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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Western Australia and Northern Territory

Brushtails, Baobabs and Bowerbirds

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The weather during the Australian spring of 2019 was unusually warm across most of the country, with continuing severe drought in many inland regions. Around Alice, Darwin and Kununurra it was abnormally hot, with temperatures up to 14 degrees Celsius above average. 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 towering Marri and Karri forests, mallee, coastal heathland and windswept seaside cliffs and beaches. 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 and Western Whipbird (though the scrubbird took a while this year). 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, Little Woodswallows soared over ancient red-rock cliffs, Pink Cockatoos were busily readying their nest cavity and Bourke’s Parrots and Spotted Nightjars visited an outback waterhole at dusk. Due to the very dry conditions we departed a bit from our usual program and drove a bit further south of town, where we were successful in finding Cinnamon Quail-thrush, Inland Dotterel and a few flocks of the tiny but brightly coloured Crimson Chat.

Leaving the arid interior behind we then flew up to the humid and tropical Top End, which was also quite dry this year. Here the bird diversity shot up, 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 even a surprise Yellow Chat) around Knuckey’s Lagoon. Day-roosting Barking Owls at the botanical gardens were an especially nice treat, as was the wonderfully close fly-by of a Black-breasted Buzzard and a flock of pretty Masked Finches on the Marakai Track, and spritely Arafura Fantails, perched Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves and hordes of Rufous-throated and Bar-breasted Honeyeaters at Fogg Dam. For the last leg of the tour we spent a day exploring the Ord River Floodplain near Kununurra, where we found Long-tailed, Star, Crimson and Double-barred Finches in patches of seeding grasses, a beautiful Buff-sided Robin in a dry hedgerow and spent a very bird-rich day out on the grassy plains near Wyndham, where we encountered three write-in species for the tour; a female Purple-crowned Fairywren, and flocks of Pictorella Manakin and Flock Bronzewings.

Also here we spent our last full morning out on the vast Lake Argyle, where our highlights included about a dozen beautiful Yellow Chats, several Australian Bustards, pairs of Sandstone Shrikethrushes and White-quilled Rock Pigeons scurrying about on red sandstone island cliffs and some perched Northern Rosellas. All too soon the tour wrapped up, with a triplist of 313 species, and an impressive 18 mammals including nursing Southern Right Whale from the shoreline and six 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 2021!

IN FULL: We started our tour with a visit to nearby Herdsman Lake, one of the premier waterbird spots around Perth. We spent a very enjoyable and relaxed two and a half hours walking along the lakeshore, 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 fuzzy babies in tow. Waterfowl were particularly well represented, with family groups of Black Swans and Maned Duck, quietly foraging Pacific Black Duck, Grey and Chestnut Teal, Blue-billed Duck and Australian Shoveler and a couple of Freckled Ducks. These were a welcome sight, as the species is quite nomadic, and not particularly numerous. 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 several birds loafed in the shade of some overhanging trees along the path, occasionally showing off their namesake pink feathers. Along with the waterfowl show we located several pairs of Great Crested and Australasian Grebes, and Great, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants. Gigantic Australian Pelicans, groups of foraging Australian and Glossy Ibis, a smattering of herons including a lovely perched Rufous (Nankeen) Night-Heron were around the margins as well, while in the reedbeds the occasional Australian Reed Warbler popped into view. The skies over the lake held a couple of whirling Whistling Kite, a few hunting Swamp Harriers and a single flyover Australian Hobby. Flowering bottlebrush trees along the paths were hosting dozens of gaudy and raucous Rainbow Lorikeets (actually introduced to SW Australia) that glowed in the sun, and a smattering of Honeyeaters including good numbers of quarrelsome Red Wattlebirds and Brown Honeyeaters as well as a few Singing and New Hollands. 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 several Yellow-rumped Thornbill, a few Weebill and small groups of Silvereye. At another nearby section of the lake 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 (and some assistance from a local birder) is always a boon.

Leaving Herdsman Lake behind we stopped in at nearby 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 up close Australian Shelducks, a dapper and colourful duck with a bright patchwork colour pattern, a pair of flyover Straw-necked Ibis, and a surprisingly large number of Hoary-headed Grebes, a somewhat unpredictable nomad in the Perth region. Leaving greater Perth behind we headed out to the Southeast, and after a quick lunch stop in Armadale started to drive inland and uphill into the Darling Ranges where we stopped in at the carpark below Wungong Dam. Here we made a short walk in the woods around the small carpark which allowed us to encounter our first truly southwestern endemics. A few White-breasted Robins were flitting about in the understory being generally uncooperative, but a male Western Whistler (a wonderfully bright study of yellow, white and black), and a perched Western Rosella performed much better. A family group of Splendid Fairy-Wrens put on a nice show as they bounced along one of the parking barriers around the margins of the carpark, and both Australian Magpies and Red Wattlebirds followed us around a bit hoping for a dropped crisp to snack on. A quick roadside stop along the highway as we headed further inland allowed us to use the facilities and to have a look at our first Gilbert’s Honeyeater (a fairly recent split from the widespread White-naped Honeyeater). Some lucky participants even saw a couple of distantly flying Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos while waiting in the queue for the toilets!

Our main birding area for the afternoon was to be the Dryandra Woodland National Conservation Area; a large native patch of drier Eucalypt forest that has long been proposed as a national park. Surrounded by a vast agrarian landscape with paddocks filled with sheep or the odd cow, and fields of flowering rape and seeding wheat this protected area serves as a reminder of the vast forests that were historically prevalent in the region. As we neared the forest birdlife along the roadsides began to pick up. The many dazzlingly green, yellow, black and blue Australian Ringnecks and bright silver and pink Galahs proved common, and soon everyone was calling out “Ringneck” or “Galah” like old pros as they flushed from the road edges. We stopped too for some perched Australian Pipits that were sitting on the roadside fences, and for a lone Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo that was drinking from a small dam just off the road. Arriving in the forest we started to slowly make our way across the reserve, stopping wherever activity seemed to dictate.

At our first main stop revealed several bright orangey/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 midstory. While watching the Duskies we picked out a couple of higher-flying birds and quickly realized that they were actually a group of migrant Masked Woodswallows; a nomadic and exceedingly rare bird in the region. The birds didn’t linger long as they slowly wheeled further off to the south. We turned our attention back to the forest floor and without too much effort soon encountered a family group of Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens lurking in the pea flower shrubs. Although they never seemed to sit still to pose for the assembled cameras the males showed well as they bounced around on the ground in front of us for several minutes. Although visually similar to the Purple-backed Fairy-Wrens that we had seen at Herdsmen earlier in the morning these birds had more extensively darker breasts and paler blue heads. Just before walking back to the road we picked out a handsome Western Yellow Robin flitting around at eye level in the sun. It’s hard to pick out a favorite from the diverse and highly charismatic family of Australasian Robins, but each of the many species that we found during the tour was a crowd pleaser.

At another stop we enjoyed closer views of a nesting pair of Rufous Treecreepers, a largely furtive family group of White-browed Babbler, a couple of distant views of Red-capped Parrots (which we would happily improve on the following morning) and our first Australian mammal of the trip. While trying to track down the Babbler family a sharp-eyed participant noticed some motion on the forest floor. We hurried over and were thrilled to find a medium-sized Short-nosed Echidna snuffling around in the damp ground. We followed the animal’s progress for a bit as it ambled along the ground, stopping occasionally to sniff the air, or have a brief scratch. These truly unique mammals are Monotremes, and along with the Platypus are the only extant species of egg laying mammals. They are a very successful species, occupying all available habitats across the continent, from the arid desert lowlands to alpine heath and dense rainforest. Although quite widespread and often fairly common we generally see only the signs of their presence (diggings and scrapes in the ground, tracks or fecal deposits), so sightings are always a treat. A bit further down the road we found a second, and larger, individual waddling across the road, so perhaps the recent rains, and correspondingly damp soil were providing optimal foraging conditions for these generally secretive animals. As we drove the short distance on to our hotel in the little town of Narrogin we added a second quintessentially Australian mammal to our day list when 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 effecting 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 chasing each other around between the flowering shrubs and a small group of curious Brown-headed Honeyeaters that responded well to our broadcast calls. 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. 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. The piece de resistance for the parrot showing though had to be the trio of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos that we watched at length as they deftly (and with a remarkably restrained grace) tore open hard Marri nuts just a few feet away from us. At first, we watched a female and fairly old chick, lightly dusted with yellowish spots, and with a barred yellow/orange undertail feeding, but soon Peter located an adult male, replete in puffy black feathers and possessing a bright scarlet undertail sitting quietly nearby. As we repositioned to get better light on the male we surprised a female Painted Buttonquail that scuttled away between some bushes, giving brief views for most of the group before rocketing off into the distance. Any day with a Buttonquail sighting is by definition an excellent birding day, but when you see one with foraging Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos directly above it you know you have found an excellent birding location! Just before we turned back towards the hotel we spotted a perched Scarlet Robin, smaller than yesterday’s Western Yellow, and clad in a pleasing colour pallet of black, white and bright red; an excellent cap species to quite a productive early morning stroll!

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 200KM of highway to reach the Stirling Ranges. Our first stops were in the small town of Wagin, which is perhaps most famous as the “Home of the Giant Ram” roadside attraction; an oversized white (and anatomically correct) ram statue that towers over the park at the center of town. We made the obligatory stop at the roadside attraction, where in addition to the statue we were happy to locate our first sitting Common Bronzewings; a portly and largely terrestrial pigeon with an amazingly bright reflective wing that glitters with all the hues of the rainbow in good light. Here too were a pair of copulating Elegant Parrots. These small and perky looking parrots seem easier to see in the Southwest than over much of their eastern range, but even here can be difficult to see well, let alone at close range and in excellent light. White-cheeked, New Holland and Gilbert’s Honeyeaters (and an inexhaustible number of Red Wattlebirds) were feeding in the flowering Eucalyptus above the statue, making this quite a good roadside birding stop! Just a bit down the road we stopped in at the Wagin Sewage Works, where amongst the many sleeping Australian Shelduck, Gray Teal, Pink-eared Ducks and Coots we detected a single Red-kneed and four or five Black-fronted Dotterel sitting on the rocky berms that divided the pond cells, as well as our first flock of Hardhead, a pair of Silver Gull, and close views of Welcome Swallow and Tree Martin.

