A TROPICAL BIRDING tour - for full report with photos see www.tropicalbirding.com
Report written by Sam Woods
ALL photos in this report were taken on this tour (special thanks to Bill
Maynard for supplying his photos from the tour for this report).
I was along on this trip as a co-guide to learn the tour for future departures, and having only limited experience in Australia previously could understand first hand the many appeals of birding this vast country. Almost all birders who join this tour, do so as first time visitors to the small continent of Australia. Therefore perhaps the most appealing aspect of this tour is the heaps of new families that are available. This was well illustrated on this tour where Bill counted 40 new families for himself at the end of it. Representatives from 87 different bird families were seen, including from all the Australian endemic families; and on one day out of Kingfisher Lodge we saw species from 36 different families in this one day alone! Many strange and bizarre families exist in Australia that many people have had no experience of before from Logrunners to Mud-nest Builders, while Lyrebirds, Birds of Paradise and Bowerbirds are perhaps more familiar from nature programs like David Attenborough's landmark series 'The Life of Birds' that for many birders immortalized Superb Lyrebirds in their memories; while Honeyeaters, Sitellas and Pardalotes are generally much less known. Australia is certainly the realm of the quirky and strange such as the monstrous Cassowary (that put on a spectacular show for us in Cairns), although there are also more familiar birds like Parrots. However, for those who have only experienced the parrots of Asia and the Neotropics you are in for a surprise as the species here are generally boldly patterned and very brightly colored, making up some of the most colorful birds on the planet. Rightly earning Australia the nickname 'Land of the Parrots'.
Diversity of birds and habitats is one of the other appeals to many of this tour-the Cairns section takes in birding within Queensland's humid tropical rainforests; home to birds such as the enormous Southern Cassowary and a bunch of Bowerbirds including the striking Regent Bowerbird; while around Sydney some of the birding is around temperate forests that are home to such beauties as the Superb Lyrebird, one of the World's most accomplished mimics; while the heathlands around New South Wales hold such crackers as Southern Emuwrens and Superb Fairywrens; the Eucalypt woodlands hold birds like Spotted Quail-thrush, Bell Miners and Red-browed Treecreepers; while the rugged coasts and cool mountain forests on Tasmania off the southern side of Australia are home to a host of colorful Australian Robins, and the coastlines provide important breeding areas for the World's smallest (and cutest) Penguin - Fairy (Little Blue) Penguin and one of the rarest plovers - Hooded Plover. By taking in a great number of varied habitats and covering Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, the tour also gives you a good shot at some of the magnificent mammals that symbolize what a strange continent this is, and we experienced a fair number of them on this tour including a number of Wallabies and Kangaroos from the dinky little Musky Rat-Kangaroo in northern Queensland to the diminutive Red-necked Pademelons in the rainforests of southern Queensland, to the huge Eastern Gray Kangaroos seen in the north of that state; along with the just plain weird Lumholtz's Tree-kangaroo recorded in the Cairns area. Aside from that a number of Short-beaked Echidnas shuffling along the sides of the road gave us a unique experience of the strange, egg-laying monotremes.
The tour was an undoubted success with 418 species seen and a really good representation of Australian bird families (87 different families were seen on the tour), with Albatross and Penguins recorded along with both species of Lyrebirds, a whole host of handsome parrots, both species from the mud-nest builders and logrunner families, emus in the dry inland areas along with one of the most highly sought after Honeyeater-Painted Honeyeater. A nesting Papuan Frogmouth at close range on the first day of the tour, set the tone with a number of nightbirds recorded on the tour including a superb view of a Marbled (Plumed) Frogmouth in southern Queensland and a number of Tawny Frogmouths recorded completing the trio of Australian Frogmouths, and the Australian Owlet-nightjar we bumped into in northern Queensland was a welcome family addition for many and the Powerful Owls roosting at close range in Sydney were equally impressive for their considerable size.
The tour was due to start at 2pm with some light birding around Cairns, although plans needed to be changed fast when we were offered last minute access to a private garden where a nesting Papuan Frogmouth was available, but only if we could get there within half an hour of us finding out! We then frantically rang around all the rooms where the group were staying (with little time for brief introductions of ourselves) and lured everyone out early with the promise of Australia's largest Frogmouth at close range. Sure enough, on arrival the owner of the garden showed us though to a bare branch where the cryptic Papuan Frogmouth was perched brazenly in the open. The tour was off to a great start with the frogmouth being the first official species of the tour, and just across the road from the frogmouth Bill spotted a Black Butcherbird on a nest. We then got back on schedule by visiting a fruiting fig tree right in the heart of Cairns where a number of Double-eyed Fig-Parrots and a superb Yellow-eyed (Barred) Cuckoo-shrike were taking advantage of the harvest. Surprisingly, we ended up seeing a number of these beautiful Cuckoo-shrikes over the coming days that are nomadic species in relation to abundance of fruiting trees. We then headed off into one of Cairns's quiet parks where we came across a few Yellow & Brown-backed Honeyeaters and the main bird we had come here for - a pair of roosting Bush Thick-Knees (Stone-curlews). They are actually easier to find after nightfall when they become more active, although they are perhaps more convenient when you know where they are roosting and you can just walk right up to them!
We then 'retired' to the seafront in Cairns to look at the thousands of shorebirds moving close in shore with the rising tide. Among the hundreds of Red-necked Stints, were Greater Sandplovers and Mongolian Plovers, Terek Sandpipers, Great Knots, Red-capped Plovers, Australian Pelicans, Australian Ibises and a Buff-banded Rail walked out on the mud right in front of us, while Australian Swiftlets and Rainbow Lorikeets flew overhead. We then retired to the best Indian restaurant in Cairns, before our trip out to the reef the following day.
