Birding Australia: Spring in the Land Down Under

Introduction

For an American, birding in Western Australia (WA) requires some mental gymnastics. Spring in “the land down under” occurs during North America’s fall. Although the sun rises in the east, it travels across the northern sky. Exactly half a world away, when it’s midday in North Carolina, it’s midnight in Perth. And though ticks are something to avoid when bush-walking, they are desirable on one’s bird list. During a memorable three-week visit a few years ago, my husband Pat and I tallied 153 of these tiny checkmarks.

Our Australian visit resulted from a previous trip to Costa Rica, where we met Clive and Wendy Napier, a delightful couple from Perth on a round-the-world birding adventure. We hiked together in the tropics and hosted the Napiers as they traveled in the United States. Thereafter we kept in touch via Christmas cards and e-mails. Clive and Wendy are very active in Birds Australia (similar to our Audubon Society) and conduct frequent bird surveys for Western Australia’s Department of Conservation and Land Management. They generously invited us to join them in Western Australia to experience its springtime bounty of birds and wildflowers.

Western Australia

The state of Western Australia–roughly equivalent in size to Alaska, Texas, and California combined–encompasses the western third of that nation. Approximately 790 species of land and sea birds have been recorded in Australia, 515 of them documented in WA. The terrain is amazingly diverse, from rugged ranges in the north to vast interior deserts to gently rolling farmland in the southwest. We planned two looping drives, first north, then south, separated by a short stay at the Napiers’ home in Perth.

After our 12,000-mile, 38-hour journey from North Carolina to WA, we spent the first day strolling in several of Perth’s parks and completing preparations for our road trip. Clive and Wendy had reserved lodging near favorite natural areas. We loaded the Napiers’ SUV with their spotting scope, bird and wildflower reference books, and some “tucker” for meals in the bush. Our northern loop would average about 150 miles a day, following a coastal escarpment overlooking the Indian Ocean outbound and returning through the hills of WA’s interior wheat belt.

Once under way, we discovered that Clive and Wendy are very civilized birders. Every day about 10 a.m., we stopped at a picnic area and Wendy opened an outing bag containing thermos, cups, and a tin of biscuits, all the necessary ingredients for morning coffee. Our first stop, at Reagans Ford on the Moore River, introduced us to colorful ring-necked parrots nipping off eucalyptus flowers and a pink-and-gray galah (an abundant cockatoo) peering from its den. A sacred kingfisher lingered along the creek bank, flashing iridescent green wings.

Lunches also combined birds and food. We packed or purchased sandwiches, then pulled into a nature reserve to eat and stroll. Australians have set aside many national parks and abundant conservation areas, such as Coomallo Creek, 125 miles north of Perth. Graceful white-barked eucalyptus trees, locally called wandoo, filled the air with menthol fragrance. I had eaten only two bites of lunch when Clive heard a splendid fairy-wren, aptly named for the male’s neon blue and purple feathers. We watched a small family (males are polygamous) in nearby shrubs. Later I realized how shamefully little time I studied the drab females and juveniles, which were completely outshone by the brilliant alpha male.

Geraldon and Kalbarri

As we neared Geraldton, about 250 miles north of Perth, golden wattle shrubs lined the sandy roadsides with fragrant blossoms. A few miles farther we crested the escarpment, with the Indian Ocean and Kalbarri National Park ahead. Pat noticed a disturbance among the distant waves, so we paused at Red Bluff overlook, set up the scope, and watched as huge whales spouted and slapped their tails on the water. Behind us, white-browed scrub wrens and Richard’s pipits skulked in the thick coastal heath.

Kalbarri encompasses more than 700 square miles of sea cliffs, river gorges, and undulating heathland, formed from 400-million-year-old Tumblagooda sandstone. The Murchison River meanders through this landscape, carving red and pink layers of rock, much as the Colorado River sculpts the Grand Canyon. In normal years, winter (June through July) rainfall triggers the spring (August to October) blossoms of some 600 species of wildflowers. Kalbarri is typically carpeted during September with pink, yellow, white, and blue. That year, however, the region suffered record drought, receiving less than three inches of rain–not enough for most flowers to set buds.

