Eastern Australia October, November 2010
'Roos, Yaks, and meat pies (and the odd bird)
Oz has to be pretty high on the list of anyone that has even just a vague interest in birds and nature. I always thought Australia must be as close to birder's heaven as it gets: lots of endemic birds, great wildlife, cold beers, and people that speak English (sort of).
It took a few years to safe up the necessary cash, but with Ha working 3 jobs at the same time we finally scraped together the funds to contact BirdQuest and join one of their tours. We had initially planned to do the West Coast in 2009, but due to work we had to postpone the trip a year and do the East Coast instead. I wasn't really happy about that initially as the original trip would have included Christmas Island, but we did not want to wait another year either.
BirdQuest trips are not exactly cheap, on the other hand they do offer outstanding (in my opinion) itineraries and Ha and I figured we might as well go the whole 9 yards. Thus, we coughed up a fair bit of dosh for a trip that would last 5 weeks in total.
However, what really needs to be factored in are the extremely high incidental costs. The Oz Dollar was very strong when we were there, actually a tad bit higher than the US Dollar, and every time we had a couple of drinks, I had to clear it with my bank manager first. It starts at the airport where a minuscule luggage trolley goes for anywhere between AUD 3.00 to 4.00, then a 30 minute taxi ride that set us back AUD 55.00, and on to a AUD 6.00 beer to help recover from the shock. Ha had a Margarita at O'Reilley's that cost a cool AUD 16.00 and even the crappiest motels were on the very far side of AUD 100.00. We finished our trip at Doyles on the Beach where a meal of, admittedly very good, Fish & Chips and a couple of drinks set us back AUD 220.00!!!
So, only visit Oz if you have very deep pockets or are in line for a major inheritance.
Transportation and accommodation:
We were lucky in that we were only 3 paying customers plus Guy, our guide for the duration. This meant that most of the time we had ample room in a large 4WD or similar; essential for the distances we covered and for the gear the average birder carries. It also meant that we were all quickly out of the car when something exciting was spotted. To be honest, I'd hate to do the trip if the tour was fully sold as it would have meant a pretty cramped van I guess. Only once we only managed to secure a regular 4-door and it was an extremely tight fit.
Plenty of flights, too. Not so good for someone who hates flying. Even worse, the airlines are really strict on carry-on and excess baggage. Between the four of us we were pretty much on the 20-kilo-each-dot (lucky for John who did bring the kitchen sink, too). On the Brisbane to Mt. Isa flight the extremely rude floozy at the counter make us take out all optics and laptop and put them in the checked luggage; a couple of very apprehensive hours followed.
Accommodation ranged from excellent (and where we would inevitably only stay one night) to outright shit-hole next to the highway (Sutherland Motel) where just as inevitably we would spend a couple or more nights. To be honest, I thought a fair bit of the motels disappointing considering how much the trip cost. If the birding site is in the middle of nowhere, fair enough. But if it is in a large town than I would have expected more than a crap motel with 0 facilities. I guess BirdQuest needed to make up somewhere for the tour not being sold out.
Forget Internet, forget laundry services, forget any kind of service come to think of it. I guess I am spoilt having lived in South East Asia that long where even a 10 Dollar guesthouse will have free Wi-Fi, more than three TV channels (2 of which were religious channels) and somebody to help with the bags. Value for money: piss-poor.
Australia, the land of eternal sunshine, beaches, and plenty of booze? Not really, at least not in the beginning. NSW was bloody cold, especially on the "Barren Grounds", with wind and rain. We had to stop for some emergency shopping as both Ha and I were woefully underdressed. We were saved by an Army surplus store to stock up on rain and cold weather gear. Gloves would actually not have gone amiss either; the guy at the store told us that it had snowed just a couple of days earlier! We would have more rain in Queensland later, apparently it was the wettest spring in 20 years, but at least it got warmer the further North we moved.
The Outback and Cairns were very hot, but I felt quite comfortable as it was not as oppressively humid as in Cambodia. Actually the weather was pretty bearable most of the time and the rainfalls meant that it was very green and colourful everywhere. The wet spring did make some of the birding harder as the water holes were not reliable stake-outs; the birds had plenty of water all over the place.
Obviously all the rain was a harbinger of things to come, as many places we visited in Queensland would experience some of the worst flooding in decades just a few short months later.
Food and Drink:
If there was one thing we were really looking forward to, apart from the fauna of course, it was the food. I had this vision of fresh seafood, great barbies, and the odd Platypus steak or two. What we got was meat pies, Subway sandwiches, and bastardized Asian food. Seriously, with a few notable exceptions, food varied between mediocre and inedible. Breakfast in the motels consisted of a couple of slices of toast, a box of Kellogg's and 3-in-1 Nescafe. Keep in mind the motels were charging anywhere from AUD 10.0 to AUD 15.00 a head for this! Beats me why BirdQuest had ordered breakfasts, we ended up hitting the supermarkets the evening before to buy some real food. Mind you, Ha did develop quite a liking for Vegemite, but then she is Vietnamese; they eat pretty much anything (sorry honey:-) Lunch was mostly on the road, if I never see another meat pie in my life, I'll be a happy camper (what do they put in there, road kill?). We did have some good dinners, notably at the Lotus Bird Lodge, the Kingfisher Lodge, and in Sydney, but on the whole I would not visit Australia on a culinary tour.
Now, the beer! Oh, the beer! All the lousy food is forgiven for some of the fantastic beers I stumbled across. A few of my favourites were Fat Yak, Blue Tongue, White Rabbit, and Naked Blonde; the names alone made these brews very quaffable.
A note on the booze: contrary to the image of Aussies being a hard-drinking lot, many restaurants are dry and necking a beer in public is a big no-no. There are however a lot of bottle shops and the folks behind the counters inevitably went out of their ways to introduce an ignorant foreigner (me) to the best Australian breweries have to offer. And, luckily, nary a Foster's in sight.
Certainly a beer lover's paradise, as long as you bring a very fat wallet.
Dangers and annoyances:
Ha's biggest concern, as usual, were leeches; but we only encountered a couple on Mount Lewis. Obviously, it was Ha that spotted them. There weren't too may Mozzies either, the exception being Kingfisher Lodge, though there were a couple of places that had their fair share of flies.
The only place with lots of gnats where the Mangroves near the Cairns seafront, but there they were a real pain, literally.
The real annoyance was the Spinifex. A common plant around Mt. Isa, this is just the most horrible plant I have come across. Think thousands of needles that grow at ankle height. Look nice and lush from afar, but are absolute agony to wade through. We did buy garters but the @%#*& Spinifex went right through them.
In certain areas there are broad-leafed plants that are best not touched as they can produce quite an allergic reaction; we were however forewarned buy Guy and steered well clear.
We did encounter the equivalent of our Red Ants in Cairns, except they are green but pack the same punch. They taste a little like limes (Guy told me that the Aborigines eat them, so I got my own back and munched a couple).
Apart from that, Australia is a very pleasant country to bird in, it certainly felt a very safe place.
The field guide we used most was Michael Morcombe's "Field Guide to Australian Birds". The lay-out is easy to use, with the drawings opposite the notes. Notes are concise but cover description, voice, habitat and status. There is room for a distribution map and all that in a guide that is still easy to carry. There is also a large section on nests and eggs. We also had the compact edition of this guide.
The other bird guide was Simpson and Day's "Field Guide to the Birds of Australia". We carried three books for those occasions where Ha would suspect leeches and stay behind. Also a very good guide but what I liked less that the illustrations are not necessarily opposite the text but are sometimes all over the page. Not so suitable for someone like me who had to come to grips with all these new species.
For mammals we carried Menkhorst and Knight's ''A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia". Again an excellent book with fantastic drawings.
Four other books we did not carry with us but kept home as a reference later were Stephen Swanson's "Field Guide to Australian Reptiles", George Hangay and Pavel German's "Insects of Australia", Michael Braby's "The complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia" (though we would not see a lot of butterflies) and Leonard Cronin's "Key Guide to Australian Trees". Don't say we weren't prepared for any and all eventuality... What I did not find was "A Field Guide to the Common Beers of Australia", but I did extensive research on the subject once there.
For the touristy bit, we bought the 1000-page Lonely Planet Australia Guide. Bloody thing weighs a ton; wasn't it lucky that we promptly forgot it at home?
