Sunday, 30 November 2014


Red Crab migration on Christmas Island
I have just returned from a tour of Christmas and Cocos Islands run by Richard Baxter.  It was my third trip to Christmas Island and my second to the Cocos group, but without a doubt, it was the best.  I went hoping to see a Saunders' Tern as I'd dipped on this bird on my previous trip to Cocos in 2007.  In fact, on my previous trip, I'd only achieved one lifer:  the Western Reef Egret.  This time I achieved a phenomenal nine lifers on Cocos and another four on Christmas Island!  

The Saunders' Tern was hard work:  we took canoes from West Island (where we stayed) to South Island, then had to wade through warm water of varying depths to glimpse the terns on a far sandbank.  Luckily, we all did get a glimpse before they flew.  Thank goodness Jenny took her scope!  Everyone was very relaxed about the reef sharks that accompanied us in the water - that is, everyone except me!  Before I left, I'd just read On the Rocks by Bryan Nelson, which mentions that an ornithologist studying gannets had been badly bitten by a reef shark when he was wading nonchalantly through shallow water.

Black-tipped Reef Shark that accompanied us to see Saunders' Terns
We also worked hard for the Chinese Pond-Heron, wading through deep water for twenty minutes, avoiding clams, unexpected holes, more reef sharks, moray eels, coral, many beches de mer and one huge 2 metre sea slug.  Worse than all these tribulations was the strong wind that might easily have been blown us over - well, me anyway.  Of course, it was all worth it when we had wonderful views of the pond-heron.  It was too easy.  I was looking through my binoculars and the pond-heron flew into view!  Then we had to wade for another twenty minutes back to shore, in time to catch the ferry home to West Island.

On Home Island, in the garden surrounding Clunies Ross House, we first saw Chinese Sparrowhawk.  We saw these birds several times over the next few days.  I also glimpsed a large brown bird, which Richard identified as a Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo.  Others had better views.  Then I suffered the birders' dilemma:  could I count a fleeting glance?  It is a real temptation to add such sightings to your lifelist.  After all, I'd seen the bird.  It had been identified.  Why not add it to my list?  No one (other than me) knew that I hadn't really had a good look.  However, I was strong and resisted the temptation.  For this, I was rewarded three days later with the best possible views of the bird perching cooperatively, showing his yellow eye-ring, his downturned bill and his characteristically barred tail.

We did not have to work so hard for the Javan Pond-Heron - or at least, I didn't.  Others were not quite so lucky.  It will always be memorable for me as it was my 750th Australian bird.

It was a great trip and I came home very happy with my 13 lifers.  I'd hoped for a bittern or a wagtail:  we did not see one of either.  Usually, I lament my omissions.  However, right now, I am quite delighted with all that we did see. My Australian total now sits on 755.

Saturday, 15 November 2014


When I heard that the Long-billed Dowitcher had returned to Lake Tutchewop, I had no option but to go back.  It was worth the drive (and what a drive it was!)  Thanks to the friendly birders at the lake, who located the bird, I achieved a wonderful lifer - a bird that I'd never dreamed I'd see.  I am again indebted to my fellow birders.

I planned to arise at 5 a.m. and leave at 6, but as I was awake anyway, I jumped out of bed at 4.15, and left at 5.  It was dark and very, very wet.  My first problem was that Johnson Street had been blocked off for some sort of street carnival.  Despite having no sense of direction, I managed to navigate my way around that in the dark.  The next problem was filling the car with petrol - something I've never done before in my new car.  Then, going up the Calder at about 60 k in the 110 k zone, I found myself aquaplaning all over the wet road.  Most disconcerting.  I wondered if there'd be ice at Macedon.  It was 8.5 degrees, so I figured that was too warm for ice.  Instead I was treated to thick fog.

The first bird I saw was a kookaburra at 6.20.  Other good birds on the trip up were a Royal Spoonbill and a Spotted Harrier.

