A trip to the Victorian mallee in early January 2013

Day 1
Monday, 31 December 2012
Trisha collected, Americans, Decie and Dan from the Melbourne Airport and met me back at Lancefield. Decie and Dan weren't strangers; they'd done New Caledonia and Alice Springs tours with us, as well as a plains-wanderer weekend. We started off birding in the hills near Lancefield hoping for red-browed treecreeper, which I have seen there on many occasions but this time there was no sign of them. Best birds were yellow-faced, white-naped and white-eared honeyeaters, white-throated treecreeper and spotted pardalote. We moved on to Mt Ida near Heathcote for lunch, getting assorted thornbills and a lovely male scarlet robin. It was starting to heat up and the birds were quieting down. We had a long drive to Ouyen in northwest Victoria in front of us. We stopped off at Lake Tyrell; I’d not been here for a long time and wasn’t too sure what we’d find. There were quite a few orange and white-fronted chats in the saltbush about the lake and I was pleased to see a pair of the delightful rufous fieldwren still present at this locality. Spotted harrier and cockatiels were seen north of Sealake.

It was going to be hot all week but Friday was going to be horrendous (45 °C). We had Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to see all the mallee birds. Thursday’s temperature was going to be 40°C+ so our best hope was Tuesday and Wednesday.

Day 2
1 January 2013
We left our motel at 4.15 am and headed for a dam near Hattah Kulkyne National Park. The usual contingent of spotted nightjars was flying about before dawn, drinking on the wing, and there were a few western grey kangaroos at the water.

We breakfasted by the dam as it got light, watching birds come in to drink. First came the red-rumps and the mulga parrots, then ringnecks and later choughs and grey currawongs (the black-winged form). A few spiny-cheeked but not a lot of honeyeaters came in (unlike the last time I was here in mid December, when the overnight and daytime temperatures were higher: 22.2°/40.9°C)

Mallee ringnecks early 1 January 2013 Philip Maher Southern scrub-robin 1 January 2013 Philip Maher
Grey currawong (black-winged form) 1 January 2013 Philip Maher Western grey kanagroos 1 January 2013 Philip Maher

We scored southern scrub-robin and shy heathwren in some nearby mallee with a tea tree understorey. Mallee emu-wren would have been good here but they were quiet. There were a couple of surprises: a pair of tawny frogmouths flushed up from the ground or close to it. It’s been years since I’ve seen frogmouths in the mallee. A short time later, a pair of spotted nightjars flushed from a patch of tea-tree, also unexpected; I’d not flushed a spotted nightjar in daylight for a long time. On our way out we saw several white-backed swallows.

It was getting ever warmer so we headed over to Hattah Lakes for lunch. Not much on the lake, best birds being red-kneed dotterel and black-winged stilt. A few little corellas were sheltering in the gums and a hobby flew over and landed. A young couple in a hire car had become bogged in loose sand down a track near the campground so we gave them a hand.

We returned to our motel in Ouyen to rest up in the heat of the day and prepare for the late afternoon onslaught back in the park when the sun had lost some of its kick.

On our return to Hattah Kulkyne, it was dead quiet. Intending to check out a malleefowl mound, I unintentionally drove a short distance past it. We were about to turn around when we spotted a malleefowl feeding near the track. It looked fantastic in the late afternoon sun. We checked the mound a little later only to find, heartbreakingly, the remains of the female beside the mound. She’d only been dead a day or two and had been in the process of laying as there was egg shell with the feathers.  Hopefully the male will continue to attend the mound. I believe a fox is responsible for this tragedy. Video of male malleefowl in late afteroon light

I was hoping to hear emu-wrens in the late afternoon as they often call at that time of day but none was heard. So only three target birds for the first day in the mallee; disappointing given we were racing the mercury.

Day 3
Wednesday 2 January 2013
We left the hotel around 4.30 am and headed west of Ouyen into the southern Sunset Country. We breakfasted in the mallee. An owlet nightjar called just before dawn. Noted to self to look for it later. We needed to make a dint in the mallee birds today. We got off to a good start with a lovely pair of striated grasswrens in mallee that had a tea-tree and spinifex understorey.

