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......