Report No. 14. Monday, September 22 thru Wednesday, September 24. THE SEARCH FOR THE GOULDIAN FINCH


Reminder: Sharon's added comments are in {brackets}. Comments inserted after returning to San Jose are in red.

Monday, September 22, 2003. Day 40 of 118. Striking Gould.

It's 6am, and Sharon starts off driving. I could hardly get out of bed, and when I sit down, I have trouble getting back up - lots of trouble. My back is seriously killing me.

Sharon said, "Two things, and I know you're not gonna like one of 'em. First, I'm going to drive today, and second, you're going to stop sitting on that bench seat in front of your computer all night."

"OK," I say, uncharacteristically. I take a couple of Sharon's Aleve for pain and gingerly get myself into the passenger seat. I'm really worried, but I refuse to let the thought into the front part of my mind that I don't want to think.

An hour later, we have stopped at Fergusson River, one of the McCrie-recommended stops for Gouldian Finch. I gingerly make my way down the dirt road to the river, and I feel much better walking than I did sitting. In fact, I feel downright good. Whew.

We can see a great couple of water pools, and in the next several minutes we get Double-barred Finch, Banded Honeyeater, Weebills and some friarbirds. It's hot here, and I can feel a growing excitement inside me. I realize that at ANY MOMENT, a Gouldian Finch could land at the pool, right next to one of the more common (but beautiful) finches we've been seeing.

I wait for Sharon to say, "Hey, there's two of you! How'd you clone yourself?" You see, I'm beside myself with excitement.

We spend our allotted time here, and head back up to the motorhome. I can't believe my back is almost totally ok now. If we could JUST get this finch. Maybe at the next pool.

823am. OK, it's September 22, 2003. "Everybody who has seen a Gouldian Finch in the wild, step across this line. What are doing over here, Lutmans?"

As we were nearing the motorhome, eight finches flew into a tree, and three of them immediately peeled off and went to another tree. As it happened, Sharon stayed with the five, and I went with the three. I checked the three, and they were quite plain two-tone brown birds, but with black masks, like Little Woodswallows or Masked Finches. This type of bird is often called an LBJ or LBB (little brown job, or little brown bird), and I didn't spend much more time on them.

I was suddenly aware that Sharon was talking to me in very low tones, "bob? Bob? BOB? GET OVER HERE!" I saw that she was still looking at the five birds, so I knew they were not going to be too exciting. She continued, "I think these are our Gouldian Finches." Now normally, I'd get really buzzed, but I just went through the motions for completion's sake. I got on the birds, and she was ahead of me on the excitement scale about a hundred to three.

But she kept me at it, and finally I got a clear view at some of the birds she was talking about. And they were NOT like the three birds I had, which were all juvies. I saw yellow chest and belly, light lavendar-grey chests, black faces, and definite red face on one of them. {The Gouldian finch can have three face colors, black, red, or the very rare yellow.} Holy Batman, Robin, it was eight GOULDIAN FINCHES*.

When does our flight leave? We just got my number one bingo bird of the trip!!!

As we're standing, basking in the glow of this great achievement, I notice another bird has flown in, and we get on it.

One time we were watching an episode of Survivor Australia, which we had recorded on ReplayTV, and were playing it back. Just after one of the advertisements, a medium-large bird flew from a perch, and Sharon said, "What is that bird?" I'd been studying the Australian birds, and I said, "I know that bird! It's a Dollarbird." Impressing Sharon, though she had to confirm it, of course. We watched the rest of the show, and then I got my Simpson and Day, and there it was, on page 161. Dollarbird.

Now when the Dollarbird flies, it has a big white patch on each wing, very apparent and attractive when they put on their air show, reminding somebody back in time of the American silver dollar. You might say, "How do you know it wasn't named after the Australian dollar?" To which I say, "When it was named, Australia was on the English Pound system." To which you say, "How do you know that?" And I say, "Because Mike told me this story."

And that's what we have, a wonderful DOLLARBIRD*. It flies, and we see the cool white spots. Though they look more like a halfdollar to me.

Sharon has been driving so far, but I say, "I'm good to drive now," and she lets me. Sharon reads about the Gouldian Finch as we ride, and all the color combination possibilites. All adults have a bright yellow belly.