A short stop just a bit further south of town allowed us to walk out to the shores of Lake Park. The walk took us through a dense grove of she-oaks, where we teased out a female and juvenile Red-capped Robin, our first pair of the streaky breasted Inland Thornbills and several cooperative female Mistletoebirds (as well as one less cooperative male). The actual lake held huge numbers of Black Swans and Australian Shelduck, but most were well out in the middle of the water or along the distant back shore. Once back at the vans we stopped to admire a Spotted Jezebel (a bright yellow, red, white and black butterfly) that was foraging in some mistletoe clumps near where we were parked. A male Brown Goshawk came wheeling overhead as well, which caused all of the nearby honeyeaters to start a rousing round of ringing alarm calls. Leaving Wagin behind, we headed a bit further south, where we stopped for lunch at a recently opened and surprisingly upscale café built in the renovated old flour mill building in downtown Katanning.

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 within the National Park boundaries) and scenic beauty the park was one of the first protected areas of Western Australia. We pulled into the quite busy grounds of our lodge for the night at the Stirling Range Retreat and while getting the keys organized for our cabins the group located a nesting Restless Flycatcher (a slim and elegant looking Monarch Flycatcher that looks like the supermodel version of a Willie Wagtail) right in the carpark. Here too were several Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters attracted to the provided terra cotta bird baths near the office and our first Sacred Kingfishers, likely recently arrived from their wintering grounds to the north. After we checked in to our comfortable rammed-earth cabins we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the forested grounds of the retreat. Although busy with campers and caravanners due to the long weekend the grounds were still productive. A perched female Collared Sparrowhawk showed well, before the masses of Brown, New Holland and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters drove it out of the woods. Across the street from the retreat we found a small mixed flock of bush birds which included our first perched (and thus official) White-winged Triller, another Western Yellow Robin, Weebill, and both Yellow-rumped and Western Thornbill. 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. Parrots were near constant companions with busy flocks of passing over Purple-crowned Lorikeets, small groups of (mostly) distant Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos languidly flapping through the trees with their characteristic moth-like slow flap, and lots of Galah, Ringneck and Elegant Parrots about as well. We especially enjoyed some close-up views of perched Dusky Woodswallows, and a nice study of another family group of the aptly named Splendid Fairy-Wrens. Due to the extremely busy weekend at the local café we had an earlier than normal dinner, accompanied by some excellent local wines and beers and the company of nearly a dozen emergency workers who were organizing the rescue of a hiker that had run into trouble somewhere in the nearby ranges. After our daily bird log and a full-on assault of the café’s ice cream selection we headed back to our cabins under a wonderfully star strewn sky and the lulling serenades of the local Western Banjo Frogs.

The next morning, we headed a bit south for a walk out into the flat land a bit to the south of the Stirlings. Here the terrain is covered with short heath-like plants, small bushy Eucalypts and an amazing variety of short flowering plants (many of which were blooming). We walked out into this botanical paradise and soon found many sleek looking Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters perched up in short trees, chasing each other around and generally being conspicuous. Small terrestrial purple enamel orchids, purple flag irises and sundews were quite conspicuous among the flowering shrubs, and we were often distracted by their colour, and by the curious structures made by the local ants which resemble domed houses roofed in well-placed thatch as we made our way further out from the road. Our main quarry was a bit reticent this year, as in the windy conditions we just couldn’t get visuals on any of the several Western Fieldwrens that we could hear occasionally calling out in the heath. Eventually though our patience was rewarded as we walked back towards the cars when a bird flushed out of a small shrub. We quickly encircled it and were able to see zip across from bush to bush a couple of times. A recent but now generally accepted split from the more widespread Rufous Fieldwren the Western is an attractively pattered bird, with streaked yellow underparts and a touch of rufous on its foreheads.

We returned to the lodge and packed up, and then elected to spend a relaxed hour or so again wandering around the grounds of the lodge (which abuts the national park). Carnaby’s Black Cockatoos were foraging out on the adjacent fields, providing much better views than on the previous afternoon. Along the back fence of the property we found a couple of perched Scarlet Robins flashing red in the morning sun, and with a bit of luck tracked down a pair of calling Crested Shrike-Tits (here of the endemic Western race that is highly likely to be split from the more yellow-bellied eastern birds). Although widespread in many parts of Australia this species is generally quite scarce, with the Stirling Ranges being one of the best locations to see them on the continent. Their oversized bills combined with the snazzy black and white head pattern and bright yellow and white underparts make for a unique and pretty snazzy appearance. Unfortunately, our hoped-for Australian Owlet-Nightjar failed to make his customary appearance in a large tree hollow, despite the pleading of the combined wills of all twelve participants, but as we were standing near the tree our attentions were diverted to one of the local bird baths, where we were happy to have excellent studies of a bathing group of Gilbert’s Honeyeaters. A little later the small basin was nearly filled as a handsome bright chartreuse Regent Parrot came in for a drink. He lingered for long enough that we could study the bright red/pink bill and wing spots before winging off to join a group of Regents that were passing overhead. We rounded out our walk with a nice look at our first Gray Shrike-Thrush, a somewhat portly and understated bird that makes up for its generally staid appearance with a varied and ebullient vocal repertoire.

As we left the lodge we made a quick stop at the local country road house for some fuel which also provided a tiny window into the lives of the local rural Australians, with the children of the station owners working the tills and asking us a litany of questions. We then headed a bit back to the north, on a back road that leads past a series of saline lakes. At the first of these we pulled over and within a minute or so were thrilled to locate a pair of Hooded Plover (and a fairly old chick) foraging along the sandy foreshore of the lake. These elegantly marked birds possesses a black hood decorated with a bright red bill and eye ring, and is perhaps the most striking of the Australian plovers. It’s 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. A passing Australian Kestrel and a pair of soaring Wedge-tailed Eagles provided a bit of excitement here too (although not as much as we apparently did with the passing drivers).

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. As it was near midday by the time we arrived we elected to stop in at a local tea house for lunch. The café is in a wonderfully idyllic country setting, with lush grounds full of flowering plants, a local art gallery and local gift shop, and some of the friendliest proprietors around. Often, they are hosting rescued orphan animals which they nurse (a near round-the-clock operation) before releasing them as adults. During our visit they didn’t have any animals on show, so we made do with the excellent sandwiches, quiches, and sumptuous desserts. After leaving the tea house we stopped at the carpark near the end of the National Park road, where we spent a bird rich hour just slowly working around the edge of the clearing. Jewel-like Red-winged Fairy-Wrens, White-breasted Robins, Spotted Scrubwrens and Rufous Treecreepers all were foraging on the ground around the verge of the clearing while Gilbert’s and New Holland Honeyeaters and Gray Fantails zipped around the midstory, and Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrikes, Western Rosellas and Purple-crowned Lorikeets stayed up in the (very high) canopy. Perhaps the most surprising bird here was another pair of Western Shrike-Tits that alerted us to their presence with their characteristic clear two-note whistled callnotes. Like the pair at the Stirling Ranges these birds were busily stripping thin pieces of bark off trees and then carrying them up to their incipient nest sites. As the afternoon was beginning to wane we 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. Among the little groups of Gray Teal, Maned Duck and White Ibis we picked out our first White-necked Heron, and enjoyed repeated views of Australian Ringnecks, Galah, and Common Bronzewings flashing along the road margins. We arrived at our base for the next three nights, the Cheyne’s Beach Caravan Park in the late afternoon. Although the park has ample options for tent, caravan and trailer camping we take advantage of their free-standing and very modern chalets that are perfectly positioned to provide easy 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. Our principle reason for visiting this corner of Australia was, as always, to spend some time looking for a trio of scarce and generally retiring 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 White-cheeked and New Holland Honeyeaters to be quite common. Family groups of Spotted Scrubwren, Splendid Fairy-Wren and White-breasted Robins were quite confiding along the road edge. 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. Unfortunately for us the blue skies disappeared and it became quite windy. Although we could clearly hear the ringing calls of the resident Scrubbird (dubbed Noisy Nick by the locals) he clammed up with the turn of the weather, and although we waited until a bit before dark he didn’t appear at our staked-out crossroad. Dinner, prepared by the cooks at the caravan park office was excellent, and we enjoyed it on the covered back deck of the hosts house, paired with some local wines.

We awoke the next morning to find the weather conditions not quite as ordered. An unseasonable cold front brought buffeting winds and occasional squalls making for less than pleasant birding conditions. Nevertheless, we headed up into the sandy heathland above the chalets just a bit after sunrise. 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 damp 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 upslope from us. It’s a thrasher-sized olive bird that sports a stubby triangular crest and black and white streaks on its cheeks, and given its size one wonders just how it can remain so hidden in such comparatively short vegetation. A bit later we found another pair, which showed several times just a bit off the track, making for quite a good showing for this species (often the hardest of the three skulkers to see well in the area). Although we heard about a half-dozen Western Bristlebirds giving their vaguely meadowlark-like song from the surrounding heath it was not until we started back that we scored with one bird repeatedly darting out onto the sandy track in front of us. Some fairly skulky Southern Emu Wrens also appeared, with a male clambering up into a short shrub and briefly showing off its bright blue throat and preposterously long loose tail feathers. In addition to the expected heath birds we also spotted a close Little Eagle that lifted off from a larger shrub at our approach, and were happy to see several Western Grey Kangaroos placidly standing and watching our passage with a curious air. It was easy to see how hopping over the very dense undergrowth rather than wading through it would be advantageous!

