Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aussie Roadie Part 2: South Oz. (AKA "Major Bitchell's & Miner Excitement")

So after some heavy downpours crossing the last stretches of highway in Western Australia, we passes over the border with South Australia sometime after dark. The further you drive from civilization in this country, the more expensive "essentials" get, since literally everything gets trucked/trained in. For example, I saw a 4L jug of water being sold for $15 AUD which is close to $16 CAD! At least it's not as bad as up in mining country where some desperate colleagues of mine allegedly spent $43 for a six-pack of beer.

Anyway, the vast area of "nothingness" that sits out in between populated WA and SA is known as the Nullarbor Plain (from the latin for "no trees"). Sandwiched between the Great Victoria Desert to the north and the Great Southern Ocean (everything is so GREAT down here), it is famed for its flatness and bleakness (in the eyes of early settlers anyways). I must say though, initially we were pretty unimpressed--it didn't seem that flat or bleak, but we didn't realize that the best flat/bleak bit was further east in SA, and probably north of the railway where we wouldn't be going.

Oh well, at least when morning broke over our truckstop campsite, the skies were clear... so we headed off to the only spec of human settlement in the area--the Nullarbor Roadhouse.
While there were more plants growing on the Nullarbor than we had imagined, it was still pipin' hot. I think this was a first for all of us--41 Celsius before 8am!  Just another typical December morning...
This is what the Nullarbor Plain looks like just east of the roadhouse. Flat, yes, but lots of Blue Bush (looks like like sage-brush eh?). We were here for fuel, but more importantly, we were here for the Nullarbor Quail-Thrush--a colourful birds that creeps around on the ground in this area. The site-guide gave us an exact location 6.3 km down a rough track, but we found them to be common throughout this habitat. I think we had around 13 or so. Nice!
I realized that there were no herps in this post, so I chucked in this one. A "Pine Cone Lizard" as the South Aussies say.
A desert roadhouse seems like a strange place for a Southern Right Whale statue. But actually we're only ~18km from the ocean, where these guys can be readily seen in winter.
Not even sure where this is, but certainly a typical outback sign.
#Bring your jerrycan!
First flat tire (tyre for the Aussies) of the trip! Luckily just outside of Ceduna. Good thing too, as we added our first House Sparrows of the trip here! [Heavily controlled in WA]
After a night in Port Augusta, Jukka and I spent a morning  walking around the Arid Lands Botanical Gardens north of town. This area is very reminiscent of central Washington State (somewhere like Ephrata). Saw a few nice birds here including Chirruping Wedgebill, but also saw this guy...
Not entirely sure but I think the message is: conserve water or else.
Driving north, through central South Australia, one comes across a lot of roadkill---this attracts ravens and raptors of course. Here are 2 of maybe 15 Wedge-tailed Eagles that were feasting on this roo.
After hiding out at the Lyndhurst Roadhouse for a few hours (to beat the heat), we headed east over to Mt Lyndhurst Station where it was a decidedly cool 44C. Believe it or not, with a slight breeze, a dry 44 in the evening is fairly pleasant--it's all about the angle of the sun baby! I'm a notorious sweater, and I didn't lose a drop. Must be getting used to this.
Here we are near Mt Lyndhurst. There were plenty of lifers possible, but we wanted the crown jewel, the only true endemic to South Australia (not counting grasswrens), the little known and notoriously hard-to-find Chestnut-breasted Whiteface.
Oh there's one. Quite a relief to find this guy within 15 minutes of leaving the car! Lucky too since we didn't see or hear another one over the next two days. [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
Overnight the winds swtiched from hot northerlies to cool southerlies. Today it was only 30C!
As you can see we had to bundle up!
Moving south from Lyndhurst into the beautiful Flinders Ranges. With a wide variety of beath-taking scenery and good flora/fauna diversity, I would have loved to spend more time here. 
Pertti and I checking out a cool gum-tree in the Flinders
