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Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary
via Broome Trip Report

Tiff & the “Lady Explorers”
Broome was hot and steamy on Saturday afternoon, having just experienced nearly a week of rain. Looking out over the mangroves from a vantage point at the hotel, the mudflats proved very productive with waders such as Whimbrel, Marsh and Common Sandpipers, Bar-tailed Godwit and Black-winged Stilts all feeding at the water’s edge, plus Gull-billed, Whiskered and Caspian Terns, Brahminy Kite, Osprey and White-bellied Sea-eagle flying by. A brief glimpse of two Lesser Frigatebirds was a particular treat. Singing Honeyeaters and Little Friarbirds chased through the palms and we got very close to a Pheasant Coucal on the northern balcony.

Heading into town, Nick saw his first Rainbow Bee-eater and, despite the glary sky, we stopped for the first of many photos (Nick resisted the guide’s assurance that they were “common as muck”). From Streeter’s Jetty, small flocks of Yellow White-eyes and red fiddler crabs decorated the mangroves, from canopy to mud! Northern Fantail and a glorious male Red-headed Honeyeater appeared all too briefly.

Sunday morning found us driving tentatively through the massive puddles (“lagoons”) on Crab Creek Road. There were plenty of Great Bowerbirds on show as well as Agile Wallabies darting across our path. Nigel Jacket took us on a tour of the mangroves of Roebuck Bay: White-breasted Whistlers were catching crabs and bashing their prey against mangrove roots (adding a percussive soundtrack), and Bar-shouldered Doves were out in force. Flocks of Eastern Curlews flew overhead, each flock with its own Whimbrel. Nick found a Golden-headed Cisticola after a short foray into the dunes…

We were all very grateful for the footwear (neoprene dive booties) as we squelched through the slippery grey mud towards the edge of Crab Creek, encountering a very friendly Mangrove Golden Whistler on the way. From here, as the tide came in, the waders crowded together at the encroaching water line: Terek Sandpipers (with their tell-tale orange legs and bills), Great & Red Knots, Common Greenshank, Grey-tailed Tattlers, Lesser Crested Terns and 3 Asian Dowitchers, the latter species a bit of a rarity and exciting to pick out of the crowd with their wider black bills. A Broad-billed Flycatcher also made an appearance. We had to beat a hasty retreat ahead of the tide and climb the dune to spot Little Terns and Snubfin Dolphins, their rounded rostrums delicately breaking the sea surface.

Laura & Gouldians at First Light
The Roebuck Plains were off-limits due to the wet ground, but we skirted the edge and found plenty of Rainbow Bee-eaters to keep Nick happy! A short walk along the Pandan Trail netted us good views of both Leaden and Paperbark Flycatchers, White-throated Gerygone and Rufous Whistler. Back on Crab Creek Road, we stopped to track down Red-backed Fairy-wrens (eclipse plumage only) and spotted 3 Wedge-tailed Eagles high overhead, practicing their stooping.

After lunch, we wound our way through town (Red-collared Lorikeets at the Caravan Park) to the STW. Before checking the ponds, we stopped for a good long look at a pair of Black-chinned Honeyeaters, the “golden-backed” form, positively glowing in the sunlight! Pelicans, plenty of ducks and a single Blue-winged Kookaburra was our haul at the STW. Cable Beach was next, where Nick took some lovely photos of a group of Grey-crowned Babblers, so intent on feeding that we were able to get close enough to see the colour of their irises (young birds with dark irises, older birds with yellowy-olive ones). Looking over the water from the surf life-saving club house, Janene spotted three Brown Boobies.

The morning walk around the hotel on Day 3 yielded a few new species, including Brown Honeyeater and Black Kite. After breakfast, we caught our charter plane to Mornington, and as the coastal plains gave way to the ancient rounded hills of the King Leopold Ranges, we really felt we had entered the heart of the Kimberley. On landing, we were greeted by the call of a Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo and then a beautiful view of a male Red-backed Fairy-wren in breeding plumage! At camp, Long-tailed Finches and Buff-sided Robins welcomed us.

