Report No. 18. Sunday, October 5 thru Tuesday, October 7, 2003. ONE LIFE BIRD IN THREE DAYS


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

Sunday, October 5, 2003. Day 53 of 118. Southward.

We are glad to resume our traveling, and at 630am, we strike out for Sandfire Roadhouse, about 400km (250 miles) and 5 or 6 hours away. Depending on how we feel when we get there, we may stay there, or go on through. But some desert birds may start appearing there, according to George and our books, so we may do some birding there, then stay there.

Sharon says we took a vacation from our vacation yesterday, and that makes sense. The temperature is 23.5, or 74 F, very comfortable. A Grey-crowned Babbler says goodbye, I think, but with the language barrier, I can't be sure.

Crocodiles have the same ability to get back to where they were born that a salmon or homing pigeon has. There is this big fella who was in a pen at the crocodile farm with a plastic coated fence, donated by a company that went out of business. It was very attractive, but all the time the metal inside the plastic was rusting away, and one night the big croc knocked his way through the rusted, plastic crusted fence and walked the path over to the tiny pen where he was first put when he hatched. "Mama!" Well, I don't know exactly what he said, but that won't be far off.

So they had to replace all that free fence.

We turn off at the junction, and we are headed south now, towards Port Hedland. A roadsign says Sandfire 286, Pardoo 424 and Port Hedland 576. So that's our world for the next day or so.

We aren't down that road too far when Sharon looks at the map and says, "Hey, that's the Great Sandy Desert out there," pointing to the left. And speaking of desert, the backward book of common knowledge, which says that deserts are made of sand dunes, is again wrong. The Gobi Desert is only 3% sand dunes. The rest is rock and scrub, like most of most deserts. For example.

On our right, and out of our sight, but not out of site of my GPS on the dash, is 80 Mile Beach. During the drive the next few hours, we get two sets of Brolgas out on our right. The first set is about 6-8 birds, and the second one is about a dozen. We see six Black-cockatoos on the left once and quite a few crows and ravens in isolated ones, twos and threes.

About 1030am, we arrive at Sandfire and refuel. We are here way too early to stop, it doesn't look like there will be any birding to do, and so we reset Port Hedland as the day's target.

A bit later, we come to the road which goes to 80 Mile Beach Caravan Resort, but it is corrugated like all such red dirt roads seem to be. We bobble our way down about one klik or so, turn around and come back. No thanks.

We intend to stop for lunch at a roadside parking spot, but there is a dirt road going off to the left, at a diagonal, and I take it, mistakenly thinking it's the parking area. We drive in about a hundred meters, but I like it. We're away from the highway, so we'll have lunch and keep our eye out for Spinafexbirds and the like.

Lunch today is a ham sandwich for me and egg salad for Sharon, with grape tomatoes, dill pickles, pseudo-fig newtons, milk and a marshmallow thingie on a cookie. Perfect. But imperfectly, we get no new birds, and hardly any birds at all. So we rig for travel again and head out.

About 1pm we enter the Shire of Pilbara, the "Largest Shire in the World." What about Worcestershire? If you put all the bottles of that sauce together, I bet that'd be bigger. A half-hour later, we come to a wonderfully-named place, the Pardoo Roadhouse. I can't believe it, but Sharon declines to purchase an Ostrich egg, only $5. The lady behind the counter has ostriches in back, and that's where the eggs come from. They are wonderful, already emptied out, with a small hole in one end, and ready to travel. But Sharon is holding out for an emu egg. {Also, I couldn't quite figure out how we would get this big egg home intact.}

Every time a bird crosses the road, I check the rear view mirror, pull over and we try to call it out or locate it. That's because there isn't that many birds here. And the ones that are here turn out to be woodswallows, every one.

About 330pm, we begin to see the product of the Napier Salt Works, near Port Hedland. Then it becomes clear that our path will go right by there. Sure enough, we go over an overpass which exists not to interfere with the train tracks below it, and which tracks pass by Mount Salty. As we are coming down the other side, we both notice an incredible sight. A man is pushing a bicycle up the overpass. He has rust-colored shorts, sneakers and a bicycle helmet, but at first we think he's wearing a rust-colored suit. As we get closer, we see that it's HIS SKIN - HIS LEATHERY SKIN! He has this incredible sunken chest, and I tell Sharon he looks like he's 95. She says she thought he looked like he was 100.

