Call of the honeyeater

John Huxley joins a bespoke tour of ardent birdwatchers in search of rare species in the Blue Mountains.

Shrill, mournful birdsong pierces the air as we inch along a rocky promontory, looking for a rock warbler while trying, in my case, not to notice the 500-metre drop to the Megalong Valley's floor.

Sh-weep. Sh-weep. "Rock warblers. They're here," whispers Blue Mountains birding guide Carol Probets, an experienced rock-climber who is quite at home on the giddying heights of the trail near Hargraves Lookout.

Sure enough, within seconds several warblers - "little brown jobs", in twitchspeak - are seen creeping across the sandstone blocks, black tails flicking to and fro. They have been attracted in part by a recorded birdcall played - sparingly, so as not to alarm the birds unnecessarily - via a mobile phone app.

The sighting of a bird found only in NSW provides a perfect start to a two-day expedition for Marianne, Suzanne, Melissa and lucky old me, along an action-packed bird trail devised by Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon Tourism.

As BMLOT, or "bumlot" as it is inevitably called, explains, all you need are "binoculars, a field guide for identification and a good pair of walking shoes". But a bird expert, familiar with the area, is a huge advantage.

They don't come any bumlot-savvier than Probets. She is a legend among birders for her role as a member of the Whacked-out Woodswallows team in the acclaimed ABC TV documentary about twitchathons, Chasing Birds. In a twitchathon, teams of three or four, working on a trust system, race between habitats of their choice to spot as many species as possible in 24 hours. The WoW are four-time winners.

Our weekend is more a twitchabout: not much longer than the twitchathon but more leisurely, with time to slip into the landscape, enjoy some good cooking and company and obtain a feel for other attractions in the area.

More than 250 species have been seen in the region but unlike twitchathoners we are chasing quality, not quantity. Top of the most-wanted list is the regent honeyeater, a black, white and yellow-embroidered bird of rare beauty. Once seen overhead in flocks of hundreds, the regent honeyeater - like the box-ironbark forests on which it largely depends - is now endangered.

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Fortunately, the Capertee Valley, where we will spend the night, offers the best chance of seeing one. Indeed, a long-term captive breeding program and tree replanting have established the valley as a stronghold - a regency.

Meanwhile, Hargraves Lookout (to the height-scared it sounds like a belated warning, "Hargraves! LOOK OUT!" as he plunges off the Shipley Plateau) produces quality birds, including plaintive, yellow-tailed black cockatoos.

Then it's off to lunch, at the Secret Creek cafe and sanctuary in Lithgow, where for 10 years the owner, Trevor Evans, has been breeding endangered species such as eastern quoll, long-nosed poteroo and brush-tailed rock wallaby. The emus and brush turkeys are unmissable but also inadmissable to our birdlists, for they are enclosed within the sanctuary's feral-proof fence.

It is but a short drive to our next birding hot spot, the local sewage ponds. "Not everyone's idea of a great place to hang out," the trail guide concedes, "but one of the best places to see several species of duck." So it proves as, with the help of Probet's telescope, more than a dozen species are seen, including teal, grebe, cormorant, hardhead, shoveler, and musk, pink-eared and, far off, an exquisite blue-billed duck.

Then, it's back into a 400,000-kilometre-old LandCruiser, featured in the Chasing Birds doco, to drive to the artificial Lake Wallace, created in the 1970s to provide water for one of the state's oldest coal-fired power stations, Wallerawang. Hereabouts, wildlife and working life, conservation and exploitation, birds and big collieries, such as Ivanhoe and Invincible, coexist. In some places uncomfortably, in others, such as Lake Wallace, quite convivially.

Dawn and dusk - when joggers, cyclists, campers, sailors and anglers might be elsewhere engaged - are best for birds. But even on a sultry afternoon, there's plenty to be seen. And not just the usual suspects.

In summer, there's a chance of seeing black-winged stilt, black-fronted dotterel, Latham's snipe and spotted crake. In winter, look out for the striking diamond firetail and flame robin.