We just can't get back on the road. As we try, I notice a bird on an anchoring wire of a power pole, and it's a woodswallow of some kind. It has a pale rufous wash on the belly, and though it doesn't have a very significant white eyebrow, it has to be a female WHITE-BROWED WOODSWALLOW*. A great oh-by-the-way surprise bird.

In the truck, as we're leaving, I say "The Star Finch is next." Sharon says, "Let me enjoy the Gouldian for a little while," and laughs. Then she says, "You have trouble enjoying the NOW."

Then, the person who accuses me of having trouble enjoying the "now," says "Send an email to Uncle Peter, and ask him if the word "gypsy" comes from "Egypt." So Uncle Pete, if you read this, and I haven't asked you directly, does it? Uncle Peter sent us this: "... circa 1600 it was learned that [gypsies] came, not from Egypt but from the north and had lived in Idndia and earlier in Hittite areas and Persia."

We drive in to the Copperfield Dam area (yet another recommended spot in McCrie's great guide), saying hi to the caretaker. We are walking around and get Great Bowerbird, Magpie-larks, Rainbow Lorikeets, then get some calls we've not heard before. We trace the calls to several very dark birds. We adjust our walking direction, and based on their calls, dark backs, white throats and buff-white wing patches and their behavior, we ID them as BLACK-TAILED TREECREEPERS*.

We also get a pair of Leaden or Satin Flycatchers, some Long-tailed Finches and a butcherbird we think may be a silverback, but careful checking deflates my 10% chance to zero. Oh.

Back at the motorhome, we get a trio of Grey-crowned Babblers, then we take off. A little after 1pm, we stop at Hayes Creek for lunch in the motorhome. After lunch, we get a pair of water buffalo in a pen, with shade over two diagonal corners, the far one being a mud pit. Sharon sees one animal lying down with his head resting right in some hay. Every once in a while he just takes a mouthful and eats it.

We refuel and take off again. The petrol stations of Australia, in the areas we've been in so far are BP (British Petroleum), Mobil, Shell and some smaller ones. We take off for Howard Springs, our destination today.

A little before 3pm, it's raining like it's never gonna stop. It's pouring down, the first time since we got here. The little gullies and ditches, which have all been dry till now, are full of high-speed water, pouring through.

A few minutes later, we pull into our park for the night. The check-in lady says it's the first rain they've had in six months. I ask if it's the beginning of "the wet." She thinks and says she believes it's just a "shower."

We take a nap before birding the late afternoon, then head out for Howard Springs Nature Reserve (Birding Spot 58). Five wallabies welcome us to the carpark. Orange-footed Scrubfowl are to the left of the path and the stream is to the right of the path. A couple of obnoxious Sulfur-crested Cockatoos fly over.

We walk to the first bridge, where we have been told to listen for our target bird, the Rainbow Pitta. Sharon does her alarm call, and I run through my repertoire, but we get nothing. I play my miniDisc of the bird, and we get an immediate response. I play it a few more times, with responses each time, then we can tell our bingo bird is moving to us. Finally Sharon whispers, "I've got him."

I follow her directions and get the bird, a beautiful RAINBOW PITTA*. At one point, he bows, and I can see the red under his tail. A second bird begins calling, and gets the attention of our bird. The new bird flies in, and immediately our bird flies up to challenge it, but the new bird does whatever birds do to assert their dominance. Our bird flies off, leaving the new bird, who listens to my tape over and over, never responding. But we can see his colors better in this light angle. Black lower parts, except the undertail red. An olive green back with turquoise shoulders and brown on the head. The bird stands on relatively long legs, and has almost no tail at all. He says, "Do this," and takes off. And we follow his instructions.

We walk through the rest of the trail, then come back, remembering the birdventure we had at the bridge. As we walk through, no birds are present this time. An Orange-footed Scrubfowl proves it is a bird by flying noisily up to a tall tree's branch.

We get a bird that has to be a Shining Flycatcher, but it's so dark blue, that I can't really believe it's that bird. A pair of pterodactyls fly over, till I remember that Brown Falcons make this noise. A Nankeen Night-heron spooks up.