Coastal areas of Kalbarri were least affected by the drought. We followed a sandy track near the mouth of the Murchison and walked into semitropical forest where wind-twisted river gums bent back to the ground. Clive spotted a raptor perched among the branches, which appeared to be a fairly common brown goshawk (similar to our Cooper’s hawk). As we watched, it snapped off some gum leaves and flew to its nest. When its mate greeted the nuptial gift with a shrill kikiki, Clive realized these were actually less common collared sparrowhawks (similar to our sharp-shinned hawk), distinguished by smaller stature and squared tails.

We heard the distant, repetitive doodle-doo of a peaceful dove and walked quietly along the sandy path until we spied the gray-brown bird in a shrubby tree. On the return, rufous whistlers entertained us with their melodic songs, and we had a wonderful view of a golden whistler, a glowing yellow, black, and white bird that favors coastal forests.

After walking several inland trails with spectacular views of Kalbarri’s gorges, we drove north to the Galena crossing on the Murchison River. In streamside habitat we quickly discovered several Nankeen night-herons, black-fronted dotterels, and the mud nests of welcome swallows and fairy martins attached to the underside of the highway bridge. Tree martins, which resemble North American tree swallows, chased insects over the water but returned to nests in hollow gum branches along the shore.

We returned to Geraldton, then headed southeast toward the towns of Mingenew and Perenjori in the heart of WA’s fabled wildflower country. Scant rainfall cheated the hillsides of their normal abundant blooms, but we still passed many colorful wild roadside “gardens.” Near Tenindewa we paused to marvel at an array of 50 huge wind turbines and noticed brown songlarks and white-fronted chats singing from roadside shrubs. A few miles farther Clive recognized a white-winged fairy-wren flying across the road and screeched to a halt. We tumbled out and squeaked until the drab female, and finally the distinctive blue male with flashing white wings, popped into view.

Lunch that day was at Coalseam Conservaton Park, where the Irwin River cuts below a steep cliff. We had barely unwrapped our sandwiches when we heard insistent keer-keer-keer calls emanating from the bluff. Binoculars raised, we watched a pair of peregrine falcons checking out possible nest sites high above us. Peregrines occur worldwide, but the Australian race has more uniform black crown and cheek coloration, rather than the distinct mustache on North American peregrines. Back at the picnic table, a noisy group of spiny-cheeked honeyeaters–which are quite curious and vocal–serenaded us with liquid calls. Bush flies, persistent insects that land on any exposed skin, added a bit of annoyance to an otherwise peaceful setting.

That afternoon we pulled into the Perenjori Caravan Park (campground), where we rented a lovely, economically priced cottage. The surrounding grove of York gums, which were in fragrant bloom, attracted a family of 10 yellow-throated miners feeding two fledglings. The babies sat together on a high branch while adults carried nectar-laden gum flowers to them. These communal honeyeaters rove nomadically through Australia’s dry forests, following seasonal flowering cycles. Their loud ti-ti-ti-ti-ti calls warn of raptors much as the alarm calls of blue jays do.

Night Birding

Australia encompasses about the same land area as the United States, but has a population of only 20 million, compared to 300 million here. Because most Australians live in cities, night skies in remote regions are remarkably dark and pristine. We took an evening stroll from the Perenjori cottage, hoping to hear owls or spot nocturnal marsupials. Instead we enjoyed magnificent views of the Southern Cross, a constellation that points south (as our Big Dipper indicates north) and marveled at the multitude of stars overhead in the Milky Way. Our only mammal sightings that night were bats fluttering in search of insects.

Water is scarce in the bush, so many municipalities and farm managers fashion large catchments and storage reservoirs. At Caron Water Reserve, south of Perenjori, we walked around the collection area, quickly spotting small bush birds including inland and chestnut-rumped thornbills, a nesting redthroat, grey fantails, brown-headed honeyeaters, and red-capped robins, which are flycatchers. In the distance we heard the ventriloquial, Morse code did-did-did, didee-dit of a crested bellbird, a seldom seen ground dweller. We unknowingly flushed a galah from a dead gum tree, which scared a magnificently camouflaged owlet-nightjar from its roost. The nocturnal insect eater fluttered to another limb, where it settled and melted into the pattern of dead bark.

