One of Australia's iconic birds is the Black Grasswren. It is not a particularly rare bird but its range is restricted to the remote Kimberley area of northern Western Australia. There are two ways of getting to this bird; one is a two or three day drive in by 4x4 over some of the worst roads/tracks imaginable or to fly to Kununurra and join a group that is flying in to the Mitchell plateau by light plane and then helicopter. I chose the fly-in option because it is quicker, easier AND because I had never been in a helicopter before. Not only could I tick off Black Grasswren but I could also tick off helicopter ride.
|The red dots are Melbourne at the bottom and going clockwise; Perth, Broome, Kununurra. The blue dot is the Mitchell Plateau|
|Black Grasswren hiding amongst rocks and bushes|
So, the process was: wake in Melbourne at 0400, well out of bed at 0400 but awake? Not really, but sort of operating, bathroom, dress, check tickets, money and all the necessaries for birding … , yes, binoculars, camera, note book, tickets … ok, into the car and off to the airport, check I have ticket as we drive, OK, relax. Check tickets one more time. Arrive at airport. This is the normal routine for me when going on a trip, until I am on the plane I tend to stress and check my tickets quite a lot.
Finally we board the plane, on time, and fly Melbourne to Perth, wait for an hour, fly to Broome and arrive 10 minutes late, the flight to Kununurra is just boarding but Broome airport is small so in one door, turn right, walk 3 metres to next door, check boarding pass and within 2 minutes I am walking across the tarmac to my next flight. I finally arrive at Kununurra at 1520 Western Australia time, 1720 Melbourne time, 12 hours of travel time. Now I feel safe, I have arrived at the rendezvous place and I can hand myself over to the tour leader.
|Fruit Bat at dusk|
|The flock flying over my cabin|
The first day of the organised trip is boat ride on Lake Argyle. One small problem is, I have been given the wrong start time so at 0430 Trisha is bagging on my door. Five minutes later I am dressed and in her car. At the front gate of the camp ground a Toyota 12 seater bus is waiting and I join 10 other birders, some of whom I know, and we are on our way. It is about 50 km to the lake and at first light there is not much moving, except for one poor Willie Wagtail who, in the half-light of dawn, miss-judges his take off and hits the windscreen.
|Early morning from the boat on Lake Argyle|
The sightseeing boat is large with big motors that let us cruise at 35 km, which is good because Lake Argyle is huge. Our first stop is for breakfast on a grassy bank with a sea-eagle nest on one side and an Osprey nest on the other, both with birds in attendance, and just beside the boat is a small fresh water crocodile. They tell me that "freshies" only eat fish but I am not about to go near to find out.
|Breakfast beside Lake Argyle|
|Freshwater Crocodile. We are told they only eat fish, not people.|
|White-breasted Sea-Eagle on nest|
Just across the bay we stop again and a quick "squeak" has White-browed Crake bouncing around everywhere. Brolga, Pied Heron and egrets stalk the grass.
|A black Dingo|
On the water again and the next island has Sandstone Shrike-thrush singing on it and we stop to admire and take photos. Many more miles across the lake and we arrive at the Yellow Chat island. The plan is to get out and wade through the water then walk until we find the chats. When we arrive, however, Yellow Chats are dancing on the rocks beside the boat so we sit and watch. A Swamp Harrier flies over and harasses the ducks.
|Black-necked Stork (Jabiru)|
We decide to motor around the island to look for waders and we find … more chats, 30 +/-, and Wandering and Plumed Whistling-Duck. Australian Pratincole are everywhere. Lake Argyle is spectacular for both the birds and the scenery.
Finally it is back across the lakes to where the White-quilled Rock-Pigeons live, and they dance across the rock face and sit and stare at us. From there it is back to the bus and a short drive to the bottom of the spillway for a wonderful lunch prepared by Trisha. Yum.
|White-quilled Rock Pigeon|
Back in the bus we bird our way back to the campground. Grey-fronted Honeyeaters, Red-browed Pardalotes, Striated Pardalotes, White-winged Triller, Little Friarbirds, Spinifex Pigeon and wood-swallows are everywhere. A small flock of finches rise from a roadside pool. My heart jumps, Gouldians? No, Long-tailed. Bother!
That night there is a "Beef and Barra" (barramundi, a delicious local fish) dinner at the campground. It is a fundraiser for the local air rescue organisation and it has all been cooked perfectly. I am so tired that by 2000 I am in bed. The trees are full of fruit bats and I can hear them chattering as I go to sleep.
