This report is dedicated to the memory of Phoebe Snetsinger for whom this was the last complete trip before her tragic accident which occurred in Madagascar in November 1999. Our thoughts will always be with her.
Tony Clarke - C/ República Dominicana, Nº 61,
Barrio de Fátima,
Phoebe Snetsinger - 420, Algonquin Place
Friday 24th September - I met Phoebe at Cairns International Airport mid morning and we transferred directly to Cassowary House at Kuranda on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands where we had arranged to spend the night with Phil and Sue Gregory. On arrival we were not too surprised to find a Cassowary on the lawn in front of the house, as we had a similar experience with this species at the same location two years previous. Our main reason for visiting Phil (who was away on a trip) and Sue was the prospect of seeing Red-necked Crake, a species which Phoebe wanted better views of as the ones she had before at Kingfisher Caravan Park had not been good. Whilst Phoebe rested for a while I went for a look around Kuranda and bought a few beers for the evening. I returned in the late afternoon and although not exactly when expected the crake appeared and gave some great views as it was fed cheese by Sue. We then had our first try for one of the trip target species, Lesser Sooty Owl, which like two years ago seemed as it was going to be difficult. We got no response whatsoever and gave up after about ¾ of an hour in time for dinner.
Saturday 25th September - During dinner yesterday evening Sue informed us that she had been given some information concerning another of our target species, Masked Owl. This had apparently been seen on a couple of occasions in the vicinity of the Birthday Creek car park near Paluma. As we were hoping to be able to arrange a night out with John Young at Trebonne, near Ingham, we decided to head in that direction and if we had no luck with John then we would try around Paluma on our own. I had previously seen Lesser Sooty Owl in this area as have a few other observers. We got as far as Crystal Creek where we checked in to the motel before taking the road up the escarpment to Paluma. We had a little time on our hands and so we did a bit of general birding before waiting for dusk. The highlights of this period were undoubtedly both male and female Golden Bowerbirds at the Birthday Creek Falls car park and a Noisy Pitta on the edge of the road on our way in. Unfortunately neither species of owl gave themselves away and despite trying hard until about 1 a.m. we had to go away empty handed.
Sunday 26th September - Tonight would be our last chance to go out with John Young but in case we could still not contact him I had made arrangements yesterday to contact another birder from the area, Ray Venables, who was prepared to try and find a Masked Owl with us this evening. On our way south towards Ingham we stopped to try and contact John Young for one last time. This time luck was on our side and he was home. What was even luckier was that he had no commitments for the evening and would be only too pleased to take us out for an evening owling. This was great news both for Phoebe and for me as I knew that if anyone could find a Masked and/or a Lesser Sooty Owl it was John. Within Australia he is famous for the number of night birds he can find in a relatively small area and we were not to be disappointed this evening. It was a real experience to spend an evening in the company of this extraordinary man and I am glad to have had the pleasure of meeting somebody who is a real master of his art, finding owls. With John we saw 6 species of owl, 2 species of Nightjar, 1 species of Frogmouth and heard Owlet-Nightjar, and all this in just a few hours. In fact we were back at our motel in Ingham just before midnight, it's just a pity the bars were closed so we had to delay our celebrations.
Monday 27th September - I went out early and did a bit of birding around Cattle Creek while Phoebe stayed in bed to get a little extra sleep after the previous nights successes. But soon we were on our way north again, back to Cairns to catch our flight on to Brisbane where we were going to meet up with Terry Reis for the first time in the trip. On the way back to Cairns we had the chance for a quick look at the area around the boat ramp at Edmonton but as it was the wrong time of day things were a little quiet. The flight to Brisbane left on time and Terry was waiting for us on arrival in Brisbane. He drove the hire car out to his place at Mount Glorious and after dinner we went out spotlighting under some really bad conditions but it was our first attempt, and failure, at Greater Sooty Owl.
