2011 Vic twitchathon, the Robin Rednecks twitch report (quite long).

Robin Rednecks Victorian Twitchathon report 2011.

(Team members: Matt Weeks, Michael Ramsey and Simon Starr)

After a bit of umming and erring in the lead up to this year’s race, finally when the day got closer, all past and present rednecks were 100 percent on board to go for a big list……yes the twitchathon juices were flowing again.

Planning before the day fell to original redneck Matt, who spent considerable sleepless nights weighing up the options…..take off 5 minutes here, spend an extra 10 there. So many decisions, enough to send the best of us crazy. Original redneck Mick was off the hook, birding in Borneo when he could have been doing reconnaissance for the main game. Redneck rope-in Simon was uncommittal until the final week, when he yet again realised that life’s too short to spend it relaxing on the weekend! What better way to get the twitching bug out of your system than twenty four continuous hours of it.

We teamed up Sat lunchtime and travelled down to our starting point on the coast, doing a couple of reccies on the way. Seeing good birds in the time leading up to the race start time is a foolish thing to do, as you know they will do, as birds do, and take wing.

Finally its just 15 minutes to go……..waiting for start……adrenalin starts to pump as you know the next 24 will be full on. Five minutes to go and a pair of Rufous Bristlebirds were being ridiculously easy to observe, hopping around on the track in front of us whilst tourists came and went in all directions. We head for the lookout and set up the scope on a loafing Shy Albatross. 30 seconds to go and a Bristlebird calls. And then we start….bird no 1 Shy Albatross. Peregrine is on rocks…didn’t spy him on our build up…that’s a goody. Bristlebirds are silent but still 10 minutes to go. Then a real bonus in the form of an Arctic Jaeger heading east.A temporary high, which doesn’t last, as the Bristlebirds are not calling. After some creeping and peering around under the windswept coastal shrubs we do what we know we have to. Stick to our timeline, and leave. And so starts the endless highs and lows that is a bird race. Fortunately this year we had many more highs than lows.

Original redneck Mick takes the wheel and wastes no time in tackling the obstacles in our way on the road. Don’t those Sunday drivers know there’s a twitchathon on? And why did they put that silly roundabout there, thoughts of going straight over it are put to one side, safety is a priority, and speeding is out. However the café’s car park is a very convenient place to stop despite the fact its customers only. We are really living on the edge !

The Snipe pond has no snipe, but a Buff-banded Rail is more than compensating, and then it’s on along the coast ticking off passing balls of feathers at 100kms an hour.

A run over a dune for Hooded Plover is done by two of us whilst the driver negotiates the busy car park and gets in position for a fast getaway ( yes we are serious). Hooded Plover is no problem….but still no Pacific Gulls, not a bird that can hide easily.

Next stop is in some waist high heath for Southern Emu-wren. Fortunately for us this family group is in exactly the same spot as it always has been in previous years and a tricky species becomes another quick tick. Striated Fieldwren is a handy backup.

The adrenalin is in full flow by now, we race back to the car and on to our last ocean site and our last hope of clinching a Bristlebird. The stunted cliff-top vegetation is exposed but also provides great shelter to these birds. So much shelter in fact that we completely fail to sight one. Not to worry, both Common and Brush Bronzewing are chalked off the list. We’ll take that.

Now the drive around Geelong to Werribee, where we know there will be a smorgasboard awaiting us…..we are on schedule and the two hours spent at the “treatment” works until dusk do not disappoint. The reeds in the T-section deliver 3 crake species…..and at dusk a Lewins Rail calls near the bird hide, that’s 2 rails and 3 crakes already, a big bonus compared with previous years. We intensely scour every inch of the Beach road ponds where Painted Snipe has been found the day before, and then discuss the option of returning after dark with torches, when the bird will surely be feeding out in the open. But we already have a full schedule for the evening and this would mean missing out on another hour of sleep. Reducing 3 hours to 2 is not a goer so which ditch the fine idea. We tick off Brolga and then our first encounter with another team, at the T-section, where we quickly realise that we’d better be careful what we say!! The friendly team driver ( of the “Why Knots”) nicely asks if we’ve seen the Brolgas, as if to offer advice if we haven’t. We reply that yes we did, but thanks for asking, only to then discover that our opposition actually has not yet. The subject is changed quickly and we drive off giggling like schoolkids.