Saturday, day two: I can’t sleep, my body is still on Melbourne time so at 0430 it's out of bed and into the shower, dress, feed and wash dishes. At 0600 it is time to head out for the day. A drive to Wyndham and high expectations. The weather is perfect, clear skies, not much wind, low thirties.
|Small lagoon on the way to Parry's Lagoon|
|Shelduck, spoonbills and Glossy Ibis|
My hope is that I will see some Gouldian Finches today. They have been a "boggy" bird for years. It has been a case of "they are 80 km over there", or "if you just had one more day I could guarantee ...", or "last week they were all over this lawn". I have done my homework again for this trip and Gouldians are regularly seen under lawn sprinklers in Wyndham, today will be my lucky day.
|Adult Royal Spoonbill with young begging for food|
Actually the rest of the bus have seen Gouldians many times on their trip and as a late joiner I have to accept that there are other priorities today, still Gouldians are "always on the lawn in Wyndham". First stop is in an area of long grass to look for button quail. Out we get and form a line and start walking. A bird explodes to the left, a Horsfield's Bushlark, nice but not what we are looking for. Four more Bushlarks and then, a quail! I get a few photos as it flies past me and finally get it identified as a Red-chested Button-quail. Nice.
|Looking over the floodplain. Parry's Lagoon is to the right|
Down the dirt road and we arrive at Parry's Lagoon, a local hot-spot for ducks and waders ... and Salt Water Crocodiles, and they are HUGE! I thought that the freshies were big but these are HUGE, and they do rather like to eat fresh person if they can get one. Later the pilot tells us on the way to Mitchell plateau that the local graziers up here expect to lose one cow a day to "salties".
|Saltwater Crocodile taken with a long lens. These guys do like eating people|
Next stop is Wyndham for lunch at a small park near the waterfront and mangroves. After lunch it is into the Mangrove to look for the local specialities, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Mangrove Gerygone and White-breasted Whistler. The first two are easy but the White-breasted takes hours. The mud has a special consistency and it sticks to boots better than glue, then it builds up with each step until finally you are walking on platform sneakers.
|Brahminy Kite over Wyndham|
It's late and we need to get back to Kununurra but some on the bus have yet to see Northern Rosella and there is a chance to find them in town. Good! Now I will get my Gouldians, but we are late so after a quick spin through town where no one has a sprinkler turned on we are back on the road to the campground. Bother! If only it hadn't taken so long to get the White-breasted Whistler. My last chance is gone. Ah well, next trip.
|A plane just like the one I am sitting in for the flight to Mitchell Plateau|
Sunday, day three and we are at the airport at 0500 to board our small plane to the Mitchell Plateau. We are all weighed and allocated seats accordingly. The heavies have to sit up front and the light weights down the back. The rest of us are spread out around the middle. The flight is spectacular. Once we pass Wyndham we fly for about an hour and there are no roads or tracks anywhere. No one lives down there, there are rivers and hills and cliffs, but no people. The first road we see is the road into the Mitchell Plateau.
|Northern Kimberly region from the air|
|Mitchell Plateau in the foreground and the Timor Sea|
|Merton Falls on the Mitchell Plateau. Black Grasswren live in this area|
We land on a gravel strip and the plane pulls up next to three helicopters. We are divided into groups and I am put in the smallest helicopter. Yes!! I get to tick of helicopter ride in a cute little blue one, what could be better? The ride is only for about 10 minutes but what the heck, I have done it and it was great fun, better than I thought.
|The airport terminal building at Mitchell Plateau|
|Re-fueling the plane from 44 gallons drums and a hand pump|
|My first helicopter|
We get out of the helicopter and form up. It is about a 1 km walk to where Black Grasswrens were seen last week. When we get to the spot we meet two birders who are camping on the plateau. They have been looking for 2 days and have not seen a grasswren. This is not good news. I have flown from one corner of Australia to the other for this bird, about as far as it is possible to travel without falling off the edge! Am I going to miss out? We spend about an hour walking and listening but no grasswren. Aaaarg! We are only here for a few hours, we have to find one. The tour leader, Phil, takes us back to the start of the trail and then marches us off the trail into chest high grass. He seems to know where he is going so we all follow along, past the point where if we lose the group we are lost. No one wanders away. Phil suddenly stops, looks at some rocks, plays a call, and a Black Grasswren replies. Yes. Saved. But where is it? We can hear it but the grass is chest high and the bird is about 50 mm high. Phil has the most unbelievable eyesight and suddenly calls "there, on that rock". We turn and sure enough there is movement. Binoculars come up and we have brief but satisfying glimpses of two Black Grasswrens.
