Saturday, 24 February 2018


2018 is not being kind to me.

I dipped on the Black-eared Catbird, and now I've dipped on the White-necked Petrel for the second time this year.  That's it for WNP attempts for me this year, as I'll be in the Torres Strait in March.  (Best time to see these petrels is January, February and March.  They are recorded in April - in fact I've been told that Port Stephens in April is the best time to see them - but the records do not seem to back that up.)
Long-tailed Jaeger, photo by Brook Whylie

It was a disappointing day at sea.  The weather was better than expected - it was warm, there was a little wind and some rain as we returned to port.  We expected heavy seas, but they really weren't too bad.  It was a little rough as we headed to the shelf, but not nearly as bumpy as had been forecast.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie 

In January, when I did the Kiama pelagic, I decided the Bird of the Day was the bulbul I saw on the way to the boat.  Yesterday, it was easy to select the Bird of the Day, as there were so few contenders.  I added three seabirds to my list for 2018:  Wilson's Storm Petrel, Shy Albatross and Long-tailed Jaeger.  The storm petrel flew past just once, wanting to get himself onto our list, but not staying to chat.  The albatross also did not linger.  It flew in to the berley, grabbed breakfast and departed immediately.  The jaegers were more cooperative.  There were several big fat Pomarine Jaegers throughout the day, but I'm told there were only three Long-tailed Jaegers:  an adult, a juvenile and an immature.  They stayed with us for most of the day, flying overhead and showing off their different plumages.  Indisputably the Bird of the Day.
Hutton's Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

We saw the usual list of shearwaters, a few Grey-faced Petrels and a sprinkling of terns.  I think any birder would have classed it as an unsatisfactory birdlist.
Grey-faced Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

It was a disappointed wet group of birders who disembarked from the boat when we returned to Kiama.  I believe there were a dozen birders on board.  At least five of us had travelled up from Victoria with the sole purpose of admiring a White-necked Petrel.  It was my eighteenth attempt to see this bird. I wonder how many more times must I travel north in search of a bird that is not supposed to be rare.

Thursday, 15 February 2018


Yesterday, my birding friend, PJ, and I visited the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee.  It was our first visit for 2018, so we expected to get lots of ticks for our year lists.  We saw nine species of ducks and five species of terns.  We saw several (five I think) very dark young Swamp Harriers, each looking very handsome.  We saw Glossy Ibis, Baillon's Crake and a Black-faced Cormorant (a bird we rarely see at Werribee).  We had great views of a very friendly Little Grassbird, and, to cap it all off, a Peregrine Falcon and a pair of wedgies put in appearance as we were leaving.

We arrived at about 11 and left around 3.30.  In this time we clocked up 83 species, notwithstanding wind and rain.

Luck seemed to be with us.  We started at the T Section where the roads had all been graded and gravelled.  We were most appreciative of this when it started to rain.  All the usual suspects were here (waders, ducks, coots, cisticolas, finches, chats) as well as one confident and confiding Baillon's Crake, one Glossy Ibis and our friendly Little Grassbird.

Next, we drove to Western Lagoons, where we always add Red-capped Plover to our list.  We were admiring waders here, when a couple of Brolgas flew overhead - always an inspiring sight.  We were pleased to see a Marsh Sandpiper foraging beside a Common Greenshank, making a useful comparison.

We stopped along Beach Road to admire our first Black-shouldered Kite for the day, and saw a large flock of Zebra Finches with a few European Greenfinches tagging along, and Yellow-rumped Thornbills hopping amongst them.  All birds we'd hoped to add to our lists for 2018.

We drove to the boat launch and I said I'd like a Pacific Gull.  Obligingly, PJ pointed to the left.  Then I requested a Pied Cormorant and immediately PJ produced one. While my luck was in, I said an Australasian Gannet would be good and one flew unusually close right in front of us!  Howzat!  Perhaps I should have requested a White-necked Petrel!