This day's birding did not add many species, although provided one of the great spectacles in birding - the sight of thousands of nesting seabirds on a tiny sandy 'cay' out on the Great Barrier Reef. We took a boat out to Michaelmas Cay, where we were greeted by the sight and deafening sounds of thousands of Brown Noddys on arrival, mixing with many, many Sooty Terns, while a few Bridled Terns were also found among the mass of Sooties. Overhead we lucked into both Great & Lesser Frigatebirds, and the pristine beaches there were home to a number of other roosting terns, including Roseate, Black-naped, Lesser & Great Crested Terns. Some of the group also took advantage of the superb snorkeling opportunities available on one of the best coral reefs in the World. On arrival back in Cairns we were greeted by a small group of Australian Hobbys, before we departed for the short ride to Cassowary House close to the town of Kuranda, northwest of Cairns.
Our exploration of the tropical rainforests of northern Queensland started in earnest today, and opened with an endemic Bird of Paradise - a male Victoria's Riflebird flying into a songpost right above our meeting place in the car park at dawn. For most of the people on the tour this was the first of many new families. A walk along Black Mountain Road that borders the property saw us add another exciting new family - the Bowerbirds - when the catlike mewing of Spotted Catbirds alerted us to their presence in the treetops overhead. Spectacled Monarchs were interesting enough in the same area, although overshadowed by the striking Pied Monarchs closeby, in splendid black-and-white plumage topped off brilliantly with an electric blue eye-ring.
Another roadside 'cracker' was a brilliant male Yellow-breasted Boatbill, while a few calling Wompoo Pigeons were seen in the treetops above. A short time later, while heading back to the lodge, we got the call we were hoping for - the cassowary had just wandered into the 'garden' outside our rooms. I think it is fair to say our pace quickened with this news and a short time later we found ourselves watching one of the World's most spectacular birds - a superb female Southern Cassowary at extremely close range.
During breakfast on Sue's balcony, complete with a bewildering array of tropical fruits, we were able to watch Spotted Catbirds and a female Victoria Riflebird coming into feed on the same fruits that had been laid out especially for them, while in the 'rainforest garden' below a Red-necked Crake ran around behind the female Cassowary which by then had a Musky Rat-Kangaroo for company (the World's smallest and strangest kangaroo). Surely one of the greatest breakfast experiences anywhere! Shell-shocked from this we all headed off north towards Daintree, and another fabulous lodge - Red Mill House (for many the best place stayed on the tour), where Satin Flycatchers and Fairy Gerygones were found in the garden on arrival (and turned out to be our only sightings on the tour). A brief foray near the Daintree River saw us luck in on a Great-billed Heron that sailed past shortly before dusk, and a male Lovely Fairywren was the first of this stunning family for the tour (with another Laughing Kookaburra closeby-a common endemic that was a daily feature on the tour). It seemed that nothing could go wrong for us at this stage, although a Large-tailed Nightjar frustrated us both at dusk and the following morning, proof that you cannot get absolutely everything! In fine Aussie tradition the Red Mill laid on a great barbecue ('barbie'), while Northern Brown Bandicoots fed on food scraps on the lawn nearby.
Although never a trip that adds an amazing amount of birds, the Daintree River cruise is always popular as it is just a great way to spend a few hours, cruising slowly through tranquil creeks shortly after sunrise. As we had seen the Papuan Frogmouth and Great-billed Heron already, we were looking for few birds, although the Little Kingfisher was one were happy to get as it was our only real shot at it on the tour. Other additions included a male Cicadabird, a few nesting Large-billed Gerygones and a pair of superb Shining Flycatchers; while no one was complaining about further views of a Great-billed Heron or the huge roost containing thousands of Spectacled Flying-foxes that we watched from the boat. It was then time to head towards Julatten with some designated stops along the way, not least for a fruiting fig tree that we had been tipped of about, that still held a number of feeding migrant Channel-billed Cuckoos (that had only recently arrived from their wintering grounds in New Guinea). On arrival at the famous Kingfisher Lodge we had lunch by the feeders where Red-browed Firetails and Macleay's Honeyeaters dominated the feeding frenzy, while a few Blue-faced, Lewin's, & White-throated Honeyeaters made less frequent appearances. The afternoon saw us heading a short way from the lodge to the small town of Mount Molloy that feels more like an Outback town than northern Queensland. The target here was a rare raptor - Square-tailed Kite, that was not too difficult to find as it was nesting at the time. Most people were a little disappointed with the restricted views of the top of the adults head we had, and we were all grateful to get another much better view of a juvenile later on the tour, at another nest site near Brisbane. We then visited a staked out bower in the local school where we underwent the surreal experience of signing into the school as visitors, (with the teacher telling us it was currently at the bower), in order to see their resident Great Bowerbird! We then made a brief visit to a nearby swamp where a Latham's Snipe flew up from the muddy edge and the flowering grevilias in the car park were host to some stunning White-cheeked Honeyeaters and a few Green Figbirds. We finished the day by staking out a nest hole at dusk, flashlights at the ready. Sure enough, first one, then the pair of Australian Masked Owls emerged from their day roost.