Tuesday 28th September - We were upfairly early as we had a fairly long drive in front of us. Our destination today was Cooloola National Park to the north of Brisbane and home to our next target species, and another which Phoebe had dipped on in the past, Ground Parrot. We first went to Rainbow Beach and found ourselves somewhere to stay and then headed off into the National Park and to the known site for the Ground Parrot. Their usual area was particularly wet and after about half an hour of slogging through very wet heathland we were about to try some slightly higher, and drier ground, when Phoebe flushed a Ground Parrot from the edge of a track. We all saw the bird fairly well and were able to flush it once more before it got the better of us and flew off into an area where we were unable to locate it again. We were now ahead of our schedule and so did some general birding around Inskip Point where the highlight was a pair of Beach Stone-curlews before retiring to the pub for a meal, and for Terry and myself a few beers.
Wednesday 29th September - No rush this morning but we were still up fairly early so as to give us time to get across to our next location and begin our search for our next target bird. The site was Yarraman State Forest and the bird was the elusive Black-breasted Buttonquail. During the afternoon, and in between heavy showers, we searched areas of vinescrub continually and although we found plenty of evidence of the birds being in the area we never got views of one. The platelets were easy to find and we saw literally hundreds of these including quite a few which had recent, todays, droppings in. Also on one or two occasions the droppings had been made within the hour but where were the birds. We returned to our nearby accommodation a little disheartened but determined that we would have more luck in the morning, especially if the weather improved a little and we could hear the leaves rustling rather than being hit by raindrops like today.
Thursday 30th September - We started at dawn but again it was the same story as yesterday. Plenty of platelets including some very fresh ones but no sign of the birds. We tried a few different areas but we noticed that in one particular area there were more fresh platelets than anywhere else. This still didn't help us as we still couldn't find the birds but we decided that this area would be the place to concentrate on. We kept trying adjacent areas and would return regularly to the area where the recent platelets were, after a few goes at this Terry caught some movement from the corner of his eye and was certain it was a Buttonquail. He was right, but what species? Painted Buttonquail has also been recorded from this area and this particular area looked like better habitat for this species. We all got glimpses of the bird in the next minute or so but I was sure that I had seen enough to be certain that it was a Black-breasted, as was Terry. We started to encircle the bird the best we could with three people and sure enough a male Black-breasted Buttonquail presented itself in full view for Phoebe before doing a verticle take off and flying back into the thicker vegetation behind us. It had taken a lot of time and effort plus collecting a few ticks to find the bird but it all seems worth while in the end. As by now it was well after check out time we decided to stay in the same accommodation overnight but we had enough time to go and have a try for Greater Sooty Owl in the Bunya Mountains National Park. At this site there is a bird that regularly roosts in a hollow strangler fig tree right along side one of the walking trails. Our hopes were high after seeing the Buttonquail but were soon to be lowered again when we realised that the bird was not in the tree. OK so now down to the hard work. We stayed for at least an hour after dark but not a peep from a Greater Sooty Owl. Perhaps the site was not as reliable as before, perhaps the owl had died or moved on. Either way we could do no more today and decided that a visit early in the morning was our next opportunity.
Friday 1st October - We were back at the Bunya Mountains National Park early this morning and approached the tree hoping for the best. Today we were in luck, Phoebe went into the tree and looked up and there it was - a Greater Sooty Owl looking back down at her. We all had some great looks as the bird roosted in the tree virtually oblivious to our presence before we made our exit and left it to get some totally undisturbed rest. After a little bit of general birding in the Lockyer Valley we returned to Terry's place at Mount Glorious for the night. Phoebe dined with Terry and Susan on Kangaroo Pie whilst I went out for a meal with another of my birding friends from Brisbane, namely Dave Stewart the younger.
