Continuing on – we departed the Abrolhos at around 3am so we would be out over deep water on daybreak hoping for pelagic goodies and maybe a cetacean or two. On day break it was wet and that was a theme throughout the day as we rode across the Houtman Canyon and on towards Bernier Island. Lots of promise but nothing particularly unusual for the day with the common tubenoses and terns and a highlight of 3 Long-tailed Jaegers throughout the day. That evening I felt rather claustrophobic around the dinner table and excused myself early and went to bed for a rough night at sea – probably the closest I felt to being seasick but I was fine once I lay down.
The morning however dawned calm and flat as we anchored off Dirk Hartog Island for breakfast before going ashore and ascending a near vertical dune to get to the island plateau – this nearly killed my fat arse. Dirk Hartog Island is another bucket list thing with a history of early Dutch exploration of Australia – old Dirk himself nailed a plate to a tree here back in 1616. It is also now a huge area of feral free island that is having species reintroduced from nearby Bernier and Dorre Islands and beyond. We had three key bird targets here with endemic subspecies of Rufous Fieldwren, Southern Emu-wren and White-winged Fairy-wren (the famous Black and White form). The Fieldwren and Emu-wren were easily heard and seen with a little effort in good numbers. The Fairy-wren was more difficult and after walking several kilometers I only found a small group of brown birds. Returning to the pickup rendezvous I found others had similar luck. In the bay there were dolphins and sea turtles and this is definitely a place I would like to come back to.
Now we headed north for the main prize and the reason I booked on the trip – Bernier Island. It was a very pleasant run with many species of tern and noddies keeping us company as we passed Dorre Island. This pair of islands are famous as they are the last (or near last) remaining homes for a group of species that were once widespread across the mainland. Banded Hare-wallaby, Shark Bay Mouse (this was once known as Alice Springs mouse!!) and Western Barred Bandicoot are only found in the wild on these two islands aside from some reintroductions and Rufous Hare-wallaby and Burrowing Bettong have wild populations on only another couple of islands (and some reintroductions). Dorre Island is off limits to us and I scanned wistfully through binoculars as we cruised past – it was significantly more desolate and barren than I was expecting. We anchored off Bernier Island in a spot many boats visit and camp and I could barely wait for lunch to get ashore. Some lovely dolphins cruised past while we waited.
As soon as we went ashore there was a Banded Hare-wallaby on the beach! This is my kind of place! Once we wandered up onto the plateau I picked a line and went for a walk and soon found a Rufous Hare-wallaby and then more. Reptiles were also good with Delma butleri a highlight for me. There were a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles actively hunting Hare-wallabies and with good numbers of bones around they must be pretty successful. One thing that was interesting was the dug over nature of the landscape with burrows and scratchings everywhere – must give a pretty good idea of what much of Australia was like before the advent of broad-scale agriculture and foxes and cats. Fair to say I was in heaven. Later in the evening we had great early success with everyone seeing the five key species – special thanks to Nigel, Stu and Graffy for finding everyone the first Shark Bay Mouse. It was a dumb thing with little fear bounding ungracefully across the turf in and out of vegetation – little doubt why these were an easy snack for ferals.
I was also amazed how small Western Barred Bandicoots were – seemingly not much bigger than a guinea pig and much smaller than our Eastern bandicoot species. These were probably the most wary of the five and would waddle off on approach. Banded Hare-wallaby were particularly numerous near the beach and pretty un-phased as we wandered past- I still had to pinch myself everytime – this was a huge bucketlist animal for me and one of my most wanted globally. I actually saw more Rufous Hare-wallabies during the day than at night but that was probably because I walked further into the flatter areas in the middle of the island. Finally my favourite of the big five was the Boodie or Burrowing Bettong – the little chubbers have so much character and would let out an indignant little squeak if you disturbed one but never went far. Probably my favourite sighting was a mama with a baby in the pouch – 2 sets of eyes staring back at me in the darkness. There were also plenty of geckos and some of the lads found some pythons but it was fur that took priority tonight. Most people went back to the boat but Rohan and I stayed out a while longer absorbing this great place. As I walked around I twice spotlit a long-eared bat perched on some bushes – probably Lesser based on range and there was a small Vespadelus type buzzing me on occasion. There was a sixth key mammal species to see here – Ashy-grey Mouse which also has a patchy distribution on the mainland in SW Australia. Rohan called me on the radio and said he had one – only issue is I had no idea where he was – eventually after huffing and puffing for 10 minutes or so I found him only for the mouse to have disappeared! We split up again and again the radio crackled – another one! Another 10 minutes (by now sweat was pouring from every pore) and I was there and got it. It was rather unconcerned going about its business including feeding. Nearby I found another one showing we may have stumbled on a loose colony or similar. Looking at the known terrestrial mammal list for the islands it seems we may have only missed Rakali! We eventually had a celebratory beer on the beach next to the camping fishermen before heading back to the boat.
