I had booked the services of Simon Starr (email@example.com) of Firetail Tours (www.firetailbirdwatchingtours.bigpondhosting.com/) some months ago as I had wanted to finish off my Australia trip with a short tour into the Mallee areas of NW Victoria , with the added bonus of the possibility of Plains-Wanderer. I left Adelaide at 6:30 am and arrived at 7 .30 am at Avalon , a small airport some way west of Melbourne , hopping onto the connecting coach which deposited me at Southern cross train station in the centre of the city . A 2 hour train ride took me to Bendigo where I was met by Simon.
Our first stop was to be Kooyoora State Park near Bendigo itself where Simon had recently found Swift Parrots which pass though this area on their way south to breed eventually in Tasmania. The forest here was a mix of Ironbark and White Box which were flowering in profusion and indeed the very first bird I got my bins onto was a Swift Parrot, an uncommon species at the best of times. We recorded at least a dozen individuals amongst a plethora of nectar-feeders including Musk , Purple crowned and Little Lorikeets as well as a single Black-chinned Honeyeater outnumbered by dominant Fuscous Honeyeaters . After this excellent start we moved on to nearby Melville’s Caves to try for Gilbert’s Whistler. Having played the tape a few times while walking along the road we nearly gave up until on returning to our starting point we got a response and soon a male Gilbert’s was singing a few metres away.
Ever onwards and our next stop was a small mallee dominated reserve called Inglewood Reserve where we searched in vain for White-fronted Honeyeater, another blossom nomad, but did get excellent sightings of the cute Shy Fieldwren which circled us in response to the tape and knockout views of Brush Bronzewing coming in to drink at a small dam, along with Common Bronzewing allowing close comparison. A plaintive whistle alerted us to the presence of a Black-eared Cuckoo (a species which had already eluded me at Flinders Ranges in South Australia ) and once again I was to be frustrated as the singing died out.
Later that evening after a quick meal at Simon’s home near Pyramid Hill we went searching for Plains-Wanderer in Terrick-Terrick reserve some 30 minutes away. Having not slept for much of the night and after a long day of travelling this soon became a somewhat hallucinatory experience with the two of us walking around a grassy field for over 2 hours waving our spotlights in front of us. Despite the fact that Simon usually finds this species here we were ultimately unsuccessful this evening and a Stubble Quail was the only species of interest found. On the way back we nearly ran over a Banded Lapwing on the road which was valiantly protecting its chick.
Today we were to drive into North West Victoria with the aim of ending up at Hattah-Kulkyne National Park. On the way we stopped at various wetland sites to allow me to catch up with some species I had missed so far on the trip. We visited both Lake Tutchewop and Round Lake and found large numbers of ducks mostly Grey Teal with a few Blue-billed, Shovelers and Musk Duck as well as hundreds of Red-necked Avocets and some superb Double-banded Plovers in full breeding plumage. On the way to Hattah we passed through the town of Ouyen where Blue Bonnet parrots became moderately common roadside companions. Our next stop was to be Bronzewing Fauna and Flora Reserve a mallee reserve near Ouyen . Our main target here was Chestnut-Quail Thrush, an uncommon mallee specialist which according to Simon was most easily found at this site. We played the tape and listened intently Simon explaining that the bird quietly walks away if disturbed and that stealth is the best strategy to actually see the bird. After a couple of close shaves Simon spotted a bird out in the open and soon we were getting outstanding views of two pairs, a very smart and intriguingly plumaged species. Flushed with success we decided to continue onwards despite the small party of Splendid Fairy Wrens (no breeding male plumaged birds observed), White-eared and Striped Honeyeaters we found.
On the way to Hattah we passed through an open patch of habitat, reminiscent of the east african savannah where we saw our first Mulga Parrots and stalked a feeding party of Chestnut-crowned Babblers. Closing in on Hattah itself along a mallee lined track Simon practically gave me a heart attack when he shouted, ‘Regent Parrot ! ‘ as two birds flew across the road , their greeny-gold shoulder patches confirming the identification . We stopped and searched for the birds, but soon another party arrived and in all some 12 or so birds flew through, some of which perched allowing us great views of this beautiful and vulnerable parrot.
Our target birds were being very cooperative and soon we arrived at the famous Nowingi Track where we had confident expectations of finding Mallee Emu- Wren and Striated Grasswren . We headed into the spinifex listening out for high pitched calling. One response led nowhere so we tried a patch where Simon had found a party of emu-wrens recently; they responded instantly to the tape and a male bird hopped up onto a spinifex clump allowing us to inspect its blue throat...brilliant! Better was to come as we played the grasswren tape nearby and a pair of Striated Grasswrens came into view almost simultaneously. Unlike the Short-tailed Grasswrens I had seen at Flinders Ranges these guys gave us amazing views , their distinctive striations , black malars ( much reduced in the Short-tailed ) and pale throats revealing them to be birds of great beauty.
