Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Western Australia: Broome to Perth in a camper

This summer I spent a few weeks in Western Australia, starting in Broome in the NW and then driving a campervan slowly south to Perth.  We'd always fancied Australia but with Mil being a teacher it's not possible to go at the 'traditional' time of our northern winter.  However, we had heard that the tropical north-west was enjoying its more hospitable dry season in our summer and that coupled with the chance to explore a more 'off the beaten track' part of Aus away from the backpacking hordes in the east tempted us over.  We flew with Cathay Pacific from London Heathrow to Perth via a few hours in Hong Kong.  From Perth we took a domestic QANTAS flight up to Broome (about 2 hours); while waiting for this flight my first lifers of the trip flew overhead in the form of 2 Australian Ravens showing their distinctive elastic flight pattern.

We spent two successive nights in transit to get there so on arriving in Broome we were somewhat out of it to say the least.  However, after checking into our hotel (with handy views over the mangroves and beach) I avoided the sensible option of bed and a shower and headed straight out for a jetlagged wander while Mil wisely had a kip.  It was somewhat surreal to be bombarded by totally new birds straightaway, but a stroll around the local neighbourhood and park soon had me acclimatising to the local avian fare, which included Crested Pigeon, Peaceful Dove, Bar-shouldered Dove, Straw-necked Ibis, Rainbow Lorikeets (northern rubritorquis form), Little Friarbird, Torresian Crow, Magpie-lark and Masked Lapwing.  Some of these birds like Masked Lapwing and Little Friarbird are at the western edge of their distribution in Broome, being species of the Northern and Eastern coasts.

 Little Friarbird (above) and Masked Lapwing (below), both common in Broome but at the western limit of their range.

 Peaceful Dove; only seen north of the Tropic of Capricorn and very approachable

 Pied Butcherbird (above) and Magpie-lark (below) were constant companions throughout the trip. Amazing to think that the Magpie-lark is actually considered a giant monarch flycatcher.

 Bar-shouldered Doves; another northern species

 Straw-necked Ibis

A scope from the hotel balcony across the mangroves and beach yielded the first Brown Boobies, millions of Black Kites, Black-winged Stilt, Whimbrel, Gull-billed Tern, Silver Gull and Sacred Kingfisher.
Eventually I coerced Mil into a walk to the Town Beach where I was rewarded with the first Eastern Reef Egrets (dark), Nankeen Kestrel, Whistling Kite, Singing Honeyeater, White-gaped Honeyeater and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes.  A strange grunting and growling call from some suburban scrub led to a close encounter with a Great Bowerbird, another species at the western limit of its range in Broome.  As Mil was literally falling asleep on her feet and I had sated my craving to check out the local habbo we took the sensible option and headed back for some much-needed recuperation, encountering an Australian White Ibis on the hotel lawn.

  Black Kites were very common around Broome but became scarcer as we got further south

 Great Bowerbird; another species at its western limit in Broome

  Whistling Kites were regularly encountered throughout our trip

  Aussie White Ibis

  Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike doing its alternate wing-raising display

The next day, a killer sore throat didn’t prevent me from enjoying a few more new species for the trip.  From the hotel balcony I connected with Pied Cormorant, Caspian Tern, Crested Tern and Lesser Crested Tern.  A walk alongside the mangroves produced Brahminy Kite, a fly-by flock of Budgerigars, some glorious Red-winged Parrots and the first of many Pied Butcherbirds.
This being our final day before collecting the camper van we spent it relaxing and enjoying the Town Beach.  A flotilla of Australian Pelicans sailed past on the sea, with one stopping on the beach, and I encountered a few more new species for the trip including Striated Heron, Little Egret, Eastern Great Egret, Eastern Osprey, immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Australian Pied Oystercatcher and Red-capped Plover. An Intermediate Egret roosted in the mangroves opposite the hotel and the first Tree Martins and White-breasted Woodswallows were seen.  After collecting the campervan next morning we headed over to Cable Beach to find a camp site, stock up on supplies and then enjoy the Indian Ocean sunset.  The camper was an automatic, rear-wheel drive Toyota Hiace with long wheelbase and kitted out with sink, microwave, two-hob gas cooker and fridge for the tinnies, with ample room for sleeping in the back too.  That night my jetlag rewarded me with the sound of a pair of duetting Barking Owls from somewhere deep within the campsite. 

