Farewell to the Shorebirds

During the planning stages of our Big Year we decided to work on a strategy to target difficult birds in the right seasons. The theory behind that was based on the premise that it's easier to find those difficult birds when the timing is right and that a lot of the commoner species will fall in around them....... or so the theory goes!

Up until now at least it appears to be working. We haven't had many opportunities to this point in time for really rare and or difficult birds, but for those that we have we've been successful in seeing, such as Laughing Gull, Black-backed Bittern and recently Little Curlew. Which brings me back to this weeks update "Farewell to the Shorebirds". Migratory shorebirds that breed in the far northern hemisphere spend our summer with us here in Australia before migrating back north to breed. So during a normal calendar year we see them mostly from January to April then again from about October through to the end of December. There's always some exceptions and some birds always over winter but if you want to get all the Shorebirds you have to target them when they are around.

By late March these birds are already on the move having spent the previous weeks feeding voraciously on the mudflats they inhabit, doubling their body weight and shrinking their non vital organs in preparation for the vast distances they must travel on the Flyway to reach the breeding grounds. With some of these birds still missing from our lists we needed to target them one more time before they disappear till later in the year.

Firstly though we had domestic duties to take care of as they tend to build up when you work for a living and spend every spare minute chasing birds, so we gave up Saturday for that. On the Sunday we had decided to visit the west coast of Yorke Peninsula around Chinaman Wells again. On the way we called in to visit the resident Black Falcons just north of Port Wakefield that I had seen earlier in the year on a work trip but Sue had missed. It was nice to see one of the adult birds sitting on a power pole in the general vicinity of where they normally are and so Sue was able to add it to her list. We continued on to Chinaman Wells and were keen to see if there were any waders moving through on passage and to have another go for Rock Parrots before they head offshore to breed. Apart from a few Grey Plover and about 25 Turnstone there were only a 100 or so Red-necked Stints and not much else. It seemed the Red Knots and Bar-tailed Godwits we had seen previously had already left. Never mind, so we looked for Rock Parrots instead. Apart from a pair of Neophema type Parrots flushing from the roadside we failed to get on to any again. A brief lunch stop on the hills overlooking Port Victoria was shared with a sky full of very vocal Fork-tailed Swifts. These birds no doubt also contemplating their long migration to the northern hemisphere. Time to move on. We had arranged to meet our friend Colin Rogers at Clinton Conservation Park to coincide with the late afternoon high tide that forces the birds off the mudflats and into binocular range.

Clinton Conservation Park incorporates the head of the Gulf of St Vincent and protects the Mangroves and Mudflats

We got there just as the tide had started to race in and I decided to ditch my shoes as we walked out over the mudflats, sinking up to my knees at times. There were a lot of birds out there but no sign of any of the larger waders that I had hoped might still be there like Whimbrels. This used to be a good place to regularly see both Lesser and Greater Sand-plovers but neither put in an appearance and we feared we had already left it too late in the season to see these birds.

Ditched the shoes

Sue and Colin scanning through flocks of waders on the beach

There were still impressive numbers of birds here though and as the tide raced in covering the mudflats the birds had been feeding on they started to concentrate in to species specific flocks. Over 60 odd Grey Plover were an impressive site as well as over a hundred Common Greenshank. Overhead were quite a few Gull-billed Terns, Caspian Terns and over 50 Fairy Terns. As the shorebirds were forced to come closer to shore we picked up a couple of Terek Sandpipers. This was a bird I was hoping for. It's quite rare in SA in any given year and I had never seen more than seven together at any one time here, so we were very pleased to see this species. As the birds moved around trying to settle somewhere above the incoming tide we found the Tereks again perched on a dead mangrove stump, but now there were 5 and a Grey-tailed Tattler was keeping them company. Very impressive!

