Blog #21 – In Search of Gouldians – Days 157 to 182 of 180 (it will be longer)
The distance to Wyndham is 1006 klm so I decided to split the trip into 3 of 2 day stays at Pine Creek, Victoria River Roadhouse & Timber Creek before crossing over into WA and onto Wyndham.
Game plan was to find Hooded Parrots & Red-winged Parrots around the Lazy Lizard Caravan Park in Pine Creek. Purple-crowned Fairywrens at Victoria River Roadhouse & my first Gouldians at Timber Creek. The Gods laughed at my plans AGAIN!!!
First day was a leisurely drive of 320 klms via Humpty Doo as I needed to go the chemist. Unfortunately, they did not have what I needed so a short 15 klm detour into Coolalinga which has a Chemist Warehouse as well as Coles & Liquorland as I thought I might as well top up on groceries and drinks at the same time. Managed to get a rock star parking spot right next to the entrance which is not easy when towing a trailer.
All stocked up again and now heading south down the Stuart Highway once again. It took only two hours to get to Pine Creek and as I had stayed here before I knew that there was no point in getting there early as they will not book you in before 11am anyway. This time I opted for 2 days on a powered site so I could do the laundry. Even when you are camping the chores never go away. One recommendation I have for anyone contemplating this sort of trip make sure you have a pile of $1 & $2 coins for the washing machines and dryers. Once that was done it was time to look around for any feathered friends.
The first day I saw lots of fruit bats which are hardly photogenic but none of my target species. So up early next morning to wander in the park. This time I was in luck finding both hooded parrots and red-winged parrots but fairly high up in the trees so again not in good photo positions. But I persisted and was eventually rewarded with some reasonable shots especially the red-wings as they fed on the mangoes. After another good feed and a couple of pints in the tavern that night it was time to pack again and hit the road.
Next morning, I was on the road by 7am to beat the heat of the day on the 285 klm trip down to Victoria River Roadhouse. Here I had hoped to find the Purple-crowned Fairywren but sadly only found a Pheasant Coucal which was hardly a fair swap. The caravan park was very good and very cheap ($15 a night on a powered site) and the meals were nice but you had to have an early dinner as the kitchen closed at 7.30pm. But sadly, no fairywrens. I did find out later that I was in the right spot but there were two things I needed to do first as they hide in very thick grass beside the river – 1) Find a broken branch to use as a perch and put that just outside the grass line & 2) use their birdcall to bring them out of the grass. Next time!!!
After two fruitless days it was time to hit the road for Timber Creek but this time it was only short journey of 93 klm. Again, I booked in for two days as I had heard that many finch species could be found here even Gouldians. After a day & a half of searching all I managed to get was a nice shot of a male Great Bowerbird exchanging gifts with a female at the bower. Hopefully she would accept the gift but I did not have the time to stay and see what eventuated.
Whilst in the caravan park it happened to be cracker night which had been postponed due to COVID. From the screams of the kids in the park and the ooh’s and aah’s of the parents the show was enjoyed by all. Not quite on the scale of the Sydney New Years show it was enough to allow a good night’s rest as the show petered out around 9.30pm as they ran out of fireworks.
It had now become a routine where I packed up as much as I could the evening prior to departure so I was on the road early again on my way to cross the WA border. Today’s travel would be around 311 klm so roughly 4 hours with a bit of shopping thrown in. The checking station was very efficient and I was only queued for about 5 minutes before have the vehicle inspected and my pass checked by the police. All cleared then onto Kunnunurra to fuel up and top up with groceries. Again, I was frustrated that a) I had forgotten that I needed to change my watch to the Perth timezone & b) WA, especially in the north west, have different liquor licencing laws than elsewhere. I had been told that I was better to buy my goods in Kunnunurra as it was a much larger town than Wyndham but in reality, once I was in Wyndham, I found that their supermarket, bakery & liquor outlet was just as good. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and if I had known that I would not have hung around that extra hour waiting for the shop to open so I could purchase a box of beer! Before you all start thinking I am turning into an alcoholic I have found in these hot climes are cold ale or two at the end of the day was a welcome relief from the heat. These days I only drink mid-strength beer (3.5% Alcohol content) as super gives me a headache. This is on top of the three litres of water I am also drinking each day as the heat up here sucks moisture out of you at a great rate of knots.
