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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Western Australia and Northern Territory

Brushtails, Baobabs and Bowerbirds

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The spring of 2017 was an unusual weather period for much of Australia. We found the weather to be cold and windy in the southwest, repeatedly hearing the locals complain of a lingering winter. And around Alice, Darwin and Kununurra it was abnormally hot and humid, with signs of a very early wet season coming in the form of overcast skies and even rain at times. Irrespective of the weather conditions though our tour covered an amazing breadth of habitats and birds. We spent the first week around the southwestern corner of the country, where we explored the towering Marri and Karri forests, mallee, coastal heathland and windswept seaside cliffs. Here we found all twenty of the SW endemics and enjoyed great views of all three notoriously hard to see heathland birds (Noisy Scrubbird, Western Bristlebird (it took a while this year), and Western Whipbird). We then spent a few days around Alice Springs, a small city nestled into the ancient MacDonnell Ranges which rise up from the surrounding desert and contain permanent water sources and dry creekbeds lined with bone-white Ghost Gums. Here the birdlist was shorter, but many truly special species kept us amply entertained. Spotted Bowerbirds displaying over their bowers, flocks of Budgerigars coursing through the skies, Dusky Grasswrens playing hide and seek above us on a spinifex clad hillside, Galahs fairly glowing in the late evening sun, the highlight list could stretch for paragraphs.

For the third section of the tour we flew up to the humid and tropical Top End, which was very dry this year. The bird diversity shot up here, with new species at every turn. Rainbow Pittas preformed wonderfully, and we enjoyed masses of waterbirds (Whistling-Ducks, Pygmy-Geese and Magpie Geese, colourful Black-necked Storks and Australian Pratincoles) around Knuckey’s Lagoon. Day-roosting Rufous and Barking Owls at the botanical gardens were an especially nice treat, as was the surprise Red-chested Buttonquail on the Marakai Track, and the spritely Arafura Fantails along the Adelaide River. For the last leg of the tour we spent a day exploring the Ord River Floodplain near Kununurra, where we found Gouldian, Masked, Star, and Double-barred Finches and Yellow-rumped Munia (part of a 8 finch day!). Also here we spent our last full morning out on the vast Lake Argyle, where our highlights included a few Little Curlew and Oriental Plover, large numbers of beautiful Yellow Chats, Australian Bustards, qnd Sandstone Shrikethrushes and White-quilled Rock Pigeons scurrying about on red sandstone island cliffs. All too soon the tour wrapped up, with a triplist of 325 species (plus 6 more during our unscheduled stop in Adelaide enroute to Alice Springs), and an impressive 20 mammals including nursing Southern Right Whale from the shoreline and 8 species of Kangaroo! The diversity of wildlife and birds to be found in this less traveled and more wild western side of the country is simply staggering, and I can’t wait to return in 2019!

IN FULL: We started our tour with a visit to nearby Herdsman Lake, one of the premier waterbird spots around Perth; Herdsman Lake. We spent a very enjoyable and relaxed two hours walking along the lakes shore, which was considerably higher than normal due to a recent spate of rain. The grassy verges of the lake were liberally sprinkled with hulking Australasian Swamphens, Dusky Moorhens and Eurasian Coots, many with babies in tow. Waterfowl were particularly well represented, with family groups of Black Swans and Maned Duck, quietly foraging Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, Blue-billed Duck and Australian Shoveler and a handful of the truly bizarre Musk Ducks. These squat almost black ducks are perhaps the most unique species of waterfowl in the world, with males sporting an oversized pendulous wattle under their chin and in display a fanned out tail that is reminiscent of a sage grouse in shape. Our views of the bizarre Pink-eared Ducks with their huge and highly curved bills, zebra striped flanks and black eye spots were particularly good as we watched a pair with five fuzzy young all spinning around in the shallow water like oversized phalaropes. Along with the waterfowl show we located several pairs of Great Crested and Australasian Grebes ( with tiny fuzzy chicks in tow). Hulking Australian Pelicans, Australian White and Straw-necked Ibis, Little Black, Great and Little Pied Cormorants, and several Swamp Harriers all drifted into view and the flowering bottlebrush trees that lined the park were hosting dozens of gaudy and raucous Rainbow Lorikeets (actually introduced to SW Australia) that glowed in the sun, and quarrelsome Red Wattlebirds and Singing and Brown Honeyeaters. The lawns were also full of a suite of black and white birds; with Willie Wagtails, Australian Magpies, Magpie-Larks and Australian Ravens all marching along the grounds looking like they owned the place. In the paperbark forest patches around the lake we spent some time watching a very vocal Rufous Whistler, replete in its striking buff black and white plumage. Here too were our first active Grey Fantails, and a little flock of bush birds that included a Yellow-rumped Thornbill and several Silvereye. Once we returned to the buses we moved over to another section of the lakeshore where we quickly found a trio of staked out Tawny Frogmouths stoically resting right above the busy walking and jogging trail that encircles the wetland. These loggerheaded birds with their massive orange eyes and huge bills are quite imposing, somewhat of a cross between a large nightjar and an owl. The male was sitting on a nest and the female was huddled up in a nearby tree with her young from last year snugly sitting beside her. For such large birds, sitting in such open trees frogmouths can be remarkably difficult to spot by chance, so having such approachable and staked out birds is always a boon. We departed Herdsman Lake for a quick stop at the adjacent Lake Monger, where our chief motivation was to use the public toilets. The birdlife of this more open and deeper lake though was its own reward, and we spent a few minutes studying our first Australian Shelducks, a dapper and colourful duck with a bright patchwork colour pattern and several small flocks of Hardhead (Australia’s lone Aythya duck). We also found a pair of Hoary-headed Grebes, a somewhat unpredictable nomad in the Perth region, and our third (of a possible three) species of grebe for the morning!

Next we set off for a bit of a drive out of greater Perth and uphill into the Darling Ranges where after picking up supplies for a picnic lunch at a nearby roadhouse we stopped in at the carpark below Wungong Dam. After enjoying a picnic lunch with the company of a seemingly insatiable family group of Australian Magpies we stretched our legs a bit with a short walk around the nearby forest and encountered our first SW endemic species. A few White-breasted Robins were flitting about in the understory being generally uncooperative, but the very inquisitive Inland Thornbill and several Western Gerygones proved more tractable. A pair of the locally endemic Red-winged Fairy-Wrens played hide-and-seek with us, but eventually gave good views and we spotted several Splendid Fairy-Wrens as well, though none were fully decked out males as we made our way back to the buses. We spent the later afternoon exploring the large native patch of dry Eucalypt forest in the Dryandra Woodland National Conservation Area. As we neared the park the mostly agrarian landscape with paddocks filled with sheep or the odd cow, and fields of flowering rape and seeding wheat gave way to more natural scenes. The recent rains had pooled into small lakes along the roadside, and at one of these we stopped to admire a group of eight Black-tailed Native-Hens. These gallinule-like birds sport bright red legs, a nearly permanently cocked up and fanned tail and brightly marked bill. It is another highly nomadic species, and one that we typically do not see on the Perth section of the tour. The many dazzlingly green, yellow, black and blue Australian Ringnecks proved common, and soon everyone was calling out “Ringneck” like old pros as they flushed from the road edges. We stopped too for our first lumbering Laughing Kookaburras and a pair of Grey Currawongs before we entered the forest proper. We drove through the park slowly, stopping wherever activity seemed to dictate. Our first main stop revealed several bright orange/buff Rufous Treecreepers foraging on the ground or clambering up nearby trunks. Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters were seemingly in every tree, and several Dusky Woodswallows were sallying out in the mid-story. Our excellent views of the impossibly gaudy Red-capped Parrots were perhaps the highlight of the walk. Red-capped Parrots have to be one of the most intensely colored birds on the planet, clad in electric hues of purple, green, red and yellow, and one male showed off for us with extended scope views in good light. At another stop we were happy to spot a bright yellow-green Elegant Parrot that perched just above our parked cars. These small and perky looking parrots seem easier to see in the Southwest than over much of their eastern range, but are always a treat to see perched and in good light. We walked around on one of the many trails through the woodland finding a pair of Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens lurking in the pea flower shrubs and a nice pair of White-browed Babblers that were much more confiding. Some flowering trees along the road were attracting a nice array of honeyeater species including our first Western Wattlebirds, striking New Holland Honeyeaters and a pair of Gilbert’s Honeyeaters (a SW endemic that was recently split from White-naped Honeyeater) that were uncharacteristically sitting still and out in the open above the road. Here too was a small and busy group of Varied Sittellas crawling around the branches of some nearby large trees. Although widespread in Australia these perky nuthatch-like birds with their bright orange bills and legs are nowhere common. As we drove the short distance on to our hotel in the little town of Narrogin we paused to admire several Western Gray Kangaroos as they hopped around in some open fields along the road. It was truly a magnificently rich day, and a great kickoff to our two and a half week tour through Australia’s magnificent west.

