Report No. 30. Thursday, November 13 thru Friday, November 14. Wandering the Plains with Phil Maher, near Deniliquin, NSW.


Thursday, November 13, 2003. Day 92 of 118. Yea, Vic to Deniliquin, NSW

NOTE: I have misplaced my recorded notes for this driving day, so it will be the shortest of reports, done from memory, with just the essentials.

We wake up in Yea, Victoria, and drive north, into New South Wales. We do a little birding on the way, and come across a caravan park next to a river that deals in yabbies. We stop so Sharon can find out what they look like, and I get a nice photo of a couple of the little critters.

As we stand there, one of them pulls a claw off of the other one, although Sharon believes that the loser actually pulled his own claw off. {What I saw was one of the yabbies (crayfish) with only one claw, but on closer examination, I could see that he was holding his own claw in THAT claw. The woman said, "Oh, he'll grow it back".}

We get into Deniliquin and call Phil, who says he'll pick us up at 630 am tomorrow morning. Tomorrow's the big day.

Will we see the Plainswanderer? It's what we've come for.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 366.

Trip Birds Today: 0
For the Trip: 433.

Bird Upgrades Today: 0.
For the Trip: 7

Active Bird Nests (with adults or chicks or both) Today: 0
For the Trip: 14

Snakes Seen Today: 0.
For the Trip: 11.

Sleep in: Riverside Caravan Park, Deniliquin, NSW


Friday, November 14, 2003. Day 93 of 118. Dynamite Deniliquin Day with Phil Maher.

The alarm is off at 530 am, and Sharon watches Good Morning America for a little bit. We take our birding gear (no rain, no need for overshoes, warm then hot so no need for parkas).

Phil picks us up in his landcruiser, and we head for Gulpa Island State Forest right off the bat. This had been on my list of places to bird, but because it was so close to Deniliquin and looked so good, we skipped it, figuring correctly that Phil might have that as one of his stops.

We make it to Gulpa Island and are birding by 710 am. I ask Phil what river this is, and he says it's Gulpa Creek. He hears White-winged Triller, then we see Common Bronzewing on our left.

A Brown Treecreeper calls from our left, then I get on a Sacred Kingfisher,who is also calling. Phil is listening and calling out the names of birds: Brown Treecreeper on our left, Jacky Winter and Rufous Songlark.

We scare up a couple of Wood Ducks as a Sulfur-crested Cockatoo flies over. A Grey Fantail calls, in addition to Rufous Whistler, Grey Shrike-thrush, White-throated Treecreeper and Weebill.

A Crested Shrike-tit calls, then Phil whispers, "Shhhh!" We both shush and stop walking. We all hear a very quiet, very low "ohmmmm, ohmmmmm." "That's one of your birds," Phil whispers, as I emailed him and Patricia a copy of the birds we need a few days ago.

He plays his own taped call, and then we just listen. We can tell that the bird is moving and towards us. "There she is," Phil whispers, pointing to a grassy area with a few trees. I see her come up behind the tree peek around at us, then moving to the right, ever so quietly, ever so carefully.

The little PAINTED BUTTONQUAIL* sex roles are reversed, and there is an additional kicker. Each female has two males that she mates with. She lays eggs in two different nests, and the males do the egg sitting and young rearing. It's the female that does the calling, while the males are quiet.

If a given area has 8 females, there will be 24 birds, made up of the females plus twice as many males. This doesn't count any young birds that may be there too.

We get a pair of Dusky Woodswallows, a Rufous Whistler and a Grey Fantail, then we get one of the key birds we're after here - four beautiful SUPERB PARROTS*. - a male and three females.

We see a White-winged Triller on a stump, and Eastern Rosella, then nearby a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike calls.

Getting a better look at Superb Parrots on the ground, the long pointed tails don't go straight back on the females, they are kind of curved upward. Phil says this comes from sitting on the nest.