Once back at the caravan park we took a bit of time to consume a second round of coffee and then we walked down to the rocky bluff near the end of the peninsula. An unexpected bonus here was spotted as we looked back down on the sparkling waters of the bay. Four Southern Right Whales (including at least one calf) were lolling around in the shallow bay waters, spending some time logging on the surface and showing very well just offshore. It’s not every day that one walks up into a flower filled heathland rife with kangaroos and winds up seeing a whale! A passing Australian Sea Lion was a nice find here as well, as was a single Common Sandpiper teetering on the rocks below us. Out on the bay we picked out some passing and occasionally plunge diving Australasian Gannets and (really far out) a few participants discerned a couple of flyby Flesh-footed Shearwater. Noisy Nick was chortling away on the coastal side of the road, so we spent a bit of time around the area hoping he might deign to cross the paved road back to the core of his habitat. He didn’t. But the wait produced excellent views of a Brush Bronzewing, and a busy group of birds feeding out on the now sunny lawn, including Silvereye, Red-winged Fairy-Wren, Spotted Scrubwren and a seemingly inexhaustible number of New Holland Honeyeaters. As we walked back up to the caravan park our progress came to a screeching halt when we noticed a pair of Brown Quail standing in the sandy track in front of us. While watching the pair our attentions turned to a small bird perched on an overhead wire, which proved to be our first Red-eared Firetail! 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. Quite pleased with the morning’s outings most participants headed back to their cabins for a bit of time off before lunch, although several walked around the caravan park grounds, where Purple-crowned Lorikeets played hide and seek in a flowering Eucalypt, several pairs of Common Bronzewings and another group of Brown Quail showed very well, and a wonderfully bright Scarlet Banksia in full bloom was attracting a steady parade of White-cheeked Honeyeaters.

In the afternoon 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. As we neared Albany, a small but pretty city that houses around 30000 people and is set in one of the largest natural harbors in the country we were happy to see a flock of Eastern Cattle Egrets (scarce this far south) in a roadside field. Our first stop in the area was at Rushy Point, a small promontory that juts out into Frenchmen’s Bay and is surrounded by extensive mudflats and eelgrass beds at low tide. Just before we walked up to the flock a pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles had passed overhead and scattered most of the nearby waders, and it took a while before birds started filtering back onto the flats. Although our tour is timed in the early spring; a generally too-early date for peak wintering northern Hemisphere waders this far south in Australia we did find a few species of interest around the point. A large flock of Red-necked Stints put down just a few meters away, and with them were a couple of Ruddy Turnstones, a single Greater Sandplover and a couple of Common Greenshanks. Some Pied Oystercatchers flew in as well, providing a bit of colour among the more understated wintering waders. Aside from the shorebirds we found the point to be good for cormorants, with good comparison views of Great, Little Black, Pied and Little Pied available. Several giant Australian Pelicans were loafing around the shores as well, and we picked out a half-dozen or so Caspian Terns among the more numerous Great Crested Terns.

Our next stop was Lake Seppings; a large suburban freshwater lake with extensive fringing reedbeds. Here we were thrilled to find several displaying Musk Ducks at close range. I think participants will remember the males flicking tail, splashing foot, dangling wattle, and odd high- pitched bong call for many years. Also here in the reedbeds were a few showy Australian Reed-Warblers, and lots of quite approachable Blue-billed Ducks, whose namesake appendage is truly a luminous (almost artificial looking) blue. Along the pathway we picked out a couple of large and black King’s Skinks warming up in the afternoon sun, a species that we generally see around the cabins at Cheynes Beach (if the weather is warm enough), and overhead we were happy to spot several dozen circling Straw-necked Ibis and a passing Black-shouldered Kite, oddly our first sighting for this generally widespread species. We wrapped up our visit to Albany with a quick stop in at the Lower King Bridge, where hundreds of Little Black Cormorants were loafing on some rocks just a bit offshore. With them was a handsome adult Pacific Gull, a couple of Australian Darters and a few more Pied Oystercatchers and Common Greenshanks. A bit of levity was had here too, as a paddling Labrador retriever was being stalked by a curious pelican, who seemed to be contemplating whether its beak could indeed hold more than its belly can…

We pulled back into our base at Cheyne’s Beach with sufficient time to try again for a sighting of Noisy Nick crossing the dirt road. Unlike the previous afternoon the weather was calm and warm, with people out an about on the beach, and lots of bird activity in the grove. Noisy Nick was singing merrily away, but annoyingly he waited until it was nearly dark to scamper across the road, and managing to avoid most of the group in the process. All was not lost though, as during the course of our 45-minute vigil we watched a courting pair of Brush Bronzewing, spotted two Southern Brown Bandicoots (a charismatic mammal that looks like an odd cross between a rabbit, a guinea pig and a rat) shuffling across the gap with their hunched half hopping gait. A group of three Bush Rats ran across as well, and we even had a brief look at a scampering Honey Possum. These tiny marsupials feed on the flowering Banksias in the heath, and although somewhat common in the immediate area are very hard to see; being largely nocturnal and weighing a mighty 7 grams.

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 6 o’clock departure time, opting for a more relaxed 7am start. 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. We spent the morning walking along a wide firebreak access road through the forest, choosing this particular track as it passes by an occasionally 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 mound was not recently active. We were able to the structure though, and many were (I think) surprised at its size. 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!

Although no Malleefowl appeared during the walk we managed to drum up a nice selection of other mallee specialties, with several Southern Scrub Robins greeting us right at the trailhead. 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 patches of slightly taller mallee we found Purple-gaped Honeyeaters to be quite common (if flighty), and several perched groups of Purple-crowned Lorikeets lingered for our perusal, even allowing a quite close approach which enabled us to discern the patches of red, gold, orange, purple and blue that are nicely splashed across these diminutive green parrots. A couple of pairs of Spotted Pardalote of the mallee yellow-rumped race put on an excellent show during the walk, and we managed to get a quick vocal response from an aptly named Shy Heathwren that unfortunately never hopped out of the dense understory for us.

By late morning the temperatures were surprisingly high, and we attacked the cooler full of cold drinks with gusto once we reached the vans. We then drove a further 60K to the southeast bound for the coast at the small town of Bremer Bay. Our principal reason for visiting the area was to look over the masses of waders and waterfowl that tend to congregate on the flats near the mouth of the Bremer River and when we arrived at the estuary we were certainly not disappointed. Hordes of Red-necked Stints and Red-capped Plovers dotted the mudflats, with a few Curlew Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones and two Great Knot mixed in. Both Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers were busily pulling long worms out of the mud in the channel, and we had excellent views of several dapper Pied Stilts feeding out in the slightly deeper water. Waterfowl were prevalent as well, with a few dozen handsome Chestnut Teal (with breeding plumage males at last), joined the throngs of Gray Teal, Shelduck and Black Swan. We had a picnic lunch in a pleasant and shaded nearby park and then drove around to the west side of the bay to look at the rocky peninsula opposite Glasse Island. This proved a better than expected stop, as within a few minutes of our arrival we found a single Rock Parrot down at the base of the small harbour breakwall. The bird flushed off as a car approached but we found two more birds on the mainland who lingered for quite some time, showing extremely well as they foraged in patches of seeding forbs and grasses at the margins of the heath. These olive colored parrots, with bright blue foreheads are restricted to the extreme coastline in the south and west, seldom being seen more than a few hundred meters from the shore. They feed in the windswept dunes and breed on rocky offshore islands and cliff faces, and are generally quite uncommon across their limited range. This sighting marked our first good sighting of the species on our western tour, and was certainly a welcome surprise. Glasse Island, just off the coast here was harbouring dozens of Crest Crested Terns (which breed here in impressive numbers in the summer), as well as a few Australian Sea Lions and New Zealand Fur Seals hauled out along the shoreline. As we started the drive back to Cheyne’s Beach we stopped along the highway 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. Some perched Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos, a field chock full of foraging Straw-necked Ibis and a family group of Emu also put in appearances for us.

We arrived back at Cheyne’s in the late afternoon, with sufficient time that the more ambitious in the group were able to try again for Noisy Nick, the local Scrub Bird down on the coast. Although he was not singing when we arrived we waited for a bit and were soon thrilled to see him (or perhaps his mate) scuttle across the small road bisecting his territory. A bit later the bird crossed back again, providing slightly lengthier views as it darted, mouse-like, 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. Typically (due to the somewhat predictable nature of this individual) we see the scrubbird on our first afternoon, perhaps the extended quest this year made our sighting all the sweeter for those that elected to wait him out.              

On our last morning on the coast we took a short walk back up into the national park. A Western Bristlebird finally showed well out as it foraged along the sandy track above the caravan park. Once again we found Western Whipbirds to be more visible than is often the case, with a couple of birds perched up, and one even running through some bushes in front of us. Our other two targets for the morning appeared as well, with a single Western Wattlebird flying past the group, flashing its bronzy wings in the early morning sun and a male Southern Emu-Wren slipped up and accidently showed itself as it clambered around in some low shrubs. These charismatic little birds can be a real devil to see, but our views were superlative, with the long and loosely veined namesake tail feathers and bright blue throat of the male clearly on display. 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! All too soon we bade farewell to our gracious hosts and started the all-day drive back to our hotel in Perth. We didn’t get very far up the road when we stopped to watch a circling Brown Falcon that was flying over the road. It’s an oddly shaped bird for a member of the Falco genus; broad of wing and with a dihedral flight profile.