He must really need salt.

We arrive in Cooke Point Caravan Park, north of Port Hedland and set up. It's a little before 4pm and it feels good to stop. Sharon turns on the A/C and we start cooling down, like two crocodiles with their mouths open on a hot day in the tropics.

We hear birds calling and see that we're in White-plumed Honeyeater country again. Several juvies call for their parents to feed them, and when the parents fly away, the newbies follow the parents and mob them. "Feed me! Feed me!"

After a bit, and after it cools down, we walk down to the mangrove-edged tidal river below the camp. We get Brown Honeyeaters and lots of White-plumed Honeyeaters, and that's about it. So we head back to camp, and relax the rest of the evening away.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 285.

Trip Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 343.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 7.

Sleep in: Cooke Point Caravan Park, Port Hedland, WA


Monday, October 6, 2003. Day 54 of 118. Rollin' Rollin' Rollin', Keep that Diesel Rollin', Keep That Motor Rollin', Rawhide.

Rawhide? Sorry, got carried away with the great old Rawhide theme song.

It's another beautiful day, but I'm suffering withdrawal from two consecutive days of minimal birding. The problem is, it looks like today may be the same. We sleep in a bit, and take off about 7am, with Sharon talking on the mobile phone to son Matt and his wife Kimberly, with a small bit with grandson Ian. We learned earlier that they are expecting again, and delivery will be in March sometime. Excellent-O! Another grandchild.

And the world makes another turn.

We reach the junction again, and turn south on Highway 1 about 720am. We immediately pass a huge, sorry, BIG wheelbarrow, indicating that we're in the town of Wedgefield.

Later, an unusual raptor is flying above the road, just far enough ahead of us so that we can see it. We use the same rule as one in California. In this case, it's "Assume it's a Whistling Kite. Now, prove it's not." The wing position during the glide seems too flat, but there's a strong wind blowing, and maybe that affects it. This bird peels off, and by coincidence, about eight raptors fly up from some roadkill, one a Wedge-tailed Eagle.

Half a dozen sheep zoom across the road in front of us, just before we cross what's signposted the Turner River, but it's clearly the Turner Pool now. Sharon picks up some cormorants. A flight of maybe 24 or 30 cockatiels on the right catch our eye.

We cross another river, and we can see the river bed on one side of the bridge, but there is a small pool on the other side, which just reaches under the bridge.

Then we get some excitement - a white raptor, either a Black-shouldered Kite (likely) or a Letter-winged Kite (very very unlikely). I snap a photo in my mind, then pull over as Sharon continues to watch the bird sink and settle into a busy tree.

I look up the birds in my Simpson and Day, and David Letterman says that because of the black wingtips, it's a Black-shouldered Kite, as expected.

That's so exciting that I need to change drivers and take a nap, so Sharon takes over. When I wake up, about 10am, we are in a full blown desert. A sign at the turnoff to Karratha says, "Limited Water Supply next 632 km, obtain supplies here." We are well-stocked with fresh water. {Or freshly stocked with well water? Who knows?}

We come to one of our birding stops, the Maitland Pool and campground. It's an oasis in the middle of the desert. We walk all along one side, checking the reeds and rushes, trees and weeds, but get only common birds.

Maitland Pool

We did get one bit of excitement early on. A "chuck" emanated from some reeds at the spot we first came to the pool. We "chucked" back, and it worked its way form one side of the reeds to the other, along the edge of the water. I finally was able to work my way out onto a peninsula with a huge tree growing from it. I looked into the reeds, and saw a pair of what looked like Clamorous Reed-warblers. I was really surprised. Other Reed-warblers all over the reeds were singing away, as we expected. So why these two were chucking, we never learned. We were looking for Black Bittern, but none would show its face.

We got a trio of Australasian Grebes in breeding plumage - very handsome.

