Monday, November 26, 2012

Work Trip cut short

Well if things had gone to plan, I would still be out in the Great Western Woodlands surveying for fauna and seeing lots of new things. Instead, I'm in an office in downtown Perth updating the blog!

So here's what happened...

On Monday I departed Perth, along with 5 other Ecologia employees (an environmental consulting firm down here, that employs Nigel and Bruce... and for the time-being... me!). We were headed NE, into the mallee woodlands and mulga scrub north of the town of Southern Cross. For the next eleven days the plan was to dig in some pit-fall traps (for small mammals, reptiles, and a few invertebrates), and conduct a variety of other fauna surveys. These had to do with a proposed mining development in the area. Room and board was provided by a mining camp. As opposed to the tents, flies, and single-burner stoves I have become accustomed to, here there was a camp-cook, A/C, and flush-toilets!
Here's the main hang-out area of the camp.
Unneeded Tip: If you ever have trouble lighting a bon-fire because the wood is wet, see if half a jug of diesel will help.
Although I was hired as "the bird man," the first three days were to be spent digging holes for the traps. Depending on the weather and the ground your digging in, this work can vary from sweaty, to hot-hot-hot, back-straining, and blister-conceiving. Overall, it wasn't too bad, but as the resident "bird man," it was a little frustrating to be in such a variety of primo bush habitats without the ability to chase down mystery noises or even look up for too long.

And here's where the frustrating part comes in. Like in NE British Columbia, or the Prairies, when it rains in this area, the driving tracks become un-drive-able, plus in increases the risk of spreading the vegetation disease known as "Die-back." Anyhoo, as you may have guessed, it rained! This meant we had to scramble to close all the traps we had set up, and since the roads won't be fit for driving until next week, we were sent back to Perth and somebody else will have to fill in as "bird man" because I'm driving cross-country! (More on that later).

So in sum, it sucks that I'm back since it means less money, less birds, and less COOL PHOTOS FOR THE BLOG!

Despite all that, here are a couple neat images I think you'll enjoy:

One of WA's top herpers (Jordan Vos), trying to figure out a way to cook his pie.
For a few days (during the digging), I was worried this would be my only photograph from the trip.  Since it's a signature RC-style "how the birder sees it" moment, I thought I'd include it. This is a female Chestnut Quail-thrush running away
One comes across many a cockroach whilst digging holes in this part of the world.
This was one of the more attractive ones (roughly 6cm-long).
A large stick-insect inspects Jordan's sun-kissed neck
Here's a creature very few Australians have ever seen. This is a full-grown (Western) Pygmy Possum! Held by Astrid Heidrich, our commander-in-chief. A lifer-mammal for most.
More dopey cute action (Probably a little over-heated from the trap)
Give this puppy a bottle-cap of water, then it's back into the flowering gum trees
Remember a month ago when I said I was extremely fortunate to catch a brief glimpse of a Scarlet-chested Parrot? Well on our last day, we had 5 along a short stretch of road near Southern Cross. One (female)...tragically... did not make it all the way across. To put this in perspective for North American birders, it's like if you were to drive along a road in northern Yukon and hit a bird, only to discover that it was a Gray-headed Chickadee!
Several of the top Aussie birders still need this one! #Museumbound
Not as rare as the scarlet-chest, it's always a treat to run into Major Mitchell's Cockatoo!!!
Back in Perth, here's a decent comparison shot of a Long-billed (left), and Little Corella.
Also in Perth. This was a bit of a jinx bird for me, but finally after chasing up multiple reports, I finally caught up with this Freckled Duck (a scarce nomad of interior wetlands) at Gwelup Lake.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

RC does the SW

Well I just got back from six days of solo touring around the SW corner of Western Australia. To go along with the general theme, it was a very enjoyable voyage and nice to get away alone for a bit and see the country from a more touristy point of view. The two main goals of the trip:

#1 Explore the impressive and unappreciated/unknown (outside Australia anyway) karri and tingle forests of the SW corner of the state, as well as the adjacent scenic coastlines.