  Aussie Pelican chilling on the beach

 Striated Heron (above) and Red-capped Plover (below) both showed well on Broome town beach

 Gulling Broome-style!

 very obliging Eastern Great Egret on Cable Beach

 Eastern Osprey, Cable Beach

 Indian Ocean sunset from Cable Beach

With the freedom of our own wheels we set off next morning to explore the wider area and headed to Gantheaume Point.  A wander round this area turned up Diamond Dove, Collared Sparrowhawk, Brown Falcon, Sooty Oystercatcher (northern opthalmicus type), Eastern Curlew, Common Sand, a nice tern roost including non-breeding plumaged Roseates, Lesser Crested and Crested, Little Corella, Rainbow Bee-eater, Variegated Fairy-wren, Grey-headed Honeyeater, Willie Wagtail, Tawny Grassbird, Fairy Martin, Mistletoebird and Zebra Finch.

Sooty Oystercatchers (note the heavy yellow spectacles characteristic of the northern form)


Brown Boobies added to the tropical feel
While leaving the campsite the following morning my attention was diverted by the sound and sight of a male Olive-backed Oriole in the trees by the entrance, which was a bit jammy as this is another species at its western limit in the area.  With about 400km for us to get under our belt on the way to Port Hedland this was very much a ‘road day’. Nonetheless, I still notched up a few more goodies with the likes of Little Eagle, Australian Pratincole, Grey Shrike-thrush and Yellow-throated Miners on the way to our first ‘free camp’ at de Grey River.  This was a beautiful spot to spend an evening and produced White-plumed Honeyeater, White-winged Triller, White-breasted, Masked and Black-faced Woodswallows, Brown Falcon and Fairy Martin before the sun set over the outback.  

 White-breasted (above) and Black-faced Woodswallows (below) settling to roost

 White-winged Triller

 Great to see Zebra Finches out of a cage!

 Brown Falcon and friends

I woke up with the rising sun in my eyes and ventured outside in search of a strange song which converted into a Red-browed Pardalote while a Blue-winged Kookaburra patrolled the nearby bushes as we had breakfast before continuing the drive to Port Hedland.  Here I treated Mil to a stop at the local sewage works, which was awash with wetland species.  Wildfowl included Plumed Whistling-duck, three Pink-eared Duck (the only ones of the trip), Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck and Hardhead.  Australian Grebes bobbed on the open water while single Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills roosted. Waders were complimented nicely by Red-necked Avocets and Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels.  Galahs (western pink-crested roseicapillus form) were plentiful and the beach produced Greater Sand-plover, Bar-wits (presumed baueri due to NW Aus location), Grey-tailed Tattler (the only one seen) and Red-necked Stints, which were great to get close views of.

 It wasn't the best time of year for waders but nevertheless I caught up with this Grey-tailed Tattler and plenty of Red-necked Stints (below) at Port Hedland
Rather than continue to follow the coast and drive through several rather nondescript mining towns we decided to head inland into the Outback for a stint with the added draw of the Karijini National Park.  On the way out of Port Hedland I couldn’t resist another stop at the sewage ponds and was rewarded with my first Little Pied Cormorant plus a juvenile Swamp Harrier on a kill.  The drive south into the arid Pilbara region yielded few new birds but an adult Wedge-tailed Eagle on a cow carcass right by the roadside was a superb sight and a Spotted Harrier flew in front of us.  On arrival at Karijini I had an evening wander around our camp site, which was really remote and had what I imagined to be an African savannah feel to it.  As the sun set I enjoyed good views of a noisy family of Grey-crowned Babblers, as well as numerous Crested Pigeons.