Saturday 2nd October - Another fairly early start so as to get up to Lammington National Park with time to try for our next, and probably the hardest, target species - Rufous Scrub-bird. It was fortunate that on our arrival Terry was able to locate one of the O'Reilly sons and he gave us an area to try which was much closer to the guest house than the usual areas that people look for this bird. Unfortunately we did not seem to find the correct area along the Border Trail and so we continued up to the Bethogabel Lookout area. On the way just near the drinking water tap we heard one bird very close to the track and I saw it twice, once in the vegetation and once as two birds crossed the track, very quickly. Phoebe saw these birds but I must admit the views were not good enough for a life bird. We had our lunch at the lookout and then tried the Scrub-birds again, this time with little joy as the only sign was a distant birding calling. The weather had been terrible all the time and we were getting rather uncomfortable, in fact I was absolutely soaked. Also time was beginning to get on by now and so we started back towards the guest house. On the return we took the alternative Pensioners Track and sure enough discovered the area we had been told about. We heard one bird calling but it did not respond to the tape and so we left it alone for another go tomorrow. We stayed in the Cain Babel Cabins and ate in the restaurant at O'Reilly's.
Sunday 3rd October - OK so no prizes for guessing what we did this morning. We headed to the area closest to the guest house and tried again for the Scrub-bird. This time Phoebe was lucky and she got some reasonable views of the bird running along the forest floor in an unusually rather open area. What's more the rain held off until we were just getting back to O'Reilly's. But then it started to poor again and so we retired for the afternoon and no more birding was done today.
Monday 4th October - It was still raining when we got up and so it was decided to give up on Lammington and head back down into Brisbane. Mind you there were no complaints as we had seen everything we had wanted to see in south-east Queensland which means that the next couple of days around Sydney can be taken fairly easy before we start the tough stuff again in South Australia. We spent the afternoon at Terry's and then went out with him and Susan for a meal.
Tuesday 5th October - This morning Terry drove us to the airport to get our flight to Sydney. We were leaving Terry for a couple of days but he was going to meet up with us again in Adelaide to join us for the South Australian section of the trip. Today was a fairly lazy day but after dropping Phoebe at the Airport Motel in Sydney I went to Maroubra to do some seawatching.
Wednesday 6th October - Today was a lazy day but we decided to do some birding in Royal National Park. The undoubted highlight of the day was finding a territorial Rock Warbler which approached us to within a few feet in responce to pishing. We also saw Chestnut-rumped Hylacola and Tawny-crowned Honeyeater as well as getting some stunning views of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo.
Thursday 7th October - I did some seawatching early from Maroubra before collecting Phoebe from the motel and driving to the airport to connect with our flight to Adelaide. Once in Adelaide we met up with Terry again and picked up our 4 wheel drive which we were going to need later for our mini expedition into the Great Victorian Desert. As it turned out Terry was lucky to be in Adelaide as through no fault of his own there had been some mess ups with his flight connections, in fact one had actually been cancelled by the airline for no reason whatsoever!!! Still we all met as planned and we were soon on our way out of Adelaide and heading towards Waikerie where we were to stay for the next couple of nights while we searched the surrounding areas for our next target species - the rare Black-eared Miner and the elusive Red-lored Whistler. We arrived in Waikerie with very little time for anything except to get ourselves some accommodation and get the key for the Gluepot Reserve from the Shell Petrol Station. We then took it easy until dinner time. After dinner Terry and I thought that it would be a good idea to go and look for Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. We succeeded in our goal but with afterthought perhaps a bit more sleep would have been a good alternative.
Friday 8th October - We were up early this morning in order to get into Pooginook just after dawn. This we achieved but initially there was no sign of our target bird - Red-lored Whistler. We had been informed by John Cox in Adelaide (and he should know) that this is one of the best places in Australia to see this species. After a while we decided that either we were doing something wrong, the information was wrong or the birds weren't in the area. The only evidence we had of the presence of the bird were a couple of distant calls which may or may not have been given by our prey. The only bonus was a group of Black-eared "type" Miners that after some searching produced at least one bird which showed all the characters of a pure bred Black-eared with no sign of any hybrid features at all. This could not be said for the vast majority of the birds because although many looked good for Black-eared on close inspection it was clear that most birds were indeed hybrid Black-eared/Yellow-throated. From Pooginook we continued on to the Birds Australia reserve at Gluepot. On arrival we asked some other birders if they had seen anything of interest today and were somewhat surprised to hear they had just been watching a Red-lored Whistler. We parked up and spent about 20 minutes looking in the area where the bird had been seen but without luck. Phoebe and Terry continued their search and I went to fetch the vehicle as we were getting further and further away from where we had parked. As I approached I could see Terry pointing and Phoebe looking intently through her scope, sure enough they had seen a female Red-lored Whistler which disappeared as I arrived and so all I saw were a few Gilbert's Whistlers. Still the target species had been seen and after a bit of general birding we heade back to Waikerie for our evening meal, a few beers and a good nights sleep.