A Little Friarbird and Australian Raven call, then we see a pair of Yellow Rosellas and a Crested Shrike-tit. Phil hears White-browed Woodswallows calling, then we get Brown Treecreeper punctuated with more low, quiet calls from the Buttonquail again. It makes me smile to think that we just saw her a few minutes ago.

Three or four White-plumed Honeyeaters chase each other around. We start walking back toward the vehicle, but first Phil gets a big stick and bangs on a hollow tree, hoping for Owlet-nightjar, without success.

We leave this area of Gulpa Island, and move to another, where we're hoping for Gilbert's Whistler.

It's a little after 8 am when we get Yellow Thornbill, Rainbow Bee-eater, and then Phil hears and names a Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo. Phil starts calling it, and it responds. Then suddenly, a Gilbert's Whistler starts calling. Holy cow, who do we follow?

Phil sticks with the cuckoo, and the cuckoo sticks with Phil's whistling, moving around from tree to tree, but keeping near to us. Finally it stays in one spot long enough for us all to get good looks at the HORSFIELD'S BRONZE-CUCKOO*.

The incredible thing is, at one point we had the cuckoo in our binoculars when the GILBERT'S WHISTLER* landed in such a manner that we could see the cuckoo and the whistler at the same moment.

After we ID'd the cuckoo, we wanted to see the Gilbert's better, and we got great looks of a pair, once with the female on the ground gathering nest material. Phil said this pair had a nest with babies about three weeks ago. He doesn't know what happened. Maybe they lost them. I asked if maybe they had fledged, but he said usually they would hang around the parents longer than that. So now they are nesting again.

During the chase for the whistler, we got Red-rumped Parrot and Spotted Pardalote, White-browed Babbler and a calling Little Eagle. A Grey Teal with babies is on the creek, and then it's time to change locations again.

We drive slowly out and Phil identifies Peaceful Dove, Western Gerygone and Brown-headed Honeyeater by their call. Earlier he identified a Diamond Dove from its call.

There is a rice-storage facility with a bit of water next to it, and that is where we go next. We get a visual upgrade of about forty Black-tailed Native-hens, previously only heard by Sharon but seen by Bob.

We get Masked Lapwing, Nankeen Kestrel and Blue-faced Honeyeater, but Phil suspects there's a raptor somewhere, because all the birds are out of the water, huddled under a row of trees.

Then a bird flies from the line of trees to another tree, carrying a small bird. It is being mobbed by Ravens and Magpie-larks. We just can't quite get on it, but finally it flies away and Phil IDs it as a COLLARED SPARROWHAWK by its square tail, which I saw also.

We go back to scanning the water and get Black-fronted Dotterel, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Chestnut Teal, Hardhead, Wood Duck, Coot, Hoary-headed Grebe, Grey Teal, Black Duck, Clamorous Reed-warbler and Little Grassbird, oh yes, and House Sparrow. Whew!

A Purple Swamphen is proud of its little black fuzzball babies with their tiny silver bills, shining in the sun. Other birds are Red-kneed Dotterel, Masked Lapwing, a single Plumed Whistling Duck, a Dusky Moorhen and an overhead Black Kite.

Next we head out to a small pond to try for crake. On the way, we see a Brown Falcon on each of two consecutive power line poles. We pass over a bridge being used by Fairy Martins. We next pass a rice field with one Yellow-billed Spoonbill, two Royal Spoonbills, a White-necked Heron, several Straw-necked Ibises and Sacred Ibises.

We go through a locked gate, with me doing the opening and closing honors and drive up to the pond. Phil plays the tape of Australian Spotted Crake in several spots, but no crakes respond. We get Black-winged Stilt, Black Duck, Grey Teals, and quite a few Red-kneed Dotterels.

We leave this area and drive past some more rice fields, on the way getting a beautiful White-backed Swallow, basking in the sun. At the rice fields, we get cormorants, stilts, spoonbills, White-faced Heron, female Darter, Black Ducks, Black Swan and a tree with Little Black, one Great and at least one Little Pied Cormorants. Another Darter flies into the tree as a Great Egret flies in also.

