Monday, November 8, 2010

Victorian Twitchathon 2010.

On the 6th and 7th of November 2010, myself and my team 'The Bob Hawks' embarked on a mission: to see as many bird species in Victoria as is humanly possible in 24-hours. This is what is known as a Twitchathon and is run every year by Birds Australia to raise money for bird conservation. 'Twitch' is a verb meaning to travel a distance specifically to spot a particular bird species. This year's donations are going towards the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot, a bird that spends its winters at the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee where myself and my team all work. This is a species which is close to our hearts and we were determined not to let them down. We started the race at 4:00pm at the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) with high spirits. If only we could have foreseen the trials and hardships awaiting us.

Western Treatment Plant, 54 species.
It is testament to the incredible diversity and good management of habitats at WTP that our two best birds for the entire race were spotted within our first half hour there. One of these was the improbably named Ruddy Turnstone, a rather handsome shorebird which inhabits the exposed tidal flats along the coast at Pt. Wilson with a lot of other frustratingly similar looking shorebirds. We saw a pair of these guys hanging around with a huge flock of Red-necked Stints (they literally have red necks; they're not bogan birds) and a couple of Curlew Sandpipers. We followed the coast along and picked up some more shorebirds and it was during our drive through the coastal saltmarsh that we set our eyes upon a striking olive parrot with deep blue wings - the Blue-winged Parrot. None of us had ever seen this species before and it is very rarely seen at this site, so this was a fantastic start to the race. The Blue-winged Parrot is from the same genus as the Orange-bellied Parrot, Neophema. This clearly represented a fortuitous omen for our team.

Another important species to note is the Sacred Kingfisher. You see, earlier this year when I was very much a novice twitcher I was out on a bus trip with a bunch of birdos accompanied by a Birds Australia representative. We were driving along Farm Road at WTP when I saw a small, blue bird with a long, straight beak. "Check it out!" I said. "A Sacred Kingfisher! What are the odds?". The Birds Australia guy was dismissive, assured me that I couldn't possibly have seen a Sacred Kingfisher at this site and told me that only a moron who couldn't tell an Emu from an Emu-wren would make this mistake. (I made that last bit up, but needless to say it was quite a blow to the ego). Anyway, it turns out that there are Sacred Kingfishers hanging around the plant and that they had been seen the week before by two of the team as well. Vindication is so gratifying.

We picked up a few more good species such as Common Greenshank, Australasian Gannet, and Blue-Billed Duck - a lone individual which appeared to the naked eye as a dot on the horizon, singled out by Richard 'Eagle Eye' Akers. We left Werribee half an hour later than scheduled and sped (within reasonable risk-assessment approved parameters, of course) to the You Yangs.

The You Yangs, 72 species.
The You Yangs are a big pile of granite boulders found to the west of Melbourne. The rain shadow created by the Otway Ranges to the southwest results in a very dry kind of grassland/woodland which is uncommon in Victoria and results in a unique suite of birds. We got some great arid-adapted parrots from here such as Purple-crowned Lorikeet, Musk Lorikeet and Eastern Rosella. We also ticked* Australia's largest eagle, The Wedge-tailed, on the drive in.

(* This is twitcher parlance for ticked off on our list.)

The presence of a pair of resident Tawny Frogmouths at the entrance of the You Yangs are pretty much as reliable a tick as there can be. However, we were always mindful of the fact that just because you saw a particular bird at a particular location, there's no guarantee that you'll see it at that spot again. (Well, we said that, but there were some species we secretly thought were dead certs.) Naturally enough on the day of the Twitchathon the Tawnies decided to go on holidays or something and were not there greeting us at the entrance. But for every bird you expect to see but don't, there are always surprising birds which show up without warning. In this case it was the Crested Shrike-tit, a beautiful bird with bright yellow plumage contrasted with stark black and white stripes and, you guessed it, a prominent crest.


Mt. Rothwell, 79 species.We raced from the You Yangs to Mt. Rothwell sanctuary, 400 hectares of remnant grassland surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The sanctuary is mainly aimed at preserving native marsupials but the absence of predators makes it very appealing to birds too. It was getting close to dusk at this point and we were running out of good daylight hours. This time tends to be a bit of lull for bird activity so we were racing after anything that moved. Chris thought we had a good chance of picking up Diamond Firetails, a native finch. We didn't, but right at the entrance we were surprised to see a flock of Zebra Finch - funny how these things balance out sometimes.

We scurried around the sanctuary in the fading light desperately trying to pick up some more species, but didn't get many apart from Striated Pardalote (another surprise) and Brown Treecreeper. We kept clinging on to the hope that we'd get some more ticks but only succeeded in flushing out a few startled bettongs who at this time of night were just starting to get active. This was our last site on the west of Melbourne and we decided to make our way to Badger Weir in the east for nocturnal species after making one crucial detour.