To scope or not to scope:
I had put out the question on the Web of whether or not to drag a scope along. Opinions varied widely but here is my take on it: don't bother. Birds obviously do note rate very high on the Australian food chain and are thus approachable like heck. Add to that the very restrictive luggage allowances enforced on domestic flights and lugging that extra piece of equipment is just not worth it.
Guy Dutson, our guide, driver, organizer and on-board vegetarian. Whilst I did not always see eye to eye with him (and it is all my fault, fact is that he is an outstanding birder with the patience of a Saint. We would only have seen a fraction of the birds we saw without him
Daniel, who joined us for the second part. Usually a more intrepid birder; he came along to clean up a few blockers from previous trips. Very good birder, and not disinclined to have a beer or two with me.
Philip, who organized an outstanding pelagic trip (repeat after me: 5 species of Albatross, 5 species of Albatross, 5 species of Albatross.....) and showed us around his stomping grounds near Newcastle.
Sue, boss of the Cassowary House. Prize for the best breakfast we had in Australia has to go to her: real coffee, home-made toast and jam, Cassowary taking a crap on the terrace,.......
Lindsay and Keith Fisher of the Kingfisher Park Birdwatcher's Lodge. Just as I had resigned myself to the fact that there is no edible food in Australia; they came to the rescue. Oh, and they had some great birds, too.
Gary and Sue of the Lotusbird Lodge. Two more great cooks, fantastic accommodation (the frogs in the shower thought so, too), and plenty of ice-cold beers.
All the extremely friendly and helpful Australians that extended a welcome that has us planning our next trip (never mind the one exception, the #%$^ at the Qantas check-in counter in Cairns, she represented 0.001% of the folks we met).
And then there is my wife, "Vegemite-ain't-too-bad" Ha. The only person that spotted more birds was Guy, and even then I think it was a close call. I am very jealous! As usual, you were a great companion, even though this time it was me that had to prepare breakfast (if you can call it that) most mornings.
A report of this length, written 5 months later by an old fart like me is bound to be full of mistakes. Obviously, these mistakes are mine and you can abuse me at hannostamm(at)hotmail.com. Also let me know about any birds I got wrong, misspelled places, or the wrong alcohol content of beer; I did not always understand the local lingo too well.
17th of October:
After an uneventful 11-hour flight from Siem Reap via Ho Chi Minh, during which I even managed to sleep, we arrived in Sydney. Boy, is that airport a mess: the queues for immigration started in the Duty Free Shop and were they long! Took us forever to get through and I was dreading doing the same again at customs when we got stopped. The customs officer had Ha pegged as a Vietnamese and could not believe that she was not carrying dried squid, Nuoc Mam (fish sauce) or any of the other goodies that are essential when Vietnamese travel. Ha did fess up to having some Fisherman's Friends but that she had declared those. At this, the very friendly customs officer had to laugh and told us to follow the yellow brick road, bypassing customs altogether. My elation at missing that queue was short-lived; the queue at the taxi stand was just as bad.
We eventually did make it into a cab, for an eye-watering AUD 55.00 it took us to the Sutherland Motel, our abode for the night. I saw that the published rate for this dump was AUD 125.00, this for a motel that was sitting so close to a major highway that I felt like leaving the door open so that the trucks could pass through. We did manage to see our first two lifers during the taxi ride though: Masked Lapwing and Silver Gull.
After dumping our bags, we walked into Sutherland proper, enjoying glorious weather. Lots of gardens and we almost pissed ourselves when we saw a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos on a lawn. Being used to how shy birds are in South East Asia, we started taking photos from about 100 meters away; slowly inching closer. When we were about 5 centimetres away, with the birds completely ignoring us, we were beginning to believe all these tales we had heard of how tame birds in Oz are. Continuing the walk, we admired all the flowers and trees in the gardens, magnets for both Rainbow Lorikeets and Crimson Rosellas. All common birds but for us, being new to down-under, these birds were as pretty as they come.
Lunch was at an Indian fast-food joint in downtown Sutherland, the first taste of how bad some of the cooking is in Australia. And no beer!
We took more time heading back for a nap and heard a bird we were familiar with, Common Koel. Other familiar birds, if introduced, were a big roost of Common Starlings and Common Mynas all over the place. Of considerably more interest were Red and Little Wattlebirds, Noisy Miners (the "noisy" certainly fits), Australian Magpies, Pied Currawong, and lots of Welcome Swallows overhead.
After the nap, we headed back into town to have dinner at the "Chinese Dragon". Excellent food, though the interior was rather naff; we did not realize at the time that this is pretty much par for the course in Australian eateries. No beer either, but there is a bottle shop in the Boyle's Hotel right next to it, a hotel incidentally that looked much nicer than the barracks we were at.
"Bird-of-the-day" for both of us was Rainbow Lorikeet; I am sure I dreamt about its vivid colours that night.
18th of October:
Woken up early by trucks that changed gears at what seemed to be right next to our bedside table, we met Guy and John. Turned out that the four of us would be the only people on the tour as there were some folks that pulled out last minute. Bonus for us. Whilst we were doing the introductions in a rather chilly 10 degrees, a loudly calling Channel-billed Cuckoo flew over.
We set of for the nearby Royal National Park, specifically the Lady Carrington Trail. Not very birdy at first, our feathered friends were probably gathered around a fire place somewhere with a Grog, but both temperature, birds, and ourselves heated up as we moved on. I am not going to list all the birds, but a few highlights were certainly our first Laughing Kookaburra and our first Satin Bowerbird (we would do very well with Bowerbirds, but more later). A little searching by Guy enabled us to get a good look at the bower the bird is named after, too.
Eastern Whipbirds were very much in evidence, their loud whip crack call was the first call we learned and is one I will probably never forget. We also saw our first Honeyeater of many, Lewin's Honeyeater as well as another Cuckoo, Fan-tailed Cuckoo.
I am a big fan of ducks so a whole family of Maned, or Wood, Ducks got me all excited. A little further down the trail we connected with the bird we had apparently come to see, Rockwarbler. Just as the name says, it is a warblerish looking thingy foraging on rocks. Not the most exciting bird to look at, but it seems not so common and the only endemic of NSW.
Personally, I found a flock of bizarre-looking Topknot Pigeons a lot more exciting, as well as the two Whistlers we saw, Golden and Rufous Whistler
However, one of the highlights of the morning must have been a male Superb Lyrebird that popped out of nowhere and nonchalantly foraged along the road. A great finish to the morning and we headed back to Sutherland for some lunch.
After a quick lunch in Sutherland, we headed for Lane Cove National Park on the other side of Sydney. Long drive, but we did see our first Galahs as well as our first Australian White Ibis. Did not get too lost either, but the Powerful Owl that was supposed to hang out there obviously did, there was no trace of it. On the way back, we finished the day with a flock of Little Raven loitering at a traffic light.
Dinner was at a Thai restaurant that was pretty good, though it meant another trip to the nearby bottle shop.
A good day, with a number of "Birds-of-the day": Rock Warbler for Ha, Black-faced Monarch for Guy, Superb Lyrebird for John and Kookaburra for myself.
19th of October:
We left for Jambaroo at 06:00 and under miserable weather: drizzle, windy, and cold. A fairly long drive produced our first Eastern Grey Kangaroo. Regrettably, it was smeared over 200 yards of highway after coming out second-best in a fight with a Roo bar, so I guess we cannot really count it. A lot more alive was our first Willie Wagtail, actively doing its name proud. Once in Jambaroo, we looked for a Cafe, but no joy. We did find a Bakery though and I made my first acquaintance with one of Australia's culinary highlights, the meat pie. I remember thinking that hopefully it would be the first and the last time I had one of those, but couldn't shake the feeling that I would be coming across a few more of those during the next five weeks. I probably would have pulled out right there and then if I had known just how many of those ghastly things I would have to endure!
With the meat pie doing strange things to my insides, we headed on to Barren Grounds National Reserve. It was still windy, rainy, and bloody freezing, so I left both camera and Ha behind. Big mistake as after only 500 meters we flushed one of the star attractions here; a Ground Parrot giving us excellent views perched on a bush. I rushed back to get Ha and camera but obviously we would not see it again. The unfavourable weather meant that there were few birds around, but we did see New Holland Honeyeater, Southern Emuwren, and, another star, Eastern Bristlebird. The latter actually perched pretty much in the same place we saw the Ground Parrot; we were watching the spot hoping the Parrot would show again. Just before heading back for lunch, we saw a distant flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Even from the distance they were easy to ID as these birds are absolutely massive. We were also hoping for Pilotbird but no joy so we checked into the Jamberoo Valley Lodge and then headed for the same Cafe we had had breakfast in that morning.