Saturday 9th October - Another early start as we decided to try Gluepot again at dawn to see if we could locate a male Red-lored Whistler. Unfortunately we couldn't even find the female that Terry and Phoebe had seen yesterday. We went back to Waikerie to return the key to the Shell Petrol Station and then started off on our drive towards our next site which was to be the Yumbarra reserve near to Ceduna. We knew we would not make Ceduna for tonight and so a short stop at a dam on the outskirts of Waikerie added a few species to our trip list. We made it as far as Kimba where we stayed the night.
Sunday 10th October - As always an early start as we were hoping to be able to get across to Ceduna and fit in some birding in Yumbarra during the afternoon. Our target bird for this area was the almost mythical Scarlet-chested Parrot. We knew that John Cox had seen quite a few birds here the previous Christmas and that Tony Russell (also from Adelaide) had seen one over the Easter break. We did not have our hopes raised too high but it was a chance and the way our luck was running who could tell. Obviously it was time for our luck to run out as we could find no sign of any Scarlet-chested Parrots in either of the areas where they had been seen before. Still tomorrow was another day so we went back to Ceduna where we spent the night. Probably the best bird we saw today was a Rufous Treecreeper which we saw briefly in Yumbarra.
Monday 11th October - We were in the Yumbarra Conservation Reserve for dawn but the results were the same as yesterday, no sign of Scarlet-chested Parrots. So we had to place our bets on the Great Victoria Desert. This meant stocking up with food and fuel so we headed back into Ceduna to get things sorted out. Supplies were readily available here as this is the last town before the Nullarbor Plain, we also contact the national parks office to let them know we were going into the Unnamed Conservation Park, which is north of Cook. We had all our permits for the park and for crossing the aboriginal land en route and so we headed off for our next overnight stop which was scheduled to be at the Nullarbor Roadhouse, just before the road north to Cook. On the way we called in to the Head of the Bight to see the breeding Southern Right Whales. We got some excellent views through the scopes but the biggest shock of the whole trip was when a Black Tern in winter plumage appeared in front of me for just a few seconds. It was not seen by Terry or Phoebe and must have flown past them below cliff level, we waited around for about half an hour but there was no further sign of this bird so that was that. I will be sending a description of this bird to the Australian rarities committee. We got to the Nullarbor Roadhouse with plenty of daylight left for an attempt at seeing the distinctive Nullarbor form (alisteri) of the Cinnamon Quail-Thrush. This has been given full species status by some authors in the past but it is currently regarded as a subspecies of the Cinnamon. Within a few minutes we had seen a couple of birds in flight but it took nearly an hour to get some good views of a bird on the ground. Fortunately when we did it was a male in really good plumage and so the wait was worth it. We then went back to the roadhouse where we spent the night.
