Tuesday, 24 May 2016

THE QUEST FOR THE COPPERBACK QUAILTHRUSH

I set off full of hopeful anticipation.  I was on a roll.  Apart from dipping on the seemingly impossible White-necked Petrel, I'd done very well so far in 2016, starting with the cooperative Paradise Shelduck at Lake Wollumboola in January, then surpassing all expectations in the Torres Strait in March.  So I expected to see the Copperback Quailthrush, a bird I had heard in 2011 at Yumbarra Conservation Park and whose nest and eggs I'd admired at Lake Gilles Conservation Park.

I had four possible sites to look for it:  the above mentioned Conservation Parks in South Australia and two sites in Western Australia:  scrub around the Mundrabilla Roadhouse and Karrawang Nature Reserve near Kalgoorlie.  I knew Roger wouldn't want to drive as far as Kalgoorlie, but I wasn't concerned.  I expected to get the bird at Lake Gilles.
Lake Gilles Conservation Park

Heaven knows why I was so confident.  My eyesight is not what it once was.  And I had missed out on seeing this bird on at least three occasions, when I'd been with other birders who had seen it.  And yet I expected to see it.

Our trip started off in Port Fairy, where I was booked on a pelagic with Neil Macumber on Sunday 8 May.  My sister-in-law had never seen an albatross, and I wanted to rectify that situation.  The weather was dicey and Neil could not confirm that the pelagic would proceed, but we set off from home nevertheless.  On Saturday, Neil gave us the bad news:  seas were too rough; the pelagic would not proceed.  My disappointed sister-in-law and I enjoyed a rainy day walking around Port Fairy instead.  Then she and my brother headed east, and Roger and I set off westwards, towards Copperback Quailthrush territory.
The Big Galah, Kimba

There is little to report of interest about our trip from Port Fairy to Kimba, where we were basing ourselves for three days to explore the Lake Gilles Conservation Park.  The best bird sighting was a pair of Brolgas that flew low over the car on the first day as we left Port Fairy.  It was a breathtaking site.  Then we recorded huge numbers of Black-shouldered Kites as we travelled from Bordertown to Clare.  At Wilmington, we saw Rainbow Lorikeets, a familiar bird from home, but here well outside their recognized range.  We observed two interesting insect phenomena (which actually occurred later in the trip, but this is as good a place to mention them as any).  One was many thousands of flying termites which must have just erupted:  this was in the middle of the day, south of Lake Gilles.  The other was several swarms of unidentified insects flying out of the roadside trees, like thought bubbles in a cartoon.  I don't remember seeing such a thing ever before.

We drove directly to Lake Gilles and I spent some time looking for quailthrush.  There were Emus, Crested Bellbirds, White-browed Babblers and lots of honeyeaters:  White-fronted, Yellow-plumed and  Brown-headed (the latter were more colourful than I'm used to).  There were several sorts of thornbills and friendly, noisy Weebills.  But there were no quailthrush.

I wasn't daunted.  We had three days.  And I'd been told to be there at dawn.  So one afternoon's absence of quailthrush did not upset me in the least.

The next morning, I was up in the dark.  It was cold, 3 degrees according to the car thermometer.  But worse than that, it was foggy.  I drove at 60 k for the 17 kilometres from Kimba to Lake Gilles.  I felt very brave, very cold and, I confess, a little scared.  The road trains on the Eyre Highway do not slow down because of a little fog.  I thought of Rog snuggled into his warm bed as I drove slowly, expecting kangaroos to jump in front of the car at any second.

Perhaps I have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, but I do believe that a girl who gets up in the dark and drives by herself 17 kilometres in the fog, is entitled to see a Copperback Quailthrush.  I did not.  The dawn chorus was subdued, perhaps because of the fog.  I identified Grey Butcherbirds, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, Red Wattlebirds and corvids.  Later, magpies and Galahs joined in.  I did not hear any quailthrush.  The first birds I saw were Yellow-rumped Thornbills, then White-winged Choughs.  As soon as I could see, I drove up and down the road, with the windows down.  To my mind, enduring the cold was, in itself, justification for seeing a quailthrush, let alone driving from Melbourne to Kimba, then to Lake Gilles in the pitch dark.  By 8 o'clock the fog had lifted and there was a beautiful blue sky.  I had fun birding until 9, when I returned to Kimba for some breakfast.

Of course I was disappointed.  But I put the lack of quailthrush down to the fog.  I'd have better luck tomorrow.  I knew that.  After breakfast, Rog and I both returned to Lake Gilles and I explored the scrub some more.  After lunch, we visited Secret Rocks, which had very healthy populations of both Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and one very confiding Black-eared Honeyeater, who really wanted his photo taken, if only I'd had the appropriate photographic gear.  I also saw some spectacular fairywrens that day.

The next morning, I ate some cereal as I dressed.  There was no fog, so the trip was much quicker.  However, this morning there were kangaroos, which kept me on my toes.  The temperature was 3 degrees again.  This morning, there was no dawn chorus at all!  Yesterday, I'd put the unimpressive dawn chorus down to the fog, but today, I was forced to explain the total absence of dawn chorus by the time of the year.  I walked up and down and I drove up and down, but there was no hint of quailthrush.  I returned to Kimba very disappointed, and seeing one very large black feral cat heading into the bush did not improve my mood.  Rog and I returned to Lake Gilles and I walked every track I could find while he sat in the car reading his newspaper.  I saw several White-eared Honeyeaters, a bird I had not seen yesterday, and conversely, dipped on Brown-headed Honeyeaters, which had been so numerous yesterday.

At the end of the day I was exhausted from so much walking, but I still did not have my quailthrush.  Now this was getting serious.  We were due to move on tomorrow.  I really did not want to leave Kimba without the quailthrush on my lifelist.  At dinner, we complained to the publican that the local quailthrush were not performing on demand.  She suggested we contact a local friend of hers who had lots of birds on his property. 

So we did.  And to cut a long story short, the next morning we visited his place and I ticked the quailthrush.  Howzat!

In an exceptionally good mood, we set off westwards towards the Nullarbor and our other target species:  the Naretha Blue Bonnet.  But that's another story.

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