Finally arrived in Wyndham around 1.30 pm and met the caravan park owner Sharyn who could not have been more helpful. She even knew the bird guide, Rodney ‘Bushy’ Bushell, personally and gave me his mobile number. So, time to setup camp then contact Bushy and see what I could arrange. Surprise, surprise I rang him that afternoon and he offered to come around and have a beer and work on the game plan the next day. I had already been told that Bushy had his own hide setup out in the bush which he replenished with water every day for the whole of the dry season. The cost was $50 a session which I was happy to pay. There was also a new business that had started up in Kunnunurra called ‘Breakfast with the Birds’ who Bushy was also working with so I would need to manage when I could visit the hide to fit around their schedule and some of Bushy’s other clients. So next day Bushy showed up at my campsite after lunch with his constant companion Bundy, a very friendly black staffy, to have a few beers.
A true gentleman of the bush was our Bushy. It was a pleasure to meet him and I must thank my lucky stars in meeting Elizabeth Fidler at Buffalo Creek near Darwin for suggesting that I come and help with Gouldian count if I was ever in this part of the world and gave me Bushy’s contact email for starters. He is also an excellent photographer and his Birds in Flight (BiF) shots are exceptional. Sadly, the bird count for this year had been cancelled due to many of the annual volunteers could not come due to the COVID restrictions on travel from the eastern states. But on the bright side that meant more opportunities to do bird photography around Wyndham.
Bushy was booked for the next three days so he suggested a number of other places where I could go and try. His faith in my navigational skills was sorely tested over the next two days as I managed to get myself lost out on the plains trying to find Marlgu Lagoon. Eventually I found it so spent the next three early mornings, and I do mean early – out of bed at 0430 and on way out of the park by 0500. This was to catch the lovely soft light as the sun came up around 0530. By 1000 am the light was too harsh for photography so time to head back to camp.
Wyndham is the hottest town in Australia with an average of 29.3 degC. Daytime average temperature for the three weeks I stayed here was around 37 degC with a few 39 degC days thrown in. Night time temperatures were quite uncomfortable as well when it rarely dropped below 23 degC with most nights around 26 degC. At least I have a fan up in the tent which helped move the air around. One bonus was the swimming pool at the park which was like jumping in an ice bath and instantly cooled you down. Most days I would be in the pool twice a day to cool off.
This place had an interesting history based around cattle. The famous Durack family had their cattle landholdings to the south. Overlooking the town is The Bastion which overlooks the five rivers which flow into the Campaspe Gulf. One of them is the Ord River which was part of one the great schemes to open up the NW with irrigated crops from the huge amount of water that flows through this river and is generally wasted by going into the sea. In the early days, with commonwealth government assistance, huge tracts of land were irrigated to grow a variety of crops. Sadly, most of these have now closed due to the difficulty in getting crops to market. Interestingly enough cotton thrives in this environment but there are no local gin mills to process it and the raw cotton is transported by truck to Emerald in Queensland. An astonishing distance and cost. However, they have plenty of water. Maybe it is time to close down cotton farming in NSW and bolster the Kimberley farms as the Darling River system cannot sustain cotton farming due to limited water supply.
The variety of water birds at Marlgu Lagoon was astonishing plus it had its own boss saltie – a 3.5 metre beastie so no swimming. There were thousands of Rajah Shelducks & Wandering Whistling Ducks plus many species of Egrets, Magpie Geese, Pygmy Geese, Waterhens, Pied Herons, Jacanas, Night Herons, Terns, Brolgas & Jabiru Storks. I also spotted Paperbark Flycatchers, Honeyeaters, Great Bowerbirds, Pelicans & a White-bellied Sea Eagle. Truly an amazing collection of birds this late in the dry season as much of the surface water in this region was evaporating quickly due to the heat so this was the place to be. One morning out there I was fortunate enough to see around 60 juvenile Pied Herons fishing on the lily pads in front of me. They were slightly to heavy for the lily pads which would start to settle under water and once the water reached their bellies they would leap to the next lily pad and keep fishing. It was a hilarious to watch as they were so concentrated on fishing that the water levels sort of crept up on them so they literally jumped straight up to avoid sinking. I also saw the fishing techniques of the Australasian Darter who spear their prey then have to flip it off and hopefully recover it before it slips away underwater. many times I saw them spear their catch only to lose it when they flipped it off their sword like bills.
