Big Year birding........the record tumbles

Well a two day weekend in mid winter can be a bit tough to plan out for a Big Year when you've already seen a lot of birds. Winter is always a bit slow for birding and with only two days to spend it meant we couldn't go too far from Adelaide. Luckily we've been saving a few birds for just such an occasion. This weekend was going to be a bit special however as it was likely that my personal Big Year record was going to fall. We chose to go to Gluepot, Birdlife Australias' famous reserve north of Waikerie in the Murray Mallee. There were still quite a few species that can be found in the reserve that we hadn't seen yet and we haven't spent much time in the mallee so far this year so we were due a visit. Gluepot can be quite good in Spring with the arrival of migrants like Black and Pied Honeyeaters, Woodswallows, Bee-eaters, Trillers, Red-backed Kingfishers and others and we were hoping to hold off on visiting till then when we stand a good chance of seeing a greater number of new species for the year list. There were still the resident birds we needed to see so with little else on offer at the moment we opted to try and find those thereby giving us a bit more free time later in the year.

Gluepot has a number of nationally threatened species on its list but some of those at least in recent times are becoming increasingly difficult to find (more on that later). The occurrence of one species in particular was the main reason for the creation of the reserve in the first place, the Black-eared Miner. An interesting bird that is becoming genetically "swamped" by the closely related Yellow-throated Miner since the large scale clearing of the mallee allowed the two closely related species to come in to contact,  but now Gluepot is virtually the only place you have any chance of seeing relatively genetically pure birds, so that became the main focus for us on this trip.

We drove up Friday night after work to Waikerie and stayed overnight in the hotel there before heading off early in the morning. Well as early as we could after realising I'd left my wallet in the now locked motel room!!. A short 20 minute delay before staff arrived for the breakfast shift and we were on our way.

Crossing the Murray via the ferry in the thick mist

It was very cold and misty on the way out to Taylorville and the main turnoff to Gluepot with very little activity to report. After going through the last of the main gates on the Gluepot road  we started to see a few birds as they began to warm up a bit. One particular spot before actually arriving on the reserve proved to be quite rewarding. Driving along the track with the windows down and the heater cranked we heard the distinctive call of a group of Miners quite close to the road. Stopping to investigate it took a while to get on to them as they were proving to be rather furtive. There was actually quite a few of them with as many as 20 birds but they were split up in smaller groups and pairs and were proving difficult to get decent views of to check the features that identify them to species. Slowly different pairs were giving themselves up and we were able to confirm that they were mostly very good Black-eared Miners. This was one of the best "pure"groups of birds I've seen in that general area for a long time with only one bird showing any sign of a slightly paler rump and the rest very dark overall with concolorous rumps and extensive black ear coverts so we had no problem in adding them to the year list.

Black-eared Miner as good as they get

Part of the group of 20+ Miners

While trying to get to grips with the Miners it was evident another target was calling in the general vicinity and after getting good looks at the Miners we made the effort to see this other bird. A quick imitation of its call and a Striped Honeyeater flew in to view and settled in a tree very close to us. I love "Stripeys" as they are quite unique and this one was even more special as it equalled my 1994 Big Year record of 315 species. We only needed one more species to break my record and enter uncharted territory!

The unique Striped Honeyeater

Having knocked off two target birds in quick succession it gave us time to put in an effort to look for Striated Grasswrens, a species that has crashed in South Australia in recent times. I last saw the birds just over 18 months ago, but since then it has disappeared from the public access areas of Gluepot, despite many people having searched former haunts and other areas of suitable habitat. I remember these birds being not too difficult to find and if you spent some time driving the tracks you could quite often detect them by their calls from a moving vehicle. I personally knew them from eight different sites and I'm sure others have seen them in different spots too, but that was then and this is now. We visited all eight sites over the weekend and put a good deal of time in to searching but eventually came up empty. I believe birds have been seen recently in the Birdseye Block and there have been sightings elsewhere in the northern Murray Mallee district but these birds are disappearing at a rate of knots and it is particularly worrying. Next year Sue and I are going to spend some time searching for any remaining birds in SA.

Returning to the car after unsuccessfully searching for Striated Grasswrens 

The last spot I saw Grasswrens in 2015. 
While touring around searching for Grasswrens we passed by one of the sites I know for another resident species that Gluepot is quite good for that we needed. Shortly after getting out of the vehicle we heard the distinctive call of the White-browed Treecreeper and it wasn't long before we found him sitting up in a Black Oak. So this became bird number 316 for our Big Year attempt officially breaking my previous personal 1994 record. Quite a thrill and a target we set out to achieve at the beginning of the year.

A sweet male White-browed Treecreeper that broke my 1994 Big Year record

The moment my previous record fell!!