We exit the park, and are the last ones here. Except for the thirty or so wallabies sitting around the entrance to the carpark. And every single one is eyeballing us. Didn't Alfred Hitchcock make a scary movie called "The Wallabies?"

It's dark enough that on the way home, Sharon points out the lights of downtown Darwin, and I love this.

Back home, I dread laying my back down on the bed. I know it's going to hurt, so I take a couple of Aleve's and turn in anyway.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 5 (Gouldian Finch!!!, Dollarbird, White-browed Woodswallow, Black-tailed Treecreeper, Rainbow Pitta)
For the Trip: 244.

Trip Birds Today: 5 (The 5 Lifers)
For the Trip: 287.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 4.

Sleep in: Howard Springs Caravan Park, Howard Springs, NT


Tuesday, September 23, 2003. Day 41 of 118. My Bad Back, by Willie Makeit.

For the first time, I admit to myself the possibility of having to stop the trip. Did I really say that? I decide to try to put it out of my mind. If it gets worse, then I will know it. On with the day.

A little after 6am and we're heading for the East Point Reserve (Birding Spot 53), north of Darwin. As I suspected when I saw the map layout, we drive past the point where in 1994, Sharon and I had a taxi bring us to this spot to watch wallabies come out of the woodlands in the late evening. He took so long to come and get us, that we thought he had forgotten, as we stewed there in the dark.

We go to a spot near the picnic grounds and the reef, and get several nice RUFOUS-BANDED HONEYEATERS*. We move to another spot and get Northern Fantail. I am overwhelmed at all the birding spots in Darwin, and the mental gyrations of picking the ones I want to go to seem to be connected directly to my back.

We leave, and in the 1994 wallaby meadow, we see a mother with a joey in the pouch leaning forward to eat grass. This tilts the joey forward, and it uses the opportunity to munch also. Sharon says, "Talk about breakfast in bed."

The next spot is near a hospital in Darwin, and after we finish our birding, without much success, we go into a research center adjacent to the hospital. I tell Sharon, "I think I want to go in and have my back checked." I can tell she's bumped up her alarm level of my condition. She suggests looking for a walk-in clinic, and I agree. {I give Bob my non-professional opinion of his back pain which he is sure is his kidney. I have about 3 reasons why I don't believe it is kidney, but probably back pain and this seems to relieve some mental strain he has about this pain.}

We borrow a phone book, and find a place that specializes in convalescent foam, something Sharon and I call an egg crate mattress because my back seems to be the worst in the mornings after we sleep on the motorhome bed. We've had one of these pads on our regular mattress in our fifth wheel trailer in the U.S. for a long time, and we want to duplicate that condition here. My back loves that mattress/foam pad combination. Sharon gets the location noted so we can drive over there. I decide on a whim to take a chance that it's just my back, and the egg crate foam will make it better, so I skip the hospital check-in.

We pick up the foam, and go to tonight's caravan park.

I go use the internet service they have here, but they aren't set up for me to connect my laptop up and send off a report. I read our incoming mail, and respond to the important ones. During this time, Sharon cuts the foam to fit our bed, inserts it, and remakes the bed. It looks wonderful, but all I can think of is that it won't do any good at all if the problem is very serious. I take a nap, and when I wake up, I feel a little better. A good sign.

I hear bird songs outside, and check them out. Male and female Red-tailed Black-cockatoos, Pied Imperial Pigeons with the male ruffing up his neck and then bowing deeply to the female. Hey! Just like my senior prom.

Now it's 5pm, and we're on Tiger Brennan Drive (McCrie recommendation), next to a lot of mangroves. We park the motorhome, dress for bugs and head in towards a concrete block structure mentioned by McCrie, and I whistle for Mangrove Robin, to no avail, though we MIGHT have heard it. Once. I go back to the motorhome, retrieve my miniCD of Mangrove Robin, return to Sharon, and play the tape.

But the robin's not having any of it. We head further in, and Sharon does her alarm call. A stunning red and black RED-HEADED HONEYEATER* is in remarkable contrast to the drab dark colors of the dark mangroves. He is gorgeous. We move on to the water. Sharon does her alarm call and gets a female Red-headed Honeyeaer plus a cuckoo-shrike.