Our first planned stop was in the town of Mount Barker, where around a pair of small reed-fringed wooded ponds we located a cooperative Little Grassbird bouncing around in the reeds. Here too was a perched Shining Bronze-Cuckoo that lingered for quite some time above us, and a stunning pair of Red-winged Fairy-Wrens that put on an excellent display in near perfect light. A bit later we made a comfort stop in the small town of Rocky Gully that along with our tasty picnic lunches 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. As we were watching the Corellas we were thrilled to see two Baudin’s Black-Cockatoos flying over the field as well. Just a bit further down the road we were surprised to find a flock of nearly 40 more Baudin’s that appeared to be feeding in a field of seeding mustards (an unusual food source for this species that generally eats marri nuts). We watched them for a while, and were able to make out the elongated upper mandibles that separate this species from the more similar and more common Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo. 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. 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 158 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) was cancelled on us a few weeks prior to the trip. We were dutifully rebooked, but rather than a mid-morning direct flight to Alice were treated to a very early start and a routing through Adelaide. Despite the complication we arrived in Alice in time for lunch (just an hour or so later than our originally scheduled time). Stepping off the plane at the Alice airport is like entering a new world. Far removed from the pastoral greenery and rocky coasts of the Southwest we found ourselves in an arid landscape, with ancient rocky ridgelines in the distance, and bright red earth underfoot. 2019 had been a remarkably dry year in the red centre, with a paltry 2 inches of rain falling over the 14 months prior to our visit. Temperatures were high as well, with the daily highs during our visit about 5 degrees C higher than the seasonal average. Given the exceptionally dry conditions most of the nomadic birds that frequent the area when conditions are good had long since departed for distant parts of the country that had better rainfall. The resident desert birds were thin on the ground as well, with most seemingly opting not to breed this spring and not being particularly vocal. With these facts in mind we headed off to the small but lovely Olive Pink Botanical Gardens where, after lunch, we found an active bower of a male Western Bowerbird. A huge bifurcated grassy structure tucked under the shade of a small shrub, with a few collected white bits and bobs decorating the entrance. To our elation the male was actually attending to the bower when we arrived, busily redecorating the inner walls of the bower. 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. 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 bounced around in the dust and uttered a bewildering array of cackles and whoops was pretty entertaining. The trees around the café building were hosting a few White-plumed Honeyeaters and Yellow-throated Miners, two species we would soon get to know well. As the heat was not unsubstantial in the early afternoon we opted to check in to our hotel and have a short siesta.

After our break, 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. On the entrance road we stopped to admire some perched Black-faced Woodswallows and were happy to find several Rainbow Bee-eaters hawking over a small patch of dried grass. Little flocks of Zebra Finches showed well here too, a species that most non-Australian bird people first see behind bars. Here in the outback, surrounded by the vastness of the landscape the tiny birds take on an entirely different persona, as busy little flocks cover huge areas in search of seeding grasses. Once we reached the carpark at the end of the road we walked down to the waterhole, with the reddish cliff face glowing in the sun, and white-trunked Murray River Red Gum trees lining the sandy riverbed. Up above the cliffs we found many circling Little Woodswallows (which roost in crevices in the rocks). As one would expect, many birds were coming down to the water for a late afternoon drink, and among the species that we found here included a few more White-plumed Honeyeaters, some very cooperative Gray Shrikethrush and Willie Wagtails, a loquacious Pied Butcherbird and a few more Zebra Finches in the shrubs around the pool. A single Gray-headed Honeyeater perched well above the pool for a moment, annoyingly not coming down to show itself off to the group. The main pool at the base of the cliffs was shallow, but still deep enough to attract a single Dusky Moorhen (a bit of a local celebrity as it is one of only a handful of known individuals in the Northern Territory). In the scree slope to the right of the pond we were thrilled to spot a couple of Black-flanked Rock Wallabies (this largely nocturnal small wallaby usually spends the day tucked into crevices in the nearby scree slope, only occasionally bounding out into view) peering down at us with a bit of a quizzical air. As the heat began to recede and the shadows lengthened we made the short drive back to Alice, arriving in time for a hearty dinner.

The next day we spent 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, stopping wherever we detected birds along the roadside. It proved an excellent strategy. Our first stop occurred when some small flocks of Zebra Finches zipped over the road in front of the bus. Shortly thereafter a single White-backed Swallow zipped past, and when we stopped we soon found a pair of these handsome outback swallows perched on a small dead tree. 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 confined to the open and arid interior of the country, nesting in holes in sandy banks, and are generally quite thinly distributed. Here too we watched a perched Brown Falcon that soon took off, showing its broad wings and dihedral glide profile. A few kilometers down the road we spotted a distant Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo flying through the large trees that line the (dry) Hugh River floodplain. We walked out a bit after it, and soon a sharp-eyed participant spotted the bird (actually a pair) attending a large cavity in one of the larger gums in the distance. This is arguably the most attractive of the countries Cockatoos, snowy white with a pink blush to the chest and head, bright salmon pink underwings and a showy bicoloured crest. Numbers fluctuate around Alice from year to year, as the birds preferred food source (terrestrial gourds) need rain to germinate. Happily for us though there were a fair few around this year, and we would see them every day that we were around Alice Springs. Before we arrived at our first scheduled location we made one more roadside stop when we found a perched Red-backed Kingfisher sitting quite close to the road. This is a somewhat enigmatic arid-land Kingfisher which undergoes often dramatic movements in response to rain. We watched the bird for some time as it switched perches and showed off its dazzling array of colours (a pleasing combination of turquoise green, black, white, and chestnut) perfectly in the early morning sun. Once it grabbed an impressively large locust off the ground and then hammered it senseless on a large branch before somehow choking it down. While enjoying the Kingfisher (the only individual of the species we would see all trip) the stop was enhanced even more when a group of four Mulga Parrots flew in to some nearby bushes. 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. Eventually we reached our first planned stop, at a sheltered valley that has been spared the local bushfires and still possesses good stands of Spinifex grass. The 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. Unfortunately, perhaps due in part to the blustery morning winds, we didn’t hear any Rufous-crowned Emu-Wrens or Dusky Grasswrens during the walk. The habitat though is fascinating, and the experience of stepping around the spiky clumps of grass is one that any visiting birder must have at some point in their journey around Australia. A nice male Hooded Robin; a plump pied robin of dry interior forests was some consolation for our efforts here, and the landscape was quite attractive. We tried at another patch of good-looking spinifex as well, but were again unsuccessful with our main targets (which may well simply not be very vocal this year due to the drought). At this second site though we turned up a lovely family group of Purple-backed Fairy-Wrens, some busy little Weebill and a vocal Whistling Kite lazily circling overhead.

Our next stop was 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. A huge bushfire had swept through the area in January, and the signs of its presence were still fresh on some of the upper slopes and the far side of the creek but we were thankful to find that the main channel, and the lush patch of woodland around the carpark survived nearly unscathed. The red cliffs of the gorge soar over a thousand feet above the canyon floor, and the entire scene evokes the heart of the MacDonnell Ranges. The woodlands around the carpark were hosting a nice selection of birds including our first Peaceful Doves and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and a very cooperative male Red-capped Robin. Once at the waterhole we found it to be crammed with people, but even with all the commotion we found an Australasian Grebe and a Little Pied Cormorant swimming around with the bathers, and an adult White-necked Heron perched in an adjacent gum tree. It was when we did a last loop around the carpark before heading off to lunch that the birding really heated up. In amongst a small group of Peaceful Doves we picked out an even smaller Diamond Dove. This truly tiny species is delicately clad in silvery gray, white and orange, with a wonderful array of small white spots on its brownish wings. While we had the bird in the scope a we heard a Black-chinned Honeyeater singing from a distant tree somewhere behind the dove. With a bit of enticing the bird flew right in to us, showing well for several minutes as it began foraging just overhead. The birds in the red center have golden-green backs and a yellowish collar, giving them a quite different look to the more olive and white birds of the eastern forests. Given their different looks and very different habitat preferences this arid land subspecies (dubbed the Golden-backed Honeyeater) is another good candidate for full species status somewhere down the road. This sighting marked the first time that we had encountered this species on our revamped western tours; it is always nice to get write in species! 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 few Coots and Australian Reed Warblers around the water hole, and Pied Butcherbirds and Yellow-throated Miners around the lunch tables.

After lunch we headed a bit further south to walk around in a particularly good patch of mixed mulga woodland near Redbank Gorge. Although the heat of the afternoon was in full oppressive mode we found the woods to be surprisingly active for birds. A couple of pairs of Chestnut-rumped and Inland Thornbills (as well as one Slaty-backed Thornbill for the part of the group that stayed by the vans), two sprightly Grey Fantails, here of the interior albicauda subspecies which sport longer and paler tails than the “regular” Grey Fantail, and an active troupe of White-browed Babblers entertained us in turn. As we started to drive out some roadside activity made us stop for a particularly cooperative pair of Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, two Rufous Whistlers, a dazzling male Splendid Fairy-Wren and a small flock of circling Black-faced Woodswallows. We spent the next hour or so driving back towards Alice Springs, with a short stop at the very reduced (from previous years) but still large Ellory Creek waterhole. We found the birding here to be a bit on the slow side, but still managed excellent studies of Yellow-throated Miners, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Magpie-larks, a sunning Gilbert’s Dragon, and some flighty but very attractive male Mistletoebirds before turning the buses back again to the east and our hotel, our heads full of images from the heart of the Australian outback.

For our second full day around Alice we decided that instead of our normal visit to the flat country out past the airport, which during the time of our visit was apparently particularly dry and unproductive we take the Stuart Highway south of town for about 100KM. This longer drive would allow us to leave the MacDonnell Ranges behind, and to enter into a region of flat desert with small copses of Cassia and Mulga trees and large open gibber plains. The gibber is a unique habitat, occurring in pockets of central Australia with dry and loamy soils. Over millennia the heating and cooling of the land has pushed up aggregate rock so that the surface of the land is covered in smooth and regularly sized flattened pebbles, with only limited and short vegetation providing some cover. This habitat bursts into life after rain, with hundreds of species of flowering plants sprouting quickly after the rains hit, painting the landscape in whites, yellows and purples. On the way down to the site we spotted a huge Wedge-tailed Eagle perched on a dead kangaroo along the side of the road, and a small flock of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos feeding on a fruiting shrub. Upon arriving we found the plains to be very dry, and even at dawn the temperatures were pushing 32 degrees Celcius. The local birds though were seemingly undeterred by the heat and lack of obvious food sources. A walk out onto the stony plain eventually revealed a group of three Cinnamon Quailthrush walking amongst the fringing shrubs. Related to the whipbirds the roughly seven species of Australian Quailthrush (the taxonomy of this group seems to be in a state of near constant flux) are all beautiful and elusive birds. Most species are found in the arid inland parts of the country, and although many occur in regions with little vegetation the birds have an uncanny ability to find the small rises or isolated bushes that black them from the prying eyes of birdwatchers. It took a bit of patience but we were successful in obtaining scope views of these bright buff, black and white birds as they slowly but steadily worked their way through some small shrubs. This species is not one that we encounter on our regular Australia tours, as it doesn’t get any closer to Alice Springs than this particular site. As we were trying to get a bit closer to the Quailthrush we noticed some motion further out in the gibber, and were ecstatic to see that the distant bird was an Inland Dotterel! We moved out to get a closer view and were soon watching three birds as they slowly foraged over the gibber. These delicate plovers are true arid land specialists. They are often active mainly at night, and are quite nomadic as well, making it one of the harder inland birds to come across in Australia. Their plumage is quite complicated, with a thinly striped back buffy back, richer orangey-buff flanks, and an odd black ring around its face connecting to a V shaped black breast band. The various bands and stripes and overall colour tone make it extremely well camouflaged against the gibber plains. The birds really rely on that camouflage, which means that if done carefully a group can get fairly close to them without any apparent change in behavior. We were able to watch them at length before we started the walk back to the car, enriched by our experiences with two very special species.