After seeing the moon rise into a star-filled sky while enjoying a few VB’s the previous night I was up early to walk another route round the camp site.  Passerines were much more in evidence with Rufous Whistler, Hooded Robin and Spinifexbird all logged.  After being out on the road for a week by now we headed to the small mining town of Tom Price and found a well-equipped camp site to recharge the fridge battery and sort our laundry out.  Wandering around the tracks nearby I encountered colourful Australian Ringnecks (Port Lincoln Parrots) while in the surrounding scrub a Weebill showed along with Western Gerygone, Brown Honeyeater and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater (the latter reminding me strangely of Wrynecks).  I also flushed the first Red Kangaroos of the trip; nice to some alive for once and not a roadside corpse!  In the evening a Black-shouldered (Australian) Kite graced the fields next to the camp site.

Spinifexbird sneaking around the camp site at Karijini

Galahs were a regular sight as were Crested Pigeons (below)
 Weebill living up to its name
Before we left the following morning I followed up some gen about a site called Kings Lake, which was just around the corner from the camp site.  This little oasis was well worth a visit and produced my first Australian Wood Ducks, Australasian Darter, Little Black Cormorant, White-necked (Pacific) Heron (only one of the trip), White-faced Heron, Australian Magpie, Australian Reed Warbler and a tiny unidentified crake sp. which fluttered across the open water in front of me too quickly to be nailed.  En route back to the coast at Exmouth we stopped at a roadside rest area where Spinifex Pigeon and a glorious male White-winged Fairy-wren showed in the heat.  A band of roving Cockatiels flew across the road as did Blue-winged Kookaburra and the first Little Crows began to appear.

 Australasian Darter

 Kings Lake, Tom Price

 Little Corella; bit on the dusty side

Exmouth is a gateway to the Cape Range National Park at the northern end of the little-known but beautiful Ningaloo Reef.  New birds were fewer on the first day there but included Welcome Swallow, Australian Pipit (recently split from Richard’s) and our first Emus at last; a family of these crossed the road slowly in front of us and proceeded to eat some bushes right next to the road.  This turned into a great wildlife day, as we watched Humpback Whales from the beach in the evening and had our first decent views of Red Kangaroo on the way back.  

First Emus!

Welcome Swallows

Poor pic but you get some idea of the vivid colour! White-winged Fairy-wren - pretty common in the right habbo

 Bottlenose Dolphin and Humpback, Cape Range NP
Aussie Pipit

The next day was mainly spent enjoying a boat trip over the coral reef and chilling on the beach, but a visit to the Mangrove Bay bird hide gave good views of the endemic Mangrove Grey Fantail and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters fed offshore.  However, the highlight of the day was an Emu which strolled casually down to the shoreline just metres away from us as we enjoyed our picnic on the beach (the only people there) and proceeded to have a bath in the sea - a very memorable experience!

Mangrove Grey Fantail, one of the local endemics

 Emu takes a dip

The following morning, much to Mil’s sheer delight, I treated us to a visit of the local sewage farm.  A Star Finch was feeding with a small flock of Zebra Finches, while a Rufous Songlark sang from the adjacent golf course.  Best of all though, while photographing some perched (seemingly a rare event!) Budgies a male Crimson Chat popped up into view and was later seen feeding with two others along the track.  An immature White-bellied Sea-eagle also showed well perched on a giant owl bird ‘scarer’.  On the way back down the track a Red-backed Kingfisher was on the overhead wires.   An afternoon out in the Cape Range NP gave more good birds including Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Brown Songlark and Rufous Fieldwren.  I was also relieved to finally catch up with Western Bowerbird before we left its range, another endemic of this area, with several squawking awfully and chasing each other about over the coastal heath.  Time was running out for me to catch up with the remaining Western mangrove endemics but my efforts were rewarded with Dusky Gerygone and Yellow White-eye both eventually giving themselves up.

This immature White-bellied Sea-eagle showed what it thought of the owl bird scarer

Cool to see wild Budgies!

