South West Western Australia Trip Report
It’s hard to beat spring in the south-west, especially in a good year like this. With fourteen endemic birds and one third of Australia’s entire plant diversity, the region is a birder’s and naturalist’s dream. Ten participants met Janene and me in Perth on the evening of the 20th, full of anticipation for the seven days ahead.
Carnaby’s Cockatoo in
Hakea cucculata by Carol Probets
Our first morning’s walk was in the wonderful Kings Park with Red-and-Green Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthos manglesii), Western Australia’s floral emblem, providing a fitting backdrop. A pair of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes in courtship display which culminated in mating was an auspicious start to the tour.
The previous day, Elizabeth had found a pair of kookaburras nesting in a palm tree. For most of us coming from the eastern states it seems strange to think of Laughing Kookaburras as an introduced species; likewise for the Rainbow Lorikeets which were so abundant. The raptors were out with both Brown Goshawk and Collared Sparrowhawk appearing within minutes of each other. Back at the motel, the action continued as four Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos flew over.
For this trip we travelled in two vans rather than a bus, with everyone swapping vehicles and seats regularly (except the drivers – Janene and me). This proved comfortable and efficient with good visibility for all.
Heading out of the city our first stop was Wungong Dam, where Western Gerygones delighted us with their song. Here we found a beautiful male Golden Whistler, a male Scarlet Robin, and a male Splendid Fairy-wren moulting into breeding plumage. An acrobatic Grey Fantail accompanied a bevy of other species.
We drove through miles of picturesque grasstrees (Xanthorrhoea sp.), each one sporting its own “grass skirt”. A Grey Currawong beside the road brought us to a halt for a better look, but there were to be several more over the coming days.
Western Rosella by Carol Probets
Roadside birding around the Wandering area was productive, with Black-faced Woodswallows, the first of many Ringnecks (the attractive “28” form here), a single Elegant Parrot blending in perfectly with the eucalypt foliage, and great excitement when we came across five Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos. It turned out to be the first of many of this iconic, endangered cockatoo.
But the real highlight began when we turned onto a narrow track and found ourselves amid a beautiful forest of mottled white-trunked Wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo). This was the Dryandra Woodland and it captivated us with its magic and diversity for the next few hours. Pink Isopogon, yellow Petrophile, white Tassel Grevilleas, orange and yellow Gastrolobiums and the dryandras (Banksia spp) after which the forest is named were most obvious. The ground was carpeted with Cowslip Orchids, pink and yellow Lindley’s Everlastings, and countless other species.
But it wasn’t only the plants. Mary first spotted a well-camouflaged Echidna from the moving vehicle (how did she do that?). The common birds here were Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters, followed closely by Purple-crowned Lorikeets constantly zipping back and forth. The limbs of the wandoo trees were dotted with small hollows perfect for the tiny lorikeets to nest in. A Rufous Treecreeper showed us how it feeds largely on the ground and fallen logs, like the Brown does over east, and managed to convince us (well, me at least) that it’s the most beautiful of the Australian treecreepers. Dusky Woodswallows and White-browed Babblers added to the party.
Nearby at Old Mill Dam, a group of small birds had us puzzled, looking as if they had dipped their faces in mud. It turned out to be an illusion – a closer look revealed they were immaculate Western Thornbills. We marvelled at the brilliant red flowers of Lechenaultia formosa hugging the ground.
Then it was on to Barna Mia for the night viewing of marsupials. This predator-proof sanctuary is home to a variety of threatened native marsupials in a natural habitat enclosure. During the introductory talk, a sudden burst of calling from a group of Bush-stone Curlews marked twilight. We walked through native woodland to the feeding area and sat quietly. One by one, Bilbies, Boodies, Woylies, and a Mala appeared and fed around our feet, lit only by red torch light in order to protect the animals’ vision and avoid startling them. It was fascinating to watch these animals up close, moving about naturally, and encouraging to hear of the good work being done to save them.
Red-winged Fairy-wren by Carol Probets
Next morning at Narrogin we only had to cross the road into Foxes Lair, a wonderful bush reserve on the outskirts of the town. There were so many birds it was hard to know where to look. Common Bronzewing, Red-capped Parrots eating Adenanthos and dryandra flowers, Western Rosella, Brown and White-cheeked Honeyeaters, Mistletoebird, a pair of Striated Pardalotes ssp substriatus, and another great view of Western Gerygones, a surprisingly common bird in the west.
