Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Countdown to 600 - Top End Birds

600 is a landmark number for a birdwatcher in Australia. Enough to warrant the creation, quite a while ago now, of the 600 Club. This was apparently the invention of the late John McKean, an eminent Australian ornithologist and birdwatcher, who was supposedly the first to see 600 species of Australian birds.

Well before Karen and I headed for Darwin and Kakadu National Park in the second half of May this year, I knew I was likely to reach the 600 milestone while there. My Australian List was sitting on 594 after seeing Broad-billed Sandpiper and White-rumped Sandpiper in January (see White-rumped Sandpiper Twitch), and I had a target list of some 15 or so birds that I wanted to try for.

Broad-billed and White-rumped Sandpiper - the last two birds I'd added to my Australian List (January 2015). 

My target list included some relatively straightforward species that I just hadn’t picked up on previous trips to Darwin in 2008 and 2010 (for example, Northern Rosella, Silver-backed Butcherbird, and Broad-billed Flycatcher); some of the more elusive birds possible around Darwin (Great-billed Heron, Chestnut Rail, White-breasted Whistler, Buff-sided Robin, Zitting Cisticola etc); some species that have limited distributions in places I hadn’t yet visited (e.g. Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Black-banded Fruit Dove, Hooded Parrot, White-throated Grasswren, White-lined Honeyeater, Sandstone Shrikethrush, and Gouldian Finch); as well as a few other miscellaneous possibilities (Red-backed and Chestnut-backed Buttonquail, Eastern Grass Owl, Star Finch, Yellow-rumped Mannikin etc.). Other tempting species like White-quilled Rock Pigeon, Purple-crowned Fairywren and Yellow Chat were just beyond our geographical scope and itinerary.

But I thought that with a target of 15 or so, even if I only caught up with half of them I should make the 600. And so it was…

We spent the first weekend in Darwin, catching up with Karen’s family - the underlying reason for the trip to Darwin was Emily’s (Karen’s niece) wedding. I got my first two new species in those first couple of days.

The first was pure chance, within a few hours of arriving on the Friday afternoon. I had just headed out from where we were staying at Karen’s sister’s place in the Palmerston suburb of Gunn, just for a quick look around and re-familiarisation with the local Darwin birds. I was walking along the Bakewell (adjacent suburb) side of Buscall Avenue, mentally counting the Straw-necked Ibis grazing on the sports oval (as one does - there were 19), and noting the interactions of a juvenile Olive-backed Oriole with two adults, when I was drawn by the soft chattering of a pair of Northern Rosellas in some flowering eucalypts. Holy crap! I wasn’t expecting that. And I didn’t have my camera with me. But I had a good 10 minutes watching them from as little as a few metres. Not, perhaps, as attractive as the Crimson and Eastern Rosellas I’m used to having around at home in Canberra, but hey – they made a nice couple – and they were a tick. No. 595.

Northern Rosella Platycercus venustus - bird No. 595.
This one was photographed at Edith Falls as I didn't have my camera with me
when I first saw the birds in Palmerston. 

My second new bird, the next morning, was also in Gunn, down at the local suburban Sanctuary Lakes. These are a connected set of three large ponds in a fantastic public space that turned out to be brilliant for dragonflies too (see previous post - Top End Dragonflies). But it was the Broad-billed Flycatcher flitting from lily to lily that gave me my 596th bird. I’m pretty certain I had in fact seen this species previously (at both Fogg Dam and at the Arnhem Highway crossing of the Adelaide River, in 2008) but neither of those sightings had been definitive enough to be sure they weren’t female Leaden Flycatchers. On this bird, the pale lores, the just discernible graduation to the tail feathers, and the low profile forehead were enough for me to be convinced it was indeed a Broad-billed. Two days later I saw another bird, at Fogg Dam, which also showed these characteristics. It was in the exact same location, maybe even to the tree, I’d seen the ‘possible’ in 2008…

Broad-billed Flycatcher Myiagra ruficollis at Sanctuary Lakes in Gunn, Palmerston.

Broad-billed Flycatcher - Fogg Dam

Early on Monday morning we headed east towards Kakadu. No. 597 followed soon after, being a Silver-backed Butcherbird on roadside power lines on the Arnhem Highway, not far out of Humpty Doo, about 35 km south-east of Darwin. We’d whizzed past initially, but when Karen called it as possibly a butcherbird I did a fairly rapid U-turn and went back to check. Fortunately it was still in place, so as soon as I’d verified everything through binoculars, I snapped off a few record shots of it against a rather bright sky.
Silver-backed Butcherbird Cracticus argenteus - near Humpty Doo.

