Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Western Woodland Adventure

October 12th

Today I bussed/trained over to Midlands Station SE of Perth where I met up with Liz Fox of BirdLife Australia. Despite my evident lack of Australian birding experience, Liz is graciously taking me out into the Mallee bushlands, about 500 km east of Perth, where I’ll be helping with bird surveys  in a small corner of what is known as the “Great Western Woodlands.” This massive area contains some good chunks of untouched eucalypt woodland and Mallee heath, which has essentially been destroyed or fragmented by farming activities in the “Wheat Belt” closer to Perth. This area has apparently never been properly surveyed for birds, so Liz’s aim is to find out what’s there (bird-wise and habitat-wise), and compare this to some of the remnant patches of original ‘bush’ closer to the coast whose bird populations are better known. There is also a hope of creating a natural habitat corridor from the area she’ll be surveying to the good stuff left near the coast. In addition to the surveys, we’ll also be meeting up with a few local naturalists to try and wrestle up some more volunteers for the project.

So basically we’re going camping/birding for a week, out in the bush, and I am about to have what some might call, “a good time.”
Dusky Woody

As we drove east out of the greater Perth area, heading for the mining boom-city of Kalgoorlie, the first trip bird was a lovely NANKEEN KESTREL. A bird I should have had by now, and of course once I had one, they became one of the most common birds along the highway. A mixed flock of woodswallows included my first DUSKY WOODSWALLOW then I spotted a flock of COCKATIELS ripping by as we passed a grain silo. Just east of Southern Cross, a gorgeous REGENT PARROT blitzed across the highway in front of us—a beautiful bird, but the best was yet to come.

Liz spotted a whitish parrot well up the highway and speculated that it might be a corella. But as we drew nearer we both realized what it really was—“MAJOR MITCHELL’S!!!!!” we both shouted. This charismatic cockatoo is probably one of Australia’s most recognizable birds yet few Australians (let alone tourists) see them since they stick to the arid interior and never stray to the coasts. This had been one of my biggest targets for my Aussie trip but I had’t expected to get it this week since we were a fair bit south of their usual range. Oh well… I’ll take it! This was also Liz’s second-ever sighting of a Pinko in the wild 
Taken from the car, Mitchie showin off his crown plumes
(*Pinko is not actually a known colloquial term for Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo but Aussies do like to add O’s to things, plus the species is known to hang out in ‘social’ groups… so here’s hoping it catches on).

We rolled into the outskirts of Kalgoorlie in the early evening and decided to suss out a good camping spot before heading into town for dinner. “Lake Douglas” had an appealing ring to it since there is very little in the way of water in this part of the world, and so birds flock to these watering holes like birds to a watering hole.
And here she is, serene and glorious.
"Lake" Douglas
While technically this is probably more of a glorified puddle, birds were indeed on scene. A pair of PINK-EARED DUCKS came in to spend the night, and a lone HOARY-HEADED GREBE dove for who knows what. The main action was in the adjacent shrubs where Liz called out lifer honeyeaters for me one by one—SPINEY-CHEEKED; WHITE-EARED, YELLOW-PLUMED… oh and there’s an INLAND THORNBILL. Next up was the smallest thornbill of them all—a group of WEEBILLS whistling merrily as they danced through the eucalypts. Somewhere a CRESTED BELLBIRD sang his puzzling whistled/gonging song (at the same time and out of sync), and finally, an elegant WHITE-BACKED SWALLOW was the last addition of the day.
Cropped photo of some cool ducks (Note the pink ears)
As things got dark we headed into Kalgoorlie—perhaps the Australian version of Sudbury, Ontario (sorry Sudbury)—famous for its impressively high “strip-club per capita” ratio, as well as the largest open-pit mine in the world (as I am told... more on that tomorrow). Liz wasn’t too familiar with the cuisine of Kalgoorlie so we stopped in at a place labelled “Food Court” figuring there might be a decent selection. Sure enough, there was a food court inside, but not your typical Subway/Burger King/Greek/Sizzling Rice/ Frozen Yogurt bar-type affair. Inside were six booths, marked by flickering neon signs: “Mexican,” “Italian,” “Asian,” “Greek,” “Fish & Chips,” and one creatively titled, “Desserts.”  Sounds fairly typical, but it appeared that all of these shops were operated by one Singaporese family who didn’t seem overly motivated to bother manning all of the booths, limiting our choices to Italian, Asian, and Greek. I tried first for Greek but was completely ignored by the attendee so I moved on to “Asian”—probably the safest choice anyway.