#2 Do some scouting around the Albany area for an upcoming "twitchathon" event (aka "Big Day" or "birdathon")--essentially an annual competition held in Western Aus (and elsewhere), to see what team can record the most bird species in a 24-hour span. I've been invited to join the Ecologia team so I thought I'd better make up for my lack of experience by staking out some of the tougher species hanging out near the south end of our route.

Like the last post, this will be mostly photos with captions to describe roughly what's going on. I'm busy people okay!
It just so happened that the first day of my solo trip coincided with the largest sporting event in Australasia. Well at least the largest gambling event. Anyway, it was Melbourne Cup day. Not quite a national holiday but frankly I doubt a scrap of work gets done in Australia or New Zealand on this day. No it's not rugby, or cricket--it's horse-racing! I figured I better check out the scene, and more importantly, I had planned to meet up with Tom Bearss--Delta Naturalists Club President (from back in BC)--who just happens to be spending a week near Mandurah, a coastal town just south of Perth. So, there we were--myself, Tom, his brother-in-law Frank, and his nephew Craig (I hope I didn't mess that up Tom?). As you can see from the photo, it's pretty busy in this pub for Wednesday at 11am. With all the television-screens displaying odds etc., and papers pinned up on the wall everywhere--it felt more like a stock exchange (not that I've ever been to one). Certainly enough yelling anyway. And then the race happened, lasted maybe 2 minutes. Then to everyone's dismay a horse by the name of "Green Moon" won followed by 2 other no-name horses. Therefore hardly anyone won anything, except the bookies of course. Then I suppose a lot of drunk people went back to work in sullen moods. How exciting! Just kidding around, always interesting to see how some get their kicks.
To celebrate the fact that none of us had any pressing work commitments, Craig took us to the local  pie-shop which claims, as you can see on the sign, to be "WA's Most Awarded Bakery." You'll see terms like "Best," "World Famous," and "Australia's Favourite" thrown around a lot when it comes to local pie shops, but it did seem that this one had a lot of actual plaques etc., with awards such as "World's Best Sausage-roll" etc. To me the pies seemed about the same as anywhere, only that there was a great variety (though they didn't have any of the first 3 I asked for). So here is Craig (left), Frank, and Tom (who was embarrassed to be photographed without a beer in hand). Come on Tom, everyone knows real men drink chocolate milk!
After the buzz of the Melbourne Cup, it was a big relief to leave the built-up world and arrive at Cape Naturaliste on the SW coast. It's a nice seawatching spot, and just all-around pleasant for a drive and walk. On the way in, I passed about 15 Bible camps--each one for a different sect: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Evangelical, etc, etc. Seemed odd having them all lined up beside eachother... must be some heated inter-camp footie matches.
I continued south along a scenic backroad known as Caves Road. This is a fantastic drive and gave me my first taste of Karri eucalpypt forest. Some of the taller ones grow to a height of 90 m! That puts them right up there with the redwoods for biggest in the world. Because they're a hardwood, they're arguably more impressive looking when you see them up close or as a whole forest. I stopped occasionally along the route and marveled at the rich plant and bird life. New ones for me included Pallid Cuckoo, Rufous Treecreeper, and White-breasted Robin. High above in the canopy, hordes of Purple-crowned Lorikeets chattered away as they fed on (presumably) the karri gum nuts.
That night I slept in the car at Cape Leeuwin. This shot was taken the next morning. I fell asleep to rain, so it was lovely to wake up to a brisk sunny day. A quick scan with the bins revealed a fair bit of activity offshore and sure enough, when I got out my scope, I got onto some good numbers of seabirds including hundreds of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, a good number of Shy Albatross, and at least one Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross. Since the lighthouse facility didn't open until 9 (it was 5:30 am) I opted to continue along on my journey, eastward now following the curves of the southern coast. Not before nabbing a lifer parrot of course! There on the grass surrounding the lighthouse buildings--just as others had suggested--were 2 Rock Parrots! Sweet.
And here's another new parrot. The Baudin's (White-tailed) Black-Cockatoo. The number of other names for this bird (and the closely related Carnaby's) makes it pretty confusing to know which one you're actually looking at--not helped by the fact that their calls sound pretty similar and they look virtually identical but for the shape of their bill. So anyway, I originally thought this might be a Carnaby's but Nigel informs me that there are only Baudin's in this neck of the woods (Augusta area)....... moving on.
Ah, finally-- a Spotted Pardalote not obscured by leaves! Looks like she's building a nest.
One of the highlights of this trip is visiting the "Valley of the Giants" where the Dep of Conservation has built a canopy walk to take tourists like me up into... the canopy... of these massive forests. In this case--Tingle Trees. 
I believe this section of the canopy-walk is 40m above the ground. So pretty solid height.
Not surprisingly, when you get up this high, the birds come to you. Here a pair of Baudin's were doing some pair-bonding on a nearby snag.
Back down on the ground: Look a big lightning-scorched tree!
Oh and another one?
This Western Rosella landed right beside me, but before I could get a good photo, a  Kiwi-lady shouted, "OH MY GOD! DAVE! LOOK AT THIS BIRD!!!!" And it flew away.... tourists...
Regular followers of the blog will recall my masterpiece entitled "Spotted Pardalote obscured by leaves." Well here's the much anticipated sequel: "Striated Pardalote obscured by leaves." When you see my photography, you're getting the real deal--- how real people see birds in the field!
Good to see DC is cracking down on those "don't have to pee but still go into the washroom and flush the toilet" pranksters. 
Started to skip ahead a bit here. This is somewhere out near Albany. I realized I hadn't posted any kangaroo shots yet. So here's one. Bunch-o Western Greys hanging out in a field. Not too unusual to see ~100 roos in a large paddock grazing among the cattle.
The dawn song of the Western Bristlebird, a member of "The Big Three." Along with the Noisy Scrub-bird and Western Whipbird, these dudes are very tough to see, and extremely local. So I suppose I was lucky to achieve this subpar photograph. This is out at Two People's Bay Nature Reserve, one of only 2 places where all three can be see/heard together. I heard several of the other two species but could not get a solid visual.
Better views of this guy--a massive King Skink! (About 0.5m from nose to tail-tip). Basking against a tree at first light.

