Saturday, 30 September 2017

Mallee Trip, September 2017

If you love wildlife, and you live in Melbourne, then there is a pilgrimage that you must make. This is the second time I have done it, and I am hopeful to do so again many more times. It's a journey north to an area known as the Mallee, where us city dwelling folk can find a plethora of species that we can't see at home.

I hoped to photograph as many species as I could find. I was mainly focused on finding birds, particularly new species, known as 'lifers' to us birders. My life list was sitting on 394 and I was hoping to find at least six new species to reach the 400 milestone. I was also hoping to find some interesting reptiles, and of course some unusual Mallee insects for the macro lens.

I set my alarm for a ridiculously early 3:00am, and left home at 4:00am on the dot. I was heading for Goschen, where some nomadic Pied Honeyeaters had been seen over the past few days. This is a very difficult species to see in Victoria, as they only appear sporadically. There have also been ongoing reports of Black Honeyeaters at Goschen, another species that I need for my life list. I was hopeful that I could see at least one of these!

My first stop along the way was at Middle Lake Ibis Rookery, just up the road a bit from Kerrang. I was aiming to see and photograph some Grey-crowned Babblers, a species that I have only seen once before, and one that I have not yet photographed. There were a lot of birds calling, and a few flying around as well. I heard the call of a Pied Butcherbird, and managed to get a few distant photos in the poor early morning light.

Pied Butcherbird
Then I heard the babblers calling, and abandoned trying to get more photos of the butcherbird. I spent about fifteen minutes following them around the car park trying to get better photos, but they are just so fast and the light was very poor. In the end, I was pretty happy with what I did get.

Grey-crowned Babbler

Grey-crowned Babbler

Grey-crowned Babbler
I could have stayed longer as there was also a Blue-faced Honeyeater flying around that I really, really wanted to photograph, but I was also mindful that I needed to get to Goschen and find some lifers!

I arrived at Goschen around 8:00am, and found it absolutely teeming with birds. There were calls coming from everywhere, but I was focused on just two species - Black Honeyeater and Pied Honeyeater. I headed towards the communications tower, as this is where both honeyeater species were found the day before. Along the way I found a few things to distract me from finding the target honeyeater species...

Rufous Songlark

Hooded Robin (young male)
It took a while but eventually I heard the sound of Black Honeyeaters, and I was able to track down and photograph a pair. Lifer number one for the trip!

Black Honeyeater (male)

Black Honeyeater (male)

Black Honeyeater (male)
Black Honeyeater (female)
I had a very, very good look and listen for the Pied Honeyeaters, but couldn't find any. I headed back to the car to get a drink and then tried the south side where they had been seen a few days ago. While I was there I found quite a few perched woodswallows. Usually when I try and photograph woodswallows they fly away before I can get close, but this time I was lucky on several occasions and got close enough to get some great photos.

Masked Woodswallow (male)
Masked Woodswallow (female)
White-browed Woodswallow (male)

White-browed Woodswallow (male)

White-browed Woodswallow (male)

White-browed Woodswallow (female)
After spending some time with the woodswallows I resumed the search for Pied Honeyeaters, and returned to the northern side of Goschen. I was wandering along when all of a sudden two birds appeared in a dead tree in front of me. Two PIED HONEYEATERS! I aimed the camera, held down the button just long enough to snap a burst of five photos before they flew off. They moved so fast that I completely lost track of them. I tried to find them again but couldn't. I was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time as they flew through, and I was extremely thrilled to photograph this elusive species!!!

Pied Honeyeater (male)
I had been very lucky at Goschen, getting some great photos of some species that I don't get to see very often, as well as finding two species for my life list.

I got back in the car and headed towards Ouyen where I was going to stay. On the way I stopped off at Lake Tyrrell but found pretty much nothing! I got to the hotel, checked in, and got distracted by a very cool looking large wasp. I grabbed the camera but it flew off before I could get a photo. Luckily, exactly where the wasp was, I found this rather beautiful seed bug that looked like it might barrack for Essendon...

Red-banded Seed-eating Bug (Melanerythrus mactans)
Then I headed north to Hattah-Kulkyne National Park. I have only been there once before, so I decided that I would mostly get my bearings and have a look around. Unfortunately, a lot of the park was closed due to planned flooding. I knew long beforehand that this was hapenning, so I wasn't too disappointed. As I drove past the information centre, I heard a call that I had been hoping to hear. It was an Apostlebird. I eventually found it and managed to get a photo. Lifer number three for the trip!

Apostlebird
I stopped a few times here and there along the Old Calder Highway. There were some nice birds around. I heard Gilbert's Whistlers Calling, and saw some more Masked and White-browed Woodswallows. I also found a family of Red-capped Robins.

Red-capped Robin (male)
Red-capped Robin (female)

Red-capped Robin (juvenile)
I also managed to find a Mallee Dragon, a beautiful looking lizard, but struggled to get good photos of this fast moving timid little thing.

Mallee Dragon

Mallee Dragon
 After checking out the Nowingi track and finding it very, very quiet, I finished off by chasing a few Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters for some nice photographs before heading back to Ouyen for some food and some sleep.

Yellow-plumed Honeyeater
The next day I woke up early and drove back to Hattah to the Nowingi Track. The target species was Striated Grasswren, one of the most difficult birds to see in Victoria. I was hopeful of seeing one, but didn't really expect to. Besides, there were a number of other lifers to be found in the area. There were quite a few birds around along the Old Calder Highway on both sides of the road where the Nowingi Track starts. And, as luck would have it, I did find a lifer. I saw two parrots fly into a tree, and went to investigate to discover that they were Mulga Parrots. Unfortunately, they were quite timid,  and I only got distant views and very average photos. Still, I was very happy. Lifer number four for the trip!