The afternoon walk took us to Annie Creek, where the birds were so numerous that we barely made 500m in an hour! Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens fluttered in and out of the pandanus, White-throated and White-gaped Honeyeaters were plentiful and a single Bar-breasted Honeyeater was rather taken with Nick’s pink (sorry, coral) top and came in for a close look. Little Woodswallows, in their cocoa-coloured livery, and Crimson Finches, in their flashy garb, were also quite confiding.

Outback Nick doll - 1
Outback Nick doll
On Day 4, Chris dropped us at the airstrip for a pretty sunrise. It was relatively cool and the birds were slow to start, so we had plenty of opportunity to admire Edith’s “lady explorer” socks, the colours of which almost matched the sky! Horsfield’s Bushlarks were the first to show, with their strangely laboured flight, then flocks of Pictorella Mannikins came in and began feeding on fallen seeds amongst the red gravel. Nick found a couple of Bustards, which he put to flight for us and Janene heard the honking of Brolgas. As we watched, they flew in from the west and almost directly over our heads, making their way towards the rising sun. As the sun rose higher, we were inundated with birds: Little Button-quail, Red-tailed Black-cockatoo, Varied Sittella, Peaceful Doves and two Brown raptors – Goshawk and Falcon. There were also striking Kelvin-Helmholtz cloud formations at the airstrip.

After breakfast, we did the Annie Creek walk in reverse. Sitting for a while at the crossing we were rewarded with fabulous views of a pair of Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens, the male with a full head of purple, and a perfect photo opportunity as he and his mate perched side by side on a nearby branch. Paperbark Flycatchers were very vocal and there were plenty of butterflies to admire along with the birds.

Later that afternoon, Laura took us out to Bluebush Wetland, a lily-covered pool close to the Fitzroy River. On the way, we stopped to check out some finches, and got our first glimpse of a Gouldian (red-headed) perched far off on a distant eucalypt. At the wetland, we looked from the hide as a Comb-crested Jacana picked its way nervously over the lily-pads. A Green Pygmy Goose was keeping it company, although the Jacana didn’t seem to be as keen on the Pygmy Goose as the Pygmy Goose was on the Jacana…then about 900 Little Corellas flew in, making all conversation impossible. Diamond Doves appeared and, so subtly we almost didn’t notice them, two Brolgas arrived, strolling majestically through the long grass at the water’s edge.

Airstrip Flowers - 1
Airstrip Flowers
Our 5.30 start on the following morning took us to north Annie Creek waterhole. Ruth and Tiff sat very quietly at the western end of the pool, while Jean, Edith, Nick and Janene headed through the grasses with Laura guiding them to the eastern end. It started quietly with a Willie Wagtail, then some Pictorella Mannikins stole the scene, which almost distracted us from the first appearance of a Gouldian Finch, a black-headed male, who snuck a quick drink before flying off. More finches arrived (Long-tailed, Double-barred and Pictorellas) and a Black-necked Stork (very briefly). An Azure Kingfisher perched quietly before Laura gave the signal that it was breakfast for us.

We headed to the Savannah Woodland Walk at mid-morning (minus Ruth), Janene spotting Black-breasted Buzzard soaring over the escarpment, Tiff intent on butterflies (Blue Argus, Purple Oak-blue). A pair of Northern Rosellas stopped off for a look at us near the campground and another highlight was a pair of nesting Weebills, the plumage of the inland race much richer and yellower than the south-eastern variety. Heading back along the road, those more eager for lunch missed out on the male Red-backed Fairy-wren in full breeding plumage, picked up by Edith and photographed (for evidence!) very nicely by Nick.

Later that afternoon, we headed out to Sir John Gorge with Chris at the wheel. With express instructions from Janene to stop only for Gouldians or Budgies, Chris stopped for Magpies and Crested Pigeons…but then for Spinifex Pigeons and Black-tailed Treecreeper. The Spinifex Pigeons went to ground, but a pair of treecreepers gave stunning views, contrasting fabulously with the white trunks of the Ghost Gums. A little further on, we encountered some researchers and then BUDGIES! A small group of 3 birds, but enough to give Nick a Budgie orgasm!!

