They’d scented fresh blood.
And in the deathly silence of twilight as dusk fell over the moonlit plain, I could hear them coming for me.
A million manic mosquitoes, and I couldn’t move a muscle.
Actually, that’s a lie.
I COULD move – but I’d chosen not to. For 3 good reasons.
Firstly, listening for the call of the enigmatic Plains Wanderer – Australia’s first and world’s fourth most important endangered bird species according to the Zoological Society of London – required absolute stillness and quiet.
I was standing on the Hay Plain – flattest place in OZ, 200 km deep, 300 km wide AND with spring grasses as high as a Plains-Wanderer’s eye.
2 words. Needle. Haystack.
If we didn’t hear one, we’d never know where to start looking.
Secondly, the Plains Wanderer Weekend tours near Deniliquin in rural New South Wales @ $300+ per head were only run a few times each year. And often booked out months, sometimes years in advance.
This might be our only chance to see one – and the only chance for other birdos* on the tour, some from overseas.
Thirdly, in our tour group of 8, I was the only non-birdo. NO WAY was I going to be that person who spooked the Plains Wanderer and blew the REAL birdos chances of seeing it.
Even if that meant staying completely motionless and letting the mozzies** suck out every drop of my blood in a zombie-apocalypse-meets-mosquito-massacre until the dried out husk of my body fell soundlessly to the soil.
So, resisting the urge to slap the little suckers silly, I stayed stock still (in alliterative admiration).
But all I could hear was the frenzied whining of a million*** mini dentist drills. And all I could see were mosquito trails across the sunset as the swarm moved in for the kill.
If the Plains Wanderers were out there, they were lying doggo****.
Unlike the mozzies now covering the back of Pilchard’s hat.
Turns out in the absence of fresh blood, the mosquitoes make do with whatever they could find!
My descent into mosquito hell had started over 12 hours before at 6 am. We’d joined six other tour participants and two guides for a full-on tour of Deni***** birding hot spots, starting with the River Walk.
Or would have but for the simultaneous opening all 13 Hume Dam overflow gates resulting – unsurprisingly – in flooding. The waters rose so rapidly the Edward River was already lapping at the levee banks when we’d arrived in Deni a couple of days before.
Ground-breaking water management technique – or simple cause and effect equation? YOU decide!
Weirdly, the swift and silent river flowing a few metres away didn’t bother us, even when the water level rose higher than our campsite at the excellent Deniliquin Riverside Caravan Park. But the flooding can’t have been much fun for Deni locals as roads, campgrounds, holiday shacks and the sports ground all went under.
But any photographer with a thing for reflections knows what to do when the water’s running high.
AND any birdo worth their binoculars knows that waterbirds LOVE ‘wetlands’, even if everyone else calls them ‘swamps’.
The lingo is just one of several ways birding pretenders like me can distinguish REAL birdos from everyone else.
There’s the obvious ones like surgically attached binoculars and a general inability to maintain a conversation when a bird – ANY (feathered) bird – comes into view. Then there’s the dark side – like arguments about features and id, and the fact it’s just NOT POSSIBLE for a non-birder to see a rare or unusual bird BEFORE the real birder.
I thought I’d seen a Plains Wanderer once before on a remote Queensland roadside.
The bird was in the EXACT SAME pose as the picture of the Plains Wanderer in the bird book. Pilchard didn’t see it, but was able to state with absolute certainty it WAS NOT a Plains Wanderer. It probably wasn’t, but that confident non-id became a bit of a thing.
A higher level bit of a thing happened when we stayed at a birding reserve with a birding tour led by a well known university (read: mega-important) birder.
During the evening bird report (yes, people really DO spend the evening listing birds they’ve seen for fun), Pilchard called a not-so-common bird, listing several reasons to nail the id.
Big Birdo (as I dubbed him) loudly disagreed.
The bird had NEVER been seen in this spot.
Then another birder confirmed the sighting.
