Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Strzelecki Track

Our route from Melbourne to Montecollina Bore
With five days available four of us decided to head for Lyndhurst and the Strzelecki Track. Mel had been telling a Polish neighbour about our proposed trip and she said it was actually not the Strzelecki track we were going on but that it was correctly pronounced "Strel - etz - ki". The track was named after Count Paul Edmund de Strzelecki
Wild Flower. As it looks like a bit like a poppy I thought it was appropriate for today's post, 11th November 2015, one hundred years to the day when my Grandfather boarded a troop ship in Melbourne bound for "The Great War".
Actually there were five of us on the trip because Mel bought "Simone" along as well. Simone is a Garmin GPS and she guided, or tried to guide us, to our destination. All in all she did a very good job but she sometimes tried to take us by a longer route than we wanted and on one or two occasions she was obviously asking us to use roads that didn't really exist. For example, at one point she suggested we take a dirt track through the Murray-Sunset National Park. And at another point she was adamant that we should turn off and use a dirt road that paralleled the highway and was probably the original road into Ouyen. Her main use was when she agreed to go where we wanted to go and she could tell us well in advance where we should turn and the name of the road.
Lyndhurst from the high point of the airport
The reason for the trip was to find Letter-winged Kites, a new bird for all of us, and to make the most of the weekend we met at Joy's on Thursday evening and just on midnight we climbed into her diesel Nissan Patrol with its 1000 km range and headed north. It is just over 1400 km from Melbourne to Lyndhurst so with many driver changes along the way we finally arrived at about 1600 on Friday. We had booked cabins at the Lyndhurst Hotel so that we didn't have to worry about camping gear and food cooking for such a short visit and the rooms were basic but very comfortable. The people at the hotel, both customers and staff were all really friendly and it added to the fun of the trip.
Zebra Finches at Montecollina Bore

Budgerigars sleeping in the shade

Seed head
First thing Saturday we headed north on what we had been told the night before was a really rough track. It seems though that definitions vary between what road-train drivers call rough and what 4x4 drivers call rough. Evidently the corrugations were shaking the big trucks to bits and for some sections they were down to 10 - 20 kph. If we kept the speed over 60 kph the road was not too bad but the ride up to Montecollina Bore where Letter-winged Kites had been reported still took about 4 hours.
Simone at sunrise on the track

Sunrise at a rest area on the track

Road Train. As they are usually three trailers long and can throw up large stones it is wise to stop as they pass
On Saturday the temperature got up to 34º C plus and with the wind and extremely low humidity getting out of the car to birdwatch was truly extreme birding. We made many stops as birds dashed in front of us or were seen off in the gibber and saltbush. These birds included Short-tailed Grasswrens, Cinnamon Quail-thrush and White-winged Fairy-wrens along with very large numbers of Orange Chats. Raptors were also present and we finished the weekend with 10 species. It seems it has been a good breeding year for them as along the road we had nesting Wedge-tailed Eagle, Brown Falcon, Kestrel and Black Kite.
Wedge-tailed Eagle family
North of the bore we searched the location mentioned in Dolby and Clark and eventually had a brief sighting of a Letter-winged Kite as it circled with a Black Kite before disappearing back into cover. We considered chasing it again but one of our group was seriously effected by the heat and we decided it was wiser to help her back to the car. After lots of cold drinks and the aircon turned way up we slowly came back into a condition where we could drive and headed back to Lyndhurst.
It was in the trees on the far side of this sand hill that we found the Letter-winged Kite
As we headed south the skies darkened and we could see rain falling off to the south-east. It came closer and closer and suddenly we were in the middle of one of the heaviest downpours I have seen in years. The rain hitting the roof sounded like hail and the visibility dropped so that we had to stop driving. Amid lots of ooos and aaahhhs of amazement we did not have time to think that we might get stuck, but the rain stopped as fast as it had started. It lasted only 4 or 5 minutes but we and a truck that passed us while were stopped left deep ruts in the roads.
The storm approached from the south-east ....

and hit hard ...

so we pulled over and stopped ...

the rain created a weird effect which may have been steam rising from the hot gibber rocks or water bouncing back up as it hit. Anyway, very impressive.
Sunday saw us back up the track and we tried again to find the Letter-winged Kite but without luck. The weather had changed with the rain and it was now cool with a very strong wind and dust everywhere so we spent a lot of the time in the car. We did find extra birds like Crimson Chat up toward Strzelecki Crossing and at Montecolina Bore two of us found Eyrean Grasswrens, one group near the low trees on the track in and another group about 10 metres to the south of the bore inlet.
Dingo on the gibber plains