Crimson Chat and Budgies

White-plumed Honeyeaters were very common

 Tree Martin

Rufous Songlark

 Red-backed Kingfisher

Rufous Fieldwren

Western Bowerbird; a great western endemic to catch up with

 Red Kangaroos were really easy to see in Cape Range NP

Wouldn't fancy this crawling on my back - I think it's a Huntsman (but didn't stick around to ask)

Continuing ever south we called in at the tiny hamlet of Coral Bay for a couple of nights, where I added Black-tailed Native-hen and Banded Lapwing to the trip tally.  Further south still we stopped at Carnarvon, famous for its mile-long wooden jetty and giant NASA satellite dish.  On the way there a Grey Butcherbird flew across the road.  A walk along the jetty produced Pallid Cuckoo while the mudflats held several waders including Greater and Lesser Sand-plover, Terek Sandpiper and both Great Knot and Red Knot for comparison.  My first Pacific Gull was loafing on a sandbank, these being a more southerly- distributed species, and Laughing Doves were in the camp site (this species was introduced many years ago and is now established in WA).

Black-tailed Native-hen kicking up some dust at Coral Bay

Banded Lapwing

We were regularly woken up by Yellow-throated Miners at dawn

 Pallid Cuckoo, Carnarvon

On the way to Denham (our base for visiting Monkey Mia) we stopped at Hamelin Pool, famous for its ‘living fossils’ known as stromatolites.  Now that we were starting to get closer to the Tropic of Capricorn the habitats and consequently birds were starting to change from what we were used to in the north.  Pied Honeyeaters (blossom nomads that follow the incredible bloom of spring flowers) were busy displaying with their weird morse code song, while stunning Red-capped Robins were much in evidence.  Little Woodswallows fed over the road and Chiming Wedgebills gave themselves away with their catchy, techno-like tunes.  It took me a while to pin down one of these sought-after Western endemics but while watching the first Wedgebill another new bird, White-browed Babbler, popped into view to see what was going on – always a treat to have two lifers for the price of one!

Chiming Wedgebill with attendant White-plumed Honeyeaters

 The gulling really picked up after Carnarvon with two species to go at; here a Pacific Gull dwarfs a Silver Gull - check out that conk!
Pied Honeyeaters were following the blooming spring flowers

A day at Monkey Mia to see the famous Bottlenose Dolphins and take a boat trip into the Shark Bay UNESCO World Heritage site meant an early start and a very good chance of catching up with the endemic Thick-billed Grasswren, which were actually quite easy to see as they chased each other around the low scrub in the car park.  A walk around a nearby trail as we waited for our afternoon catamaran trip yielded Australian Shelduck, Fairy Tern (in a mixed flock of Caspian, Crested and Lesser Crested) and fearless White-browed Scrubwrens.  The boat trip also gave good views of my first Australian Gannets.

Bottlenose Dolphins at Monkey Mia

Caspian Terns were regularly seen along the coast

Aussie Shelduck with young (felt strange that it was Spring in Aus but turning Autumn back here)

 Thick-billed Grasswren (textilis) at Monkey Mia car park, a great little endemic to catch up with

Dugongs were just returning to Shark Bay for the Spring

Aussie Gannets

 Pied Cormorant

Our last day in Denham was spent walking along the beach from the camp site to Little Lagoon.  On the way I caught up with several White-fronted Honeyeaters (another blossom nomad) as well as the first of many Silvereyes and a couple of smart White-backed Swallows.

We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and prepared to put the shorts and sandals away as we headed towards the cooler south. A stop at the Murchison River rest area en route to Kalbarri National Park was worthwhile for Black Swan, Nankeen Night-herons (surprisingly the only ones I saw) and a mixed roost of Cormorants including Little Pied and Little Black.  Australian Ringnecks were busy prospecting nest sites in tree holes, a Mistletoebird sang nearby and a party of Black-tailed Native-hens rummaged about on the other side of the river.  After we’d parked up at the camp site in Kalbarri I had an evening stroll by the Murchison estuary and was treated to good views of a Buff-banded Rail as it fed in the fading light.
Great Knot has always been a mythical species for me so it was great to catch up with some on the trip

No trip to WA would be complete without Black Swans - the state bird

Nankeen Night Heron

Aussie Ringneck (Port Lincoln Parrot) were busy prospecting for nest sites

Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants on the Murchison River

 Red-capped Robin - poor pic but shows how striking his red cap is!

