April and May (2016)
It’s now the end of May, and the dry season has well and truly arrived at the observatory. Except for the rain! We moved into May on the back of an extremely dry Wet, with all of our lakes drying or dry, and the plains behind the observatory starting to look like a dustbowl more reminiscent of end-of-Dry conditions in October or November. Then at the end of the first week of May, unseasonally, gloriously, it started to rain! We had some rain on three consecutive days, with a reasonably thorough drenching of 56mm on one of those days. The rain was enough to put water in most of our lakes, though they are still low for this time of year, and has turned the vegetation green again, at least for the moment. We’ve since received another fall of 10mm, but the sun is now back on full show. Unfortunately, the rain also brought a mosquito plague to the observatory and liberal application of tropical strength insect repellent has been noted amongst both staff and guests alike!
As we move into the Dry, megas become less likely and local Broome rarities tend to provide the most interesting records. Following the rain, Masked Woodswallow flocks were a regular sight over several days, travelling east over the observatory, and a single female White-browed Woodswallow was seen amongst one flock on the 12th May. The occasional flock is still being seen overhead. A male Leaden Flycatcher was seen at the observatory on the 7th May, a rare visitor to the observatory but most often seen at the start of the Dry. George Swann found a juvenile mannikin (suspected to be Chestnut-breasted) on the plains behind the observatory on the 23rd May, along with a Black-eared Cuckoo. An expedition from the observatory to relocate the mannikin the following day instead found a mosquito swarm of almost Biblical proportions and was forced to return early! A single Painted Finch was seen briefly flying over the observatory that evening as some compensation. The Black-eared Cuckoo (or another) did reappear though, and has been heard calling at the observatory on most mornings since the 25th. The system that brought our much-needed rain did not bring any strong seawatching winds, but George did manage a juvenile Sooty Tern from Gantheume Point.
In the bay, migration continued through April into early May before dropping off. With the shorebird numbers much reduced, no more pre-migration restlessness on the mudflats, and no calling birds migrating overhead, a sense of calm seems to have descended on the bay and it can seem almost eerily empty on the mudflats. Of course, this is really just because we are used to wet season numbers of birds, as there are still about 15,000 shorebirds using the bay! Our star local shorebird specialties, Asian Dowitcher, Common Redshank and Broad-billed Sandpiper, have been present throughout the period and continue to be seen regularly in the bay, with up to three redshank currently making regular appearances on the roost at Wader Beach. One of the Asian Dowitchers is also sporting full breeding dress; it will be interesting to see if it stays in the bay throughout the Dry. Red-necked Avocets have also returned to the bay for the Dry and can be seen daily on the roost at Stilt Viewing. Though not a species to get the hardcore twitchers going, they are always a popular sighting on our Shorebirds Tour. An Eastern Yellow Wagtail was also seen on the beach near the observatory on the 9th May, and another during our Bush and Plains Tour on the 12th May, very late records for this species. Earlier in the period, good numbers were seen on the beach in front of the observatory on several afternoons, highlighted by over 100 seen on the 10th April. A Peregrine Falcon of the migratory northern subspecies calidus was also seen flying along the bay’s edge at migration watch on the 7th April.
The late rains have brought new life to the plains and lakes. Since the rains, Yellow Chats had become a little easier to find in the saltmarsh around Kidney Bean Claypan, initially in small numbers, but a flock of 100 was seen on the 31st May, suggesting they have returned to the area in numbers. A single male in breeding plumage was also seen regularly at Taylors Lagoon in mid-May. Up to four Flock Bronzewings have also been regulars at Taylors Lagoon on our Lakes Tours, and have been extremely confiding at times, giving some spectacular views.
Our observatory seabird surveys also re-commenced in April. The April trip was highlighted by over 100 Streaked Shearwaters, along with Hutton’s and Wedge-tailed, while tern diversity was also high and included Roseate, Common and White-winged Black Terns (the latter two in impressive breeding plumage). The May trip again recorded Streaked Shearwaters, along with the first returning Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a single Bridled Tern.