I just realized that I am describing supper in great detail—this could make for a long blog post, best to call it a night…

Not so fast!
King Brown Snake: 7th deadliest in the world. This bloke slithered past me as I set up the tent in the dark

October 13th

Aussie Ringneck
First bird of the morning was a calling SPOTTED NIGHTJAR around 4am. As the sun broke over the scenic open-pit mine on the eastern horizon, I took a stroll through the arid woodlands near our camp hoping for some more lifers. Yep, got some! A flock of 15 PURPLE-CROWNED LORIKEETS rocketed past overhead then a pair of BROWN-HEADED HONEYEATERS popped in for a quick view. A family of BLUE-BREASTED FAIRY-WRENS were my first of many on the trip, then I finally got a decent photo of this common parrot—the (Western) AUSTRALIAN RINGNECK—after some careful stalking near the ‘lake.’

At the respectable hour of 8 o’clock we made our rendez-vous with a pleasant group of outdoor enthusiasts who were interested in Liz’s project. The participants ranged from a professional reptile biologist to a twelve-year-old girl with an endearing obsession of quartz. Out of the fifteen or so people, only a few knew some of the local birds, so in addition to explaining the project, Liz and I split up into two teams and headed out into Karlkurla Park (Pronounced, ‘gull-gurl-la’ which is the Aboriginal name for the native ‘silky pear’—this is also where Kalgoorlie derives it’s name) to demonstrate the practise of two-hectare bird surveys.

It was a very hot morning so birds were a little hard to come by, but luckily even the common birds are lifers for me! This YELLOW-THROATED MINER is certainly one of the more conspicuous residents of the inland forests around here, although not much of a yellow throat on this one.

We also had a few non-bird highlights including this CRESTED BICYCLE DRAGON

Around ten we retreated to a small plant nursery where some locals had organized a lovely “morning tea”—something that I had certainly heard about but never observed while living in New Zealand… the more meals the merrier!
Black and red earth, typical of the Kalgoorlie area. Almost looks like asphalt... more on that later
After tea, Liz and I bid our farewells to the group and headed to the main event (wink)—the SUPER PIT!
Looking down into the SUPER PIT. This mine produces 28 tonnes of gold each year, or enough to adorn
20+ circa. '89 hip hop artists, with a little left over

Kids playing in the "Super Bucket" which is designed to handle 60 tonnes of ore. Good ol' Mine Tourism!
Adult Sharpie--Good bird away from the coast
From there we turned south, bound for the coastal city of Esperance. Not too far south from Kalgoorlie we spotted a small alkaline lake that actually had water in it so naturally as any self-respecting Aussie birder should do—we stopped to take a look. On “Silver Lake,” a distant MUSK DUCK was nice then I noticed an adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER in close, as well as a small group of WHITE-FRONTED CHATS (Nice to finally get good looks at this cute buzzy bird after so many fly-overs). We also had brief looks at a nervous BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HEN.

Then as we returned to the truck we were accosted by a grumpy local—perhaps for good reason—Somehow in our attempt to reach what we thought was the Silver Lake parking lot, we had inadvertently driven past several barricades and parked smack-dab in the middle of an active driving range (we’re talking golf for the non-sports people out there). We were informed that any damage to the vehicle would be at our own expense, and if we wanted to get out we had to drive around the back of a sand-trap (the whole thing’s a bloody sand-trap) near the adjacent first hole. Luckily for Liz’s rental bond, we made it out unscathed and got back on the road to Esperance.
Here we are parked in the middle of the driving range; I swear the whole forest looks like a parking lot!

