How the West was won

A long and pic heavy post this week, so put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, grab some biscuits and make yourselves comfortable. It's time to settle in for another Big Year blog post.

Very early in the planning stage of the Big Year we knew we'd need to travel to the far flung corners of the State in order to see as many different species as possible. Working full time meant we're going to need to use annual leave booked well in advance to give us the time we need to travel the great distances involved. This strategy is a bit of a gamble as we have no idea what the weather will be like or even if the tracks will be open on our intended routes, so it'll be pot luck! We've planned three major trips for the year with one up to the Northern Territory border via Coober Pedy, Marla and returning via the Oodnadatta Track and another on the Strzelecki and Birdsville loop. All the rest of our birding is going to have to be conducted on the weekends we have left. This tale is about the first of these trips where we decided to go to the far west.

There are four special birds that require us to visit this remote corner of SA, namely Nullarbor Quailthrush, the mysterious Naretha Bluebonnet, the newly split Western Whistler and finally Brown Honeyeater. Of course we also had the chance of a few other birds in our travels. The timing of this one was based on the premise that Brown Honeyeaters can only be found during winter where they visit flowering trees in the vicinity of Border Village and we felt it might also be a better time for a chance of the Whistler, the distributional limits of which are little known.

Finishing work on the Friday we drove straight through to Port Augusta where we stayed for the night thereby giving us a head start on the long road ahead. A hearty breakfast in the morning and we were off on the long drive towards Yumburra CP for our first night out bush. A lunchtime stop at Thevenard near Ceduna along the way turned up a surprise bird in the sparse scrubby coastal bushes at Pinky Lookout in the form of a colouring up male White-winged Triller. Quite a surprise to see one this early this far south and as it turned out it was the only one we saw on the whole trip!

A sign of Spring to come!

Driving on past Ceduna we went up and through the dog fence and in to Yumburra before finding a nice place to camp. Having set up we took in the activity around us as birds went about their day feeding and chasing each other around, including five species of Honeyeater and some Dusky Woodswallows. The surrounding scrub looked really good for Copperback Quailthrush and to prove the point a pair wandered straight in to camp, the female even foraging under the car. I think she was as keen to hear the football on the radio as we were!!!

What's the score???
The lovely male showing off his extensive "coppery" back

After an uneventful night we hit the road early the next morning poking around the track between two rockholes in the vain hope of finding an early Scarlet-chested Parrot or a Sandhill Grasswren, but not surprisingly neither appeared to be in residence. We headed back out on the road towards Nullarbor via Penong and Nundroo stopping to photograph some Ground Cuckoo-shrikes along the way.

The most Ground Cuckoo-shrikes I've seen in any given year. There seemed to be a lot out west

Rain was starting to come down from what would prove to be the advance edge of a nasty front that was forecast to come through in the next few days but sitting on a fence post on the side of the road unperturbed by the rain just out of Penong was our first Pallid Cuckoo of the year.

The last species of Cuckoo we're likely to see this year

Of course you can't come to the head of the Great Australian Bight without paying homage to the Southern Right Whales that spend the Winter calving and lolling about there and this we duly did. At least twenty whales were in residence, some of which were easily viewable from the boardwalk and we spent a good hour or so marvelling at their antics.

Doing backstroke!!

Having a whale of a time

Moving on from there we arrived at Nullarbor Roadhouse late in the day but with enough light left to do a quick drive down the fenceline track where I'd seen Nullarbor Quailthrush in the past. The breeze was keeping the birds a bit quiet and the presence of another local resident on the plains wasn't helping matters. We did try for some late calling Rufous Fieldwrens across from the motel for Sue as she still needed that but they didn't perform.

A curious Dingo checked us out along the fenceline track

The next morning we got out early in the freezing cold and drove up the main track out the back of the Roadhouse but bird activity was very slow given the temperature. We did manage to get good views of Rufous Fieldwrens this time and there seemed to be quite a lot of them calling all around. A nice catch up bird for Sue.