After lunch we drove back to Barren Grounds and did the 8-kilometer loop there. Still fairly quiet but at least the weather had improved somewhat. It was a nice walk and we did manage to see Eastern Bristlebird, a Bassian Thrush as well as a bird we missed in the morning, Pilotbird. The Bristlebird has become pretty rare due to habitat destruction but, like the Pilotbird, it was not really much to look at.
Thoroughly tired we called it a day and went back for a shower and dinner. Food was decent, roasted chicken and fried potatoes, once the school class that was also there had cleared out. The dining room was dire, but as there was plenty of cold beer and the wine glasses each held about half a litre, we soon forgot about our surroundings.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was almost unanimous: Ground Parrot. Only Ha, who missed it, went for Pilotbird.
20th of October:
A 6 o' clock start had us heading back for another quick look at Barren Grounds, ticking a Common Blackbird as we got into the car. Still no Ground Parrot, but we had excellent views of Beautiful Firetail. This bird is in a completely different league from some of the LBJ's we had struggled to get to grips with the previous day; it certainly does its name justice.
We soon had to move on to cover the 300 kilometres to Lithgow. Just as we were setting off, Guy spotted an odd Cockatoo and we all piled out to track it down. Took a fair bit of effort but we finally managed to get great scope views of a female Gang-gang Cockatoo quietly foraging in a massive tree (do birds forage?). An excellent bird to see as they are far from common in that area.
The weather was getting better as we moved along and we saw our first raptors with a male Nankeen Kestrel and a Wedge-tailed Eagle. We saw an introduced Fox getting mobbed by Australian Ravens whilst introduced Skylarks were singing all over the place. Real natives were the Australian Pipits and the Australian Shelducks we saw along the way. Not new but nevertheless an amazing sight was a flock of around fifty Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos right over the road. I think it was also on this part of the trip that we stopped at an Army surplus store to pick up some much-needed warm clothes for Ha and myself; in particular as we had a pelagic coming up in a couple of days. I believe it was in Oberon, where we also had a quick lunch in yet another Cafe.
Once in Lithgow, we checked into the fancily named "Colonial Motor Inn". Very posh name for a place with rather depressing rooms and a restaurant/bar that closed at 18:00! Luckily, it was well set back from the Highway and noise was no problem. The staff were also very friendly, if a bit lost at times.
Check-in formalities done we drove to the Lithgow sewage works and Lake Wallace (only birders will understand the attraction of spending one's holiday in a sewage works). It looked quiet at first, but some more careful scanning did produce a couple of Masked Lapwings, plenty of Pacific Ducks and Grey Teals, Wood Ducks, a lonely Coot, two Hardheads, Australasian Grebe and Australasian Shoveler. We also picked up more birds for our "plastic list" with a few Goldfinches and a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls.
As we were heading back, we also saw our first Kangaroos that weren't road kill, Eastern Grey, with about 30 or more on a football (soccer to the natives) pitch a bit further on. We would see a lot more Kangaroos during the trip, but to see my first live Kangaroo was one highlight, among many, of the trip.
Back to the motel to do some laundry. This is a thing BirdQuest should point out in their trip descriptions: most motels have laundry facilities where, for AUD 3.00 a load, you can do your own laundry; there is usually a drier as well for another AUD 3.00 a pop. We would have taken a lot less clothes had we known that.
Dinner was Chinese, seems like most towns have a Chinese and/or a Thai restaurant. Not really Asian, rather adapted for Australian palates I guess, but certainly better than meat pie.
"Bird-of the-Day" was the Gang-gang Cockatoo for all of us except John; he went for the Beautiful Firetail.
21st of October:
Another early start into what promised to be a beautiful day. Whilst still cool and misty, the sky was clear and we had great views of the Capertee Valley, our destination for the day, along the way. The widest enclosed valley in the world, and the second largest after the Grand Canyon, the valley also holds some real specialties that we would try and find during the day.
Heading into the valley, after having stopped for some coffee at a gas station, we first came across a couple of Common Wallaroos. They were fairly shy, but we were obviously the first people along the road that morning. We stopped for a while on a hill, checking for anything that might be around and drinking our coffee. Apart from some breathtaking scenery, we also saw Jackie Winter, Hooded Robin, and Brown Goshawk here; with plenty of Dusky Woodswallows overhead.
We slowly continued along the road, picking up beauties as we idled along. Personally, I do not really consider myself a twitcher. Sure, I like to see rarities as much as the next birder, but given a choice, I am much happier with the Diamond Firetails we saw than some dull, if rare, LBJ. Likewise, the Red-rumped Parrots we saw here were stunning, the drawings in the field guides do them no justice at all. A Brown Falcon was another addition to our small raptor list and we saw the first of many Mistletoebirds. Our Honeyeater list was also growing, with quite a few Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters out and about.
Guy spotted a nest right over the road, an expertly crafted cup of mud. Turned out the owners were a family of very noisy and active birds, White-winged Choughs. Great birds, but what was even better was the Tawny Frogmouth roosting right next to the nest. I have been very unlucky with Frogmouths in the past, unlike Ha, and this was my first Frogmouth ever. Obviously, this discovery blanked out my brain: back in the car and a few Miles on, I realized that something was missing from my shoulder. Sh*t, I had left my camera behind! Guy raced back whilst I lived through a few very anxious minutes. Luckily, the camera was still sitting on the same fence post I had left it on for everybody to see. The sigh of relief was probably heard in Melbourne; losing my camera 4 days in to a 30-day trip would not have been good.
With my pulse back to normal, we continued birding. The valley has a lot of grasslands, perfect for Rufous Skylarks that seemed to be everywhere. The air was full of Fairy Martins, we would actually pass one of their breeding sites under a bridge. The days was turning into glorious and, looking back, it was probably one of the best days we had weather-wise. We also continued to see outstanding birds such as Striated Pardalote (stupid name, but really beautiful bird), our first Butcherbirds, both Grey and Pied, and Varied Sittellas. We also had a group of Zebra Finches and a single Horsefield's Bushlark before finding a spot for our picnic lunch; the best lunch we had had so far. On the way there, we almost hit an Eastern Bearded Dragon that was sunning itself in the middle of the road; it took a little prodding to make it leave for a safer environment (but not until I had taken about 300 photos).
The spot chosen was not random, Guy had received some gen that this was the place to see, with luck, one of the star attractions here. Sure enough, whilst we were munching, Guy hurriedly call us over to get I-want-to-wet-my-pants views of Regent Honeyeater busy with their nest. Once a common bird, this species is now endangered and I had not really counted on seeing it. At times during the trip I did get a little tired of all the Honeyeaters, but this one is just heads, shoulders, and beaks above its cousins; that is how stunning it is.
We spent forever admiring the pair, and having lunch, also seeing Grey-crowned Babbler and a male Olive-backed Oriole here. Guy and John had gone back to the car when Ha and I spotted another Capertee specialty, Turquoise Parrot. Even novices like Ha and myself managed to nail this one streaking by as the blue underwing coverts were very obvious. I could have stayed right there for the rest of the trip but we obviously had other birds to look for.
Heading back, we came across a pair of Common Bronzewing and yet another bird Ha and I really wanted to see, Rainbow Bee-eater. The only Bee-eater in Oz, this is yet another magnificent bird; Australia certainly has its share of great-looking birds.
Our next stop was the Glen Davis campsite. Luckily, we once again managed to connect with Turquoise Parrot here so that John and Guy also got onto them. Another great bird was a Painted Buttonquail. A real bastard to see but, with some perseverance, everybody eventually got onto it. Also not easy to see were the Weebills. Not skulking at all, just very tiny and easily hidden by even the smallest of leaves.
After a great day, it was time to head back to the Motel. En route, picking up a pair of Black-fronted Dotterels, we stopped at a small pond and looked for yet another Capertee specialty. Much searching and scoping eventually produced rather unsatisfactory views of a single female Plum-headed Finch. Good enough to tick, but not really good enough to get all excited about.