As the mad dash around Werribee continues the first signs of fatigue starts to kick in. We’ve been going at it pretty hard for 4 hours, but with so many potential humdingers in the area we keep the intensity going……Common Tern near Kirk Point is handy, but no Littles or Fairys to be found. The usual swings and roundabouts. Banded Stilts are a breeze this year, and gradually we pick off the commoner waders. The sun finally sets, and somehow we realise only one of us has connected with a Pied Cormorant. Could this turn into the biggest dip of the twitch?

Then the trip into Melbourne where we have this year added Little Penguin to our agenda. The stars align as we drive into the packed car park when a space magically appears, and while we are parking a random guy gives us his still valid parking ticket. Within 15 minutes we are back at the car with the Penguin on our list and away.

Then the stars come out of alignment and we head into some atrocious Saturday night Melbourne traffic.

We finally reach our campsite in the mountains at 1.30pm. A number of stops on the way through have failed to connect with any decent nightbirds…..this is the usual story for us, except last year when we fluked a Sooty Owl. Anyway at least a Boobook is calling. I have been head bobbing in the back seat. Apparently my head was smashing on the rear window on a semi regular basis, but it didn’t even wake me up. At least I grabbed a few useful zzzzz’s.

A rough tally of 130 species by the end of the first session is quite satisfying and well up on last year. We sleep soundly, feeling that this year things are really going our way.

We awake before 5am with a heavy dew, and the mountain barely waking up. I skull the traditional carton of “Up and GO”, a vomit inducing fast food breakfast of dissolved weetbix. This year I chose strawberry flavour which is definitely more palatable. It still takes a while to clear from the back of my throat.

The next hour is all about our ears. Bassian Thrush and Yellow Robin are early callers. A Grey Currawong is a handy pickup, and a Satin Flycatcher also calls early from the tree tops. As the light slowly appears Rose Robin, Rufous Fantail, Large-billed Scrubwren, Superb Lyrebird, Crested Shrike-tit, Red-browed Treecreeper and a host of commoner wet forest birds all announce their presence.

We are going well, but always thinking of the birds we know are present but have not heard. The noise of the river nearby combines with the cacophony of bird noise, making it a challenge to isolate individual calls. Then its time to move down the mountain with a few quick stops on the way. We have a dream run. Pink Robin and Spinebill, Satin Bowerbird and Noisy Friarbird, YTBlack Cockatoos, and then further along the road both Wonga Pigeon and GangGang are sighted next to the road. We are on a roll and leave the last of the mountain forest with only a few birds missed. The morning slumber is well and truly over, we are back into race mode.

Local knowledge is hard to beat and Redneck Matt has plenty as we travel through the foothills. Bell Miner, White-throated Gerygone, Leaden Flycatcher, are great pickups. As it is on a bird race we quickly move into different habitats……suddenly the feel changes as we move into central Victoria’s box iron bark country. We make 4 stops on the way through, with target birds dropping like flies. One especially good stop has us enjoying 3 species of lorikeets in the trees whilst a Black-eared Cuckoo calls nearby. Speckled Warbler, not the easiest of pickups in a hurry, is found and sings away for us, whilst both Brown Goshawk and Collared Sparrowhawk have cruised past, along the way. Clearly the drought breaking rains and increased bird numbers following a bumper breeding season are helping our cause. It’s just statistics at the end of the day.

Next location is to collect some mallee specialities on the way past Bendigo. Last year we cleaned up in half an hour….a ridiculously brilliant birding session. This year the goodies take a bit longer to declare their presence. Variegated Wren and Tawny-crowned Honeyeater appear first. Then a White-fronted Honeyeater by the road is another bonus bird.

We then have our second encounter with another team, friendly but brief banter ensues, they are heading down to a small waterhole, a spot we wish to look at too, but we decide to head the other way. The Crested Bellbird that called before they arrived, has completely stopped. We have descended into giggling schoolkids again as we pray that it keeps its ventriloquistic bill shut ( is that a word?).

At our hotspot for Purple-gaped Honeyeater all is quiet. We remain philosophical….the White-fronted makes up for this dip. Our luck is in however when a Shy Heathwren calls. Inland Thornbill and Yellow-plumed Honeyeater however are not cooperating either. Time to leave, just as we were getting started. We’ve left a couple behind here, but our schedule is more important.