Cinnamon Quail-thrush

Flock Bronzewings at the edge of dam
As we headed south I wanted to check out one more stand of trees for Letter-winged Kite. I left my camera in the car as I have found a sure-fire way of interesting sightings is to be without a camera (smile). The others sat in the car as I pushed into the wind to look for the kites. I found nests with desiccated rabbit parts under them and huge flocks of Little Crows but no kites. I did find one very special thing though and that was a grinding stone in the middle of a sand blow-out. It had been beautifully made and fitted my hand perfectly with a gripping ridge on one side for my fingers and a recess on the other for my thumb. It was well used, ground smooth to an edge on the side opposite the grip but not broken in any way. I held it for a while and felt a respect for the owner and a pleasure in being able to hold such a special implement. I then carefully returned it to the spot I had found it and walked off while wondering who had used it last and how long had it been lying, waiting for me to find it. I can close my eyes now and feel that stone. It was very special.
View from the top of a sand dune at Montecollina Bore

Landscape near Lyndhurst

Wedge-tailed Eagle in the sunset
On Sunday night we met Andrew and Carolyn Furner, owners of Mt Lyndhurst Station, in the bar of the Lyndhurst Hotel. We had a long talk and they gave us permission to go in and look for Chestnut-breasted Whiteface at the wrecked car site, which we did next morning. We only had limited time as we had to head for home but we eventually found them to the north of the car. After that it was a case of heading for home but on the way we decided on having one last look at the airport where banded Whiteface had been reported. We didn't find the whiteface but we did find one of the locals making a phone call. Evidently the only reliable spot for reception is while standing on top of the very large tank full of avgas.
Old mine building on Mt Lyndhurst Station

White-winged Fairy-wren

Wrecked Car on Mt Lyndhurst Station

Chestnut-breasted Whiteface
Monday afternoon was basically a mad dash for Melbourne with, other than a night in Morgan, only two serious stops. The first at Yarrara FFR for White-browed Treecreeper and then at Hattah for Mallee Emu-wren, both ticks for two of our group.
Making a phone call from the airport terminal

Landscape near Lyndhurst

Crimson Chats

Drinking at Montecollina Bore

Searching for Eyrean Grasswrens at Montecollina Bore

All images & text © Jenny Spry

Friday, November 6, 2015


Tawny Frogmouth
Back in 1956 or so I started watching birds when Graham Pizzey showed me a Tawny Frogmouth in his front yard. By somewhere in the mid 1970s I had built my Australian list to about 280 species, but Australian birding then, for various life reasons, stopped until 2001 when I met Joy, Barb and Helen and my birding life took off again. Between 2001 and the end of 2007 I add 375 new birds to my Australia list and saw many wonderful new places and had many wonderful experiences along the way. The four of us made a great team.
South Island Pied Oystercatcher
I retired from work at the end of 2007 and since then have had more time for birding and have been to many more places including Macquarie Island, Boigu Island, Saibi Island, Norfolk Island, Ashmore Island, Christmas Island and Cocos & Keeling Islands. I doubt I would have got to any of these fascinating places if it wasn't for my interest in birding and the company of my friends. Since January 2005 I have done more than 18 major birding trips and averaged seeing 20 new bird species each year.
White-Rumped Sandpiper
I haven't done many single bird "twitches" over the years because I like to see new places or re-visit old favourites when I go birding; I am not really interested in just dashing off to add a new bird to my list. For example, I didn't chase the Hoopoe that was found on the mown lawn outside a roadhouse near Broome. I had seen a hoopoe in Vietnam, I had been to Broome and the roadhouse so I just couldn't get excited. Of course there were exceptions like the Grey-headed Lapwing in 2006 when the four of us jumped in a car and drove through the night from Melbourne to Burren Junction in far north NSW. It was a long drive but we had a party atmosphere happening in the car and we met many friends when we got to the bird.
Oriental Honey-buzzard
The Oriental Honey-buzzard in Perth this year was similar. I have been to Perth lots of times but this was a magnificent bird, and we added Chris and Mel to our group and the six of us flew over. Then, having seen the bird, we drove north of Perth for some new birds for some of the group. Again this year, the White-rumped Sandpiper and the South Island Pied Oystercatcher were two more exceptions. A couple of years ago I thought I saw a White-rumped Sandpiper on my local patch, the Western Sewage Treatment Plant at Werribee. It was such a rare bird and the sighting was so brief I didn't add it to my list so when one turned up in northern New South Wales I had to go, and the oystercatcher we picked up at the same time.
Black Grasswren

Kimberley Honeyeater

Gouldian Finch

Chestnut-backed Button-quail
Suddenly 2015 was becoming interesting. I started the year with 783 species, and I had set a goal of seeing 800 Australian species before my 70th birthday in 2016. But here I was at the end of the first week in Feb with three new birds on my list. I had also booked onto two major trips for the year, one being to the Mitchell Plateau in northern Western Australia that would include my first ride in a helicopter and then the tropical forests of Iron Range and the remote Raine Island in far north Queensland. All of a sudden, in the middle of September, I was on, including some splits and confirmations on some earlier sightings, 794 species. I was in reach of 800.
Lesser Sooty Owl