Back to Lithgow were we had a very passable Italian dinner at "La Trattoria" on Mian Street (still waiting for some real Aussie food). We did want to go to "Natalies" first but the lady there, presumably Natalie, closed the curtains, lowered the blinds, and barred the door when she saw us getting out of the car; and this was AFTER we all had a shower.
Certainly not a rarity, but still my first Frogmouth so Tawny Frogmouth took "Bird-of-the-Day" for me. Ha got great photos of the Turquoise Parrot, so that was her BOD and John went for the Regent Honeyeater. From my notes it would appear that Guy had no BOD that day.
22nd of October:
Back to the Capertee Valley at 06:30 to clean up some of the more common stuff. First stop was the same pond we had been to the previous evening, but not before admiring a couple of Swamp (or Black) Wallabies. It certainly paid off as this time we had great views of about 10 Plum-headed Finches. At a pit stop in the grasslands I flushed a couple of Quails. A bit of searching flushed them again and this time we managed to ID them as Brown Quail. A common bird we had missed previously was a Grey Shrike-thrush. The bird is pretty much what it says on the label: looks a lot like a Thrush but behaves like a Shrike, actively looking for insects and lizards. We also added Fuscous Honeyeater to our ever-expanding Honeyeater list.
As we had quite a bit of ground to cover that day, we slowly headed back with a quick stop at Glen Alice. There was a big barbie going on but, as we were not invited, we instead took a look at a Little Eagle spotted by Ha; shortly followed by a Brown Goshawk. Continuing, we saw a few White-eared Honeyeaters but the really cool bird was a female Spotted Quail-thrush foraging on and near the road. Again, this is a bird that does its name justice as it really resembles the offspring of a Thrush that had a good time with a quail.
Just before reaching Lithgow, Guy suddenly stomped on the breaks. Right next to the highway was an Echidna, an animal I really wanted to see but which I had little hope of doing so. It took off into some scrub near the road and a couple of frantic minutes followed in which we tried to relocate it before it dug itself in. I eventually found it half buried and we picked up this really bizarre looking animal and showing it on its way to, hopefully, safer pastures.
We headed back to the same restaurant we had had dinner the previous evening for a quick bite before heading out for Swansea. We did stop at Cattai National Park, supposedly another haunt of Powerful Owl. Again, no Owls; just a few Dollarbirds and lots of Bell Miners. The call is a clear "ping" which reminded me more of Tree Frogs than bells.
On to Swansea and the Swansea Motel where we met Phil. He turned out to be a very funny and likeable guy who really knows his birds, too. Not only a keen birder but also a researcher of Bird flu and an Associate Professor to boot. One feels humbled.... Whilst jawing with him, quite a few Scaly-breasted Lorikeets flew over. A quick check-in and we headed for dinner at a local fish-and-chips shop.
After dinner Phil took us to one of his local patches for some owling. It was fairly quiet but we did manage views of an Australian Owlet-nightjar and a couple of White-throated Nightjars. Actually, we would have little luck with Owls in general throughout the trip, but I guess one cannot have everything. We did however see a Common Brushtail Possum here as well.
Thoroughly tired, we headed for bed as we had a big day ahead. I did manage to get the "Bird-of-the-Day" out of the way though. Ha and I chose the Echidna (we had a tacit agreement that exceptional mammals would qualify as birds for the purpose of this trip), John nominated the Quail-Thrush and Guy the Nightjar.
23rd of October:
Pelagic!!!! The first I had ever done, apart from a trip to Lanyu Island in Taiwan, were most people were too busy chucking up their breakfast to do any bird watching. It was with much anticipation that we boarded at 06:30 with members of the Newcastle birding club. Luckily, it looked like a clear day with mild temperatures and not much of a swell.
Before even setting off we saw a few Australian Pelicans, Pied Cormorants, and Black-tailed Godwits. Shortly after casting off, we saw our first true seabird, Wedge-tailed Shearwater. We chugged along for a good 4 hours, or 70 kilometres, before starting to drift and chumming. An hour into the trip success: my first Albatross ever; a pair of Black-browed Albatrosses to be exact. That black brow gives them a really serious look, I love it. Not much happened at first but when the birds did come in, it was amazing. Within short order we saw Pink-footed and Short-tailed Shearwater and then what I had really been hoping for: Wandering Albatross. Seeing this huge bird right next to the boat made my day there and then.
Wilson's Storm Petrels were common whilst we only saw one each of Southern Skua and Australasian Gannet. Other birds visiting us whilst drifting were Crested and Common Terns, a total of 7 Gibson's Albatrosses, a sub-adult Yellow-nosed Albatross, Providence Petrel, Grey-winged Petrel, Cape Petrel, and Black-bellied Storm-petrel.
Regrettably, the weather turned bad after lunch, with cold air and rain moving in. The trip back became a little miserable and, apart from Fluttering Shearwater, we also had a "Shivering Ha" on board, at least until Phil stepped in and gave his fleece to her. All the while, birds kept on following us and we had Hutton's and Sooty Shearwaters circling the boat as well as yet another Albatross: Shy Albatross.
I was more than happy with what we had seen that day, but there was one more spectacle in store. As we approached the line of massive Chinese coal ships causing a traffic jam outside Newcastle, the water suddenly erupted near us. It was at least 3 Humpback Whales putting on a fantastic display for us. There can be few sights more impressive than to see 30 tons of blubber launching itself into the air. I am sure everybody forgot the cold and rain at that moment.
Once the show was finished we headed back to the harbour, watching a pod of at least 6 Bottlenose Dolphins go the other way. We finished the trip with ticking Australian Darter, Whimbrel and Brown Honeyeater around the harbour.
What a great day; even the poor dinner at the Swansea RSL (Returned and Services League of Australia) Club couldn't take away from that. Not only was the food shite; but the moron doing the dishes amused himself by making as much noise as possible; I was close to jumping the counter and strangling the idiot (may years in Vietnam have made me quite sensitive to noise).
It was good to head back to the hotel after an exciting and tiring day. The weather had become outright nasty and serious rain set in. In the room I introduced Ha to Vegemite, which was a big mistake. She now calls me "Bruce" and says "G'day" to everybody; even at night:-)
A very mixed bag the "Birds-of-the-Day" were: Whilst John and Guy agreed on Wandering Albatross, Ha chose the Yellow-nosed Albatross and I the Black-browed Albatross. Only Phil had to do his own thing. No Albatross for him, but Black-bellied Storm-petrel.
24th of October:
Woke up to rain and temperatures of about 15 degrees. Tourism Australia didn't exactly mention crap weather in their "Where the hell are ya" campaign a few years ago. It would piss all day but we still managed to pick up a few good, and wet, birds.
First stop was at the Pambalong Nature Reserve. Around there we saw two Scarlet Honeyeaters, stunning birds and a far cry from many of the other rather drab family members. Three Whistling Kites heavily flapped along, no thermals that day; the White-bellied Sea-eagle was a lot more graceful. A few Black Swans and Black Ducks looked as miserable as we felt; and the single Bright-headed Cisticola only gave brief views before finding cover from the rain. Three King Parrots zipping by at least added some colour to a dull day.
A little bit further on we got to Hexham Swamp. The rain was luckily only a drizzle now and we spent a little time here. The most obvious were lots of egrets, we counted about 100+ Eastern Cattle Egrets, among those were about 30 Intermediate Egrets. Australian White Ibises were very much in evidence but we also saw about 10 Straw-necked Ibises, the first of the trip. When a Swamp Harrier glided and rocked across the swamp, it spooked a large flock of Chestnut Teal and a couple of Grey Teals. Working the tall grass around the swamp was successful when we managed to get good views of both Little and Tawny Grassbirds. I am actually making this sound a lot easier than it was, the Little Grassbird in particular was a right bastard to nail. Easier were the Crested Pigeons and Spotted Turtle Doves that were feeding on and along the dirt road. The latter yet another introduced species and well known to Ha and myself from Cambodia, where it is very common.
Into the car again and off to Morpeth. Like many towns in NSW, Morpeth is also named after a town in Old Blighty. However, we were not here for the history of the town, but for a particular bird. Much phoning by both Guy and Phil and the scanning of numerous fields finally got us onto 12 Banded Lapwings pretty much right next to the car.