On our second day we started with an optional pre-breakfast walk to a parkland across from our hotel. Although this patch of woodland has not yet fully recovered from a recent burn and the effects of Eucalypt die-back (a fungal pathogen that has recently been badly affecting large areas of Southwestern Australia) we found it to be quite birdy.  Honeyeaters were particularly prevalent, with loads of garrulous Red Wattlebirds, New Holland and White-cheeked Honeyeaters were chasing each other around between the flowering shrubs. Parrots put on a good showing as well, with gaudy Red-capped and vocal Australian Ringnecks vying for our attention in the treetops while the striking pink and gray Galahs fed quietly on the forest floor. We also enjoyed our first (of many) encounters with tame Grey Shrike-thrushes (here with the reddish vents of the southwestern subspecies), a couple of quite approachable and perky female Red-capped Robins, and a small group of very active Western Thornbills. These quite dull thornbills are somewhat thinly distributed across the SW corner of the country, and although their largely unmarked yellowish plumage will likely not contribute to a victory in any upcoming thornbill beauty pageant they are sprightly and charismatic little birds that can be hard to consistently locate. We were greeted back at our hotel by a nice cooked breakfast and then we packed up and spent the rest of the morning covering the odd 250KM of highway to reach the Stirling Ranges. A quite productive stop at the Sewage Works in the little town of Wagin broke up our drive, where amongst the many sleeping Australian Shelduck and Gray Teal we detected a single Common Sandpiper and two Black-fronted Dotterel, as well as our first perched Straw-necked Ibis and a young White-necked Heron. As we drove further south the Stirling Ranges that rise up from the surrounding lowlands to heights just above 3000ft. began to dominate the landscape. Long famous for its rich floral diversity (with over 1500 species of plants known from the National Park) and scenic beauty the park was one of the first protected areas of Western Australia. We pulled into the small café near the park’s entrance for lunch, dining on the deck along with blossoming trees full of Purple-crowned Lorikeets and New Holland Honeyeaters. After we checked in to our various accommodations at the adjacent Stirling Ranges Retreat we decided to head out to a nearby back road that wound along the northern edge of the national park. The flat land to the north of the peaks is covered with short heath-like plants, small Eucalypts and an amazing variety of small flowering plants (many of which were blooming). Along the road through this botanical paradise we found sleek looking Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters to be quite common, perching up in short trees, chasing each other around and generally being conspicuous. At a large saline lake along the roadside we were thrilled to locate a pair of Hooded Plover along the sandy edge of the lake. The elegantly marked Hooded Plover possesses a black hood decorated with a bright red bill and eyering, and is perhaps the most striking of the Australian plovers. An endangered species, confined to the southern coast of Australia, most birders see this species somewhere on the heavily trafficked sandy beaches of Tasmania and Victoria. In the southwest though the birds breed on inland lakes are certainly in less danger of disturbance and as a result the area is a stronghold for the species. We stopped along the road wherever we heard bird activity, looking primarily for Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens, as our views the previous day had been brief. At our first several stops we located Splendid Fairy Wren parties instead, but when your fall back species is an all-electric blue ball of perky charisma things are certainly not all bad. A few active Western Spinebills, a quite attractive honeyeater with a complicated pattern of orange, black and white on its head and chest responded to our imitations of their call, and at virtually every stop we were able to see displaying Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters; an elegant species with a creamy yellow crown. At one stop we were happy to find our other main quarry for the afternoon, and, with a bit of judicious taping were soon watching a very cooperative Western Fieldwren as it scuttled around amongst the shrubs gathering food. A somewhat recent and also controversial split from the more widespread Rufous Fieldwren (which may soon be lumped again) these are attractively pattered birds, with highly streaked yellow underparts and a touch of rufous on their foreheads. On the walk back to the car we paused repeatedly to admire various wildflowers and also the nests of thatch ants. Near the end of the afternoon we also connected with a beautiful pair of Blue-breasted Fairy Wrens that seemed to glow with the intensity of the late afternoon sun. Their overall colour pattern is quite similar to the more widespread Red-winged Fairy Wren, but the male sports a richly ultramarine crown and face, quite different to the paler blue of the Red-winged males. Just a bit past the Fairy Wren site we passed a series of open pastures, and here were able to admire our first Australian Pipits, small groups of Black-faced Woodswallows, and a couple of pairs of Grey Butcherbirds. Here too were grazing Western Grey Kangaroo, many European Rabbits, flocks of Galah and Australian Ringnecks, and even, at some distance, a pair of striding Emu that crested a ridgeline and walked out in to the park as we admired them. All too soon we had to turn back to the retreat, where dinner at the local café was accompanied by a wonderland of stars and an impressive chorus of Motorbike and Western Banjo Frogs.

The next morning we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours simply walking around the grounds of our lodge (which abuts the national park). Even in the somewhat unseasonably cold conditions we located a wide selection of species. A pair of Sacred Kingfishers, clad in tawny-buff and aquamarine serenaded our passing as they sat side-by-side near their selected nest cavity in a large spreading Eucalypt. We walked along the back fence line that demarks the edge of the property and located a perky male Scarlet Robin, a showy species clad in bold red black and white with a brilliantly white forehead. At one point he was perched up on a giant yellow bulldozer parked out in the field, looking for all the world like an asymmetrically placed red warning light. Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos were foraging out on the fields as well, and we enjoyed several views of these huge black parrots as they flew through the trees with their characteristic slow moth-like flaps and oddly gull-like creaking calls. Elegant Parrots and a few Regent Parrots zipped through the trees, alighting on tall snags in the canopy or foraging on the ground nearby, while the odd Dusky Woodswallow or Tree Martin zipped through the canopy. We had especially good views of a pair of nesting Restless Flycatchers near the office, and were able to admire the very tightly woven cup nest through the scope. Also near the office was arguably the most prized sighting for the morning. While walking past a large and mostly dead Eucalypt we heard the unmistakable calls of an Australian Owlet-Nightjar emanating from one of the many cavities. In short order we narrowed the search down and were looking at the gray and black bird as it nestled in the end of a large broken off limb. Its wide face, large forward-facing eyes and expressive whiskers make Owlet-nightjars quite distinct from their two moniker partners, and given their small size and lack of eye-shine we were glad to have an opportunity to see one during the day. It took a bit of perseverance but we also located the last of the likely southwestern endemics in the park when a cooperative and curious pair of Western Yellow Robins revealed themselves near the café. Everywhere we turned it was just very apparent that we were in another world, far removed from our normal haunts in the northern hemisphere.

Next we headed a bit to the southwest, to another low set of hills called the Porongerup Ranges. Here stately Karrii trees (stretching upwards of 200 ft high) grow atop a dense understory of shrubs and small Eucalypts. Stopping at the carpark near the end of the road we tracked down a very cooperative pair of Baudin’s (Long-billed) Black-Cockatoos that were apparently investigating various trees for nesting cavities. Baudin’s are very similar to their more common Short-billed cousins, but they tend to prefer closed canopy forests with large Marri trees (which produce their favourite food), and seldom occur in large groups. While enjoying an array of snacks on the picnic tables in the carpark we watched as a wealth of birdlife came into view around the margins of the carpark. Jewel-like Red-winged Fairy-Wrens, White-browed Scrubwrens and Rufous Treecreepers all were foraging on the ground around the verge of the clearing while White-breasted Robins, Gilbert’s and New Holland Honeyeaters and Gray Fantails zipped around the midstory. Perhaps the most satisfying bird though was a male Western Shrike-Tit (an excellent candidate for full species) that alerted us to his presence with his characteristic clear two-note whistled call. Although widespread in many parts of Australia this species is generally quite scarce. Its oversized bills combined with the snazzy black and white head pattern and bright yellow underparts (with a white belly band in the western subspecies) make for a unique appearance, and as we had missed this species on our morning walk around the Stirling Ranges we were very glad to catch up with it. Just before we headed to a local café for lunch we stopped along one of the trails to admire a quietly foraging Red-eared Firetail that was hopefully scratching in the leaf litter on the trail. It’s hard to choose a favorite Australian finch, as there are many truly snazzy species, but this one recalls one of the best African twin spots, with jet black flanks liberally spotted with large white spots and a scarlet stripe across the auriculars and rump. As we departed the forest several of the participants saw a pair of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos that were flying at eye-level along the roadside. These huge birds are perhaps even more impressive than the Carnaby’s or Baudin’s, with their bright red tail patches and grating but elegant calls. Being able to see three species of Black Cockatoo in one morning is truly exceptional!  We then turned southwards towards the coast, travelling along little used back highways that passed through some rich agricultural land, often with small wetlands scattered about in the lower areas of the fields. Hundreds of Gray Teal and Australian Shelducks loafed about in the ponds while groups of Straw-necked Ibis and White Ibis kept us entertained until we reached our base for the next three nights at Cheyne’s Beach. A well-developed caravan park, with free-standing and very modern chalets provides access to the coastal heathlands and scrub in this remote corner of the country. The view of the sweeping white sand beach, with the azure waters of the southern ocean is superlative here. Our principle reason for visiting this corner of Australia was to spend some time looking for the trio of scarce skulking birds that are resident in the dense coastal heathlands. Virtually all Australian birders make the pilgrimage out to Cheynes at some point in their lives, hoping for glimpses of Western Scrubbird, Western Bristlebird and Western Whipbird.  

After we checked in we walked around the coastline below the park. In the coastal flowering Banksias we found a few Western Spinebills among the much more common White-cheeked and New Holland Honeyeaters. Watching out to sea we could pick up a steady stream of Flesh-footed Shearwaters coursing over the waves, and several plunge diving Australasian Gannets hunting from the skies above. With the building winds we were also thrilled to spot several distant Yellow-nosed Albatrosses languidly banking above the whitecaps, a somewhat unusual sighting from shore! Our first Eastern Ospreys (split by the Australian taxonomic authorities) was spotted soaring overhead, and while we debated its species status we did note that these birds seem to have shorter and more hawk-like wings, and a bulkier body than that of their northern cousins. Out on the postcard perfect powdery white sand beach we also located a couple of Pacific Gulls, a large black-backed gull that possesses an almost comically oversized bill that seems purpose built for splitting hapless crabs into tiny bite-sized bits with ease.              

