Imka and I are originally from Trinidad and Tobago: a twin-island republic in the southern Caribbean. The larger island of Trinidad is approximately 5,000 sq km in area (roughly 100km by 50km), and the longest stretch of freeway is 45km long. So imagine how awestruck we were when we had just moved to Australia and made our first non-stop 60km drive to a place that was no further than the “b” in “Melbourne” on a map!
A few years later, with many 300km round trips under our belts, the idea of making a 5hr, 450km return trip to a small town in northern Victoria to see a special bird (that may or not have still been there), still seemed daunting. A week before the 2016 Easter break, dozens of Superb Parrots were reported in Wunghnu (pronounced “one-you”), and so, we were determined to push our limits to tick them and be home for dinner. Armed with excellent, up-to-date directions and reports from birders, we felt confident that we would find them as well as Grey-crowned Babblers, Australian Ravens, and Pied Butcherbirds.
Wunghnu is tiny (about 3 blocks by 6 blocks) but it’s a beautiful little town with every amenity that a weary traveller would need, including public toilets located on the picturesque banks of Nine Mile Creek, and a tavern. The town was established more than 130 years ago, but the existence of ‘canoe trees’ in the area (i.e. trees used by indigenous Australians to hew canoes from) suggests that Wunghnu has a long history of human habitation.
We left home at 7am, and made our first pitstop at the large service station near Wallan on the Hume Freeway for a healthy KFC breakfast. By 9am we pulled in to a shopping centre in Shepparton for our second pitstop, where I used the opportunity to check my lottery ticket and won a life-changing $14. “Ah well – that’s breakfast reimbursed”, I thought, “but the next ticket will buy me a Swarovski spotting scope”.
Three hours after we left home, we pulled off the A39 on to Warnecke Street, and immediately spotted a small flock of ‘superb parrots’ in and around the cricket oval! Of course, it turned out that they were Red-rumped Parrots, which though ‘superb parrots’, weren’t the Superb Parrots that we were after. We then turned on to Graham Street – an unsealed road bisecting the village ‘common’ – where our targets were reported the day before. We quickly realised that the Common was fenced, so I walked the length of the road while Imka followed in the car 100m behind. No sign of Superb Parrots, and with the sun out in its glory and the temperature increasing, it’s no surprise that we didn’t see a single bird of any species! Not the best of starts,we thought, but, the day was relatively young.
Our next stop was the confusingly named Graham Road – an unsealed road half a kilometre east of Graham Street – where the parrots were also reported earlier in the week. Just as we approached the turn off, we spotted a large sentinel-like bird near a farm dam: it was a majestic White-necked Heron, standing still, looking off into the distance.As we drove along Graham Road, we noticed a large flock of ravens in the paddock on the left; one raven definitely had a different call to the others, suggesting that it was an Australian Raven (as compared to a Little Raven), but since we couldn’t pinpoint it, we didn’t tick it. Out of the corner of her eye, the driver, Imka, spotted birds flitting in the trees on the right hand side of the road, and on closer inspection, we realised that they were our favourite honeyeater: an adult and juvenile Blue-faced Honeyeater. We snapped a few photos, and continued driving towards the creek at the end of Graham Road. We noticed quite a lot of fruiting ‘Ruby Saltbush’ – the treat that was drawing Superb Parrots to the area – but still, no sign of our elusive quarry.
We were surprised to stumble upon an unattended tractor that was being used to drive a pump to pump water from the creek for irrigation – a great example of engineering ingenuity. With no birds in sight, I walked back to the car and noticed that Imka was photographing a weirdly-flying ‘Willie Wagtail’. With the aid of my binoculars, I realised that it was actually a Restless Flycatcher: our first lifer for the day! The bird kept moving along the fenceline, and within a minute, it was gone, only allowing us a single photo of its rear. Thrilled with finding a lifer that wasn’t even on our target list, we found a shady spot and stopped for a lunch of home-made sandwiches. I checked my phone and saw a Facebook message from a local birder who suggested that I try to find some babblers just a half an hour’s drive from Wunghnu. She assured me that they were resident in the area, and a sighting was 100% reliable, which was music to my ears.
So, with full tummies and high expectations, we started the next leg of our journey to the even smaller town Kotupna. About 20mins into our journey, the birder messaged to say that she was at the spot, and the birds were there! A few minutes later at a dry and dusty crossroads, we saw a lone car and two people with bazooka lenses pointed at the tree canopies: birders for sure! It was an absolute pleasure to meet the local husband and wife team, who, much like us, birded as a couple.
With pleasantries exchanged, they alerted us to the distinctive call of a babbler. Slowly, against the bright glare of a backlit tree, we saw one, then two birds materialise: they were Grey-crowned Babblers – our second lifer for the day! We took dozens of photos, but in the harsh lighting, none of them were National Geographic quality. The gentleman explained that the babblers build numerous nests in surrounding trees to use intermittently, and that the two groups of babblers from either side of the intersection never trespassed on the other group’s territory. He also shared his passion for geocaching, which sounds like a hobby that we could incorporate into bird watching in the future. Sometimes, the most memorable birding experiences, are actually when we meet wonderful people along the way.
The birders explained that there was indeed a little gate into the eastern side of the Wunghnu Common, which is where they saw the parrots the day before. We bid farewell to them, and started our journey back to Wunghnu for one last attempt at finding the parrots. The GPS took us via a slightly different route, and at one point we found ourselves driving through the thick smoke of a controlled burn as dozens of raptors (kites of some sort) patrolled the fire line for flushed prey, clearly demonstrating the Aussie love affair with barbecued meat. Further along the road, we spotted a relatively large farm dam, and I thought it would be worth having a quick look: I was not disappointed with Australian Shelduck, Grey Teal, Masked Lapwing, Royal Spoonbill, and an indeterminate (not Intermediate!!) egret.
At the Common, Imka and I split up to cover more ground, and kept in contact with our walkie talkies: I took the north east section and she took the south east section. We both saw many Eastern Rosellas and Australian Magpies, but no Superb Parrots. Suddenly, a black and white bird high up in a tree caught my eye: its call was unfamiliar, and it looked like a small Magpie. Lifer number three: Pied Butcherbird! Since Australian Magpies are a type of butcherbird, it did make me wonder how many Pied Butcherbirds we had seen on other birding trips that we dismissed as magpies. I radioed Imka who was somewhat lost in the bush by now, but thankfully the bird stayed in the tree until she found me and had snapped a few ID shots. At 4pm we had to throw in the towel. Though we didn’t see the Superb Parrots, we left in high spirits, because we ticked three lifers, explored a new area of Victoria, and met a couple of lovely local birders: surely that’s the essence of bird watching?