Mulga Parrot (male)

In this area I also found some White-browed Babblers, a Crested Bellbird, a heap of Masked and White-browed Woodswallow, and a lone female Gilbert's Whistler.

Gilbert's Whistler (female)

At the start of the Nowingi track I found this rather large and impressive looking spider with some seriously long fangs.

Miturga sp.

Miturga sp.

I continued along the track, listening carefully for Mallee Emu-wren and Striated Grasswren, although I occasionally got distracted by some subjects for the macro lens. I was expecting to see more insects out and about, but there were only a few to be found.


Caterpillar

Caterpillar

Sawfly larvae
I found the single fattest sawfly larvae that I have ever seen. It posed quite nicely for me as well.

Sawfly larvae

Weevil
I was particularly interested in a small praying mantis that I saw scurrying along the ground. It, however, wasn't interested in me at all, and scurried into the prickly spinifex before I could get a side on view. I got spiked quite a lot as I got down low to try and get photos of it as well!

Praying Mantis

I encountered Malle Emu-wrens a few times in the four hours that I wandered the track. I was hoping to get some ripper photos of these little beauties, but of course, like just about every one else that is lucky enough to see them, I got poor photos in low light with a bunch of spinifex in the way. At least I got photos though!

Mallee Emu-wren (male)

Mallee Emu-wren (male)
After a long, extensive search for Striated Grasswren without success, I decided to go and get some lunch and have a break. I started thinking of other sites to visit that weren't too far away and that are accessible by my little two-wheel-drive car. I eventually decided on visiting the northern area of Wyperfeld National Park to try and find a White-browed Treecreeper, but also because I knew a sure-fire spot to find the magnificently beautiful Splendid Fairy-wren.

I stopped back at the hotel in Ouyen to grab some lunch, and then started driving to Wyperfeld National Park. The drive was quite pleasant as most of it was through mallee scrub, with the remote chance of seeing something interesting on the roadside like a Malleefowl. Of course, none were seen.

I eventually found the Splendid Fairwren location that Jenn Stephens had shown me last year on my first ever visit to the area. And, as luck would have it, a pair were already perched on top of a bush singing their little hearts out. I took a lot of photos of the distant birds in the low-light conditions, and then started to photograph the other species in the area. Just as I went to leave the area, the fairy-wrens appeared right in front of me, less than five metres away. I had amazing views and got some nice photos, and could not have been more happy.

Splendid Fairy-wren, female (left) and male (right)
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill
Inland Thornbill
Then I went and had a good, long look for White-browed Treecreepers. I was teased by a distant pair of Brown Treecreepers that had me thinking I had found a lifer, but unfortunately this wasn't the case! Of course, there were plenty of other beautiful birds around to photograph!

Greater Bluebonnet

Pallid Cuckoo
I dipped on the treecreeper, but that just gives me a reason to come back some day! On the way out I found a Stumpy-tailed Lizard wandering across the road.

Stumpy-tailed Lizard

Stumpy-tailed Lizard
I arrived back at the hotel, ate some food, and was asleep before 7pm.

The next morning I started packing the car and heading home. As I put some luggage in the car boot, I saw a swallow flying directly above me. However, it wasn't any ordinary swallow. It was a White-backed Swallow, and it was a lifer! I raced inside for the camera, which only took a few seconds, but by the time I came back it was gone, and I couldn't find it again.I wasn't too concerned, because my first planned stop for the morning was a reliable location for this species where several people had recorded them there in the days before my visit. Unfortunately when I arrived at the White-backed Swallow location, I could not find any. I stayed for about fifteen minutes, remaining hopeful, but didn't see any.

My next stop was at Lake Tyrrell, where I hoped to find two lifers - Rufous Fieldwren, and Black-faced Woodswallow, both difficult birds to find in Victoria, and both regularly seen at this location. As I arrived, I was surprised to find four White-winged Trillers in the trees at the start of Baileys Road. Unfortunately they were in so much sunlight that all of my photos were over exposed!

White-winged Triller
I drove to the end of the road and then headed towards the Rufous Fieldwren location. I had stopped off here on the way up to the Mallee a few days before and found nothing. I sent a message to Philip Peel to see if he knew the right location for the fieldwrens, and he was kind enough to send me a map! After a while, just when I was thinking that there were no fieldwrens to be found, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, and there they were! I had distant views, producing poor, heavily cropped photos, but I was thrilled. Lifer number six for the trip, and lifer number 400 for me.

Rufous Fieldwren

Rufous Fieldwren
After seeing the Rufous Fieldwren, I started paying attention to the White-winged Fairy-wren calls that I had been intentionally ignoring for a while. They were quite hard to find, but I eventually got some photos of some females, with no males seen at all.

White-winged Fairy-wren (female)
Then I saw some Greater Bluebonnets land nearby, and decided to try and sneak up on them and get some photos. I got lucky, as they didn't flush, and I was able to get quite close in good light.

Greater Bluebonnet
I then continued the long drive home, but stopped soon in the town of Sea Lake to photograph a White-breasted Woodswallow that was perched on some power lines.

White-breasted Woodswallow

And that was the end of my Mallee trip for 2017. I was thrilled to pick up six new bird species for my life list, bringing my total to 400. Being a compulsive lister, this trip also made it 321 bird species seen in Victoria, 368 bird species photographed, and 300 bird species photographed in Victoria. I was greeted with enormous cuddles from my wife and children when I got home, which was probably the best part of the trip. I loved getting away, and had a great time with the camera, but I loved getting home even more. Maybe I'll head back next year, but I'd rather do it with my family instead of all on my lonesome like this trip.