Chris Coleborn

Recently I was able to enjoy using up some accumulated holiday leave on a big "retreat" into the bush. I spent five weeks on a trip from Northern Victoria, where I live, to South-West of Western Australia.

A lot of quiet, meditative travelling was involved in covering the many kilometres of the trip. I usually "sat" on the 80-90 km speed, with regular stops to rest or have a look around. I find distance travelling in the bush and wide-open spaces quite relaxing - it is not like a trip around town.

The trip was wonderfully satisfying. I avoided the towns and cities as much as I could, mostly bush camping, sleeping in a swag under the stars and using a tent when necessary, such as when I stopped in a camping ground. I am almost ashamed to say I did not visit Perth, and avoided "civilization" in favour of the quiet and peace of the bush, and especially sought out the birds and the wildflowers. The towns and the culture I will try to catch up with another day. My total bird species list for the trip was 264. I was privileged to see 23 new species and 37 new subspecies.

Getting away late afternoon, my first night was spent at Goshen reserve, in Northern Victoria. I travelled fairly constantly the following day, and made it west of Port Augusta in South Australia to near Lake Gilles Conservation Park. This park is the fartherest east that some of the "western birds" such as the Rufous Tree-creeper, Western Yellow Robin and Blue-breasted Fairy-wren are to be found. It is a mallee/casurina woodland reserve, with interesting fauna and flora. I actually accidentally camped on private property just outside of the Park, thinking I was in the Park boundary. The owner, a young, big fellow built on the lines of a sumo wrestler, saw my camp light and thought I was a sheep duffer! After a bit of tense confrontation, and my rapidly putting into practice that very wise proverb, "a soft answer turns away wrath", he quietened down. When he realized I was a bona fide pastor, birdwatcher and bush lover, and no threat to his sheep, he made me welcome, and said I could call any time. I was very thankful, for the thought of packing up when I was so tied and trying to find another campsite was not at all appealing. Next morning within a short time, I was able to enjoy the special birds of this park, including the "western" ones. Actually, the Western Yellow Robin found here is limited to South Australia. It is a sub-species of the Western Yellow Robin called rosinae. The South Australian form has a grey back, while the Western Australian nominate form griseogularis has a yellow back.

From various birding contacts and literature, I had worked out the places where I could most probably observe the new birds I was after, and the special places for wildflowers and for appreciating the great forests of the South-West of our wonderful country. The first place I had on my itinerary was Ceduna, at the start of the Great Australian Bight. I was especially looking for the Scarlet-chested Parrot.

Just north east of Ceduna is a large wilderness park of Mallee with occasional open areas of grass and low shrubs, granite outcrops and sandy ridges. There are many birds in the area, and I enjoyed seeing such species as the Port Lincoln form of Australian Ringneck, Variegated Fairy-wrens, Crested Bellbirds, Inland Thornbills and to hear in the stillness of the night the calls of the Southern Boobook and Owlet Nightjar. What makes this area special is that it is where that rare and beautiful bird the Scarlet-chested Parrot may be found. I spent three days of walking and driving all over the area. It was relaxing and enjoyable, and an ideal place to spend a reflective Lord’s Day, but though I searched here, and though I searched there, and walked and walked, I could not find the elusive bird. Last morning there, I had a long walk, a long drive, and was just slowly driving to leave the area, when I noticed a lone female Scarlet-chested Parrot move on the ground just in front of the car and then promptly flew off, my eyes glued to it. Though I walked and looked on just about every branch with a kilometre radius, there was no sign of it. That was not the end of the story though.

On my journey back home from Western Australia, my hap was to light for that night’s camp in this same area. It was late in the day so there was not much birdwatching to be done. Next morning, I woke to a bright and still day, the Southern Scrub-Robins and Gilbert’s Whistlers were mingling their loud yet melodious calls with many of the resident birds in a dawn chorus. After quietly getting ready for the day and after my breakfast and devotions, I set off for a last look for the special bird of this area. Within a few minutes I saw flying in the distance what appeared to be a Scarlet-chested Parrot. It disappeared from view behind some shrubbery in an open grassland area. Quickly moving to the area and viewing it through my binoculars, I noticed some movement in some dead branches sticking out above a bush. As I focused on the movement, a blue face appeared from behind a branch looking at me. It was the Scarlet-chested Parrot. It flew off again, and though I searched for some minutes, I could not find it. I carefully looked around - nothing. I then thought I heard a possible call of this bird behind me. Turning, three parrots flew into the dead spindly top of a shrub some 30 metres from me. I slowly focused my binoculars on them. I could hardly breathe with excitement as a gloriously coloured male, side on, came into focus. There was a female and juvenile with them. I froze as they flew down towards me, and landed in a bush lit up by the early morning sunlight only about 5-6 metres from where I stood, and started feeding off the bush. The perfect morning light lit them up in a wonderful way. The male Scarlet-chested Parrot was right in front of me. As he fed, he hung, spreading his wings or fanning his tail, showing his front, back, side and every which way. For about a half hour I had dream views of this most rare and exquisitively beautiful bird. The male’s colours were so vibrant and striking, and the female very enjoyable to contrast with the male and the juvenile. A Collared Sparrowhawk flying overhead spooked them, and while I had several more views of them from a distance, that half hour was graphically imprinted on my memory. "How great Thou art!"