Another dam that Bushy had told me about was roughly 20 klm from camp called Chimooly Dam and the only way I found it was using Google Maps then saving the map whilst I had 4G reception in town. There are no signposts out in these vast flood plains. It was supposed to be the watering hole favoured by Red-tailed Black Cockatoos but I only saw a small flock late one afternoon just on dusk for the four trips I made out there. However, I had met a young Videographer named Simon at the park who agreed to come out one afternoon to do some BiF on Rainbow Bee-eaters out at the dam. He was using a new mirrorless Canon R5 matched to a Canon 600mm f/4 lens which can take stills at 20 fps (frames per second) with a fantastic amount of detail in their 45 Mb files. We had a friendly wager for a couple of beers as to who could get the sharpest photos from that afternoon. We had the breeze blowing down the dam from the north and birds kept coming back to the same perch. It was a lot of fun doing this type of photography and quite challenging exercise to nail that perfect shot. Sadly, I never had the same wind conditions again whenever I drove out there which was very disappointing as it was quite a hike to get out there to do photography. O, and Simon’s images were much better than mine with exceptional detail in the feathers of these lovely little birds.
The next day I was chatting to Bushy about these new mirrorless cameras and why they can be much better than even my Canon 1Dx series camera bodies. They are also much lighter than my current equipment which I have started to notice more when I cart my gear & a tripod through a couple of kilometres of scrub. So, I started to do some research on the Canon R5 & Canon R6. I soon discovered that the R6 was better suited to my style of stills photography and was appreciable cheaper (about $2K). After watching YouTube videos from my trusted reviewers, I decided to place an order with favourite camera store – CamerasDirect up on the Gold Coast at Labrador. I knew that I would have to start selling off some of my gear when I got back home as I was not using it and the insurance costs were starting to get ridiculous – this year it was up to $1700! Anyway, order was placed and was shipped that afternoon by ExpressPost to be sent to the Wyndham Post Office. Later that afternoon Mark from CamerasDirect emailed me a special deal for the new Canon 100 – 500mm that was well matched with the Canon R6. For a zoom lens this was quite expensive ($5500 RRP) but I was given an opportunity to buy it for the spot price of $4500 which I took up. It was despatched the next day. Now the anxious wait for my new goodies to arrive. Whilst I waited I watched as much instructional videos as possible on how to setup this new gear for bird photography so I could take advantage of the ‘new’ animal eye focusing system that was much faster and better than my now aging 1Dx camera bodies. I had become very frustrated with some of my results from the NT and even though I had some fantastic shots from there I had also missed many other opportunities when the camera focus shifted or did not work as I expected.
During this waiting time I spent a few sessions in the bird hide that Bushy had erected. On my first morning I was expecting to travel out along the King River Road which was a goat track and corrugated. I knew as I had travelled it a few days earlier to go out and visit the Prison Tree – a very old Boab Tree that had been naturally hollowed out and used as temporary accommodation for miscreants back in the 1800’s. Unfortunately the carved ‘Hillgrove Lockup’ has been buried under the hundreds of other initials carved into the trunk by other travelers over the years.
On my way out to join Bushy I was lucky to see him just in front of me at 0510 am. Just out of town he suddenly turned off the tar and down a dirt track 10 klms from where I expected to turn off. He must know where he is going so, I followed him. To my amazement there was a road across the mud flats which was much better than the King River Road. All the locals must use it as it was quite well defined. On the King River Road, you were travelling at no more than 40 klm/hr otherwise your teeth would rattle out but, on the mud flats, the road was so smooth it was easy to drive at around 90 klm/hr. Within minutes we turned off the mud flats and drove up a short rocky incline then down to the bird hide.
On my first morning in the hide, I saw my first Gouldian Finch. What an amazingly beautiful little bird. Sadly, they seem to be in decline as they are bullied out of nesting sites by Long-tailed Finches who are much more prolific. They have a very interesting colour scheme with some red-faced & others black-faced. Apparently, there is a gold/yellow-faced variety as well but Bushy has not seen one locally for some years. Over the next three hours I was treated to an avian airshow with Gouldians, Star, Double-barred, Long-tailed & Masked finches plus Peaceful, Barred & Diamond Doves, Great Bowerbirds, Rufous-throated Honeyeaters & Spinifex Pigeons. Strangely the Gouldians only came into drink before 0630 and I rarely saw them any later than 0700. By 9am the sun had become far to fierce and most of the birds had dispersed into the nearby grasslands to fossick for seeds so it was time to return to camp. I had taken 1000’s of shots but many would go into the trash as the birds are very fidgety and nervous with good cause around these water sources. The second trip to the hide saw the appearance of a juvenile Brown Goshawk whose favourite food is finches. Every now and then he would flash from his hiding spot in the trees above the water hole and you would see hundreds of small birds flee for their lives. I never saw him actually catch one but he sure made them all nervous which made taking photographs that much more difficult.