There is a single toilet there, and I ask Sharon if she needed to use the toilet paper she carries with her when she went earlier. "No," she says. So I head in confidently, with no toilet paper on me. When I finish, I reach over for the - What's this? No toilet paper? SHARON! So there I am. I make like a penguin over to the door, open it carefully to make sure nobody else is around. I reach around the door, and to my great advantage, I see Sharon's in the motorhome, but she has left the door open for cooling.

I whistle as loud as I could, which is a considerable noise. On the third try, she came to the door. "I need toilet paper," I yell. So she brings a roll over, and says, "Somebody must have taken the roll after I went and before you went," she says cheerfully.

We get a few Spinifex Pigeons on the way out, after getting White-plumed Honeyeaters, a couple of Coots, the grebes, a crow and a few Crested Pigeons at this watering hole.

As we drive the dirt road back to the highway, to turn left, I look in that direction, and see a thin cloud just above the horizon, like it's shimmering. And big boulders look like they're floating on water. "I think those are hallucinations?" I ask Sharon. "I think they're mirages," she says.

So it's not that I thought I saw them. It's that I thought I thought I saw them.

We continue down the road, and about half past twelve, I drive around a brown blob on the road, probably roadkill. But as I go past, the big Wedge-tailed Eagle doesn't fly. It seems to be glued to the road, and I know what that means. I do a U-turn and come back, the unlucky bird watching me all the time.

My objective is to get the bird off the road, because it's clearly been hit and injured. My objective should be to put it out of its misery, but I don't have anything to do that with. My other objective is not to let it shred me, trying to defend itself. So I have a defensive weapon with me - the broom from the motorhome.

As I approach it, it fights to stand up, and flies about twenty feet off the road, landing hard on the dirt. It has such a regal look on that face. Sharon says, "If we had a rifle, we'd shoot it," but we don't and we don't. Instead we drive off, the bird following us with its attention as we leave.

Dangit. {People had warned us about the wedge-tailed eagles. "Other birds will fly out of your way, but the eagles just stand there on the road. If you hit one, it ruins your windshield." This poor bird obviously didn't make it out of the way.}

We refuel during the day, about a quarter till one, then fifteen minutes later, we come upon another pool of water beside the road. This is Peter's Creek, or is during the wet season anyway. We decide to check it out and pull onto the loop dirt road that drops down from the bitumen and ends near the water.

A couple of Whistling Kites take off from a white gum tree, as does a Galah. A Magpie-lark calls out and the cattle across the water head out. Sharon sees finches and other birds drinking from a pool on the other side of the bridge, so we move ourselves over to that side.

We get absolutely excruciating looks at several Painted Firetails coming to drink, then flying back to cover, then back to drink, for about three cycles. Some are males with red faces, and some are females, with brown. But all have bright red rumps, on the brick-red end of the red spectrum. Some are fantastic, with the sun at just the right angle for us. Zebra Finches join them periodically, as does a Spinifex Pigeon or two, and a Diamond Dove.

We finish up here about 2pm, and head out again, with Sharon starting. I have my now-expected afternoon nap while Sharon gets us down the road, then we change back a little before 3. We get to the Manutarra Roadhouse, Restaurant, Fuel Stop and Caravan Park, at the Ashburton River crossing. We check in, and since we're the first ones here, we get the best shade tree at the poorest caravan park yet. But it does have electricity, so it rates a 10.0.

Sharon fixes us dinner, after which we check out the Ashburton pool. We don't get much activity beyond a camper who is swimming there and a few common water birds.

Ashburton River Crossing

Then it's back to camp, verification that there is no TV reception and no telephone coverage. So Sharon reads more of her book, "Territory," a historical fiction work about the Northern Territory. It's great fun to read a book about the country you're in when you're traveling.

And for the first time on the trip, I type the report of the events of a day, on the same day it happens. "Inconceivable."

G'nite, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 285.

Trip Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 343.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 7.

Sleep in: Tanutarra Roadhouse Caravan Park, Tanutarra, WA


Tuesday, October 7, 2003. Day 55 of 118. I Need a Lifer-Saver!