St. Kilda, 80 species.
On or way across town, we stopped in at St. Kilda to pick up Little Penguin from the colony that has established itself in the breakwater at the pier. This was a big detour for one bird, but given that none of us had any experience in sighting nocturnal birds, the Little Penguin represented a reliable and instantly recognisable tick without too much hassle. We walked down the pier, saw a number of these iconic birds and then made our way back to the car to continue the trip to Badger Weir. On the way out we thought we heard some intriguing and exotic nocturnal bird-calls  but these just turned out to be the drunken revellers of St. Kilda (or 'Spangled Drongos' as Chris suggested). They may well have been mating calls of some kind, but they weren't exactly what we were after.

Badger Weir, 94 species.
We took the long drive to Healesville and got to Badger Weir at around midnight. After the balmy climate of St. Kilda, the wet-temperate forest was feeling a little chilly, so we rugged up in all of our warmest gear, grabbed some torches and a spotlight and made our way into the woods in the hope of catching some owls or nightjars. It was a gorgeous night, perfect for our task. It was dry, quiet and absolutely still; surely we couldn't fail but spot or hear any nocturnal birds in our midst? But alas, maybe we were too late, maybe we were in the wrong part of the forest, maybe we smelled after having run around after birds all day. Whatever the reason, we didn't see or hear a single nocturnal bird during our night walk. (We did hear a call which may well have been a Sooty Owl, but it was not well-heard by the whole team and none of us are experienced enough with these species to confirm the call). We did see a wombat, a couple of possums and some moths the size of sparrows - one of the latter we later saw splattered on the grill of the Outlander which haunts me to this day. After calling it a night we set up some tents so that we could sleep for three hours before the birds started getting active at dawn.

We got up at dawn feeling fresh, excited and fully functional without the slightest need for a strong coffee and set out to find the early birds. Badger Weir is great for temperate rainforest birds and we were met with Superb Lyrebird, Golden Whistlers and a flock of King Parrot. There were also many small scrub-birds perching high in the trees which are hard to distinguish and can easily cause rifts between team members who can see them clearly and identify them and those who can't. Obviously such petty disputes were far too insignificant to disrupt the camaraderie of our group and we remain the best of friends. (Just don't mention 'White-throated Treecreeper' in polite company).

It was probably at around this site that the team developed an irrational hatred of the Grey Fantail. The Grey Fantail is a delightful little bird closely related to the ubiquitous Willy Wagtail and common to different forests habitats all over Australia. We ticked off our first Grey Fantail at Badger Weir and were very happy to do so. But after having seen what seemed like hundreds of them at our various sites and mistaking their movements in the trees for something exciting that we hadn't seen yet, we started downright despising them for leading us on. At one point we even considered naming our team 'The Grey Fantail Eradication Society' and demanding that the money we raised be used to wipe the little buggers off the face of the earth. Not that there's any animosity now, mind you (Donations to the Grey Fantail Eradication Society can be made directly to

Coranderrk Bushlands, 103 species.
We drove just a little way down the road to check out the Coranderrk, an area of managed bushland adjacent to Healesville Sanctuary which isn't open to the public (what can I say, I have connections). Amusingly enough, although we were about to enter an area which is known to be inhabited by a huge number of great bird species, we were starting to get paranoid that we would miss common birds like the Rainbow Lorikeet. As we drove to the gate at the side of the sanctuary we passed a couple of houses and lo and behold we spotted a group of the lorikeets in one of the front yards! It was a strange irony that the most common birds were the species that got the loudest response because we were so afraid we'd miss them and have shameful gaps in our final list. As we were waiting for the gate to be opened by a staff member of the sanctuary we spotted a female Satin Bowerbird foraging a couple of metres down the fence-line. We didn't cheer at all. Well, it's not exactly as exciting as a Rainbow Lorikeet is it*?

(*For non-bird nerds: this is sarcasm.)

We saw a number of good species in the Coranderrk such as Sacred Kingfisher and King Parrot (and bloody Grey Fantails) but as we were onto our second day of twitching, we had already seen these species and weren't getting as many new ticks as the day before. The Twitchathon is a game of exponentially diminishing returns and we had hit the critical mass after which new ticks become very hard to get. We decided to get to our next location quickly and grab some new ticks from a new and totally different habitat type. We jumped in the car and headed for Bunyip State Forest. Bunyip is made up of mostly swamp heathland; a habitat we hadn't covered yet. Plenty of new ticks seemed inevitable.


Bunyip State Park, 105 species.We got to Bunyip State Park at lunchtime with the specific aim of ticking Southern Emu Wren, a cute little scrub-bird with long wispy tail feathers. As we walked around the heathland it slowly dawned on us: there was not a single active bird in the entire state forest (except for, predictably, Grey Fantail). It was the middle of the day and this is basically dead-time to birds and as a result, bird watchers. We trudged along the track with morale at an all-time low. We saw a gate leading back onto the road and we thought about just leaving and cutting our losses. Some idiot suggested to continue on the track, complete the circuit and then leave. We saw a couple of Whistlers that we had ticked earlier (and more bloody Grey Fantails) but not much else. Around one corner a large greyish bird squawked and flew into view - a Grey Currawong! We had seen Pied Currawong earlier but not the grey variety so we breathed a sigh of relief at getting at least one tick for the site. This was followed by a long stint* of ticklessness punctuated by the first sighting of a White-eared Honeyeater right before the exit. This was nice, but our spirits had been well and truly broken by this point and we have vowed to learn from this experience for next year.

