Time to clean the bins (binoculars), grab the scopes, jump in the car, head west, and try not to dip out (miss seeing) any dead certs, and may the jizz (essence of each bird) be with you.
The “Plain Wanderers” this year would have a bit of a change in roster. Ed (“the black falcon”) Williams now resides in Melbs, whilst Andy (“eagle eyes”) Holmes had family commitments. In their place we had two newbies; Anita (“firetail”) Mudge and Alastair (“the egret”) Stewart, both of whom would be experiencing their first attempt at the 24hr format. Rounding out the quartet we had yours truly (“swampy”) and Rob (“tattlers”) Hynson.
Every competitive team needs at least one gun, and ours was definitely Rob, who not only has the biggest list, but as well as being strong in the dry and wet forests, is an expert on waders and sea birds. Without Rob we were going to struggle to hit 150 species. With him we were a chance at 200 plus. In 2009, at our first attempt, we got 173. In 2010 we tallied 193. Although with a greener lineup this year, the general drying of the interior that follows a couple of years of wetlands boom hinted that perhaps this time we would topple 200.
The route we would follow was going to be similar to years past, starting somewhere south of Gunnedah, dusking near Quirindi, camping at Barrington Tops, before visiting various forests and swamps on the coast to finish at Newcastle.
On Friday afternoon we managed to escape Sydney without too much traffic, picked up Alastair at Maitland (who’d done some reconnaissance and list-expanding in the preceding days), before bunking down in Scone at the Golden Fleece Hotel, that is, after a few ales and encounters with inebriated local youths at the bar.
On Saturday morn we coffee’d at Quirindi, where Rob’s binoculars encouraged conversation with a local who encouraged us to check out a good spot on his property for plum-headed finch, a species that had eluded Anita and I despite much dry country searching. “What car are you driving so I don’t end up shooting you?”, he quipped. Sure enough, some casurinas and tall grass near a clapped-out homestead yielded three species of finch all mixed in together: red-browed, double-bar, AND the elusive plum-headed. This was a great start of the trip for Anita and I. There was some other good stuff around as well so we vowed we’d try and factor this site into the twitch route later in the day.
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent scoping various areas we hoped to visit once the race began, and deciding the best route strategy that would minimize the driving but cover the most important locations. At the Quipolly Dams, and again at Lake Goran we intersected 4WDs full of birders from Tamworth, doing exactly the same thing.
The other pre-race highlight was scoping the still expansive Lake Goran, where, along with multiple banded plover, avocets, spoonbills, sharpies and red-capped plovers, we found a solitary Australian pratincole and a Latham’s snipe – and not at 300 m across heat-haze shimmer but at 20 and 5 m from the car! The pratincole was a new tick for all of us, and is one of those inland rarities of no fixed address which had even managed to evade Rob’s list, until now. We bid it farewell and hoped it and the snipe would still be there once the race was under way.
At 4 pm sharp the race kicked off for use in Breezer State Forest, and was a bit of a slow affair, where some of the species we had seen earlier in the day failed to re-materialize, although we did get the delightful western gerygone. We seemed to be having more success with non-feathered fauna, including a goanna, an echidna and a Koala, before we got to Lake Goran with the clock at 4:45.
Unfortunately, the pratincole and snipe we had spied earlier were gone, but after a bit of searching we found another 3 pratincole at a different spot. In all we got everything that we’d found earlier at Goran, apart from a hobby and the snipe, although Rob managed to spy another snipe the following day with only about 2 hours still on the clock.
Next stop was Spring Ridge State Forest, where we got the all-important red-capped robin, but dipped out on its dry robin brethren; hooded and jacky winter. With the clock at 5:45 we were 15 min behind schedule, but at least we were back on the road heading east towards Quirindi and the plum-headed site, which we gained at approx. 6:20. By 6:45 we were back in the car, heading for the Quipolly dams where we maxed out on grebes and cormorants, and at the upper dam got a swag of ducks, including blue billed and Aust. shoveller. As dusk fell night herons moved on in as we collated the count thus far; approx. 100, which was about 10 more than we usually tally on the first day. This augured well for the assault on 200.