Our principal target for the first afternoon was the first of the three specialties, the Noisy Scrubbird. One of only two extant members of the family Atrichornithidae these holdovers from the dawn of the passerines are flightless, loud, and stick to the dense heathlands and grasses of the coastal strip. Our strategy consisted of waiting until we heard a male singing its territorial song (which they give for several hours in the late afternoon) and then waiting ahead of the direction of the birds travel for it to come to a road gap in its territory. We followed the male (whom we named Noisy Nick) as he ran across the breadth of his territory, and despite our quick pace he beat us across the sandy road that bisects his habitat. It took about a half hour of waiting before Nick turned around and recrossed the track. We were able to see a quick mouse-like form dart across the road in front of us, using its wings as a counterbalance to its quick run across the open, looking for all the world like a Victorian lady in full dress quickly stepping over puddles. Quite pleased with ourselves, and with a brief pause to watch some Brush Bronzewings and some dazzlingly blue Splendid Fairy Wrens around the cabins we headed back to our chalets for a rest and then a remarkably excellent dinner prepared by our caravan park hosts.

We awoke the next morning to find the weather conditions not quite as ordered. An unseasonably strong cold front brought high winds and occasional squalls and made for less than pleasant birding conditions. The forecast was calling for a lessening in the rainfall through the morning so we decided to postpone our departure for the heathland above the caravan park. Some of the group went out to the coast for a short seawatching session, which proved to be an excellent choice as the same weather that made land birding difficult was proving to be a boon for the sea.  The line of Flesh-footed Shearwaters was still passing by, but much closer to shore than during the previous day. Joining the steady trickle of all dark shearwaters were good numbers of the equally dark but smaller Great-winged Petrels that set themselves apart from the comparatively ponderous shearwaters with their arcing flights. Even better than that though were the impressive numbers of Yellow-nosed Albatrosses wheeling about in the bay, occasionally coming close enough to the headland that we could make out the bright yellow edging on the bills. Among them we picked out a few larger Shy Albatross as well. Another part of the group went down to the bay to check unsuccessfully for Rock Parrots along the margin of the beach. While there though they too enjoyed the seabird spectacle and were able to detect one or two immature Black-browed Albatrosses in the mix as well, making for a five-tubenose day! Later in the morning we reconvened for a walk up in the sandy heathland above the chalets. The windy conditions were not helpful for our cause, but the walk up into the higher parts of the coastal heath was beautiful, with a myriad of showy and unique flowers and shrubs scattered all along the sandy tracks. Likened to the cape region of South Africa the coastal heaths of southwest Australia are one of the richest sites of floral endemism on earth. In accordance we punctuated our walk with many a stop to admire various pitcher plants, Banksias or showy flower. The cold weather was depressing bird activity, but with some effort we were able to spot a perched Western Whipbird that was calling from atop a small bush downslope from us. Some fairly skulky Southern Emu Wrens also put in an appearance with the male clambering up into a short shrub and briefly showing off its bright blue throat and preposterously long loose tail feathers. Western Grey Kangaroos were a frequent sight along the tracks, with many of them placidly standing and watching our passage with a curious air. It was easy to see how hopping through the very dense undergrowth would be advantageous. A couple of sprightly Western Spinebills and excellent views of the subtly beautiful Brush Bronzewing rounded out our morning. Once back at the caravan park we took a bit of time off and then ate a hearty lunch of soup and some exquisite home cooked cheese scones. With the persistent winds we decided to drive out to the nearby city of Albany to look over some estuaries and bays for waders and other more open country birds. The gravel roadside verge to the Great Southern Highway had an incredible number of birds as we drove along, with Red-capped Parrots, Australian Ringnecks, Galahs, Australian Magpies, and Common Bronzewings appearing repeatedly, likely feeding on some of the spilt grain from passing road trains carrying wheat to the port of Albany.

Near the King Estuary in Oyster Harbour we quickly found a good-sized flock of Pied Oystercatchers, looking like overweight Jacobins with their bright red bills, as well as several Common Greenshanks foraging on an exposed mudflat. We continued on to Rushy Point, a shorebird hotspot on the far side of Albany Bay. By walking out towards the sandy point at low tide we located an excellent assortment of migratory waders fresh back from their breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic. A few Greater Sandplovers, Black-bellied Plovers, more Pied Oystercatchers and Common Greenshanks joined the resident Red-capped Plovers and good numbers of Red-necked Stints out on the mudflats. Here too we were lucky enough to find a few distant Fairy Terns, a somewhat scarce species across southern Australia, sitting next to their larger Greater Crested Tern cousins. Atop a distant navigation buoy were several Pied and Great Cormorants, and we were able to get very close views of the incredibly large and surprisingly colorful Australian Pelicans that were loafing along the shore. Our last stop for the day was at Lake Seppings, a large suburban wetland that we found to be flooded out of its banks. The trail around the lake that winds through reedbeds and out to a couple of bird hides was largely underwater and a number of trees had fallen down over the path due to the recent storms. Undeterred we picked our way out to a likely reedbed and were soon successful in tracking down a responsive Australian Reed Warbler. As we started to walk back to the car Peter detected a calling Spotless Crake, and with some patience we were able to watch it repeatedly walk across a gap in the reeds just a few feet away from our expectant binoculars. This elegantly dressed black rail with bright red legs is more scarce and often much harder to see than the brazen Buff-banded Rails that we encountered on our first day, and was a life bird for even the most seasoned participant of the group, on her 6th or 7th trip to the country.              

We started our last full day down on the southern coast with a morning departure for the mallee forests of the Corackerup Nature Reserve, about 120KM East of our base at Cheyne’s Beach. As the temperatures were still low we decided to forgo our customary 5 o’clock departure time, opting for a more relaxed 7am start. Parts of the highway were still flooded from the previous weeks rain, and the drive out was a bit slower than normal, but we still arrived in the mallee forests in good time. Unlike most mallee forest in eastern and central Australia that have a bed of patchy Spinifex in the understory this western mallee has a heath understory, rich in flowering shrubs. Soon after we reached the reserve we stopped to admire a small flock of Yellow-throated Miners, a garrulous and especially quarrelsome honeyeater with a bright yellow bill. Unlike the eastern form of the species though these western birds have no yellow in the throat, and a dull rump, and may well be a candidate for full species status in the future. We spent the morning walking along a wide firebreak access road through the forest, choosing this particular track as it passes by an active Malleefowl nest. Early October is traditionally a good time for the species to begin tending their giant mound nests. The timing varies with the years though, with individual birds commencing their daily nest tending only once the temperature regime is to their liking. Unfortunately for us, the delayed spring meant that the mound was not recently active. We were able to inspect the mound though, and many were (I think) surprised at the size of the structure. Malleefowl mounds are about 3.5 feet high and easily 10 feet in diameter, and comprised of a substantial amount of decaying vegetation topped with a conical cap of dirt. The males work hard to maintain a constant temperature of 33 degrees C while incubating the eggs. Truly an engineering feat that surpasses the ability of most humans! Some other species livened up the walk though, with Southern Scrub Robins being incredibly common here. We enticed several birds out to the edge of the road, and a few bold individuals actually walked out across the track for our cameras. These large and long-tailed Robins are in a different genus than most of the Australian “Robins” and actually quite closely resemble some of the African Scrub Robins (though they are not closely related). In the short and scrubby mallee we found Purple-gaped Honeyeaters to be quite common (if flighty) as well, and after a bit of searching we located a pair of fast moving but generally cooperative Shy Heathwren lurking in the underbrush. A very vocal Spotted Pardalote of the local yellow-rumped race put on an excellent show near the carpark as it descended to the ground to drink from a small pool. Raptors were evident as well, with several views of huge Wedge-tailed Eagles soaring over the forest and a quite unexpected Square-tailed Kite that passed overhead a couple of times before drifting out of view. This is a widespread but quite scarce bird across closed canopy forests around Australia, and sightings are never guaranteed. Throughout the morning we occasionally heard the ringing calls of a Crested Bellbird from the surrounding trees and eventually we lucked into a semi responsive bird that was calling from a more open patch of scrub filled with a full artists pallet of flowers. With a bit of patience we spotted the calling bird as it sat in a short tree, remaining for long enough that everyone was able to take multiple views through the scope. This is an odd species, recently elevated (along with two equally dissimilar birds from Papua New Guinea) to a newly created family. Although widespread in the mallee forests across southern and central Australia they can be devilishly hard to track down in the dense habitats that they prefer. Sporting a short black crest, bright orange eye, white throat and lores and a black bib they are distinctive birds, and for a bird tour leader always a bit of a coup to see well. Once back at the vans we enjoyed a picnic lunch, topped off with a hot coffee or tea from a nearby café and then took the nearly two hour journey back to Cheyne’s Beach, where we arrived with sufficient time that the more ambitious in the group were able to revisit with Noisy Nick, the local Scrub Bird and do a bit of general birding around the park.  He again performed well for us by crossing the small road bisecting his territory, allowing the few people who were not looking in the right direction during our first attempt to catch up on perhaps one of the rarest and most localized breeding birds in Australia. On the beach we were happy to spot two Sooty Oystercatchers feeding in the eelgrass beds that were exposed at low tide. We then walked up into the heathland above the caravan park where we again heard both Western Whip Bird and Western Bristlebird but again found them to be only sporadically vocal and extremely reticent. An unexpected bonus though was spotted as we looked back down on the sparkling waters of the bay. Three Southern Right Whales (including a calf) were lolling around in the shallow bay waters, spending some time lounging on the surface and showing very well in the scope. On our inaugural tour to the area two years before the whales (which spend much of the winter along the sheltered bays of southern Australia) had already departed for their summering grounds in the southern ocean, but this year, perhaps thanks to the lingering cold weather a few had remained. It’s not every day that one walks up into a flower filled heathland rife with kangaroos to see a whale!