The Southern Coast

After a brief interval in Perth, we reloaded the SUV and headed toward WA’s southern coast. By early afternoon we caught our first glimpse of huge sandstone horsts (uplifted mountains) rising above the plains, and soon turned onto a sandy track that bisected Stirling Range National Park. As Pat stepped out of the vehicle at a picnic area, he noticed a western yellow robin sitting on a beautiful nest decorated with bark strips. While the others searched for new species, I took photos of this patient little flycatcher, which inhabits woodlands of southwestern Australia.

A few miles farther we pulled into Stirling Range Retreat, which provides eco-friendly lodging adjacent to the national park. The din of purple-crowned lorikeets feeding in the eucalyptus trees overhead was nearly deafening. These small parrots have brush-tipped tongues ideal for eating nectar and pollen. Individual birds cavort like busy squirrels among the branches and communicate with each other via high-pitched zit-zit cries. We located several of their nests in rotten cavities in gum trees.

Nowhere on our trip was the spring nesting season more apparent. A few steps from our cottage an elegant pair of restless flycatchers brought insects to their tiny babies, announcing each visit with an unusual grinding call. A similar-looking Willie wagtail, one of Australia’s most common birds, whistled its distinctive sweet-sweet-willie as it sat on a nearby nest, perfectly hidden among overhanging branches. The next morning I heard prehistoric-sounding screeches and traced the racket to a huge jarrah tree with an elliptical den at the top. A pair of Carnaby’s black-cockatoos perched nearby. When one of the hawk-sized birds flew to the hollow and leaned inward, shrieking resumed as the lone, highly dependent chick received a meal of regurgitated seeds and insects.

There is intense competition among Australia’s many parrots and cockatoos–and among tree-dwelling marsupials and swarms of bees–for arboreal dens. To be large enough to house threatened Carnaby’s and Baudin’s black-cockatoos, trees must be at least 230 years old. Many dens reused annually by monogamous pairs of these long-lived birds are in trees ranging from 300 to 500 years old. Untold numbers of “stag” trees have been cut for timber, agricultural fields, or housing areas since 1950, and black-cockatoo populations have plummeted. Groups such as Birds Australia and the Water Corporation are repairing natural dens and experimenting with artificial nest boxes to aid the birds’ recovery.

At Waychinicup National Park we encountered another birding success story. The noisy scrub-bird, a drab denizen of damp areas, was believed extinct until ornithologists rediscovered a small population near Albany in 1961. Thanks to wildfire management, which has allowed certain heathlands to return to dense native vegetation, scrub-bird numbers have increased. Where a stream crossed the road and lush bracken ferns provided good cover, Clive and Wendy recognized the scrub-bird’s distinctive aria. This ventriloquist’s descending notes continued intermittently for 10 minutes as we scanned the knee-high vegetation. Though tantalizingly close, Pat and I finally endorsed the description in the field guide–local and elusive, usually heard rather than seen–and settled for half a tick on our bird list.

Our two-night stay in Albany allowed plenty of time to explore local hotspots, including the nature trail around Lake Seppings. In the thicket beside the water, two male red-winged fairy-wrens vied for our attention. Our pishes also energized a clamorous reed-warbler, which performed its melodious song while mostly hidden by thick cattails. In the midst of the lake, several male musk ducks also advertised their territories. With stiff tails raised and odd throat flaps extended, they simultaneously flailed their webbed feet and emitted a sonar-like ping call.

At Rushy Point, a mudflat along the vast Albany harbor, we hit the jackpot for Australian “waders” (migratory shorebirds). As we exited the SUV, we glimpsed a Terek sandpiper bobbing near the tideline, accompanied by a common sandpiper. Farther down the beach were grey plovers, Pacific golden plovers, red-capped dotterels, red-necked stints, and fairy terns. Ubiquitous silver gulls wheeled overhead, as they did at nearly every seaside stop.