Our first taste of true spinifex country. This is on top of Stokes Hill in Flinders Ranges National Park. After  several hours of wandering around in this spiky grass, we finally flushed up a Short-tailed Grasswren--a tough endemic only found in this area.
There were also plenty of these guys--walleroos I think? Haven't bothered to look them up yet.
As Pertti would say, "Kangaroo!"
Modern shepherd
Gorgeous red cliffs at the south end of Walpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges.
Some nice aboriginal art on Akaroo Rock (same place as above)
Feral goat, out-competing the largest kangaroo in Australia (the Red) for water... typical.
Handsome pair of Mulga Parrots feeding on Casuarina seeds [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
From the Flinders, we headed south and east, then north, to the famous Gluepot Reserve (named for what happens to the roads in the event of rain). This is one of the nicest tracts of mallee habitat left in South Australia. Birdwise, it is most famous for being one of the best/last spots to find Red-lored Whistler and Black-eared Miner. The latter is at risk of imminent extinction due to habitat loss and hybridization with the common Yellow-throated Miner. Being the summer, and a minor-heatwave, we had the whole reserve to ourselves. Pleasant yes, but it also meant there was no recent bird-gen on where things are, so we kind of had to explore for ourselves... which is also nice. We were quite fortunate to luck into a small flock of Black-eared Miners on our first morning. There were 8 birds altogether with 6 of them exhibiting all the characters of a pure-looking phenotype. The other two may very well have been pure too but had paler malars (feathers around the edges of the throat), which may suggest hybridism. Calls were also good for Black-eared.
Sweet diggity!
Our only good looks at White-browed Treecreeper for the trip came at Gluepot. Best told from the similar Brown Treecreeper by call, and its affinity for cypress-pines.
Here is one of about 5 hides at Gluepot. Each one has a small water trough that brings good numbers of honeyeaters etc in the hot weather. Since it was very hot indeed, most of our day was spent nearly naked watching birds inside one of these shaded boxes.
Here are three of the more common honeyeaters at Gluepot. From left to right: Yellow-plumed, Brown-headed, and Spiny-cheeked.. Some may disagree but I think the Brown-headed is my favourite honeyeater in Australia. They may seem dull at first, but they are highly inquisitive, travel in chattery groups, and in my opinion--look like mini WWI fighter pilots.
Wearing only boxer-briefs and flip-flops is definitely not the recommended kit for hiking around spinifex/snake-infested bushland. But like I said before, it was frickin toasty! I took many a spike to the foot, ankle, and thigh, but I kept relatively "cool" and thus maintained enough mental capacity to continue Jukka and myself's favourite (NOT) activity--"grasswrening"--this time for Striated Grasswren.
And despite many hours of walking the spinifex at Gluepot, we found no grasswrens. But we did find two of these--SCARLET-CHESTED PARROTS! I've now seen these in two states in under two weeks. "Unfortunately," yet again we only saw female-types, but still a smart-lookin' bird. We also failed to find Red-lored Whistlers in Gluepot, but I think it's a little late for them to be singing that much so perhaps it's not too surprising.
Since it was getting dark, and we felt we could grasswren no more, we decided to keep the party rollin' and drive south out of Gluepot and head toward the Victoria border.  And just when I had nearly given up hope for this ghostly denizen of South Aus, a MALLEEFOWL darted across the road and evaporated into the bush. Here's my "Big Foot"-like documentation photo. This was definitely one of the birding highlights of my Aussie adventure thus far since I had tried so hard for it in Western Australia, plus it saved us a few desperate side-trips in SA/Vic in the coming days.
And so that evening we crossed over into the relatively small (but still large and diverse) state of Victoria. In about 5 days we had tallied 127 species in South Australia, pushing our overall trip total well over 200. Like everywhere else I wish we could have spent more time exploring each location, but there are more birds and places to see, and a limited amount of time to do so!