We made the most of a few hours birding during the morning of the next day. A Western Bristlebird finally showed well out in the heath for those who elected to walk back out the sandy track behind the lodge. He gave us quite a chase before scuttling across the road and eventually perching up on a low bare limb and throwing his head back in full song. We also tracked down two different vocal Western Whip Birds, which were much closer than our previous sighting, and seemed much happier to stay put in the scope for us. While it took more time and effort than is sometimes the case with these sightings we were entirely successful in our quest for the specialties of Cheyne’s Beach! Also along the track we watched a Nankeen Kestrel hovering over the heath and then successfully catching a small lizard or snake, and saw an adult White-bellied Sea Eagle being harassed by some remarkably persistent Silver Gulls. A nice bank of flowering Banksias near the park held a Western Wattlebird and several Western Spinebills, and around the cabins the resident Splendid Fairy Wrens and White-breasted Robins put on their customary show. All too soon we bade farewell to our gracious hosts and started the all-day drive back to our hotel in Perth. We made our first comfort stop in the small town of Rocky Gully that along with snacks and a toilet netted about a dozen Western Corella. We spent some time watching them perch up in large trees or foraging around in a short-grass field. With this species “in the bag” we completed the suite of 20 birds endemic or nearly endemic to the SW corner of Western Australia; a great feat for a visiting birder! In the same field we located a handsome and very responsive Scarlet Robin that posed nicely for photos. The afternoon was largely reserved for driving back the several hundred kilometers to Perth, passing through a mix of agrarian and forested landscapes and arriving back to our hotel just a bit before five. In all we really enjoyed our time around Perth, a week filled with a great selection of special birds, and 152 species overall.

Despite all the best arrangements and intentions there are sometimes vagaries involved when using airplanes. Unfortunately for us this year the Perth to Alice flight (note the use of the singular here) cancelled due to some mechanical issue just as we arrived at the airport to check in. After some chaotic minutes we secured the next best option which left about 2 hours later for Adelaide, a pretty city tucked into the central southern coast, where we would spend the night before continuing on to Alice the next morning. This route resulted in us picking up a few South Australia birds early the next morning and also put us in Alice at lunchtime, rather than the late afternoon.  We arrived in Adelaide just before dusk and took the shuttles in to our downtown hotel in time for dinner. The following morning we elected to stroll around the large city park across the street from the hotel, which proved productive for several species new for our trip. Striking Eastern Rosellas, clad in bright yellow, red, white and green were certainly to be admired as they strutted along the margins of the playing fields. Hordes of screeching lorikeets, including many smaller Musk Lorikeets were milling about in the flowering trees, and a few tiny Red-rumped Parrots were spotted out on the lawns as well. It wasn’t all about the parrots though, as we enjoyed excellent looks at portly and boldly marked Crested Pigeons, and flight views of passing Little Ravens. At first the Noisy Miners were novel, but soon we learned just how common these pugnacious honeyeaters can be. In all, the walk produced about 22 species, 6 of which were write-ins for the tour and several of which we did not see again through this tour or the accompanying eastern tour; perhaps a small consolation for missing out on a third of our scheduled time in the Red Center.  

After breakfast we headed back to the airport and were soon on our way to Alice Springs, where we ate lunch at the airport and then headed over to the east side of town to visit the small but lovely Olive Pink Botanical Gardens where we found an active bower of a male Western Bowerbird. A huge bifurcated grassy structure, with a few collected white bits and bobs decorating the entrance. We suspected that the bower was built by a younger male who was still honing his architectural skills. It took a few minutes of searching, as the male flew out as we were approaching but soon enough we spotted him in a nearby tree. Field guides do this species a disservice. Far from being beige and uniform they possess a stunning mosaic pattern of black and gold, with an electric purple-pink nuchal crest. A tad later we found another bower that was hosting an interested female and a curious younger male bird as well as the primary male. The male was jumping around and flaring his wings and tail while bobbing his head and holding what, to him at least, was a particularly attractive curled bit of bark. The female played coy, watching him perform and occasionally checking out the bower, while the younger male bopped about in the tree above the bower site taking in the show. Seeing all of this unfold in front of us at very close range was just magical, and the males bright pink nuchal crest is a truly incredible sight. Also around the gardens we found several confiding Port Lincoln Ringnecks, a couple of Little Crows, and a family group of Gray-crowned Babblers in the carpark. Watching the Babblers seemingly playing as they rolled around in the dust was pretty entertaining, but we eventually pulled ourselves away to check in to our hotel and prepare for a late afternoon outing out to Kunoth Bore and the Hamilton Downs Rd to the Northwest of Alice Springs and north of the MacDonnell Ranges. On the way out we stopped to admire a large male Central Bearded Dragon that we ushered off the road. These heavy bodied lizards possess a bright orangey head, black throat ruff, and rows of short spines along their bodies. We left him on the verge of the road and continued on to the Kunoth Bore, where we first checked to see whether there was any surface water at the main dam at Kunoth. Although we found no water, we did enjoy views of a pair of nesting Brown Falcons in a nearby grove of trees and nice flock of Zebra Finches that were coming in to drink at a new small cement lined pool. The area was full of Mulga Parrots and Crested Pigeons, two highly showy species. Male Mulga Parrots are stunning creatures, clad in a dress of electric green with patches of blue, yellow and red, and are typically one of the favourite parrots of the tour, and the Crested Pigeons, while widespread and common across the country would easily win a beauty pageant against any North American or European competition. Here too we spotted our first dapper Hooded Robins, and a roving party of female plumaged White-winged Fairy-Wrens that had a couple of Southern Whiteface and Inland Thornbills following them through the sage brush. A drive south through the very dry Mulga forests that line Hamilton Downs Rd. was quite quiet. It would seem that this corner of the country did not receive much rain over the winter, as the forests were drier than they have been for several years giving a general impression of an abandoned Christmas tree farm. Further down the road we watched a perched Red-backed Kingfisher in a roadside tree for a while, the first of many sighting of this sometimes enigmatic arid land kingfisher. At a denser grove of trees we found an approachable group of Rainbow Bee-eaters, as well as some gorgeous Mistletoebirds and some flighty Weebill.

As the sun began to set and the heat began to drop we drove out to another water hole closer to the northern ridges of the MacDonnells. We walked out across the very dry grassy plains disturbing flocks of Galahs and Crested Pigeons.  The Galahs happily alighted on some large trees nearby, and with the setting sun beaming down on their bright pink plumage made for quite a spectacle. While scanning the short grassland plain as we made our way to the waterhole we picked out a pair of handsome Banded Lapwing that allowed us to approach quite closely. These nomadic plovers can be difficult to find across their vast range, and the sighting was to be our only one of the tour. An even more surprising find was a single Australian Bustard (a truly scarce bird this far south in the Northern Territory) that was standing motionless in the taller grass. We settled down for a dusk vigil of the water, hoping that we might chance upon some Bourke’s Parrots coming down to drink during the last vestiges of dusk. These largely crepuscular (even nocturnal) parrots are unobtrusive during the day, as they roost in dense mulga. Typically the flocks come out as dusk falls and take advantage of the permanent water at the dam before heading out to feed during the night. Unfortunately for us, on this night, perhaps due to the recent rains or cooler than normal temperatures no birds opted to come in. We drove back into town for dinner, and a well-deserved rest.

The next day, sadly our only full day at Alice Springs, we decided to maximize our time in the field. In the morning we headed west out of town to Simpson’s Gap, a cleft in the main MacDonnell Ranges. The MacDonnell Ranges are ancient, and in many places the spine of the range is cut by old streambeds. Short but often very dramatic gorges then appear, and many of these hold permanent water holes in the shady region between the gorge cliffs. We began our exploration of the park with a short walk around the visitor center where we located a perched Australian Kite that was almost blindingly white in the early morning sun. A flowering cork tree was attracting an array of honeyeaters including Brown, Singing, and Spiny-cheeked. In an adjacent tree we spotted a single male Budgerigar perched quietly and were able to enjoy it at length in the scope. One of the iconic species of inland Australia and a familiar bird across the world in pet stores it’s sometimes a bit odd to see that not all the Budgies in the world are surrounded by a cage with a small mirror and millet bell. A responsive Rufous Songlark put in an appearance here too, and as we walked back towards the vans we stopped to admire a sprightly flock of Variegated Fairy-Wrens that were bouncing around in some low shrubs. Arriving at the car park at the end of the road we walked down to the waterhole in the early morning sun, with the reddish cliff face towering above us, and white-trunked gum trees lining the sandy riverbed. Up above the cliffs we found many circling Little Woodswallows (which roost in crevices in the rocks) although it did take longer than usual to first locate them. Once at the water pool we were thrilled to spot a couple of Black-flanked Rock Wallabies that were tucked into the rocky scree slope above the pool. On the drive back to the main highway we stopped to watch a Black-breasted Buzzard flying over the road. These odd but regal raptors are sometimes called Black-breasted Kites, but are really neither a kite nor a buzzard. They are widespread across Australia but are nowhere common, and are always a treat to see. After leaving Simpson’s Gap we spent the morning traveling west of town through the MacDonnell Ranges National Park. The land feels (and is) truly ancient, with some of the oldest extant geological formations on the globe, and a timeless feeling to the air and even to the vegetation. For the morning we explored the main highway through the range.