Tuesday 12th October - Surprise, surprise we awoke this morning to find that it had been raining overnight and certainly the sky, or what we could make out in the early light, looked threatening. This was a factor which we hadn't even included in our calculations, surely we weren't going to be beaten by the weather when we were trying to get into one of the driest areas on the continent. So we set off on our journey into the Great Victorian Desert, just hoping that the weather was not going to be as bad as it looked. We got up to Cook no problem even though the road was a bit slippy in a couple of places. Cook used to be a railroad community but it is now virtually completely abandoned, in fact the former population over around 100 people is now down to a family of three plus a few odd workers that call in from time to time. We had a chat with a couple of these workers about which track to take to Vokes Hill Corner. They knew even less than we did but by following the directions given in Thomas and Thomas and using our GPS for direction we took the only track which seemed to be heading in the correct direction, north. Now the road really did get worse but no more so than we had expected. We were now travelling on a single file track out across the northers side of the Nullarbor Plain and boy can you see why it gets it's name, there isn't a tree in sight. So after the Nullarbor we got into areas with a bit more vegetation, and a few parrots to check, and then on into sand dune country. After a few dunes we went back into rather rockier habitat and then into some areas of very open and sparse woodland. We were approximately 100 kms north of Cook when Terry saw a couple of parrots he thought were worth checking out but probably were Mulga Parrots and not our target species. Phoebe and I stayed in the vehicle but suddenly a shout from Terry "SCARLET-CHESTED PARROT" and then all panic was let loose. I jumped out of the vehicle which then started rolling as I hadn't put the handbrake on, Phoebe couldn't get the seat down to get out of the back and what's more during these few seconds the bird flew off. I regained control of the vehicle and pulled up on the side of the road, I collected the GPS and went to rejoin Terry and Phoebe. Fortunately they had just relocated the birds about 100 metres away sitting in a dead tree, what a little stunner this parrot is. It looks a bit gaudy in the field guides but those illustrations lack something that the real bird has, I don't know what it is but they certainly look better in life than in any of the plates that I've seen. We stayed with these birds, about 8 males, for nearly an hour before turning our attention towards the weather again. It was actually starting to rain and the weather to the north of us looked non too friendly. It was at this point we decided without hesitation to head back to the Nullarbor Roadhouse. We had seen our target species and there was no point having to risk getting stuck in a very isolated area just to go and see what it was like. We made the right decision as the rain continued in a light form most of the way back to Cook. Then from Cook south to the highway the heavens opened and what had been a good, fast dirt road this morning turned into a slow and slippery return. On getting back to the Roadhouse we were informed that we had been lucky to get out and that they were going to close the road to Cook. Well we did it but I hate to think what might have happened if Terry had not decided to check out a pair of Mulga Parrots.
Wednesday 13th October - Well the pressure is off for the moment and we are a couple of days ahead of schedule. Today was a fairly leisurely drive back to Port Augusta with a brief stop at Lake Gillies Consevation Park en route. We spent the night at a motel in Port Augusta.
Thursday 14th October - Early this morning we drove into Buckaringa Gorge, in the Flinders ranges. We had a good search of the area but could find no sign of the merrotsyi race of the Striated Grasswren which has been suggested as a possible split. We did however get some excellent views of Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby which was a new mammal for me. After a late breakfast and check-out at Port Augusta we headed off to Adelaide where we had arranged to stay for a couple of nights with John Cox and his wife Heather. On arrival in Adelaide we had a quick look at the Greenfields Wetlands area where John works and as luck would have it we actually bumped into John as he was closing the car park gates. We got directions to his house, which was useful as I don't think we would have found it otherwise and after a bit of birding we decided that socialising with John would probably be the best bet for the rest of the day. This evening the five of us went out for a meal at one of the local hotels (pub).
Friday 15th October - Today we were on our own as John was working but he had given us some areas to go and try so we kept ourselves busy. We first went to Tolderol Game Reserve which was a good wader spot, however it was still a bit early in the season and things were fairly quiet. So then we moved onto the agricultural area boardering Boggy Lake. Here we located a few groups of Cape Barren Geese which were one of the main target species for today. We also recorded a Black Falcon in this area which was the third one of the trip. On our way back to Adelaide we stopped at a small lake outside Strathalbyn where we found a pair of Blue-billed Ducks which were another target species. So after this it was back to John's place for a few beers and some take away fish and chips.
Saturday 16th October - As this was a weekend John was free and he offered to take us in to the St. Kilda saltfields, an offer we could not refuse. Still we were limited on time as we had to catch our next flight later in the afternoon. The morning was, as expected, very productive and we saw some interesting things including an Australian Crake and about 1000 Banded Stilts. But all too soon it was time to get back to John's place and get packed ready for our flights. At the airport we said our goodbyes to Terry as he was returning to Brisbane. Phoebe and I were on our own again, next stop Melbourne. We arrived on time but by the time we had sorted out the hire car it was getting dark and not surprisingly the road system had changed since my last visit about 10 years ago. This meant that finding our way around Melbourne was not as easy as it could have been but eventually we got to Lilydale and found ourselves somewhere to stay for the night.