Oh and one more thing... as the title of the post suggests... we were still missing Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, despite having been in appropriate habitat for the last week or so... This was one of Jukka's most-wanted birds and it seemed that everywhere we went, someone had "just seen" one. Well... we keep on rollin.

Epic Aussie Roadie Part 1: Western Australia

Similar to how I've done things in the past, I'll probably let the photos do most of the talking. Yes there are some funny and sad stories along the way, but I'm afraid I simply don't have time to write a book at the moment. Plus most of you just skim the photos anyway.

So here's a brief summary of the Western Australia leg of the journey:

Picked up the rental vehicle in Perth on the morning of December 3rd. Also met Jukka and his Dad there (both had arrived 2 days earlier and stayed with friends while I did the birdathon and they got over jetlag by doing some casual birding). We headed into the Darling Range for a bit of hot mid-day birding, then continued south to Dryandra where we camped.

After a great morning of birding at Dryandra (see below), we continued south to Albany via Rocky Gully. Things were pretty windy in Albany so we had a heck of a time trying to locate "The Big Three" among other things. Instead of continuing east to Fitzgerald River, we camped at Two Peoples Bay then hit it hard in the morning, this time with more success. Onto Fitzgerald River National Park, then Esperance for the night. From Esperance we drove straight to the border with South Australia.

Jukka and I catching up after TWO long years apart.
I don't know why we're doing it in the Hertz parking lot... there are birds to see!
A little blindsnake I found while setting up the tent near Dryandra Forest Reserve
Our first "technically illegal" campsite of the trip. This would become the norm
I mentioned earlier that Dryandra was fun. Here's why! Finally after three visits, my first WESTERN Crested Shrike-tit. This male was singing off and on, then was later joined by a female and 2 juveniles.
A rare treat to see 4 of these in one spot! [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
Another nice capture by Jukka. This is the (presumed) male feeding one of the juvies [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
This bird gave us some difficulties and is still probably not 100% identified. So far the two WA experts we've talked to have been unsure, and eventually leaned in two different directions. We identified it in the field as Baudin's based on call, habitat, and upper-mandible impression; but at the time I was not totally confident. This would be the only Baudin's we got for the trip so that could certainly provide for some bias. Comments welcome! This is near Rocky Gully, where Baudin's overlap with their Carnaby cousins. [Jukka Jantunen]
Whataya know? It's a decent photo of a bird taken by ME! This, one of the trickier SW endemics, is the Western Corella. Many tourists apparently tick any ol' corella they see around Perth as the "Western" but in fact these social birds are very local and can only be reliably found near Rocky Gully, and north of Northam. Plus, many don't realize how common Little and Long-billed Corellas are in the Perth area. Having no clue where in Rocky Gully to look, we pulled over on the side of the road to assess our options and realized there were four sleeping in the tree above us!
Seawatching at "The Gap" near Albany. Very slow-- we didn't even see a Flesh-foot! Only highlight was a  reef-heron, spotted by Pertti.
Birded Two Peoples Bay in the wind until dark. Managed to briefly hear a scrub-bird but not a lot else. Luckily this baby Carpet Python made up for it on the drive back. We also flushed a family of four boobooks off the road.
Jukka's reaction to getting point-blank looks at the "Mallee Whipbird" (a possible split from the Western Whipper). This is Fitzgerald River National Park.
Still early on the trip here, Jukka was just firing away at anything that moved. "Russell, I've got something  that streaky with a cocked tail and rufous rump." And here it is, the sneaky Shy Heathwren, also at Fitzy [Photo: JJ] 
Another Common Scaly-foot (pygopus). I've photographed 3 or 4 others but none as nicely patterned as this one
(Fitz R NP)
Echidnas are not seen very often in Western Australia, but they're seen even less in Canada and Finland...
so we were stoked! This is near Esperance I think.
We camped near Lake Warden where it rained all night. Things cleared in the morning and we were treated to great looks at the endangered Hooded Plovers that nest here. Also good numbers of Western Wattlebirds, and at least one Red-eared Firetail. [Photo: JJ]
Nankeen Night-heron [Jukka Jantunen]
Another nice shot by Jukka, this time of a Pallid Cuckoo near Esperance
Leaving the civilized SW behind (along with affordable fuel and water); it's time to head for the Nullarbor...
of course it's pouring rain. #ClassicDesertAction
And so we left Western Australia with a respectable trip list of 175. The birding had been relatively efficient since I knew all the spots. From this point onward Jukka and I would be on the same page.
Onto a new state!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Introduction to Destruction

The period of time between December 3rd, 2012, and January 7th, 2013, is a bit blurry… to say the least. Those 36 days probably mark the most ridiculous, stupid, exhausting, thrilling, painful, and enjoyable road-trip of my life. Why did we do it? To look at birds, preferably as many birds as humanly/humanely possible.
Sneak Photo Peek: Here we are scanning for Beach Stone-curlews in Queensland;--an activity, like grasswrening,
that we did way more of than anticipated.
When planning this trip, the first thing I had to do was figure out who the WE would be. Easy. There’s only one person I know who is crazy enough to put up with the kind of physical and mental punishment required for such a high-tempo/low-comfort venture. His name is Jukka Jantunen, originally from Finland, now a resident of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. We met way back in 2005 when I was just a wee lad in the bird-biology world. In 2008, when I lived in New Zealand, while bragging about my recent pelagic highlights, I jokingly invited him down for some birding. Apparently he didn’t detect the sarcasm, so when he showed up at my door in Dunedin few weeks later, we embarked on a hardcore 2-week roadie around the South Island. I can’t remember much from that trip either, other than Jukka coughing up blood and trying to cure his ailment by chugging honey straight from the bottle. I think we also saw Okarito Rowi and Great Spotted Kiwi in the same night—a feat that no other birder has been deranged enough to attempt. Another time, while birding the Queen Charlotte Islands of coastal British Columbia, Jukka, myself, and two other friends, rose at 4am, caught the 5am ferry across Skidegate Inlet to Queen Charlotte City, then the 11am ferry from there to Prince Rupert on the mainland. From Rupert, Jukka drove us through the night—from 7pm to 9:30am (stopping for coffee at every single Tim Horton’s along the way)—to Oliver, BC. Why? For a bird.