Happy with our first stop we hastened a few kilometers further down the road and pulled off at a seemingly unremarkable side road that led to a small waterhole with the somewhat off-putting name of Dead Bird Dam. Thankfully we found that to be a most inappropriate name, as the site was quite busy with a parade of birds coming down to the water’s edge for a mid-morning drink. Spiny-cheeked, Singing and White-plumed Honeyeaters jockeyed for position, with a male White-winged Triller, little flocks of Zebra Finches and the occasional Diamond or Peaceful Dove. A few Fairy Martins were hawking insects over the pool, showing off their rusty caps quite well in the morning sun. The undoubted star of the show though was the small flock of Crimson Chats (happily mostly bright scarlet males) that came in and proceeded to wander all around the margins of the pond, showing extremely well and at length. This is arguably the most attractive species of honeyeater, often featuring on the covers of Australian field guides. It’s another arid-land nomad, and with the paucity of recent records in the Alice area due to the drought we counted ourselves fortunate to have such good looks at the nearly half-dozen birds. As we started to drive back to the main road we stopped when a bird zipped across in front of us, and after a bit of time tracking it down were pleased to find a pair of Crested Bellbirds running around on the ground between a group of short shrubs. 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. Here too was another busy little troupe of White-browed Babblers bounding along the ground.

A bit further east we stopped to check a denser stand of scrub and were soon rewarded with a calling Chiming Wedgebill somewhere in the center of the grove. This dull coloured whipbird typically is found well to the south of Alice, but a few birds are known a bit closer to town. It’s a retiring bird, roughly the dun coloured, and sporting a short crest and can be devilishly hard to see well in its preferred shrubby habitat. We spent some time with the calling bird, which stubbornly remained mostly out of view (though a couple of lucky participants saw it gambol across the ground between a few distant trees a couple of times). Our efforts were also rewarded with a small flock of Southern Whiteface, a terrestrial thornbill relative with a pale mask over the eyes and lores that is widespread in the arid regions of Australia. As it was by now approaching midday we headed back towards Alice, stopping at a roadhouse to enjoy a backcountry lunch; complete with pet Cockatoos and Scrub Pythons, a huge collection of Smurf paraphernalia, a large dog that was adept at opening the sliding glass door, and some heaping portion sizes!

After a siesta back at the hotel we spent the late afternoon and evening exploring the roads around Kunoth Bore and the Hamilton Downs Rd which lie to the Northwest of Alice Springs and north of the MacDonnell Ranges. We started by slowly driving down a side road that leads back south from the highway through a good stand of mulga. It’s an uninviting and somewhat barren looking forest that is somehow reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Christmas tree farm. Although seemingly quiet we did detect a few small groups of birds including several Rufous Whistler, some flashy Rainbow Bee-eaters, another small group of Southern Whiteface and a single Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo. A non-avian highlight along the road was furnished by the many curious looking ant mounds that were scattered around between the mulgas. The very interesting ant mounds had oddly sculpted open ports from the subterranean colonies and were surrounded by a mat of carefully gathered vegetation to guide and encourage air flow into the colony for thermoregulation. We started down another small side road but soon discovered that the local cattle ranchers were busily gathering their stock up. We elected to head back a little north so as not to interfere with their work, and as the afternoon began to wane we stopped near an isolated dam created as a water source for the local cattle. On the way out to the small dam we stopped to admire a single male Brown Songlark and several Australian Pipits that were toddling along in the short dry grass. The dam itself is tucked way back on a grassy plain and surrounded by tall gums and when we arrived we found it to prove quite productive with many Crested Pigeons, a large flock of Galah, and dozens of Magpie-Larks foraging in the short grass around the dozing cows. By scanning when we arrived near the dam we picked out at least eight Banded Lapwing around the water hole and out in the plains. These nomadic, and beautiful, plovers can be difficult to find across their vast range, and the sighting was to be our only one of the tour. As it was by now starting to get close to evening we repositioned to another dam a bit further north, and enjoyed a picnic dinner in the field as we waited for the sun to get close to setting. At dusk we settled down for a vigil of the water, hoping that we might chance upon some Bourke’s Parrots coming down to drink. 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, and to our relief this night proved quite typical. Just as it began to get dark we started hearing their clipped flight calls emanating from all around us, and by scanning the edge of the water for motion we soon realized that several birds were walking down the embankment to the water. We waited a bit for one of the birds to land a bit closer to us, and then, using a torch were able to see one bird well as it sat on the water’s edge taking a drink. Although it was fairly dark it was possible to make out some of the blushing pink tones to the birds plumage by torchlight. We waited around for a bit admiring the celestial show unfolding above us, picking out Mercury (surprisingly bright in the night sky), Saturn, Jupiter and Venus, as well as a few constellations like the pointers and the southern cross. Our dallying paid off handsomely, as we had a brief flyby of a Spotted Nightjar over the stock dam, only the second time in a decade that we have recorded this species on any of our Wings Australia tours. The mammal show was good too, with a large and audible bat (later identified as a Yellow-bellied Sheathtail Bat), several microbats, and on the drive back to Alice, a single young Red Kangaroo that hopped off the side of the road and into some dense scrub (sadly before the trailing bus had fully caught up). This evening trip out into the outback is one of the really special parts of the trip, and one that I look forward to every year.

Our flight up to Darwin was in the late morning so this year we made the most of our available birding time and connected with a local birder named Lisa Nunn who had agreed to take us in to the world famous (in birder terms at any rate) Alice Springs Wastewater Treatment Facility for much of the morning. 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, providing excellent comparion views of these somewhat similar brown raptors. A pair of imposing Wedge-tailed Eagles were perched on a distant dead tree, surveying the feast of tasty morsels that were arrayed around them. Flocks of Hoary-headed and a few dozen Australian Little Grebes were floating around in the lakes, joined by countless numbers of Gray Teal and Maned Ducks, good numbers of Pink-eared Duck, Hardhead and Pacific Black Ducks, and even a single Australian Shoveler (a rare species in Alice). Migrant waders were well represented with Sharp-tailed Sandpipers being the most common. A few Wood, Marsh, Greenshank, 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. These berms also produced two Black-tailed Native-Hens, affectionately called black turbo chickens by some Australian birders, as they do indeed resemble black chickens, and have a habit of running for cover at a remarkably high speed when they feel threatened. The Saltbushes at the back of the facility held several family groups of White-winged Fairywrens, including several intensely colored iridescent blue and starched white males who showed off well, earning the moniker of “the Freddy Mercury of Fairywrens.” Incredibly we also found male Purple-backed and Splendid during the circuit of the ponds, making it quite a rich day for these gorgeous little sprites. Eventually we finished the loop around the ponds, having detected an impressive 47 species in a couple of hours. Our flight out to Darwin was scheduled to board at a bit after eleven am, so after bidding farewell to our hosts Lisa and Peter we made the short trip out to the airport to check in an relax a bit over coffees while we waited for our flight.

After settling into our hotel and resting a bit in the midday heat we headed out to the coast at East Point. New birds came incredibly quickly; just on the drive to the carpark we picked up Peaceful and colourful Bar-shouldered Doves, pairs of comical Orange-footed Scrubfowl stomping along the roadsides, many “Northern” Masked Lapwing and our first (of many) Magpie Geese. Once at the carpark along the coast it took us nearly an hour to walk just a few hundred meters along the coastal mangrove walk. 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. Groups of noisy Red-collared Lorikeets chattered up in the trees as well, showing off their bright orange and purple plumage to excellent effect. On the walk down to the coast we enjoyed our first Australian Figbirds (males dressed in bright yellow and green and with a bright red patch around the eye), several bubbling Green Orioles, an unusually cooperative Black Butcherbird and a female Red-headed Myzomela (a small honeyeater found in the humid mangrove coasts of northern Australia).

We then turned our attentions to the actual point, where a broad rocky shelf juts out into the Timor Sea and serves as a high tide wader roost. As we drove out towards the tip of the park we stopped to admire a couple of Bush Thick-Knees tucked under the shade of some roadside bushes. These long legged and somewhat ungainly birds are remarkably tame here, allowing very close approach. Their huge yellow eyes are vaguely unsettling, and they would certainly be hard to beat in a staring contest. The road passes through a very small section of more humid forest, and in that stretch we were surprised to see a Pacific Emerald Dove foraging along the edge of the road. Uncharacteristically the bird did not immediately flush when we stopped near it, allowing us to really enjoy this gorgeous forest pigeon, clad in a wonderful coat of plum, emerald and grey. Arriving at last at the point we found that it was, as Murphy’s law tends to dictate, low tide during our visit, but we found the rocks and stretches of sand and tidepools to be quite active. The species assemblage here is excellent, with Gray-tailed Tattlers, Lesser Sandplovers, Terek Sandpipers, Pacific Golden-Plovers, Red-necked Stint, Sooty Oystercatcher and Whimbrel all being studied in turn (among others). Eastern (Pacific) Reef-Herons were common, with both the dark blue and white morphs present in about equal numbers, and overhead we spotted circling groups of White-breasted Woodswallows (our 5th species of Woodswallow for the trip). It was actually quite a sensory overload, especially having just come from the much less diverse central deserts; in just a few hours we added 30 new species to our trip list; welcome to the tropics indeed!