No lifers Saturday, no lifers Sunday, no lifers yesterday. I need a life bird or a cigarette. {Bobbie! What would your mother say?}

We say goodbye to the barely adequate Nanutarra Roadhouse, the worst accommodations so far, with its terrible showers, and with the sun just coming up, we're off just a little after 6am.

I'm excited because we are finally going to be in a place where we have a legitimate shot at a new bird.

The odometer has clicked over 80,000 kilometers, and we are supposed to have the motorhome serviced at this time, but I guess we'll have to wait till we're in Perth, where our motorhome company has a depot.

As we cross the Ashburton River, Sharon picks up 40 corellas flying in a tight formation. They land in a ghost gum tree with another 40 or 50 corellas already in it. The sun's just hitting the tree.

Shortly after the river, we see a sign on the left that says, "Road Train Assembly Area, 1 km." I've been wondering about this for a long time. Now I know how to back up one vehicle and connect it to a trailer. But how do you back up a vehicle already connected to a trailer, and connect it with a second trailer? But that's nothing - now take that, and back it up and connect it to a THIRD trailer. OK, now you're basically trying to push on a rope. But that's still nothing - we've seen a Shell truck pulling four, yes FOUR trailers. How the heck did he get that LAST trailer hooked up. There's obviously something I'm missing, some key bit of information.

And shortly after this sign, we see another, at the beginning of a long straight stretch of highway. It also is on the left, and it says, "Emergency Landing Strip for R.F.D.S." We have tremendous respect for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and we check the scrub on the left for a rugged landing strip. Then, seeing nothng out there, we get the picture - The highway we're driving on IS the emergency landing strip. How cool is that?

FLASHBACK: When we were tooling around the countryside with George Swann last Friday, I noticed a big antenna sticking up between the two headlights, closer to the left, and connected to the front bumper. I asked if we got stuck out here, would that thing be able to call for help. He said no, that was the job of the "sat phone," and patted a box between us, on the front seat. A satellite phone - something I strongly considered getting, but I'm glad I didn't, because 1) the pansy nature of our motorhome guarantees that we aren't going very far into any bush, and 2) they cost an arm per month, and a leg and two fingers per minute for your call.

We come upon roadkill, and two Wedgetail Eagles take off from the left, and another from the right. A few miles later, another roadkill and another Wedgetail. We get two parrot-type birds, green with long tails, and after reviewing the possibilities for here, we come up with Australian Ringnecks, confirmed by Sharon seeing yellow on the breast of one. Maybe Port Lincoln Ringnecks? I need to check that out.

The habitat here is like Arizona - not the mountainous part, but the desert, with rocky hills.

About 7am we come to a small windmill and a waterhole maybe forty feet across. There are lots of Crested Pigeons, a raven, woodswallows, Tree Martins, Zebra Finches.

A flight of parrot-like birds come in, and at first I think they're Cockatiels, but they're not. They are extremely skittish. They land in a tree, take off and circle once, then land in another tree. They're not there long, then take off again, circle once, and then I am fortunate to see the following remarkable scene.

Every one of the birds lands right at the waterline, within half a second of each other. Then, like a chorus line during an encore, aware of the other members to the right and the left, each one bends forward in perfect unison, dips its bill into the water, drinks for about 1.5 seconds, and immediately flies off.

And the choreographer of the Budgies says, "How do you like me now?"

Just yesterday Sharon was saying to me, "We haven't seen Budgies for a long time." And in a review of what birds to be looking for here, I noticed that we should start seeing lots of them soon.

Four or five Spinifex Pigeons fly in, and they fascinate me. A few Grey-headed Honeyeaters drop in also, mixing somewhat with the Zebra Finches. Two doves come in, and I think they are both Diamond Doves, but Sharon thinks one is Diamond and the other is Peaceful, because they are different sizes.

Then I am suddenly aware that amid the many Tree Martins flying over the water, a new swallow is flying. I watch it soar and turn, and it is a beautiful White-backed Swallow, stunning in the sun when it's on its outward leg of its circle.

We leave the pool about 730am and a half-hour later, make the turn to the right, towards Exmouth. We are looking for something in Cape Range National Park, which you reach before Exmouth.