Phil tries one more place before our break. It's a dirt road, where he has seen a bird we have been trying to find for ages. A Bee-eater comes up from its ground nest as we drive by. We see and hear a few Zebra Finches, plus a Singing Honeyeater where we stop the vehicle.

Phil has this bird located to within two trees, and getting a White-fronted Honeyeater, we finally get our BLACK HONEYEATER*, and it's beautiful - black and white and very small. A Pied Honeyeater is present for a nice size comparison, the Pied being much larger. I think Phil called this area Echo Hill. A Kookaburra watches us from its perch on a power line as we drive by.

Phil takes us back to the caravan park and says he'll pick us up at 300 pm.

It's pretty warm so a scheduled break in the middle of the day gives us time to have lunch, cool off and have a nap.


I ask Phil questions about where we might find Plum-headed Finch, Turquoise Parrot, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Orange-bellied Parrot, Southern Emu-wren, Eastern Bristlebird, Glossy Black-cockatoo and Rock Warbler, and he's got recommendations for all of them. Fantastic.

This is all during the drive to a place where one of our target birds hangs out. He calls and IMMEDIATELY we get three STRIPED HONEYEATERS*, each doing a surprising fluffed-up dispaly, sort of like a fledgling begging an adult for food, but more animated. It's fascinating and they are larger than I was expecting.

A Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater calls from across the road and a Yellow-throated Miner from this side.

We move to another site some distance from Deniliquin and get Richard's Pipit, several Crimson Chats, Masked Woodswallow and an adult Chestnut-rumped Thornbill feeding young.

Next we move out to another nearby area and get Australian Pratincole, Banded Lapwing, and at last, after trying for weeks and weeks, Phil points us to a WHITE-FRONTED CHAT*, which just flew in and landed on the top of a bush. Beautiful black and white bird.

A Brown Songlark flies over and then a Singing Bushlark. A Mallee Ringneck is a nice surprise.

We move one more time to a sheep paddock, where we get Budgerigar, and a Brown Falcon flyover, with its raised wing attitude. There are twenty or thirty Budgies, and it's great fun watching them move around together. A pair of Southern White-face and a Red-rumped Parrot show up, and then a beautiful Crimson Chat perched exactly on top of an evergreen reminds us that Christmas is coming.

A Wedge-tailed Eagle flies over, reminding me that we had a pair fly over earlier today somewhere. We get a remarkable flock of maybe fifteen or twenty White-winged Trillers, and how great this is.

Phil next takes us to a location where another of our target birds hangs out, and in no time at all, we get on a small group of extremely handsome CHESTNUT-CROWNED BABBLERS*. They are quite a ways off, and Phil sets up his scope for us because he explains these babblers are very shy and will fly off if we try to approach them.. Fantastic views of a truly elegantly-dressed bird. A Striated Pardalote calls from a tree.

At 630 pm, and for maybe the tenth try of the day, Phil gets a thick broken off branch and bangs and rubs it against a hollow tree. But for the FIRST time of the day, an AUSTRALIAN OWLET-NIGHTJAR* flies out of a hole, across maybe thirty meters, and lands in another tree. Phil says "Look fast. They often just fly straight to another hole, but this one's staying out. Probably not for long." I start walking toward it, taking photos, and Phil warns me not to approach too close too fast, or it will fly away before Sharon can get a good look.

I count to about ten, check with Sharon, then get pretty close, and get as nice a picture as I can with my digital camera. I just can't believe its huge eyes and unusual face. A Diamond Dove makes an appearance, and this is one of my favorite doves.

Phil says the banging on the hollow tree thing works because birds who sleep in the hollows have a built-in fear of goanas, so they rush out to make sure it's not one of the big lizards climbing the tree. The lizard's specialty is quietly entering a nest hole, thus trapping the birds inside, and usually making a meal of the young.

So the Owlet-nightjar said, "Whew," in owlet-nightjar language, and let us get a good look.

