Nomads, Migrants and an Unlikely Vagrant… Lake TutchewopA few weeks ago I heard through the birding grapevine that a Long-billed Dowitcher had turned up in October and established itself on the rapidly drying Lake Tutchewop near Kerang in Victoria. These birds breed on Arctic tundra in eastern Siberia and western North America, and normally fly south in greatest numbers in August and September, then spend the northern winter in southern USA and Central America. During migration they change colour completely from bright brick-red to a nondescript plain grey. This unlikely vagrant was not only on the wrong side of the planet, but has remained in full breeding plumage, and is apparently the first one of its kind ever to be identified in Australia. I had to see it!
I phoned my good friend David Webb, and when we finally reached the lake it was close to drying out, with less than half the basin containing shallow water surrounded by extensive dry sandy mud flats, with very little sparse vegetation littered with dried-out lines of flotsam.
There were two or three thousand Banded Stilts there. These striking black and white birds were very noisy and restless, yelping constantly to each other as they flew around in three or four groups, criss-crossing the remaining water before settling in various widely separate shallow areas. Banded Stilts are endemic nomads that breed irregularly and intermittently only in large inland salt lakes in WA and SA. They then disperse until breeding lakes flood again, which may be many years. I would have been happy just to watch them, but the Long-billed Dowitcher was our real target.
Eventually, after three or four hours, having driven right round the lake and walked a fair bit of it without success, we stopped on the way home at the southern end where there was a little feeder creek with a trickle of water running into the basin. There at last we were able to see the first and only Long-billed Dowitcher ever to be located in Australia. It was standing mirrored in the placid water, prominent in size and colour at the edge of a loose group of dull brown Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, regular migrants from Arctic Siberia about half the size of the dowitcher, resting in the shallow water with some pelicans, avocets and shelducks close by. About forty huge Caspian Terns with blood-red bills were circling around lazily in the air, or loafing near the creek.
was eerily still. Occasional weak shafts of sunlight breaking through the threatening low thunderclouds enabled some pictures with a bit of atmosphere to be obtained, and these complemented a very successful trip. The most surprising thing about the day was seeing all the other water birds that were not even mentioned in reports of the Long-billed Dowitcher. It was good to see such a rare vagrant in Australia, and the impressive spectacle of masses of native water birds, regular migrants and unpredictable nomads added a significant extra dimension to the awesome experience.