Today’s journey took us into the drier country. Not far from the saline desolation of Lake Taarblin, the bush was abuzz with activity. Here we had great views of Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Red-capped Robins, and Sittellas (the “black-capped” race pileata). Breaking a small piece of bark from the roadside wattles released a faint sweet smell, indicating the reason for their common name of Raspberry Jam (Acacia acuminata).
A brief stop at Harrismith gave us the opportunity to wander among spectacular flowering Hakea francisiana and other flowering Proteaceae, and see more Purple-crowned Lorikeets.
Our first Regent Parrot was spotted along the road by Janene, with better views to come. We ventured into the mallee near Lake Grace: White-eared Honeyeaters first broke the silence before a penetrating whistle had everyone peering through the undergrowth at a surprise Southern Scrub-robin. Impossibly blue Dampiera kept the photographers busy.
Western Crested Shrike-tit by Carol Probets
A Peregrine Falcon flashed by at great speed in front of the van as we continued to Ongerup and the wonderful Malleefowl breeding facility. Purple-gaped Honeyeaters were a bonus in the garden here.
We continued south through yellow fields of canola as the sun dipped lower. Ahead, the mighty Stirling Range rose abruptly from the plains, the afternoon sun highlighting its flanks, its tops hidden in the swirling clouds.
How wonderful it was to wake on the 23rd at the Stirling Range Retreat. Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos were right there at the cabins, but Diane hit the jackpot with a Scarlet Robin outside her window. We saw Red-capped Parrots, Sacred Kingfisher, and an Elegant Parrot feeding on the lawn near the office while a confiding Yellow-plumed Honeyeater constructed a nest in an adjacent tree. In the neighbouring paddock, we all had great views of a White-winged Triller with both Dusky and Black-faced Woodswallows snatching insects from the ground. Finally, everyone got to see the Crested Shrike-tit (rare western subspecies) which had been tantalising us with its call.
After breakfast across the road at the lovely Bluff Knoll Cafe, we drove to Cheyne Beach, stopping to watch a Tawny-crowned Honeyeater and Carnaby’s Cockatoos in the heathlands. Tall grasstrees, Kingia australis, were an eye-catching feature of the landscape.
Intermittent showers greeted us at the famous Cheyne Beach, but this didn’t stop the first of the notorious three skulkers taunting us with its rich song – the Noisy Scrub-bird! Although loud, it had to be quite some distance into the vegetation as our ears weren’t hurting! We waited, but it didn’t appear. Still, there was consolation in hearing its remarkable voice.
Mala by by Carol Probets
We walked up the track behind the caravan park where a sudden downpour quickly turned to hail and had everyone (except hardy Anne) dashing back to the vehicle. This was the only time during the trip that the weather intervened in our birding, but it didn’t last long. No sooner had most people stepped inside for lunch when the sky turned blue again. Eventually all headed back out to where Anne and I had scouted a calling Western Bristlebird. The bristlebird appeared briefly, to be seen by four of the group. Later, as we were about to leave, two Western Whipbirds commenced calling but refused to be seen.
A much easier tick was the little White-breasted Robin in front of the caravan park, as were the pair of Golden Whistlers chasing each other and the Sooty Oystercatchers on the beach. An Osprey and Swamp Harrier soared above, though not at the same time. The wildflowers in the heath were a delight, including the striking scarlet Banksia coccinea and the pretty mauve and blue Andersonia caerulea.
We hot-footed it back to the retreat to catch the orchid tour of a lifetime. Our orchid guide ‘Bully’ (Brian) entertained us with stories and showed us a head-spinning diversity of orchids, including White Spiders, King Spiders, Crab-lipped Spiders, Red Beak, Zebra, Snail and Jug Orchids, a whole flock of Bird Orchids, and Pink Fairies. He also pointed out a Western Yellow Robin on its nest festooned with vertical strips of bark, just like that of its eastern cousin.
Lechenaultia formosa by Carol Probets
Our second morning at Stirling Range Retreat provided even better views of Crested Shrike-tit and Regent Parrot. Then, at breakfast three Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and five Carnaby’s flew over. Who could ask for more? Yet more was to come.
Walking along Bluff Knoll Road we were rewarded with Western Spinebills and a male Splendid Fairy-wren living up to its name. We said goodbye to the beautiful Stirling Range and headed on to Ocean Beach near Denmark. It was Anne who first spotted the pair of Hooded Plovers on the sand, which were then seen by all through the scope. We also found Caspian Tern, Inland Thornbills, Osprey, Square-tailed Kite, and close views of Carnaby’s feeding on hakea seeds.
