Broome is one of the top birding areas in the world. The long tides expose large areas of mudflat providing a rich source of food for many thousands of migratory waders every spring and summer. There are also many bush birds and plain birds unique to this northern part of Australia. Birdlife Australia have established the Broome Bird Observatory about 25km east of Broome in Roebuck Bay. Go to their website link above and check out the courses and tours available.
You need a good 4 x 4 vehicle to travel on these unsealed corrugated pindan roads, and the journey to the observatory is no exception. One of the highlights of our visit to Broome was to visit the Bird Observatory and venture out on two of their Bird Tours. We chose the Mangrove Tour and Plains Tour. Sadly, because the wet season was one of the driest for 20 years, the Lakes Tours were cancelled, as the lakes remained dry salt marsh, and and our chances of seeing Brolga were nil.
On arrival at the Bird Observatory you are struck by its remoteness and the simplicity of its surroundings. Large solar panels power are used for electicity. There is a main office, cabins for accommodation, shadehouse, which doubles for a kitchen, dining area and bird watching hide. There are walks to the viewing platform near the beach and around the complex. Birds appear continually throughout the day, as this is one of th main places where they can obtain fresh drinking water from the feeders near the shade house.
The main office complex is surrounded with information signs about the area and birds found there. We found the staff very friendly, helpful and most hospitable. The tours were educational, extremely interesting and well conducted. Birdlife conduct courses and tours here throughout the year, with an emphasis in the spring when the migratory waders return, as these can be viewed at low tide on the coastal flats.
The tides go out for kilometers, move in and out rapidly, because it is such flat terrain.
The Plains Tour
On arriving at the bird observatory for our first tour my wife and I were immediately greeted with the antics of the Grey-crowned Babbler making their peculiar wheezy chatter call in the trees nearby. We took a short walk t0 the wader viewing platform overlooking the bay, but did not see many birds as the tide was not out.
Another lifer we spotted around the observatory buildings while exploring was this Broad-billed Flycatcher.
The Bar-shouldered Dove was another bird seen nearby.
We were driven by one of the observatory guides in a large 4 wheel drive out onto private property nearby. These truly were plains, ‘flat as a tack’ you would say. As birds were sighted our guide would stop and allow us to take photos.
We saw many Agile Wallaby which are endemic to Northern Australia and New Guinea. As it was approaching sunset they were coming out to graze on the grasses of the plains for the night. Most Australian animals are nocturnal , sleeping during the heat of the day.
The Rainbow Bee-eater appeared on the fence beside the track. This insectivorous bird is found throughout mainland Australia, including inland, and adapts well. Most of these birds that migrate back to our area near Sydney in spring, are in the warmer northern regions here, to spend the winter months.
A lifer for us was the Brown Songlark which was difficult to photograph as most of these plains birds were timid and threatened by the sound of the large 4×4 noise.
On the fence wire a beautiful Brown Falcon rested, watching the sun go down, not too worried about us being there. The plains and open paddocks are good places to find raptors, and we saw several on our tour.
This Spotted Harrier is another lifer for us in the wild. Notice the large red termite mound. These are found all throughout northern Australia, some several meters high.
The Australian (Richard’s) Pipit was also bouncing about the plains. You will notice that these birds like the songlark look similar and camouflage well among the grass and salt plain, especially when they stand perfectly still when they feel threatened.
One of the highlights of the plains tour, and the reason many birders do it, is to see the Yellow Chats. Thankfully, a small flock had stayed around even though the lake had dried up. These tiny birds are very timid and all the above photos were taken a great distance from the bird, so please appreciate the difficulty and the lower quality of photo. Also bare in mind it is almost sunset so lighting is becoming an issue. These little birds light up the saltbush and grasses, even from a distance. One bird will sit high and keep watch while the others graze. The male has a black mark on its chest which is difficult to see in these pics.
We were also hoping to see Brolga, but the lakes which are usuually full of water after the intense wet season were all dry, because of the dryest wet season in over 20 years. Large salt encrusted lake surfaces cracked under the hot sun. However, while searching for Brolga we found another lifer..
The Australian Bustard is a large bird which had been hunted as food in previous years, grazes on the plains in family flocks. The male has a chest band of colour. As you can see we were approaching sunset we we sighted these guys. This bird is found throughout mainland Australia but not in south eastern Australia in NSW and Victoria.
As we made our way back many more wallabies were already grazing on the plains, as the sun set. We had missed being on Cable Beach to watch it again, but it still looked good here on the plains. We drove back to Cable Beach with great caution to avoid collision with wildlife out and about at night.