Another poor photo, but hey--it's a Southern Emu-Wren! Another one you rarely get open-views at.
After Albany I headed east to Cheyne's Beach (the other Big 3 location). Here's a nice limestone outcropping nearby--gotta chuck in some scenery right?
Moving along now (not really a riveting story-line I know). I spent a day in the hot/dry interior town of Lake King. Population: ~50... just a guess. This is a Regent Parrot. I suppose he's at the appropriate lake. Not much to say about this day other than I probably ate more icecream than any other day in my life, and was invited to join the Lake King men's basketball team as they were playing their southern rivals in Ravensthorpe. The opportunity for some non-bird-related activity that involves other people was quite tempting, but as there were no running shoes my size (all I had were flip-flops), and they wouldn't be getting back to Lake King until midnight, I decided to eat more icecream and sleep in my car instead.
Another sequel photograph, this time in the "Lorikeet in nice blooms" department. This is a cute little Purple-crowned Lorikeet I found (along with another hundred of his/her kin) that were taking advantage of some productive eucalypt bloomage (new word) on the Lake King golf course. Unlike the Silver Lake Gold Course (from the Great Western Woodlands post), these fairways actually had grass... but when I say grass I mean, "vacant lot somewhere near Death Valley." When you live out in rural Australia though, you make it work.
Otherwise you're just another bloke eating ice cream.
This is an Elegant Parrot... looking rather elegant I dare say
One of my top 5 sunsets I'd say. Not much diversity in colour, but because of the flat landscape, this orange glow just seemed to stretch on forever, and last much longer than I would have thought. One of those times when you just stand and stare... 
Another fast-forward. Now I'm at Dryandra Woodland Conservation Area (just SW of Perth on the interior side of the Darling Range). This dry open Wandoo forest is home to many endangered plants and animals--most famously for at one time having the last wild Numbats in Australia. As you can see, it's a dry "open-concept" kind of forest. Birds are abundant and several were new for me.
Here's a neat one. Convergent evolution at work! This is a Varied Sitella. Looks like a nuthatch, acts like a nuthatch, but is from a totally different family!
Another lifer. The Rufous Treecreeper (abundant at Dryandra). It appears this juvenile bird is considering a career in the honeyeating business.
Daddy's not impressed. "Get back on the tree and start creeping!"
Let's play a game. Find the Bush Stone-curlew
Here's a picture of my favourite eucalyptus: Eucalyptus rhodantha. This bush type eucy grows to about 3 or 4  meters in height. The pink flowers are about 10cm in diameter and are a favourite of honeyeaters. 
And here's my final morning of the trip. I camped out near the coast on Lake McLarty---a freshwater lake that abounds with waterfowl and all that jazz. According to an interpretive sign, there were 30,000 birds on this lake in June, 1997.
The more you know.
A common bird in Australia--but a cool one. (Crested Pigeon)
And finally--here are some Little Corellas taking a lil nap at Lake Gwellup in Perth