One of many Rufous Fieldwrens out on the Nullarbor

Early morning light on the Nullarbor

Walking out on to the plains I was sure I heard the distinctive high pitch contact call of a Quail-thrush and then Sue motioned to me that she had accidentally flushed what she suspected to be one. They lead us on a merry dance of hide and seek and every time we got anywhere near one they would take off with a whirr of wings from at least 25 metres away. We found it impossible to get views on the deck so we gave up on this pair and moved on to try and find another. Another couple of k's up the track we found another pair that were just as furtive but we did manage some poor views of them on the ground and so were happy enough to add Nullarbor Quail-thrush to our year lists. We drove up as far as the first caves before returning to the Roadhouse. It was time to start heading out further west so we took the Old Eyre Highway and drove towards Koonalda Homestead where we intended to camp for the night. Not far out we flushed some Quail-thrush off the side of the road and after stopping to investigate we managed to get our best views so far with at least seven birds in total..

Probably the hardest Quail-thrush species I've ever tried to photograph

There's seven Nullarbor Quail-thrush in this pic!

The trip across the Nullarbor was interspersed by the occasional bird with lots of Horsefield Bronze-cuckoos, Pallid Cuckoos and even more Ground Cuckoo-shrikes in evidence. A few Slender-billed Thornbills and Southern Whiteface made up the numbers along with a pair of Stubble Quail close to the track. We arrived at Koonalda mid afternoon and drove on the track towards the main highway and also to the north towards the Koonalda caves specifically looking for Naretha Bluebonnets. Most people tend to travel to Western Australia when looking for this species via Cocklebiddy and Rawlinna Station but its a little known fact they actually do occur in SA right here in the vicinity of Koonalda. Noone really knows if they are seasonal here or whether they are here year round, but on this occasion they weren't here at all.......!!! As it was getting late we opted to camp amongst the tree line to the west of  the homestead and we spent a very cold night watching downloaded Netflix and drinking red you do. A lone calling Spotted Nightjar kept us company until we went to bed and in the predawn hours the next morning a single Tawny Frogmouth was "ooooooooing" somewhere in a tree near the tent. The morning brought with it cold temperatures again and we packed up early before deciding to move off back towards Koonalda and the road down towards the main Highway. We'd probably only gone about 4km's when some parrots flushed up from the side of the track. Getting bins on them they proved to be Mulga Parrots, but there were a number of different species in that little spot that seemed to form a loose winter feeding association. There were White-browed Babblers, Crested Bellbirds and Black-faced Woodswallows as well as the Mulgas. Something made me decide to stop the vehicle and get out to investigate. Just as well I did. Walking off the track I noticed a parrot sitting on a low branch about 30 metres away and I casually dismissed it as another Mulga but Sue wasn't so sure and for good reason. It was a Naretha Bluebonnet. Turned out there were three birds hanging out with these other species. We noticed they were feeding on some "fruiting"  variety of saltbush that had reddish seed pods. In the end we got fabulous looks and some nice photos as well, a lifer for both of us..........most excellent.

One of the three Naretha Bluebonnets near

They seemed very keen on the fruits of this Saltbush variety

Naretha Bluebonnet fodder

Naretha Bluebonnet habitat south of Koonalda Homestead off the Old Eyre Highway

Having had our fill of the Bluebonnets we carried on travelling westward on the Old Eyre Highway flushing the occasional Nullarbor Quail-thrush along the way. The Mulga studded bluebush plains finally gave way to mallee as we got closer to Border Village but just before it did I noticed a bright orange puff ball flush up in front of the car. A lone male Orange Chat settled just off the track and we spent the next half an hour trying to get a few pictures. Normally seen in company with others of its kind this bird seemed happy all by its self. Perhaps he was the vanguard of all the birds that are making their way south for Spring, or maybe he was just hopelessly lost??