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 at the boat ramp at the end of the road and spent the next two hours or so birding a grand total of 300 meters back up the road. 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. A calling Little Bronze-Cuckoo performed quite well for us as it remained perched in a bare tree just off the road for several minutes, with its red orbital ring clearly evident in the morning sun. Busy little groups of Australian Yellow White-eyes zipped through the mangroves, eventually giving everyone good views. Near the end of our stroll we stopped at the junction of the mangroves and the drier forest just inland. Here at the ecotone we found a hive of activity, with several perched Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flashing their bright yellow crests, a single Pacific Swift coursing overhead, and perhaps the prize of the walk; a handsome Pacific Baza that was perched in a nearby tree. This small crested raptor sports a colourful plumage, with wide bars on its chest and a lovely grey head. It’s not a terribly uncommon bird in the tropics, but tends not to sit out on prominent perches or soar much, so it can be somewhat tricky to find.

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 and a large group of Black-tailed Godwits and Great Knots, a few Black-bellied Plovers and Far Eastern Curlews and even a dozen or so Sanderling. Terns were also roosting along the shore and we spent a bit of time looking at Gull-billed, Little, Whiskered, and Great Crested Terns and discussing the pertinent identification criteria. From a North American birder prospective the wader show was somewhat mind-blowing, with numbers of all those species that one might dream of on a trip out to Western Alaska in fall. Our position out on the beach allowed us to get a good view of the coastal mangroves, which enabled us to look at an endless procession of passing Radjah Shelducks (which were feeding on the the edge of the receding tide), Black, Whistling and a couple of Brahminy Kites. 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.

Leaving the coast behind we make a quick stop in at Holmes Jungle reserve where we found a patch of weedy woodland to be in good flower. The blossoms were attracting a nice array of birds, including our first White-throated Honeyeaters, a couple of bright male Mistletoebirds, a single Weebill and a vocal Torresian Crow. The real prize here though came from the weedy undergrowth of the woods, when we called out a responsive pair of Red-backed Fairy-Wrens. The male is a jet-black beauty with scarlet leggings and a wonderfully crimson back, surely yet another candidate for the fairest fairywren of them all. It’s a bird of rank grassy and weedy thickets, often in open dry forest, and generally they prefer staying in a bit of cover. Luckily for us this male had not read the behavior guides to his species, as he climbed up on a bare eye level tree and sat for several minutes for us.

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. Like many of the other sites around Darwin that we visited this year the signs of the 2017 cyclone were evident, with many of the larger trees down and the understory choked with fallen limbs and tangles. This made visibility into the patch of forest difficult, and although we heard the tantalizing calls of a Rainbow Pitta coming from somewhere off the trail, we were not able to spot the bird. We found the short rainforest trail to be a bit quiet, perhaps due to the vegetative changes, although our first Leaden Flycatchers and Dusky Myzomelas certainly made the brief walk worthwhile. As we left the forest we stopped for some non-bird related wildlife in the form of a large Merten’s Water Monitor that was lounging along the bank and which allowed us close approach. The pond held a nice selection of native fish and dragonflies, and the figs around the carpark were attracting a busy flock of Red-collared Lorikeets, some handsome Torresian Imperial-Pigeons and a calling Pacific Koel.

Before leaving Howard Springs, we took a short walk into another patch of forest where we quickly found several dozen Black Flying-Foxes hanging out and being remarkably noisy in some of the taller trees. Several individuals even flew around a bit, showing off their broad and remarkably large wings. In this second patch of forest we found the undergrowth to be more open, and in short order we located a pair of Little Shrikethrush (the Top End birds are now generally split and called Arafura Shrikethrush) bounding along some branches just overhead. Within a few minutes we completed the Arafura sweep when a jaunty Arafura Fantail swished into view. It’s a large and showy fantail, with a long white tipped tail, bright rufous rump and thick collar. Also here was a pair of Silver-backed Butcherbirds, a species that we do not usually come across around the park. Generally a scarce bird across the Top End, this species, sporting a silver-white coloured back (which distinguishes them from the widespread Grey Butcherbird). These three species are all recent (within the last decade) taxonomic splits that are now endemic to the top end region, proof that Australian ornithology is still a field ripe for discovery. 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 the wide range of food options was appreciated. After lunch we took a short siesta back at the hotel, following the lead of the local wildlife in the unseasonable heat.

In the afternoon we set off for the Darwin Botanical Gardens, a sprawling and well laid out park with a large patch of tall forest and many regional gardens. The resident pair of Rufous Owls that tend to hang out in the forested part of the gardens had recently fledged their young and had promptly vanished. The birds have been around for well over a decade, disappearing for a month here or there and then reappearing. Not all was lost though, as we located an active Grey Goshawk nest, complete with at least one fuzzy white chick. It’s a scarce species this far north, and was a write in for the tour list. Also in the gardens we found a pair of Barking Owls which performed incredibly well for us, even barking a bit in the mid-afternoon heat and glaring down at us with their piercing yellow eyes.

We then moved a few kilometers out of town to the east where 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. We found the first pond completely dry, although there were still hundreds of lounging Magpie Geese, lots of Whistling and Black Kites, and some instructive comparison views of Great and Intermediate Egrets. 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, Radjah Shelducks, our first Pied Herons, two Black-necked Storks and a selection of migrant waders including several Sharp-tailed, Common, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers. The water levels were low here too, with none of the customary floating lilies and wet marsh. In the drier section of the pond bed we picked out a bright yellow bird walking along the edge of the reeds. To our amazement the bird (and a nearby female) proved to be Yellow Chats! This is an extremely rare species in the top end, with an estimated population of under 100 birds. They are generally confined to the Alligator River floodplain, roughly 150KM to the east of Darwin, and are federally listed as an endangered subspecies. Perhaps with the abnormally dry conditions the birds have moved out of their customary area in search of surface water. We watched the female chat for some time as she walked back and forth on the dry mud before turning our attentions back to the masses of waterbirds tucked into the wetter part of the marsh. A flock of terns proved a bit confounding, with Whiskered Terns in a bewildering array of plumages. With the Whiskered we picked out a single smaller bird with darker ear coverts which proved to be a White-winged Black Tern, and a larger bird which, after some consultation we decided could only be an Asiatic Gull-billed Tern. These Gull-billeds are markedly smaller and shorter billed than the Australian form (now split as Australian Tern). They winter in some numbers along the north coast of the Territory and Western Australia but their exact status is still to be worked out as the split occurred in 2019 and most birders had not been carefully distinguishing the two forms. We walked back to the vans, stopping to look at a couple of little Golden-headed Cisticolas that were perched in the grasses and then returned to the hotel for dinner with our heads full of birds.

For our second full day around Darwin we started at the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. 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 started out on a quest to connect with our main quarry of the day, the exquisite Rainbow Pitta. Pittas are, in many birders’ estimation, the holy grails of the bird world. Pleasingly plump and short tailed they bound around on their long legs as they feed in the leaf litter. The several dozen species spread across Africa, Asia and Australasia are clad in an amazing variety and intensity of colours, each seemingly trying to outdo the others in some sort of international fashion show. Rainbow Pittas are generally easier to see than many of the Asian species, but are no less spectacular. Inky black, with an emerald green back, bright blue wing patch, red vent and a semicircular chestnut crown stripe they are a treat for the senses, and always a hit with birders! It took us a bit of time tracking one of the occasionally vocalizing birds down, but when we did the bird performed wonderfully, remaining in view for several minutes and offering a slew of angles for the eager photographers on the trip. Once back at the buses we spent a bit of time working the edge of the forested carpark, where we located a briefly perched Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, several seemingly curious Grey Whistlers and a steady push of Torresian Imperial-Pigeons and Pied Herons passing overhead. Out on the dam we found a wealth of waterbirds, with close views of Comb-crested Jacanas, all three species of Ibis, Pied, Rufous Night- and White-faced herons and sundry waterfowl. Swallows and Bee-eaters were hawking insects off the water and out in the drier grasslands we spotted dozens of huge Brolga, some quite close to the road. The paperbark trees along the dam were in flower and a busy group of honeyeaters were working the blooms. Most were Rufous-banded Honeyeaters, but we picked out our first Bar-breasted, a boldly marked white and black species, several Brown and a few White-throated and Dusky Honeyeaters as well.

We left the reserve and drove through a few kilometers of drier Eucalypt forest, where we stopped to admire a hulking Blue-winged Kookaburra that stared back at us with a vaguely menacing air. Roadside wires held perched Forest Kingfishers, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Black-faced Woodswallows and the odd Willy Wagtail or Peaceful Dove. All along the road were posted signs indicating flood depths, a reminder that in a months’ time, with the arrival of the summer wet season much of the surrounding countryside will lie inundated with water (rain in this part of the world can be measured in feet rather than inches in the wet season).

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. We found the area to be bone dry and with temperatures nearly 8 degrees higher than average the activity through the morning was limited. The country here is pretty though, with one of the most obvious features being the many huge termite mounds, some towering over 15 feet tall that dot the grassy forest understory. We stopped for the obligatory termite mound photo and with a bit of walking around soon located a cooperative pair of Black-tailed Treecreepers. This top end endemic is the largest species of the genus, with an overall dark body plumage and bright orange wingbars. Other birds that we found on the drive included a wonderful Great Bowerbird, complete with a large bower that was a few feet off the road and beautifully decorated with white snail shells, several more Blue-winged Kookaburras, handsome Red-tailed Black-Cocaktoos, perched Dollarbirds, another pair of Silver-backed Butcherbirds and garrulous flocks of Galah and Little Corella. We stopped at a small patch of paperbark swamp that usually holds water through the dry season and were rewarded with a little flock of Masked Finch and a lazily cicling Black-breasted Buzzard.