Next stop found me out on the Nullarbor. I refuelled and bought an icy pole and refilled up my water containers at the Nullarbor Roadhouse, and then went about 6 kilometres north of the Roadhouse - way out on this seemingly endless plain. This is where that special form or subspecies of the Cinnamon Quail-thrush, the Nullarbor Quail-thrush, race , is to be found. Once more I spent three days just about walking my feet off looking for this elusive bird. I only had two brief glimpses of it for all my effort. I have learnt to rest in God’s providence though, and not to let such things get out of proportion. If I am meant to see one, after using the means to do so, I will see one, if not, I must wait another day, or not see one. This is true for many things in life isn’t it, and our peace and quiet and ability to enjoy other blessings enhanced when we practice this walking by faith.

I did enjoy seeing the Southern Hairy Nosed Wombat’s burrows, and observing one of these special creatures too. There were also Bustards, Orange and Crimson Chats, Slender-billed Thornbills, Rufous Heathwrens and White-winged Fairy-wrens among others, but no real views of the Nullarbor Quail-thrush. As it worked out, my return overnight stopover fell at this spot. I camped late at night, and wonderfully next morning I not only saw about 14 individuals, but had magnificent views of a male and female sitting and feeding, and moving around in the morning sun under a bush, and a good view of a male on the road. The male Nullarbor Quail-thrush is a rich rufous, cinnamon brown with a black breast and white under parts. There is a striking arrangement of markings of these living colours, which no painting can really capture.

I really enjoyed the Nullarbor. I grew up in South-West Queensland and North-West New South Wales where there are vast open plainlands, so could identify with the far-flung rolling country of the Nullarbor and that great canopy of space above the vastness of the plain. Here you can find the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat and his ancient burrows dotting the plain. Here too, on the near treeless plain, the Wedge-tail Eagle has his eyrie in a lone Sandalwood where he surveys with a fierce eye that vast domain.

The Nullarbor Highway at places is very close to the towering cliffs that plunge into the Southern Ocean of the Great Australian Bight. There are sealed roads, and here and there, dirt tracks that take you to the cliffs’ edges where spectacular views of the continent and ocean can be obtained. At the Head of the Bight, I was privileged to see about 15 Southern Right Whales, some with their little new born calves by their sides, as well as about a dozen Bottle-nosed Dolphins - wonderful.

Here and there I camped off the road. At one place I was in a woodland of low growth shrubs - a mixture of low Mallee, Melaluka, Acacia, Blue Bush, Old Man & other species of Saltbush and patches of open grassland. It was enjoyable camping, and nice to pick up such birds as Redthroats, Inland Thornbill & Mulga Parrots. At another place I camped near Caiguna Blowhole. These holes and caves dot the great limestone cap of the Nullarbor Plain. Apparently the whole of the plain is riddled with a vast network of caves, and the land actually "breathes" with air going in and out of the network. One of the deepest caves in the world is reportedly on the Nullarbor. Fossil remains of the Thylicine have been discovered in these caves as well as other early marsupials of Australia.

Another special bird of the Nullarbor for which I was searching was the Nullarbor Blue Bonnet, a subspecies of the nominate race called narethae. I had learnt they might be seen, among other places on Arubiddy Station, to the north of Cocklebiddy, on the Nullarbor Highway. I arranged with the Station owner to visit, and they gave helpful directions on how to find this smaller, but particularly attractive subspecies of Blue Bonnet. It was a rough ride to the site, but in the midst of hundreds of kilometres of practically treeless plains, there were a few hills covered with casuarinas or Bull Oak trees. The Station people know the area as "Oak Hill". I spent an afternoon searching for it. It was hot work walking all around the hills. I came back to my ute and had a cuppa and a bit of a rest before heading off on another search. What a thrill to have a pair fly up off the ground near where I was walking, and land in a dead tree where I could get some very good views of them. I followed them around for over half an hour, watching them feed and preen themselves. Since a boy I have had a particular love for Blue Bonnets, and was glad to at last add this subspecies to my sightings. The prolonged and wonderful views were very satisfying. They seemed to me to be paler and more yellowish or buff than the other sub-species of BlueBonnets, the nominate race haematogaster or yellow vented Blue Bonnet and the race haematorrhous or red vented form. The narethae subspecies, also called the Little Blue Bonnet, has a much larger area of blue, and a second tone of striking sky blue with the deep almost violet blue of the "bonnet". This two-tone blue on the face and head make for enthralling viewing. For such a dry area there were a surprising number of bird species on "Oak Hill", including, Slender-billed Thornbill, White-winged Triller, Red-cap Robin, Southern Whiteface & Crimson chats.