Perhaps the best stop of the morning was at Serpentine Gorge. Along the trail in to the gorge we stopped often, as each bend in the trail seemed to bring new birds. As we passed through a dry creekbed we found several more Rainbow Bee-eaters, showing well as they sallied out to catch flies (I suspect that several of the participants were thinking that a personal guard of Bee-eaters would work well for the bushflies, which were already active this year). A few dazzling Red and Blue male Mistletoebirds also drifted by for our perusal. Once we reached the very cold pond at the mouth of the canyon we were simply surrounded by birds. Flocks of Zebra Finches were seemingly everywhere, with White-plumed Honeyeaters calling all around us. With some patience we stood back and watched as birds began coming down to the waterhole to drink or bathe. By just sitting in the shade near the pool we spotted our first diminutive Diamond Doves, a family party of Dusky Grasswrens, Rufous Whistler and Gray Shrike-Thrush and even a brief look at a perched Black Honeyeater (a scarce nomadic honeyeater that feeds largely in flowering Eremophila bushes). The Grasswrens were especially well appreciated, as they are handsome in their dusky streaked plumage. Grasswrens may not be as brightly coloured as some of the more obvious members of Australia’s avifauna but their hyper alert and very interactive manner makes them very charismatic. Many an Australian birder holds their Grasswren tally in high esteem, as most species live in very remote and often difficult to access areas. As we walked out we picked up a pair of Gray-headed Honeyeaters, an elegant species largely confined to the heart of the red center in Australia and were thrilled by a fly-by from a single Pink (Major Mitchell’s) Cockatoo which flew over the trail in front of us, flashing its bright pink underwings.

After the gorge we decided to head a bit further out the highway for lunch at an outback pub overlooking a deep waterhole lined with reeds. Along with delicious burgers (even camel was on offer) we spotted a White-necked and a White-faced Heron stalking in the reedbeds, a Black-fronted Dotterel with two tiny fuzzy chicks scooting along the water’s edge and a foraging Whiskered Tern that was patrolling the waterway. In the afternoon we stopped in at the postcard-perfect Ormiston Gorge, with huge Ghost Gums towering over the sandy wash that contained a deep and large water hole full of small fish, and eager bathers from around the world. The red cliffs soar over a thousand feet above the canyon floor here, and the entire scene evokes the heart of the MacDonnell Ranges. In the carpark, surrounded by people and walking around under the picnic table we were treated to a couple of Spinifex Pigeons. For a usually shy bird of relatively inaccessible habitats these birds behaved fantastically. Spinifex Pigeons could easily have been designed by a committee of 6 year-olds with a large box of randomly selected crayons in hand. Tall spindly blonde crests, a bronzy-buff body bisected by curved black and white bands, and bright red bare skin around their yellow eyes combine to form a quite unlikely looking beast, and watching a life bird literally walking between your legs is not a bad deal. Once at the waterhole we found it to be crammed with people, but a nesting and vocal pair of Whistling Kite made the short walk in worthwhile.

With a bit of time in the late afternoon we decided to make the most of our single full day by driving out to the east of Alice Springs to visit the more heavily vegetated woodland of Trephina Gorge. With a denser woodland and many more large trees this sheltered gorge sometimes harbours species that are absent or more scarce in the west MacDonnells. Arriving soon after the heat of the day began to dissipate we started by stopping at a dry river crossing lined with large Red Gums. Here we coaxed four Red-browed Pardalotes into view, and were able to see their namesake character as they bent down to peer at us from their treetop perches. As this species was actually our primary target for the afternoon we were already quite happy when we pulled into the carpark at the end of the road. Happily for us though, the site offered a few more surprises. We started to walk down to the main dry river bed in search for a water hole and were soon stopped as one, then two, then five, then eight Spinifex Pigeons ran out onto the trail in front of us. One particularly hyped up male was even bowing and fanning his tail and wings out in a display. Eventually an amazing 16 birds were running around nearly at our feet, in a much more natural setting than our cafeteria birds at Ormiston Gorge. Once out at the water hole we settled in to see birds might drop in for a late afternoon drink. Apart from Bee-eaters hawking wasps over the water, and a single Common Bronzewing that waddled in across the sandy riverbed it was fairly quiet. Just as we were preparing to leave though a raptor swept overhead and perched on the rocky red cliffs above the pool. A quick check in the scope revealed it to be not one of the expected Whistling or Black Kites but an adult Little Eagle! Elated, we walked back to the car passing some ancient Aboriginal rock art and headed back to our hotel for dinner.

The next morning we left early, accompanied by a local birding guide named Mark Carter and bound for the Santa Teresa Rd that winds southeast of the airport. An impromptu stop on the road revealed a pair of foraging White-backed Swallows that were feeding just over the road. We were able to watch them for several minutes, noting their white throats and backs, deeply forked tails and jet-black bodies. Unlike the more widespread Tree and Fairy Martins, White-backed Swallows are largely confined to the open and arid interior of the country, nesting in holes in sandy banks, and are generally solitary. While we were admiring the swallows we heard the unmistakable song of a Chiming Wedgebill emanating from a nearby grove of trees. Normally found about 200KM South of Alice Springs out in the Simpson Desert, a few Wedgebills have been detected along Santa Theresa Road in the past few years, but in 2017 sightings had been extremely scarce. After a brief and unsuccessful search we made a judgment call to return to the spot later in the morning as we wanted to get out to the habitat where our main quarry for the morning was hopefully waiting for us. About 30 KM down the track we stopped at a low rocky spinifex covered ridge. Spinifex around Alice has been hard-hit by the combination of more frequent and more severe fires and the creeping invasion of introduced bufflegrass. As a result patches of mature spinifex, which provide an interlinked virtually closed canopy brush have become rare. We spent about an hour walking among the spikey clumps of grass, quietly stalking two of the special birds that call these old growth spinifex groves their home. While walking we were distracted by a family group of White-winged Fairy-Wrens that came in to our calls and perched up for our enjoyment. The males are iridescently luminous in cobalt blue, with bleached white wings, truly one of the most spectacular looking birds in the country. Small flocks of Budgies passed overhead through the morning, with the occasional smaller flock of Cockatiels also moving across the valley. The normal side of the road where the Emu-Wrens prefer proved quite quiet for us, but on the opposite side of the road part of the group quickly located a pair of cooperative Dusky Grasswrens that showed off quite clearly. The rest of us started walking over to look but just as we arrived the shout from the waiting group of “Emu-Wrens over here” diverted our attentions. These tiny denizens of mature stands of Spinifex can be maddeningly hard to spot as they clamber around inside the clumps of grass and then shoot across a gap only to dive back into cover. Often though with patience and in the early morning they will creep up onto the top of the clumps. It took a bit of repositioning but eventually we were able to spot a male, sporting his characteristically orangey crown and pale blue throat perched up in the morning sun. Sadly this year we did not detect any Spinifexbirds in the area, and Mark mentioned that they seemed scarce this year, still, two out of three of the Spinifex trio is a pretty good showing!  We drove back towards Alice Springs, stopping to watch a flock of high-flying Masked Woodswallows, and a pair of White-browed Treecreepers along the way.

Before we left the Red Center behind though we had to make a visit to the famous Alice Springs Sewage Ponds. As the most significant surface water around for hundreds of miles these sewage ponds tend to attract a lot of waterfowl and waders, and we spent the rest of the morning walking the berms around the cells. As the ponds are close to the dump the skies are liberally dotted with Black and Whistling Kites, and while we were enjoying the close comparison views we noted a Black Falcon zipping through the kettle of kites. Black Falcons are a much scarcer bird than the more common Brown Falcon and there is but a single known pair in the immediate region. Hundreds of Hoary-headed and a few Australian Little Grebes were floating around in the lakes, joined by countless numbers of Gray Teal and Maned Ducks, and good numbers of Pink-eared Duck, Hardhead and Pacific Black Ducks. Waders were well represented with Sharp-tailed Sandpipers being the most common. A few Wood, and Common Sandpipers were about too. On the resident wader front we were happy to find a huge flock of Red-necked Avocets lounging on one of the elevated berms, and spent some time watching Black-fronted, Red-capped and Red-kneed Dotterels as they picked along the edges of the ponds, several with small chicks in tow. In fact, we even witnessed a passing Kite pick off a Masked Lapwing chick that was unwisely walking about in the open! We were quite pleased to see several Australian Pratincole amongst the wader flock as well. These primitive and long-legged Pratincoles are delicately beautiful, with long red legs and a chestnut belly-band. In some marshier sections of the facility we found a quietly feeding Australian Spotted Crake and a couple of semi-cooperative Australian Reed Warblers. The Saltbushes at the back of the facility held several family groups of White-winged Fairywrens, including several intensely colored males who showed off well, earning the moniker of “the Freddy Mercury of Fairywrens.” and are not predictable in the Red Center than Crimson Chats, and looking for all the world like a tiny bright African weaver these nomadic honeyeaters are a real treat to find. Perhaps our chief prize though was the many Orange Chats that we found near the back of the facility. Orange Chats are quite nomadic, and although they are often found at the site they can be gone for months at a time.  After about an hour and a half in the searing heat and sun (the daytime highs during our visit this year were roughly 5 degrees Celsius above average) we decided to head back into town for lunch and then out to the airport to catch our afternoon flight to Darwin. Some unknown issue with the flight paperwork resulted in us leaving Alice later than initially planned, so that when we arrived into the tropical lowland town of Darwin we headed straight for dinner and our hotel.