An impressive 5 Terek Sandpipers and a Grey-tailed Tattler

We spent some time sifting through the mixed flocks of smaller waders hoping to pick out something really special like a Little Stint or a Broad-billed Sandpiper but apart from a single Double-banded Plover picked out by Sue (she's good at finding them), it was not to be. It was nice though looking at some of these birds resplendent in their new breeding attire and even Sharp-tailed Sandpipers looked really attractive in their rich rufous colours. The majority of these birds however would be leaving our shores in the next week or so. Having scrutinised the birds arrayed before us and confident we hadn't missed anything it was time to head back to the vehicles. Just when you think the day is done birds have a way of taking you by surprise when you least expect it! Walking back along the beach we finally connected with Rock Parrot. We flushed six birds that were feeding in the samphire in amongst the Mangroves right on the mudflats. Seemed the incoming tide had forced the birds back in towards the beach. Having got good looks at them they flushed and headed out on to the samphire flats back behind the beach. We would come across these birds again on the way out and one of them finally gave up a nice photo opportunity for Sue.

Rock Parrot.......finally!

So I picked up two more Year birds and Sue three to finish the weekend on 258. It's time now though to say farewell to the Shorebirds until October when we hope to connect with those few birds still missing from our Big Year lists. Unless something super rare turns up unexpectedly we'll shift our focus now to other birds that we've not tried for yet. Lots of "low hanging fruit" to chase.

The Big Blue Paddock

Midweek we received the good news that the pelagic trip scheduled for the weekend was going to go ahead. Having missed out on the first trip scheduled in February due to bad weather we were pretty excited about the prospect of getting to grips with lots of truly pelagic seabirds. There are so many species out there, any Big Year attempt needs to include as many pelagic trips as possible, they can literally be game changing.

So Saturday morning we drove the 5 hours down to Port MacDonnell in the States south-east, but not before taking in a visit to Pick Swamp. Yes we'd been here several times already this year in search of the Australasian Bitterns that frequent this area but had drawn a blank up to this point in time. However, this time was going to be different because we came with a secret weapon in the form of local birder and south-east guru Bob Green. Bob spends a lot of time in this area doing extensive monitoring and survey work and so we felt confident we'd get one this time. Having driven around the boundary of the reserve and seeing a lot of birds including some nice Brolga but no Bittern, we came back around towards and past the main entrance gate where Bob showed us a good site for Olive Whistler. No doubt we'll look harder in Spring for this one when the birds are calling. Walking along the edge of the swamp and avoiding a large Copperhead Snake sunning itself on the track we put up an Australasian Bittern in close! Another bird foraging further out put in an appearance as well........nice!! We left Bob to go and catch up with the other participants and check in to the Caravan Park for the night

Scanning the horizon on the run out to the shelf 

Up early and down to the wharf for a 6:30am start. The day was forecast to be warm with light northerly winds and a 2-2.5m swell. Heading out in the predawn light it wasn't long before we started getting tantalising glimpses of birds cutting across the stern in our wake. Some of the pelagic species are more commonly found inshore and so it was that the first birds ID'd were several Fluttering Shearwaters heading out to feeding areas only they can detect. Somewhat surprisingly the next bird to turn up was a single Wilsons Storm-Petrel, allegedly the most numerous species of bird on earth but not normally seen inshore. A few Australasian Gannets were passing by, along with some distant Jaegers that could not be determined to species as well as some Short-tailed Shearwaters and the odd Flesh-footed Shearwater. It would take us just over an hour to reach the drop off on the edge of the continental shelf and in the zone of the truly deep water pelagic birds. It's here we stop the boat and start a Tuna oil slick and start chumming for birds. In a trackless ocean it never ceases to amaze me how the birds start appearing from over the horizon in search of this amazing smell!!! Where at first there were virtually no birds and an apparent empty sea, in a matter of twenty minutes we had multiple species of Albatross such as Shy Albatross, Yellow-nosed Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and the closely related Campbells Albatross.

The numerous Shy Albatrosses mostly included local breeders

Campbells Albatross

Other species attracted to the scrum forming at the back of the boat included both Great-winged and Grey-faced Petrels. Several  White-faced Storm-Petrels were dancing about on the slick as well as even more Wilsons Storm-Petrels.