Lunch and cold drinks at a nearby Roadhouse was well received, with a café 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 a couple of sheltered billabongs that we expected to still be holding water. This proved quite a good decision as both water holes were full, and the dense trees around them were attracting a lot of birds. At the Mary River Billabong we stood on a high bank over the water and had excellent views of several Banded and a few Rufous-throated Honeyeaters coming in to feast on the flowering Eucalypts along the edge of the water. We were also able to see small schools of Banded Grunters and a couple of Archerfish patrolling the submerged logs below us. This made us wonder a bit what else might be lurking underneath us, eating the archerfish… The bushlands around the ponds were quiet in the heat of the day, but we did pick out a pair of Bush Thick-Knees standing in the shade as we passed. We then moved over to the Hardies Billabong, which sits several kilometers off the Arnhem Highway. Our best sighting here occurred on the way in to the waterhole, when we surprised (and were surprised) by an Australian Bustard standing on the edge of the road. Although present around the top end this species isn’t particularly numerous, and with their preference for dry grasslands there is a seemingly inexhaustible amount of habitat for them to disappear into. This individual seemed rather nonplused at our arrival, as he slowly walked off into the bush, keeping one eye on us as it walked away.

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! Here we found the mangrove strip to be impacted by some recent construction (destruction), and although we tried for Mangrove Golden Whistler we had to content ourselves with views of another quite cooperative Arafura Fantail. Rather than revisit Fogg Dam we decided to spend the remaining heat of the day driving back to Darwin, where we were then able to close the day with a relaxed and surprisingly bird rich visit to Marlow Lagoon. This small city park boasts a set of two small ponds, one with a nicely vegetated and inaccessible central island and the other with thick stands of hyacinth and lily. Around the ponds are some very mature paperbarks and bottlebrushes, which, when flowering, act as a real magnet for birds. The park sits in a suburban setting but along two sides is bordered by a stand of drier eucalypt forest, making for quite a varied set of habitats in a small area. We made a short loop along the margins of the ponds, picking out a perched Azure Kingfisher hunting on the central island, a flurry of honeyeaters including a few White-gaped, Banded and Bar-breasted coming in to drink among the hyacinth stalks, perched Red-winged Parrots, close views of Comb-crested Jacanas, and Common and Wood Sandpipers stalking the water’s edge. Some taller trees were hosting a parade of birds perching in the late afternoon sun, with Torresian Imperial-Pigeon, Australian Figbird, Green Oriole, Red-collared Lorikeet and Forest Kingfisher all being admired in turn. We walked back along the edge of the drier forest, finding a couple of photogenic Blue-winged Kookaburras and a lovely little flock of Double-barred Finches in the process. Once back at the buses we decided to try a bit of playback for Australian Owlet-Nightjar, a species that used to be dependable in the park before a recent fire swept down the old tree that the birds were using as a roosting site. To our surprise though we heard an answering call coming from a nearby tree! We hastened over and figured out that there was really only one suitable cavity in the tree, and after a minute or two the bird popped its head out of the hole. Its wide grey and black face with 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 so well during the day. It provided a fitting end to what had been a truly wonderful day in the field.

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. Our main targets were to be found in the mangrove forest, so we left the trail to walk out to a likely looking section of the mangroves where we could actually get into the woods a little bit. Mangrove forest is surely one of the most difficult habitats to bird in, with squishy ground, often high heat and lots of hungry insects, and poor visibility. Our hoped-for Mangrove Robin called a few times out in the distance but remained stubbornly resistant to our efforts. A little Mangrove Gerygone though, performed much better, staying out in the scrubbier and more sunlit mangrove shrubs for us to enjoy. Perhaps the best sighting on the walk though was of a pair of Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves that slipped up and landed in a bare tree along the path. This is yet another incredibly colourful species, with a green, white, yellow, orange and magenta plumage all slathered around a small and portly frame. While watching the birds we mentioned that visiting birders should be careful. That fruit-doves can be addicting, and that the many species are spread out over a huge (and expensive to visit) area of the South Pacific. Although I suppose there are worse things to do than visit random tiny Pacific Islands in search of multihued pigeons. As we still had a bit of time before heading to the airport we decided to see if we could locate the resident pair of Beach Thick-Knees that can often be found in one of the many sheltered sandy beaches around the point. It took a bit of walking, but eventually we found three of these brightly plumaged and huge shorebirds sitting in the flotsam at the bottom of a bluff. Nowhere common, these huge Thick-Knees are impressive, with a truly huge bicolored bill designed for decimating the local crab population. The sighting marked our first for this species on the revamped Western Tour. While scanning for Thick-Knees we also picked out a half-dozen or more Brown Boobies flying out at sea, and lounging on distant navigation buoys.

Quite elated with our rapid success with two extremely cooperative species of highly desired birds we headed 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. Our first stop for the afternoon was a short 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 the car park, admiring the scenery and watching for motion on the cliffs. In a horizontal cleft in one of the rocks we spotted a sleeping Tawny Frogmouth, panting a bit from the sun, but seemingly sound asleep. Our main avian prize though was the several White-quilled Rock Pigeons that we found along the roadside leading in to the carpark, and walking around the buildings. 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.

Next we visited the shores of Lake Kununurra, a small lake connected to the nearby Ord River, lined with reedbeds and covered with emergent dead trees. Four species of Cormorants, including several Pied, lots of Darters, and a few Australian Pelicans were perched up on emergent trees. The lawns of the park were being regularly watered, making the area quite attractive to birds. By watching some of the small puddles in the lawn we were able to study a nice array of birds coming in to bathe or drink in the late afternoon heat. Flocks of Red-winged Parrots, Galah, and Red-collared Lorikeets were buzzing around the trees as well, creating quite a din with their various chattery calls. The water levels were high this year, which resulted in a lack of exposed shoreline in amongst the reedbeds and thus poor viewing conditions for marshbirds. As we walked along the shore we spotted at least three Australian Reed Warblers and a few carmine coloured Crimson Finches in the reeds but no apparent Crakes or Rails. We also 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. We actually located an active bower, and were able to watch at extremely close range as the male danced for an attendant female, bobbing up and down, flashing his bright hot purple nuchal crest, and carrying around a particularly tasty looking bright green fig. The display lasted more than 15 minutes, with many participants lying down on the adjacent grass to attain eye-level views of the proceedings. Nearby we found another female Bowerbird starting to build a nest. She was flying in with quite long branches and slowly weaving them in to the frame of her nest that was lodged at a fork of a major branch. Unlike the bowers, which tend to be rather obvious, the nest of this (and most other bowerbirds) is generally hidden and rarely seen. Between the multiple adults, the active display, the bower and a nest we felt like we fully covered the suite of behaviours exhibited by Great Bowerbird! 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, little groups of white-breasted Woodswallows and several brightly coloured Blue-faced Honeyeaters, here of the northern “White-quilled” subspecies.

Our last birding stop of the day was along one of the irrigation channels north of town, where we found a definite lack of finches (although a few Double-barred and Crimson were about). A canal side thicket though held a pair of Buff-sided Robins, which showed very nicely for us as they bounced around at near eye-level. 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. Leaving the first channel behind we stopped in at another canal where we were surprised to find two foraging White-winged Black Terns hovering over the water, and several close Dollarbirds sitting on roadside wires. Our last stop was at a small marsh along nearby Packsaddle Road, where a few flocks of fast-moving finches zipped over us. Perhaps due to the presence of a hunting Collared Sparrowhawk that was working the same line of bushes that we were the finch flocks moved further out into the marsh rather than landing in front of us as we had hoped. A few more Double-barred and Crimsons were in the adjacent trees, but after admiring the perched hawk for a bit we decided to head back to town for dinner.

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 in the forecast. As Kununurra sits in the far east of the time zone the day breaks before 5am, and when we hit the road at a bit after 5am it was already quite light out. We started the drive up the Great Northern Highway towards Wyndham, making our first stop 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. At one point on the walk we even spotted a mating pair of wallabies, that seemed only briefly distracted by our presence before they carried on with their business. As we walked around the top of the cliff we noted a passing Spotted Harrier, and huge flocks of Peaceful and Diamond Doves that seemed at times to almost weigh the trees down despite their tiny statures. A large group of Double-barred Finches here had a few Masked and several dozen Long-tailed Finches mixed in, allowing us a good opportunity to study this somewhat similar species pair.

Leaving the grotto behind we continued north, and near the end of the highway we turned off to take the dirt King River Road that heads further west from the main road. A friend of Tim’s had been working out on the road on a Gouldian Finch project for the past several days, and along with reporting good numbers of the study species and a nice array of assorted other birds he had told us of a Purple-crowned Fairywren sighting that he had made just a day or two prior to our visit. This species exists in only two remote populations, generally far off the itinerary of most bird tours, and is one that we had never really considered a possibility on any of the WINGS tour offerings. Luck was on our side, as when we pulled in to the study site the crew was still present and they gave us directions to the particular pandanus thicket that the bird had been in the prior morning. It took a little time (though there were an amazing number of birds in the area to distract us) but soon enough the bird, a female or non-breeding male, popped up onto a pandanus leaf and remained for almost a minute before dropping down into the grass, sadly not to be seen again. Our run of great luck didn’t stop there though, as among the throngs of birds that were coming in to drink at the projects provided water sources we picked out our first Grey-fronted Honeyeaters (another write-in for the tours cumulative list), a couple of Striated Pardalote, our only Jacky-Winter (a rather drab Australian Robin), literally hundreds of Rufous-throated Honeyeaters and noisy groups of Little and Silver-crowned Friarbirds. Here too were several small flocks of Budgerigars that wheeled by and occasionally perched above the water hole. One of the iconic species of inland Australia and a familiar bird across the world in pet stores it’s sometimes a bit of a relief to see that not all the Budgies in the world are surrounded by a cage with a small mirror and millet bell. A little further west we stopped where the mangroves along the King River came quite close to the road. Here we were successful at finding a pair of Mangrove Golden-Whistlers (the species that had eluded us east of Darwin a few days before), as well as a busy little flock of Yellow White-eye and a somewhat disturbing number of mosquitos.