Soon we see, in the wild, a bird Sharon's been looking for since we got here - the Emu. We take a photo and continue on, passing a tree with a big nest in it. A crow or raven is standing in it, but flies away as we approach. As we watch it fly, we realize that we can now see the ocean on our right.


About 10am, a sign says "Welcome to Cape Range Way, Exmouth 36 km." The water is on our right, perhaps one km away or so. My GPS shows that we are an amphibious vehicle, moving along in the water.

About 1015am, we make the turnoff to Shothole Canyon Road. It says Shothole Canyon Road, 13km. And I see another Emu right on the corner, but there is a smaller bird there with it, about the size of a female turkey. But they are all standing in greenery and I'm not sure what we're looking at. Then I get it, and tell Sharon. We drive very slowly forward, and get great views of the parent (a male, based on the Emu's parental duty information and its plumage) and two juveniles. They are greenish-black and have very faint vertical striping. Very, very cool. I periodically drive forward a few feet, and they go into the scrub, but slowly return to the road. They are eating small berries.

Then Sharon notices an unusual thing. About where wings would be, if it had any, two feathered things hang down, about 4-5 inches long, with what appears to be weights inside - like balls or something. Later Sharon looks this up, and reads that they are vestigial wings. Amazing. This bird used to fly?

Finally, after we get nice photos and video, we leave them behind, but immediately get a couple of other birds zipping across the road only a foot or so above the road. They are small with long tails, and not very strong fliers. I am SO excited. We stop, pull off, get out and start calling them. We finally get one and it's a Fairy-wren - brown with a little bit of blue in the tail. It moves around quickly and we never get a good look before it's gone.

We check my Simpson and Day, and we needed to get a good look at the face to see if it was clear or it had dark color in front of the eyes. Too late now. We can't ID it, but it was either Variegated or White-winged.

So we drive on in, checking stream crossings and looking for the referenced carkpark. Finally, after about 9 km, we get a carpark, then a streambed, then another streambed. This seems right because there hasn't been much spinafex until just now, and the birds we're after live in spinafex.

We go a little further and find a turnaround loop, which we use to stop for lunch and a little rest. It's about noon.

After lunch I drive back near the creek crossing, find a spot where the road is a little wider than normal, pull over and park, and we rig for birding. First we try to walk down the dry creekbed, but the going is too tough, so we go back out to the dirt road. As we're standing there, playing the tape of the Chiming Wedgebill, Sharon hears a couple of "chucks." We don't know what this is, but it's very interesting.

Sharon returns the chucks, and the two of them converse for a little while. I am in shorts, and we are in big spinafex habitat. Sharon sees the bird pop up, and I see it for a second too, but it moves to a place where it's visible only to Sharon. It's rust-colored, with a long tail, and that's all I have so far.

I decide to accept the punctures of the sharp spinafex needles and move closer to Sharon. We get a better look, then start checking through my ID book. We wind up with spinafexbird, but aren't sure. We wade in again, and then we get it good. It cocks its tail up like a wren, has a long rounded tail, and one other thing. When we were in Mt. Isa, birding with Bob Forsythe, he casually said one time, "If you're walking by the spinafex, and you hear an old hen clucking, that's your Spinafexbird." {My book says the Spinafexbird's song is "delightfully pleasant," or something like that, but Bob's description cinched it}. Our first lifer in three days, the SPINAFEXBIRD*.

The interesting thing about this bird is that we are near its southern limit in this area. But when Sharon was reviewing Wheatley's treatment of this National Park, she noticed that it listed Spinafexbird as being here.

The other two birds we are after are the Chiming Wedgebill - a bird like the Eastern Whipbird, with a crest and a beautiful series of songs, and the Rufous-crowned Emu-wren - a bird that's sort of like a mouse with a long wispy little-used tail. When it flies, the tail just droops down and seems to be in the way rather than helping.

Well, we don't get either bird, nor any hint of them.

There is a huge, gigantic mountain of a rock up on the hills to our left, and underneath it, facing us, is a cave-like area. Birds are flying in and out of this cave all the time. We get on them, and Sharon does her alarm call, drawing some down to us. They are Grey-headed Honeyeaters, with brilliant yellow chests. Sharon claims they are eating something in this cave or depression under the rock.