So I guess you see what I’m getting at. The man has driving endurance, birding endurance, and a penchant for punishment. Great long-distance vision, which helps the birding of course, but also probably saved us from several night-time collisions with Australia’s famous nocturnal wildlife. Add this to a love of hockey, AC/DC, and wader identification, and you have a pretty solid road-trip buddy in my eyes.

Jukka: “Can my Dad come?”

Me: “What?”

Jukka: “He really wants to come. I’ve explained to him what it’s like, but he says he’s fine with it”

Me: “Well I’m all for saving money. As long as he doesn’t mind sleeping in a car for a month, dealing with hot and/or humid temperatures, and a variety of nasty bugs—he’s in.”

And so the team was set: Jukka, his 70+year-old father Pertti (who I was soon to find out did not speak English), and I. SPOILER ALERT: We all survived, and believe it or not, everyone was still pretty happy and upbeat on the last day (despite some unforeseen rental car expenses…thanks Hertz!).

In those 36 days, we drove well over 15,000 km, experiencing a mind-boggling range of temperatures, weather, enthralling landscapes, unique creatures and plants, people, food (it’s amazing how many flavours of canned-tuna are out there)…and yes BIRDS.

Our goal was 500 bird species for the trip. The route would take us from Perth, in the SW corner of the country, along the Eyre Highway to Port Augusta, up into the outback for a few days, then SE down into coastal Victoria. From there we would head up to Sydney, fly to Hobart for a couple days on Tasmania, then back up north to Lamington National Park in Queensland for Christmas Eve, before heading west into the extreme SW corner of Queensland. Finally, we’d head NE to the Queensland coast at Townsville, then head north to Cairns, play around the Atherton Tablelands for a bit, then finish off by driving the coast down to Brisbane. There are certainly 500+ bird species along this route, but as foreigners, we aren’t familiar with all the calls and songs, and obviously we don’t know where the best places are. Big thanks to Nigel Jackett of Perth, and Roy Sonnenberg of Brisbane for helping out with the itinerary. We also used the “Thomas and Thomas” site guide a bit, but more on that later.
Christmas dinner at a truck-stop in SW Queensland. No time to get fancy, there are Hall's Babblers out there!
December is a good time to try something like this in that it is peak breeding season for most birds, and diversity is highest. On the other hand, December is also BAD, because it’s summer and Australia can be pretty damn hot and sweaty in summer. Plus, the cicadas can be atrociously loud, making ear-birding either difficult or even impossible—in fact at one location I couldn’t even get out of the car as I thought my ears might start bleeding.

So now that you’ve sifted through the boring introduction part. Here’s the story—largely aided by Jukka’s brilliant photography (my camera was out of commish for most of the trip)—ENJOY!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Twitchathon: WA Style

The following is my vague but fond recollection of our (as in Nigel Jackett, Bruce Greatwitch, and I) attempt to set a new 24-hour birding record for the state of Western Australia. Since the usual Ecologia squad was missing a few members, I had the fortune of being invited to join the team—The Ruff Knights—for its third attempt at victory in WA’s annual competition…

The date: Dec 1st

The time: 4:50pm

The three of us are milling about on a hilltop overlooking Sinker Reef, an impressively rocky shoreline on the southwest coast of “WA,” not too far from the port of Albany. Our movements are anxious, possibly due to the copious amounts of Coca Cola we’ve been drinking, but also because we’re about to start what Australian birders call a “Twitchathon.” Twitchathons, or “big days” as we say in North America, are typically a race to see as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period. The traditional time frame is midnight to midnight, but here in Western Australia, the annual competition (when 5-15 teams go at it on a set date in early December) is from 5pm to 5pm.