The beauty of staying at Kingfisher Lodge is it is right in the center of some of tropical Queenslands very best birding areas, so there are many places easily accessed by day tripping from there. We had planned on this day to spend the whole day searching for some Atherton Tableland specialties on nearby Mount Lewis. The plan on this day however changed when these proved way easier to come by than unusual giving us the opportunity to push onto other sites earlier than expected. The result of this was a huge day list full of some really interesting birds, simply because luck was with us on this day. The day started with a dawn vigil at a creek hoping for the elusive Duck-billed Platypus, although unfortunately this was one species that eluded us on this day. On Mount Lewis new birds came thick and fast. All the birds seemed to be right where we made our first stop: Soon after dawn we got the first of the Atherton targets a number of Grey-headed Robins feeding on the deserted mountain road; Mountain Thornbills and Atherton Scrubwrens were found feeding in the undergrowth closeby; Topknot Pigeons flew in and posed overhead a number of times; several Tooth-billed Catbirds made a welcome early appearance, as did several Bower's Shrike-thrushes; while a calling Fernwren had us anxiously scanning the leaf litter until someone found him singing away from a small rock on the forest floor.
As we had missed Chowchillas near Cairns earlier on the tour, this became a priority bird for us on Mount Lewis, even more so when one of the group had great views of one before they could alert anyone else to it! Try as we might we just could not re-find this one, so we headed up a trail, until a movement on the forest floor revealed itself to be a fine pair of potbellied Chowchillas, feeding away by kicking up leaves, scooping them outwards with their feet from underneath their plump bellies. With mission well and truly accomplished we left Mount Lewis with time on our hands, picking up the stunning Eastern Spinebill, both Olive-tailed (Bassian) Thrush andthe endemic Russet-tailed Thrush in addition to a Rufous Fantail on the way out. With this changed plan we decided to return to Kingfisher Lodge lunch there and then try to find their resident pair of Noisy Pittas. Searching for pittas in the heat of the day however is never the best method for finding them, although thankfully Mel found a pair of Noisy Pittas feeding quietly in the forest undergrowth, a stones throw from the lodge. Time to change the plan again! Iain decided the best plan of action was to head out into some dry country to the west, for some species more often associated with the outback than tropical Queensland. The first stop was a dry, barren field where at the right time of day (i.e. dawn, and not this time!) Australian Bustards can often be seen displaying. However on this day a single Australian Bustard obliged by being present standing right in the open, in the middle of the afternoon. That done, time to move on again to a dam we had not personally visited before although, was said to be good at that time, so with the spare time we had we decided to give it a try (picking up our only Black-faced Woodswallow en-route). The dam was just superb, a small pool in the middle of some really dry country proved to be a magnet for birds coming into drink in the late afternoon. We waited patiently at the edge of the dam seeing another Aussie endemic - Squatter Pigeon,as well as Pale-headed Rosellas, Noisy Friarbirds, Black-fronted Dotterel, Gray-crowned Babblers and Black-throated Finches all coming down to the water's edge; while close to the dam Brown Treecreepers made their first appearance of the tour. This was just one of those great days on a tour, with heaps of good birds in a variety of varied habitats; from the cool mountain birds on Mount Lewis at the start of the day; to the birds of the lowland rainforest in the middle of the day; to the birds of the dry outback country at the end of the day. Add to those a whole host of families - 36 different families encountered on this one day alone ! (many new for most); that included representatives of the following: the bowerbirds, pittas, Australian Treecreepers, Pseudo (Australian) Babblers, Bustards, Mud-nest Builders, Apostlebirds & White-winged Choughs, Logrunners, Fantails, Monarch Flycatchers, Drongos, Australian Robins, Whistlers, Woodswallows, Bellmagpies, Honeyeaters and Megapodes. Just great birding.
This was probably the favorite start to the days birding for many. We left Kingfisher Lodge early, and arrived shortly after dawn at a large swamp where we ate breakfast surrounded by Cranes. It was great to stand there (cereal in hand), looking out across the mist shrouded swamp, watching hundreds of Brolgas walking around side-by-side with Sarus Cranes, the sounds of their bugling calls echoing around us throughout. A superb experience. Having had our fill of cereal (and Cranes), we headed off to a nearby rainforest where we had one target bird in mind. In normal years we would have searched for Golden Bowerbird at Mount Lewis, although they had been missing from their bower there for some time and it was a bird we were close to accepting we were going to miss. However there was another site we felt compelled to try as some people had at least seen it there fairly recently, although the site had undergone a lot of habitat destruction from a devastating cyclone in recent times. On arrival the destruction was obvious with many felled trees and quite frankly, it looked a mess. The first job at hand was to find the bower and this took a little time, when Iain stumbled across what appeared to be a rather disheveled bower, that appeared old and abandoned. While contemplating this however, Iain heard the unmistakable rattles and croaks of a Golden Bowerbird, and after a patient wait he found the bird calling closeby the bower. The bower was disheveled maybe, but out of use, no (thankfully)! I should mention we thought we had timed our arrival at the bower a little late in the day due to a superb mammal distraction along the way when Mel found the normally shy and nocturnal Lumholtz's Tree-Kangaroo feeding shamelessly in the open, in the morning sunlight. This is one strange animal, many think that Kangaroos just do not belong in trees and looking at the cumbersome movements of this one that would seem right. Simply put, Tree-kangaroos appear like an evolutionary chain that has not quite got there yet.