As we neared Esperance (after passing “Shark Lake”—not sure if I’ve ever seen those two words together before), we made sure to stop in at the local golf course following a tip from Nigel…
The supposedly endangered Cape Barren Goose. I think we saw 14 browsing  here
If you ever want to whack balls at an endangered goose, here is your chance!
In addition to the geese there were plenty of other waterbirds around including my long-awaited lifer WOOD SANDPIPER. Finally redemption after missing the BC bird in 2010.

Next we pulled into our camp site for the night—a large caravan park, located conveniently right on the beach, in Esperance. Lifers here included COMMON BRONZEWING, WESTERN WATTLEBIRD, and down on the beach was my first PACIFIC GULL for life, although ‘only’ a juvenile.
Juvie Pacific Gull beside (to scale) Norfolk Pine. At 3.5m tall, it's the biggest  seagull of them all
That evening we ate out at the posh and appropriately named “Loose Goose” restaurant—our final supper in civilization since we would be heading into the bush for a stretch of five days, beginning tomorrow.

October 14th

The morning was a breezy but sunny affair this morning. Esperance is truly a beautiful seashore town, with white sand beaches, picturesque rocky islets, and azure-blue water. In some ways the town reminds me of a bigger wide-open version of Kaikoura in New Zealand. I had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with the local Esperance birding group for an outing nearby, so I walked out on the old tanker jetty near the caravan park. A couple more juvenile PACIFIC GULLS cruised past, while WILLIE WAGTAILS strutted their stuff along the beach and NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS fed fledglings in the bushes near the base of the jetty.  Once I got out to the tip, I scanned a small offshore wharf (that used to be connected to the jetty back in the day before it fell apart) and noted PIED, LITTLE PIED, and my first BLACK-FACED CORMORANTS. Well offshore I could see some dark shearwaters arcing on the wind, but they were too far off to say for sure.
When I returned to the beachfront I met up with Liz and we drove out to a headland north of town which provides a good view of the Cape Barren Geese breeding islands, and there’s a nice little trail one can do to view the coast to the northwest while picking up a few bush birds like (western) WHITE-BROWED SCRUBWREN, SHINING BRONZE-CUCKOO, and high numbers of SILVEREYE and NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS. Down on the shoreline Liz spotted a SOOTY OYSTERCATCHER, and I noted some decidedly distant adult PACIFIC GULLS… need that bird mate!

We still had about half an hour before our meeting time with the birders so Liz and I headed  to a small harbour on the other side of town. Not much around but that didn’t matter since a local fisherman had attracted a small gang of SILVER GULLS, and one lone big ol’ pristinely adult PACIFIC GULL!
As Christopher Stephens put it, these gulls are truly "Bad to the Bill"
With that, we headed back to the caravan park where we met up with Mike and Ellen Gibbs who took us out to a lovely area called Niranda Springs. Here we met up with the rest of the local birding club who were on their monthly bird outing. This was fortunate timing for Liz, since this was a convenient and well-timed way to promote the volunteer woodland surveys and for me tool since we were birding a great area of mixed habitats with a free sausage cook-up at the end!

Although it was turning out to be a rather blustery day, it didn’t take long for my first trip bird. And these were big ones—two nervous-looking EMUS foraging in a sheep paddock as we approached the local property owner who had graciously offered up his slice of paradise for the bird outing. Once the group was assembled and introductions had taken place, we loaded into the four-wheel drives and headed down through another paddock to a largish shallow lake. Here we scoped hundreds of GREY and CHESTNUT TEAL, as well as many BLACK SWANS and PACIFIC BLACKDUCKS. For me the highlight was seeing several (albeit distant) roosting RED-NECKED AVOCETS in amongst some BLACK-WINGED STILTS. 

After morning tea, we checked another corner of the lake where we had close looks at a few more shorebirds including RED-NECKED STINTS, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, and another much anticipated Eurasian wader—3 COMMON GREENSHANKS.