Adding to our anxiousness is that fact that the Shy Albatross Nigel had found in his scope only a few minutes ago had conveniently disappeared, so with only a few minutes left until GO-TIME, our scopes panned and panned and panned and panned.

5,4,3,2… and GO!

“PACIFIC GULL!” I yelled excitedly even though this bird had been sitting patiently on a rock for the last 30 minutes. The difference being that it was now on our twitchathon list. With limited daylight to work with, the pressure was now on to add as many seabirds as possible in the next few minutes before heading into the coastal heathlands of Two Peoples Bay Nature Reserve. A single FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER was a relief, and turned out to be our only tubenose of the day. A few AUSTRALASIAN GANNETS flapped by in the distance, then a nice adult WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE cruised over—and easy bird to miss on this route!
Nigel scanning for tubies, prior to "Go Time"
From Sinker Reef, we made our way back along the sandy track that leads to the main road. The list started growing quickly with additions like WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE, HORSFIELD’S BRONZE-CUCKOO, RED-CAPPED PARROT, SPLENDID FAIRY-WREN, and finally we heard the song of the hoped for WESTERN WHIPBIRD. Despite a nice tally, we were frustrated with the lack of Red-eared Firetails (which had been conspicuous during my scouting mission in November), plus I flushed a BRUSH BRONZEWING that couldn’t be counted because no one else saw it (each bird must be seen/heard by 50%+ of the team, so in our case—at least 2 people).

A quick visit to Little Beach eventually netted us “The Big Three” (WA endemics that are notoriously hard to see) with singing NOISY SCRUBBIRD, WESTERN BRISTLEBIRD, and the previously mentioned WESTERN WHIPBIRD. Once again, the firetails were a no-show, but at least SOUTHERN EMU-WREN was tallied for the list.

From Two Peoples Bay we blitzed back into the Albany area, stopping at several wader locales around Oyster Harbour. Shorebird numbers were not overly-impressive, but a single GREAT KNOT and 11 GREATER SAND-PLOVERS were nice, and a sleeping MASKED LAPWING (rare in the southwest) were both welcomed additions. As dusk progressed, we were thrilled to have a pair of BAUDIN’S BLACK-COCKATOOS fly over us, then we capped off the last moments of light with a mad dash to Lake Seppings. Some key waterbirds appeared on cue, including GREAT CRESTED GREBE, BLUE-BILLED DUCK, and MUSK DUCK.

Now that darkness was upon us, it was time to get moving. We stopped off briefly at a local marsh where both Little and Australasian Bitterns had been recorded in recent months. But alas, things were very quiet, so we headed back to the highway, where we flushed a hunting TAWNY FROGMOUTH—my first for the trip!

Up until this point we had been following a fairly typical (albeit ambitious) twitchathon route. But if we were going to claim victory, we needed to put the metaphorical foot down on the metaphorical pedal. What am I talking about? Well instead of trying to hear a couple night birds, then catch some Zzz’s, followed by dawn birding close to Perth, we planned to drive to Esperance (around 400km from Albany), try spotlighting for sleeping day-birds that we couldn’t get anywhere else on our route, then backtrack 100+km, and try and race to Lake King in time for dawn, which is still about 4.5 hours from Perth.

“All I can say is, this better be worth it”

For some reason I volunteered to do most of the night-driving, perhaps out of nostalgia for the ‘big days’ back-home, or maybe subconsciously, I have a fetish for dodging wildlife at 110km/hour. Well luckily for all of us (and the kangaroos), we managed the drive without any significant impacts (might have taken out a few rabbits—but that’s a good thing in this country). Along the way we were forced to stop at some roadworks where the highway narrowed to a one-lane bridge. Since it was near a nice riparian area I turned off the engine and we had a quick listen. Nothing on the close side of the bridge, but a quick stop on the other side, and booyah! A calling SOUTHERN BOOBOOK! This is a fairly widespread and common night bird in Australia, but one that can be easily missed on a twitchathon and this happened to be the first time the Ruff Knights had bagged an owl, period. But we weren’t done yet; not too long after the boobook, a white ghost flashed across our high-beams—“BARN OWL!” In fact we ended up with four Barn Owls before the night was over.