The worlds most numerous bird? Wilsons Storm-Petrel

Nothing can prepare you for seeing one of the "Great Albatrosses" When one of these birds turn up at the back of the boat even the other species of Albatross make way. The first of four Wandering Albatross to turn up during the day made its presence felt, dwarfing all the other birds attending the back of the boat. Surprisingly shy at first but once it got interested in the food on offer the other birds just got out of its way!!

Wandering Albatross. One of the "Great Albatrosses"
By far the most attractive of the smaller Albatrosses at least in my opinion is the beautiful Bullers Albatross that made an appearance when peoples enthusiasm was starting to wane a little. Very dainty and delicate with soft pastel shades of grey they never fail to impress me

Bullers Albatross incoming
As lunch time was approaching conditions began to flatten out a bit which forces the birds to expend too much energy flying around. This makes them just sit on the water and makes attracting them to us a lot more difficult. This didn't stop a young Pomarine Jaeger from paying us a visit as he heavily flapped right up to and over the boat before sitting on the water gobbling food for a while. By now things had started to quieten down and so we contemplated the return journey. So we began the trek back on what had become glassy seas, but that didn't stop us picking up a Little Penguin loafing on the surface some twenty nautical miles still offshore!! Back on dry land it took an arduous 5 hours to get back home again but we had added another 15 species to our Big Year Lists finishing the weekend on 255. We're scheduled to go on another four trips in the next couple of months so it'll be interesting to see how many other species we can pick up!

Shorebirds and more Shorebirds

So after spending an amazing two weeks on holiday in Thailand, it was a rude shock to have to go back to work again. For me I got to go to the Upper Spencer Gulf for four days which gave me an opportunity to catch up with a few birds I hadn't connected with, but sadly for Sue she was desk bound. A quick ten minute pit stop at the wetlands at Port Wakefield on the way through afforded me great views of a few Freckled Duck roosting close to the road that had been reported a week earlier. Later in the week I took a drive out to Yorkeys Crossing north of Port Augusta after work to see if there was anything around. Despite the fact it was a little windy I soon came across two pair of Rufous Field-wrens sitting on a fence within a short distance of each other. Closer to town two Chirruping Wedgebills sat up in a bush giving me good views. Home Friday and we packed the car ready to head back up the Gulf coast to try and find some of the missing shorebirds from our lists

An early start saw us at Thompson Beach at dawn, to coincide with an early high tide. We quickly located a roosting area of a large group of shorebirds further south down the beach. Here we found some good numbers of birds that were starting to colour up into breeding plumage including Red Knots and Great Knots but also had 93 Bar-tailed Godwits and good numbers of Grey Plover, Turnstone and several thousand mixed Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints and a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Sue managed to pick up a recently arrived Double-banded Plover and we both added that to our lists. Other birds of note included a young Spotted harrier cruising along the beach and a pair of Brown Quail dust bathing on the side of the main road

Large group of shorebirds in the early morning light

The birds were up and about heading out to richer feeding areas
At this stage after a couple of hours watching the birds go about the business of feeding ready for migration we noticed the approaching front that had been forecast for the weekend. We decided then to head over to the upper Gulf via Port Wakefield so Sue could pick up the Freckled Ducks I'd seen earlier in the week. After poking about in Port Arthur and Port Clinton seeing not much of interest we went straight to Chinaman Wells north of Port Victoria to see if we could connect with Rock Parrots. On the drive out the storm clouds were gathering and the humidity increased providing great conditions for Swifts and luckily enough we connected with a flock of 80+ Fork-tailed Swifts flying north over the road

One of 80 Fork-tailed Swifts against a heavy sky

Despite our best efforts and having a false start or two with Elegant Parrots we failed to connect with any Rock Parrots at all. There were some nice shorebirds on the beach here though to keep our interest and we counted at least another 800 Red Knot, some more Bar-tailed Godwits and a close flyby of two Double-banded Plover. From here we drove all the way down to Gleesons landing near Corny Point to try and find Reef Herons and Hooded Plovers. There were lots of people camping here and why not? it looked like a really nice place. As we drove around the edge of a cove Sue spotted a suspicious looking Heron loafing on the rocks. I had to drive past it in order to turn around. As we got out the car Sue called it....... Reef Heron, a tricky bird to find in SA as they are in very low numbers and found with any regularity in only a few places. We managed to get some photos then realised the bird nearly walked straight on top our other main target here, Hooded Plover......nice. Time was flying and the day was drawing to a close so we headed over to Edithburgh to stay for the night.

