Chris Watson

NT

Grasswren Grand Slam in Record Time

Birding, TourismChris Watson

There’s a well-known saying among birders, particularly among those who live near the coast: seabirders are real birders. Anyone who has spent a day on the blue paddock trying to compare the bill dimensions of prions while dodging the sluicing chunder from birders of more delicate constitution as the floor rolls under your feet and the salt spray mists your binocular lenses will understand that it’s a claim not without some justification.

In Australia though, it’s arguable that there is one other type of extreme birding that may lay claim to also being the domain of “real” birders: grasswrenning. That’s a word now.

I’ve heard it said that any old duffer can notch up a list of a few hundred species in Australia if they simply do some pretty basic birding and visit a handful of different regions. International birding tours sometimes rack up Australian bird lists of 400 or even 500 species in just a few weeks of busy birding and a few internal flights. But a good measure of an Australian bird list, and of the true birding grit of the list-owner, is the number of grasswrens on the list.

The grasswrens in the genus Amytornis are a group of birds which are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They’re among those bird species which can look drab or boring in a field guide but which routinely knock your socks off in the field when they are up close. If you’re lucky enough to get a prolonged look at any species of grasswren in the open, their plumage reveals all sorts of subtleties that you won’t have anticipated.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, adult female.

There are anywhere between 10 and 14 species recognised, depending which taxonomy you follow. None of them live in particularly accessible places and most live in decidedly remote and difficult terrain. Most of them favour the shin-ruining spinifex grasses; a group of plants with the distinction of being both figuratively and literally, a complete prick. The ones that don’t live in spinifex, live in clumps of similarly dense and unfriendly vegetation. They range from some of the hottest and driest deserts to the humid and monsoonal tropics. They’re mostly furtive, shy, and able to disappear from view in their chosen habitat leaving a birder feeling completely gormless in the infuriating knowledge that the birds are all around, at close range, but completely hidden from view and unlikely to reveal themselves.

A few species favour rocky slopes with either loose scree underfoot or large boulders that only a rock wallaby, and the grasswrens themselves, can safely negotiate. Some are endangered and disappearing from their already restricted ranges as a result of fire, feral cats, land clearing, or combinations of all three.

Grasswren habitat: harsh, beautiful and remote. Cane grass on dunes of the Simpson Desert is home to the Eyrean Grasswren A. goyderi.

So in summary: they’re small, rare, fast, furtive, superbly cryptic, hard to get to, hard to find, and hard to see if you do find them. And this is their charm. They’re a real birder’s bird.

Well-known South Australian ornithologist and tour leader Peter Waanders recently hatched a plan with two of my Northern Territory off-siders. It was a plan that was nothing if not ambitious and, frankly, had some questioning Peter’s sanity – to see all species of grasswren in a single tour. It’s audacious. If ever a leader was going to be able to pull-off such a feat of birding brilliance, Peter’s name would be near the top of the list. His guiding outfit, Bellbird Tours, is already best-known for running the regular 6- and 9-grasswren tours which plough through the dry interior of the country each year and only rarely miss any of their targets. His dry country tours also have an enviable strike rate with other highly-sought desert delicacies like Grey Falcon and Letter-winged Kite.

To cut a very long story short – they did it.

In an achievement which must be a historic first for Australian birding, Bellbird’s Great Grasswren Air Safari saw all 11 of the currently (widely-accepted) species of grasswren in just 14 days [and I think they may have seen one of the proposed splits as well which would take their total to 12 species by Clements taxonomy]. In fact, the news of their final tick, White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi, came through the day before the tour ended so they actually saw every grasswren species in 13 days.

For anyone familiar with traveling in outback Australia, you’ll understand what an extraordinary achievement this is. By car, aircraft (both fixed-wing and helicopter), and finally on foot, the intrepid band crossed the entire continent. With crucial assistance from Red Centre expert Mark Carter and Top End bird-finder and River God, Mick Jerram, they nailed the tricky central and northern species.

In under a fortnight, they found and saw an entire endemic genus; a genus of our most infamously challenging birds. I’d be surprised if there is anyone else who has ever completed this coveted full house in less than a month. Well done one and all and congratulations Peter, Mark and Mick – only other tour leaders will ever understand how nerve-wracking a tour like this can be.

A Short Digression

Amid all the back-slapping and the celebratory Darwin stubbies though, there’s another consideration. An important aspect of an initiative like this is that it demonstrates the productive symbiosis that can exist between research and tourism. This is a partnership which is well-established in numerous locations internationally but has yet to be widely-explored in Australia.