We still have to go into Exmouth, refuel, and take off if we want to get to Carnarvon (I do) before about 530pm. It's going to be a long, rough afternoon, with the sun shining on my face for the last couple of hours. I dread it.

We continue out, and get a couple of birds that are very interesting in a tree on the left. When we stop one flies out, but one stays. I finally get on it, but it flies to another tree across the road. I move over, finally get the bird, and for the second time, see a key feature. "It's a Crested Bellbird," I tell Sharon. She comes over and gets on it too. A nice bird.

We make it out to the road, turn left, and make our way into the town. The Caltex fueling station is full of vehicles, so we will temporarily bypass this to run other errands. We go to Information and get some answers and directions. Then, just as we're coming out, five Emus come sauntering across the highway, easy as you please.

We go to CALM, the Department of Conservation and Land Management, as suggested by our helper at Information, and ask the girl there if she knows any good birders. She says a worker there, named Chris, is a "keen" birder, but is at the National Parks for the day. But she will get us a list of birds of the area. Only she can't find the list, so she calls someone and asks them to fax it to her. We decide to come back before they close and pick it up.

We go to the Post to mail a couuple of packages and buy some stamps. Then we go to the Ningaloo Blue Internet Cafe, and tie into the internet, sending and receiving emails, and mail off Report No. 16, but (oops), Sharon hadn't proofed that one yet.

We then go to the Newsagent and get another $100 worth of cellphone as a "refuel" package. Sharon buys some books, and I can't quite find the Kasey Chambers CD I'm looking for, nor the newer one, since they have neither [I was mistaken about there being a "newer" Kasey Chambers CD.]. I've seen a music video a couple of times called "If I Were You," that I like. I'll look for it somewhere else.

We go to the Caltex and refuel, then go to CALM again. We learn that Chris will be back at 430 or 5pm, then be off. I get permission, then leave him a note to please call us on our cell phone and give us any information on the two local birds we're after. In the meantime, we pick up the bird list, then take off. "Come on Chris, call us!"

We drive to the Ningaloo Caravan and Holiday Resort and check in. We have requested and received a nice spot right next to the laundry, and Sharon starts one immediately. That lady is dynamite!

I go out to use the rest room, but there's the laundry right in front of us, and the two toilets are one to the left and one to the right. But we are kind of on the back side, and you can't see which is mens and which is ladies. As I'm trying to make my guess, a voice comes from behind me, across the road at another caravan site, "Lift!" That's Aus-TRY-un for "left." I turn around, and though the sun's behind her, I give her the thumb's up.

When I come back, I can see her better, and I yell, "Good anticipation. Thanks!"

I review all the incoming email and prepare some replies, intending to go back and send them off before the internet cafe closes, at 7pm. Then Sharon previews Report No. 17.

She gets all the laundry knocked out, so we go back into town, and I hook up to the net again. I do all my fantasy football emails, all the other emails, send off Report No. 17, pay the helpful girl working there, and we come back to camp.

Sharon fixes us a couple of great steaks, with some carmelized onion bits, some fresh green beans, and it's the best steak I've had in ages.

But Chris doesn't call back. Maybe he was attacked by an irate Emu father, in fear for his chicks.

So we'll be on our own tomorrow. The girl in the CALM knew about the Emu-wren today ("It's rare"), as well as the Spinafexbird ("It's also rare."). She confirms the GENERAL location we were in, trying for the Emu-wren, but says there's no exact location where it is repeatedly found.

This place is famous, from March till June, for the presence of the huge Whale Shark. There are boat tours and scuba dives that you can sign up for, but at this time of year, they go out looking for the Humpback. We get Humpback Whales in Monterey Bay, California, also.

So that's it from the southern hemispherical version of paradise. A very good version, I must say.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 1
For the Trip: 286.

Trip Birds Today: 1
For the Trip: 344.

Snakes Seen Today: 0
For the Trip: 7.

Sleep in: Ningaloo Caravan and Holiday Resort, Exmouth, Western Australia

So that wraps up Report No. 18. See you in the funny papers.

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