8 Day Mitchell Plateau Fly Drive

Kimberley Birdwatching’s second year for this trip, its a great idea, you get a spectacular scenic flight to whet your appetite, you visit the plateau, see Black Grasswrens, then drive back to Broome via loads of gorges and beautiful country, birding all the way plus you get to meet the locals and enjoy home style cooking and catch up on the local gos – what more could you want!

The October 2002 participants were Angela & Nick Blackwood from the UK but living in Melbourne and John & Pam Smallwood also from the UK. Literally as the party landed on the strip at the plateau a Square-tailed Kite flew over my vehicle and followed the line of tress behind the landing strip only to disappear out of sight as the group struggled out of the light plane “You should have been here two minutes earlier” was my rather hollow welcome, of course we didn’t see Square-tailed Kite again on the whole trip. In fact in my experience you’re lucky to see one at all, this late in the year. I welcomed everybody to the Mitchell Plateau, we bade farewell to the pilot, loaded up everyone’s bags and headed off to the Mitchell Falls—we had an urgent appointment with a Black Grasswren! On our arrival we were greeted by a small party of Yellow-faced Partridge Pigeons, well that’s a good start but it was warming up. We headed off to Little Mertens Falls, the pool below the falls looked very inviting and from here we did not move until it started to cool down. On our way to the swimming pool we found some nice birds, 20 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos making an awful racket while perched in some Woolybutts close to the creek A Northern Rosella and a few Sulphur crested Cockatoos. The rainforest patch below the falls was watched carefully with good results. An Emerald Dove, Brown Goshawk, Azure Kingfisher, Green-backed Gerygone, Yellow Oriole, White-lined, White-throated, Bar-breasted and White-gaped Honeyeaters all seen well. A family of Variegated Wrens worked the rock scree under the rainforest canopy, easy to approach if you go quietly, the male sporting his usually well disguised ‘lavender’ flank. The adult females with powder blue backs always seem a little more courageous than the males. On our afternoon foray for the Grasswrens we did enjoy lovely views of White-quilled Rock Pigeons and a male Leaden Flycatcher, but no Grasswrens!! In late October tourism slows down on the plateau and we were unable to arrange accommodation for our one night on the plateau so we camped the night. We were able to organise a shower and I cooked a steak and backed potato dinner, we were all exhausted and slept like babies. The next morning was our last realistic opportunity for the elusive Grasswren. We were birding by 5:30am and found the Grasswrens by 6:30. Nick spotted them first bounding over rocks to our left, we gave chase and got very close views in fact we watched a family group of four for 20 minutes, with some stunning views. We watched the male with a largish caterpillar in his bill, he may have been feeding an immature in the group. We were all excited to have seen them so well. OK how do you better that, well we thought we could try for a Rainbow Pitta. I had a spot in mind—so off we went. After trudging around this particular patch for about two hours it became increasingly evident that we were being given the run around and to rub salt into the wound we then heard two different birds calling from opposite end of the patch! As we started to make our way out in disgust I glimpsed movement on the ground under some thick foliage and sure enough there was a Pitta. This individual not only saved the day but proved to be very confiding.

With a good tally of birds under our belt we decided to make a break for Drysdale River Station as we were due to be there that evening. Rain storms prevailed that afternoon so we made Drysdale in good time with only one short stop, seeing a Wedge-tailed Eagle, Australian Hobby and Common Bronzewing. At Drysdale at this time of year there’s always a chance of Oriental Plover on the airstrip and sure enough we found 5. Just standing there as Orientals do occasionally running forward to pick up an insect. We had 3 days at Drysdale so plenty of time to get stuck into some birds. We enjoyed Purple-crowned Wrens and Crested Shrike Tits, Pallid and Black-eared Cuckoo, Pacific Baza, Dollarbirds and Koel plus heaps of common species. We found a lone Oriental Pratincole hawking over a large pool. A local swamp was investigated and although it was almost dry we found a nice selection of birds, a young Black-necked Stork, Crimson Finches, Cattle Egret, Red-kneed Dotterel, Wood & Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, 3 Yellow Wagtails, 2 Pacific Golden Plovers and another five Oriental Plovers. These drying out swamps at this time of year are a magnet for migrants, I’ve seen 20 Wagtails at this site in the past and 2 juvenile ruff. We looked for Red-backed Button Quail and King Quail here but no joy in fact we flushed nothing other than Golden-headed Cisticolas and Red-backed Fairy Wrens. The next morning we visited a favourite spot of mine for Chestnut-backed Button Quail and we got them, all nine of them, good views too, other birds included Crested Bellbird, Australian Bustard, White-throated Gerygone, Little Bronze cuckoo, Masked Finch, Crested Shrike Tit, Hooded Robin, Varied Sitella and Black-tailed Treecreeper. John spotted a pair of Bush Stone Curlews camped under a small Bloodwood and we watched a pair of Jacky Winters feeding their two recently fledged juveniles. We also found Blackfaced Woodswallow breeding, the nest containing 3 eggs. While driving back to the homestead we found a pair of Ground Cuckoo Shrikes feeding on insects in recently burnt woodland. Meanwhile back on the Drysdale River for an early morning walk on the 30th October we listed 61 species including Channel-billed Cuckoo, Collared Sparrowhawk, Black Bittern, Varied Lorikeet, Purple-crowned Fairy Wren, Crested Shrike Tit and another Black-eared Cuckoo.