Before getting some food in, we quickly stopped at the Stockton Sandspit, part of the Hunter Estuary. We just looked quickly as a) the weather was miserable, b) we were hungry, and c) there were few birds. Lots of Eastern Curlew, 4 Grey-tailed Tattlers trying very hard to merge with some rocks to get out of the wind, and 3 Terek Sandpipers were all we saw.
Lunch was at the Hunter Wetland Centre. I do not recall what the food was like, but I certainly remember my first Magpie Geese, all 25 of them. Yet another bird I had seen in a bird guide before leaving for the trip and very high on my list (I obviously did not realize at the time that we would see hundreds more during the trip). There were also a couple of Wandering Whistling-Ducks as well as a female Hardhead. Plenty of White-cheeked Honeyeaters in the bushes around the Centre and a Grey Butcherbird.
After lunch it was back to the Sandspit where a lot more birds had settled in the meantime. Apart from the birds seen in the morning, we saw 3 Australian Pelicans, at least a couple of hundred Bar-tailed Godwits as well as 20 Black-tailed Godwits a solitary Whimbrel, 30+ Red Knots, a Red-necked Stint, four Pied Oystercatchers and two Red-capped Plovers. Flying in the distance were a few Common and Little Terns. Walking down to the Mangroves near the Spit got Mangrove Gerygone out of the way.
The weather got constantly worse and, once at the Kooragang Nature Reserve, Ha decided to stay in the car whilst the rest of us were
There were a few good birds about, notably another "I-want-to-see-that-bird": Royal Spoonbill. Great birds but way too far to get decent pics. Much closer were a pair of White-fronted Chats; I managed to get Ha out of the car to get a look at them. Other birds added to our ever-growing list here were Marsh Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, White-faced Heron, Coot, Moorhen, and Australian (Richard's) Pipit.
I think we all had had enough of birding at this time so we got into the (warm) car and headed off for Port Macquarie. Phil again was on the phone, milking his numerous contacts and friends and promised us a Koala. Sure enough, when we got there, a Koala was parked in a tree right outside his friends' house. It looked pretty wet and wasn't exactly a bundle of energy, but Ha was over the moon. We had to physically drag her into the car after an hour to avoid her, and us, getting hypothermia.
We checked into the Best Western Macquarie Barracks Motor Inn. Not much of a promising name, but it was actually the best hotel so far (would have never thought that I would say that about a Best Western one day; goes to show that all is relative). Large room, heating(!), a real shower and free Internet. Of course we would only stay one night, seems the longer stays were reserved for crappier Motels.
Dinner was at the Whalebone Wharf Seafood Restaurant, supposedly the best restaurant in Macquarie. We once again got the low-down on what we could eat and what we could not eat. Appetite gone, I concentrated on a few cold "Bees Knees", which came out of my own pocket anyway.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was White-cheeked Honeyeater for Ha, Banded Lapwing for Guy, Phil and myself, and, inexplicably, Magpie Goose for John.
25th of October:
We woke up to yet more rain; by now it had been raining 36 hours straight. We drove up to Werrikimbe National Park, a good 80 kilometres away. The goal here was Rufous Scrub-bird, one of the oldest song birds around as far as evolution goes. The bird likes the thick ferns and undergrowth found here and if there were a prize for the most sulking little b*stard in the world, it would certainly be a prime contender. Phil spent hours trampling paths through dense undergrowth and we all took a few tumbles. The Scrub-bird has an amazingly loud song and it seemed at times that it was singing perched on my boot, but no joy. Well, almost no joy as Ha saw it well after a couple of hours. She headed back to the camp site to chat with a few folks there, get fed, and have a snooze whilst the curses of the rest of us turned the forest blue. Sans Ha we continued until lunch time without getting as much as a glimpse. At this stage I was ready to pack it in but John was extremely keen and dragged us out again. It took us 7.5 hours of thrashing through the bush, falling on our butts, and generally being p*ssed off; but we were finally rewarded by excellent views of a Rufous Scrub-bird. I swear the bird was mocking us, showing itself for all it was worth as to say "see, not that hard!".
We were so focused on finding the Scrub-bird that we saw little else, though a pair each of Rose Robins and Flame Robins around the camp ground were real stunners. We also saw a Brown Cuckoo-dove and five Relict Raven on the way back.
It was a loong drive back to Newcastle, only livened up by a Hare, and we checked in late into the "Noah's on the Beach". Another great hotel and obviously we would only stay one night. John, Ha, and I had a great, if exorbitant dinner here; and no sermons on how much we could spend:-)
The "Bird-of-the-Day" was a no-brainer; it had to be the Rufous Scrub-bird; the bird we had all worked the hardest to see. Well, with the exception of Ha ho was having a coffee and food whilst the rest of us kept on falling on our arses.
26th of October:
I would have liked to start early but no one else wanted to leave their extremely comfortable beds. Ha actually was close to rioting the previous evening, fatigue was beginning to set in. Thus, Phil picked us up at 06:00 and we headed for the seafront, about 20 meters away. Within 2 minutes we had seen 2 Sooty Oystercatchers. According to Phil they are not as common as they used to be; getting clobbered not only by the development of the coast, but also by Foxes and cats.
The rest of the morning was a mad dash as Phil had to get back to work and we had a plane to catch. A quick stop in garbage-strewn Richmond Vale produced Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, whilst a walk around a lake in Kurri Kurri added Buff-rumped Thornbill, Blue-faced Honeyeater, and Rufous Night-heron.
Another quick stop in Wallsend gave us great views of the only all white raptor in the world, a Grey Goshawk (yes; the white morph is all white; never mind the name).
We dropped of Phil before he got into much trouble with his boss and took another quick gander at the Stockton Sandspit, with much nicer weather than previously. Not much new here though we did see Brown Honeyeater as well as a Red-capped Plover with a tiny fur ball of a chick.
Off to the airport (AUD 3.00 for a tiny luggage trolley! I had recovered from the shock by the time we arrived in Brisbane when I saw that they are AUD 4.00 there. Jesus, I can hire 5 porters for that sort of money in Cambodia) and onto the flight for Brisbane.
Into the car and on with the 2-hour drive to O'Reilley's, inside Lamington National Park. We did stop at a small lake on the way, the highlight here were about 10 Musk Ducks. The males are really bizarre, with a big lobe under the bill. Near that lake we also saw a few Torresian Crows. There were plenty of Pretty-faced Wallabies and Red-necked (Yeeeehaa) Paddymelons or Pademelon (Australia has plenty of weird animals, but it also has plenty of weird names for them) on the way up, keeping us entertained. As we arrived at O'Reilley's, we were greeted by a Brush-turkey at the entrance to the hotel. It is getting boring, but this was yet another bird high on my list (and yet another one we would see plenty of later).
We checked into a fantastic room, with great views over the valley. Even better were more Paddymelons and Brush-Turkeys at our feet, and both Eastern Rosella and Satin Bowerbirds coming right to our balcony. This certainly called for a bottle of wine, even if everything at O'Reilley's is shockingly expensive.
A word on O'Reilley's: Not only is it expensive (AUD 325.00 rooms, AUD 16.00 Margaritas, AUD 8.50 beers, AUD 14.00 Caesar salads), it is also commercial as hell. Everything is flogged here, a little like Disneyworld in the mountains. The birds are ridiculously tame, they live on a diet of French fries and cookies, but it does make them easy to see. We did have a great time, I must admit, but it might not be for everybody. The one thing that irked me was how the O'Reilley's blow there own horn; heck, they even erected a bloody monument for one of their forbearers rescuing the survivors of the Stinson Plane Crash. Sure, great deed and all that, but a little less pathos would have been fine, too.
I digress, as usual. We had an excellent dinner that evening, with John and Guy putting away huge desserts. During dinner we also had a visit by a Short-eared Possum that came in to the feeding station inside the restaurant. We did make a half-hearted attempt at looking for Nightjars after dinner but no joy.
I do not recall asking anyone for their "Bird-of-the-Day" and I am blaming the Fat Yaks for it. Thus, it is only me with a BOD: Brush-turkey.
27th of October:
A 05:00 start to look for Albert's Lyrebird. We would hear them quite often over the next few days. Really close at times, but no cigar. That does not mean we did not see some other great birds though. There were plenty of Yellow-throated Scrub-Robins around the hotel and the trees were crawling with Satin and Regent Bowerbirds. Ha, who did not join us after a Margarita too many the previous evening (is it me or is this trip report more about booze than birds?), told me that our room was raided by Bowerbirds and Rosellas whilst she had a shower; she made the mistake of leaving a pack of biscuits on the nightstand and the balcony door open.