We arrived at Sir John Gorge for a swim just before sunset. The red rocks were lit with a warm glow and 4 White-quilled Rock-pigeons appeared on the opposite side of the river, basking in the last rays of the day. We were treated to wine, cheese and biscuits, Magnificent Tree Frogs “singing” and a single Spotted Nightjar hawking insects over the river before we made our way slowly back to camp, picking up 7 Boobooks and one Owlet-nightjar on the road.

Cluster Fig - 1
Cluster Fig
We began Day 6 with a walk along the Adcock River. Black-chinned Honeyeaters (“golden-backed”) and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters cavorted in the tops of the paperbarks; Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens chased through the pandanus (but remained out of sight) and a Brown Goshawk passed over, executing a strange “flap-bound” flight, like a cuckoo-shrike. We started to walk back towards camp, admiring the Boabs and silver-leaved wattles amongst the tall grasses (unfortunately bereft of quail). We sat down to wait for our lift and a Square-tailed Kite flew over!

After breakfast, Edith, Nick and Tiff walked to Annie Creek crossing (towards the airstrip) and watched finches and doves coming in for a drink. Edith spotted something with a black face at the top of a dead tree and shortly afterwards, a male Gouldian Finch appeared at the water! Nick inched closer to the creek to get a few photos as an Azure Kingfisher came in for a quick bathe. There was a screeching above us and 2 lorikeets flew over: Varied! We chased after them, but wings outdo legs and we lost them amongst the trees.

In the afternoon, we visited the researchers’ quarters for a fascinating talk on Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens. Annie Creek was prime real estate for the species and breeding pairs were tightly packed along our section (next to the luxury tents). Unlike other fairy-wrens, Purple-crowns are monogamous and it appears to do them good as they are also longer-lived (than Superbs, at least).

We capped off the day by revisiting the pool at north Annie Creek: the sunset was splendid and the birds were quiet, apart from the Brown Honeyeaters and Little Corellas!

On our final morning at Mornington, we sat at Boundary Pool and were treated to finches galore: Double-barred, Long-tailed and finally Gouldians! First one male flew in and perched below some Peaceful Doves, then 2 more with some juveniles (all dull green). White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes landed in the eucalypt beside us for a closer look; Red-winged Parrots flew over and Budgies called in the distance.

Waiting for Gouldian Finches - 1
Waiting for Gouldian Finches
After this treat, it was time to pack up and fly back to Broome. In the afternoon, we headed out to the Broome Bird Observatory (minus Janene and Ruth). An Agile Wallaby corpse provided a Whistling Kite with a quick snack and Nick got some great shots of the bird as it perched next to the road, waiting for us to leave so that it could continue its meal.

Out on the plains, it was hot and exposed…only raptors appeared to be taking advantage of the conditions: Nankeen Kestrel and Brown Falcon were fence-sitting, and a Brahminy Kite flew overhead. A Red-backed Kingfisher had also found a post on which to perch, but well away from us. Closer to the road, White-winged Trillers were flitting back and forth through the shrubs.

We headed to the bay and found huge flocks of assorted waders: Red Knot, Red-necked Stint, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattlers all crowded together on the gradually diminishing mudflats. A big group of Red-capped Plovers milled about in front of them all. Nick decided he needed to get closer for some photos, but he had to bolt ahead of a lady in hot pink shorts and high-vis lime green blouse to catch the waders before she startled them. It was a thrilling race! The waders didn’t wait around for it, however, and took flight, moving out of sight around the headland. A second stop further east gave us excellent views of Reef and Little Egrets. We headed back to Broome for dinner.

Jean, Edith and Tiff walked down to Streeter’s Jetty on the final morning and were rewarded with a host of mangrove-specialists including Yellow White-eye, Red-headed Honeyeater and a very friendly Mangrove Golden Whistler. A pair of Dusky Gerygones chased insects through the mangrove canopy. A Broad-billed Flycatcher was also spotted before we headed back up the hill. From the lookout, we watched a Pelican preening on the edge of Dampier Creek and suddenly a Manta Ray leapt from the water! It did it twice more before we walked back to the hotel for breakfast.

A magical 150 species in 8 days!

By Tiffany Mason guiding for FTB

Follow That Bird   Phone: 61 2 9973 1865
Fax: 61 2 9973 1875
3/59 Central Road
Avalon NSW 2107
Sydney Australia
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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer