Three-day private Victorian mallee bird tour with Roksana and Terry





Day 1

25 February 2017
Deniliquin to Ouyen

Roksana, Terry and I were on our way to the Victorian mallee by mid morning. There was nothing much to report on the drive over. Once upon a time, we would have seen chestnut-crowned babblers and Major Mitchell's cockatoo between Moulamein and Kyalite but since the onset of dry years, their numbers have dwindled.


We stopped for lunch in Toolybuc before continuing on to our first stop in the mallee south of Robinvale. Target birds here were malleefowl, chestnut-quailthrush and regent parrot.


The first birds we encountered were a small flock of passerines. Species ncluded weebill, chestnut-rumped thornbill, splendid fairy-wren (only brownies) and spotted pardalote (yellow-rumped form). I was particularly pleased to see the splendid fairywrens as we had missed them on my last visit here and they used to be common in this reserve. At least we know there’s still some surviving here.


Not far in we searched for a malleefowl mound I had located a couple of years ago and we eventually located it. Happily, it was still in use but no malleefowl was in attendance. I'd been a bit concerned that they'd finished working the mounds by now as it was nearly the end of February and it had started to turn dry. This was the only mound I knew of close to the track that had been worked in recent years.


As we continued along, some movement by the track brought us to an abrupt halt. Bingo! Chestnut quailthrush! We got out and with effort managed some crippling views of the male singing. Roksana and Terry were jubilant. The quailthrush is another species that has become much harder to get in recent years. One target bird down, two to go! We continued on for some kilometres seeing white-eared, yellow-plumed and brown-headed honeyeaters. Down towards the almond plantation we again came to a screeching halt. A superb adult malleefowl was just off the side of the track. What a bird! Terry's camera was in rapid fire! Two down!


Initially it was all quiet near the almond plantations, which is where I was hoping to see regent parrots. Eventually we got a flash of black and yellow. All up, twenty to thirty birds were seen and were mainly of immature birds with just the odd adult male. It was quite good for parrots here with red-rumps, mallee ringnecks, eastern and yellow rosellas and the regents all present. Neither of the rosellas would have been seen here prior to the almonds plantations. (It is twenty-odd kilometres from the Murray River). With all three target birds in the bag I had two very happy birders on board and was feeling a little smug!  On the way out we had yet another malleefowl and this time Terry caught him on camera with his crest up, which looked fantastic. The malleefowls seem to be hanging around the almond plantations as well and I'm wondering if they are going out to graze under the almond trees in the late afternoon. The malleefowl walked across towards another track and I drove around to get another look but it had completely disappeared when we got there. The camouflage of this bird is incredible when it’s in the dappled light of the mallee trees and amongst the bark and leaves. The sun was getting low in the sky now so we put the foot down to get to Ouyen before the pub shut!



Day 2
26 February 2017
Ouyen to Hattah Kulkyne NP

Our first birding stop this morning was in the mallee scrub not far from the Hattah store. I have been birding this spot for almost thirty years, primarily for southern scrubrobin and shy heathwren and it has rarely let me down. This proved to be the case again this year and within an hour we had both species in the bag. Other species seen here included inland thornbill, weebill, splendid fairywren and white-eared honeyeater. We tried for Gilbert's whistler here as I have had it at this locality in the past but not for several years — and as it turned out, not this time. We continued on to NowingiTtrack hoping for mallee emu-wren. I had seen a pair feeding young in a nest here recently. We had only walked about a hundred metres from the vehicle when we caught some movement in the spinifex. It was indeed a group of emu-wrens consisting of about three adult males and at least one female or immature. It is likely there were other birds present we didn't see as we were concentrating on the males. They weren't calling much and were moving along quickly, feeding in the spinifex. We followed them for about twenty minutes and scored some cracking views. A crested bellbird called quite close at us and eventually we saw an immature bird but not the adult male that was calling.


We started searching for striated grasswren, which was once fairly common at this locality but has become scarce in recent times. We came upon another malleefowl mound here that was not in use but had been used in the last couple of years.  After searching for the grasswren for a couple of hours, we admitted defeat. It is baffling to me as to why this species appears to have all but disappeared from Hattah/Kulkyne. The answer may lie in the extreme dry conditions that have plagued this area over much of the past decade and a half but it is intriguing as to why the emuwren has survived but the grasswren has not. We moved on and checked out some more localities the grasswren used to inhabit, but no joy. We checked out another malleefowl's mound that l first found some thirty years ago. It is right in amongst tea tree and has been worked almost continuously since I first found it, until quite recently. The pair only failed to work it in the worst of the dry years during the millennium drought. However about four years ago I found a pile of feathers near the mound and l believe one of the pair, probably the male had been taken by a fox. Ever since then the mound has only been worked spasmodically. This year, when the mound should have been worked after such good rain in the winter/ spring, sadly, it was not.


We drove down to Lake Mournpall for lunch hoping to maybe fluke a pair of Major Mitchell's somewhere. At the lake we added great crested grebe and apostlebird to the list but no Mitchell's were to be seen about the sandhills. It was getting quite hot now so we decided to go back to Ouyen for a break and come back later in the afternoon.


