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Wader Quest Down Under

By Rick Simpson

As a birder, you know that upon landing in a new and exciting place, you will press your nose to the airplane window and look for your first tick. Very often the conversation will go something like;

“I see a pipit, what pipits do they get here?”

“None!”

“Oh! Then perhaps it was a lark, what larks….” etc.

We at Wader Quest are no different. In our case we were at Perth Airport and the bird we saw was not some hard to identify LBJ, it was the gorgeous Banded Lapwing. This was a piece of good fortune for us as it was unlikely that we’d come across them anywhere else on our Australian adventure, however the record shot we got was awful and just a little disappointing as you can imagine.

We didn’t tarry long in Perth. We were there just long enough to get on another plane and head north to Broome which is considered by some to be the wader capital of Australia, a very exciting prospect.

It was hot; we arrived at night and found our way to the Broome Bird Observatory where we were to stay more by luck than judgement in the dark. In the morning we had arranged to meet Chris Hassell who has been working with the local wader populations in the area for some time. If he couldn’t show us what we had come for, no-one could.

He first took us to some pools that would normally be inaccessible to visitors. They were on private land and therefore relatively undisturbed. This was a rare privilege for us and what a place it was too! Here we picked up seven new birds for the quest in an hour.

At the first pool, which had a muddy edge and was surrounded by scrub and bushes, we started immediately with two cracking plovers. They were Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels; gorgeous little birds both of them. Plovers are among the most attractive of waders and this duo was no exception, perhaps vying for the title of most colorful plover anywhere, ever.

Black-fronted Dotterel w/ Australian Pratincole, photo by Elis Simpson

Black-fronted Dotterel w/ Australian Pratincole, photo by Elis Simpson

We moved on then to a second pool, this one much larger with an open grassy edge to it. It was more a lake than a pool really, and it took just seconds to find the obvious and noisy Masked Lapwing, the northern race. It wasn’t long before we’d also notched up Australian Pratincole, White-headed Stilt and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, all new birds for us. It was quite a hectic few minutes.

Across the water we could also see a Comb-crested Jacana, but it was too far off for even a record shotwith the heat haze. We settled down and spent a good deal of time enjoying this place and its waders plus many other birds including the peculiar looking Pink-eared Ducks. Eventually Chris managed to tear us away to look elsewhere but it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we found our next new wader, Oriental Plover. In fact we didn’t even find it. We luckily came across a group being guided by the Observatory staff and it was they who found it. As we had been informed that these birds weren’t in yet, we were very lucky to stumble across the group who had just found the first arrivals.

The following morning Chris gave us details of where we might find some other species on our wish list, and at first light we clocked up both Grey-tailed tattler and Pied Oystercatcher among the now familiar Great and Red Knots on a mangrove lined beach not far from the observatory. We then relocated to a beach which was more suitable for another of our targets, the Sooty Oystercatcher which prefers rockier areas. Within a minute of arriving at this site we had our birds. It’s amazing what difference local information can make to your success rate!

We had arranged to meet Chris where he had set himself up with his assistant Grace to check the leg flags of the waders on the beach. When we arrived he told us that somewhere in the mass of birds on the water’s edge there was an Asian Dowitcher. Now this was exciting news as we had missed them in Thailand. The task of sifting through the birds to find it was daunting, however. I was very anxious as at any moment this flock of birds could rise up and be off, so time was of the essence. Fortunately before they did I came across a bird that looked different, slightly smaller than the godwits around it and darker backed, but it was sleeping. I decided to wait and watch, not wanting to make a fool of myself and sure enough, eventually the bird raised its head and displayed the long dark bill of a dowitcher. It was a little distant, but our trusty little Canon camera with a 1200mm lens meant we could get a reasonable record shot of the bird. Also present on that beach were our first Red-capped Plover and our first Mongolian Plover, the latter we split from the Lesser Sand-Plover.

Asian Dowitcher, photo by Elis Simpson

Asian Dowitcher, photo by Elis Simpson

Despite much searching we never found any early Oriental Pratincoles or Little Curlews, we were just a week or so too early for these species and had to move on to Cairns for our next stop without them on the list.

At Cairns there is a splendid Esplanade where the mud comes right up to the sea wall. It is a well-known and fantastic place for waders, however it is of course tidal and in our case the tide was always wrong when we had a chance to visit. We saw plenty of good waders, they were just a long way off for the most part. However, it was not these birds that we had come in search of; we were after stone-curlews or thick-knees.

On our first night, when I had gone to park the car at our hotel, I had come face to face with a Bush Stone-Curlew in the street. I rushed back and summoned Elis who came out for a look despite being exhausted after our long journey. We were delighted of course to see them, but the night shots were not that good so we hoped to bump into one during the day.

The next afternoon we met our local contact Martin Cachard who took us to a beach where we were to look for Beach Stone-Curlew. We parked the car and within minutes were watching a splendid pair of these spectacular birds. Martin also gave us some hints about finding the Bush Stone Curlews in a local park and the next day, following his directions, we came across a pair with two chicks.

Beach Stone-Curlew, photo by Elis Simpson

Beach Stone-Curlew, photo by Elis Simpson

On our last morning we went with directions from Martin again, to some pools where were able to get much better views of Comb-crested Jacana before leaving Cairns with 145 on our list. We headed south to Victoria where some really special birds awaited us.

Comb-crested Jacana, photo by Elis Simpson

Comb-crested Jacana, photo by Elis Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAEFlorida, Washington, California the UK, in South America, and Africa.

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