Big Birdo shook his head again. Not possible. He’d been coming to this site for 10 years and had NEVER seen it, although he couldn’t come up with an alternative id. Apparently, if the bird was going to show itself to anyone, it’d be Big Birdo as he had seniority.
Who says birding isn’t a contact sport?!
But I digress.
Luckily, the Plains Wanderer weekend tour wasn’t besieged by Big Birdo’s Buddies – just as well given Pilchard and I shared a car with 2 other birders and a guide for the 1½ days and 123 bird species we saw on the tour. (Of course you will immediately recognise the Dollar Bird in the middle photo, haha)(yes, it’s the blob on the branch)(no, I’m not a bird photographer either).
But everyone was waiting for evening and the main event – hunting the wild Plains Wanderer. I managed to get a few sunset shots in between bird sightings, but as night fell, the mosquito massacre began in earnest.
Unless (unlike us) you’re very lucky, finding a Plains Wanderer requires patience and stamina. They’re (apparently) curious and if disturbed, they’ll (supposedly) stick their heads up to see what’s happening. In reality, a smallish bird – max height 19 cm (7½ inches) – sticking its head out above grass level at the exact right moment on a plain bigger than Denmark has lower odds than winning the lottery.
My personal theory, based on the number of Plains Wanderers we didn’t see, is that they’re sitting pretty hoping like hell the big SUVs with bright lights driving slowly in circles will just go away. But what would I know. I’m SO not a twitcher******!
Happily, I don’t get car sick. But after several hours my face was freezing cold, my hands numb from mozzie bites and I was brain dead from peering out the window into the semi-darkness. I might not be a real birdo, but I wasn’t going to be the one who wasn’t looking at the critical moment.
I don’t recall who finally won ‘Twitcher of the Tour’ for first Plains Wanderer sighting at around midnight, except that it wasn’t me. But I got to see it all the same.
I stayed out of the post-sighting phone call frenzy – I just didn’t know anyone who’d be thrilled to hear about my rare bird sightings at 12 am. Perhaps I move in the wrong circles.
At around 1:00 am, 19 hours after Day 1 started, we returned to the caravan park, re-convening at 8:30 am after an all-too-short sleep break for the final half-day. Despite some interesting sightings and more mosquito hell at the ‘wetland’, nothing compared with the previous night’s thrill of seeing the rare Plains Wanderer, a true Aussie Oddity and the only representative of its family and genus.
Even for this non-birder, the Plains Wanderer Weekend tour was a BIG success. I survived the mosquitoes. I’ve been to birding hot spots not open to the public. I’ve got rare photos of the floodwaters – happily on the right side of the levee banks – some complete with scenic loos. I didn’t blow my non-birdo cover.
And I now know for sure I really HAVE seen the elusive Plains Wanderer!
Where: Deniliquin, generally on the banks of the Edward River and not in it, is 77 km north of Echuca/Moama on the NSW/Victoria border. It’s 725 kilometres (450 miles) south west of Sydney and 285 kilometres (177 miles) north of Melbourne.
What: The Plains Wanderer Weekend Tour is run by Philip and Patricia Maher of Australian Ornithological Services. In addition to looking for the Plains Wanderer, tours cover birding sites in and around Deniliquin, including some places and habitats not open to the general public.
When: Tours are generally conducted during spring (Sept-Nov in Australia). Check the website below for tour dates and booking instructions.
- Deniliquin, New South Wales
- Australian Ornithological Services (Plains Wanderer and many other Birding Tours)
- Plains Wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus)
- Deniliquin Riverside Caravan Park
- MORE Phots of Deniliquin on Flickr
- MORE Red Nomad OZ Birding Adventures
* Birdo = Birdwatcher
** Mozzies = Mosquitoes
*** Exaggerating? Well … YOU count them!
**** Lying Doggo = keeping out of sight
***** Deni = Deniliquin! But you knew that, right?!
****** Twitcher = Obsessive Birdo