-like plant.
Female Carnaby's Black Cockatoo

Male Carnaby's Black Cockatoo with red eye ring

It was an OK day and after the success with the oberon whipbird I wondered about missing the ground parrot. Would we have seen one if we had stayed? Would we have seen the whipbird? A pair of questions with no answer. I guess all that can be said is that I have a location for the WGP and can always go back. 
White-breasted Robins at Cheyne Beach

There was another reason for this trip to south-west Western Australia. It was not just to see some of the local specialties, it was a preliminary side trip to the major event, Biggles and I were meeting a group of other birders and we were off to Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling Islands for two more weeks of birding. 

All photos & text © Jenny Spry


  1. Sounds like some tough birding, but some good results.

  2. Rock parrot sitting on a showy banksia. That's a great moment captured. Beautiful!