On Plain Creek while searching for the elusive Gouldian Finch, (Nick by this stage was getting desperate and starting to give me a hard time—joking), we worked a small feeding flock of Long-tailed Finches. I then discovered a juvenile “greenie” Gouldian Finch perched discreetly in a Grey Box (Eucalyptus). “Gouldian Finch” I called , Nick was over like a shot and looked through the scope, he glanced up at me with a look of total disgust initially unconvinced of the birds identity. I have to admit it was a particularly dull individual but it was a Gouldian none the less!! We did find more Gouldians at Mt Elizabeth 5 half coloured immature birds, unfortunately no adults birds however the sightings were better than not seeing any at all. While making our way from Mt. Elizabeth back along the Gibb River Road to Mt Barnett Roadhouse, we decided to search the Barnett Range for Sandstone Shrike Thrush which we found but also had great views of a pair of Peregrines. These ranges are also crawling in Short-eared Rock Wallabys, we had lovely views of these mammals. On our return to the road, I managed to bog the vehicle in a sandy but dry creek bed. I was trying to go too gently so that caused a bit of extra work with everyone helping to collect suitable material to put under the wheels, in no time we were out and back birding the Gibb. Our next stop after indulging ourselves with ice creams at Mt Barnett Roadhouse was the local sewerage works, this visit proved to be almost as frustrating as the Gouldian Finch experience. As we drove up to the ponds 30 ducks flew up, one of which was a Garganey. “Garganey” I yelled as we tried to get out of the vehicle but it was too late the mob flew over the Gibb River Road and station yard and didn’t even circle us for a second look. Garganey are of course very distinctive in flight and as the ducks took off I could see the huge pale blue grey patch on the forewing highlighting the dark white bordered speculum (secondaries). Our last evening was spent at the King Sound Motel in Derby, this gave us a real go at the Derby mangroves the next morning and we did ok but (see bird list) Great-billed heron stole the show. The sewerage works turned up plenty of Little Curlew, Marsh, Wood, Sharp-tailed, Common and Curlew Sandpiper, some Yellow Wagtails and Australian Pratincoles. Our last stop was at Taylor’s Lagoon on our way back to Broome. Although the flies were a bit of a nuisance we had some great birding here. A procession of raptors coming in to drink including 2 Black-breasted Buzzards, 1 adult and 1 juvenile, Kestrel, Brown Goshawk, Collared Sparrowhawk, 2 Spotted Harriers, Whistling Kite and Brown Falcon. Cockatiels were a new bird for Nick a bird he was very keen to see, we also found several Oriental Plovers, a Long-toed Stint, Australian Bustard and to cap the whole trip off a female Yellow Chat!. A fantastic trip with over 170 species—well done everyone.

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  • George Swann

    Your Guide - George Swann

    George was born in England and emigrated to Australia in 1984. He has lived in Broome since 1989 and established Kimberley Birdwatching in 1993.

    Through many years of fieldwork, George has gained tremendous knowledge of the natural history of the Kimberley, including bird distribution and behaviour, with the emphasis on rare, endangered and poorly known species.

    George is a professional bird guide, with a passionate interest in the natural history and ecology of the region. He is a resourceful bushman and an infectiously enthusiastic travelling companion.

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