After our siesta we tried the Old Calder Highway for chestnut- crowned babbler and came up trumps. As usual they were quite wary and it took us some time to get close enough for Terry to get a photo.


We tried about the Hattah store where the Mitchell's used to sometimes come into drink but again drew a blank. The species is becoming much harder to get in the Victorian mallee. It was time to head for Ouyen to get a meal before the pub shut but who would have thought, we were out of luck! I had forgotten it was Sunday night and the kitchen closes at eight o’clock! We missed out by twenty minutes and the staff showed no mercy! So it was the Mallee Deli where the very obliging staff knocked us up a meal in very short time.


Day 3

We left Ouyen not long after daybreak heading west for Pink Lakes, still having a few birds to catch up with. Our main target this morning was the increasingly difficult striated grasswren as well as Major Mitchell's cockatoo and Gilbert's whistler. We had a quick look for the Mitchell's in Ouyen before we left as there has been a pair or two living in the town since the millennium drought. However, we were unable to find them and did not want to spend too much time as the day was heating up and we had grasswrens to find. We were still looking out for the Mitchell's as we drove west along the highway. In Underbool we hit the jackpot with at least fifty Mitchell's feeding in a single introduced pine beside the highway. We couldn't believe it, after looking out for them for several days we had found probably a fair proportion of the total population in north-west Victoria in a single flock. Roksana could hardly contain herself and Terry's camera was in danger of meltdown as the Mitchell's wheeled about our heads and fed in the native and introduced pines. We had a ball and spent at least half an hour watching and photographing their antics. Reluctantly we moved on as we still had grasswren to get.


Finally, we arrived at Pink Lakes and at the only locality that I know of in Victoria where striated grasswren still exist. Ten years ago I knew of four or five localities in Pink Lakes alone where I could find them; now sadly it's down to one. We were prepared for a long, hard slog to search for them but were pleasantly surprised when Roksana caught some movement about fifty metres from the vehicle. Sure enough, it was a striated grasswren in all its fabulousness. Just a single bird. (A worry as the species should be in pairs or family groups at this time of year). But what a bird it was! It was an aberrant-plumaged bird as it had a white cap, more extensive white on the throat and a very white spot on the wing. What a cracking bird! I had never seen one like it. (Way back in the early 1990s when Hattah NP was full of striated grasswrens, Tom Wheller and l had seen an oddly plumaged striated grasswren. The bird was a pale fawn all over with all the striations as per normal. It was about the same colour as the mallee sand and it was also a fantastic looking bird. That bird was a juvenile whereas this current bird was an adult). We watched our bird for some time and Terry managed some decent photos. What a morning!



We continued further into the Sunset Country, first stopping to check out a malleefowl's mound I had seen working back in September on the Strzelecki Outback tour. It was still working but no malleefowl was in attendance. Good to already have this one in the bag! We continued on and tried another spot were I have had striated grasswren in the past, but nothing doing this time. However, we did find another working malleefowl mound here. This one was rather odd in that it was very flat and wide, being only built up about a foot above ground level. It was definitely still in use though with recent signs of raking all over it. I’d never seen a mound like it.


It was getting rather hot by now so we decided to head back towards Ouyen. Although it was almost midday and quite warm I thought with luck going our way, we should have one more try for Gilbert's whistler. I remembered a spot along the highway near Torrita where I had seen Gilbert's whistler in the dying days of a Strzlecki Track tour many years ago, when we were in dire need of Gilbert’s. I thought it was a bit of a long shot but what the hell. We had only walked a hundred metres or so into the reserve when a female Gilbert's was located close to where I had seen a pair years before. With the temperature climbing, we made do with the female whistler. A family of mulga parrots was also seen here.


We lunched at a pleasant picnic area in one of the small villages along the highway before starting the long drive back to Deniliquin. Many thanks to Terry and Roksana, two of our most delightful clients, for sharing a fun few days in the Victorian mallee with me.


From Roksana
A total of 101 species was seen during the 4 days of birding in the Deniliquin environs (1 day) and in the mallee country around Ouyen (3 days). Seen, around Deniliquin: black honeyeater (female) first sighting this year, painted honeyeater pair on a nest was one of the highlights of the whole trip, striped honeyeater, etc.; on the evening tour we saw 8 inland dotterel nicely posing for photos (another highlight) and a similarly cooperative owlet-nightjar, banded lapwing, bluebonnets (yellow vented), white winged fairywrens, etc. The mallee birding was spectacular, the highlights included two mallefowl, regent parrots, chestnut quail-thrush on the second day, on the third day a southern scrub-robin, hy heathwren, five mallee emuwrens (again a highlight), a good group of chestnut-crowned babblers; and around Pink Lakes on day 4 a very cute striated grasswren (which nothing can beat) and white-browed babblers (strangely, none was seen before this)  and a large flock of close to 50 Major Mitchells between Ouyen and the Murray-Sunset National Park: finally, in very hot conditions on the way back, a bonus Gilbert's whistler and  mulga parrots nicely posing.



Philip N Maher


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