A visit to Mareeba wetlands proved worthwhile for the Cotton Pygmy-geese amongst the more widespread Green Pygmy-geese, and a few Black-necked Storks. The drive down the entrance track alone proved good for the views of a pristine male Red-backed Fairywren, and a pair of displaying Pacific Bazas. Another swamp stop at Hasties produced our only Scarlet Myzomela of the trip, a small brilliantly red honeyeater, and a lone Plumed Whistling-duck was also there. Mammals were a big feature of this years tour as many of the group were really interested in these. So with this in mind we knew it was important to search for the huge Eastern Gray Kangaroos in the area (one of the largest living marsupials), and where better to find them than loafing around in the midday sun on the golf course - a great reliable stake out! we ended the day driving to the homely town of Mount Molloy where the local pub does a mean grill, although on the way back a White-throated Nightjar that flew up from the roadside had Iain screaming to a halt. Unfortunately it never showed again, but while there we heard another strange call that we thought may be a strange contact call of an Australian Owlet-nightjar. As this was Bob's number one target for the tour we kept searching in earnest, before Iain found it sitting in the knot of a close Eucalypt tree. A great moment, a lifebird for all and a new family for almost all, this bird was voted bird of the trip by most.
We finally left Kingfisher Lodge today, that had been a brilliant base for our three nights there. Before we left however we had a last pre-breakfast try at getting one of the Blue-faced Parrotfinches that had been seen locally recently (and we had missed on our first afternoon there). As it had been seen since we had last tried, and the other cooperative birds in the area allowed us some time to look for it, we thought we would give it one last go. There was little action in the area for half an hour before some twitching grass stems had Iain homing in on a male Blue-faced Parrotfinch. The bird was typically elusive (never straying far from dense cover), although most of us got good looks by carefully peering through the grass stems. Now it was definitely time to leave Kingfisher Park. After breakfast we headed gradually back towards Cairns for our final night there before our departure to Brisbane the next day. En-route back we made a few stops for a pair of White-browed Robins that were very cooperative by a roadside creek; Black-faced Cuckooshrikes and a Little Bronze-cuckoo were seen elsewhere on the return journey as were Pheasant Coucal, Olive-backed Oriole, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Silver-eyes, Fairy Martins, and Brown Gerygones. Although a finch flock (comprising mainly Double-barred Finches, Nutmeg Mannikins and Chestnut-breasted Munias) close to Cairns, contained ne of the days best birds (just behind the rare Parrotfinch), with several vivid red male Crimson Finches.
After our morning flight to Brisbane we headed first to some mangroves on the outskirts of Brisbane where we found our two mangrove targets - Mangrove Honeyeater and Mangrove Gerygone along with our only trip Collared Kingfisher. We then drove directly to O-Reilly's rainforest lodge south of Brisbane in southern Queensland. This lodge rightly has a reputation for one of the best rainforest experiences in Australia. A family run lodge, that is really popular amongst birders and general nature tourists alike they manage to balance the different needs of these brilliantly. The birders do not interfere with their experience and vice versa. This was the first time we had taken a tour there and it turned out really well, largely thanks to their excellent resident bird guide, Tim O'Reilly, who was a great help to us in our time there and we would strongly recommend his services to anyone visiting this superb rainforest retreat.
As you first reach O'Reilly's the first thing you are greeted by are people crowded round a feeding area where dozens of wild Crimson Rosellas and Australian King-parrots come to be fed by the tourists daily. A dudey aspect to the trip sure, but the views are amazing, and they are simply great looking birds, so I was not complaining! We whisked past this (with people straining at the door to get out and take advantage of the parrot show, although we had checking in duties to fulfill at that time). Their patience reached bursting point when we then passed another feeding area further up, where through the bus windows we could see many Regent Bowerbirds perched in trees right in front of the reception with a few Satin Bowerbirds for company. At that we simply had to let the group out (for fear of a mutiny), and we soon all enjoyed incredible views of these exquisite rainforest species…Although its good to drive short distances to good birding sites. It is nice once in a while to just step right out of your door straight into the rainforest, and that is exactly what you can do at O'Reilly's. Our first foray onto one of their many trails found us our last catbird of the trip - the endemic Green Catbird (that sounds even more like a cat in serious pain than its northern cousin, the Spotted Catbird). While listening to the strange straggled cries of the catbird we could also hear the whipcraking call of the aptly named Eastern Whipbird, and the male skulking beneath a fallen tree was yet another new family for most. Whilst in the trees above a Paradise Riflebird just would not show, although a fine male Rose Robin was nice compensation. The day ended with some poor nightbirding-little calling and nothing showing. However, one of the other attractions of O Reilly's is the abundance of marsupials, and we enjoyed watching Red-necked Pademelons (a tiny kangaroo) feeding outside our cabins, while a Sugar Glider and a Common Ringtail Possum showed up on our night walk.