We move to the long walk between a new housing development and the mangroves, and go up maybe half a kilometer or so. Up ahead I can see a couple of birders, and I can't wait to talk with them. We meet and they tell us that five minutes ago, they saw a Great-billed Heron flying. Dang, we just missed it, a pretty hard-to-see bird. They ask if we have seen Red-headed Honeyeater, and we tell them where we saw it.

Then they tell us that last night, on the Darwin Esplanade, across from a certain hotel, at about 5:30pm, they heard and saw Barking Owls.

We trade a little more information, then Sharon and I decide to go for it. We hustle back to the motorhome, get downtown as fast as we can, park right on the Esplanade (Birding Spot 52) at the right place, where we get to watch a spectacular sunset, but don't hear or see owls of any kind.

Darwin Sunset

Nass trah.

We high five on our attempt (it's ok to celebrate if you give it your best, even if you don't have success), then locate a BP service station where I fill up with diesel. We go to a Woolies, to restock the groceries. We are both totally wiped out. I confess to Sharon that I'm feeling tremendously guilty and responsible for making her so tired. We talk about it a little bit, and hey, I don't feel so tired, and I think she doesn't either.

I feel so good that I start talking about my kidney/back, and she lays out the possibilities for my problem, in her view. Basically, she says if you have a back problem, it's almost always your back. If I had a kidney problem, I'd have a fever, which I haven't and don't. Then we talk about THIS some more, and I feel positively light-headed.

And for the first time in a week, I can see a path where I am going to be perfectly ok without kidney polio treatment. We load our groceries, and go back to camp. I don't do anything on the computer, and lay down on our new egg-crate mattress.

Maybe, just maybe this will solve the problem...

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 2 (Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Red-headed Honeyeater)
For the Trip: 246.

Trip Birds Today: 2 (The 2 Lifers)
For the Trip: 289.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 4.

Sleep in: Shady Glen Caravan Park, Winnellie (Darwin suburb), NT


Wednesday, September 24, 2003. Day 42 of 118. I'm Back, Baby.

I wake up and, just like Christmas mornings when I was a kid, I feel fantastic. My back is about a thousand times better today. I am SO thankful. We also cut a piece of the leftover scraps and make a lumbar support for my motorhome seat. {I had bought myself a small pillow about 5 weeks ago to put behind my back in the passenger seat because of the long drives, but Bob didn't have anything comparable.}

I relax because I wasn't getting older after all.

We take off, and at about 630am, we're ready to turn off to Kakadu Highway. Twenty minutes later the landscape begins reminding us of our 1994 bus tour from Darwin to Kakadu. "So where are the Jabiru and water buffalo?" asks Sharon. There's the Jabiru, squabbling with an egret.

The sun is now up over the horizon, and there are lots of clouds, but way off in the distance. The sun is rising through clouds, and it is a beautiful sunrise. Three black-cockatoos glide in front of the sun, and I wish I could have gotten that photo. A little wallaby pounds away to our left, and a man walks along beside the road with a bag of what looks like cucumbers. To sell?

Last night we were talking to the checkout woman in Woolie's, and she says they call this time of year the "buildup." It's when the heat get hotter and the humidity gets higher, heading towards the beginning of the wet season.

We see a wild dingo, including his ribs sticking out. He looks hungry and tired. A flock of Little Corellas sails overhead to our left.

I have called Mike Oswald, at Mary River National Park (McCrie recommendation), and we have reservations to go on a morning Mary River boatride, specializing in crocodiles and birds. We arrive about twenty till eight, and the boat is supposed to leave about eight.

Mike says the Tropic of Cancer divides the country in half. There are half a million people in the top half and 18.5 million in the bottom half. But the north has 85% of the water. We are walking now with about 7 other people, also signed up for the trip, heading for the river and Mike's boat.

We pass a man who has been "fishing," and he shows us what he's caught. I get a photo of Sharon holding a cherabin, or freshwater prawn. They say it's delicious.