On the morning of our second day in Kakadu National Park, after staying in Jabiru overnight, we did a scenic flight over the escarpment around the East Alligator River before heading down to Nourlangie. 

After a quick look at Anbangbang Billabong we ascended the short track up the rock to Nawurlandja lookout for the spectacular views out over the billabong and across to Nourlangie and the Burrunggui outcrop. It was just past midday and it was hot in the sun. It was hot in the shade! So Karen headed back to the car where she ran the engine and air conditioner, while I continued higher up the escarpment on my quest to find Sandstone Shrikethrush and Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon.

It was tough going as the sandstone terrain is regularly dissected by clefts, fissures and small ravines. I neither saw nor heard any indication of the presence of my quarry. But on my way back, after nearly an hour of slogging, in one of the deeper ravines which supported some dense trees, some of which were fruiting, I came across a group of about 10 Banded Fruit Doves. They were very shy and kept their distance, either flying away from me behind the trees, or deftly remaining hidden behind the thickest foliage. I did manage a few photos of one semi-obscured individual that seemed to want to check me out almost as much as I did it. So it was one of those satisfying twitches resulting from an acceptable amount of effort, and not even the twitch you were expecting.

A shy but inquisitive Black-banded Fruit Dove Ptilinopus alligator at Nawurlandja - No. 598.

Next day, Wednesday, at Yellow Water billabong, I kept a keen eye out for any Great-billed Herons. But the guide on the boat said they didn’t usually hang out in the part of the billabong we could access at that time of year. I did at one point see a large heron, in flight, in the distant brightness of the early morning sky. It was probably close to 500 metres away and although the profile looked good I couldn’t be confident that it was a Great-billed, nor completely discount the nagging suspicion of the possibility of it being a silhouetted White-necked Heron. One of those I think it is, I think it is, but can’t in clear conscience claim the tick situations. Another one for another time.

The biggest surprise on the Yellow Water cruise was a lone Dusky Moorhen skulking in the shadows of thick vegetation. Although a common bird for me normally, this one was well outside its normal range, as the species doesn’t usually occur in the Top End.

Early morning at Yellow Water.

Our next key stop was at Gunlom and Waterfall Creek where I was still hoping for Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Sandstone Shrikethrush and White-lined Honeyeater. I held no hope of seeing White-throated Grasswren. Sadly they have not been recorded in the area where they used to be seen regularly for several years now, thought to be due to loss of suitable habitat through inappropriate fire regimes. As I write, there is a group of birdwatchers who have dedicated a full week to trek into the wilds of the western Arnhemland escarpment with the sole purpose of trying to find White-throated Grasswrens. Such appear to be the requirements to see this scarce and localised species nowadays!

Needless to say, I was again unsuccessful with the pigeon, shrikethrush and honeyeater. But we did see another couple of Black-banded Fruit Doves. We were about half way up the escarpment track, i.e. in dry woodland, when Karen pointed out a couple of pigeons in the bare branches of a dead tree behind us. They were in plain view, completely unconcerned, and nowhere near a fruiting let alone a fig tree. Quite a different and, to be honest, slightly unsatisfying experience (except for Karen) compared to the one I’d had at Nawurlandja a couple of days previously.

Black-banded Fruit Doves at Gunlom

From Gunlom, our tight schedule took us across to Pine Creek, where our mission was to see Hooded Parrots in the main streets of the town. Apparently they come in fairly reliably in the late afternoon to a range of known watering points. As it turned out, the first ones came in a little earlier than expected and come 3:30 pm we saw a pair fly into the shady foliage of a eucalypt where they settled for a short while before dropping down to a spitting impact sprinkler. 

And so it was that, from the shade and comfort of a picnic table outside the local petrol station and general store, as the Darwin to Katherine bus came and went, we watched bird number 599 while slurping our rapidly melting homemade ice creams. A bit of a gimme, yet surprisingly satisfying. And it left us time to move on to the local sewage works, as well as a brief stop in at Edith Falls Road, before making the final leg down to Katherine for the night.

Male Hooded Parrot Psephotellus dissimilis at Pine Creek.

And a female Hooded Parrot playing in the sprinkler at Pine Creek.

Before first light next morning (Friday) we were on our way back to Edith Falls Road where our target was Gouldian Finch. When we’d stopped in there briefly in the late afternoon of the previous day, we’d stationed ourselves near a small pool beside a culvert about 3 km in from the highway. It seemed, to me at least, like a good spot, though it wasn’t the one normally described in the bird-finding guides. And we had seen a couple of Peaceful Doves and a quintet of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins come down to drink just before sunset, so I thought we at least had a chance.