Still buzzing at breakfast back on the boat as more dolphins cruised past. Unfortunately it was time to head north into deeper water. I was pretty knackered from last night’s escapades so crashed out in the cabin for a bit. Suddenly the shout of “CETACEANS!” came from the bow and I was up camera in hand. They were logging on the surface in the distance dead ahead dropping below the water every now and again with people calling them orcas, then dolphins, then blackfish. Eventually they disappeared for awhile before surfacing beside the boat – ORCAS!!! You could hear them breathing as they cruised unhurriedly along with Bernier Island in the background! Just when I thought Bernier couldn’t get any better. We had an amazing experience as we were able to watch them for perhaps 15 minutes – at one stage all 7-8 animals were swimming line abreast. My one previous sighting of orca was at significant distance off Portland – fair to say this cleansed that sighting. Images have since been sent off to experts and this is part of a known larger pod that specialises in hunting Humpback Whale calves in season with at least 6 of the individuals identified to name. Needless to say I was no longer tired that day….
Alas all good things have to come to an end with the Orca heading off around the northern tip of Bernier. As we headed north into deeper water we started to see our first sea snakes and more sea turtles as well as the now usual terns and wedgies. A Red-tailed Tropicbird provided some excitement as did a Streaked Shearwater and some Bottlenose Dolphins bow riding and carrying on. In the evening there was a Bulwer’s Petrel which would be new for me but I just didn’t get enough on it to tick. Then another one but again I wasn’t happy. I was a little stressed but then we had two at once fly right past the back of the boat showing all the necessary ID features and there were a couple of high fives! We kept watching til right on dusk and then went and had another awesome meal and rather too many celebratory whiskies.
Today was the final day at sea where we would visit Cloates and Cape Range Canyons and get into real deep water in the hope of some mega pelagic birds and beaked whales – one can always be hopeful. We spent most of the day on deck with some good birds but long periods of quiet. Highlights included many Bulwer’s Petrel, both Lesser and Greater Frigatebirds (the latter being a rarity off this coast), Red-tailed Tropicbird and Long-tailed Jaeger. Imagine being on a boat so stable you could use a spotting scope for much of the day. We berleyed up for a period of time with no luck but a couple of the boys hooked into some Dolphinfish which provided some excitement. Right on dusk a pod of Spinner Dolphins rounded out the day and boat trip nicely. A special call out must go to Nigel Jackett and George Swann who steadfastly logged every bird and other animal (except for flying fish) for the whole trip. Nigel alone shared over 50 eBird lists with others on the boat – legendary effort. That night a number of us stayed up rather late drinking whiskey and other beverages – been a good trip! It was very rock and roll as we came into Exmouth overnight – fair to say I may have wished for a drink or two less.
We were in Exmouth a day early as the itinerary had run that way so I organised a hire car. After a good coffee and bakery run Rohan and I went exploring the very cool Cape Range National Park with its deep gorges and rugged dry creek lines. It was very warm and quiet during the afternoon but we did waddle up a mountain to a cave where we found my first Common Sheathtails roosting. Later we checked out the sewage ponds for a reasonable range of species before checking into accommodation. That night we spotlit up on the range which was very quiet before heading down the hill which was much more exciting with perhaps 7 species of geckos seen as well as a Mulga Snake, some pythons and Spinifex Hopping-mice. As we crawled back into town late Rohan leaped from the car for a North-western Shovel-nosed Snake – a very cute little elapid – new and very cool!
Next morning I was up early and out to Mangrove Bay where I had two new bird targets – Mangrove Grey Fantail and Dusky Gerygone _ I had clearly done my homework well as I found at least half a dozen of each within 5 minutes of the carpark – two more lifers! It was a very birdie site with many waders on the mudflats. From here I trundled down to Yardie Creek where I was able to show some tourists the Black-flanked Rock-wallabies which were common. A couple of stops on the way back before hitting up the micro-brewery in town while I checked emails and looked at some photos. Exmouth if a very cool, laid back town with dingoes, emus and perenties in town just a normal part of life. Tim Faulkner gave me a call and invited me out for a night of chasing reptiles and other critters with Obie and Liz so after stocking up we were off. An excellent night with many critters seen including a pile of new geckos, some snakes and best of all a Stripe-faced Dunnart. Exact quote from Tim – “we are going to get Bawden a dunnart up here” and sure enough we did! Very cute and bitey. The rest of the crew were more excited by a jewelled gecko they had tried very hard to find previously just sitting in the road. Orange-naped Snake rounded out a cool night although my first blind snake was dead on the road just out of town. The sheer numbers of knob-tailed geckos seen across two nights was incredible. thanks for an awesome night out!
Unfortunately then it was back to Melbourne. This is just a snippet of what we got up to – left out many things – seriously one of the best trips I have done. 6 new birds, 11 new mammals and 20+ new reptiles and a whole pile of bucket list locations ticked off. Special thanks to George and Rohan for organising/guiding, the boat crew for doing an awesome job with us miscreants and to Tim, Liz, Scott, Brad, Ian, Arthur. Kathy, John, Stewart, John and Nigel for being excellent companions. Finally thanks to Lucas and Simone for letting me go and being very supportive. 11/10 would recommend this trip and would do again – the rashes, scratches and sunburn all forgotten!