Although our first day in Albany was beautiful, cold winds and drizzle whipped off the Southern Ocean as we drove to Torndirrup National Park the next morning. Waves crashed onto the rocks as we searched the heathlands for a southern emu-wren. These small brown birds have unusually long, erect tails composed of six lacy, tufted feathers. Wind usually drives them deep into the underbrush.

After fruitlessly scanning several places Clive and Wendy had previously seen the elusive birds, we pulled into Jimmy Newells Harbour Overlook, where a path wound through yellow hibertia, blue fan-flower, and creamy basket-bushes. As luck would have it, the trail was sheltered from the wind, and sun broke through the overcast for a few moments. A resplendent male emu-wren popped out of the wet vegetation and twittered on the branches of a small dead tree, affording us gratifying views of its powder-blue throat, rusty underparts, and distinctive tail. “New bird,” Clive proclaimed with characteristic enthusiasm, and we added another tick to the list.

We returned to Perth via the quaint seaside towns of Denmark and Augusta, marveling along the way at huge tingle, karri, and jarrah trees that rival California’s redwoods in size and stature. In Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, we watched a pair of hooded plovers patter about on Smith Beach. Like our snowy and piping plovers, hooded plovers lay their eggs in bare sand and are very sensitive to disturbance by off-road vehicles. We eyed the 100-unit development under construction near the park boundary and wondered how much longer these birds would find quiet refuge on this beach.

Perth

Although our road trips explored Western Australia’s bushlands and forests, we also spent several days birding in parks around Perth. Bibra Lake, just a few blocks from Clive and Wendy’s home, provided habitat for abundant waterfowl. We could compare Australasian, hoary-headed, and great crested grebes as they swam together. Black swans tended their cygnets and Pacific black ducks nibbled aquatic plants in the shallows. Swamp hens, which look like purple gallinules on steroids, traipsed through the cattails and occasionally onto surrounding lawns. Den trees hosted kookaburras, corellas, and rainbow lorikeets, which are native to eastern Australia and rapidly becoming pests since their introduction into the west.

The forested habitat at Wungong Dam and adjacent Bungendore Park, near Armadale, offered refuge for a noisy flock of red-tailed black-cockatoos, red-capped parrots, tiny spotted pardolotes, and white-breasted robins. Along a Bungendore trail, we encountered a scarlet robin (woodland flycatcher) that sat curiously as I photographed. We also discovered uncommon red-eared firetails, which are grass-finches, feeding on a hillside near the dam.

On our final morning Clive drove us to Wellard Wetland, a 100-acre site originally mined for clay, now converted to wildlife habitat. Throughout our entire visit, Clive and Wendy were fountains of knowledge about WA’s natural history. For Pat and myself, this last outing was a bit like a graduation exercise, testing what our eyes, ears, and minds had absorbed and understood.

A Successful Journey

Three weeks of birding and botanizing in a place as large and diverse as Western Australia only scratches the surface. But yes, we could now distinguish between the calls of a Willie wagtail and a grey fantail. When we heard sweet, elfin notes like a leaf falling from the forest canopy, we could visualize the drab western gerygone that sings them. Silvereye or thornbill? No problem! We could also sort out brown, singing, and New Holland honeyeaters by their calls and behavior. On the lakes at Wellard we recognized cormorants and darters, hardhead ducks, grey teal, and shovelers. Overhead we glassed whistling kites, black-shouldered kites, hobbies, and kestrels. In all, we identified 55 species during our three-hour stroll. None of them was new to the checklist, but most gave us the opportunity to reaffirm memories and learn more about behavior.

As the first dawn broke after our long flight back to North Carolina, I caught myself listening for the drawn-out, nasal calls of Australian ravens and the harsh cackles of red wattlebirds, two of the most common sounds from our trip. I smiled as I realized the birds of Western Australia were so much more than ticks on a tattered list. They were alive within us and beckoned our return.

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