Continuing north into a very quiet park, we’d driven some distance before we heard birdcalls. We investigated. Jackpot time! At this one locality, we had jacky winter, hooded robin, splendid fairywrens, malleefowl, chestnut quailthrush (adult and immature males) and finally a family group of mallee emu-wrens. They had not made a sound until flushed from a spinifex clump. Good looks were had of both sexes.

Chestnut quailthrush video http://youtu.be/DlXN-2rJyKY

On our way out we located the owlet nightjar that had been calling before dawn. The day not being too hot, we drove over to the northern end of Wyperfield NP. I’d not been to Wyperfield for many years but was hoping white-browed treecreeper had survived the drought here. My old localities were checked to no avail. As we were leaving Dan spotted a bird fly across the track. White-browed treecreeper! A pair no less. Pre-drought, Major Mitchell’s were a certainty here but we saw none.

Malleefowl 2 January 2013 Philip Maher Mallee emu-wren 2 January 2013 Philip Maher

Ouyen bound, we saw flocks of white-browed and masked woodswallows and no less than three malleefowls feeding by the roadside in scrappy looking mallee.

Back near Ouyen we visited Ticklebelly Hill for black honeyeater and had a male and female plus plenty of white-fronted honeyeaters. The eremophilas had almost finished flowering so most of the honeyeaters had moved on.

Day 4
3 January 2013
Red-lored whistler — 40°C+ temperature — 50/50 chance at best. We left the motel a little after 4 am and drove out to the Sunset Country, about an hour away. We put in a couple of hours in an area where I had them in April 2011. Not a squeak was heard. It was warming rapidly and I decided to give it away and head out but take a different track to what we’d come in on in the hope of seeing something. Nothing much was moving in the heat. A stand of belah trees produced a brown goshawk, possibly nesting in the area. Further along there was a group of chestnut-crowned babblers and then we spotted two good-sized whistlers beside the track. Judgment came down on the side of immature Gilbert’s. Judgment was also coming down on the side of us not finding a red-lored whistler in this searing heat. But then there is luck. Just after going over the top of a dune another whistler was spotted. We backed up the dune and got out. Initially we couldn’t see him well. An adult male red-lored whistler called and flew over the track. We located him sheltering in a pine tree. A chestnut quailthrush and yellow-plumed honeyeaters were also sheltering in and the under the same tree.

We drove up to Mildura after lunch to check out Lake Ranfurly for banded stilt. There have been many changes to the wetlands at Mildura since the drought years. The Meridian road swamps are now all dry and Lake Ranfurly is no longer receiving water and is also dry. Shame, because both places used to be a great for a variety of waders and waterbirds. We headed back to Hattah and out east towards the almond plantations where we located a good flock of adult and juvenile regent parrots sheltering in belah trees by the road.

A pair of Major Mitchell cockatoos flew over as we headed in to dinner at the pub and musk and purple-crowned lorikeets were feeding in lemon-scented gums across from the pub.

Day 5
Friday 4 January 2013
With the temperature expected to top 45°C in the mallee we headed off towards Melbourne just after 4.00 am, hoping to pick up banded stilt and painted honeyeater before arriving at the airport late afternoon. But a hole in the radiator, not far out of Ouyen, put paid to that plan. Decie and Dan were dropped back to the motel and I caught a taxi to Mildura to pick up an Avis Nissan Patrol and left my Landcruiser with the RACV guy in Ouyen. We lost valuable hours. By the time Dan, Decie and I were on the road again, we didn’t have time to divert for banded stilt but we did manage painted honeyeater in intense heat near Wedderburn with a female on a nest and two males. A diamond firetail was seen nearby.

We got back back to Melbourne Airport with a bit of time to spare. A successful, albeit eventful tour, in extreme weather conditions.

Philip Maher
January 2013

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