Some grasswren species are infrequently recorded and their distributions are imperfectly known. Many of the species which are seen each year are recorded at the same sites; well-known sites where public access is granted and the birds are known to be present. Tours like this don’t just provide an opportunity for birders to get difficult species on their lists. They also provide the means for experts (and all of the leaders on this tour are certainly that), to visit different areas, both during the tour and on reconnaissance visits during preparation. During these visits, birds are sometimes found at new sites. Breeding activity is sometimes noted. Previously occupied sites might be discovered to have been abandoned or habitat destroyed. Non-target species are also noted and atlas surveys are completed. All of this is crucial observational data which is coming from country rarely accessed by researchers from professional research organisations because visiting is prohibitively expensive.

Research and data collection of this nature being funded, directly or indirectly, by tourism is something we really ought to discuss more often and support wholeheartedly.

 

Well done again to all involved and particular congratulations to Peter, Mark, Mick and the team at Bellbird Tours for pulling off the grip of the year.

CBW

We Don't Climb

OpinionChris Watson

Nobody should be climbing Uluru*.

That’s what I thought when I first contemplated the dilemma – to climb or not to climb - in 2006 and nothing has changed.

DON'T PUSH THE RED BUTTON.

What did you just think of? There’s an interesting phenomenon in human psychology, closely linked with negative suggestion, called reactance. It’s that ugly, irksome little voice in your head that urges you to step on the lawn as soon as you see a sign that says, “KEEP OFF”.

We'll return to Uluru in a minute. I promise there is a point here. Stick with me.

In essence, reactance is a response to a perceived limitation or the threat of removal of choice, and it has the potential to make us act against our own best interests. In the clinical version of the experiment, a person, often a child but not necessarily, is sat in a room with a big, bright red button on the wall. The administrator of the test leaves the subject alone in the room with a single definite instruction – DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. In almost every case, the subject will press the button. Sometimes there is an incentive involved as well; a bag of sweets or a quantity of cash if they simply DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON. They’ll still press it. Derren Brown upped the ante by leaving a subject alone in a room with a fluffy kitten in a metal cage that would be electrified, killing the cat, if she pressed the button. He even offered her a pile of cash, in addition to the fact that she’d be sparing the kitty’s life, if she would simply not press the button for 5 minutes once he left the room. I won’t spoil the ending. The point is that it can be a very strong response. It has been well-studied in relation to childhood development, parenting and teaching but it can even have relevance to international relations.

Blood & Guts: dispatches from the whale wars, is a fascinating account of the antagonisation of the Japanese whaling fleet by Sea Shepherd. In it, Sam Vincent concludes that Japan isn’t so much pro-whaling as it is anti-anti-whaling. The claim is that Sea Shepherd were pushing at an open door by going after the Japanese whalers. It was already an industry in steeper decline than the populations of the animals it pursued and the market for the meat was niche, at best, and dwindling. But when Sea Shepherd came onto the scene and started niggling at the last remaining vestiges of the dying industry, the whalers dug their heels in. Faced with overwhelming opprobrium from the West and the harassment by Sea Shepherd, they chose to keep on whaling. This was a move that was counterproductive, destructive and expensive, and it saw Japanese whaling persist long past the point at which it was no longer a profitable industry; pure reactance in action. The façade of whaling as research was always as thin as rice paper, and the continued whale harvest was really just a middle finger to those who were telling them to stop; specifically to Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd might have seen an end to Japanese whaling years earlier had they simply… not bothered. Sea Shepherd provided the big red button that invited pushing.

It’s an interesting example and I recommend the book. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m pretty sure that this infantile response has a part to play in our bizarre reluctance to close Uluru to climbing, and certainly with some peoples’ fixation on climbing, especially once they’re told they shouldn’t.

Prohibition really does bring out the worst in us doesn't it?

Nobody should be climbing Uluru.

I sat and watched, troubled, as the line of tourists marched along the chain, up to the top, then back down the same way. There’s an inherent, generally harmless, futility in the human urge to climb things but the fact that so many people, particularly Australians, have no compunction about climbing Uluru is, for me, a phenomenon infused with ennui.

From the widescreen vantage point behind the steering wheel of my bus parked at the base of Uluru, a similar tawdry scene would play out before me for many years to come. Shifting tides of cars and buses would ebb and flow around my quiet and fly-free little sanctuary. People would scuffle past looking for somewhere to empty their bladder; asking their tour guide if they’ll need water (always); shoes (of course); a camera (dunno – do you want to take pictures?) or a jumper (shit – should we just ring your mum?) Eventually they’d either climb up Uluru or head off on the roughly three hour walk around its base.