After exploring the Batavia coastline the following day, and seeing a surprisingly close-in Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, we stopped on the way back in the evening at a spot of scrub that looked good for one of the main target birds of the trip.  A Grey Fantail showed well but it wasn’t long before a call from deeper within the open woodland had me casting aside worries about venomous snakes and venturing in.  The risk was well worth it as an amazing male Splendid Fairy-wren (splendens) posed on the exposed branches and literally took my breath away – I had wanted this species since seeing a picture of one as a kid and I was not disappointed!  A whole family of Splendids showed well and allowed for good comparison of their calls with nearby groups of White-winged and Variegated Fairy-wrens.

A return visit the next morning was much quieter but did allow me to connect with Yellow-rumped Thornbill at least.  Continuing ever Southwards we stopped at Pink Lake, with its surreal but natural hue.  A small lagoon next to the lake held plenty of water birds including the first Australian Shovelers and a Wood Sandpiper.  The undoubted highlight here though were the Banded Stilts (a much wanted but tricky to pin down Aus endemic that I had been really hoping to see), which fed side-by-side with Black-winged Stilts and Red-necked Avocets.  A Grey Currawong was seen on the way to Indian Ocean Drive and our overnight destination of Leeman.

Humpbacks were pretty easy to see along the NW coast as they headed south after breeding in the tropics, many with calves in tow

 Immature male Splendid Fairy-wren (above) and the Big Daddy himself (below).  Was too busy just enjoying the sheer gaudiness of it to get any decent shots, but this at least gives some idea as to how astonishingly vivid it was and why it left me literally speechless

Banded Stilts with Red-necked Avocets

 Boo! Bobtail Skink out on the road
We were woken in the morning by the strange but evocative refrains of a Pied Butcherbird and Red Wattlebirds chased each other noisily around the camp site.  A drive out to the Nambung National Park for the excellent Pinnacles Desert produced White-cheeked Honeyeaters before we continued on to Lancelin for our last night with the camper van.

The camper wasn’t due back in Rockingham until later the following afternoon so we had plenty of time to cruise south.  An inquisitive visit to the brilliantly-named coastal town of Seabird produced New Holland Honeyeater and a singing Inland Thornbill.  The undoubted highlight of the morning though was a flock of Carnaby’s Black-cockatoos that fed in a roadside patch of scrub – I had been starting to wonder if I would ever catch up with these threatened Western endemics but actually ended up seeing quite a few; including one on a lamp-post as we dropped the van off in Rockingham!  Further on, Yanchep National Park in the northern outskirts of Perth had the feel of the grounds of a British stately home but the Australian Wood-ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, Red-necked Avocets, Carnaby’s Black-cockatoos and Australian Ringnecks constantly reminded me I was a long way from home.  An Australian Hobby perched in a dead tree over the car park was the only one of the trip.

 Singing Honeyeaters (above) and Willie Wagtails (below) were two of the commonest birds seen throughout the trip

Carnaby's Black-cockatoo; it took a while but I finally managed to see quite a few of these threatened SW endemics

New Holland Honeyeater at Seabird

Red-necked Avocets and Black-winged Stilts roosting at Yanchep NP

 Pacific Black Duck; one of the commonest ducks of the trip after Grey Teal

Spending most of my formative birding time as a youngster at Martin Mere WWT I must confess to being a bit of a duck-nut (I know, sorry!) and a stop at Lake Monger in the Perth suburbs was therefore a must to catch up with a few species that I still hadn’t connected with.  Blue-billed Ducks were very easy with a large flotilla present on the open water.  However, it took a while before I finally nailed my main target – Musk Duck!  At least two were present, almost resembling Otters to me as they glided low in the water.  A Dusky Moorhen and several Hoary-headed Grebes were also present while Rainbow Lorikeets (of the introduced Eastern type) chattered in the trees overhead.