We started our first day around Darwin by heading a bit north of the city to the coast. Along Buffalo Creek Rd. a thin strip of monsoon forest abuts a wide sandy beach and connects to thick mangroves along Buffalo Creek. We parked about 300 meters from the end of the road and then slowly walked to the end (taking about 2 hours to cover the territory). As we drove in to the car park we startled an Emerald Dove that uncharacteristically fluttered up and then remained out in the open. This exquisitely coloured dove is often hard to see well, and when out in the full sun (as our bird was) the emerald green back and wings are truly a sight to behold. On our walk down to the boat ramp our first real taste of woodland birding kept us quite busy. Green-backed and Large-billed Gerygones joined Rufous-banded and Brown Honeyeaters in flowering trees. A surprising number of bright Red-headed Myzomelas were bouncing around as well, the males showing off their dazzlingly bright red heads. In some South Pacific cultures these tiny red feathers were actually used as a form of currency; they are certainly bright enough to evoke envy! Gray Whistlers peered down at us in their characteristic lazy way, and slightly supercilious Spangled Drongos perched up in the canopy. Many Figbirds, Red-collared Lorikeets, and a few Green Orioles foraged in fruiting trees, with Varied Trillers mixed in for good measure. Near the end of our stroll we were successful in calling in a Little Bronze Cuckoo, and at one particularly excellent tree enjoyed excellent views of Little Shrike-Thrush, Arafura Fantail, Yellow White-eye and a noisy group of Helmeted Friarbirds.

Once back at our buses we decided to walk out onto the sandy beach to look over a large group of roosting waders that were gathering along the shoreline. With some scanning we picked out lots of Bar-tailed Godwits and Great Knots, Black-bellied Plovers and Red-necked Stint. Terns were also roosting along the shore and we spent a bit of time looking at Gull-billed, Little, Caspian, Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns and discussing the pertinent identification criteria. As the tide was quite high there was sadly no exposed mud for Chestnut Rails to walk around on, but by scanning the mangroves that line the creek we did pick out a perched Torresian Kingfisher that seemed to be patiently waiting for the receding tides to expose a new crop of hapless mudskippers and mangrove crabs for his breakfast. The shoreline held one other major surprise for us before we departed. Just offshore a large dolphin was feeding in the shallow waters over the submerged sandbar. We watched it surface repeatedly, showing the characteristically long and curved profile of a Humpback Dolphin; a species that regularly occurs in Darwin waters but that is not often seen so close to shore.

Our next stop was a bit inland and east of town, at Howard Springs. This is a small park that contains an excellent, tract of monsoonal forest, with large fig trees, vine tangles and brush along a shallow creek. In the carpark we were distracted by a mass of Figbirds and a calling Rose-crowned Fruit-doves that were quickly denuding a large tree of its bumper fig crop. Also here was a pair of Silver-backed Butcherbirds, a species that we do not usually come across here. Generally a scarce bird across the top end this species, with its silver-white coloured back is a recent split from the widespread Grey Butcherbird. We walked around the paved loop trail of the reserve where we encountered our first Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, many elegant Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, several pairs of Orange-footed Scrubfowl and a couple of Dusky Myzomelas. Groups of Red-collared Lorikeets chattered up in the trees as well, showing off their bright orange and purple plumage to excellent effect. Our main quarry for the walk performed perfectly for us when a Rainbow Pitta perched up in the sun a few feet into the forest and posed wonderfully for scope views. These pittas are generally easier to see than many of the Asian ones, but are no less spectacular. Basically jet black, with an emerald green back, blue wing patch, red vent and a semicircular chestnut crown stripe they are a treat for the senses, and always a hit with birders! As we left the park we stopped for some non-bird related wildlife in the form of a large Merten’s Water Monitor that was lounging along the bank. This proved an excellent distraction as by walking over to the lizard we also noted a quietly perched Azure Kingfisher tucked in along the pond shoreline. The pond held a nice selection of fish and some tame looking Long-necked Turtles as well, and the trees across the carpark were hosting a small camp of the impressively large Black Flying-Foxes. As the heat was quickly rising we elected to find some air conditioning for lunch, taking our meal in the food court of a local shopping center, where mango smoothies proved delicious. After lunch we briefly visited Marlow Lagoon in Palmerston, where we picked up our first Paperbark Flycatchers and Chestnut-breasted Munias around the well-vegetated pond. The drier Eucalypt forest around the park held some hulking Blue-winged Kookaburra that stared back at us with a vaguely menacing air. A retreat to our hotel to wait out the heat of the afternoon with a swim in the pool or siesta was well appreciated by everyone.

In the late afternoon we spent a relaxing couple of hours slowly birding around the wetlands of Knuckey’s Lagoon. These three small wetlands hold water right through the dry season, and as the season progresses they get more and more full of waterbirds. At the first pond we scanned from a distance and found a few handsome Eastern Cattle Egrets in their full finery, and a host of waterfowl including some pairs of tiny Green Pygmy-Geese and Radjah Shelduck and our first Wandering and Plumed Whistling-Ducks. Comb-crested Jacanas picked their way across the lily pads and all around the lake were roosting mobs of ungainly looking Magpie Geese.  On the short grassy verge around the drying waterhole we found good numbers of Australian Pratincoles running around chasing grasshoppers. We moved on to the second (and largest) pond, where we lingered for some time picking through the throngs of Magpie Geese, finding a few Royal Spoonbills, our first Pied Herons, a pair of Black-necked Storks and a selection of migrant waders including several Sharp-tailed, Common and Wood Sandpipers.  With a few last scope views of the masses of waterbirds and a look at a very vocal Little Friarbird that kept perching just above us, we went back to the hotel for dinner with our heads full of birds, welcome to the tropics indeed!

For our second full day around Darwin we joined a local birding friend of mine for a trip a little further out of town. We started by exploring the boat ramp at Middle Arm, an estuarine mangrove-lined channel about 30 KM south of Darwin. Here we found some sticky mud, but also located a cooperative pair of Black Butcherbirds and our first Mangrove Gerygones. A couple of small flocks of Varied Lorikeets buzzed overhead as we walked around. While their shorter tails, more green body plumage and higher pitched scratchy calls made them readily identifiable they refused (as usual) to so anything other than zip by overhead. For the rest of the morning we birded along the Marrakai Track, a well maintained dirt road that takes off to the south of the Arnhem Highway passing over some rolling hills covered in dry Eucalypt forest and then eventually dropping down into the floodplain of the Adelaide River and the Stuart Highway. These drier forests typically host a wide array of birdlife, especially so if the Eucalypts are in flower. Along the small creek that parallels the road near its southern terminus we walked in the pleasant shade and located a perched Pacific Koel that was calling from the canopy, several Blue-winged Kookaburras and Forest Kingfishers and a Pacific Baza that stubbornly refused to show us its head, remaining partially hidden by a shelf of leaves. Here too were Arafura and Northern Fantails, and a very vocal dueting pair of Little Shrike-Thrushes that sat up for us nicely as they threw their heads back in song. A little further down the road we crossed over a large flat expanse that acts as a lakebed during the wet season. Several Spotted Harriers were plying the dry grassy fields, one coming close enough to the lead bus that we could see the reddish facial disk and many small spots across its back and belly. One of the plains had a water-filled Billabong in it only a few hundred meters from the road. We stopped and walked out to the pond, startling a pair of White-belied Sea Eagles from their tree top roost as we did so. The pond held a nice assortment of ducks and our first Glossy Ibis, but it was the weedy patches near the pond that we really found active with birds. A small ravine lined with thick grasses and tall Pandanus palms kept us busy for well over an hour. Several Masked Finches were spotted perched up in a tree, mixed in with a large flock of Peaceful Doves. Crimson Finches too were in evidence, busily feeding on the remains of the seeding grasses. From patches of denser weeds we pulled out several dapper little Golden-headed Cisticolas and, briefly, a single Tawny Grassbird. As if that were not enough here too we located a small group of Red-backed Fairy-wrens that included one fully coloured up male, jet black with a scarlet back. At one point he fluffed out his back feathers, turning quickly into a small red ball as he displayed to a passing female.

A little further north on the road we stopped to walk through an area with more rocky soils and some dense stands of grass. Within a few minutes of beginning our walk we flushed a buttonquail that rapidly dropped back into the vegetation. We cornered it again and were able to see the rufous wash in the underparts and evenly dark upperwing that cinched the identification as a Red-chested Buttonquail, a write-in for our triplist, and a life bird for one of our leaders to boot! Soon after our success with the Buttonquail we stopped to admire a pair of Black-tailed Treecreepers that were cavorting around in the roadside trees, looking like dolled up large nuthatches. Nearing the northern terminus of the road we stopped a few more times to admire perched Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, and Antelopine and Agile Wallabies.

 Huge termite mounds, some towering over 15 feet tall dotted the grassy understory, and we took a bit of time out to look at their amazing structure before heading to a roadhouse nearby for lunch. The meal turned out to be a colourful affair, as the café was filled with Territory Kitsch; Crocodile skulls and pelts, photos of fishermen and party goers, the latest gambling news and racks of tourism brochures and caravanning gear. After finishing our meals we headed further east to check on another sheltered billabong. This proved quite a good decision as the large amount of water surrounded by dense trees was attracting a lot of birds. We stood on a high bank overlooking the water, and were able to see several Archerfish patrolling the submerged logs below us. This made us wonder a bit what else might be lurking underneath us, eating the archerfish… Birds were calling from the surrounding bush, and with a bit of patience our first White-throated Honeyeaters and Fan-tailed Cuckoos showed very well, though a fly-over Banded Honeyeater was admittedly less cooperative. We then backtracked a bit towards Darwin to investigate the mangroves lining the Adelaide River. This river has perhaps the highest density of “Salties” in the world, and with an estimated crocodile every 150m of riverbank it is widely rumoured that it would be impossible to swim across successfully! Although a bit of hot work, compounded by the somewhat cantankerous owner of a crocodile based boat tour these mangroves eventually revealed our only Mangrove Golden Whistler of the trip, and truly excellent views of a pair of Arafura Fantail. Our last stop for the day was at Fogg Dam for a quick late afternoon visit. This large dam sits in the middle of quite a big lake in the wet season, but during our visit the grasslands to the right were bone dry, and only a small amount of open water was extant on the left side. Just before the dam we stopped at a well-shaded parking lot where we spent a bit of time watching several Broad-billed Flycatchers and a nesting pair of Lemon-bellied Robins that were working the edge of the car park. While doing so we heard a calling Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove that we were actually able to track down and put in the scope. Yet another incredibly colourful species, with a green, white, yellow, orange and magenta plumage all slathered around a small and portly frame. Out on the dam we found many waterbirds in evidence, with close views of Pied, Rufous Night- and White-necked herons and waterfowl such as Green Pygmy-Goose and Radjah Shelduck. Swallows were hawking insects off the water and out in the drier grasslands we spotted a few languid Water Buffalos and dozens of Brolga. While enjoying the views of these huge cranes we were happy to spot a flying Australian Hobby, and happier still that it flew in and perched for us to fully admire him. All too soon we headed back to Darwin for the night.