For our full day at O Reilly's we walked from our cabins along a great rainforest trail during the morning, where we picked up the skulking Olive Whistler and a pair of Southern Logrunners (the only other, equally quirky, member of a family that also contains the Chowchilla seen around northern Queensland); before a full and comprehensive breakfast back at the lodge; while our longer walk after 'brekky' (needed after our exertions for breakfast!), we ventured further along another trail. Eventually we picked up our main target of the morning, the rarer representative of the two species in another infamous Australian family - the Lyrebirds. Lyrebirds are extremely accomplished mimics so it was important to try and pick out their varied, ever-changing mimicry amongst the morning rainforest chorus in order to find one. However despite us hearing a number of these giving their distinctive unique phrases thrown in amidst the myriad of mimicry of Satin Bowerbirds, Green Catbirds and others, we just never seemed to get close to them before they fell silent. So we carried on pushing up the trail, where Iain had frustratingly brief glimpses of a male, that thankfully reappeared not long after the gloom had begun to set in after everyone had missed the first sighting. The strange thing was, when seeing this Albert's Lyrebird was how unconcerned by our presence it was, if they do not want to be found they are very hard birds to locate, but this one merely carried on scratching away at the leaf litter for food below, without caring that there was a bunch of us sat there watching just a few meters away. The other bird we were keen on getting, was the last of Australia's pair of endemic Birds of Paradise - the Paradise Riflebird, that we managed to get several good views of along the trail that morning. The other main target for the day was however far less cooperative, although with Rufous Scrub-birds this is to be expected and although we all heard him well, we had to settle for only brief views of this notorious rainforest floor skulker. We then enjoyed a great picnic spread (prepared by one of Iain's friends who'd travelled out from Brisbane especially to lay this on for us), with a pair of strikingly patterned Wonga Pigeons parading around close to our picnic tables throughout. After a short afternoon break we headed out of the rainforest and birded some Eucalypt-dominated wet sclerophyll woodland on the fringes of the property. A very different habitat and set of birds to those found in the dark rainforest interior. Literally minutes after entering the desired habitat we heard the chattering of a Red-browed Treecreeper and found one of the small party lingering on the side of a dead snag for us. Nearby there was a striking Striated Pardalote, and a little further down the road we heard the distinctive tinkling of some Bell Miners (another endemic honeyeater), and found 5 or so in the trees above. We had another brief try at some nightbirds, failing dismally again in the early evening downpour. However, after another fine O Reilly's spread (with a family of Mountain Brushtail Possums feeding by the restaurant window throughout), we headed out to another frogmouth site (with the gratefully accepted help of resident guide Tim O Reilly). Immediately we heard a pair calling on arrival. This filled us with false bravado, which was soon dashed when 30 minutes later we were still sitting there, hearing the same frogmouth without having had even a glimpse. Soon after both Iain and my flashlights lost power and the bird looked to have got away. However, having never seen this bird before and knowing how difficult it can be, I was especially keen to get it and am eternally grateful that Tim lent us his flashlight, which soon after was focused slap bang on a brilliant, close Plumed (Marbled) Frogmouth. A superb last night at O Reilly's.
Despite our undoubted success with birds at O Reilly's there are always more to find and we decided to get just plain greedy and go after more. So what could have been a relaxed drive back to Brisbane for the flight to New South Wales turned into a slightly more panicked drive than planned. The day started with us in the sclerophyll forest again. As we slowly drove down the track, having heard our target bird calling distantly only a short time earlier, first a female and then a cracking male Spotted Quail-thrush wandered out onto the open gravel track in front of our van. They then fed in the open on and off for 10 minutes with everyone getting incredible views of this usually extremely shy bird. For me this was the top bird of the trip (although for others it is hard to beat Cassowaries, Pittas and Bowerbirds!) A Painted Buttonquail in the same area proved to be our only buttonquail of the tour. Although a birding tour, the mammal list was going well and people were really keen to try for Koala on the journey back to Brisbane. Bizarrely the stronghold of this fast declining mammal has traditionally been the Brisbane area and it has been coming under increasing threat from urban sprawl and road developments leading to high road mortality rates. As we were leaving the lodge Tim appeared with the news that he had just seen some Glossy Black-cockatoos for the first time in 6 months on the exit road out, so we headed straight down there and after an initially anxious wait, some soft calls alerted us to a small group feeding in their favored Casuarina trees.
With the distraction of these scarce cockatoos, we were then a little pushed for time, although still managed to squeeze in a visit to a park in the suburbs of Brisbane where the hoped for Koala was right on view on arrival, along with a nesting Tawny Frogmouth (that completed the trio of Aussie Frogmouths, with the Marbled the night before and the nesting Papuan Frogmouth that was the tours first official bird); and a nesting Square-tailed Kite all in the same area. Hard to take this all in within 30 minutes although that is exactly what we had to do to be sure we made our flight to Sydney. We then flew into Sydney, taking in some great aerial views of the harbor bridge and opera house as we came in.
After our late pm arrival in Sydney the day before, this was our first exploration of the area. We began at dawn in the bird-rich Royal National Park, on the outskirts of Australia's largest and most populous city. Its hard to believe you are just a short throw from the 'hubbub' of Sydney when Southern Boobooks and Superb Lyrebirds can be heard calling closeby, but that is the unique experience that is Royal N P. Unfortunately both of these birds eluded us as did almost everything else initially with a very quiet opening to a day which turned out just great in the end. With the extreme quiet in the temperate forest around Wattle Flat, and calm weather apparent at the time, we decided to head out on to the park's heathlands for some of the other (very different) targets. Soon after arrival some striking New Holland Honeyeaters and Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters both showed up. However our attempts at Chestnut-rumped Hylacola (Heathwren) fell flat without a response at all. So we went after the true beauty of the heaths - the Southern Emuwren, which while fairly common can be a bugger to see if there is the slightest breath of wind. Thankfully there was no wind, but just enough rain in showers to make life interesting. However in one of the breaks between the heavier bouts of rain we heard the barely audible insect-like calls and eventually after initially being a little difficult a superb male showed repeatedly, and soon after a Chestnut-rumped Hylacola awoke from its apparent disinterest and began singing from the top of a near shrub. In between these birds a Spotted Harrier ghosted over the heath, and proved to be the only one we got on the tour. Try as we might we could not find any further Beautiful Firetails after Iain had a view of one darting across the heath, but I guess you have to miss something once in a while. Next stop was back to Royal's temperate forests and sandstone outcrops. First the rocky outcrops, where finally a Rock Warbler (Origma) responded and perched several times on top of a sandstone outcrop close to where they had a hanging nest underneath an overhanging rock. This bird used to be considered in its own monotypic family, although has now been widely placed within the diverse Thornbill family. As the only bird endemic to the state of New South Wales, despite its drabness, a key bird for many. On arrival back at Wattle Flat, Iain picked up the ever-changing mimicry of the master mimic, Superb Lyrebird, and we headed straight for the sound and soon after were treated to great views of a extravagantly plumed male lyrebird. This is the species that was made famous for birders in David Attenborough's landmark show, the 'Life of Birds', where a bird from victoria state did a varied rendition of many species and then capped it off with an uncanny impression of a camera shutter release and then a chainsaw! This bird was a little more restricted in its vocal range, although appreciated highly none the less. Before leaving the Royal behind us we found a Crested Shrike-tit right beside the car, and we then departed the park for a suburb of Sydney where Iain has had some luck with a reliable owl stake out over recent years. As the rains were now quite heavy we left the group in the car while we searched the dense tangles for our target and soon after I found the first of a pair of enormous, Powerful Owls sheltering in a thick vine tangle from the downpour.