As we drove through the gate on Beach Road we could see ducks loafing on Freckled Duck Rock.  We drove closer and confirmed they were Freckled Ducks.  This was once a reliable spot to see them, but I haven't seen them there for years.
Male Freckled Duck - I confess I did not take this yesterday

We took the coast road to the Borrow Pits, then drove out along Paradise Road, where Cape Barren Geese were grazing.  Our bird list was round about 80 and we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves.  Then the peregrine appeared, right beside the car, and a couple of wedgies soared overhead as we drove through the final gate.

Werribee never disappoints, but yesterday was really one out of the bag.

Sunday, 28 January 2018


Oh, dear.  Recently I was lamenting the fact that I'd dipped on Black-eared Catbirds after four trips to Iron Range - two of which had the sole purpose of looking for catbirds.  Now I am bemoaning the fact that I've dipped on White-necked Petrels.  Again.

I have looked for White-necked Petrels every summer since 2008.  I've been to Wollongong on six occasions, Port Stephens twice, Southport twice and this was my third trip to Kiama.  In addition to this, four boat trips I've booked on for the sole purpose of admiring White-necked Petrels, have been cancelled.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

We had a pleasant day out of Kiama on Saturday 27 January 2018.  The weather was perfect, the sea was calm, the company was great, but there were no exciting birds.  For me, the best bird of the trip was the bulbul I saw sitting on electricity wires on the way to the boat.  A White-tailed Tropicbird was probably the most unusual sighting we had.  It flew low over the boat, giving good views.  The only jaegers we saw were Pomarines, and I think there were about half a dozen of them.  We saw six species of shearwater:  the most common was Wedge-tailed, then Flesh-footed, with just one or two Short-tailed and Sooty.  We had exceptionally good views of both Fluttering and Hutton's and what was most unusual was they were close enough even for me to tell the difference.
Fluttering Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

Hutton's Shearwater, photo by Brook Whylie

Naturally, a White-necked Petrel was seen out of Southport the day after I didn't see one out of Kiama.  All I can do is keep my fingers crossed for February.

Thursday, 18 January 2018


I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iron Range.  On this occasion (as on the last) I had just one aim:  to see a Black-eared Catbird.  Before I signed up for the trip, I asked about catbirds and was assured that there was a good chance of seeing one.  We spent three nights at Lockhart River, and in that time we heard three catbird calls.  Each was a single call.  None was repeated.  Looking back, I don't believe that there ever was a reasonable chance of seeing a catbird.

Iron Range is on the north of Cape York.  It is a long way from Melbourne.  To get there, I fly to Cairns, then fly in a Dash 8 to Lockhart River, which takes 1 hour 40 minutes from Cairns.

My first trip to Iron Range was in June 2008 with Klaus.  We saw Green-backed Honeyeaters, Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots.  Also the northern races of Double-eyed Fig-Parrots (male with red on his face) and Red-browed Finches (with brighter colours).  We saw a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo at Cook's Hut and several Papuan Frogmouths (with red eyes) and Marbled Frogmouths (with orange eyes).  We stayed at a house in Portland Roads and came home one night to a Large-tailed Nightjar sitting on our driveway.  Klaus did a good job and we saw all the birds we'd hoped to see.  I thought I would never need to return to Iron Range.  
Quintell Beach

In September 2015, with Richard Baxter, I stopped briefly at Portland Roads on the way to Raine Island (to see the Herald Petrel).  Again, we admired Double-eyed Fig-Parrots at close quarters, but we had little time for birding and hurried to catch our boat.

Then came the catbird split and I had to return to Iron Range to see the Black-eared Catbird, now given full species status.  In July 2017, I visited with Phil Maher.  We had four nights at the Lockhart River cabins and saw 77 species of birds.  Alas! the Black-eared Catbird was not one of them.