Reef Heron at Gleesons Landing
Hooded Plover nearly got stood on by a Reef Heron

The next morning we decided to go down in to Innes National Park and search for some of the special birds that occur there but it quickly became apparent we'd be up against it with unprecedented numbers of people and wet and windy conditions. We did manage to get on to Eastern Osprey relatively quickly at Chinamans Hat but that was going to be all she wrote given the conditions, so we beat a hasty retreat and headed north to try for Rock Parrots again. Just outside of Port Victoria we picked up some Banded Lapwings in a paddock, a pair of which had two tiny chicks. It was at this point we drove home via Port Wakefield again where we managed to locate some Black-tailed Native-hen in the wetlands there between heavy downpours.

Banded Lapwing near Port Victoria

Monday morning we had prearranged with our friend Colin Rogers to pick us up and take us out to the former Penrice Saltfields where he had seen some very nice birds over the previous couple of days. The Saltfields used to be a jewel in the crown of Adelaide birding hotspots and it was never difficult to gain access, even allowing birders to become key holders but sadly it is no longer a commercially operating business and the place has declined dramatically. It's very sad to see its demise. Having said that we had this limited opportunity to go in with Colin so we took it. The first birds we scanned for during the high tide were 9 Far Eastern Curlew. These had proved difficult to locate anywhere else in the Gulf region so far this summer so we were well pleased with seeing them. The next location on the agenda was Buckland Park Lake. This legendary place had seen some spectacular rarities over the years and with high water levels receding it had lots of birds on it to look through, but we were looking for something more specific. 4 Black-tailed Godwits were another shorebird in short supply this summer, these being the only ones I'd seen having been reported anywhere in the State. The muddy wet edges of the samphire on some pools near the main lake edge harboured up to 6 Long-toed Stints, some of which were starting to show some nice colour on them as they moult in to breeding plumage. The main target here though was a female Pectoral Sandpiper that Colin had found earlier. Once located she gave some nice views. On the way back to the car we eventually bumped in to a single Marsh Sandpiper. Not normally difficult to see in SA but for some reason this summer they are mostly absent from all of the known areas they can usually be easily seen.

Probable female Pectoral Sandpiper Buckland Park Lake

Back in the car we drove around to a site that almost always has Slender-billed Thornbills and the little darlings didn't want to disappoint, so we were happy to add those to the list. On our way out we stopped to scan some of the larger ponds nearer the lake to see if we could find some Great-crested Grebes that usually loaf around here and we duly did, eventually seeing 20 birds in total that seemed more interested in having a snooze than anything else. it can be a difficult bird to get outside of the Saltfields so I'm glad we got them today. That brought us to the main event that Colin had originally invited us to see. We drove to a spot where he had located these special birds on the previous Friday and again on Saturday. We were worried the rain on Sunday might have interrupted there behaviour and being a bird that normally never hangs around in the one spot longer than a day or two my expectations were not high. As we approached the site we slowed down and began to scan close to the track where he had seen them previously..................nothing!!.....No surprises there I thought, that's how I roll. Still determined to exhaust all our options to find them we decided to drive the long way round on a back track, stopping and scanning every now and again. On the third such stop my bins locked on to one straight away....Little Curlew. "I have one I exclaimed."......two.....three.......four.......five" A grand total of 5 of one of the rarest Shorebirds that turn up in South Australia or anywhere in the Southern States for that matter. A cracking bird and one I'd only seen on three other occasions

Little Curlew

Two of the Five Little Curlew 

Not much could be improved on for this weekend so we took the rest of the day off and took Colin out for lunch to thank him and celebrate "cleaning up". A nice group of  birds that included 10 species of shorebird. Next weekend hopefully sees us on our first pelagic of the year where we hope to go past the 250 species mark.