Tower on Raine Island

Rough Seas on the way to Raine Island
Only photo of Herald Petrel that I got at our anchorage
Over the years I had left three "plastic" birds (introduced species) on King Island in Bass Strait, just to the south of Melbourne and as the result of recent splits there were two birds just over the South Australian boarder to the west. If I went and "twitched" those birds I could be on 799 within a couple of weeks. I booked a flight to King Island and soon had Common Pheasant, Indian Peafowl and Wild Turkey on the list and was surprised at just how beautiful all three were. They might just be "plastics" but they were well worth seeing, as was King Island.
Common Pheasant

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey's displaying

Indian Pheasant
I then chased two more species for my Australian list, Western Grasswren and Copper-backed Quail-thrush. They have been sitting over the boarder in South Australia waiting for me for a while now so I packed the car and headed west. I had chosen a break in the weather that promised reasonably calm winds because both birds are "skulkers" and notoriously hard to find.

I got to Whyalla at about 1300 and drove straight into Wild Dog Hill Park to have some lunch and a first hunt for the Western Grasswren. I stopped beside the entry road, got out of my car (luckily with my camera) and squeaked once. The grasswren jumped out of a bush, looked at me, ran along the track for 5 metres and disappeared. Tick one.
Western Grasswren
The quail-thrush was harder but finally at about 1700 on Thursday, after hunting for a day and a half, I saw a quail-thrush flush from the base of a dead tree, sigh, not a great look but hey it was a look. Tick 2.

On Friday morning I tried a new quail-thrush site hoping for a better look. At about 0515 I could hear quail-thrush calling. It took me about 3/4 of an hour of twisting and turning as I chased down calling birds in the half light before dawn but finally I saw one just before it jumped from a branch and disappeared. I then spent about 2 hours searching the mallee with no further luck. After that, with heavy rain forecast for the next 24 hours, I gave up and pointed the car east for home

For bird 800 I had options because over the years I have left single birds all over Australia including the Pale-vented Bush-hen near my friend Ian's, or the Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon near my friend Biggles'. Either would do. If I wanted to go further afield I haven't been to Lord Howe Island yet and there are two new birds waiting there for me. There are even two vagrants, Common Moorhen and a Common Kingfisher, on my favourite island, Cocos. Sigh what to do.

The quandary was resolved by the official list, IOC World Bird List, being updated and giving me an "armchair tick" for bird 800. It split the Collared Kingfisher into Collared (seen as a vagrant on Ashmore Reef) and Torresian (seen around the north coast of Australia). As I have seen both these previous races I gained an extra bird.
Collared Kingfisher on Ashmore Island
Honestly though, getting an "armchair tick" for 800 was not what I wanted. Bird 500 was a Forty-spotted Pardalote, bird 600 had been a Black Bittern and bird 700 was a Schrenck's Bittern. These are all, in their own way, hard to find birds. I wanted to see another "hard to find bird" for my next bird after my hard to find Copper-backed Quail-thrush. So I planned to go out and "see" a new bird that would give me the pleasure of being out in the bush among birds. Maybe for my own private list I will have two birds for 800, it is certainly a big enough number to support two birds (smile).
Schrenck's Bittern on Christmas Island
The 800th bird situation was resolved when Joy, Mel and Joy told me they were taking a couple of days off work and that we were going up the Strzelecki track for Melbourne Cup Weekend. Target bird was Letter-winged Kite, a new bird for all of us. Letter-winged Kite was doubly special for me because it was the last bird from my pre 2000 list that I hadn't seen on my new list. I think I saw one somewhere west of Goondiwindi in about 1960. As Goondiwindi is not in main Letter-winged Kite range, except during irruptions, and because I was young (14 +/-) I just couldn't leave it on. Therefore, I had taken it off my post 2000 list because of doubts about my skills back in the old pre 2000 list days so I had to see one to complete the circle.

Ah yes, the "old days" (smile). My only field guide back then was What Bird is That by Neville W. Cayley that I got for my birthday in 1958, and prior to that I was using a book called Some Common Australian Birds by Alan and Shirley Bell. My binoculars were a hand-me-down pair of Pentax 10x50 that were so heavy I had to lean them against a tree or the family car to keep them steady. So much has changed in the way of equipment but the birding is just as much fun.
My first field guide
We found the Letter-wing-Kite 20 km north of Monticolina Bore, right where the Dolby & Clark guide said it would be, well, pretty much but it did put up a good fight and took a lot of hunting down in 34º temp. It was definitely a bird that warranted its place at co-bird 800, or even first bird after 800 (smile). Sadly I didn't get the gorgeous photo to go with the sighting before the bird disappeared behind a tree because I also had been "behind a tree" and only saw it when I stood up – thank heavens I always take my binoculars when I go behind a tree (smile). As we were all suffering from the heat we didn't try to re-find it but just staggered back to the car and the aircon.

The plans are already in place for more trips including Torres Strait and the Australian waters of the Coral Sea so there are till plenty of places to go and birds to see. Birding is a wonderful obsession to have (smile).

All images & text © Jenny Spry