G'by for now---relaxing around Perth for a few days, then it's off into the bush again for some real work!

Monday, November 12, 2012


Well folks—this Aussie train just keeps rolling along. It’s been yet another exciting and unpredictable chunk of time since my last post. Took part in Perth’s Oktoberfest... and a bunch of other things that I can't even recall right now because I've just wrapped up two separate adventures, and am getting ready for another. Mind is spinning but definitely in a good way. Hard to believe I've been down here for over a month. In some ways it feels like I just got here, but when I look back on everything that's happened, it feels more like 6 months. 

Anyhow, the following post is all about a volunteer Western Ground Parrot survey Nigel and I took part in over late October and the first couple days of November. This was in the remote Nuytsland Nature Reserve (east of Cape Arid National Park) on the southern coast of Western Australia. On this quest, we were joined by two other members of the Ecologia team (the consulting firm I'll be doing some work for)---Bruce Greatwich--former Aussie-rules stand-out, turned avid fisherman, and all around hardcore nature man, and Claudia Koch--a visiting PhD student from Germany who specializes in Andean reptiles, but is now getting into a spot of Aussie birding. 

Thanks to some inspiration from one of Bruce's idols--Turtle Man--the mantra or catchphrase of this trip was "Live Action." Indeed, the action--both ecological, and ummm... human related--was non-stop. Some of the incidents won't even be covered in this post, either because it's jammed packed as it is, or to protect the professional integrity of this venture. No worries folks, we all agree that it was one of the best trips any of us have ever been on!

The main goal was to find some new sites for Western Ground Parrot, and to see if any of the old known locations have any birds still. In fact, we failed completely to hear or see a single ground parrot in Nuytsland, yet it was still very enjoyable. Luckily, we had some time to visit another area where they are known to occur, and the fantastic 4 (B, N, C, and I) were lucky enough to flush and see a WGP. This is very special, since there are estimated to be only around 100 of these skulky parrots left in the wild. And since they are now only found in fairly remote areas, very few Australian birders have ever heard one, let alone seen one. I'm talking less than 50 people ever! (seeing them in the wild that is). This was on Halloween night, so a great treat!

Once in the reserve, we spend each evening and morning (weather dependent), listening at pre-determined point-count stations for the WGP contact calls. Typically, they only call right around dawn and dusk, so the window of opportunity is fairly small. For North Americans, they sound kind of like a singing White-throated Sparrow.

