Published: November 17th 2011October 13th 2011
Next stop after Dryandra Woodlands was Cheynes Beach Caravan Park at Cheyne Beach (note the lack of an S), which is a fixed point in the itinerary of birders visiting Western Australia, largely because here you can supposedly find three extremely devious endemic birds called the noisy scrub-bird, western bristlebird and western whipbird. Not only are they devious but its quite likely they don't even really exist, having been dreamed up by government tourism departments to fleece foolish birdwatchers of their money.
As I wrote in the previous blog, its well-nigh impossible to get anywhere in WA with public transport. Getting from Cuballing (by Dryandra) to the southern town of Albany is easy enough, but then from there to Cheyne Beach about 67km distant is a bit of a thinker. The owners of the caravan park weren't too helpful in this regard when I was booking, simply saying a taxi would cost about $120. I didn't really want to pay that much money, no matter how many noisy scrub-birds were involved, so when I got to Albany I went into the Info Centre to see if they had any info and managed to sort out a free lift out there
with some people heading that way. I can't say I was particularly enamoured of the Cheynes Beach Caravan Park. My two weeks in Western Australia coincided exactly with the school holidays and the caravan park was full of yobbo redneck Australian families. For $32 I got a square of grass to pitch my tent on. I thought back to Dryandra and wished I was there. Looking on the bright side, there were brush bronzewings wandering around the campground, as well as splendid and red-winged fairy wrens. I never saw the former, and the latter looked very much like the blue-breasted fairy wrens of Dryandra. The kangaroos were much friendlier here than at Dryandra though. There were sleeping boxes hung up for pigmy possums but they appeared to be unoccupied, or at least no possums showed themselves when I was waiting.
There's no forest at Cheyne Beach, mostly just low thick heath growing on sand. The birds like to stay inside the heath, only occasionally popping up to the surface to catch a breath of fresh air. How anyone actually sees birds there I have no idea. Its like sneaking around with binoculars inside your house trying to see the
birds that are lurking under the floorboards. Then when a bird does pop up to the top of a bush it becomes like Whack-A-Mole, trying to guess where a bird will appear, then get your binoculars onto it, focus, and try to identify it, all in about one-tenth of a second. That's right, its impossible. There are
birds flying around, its true, but they're all honeyeaters. Basically if you can see a bird its a New Holland honeyeater. Don't even bother looking at it because I've just told you what its going to be.
The bird I was particularly interested in at Cheyne Beach was the noisy scrub-bird. It was discovered in 1842 south of Perth but only a handful of specimens were collected in the next fifty years and by the end of the 1800s it was generally considered to have become extinct. Why anyone would care I don't know, its pretty boring. But anyway, it was unexpectedly rediscovered in 1961 at Two Peoples Bay just outside Albany (also, interestingly enough, the site of the rediscovery of another "extinct" animal, Gilbert's potoroo which is a type of rat-kangaroo; dibblers were also rediscovered in the general area after being
thought extinct). The recovery programme for noisy scrub-birds has gone quite well and now they number about 1000 or so and have been moved around to some more sites, including Cheyne Beach. There's a dirt track just near the caravan park where a bird or birds seems to be seen regularly in the morning crossing from one side to the other. I dutifully headed over there in the morning and took up a position where I could see both branches of the track at the same time. While focussing the binoculars a southern brown bandicoot scuttled across the road right through my field of view which was an excellent start -- I'd been looking for them at Dryandra where they are rare and around the caravan park site where apparently they are common. So I'm standing there for maybe twenty minutes, and I'm starting to think that this was really stupid, just standing there hoping a small bird is going to run across the track in front of me. And then one ran across the track in front of me. The annoying thing was that it was so fast that I never even got a good look at it beyond
that it was a brown hoppy bird. I waited, not actually expecting a repeat performance, but after just five minutes the bird went back the other way, paused in the middle of the track and then again at the edge, so I did get a good look at it. I kept waiting and it reappeared briefly at the edge but didn't come out. A flock of red-eared firetail finches dropped onto the road, a beautiful little bird that I had wanted to see, and then another western endemic -- white-breasted robin -- turned up, followed not long after by another bandicoot which spent some time foraging along the side of the track. I was going to keep waiting to see what else showed itself but then a group of about ten birders appeared at the far end of the track on the sealed road and huddled in a cluster staring towards me through their binoculars and scopes waiting for the scrub-bird. It was an uncomfortable place to be so I left, looping round the other way back to the road. The huddle of birders looked absolutely ridiculous staring en masse
through their lenses at something that wasn't even there, and
its no wonder people mock birding when you see something like that. I'm so glad I bird alone and not in tours. I went down to tell them there'd been a bird there half an hour ago, just to give them some hope, but they just acted snooty in an American sort of way (can Americans even act snooty, or is that the preserve of the British?). I guess it takes all types.
I returned to Albany, getting a lift back with a woman from the caravan park in exchange for having helped her put her tent up. Once back at the backpackers there I got hold of a bicycle and cycled out to Lake Powell Nature Reserve which is about 10km west of town. In an older book I have its called the Lake Grasmere Nature Reserve. The sign is set back from the road as if they want to keep the place hidden. Apparently it works because it doesn't look like anyone has been to the hide for a long time. The track and boardwalk to the hide is overgrown and the hide itself is pretty unkempt. The water was high though so there were no waders
and apparently the ducks don't like the place either because there were few of them. I did finally manage to see some splendid wrens, the blue-ist bird on the planet; probably the blue-ist anything
on the planet that isn't man-made. I cycled back to Albany and took the Marine Drive Scenic Walk to Lake Seppings. There were uncountable numbers of huge black King's skinks along the way (well at least ten of them anyway; I can't count any higher without taking my shoes off). Mammal Of The Day was a New Zealand fur seal lolling on an offshore rock. It may seem strange seeing a New Zealand fur seal in Australia but the species is found in both countries and a recent paper makes the case that they're actually South American fur seals anyway. The water level at Lake Seppings was too high as well and there weren't many birds around, but there were lots of oblong snakeneck turtles and also a tiger snake. The tiger snakes in WA are glossy black with bright yellow bellies. When I saw the first one at Cheyne Beach I thought it must be a yellow-bellied black snake (a name which I cannot say
without wanting to add "sleeping on a red rock, waiting for the stranger to go") but it turns out that yellow-bellied black snakes are an inland species and don't look like that. I had been hoping to find some Albany pitcher plants while at one of the lakes but the water levels were too high. The Albany pitchers are really interesting little plants, not related in any way to the Asian Nepenthes
but superficially similar. The coolest thing is that there is a species of fly found only in association with the pitchers which mimics ants, to the extent that it has lost its wings entirely. The fly larvae live inside the pitchers feeding on the insect corpses inside.
Another species I was hoping for in Albany was a possum called the western ringtail which is endemic to WA. It feeds on the leaves of the peppermint tree which is likewise endemic. The possums are particularly common around Albany apparently. It had spent one night in Albany before Cheyne Beach but it was pouring down so I didn't go out, but I had found a nice bit of forest near the backpackers in which half the trees were peppermint
trees. So on this night I went out searching. I figured it would take about five or ten minutes. A forest filled with peppermint trees in a town filled with ringtail possums -- how could I possibly fail? I failed. I truly am the king of wildlife spotting. But I have to come back to WA anyway to find the Flores giant numbat, so I'll get the ringtail then. I'm ever-optimistic; hope springs eternal; etc etc.
There are more photos below