The climbers always had a bit of theatre to go through.

We all do things we know are bad; either bad for us, bad for some other poor sod or perhaps even bad for society in some way. We drive like reckless idiots, eat bad food or drink too much or too often and we buy shoes, cars and countless other goods that almost certainly required the exploitation of more than a few hapless individuals before coming into our possession. We justify these behaviours to ourselves in one way or another. Generally, the degree to which we’re aware of the ramifications of our choices is in inverse proportion to the ease with which we can rationalise them. At the base of Uluru there is a single gate allowing access to the climbing route to the top. To get through that gate you have to walk past a wall of signage with the same information written out in sextuplicate, each time in a different language. On each panel the language is similarly polite. To paraphrase the precise wording: Anangu* don’t climb Uluru. This is a very special sacred place for Anangu. Anangu request that you choose not to climb also.

No prohibitions. No fist-shaking. No threats of any consequences whatsoever. Just a polite request that you don’t climb – both for your safety and Anangu peace of mind. For many, it’s the big red button they just can’t resist.

There can be few people who arrive at the base of the climb without already being aware of the Anangu wish for people to shun climbing. It’s prominently featured on the walls and signs in the information centre at Yulara where every tourist stays during their visit. It’s on the walls at the Cultural Centre inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta* National Park (UKTNP) before you reach Uluru. It’s written on the ticket that you have to buy at the entry station and it is written on the detailed visitor guide that you receive when you buy that ticket. If they’re doing their job properly, it will also have been related to every visitor by their tour guide, long before they reach the car park.

It may not be on the tips of the tongues of the international travel agents selling people Red Centre holiday packages, but somewhere between boarding a plane and getting all the way out to Uluru the news will have reached most ears: the Traditional Owners would like people to stop climbing Uluru.

For some, perhaps it’s the politeness of the request that throws them. We’re used to signs telling us things in definite terms – stop, keep left, no smoking. The situation at Uluru hands the choice back to the reader: walk around Uluru if you’d like to respect the wishes of Aboriginal custodians or, alternatively, gratify your own desire to climb up and disregard this polite request from your hosts altogether. Please yourself.

Some would scurry back for furtive chats of clarification with their tour guide. Some would pace along perusing each panel of the sign intently as if they actually spoke Mandarin, Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Italian. Searching for a loophole. Others had clearly made their choice well in advance and marched directly from the bus, past the huddled groups still wrestling with the dilemma, to commence their scramble up the gentlest slope of the old inselberg.

But the glorious indifference of the sign at the base of the Uluru climb leaves no wiggle room for climbers to rationalise their choice. It’s a wonderfully binary proposition and any attempt to argue shades of grey into the picture can be easily refuted with any number of obvious analogies and thought experiments. At mosques, synagogues and chapels around the world there are entreaties and expectations regarding decorous behaviour, respectful reverence and various clothing prohibitions or stipulations. At most of these places, such conditions are not optional and, if it came to it, would be enforced. But what if they weren’t?

Surely a reasonable person wouldn’t kick a football around in a church or wear dirty shoes in a mosque would they? (Incidentally, I don’t have the slightest bit of respect for, or belief in, any of the vast array of closely held human superstitions that lurk under the misnomers of spirituality or religion. Whether they were concocted last century, last millennium or before the Holocene interglacial, none have any claims on truth and most are divisive, destructive and counter-productive to the aims of human prosperity and well-being. In 2016 you’d have to be wilfully ignorant of massive swathes of human history and scientific advancement to think otherwise. Not surprisingly then, given my opinion on religion and other spiritual hokum, it’d be hard to find a more strenuous critic of the Catholic Church than me. But I still know that it’s appropriate to sit quietly in a church. Mind you, my tour guiding career spanned the previous Papal visit to Australia and we were very busy running charter tours to Uluru for church groups from around the globe…. they all climbed. But I digress.)

My itinerary always brought me to the Mala car park (where the climb begins) straight after sunrise. I’d walk along the base of Uluru with my guests for the first hour, providing them with interpretive ditties on local flora and fauna, Anangu customs and of course the rock itself. After the first hour I’d leave them so they could follow the path around the rest of the base walk at their own pace and without me talking at them. More importantly, this meant I could go back to the bus, eat an orange in peace and maybe grab forty winks. Bliss. This was how I came to have a front row seat for all this climb nonsense a few times a week, for five years.  