As our flight to Kunnunura was scheduled for the very late morning we took advantage by fitting in some more birding inside Darwin’s city limits. We started the morning by walking out to the East Point Mangrove Boardwalk, just north of town. The flowering paperbark and eucalypt trees were acting as a real draw to the local avifauna. Lemon-bellied Flycatchers, Rufous-banded, White-gaped and Brown Honeyeaters and Little Friarbirds were all bouncing along at eye-level in the trees while Orange-footed Scrub-Fowl scratched hopefully on the ground around them. Once out on the steel boardwalk that winds out towards the shoreline through the dense mangroves it took us little time to track down a Mangrove Robin. These well-marked grey, black and white robins are common in tropical mangroves but can be hard to access as the habitat is virtually impenetrable. Once happy with our views (for all but one unlucky participant) we headed to the end of the point where our main goal was to look through the roosting waders collected rocky shelf that forms the actual point. We arrived to a low tide, but some diligent searching of the rocky shelves revealed a single Sooty Oystercatcher, many Pacific Golden, Lesser and Greater Sand, Red-capped and Black-bellied Plovers, a few Terek and Common Sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattlers and Red-necked Stints. Terns were also loafing on the rocks, and we were able to pick out Gull-billed, Little, Common, Lesser Crested and Whiskered.

After East Point we still had some time before our flight and acting on some local birder knowledge headed to the Botanical Gardens where we were soon watching a roosting pair of Rufous Owls. One bird was actually sitting right over the walking track, and barely seemed to notice the group of 12 excited birders standing nearby and training scopes and binoculars on him. As the second largest species of owl in Australia Rufous Owls make quite an impression. Their especially large feet come in handy for catching their preferred prey of fruit bats and possums. While most of the group studied the Rufous Owls our advance scouts located a pair of Barking Owls in another section of the gardens. Hurrying over we were soon staring at the yellow eyes of a Barking Owl as it glared back at us from a low shrub. Quite a bit smaller than the related Rufous Owls and prefer smaller fare such as mice, small lizards and larger insects. Quite elated with our rapid success with two extremely cooperative species of owls we headed back to the hotel to finish packing and then on to the airport for our flight. We landed in Kununurra just in time for lunch at a small café that specializes in fresh mango smoothies. Kununurra is a small town well situated for tourist access into the Kimberley’s and Bungle Bungles and serves as a base for mining concerns and fruit production around the east Kimberleys. As such it has regular air service and a wide range of hotels sprinkled around the scenic Lake Kununurra (far more infrastructure really than a town of it size would normally have). After lunch we checked in to the nearby hotel and then, as the afternoon was extremely warm decided to wait out the heat of the day with a short siesta.

In the late afternoon we struck out for our first foray around town. We started along the shores of Lake Kununurra, a small lake connected to the nearby Ord River, lined with reedbeds and covered with emergent dead trees. The water levels were low this year, which resulted in a lot of exposed shoreline in amongst the reedbeds and thus perfect viewing conditions for crakes. As we walked along the shore we spotted at least three White-browed Crakes clambering through the reeds or along the bank of the lake, often foraging completely in the open and just a few meters away from us. Australian Reed Warblers and Golden-headed Cisticolas were equally confiding. At one point some soft chucks from the denser reedbeds alerted us to the presence of a Baillon’s Crake; a secretive and somewhat scarce winter migrant freshly arrived from its Asian breeding grounds. The bird briefly popped into view for a couple of participants but remained quite buried for most of us. The small Celebrity Tree Park along the shoreline provides picnic access to the lake and protects a particularly large baobab tree. These baobabs are common around the region, looking for all the world like upside down sprouting carrots, with huge swollen trunks and bare spreading branches. We spent a bit of time watching Great Bowerbirds (or great big bowerbirds as the group decided to name them) as they lumbered around the park. Admittedly not as colorful as most of the species of Bowerbird, Great Bowerbirds compensate with their brash and obvious presence and general fearless nature. Some of the paperbark trees around the park were partially in flower and were attracting an array of birds including our first Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters, a single Banded Honeyeater, Mistletoebirds, White-breasted Woodswallows and Red-collared Lorikeets.

We left the lakefront and took a quick walk around the sandstone grottos of Hidden Valley National Park. Here, fine ridges of bright red and orange sandstone dotted with black streaks and divided by small caves stretch out in a series of parallel rows that create narrow canyons, wide enough for scattered trees and a diverse assemblage of grasses to sprout up in the valleys. We walked around a short loop trail, admiring the scenery and a family group of Red-winged Parrots that were busily feeding on some large fruits. Little Friarbirds were common here, and in a thick section of grass we located a covey of Brown Quail. Our main avian prize though was the several White-quilled Rock Pigeons that we found along the roadside leading in to the carpark, and perched on the cliff faces. These dark hazelnut coloured pigeons are oddly proportioned, with a small head, broad, long tail and horizontally oblate body. The birds rarely fly, preferring to scuttle along the ridges and clamber up and down the sheer rocks. When they do fly though their bright white wing patches and distinctive wing whir is quite evident.  Our last birding stop of the day was along one of the irrigation channels north of town, where we found a few bright red Crimson Finches feeding in the grasses that lined the channel.

For our one full day around Kununurra we decided to make the most of it with an early start to the morning, especially given the abnormally high temperature and humidity in the forecast. As Kununurra sits in the far east of the time zone the say breaks before 5am (although we started at 5:45)! The first few hours of daylight here are the coolest, and generally the most active for birdlife. The area around Kununurra is possibly the best spot for finch diversity in the country, with up to 10 species possible in a day. As such, finch finding was a high priority for us this year. We started the drive up the Great Northern Highway towards Wyndham, making our first stop just a few kilometers out of town in a dense weedy patch abutting an irrigation channel. Here we located a busy flock of Chestnut-breasted Munias, with a few Double-barred and Crimson Finches thrown in for good measure. Though they stayed fairly well hidden in the dense grasses one or two would always be in view at any given time. Having three lovely finches at our first stop gave us hope that it would be a great day for finching. A few other impromptu stops along the roadside yielded excellently close up views of an Australian Bustard, a covey of Brown Quail, and a flock of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos before we arrived at the locally famous small park known only as the Grotto. Here a sizeable fissure created by the erosional action of Grotto Creek has cut a fissure into the landscape. About 150 feet deep, and with a permanent pool of water at its head, this comparatively lush oasis can often be stuffed with birds. Along the top of the sandstone escarpment that surrounds the Grotto we found an amazingly high number of Spinifex Pigeon running along the rocky shelf edge or flying off into the spinifex-clad rocky slopes. Although the trees downslope appeared as healthy as ever they appeared not to be in flower this year, and by standing on the upper ledge of the trail and looking down at the waterhole we decided to not make the rather steep descent into the grotto bottom. By walking along the upper rim of the canyon though we were able to spot a couple of distant Short-eared Rock-Wallabies that were tucked in at the base of the cliffs. A cooperative Sandstone Shrike-thrush also put in an appearance, sitting up on prominent rocks and occasionally singing in response to our recordings. Slim bodied, with a long thin bill and darker upperparts (to match the tones of the surrounding rock better) these large Shrike-thrushes are confined to isolated areas of sandstone escarpments around the Top end and Kimberly.

Leaving the grotto behind we continued north, and at the end of the highway we pulled in to the small and somewhat desolate town of Wyndham. This little hamlet had in the past served as a major player in the western Australian Cattle markets, being the end point of the drover runs to the coast, and hosting a large meat packing plant. In more recent times mining export concerns became the important economic driver, but with the downturn in mineral prices and loss of much demand in the Asian market not much was going on in the small port at the end of the road. We made a pit stop at the public toilets in town, and managed to enjoy an excellent half-hours worth of birding at the same time. Around the towns sports oval we located two good-sized flocks of Masked Finches, along with numbers of Diamond and Peaceful Doves, hordes of raucous Little Corellas and a resting flock of Fairy Martins on a roadside wire. Our main birding location around town though was the well-vegetated caravan park. Several of the long staying residents here regularly provide seed and water for birds, and as a result the park is one of the most reliable sites in the region for finches in the dry season. The park is also home to a very large boab tree that they claim as “the largest boab in captivity”. We spent a hot but productive hour walking through the site and then along a dry grass-lined creekbed behind the caravans. Double-barred and Masked Finches were fairly common, with little flocks descending from the scattered trees to forage in the shaded patches of ground. With a bit of scrutiny we picked out several Long-tailed Finches in the flocks. These handsome finches are a bit smaller than the Masked Finch, with a full black bib, grey head and elongated black central tail feathers. Also feeding in these small trees were a pair of Varied Sittellas, here of the white-winged subspecies, several Rufous-throated Honeyeaters and our only Jacky-Winter of the tour. The bird baths in the park were hosting a steady parade of species coming in to drink or bathe in the heat. Little Friarbirds were likely the most common, but a few Silver-crowned Friarbirds and Red-winged Parrots came through as well. We spread out as we walked back to the car and soon Tim called over that he had found a really active campsite where dozens of birds were coming in to drink. We hurried over and soon were enjoying our views of a flock of Gouldian Finches. Their dramatic colour scheme, a combination of purple, yellow, green and black makes even a Painted Bunting seem a bit subdued by comparison. Gouldians are perhaps the most prized of the array of Australian finches, and their population has suffered greatly from habitat alteration (especially the sharp increase in fires) and from trapping for the pet bird trade. Conservation efforts have included captive breeding and release, and the source birds for that effort have largely been taken from the Western Australia population, which is the most stable. Although the flock consisted of some 30 birds only one fully coloured male, with a sharp looking black head was present. The bird bath was well appointed with bare branches laid over it and on these branches we studied the full array of local honeyeaters; Yellow-tinted, Rufous-throated, Bar-breasted, Brown, White-throated and Banded!