As the sun lifted into the eastern sky we alternated between sitting patiently near the water and wandering quietly along the roadside. We saw lots of different birds, including Double-barred Finches and Long-tailed Finches, but no Gouldian Finches. After an hour or so, and with activity decreasing, we decided to move on to Edith Falls (a really lovely spot), but agreed to stop again briefly on our way back out in the middle of the day.

On this third stop, we’d only been there a few minutes, and I really wasn’t holding much hope of seeing them, when a movement in the branches of a eucalypt about 50 metres away on the other side of the road caught my eye. On swinging up the binoculars for confirmation, I do believe I let out a suppressed expletive before beckoning to Karen to get over here quickly! I had my Gouldian Finch. And it was bird number 600! You couldn’t ask for more.

Gouldian Finch Erythrura gouldiae - a very special bird for my 600th. Edith Falls Road, NT.

The bird flew down to a small paperbark sapling and was soon joined by another. They fidgeted about in the sapling for a good five minutes or so, reassuring themselves of their safety, before darting down to a flattened patch in the tall grass which (as I later determined) contained a tiny puddle of water. We didn’t see them fly off again but it was an exquisite moment – exhilaration, relief, joy, satisfaction, contentment, companionship all rolled into a bundle of emotion that the poor photographs I got as proof of the reality can’t hope to recall. Wow!

Gouldian Finch dropping down to a puddle to drink.

On a bit of a high, we headed back to Katherine. We were booked on a sunset and dinner cruise on Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, which would be a very fitting and celebratory end to the day.

The Gorge is gorgeous. Spectacular. Absolutely stunning. I was vaguely conscious that I should still be keeping an eye out for rock pigeons, which I did, but the cliffs, their form and colour, the play of light on them and their reflections, were captivating. So it was with some surprise, and delight, that as we approached the rocky shoals that separate the first and second gorges (as they are called from a navigable perspective) I saw the cryptic grey form of a Great-billed Heron amongst boulders under some trees. This was completely unexpected, and all the better for it. Later, and further up the gorge we came across another one. The light was fading rapidly in the depths of the gorge, so shutter speeds were getting slower and pictures more blurred. Even the best photos are far from sharp, but some of the effects are interesting and add to the ethereal quality of the experience.

Finally - a Great-billed Heron Ardea sumatrana. Katherine Gorge, NT.

Another Great-billed Heron - Katherine Gorge, NT.

A vaguely fossilised take on a Great-billed Heron against the cliffs of Katherine Gorge in late afternoon.
Another surreal blurred image of a Great-billed Heron in fading light 

So that was it for my new birds. Back in Darwin for our final weekend (and Emily's wedding) I failed to pick up Chestnut Rail and White-breasted Whistler, and I never caught up with Buff-sided Robin. And I have to confess to being a little disappointed about missing the trio of sandstone specialists. But I reached my 600 and went one beyond – and I’m very happy with that.

595      Northern Rosella                        Palmerston                   -12.49204, 130.99532
596      Broad-billed Flycatcher              Palmerston                   -12.48948, 130.99638
597      Silver-backed Butcherbird          Humpty Doo                 -12.575, 131.114
598      Black-banded Fruit Dove           Nawurlandja                 -12.8594, 132.7941
599      Hooded Parrot                           Pine Creek                   -13.82220, 131.83472
600      Gouldian Finch                          Edith Falls Road           -14.19057, 132.07523
601      Great-billed Heron                    Katherine Gorge            -14.31135, 132.44863

As the Australian bird list has grown over the years, through the combined effects of more birdwatchers, greater mobility of birdwatchers (especially to Australia’s offshore territories and dependencies), increases in recording and acceptance of vagrants particularly through digital photography, and the reassignment of species through taxonomic revision (i.e. a current trend in ‘splitting’), there is now need for a 700 Club and even an 800 Club!

Tony Palliser maintains a list of birders who have seen 600 or more birds at his Australian Birders Totals page at  (or at least a list of those who are interested enough to provide him with their names and details – I know plenty of birders above the 600 mark not on the list!). And when you join any of these Clubs, you are entitled to a special badge to acknowledge the effort it takes to get there (see Andrew Isles’ web page at  for further details on the badges available).

The 600 Club badge.

So while it’s good to finally reach the 600 milestone – and I now sit at the very bottom of Tony’s list, and will soon contact Andrew for my badge – given that it has taken me the better part of 25 years to get to 600, I think it could be quite a while yet before I achieve 700…