We next oggled a couple of Wonga Pigeons. Real steamy sex, they were going at it in the parking lot, and not the last sex of the day either but more on that later. Absolutely great birds, and the best pigeon we had seen so far. Exhausted by all the perving we headed for an excellent breakfast, though the staff were more intent on flirting with each other than filling up the breakfast.
After brekkie we walked the Python Rock Trail. A lovely walk, in particular as the weather was brilliant; sunny but not too warm. There were a couple of Black-faced Monarchs about and constant meowing calls got us onto Green Catbirds. A Red-legged Paddymelon almost gave me heart attack when it bounced out of the brush, and we did see a large Land Mullet (not a fish or a bad haircut but a Skink). Another highlight were 4 male and 2 female Paradise Riflebirds. The sunlight really made the iridescent crown, throat, and tail of the males stand out, a right joy to see. The Rufous Fantails drove all of us a little crazy. Common like dirt, they are always flitting about; every single time the movement made us whip up our bins only to see yet another Fantail. Don't get me wrong, they are smart looking birds; they should just stop pretending they are something else. There were also plenty of Large-billed Scrubwrens and Guy managed to call in a Noisy Pitta. A great bird which Ha missed as she was busy photographing flowers/mushrooms/ferns/insects. Luckily we managed to nail it again on our way back. Also seen on the way back was a Russet-tailed Thrush.
Back at the hotel we had time for a quick gander down a trail were we managed to see a total of six Logrunners and admired the intricate nest of a Yellow-throated Scrubwren.
Lunch was at the Cafeteria where we had to beat back all the Bowerbirds and Rosellas that absolutely wanted some of our Caesar Salad. Great for photography but wild birds shouldn't really be that tame. It was great to sit on the terrace, not least of all because we saw both Topknot and White-headed Pigeons from there.
After buying a real Australian hat (actually cheaper than in Sydney, they must have made a mistake. And I did find out later that it was a lady's hat but I am secure in my sexuality), we headed back to Python Rock. It was fairly quiet and we did not really see much and we headed back early. When I got to the room Ha, who had stayed, told be about more sex. No Wonga Pigeons this time, but guests that were going at it full throttle inside the swimming pool right next to our bungalow. Great performance, if a bit shameless.
Dinner was good, Fat Yaks were better. Another visit by the Short-eared Possum, joined this time by a Fawn-footed Melomys (think mouse). I also got the "Bird-of-the-Day" out of the way before getting into the Fat Yaks. Ha and John chose the Regent Bowerbird, Guy the Logrunner, and I took the Wonga Pigeon. Dinner was good and John and Guy once again demolished massive desserts. Don't know where they put it, Guy in particular is all skin and bones.
28th of October:
We set off at 3 (three!!!!) o' clock in the morning to look for Frogmouths, mammals, and Lyrebirds along the Python Rock Trail. We failed miserably on all accounts and did not really see anything. We therefore decided to head for the Duck Creek Road, a little lower on the mountain. More open, we enjoyed some fantastic weather and did get in the odd bird, too. Things started with three Red-browed Treecreepers. As with many birds that the Poms named after species they knew from home, this bird is not even closely related to the Treecreepers back in Europe. For one, it looks a whole lot nicer. Some pishing brought in a couple of Red-backed Fairy-wrens, this was probably our favourite bird family of the trip, having admired very tame Superb Fairy-wrens around the hotel the previous day.
Around some open forest we found Yellow-faced and White-naped Honeyeaters. There was also a pair of Brown Goshawks around that appeared to be nesting. Whilst Ha was trying to get views of them, she spotted a Koala perched in a tee. Unlike the wet one we had seen before, this guy was obviously enjoying the glorious sunshine; hardly managing to lift one of his eyelids (I am assuming it was a guy, hanging around like that; all that was missing was a can of beer in the paw).
A Grey Goshawk flew over whilst Ha was taking about 500 photos of the Koala, only taking her eyes off it to tick a male Cicadabird and a couple of Buff-rumped Thornbills.
We headed back to the hotel where Guy showed us a very nice bower. The owner was a Regent Bowerbird and we watched for an hour as he fussed over it. Obviously not good enough; a female did come in but no matter how hard he tried, she refused to put out.
We took off after breakfast. Well, almost. After 20 minutes Ha remembered that she had forgotten her torch in the room. I was not convinced as I had checked the room, but back she went with Guy. They came back an our later without torch (we would find it in her bag that evening) just as the skies opened and John and I looked like heading for a serious drenching.
A leisurely drive took us to Rainbow Beach, with stops in Mapleton and Gympie. In Mapleton we stopped at the Mapleton Falls National Park. Right at the entrance there is a sign for "Peregrine look-out" or something like that. This made us look at the massive waterfall and, sure enough, Guy spotted a Peregrine. (We did not see any from the look-out). It was fairly quiet as we arrived in the afternoon, but we did see a couple of Large-billed Scrubwrens as well as a couple of Spangled Drongos.
A pit-stop in Gympie for toilets (Ha), petrol (Guy), coffee (John) and newspaper (yours truly), gave us views of Little Friarbirds, a Whistling Kite, and our first Australian Hobby. Hobbies are always spectacular birds but the Australian Hobby really stands out; arguably one of the nicest BOP's we saw on the trip.
Once in Rainbow Beach, we tried for Owls again but, once again, no joy. We did have a decent dinner and squared away the "Bird-of-the-Day": Satin Bowerbird for John and Guy, Red-backed Fairy-wren for Ha and myself.
29th of October:
Woke up to glorious sunshine, blue sky, and very agreeable temperatures. My kind of birding, with all the rain I was growing webs between fingers and toes by now. Target bird this morning was Quail at Inskip Point, jump-off point for Fraser Island. Around the campsite there were a few Bar-shouldered Doves and Ha and I spent some time taking a couple of hundred photos of posing Rainbow Bee-eaters. We then started looking in earnest for the Quails. Obviously, it was Ha that first saw them, but with some perseverance, and some crawling through very thick brush, we eventually all got good views of Black-breasted Button-quail. Only brief glimpses of the first pair, but the next pair showed right in the open. As it warmed up, quite a few Lace Monitors moved up the trees, a couple of them huge, and there was also at least one Sand Monitor seen here. Looking out from the beach there were quite a few Terns moving in with the tide, including Caspian, Little, Common, and Crested Terns. Hungry by now we went back to Rainbow Beach and had an outstanding breakfast at the "Shak Cafe". The "Full Monty" sure hit the spot and I did not feel like going birding again after demolishing it, ever.
I was not given a choice and we drove a couple of kilometres to some Mangroves at Carlo Point. It did not take us long to locate the target species here, a single Mangrove Honeyeater. Back into the car for me to digest my breakfast and to drive to Brisbane. We did have a stop in Samson Vale were the first bird of note was a fly-over by a Square-tailed Kite. The nearby reservoir did not hold a large variety of birds but it did have a large number of Little Pied, Little Black, and Great Cormorants as well as lots of Darters. Ha talked to some Vietnamese fishing the reservoir before almost stepping on a Red-bellied Black Snake. She failed to appreciate the humour when I mentioned that at least we were in the right place for her to step on it; we were in the middle of a cemetery. After taking lots of photos we took a quick walk in some nearby forest and finally got good views of Pheasant Coucal.
We checked into a pretty characterless hotel once in Brisbane. John and Guy were knackered, so Ha and I decided to head downtown for dinner. After what seemed forever, we made it to the river front. We had not realized that it was Friday; all the restaurants along the river were chocka. When we did finally find a restaurant that had some room, the guy at the door would not let me in as I was wearing flip-flops (thongs to our Antipodean friends). I was quickly revising the image I had of Australians as an easy-going, laid-back, couldn't-give-a-damn people; the place has more regulations, rules, and prohibitions than Germany, for Christ's sake!!!
We did find a Steak House close to the hotel which wasn't bad. At this stage Ha had established that it was my fault that: a) it was Friday, b) the restaurants were full, c) flip-flops were frowned upon in Brisbane, and d) Brisbane was hilly. In other words: a normal day in every-day married life.
