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!


  1. Actually Bruce and Nige are out in the field surveying for night parrots as I type. Trying some new techniques... fingers crossed!