While looking at the Treecreeper a big mob of Miners turned up and we spent some time having a good look at them. Compared to the birds we saw earlier in the day this flock seemed to comprise of hybrid birds of dubious provenance. Some of them looked more like "typical" Yellow-throated Miners and the rest had elements of both. Just goes to show you have to be very careful when looking at these birds when searching for Black-eareds.

A second flock of Miners showing extensive pale rumps typical of hybrid birds

As it was getting late in the day we decided to set up camp at Bellbird campsite where we had the entire place to ourselves. With camp all organised we had a celebratory drink before heading out just on dusk to do some spotlighting. We were keen and try out the new "boil the billy at 100 yards" spotlights I installed on the command vehicle after breaking our old ones hitting a Roo. Gluepot can be very productive driving around the tracks at night especially in spring/summer on warm evenings especially for reptiles. Driving at around 35km/hr seems to be a good speed that gives you enough time to react if you spot something on the track. The sandy tracks always seem the best especially for Geckos which surprisingly can be seen with care despite their diminutive size. But there are also birds!!! and that was what we were primarily after. We hadn't been gone long and somewhere down the bottom end of track five we had a nice fly over from a Spotted Nightjar. These birds can be quite easy to see when the weather is warmer and quite often sit on the tracks in the early evening especially shortly after dusk, but this was mid winter and we considered ourselves lucky to have seen one at all. As we cruised around we flushed a mystery bird off the track and found a pair of Major Mitchell Cockatoos roosting in a tree near Old Gluepot but that was about it. Coming around a tight left hander on one of the tracks as we headed back to camp we startled a Fox facing us in the middle of the track. He balked left, he balked right, he ran around in a circle, then he saw the rabbit sitting behind him, then started chasing that!!! Quite comical really and provided us with some light entertainment, but also a little sad that despite a baiting program there are still numbers of Foxes on the property!. It was time to head back to camp for a nice Thai red curry and a bottle of wine. It was bitterly cold and after listening to the footy on the radio it was time for bed.

Time to celebrate breaking my 1994 record before heading out spotlighting

The next morning was heavily overcast and the forecast wind was starting to pick up. There was next to no dawn chorus to speak of and what few birds were around were struggling to get going. We packed up and drove off to have a look at the remaining sites for Grasswrens where we'd seen them in the past but found none, quite depressing really. There were a few nice birds to compensate and its always nice to see Shy Heathwrens

A very photogenic Shy Heathwren feeling sorry for us about dipping Grasswrens

 A stop off and walk around the Gypsum Lunette walk yielded not much at all especially Grasswrens or Red-lored Whistlers and with that we left and headed off back to Waikerie. A cup of tea at Hogwash bend Conservation park yielded no Regent Parrots as they probably haven't returned to the river environs yet in any numbers and we found none around Morgan either. So time to drive home ahead of the strengthening northerly winds and the now pelting rain.

So we ended up with four year ticks each giving me 317 and Sue 310 and we have achieved what we set out to do at the beginning of the year. From here we still have another four planned pelagic trips and the whole of the north of South Australia above Port Augusta to explore with five and a half months to go. We're gonna need a good run and some lucky birds but who knows how many we'll end up with? Stay with us and find out!!

The Big Blue Paddock MkIV.....a whale of a time...... and a Sunday catch up

Apologies for the late appearance of this post. Time gets away from us as we continue our quest to get out and see birds and still fit in all the other things we have to do like work and domestic chores. As a consequence you'll get a two for one deal this week!

The Big Blue Paddock MkIV.......... a whale of a time
It was with some relief when we got confirmation the pelagic trip scheduled for the 2nd of July was actually going ahead. We'd missed out on two previous trips that had been postponed and eventually cancelled and hadn't been out on a boat since Mothers Day back in May. With loads of seabirds still to see we were super keen to head back down to Port MacDonnell. With a three day weekend as well, we hoped to have another go for Powerful Owls and Pied Currawongs that we still needed.

In the days leading up to the weekend we heard of a Southern Right Whale that had died and washed up on the shore not far from Port MacDonnell. Colin Rogers had been texting me about the Giant-Petrels he had seen just offshore and thought we might want to check it out. A scent trail heading out to sea could attract any of the scavenger type seabirds that might be around in winter and we thought it would be worth keeping an eye on while down there. We headed off on Saturday morning and drove straight through to Port MacDonnell and on to Finger Point where the whale was........ and the throngs of people and fishermen standing around the carcass. No Giant Petrels here!! A few Gannets offshore and some bolder Kelp Gulls were the only birds showing any sign of putting up with the crowds.

Rotting whales smell rather fruity!!

Sunday morning and we were off on the boat heading out in to a "washing machine" sea albeit under bright conditions. The swell was forecast to be up a bit, but more concerning was the wind out of the north north-west that was around 15-20kts and forecast to strengthen throughout the day. So a bit bumpy going out.