At Belladonia on the Nullarbor Highway, I followed the suggestion of a contact who knows the area well, and took a dirt road down towards Esperance. It was very interesting country. Some parts I wandered into were very rough. The coastal wildflowers and scenery was marvellous. I was surprised at how close to the coast the Mallee extended, and how it mingled with the coastal heath. It made for the most unique type of habitat, and so it is not surprising that some of Australia’s most rare and localized special birds are to be found here.

My trip into Esperance was brief - a shower, some shopping and a car service. I then set up for the night about 12 km out on the Norseman road at an Arboretum. This was a special spot for me, because next morning it was where I excitedly saw my first Western endemics! I had the most delightful views of a male Western Spinebill, more beautifully coloured and marked, I think, than our also very attractive Eastern Spinebill. It was gathering nectar from a native flowering shrub. It was also here that I saw my first Little Wattlebird and a small flock of Long-billed Black Cockatoos or Baudin’s Cockatoo. I was to see more of these later through the scope and to appreciate why they are called "long billed".

As I drove along I would often come across patches of heath where the wildflowers were outstanding, with amazing diversity of type, colour and shape. I would stop from time to time to have a walk and simply admire this amazing diversity. It speaks of a designer, order and purpose - of a great, wise and good Creator. It certainly did not speak to me of random chance and meaninglessness, as evolution must insist.

Moving onto Jerramungup, I stopped for a time near the bridge where it crosses the Fitzgerald River in the Fitzgerald National Park. This is supposed to be a good area for the Mallee Whipbird (recently broken off from the Western Whipbird). An hour searching for birds with a hot wind really blowing was futile. All self-respecting birds, including the Mallee Whipbird were probably in a sheltered cool spot - few put in an appearance. They probably were wondering what that human was doing wandering about in it. Having previously had good views of the Mallee Whipbird on Yorke Peninsula and in Billiatt Conservation Park in South Australia, I moved on my way to the Sterling Ranges.

At the entrance of the Sterling Range National Park there is a very nice camping place called "Retreat Park". It was alive with birds, and simply festooned with wildflowers. I camped here for several days. In this idyllic spot, I was also able to add some more of the special birds that are endemic to the South West of Western Australia.

I was moving to my campsite when a male Red-capped Parrot in all his coloured glory, landed in a tree above my head. I dropped what I was carrying, and grasped my binoculars - wow! This parrot is brilliantly coloured with such sharp demarcation between the vivid colours. He seemed out of place in our Australian bush. It seemed to me he should have been in the Amazon Jungle with the bright coloured Macaws.

As I was setting up camp, a family of nominate race of the Splendid Blue Fairy-wren, found only in this area of Australia, flitted by. The male is of an incredible glossy dark violet-blue, with striking cheek patches of pale sky blue, and black bands on chest and around the head. Flying over my camp site was a brightly coloured male Western Rosella breathtaking! (There are two morphs of the Western Rosella. One, in the wetter area has a green edge to its black back feathers, and the other in the drier areas, has a red edge. I only got to see the green-edged form). I could hear Black Cockatoos, and later that day I got to see some Short-billed Black Cockatoos, or Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo, and next day some perfect and satisfying views of their bills in my telescope.

It was here that I also met Wayne Zadow, a local farmer from Kojonup. Wayne is a member of Birds Australia, and with some others comes each year in spring for a week to lead two daily bird walks for interested people stopping at the campsite. "Retreat Park" also had daily wildflower walks during the spring season. I set out next morning with Wayne, who showed me a pair of birds that was high on my list, the western form, subspecies leucogaster of the Crested Shrike-tit. This bird is now rare and endangered, and is also being considered as being split from the Crested Shrike-tit family, and made a separate species. Their white belly is the most noticeable difference between this bird and the other Shrike-tits. I delighted in seeing the male and female pulling the bark off some Mallee trees for insects, their gentle calling, quite different from the Crested Shrike-tits of Eastern Australia. I also saw here several subspecies of birds fairly common in the eastern states, yet with their special differences, such as Galah (pale pink crest instead of white in the east), Western form of the Australian Ringneck, sometimes called the Twenty eight Parrot because of its call, Regent Parrot (smaller and not as brightly coloured as the Eastern form), Elegant Parrot, Australian Magpie (the male here is white backed and the female black backed), Western Yellow Robin (yellow backed form), Yellow-throated Miner (dark form) and some others.

Wayne and I were walking along a track through the beautiful bush land, Wayne naming most of the wildflowers that caught our attention as we went along, especially the ground orchids. Wayne said, "I cannot understand how people can say all this just evolved. Evolution to me just does not make sense! I am sure there is a Creator." I stopped walking with surprise. This is not the sort of thing most people from Birds Australia would say. I agreed with Wayne, and asked him if he was a Christian. It was great to hear him speak of his commitment to the Saviour and His cause, and to own Him a Creator of all. We not only enjoyed the birds, but also enjoyed a time of discussion over Him who made them. On this walk I picked up two other endemics to the area such as Western Thornbill & Western Gerygone.

(To be continued...)

This report was published in The Christian Bird Observer’s Magazine, October 2002