Birding Big Day #3 – Saturday, May 13th 2017
As the eBird Big Day date rolled around again this year, Steve and I decided to have another crack at finding 100+ bird species in one day. This time we had set ourselves a stretch target of actually photographing 100+ species, not just seeing and/or hearing them. That was an ambitious target given that our last attempt at a birding big day resulted in us only just managing to see (or hear) 100 species. And that was in the middle of summer (see previous Twitcher’s Ton #2 post). Not only are there more than 2 hours additional daylight hours in December compared to mid-May, but by May most of the migratory shorebirds have already left our Australian shores for their winter breeding grounds in Siberia and Alaska. That meant we were looking for more birds in less time at a time of year when there are fewer species around. Challenge accepted.
For the record we listed just over 90 species during a November 2015 Big Day and just over 100 species during the December 2015 Big Day. Both of those days involved a loose strategy of spending quite a long time at just a handful of locations. This time we changed strategy to a much tighter schedule that involved spending as little time as possible “on the ground” whilst covering as many locations and different habitats as possible. The plan evolved during the weeks leading up to the Big Day and just a couple of days out we settled on an itinerary that had us starting at Wellington Point pre-dawn, then working our way up the coast as far as Osprey House before heading west to the Lockyer Valley via Mount Glorious.
The weather forecast leading into the Big Day continued to deteriorate to the point where we thought we might have to call it off. Plenty of rain was expected and it was forecast to worsen during the day. Nevertheless, we pinned our hopes on the worst rain not hitting the coast until mid-morning, by which time we should be already heading west, hopefully staying ahead of the worst of it.
The Big Day
Quick check of the radar. The rain was definitely coming but I estimated we might have a few hours before it would hit the coast. Worth a shot.
Sunrise wasn’t until 6:20am, so although that was bad news in terms of daylights hours it was good news in terms of “sleeping in” until 5am. In the car by 5:15am with the plan being to get to Wellington Point and walk out on the low tide sandbar past King Island before first light. Although I underestimated how long it takes to walk to the island I can see that my first photo of the day was an incredibly dark silhouette of a White-faced Heron at 6am, so we were right on schedule so far.
The first bird of the day wasn’t the heron, it was a Whimbrel that we heard as it flew past on our walk to King Island. The first half-decent photographed birds were a Double-banded Plover and Red-necked Stint feeding along the mud and rocks at first light. I say “first light” because it was right on 6:05am but thick cloud along the horizon to the east (the approaching rain) meant that it was still very dark. The birds seen during the next 5-10 minutes required a spotlight for ID.
Between first light and sunrise the tally ticked over slowly, with plenty of expected species – Silver Gull, Australian Pelican, Gull-billed Tern, Noisy Miner, Torresian Crow, Welcome Swallow, Australian White Ibis, Great Egret and Little Egret – but also a handful of other species that we weren’t certain of finding later in the day – Sacred Kingfisher, Torresian Kingfisher, Striated Heron, Australian Pied Oystercatcher, Mangrove Honeyeater, Pied Cormorant, Tree Martin, Caspian Tern and Brahminy Kite.
A promising start as we left Wellington Point (10min late) with the tally at 22 species.
The next major location was Sandy Camp Road Wetlands but we had two short detours on the way there. The first was Queens Esplanade at Thornside to try and find some more shorebirds before the tide came in. Not a very productive stop but we did add Black-winged Stilt, Masked Lapwing and Bar-tailed Godwit to the list. And Steve managed to pick out a pair of Great Knots on the mudflats. Unfortunately there were no Eastern Curlews, Curlew Sandpipers or Sharp-tailed Sandpipers here and we didn’t find them anywhere else during the day. Nevertheless we left the esplanade with four more species.
The second short detour was to the Kianawah Road Wetlands where I’d seen Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels only a few days before. When we got there I couldn’t see either of them from the car and thought this might have been the first setback of the morning. We got out of the car to get a better look and Steve spotted a lone Red-necked Avocet hiding behind the vegetation. That was certainly a bonus. Then he picked up several Red-kneed Dotterels out on the shallow water and I saw a few Chestnut Teals further out. Three more to the tally, and after scanning all the shallows again we decided to move on to SCR without finding any Black-fronted Dotterels (surprisingly, we didn’t find them anywhere the whole day). Tally … 27.