It takes a long time to get to Nuytsland from Perth. It's about 8.5 hours to the coastal town of Esperance, then another ~120km on a country road, followed by 70+ km on a rough track that ranges from sandy, to heavily rutted and muddy. There's something both nerve-racking and exciting about heading into an area like this. With no freshwater anywhere and no one nearby to provide vehicular/medical etc. support, you need to be totally self-sufficient, but at the same time-- you've got this wonderful place all to yourself. And who knows what interesting discoveries you'll make? It would take too much time to go over all the highlights in one blog-post, so instead I've just posted a bunch of photos with captions to tell the general story. So sit back, put your finger on the scroll button, and enjoy...

Bruce and Nige getting hyyyped!
Like rural Canada, Australian towns like to make "the biggest X" things. Here is a large Marino ram in Wagin. Doesn't look like it's that big in the photo but it's actually a fair ways behind the sign (the scrotum alone is about 2 m in diameter)
Australia's answer to the Black Widow--this is the Red-backed Spider. All sorts of  stingy things under rocks in this country. In some areas you could expect 2-5 scorpions under each rock.
Dwarf Beared Lizard, sun-tanning on the highway
Good ol' Esperance. Somewhere out there is a Great White Shark "harassing surfers"... why bother? YOLO mate!
That last caption probably didn't make much sense. How about this one: Red-capped Parrot. SW endemic. Lifer.
Cropped photo of an Australasian Bustard chillin' with an Aussie Magpie. There were 18 in this paddock! Awesome
"Wazzaaaaa!" Hard to photograph bobtails without them making faces
Ah yes... "the incident." This is where the LIVE ACTION really took off. Possibly the first time I've heard of rolling a truck in reverse. Kids: That's why it's good to invest in proper rear-view mirrors when towing a camper, or in this case, a week's supply of camping/fishing gear, food, and water.  Anyhoo, everyone was fine and miraculously we only lost 3 eggs. Most surprising of all, was that it only took 5 minutes for another vehicle to show up and set us right. Not an ideal situation when you're that far from civilization on a real cooker of a day.
But as you can see we made it to our camp safe and sound--the lovely Point Malcolm campsite. 
While we expected some nice beaches, we were pleasantly surprised by the wader diversity in the area. I believe we ended up with 18 shorebird species in five days along this one stretch of beach.
Not the greatest photo, but one I hope to take one day in BC! [Great Knot (left) and Curlew Sandpiper]. Other Asiatic lifers seen nearby include Grey-tailed Tattler and Greater Sand Plover.  
A few hours after we arrived, the rest of the ground parrot team rolled in, and after some hurried preparation we headed out into the heathlands to set up song-meters (recording devices we hoped would pick up ground parrot calls), and headed out to our individual point-count stations. This shot shows the typical habitat of the area. Those yellow flowers are a kind of banksia---a favourite of the Tawny-crowned Honeyeater which are abundant here, and sound frustratingly similar to a ground parrot.
In addition to our parrot-finding duties, there was some serious herping going on.
This is Bruce in the traditional "Live Action" stance: Hand-rake in one hand, lifer skink in the other
But whilst digging around in old ant-hills (favoured by skinks and legless lizards), one may also encounter very cool insects. Here we have two of our favourite beetles. Unidentified at the moment, so for now we'll call them "The Medieval Punisher" and the "Darth Vader Beetle." The Darth Vader one (on right) has a particularly unique thorax. It's a semicircular shield with a hole in it (visible in photo), where the head can stick out (not visible here).
Kind of like a vampire cape. Although they may look threatening, all these beetles seem to do(and indeed most bugs in Australia it seems), is play dead.
In Australia, you never know when something poisonous is going to try and jump out of a bush and kill you. Hence the alert stance (and plastic orange whistle). *Note Bruce, with equal vigilance, clutching his weapon in the background.
Heath Monitor workin it for Bruce. Cold-blooded creatures can be very cooperative in cool conditions, but I wouldn't advise getting this close on a hot day!
The greatest perk of ground parrot work: You may have to get up at 2:50am to get ready for the morning survey, but quarter to 7(am) you're fishing on the beach with coldies in hand!
This was one of our longer days (since we do evening surveys as well), but probably one of the best.
An under-appreciated convenience of the Kowa TSN 883. For the avid Aussie seawatcher, nothing says "paradise" like a stiff southerly, a good mix of tubies, and Emu Export.
Bruce with a nice Mulloway. Also hooked a few Aussie salmon and herring. Ended up cooking the salmon for supper.
All of these beach photos turned out a bit hazy, ah well...
The problem with these beautiful beaches off the south coast, is that there is a legitimate risk of getting eaten by a Great White Shark. Local surfers now use some kind of electrical wire that dangles off their legs and apparently deters the sharks. Luckily for us, these were bottlenose dolphins. 
Wouldn't be Australia without a few perfect white sand-dunes to leap around on
But being early summer, the great weather didn't last. However, like hardcore birding, the "live action-caliber" fisherman does not shy away from a slight gale and downpour. This is right around dusk. Nigel (pictured) and Bruce were hoping for some sharks to bite but unfortunately, despite the manly effort, a single crab was all we got.
Bruce and Claudia had to head back to Perth a few days early so while they  missed out on some poor weather, they also missed out on some more good herps! Here's Delma fraseri, a fantastic legless lizard to get which Nigel and I found under a boulder at our second camp (we moved inland from Pt Malcolm for the last couple days).
These three "Barking Geckos" were under one rock. They actually do bark and were quite bitey.
Here's me "live action birding" at our new camp called Tookle Jenna. A nice mix of mallee birds here but the highlight was having three species of raptor nesting, all within 30-50m of eachother. There was a Collared Sparrowhawk above my tent, an Australian Hobby nest above the pit-toilet, and a Brown Falcon nest about 30 m beyond the hobbies. Surprising that they manage to coexist in such close quarters.
And yes, the flies were with us here too. And as per usual, they seemed to like me the best.