At least the "Bird-of-the-Day" was a shoo-in: Black-breasted Button-quail for all.
30th of October:
We left at 06:00, which ticked me off just a little bit. We could probably have had a good breakfast at the hotel and we had ample time that day. But I guess as a couple of people went to bed at 07:00 the previous evening they were eager to go. So we followed our "Dear Leader" to Gatton Campus. The weather seemed to have really changed for better, or so I thought at the time. The campus was deserted as it was a weekend and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
The place was crawling with Magpie Geese, I counted at least 150. Quite a few Plumed Whistling-Ducks but of even more interest were two Pink-eared Ducks (though the pink "ear" is almost impossible to see) and a single Blue-billed Duck. We also added two White-headed Stilts to our trip list.
Whilst Guy and John headed for the lake, scaring a few poor ponies on the way, Ha and I located a tree that was full of Red-rumped Parrots feasting on the flowers. Taking closer looks, we alsosaw a few Cockatiels and then had a pair of Pale-headed Rosellas fly by. We called and waved to our fellow birdwatchers and luckily two more, or the same pair, of these very smart Rosellas landed in a palm tree right next to us.
We did end up with a good breakfast in nearby Gatton Town. The owner scared the crap out of me when he let fly a loud, shrill "Cooee". Once I had picked up myself of the floor Guy explained that this was a call used to attract attention of someone. In this case it meant "John, the toilet you are looking for is not that way, it is this way". Business obviously is not booming in Gatton. After we ordered, the owner took off to buy the ingredients as well as a blender for the smoothies we had all ordered.
We headed back to Brisbane once more, doing a little birding along the way without turning up anything new. A short flight took us to Mackay, a town so uninspiring I wouldn't want to be buried in it. Someone, somewhere, had cocked up the car reservation and it looked like we were screwed. Luckily, the Thrifty lady was on the ball and arranged an old mining vehicle for us. A heap of junk really, even if it did come with yellow hazard lights on the roof. By now I had resigned to the fact that a massively expensive trip got us a lot of dodgy accommodation, and questionable food (unless I paid myself, that on what was billed as an "all-inclusive" trip); the car fit right in. I was very close to bailing out on the trip, but then we had already paid. And the birds were good.........
We headed for the hotel and the Australia-New Zealand match on telly. I had to try very hard not cheer for New Zealand, I figured that might get me lynched. The Kiwis were leading 24-12 after a slow start and then went and pissed away the game. Enough to drive a grown man into drink.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was Pink-eared Duck for John and Pale-headed Rosella for Ha and myself. Apparently Guy did not have a favourite that day.
31st of October:
A really early start at 04:30 to drive up to Eungella National Park to look for Eungella Honeyeater; one of 2 reasons to even consider staying in Mackay. The first big surprise was a Dingo. Not shy at all, until I tried to sneak out of the car and take a photo; I think it didn't stop running until it reached Cairns. I know it is an introduced animal but it was still bloody good to see one.
Next stop was Broken River where we stumbled almost immediately upon a Platypus. I had hoped for, but not really counted on, seeing this outlandish animal. Guy had warned us earlier that Platypuses are very shy, but this one came quite close to us. Shame that the light was really dodgy and it was very hard to take photos. But I was not complaining; just seeing it was more than enough for me. Definitely one of the absolute highlights of the whole trip. There were a few birds about too, including a very confiding Azure Kingfisher perched very close and lots of Dusky Honeyeaters. We birded some more along the Sky-view Walk were we saw Brown Cuckoo-dove, a female Leaden Flycatcher and Spectacled Monarch, a Little Shrike-thrush, a few Silvereyes, as well as great views of two Noisy Pittas.
After lunch at the "Chalet", a restaurant that doubles as a hang-glider launch and still showed signs of the clobbering it took from Cyclone Ului, we headed for Snake Road to look for the local specialty. Within a couple of hundred yards of leaving the car we saw what we came for: Eungella Honeyeater. Amazingly enough for a well-watched country like Australia, this bird was not discovered by Wayne Longmore until 1976 and only formally described in 1983, making it one of the last new species discovered in Australia! A very restricted-range species, it has not been seen by many birders. Another bird seen well along the logging road was a Rose-crowned Fruit-dove, another one of those Australian birds that can only be described as stunningly beautiful.
We returned to Broken River and a good thing we did too. The light was perfect now and we saw not one, not two, but a total of five Platypuses (Platypi? Platypus? Platypodes?). Better than sex (almost). We did have to head back eventually; I could have spent hours right there.
En route we stopped near Mirani, at a water hole. Among the more common species we saw was a single Cotton Pygmy-goose; it would turn out to be the only one of the trip. I saw a Laughing Kookaburra on a wire overhead that looked strange; maybe because it was actually a Blue winged Kookaburra.
The rattling crate that disguised itself as a car did actually make it back to Mackay, though without working turbo, speedometer, or indicators. After that, the short flight to Cairns was a breeze, though I almost got off too early as I did not realize that there was a stop in Townsville.
We checked into the "Cairns Colonial Club Resort", a highfalutin name for a 354-room hotel that seems to cater mainly to Chinese groups. Both service and food were dodgy at best, but the swimming pools are nice. We had an early dinner at the hotel; the mediocre food was made palatable by a bottle of sparkling. I had promised myself before the trip that I would spring a bottle of bubbly if I saw Platypus. Luckily I hadn't said a bottle for each Platypus we saw; birding would have been very hard the next day otherwise.
I know I should have chosen the Eungella Honeyeater as "Bird-of-the-Day", as did all the others, but for me the Rose-crowned Fruit-dove was really the star of the day.
1st of November:
I got up at 04:00 to look for Bandicoots that are supposedly in the hotel gardens. No luck which probably had something to do with the big group of Chinese making an absolute racket until 01:30. The early start did however let me witness the shift change, with Spectacled Flying Foxes heading home and lots of Torres Imperial Pigeons heading off to work.
At first light we headed off for the Centennial Park where we spent a few hours. Pretty much the first birds we saw were Double-eyed Fig-Parrots. The smallest Parrot in Australia, it is a real pretty bird when seen close up. A few Brown-backed Honeyeaters were about and two Brush Cuckoos came in on the tape like missiles but were soon chased off by the resident Black Butcherbirds.
It was at this time that Ha realized that she had left her wallet out in the open in the hotel room and I decided to walk back and stow it away; gentleman that I am. I really enjoyed the little walk with great weather and photogenic Figbirds, Masked Lapwings, and Australian Swiftlets. I enjoyed it that is until I heard the sound every photographer dreads: the sound of an expensive camera-lens-flash combo hitting the paved sidewalk as the carrying strap came undone. Another heart-stopper after leaving my camera behind earlier on the trip, my first thought was "I wonder if I can find replacements for it in Cairns?". I was sure that the camera was busted, but hat off to Canon workmanship; apart from a few scratches the camera was intact. The flash has been hard to take off since, but at least everything still worked.
Purse stashed away, pulse back to normal, I rejoined the others at the park and got right back into birding. Ha was waiting for me and pointed out a Nankeen Night-heron, two Striated Herons as well as a Kreft's Turtle. Rainbow Lorikeets were all over the place, specifically of the sub-species rubritorquis, split by some as Red-collared Lorikeet. A flock of about 10 Metallic Starlings made a nice addition to our list as did two (Eastern) Ospreys. Ha and I saw a quick glimpse of a "chicken", some very careful stalking got us the first of three Orange-footed Scrubfowls. Needn't have bothered with the stalking, once Guy and John rejoined us we had one sitting on a tree trunk, not bothered at all by us. Good birds, but the stars of the morning were a family of Bush Stone-Curlews. We managed to get very close to the parents with their two young; they were obviously confident that by remaining perfectly still we would not see them. A Collared Kingfisher was perched nearby and we saw a few Yellow Orioles. Familiar to Ha and me were a flock of Nutmeg or Scaly-breasted Manikins, common birds in our part of the world.
Back to the hotel for breakfast. No eggs or bacon for us though, as BirdQuest only sprang for the continental breakfast. The most expensive "cheap" trip I have been on, but luckily we managed to save BirdQuest a few Dollars by skipping lunch, driving to the Cairns Corniche instead.