Heading out to the shelf. Anticipation was high

A bit of activity inshore on the way out, especially over the "bank" where we ran in to a load of Prions and a few Albatross. Photos taken later picking up an Antarctic Prion amongst them. We carried on out to our regular stopping point off the shelf after motoring for an hour and a quarter. Almost immediately after pulling up we were buzzed by a single Cape Petrel that made several passes, then strangely disappeared after we started berleying. A nice bird to get for the Big Year and a lifer for Sue.

One of only two Cape Petrels for the day that graced us with its presence

The slick from the berley was starting to do its work and a throng of seabirds started to appear at the back of the boat. Bumpy conditions though made photography tough and the birds were tending to whizz past at a rate of knots or those sitting on the water were blown down the slick pretty quickly. We were visited by six species of Albatross including a very out of season Bullers and only two Wandering types. A couple of Giant-Petrels that proved to be Northerns, Great-winged and a few Grey-faced Petrels, a lone Sooty Shearweater a few Wilsons and Grey-backed Storm-Petrels.

Great-winged Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

Bullers Albatross

Northern Giant-Petrel

Wandering Albatross

Gibsoni type Wandering Albatross

I never get tired of all the seabirds we see on these pelagic trips but a Big Year requires the constant need for ticks and this trip was no different. Having seen Cape Petrel already our biggest chance of ticks were in the flocks of Prions careening around the boat. Photographing the birds and scrutinising the pictures was going to give us our best chance of identifying anything unusual within the swirling mass.......easier said than done on a pitching deck. Having said that we did manage to get a few reasonable shots and low and behold realised we had seen several Slender-billed Prions as well as quite a few Antarctic Prions amongst the more numerous Fairies. Very difficult to pick with the naked eye seeing as how fast they were flying around but it was another lifer for Sue.

Just an idea of how many Prions there were

One of several Slender-billed Prions throughout the day
We had quite a few Antarctics also among the throng of Prions out at the shelf and on the way back in near "the bank"

Antarctic Prion on the way back in

Apart from those birds that were year ticks there wasn't a great deal further to hold our interest, so with strengthening head winds we decided to make the slow wet trip back to port. A quick coffee and debrief at Periwinkles cafe and then off to meet Bob Green standing guard over the whale carcass.

A few people still hanging around the whale meant birds were still not coming in, although Bob had photographed two Giant-Petrels passing reasonably close offshore before we arrived. We stayed until late in the afternoon and then armed with some site gen from Bobs friend Wayne we headed off deep into the forests on the border of Victoria in search of Powerful Owl that had been seen the night before by Wayne. Unfortunately a string of problems marred our efforts. Firstly while approaching the Princess Margaret Caves turn off in the gathering dark, a large Eastern Grey Kangaroo came bounding out of the tall grass in front of us and with no where to go we collided with a jolt and smashing of glass!! Didn't need those spotlights anyway..............oh wait yes we did :(  Still no major damage done to the vehicle or either of us and the Roo vanished as well......hope he made it through without being too badly hurt. Arriving at our designated spot and within a minute of switching off the engine we were greeted with a strident voice in the dark!........."Oi we're stuck....can you help pull us out" Seemed some young lads hacking around in the forest had come to grief in the soft sand of the road edge. With all the racket they were making we gave up any notion of hearing or seeing the Owl so we relented and towed the lads out. They were grateful enough to offer me some money for our troubles but I'd rather have seen the Owl. "No problem"  I said "keep the money and just pay it forward" We decided dinner was more pressing after that so we retreated back to Port MacDonnell for a meal and nice bottle of red. The female Owl is probably incubating eggs right now so we may leave it a while until they have chicks before having another go.

Monday morning saw us back at the whale carcass and being a working day we had it all to ourselves. The Kelp Gulls weren't shy getting stuck in but there were still no Giant-Petrels of any description to be seen despite waiting for over an hour. Unfortunately at this point the weather started to close in as well and the expected front and the rain it would bring had arrived. So we decided to give Pied Currawongs another go near the border before the long trek home. This time we heard one almost straight away near Dry Creek but got poor views and there were no birds near Pernambol where the one bird had lead us on a merry dance last time we were down this way. On approaching Honeysuckle we heard a couple of birds giving there distinctive call and eventually got good enough views of one to tick it. Finally we had Pied Currawong in the bag. So not a bad weekend with another three year ticks taking my total to 313 and Sue to 304.

A Sunday catch up.
After recovering from the boat trip and going back to work for a week we needed to work out what we could do for the following weekend to try for more birds. Firstly we realised we really could use a day to catch up with domestic chores again, so following our daughters birthday shenanigans on the Friday night we decided to take the Saturday off. Number one job on the agenda was to replace the spotlights that the kangaroo had smashed down the south east on the boat trip weekend. We are going to need those as the year progresses and we bought some suitable LED "boil the billy at a hundred yards" spotlights and I spent the rest of the day installing them.

