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!!