Birds & birding in the Blue Mountains & Capertee Valley, Australia

Big Day Blue Mountains

I'd often wondered how many bird species one person could find within the Blue Mountains in a single day if they really set their mind to it. So with that aim I planned this "Big Day in the Mountains", spanning from midnight to midnight on 16th December 2004.

The idea was to be limited to the area defined by Blue Mountains City Council boundaries, which extends from Lapstone and part of the Nepean River in the east to Mount Victoria and Megalong Valley in the west, and Mount Wilson to the north. It doesn't include the Capertee Valley, or Lithgow. Read on....

Peregrine Falcon was seen at both ends of the mountains during the Big Day. Photo Nevil Lazarus.

Thursday 16th December. I left my home in misty, drizzly Katoomba at 4:00am, about 1 hour 45 minutes before sunrise. In the back seat I'd packed a box of ready-to-eat food and refreshing drinks to keep me going for the long day ahead. I also had with me a small voice cassette recorder to keep track of everything without wasting any time writing. My first location was at Winmalee where, by torchlight, I walked down the track to Blue Gum Swamp Creek, ready for the dawn chorus in this tall forest of Eucalyptus deanei.

The first bird for the day was a Fan-tailed Cuckoo calling in the darkness, shortly followed by a Koel. A Swamp Wallaby bounded off through the undergrowth. As I was about to watch the day come to life in Blue Gum Swamp, my heart suddenly sank as I realised I'd left my binoculars in the car. Damn! I was torn between running back — a kilometre uphill — to get them and missing some of the dawn chorus, or staying and hoping that I didn't see any small or distant birds that weren't calling. Just then an Eastern Yellow Robin kicked off the dawn chorus, and my mind was made up to stay and listen.

Before long I heard the unmistakable call of a White-throated Nightjar. Great, this was one I hadn't expected! A number of Brush Bronzewings calling were another nice surprise. Other birds heard here included Grey and Rufous Fantails, Superb Lyrebird, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Variegated Fairy-wren, Pilotbird, Black-faced Monarch and Common Bronzewing. Glorious pink clouds signalled the sunrise and the end of the dawn chorus. By this time I had already listed 30 species. A Wonga Pigeon became the fourth pigeon species at this spot. Given my lack of binoculars I decided to move on to another location early. After arriving back at the car, I made sure my binoculars were my constant companion for the rest of the day!

Next stop was Yellow Rock for some drier and rockier habitat. No sooner had I arrived when a Rockwarbler made its way around the outcrops. What a relief to have this species under my belt so early in the day — I would have hated to miss it. Sacred Kingfisher, Cicadabird, Spotted Pardalote, Rufous Whistler, Channel-billed Cuckoo and Yellow-tufted Honeyeater (which meant I now wouldn't have to do the Gorge track later in the morning).

I decided to make a quick unscheduled visit to Long Angle Creek to make up for cutting short my stay in Blue Gum Swamp. I rushed some distance down the steep track where I picked up Red-browed Treecreeper and Peaceful Dove. Rushed back up to the car to find I was still ahead of schedule. Good, keep going.

Driving through Springwood a White-headed Pigeon flew across in front of the car. This meant I wouldn't have to stop to look for one at Valley Heights — more time saved. Next stop was down in Sun Valley, where I found Grey Goshawk, Yellow Thornbill, Eastern Rosella and a handsome male Leaden Flycatcher, but there was no sign of the Jacky Winter which I'd seen there the previous month.

Next it was on to Glenbrook Lagoon for the first waterbirds of the day (apart from the Wood Ducks in Sun Valley). I took a few steps toward the swamp and a Latham's Snipe burst out of the grass, zig-zagging away over the reeds. One of the Purple Swamphens had three half-grown young, while the others hassled me in the hope of a handout. I hung around the reeds searching for Little Grassbird or Reed-Warbler but sadly they didn't oblige. Little Wattlebird, Common Blackbird and Red-whiskered Bulbul went onto the list, among others. By this time I was very pleased with my progress as it was not yet 8:30 and I had 70 species already.

I arrived at the National Park entrance just after 8:30 when the gate opens. Hoping for a few different species on the shale soil at the Ironbarks, I wasn't disappointed. The ironbark trees were in flower and the treetops were full of Scarlet Honeyeaters. I also found Sittellas, Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, White-throated Gerygone, and an unexpected Jacky Winter.

After leaving the national park it was time to head down to the Nepean River track. This necessitated leaving the Blue Mountains boundaries at Emu Heights in order to access the track which would take me back into the allowable area. So, for a while I had to ignore any birds I saw (even the Rainbow Bee-eater), and a locked gate meant that I had to walk almost a kilometre before I could start counting birds again. But it was worth it. Along the Blue Mountains section of river, from the junction of Fitzgeralds Creek northwards, I added Mistletoebird, Bar-shoulderd Dove, Bell Miner, Olive-backed Oriole, Brush Cuckoo, Clamorous Reed-Warbler and a Dollarbird. A lyrebird ran along in front of me, while along the water's edge were Darter, Pelican and Dusky Moorhen. Unfortunately the Black Swans were on the wrong side of the river! A loudly calling Peregrine Falcon flew over Mt Riverview.