Having got the owl our time in Sydney was over and with an onshore wind picking up we drove south along the coast stopping near Shellharbour for some lunch and a touch of seawatching. A first glance out at sea indicated this could be a good move as we were greeted by the sight of thousands of Shearwaters. Over lunch we picked up Short-tailed Sooty, Wedge-tailed&Fluttering Shearwaters, White-fronted Tern and Australian Gannet. However best of all was a superb Shy Albatross that glided close inshore on several occasions. Another highlight was a large Humpback Whale out in the bay which breached a number of times giving us all an eyeful. While we were getting our first views of the Albatross a noisy Sooty Oystercatcher flew in and was barely noticed in the excitement, but thankfully settled down where we could all get great views as it fed on the rocky coastline with the waves crashing behind it. It turned out to be our sole sighting of the tour. Our journey to Barren Grounds was largely uneventful with the weather at Barren Grounds (thick fog interspersed with chilling rain), proving a turn off to the birds and we only managed to hear the hoped-for Eastern Bristlebirds and Ground Parrots. A mammal of note however almost became the latest road casualty when a Short-beaked Echidna began to waddle precariously towards the road and Iain dashed out to the rescue...
The tour was flying up until this point and then the weather dealt us a low blow. High winds and thick fog greeted us at Barren Grounds that led us to leave the area without the hoped for specialties. We did see a number of White-throated Treecreepers and Superb Fairywrens, though they were scant compensation for the Gang-gang Cockatoos and Eastern Bristlebirds that were only heard calling in the mist. Our journey westwards into the dry country saw us swap the mist-enshrouded heaths and forests for open pasture land and dry Eucalypt woodlands. The contrast in scenery and habitat from the beginning of the day to the end could not have been more marked. This long journey gave us a varied and interesting new set of birds: Brown Songlarks were perched atop almost every post alongside one particular field, while a regal group of half a dozen of Australia's largest native bird - the Emu was a requested family tick (lifer) for most. By traveling inland to the drier country we were entering the true 'land of the parrots' and we came upon first a few Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoos, then many Red-rumped Parrots, a blooming tree held a pair of noisy Little Lorikeets, a tree with several small parties of Cockatiels, while a few Yellow Rosellas seen along the way turned out to be the only ones of the tour. However, the Superb Parrots remained for the guides eyes only, unfortunately. A frantic mobbing bird party made us a little suspicious and the stop proved shrewd as the birds were hassling a young Southern Boobook perched just outside a nesthole. Other birds picked up on the journey included a Restless Flycatcher and a party of White-winged Choughs shuffling along the ground completed the family sweep (with the Apostlebirds recorded earlier on the tour, being the only other member).
Our first full day in true inland New South Wales was a classic - some great birding in dry woodland at the start of the day with a swamp vigil producing loads of new waterbirds at the days end. We began at daybreak at Binya, a great area of dry woodland interspersed with a maze of tracks and trails. The dawn chorus that greeted us there was exciting as several Painted Honeyeaters were heard in amongst the rest and soon after we found a male singing from a dead snag, with a trip exclusive Black Honeyeater close by. One of the most highly wanted members of the family, because it can be tricky and also because it is just a handsome bird period. Binya was just brimming with birds - new birds were everywhere with Mulga Parrots, Black-eared Cuckoo, Speckled Warbler (one of the host species for the former), Western Gerygone, and several White-browed Babblers. A singing Crested Bellbird on another day could have stolen the show. However, the star of the morning was a dazzling male Splendid Fairywren, a shockingly bright electric blue bird that just seems to glow from the bushes and brought audible gasps from some of the less controlled among us! We then left and had lunch in an area near Griffith where Bluebonnets and Yellow-throated (White-rumped) Miners were new for us, although a nesting Tawny Frogmouth was our second pair with young on the trip. After lunch we left for a waterbird spectacular at Five Bough Swamp - arguably the best site for wetland birds in all of New South Wales.
As Australia was undergoing a devastating drought at the time (their worst in 100 years), this was the part of the trip we were most concerned about as reports of straying inland birds turning up on the coast indicated there may be some birds missing from their usual haunts due to the severe stresses caused by the water shortage. Before we had reached the water we picked up a scarce chat - White-fronted Chat that favors the reedy fringes of wetlands like this. On arrival at the swamp proper we were worried to find far less ducks than usual and water levels very low (where were the expected Freckled Ducks, Blue-billed or Musk Ducks?) However there was still plenty to keep us busy, with Red-kneed Dotterels, an attractive lone Red-necked Avocet, Black-tailed native-hens, Hoary-headed & Australian Grebes, Royal & Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Australian Shelducks and eventually (after searching another area) a whole bunch of Freckled Ducks. The lower water at this time was a boon for crakes though and we had close up views of many Baillon's Crakes, Australian Crakes and a single Spotless Crake. The reeds were loaded with calling Little Grassbirds, while Swamp Harriers and Australian Kites were seen hawking the reedbeds overhead. A dusk vigil at a look out paid off when a large bird cruising over the swamp proved to be the Australian Bittern we had been waiting for. A great days wetland birding, and although we had missed Musk and Blue-billed Ducks, we hoped we might catch up with these later.