Next up was lunch—a fantastic home-made sausage cook-off in a nice little glen on the other side of the property. On the drive there we stopped at a small dam that had three YELLOW-BILLED SPOONBILLS as well as a variety of other common stuff. Once in the more treed and wind-protected (great feature on a day like today) lunch-spot, we were finally able to pad our passerine day list which included my lifer RESTLESS FLYCATCHER, a few WHITE-FRONTED, and (Western) WHITE-NAPED HONEYEATERS, as well as a WILLIE WAGTAIL pair who were building a nest right beside the road.

After savouring a wonderful potluck lunch provided by the members of the club, Liz and I had to bid our farewells as we needed to get up into the Great Western Woodlands to set up camp before dark. Mike and Ellen drove us back into Esperance and we were once again on the road.

3 of the cups
After testing out a few dead-end tracks we finally found our way into a slightly remote and very cool little camping spot known as “The Cups”—named for the natural water-pools found in this clearing, surrounded by thick Mallee scrub. This water-source proved to be an effective attracted to local birds, so we sat down nearby to watch the show prior to setting up our tents. BROWN-HEADED and PURPLE-GAPED HONEYEATERS seemed the most common, but I also scored my first RED-CAPPED ROBIN (a brilliant male) and TAWNY-CROWNED HONEYEATER of the trip.

Male Red-capped Robin

Nice comparison of the two bronzewing species
Later in the evening, three bronzewings came in to drink and they turned out to be male and female COMMON BRONZEWINGS with a lone BRUSH BRONZEWING. I went for a short walk as daylight faded, and managed my lifer WESTERN YELLOW ROBIN, then much later while watering a tree in the wee hours I heard the whiney calls of an AUSTRALIAN OWLET-NIGHTJAR.

But I shouldn’t forget this cool amphibian…
One of many Spotted-thighed Frogs found at the Cups. Imagine the distant sound of a dirt-biker changing gears, followed by a loud satisfting "WOBBIT"

October 15th
Peak Charles--somewhere up there is a Wedge-tailed Eagle
Today was our first full-on day of point count surveys in the bush, and Peak Charles National Park is roughly where we were. The actual ‘Peak Charles’ from which the park gets its name, is an ancient outcropping of granite about 650m tall, which in this country is massive. We could easily see Charlie for about 100 km in any direction.
Typical-looking track that we surveyed along. This is Mallee Heathland folks---
--Home of 1 billion+ White-fronted Honeyeaters
We hadn’t even made it to the park boundary however, when one of the most exciting birds an Aussie can hope to whiff decided to put in a brief but hugely appreciated appearance. We were driving along a well maintained gravel road (quite a luxury in this corner of the state), when a Neophema parrot ripped across about ten meters in front of us. The combination of bright yellow underparts, blue face, lime-green back and tail, and electric-blue outer flight feathers pointed to one bird. “SCARLET-CHESTED PARROT!?!?!?!” Liz exclaimed, as we screeched to a halt. I thought it might have gone down into some thick Mallee scrub so we searched the area but couldn't re-find it. Although I was vaguely aware that this is very much on the “Wanted List” when it comes to Australian avifauna, it wasn’t until I cracked some fieldguides and chatted with Nigel, that we were extremely fortunate even to get this brief glimpse. Scarlet-chests are a little-known nomadic-type that seems to like outback country hundreds of miles from civilization. There are a few “regular” spots to check for them in Western Australia, but to put it in a western Canada context—if you lived in Vancouver (i.e. Perth; the SW is where practically everyone lives in the state anyway), you would need to drive out to Medicine Hat, except that half the trip would be on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere and it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside. And now that I’ve provided you with some very detailed and extremely accurate and enlightening natural history on the species… we can move on.