Crested Bellbirds sang but we never located any, a not untypical scenario for this species apparently and we moved into our camping area at Lake Mournpall for the night. Having erected the tent and easing into relax mode the call of a Southern Boobook promptly injected fresh adrenalin into my bloodstream as this was a bird I had yet to see. After 45 minutes or so of hide and seek we finally managed to spotlight the calling bird which nearly flew into my head on its way to a nearby perch. The perpetrator of the single call of an Owlet-nightjar was not found however, and this little gem will have to wait for another trip to be seen.
We awoke to the dawn chorus which included the low pitched booming of a Painted Button Quail. Today we planned to be highly selective as our target list had diminished quite rapidly over the last two days. An early morning scan around the campsite produced only Yellow Rosellas of note so we quickly packed up camp and hit the road again, our destinations for the day being Pink Lakes for Pink Cockatoo (obviously this species’ coloration being an evolutionary adaptation to its habitat ....) via the open Hattah habitat we had passed yesterday , where we picked up Southern Whiteface and an early Pallid Cuckoo , and ultimately the northern sector of Wyperfeld National Park.
Driving into Pink Lakes we kept a careful lookout for the cockatoo scrutinising every white cockatoo we laid our eyes on; soon enough distant in a wheat field we picked out a pair of Pink Cockies ....their bold underwing pattern much deeper salmon pink than the illustration in Pizzey and Knight suggested . Over the next hour or so we had several more sightings as small parties were found by the roadside with Little Corellas, especially around homesteads . What a gorgeous creature!
Time marched on and Simon suggested we lunch at Timberoo Forest Reserve near Lake Welpeup mainly because this is a good site for White-browed Treecreeper . Our hunger did not have to wait too long to be sated as no sooner had we played the tape than I had my bins on one very smart bird, its black and white underside markings perhaps the strongest field mark.
Our only stop now between lunch and Wyperfeld was to be Patchewollock reservoir, a small set of three roadside pools which we scanned in vain for Red-kneed Dotterel; we did find Black-fronted Dotterel and a passing Peregrine however before moving on to Wyperfeld . Once there we set up camp and spent the remaining hours of daylight looking for Southern Scrub Robin , which proved very easy and we had great views of this ground dwelling skulker , and a late afternoon recce of an active Malleefowl mound, our main quarry.
This morning our plan was to sneak up to the Malleefowl mound after searching the surrounding more open areas for foraging males. These extraordinary birds respond to rain by opening their mounds to kick in vegetation for decomposition, the resulting heat liberated effectively incubating the eggs. The poor male then being a slave to his mound regulating the temperature until hatching. Eggs had not yet been laid so we figured the best plan was to scour the home range of the bird around the mound. Almost immediately our strategy was sabotaged by yet another singing Black-eared Cuckoo. This time we stalked the bird as it sang and quite easily located it at the top of a tall bare tree obtaining good views. Simon tried the tape to draw the bird in a little; the response was immediate and the bird flew right in literally above our heads. Satisfied we left the bird alone to carry on singing and spent the next 2 hours searching for the Malleefowl in and out of dense mallee. Drawing a blank we went back into the more open habitat and split up ; almost instantly I heard a whooshing of wings as Simon had flushed a bird . With me out of sight I could only groan as Simon shouted ‘Malleefowl’. Oh well ...yet another reason to return to Australia. The unbelievable sight of a male Splendid Fairy Wren was partial solace for the dip, although my spirits rose as I spotted a magnificent Spotted Harrier quartering a wheat field on the way out of Wyperfeld.
On arriving back at Simon’s house we had a quick scan of his home patch and turned up several wintering Flame Robins and a Yellow-billed Spoonbill in an irrigation channel....an easy lifer which I had nonetheless not connected with hitherto.
Time to say goodbye and off to catch my bus back to Bendigo and the train on to Melbourne before my final sortie at Werribee next morning and the plane back home in the afternoon. It had been a memorable little trip with almost all of the target birds in the bag and around 150 species being recorded altogether. I can thoroughly recommend Simon’s services to anyone who wants to look for mallee birds and lots more besides; his knowledge of the birds and where to find them is excellent and he is a thoughtful and caring guide ....plus great company.