Stunning male Orange Chat

Stopping for lunch just outside of Border Village amongst the mallee we were back in the company of White-fronted and White-eared Honeyeaters along with a few Weebills but nothing else of note. We realised we'd stopped not far from Border Village itself and another five minutes down the road we arrived at the border. Getting out of the car to enquire about getting a cabin for the night it was evident the commonest bird calling around the village were in fact Brown Honeyeaters, the very bird we had timed this trip around and a State tick to boot. I love it when a plan comes together!

A very vocal and very localised State tick!

Sitting out the back of the cabin we watched the Honeyeaters feeding in a group of trees opposite along with Silvereyes of the western race chloronatus.  There was also a single Purple-gaped Honeyeater in residence that had been reported by Paul Taylor back in May. A bird that's a long way from home! Later in the day we drove down the border track towards the coastal cliffs stopping and looking for birds along the way but we dipped on the hoped for Western Whistler. Overnight the front that had been forecast unleashed a torrent of rain and wind out of the south-west and any hope of giving the Whistler a serious bash went with it.

The next morning was wet and very windy so we decided to cut our losses and started heading back towards Eyre Peninsula. The Whistler will have to wait for some other trip in the future. We took the track back up towards Koonalda to see if we could find the Bluebonnets again but they must have been keeping their heads down in the prevailing conditions as there was no sign of them. Turning east on the Old Eyre Highway and back to the Nullarbor Roadhouse we ran in to some nasty weather and the track turned in to a canal at one point but its hard packed rocky calcareous base meant we had no trouble getting through.

Nasty weather ahead
Of great interest on the drive was the amount of Shingleback Lizards emerging out on to the side of the track to drink from the puddles on the road, and coming over a rise in the road we came across a very wet, thirsty and bedraggled Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat.

Furry roadblock

With the wind increasing we drove all the way through to a motel in Wudinna where we arrived well after dark. The rain continuing to fall throughout the night with the occasional flash of lightning and rumble of thunder. In the morning the conditions had abated somewhat so we thought we might try to find Sandhill Grasswrens again in and near Ironstone CP just to the west of the Middleback Ranges. Driving around all day to various sites and looking in what seemed to be fantastic habitat for the Grasswrens we came up short again. I know they're in here somewhere and given the state of these birds in South Australia it's something Sue and I are going to spend some time on next year when our Big Year is over.

There is a lot of suitable habitat for Grasswrens in Ironstone CP. They have to be here somewhere
Looking north towards the southern boundary of Lake Gillies CP

We ended up motelling it again, this time in Whyalla, as camping out would have been very soggy and breezy. At this point in time we realised this trip was basically over so we decided to head back to Adelaide with the weekend still to go. On the way back we lunched at Aridlands Botanic Gardens in Port Augusta but the wind meant Sue is still going to have to wait to catch up with Chirruping Wedgebill as they were hunkered down somewhere. As some form of compensation she did manage to get a White-breasted Woodswallow on the wires near the bridge over the head of the Gulf leaving her with only 5 more species to catch up to me.

So we had travelled a long way but were ultimately rained out. We did achieve our main objectives though having seen 3 out of the 4 main species to try for along with a few others with both of us getting a lifer in the form of Naretha Bluebonnets along with another State tick in Brown Honeyeater. I can't remember the last time I got a lifer in SA on the mainland so that's quite an achievement. This gives me 6 year ticks for 323 and Sue got 8 for 318

Now just as we were preparing to leave on this trip I had a phone call from Bob Green. Apparently the Northern Shoveler that was seen on Hindmarsh Island a month or so ago had been relocated in the southern Coorong and he was going to have a look on the Saturday!!!.......... Arrrggghhh. The rest of the week we were taunted with reports of it being seen by all and sundry until it disappeared by Wednesday. So what to do?.....well nothing until Phil Peel from Victoria told me he was going to have a look on the following Saturday. To go or not to go...........................stay tuned.


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