But… we didn’t drive all the way to Esperance in the middle of the night for one or two owls. We had other plans. First we stopped in at the old tanker jetty, where the only accessible breeding BLACK-FACED CORMORANTS in the SW occur. The midnight fishermen looked a little confused as we sprinted by with our scope and head-lamps, excitedly high-fiving.
Next it was the Esperance Golf Course, where we cast our lights on a small island where we knew many of the local shorebirds and waterfowl came to roost at night. Sure enough, some careful scanning nabbed us our “Esperance Specialty” targets: CAPE BARREN GEESE, CHESTNUT TEAL, BANDED STILT, and MASKED LAPWING. Other additions here included NANKEEN NIGHT-HERON, BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HEN, RED-NECKED AVOCET, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER, and BLACK-FRONTED DOTTEREL.

We were doing well for time so we popped into a large salt-pan lake nearby to scan the shoreline. Just as we were about to leave, Nigel and I picked up three sets of shining eyes reflecting in Bruce’s spotlight. Could these eyes belong to the Hooded Plovers that breed in the area? They had the right shape but they were too far away to be sure. We tried going a little closer, and scanned again. We picked up the green eyes again, but this time just one set—“a fox?!” Whatever it was disappeared into some thick bushes, and the plover-like objects had disappeared as well, so we decided it was time to high-tail it to our daylight starting point in the mallee country.

Nigel took over driving duties for the drive back west and then north to Lake King. Along the way we dodged more roos, rabbits, and foxes (although I think a fox is now missing a tail). When you drive at night in this area, you really get a taste of how many feral foxes there are out there, and it’s simply amazing that endangered birds like the Hooded Plover are still hanging in there.
Dawn broke over Lake King village as we fueled up the truck. We raced across the expansive salt pans west of town, then began stopping sporadically in the dense mallee bush that heads up the hill toward Lake Grace. For the most part, the same birds I had scouted in mid-November performed on cue. BLUE-BREASTED FAIRY-WRENS, SOUTHERN SCRUB-ROBINS, CRESTED BELLBIRDS, WHITE-EARED and WHITE-FRONTED HONEYEATERS were still abundant, and the female PAINTED BUTTONQUAIL was still calling in the same spot. Purple-gaped Honeyeaters eluded us completely, but we also lucked out a bit with a flock of CARNABY’S BLACK-COCKATOOS, a singing SHY HEATHWREN, as well as other common but unpredictable dry-country birds like WHITE-BROWED BABBLER, ELEGANT PARROT, and REGENT PARROT, so we were relatively happy with the morning’s haul.

Closer to Lake Grace, we stopped off at a pull-out where Nigel and I had heard owlet-nightjar calling in the daytime (over a month before). Just for the hell of it, Nigel and Bruce went around whacking dead-trees in the area, then out-popped an AUSTRALASIAN OWLET-NIGHTJAR! We got some good day-birds at night, and now we had a night-bird in the day.

We rolled into the Wagin Wastewater Treatment Plant just before 8am. All our pre-scouted targets showed themselves obligingly including PINK-EARED DUCK, WOOD SANDPIPER, COMMON SANDPIPER, AUSTRALIAN SPOTTED CRAKE, and BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HEN (Now officially countable since only one person saw the one in Esperance). An unexpected bonus in the form of a SPINY-CHEEKED HONEYEATER pushed the list higher; then it was off to wondoo forests of Dryandra to cap off the morning.

Things went relatively smooth at Dryandra. BUSH STONE-CURLEWS were spotted near the visitors’ centre, then dry forest specialties started coming quickly—Such as DUSKY WOODSWALLOW, RESTLESS FLYCATCHER, WESTERN THORNBILL, RED-CAPPED and SCARLET ROBINS, WESTERN YELLOW ROBIN, RUFOUS TREECREEPER, BROWN-HEADED HONEYEATER, and SPOTTED PARDALOTE. We were missing a couple tougher birds like Hooded Robin and Crested Shrike-tit, but we couldn’t waste too much time as the coast was beckoning.
Looking way too casual for a twitchathon
We tried a few stops in the Darling Range as we made our way to the coast. We still needed spinebill, firetails, and White-breasted Robin (among other things). WESTERN WATTLEBIRD was a huge relief somewhere in the hills, then while trying to track down a potential spinebill I spotted a quiet foraging flock of VARIED SITTELLAS. But time was ticking fast… we needed to move.
Still looking waaay too casual. This must be my "well at least we got  sittella" face
We hit the coastal plains first near Mandurah, where our first stop was Lake McLarty. The shorebirding was dismal, possibly due to our lack of proper scouting in the area, but on the drive in we flushed a flock of CATTLE EGRETS (good bird in the SW), a few WHISKERED TERNS were skipping over the lake, and our first LITTLE EAGLE of the day soared off in the distance. On to Mandurah where both WHIMBREL and EASTERN CURLEW were tallied, but we couldn’t find any tattlers! LITTLE BLACK CORMORANT and ROCK DOVE both massive reliefs, then nearby we were pleased that Nigel’s pre-scouted BANDED LAPWINGS were still in the same field.

