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.


  1. Hi Russ: Loving your posts, although, based on the conditions you have had to put up with, I am not sure I wish I was there. I look forward to your blog posts from New Zealand.
    Never underestimate the fitness, and stamina of a Scandinavian. Before your time, Participaction used to run an ad encouraging Canadians to get off their butts by stating that the average 65 year old Swede, ( substiture Finn ), was in better shape than the average 25 year old Canadian. Hopefully, things have evened out since then. Have fun. Thor

    Thor Manson
    Gallagher Lake

  2. Do you prefer Coca-Cola or Pepsi?
    SUBMIT YOUR ANSWER and you could get a prepaid VISA gift card!