This was definitely one of the slower days on the tour, with bird activity unusually low. The morning was spent in some mallee habitat and no day in Australia would be complete without a swamp stop, so we stopped in at Blue Gum Swamp also. The swamp was useful is holding many of the endemic Pink-eared Duck, a bird that had eluded most of us at Five Bough by only being seen briefly in flight overhead. Other birds seen on the journey between our base at Leeton and Dubbo, included a hulking Wedge-tailed Eagle watched plucking a Galah by the roadside, Mistletoebirds, Australian Kestrels, Pied Butcherbirds, White-winged Choughs and Apostlebirds, White-plumed & White-eared Honeyeaters, Rufous Whistler, Common Bronzewing, Crested Pigeon, Eastern Rosella, Black-faced Cuckooshrike, Sacred Kingfisher, Laughing Kookaburra, Australian Reed-warblers and Australian Bushlark for the first time.
The morning was spent in an area of Mallee where a Black (Swamp) Wallaby on the dirt road was a new marsupial for the tour at dawn. Other birds seen in the mallee and in the drive to Kandos included Brown Quail, Mallee Ringneck (yet another parrot!), Dollarbird, Pale Yellow Robin, Jacky-Winter, a few breathtaking Red-capped Robins, and host of thornbills - with Inland, Buff-rumped, Chestnut-rumped & Yellow-rumped Thornbills all recorded in the mallee areas, along with further Pied Currawongs and White-throated Treecreepers. A lunch stop in a small town park was beneficial when we discovered some flowering melaleucas in the park that held a pair of the scarce Musk Lorikeets, while the park also held a few scavenging Red Wattlebirds (complete with the bizarre red wattles that give this honeyeater its name). Musk Lorikeets are named so because they emit a faint odor, the function of which is not yet known, although I can honestly say we couldn't detect this smell while we were watching them!
The day dawned in the Capertee Valley, a favored birding haunt of many Sydney birders. Before we had arrived at our first stop Iain had to make a brief stop to make another animal rescue when we found a young Tawny Frogmouth sat in the road, and a large kangaroo further along the road was our only Euro of the trip. On arrival at our first spot in the Capertee we soon picked up a small party of beautiful Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, while a singing Rufous Songlark in the same area was also a trip addition as were a pair of Hooded Robins, and a small party of Dusky Woodswallows sallying for insects from a dead snag. As we stood on the bridge waiting a single Turquoise Parrot flew overhead calling all the while, an unexpected sighting of this rare parrot that had eluded us at some sites within inland New South Wales. We then headed to some other areas in the Capertee where Fuscous Honeyeaters were found in their usual spot and several smart White-browed Woodswallows hawked insects from low in the trees, and around 20 Diamond Firetails were found feeding in roadside paddocks. As the day wore on we made our way steadily back to Sydney to catch our onward flight to Tasmania, although we made a designated stop at some sewage works where a dozen Blue-billed Ducks were found as we'd hoped (a bird that we had expected to see further inland, and had presumably moved on in response to the severe drought conditions). The 40 or so Australian Shovelers also there were also a trip exclusive. We then caught the flight to Hobart in southern Tasmania, off the southern end of Australia, for the chilliest part of the tour (Tasmania is the only landfall between Australia's southern edge and the Antarctic).
Tasmania has a strangely British feel to it, with many English sounding names, like Mount Wellington, Glenorchy, Kettering and Dover, in addition to some fine scenery, seemingly straight out of the Scottish highlands. However one look at the birds and there is no doubting where you are. We took our breakfast in the field at Peter Murrel reserve, the home of one of Tasmania's and indeed Australia's rarest, most threatened birds - the Forty-spotted Pardalote, so named for the rows of white spotting on the wings. Day break was spent sifting through the many Spotted Pardalotes for their rare cousin to no avail. However before we get onto that, we found some of the other endemics that are special to Tasmania, including Green Rosella, Tasmanian Native-hen, Black-headed Honeyeater; while a nearby Gray Currawong made it easy on us by flashing us his diagnostic white vent (the rarer of the two Tasmanian species, this prevented us having to lure one in later with chips!) A wander up a short trail saw us walk straight in to our main target, when the rare Tassie endemic, Forty-spotted Pardalote repeatedly visited the same dead snag, so may well have been nesting in the area; while a short distance away the hardest of the trio of Tassie endemic Honeyeaters - Strong-billed Honeyeater - was found probing away at the underside of the bark (a niche that it may have filled on Tasmania due to the total absence of any treecreepers on the island), while a number of the commonest (yet most attractive) of the Tassie honeyeaters - Yellow-throated Honeyeaters were also seen. The flight south had brought us to cooler climes and everyone was a little too happy that we had missed the first ferry to Bruny Island so that we could take full advantage of the hot drinks in the quayside cafe. As it happens this is not a bad move as a few Pacific Gulls were out in the harbour (a bird restricted to Tasmania and the southern coasts of Australia), while a number of the near-endemic Black-faced Cormorants were resting on the wharf just outside...