The Scarlet-chest was great, but then again everything is great for me at the moment. It wasn’t too long before my first SOUTHERN SCRUB-ROBIN hopped into view; then I was chasing a couple singing (Western) RUFOUS FIELDWRENS around over morning tea.
Southern Scrub-Robin (15 seconds earlier there was a pair of Shy Heathwrens on this stump!)
Okay maybe not EVERYTHING was great. There was ONE THING that was decidedly NOT great. A very small thing—yes—but there are a lot of them out here! I am speaking of course of the Australian Fly.

“Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles upon. It isn’t simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.

And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner—it is called the bush salute—blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek and forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse…”  

----Bill Bryson from “In a Sunburned Country”

And so as we proceeded into Peak Charles National Park, it began to dawn on me that this would be my life for the next few days—from 9 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock in the evening. From working in the Canadian wilderness, I’m fairly used to having lots of bugs around, but it’s hard to deal with creatures that are actually TRYING to get into your eyes and mouth… it made eating a sandwich a very maddening activity. It also seemed that I was about ten times more attractive to flies than Liz. Every time I looked over it seemed like she only had two or three around her.

Anyway, luckily I had a few things to distract me. And so I think to summarize the four days, I’ll just let the photos do the talking (I'm well over 3,000 words for this post... I think that's enough!).
Here's a 1.5m Western Brown Snake. Yet another one that'll drop you quicker than you can read "Goodnight Moon"
Gould's Goanna
Another big boi, this is the Heath Goanna
Had quite a time trying to see these guys up in the tall eucalypts on the east coast. Luckily here in the Malle, the canopy is at eye-level. Bastard still managed to get a leave in the way! (male Spotted Pardalote)
"Bobtail"--this foot-long nugget of lizard meat looks yummy
but Abel Tasman said it's the worst thing he had ever tasted
Some kind of Bull Ant? anyway, at over an inch long, this is one of those insect that just scream "Don't Touch"
Beauty male Brown Falcon--a common site out here in the bush
Spotted Military Dragon... slightly peeved because I stole his basking perch
First legless lizard of the trip: the Common Scaly-foot
Where we spent our final night. This abandoned water-tank with its lovely decorum was the closest we got to civilization. Roasted marshmallows and looked at an upside-down Orion. Life was good!
Highlight of the trip for me. This is a Thorny Devil (not "that's a horny thing!!!" as I shouted giddily after we drove past it on the roadside. I suppose there isn't much that would try and eat this girl so she was surprisingly easy to (gingerly) catch. My new favourite animal for sure!

Of course many birds escaped my camera. Some highlights include seeing the xanthogenys subspecies of the WESTERN ROSELLA (an uncommon and little known form, local to this region), hearing and/or seeing over ten SHY HEATHWRENS, and getting brief looks at a couple CHESTNUT QUAIL-THRUSH. Other lifers from the trip: SQUARE-TAILED KITE, GILBERT’S WHISTLER, WHITE-CHEEKED HONEYEATER, REDTHROAT, CHESTNUT-RUMPED THORNBILL, and yes BUDGIRIGAR (AKA “the Budgie”).

Yet another fantastic week, and once again I owe a lot to a few awesome people, especially Liz Fox this time around. Can’t wait ‘til next week’s Western Ground Parrot surveys near Esperance! Until then I’ll just be relaxing, drinking out of Steins, dabbling in the Indian Ocean, gawking at Terek Sandpipers, and trying to find a “Turtle Frog.” If you don’t know what that is—GOOGLE IT NOOOOWWWW!!!

Until next time,

Russell C.H. Cannings


  1. Turtle Frog = Amphibian world's answer to the Naked Mole Rat!

  2. Love the blog - though it hurts to read. I studied biology (briefly) at the uni of wollongong - and reading your adventures with the honeycreepers & fairy wrens, I'm dying to go back.

    Here's what you're missing in Vancouver:
    - rain
    - dark by 6pm.

    Have fun out there!!

  3. Do you have a GPS position for The Cups? I went there when I was a little girl and I used to live in the area, but I have no idea how to find this place now. I've tried google earth but can't seem to pinpoint it.