The Capertee Valley is one of the state's great natural wonders, one of the nation's best birding areas - and one of the world's largest canyons. It stretches 30 kilometres, narrowing through towering cliffs, from broad mouth to bottleneck gorge near Glen Davis, where ruins of an old shale-oil works provide further evidence of man's impact on a fragile environment.

Fortunately, because of its altitude, soil types and resulting diversity of plant species, the valley attracts about 240 different birds, 18 of which are officially "threatened". That rich diversity - sufficient to earn the valley international designation as an Important Bird Area - is partly explained by location, roughly at the point where coastal and inland species meet.

"More important, perhaps, the valley remains a stronghold for declining woodland birds, such as the regent honeyeater," Probets says. Birders must be careful where they walk. Much of the Capertee Valley is privately owned, and in many cases, farmed. Needless to say, Probets has permission to enter a promising property, dotted with dams.

Within 30 minutes, we add more quality birds to our list. They include (non-birders may wish to skip this bit): rufous songlark, brown treecreeper, hooded robin, fuscous honeyeater and, cutest of all, plum-headed finch. But still no regent honeyeater.

"Don't worry," Probets says, reassuringly. "Tomorrow's our best chance. They were seen in this spot by the river. It's just a matter of whether they're still there." Indeed.

Evening creeps across the valley, turning cliffs shades of pink, orange and deep blue, as the four of us retreat to Lansallos, a bed-and-breakfast run by Bruce and Donna Upton. Not only do the Uptons do an impressive breakfast, they have valley know-how and know-where - especially on their 42-hectare property, which has been planted with bird-friendly trees.

We're up and into it bright and early, long before breakfast. Thanks to Probets's spotting skills, we run up an impressive tally over the next hour or so: weebil, Jacky Winter, dollarbird, brown falcon, restless flycatcher, mistletoe bird, olive-backed oriole, dusky woodswallow, a colourful variety of thornbills. I could go on. But still no regent honeyeater.

Over breakfast, Probets explains we have one last chance before we must return to Sydney; along the heavily wooded banks of the Capertee River, a 15-minute drive away. Let's go!

The signs are not good, however. The blossom that attracts the honeyeaters is gone from most of the trees - the river oak and, further on, the yellow box.

Suzanne decides to stay with the vehicle by the Genowlan Bridge while the rest of us take to a riverside track to where the regents were last seen, a few weeks earlier. There are plenty of birds of interest; bee-eater, crested shrike-tit, little eagle, white-backed woodswallow, sacred kingfisher ... and so on, until I fall over - fortunately, not 500 metres to a valley bottom - but just 10 centimetres, into a cowpat.

Very funny. We head back to the bridge, "never-minding" each other, saying how "dipping out" on a special bird, such as the regent honeyeater, always provides an incentive to return. How our total of 99 species is good. As we approach the vehicle, we see Suzanne is waving. Pointing. Up there!

Sure enough, as if to confirm "Sod's theory of birding" that the best stuff is usually to be found in and about the car park, Suzanne points out a pair of regents sitting in the tree. They stay just long enough for all of us to be able to say we've seen them. At least, the diagnostic bits of them. But it's only a glimpse, brief enough to ensure we will visit the BMLOT bird trail again.

John Huxley travelled courtesy of BMLOT.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Blackheath, the jumping-off point for Hargraves Lookout, is about two hours' drive west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. The Capertee Valley is a further hour's drive, depending on roadworks.

Staying there

Lansallos B&B, near Rylstone, has double rooms from $250 a night at weekends. Phone (02) 6379 7767; see lansallos.com.au. The region has hotels, inns, self-catering cottages and farm-stays.

Twitching there

Carol Probets runs one-day trips to the Capertee Valley for one or two people for $420 in winter (April to August) and $480 in summer (September to March). Pick up from Blue Mountains railway stations or accommodation can be arranged. See bmbirding.com.au; email origma@westnet.com.au.

More information

Find bird lists, maps and trails at visitbluemountains.com.au.

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