After our "incident" on the drive in, we were hoping for a rather straight-forward exit from Nuytsland. Since Bruce and Claudia had left a few days before, Nigel and I hopped in with the rest of the convoy. I was riding in front in Dave's truck when suddenly he lost control and we rammed into a bank. Assuming we had blown a tyre (tire), we got out to assess the damage. "Oh shit!" I believe was Dave's reaction. As you can see, this truck is pigeon-toed, not exactly desirable wheel alignment. Turns out the steering bar had worn at one end and had fallen off (i.e. the rod that holds the wheels in alignment and allows the driver to do something known as "steering"). After some inspection we realized it would be tough to repair, so we tried ringing various towing companies and other contacts with the sat-phone, but no one seemed available or willing to drive out this far on such a rough track. This is where Outback ingenuity has to kick in. Plan A: Using a hack-saw, Allan cut off a piece of piping from his roo-guard on his truck, cut it in half, then using some U-joints from the roof-rack, we were able to at least get the steering rod back in position. 
Above is the steering rod, with it's new attachments. To reinforce it, ratchet-straps were  hooked to each wheel. So about 5 or 6 hours later, we were moving again. (Side-note: Since Dave was the lead vehicle, and this was a narrow track, no one could get around. Therefore even if we wanted to it would be difficult for anyone to get out unless we shoveled out a couple sections of clay-bank. Nigel and I needed to fly out of Esperance the next day, so it was a bit nerve-racking, as the sun went down.) Anyway, Dave cruised along slowly, and within the first 100 m the steering rod fell off again, but the ratchet straps held, so we continued on and were able to get to a section where the other trucks could get past. There was nothing else we could do to help, so Nigel and I joined Brenda and Allan and pushed on to Esperance, while Dave and Chappelle inched their way along. Fortunately, as we later found out, Dave was able to make it all the way to the pavement (after ~50 km of heavily rutted track). Score one for ratchet straps!
And so ended another epic trip. I wish I had more time to tell more tales and provide more reptile and bird photos, but I'm afraid there's just too much happening down here. Stay tuned for a post on my recent solo trip to the SW corner of the state, and in a few days I'll be headed out for some paid fauna surveys in the dry interior about 200 km north of Kalgoorlie. Should be lots for to share after that!