With jobs out of the way and a bit of Saturday night socialising thrown in (I think our non birdy friends forget what we look like) we decided Sunday would be a good day to get Sue some catch up birds. Another look in near Belair to see if the Rose Robin had turned up yet (it hadn't) and then on to the South Coast. 

Not a Rose Robin!!

We carried on and parked up at Parsons Head to do a bit of seawatching in the vain hope a Brown Skua might do a fly past. Unfortunately conditions had calmed down a fair bit since the Saturday when there was some wind around and conditions were too calm. From there we drove through to The Bluff at Victor Harbour to have another scan out to sea but apart from a lot of Gannets way out there was nothing of interest for us to see. Next on the agenda was to drive over to Tolderol Game Reserve. A couple of weeks back Sue had gone there while I was on call for work to look for a reported Marsh Sandpiper, a bird I had seen only once at Buckland Park when we got Little Curlew but she had missed due to a lack of gumboots. The bird did not make an appearance that day so we thought we'd try again just in case they prove to be scarce later in the year when they return on migration. Parking up to have lunch near pond 10 where the bird had been seen previously it was obvious to Sue who had been here recently that the water levels had risen a bit and shorebirds were few and far between. Despite that I saw the Marshy fly in near some Stilts. Getting Sue on to it she not only saw the bird but decided just one wasn't enough so she promptly found another!!! So there were two birds kicking about down there.

An overwintering first Summer Marsh Sandpiper, somewhat scarce this year so far

When one is never enough!

Sue enjoying her year tick

Some other nice birds were around too and we go nice views of at least two hundred Curlew Sandpipers and another 50 Red-necked Stints not to mention a Lewins Rail that strolled across the track in front of us. 

First summer Curlew Sandpiper

Time to leave with only an hour or two of daylight left so we thought perhaps driving back home via Strathalbyn might be useful or Sue. A pair of Little Eagles had been well photographed and reported from near there although I had no idea where exactly but thought it was worth a go. I had already seen one on a work trip near Swan Reach earlier in the year but didn't have any pics. I knew of a likely spot and cruised along the track adjacent to a fenceline, but it wasn't until we turned around and headed back down the track that I spotted a bird high up near the canopy of a large Red gum. A lovely Little Eagle. A quick pic later and the bird took off and did a loop before landing back near its starting position. Backlit against an overcast sky I decided to change my camera settings and was only half way through when the darker male bird came winging in and they began to copulate. I snapped off a couple of badly adjusted shots of them in the act that turned out not too bad if just a little overblown on the highlights.

Little Eagles caught in the act

So not a bad result for Sue catching up on a couple of birds I already had, putting her on 306 and only seven birds behind me now. None of those are difficult at all especially later in the year so she'll have no problem equalling the score. Just a couple of weekends to fill in before the end of the month when we head off to the far west of the State and hopefully get a bit of a run of new birds. But my personal record is likely to fall before then so I'll need to work out what those birds will likely be as there are a few different things we could do. Till then see you next time

Making something out of nothing

Another cancelled pelagic trip was not the news we were hoping for at the end of last week. When we started out on our S.A. Big Year quest we put our names down for every trip that was going, knowing that boat trips can be a big game changer. The shear amount of species that can potentially be seen is quite phenomenal.  Neither of us had done many boat trips up to this point in time and so we took it as a good opportunity to perhaps get some lifers as well as birds for the year list. As a consequence pelagic weekends during the year are basically preplanned and we dont have to think too hard about what birds we need to chase or where we need to go as its its all laid on, so when a trip is cancelled it forces us to think on the fly and come up with an alternative plan.

With very few birds left to chase within easy day tripping of Adelaide, coming up with a plan was quite a challenge. Spring and the birds that it brings is still so far away, as is our planned holidays for later in the year when we get to travel further what to do? A quick look through our lists identified a couple of species we still needed that we could look for very close to Adelaide. Not only that, Sue still needed a few birds I'd already seen due to opportunities through my work. It wasn't long before we came up with a plan

First on the agenda for Saturday was a visit to a site in suburban Adelaide that has played host to a very special visitor over the past two years. The only problem was no one had reported it this year.......... but then again we didn't think anyone had actually looked for it either. Arriving in the early morning sunshine a walk through a local reserve near Belair National Park failed to find the celebrity Rose Robin that visited here for the last two winters in a row. Apparently three in a row was too big a stretch! Not really a dip given it hasn't actually been seen this year but disappointing all the same as this is a very difficult Winter visitor to get in SA.. Next up was a walk through the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens. Again, another species that had been recorded here but not since last year as the target. Up hill and down dale the terrain was quite steep but very scenic but we failed to find our quarry!......hmmmmmm not going well.

Silver Birch and deep leaf litter......but no target bird!!