Of course, some of my guests would double back to climb up Uluru if it was open. UKTNP regulations require that tour guides inform guests of the desire of Anangu Traditional Owners that their wishes be respected and guests choose to not climb Uluru. This was something I took seriously and I always went out of my way to help people understand all the relevant issues, but I had a wildly varied success rate. Even so, averaged over five years I’d say fewer than 10% of my passengers chose to climb Uluru.

Notably though, my success rate with Australian passengers was lower. Ask a Red Centre tour guide - you can’t tell Australians anything. During school holidays we would always get a lot of school trips; of the ones I guided 100% of students climbed up Uluru along with most of their teachers. Many had decided even before they departed school grounds that it would be the crowning achievement of the trip; the main reason for going. Many groups arrived with “Top-of-the-Rock” team t-shirts all ready for the occasion. Even when I worked through the teachers to try and suggest that the base walk was a better and more culturally sensitive choice, I was just spinning my wheels. Apparently, the “teachable moment” was not yet a thing.

It preoccupied me at the time and I still think about it whenever the topic pops up in the media.

How is this still a thing? A 50/50 result in a Fairfax poll with this many votes is arguably enough to say the country is still split on the question.

Recently, the question of climbing arguably Australia’s second most-famous icon (Sydney can have their opera house) and probably the world’s most recognisable rock, has been in the press again. A journalist friend, Jo Stewart, approached me for a few words about the topic after being approached herself by a shadowy young activist who had liberated ‘The Climb’ of a few lengths of its infamous chain. In her article for The Saturday Paper the man, speaking under the pseudonym John, stated that his main intention was to, “respect Uluru and bring it to the attention of Australians”. Sitting here barely two weeks after that story went to print, you’d have to say that he has achieved his goal.

Following Jo’s piece, the Fairfax papers ran a story following up on a statement from Australia’s own “Greatest Minister In The World”, Greg Hunt. Despite most of the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan 2010-2020 for the permanent closure of the climb being met, Hunt’s office decreed there were, “no plans to change current arrangements.”

Then The Monthly online ran a pithy piece by Sean Kelly, which covered off on a few of the obvious points that make the climbing of Uluru such an important issue for Australia to deal with if it’s going to have any hope of claiming even a modicum of success in its pursuit of reconciliation.

If The Apology was the low-hanging fruit of reconciliation politics, the closing of the Uluru climb is ripe for picking.

And to torture the analogy further, fruit left too long goes rotten.

It would be a simple ban to put in place. Unless you’re Alex Honnold, Uluru is unclimbable without gear around most of its circumference. The few access points that might be climbable are well-known and monitored; once an illegal climber reaches a certain elevation they stand out like a sore thumb. On a bare rock, watched and photographed by thousands of people every day of the year, you’d have to be The Predator to avoid detection.

Sufficient policing measures are already in place to enforce the ban; the climb is closed for a variety of ceremonial and meteorological reasons for roughly a third of the days in most years already. It’s also closed between sunset and sunrise. There have been numerous examples of individuals or small groups flouting these closures over the years, even trying to land a plane on top, and they have each been ably dealt with by the existing roster of Parks Australia wardens and NT Police from the nearby towns of Mutitjulu and Yulara.

The chains and existing signage could be removed in a single busy afternoon. Done. Climb closed.

Let's make it permanent. Pic. RichiH Wikicommons.

Waleed Aly has written superbly recently about some of the reasons why Australia has such a troubled (and troubling) relationship with its original inhabitants. There’s not a lot I can add to his keenly-observed analysis, but nowhere in Australia is the uneasiness and casual disregard of that dysfunction on more brazen and daily display, and more openly ignored, than the procession of climbers up the side of Uluru.

The most perfunctory Google search throws up countless images and galleries and blogs about climbing Uluru. If Australian people want to be fair dinkum about reconciliation, then we need to come to a national recognition of this behaviour, not as any sort of achievement to be celebrated and publicised but as un-Australian and aberrant; embarrassing even. I think the closing of the climb is inevitable at some point, but given the conditions set out in the UKTNP Management Plan, not to mention the ongoing offence to Indigenous custodians, it’s already long overdue.

Stuff it, with a vote coming up, why not make it an election issue? We shouldn’t be settling for leaders who tinker with these matters as mere adornments to their careers and self-advancement. These matters affect whole communities and, in the end, shape our national thinking.