The Mangrove Tour
Next morning we were picked up early from our accommodation with along with Roger (a New Zealand birder who had also booked the same tour). I shared a link to Roger’s excellent photos in my last post. We changed our footware to large gumboot like footware so we could walk on the tidal mudflats, as it was low tide, and proceeded to follow our guide down onto the beach and along the mangroves, in search of the mangrove dwelling birds unique to this region.
Our attention was immediately drawn to these Mudskippers sliding along the shallow water surface in search of food, looking with their large beady eyes.
One of the first birds we saw was a raptor, a beautiful Brahminy Kite sitting in the sunshine high on a distant tree top over the mangrove forest. Occasionally it would fly and its partner also.
A beautiful White-bellied Sea-Eagle passed over soon after.
The juvenile White-bellied Sea-Eagle soon passed by also, possibly one year old or less.
With our various viewing equipment we each observed the birds from a distance.
As we walked along beside the mangroves our guide listened for bird calls, and we started seeing birds we had never seen before, quite endemic to this region. Our next lifer was this Mangrove Grey Fantail. Sadly, these birds all moved quickly, and were difficult to photograph, as they usually flew off into the mangroves on seeing us.
This was followed by sightings of the White-breasted Whistler, another lifer. This bird would fly down to the mud and pick food from it. One bird I did want to photograph but eluded me on each occasion was the Mangrove Golden Whistler, I did hear it and see it however.
After a very slow slippery walk (clinging to mangrove branches) through the mangroves to waters edge, where we had clear but distant view of the migratory waders (the ones who had not migrated this year), we saw the tide quickly coming in, and the waders gradually flying in closer to land on what sand banks remained. There we saw our next lifer, the Gull-billed Tern. Though it is found throughout Australia, this was our first identifiable sighting.
We stood in the slimy mud for some time observing the birds as they flew in to escape the encroaching tide. Many species of wader and Tern were seen but from a great distance. Egrets, Heron, Greenshanks, Godwit, Curlew, Cormorant etc, etc, all escaping from the rapid incoming tide, which you can visually see coming in. Soon we saw it reach us and we had fast track it out of there, but again with much caution to avoid slipping and falling into the mud.
One little Striated (Mangrove) Heron watched from nearby.
Returning to the Bird Observatory, we were treated to morning tea and Anzac Bickies in the Shadehouse, freshly cooked by our guide’s wife that morning. As we sat there we were treated to Double-barred Finches making an appearance to drink from the several bird baths outside the shade cloth, so they can not see us. This is one of the only fresh water sources for the birds in the area, so it attracts many species throughout the day.
My Bird of the Week – The Great Bowerbird
Another highlight of the day was to be shown the resident bower of the Great Bowerbird at the Bird Observatory. The Great Bowerbird is a lifer for us, as it is only found in the far north of Australia across the top of WA, NT and Queensland. Compare the bower of the Satin Bowerbird below with that of the Great Bowerbird.
The Satin Bowerbird is found in the south eastern Australia near, where we live. Note, the Great Bowerbird uses white objects such as shells, to entice the female, and the Satin uses blue objects. These colours match the male plumage also, increasing the allure. However, both bowers are very similar in construction.
We were told that this bower suffered vandalism from a competing male recently, and the original builder is back repairing it for his bride to be. You can see him at the rear of the bower making repairs.
We waited in the hot sun for some time to view the coming and going of the Great Bowerbird pair. The male was actively engaged in bower reconstruction, and the female looked on from a distance. The female is paler in colour and smaller than the male. These birds feed on fruits such as native figs, and mimic the sounds of other birds in a similar way to the Superb Lyrebird, with its own peculiar harsh grating call intermingled between each mimic call.
I thank Roger, our New Zealand birder friend, for sharing the above photo for me to use in my blog post. It was difficult to get a really good close up og the bird as it kept moving away from me.
My classic photo is that of the male complaining, and warning me to leave his bower. So leaving him to repair his bower, we returned to Cable Beach. Next week in Part 3, we will showcase the birds we saw around the town. Broome Bird Observatory is well worth a visit.
Broome Bird Observatory is the most remote place in Australia where one can buy my recently published book “What Birds Teach Us”. The first copy sold there within a week. You can purchase your copy here online. Check out my birdbook page.
The bowerbird’s pursuit of excellence in building the bower, is a great encouragement to me.The effort and precision, hours on end, all for a moment, when his lady friend walks into the bower, and he responds jubilantly by dancing before her. This is a quality of commitment to excellence we can all draw from.
A great way to discourage disappointment and achieve excellence:
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” -Ephesians 6:7