Lunch in Mt Barker before popping in to a favourite birding location famous amongst South Aussies. Laratinga Wetlands has rapidly become a really good place to visit for birding and especially so because of the photographic opportunities it presents. Birds here seem to have little fear of people and seem to allow a close approach. We wandered around the tracks that circumnavigate the ponds but despite our third target of the day having been reported from here just last week, we again failed to find it!!. Plenty of other birds to look at though, and I'm not sure I've seen so many Spotless Crakes in the one place at the one time as what we did that day.

Very photogenic at times Spotless Crakes are easy to see at Laratinga
Lots of Shovelers around at the moment too

With two thirds of the day gone and nothing to show for it we thought we'd have another go near Mt Lofty for the bird we missed in the Botanic Gardens earlier. Last week when we bumped in to Ed and Jenni chasing the Broad-billed Sandpiper, Ed had mentioned an area he had seen our target not far from the Botanic Gardens. Of course I couldn't remember where that was but thought near enough might be good enough. We parked up just near the entrance to Cleland Conservation Park and headed down the Warre track through old Stringybark near the summit of Mt Lofty itself. Emerging from around a corner to the junction of the Eullie Track I noticed movement on the ground in a small open patch of leaf litter amongst the Flame Heath and Bracken Fern understory. I knew what it was immediately and got Sue on to it straight away. Bassian Thrush feeding in the open not 10 metres in front of us............excellent!

Superbly camouflaged in its leaf litter surrounds the Bassian
Thrush is more rarely seen than genuinely rare

Sue "having"a Bassian Thrush

With at least one target bird down for the weekend we headed home for Lamb Roast and a few glasses of Red.

Sunday came with a different plan and we headed out to Brookfield Conservation Park in the mallee again. Not with any particular target in mind but it was a clear bright morning. We did some general birding and came a cross a nice feeding association of Rufous and Golden Whistler, Sittellas, Pardalotes, Brown-headed and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters and a lone Grey Fantail. Never really understood what the benefits are for the birds in these mixed feeding flocks? Perhaps they just like the company?....... but if was nice watching them going about their business. Another male Chestnut-backed Quailthrush was very nice to see and a single flock of over 50 White-winged Choughs was impressive.

Having spent the morning in the mallee we headed back towards Adelaide via the Barossa Valley to give ourselves enough time to look for our other target that we missed in Laratinga. After lunch at Tanunda Sewage ya do!..... which was covered in Pink-eared Ducks, we drove down to St Hallett Winery. Set on the banks of the North Para River the winery has its own woodlot that sometimes has the bird we were looking for, but first a nasal "beeping"type call drew my attention to some nearby bushes. Sitting on top was a pair of Zebra Finch, a nice pick up for Sue and there were others nearby. Standing near the bike track that parallels the river we scanned for several minutes and listened intently for any sign of our quarry. After a while of not seeing or hearing anything Sue hit a brief burst of playback to see any of the birds were in earshot. Initially nothing, but as we walked down the bike path Sue saw a flash of green and yellow and there they were, three Crested Shrike-tits high up in a river Red Gum along the creek......most excellent!

Chuckling calls often give this birds presence away

Nothing else to do but sample the wines and this we duly did. The best way to thank Chris Steeles for the site info was to buy a couple of bottles of wine he so lovingly makes. Next time you're in the Barossa make sure to pop in and look for the Shrike-tits and have a sample when you do

A successful weekend

One more stop on the way back home down the Valley. Sue was still in need of Yellow Thornbill and so we popped in to Altona Landcare Reserve. Almost didn't even need to get out of the car for that one as they are easily seen in the trees in the car park and so Sue got another catch up bird....nice.
So we got home having made something out of nothing, giving me another two year ticks and putting me on 310, tantalisingly close to my old record. Sue another four.

Now we hope that the pelagic will go next weekend so we dont have to think what else to do!!!

Big Year Winter birding

After a weekend of standby for work, Sue and I were really looking forward to the Queens Birthday long weekend as it gave us three valuable days in a row to go birding. We chose to spend this time down the South-east of the State again as there are several species that can be easier to see at this time of year down there than any other time. Not least of which is Powerful Owl. These birds are very rare winter breeders but tend to call more frequently at this time of year which can aid in the process of locating them.

Firstly we had a report of a wintering Broad-billed Sandpiper to contend with that had been seen on the upper Coorong the weekend I was working (naturally). A rare bird in Summer as it is, but a wintering bird was virtually unheard of. Well with the info already a week old it was no surprise we never got a sniff of it, despite spending quite a bit of time searching the area. Other birders were also looking for the bird and it was nice to get to meet Ed and Jenni in the field, even if we did all dip!

From there we headed down to Bangham CP a favourite area for us. Luke Leddy had posted some pics of a small flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos from the weekend previous and we still needed that. Driving along the eastern boundary of the park adjacent to the rail reserve late in the day we parked up and immediately heard the distinctive call of the birds. Just in to the rail corridor was a tree seemingly filled with Red-tailed Black Cockatoos but just as I was reaching for the camera the birds all took the opposite direction!!! Despite that disappointment we were still pleased to have seen them.