ANZAC Day will shortly come and go with huddled observances around the country uttering that eternal three word mantra in memoriam - Lest We Forget. There's another three word phrase which is deserving of inclusion in our national demotic, if not our national consciousness...

Nganana* tatintja wiya. With those words Anangu say “we don’t climb”.

Neither should we.

 

* - these Western Desert words contain a retroflex which is usually indicated by a line beneath the relevant letter(s) - my publishing software doesn't allow me to insert this.  Uluru should have a retroflex on the 'r', Anangu on the first 'n', Kata Tjuta on the third 't' and nganana on the third 'n'. You can learn more about Western Desert pronunciation at this link.

 

Birds of the Darwin Region by Niven McCrie and Richard Noske

Review, birdingChris Watson

While it seems another El Niño is looming, the flow of good Australian natural history books is far from drying up. This is perhaps most true for books about our birds. In recent years we’ve welcomed Dolby and Clarke’s Finding Australian Birds, Fraser and Gray’s Australian Bird Names and the re-release of Alec Chisholm’s classic Mateship with Birds to name just a few. All of these are exciting examples of passionate advocates for Australia’s birds, putting their heads together and sharing accumulated knowledge with an eager audience.

This recent release from CSIRO Publishing, is no exception; it’s astonishing. It’s the sort of book that makes you excited about being a naturalist. For the many who are already familiar with the authors’ other work, this will come as no surprise. McCrie is perhaps best known as the author, with James Watson (no relation), of that other beloved Top End treatise, Finding Birds in Darwin, Kakadu & the Top End. A founder of the prime online reference for Top End birders, the NT Birds newsgroup, he has also been a well-loved tour leader for visitors to the Top End over many years. Richard Noske’s prolific scholarship of birds in northern Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific is well established. He was senior lecturer in biology at CDU for some 26 years, authored, with Graham Brennan, another work of great interest to northern birders, 2002‘s Birds of Groote Eylandt, and is the current chief editor of the journal of Indonesian ornithology, Kukila.

Laurie Ross' eye-catching Rainbow Pitta adorns the cover. One of the easier to see of this typically elusive family, and still relatively easily found around Darwin.

Happily, it’s a fairly common practice in Australia for local experts to work up a guide to the birds of their town, region, or patch. Such experts are, typically, deeply knowledgeable long-term residents, enthusiastic about recording for posterity all of the vagrant records, seasonal movements, and breeding ecology of the birds of their locality. You don’t have to look far to find self-published guides to this town or that shire. Sometimes these are simply brief pamphlets produced under the photo-copying budget of the town council, but range to more elaborate spiral-bound affairs produced with funding from local field naturalists’ clubs or Landcare groups. McCrie & Noske’s Birds of the Darwin Region, seems likely to become the yardstick by which such guides are measured.

The executive summary for this collaboration? If you’re a birder, ecologist, or you’re at all interested in the natural history of Australia’s north, you’ll want this book.

Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly a labour of love from two long-term residents of the region. Indeed, a book of this kind is only made possible by authors with the intimate knowledge of an area that comes from living in it year round. There are some noteworthy absences from the species list, which serve to remind you of the limited geographic scope of the book. No Variegated Fairy-wren (the treated area doesn’t extend as far as the sandstone country); no Chestnut-backed Button-quail; no Masked Owl; no Dusky Moorhen. Maybe some of these occur in the vicinity of Darwin but clearly none have been confirmed within the treatment area.

The species accounts are accompanied by seasonality charts, and distribution maps. The region is divided into a grid of 64 cells with explanatory notes at the front of the book detailing the number of surveys providing data for each cell.  

The research the authors have done in confirming or discounting records is, no doubt, all but exhaustive. There is an ‘unconfirmed species’ section toward the back for those few birds lacking sufficient substantiation for their occurrence to be admitted without question. Otherwise, the records in the list can be considered ‘gold standard’; thoroughly referenced… and what references. For keen NT listers the references pages of this book alone will be a crucial reference.

McCrie & Noske have done an extraordinary service to Australian ornithology, in compiling, organising, and vetting the observations and publications of the many naturalists who have studied Darwin’s birds in the past. To this end, there’s also a ‘history of ornithology’ section in the front of Birds of the Darwin Region, giving deserved acknowledgement to those who went boldly (recklessly?) before onto the mangals and mudflats, before the days of that great ruiner of lenses, Bushman’s Plus™ tropical strength insect repellent.

