Friday, November 9, 2007

Australia - Melbourne, VIC, to Port Pirie, SA, November 2, 2007

For the last seven years, our shorebird blogs have focused on our work in North and South America, from the tundra of the Canadian Arctic to the pampas of Tierra del Fuego. This blog will be different. Although eventually it will describe a shorebird expedition, this time to northwest Australia, it will also describe our journey from Melbourne in southeast Australia, to the expedition site in Broome. Broome is about as far as one can get from Melbourne so our trip will lead us through some of the most remote areas of Australia. When we arrive we will join a group led by Dr. Clive Minton. Each year he assembles a team of volunteers (including amateurs and professionals) from around the world to cannon-net shorebirds at Roebuck Bay and 80-mile Beach. These expeditions can last as long as three months, this expedition will last about 3 weeks. We, however, will join the expedition for just the first ten days.

Clive, who taught us everything we know about catching and banding shorebirds, has been working on shorebirds since his childhood in England, more than 50 years ago. Although expert in most forms of shorebird study, he invented and refined the modern techniques for capturing shorebirds using cannon-nets. Clive started this work in England and brought it with him when he migrated to Australia where his shorebird studies and conservation efforts are so widely recognized, he was bestowed with the Order of Australia, an honor equivalent to being knighted in England.

Our journey began at JFK airport in NY on October 28 with a flight to Los Angeles, an unscheduled stop in Brisbane caused by a plane malfunction, then to Sydney and finally to Melbourne where Clive lives. After our 32 hour journey and a long nights sleep, we began packing for our 10-day trip across the heart of Australia covering 5,000 km. Clive graciously offered us the use of his Toyota Land Cruiser, a mighty vehicle up to the task.
But before our start, the co-leader the Broome expedition, Ros Jessop, invited us to Phillip Island Penguin Conservation Center where she studies and protects the Little Penguin.

Coastal islands called the "Nobbies" off Phillip Island, Victoria, Australia

A Wallaby on the grassy bluffs of Phillip Island

The Little Penguin spends most of its time out at sea feeding, but when breeding the foot-high birds come ashore at dusk at the edge of the sea, cluster into groups and courageously march across the open beach to burrows hidden in the dunes. Since 1923, the Australian National Government and Victoria State Government have nurtured this remarkable natural event into one of the most unusual and successful wildlife tourism opportunities in the world. Each evening, up to 4,000 people populate stands built into the dunes and watch the march of the penguins while park staff describe their life-history and answer questions in at least a half dozen different languages. Boardwalks lace the dunes providing adults and children rare access to intimate courting behaviors without impact to the birds.

The stands fill for the evening "Penguin Parade"

Roz Jessop near the Penguin Foundation display

What impressed us the most about this operation was its scale – the Foundation not only educates but entertains thousands of visitors nightly. There are exhibits, games, food, even a green screen studio that allows visitors to be photographed surrounded by virtual penguins. This more than makes up for the prohibition on flash photography. Wisely the Victorian government allows the Foundation to keep the funds raised providing the basis for their conservation work and the incentive to do it well. One can’t help thinking that within this operation lies a productive model for the conservation of shorebirds on the Delaware Bay.

The next day, Clive and his wife, Pat, graciously helped us prepare for our 10-day journey across the Outback -- an adventure when prepared, a disaster when not. For those readers who know Clive, he was "in his glory" helping us pack for the trip he has taken many times before, right down to the precise arrangement he favors for postitioning boxes across the back seat to allow meals without stopping, and a timetable with daily targets to be achieved each day. When we described this to Roz, she said “oh yeah, just ditch that . . . . On second thought, keep it so that you know where you are supposed to be when you call in to Clive”.

Pat Minton feeds a Magpie

Clive prepares the Land Cruiser for the journey north

By 7 a.m. on Thursday, November 1, we were off. On our first day, we fell short of our goal by 400 km!!


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