Overnight the temperature took a nose dive and we woke up to a very cold and foggy morning. It took the birds a while to get going and we knew exactly how they felt!!

Winter camping at its best

Once we got moving we decided to go back to the spot where we'd seen the Cockatoos the night before. As we pulled up, there they were again, only this time I think they were too cold to fly away and we managed to snatch a few pics through the mist.

The last of the Cockatoos for our Big Year

Moving on from there it wasn't long before we heard the calls of several Black-chinned Honeyeaters and we eventually came across a couple in the south-east corner of the reserve. We managed to get some photos this time having missed that opportunity when we encountered this species for the first time this year back in Port Elliot.

Always a pleasure to see Black-chinned Honeyeaters are getting increasingly more difficult to find in SA

From Bangham we drove towards Naracoorte and popped in to a small reserve that has had Crested Shriketits in the past. The weather was cool and spitting with rain and we had no luck in locating any birds this time. We then headed down further south to the forest reserves on the Victorian border adjacent to the Glenelg River. The key species here at this time of year is Pied Currawong. A small population lives in the vicinity of the Grampians but in winter tend to roam across the border and can be found lurking in these forests. The call is quite distinctive but the taxonomic affinities of these birds are not!!!. Driving around a bit we were listening intently for any birds calling and heard two birds late in the day at some distance from us but that was all we got. We also came across a group of 8 or so Red-tailed Black Cockatoos settling down to roost for the night, certainly a lot further south than I've seen them before. As it was starting to get dark we decided to have some dinner before heading off to search for Powerful Owls. At this stage the weather closed in and we were drizzled on virtually all night. Quite a lot of Ring-tailed Possums around and a Common Wombat entertained us for a while but no owls were calling in the rain and we decided to pull the pin and retire to a motel for the night. A tickless day!!!

Monday morning and we were back in the forest early. We heard another Pied Currawong calling but failed to locate it. Feeling a little deflated at missing our targets we opted for a soft tick. We knew of a spot for a bird that Bob Green had told us about and while we were confident to get it later in the year we thought, well one in the hand is worth two in the bush, and so it was we ended up at Snow Gum block, A little burst of playback and in came a lovely Olive Whistler to investigate. He happily carried on feeding after posing for some pics.

In SA only found in the extreme south-east Olive Whistlers can be very skulking at times

The weather had improved somewhat and while still cold and overcast at least it wasn't wet so we carried on traversing the tracks through the forest scanning ahead for Bassian Thrushes feeding on the side of the tracks and listening intently for Pied Currawongs. Apart from a few Blue-winged Parrots there wasn't a lot of activity in the forest and we struggled to even locate any loose feeding associations. Given that we had to head home at some stage we drove out towards Pernambol Conservation Park. On the way we passed an old roost site we had seen Powerful Owls previously, but now clear felled and we wondered what had ever become of those birds.. Having parked up near the famous sinkhole that is a feature of Pernambol we heard the distinctive and very loud call of a Pied Currawong near to the entrance track. We literally ran out to the road and facing a large block of pine we lost the bird completely. For the next two hours we traversed every track in this small forest block and heard the bird several more times, sometimes close and sometimes further away. A very frustrating two hours ensued as we drove in ever decreasing circles. Hearing the bird for the last time it dawned on us that the bird was only calling on the wing and we'd been chasing shadows. At no stage did we ever even get a sniff of clapping eyes on it, so a return trip is on the cards.

Having taken the decision to head home we thought we'd go for some more "low hanging fruit" as it were given how poorly we had done over the weekend. Up to this point in time we hadn't seen a Shy Heathwren, safe in the knowledge that it's easy to see when we needed it. So on the way home we passed Desert Camp Conservation Park, a place neither Sue or I had ever visited but had driven passed many times. The habitat looked really good for the Heathwrens so we stopped off along the northern boundary. Driving up the fenceline we split off on a diagonal track as we climbed the hill. "This looks good" said I.......... so we pulled up and got out the car. Almost immediately Sue spied a bird just off the side of the track in some low Mallee, a gorgeous male Flame Robin!

A very confiding male Flame Robin. He was joined by a mate shortly after this picture was taken

As we watched the Robin we saw several other species like Purple-gaped Honeyeaters and Fairy-wrens which was nice, but after a brief burst of playback I glimpsed a small bird flipping across the track in front of us. Sure enough out popped a Shy Heathwren right on cue! He stayed with us for a while, posing for several photographs and even serenading us for a short period...........very nice. Always good when a plan comes together!