Next was the boat-ramp to Penguin Island. No penguins at this time of the day with hundreds of wind-surfers about, but the usual BRIDLED TERNS were flocking around the island, and a bonus PARASITIC JAEGER (Arctic Skua) ripped past. We missed the Mute Swans that had been seen earlier that day, they’re mute swans… so… ya.

After a hurried visit to Woodman Point, where the regular RUDDY TURNSTONES performed, we now entering serious crunch time. We had less than two hours to go and we were sitting on 164 species for the day. This was a team-best for the Ruff Knights (by about 10 species), but now we were 10 away from the record… something had to be done!

Bruce was now at the wheel as we weaved in and out of traffic heading into the heart of Perth. SPOTTED DOVE and RAINBOW LORIKEETS were finally added…”PHHEEEWWWW.” Thus preventing an automatic awarding of “Worst Dip” for the day.

Back in mid-October Nigel and I found a pair of Terek Sandpipers in Alfred Cove, which had stuck around for most of the early summer. We dashed out to the cove, and carefully scanned all around. PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER and BUFF-BANDED RAIL were new… but no tereks. As a last-ditch attempt we stopped at another view-point where a couple mid-sized shorebirds were working the muddy bank—TEREK SANDPIPERS!
Getting a bit more rushed with less than an hour to go. I'll crouch for Tereks any day!
On to Gwelup Lake, a small suburban park that Nigel and I had been visiting frequently in recent weeks. We had 20 minutes to go so we had to be efficient. Both LITTLE and LONG-BILLED CORELLAS were in their favourite field… that tied the record. Patient scanning and presto—the hoped for BAILLON’S CRAKE! A new Western Australia record and we still had a couple minutes to go. All we could do was wait and scan, then with less than 30 seconds to go, a loud commotion started behind some tall eucalypts, then the distinctive cry of a AUSTRALASIAN HOBBY, but the first bird I got my bins on wasn’t a hobby, it was a BROWN GOSHAWK… wait… “it’s a hobby chasing a goshawk!” Both new birds, and a perfect ending to the day. The three of us beamed with the golden combo of serendipity and extreme sleep-deprivation. We had gone to geographic extremes never before considered in the SW for one day, and it had paid off.
Bruce at Gwelup: Gotta be a peregrine out there somewhere...
We tallied up the official list just to be sure—177. A new record by 3 species. Bruce texted in our results to John Graff, the official records keeper of the twitchathon.

The phone beeped. “What did he say Bruce?”

“Oh shit… he says, ‘solid effort but I’m afraid it’s not enough’”

What? How could this be? Was Graffy messing with us, or had another team actually managed to best our total in a year that seemed poor for shorebirds and uncommon stuff in general. Then news that the Western Whistlers (who had set the original record of 174 the previous year) had scored over 180 species for the day.

It was hard to comprehend, in a span of minutes we had gone from magnificent ornithological ecstasy, to absolute deflation. Nigel and Bruce went completely quiet, while I spent the ride home muttering rhetorical questions like, “we went to Esperance and Lake King, how could they have picked up more birds while sticking to the west?” “They said they had a perfect run last year; how do you improve 10 species on the perfect run?!”

Well that’s competitive birding for ya. And that’s why a twitchathon or Big Day is one of my favourite things to do. It challenges you mentally and physically, and more importantly—it challenges your birding skills, from bird identifications (especially calls), to your knowledge of where to find the birds. If you miss something in one spot, where else can you get it? And what’s the most efficient way to do so? And of course, one must have fun right? We smashed the previous Ruff Knights high by 20—not bad!

Besides, I couldn’t concern myself too much with the disappointing result, I needed to get some sleep, since tomorrow I would be meeting my ol’ Finnish amigo Jukka Jantunen in downtown Perth. Yep, tomorrow we’re picking up a rental vehicle and driving across the country for 36 days. Am I crazy? Answer=Yes.
I can sleep next month.