Sandy Camp Road Wetlands is one of Brisbane’s top birding locations. Almost 200 bird species have been recorded there and we were hoping to rack up plenty during a very brisk 45min walk around the ponds. We arrived there only 5 minutes behind schedule thinking we could make up some time here but the weather gods had other ideas. Just after we got out of the car the heavens opened. The next 50min were spent walking in the rain trying to ID birds and keep our camera gear relatively dry. Despite the rain the birds were obliging. At the main pond we heard an Australian Reed-Warbler and then as we walked around we quickly ticked off most of the regulars – Wandering Whistling-Duck, Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, Australasian Grebe, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Cormorant, Australasian Darter, Royal Spoonbill, Osprey, Australasian Swamphen, Dusky Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Comb-crested Jacana, Spotted Dove, Bar-shouldered Dove, Laughing Kookaburra, Rainbow Lorikeet, Superb Fairy-wren, Brown Honeyeater, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Little Friarbird, Noisy Friarbird, Striated Pardalote, White-browed Scrubwren, White-breasted Woodswallow, Pied Butcherbird, Australian Magpie, Grey Shrikethrush, Rufous Whistler, Australasian Figbird, Spangled Drongo, Willie Wagtail, Grey Fantail, Magpie-lark, Eastern Yellow Robin, Tawny Grassbird, Silvereye and Double-barred Finch …
…plus a nice haul of some species that can be hit-and-miss for me there – Magpie Goose, Straw-necked Ibis, Forest Kingfisher, Galah, Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, Lewin’s Honeyeater, Scarlet Honeyeater, White-throated Honeyeater, White-throated Gerygone, Leaden Flycatcher (heard) and Mistletoebird (heard).
All up SCR delivered 50 additional species in 50 minutes. We were now 10min behind schedule but felt like it was worth it to be leaving the south side with the tally at 77. It was just after 8am and we were only 23 short of the main target.
From SCR we drove north to Dowse Lagoon at Sandgate, seeing some Sulphur-crested Cockatoos over the Gateway Motorway on the way. The 25min drive was the first real break of the day and allowed us to take stock. The detour to Dowse Lagoon was primarily to pick up Glossy Ibis and possibly Cotton Pygmy-Goose, which had been reported there a few days earlier. We weren’t too concerned about finding the CPGs as we had planned on dropping in at Black Duck Hole at Marumba Downs later, where CPGs were pencilled in as a certainty. As it turned out we bumped into another birder when we arrived at Dowse and the first thing he pointed out for us was a pair of Cotton Pygmy-Geese feeding just out from the southern platform. Brilliant. That meant we could claw back some time by skipping the BDH detour. Not only did that put us right back on schedule but we found out the next day that the “certain” CPGs at Black Duck Hole had recently disappeared. Caught a break there.
Minor problem though; I couldn’t find a Glossy Ibis on the lagoon. I’d always seen them here. Scanning the water and banks, taking photos of all the birds as I went … Darters, Cormorants, Intermediate Egret, Spoonbills, Jacanas … no Glossy, damn.
We briefly considered walking around the bank to try and find a Glossy Ibis, and also the Rainbow Bee-eaters that usually hang around the lagoon, but decided we didn’t have time and figured we might find them elsewhere anyway. We did find some Bee-eaters later but no Glossy Ibis. Fortunately, when I checked my photos later I noticed that in the middle of the group of cormorants and darters that I saw on the lagoon was a single Glossy Ibis.
On advice from the other birder we decided to quickly check around the corner where he’d just seen some Tawny Frogmouths. That would be a good bonus. We jumped out of the car and saw a guy walking down the path carrying a camera and tripod. Steve ran over to him to ask if he’d seen the Frogmouths. He pointed to a tree right beside us and there it was … a Tawny Frogmouth not even 5m away. Click. Tally now 82.
On the way to Osprey House we scanned the paddock wetlands off Henry Road in the hope of the somewhat “resident” Brolgas or Black-necked Stork being there. Neither were.
By the time we got to Osprey House the tide was far too high. The mudflats were under water and so was our last chance of finding an Eastern Curlew. The quick stop wasn’t a complete failure though as I spotted a Crested Tern out over the water. We also tracked down a Mangrove Gerygone by following its singing and saw several Australian Brushturkeys roosting up in the mangroves. Three more species from a 5min stop … not bad. 
Across the road at the Dohles Rocks Rd Pond were hundreds of water birds and a few passerines. Only a few added to our count … Black Swan, Australian Wood Duck, and Common Myna. For the first time I couldn’t find a single Black-fronted Dotterel here. Instead, there were more Red-kneed Dotterels. A couple of months ago I’d never seen an RKD and now they were popping up everywhere.
Leaving the pond, we drove along the esplanade to hopefully pick up a Sea-eagle out over the river mouth, but no luck. We did add Little Corella and Striped Honeyeater though, so the tally kept moving … now at 90.
After almost 4 hours of birding I was craving my morning coffee and my stomach was starting to growl. The schedule was certainly very tight but not tight enough that I didn’t include a compulsory coffee/food break. As we pulled up a red light on Anzac Avenue right next to Zaraffas I asked Steve to check the schedule to see how we were tracking. He noted that we supposed to be getting coffee at 9:35am. No kidding, we looked at the car clock and watched it tick over to 9:35am. So far, so good!