Off across the plains where Songlarks and Bushlarks are collected at 100kph, and raptor numbers start to climb. This becomes a chance for us to take stock of our situation, a quick tally indicates that we are already on 180 species. We have just under 4 hours race time to go, and a look through the list indicates that there are around 60 species ahead of us to realistically look for.

The Rednecks mood lifts to a new high. The intense birding for such a long period has our heads in a fatigued whirlwind of places and names…..but this situation , a chance for one of those really big totals that you never really think is going to happen, certainly lifts our energy levels to another peak.

We know we must go hard right to the end, and not waste the opportunity ( is this starting to sound like a reality TV script?).

A Black Falcon nest site, has the dutiful parent in position, and a fly around the Terricks forest continues the theme. We are seeing far more than we are missing. In fact we clock up another 10 species or more through the area, including Australian Ringneck which has always eluded us in the past. Our run of luck just keeps going, and in the back of our minds we are just waiting for it to run out. A horror hour surely looms where nothing goes to plan and the list stalls.

We continue northwards stopping at a wetland on the way. A quadruple tickfest in the space of 2 minutes, just from the side of the road has us believing again that this is the year. White-winged Fairy-wren, Brown Quail, Glossy Ibis and Intermediate Egret…… its all just too easy.

We have been determined to stick to our timeline all the way, in fact we have made an effort to get ahead instead of the usual stressful situation of running behind schedule. And we have succeeded in gaining 20 minutes thus far, with our sights firmly set on a finish at Goschen reserve out of Lake Boga.

A quick stop near Kerang and we bump into a flock of Grey-crowned Babbler….not one we were expecting at get lucky with. Our thoughts turn to that Pied Cormorant so we detour off the highway into the irrigation storage lakes north of Kerang. Pied Cormorant, Great Crested Grebe, Yellow-throated Miner and White-breasted Woodswallow all get thoroughly ticked. Another quick foursome……. And still Goschen to go. We know now that whatever happens we will be ecstatic with our result, smashing our previous PB, and we’ve got plenty of time up our sleeves for the finish.

We pulled into Lake Tutchewop, hoping for an Orange Chat, and maybe Freckled Duck or Little Eagle. Great birding there, but no cigars, probably the first stop we’d made without adding to the total. Further up the road Blue Bonnets appeared in good numbers as we closed in on the finish. A scramble through some spiny rush to gain a clear view of Round Lake is rewarded with a Marsh Sandpiper….worth the pain, and a pair of roadside Cockatiel keep the ball well and truly rolling as we drive into the little grassy mallee reserve at Goschen. We’ve got a full half an hour and there’s a number of species to look for. However with the end in sight and a mega score already in the bag, the brick wall that is the finishing line of a Twitchathon starts to take effect. That jetlagged feeling in the head wasn’t helped by the hot sunny conditions, and just as our energies begin to drain, so too the birding slows down. The reserve seemed quite quiet with only a handful of Woodswallows around, and the usual other suspects. Definitely past its peak spring flurry.However Black Honeyeater and Budgerigar were fairly easily located, and the remaining time was spent looking and hoping for Hooded Robin, Masked Woodswallow, Pied Honeyeater, Little Button-quail and Owlet Nightjar, but to no avail.

And then suddenly it was over. No ticks in the last 20 but we didn’t care. What a buzz to see Victoria’s top birding locations in a year of plenty. The memories are many, if a little mixed together. And what better way to get the twitching urge out of your system for another year, well nearly a year anyway.

We have a rough idea of our total, around 222 we think, but a closer look at our tally as we start the trip home reveals a bigger total than we thought. 224 seems to be where we ended up, which we know equals the highest ever total for a Victorian twitchathon. Perhaps not surprisingly given our fatigued state, we have missed ticking off one more bird (SEmu-wren) from the list, and it is not until later that we realise that 225 is in fact the correct total ! This is way beyond our expectations, and is a pretty good indication of the fantastic conditions for birding in Victoria at the moment. Last year following much the same route we only managed 197.

Worst dips would have to be the Bristlebird at the start, and also Hooded Robin (usually a dead cert in the Terricks forest), Black-fronted Dotterel, Blue-billed Duck and Yellow-plumed Honeyeater.

Best bird is hard to pick. Perhaps the Arctic Jaeger, or Spotless Crake (which we actually saw).

Happy birding to you all,

Si, Matt and Mick.


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