A few days sightseeing around Fremantle beckoned next and I wasn’t expecting much in the town itself so was pleasantly surprised to encounter a small feeding party of Red-tailed Black-cockatoos in the town centre.  For the next day (our last full day in Australia) we had booked the ferry to Rottnest Island, about half an hour west of Perth/Fremantle where we hired some bikes for the day.  The bikes were a great way to get around the island (despite the keen headwind!) and encounter the many Quokkas (small rat-like marsupials after which Rottnest is named) as well as various birds including more Banded Stilts. Unfortunately I failed in my quest for the mythical Rock Parrot but was at least rewarded with great views of Spotless Crake and White-fronted Chat at Bickley Swamp, while back at the pier a Fan-tailed Cuckoo sang its chanting call from the nearby trees.

Red-tailed Black-cockatoos seemed quite at home in Fremantle town centre
immature Aussie Magpie

immature Silver Gull, Freo harbour

sub-ad Aussie Gannet - one to watch for on a seawatch!

Banded Stilt catching a wave on Rottnest Island

Crazy Quokka on Rottnest

King Skink

Sacred Kingfisher at Bickley Swamp

 Aussie Pied Oyc

We weren’t flying out until late the next night so we decided to catch the train into Perth and visit Kings Park, which we’d heard was a major highlight of a trip to Perth.  We weren’t disappointed; the Park offers great views of Perth’s cityscape and the mighty Swan River and is something of an oasis in the sprawling suburbs.  On the walk through the surprisingly-extensive bush habitat in the park outskirts we finally caught up with Laughing Kookaburra (introduced to the SW a long time ago and firmly established). Spotted Dove (another introduced species) was seen along with some decent Western endemics including Western Thornbill and Western Yellow Robin, the latter found by Mil much to my relief as I thought I’d blown it for this species.  A Striated Pardalote was a little gem as it foraged high in a tree before being moved on by some territorial Australian Ringnecks.

Spotted Dove

Striated Pardalote in Kings Park, Perth

Laughing Kookaburra and Spoonbill sp.

Red Wattlebird; common in the SW

Spring in Oz!

On the way home we stopped for a couple of days in Hong Kong.  The searing heat and humidity and coupled with smog-stung eyes made birding a challenge, but of course I managed to sweat it out at a few sites as we fulfilled our tourist obligations.  Kowloon Park had Spotted Dove (proper kosher ones), Oriental Magpie-Robin, Red-whiskered and Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbuls, Black-collared Starling, Japanese Silvereye and plenty of Black-crowned Night Herons.  It was also interesting to see the commixtus Great Tits, which looked very grey and drab compared to our gaudy specimens.  Little Egrets and plenty of Black Kites were logged over the harbours and Tree Sparrows were extremely common, even in the heart of the city.

A visit to Stanley in the south of Hong Kong Island produced two Barn Swallows of the white-underparted gutturalis type, Crested Myna, White-shouldered Starling, Large-billed Crow and, best of all, Common Tailorbird.

Birding in Kowloon Park produced (from bottom) Spotted Dove, Oriental Magpie-Robin and Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbuls amongst others

 Light-vented (Chinese) Bulbul

 Black-crowned Night Herons were common in Kowloon Park and enjoying the Golden Koi

 Crested Mynas in Stanley

Oriental Magpie-Robin

 A taste of what you could expect in the Stanley area of HK



  1. Fab pics from a great trip there Chris! Makes me want to go out there again.

  2. Just... fanbtastic. Thanks for taking the time to share all that.

  3. Top stuff Chris, nice part of the world! Great pix too- love the wheel-spinning native hen. Ta

  4. Nice one Chris. Wondered why I hadn't bumped into you for a while. Pink eared duck! Did not get a sniff of one in 3 months when we were there.

  5. Superb Chris- great article. Got to be the longest WBNW post ever- nice one.

  6. Excellent report & photos Chris. Enjoyed reading through and a bit green with some of your sightings.

  7. It is so nice to be there in this kind of place.

  8. Article is very well written and thanks for these wonderful pictures. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it .Keep writing.

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