|Female Red-backed Fairy-wren|
|White-Napes Honeyeater. The breast is normally white but this one is dirty from the nectar of flowers|
One last needed bird is the Kimberley Honeyeater, another bird only found in this area. More walking through chest high grass and then out onto a rock platform. Well, actually, more like a series of flat topped pillars of rock separated by cracks that are up to 6 metres deep. They are only about one metre wide so they are easy to navigate unless, like me, your shoe gets caught in grass as you jump that metre and come crashing down. Luckily the only damage was a graze to one lip but if I had hurt a leg or been knocked out the only way to get out would have been to be winched into a helicopter. The birding Goddesses were looking after me. We found the honeyeater and I didn't even have a bruise.
We got a second helicopter flight back to the plane and then the flight home landed us in Kununurra at about 1630.
|Landing at Kununurra with the Ord River in the foreground and irrigated fruit trees in the background|
Now that we were out of the plane our mobile phones came back to life and I got the news that my flight out the next day had been delayed. The flight time of 1230 was cancelled and the new time was 1730. Normally this would have me panicking and gnashing my teeth but this time I was dancing with joy. I knew of one more place to try for Gouldians and now I had time to look for them.
Next morning Phil dropped me at the airport at 0800 and I picked up a hire car, back to the cabin, loaded my gear and drove back to the access road to Lake Argyle. Having done my homework before I left Melbourne I knew Gouldians had been seen on this road for about the first 2 km from the intersection with the highway. I had water and muesli bars for food and I drove up and down the road looking and walking. At one spot I got out and two "quail" flushed from my feet and flew off fast and low, as they do. I swung the camera and got a few shots off and looked, I had one reasonable shot. One button-quail but no finches, of any sort!
|Flight shot of a Chestnut-back Button-quail. Not the best photo but there are very few know flight shots of this species.|
After more driving and walking I decided it was time for lunch so I pulled to the side and parked under a tree for shade. As I munched on a muesli bar I became resigned that once again I was running out of time to find a Gouldian. Ah well, I thought, next year! Then the strangest thing happened. Out of the tree above me a little bird helicopter-fluttered down, saw the car bonnet, tipped and fluttered again, just missing it, and ended up in the dirt beside the car. Fledgling I thought, on its first flight, how cute is that. There must be a nest above me. The bird landed in the dirt beside the driver's door and I looked down onto ... a finch! And not just any finch but a GOULDIAN FINCH. Yes!! The birding Goddesses had blessed me. They had delayed my flight and given me a Gouldian Finch. Now the trip was a total success.
|Juvenile Gouldian Finch on the road beside my car|
|Female Gouldian Finch and juvenile|
|Female and four of her five chicks|
The little bird flew up and four more joined it and then they all dropped into the long grass. A few moments later they all flew up into a tree and a female started feeding them. I looked around and there was a tree about 10 metres away with a couple of possible nesting hollows. I think this little group were on one of their first outings. The trip was now a total success; I had been birding with some wonderful people, seen three birds I really wanted, seen lots of other magic sights in the Kimberley and had had a helicopter flight. I was one happy birder.
|Habitat shot of where I found the Gouldian Finches and Chestnut-backed Button-quail|
Back at the airport I returned the car, checked in and waited to board the flight to Darwin. Without doubt this was one of my best trips ever. Oh, and if you want a very special way to find special birds contact Phil and Trisha Maher and sign up, it is worth every penny.
After the Kununurra and Kimberley Plateau trip I had a day in Darwin to chase Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, and I dipped so will need to go back. I borrowed a car from my friend Biggles and drove out to Kakadu. The scenery was spectacular but the birds were few and far between. Next time I will allow a few days and do the job properly. After all, this was only the second time I have tried for them; it took me at least five attempts to get the Gouldian Finches (smile).
|The Rock Pigeons are meant to be seen in the cracks and crevices of these rock faces, but not on the day I was there. The spire on the top right of the rocks is an ants nest.|
All text & images © Jenny Spry