Freshwater Prawn

Minutes later, we're in the water. There are two reasons we're on this ride. One is the Great-billed Heron and the other is Black Bittern. I figure if we get one out of two, it will be a smashing success.

Mike looks up at the sky and says, "Look at those hawks up there. There's a whole stack of 'em." Whistling and Black Kites, stacked up like the jets over JFK.

We come to a little dead-end branch off to the right, and Mike slows the boat and steers us over there. He gets us on a pair of eyes that seem like they're two feet apart. It's a huge croc, and he calls it the Cowcatcher because he says it has caught and eaten six adult cows, though I'm willing to bet he only got them one at a time. He says it ate a wild pig about a week ago, and hasn't moved since.

We get immature Sea Eagle, though at first Sharon and I couldn't figure it out. It was like a Whistling Kite, but way too big. Mike ID'd it for us. We get a smashing view of an Azure Flycatcher, and finally, when we're as far as the lowering water level will let us go, we get a GREAT-BILLED HERON*, flying away from us. It lands, and everybody is on it but me. Everybody tries and tries to get me on it, but I stubbornly fail.

Azure Flycatcher

When I finally do get it, it's because I was looking for something about five times bigger than the bird is, from this aspect. It's WAY off in the distance. It didn't land there by coincidence, Mike says, implying that the bird knew our boat couldn't come up there.

We are heading back now, and Sharon asks what fish are coming to the surface. Mike says Catfish, Baramundi or Saratoga.

The Mary River is pretty wide, maybe 60 meters across, with steep 30 or 40 degree slopes. The water is dirty, you can't see into it more than a few inches. Bamboo is growing all over the place. There are eucalypts, also called gums, acacia trees, blue skies, puffy white clouds, and about ten million Rainbow Lorikeets everywhere. I learn that there is one thing a Rainbow Lorikeet is incapable of, and that is that when it is scared, it simply cannot fly away quietly. Far above us is a never-ending supply of Whistling Kites, whistling.

We come back to a dirt bank sticking out into the river, the highest point maybe three feet above the water level. There is a fence around it, and Mike says it's where the dinner cruise stops for dinner. We guess that the fence is to keep the crocodiles from joining the cruisers for dinner.

There are sections of red blossoms (parantonia) lying on the water. The aboriginals used to collect them, Mike says, grind them up, make a liquid out of them, and pour them over an enclosed pool with Baramundi. It took the oxygen out of the water or otherwise affected the fish, and they just floated to the surface.

We come to a fresh water crocodile, maybe five feet long, just out of the water. Its tail is almost touching the water, he's pointed up the bank, and his mouth is open. Mike says he's waiting for a roast duck to drop in.

Suddenly we get another Great-billed Heron, just standing on the bank, in the shade of a fat tree. As we approach, he slowly walks up the bank, and I get great video. What a cool sight.

Great-billed Heron

We continue up, and I ask Mike where we might see Black Bittern. He says we're looking for them now. Sharon is and has been scanning both shores with her binoculars, hoping for Black Bittern. But we will finish this trip bitternless.

We pass Cowcatcher's slough, and "Look Out, Mike,"the big croc's turned around. Does this boat go any faster?

A couple of great Dollarbirds are next, and Mike says they were named after the American dollar. We pass stands of bamboo, with maybe 500 fruit bats hanging in each one.

There is an incredible contraption across the water that Mike says is a sand dredge, and it still works, and is being used to bring up sand. It reminds me of that ice-making contraption in "Mosquito Coast," a story about a family who moved to South America, and the father built all manner of unusual things.

We finish up our boat trip, and decide to head straight on to Kakadu. On the way we see several sets of black-cockatoos, and when you are lined up with one flying straight away from you, its wings look long and slender, and for some unknown reason, I am surprised by this. Maybe it's because the Sulfur-crested Cockatoos have wide wings.

We come into the border of Kakadu National Park (Birding Spot 61), and pay the $16.25 per adult, good for 7 days. I am sleepy, so I turn the driving over to Sharon, and out I go. When I wake up, I see a dust devil off to our right.