Shy Heathwrens are always a favourite of ours when ever we come across them

So the weekend was done and we felt a little underwhelmed given the aspirations that we'd had originally. We'd seen some good birds for sure but none of the winter targets we really needed. It's a bit of a struggle at this time of year with few birds to chase in easy reach of Adelaide. Ideally we need to ensure we get these birds before we lose the opportunity to get them so we need to plan to return to the South-east again. As it was we both picked up the three year ticks which puts me on 308 and tantalisingly close to beating my old record from way back in 1994

As I sit writing this we've just been told the pelagic trip we were so looking forward to this weekend has been cancelled. I'm wondering if we'll ever get back out to sea again this year as that's two in a row that have failed to get out. Oh well, we'll just have to make other plans closer to home......


Big Year blues

I must admit to struggling a bit with motivation now we've hit the "dead period" of the year. As I alluded to in our last blog post it can be hard to try and focus on what we should be doing with our time now that we've seen quite a few of the birds already this year that are in easy reach. Most of the remaining species we need, we'll need to travel much further afield to see and that requires more time off work than we're getting now. Even then some of those birds we'll have to wait until spring before having a chance to get to grips with them. All of those birds have been planned for and our holidays are already booked for the rest of the year, so its a matter of just sitting it out until those trips come around.

There was a report of Northern Shoveler from Hindmarsh Island that would have been a great addition to our Big Year lists and an Oz tick to boot, but we got that info too late and we were stuck at work for the week. Even still, despite being seen on the Monday it could not be found by other observers who searched throughout the rest of the week. In the end and in the absence of any further reports, we decided not to waste diesel looking for it ourselves.

We still have a number of pelagic trips we're booked on each month but there's no guarantee any of those will go such are the vagaries of the Southern Ocean at this time of year. We were due to go on one last weekend but unfortunately the weather conspired against us and despite reorganising the trip from Sunday to Monday it ended up getting cancelled. We had three days off too, so trying to work out what to do with that time was a challenge. Well in the end we thought we'd split our time with a search for Bassian Thrush and a trip out to the Mallee.

Saturday saw us out and about in the Pine forests around the southern shores of South Para Reservoir. In autumn/winter Bassian Thrushes can sometimes be seen foraging for invertebrates in the moist pine needle leaf litter inside these forests.............sometimes...........but not this time! We did enjoy the walk and it always amazes me just how many native species can be found in Pine forests especially Scarlet Robins and White-throated Treecreepers. These birds seem to be doing quite well in these artificial habitats and we must have seen at least six pairs of Robins at least. At the end of the day we beat a retreat as the wind began to pick up quite significantly and both of us had commitments that evening anyway.

Plenty of Scarlet Robins in the Pine forests around South Para Reservoir

Sunday we spent doing domestic chores instead of driving down for the pelagic we should have been going on but the weather started to show exactly why we weren't going. Quite wet and windy conditions all day .

Monday came and we decided to go up to Brookfield Conservation Park out in the Murray Mallee. This time of year is not particularly good out there compared to Spring, but in the absence of anything else more pressing we thought we'd just do some general birding anyway as we hadn't really spent much time in that habitat yet. There had been some good birds reported recently with Olive-backed Oriole and Painted Honeyeater being very noteworthy, but it was unlikely either would still be around. So in the end we thought it would be a good opportunity to get Sue some catch up birds I'd seen earlier in the year and perhaps get to see one of my all time favourite birds we still needed. To start off we managed to get a small family group of about 7-8 Chestnut-crowned Babblers which was a nice pick up for Sue and there seemed to be lots of Mulga Parrots and Bluebonnets around on the entrance track. A nice female Crested Bellbird sitting up on a branch was encouraging. It's good to see those are still around this close to Adelaide.  After stopping for a cuppa once in the mallee proper, we had a walk around, seeing and hearing a number of nice species but nothing new for either of us

Blue skies in Brookfield CP at least initially!

Towards the eastern boundary we walked up the track beyond the vehicle access where you start to get Bluebush as a major component of the understory. We've seen some good birds in this general area before and it wasn't long before we came across a good loose feeding association that surprisingly had White-browed Woodswallows in it, another catch up bird for Sue.

Lovely out of season male White-browed Woodswallow

Given the amount of activity here I wasn't surprised when Sue spotted a Southern Scrub-robin scuttling between the bushes. Quite often when there's lots of activity with birds in these loose winter feeding flocks, like various Honeyeater species, Pardalotes and others around they are often accompanied by other more cryptic ground dwelling birds. So we started looking carefully on the ground ahead of us as we walked.

Always hell bent on finding out what you're up to Southern Scrub-robins are great characters
With Shrike-thrushes and Scrub-robins hopping along on the ground I nearly missed the bird we were hoping for. Just up ahead and not making a sound I saw a bird running between two clumps of bushes. We got closer to it only to discover a pair of beautiful Chestnut-backed Quailthrush. These are my all time favourite birds in the mallee and one of my favourite bird families anywhere in the world. We managed to get great walk away views. Hopefully we'll get to see another two species of these exquisitely marked birds later in the year.