We have traditionally not done well on the owls, but this time proved different. Before we even got back to Quirindi we had tawny frogmouth and boobook owl in the bag, and on the long haul into the Allyn River campsite we gained 4 barn owls, and an equal number more frogmouths. Not having to do any further spotlighting was a great relief, and our heads hit pillows at approx. 1:15, with alarms set for 5 am.
The rainforest dawn chorus didn’t disappoint, and in no time we had another 20 odd species added to the list, although conspicuously absent were the assortment of larger pigeons that we’d usually count on at the tops of fruiting trees. However, we felt we’d done well and by 7:15 we were back in the car and heading to Green Wattle Road for some forest species and then onto the Hunter estuary mouth (Stockton Sand Spit) in an effort to catch the end of the high tide, where the waders would be concentrated to a few areas.
Green Wattle and Stockton were where our efforts started to come a little unstuck. Whilst we only got a couple of ticks at Green Wattle Road, the hoard of waders we would usually expect at Stockton were simply absent. Time to change plans and hit Ash Island and Hexam Swamp to see if we were any luckier with the waders. We weren’t.
By this stage there were some other issues coming into play as well, firstly in the form of my stomach, and secondly in the form of Alastair’s. The previous eve we had dined (for want of a more appropriate word) at the Muswellbrooke chapter of Hungry Jack’s. Uncharacteristically, Alastair and I both nominated chicken as the item between the sickly sweet buns. At the time I pronounced it close to the worst burger I’d ever eaten. Whilst all seemed OK up to mid morning, by now I was suffering severe stomach cramps and was unable to pass anything despite several attempts. This made the sea watch at the Newcastle baths an ordeal (not much to see anyway – again contrasting with previous years), and by the time we got to the last ports of call, first Alastair chilled out in the car (Minmi and Pambula), then I took time out (Kurri forest). Fortunately, only 3 of the 4 have to ID any bird to add it to the count. We gained the Wetlands Center, where most who twitch the Hunter officially finish, just in time to have Alastair exit the car and throw up almost immediately, poor fellow. I seemed to have recovered a little by this stage, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
At the sometimes awkward gathering of birders that typify the end of this sort of event, the wash-up was that despite our measly total of 177 species (to the winners ~235), we still returned the 4th best score of the teams finishing in Newcastle, pipping 5th by a solitary tick. Biggest dip for us was a tie between brown thornbill and fan-tailed cuckoo, whilst rarest bird was definitely the pratincole, which even seemed to impress the winning teams. Whilst this was far from the 200 we were after (or expected after the excellent first day), I was still surprised we even got this many given the trouble we’d had with the forest sectors, and the shore and sea birds in particular. Whatever respectability this score holds is in large part due to Rob (again!), who apart from his A-grade twitching expertise held up best physically, fuelled on a diet of of asian snack mix, beef burger and chocolates.
We were a pretty shattered posse that limped to the car for the drive back to Sydney. Alastair was feeling so unwell he decided to stay on in Newcastle that night. We dropped Rob off at Hornsby Station and got home just before dark so I could chill out on the loo for half an hour. I must have mirrored one of those deliriously relieved individuals one sometimes sees in adds for toilet paper. Homemade pizza thankfully delivered no awkward side effects, followed by one of the heaviest sleeps I can remember.
I think two 24hr events 2 weeks apart is about as much as this punter can handle. Time for a much needed weekend at home before the mudge and I hit the southern highlands for the Highland Fling MTB enduro – the last significant hurdle on my calendar for 2012.
Mix of red-browed and plum-headed finches
Bird hide at upper Quipolly dam
Chock-a-bloc at lower Quipolly
Lake Goran still pretty full for the third year in a row.
Never seen so many banded lapwing
The delightful red capped plover
Snipe in the grass
Rufous whistler, and no trip to Gunnedah is complete without a Koala.