Southern Emu-wren. Drawing by Fiona Lumsden.
By now the day was getting hotter and it was time to move up to higher altitudes. On the way to the upper mountains I called in on my friends Deirdre and Ivor at Woodford, where I had a quick lunch in their beautiful bush garden while a Black-faced Monarch called, and I was able to tick Red-browed Finch. Surprisingly I still hadn't seen a House Sparrow but in the leafy streets of Woodford I finally found one, bringing the tally to 90.

Now the middle of the day isn't the best time for seeing heathland birds, but I had to be somewhere at this time and Kings Tableland was next on the agenda. At least I was fairly confident of finding Glossy Black-Cockatoos, if nothing else. No sooner had I got out of the car when a faint call got my attention. I pished and just as I suspected, a male Southern Emu-wren popped up onto the top of a bush! How lucky was that!

I found recent chewings made by Glossy Black-Cockatoos and a Beautiful Firetail's feather floating in a small puddle — now all I needed to find were the birds themselves. Eventually I heard the Beautiful Firetail calling, ever so faintly. Good enough to tick, but that's all. More heat, flies and silence. I was just about to give up on any more birds here when suddenly a clear sustained song started up from the bushes nearby.... Chestnut-rumped Heathwren! I gave up on the Glossy Blacks and headed off to the lake.

At Wentworth Falls Lake I caught up with Tree Martins, Hardheads and two species of cormorant — and the reptilian highlight of the day, a Blue Mountains Water Skink. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Grey Currawongs that had been feeding young just a week or so ago. I thought I'd acquired a mascot when a very strange white fancy pigeon sat on my roof rack and was most reluctant to leave — but I resisted the temptation to count it even though I still needed Feral Pigeon. Instead I detoured through Katoomba's town centre in order to tick a proper "roadpecker". I then worked up another sweat on a quick jaunt to get two more certainties — Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebe.

Tawny-crowned Honeyeater. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
I was now up to 99 species and going very well for time, and I no longer needed to go to my planned Peregrine site, so I changed my intended itinerary by driving to Mount Banks, half an hour each way, to pick up Tawny-crowned Honeyeater. Sure enough, a pair of Tawny-crowneds were there to greet me. They appeared to be carrying insects to feed young and gave me such great views that this ended up being a serious contender for the highlight of my day. White-eared Honeyeater was another addition to the list, as was a Dusky Woodswallow, but again the Grey Currawong eluded me.

Back at Blackheath I had scouted out a location for Flame Robin which involved another steep walk. Down I headed and.... nothing. Waited, eventually the Flame Robin called. Great! Back up the hill, another sweat raised.

It was now getting much harder to find new species. With two hours to sunset I headed down into the Megalong Valley, the last stage of the day's birding and with new habitats awaiting. In the rainforest section I added Yellow-throated Scrubwren and Rose Robin.

The site I had chosen for the end of the day was on the Six Foot Track, in semi-cleared farming country with a whole suite of different birds. Again, it involved a brisk walk but soon I had White-winged Chough, White-winged Triller, Rufous Songlark, a pair of Scarlet Robins, Goldfinch, Richard's Pipit, Buff-rumped Thornbill, another Dusky Woodswallow, Brush Cuckoo, Dollarbird, and numerous Stubble Quails which seemed to be scattered all through the pastureland. Another Peregrine Falcon perched in a dead tree, no doubt watching for errant Stubble Quails, and three Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos sailed majestically by.

So there I was at sunset, standing on a ridge in the Megalong Valley with a 360° view, the cliffs all around glowing brilliant red, scanning the sky for the two Wedge-tailed Eagles that I'd seen here at sunset three days earlier. Unfortunately they didn't appear. What else was I missing? The day was almost over and I realised I still didn't have Willie Wagtail. Wait a minute... there on the fence — a Willie Wagtail, just in the nick of time!

By dusk my total was 119 species. I ate a basic "dinner" at the Old Ford Reserve, listening to the dusk chorus and planning my owl-searching activities. As soon as it was dark I drove back up into the forest to look for Boobook and Sooty Owls. I listened at all the spots I've heard them before, I did some spotlighting, but there was no sign of any owls although I did hear a Sugar Glider and saw some fireflies blinking in the darkness. I guess it's not the best time of year for owls to be calling. I then drove to my Owlet-nightjar sites near Leura and Katoomba — again with no luck — but I did see Tawny Frogmouths at two spots. I called it a day at 11:30pm, tired but very happy with 120 species.

During those 19 hours I'd driven to 25 different locations and walked 23 kilometres on tracks which involved 750 metres of climbing.

There were a few species that I'd hoped for and missed such as the Glossy Black-Cockatoo, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, the Horsfield's Bronze that I'd seen three days earlier, Large-billed Scrubwren, Brown-headed, White-naped and Crescent Honeyeaters, Crested Shrike-tit, Satin Flycatcher, Grey Currawong and Bassian Thrush. And would you believe, I had a Boobook sitting outside my house the very next night. There was a distinct lack of honeyeaters nearly everywhere with nothing significant in flower except for the ironbarks at Glenbrook. It would be interesting to try the same exercise at another time of year.



© 2006 C. Probets,