Sunday 17th October - As always when there was something to go for we were up early. We drove the short distance to Yellingbo and soon found where we were supposed to find our next target species - the very rare and localised Helmeted Honeyeater. Although officially still classified as a subspecies of Yellow-tufted Honeyeater this was on our wanted list just in case the taxonomists in Australia decide to go mad and split it one day. We spent the first hour or so after dawn without much luck but then all of a sudden there was one in full view. It stayed in our vicinity for a couple of minutes but then disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared. So what to do for the rest of the day. It was decided to have a look at some of the other birding sites nearby but return to the motel relatively early and have an early dinner. We birded in Toolangi State Forest and also along the Acheron Way but neither were as good as they could be due to the time of day and the fact that we were trying to locate forest species. We had dinner early as planned and got to bed early as we were on the move again in the morning.
Monday 18th October - So no birding this morning and we just headed back to the airport to catch our flight to Tasmania. Having arrived we tried to sort out the Masked Owl site along Pittwater Road as this was our target species for Tasmania. The hole in the tree is not as easy to find as it looks from the sketch map, in fact we found a few possibilities. So we found somewhere to stay close to the site and went for an early dinner before returning to wait for the owl to appear. Unfortunately the only things which came out of the holes we were looking at were possoms!! Also despite playing the tape in many places up and down the road, and throughout the surrounding area, we didn't even hear the owl so after a few hours we gave up for the evening and decided to try again in the early hours of the morning.
Tuesday 19th October - We got up about 04.00 and drove back to Pittwater Road. Almost immediately I heard a distant call and so tried the tape. This time we got a response and it was closer than the original call. A few seconds later another call and I saw a shape fly across and perch in one of the trees. A quick grab for the torch and there was our final target bird for the trip, a superb Tasmanian Masked Owl. Yet another bank bird, but one day who knows? Now we were in an awkward situation. Our flight back to Sydney was not until tomorrow and there had been a couple of albatrosses seen of Sydney and Wollongong which could be either an undescribed subspecies or even Amsterdam Albatross! Phoebe decided that if we could get out on a flight today then we would charter the Sandra K and give the albatrosses a try. We drove to the airport and we were in luck, no problems to get on a flight. The boat was all arranged and so all we needed was a car. Fortunately Avis did have a spare vehicle which we could use but I think the fact that we had a reservation for the following day was an advantage as they originally said they had nothing available. We drove down to Wollongong, got ourselves fixed up with a motel, surprisingly difficult as there was some sort of conference going on in town, and had a relaxing afternoon. We ate this evening in the Rugby Club bar and got a fairly early night ready for a day at sea tomorrow.
Wednesday 20th October - Karl arrived promptly on the quayside at 07.00 and we were soon on our way towards the continental shelf. We had been joined by Lindsay Smith and Andrew Stafford who had both seen an example of what we were looking for and so hopes were high. Unfortunately it was not to be and despite trying as hard as we could we didn't get a sniff of our prey. Mind you a Black-bellied Storm-petrel gave some superb views and we trapped an interesting "Wandering type" albatross which may have been one not seen very often in Australian waters. Otherwise the trip was much as expected with no great shocks. After the boat trip we drove back to Sydney and that evening went out for a meal with Gerry Richards and Trevor Quested, a fine end to a fine trip. Apart from the albatross, which doesn't really count, we saw all of our target birds and you can't do much better than a 100% success rate.
Thursday 21st October - Today Phoebe was flying back to the USA and so we said our goodbyes at the airport and I returned to Gerry's flat to get ready for my trip to New Caledonia which was starting tomorrow. Little did I know that this was to be the last time I saw Phoebe Snetsinger, one of the world's most fanatic birders and a most pleasant and generous travelling companion. I for one will remember her for a long time to come.