We swap drivers again, and get a beautiful view of a Jabiru flying near a dry creek, straight away from us - beautiful black and white, slow motion from our angle. As we come into the community of Jabiru itself, where the resort is, including our caravan park, suddenly Sharon sees a bird, points it out, and I pull off the road, to the left. I get out the scope and we get on it, as it cooperates nicely by staying in place. It has a dark brown head, black body and the legs are not yellow, but are darker. No Brown Falcon at all, it's a nice BLACK FALCON*.

By 1230pm, we have checked in and are in our site, electricity plugged in and on, as is the air conditioner. We rest and have a nap, then I work on the computer a bit. I tell Sharon I'm going to the toilet block, and she says, "Don't get any new birds." I laugh and go out, and immediately get a new bird. I come back in and call her. She comes as quickly as she can, and we get great views of a pair of PARTRIDGE PIGEONS*, walking around.

Our Cool Camping Site at Yulare, near Uluru

Partridge Pigeon

I go in and get my camera, then try to sneak up on them, keeping a tree between me and them, as they get drinks of water at a dripping tap. As I come out of the cover of the tree, one of them takes off in an incredible explosion of energy. It's like he got shot out of a cannon, and then the other does the same thing.

I go to the front desk and make reservations for us for the Yellow Waters 645am boat trip tomorrow morning. We will leave here in our motorhome at 545am. I return to the motorhome and we decide to go out to Nourlangie Rock and try for a few birds we know are in that area.

Nourlangie Rock (Birding Spot 62) is a place where thousands-of-years-old rock paintings can be seen, and we saw them during our 1994 tour. I am so excited to be going back to look at the birds at the place I looked at the paintings nine years ago.

As we are driving out of the park, we see a big group of Little Corellas, and because Sharon has read that they pick things up with only their left foot, we study a number of them and for the two or three minutes we watch, incredibly, this seems to be true.

A little before 6pm, we're walking up the 400 meters to the gallery, and we get a Great Bowerbird flying in. We look at the paintings and take some photos, then turn our attention to birding. Sharon does her alarm call, and we get immediate Dusky Honeyeaters, plus some friarbirds.

Ancient Aboriginal Rock Paintings at Nourlangie Rock

I get a couple of poor photos of a pair of Blue-winged Kookaburras. They are so close to us. Sharon repeats her call, and we get a response of the main bird we're after. Ten minutes later we're admiring the BANDED FRUIT-DOVE*, which has flown in to check out the call it heard. What a beautiful bird.

We take the upper loop trail to the carpark, and almost immediately get another bird we're after, a pair of WHITE-LINED HONEYEATERS*, who also responded to Sharon's call. It's really fun for me to think that the ancestors of these birds were in this very spot in 1994 when we were here. Or maybe some of the exact same birds.

In the carpark, we are the last ones here. A sign said no entry after sunset, but using the American logic of squeezing as much as possible, it doesn't mention what happens when you're already in here. So we enjoy the fantastic sunset, as we patrol the border of the pavement for button-quail, but to no avail.

It is SO quiet and peaceful. We're watching the sky change to blue and pink, contrasting with the gray of the clouds. Here in the carpark, surrounded by woods and monsoon forest, with the enormous rock wall up to the left, and then a huge rock ahead of us - well, it's just very, very special. {The caves and rock paintings here remind me of Mesa Verde in the desert southwest of the US. The ceilings of the caves are black from the many fires that were built here by the original inhabitants of these lands. Their rock paintings are in beautiful colors of ochre and black. Some of the pictures are recognizable as animals or people, but others are of mythical ancestors. Very impressive, especially as we are alone to view it instead of with a tour group like last time we were here.}

Rock 'n' Sunset

We drive home in the dark, very peaceful.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 5 (Great-billed Heron, Black Falcon, Partridge Pigeon, Banded Fruit-dove, White-lined Honeyeater)
For the Trip: 251.

Trip Birds Today: 5 (The 5 Lifers)
For the Trip: 294.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 4.

Sleep in: Kakadu Caravan Park, Jabiru, NT

That's it for Report 14. Thanks for reading the stuff you were interested in. We're looking forward to repeating the Yellow Waters billabong boat trip tomorrow, which we did in 1994.

Previous Report (No. 13)
Next Report (No. 15)
Back to Australia Trip Reports
Back to Birding Trips