Leaving the hungry hordes behind 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-hour worth of birding at the same time. Around the towns sports oval we located two slightly early arriving migrant Little Curlews and a couple of Australian Pratincoles among the many sitting Kites and Lapwings. We then checked out the adjacent Wyndham caravan park, where the park owners have created a small set of drinking pools to attract finches and honeyeaters. Even in the heat of midday we found the set up to be very active, with hordes of Rufous-throated, Banded and Brown Honeyeaters, Silver-crowned and Little Friarbirds, White-winged Triller, Spinifex Pigeon and Long-tailed, Masked and Double-barred Finches crowding onto the water trays.

After having lunch at the new (and surprisingly good) bakery in town, where some folks deigned to try the locally famous crocodile pie, we spent the rest of the afternoon staking out a couple of waterholes in Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve. The reserve protects a massive grassy plain, that in a few months’ time will become a truly vast wetland complex with the wet season rains. We drove out to one of the northern ponds, stopping to admire a few Australian Bushlarks that were sheltering in the shade of some small bushes. Even from a distance we could tell where the water was, as hordes of Fairy Martins and Woodswallows were flying over the fringing trees around the dam. As it was truly hot, and right in the middle of the day we decided to walk to a shaded section around the pond and have a big sit, quietly watching the activity that soon enveloped us. In about an hour and a half we recorded 41 species attending the pond, an impressive total, made even more impressive by the fact that it precisely matched the afternoon temperature. Raptors put on an excellent show, likely attracted by the myriad species coming in to drink. Brown Goshawk, Brown Falcon, Nankeen Kestrel, Black, Whistling and Brahminy Kites, Spotted Harrier and even a Wedge-tailed Eagle zipped through during our vigil! The thick vegetation lining one edge of the pond was heaving with an array of small birds coming in to drink, and among the more common species we picked out several Australian Pipits (here of an odd and obviously different looking race that future ornithologists will surely split from the more widespread form. Waterbirds such as Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Whiskered Tern and White-faced Heron were initially wary at our approach but soon settled down, spending the time with us in the afternoon heat. Flocks of Red-collared Lorikeets, Galah and Crested Pigeons wheeled in to drink in a frenzied kaleidoscope of colour, providing a great opportunity for the photographers in the group to obtain some excellent images. It was a very peaceful way to pass the heat of the afternoon, and although once again we were stymied on our hoped-for Gouldian Finches the ornithological show was excellent. In the late afternoon we moved a bit south in the reserve to visit the RAMSAR designated Marglu Billabong, where 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. Lots of waterbirds were foraging in the shallow water, from side by side comparisons of Yellow-billed and Royal Spoonbills, to our first Plumed and Wandering Whistling Ducks and a nice array of herons there were birds everywhere we looked. Around the bird hide a very bold Paperbark Flycatcher was chattering away during our entire visit, and almost unbelievably we picked out another male Yellow Chat that was walking along the distant shoreline! Again, lots of raptors were about, with the best likely being Brown Falcon and Nankeen Kestrel, both sitting on the water’s edge in the late afternoon sun. Shortly after we arrived at the hide we noticed a small flock of finches zipping down to drink, they quickly shot off, only to come back for a second pass a few minutes later. Their beige bodies, black faces and spangled chests identified them as Pictorella Manakins; a rather scare species of semi-nomadic finch that we had not ever encountered on a WINGS tour before. Unfortunately the birds didn’t linger long enough for everyone to get onto them, but their appearance caused us to stay longer into the early evening than we had initially planned, in the hopes that they might return. This longer stay allowed us to be in place when a small group of stocky pigeons came in to drink. As they flew past the blind it became quickly apparent that many sported bold black and white pattered heads, brony-brown bodies, and white leading edges to the wings; Flock Bronzewings! This was an unexpected bonus, and again a new species for WINGS’s Australia tours. It’s a highly nomadic pigeon that can occur in truly awe-inspiring flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds as they roam the arid inland portions of the country. Incredibly the birds landed not too far from the blind, allowing us to scope them at leisure as they slowly made their way across the dry muddy verge of the lake towards the water. With three completely unexpected write-ins for the day there was a bit of celebrating as we enjoyed dinner at the old pumphouse (converted into a somewhat swanky lakeside restaurant) once we returned to Kununurra.

On our final full day of the tour we arose extra early and made the one-hour drive to the southeast of town to meet our boatman for the Lake Argyle Cruise. 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, and flocks of foraging Whiskered Terns and Great Crested Grebes. 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. Little Comb-crested Jacanas and foraging Glossy and Australian White Ibis patrolled the shoreline in front of us, and on the emergent dead trees were perched a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cormorants and White-breasted Woodswallows. The water levels of the lake were quite low this year, which caused a lot of the normally marshy shoreline at our breakfast stop to be bone dry, making looking for White-browed Crakes a bit futile.

We motored further out to the south, slowly passing hordes of roosting Magpie Geese, Pelicans, Darters and Cormorants before reaching one of the long sandstone islands with high rocky cliffs jutting up from the lakeshore. Here we cruised close to the shore, scanning the cliff faces and vegetated crevices. Our efforts were rewarded when we found a couple of cooperative Short-eared Rock-Wallaby. 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. A bit further down the same island we came across two pairs of Sandstone Shrikethrush, a large cliff dwelling shrikethrush with a wonderfully musical cascading song. They bounced around above our boat, coming down close to the waterline and generally showing quite well for us. Although widespread in the rocky parts of the surrounding ranges it can be a tough bird to see as much of their preferred habitat is generally inaccessible, so the species is a bit of a specialty on these Lake Argyle cruise trips.

With the very low water levels the customary island, dubbed Chat Island, that is the focal point of our trip had actually connected to the adjacent island and also to the mainland, making a very narrow and long peninsula. This is an apparently worrying phenomena, as along with cattle from a nearby ranch, feral cats have reached the once mammal-free island where the Yellow Chats have historically bred. The local wildlife authorities are aware of the issue and are apparently working on a cat eradication scheme on the islands should the chat population be seen to be suffering. One positive note though was that with the low water levels the captain could actually bring the boat right up to the island, negating our usual short wade in knee-deep water to reach the shore. Generally we visit the island chiefly to look for the small population of Yellow Chat that have made this area 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. Although incredibly we had already seen the species at two other locations on the tour (a feat never to be repeated I will wager) we followed the program and walked over to the brushy areas that they tend to breed in. We quickly found about ten birds, with several males in fine feather, bright yellow with a tinge of orange, and with a sharp black breast mark. The fringing shoreline of the island was full of waterfowl and waders, with our first Green Pygmy-Geese, and hundreds of Plumed and Wandering Whistling-Ducks being particularly remarkable. About ten Australian Bustards were walking out on the sand, and we spent some time working through the mixed flocks of shorebirds along the lakeshore which included Red-capped Plover, Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterel, Red-necked Stint, Marsh, Common, Wood and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and lots of Pied Stilts. In all we detected over 40 species on the short walk on the “island” a pretty incredible total for such an isolated spot.

Before returning to the dock we enjoyed a short break with fresh cut melons and even a bit of optional swimming in the lake. One last stop before ending the tour netted us excellent views of over a dozen White-quilled Rock-Pigeons that were scampering around on some wonderfully red sandstone cliffs on an island not far from the boat dock. As our first encounter with this handsome species involved a single bird in the shade of a park toilet building it was nice to see so many of them in a more natural setting. Once back on dry land we bade farewell to our captain and made a quick stop at a nearby park below the dam on the banks of the Ord River, where we were thrilled to find our main target, the often-elusive Northern Rosella fairly quickly. Three birds flew in and perched overhead while we were watching the antics of a displaying Great Bowerbird and showed off their primary coloured plumage quite well as they sat above us. The little park also held several approachable Blue-winged Kookaburra, lots of vocal Silver-crowned Friarbirds, and several flocks of Red-winged Parrots.

We drove back towards Kununurra, stopping at a couple of roadside puddles where we found lots of birds coming in to drink. This enabled us to once again study mixed finch flocks, this time consisting of Long-tailed, Masked, Double-barred and Crimson as they sat on rocks along the puddles edge. We spent a bit of time watching as a pair of Brolga walked off into the brush, disturbed by our proximity to their tiny wetland. The photographers in the group had a good time with the many Rainbow Bee-eaters that were splashing down into the water to cool off, and with the Brown Goshawk that buzzed the puddle a few times, scattering honeyeaters like confetti through the trees.

As our flight was scheduled for the early afternoon we had limited time, so after lunch and some time to pack up we were able to briefly check the wetlands at the north end of Lily Lagoon, which proved an excellent choice. In about twenty minutes of scanning the reedbeds we picked out at least four White-browed Crakes, several of which came out completely into the open for us. A quietly sitting Azure Kingfisher was a nice find here too, and our views of Australian Reed Warbler would be hard to beat. We drove back north along Ivanhoe Rd, heading for 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 a dense reedbed adjacent to the canal. The flock contained numbers of Star and Crimson Finches with a few Long-tailed and Double-barred (looking as elegant and Parisian as ever) thrown in for good measure. The cavorting Dollarbirds that flew past us, flashing their multihued wings as passed proved to be our last notable bird sighting as we hastened to the airport to catch our flight back to Darwin; a fitting ending to a really remarkable tour through the western and central part of this amazing country. Over the course of the 17 days we tallied 313 species of birds (roughly half of the mainland Australian avifauna) across a wonderful cross-section of habitats. Of the three regular WINGS tours it is this Western Tour that I most look forward to every other year, simply because of the remote and beautiful nature of many of the landscapes, and the remarkable differences in habitat condition from year to year.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 06 November 2019