Lunchtime rolled around and the decision to eat at Old Kent River Wines turned out to be a serendipitous choice: the adjacent vegetable garden had its own resident family of Red-winged Fairy-wrens, along with two Western Rosellas providing stunning views, and a Red-eared Firetail. At the same time, two Little Eagles soared overhead.
The next leg of our drive took us through tall Karri forests as we wound our way toward Pemberton.
Bilby by Carol Probets
Next morning, our pre-breakfast perambulation through lush Karri, Jarrah and Marri forest behind the motel gave us two Common Bronzewings and a White-breasted Robin with a very cute fledgeling concealed in the undergrowth. We also found the western form of the White-naped Honeyeater with its whitish eye wattle, now recognised as a distinct species and known as the Swan River or Gilbert’s Honeyeater.
Our previous day’s sighting of the Red-eared Firetail had been fleeting, so we hoped for a better view at Northcliffe. Right on cue the gorgeous but elusive firetail sat in the open and was seen well by most of the group before it disappeared again into the swampy heath.
The drive to Windy Harbour was most interesting with the habitat changing often. A Musk Duck in a roadside pond proved challenging to see well between dives, but perseverance paid off. Above the heathland Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters displayed and a pair of Brown Falcons wheeled past. But the highlight had to be the grove of Purple Enamel Orchids by the roadside, thanks to the friendly caravanning couple who saw them first. Those who looked closely noticed the flowers’ beautifully patterned backs which added to their gem-like mystique.
Approaching the charming settlement of Windy Harbour we watched another Western Spinebill and a Western Wattlebird feeding in the banksias and hakeas. After lunch, a sudden fly-past of four Rock Parrots provided a flurry of excitement. Out on the rocks, a Pied Cormorant, Sooty Oystercatcher and Pacific Gulls (adult and juvenile) were scoped, and some watched Silvereyes and Splendid Fairy-wrens feeding amongst the seaweed.
Banksia coccinea by Carol Probets
Our afternoon drive to the Parup area took us through Marri and giant Jarrah trees, thousands of grasstrees and an understorey draped with clematis and colourful pea flowers. In the Lake Muir area we caught up with a pair of Western Corellas and finally had diagnostic views of Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo. All the south-west endemics had now been seen, with the exception of the elusive Noisy Scrub-bird!
On nearly every day we’d seen Australian Shelducks in the paddocks and dams by the roads, but on the 26th they really came to the fore with a whole paddock-full and a juvenile which had us guessing for a while. Sadly, a roadkill Western Brush Wallaby turned out to be the only one of that pretty species we saw.
We stopped in at Cape Leeuwin, Australia’s most south-westerly point where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet. Here we had fabulous views of two Rock Parrots feeding on the lighthouse lawn. These are deemed by BirdLife Australia to be “Australia’s least colourful parrot”, though they looked pretty nice to me with their blue foreheads. A short time later as we stood on the rocks, the peace was suddenly shattered as an Australian Hobby flashed through chasing the Rock Parrots with breathtaking agility! The parrots escaped unscathed, at least this time.
Rock Parrot by Carol Probets
Back on the road near Margaret River, we finally had good views of four Baudin’s Black-Cockatoos using their long bills to extract Marri seeds and stripping bark, a distinctive habit of this species. Nearby, a flock of Carnaby’s were feeding on the ground.
Our list of birds kept growing as a Brush Bronzewing flew up from beside the road. Driving down to Sugarloaf Rock near Cape Naturaliste a spectacular coastal vista opened up. Looking out across the Indian Ocean we had scope views of Flesh-footed Shearwaters migrating south, and a distant whale breached.
We enjoyed our final night’s dinner in a fashionable Margaret River restaurant and wished we could spend more time in the beautiful south-west. Our last morning’s drive to the airport gave us sightings of raptors (especially Whistling Kites), flocks of soaring ibis, pelicans and many other water birds. At Bunbury, Brian spotted a Banded Lapwing, the last new bird for the trip list.
Purple Enamel Orchid by Carol Probets
During our week we had seen 13 of the south-western endemic bird species and several near-endemics, with 134 species recorded altogether. Botanically, we had only just scratched the surface but what we saw was nothing short of spectacular. The south-west proved memorable for all the right reasons: fabulous birding, magnificent flora, stunning scenery, excellent meals and near-perfect weather. And of course, the great company of everyone on the tour. Thanks all!
By Carol Probets guiding for FTB