After that, I did not want to go all the way to Iron Range and again miss out on my catbird.  Chook Crawford was running a tour in January 2018, arriving on Friday 12 January and leaving on Monday 15 January.  I quizzed him about catbirds and he said there was 'a good chance' of seeing one.
My cabin at Lockhart River

There were 14 of us on the tour, as well as Chook and his wife, Tracey.  I think 14 is too many for one guide with one scope.  Having said that, I believe everyone on the tour was quite satisfied with the birds we saw.  Everyone that is, except me!  We all saw Red-bellied Pittas, Northern Scrub-robins, Eclectus and Red-cheeked Parrots, Palm Cockatoos and White-streaked Honeyeaters.  And we had great views of Black-winged Monarchs.  For the first two days, I had vicarious pleasure in others getting life ticks.  Then, when I realized that I was not going to see my catbird, the pleasure waned.
Chook Crawford contemplating catbirds at Cook's Hut

We were lucky that it didn't rain, but the weather was hot and sticky and uncomfortable.  We did a lot of bush bashing for the pittas, something I never enjoy.  They were a good bunch of people and it was great to see some very beautiful birds.  However, I went to see a catbird and in this I failed dismally.

2018 is not starting off well for me.

Monday, 8 January 2018


While in New Guinea waters, we saw a Beck's Petrel.  This filled us all with enthusiasm.  What wonderful birds there were here!  What great sightings we were going to have!

We left on Wednesday and arrived in Australian waters on Thursday.  On this memorable day we saw four rarities.  As it turned out they were the only rarities of the trip for most of us.  On Saturday, Damien saw a Band-rumped Storm Petrel.  Unfortunately no one else did.  I was standing right beside him and couldn't see the bird.  This is a comment as much about my eyesight as about how difficult it was to see the bird.  Generally, all birds were difficult to see on this trip.

Our four exciting birds were:  a Fiji Petrel, a Heinroth's Shearwater, a Tropical Shearwater and a Pink-footed Shearwater.

This does sound very exciting - and it was - but it didn't last long.  We all went to bed on Wednesday night thinking we'd all come home with extraordinary, incredible birdlists.  Little did we know, that was it.  There would be nothing else to add to our lifelists.  Most of the trip had very, very few birds.  Nothing was attracted to our berley.  We did not have good views of most birds.  The Red-footed Boobies that roosted on our mast were one exception, and we saw thousands of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, but most birds were (for me) just dots on the horizon.  But mainly, it was just the horizon.

I did not enjoy the trip.  I was ill.  Richard was ill.  Hedley was ill.  The sea was rough.  We weren't seasick, we had some virus I believe.  At least this meant that, when I wasn't fed, I wasn't so hungry.

I had a cabin to myself.  Down a steep ladder.  On the first night an intruder entered my cabin.  Whoever it was did not answer my questions and did not obey my demand that he or she leave.  Perhaps he or she didn't speak English. My room was a store room full of towels.  This intruder calmly helped itself to an armful of towels, then left in its own good time.  I locked the door thereafter and had no more problems.  But I never felt quite easy after that.  Hedley and Irena had a dodgy door handle, which came off in their hands, leaving them locked inside their room.  Mike and James' room leaked when it rained.  I didn't like the boat at all.

We were buzzed by the Border Force a couple of times and they contacted the ship to check up on us.  They asked the second mate to spell the name of the ship, but he found that spelling the name 'Surveyor' was quite beyond him.  We stifled our laughter.

One interesting phenomenon we came across was a yellow substance in the water.  Glen gathered some in a bucket, but closer examination didn't help to identify it at all.  He suggested it might be coral spawn.

Some fish were caught, but watching them being dispatched was not a vegetarian's delight.

When it was apparent that we could not make the seamounts we were headed for, we turned back, hoping that we'd come across the large flocks of feeding birds we'd seen on the way.  Perhaps with another rarity, or even better views of the same rarities.

It was not to be.  Usually when I return home with a tick or two under my belt, I feel pretty pleased with myself.  Not on this occasion.  This trip was a mistake.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017


On Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, together with Steve Casten, Philip Jackson and James Mustafa, I travelled to Old Bar on the New South Wales coast to twitch the recently reported Aleutian Terns.

A great way to end the year.  Any tick is uplifting, but some are more special than others.  It's nice to cross off a bird from your 'Not Yet Seen' list, but it's even more special to add a bird to your lifelist, which hitherto has not even been on the Australian list.  Very special indeed.

Philip organized our bookings.  We were flying to Newcastle, hiring a car, driving to Old Bar, ticking the terns and returning the same night, arriving back in Melbourne before 9 p.m.  Ha!

As usual, I was totally organized.  Everything ready to go the day before.  Bag packed, clothes out, alarm set.  The plan was:  I was to drive to Philip's, arriving at 4.45 a.m., and James would drive us both to the airport.   I spent a sleepless night, listening to the radio and wishing 4 a.m. would come so I could get up and start the day.  Eventually I hopped out of bed to check the time, to see how much longer I had to lie there waiting.  It was already 5 a.m.!  I was seriously late.  I would have to tell the others to go without me.  I rang James and he told me that he'd pick me up.  I have never dressed so quickly.  I was standing on the footpath outside our house, still buttoning up my shirt, when James and Philip arrived.  Good friends that they are, they didn't curse me.  James drove skillfully and quickly.  We parked close to the terminal and ran to the gate.  Those gates are a long way in T4.  Breathless, we arrived just in time.  Steve was there already, waiting impatiently for the three of us to arrive.

I calmed down on the plane and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Newcastle.  We picked up our car and drove to Old Bar.  The temperature climbed gradually to an unbearable 43 degrees.  When we parked in the carpark, there were several cars there already, but no indication whether they belonged to birders, surfers or fisher people.

We'd read that it was a kilometre walk along the beach.  It seemed much further to me.  It was already hot.  One interesting phenomenon was a large number of dead and dying cicadas on the beach.  Where did they come from?

Signs informed us of nesting Little Terns, so we carefully avoided this clearly fenced area.  Hard to believe that not all birders would walk around a tern colony.  You can (perhaps) understand nonbirders taking a short cut, but I cannot comprehend anyone who calls himself a birder walking through a colony of nesting birds.  And, before you object, let me tell you that they are all hims!  I've never witness a female doing such a thing.

We arrived at the bar.  There were waders, terns and cormorants.  We made our way to a small group of birders and enquired about the Aleutian Terns.  I think they said a light plane had flown low over the birds and the terns had been spooked.  Aleutian Terns, which had been present earlier that morning, were now nowhere to be seen.  There was nothing for it but to wait for them to return.  Suddenly, it seemed much hotter.

David Stowe was one of the birders present.  He was not prepared to wait patiently like the rest of us, and wandered off looking at birds.  Bless him!  Amongst all the terns and waders, he quickly found an Aleutian Tern!  We all hurried along the beach and all managed to admire the bird through a friendly birder's scope.  Tick!  

Our bird flew to another sandbar, and was soon joined by several other Aleutian Terns.  Notwithstanding the presence of an osprey, the terns remained, giving us all good views and the photographers good photos.  Of course, the photos were never good enough and the photographers had to wade into the water to get closer.  Such is the nature of photography.  There is always a better photo if only you get a little nearer.
Aleutain Terns, photo by Steve Castan

That's the story really.  The drama of Newcastle airport being closed because of lightning strikes, many flights cancelled and expecting to be stranded overnight does not seem quite so important any more.  We were not stranded.  Our flight was delayed.  Then delayed some more, but finally left.  Thanks to James I was home safely at 1 a.m.

Thanks, Philip, for all that organizing.  Thanks, James for your driving.  And thanks Steve for your photos.  A wonderful way to end the year.

Sunday, 3 December 2017


I had looked forward to my trip to the Coral Sea for years.  As it approached, I felt more and more anxious about it, but at the same time I was still very excited and keen to see what rare seabirds we might encounter.  Few birders visit the Coral Sea and we really didn't know what might be there.  My anxiety was due to the fact that we were leaving from Port Moresby.  We were due to arrive there on 31 October, the very day that the detention centre on Manus Island was scheduled to close.  I thought there might be some anti-Australian feeling overflowing from Manus to Port Moresby.  There was also some doubt about the procedure for obtaining an entry visa.  Different websites had different information.  It was hard to know what to believe.  Recent news reports told of people being refused a visa on arrival, and returned home.

There were twelve of us travelling with Richard Baxter's Birding Tours Australia, including his son Damien.  More than half of us were in the 800 club.  I knew it would be an absolute privilege to spend eleven days with some of Australia's top birders.

Eight of us were from Victoria.  We met at Melbourne airport early in the morning.  We were to fly to Brisbane, then on to Port Moresby.  Our plan was to apply for our visas together, and, if necessary, assist each other through the bureaucracy.

I'm told it is unwise to go grocery shopping when you are hungry.  You buy more food than you need.  I think I should probably not write a posting here when I am feeling particularly pleased with myself, as I am right now.  This morning I saw a Pacific Koel on my morning walk:  a new bird for my annual list.  You could expect that anything I wrote at the moment would be seen through rose-coloured glasses.  Please bear this in mind:  my report is more positive than I felt at the time.  There was nothing positive about my trip to the Coral Sea.

Our flights to Brisbane, then Port Moresby, were uneventful.  Our trepidation about our entry visas proved quite unnecessary.  Our passports were stamped in routine fashion, and together we boarded the courtesy bus to the Ela Beach hotel.  

My room overlooked a building site.  We were informed that this was our taxes at work.  A future APEC meeting in Port Moresby required that Australia construct a venue.  Naturally.  Where else but Ela Beach?

That afternoon we visited the local supermarket to purchase alcohol and snacks for the trip.  Richard had ordered taxis.  When they didn't arrive, we took the hotel's courtesy bus.  I didn't take any local currency, but I had no trouble buying alcohol with my credit card.  In my ignorance, I thought I would not need any snacks.

The boat we were to sail on had been changed four times.  It didn't make much difference to us.  We hadn't seen any of these proposed vessels.  In the end we sailed on M. V. Surveyor.  Remarkably, the next morning, we boarded on time, and sailed at 7 a.m.  

When we arrived at the dock, the first issue that confronted me was how to board the vessel.  I always have trouble getting on and off boats.  Usually I rely on help from strong men.  On this occasion I was horrified to see the shaky gangplank with no handrails.  I might have met my match.  Others skipped across the gangplank quite happily.  Clearly, any trepidation was my fault.  I soon figured that the only way to board the boat was to hang on to Damien and not look down.  I let Irena go first.  That's me, standing in front of the bus, looking anxious and wondering whether I was capable of getting onto the boat.

Boarding M.V. Surveyor, photo by Jenny Spry

Of course I did manage to get onto the boat.  Thanks to Damien.  I don't think I could have done it without him.

The boat was not comfortable.  Accommodation was not great.  We sat on plastic chairs, which walked across the deck as the boat moved.  Between us, we managed to ruin at least three during the trip.  There were 13 of us.  Even before we'd broken any, there were not 13 chairs.  The upper deck gave great views, but was far too mobile for me.  And there was nothing to hang on to.  I spent most time on the main deck, where there was some shade, at some hours of the day.

And I should mention the food.  The boat had been informed (twice) that I was vegetarian.  Instead of saying that they could not cater for vegetarians, they simply ignored this advice.  For meat eaters, I don't suppose the food was all that bad.  True, there was no orange juice for breakfast and the only coffee looked like International Roast.  The only fruit was one pineapple we were given for breakfast on about day seven.  Three times we were not fed lunch.  Once, the cook was seasick.  The other times he simply couldn't be bothered.  The crew (eight of them, no less!) were fed out the back, while we went hungry.  For me, the lowlight was being given a toasted beetroot and lettuce sandwich for lunch.  This happened twice.

As I say, we left at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.  We arrived in Australian waters at 6.39 a.m. on Thursday.  We saw our first Australian bird at 9.45 a.m.  Appropriately, it was a Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

This is the route we took.

Thanks to Graham Barwell for this image.