During the wait for my parcels I was like a little kid let loose in a candy store with my weekly pocketmoney. And was getting more excited by the minute. I already had an AusPost account so I could some tracking. To my surprise the lens showed up on the Monday as it had left a day later than the camera body. Now the wait began in earnest and you can imagine my horror when I discovered that the camera body had been routed to Karratha some 1500 klm to the south when it should have been routed via Kunnunurra. I was now forced to extend my stay in Wyndham for another week whilst AusPost got their act together. In the end I raised a complaint to try and force them to update the tracker. That was a waste of time and effort as once I raised the complaint, they stopped communicating with me and never updated the tracking until the parcel arrived. If it is one thing, I cannot stand it is rubbish service for a business which charges high fees. The next time I heard from them was 5 days later to say they had tracked the package to Wyndham which I had picked up the day before. Unfortunately, they have you over a barrel when it comes to delivery to remote places as they are the only carrier. Anyway, enough grizzling, my new toy was here and it was time to see how good this combination was going to be and could it replace the 1Dx bodies I have been using these past 5 years and more.
Because the parcel had been delayed for a week, I also opted to stay another week so I could get some practice in with the new outfit. Bushy was also busy with the Breakfast with the Birds company so he showed me another spot called Singh’s Garden another 5 klm further along the mud flats. Here there was a natural spring and small series of diminishing water pools left in the creek bed. So, whenever the hide was booked, I would go to Singh’s and setup in the creek bed. Bushy then told me that I was too far away (at 25 metres from the waterhole) so he told me next time bring a chair and setup no more than 15 metres from the small pool. He said the small birds would soon get used to you being there and not a threat to them. This turned out to be very true and at one stage I had a small flock of Brown Quail walk within a metre of me as they came into having a drink! That was amazing. Next to my chair was a small grass patch and by the time I went there for my second morning session the finches began to feed on the grass very close to me. I loved it and spent many hours photographing a variety of small birds which now also included Black-bellied Crimson Finches, a Red-backed Fairywren & an immature White-winged Triller. Every morning I noticed the water levels in the creek bed were drying up and by the end of the second week two of the small waterholes had completely dried and the third would be dry by the end of the following week. The birds would still have the permanent spring to last them through to the wet season so they should be Ok.
The new camera body and lens were a joy to use compared to my other prime combination of a Canon 1Dx II & Canon 600mm f/4 + canon 1.4x Extender plus the tripod. The latter combination weighed around 15 Kg compared to 3 Kg of the new outfit and I didn’t need to use the tripod. So, for my last three days in Wyndham, I only used the new combination and have taken some amazing shots.
The low light capability of the R6 was fantastic and one of the shots I took was at an astronomical ISO 20000 with no digital noise. This was a serious game changer. For my non photographic friends the higher the ISO number means that sensitivity of the sensor allows for shooting in the almost dark but in the past this also meant that digital noise is introduced and this reduces the quality of the images. Most modern digital cameras cannot shoot at higher ISO than ISO 3200 without having unusable images.
It was now getting very hot and I needed to start moving south to get into some cooler climes. This has been an amazing place and I really have not done it’s history much good but I could write another ten pages on that especially the part the Afghans played in developing this part of Australia until camels were replaced by trucks in the 1920’s. Two things I will say about these amazing people that they are some of the toughest people alive and they would have needed to be back in 1800’s and surprisingly many opted not to be repatriated back to Afghanistan and stayed in Australia although none were left in Wyndham. The old Afghan cemetery were a few are buried far from their homelands where the gravesites are huge. Apparently, it was a tradition that when a cameleer died his lead camel would be buried with him – a sad end to a noble beast! And finally, Singh’s Garden was a huge market garden run by an Oli Singh who provided the township with fresh fruit & vegetables in the late 1800’s – without his work I may never have had the opportunity to photograph such a wonderful variety of small birds.
My next destination was to be some 250 klms south at Purnululu NP but most Australians would know it as the Bungle Bungles. Time to hit the road again after nearly three weeks in Wyndham which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I am now over the 180 days I had originally planned for this trip but due to the major Delta variant outbreak of COVID in NSW & Victoria I will now stay out on the road until at least mid-October then re-asses when to come home. That looks to be an extension of my trip out to 220 days. But the good news is that I am still having lots of fun and enjoying the journey.
Until next time in the Bungle Bungles!