On reaching Bruny island we felt we had reached another deserted part of the Scottish highlands, with wild and beautifully rugged terrain and jagged shorelines, although a roadside pair of Dusky Robins (the only endemic robin on Tasmania) soon brought back into the real world. The rocky shorelines all seemed to hold roosting parties of Pied Oystercatchers, and a stop at a penguin colony (where the penguins were all currently hiding in their burrows or out to sea), found us both Tasmanian Thornbill (complete with diagnostic puffy white undertail coverts) and Brown (Tasmanian) Scrubwren. We headed straight for a tranquil white sand beach where minutes after arriving we found our target - the rare Hooded Plover huddled behind some rocks. After a lunch with a male Superb Fairywren for company the whole time looking for a handout, Dave spotted some flowering trees further up the bay and with a specific nectar feeding, near-endemic parrot in mind, we headed straight for them. Our initial searches turned up nothing, although just as a Brush Bronzewing came in landed close by a couple of the hoped for Swift Parrots flew in and began feeding on the nectar harvest. The last stop before we left Bruny was a known territory of the pretty Pink Robin, that for the third year running duly obliged and perched right out in the open, seemingly absorbing all the praise from the enthusiastic birders all around. There are some very good robins in Australia but there is just something about that subtle rose-pink breast that people just seem to rave about. We then left Bruny Island behind and drove up Mount Wellington on the outskirts of Hobart, that allows some great views out over the city and the huge harbour. The endemic Black Currawong is pretty easy to come by up there as they are a regular roadside bird. A stop for a singing robin later on proved highly fortuitous as we found not only a pair of fantastic Flame Robins, but also a Crescent Honeyeater (our 45th and final honeyeater of the tour), and better still a singing Calamanthus (Striated Fieldwren). Not bad at all. With seemingly little left to look for on the final day, we retired to a great Thai restaurant in the quiet city of Hobart.
Flushed with our success from the day before, we started thinking about alternative plans, and we all agreed it would be a nice close to go and watch thousands of penguins coming to shore that evening for the tour finale. First things first though. Early in the morning we went to a local reserve in Hobart where the last of the robins was calling on arrival, and soon after we saw our final of the Tassie robins, that is also strangely the commonest robin on there - with a couple of superb male Scarlet Robins competing for the same territory. A lone Kelp Gull was also circling close by with another Pacific Gull for good side-by-side comparison. We then headed up to Ferntree and Mount Wellington for the last of the Tassie endemics. Before we looked for that however a cafe stop was in order, where the Gray Currawong was hanging out ready for another handout (although as we had seen this earlier he was unlucky on this day!) The last Tasmanian specialty took us a little time, being a shy understorey bird, although the crisp white underparts of the Scrubtit gave it away eventually as we watched it foraging in the thick temperate forest mid layer. We then afforded ourselves a break after the rigors of a long birding trip, before we headed along the east coast of Tassie for our 'penguin odyssey'. Before going after the penguins however we stopped in (with little time to spare), at a known area for the handsome near-endemic Cape Barren Goose and thankfully, with time limited, a pair were waiting for us on arrival.
It was then full steam ahead for Little Penguins, although birders are nothing if not easily distracted and a couple of stops were 'needed' on the way - first for a trip exclusive Fairy Tern in a secluded bay; and then a roadside lake packed with wildfowl was simply a must stop opportunity. Before we had even started scanning in earnest for any gaps on the list that might be sitting on the lake, someone spotted a pair of Musk Ducks that had frustratingly eluded us up until now - a classic last minute bird if ever there was one. We then reached Bicheno and headed out on our 'penguin safari', being treated to some full-on close up views of Little (Fairy) Penguins as they came onto the shore from their day time fishing sprees in many small groups wandering past us literally within inches of their surrounding admirers (us!). A truly magical way to end what had been a superb tour for birds, with 418 species seen including representatives of all the major Aussie families. When someone leaves the trip with 40 new families (out of an amazing 87 families seen on the tour in total), it is easy to believe the trip had gone well. The tour started with Papuan Frogmouth as the first official species and ended with Little (Fairy) Penguin as the final bird of the tour. Although there was a long drive back to Hobart at the end of it all, mammal additions in the form of a Common Brushtail Possum and Tasmanian (Rufous/Red-bellied) Pandemelon made the return leg pass by a little more easily!
Taxonomy and nomenclature follow: Clements, James F. 2000. Birds of the World: A Checklist. Fifth Edition. Vista, CA: Ibis Publishing Co. Includes recent updates.
All the birds on this list (421 were recorded in total) were seen by at least one person in the group other then the leader, except those marked with a 'GO' that denotes seen by the guide only, and those marked with an 'H' that were only heard.
Birds in bold black are birds endemic to the Australian/Tasmania region; while those marked in bold red are endemics to Tasmania only.
Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius EMU
Dromaiidae Emu Dromaius novaehollandiae PENGUINS
Little (Fairy) Penguin Eudyptula minor
AUSTRALASIAN ROBINS Petroicidae
Jacky-winter Microeca fascinans
Lemon-bellied Flycatcher Microeca flavigaster
Scarlet Robin Petroica multicolor Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii Flame Robin Petroica phoenicea Rose Robin Petroica rosea Pink Robin Petroica rodinogaster Dusky Robin Melanodryas vittata Hooded Robin Melanodryas cucullata Pale-yellow Robin Tregellasia capito Yellow Robin Eopsaltria australis
White-browed Robin Poecilodryas superciliosa Gray-headed Robin Heteromyias albispecularis