We drive to our next place, and Phil, who has eyes like a, uh, let's see, like a, uh, let's say HAWK, yells, "White-winged Fairy-wren," as we drive by at 90 kph. He's ready to slow down and do a u-turn, but we've seen them pretty good before, so we keep going. We get a shingleback, looking sort of dark greenish-black.

We come to a huge paddock, and start driving around in it, getting Brown Songlark and White-faced Woodswallow. Phil drives us around and around for maybe half-an-hour, looking for a bird that he says is very scarce here right now, the Inland Dotterel. I'm a little disappointed, because this is a very, very tough bird, and this will be our only chance to get one.

After driving around in the field, stopping several times to scan, then driving some more, he comes to a stop, and is looking out the left window, but far off. I look out the left window, where I'm sitting and I notice this shorebird type bird standing confidently and quietly, blending perfectly with the ground. But I notice tell-tale black markings on its chest. Now unknown to me, Sharon is looking at a different bird, standing about five feet from the one I am looking at. She's thinking the same thing I'm saying, but can't quite believe what she's looking at. I say, "I think I'm looking at an Inland Dotterel," but I can't quite believe I said those words. Ever so often, when one of the birds call, it does a little dip.

Phil adjusts his binoculars down and confirms the siting. "Well Done," he says, "well done." Then the three of us watch these two birds for about five minutes. They appear more beautiful than they are because of the fact that we found them. Then a third bird appears. One of the birds is well marked, while the others are a little fainter - probably juveniles or a little older.

We finally let them go, and Phil drives us to a nice spot, as the sun is about to set. He positions us so the sun isn't in our eyes, but is behind a small group of trees. We can see all the surrounding area - several hundred acres of grassland and sheep pasture. It's a little too soon for the Plainswanderer - the star attraction of today - to be calling, so we enjoy our packed lunches, enjoying the sunset.

Finally he effectively says, "OK, let's do it." He drives us to another spot, but still in the 800-acre parcel he says we're in. We walk the area, staying close to him and behind him. He plays the tape of the Plainswanderer, patiently waiting for a response. We try the tape maybe eight times, but never get a peep of a response.

Phil says, "OK, looks like we'll have to slug it out," and we get back in the vehicle. He gets out his spotlight, plugs it into the cigarette lighter socket, puts a glove on his right hand. He rolls down the right hand window and gives us our instructions.

He says, "I'm going to just drive around from left to right, and I'll be panning the spotlight left and right. You two just watch the area in front of the headlights, especially close to the vehicle. I'll be looking at the area I spotlight."

And we're off. It's about 830 pm, it's totally dark, the air is full of bugs and flies, all incredibly attracted by Phil's spotlight. He starts carving out these freeform arcs with the vehicle, first a gentle left turn for about ten seconds, then steadily shifting to an arc in the other direction, sometimes coming back again. The idea, to make a comparison with painting a wall, is to cover the entire wall, but with random curved strokes, first making a path, say, to the upper left corner, then bending to the right, coming straight down to the bottom, then up to the upper right, and so on. But the size of the swatch the car makes is to the 800 acres, as perhaps an eight-inch brush is to painting the wall of a house.

Phil does all this, and his arm forms a natural scoop to direct insects in and right onto his face, head and neck. It's a terrible thing he's signed up for, so that we can have a shot at this one-of-a-kind-in-the-world bird, and we really appreciate it.

Occasionally we spot something, usually a pipit, sometimes a songlark, but usually it's an onrush of seemingly identical grassland. Phil occasionally tells us stories of different sitings, like the one where they went till 2 am. Holy cow, I don't think we can stay awake that long.

I'm in the front seat, on the left, and Sharon is in the back. She's leaning forward and I'm sure it's hurting her back, staying in that position, so I ask Phil to stop so we can change places. We swap, because Sharon has better eyes than I do for "finding Waldo."

We take off again. Minute after minute drags by, and sometimes my eyes get stuck at the identical grassland passing in front of our eyes. I've got my digital videocamera ready, for the moment we hopefully see the bird.