Elated with our success, we celebrated with some cold drinks from the tiny but well-appointed grocery store (clerked by a german tourist) and then continued to the end of the road. A short trip out to the mangroves lining the riverbank seemed unpromisingly hot and windy at first, but we were able to find an eventually cooperative Mangrove Grey Fantail and a small group of Yellow White-eye bouncing around at knee height above the sticky mud and where we found a shaded picnic area to take our lunch. On the drive back south towards Kununurra we stopped in at the Ramsar listed Marglu Billabong, a few kilometers out into a vast grassy plane that in a few months’ time will become a vast wetland. As we neared the water the grasses became a bit denser, and Australian Pipits popped up along the road. Small flocks of Zebra and Double-barred Finches zipped between bushes and Black and Whistling Kite numbers began to climb. The several hundred meter long billabong still held a good amount of water, and was full of birdlife. A well-positioned bird hide in the center of the lake provided good access to the birds, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so here taking in the scene. Flocks of Plumed Whistling-Ducks dominated the lagoon, but Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, Radjah Shelduck, Magpie Goose and a few Pink-eared Ducks were about as well. Right below the blind we found a flock of comical Black-tailed Native-Hens scurrying along the shoreline, and every few meters a White-necked, Pied or White-faced Heron, or Great, Intermediate or Little Egret was standing in the shallow water. Waders included Common Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Pied Stilt and Red-capped, Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels were admired in turn. Down at the far end of the lake we could see a stately pair of Brolga keeping a watchful eye on us, as about a dozen Australian Pelicans enjoyed the shallow waters and plentiful fish.

Small flocks of Zebra and our first Star Finches (finch number 8 for the day) were flying in to take a drink in the late morning heat, and a very conspicuous pair of Paperbark Flycatchers was bouncing around the bird hide. Most of the birds were quite close, allowing for a nice photographic session. Just before we left the lagoon a Brown Goshawk came in for a drink, scattering the honeyeaters and finches as she came down to the water’s edge. A quick stop in near the Parry’s Lagoon Caravan Park revealed a very cooperative flock of Grey-crowned Babblers that followed us around, and an amazing number of Agile Wallabies. As it was now late afternoon and the nearly 42 degree temperature was beginning to weigh more heavily upon us we decided to call it a great day and make the drive back to Kununurra, passing through classic outback scenery along the way.

On our final full day of the tour we arose early and made the one-hour drive to the southeast of town to meet our boatman for the Lake Argyle Cruise. For long stretches of the drive we saw the effects of recent fires (and even active ones) likely set either purposefully or carelessly by local residents. Mostly these were low intensity ground fires, and we stopped in one area that was just stuffed with Masked and Long-tailed Finches feeding on the recently burned soil. The road into the lake is windy and passes between many dramatic but low ridges before ending at a steep boat ramp. It isn’t until the very end of the drive that the lake becomes visible, which is perhaps surprising given that this truly vast lake could perhaps be better termed an inland sea. It’s roughly 75KM long and 40KM wide, and was created by a single dam across the Ord River in 1971. The isolated mountaintops protruding from the flooded valleys are now sandstone islands, creating a unique vista for boating. We took off with the rising sun at our backs, casting beautiful light on the sandstone walls all around us. The scenic beauty only improved once we were out onto the calm open water, surrounded by distant rolling hills. We stopped in a shallow bay with many dead emergent trees along the sandy bank. Here we ate breakfast surrounded by Magpie Geese, Rajah Shelducks and Wandering Whistling- Ducks. In some dense short grass near where we were pulled up we picked out two Baillon’s Crakes running about along with a White-browed Crake. After our lengthy attempt at seeing the one in town these views felt like victory. A pair of perched White-bellied Sea Eagles looked on while we enjoyed our coffee and breakfast onboard. We motored on to the south after breakfast, passing dozens of clusters of waterfowl, and lots of Australian Darters and Little Black, Pied and Little Pied Cormorants before stopping in the mid-morning at a low island, with shallow beaches and mudflats, that was covered by grasses and scattered small shrubs. A population of Yellow Chat have made this island home for well over a decade, consistently breeding on the island and persisting on it year round. Yellow Chats have an odd and poorly understood distribution, with small ephemeral populations and only a handful of reliable sites in the country. This year was apparently a great breeding year for the species in Lake Argyle. We stepped off the boat and waded the short distance to the shoreline. As we walked around the margins of the island we detected at least 15 of them. The males were in fine feather, bright yellow with a tinge of orange, and with a sharp black breast mark. Our visit went as well as one could really dream of, with a host of supporting species in addition to the lovely and repeated views of the chats.

The fringing shoreline of the island was full of waterfowl and waders, with dozens of Australian Pratincole and our first Marsh and Curlew Sandpipers being particularly remarkable. Better still, we found Oriental Plovers to be somewhat plentiful in the more upland stretches of the island and located a single Little Curlew as well. Both the plover and curlew are mainly wet-season migrants to the area and are unpredictably present during our typical visiting time. Several pairs of Brolga and about a half dozen Australian Bustard were present as well comfidently striding across the center of the grassy island and along the shore. The weedier thickets had displaying Bushlarks skylarking and then diving back into cover, and our progress around the island was followed closely by the watchful eyes of a Brown Falcon. Perhaps the falcon was also responsible for the disappearance of the recent group of Flock Bronzewings that had been using the island for the previous month. Surprisingly we also found a mammal on the island, and even more surprisingly it was a write-in species for the tour! A single Nailtailed Wallaby was using the shade of a large bush to good effect as it doubtless was waiting for the sun drop to the horizon so that it could forage on the lush grasses along the shore in greater comfort. Unlike the actual “Chat Island” the island that we chose to visit this year does periodically connect to the main lake shoreline when the water levels are really low, so it is conceivable that this wallaby did not have to swim to arrive in his current predicament. We spent a thoroughly enjoyable two hours or so walking around and then headed back to our boat to enjoy a snack of fresh fruit. A brief stop at the smaller sandy island that we typically use revealed three more Little Curlew, a huge flock of roosting Whiskered Terns and several more perky male Yellow Chats. We then headed back towards the dock, stopping to admire a couple of Sandstone Shrike-Thrushes that were bouncing along one of the sandstone island ridges. At another site we found several diminutive Short-eared Rock Wallabies tucked into small caves in the cliffs. We watched as they quickly hopped down to near the water’s edge after our boatman threw a few pellets of food onto the rocks near the boat. Much cuter than their larger Kangaroo cousins these highly specialized animals make their home on Sandstone escarpments, hiding in the small caves during the day to escape the oppressive heat. After leaving the lake we headed back in Kununurra in time to check out of our hotel and have a quick lunch. Our arrival was delayed a bit by a very active fire that was blowing thick smoke over the highway. Through the smoke and right on the leading edge of the flames we watched about a dozen Black and Whistling Kites swooping down on the hapless lizards and other small creatures that were running from the fire. Incredibly it has been documented that Whistling Kite will purposefully pick up burning sticks to drop them into grasses, making them the only other known purposeful user of fire in the animal kingdom. As our flight was scheduled for the late afternoon we were able to fit in a bit of post-lunch birding in the agricultural area north of town.

We drove back north along Ivanhoe Rd, heading for the famous (in Australian circles at least) Ivanhoe crossing of the Ord River. Here a submerged but paved road crosses the Ord below the dam (and thus in the crocodile zone). Fishermen frequent the edges of the road, flirting with the occasional large crocodile. We walked along the vegetated bank of the river, and were soon able to track down two pairs of Buff-sided Robins. Although most visiting birders will likely remember the red robins, or perhaps the yellow ones, it is Buff-sided that I find the most attractive member of the bunch. A local riparian species in the territory and northern Western Australia, the field guides really fail to do its bold patterning and bright contrasting tones justice. We then stopped at one of the small irrigation channels lined with thick seeding grasses. Within minutes of stepping out of the car we located a large mixed species flock of finches foraging in the new growth adjacent to the canal. The flock contained numbers of Star Finch and Chestnut-breasted Munia, with a few Crimson and Double-barred (looking as elegant and Parisian as ever) thrown in for good measure. The top prize in the beauty contest though would have to go to the couple of Yellow-rumped Manakins that were mixed in with the crowed. Decidedly uncommon across their limited range and sporting a delicately silver-gray head, yellowish underparts, brown wings and bright golden rump these finches provided a fittingly bird-rich end to a spectacular tour through Western Australia and the Northern Territories.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 16 November 2017