The species accounts are wonderfully in-depth without being academically soporific; authoritative while managing to be almost conversational in style. Each account is highly readable. Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly focused on the birds of this one defined area, but as many of these species occur across northern Australia, and even farther afield in some cases, it will have relevance far beyond the bounds of Darwin as well.

Without even going past the waterfowl there are numerous examples of what makes this such a valuable and readable reference. The species account for one of the Top End’s iconic species, Magpie Goose, runs over four pages. It not only contains the expected information about its life cycle and habits around Darwin, but some interesting insights into how local policy and community attitudes can affect a species. Recreational hunters, indigenous hunters and mango growers all influence the movements and site use of this species which, in turn, can influence the health of areas used by the birds.

NT waterfowl hunting season: Anger over 34 geese carcasses dumped near rural property

Still among the waterfowl, what about that most infuriating of ducks – Garganey? This ‘Artful Dodger’ of ducks has certainly eluded my Australian list as skilfully as the Dickensian urchin. I first lived full-time in the NT from 2006. In the 26 years preceding 2006, Garganey was recorded in 20 of them, including a staggering 125 birds at Leanyer in 1991. From 2006 to 2014 (the cut-off for entries in this book) it was seen by… no-one. Well, not quite. No-one except for my arch-rival in NT listing, Mick Jerram, who spotted 3 of the birds on the Katherine River in 2008. The perfect grip.    

Birds of the Darwin Region with some other familiar volumes for size comparison. There is a lot in this book. 

Birds of the Darwin Region boasts many truly enlightening factoids; things I’d never read anywhere else before. Take this sterling opening sentence to a species account for example: “Although among the smallest of the world’s swans, the Black Swan’s neck is proportionately longer than in any other, giving it a uniquely elegant silhouette.” My favourite though, is at the other end of the book, in the species account for Canary White-eye: “It has the ability to prise open small flowers… by inserting its somewhat wedge-shaped bill into the floral tube, then gaping, behaviour known as zirkelning.” In the landmark textbook of our pursuit, Ornithology (3rd edition), the author Frank B. Gill lists only four entries in the index under the letter Z: Z sex chromosomes; zeitgebers; zugunruhe; and zygodactyl. Zirkelning? Nowhere to be found. For this alone McCrie and Noske have my admiration.

Finally, Birds of the Darwin Region draws on records from a number of databases; the NT Fauna Atlas, Eremaea Birds (and latterly Eremaea eBird) and the Darwin Bird Atlas project among others. I suspect it’s highly likely that anyone reading this will have contributed observations to one or many such databases, and you can be justifiably proud in pointing to this book as the fruit which is ultimately borne by such citizen science projects.

Darwin is deservedly renowned as one of the top birding destinations in Australia, which places it high in the running worldwide. With Birds of the Darwin Region, Niven McCrie and Richard Noske have cemented their place in any future history of Top End ornithology to be written, and provided an indispensable reference for visitors and researchers for many years to come.

CBW

Buy it from Andrew Isles.

Nhulunbuy (NT) Black-headed Gull Makes Headlines

Chris Watson

Black-headed Gull (back) with Silver Gull on the shore at Nhulunbuy (NT). Image with kind permission of Karen Rose.

Australia’s ninth Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus, has been re-found near the remote East Arnhem Land town of Nhulunbuy.

First reported by Chris Wiley on the 2nd of February around the old alumina refinery’s export conveyor, this got everyone’s attention. This is a bird still absent from some of our top twitchers’ lists. Sadly Chris didn’t manage any photographs of the bird and failed to re-find it the following day. At a remote locality like this a report with no pictures just doesn’t cut the mustard to get most twitchers booking flights.

So it was all the more exciting on the 11th of February when Karen Rose poked her head above the virtual parapet to post a distant phone-through-scope photo of the bird. Distant and grainy though the shot was, it was sufficient to establish a good identification of the bird which (STBA*) will be our ninth record of the species. Both Birdline reports can be viewed here.

Black-headed Gull preening. Image with kind permission from Karen Rose.

Even better news was that Karen had first noticed the bird on the 9th of February, so it seems to be at least briefly site-faithful most days, apparently at low tide. This is a fairly out-of-the-way spot so the question that remains now is… who’s going to twitch it?

PS: ABC weren’t slow to pick up the story and you can read James Purtill's article here. Before anyone jumps in, Sean Dooley (@twitchathon) was quick to correct himself on Twitter; it was a Javan Pond Heron, not a Chinese.

*Subject To BARC Approval – a phrase this writer employs so often it warrants the abbreviation.