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