(*Not the good kind of Stint which we had sighted earlier at Werribee.)

Some random dam, 107 species.We had planned fairly loosely for our trip and after Bunyip we were pretty much playing it by ear. We reasoned that we'd done 'Victorian forest environments' pretty thoroughly and we needed a totally different habitat type, so we made the decision to head to the coast and try and pick up some seabirds. We were still mindful of all the common urban birds that we had missed and were listing them off so we could try and get them as we drove through civilised areas. One of these was Dusky Moorhen, a common inhabitant of pretty much every ornamental body of water in Melbourne. As we were driving we spied a dark figure in a dam on the way out of Bunyip. "Stop the car!" Richie slammed on the brakes and we backed up to get a better view. It was a Dusky! But there was more; Chris caught sight of a diminutive water-bird in the foreground - Australasian Grebe! Werribee had been uncharacteristically bereft of grebes, so this was a new one too. We came to the bitter realisation that this nondescript dam in the middle of regional Victoria was as abundant with new birds as was Bunyip State Park. We also subsequently found out that this dam was part of Mill Valley Ranch Christian Camp. Truly these sightings were a gift from God.

Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands, 112 species.
As it was on our way to the coast, we planned to make a quick stop at the Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay. It was getting close to crunch-time and we were getting very nervous about one last urban bird: Rock Dove AKA Feral Pigeon AKA 'rats of the sky'. What could be more shameful than handing in a final tally without this most common of common birds? This is my justification for the carload of twitchers driving through Frankston on Sunday with binoculars aimed out the window pointing at the tops of the skankiest, most poo-covered buildings we could see, shouting 'IS THAT ONE? IS THAT ONE?'. Shockingly enough, we saw one fairly soon after we entered suburbia. The cheer we summoned for the lowly pigeon was louder than what we managed for the Blue-winged Parrot and Ruddy Turnstone combined. This is the sort of behaviour one is driven to when competing in a Twitchathon.

We made it to the wetlands, grabbed our trusty scope and quickly picked up Australasian Shoveler and Hoary-headed Grebe - waterbirds that we expected to see at Werribee but didn't. We also ticked off Little Wattlebirds hanging around the eucalypts in the car-park. We were absolutely exhilarated to get this many ticks this late in the game. We only had an hour and half to go so we jumped back in the car and sped off to the coast at Mordialloc where a number of rare vagrant seabirds had turned up lately.

Mordialloc, 114 species.
We showed up at Mordialloc, I dropped my binoculars on the ground and broke them, grabbed a spare pair and sprinted to the beach. (Well, we didn't so much sprint as 'stumbled like zombies who had been twitching for nearly 24 hours straight' but it's close enough). The seagulls at the beach may just look like seagulls to you, but amongst them there are often other birds hiding such as terns. We did see some Crested Terns, but we had already picked them up at Werribee the previous afternoon. We thought we had a pretty good chance of picking up Pacific Gulls - bigger than garden variety gulls, which are Silver Gulls, and with a massive beak with a red spot on it. Sure enough Richie pointed us off into the distance and we saw a bulky grey and white bird dwarfing the Silver Gulls around it. We kept walking along the beach to scan the mobs of gulls for different species but had no more luck. While looking however, we saw a dainty little olive green bird with a white eye-ring darting in amongst the saltbush growing along the beach. It was a Silvereye, which is apparently quite a common urban bird in some parts of Melbourne, but that had slipped our mind as a potential tick. Tick no. 114!

We realised that we had run out of flocks to scan and we only had about half an hour left. We had two options: wring one last desperate twitching attempt out of that half hour, or give up and get ice cream. Inexplicably, we chose the former. We drove down the coast a little further to Ricketts Point in Beaumaris to get a good vantage point for more seabirds. There were actually a good number of birds hanging around such as Rainbow Lorikeets, Pelicans, Little Black Cormorants, more Crested Terns and a Pacific Gull which one observer, clearly grasping at straws, suggested might be a White-bellied Sea-Eagle (I was very, very tired). But no new birds. We were still fervently searching the shore when it turned 4:00pm, the end of the race.

We had got 114 species in 24-hours which we were all very happy with. Additionally, we learnt many lessons that we are already eager to implement for next year's Twitchathon and we raised a tidy sum of money for the conservation of the Orange-bellied Parrot. Now, if only we can find a way to reduce the numbers of Grey Fantails...

(All photos courtesty of Richard Akers, 2010)