Black Grasswren – Darwin to Mitchell Plateau, WA
(13th – 20th of September 2015)
Black Grasswren; not sure if I’m the only crazy person that plans a 3000 km + cross-country round trip to the middle of no-where to maybe see a small black bird that most people have never even heard of but hey we’re always up for an adventure.
Generally people are smart enough to hire a helicopter to try to find them but that sounds way too easy.
We planned 8 days off in the middle of September 2015, this is just before our wet season begins which usually means birds are easier to find as they are restricted to the remnant waterholes. The first leg involved a 820 km drive from Darwin to Kununurra in Western Australia to stock up the esky before heading 300 km west along the Gibb River Road into the remote and beautiful Kimberley Region. The Gibb River Road was in reasonable condition which was a relief as this road can kill tyres and rattle your car to pieces.
This area is such a stunning part of the country and is also a great place to keep an eye out for bird species such as Partridge Pigeon, Spinifex Pigeons, Gouldian Finch, Yellow-rumped Mannikin, Star Finch, Pictorella Mannikin, Spotted Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Black-breasted Buzzard and various other unique species so keep your eyes peeled along the way.
SPOTTED HARRIER – GIBB RIVER ROAD
The next leg we headed North on Kalumburu Road towards Drysdale River Station which is about 60 km north along the Kalumburu Road and is the last chance for fuel and other supplies you might need for your visit to the plateau. If you have time the station is a great spot to look for the Northern Shrike-tit, listen out for its soft call or the sound of him foraging by peeling the bark off the gum trees.
We topped up with fuel at Drysdale River Station and continued north 140 km on Kalumburu Road, once you arrive at the turn off it’s another 95 km to the Mitchell Plateau. This road can take anywhere between 2 – 4 hours depending on condition, if you don’t want a to tackle the whole road in one go there’s an amazing campsite about 10 km on the right on the King Edward River. This is an amazing place to set up for the night, go for a swim and relax with a beer after a corrugation filled day of driving!
The final leg involves 85 km of slow, rough, corrugated road/track which leads you through some beautiful landscapes including the most amazing Livistona Palm forests, I’ve never seen anything like it before.
LIVISTONA PALM FORESTS – MITCHELL PLATEAU, WA
We finally arrived at our destination after over 2 days of driving, to know we had no more corrugations for a couple of days was a big relief and I’m sure our car appreciated it too. Mitchell Plateau campground was really great with a fair bit of shade, well maintained toilet block and fresh water on tap which we weren’t expecting.
From the campsite it was only a 800 m walk to Little Mertens Falls, this was the target area for the Black Grasswrens and I was very happy how close it was to camp.
That afternoon I headed off to Little Merten’s falls to check it out, the area above the falls had White-quilled Rock-Pigeons everywhere but it didn’t look right for the Grasswrens. I decided to explore South of the falls, this looked much better so I waited and listened for their high pitched call. To my surprise I located my first pair within 5 minutes (GPS -14.824122,125.712060), such a unique bird, but I was soon to find out how hard they were to photograph! They pair darted between boulders and through the spinifex, after 30 minutes of following them around without a single photo I decided it was time to call it a day and come back in the morning.
The next morning my wife and I got up nice and early and headed back to the same spot we had seen them the afternoon before, even before getting there we located (GPS -14.823010,125.711487) a family group of 4 – 5 birds which were all foraging among the sandstone rocks and spinifex, again a real challenge to get a photo but I did manage one. Another pleasant surprise was a pair of Sandstone Shrike-thrush sitting out in the open for me.
BLACK GRASSWREN (MALE) CHEEKY LITTLE BUGGERS..
The rest of the morning was spent hiking to the main attraction for tourists in this area, the famous Mitchell Falls (Punamii-unpuu). This beautiful 7 km return walking track leads you along the top of the escarpment above Mertens Creek, it leads you through some stunning vistas, canyons then finally comes out at Mitchell Falls. The falls themselves are very impressive, it was a shame we had arrived at the end of the dry season as there wasn’t too much water flowing over over the rocks. I can just imagine how impressive the falls would be in the wet season!
MITCHELL FALLS, WA
The hottest part of the day was spent at the bottom of Little Mertens Falls, this beautiful pool is surrounded by Monsoon Rainforest and was full of bird life even in the middle of the day. Another bonus, there was a fruiting tree and I was more than happy to sit in the shade of the falls and photograph all the birds coming in. I was fortunate enough to have 4 Kimberley Honeyeaters come in and visit, they posed for a couple of photos. The Kimberley Honeyeater is another bird which is endemic to the Northern Kimberley Region and is high on any birder’s list see in the area.
KIMBERLEY HONEYEATER – LITTLE MERTEN’S FALLS
Birds seen were Buff-sided Robin, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Green Oriole, Olive-backed Oriole, Kimberley Honeyeater, White-gaped Honeyeater, Azure Kingfisher, Great Bowerbird, White-quilled Rock Pigeon, Sand-stone Shrike-thrush and my first Eastern Koel for the season.
Later that afternoon, once it had cooled down, I headed back to where I had seen the Grasswrens that morning, I had no luck straight away so I followed my nose and headed South West (GPS -14.826156, 125.709924). After clambering over rocks and jumping over spiny spinifex I located a family of 3 adults. This time they were a little more photogenic and after following them around for about 45 minutes or so I did manage a photo that I’m really happy with.
BLACK GRASSWREN – LITTLE MERTENS FALLS, WA
Our last morning on the plateau I decided to explore the area to the North of Little Mertens Falls, there was a walking trail to the North which lead to a lookout over the whole area. I arrived at a sandstone outcrop that looked great (GPS -14.816338,125.711198) so I climbed to the top of a rocky outcrop, as I came over the top I was stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was a Northern Spotted Quoll. I have always wanted to see one and there it was, I even managed a crappy photo. The Grasswren’s did not make an appearance but I did hear them in this area, I think getting to see them 3 out of 4 attempts was pretty lucky!
NORTHERN SPOTTED QUOLL (I KNOW.. FOCUS A LITTLE OUT! SUCH A SHAME!)
Mitchell Plateau, yes it’s a massive effort to get up there but well worth every corrugation… especially when you get to see Black Grasswren and Northern Spotted Quoll!
All my photos from the trip and more can be found HERE
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