My favourite bird in the Mallee

This female Chestnut-backed Quailthrush seemed quite curious.

The clouds were starting to scud in and so with the main target bird under our belts we decided to drive up to Morgan to see what else we could find. Nearing the Cadell turn off we had a nice Pied Butcherbird on the overhead wires as we drove past and Sue was able to add this one to her list. Morgan Conservation Park was very quiet and we saw none of the hoped for birds like Little Friarbird and Regent Parrots. These birds are far more reliable in Spring/Summer so it was hardly surprising we missed them. Heading home from Morgan we took a popular back road that comes out at Mt Mary that has some good birds on it especially in Spring with Black and Pied Honeyeaters being quite regular............. but this wasn't Spring. There had been a recent report of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes and that would have been nice but we didn't see any. Several stops along this road produced some good views of  Redthroats and a nice Black-eared Cuckoo. Not normally found at this time of year, the Cuckoo came as a big surprise and it sat nicely for a photograph.

An out of season Black-eared Cuckoo
So we ended the day back in a rain soaked Adelaide with one new year bird for me putting me on 305 and Sue getting 4 new birds. A week of 24 hour standby for work will put paid to any birding aspirations this next weekend but it will give us a chance to clean and restock the command vehicle. Our next opportunity to get out will be the June long weekend where we hope to chase winter breeding Powerful Owls and a couple of other species down the far south-east. After that, another pelagic. Fingers crossed!

Big Year Sunday filler

This time of year the birding tends to slow down a bit. All the waders have gone back to the Northern Hemisphere, the majority of local species are no longer breeding and the bush goes a bit quiet. Autumn and winter does have a few birds to chase though mostly made up of interstate migrants that make sporadic but unpredictable appearances, but there aren't really many of those.

Seabirds are worth spending the time on but pelagic trips only take up one day and only go once a month. So what to do? Answer? Start looking to fill holes in our lists. There are always some birds that slip through the net in the initial mad rush at the start of a Big Year so we decided to chase a couple of birds that we still needed that are available year round. So after spending Saturday on domestic chores and purchasing a new camera body for me after drowning mine on a boat trip, we decided to head down to Victor Harbour on the Sunday.

Arriving early morning we first headed over the causeway out to Granite Island in bright sunshine and warm conditions

Heading over to Granite Island

Granite Island is a popular tourist destination that used to have a thriving Little Penguin colony, but as is so common these days the colony has suffered from predation and vandalism. Such a shame but that's not why we where there. Another normally secretive and furtive bird, that for some strange reason, can be seen with relative ease on the Island in the cooler months was our target. Once on the Island we headed around to the right, away from the breakwater and cafe to the western side. We climbed up to a more secluded track that cuts through a group of shrubs and seaberry saltbush understorey and it wasn't long before Sue noticed some birds feeding in the shade on the side of the track. A pair of Brown Quail were foraging without any fear in the open just a few metres in front of us. These birds used to be super rare in SA but recent good seasons has seen their numbers build up and we seem to be bumping in to them all over the place.

The ubiquitous Brown Quail

While watching the quail I heard the unmistakable call of our target bird but back in the scrub off the track. We couldn't see it at all even after waiting a while, so we moved off to see if we could find another more cooperative bird somewhere else. Despite hearing another bird at a spot further up the hill we ended up going back to where we saw the Quail. This time we decided to give a short burst of the call on Sues phone. Initially nothing, but after a relatively short interval out popped a Buff-banded Rail on to the track. Strutting around like a small bantam chicken it casually crossed over in front of us then decided to come over and check us out as bold as brass.......nice! That constitutes the last of the Crakes and Rails for us to see in SA now.

The "highly secretive and furtive" Buff-banded Rail

Happy with that it was time to head off to look for another bird that can be found in this area So after a spot of lunch we ended up at one of those great birding destinations that can be found throughout the world and arguably attracts more birders than birds themselves.........sewage ponds!! Only this time we weren't looking for shorebirds or any other kind of "waterbird" normally associated with such salubrious habitat but instead we were looking for a Honeyeater. A very rare one at that. Needless to say we drew a blank despite searching the surrounding district and the lower Inman River Valley.

Sue on the lower Inman River failing to find a Black-chinned Honeyeater

Never fear we knew another spot where people had seen a bird recently in some street trees right in the suburbs of Port Elliot. Parking the car on a side street we played the call once or twice to see if it had any effect on any birds nearby. Almost immediately a juvenile Black-chinned Honeyeater marked by the green skin above its eye flew in to an adjacent tree. Before I could get a decent photograph it was seen off by the far more aggressive New Holland Honeyeaters.

Still a nice day out with two more birds for our Big Year lists putting me on 304. Next weekend promises to be another belter if we can get out on the pelagic, so tune in next week to see how we get on. Don't forget you can get live updates from the field by following along on Twitter at Sue@Tytoalba