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......


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