By Tim Henderson, Wildlife Ecologist
As 2023 ended, it was time to look back at the best birds seen on Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary throughout the year.
2023 began with high summer rains, filling up many claypans and small salt lakes and providing overall good conditions for the year ahead. In March, we saw the return of the Annual Birdlife Survey after a three-year COVID-induced hiatus, allowing for many great sightings over two weeks.
With many eyes on the skies this year staff, volunteers, and interns managed to see over 130 bird species!
Here, I countdown the Top 10 birds of Newhaven for 2023 (in my completely unbiased ranking).
10. Grey Fantail (Rhipidura albiscapa)
A very common species in woodlands around Australia, Grey Fantails are less common in the desert. This is even more so the case at Newhaven, where the drought a few years back unfortunately hit the mulga very hard, resulting in an overall drop in small woodland bird numbers. It was great to see a Grey Fantail hanging out in a persisting patch of mulga on the eastern boundary, the only record of them for the year.
9. Oriental Plover (Charadrius veredus)
An uncommon summer migrant, Oriental Plovers typically breed in East Asia before migrating south. These birds showed up relatively early this summer with a small flock resting on the airstrip for a few days in September. These slender plovers are great to watch as they dash around with their long lanky legs looking for food.
8. Painted Finch (Emblema pictum)
These brightly-coloured finches can be somewhat common at Newhaven (though not as common as Zebras Finches!), especially up on the quartzite ranges and associated gorges. However, they deserve a spot in the Top Ten as there was a massive flock of well over 100 present at Potato Gorge for several weeks. It was quite a sight to see them spread out amongst the flowering Holly-leaved Grevillea (Grevillea wickhamii).
7. Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)
Not seen at Newhaven for several years, it was a real surprise when a small flock of seven swans randomly showed up at one of the claypans during August. This was thanks to 70mm of unseasonable winter rain which kept several claypans inundated until summer.
6. Slaty-backed Thornbill (Acanthiza robustirostris)
An uncommon thornbill that can be hard to spot at the best of times. Similar to the Grey Fantail, the Slaty-backed Thornbill is typically found in mulga woodlands and have likely reduced in numbers on the property in recent years. There were a few records during this year’s bird survey, and one was even spotted at the same time as the fantail!
5. Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos)
It could be #1, I may want it to be #1, but it just shows there are still some great birds to come! The Grey Falcons put on a spectacle this year, with one dive-bombing the Zebra Finches at the Big Shed – right in front of the Birdlife volunteers! In addition, there were several seen over at Ngalurrtju, much to the delight of visiting supporters.
4. Black-tailed Native-hen (Tribonyx ventralis)
These funky-looking chickens were a nice surprise to round out the year, with a pair spotted running out to drink at one of the claypans on the last evening of 2023. There’s only a handful of native-hen records at Newhaven and they’re such a great bird to see in inland Australia.
Getting to the pointy end now, it was hard to rank these next three (especially because I didn’t see two of them!) so there may be some controversy here.
3. Grey Honeyeater (Conopophila whitei)
A rare (some would consider the rarest) honeyeater in Australia, one lone individual was spotted by some eagle-eyed volunteers during the bird surveys. This is an especially great sighting, considering the aforementioned mulga die-offs and the difficulties of distinguishing them in the field. Unfortunately, no one else was able to spot it again.
2. Flock Bronzewing (Phaps histrionica)
Uncommon, nomadic and unpredictable, these chunky desert pigeons were a highlight during the bird surveys. A flock of these bronzewings were spotted at one of the western claypans and were thoroughly enjoyed by volunteers during a Sunday evening sunset (which also featured some Orange Chats).
1. Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
Coming in a first is a bird that was also seen on the very last evening of the year (shortly before the Native-hens). A raggy and likely over-tired sandpiper was bravely sharing the claypan with a dozen raptors. Wood Sandpipers are a migratory wader found across most continents, though are uncommon in Australia. For Newhaven, this marks the first known record since the early 2000s, with only a few records in central Australia outside of Alice Springs. For that, and for this particular individual’s obvious determination to be here, this species earns the Newhaven BOTY for 2023! Well done Woody, I hope you eventually make it to the Alice Springs poo ponds to join your mates.
That’s not all folks! There were so many good birds to choose from, so here are several more contenders worthy of a mention.
The elusive Rufous-crowned Emuwrens (Stipiturus ruficeps) were strongly present within the predator-free fence area, which is great news for these fire-sensitive species; a small flock of Southern Whiteface (Aphelocephala leucopsis) (vulnerable species and uncommon for Newhaven) were consistently seen in the south of the property; Australian Pratincoles (Stiltia isabella), another uncommon visitor, were spotted at the slightly inundated Lake Eaton in April, amongst some other nice birds including Red-capped Plovers (Charadrius ruficapillus) and Red-necked Avocets (Recurvirostra novaehollandiae); There was a pair of Bush-stone Curlews (Burhinus grallarius) that were picked up by several camera traps and then seen not too far from the operations base.
The Newhaven office also hosted a number of random stragglers throughout the year, which included a Nankeen Night Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) during the bird surveys, a Little Black Cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) which visited the tank pool and was subsequently harassed by the local crows, a lone Peaceful Dove (Geopelia placida) which are strangely very uncommon elsewhere on the property, and a young Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) which caused a stir running through the ops base.
I hope you enjoyed this countdown of awesome birds and I’m keen to see what 2024 brings us!