I arrived at around 8.45, better timing than I'd expected with my slow speeds.  I drove up Lake William Road, noting the sign "Dry Weather Road Only."  I parked cautiously on the road and was disappointed to see that there were no birders present on this (south) side of the lake.  Within minutes a white 4WD arrived, and drove off the road and into the mud.  I followed it on foot down towards the lake and recognised Barb Williams as one of the passengers.  Again there were lots of stilts and avocets, but not much else.  Certainly no sign of a dowitcher.

After extricating the 4WD from the mud, the carload of birders decided to check the north side of the lake and Barb promised to phone me if the bird were there.  The road on the north side was undergoing major roadworks when we were here on Wednesday, and I thought it wouldn't be safe to drive on it in my little car.  I think the aquaplaning on the Calder made me more cautious than usual.

Then came the news:  the bird was present!  I was going north, mud or no mud.  I smiled sweetly (at least I hope it was a sweet smile) at a total stranger and asked for a lift.  I drove to the north road where I intended to park and jump into his vehicle, but when I arrived, I thought the road looked perfectly fine - in fact much better than Lake William Road - so I did not need to impose on him.

There were quite a few people there - I counted 13 cars.  And a very happy group of birders they were too.  After last Wednesday's heat, today was windy and cold.  And most of all, muddy.  But nothing could dampen our spirits as we admired that dear, delightful dowitcher. 

I should also thank Richard Baxter for posting the bird's return on Birding-Aus, because otherwise I would not have known it was there. 

Thursday, 13 November 2014


Lake Tutchewop - no dowitcher in sight
Australian birders were very excited to learn that an American Dowitcher had been seen on Lake Tutchewop in northern Victoria.  People who hadn't seen the bird formed opinions about whether it was Short-billed or Long-billed.  I think in the end, Long-billed Dowitcher won out.  A first for Australia!

Last Monday evening I received a text from Mick Roderick telling me about the bird.  I found the lake on the map between Kerang and Swan Hill.  It didn't look too far to drive.  Roger, my husband, (not a birder) was not in the least bit interested.  I spent a sleepless night wondering if I really wanted to drive there alone in my little low car.  If we had to drive around a salt lake, it would be much more comfortable in Roger's 4WD.  On Tuesday morning, as usual, Roger slept in.  I pottered about the house, telling myself that there were other things in life than rare birds, and that I should concentrate on next week's trip to Christmas Island.

A trip to Christmas Island is a very exciting event, yet I refused to be consoled.  This year I'd already missed out on the Yellow Bittern in Brisbane and the Citrine Wagtail in Mudgee, surely I was entitled to tick this Victorian bird.

Rog finally emerged about noon, went to his computer, then announced that we could leave immediately, but he was only prepared to drive as far as Bendigo today.  That's how it happened that I did not arrive at Lake Tutchewop until about 9.30 on Wednesday morning.

A friendly group of birders stood on the north of the lake, and another on the south.  I learnt that the bird had not been seen since 6 p.m. on Tuesday.  There were quite a few waders and ducks on the lake, but nothing that vaguely resembled a dowitcher.  Most impressive were the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of avocets and stilts, loafing in the water.  There were more Black-winged than Banded, but plenty of both.  I caught up with old birding friends, and made some new ones.

At lunch time Rog and I drove into Swan Hill, had a quick bite, then found a motel for the night.  Then Rog took me back to the lake to wait some more for the dowitcher to return.  This time I was on the south side of the lake, and again I made some new birding friends.  Paul had come from Brisbane, Phillip from Melbourne.  Scott, who I'd met on a pelagic earlier this year, had driven down from Canberra.  Scott drove me around the lake very slowly and we examined every bird.  I am confident that the dowitcher was not there.

The next morning, on our way back to Melbourne, Rog and I again called in at the lake.  This time there was just one car present, and I didn't speak to anyone.  We visited both north and south of the lake and I do not believe that the bird was present.

So it was home to Melbourne, without my tick.  I was disappointed, of course.  But I was very pleased that I'd at least tried to see the bird.  If the options are staying at home and not looking, and going out and being disappointed, give me disappointment every time.  I had an enjoyable time at the lake.  I met some great people.  And those Banded Stilts alone were worth the trip.