At 930 pm, we disturb a Banded Lapwing from its nest of four eggs. That gets our attention, and gives us a shot in the arm. We are re-vitalized. Come on, come on!

At about 1020 pm, I shake my head quickly from left to right and back, sort of shaking up the sawdust in there, and Phil suddenly comes to a stop saying, "There's your PLAINSWANDERER*, right there - a male, moving off a nest." And we're on it. It's in front of the left front tire track, and is running in an arc to the right.

Phil has stopped the car, as I get good video of it moving. Fantastic.

Sharon has to get out, and move around the car to point directly at the four eggs for me to see them. And I was looking right "at" them, but my eyes couldn't uncamouflage them. They're splotchy, and make my head swim a little.

We finally let the bird go, heading away from the area.

Phil reckons the area is about 800 acres, and says maybe there are 8 females, and 16 males in this area. Some males are sitting on eggs, and some are probably sitting on chicks by now. Our hour and a half drive is an indication of how difficult it is to find even one of the 16 "needles" in an 800-acre "haystack."

I recall the email I sent in October 2002 - a fictitious conversation between a baby and its mother. The thing I learned is that the conversation would be between a baby and its father, who is the chick-rearing adult. The other thing I learned is that they aren't really rare, it's just that they are SO difficult to find. One of their favorite places to live is apparently sheep paddocks. They need the grass and flowers to be just the right height, not too short - that wouldn't hide them well enough, and not too tall.

Phil moves to taller grass, and begins doing the same thing. I asked what we're looking for and almost before he can tell me, he flushes a LITTLE BUTTONQUAIL*. It doesn't fly or go very far. One of its traits is that when scared, it freezes in place. And that's what happens here. I look down and can see its neck, crown and eye perfectly. Sharon gets out and gets great looks too. Phil tells Sharon to start walking towards it. She does, and as hoped, it flies, so we can watch it. Excellent.

We finally head for home and a little after 11 pm, we drive past something in the road. Phil turns around, comes back, and confirms a Legless Scalyfoot. It's a legless lizard, and Sharon doesn't even want to claim it as a snake, because it isn't.

We get great photos of Phil holding it, Sharon holding it, and then Sharon gets a great shot of Phil and me.

We take off again, and oops, we're still not done. We get a Barn Owl, perched on a Clark's Creek sign.

Then, double oops, we're STILL still not done. At two minutes till midnight, Phil gets us a Common Brushtail Possum.

We pay him and throw in a bonus for the great evening. We say goodbye, and what a super feeling it is, this thing Phil has done for us on this great, great birding day and night.

On the way into the caravan park, we hear a noise and get our own pair of Brushtail Possums climbing a tree next to the toilet block.

Sharon takes a shower, while I transcribe the digital recording onto the laptop. We hit the sack, content to the max.

Tomorrow, or rather later today, we will drive down to Melbourne, to catch the 9 pm ferry to Tasmania - the next great chapter in our four-month extravaganza.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds Today: 13 (Painted Buttonquail, Superb Parrot, Horsfield's Bronze-cuckoo, Gilbert's Whistler, Collared Sparrowhawk, Black Honeyeater, Striped Honeyeater, White-fronted Chat, Chestnut-crowned Babblers, Australian Owlet-nightjar, Inland Dotterel, Plainswanderer, Little Buttonquail)
For the Trip: 379.

Trip Birds Today: 13 (The 13 lifers)
For the Trip: 446.

Bird Upgrades Today: 1 (Saw Black-tailed Native-hen. Previously, both heard, only Bob saw).
For the Trip: 7

Active Bird Nests (with adults or chicks or both) Today: 0
For the Trip: 14

Snakes Seen Today: 0.
For the Trip: 11.

Sleep in: Riverside Caravan Park, Deniliquin, NSW

That's the wrapup of Report 30. If you are a birder, you may have been fascinated. If you aren't a birder, you are likely snoozing with your hands on the keyboard. See ya.

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