When we got there, the tide was still way out so we first looked for other birds instead. First up was a family of Varied Honeyeaters, two adults with a juvenile. We then checked out a small stand of Mangroves and came up with a single Mangrove Robin. I fetched Ha, who was feeling the heat, and showed her where we had seen it before beating a hasty retreat; the gnats around the Mangroves were viscous and out for my blood. Ha quickly found the Robin too before leaving the field to those evil blood-suckers. The only waders present were a few Terek Sandpipers. Probably my favourite wader: cute, clownish and, most importantly, easy to identify.
A quick look at Machan's Beach did not produce much and we went back to the seafront. The tide had rolled in by now and there were plenty of waders around. I am not very good at waders as there are not many places in Vietnam or Cambodia where they can be seen, and I relied on Guy's invaluable help for the finer ID points. I'll just list what we saw: 2 Australian Pied Oystercatchers, 2 Red-capped Plovers, 3 Mongolian Plovers,10 Greater Sand Plovers, 10+ Black-tailed and 30+ Bar-tailed Godwits, around 5 Whimbrels and 5 Eastern Curlews each, 5+ Grey-tailed Tattlers, 20+ Terek Sandpipers, 2 Common Greenshanks, 40+ Great Knots, 10+ Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and 20+ Curlew Sandpipers. There was also a real rarity, a single Asian Dowitcher. This was a real twitch with one Australian birder having driven 4 hours to see it (and to take photos with a lens I very much coveted. Thoughts of clobbering him with my tripod and prying the lens from his fingers did briefly cross my mind). Seeing this bird called for a reward in the shape of a very good ice-cream, it was a boiling hot day. The ice-cream was great for me; less so for my bins. Optics and dripping ice-cream do not mix, my bins would smell of chocolate and vanilla for the rest of the trip but at least they were now slip-proof.
At this stage Ha was showing serious withdrawal symptoms as she had not had Vietnamese food for two weeks. We decided to give her a break and had a pretty good dinner at the "Cho Gao Restaurant". Really a mix of Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese, and declared non-authentic by Ha (she had "Bun Cha" and, as every Vietnamese from Hanoi knows; Bun Cha is only good in Hanoi), it sure beat any meat pie.
"Bird-of-the-Day" were the Stone-Curlews for the guys, only Ha preferred the Scrubfowls.
2nd of November:
Another early start without breakfast to get us to Cassowary House. We had barely arrived when a Cassowary arrived with three downy young in tow. Bloody oath, Cassowaries are massive and they have the most evil eye I have ever seen in a bird, it's a kind of "wanna-mess-with-me?" stare. Guy wrote in his trip report that "Cassowaries are huge and know it - as this one came walking right up to us, we retreated into the bushes". He is very kind, the real story went like this: John, Guy and I pushed in front of Ha to potentially get the best shots. When Daddy Cassowary appeared and walked right up to us, a mass panic took hold and 2000 years of civilization went out of the window as we took flight; trampling right over Ha who was standing behind us. A fine bunch of Gentlemen we were that morning! The family stayed around for a few minutes and then disappeared just as quickly as they had come in. They move very quietly, considering the size and all. Just for the record: good thing that Cassowaries don't fly; one of those crapped on your car and you would need a panel beater to fix it.
Sue, the lady that owns Cassowary House, fixed us the best breakfast we had so far on this trip. Home-made jams and marmalades, fantastic fruit, real toast, the works. Could have sat on the Veranda for hours, in particular as there were really good birds coming in: Emerald Doves were feeding within Inches of our feet, a Victoria's Riflebird perched on the veranda railing, and a few very skittish Musky Rat-Kangaroos would run off every time a leaf dropped.
We took a little walk around the area and were rewarded with fairly distant views of a Superb Fruit-Dove, followed by excellent views of a Wompoo Fruit Dove. A massive bird, and brightly coloured, it is nevertheless quite unobtrusive, only the strange "wopock wom-pooo" call giving it away.
Other birds seen here were Little Shrike-thrush, Spotted Catbird, Grey Whistler, Pale-yellow Robin and Graceful and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters. A little further along the road some searching got us a pair of Lovely Fairy-wrens and yes, the male is indeed lovely with a combination of a striking blue, chestnut, and black.
We drove on to Kurranda where a stop got me a "real" German "Wurst" and views of Fairy Gerygone and Freshwater Crocodile and a Jewel Rainbow Skink for all.
Continuing to Mareeba, we spotted our first Australian Bustards and "Australian" Sarus Crane. Ha and I had seen "Eastern" Sarus Crane a few times in Vietnam and Cambodia, but seeing the tallest flying bird in the world is always awesome.
The afternoon was spent at Emerald Creek, a small river bordered by mostly Eucalyptus and Acacia Trees. We tried very hard to see Rufous Owls, but they were very wary and we only managed the briefest glimpses of the birds flying off. The Honeyeaters were easier, with White-throated, Brown, Yellow, and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters all about. We did have very good views of an adult White-browed Robin feeding a juvenile thanks to John who found them.
Driving on and continuing through grasslands, we saw our first Brolga feeding with yet more Sarus Cranes. The two Cranes are actually quite similar but can be told apart by
how far the red extends
down the neck; with Brolga only the red is head whereas the red
goes further down the neck with Sarus Cranes. We also saw a few Squatter Pigeons, with me embarrassingly calling the first one "Partridge". Their whole behaviour does actually resemble that of a Partridge more than that of a Pigeon. We also saw our first fantastic Finch along this drive; with 2 Double-barred Finches right beside the road. Ha and I tried very hard to get good photos of these cute birds; with Ha having more success then me. I don't know if it is because she only stands
There was an Agile Wallaby doing Yoga and a Black-shouldered Kite somewhere along the way, and with all that going on it was dark by the time we arrived at Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge. This turned out to be excellent timing as we were greeted by a Papuan Frogmouth as we entered the driveway to the lodge. An auspicious start as we would spend the next four days here; instead of packing up pretty much as soon as we got into a place.
Lindsay prepared an excellent dinner and Keith (they were our hosts) rustled up a few cold ones for me and a bottle of wine for everyone else. We kicked back, enjoyed, and watched the antics of Bush Rats, Fawn-footed Melomys and Northern Brown Bandicoots. I took the torch for a walk after dinner and added one more mammal, Giant White-tailed Rat.
"Bird-of-the Day" records are a bit patchy over the next few days, I seem to only have asked Ha (Guy, John, if you do remember...). Obvious choice that day as Ha would sport the bruises for some time where the guys had stomped on her trying to get away from the Cassowary.
3rd of November:
We drove up Mount Lewis at 06:00. The weather had turned and it was misty with occasional rain that would turn into a constant drizzle later in the day. Birding was slow though we did pick up a few of the species we came to see, as well as a couple of leeches (seen, by who else, Ha).
As we were procrastinating at the Mount Lewis camp site, nobody seemed very keen to brave the rain, we did have great views of Atherton Scrubwrens right in the car park, as well as Yellow-throated Scrubwrens. After a couple of mugs of coffee, we were ready to tackle the trail. Grey Fantails and Grey-headed Robins were all over the place, feeding on the path. Fernwrens were not uncommon either, if very unobtrusive. A few birds were constantly singing and a short walk off the path gave great views of Tooth-billed Bowerbird. They were not bad at their singing, but easily outdone by the extremely varied song of Bower's Shrike-thrush. The bird would repeat a "phrase" two or three times and then change to a completely different song. It was the song that led us to a pair of these limited-range endemics on their nest.
I again had trouble at getting on them at first, but we would all eventually end up with good views of Chowchillas. Very active feeders in the leaf litter, they do resemble Thrushes in both appearance and behaviour. We encountered a few small family(?) groups, with males easily distinguished by their white breasts as opposed to the females' orange breasts.
We also saw White-throated Treecreeper and two Mountain Thornbills before finishing the morning with Bridled Honeyeaters at the car park. A Boyd's Forest Dragon was putting so much effort into laying eggs right on the path that it did not even move as we approached.
Lunch was at the Kingfisher Lodge and once again was very good, and very organic. Entertainment was provided by a constant coming and going to the feeders, mostly Brown-backed Honeyeaters, MacLeay's Honeyeaters, and Red-browed Finches.
After lunch we visited the nearby Abattoir Swamp, a short 5 kilometres away. A pair of Northern Fantails were busy with their nest, and a Lemon-bellied Fantail was singing away at the parking lot. Apart from this, it was pretty quiet and we headed back. Along the way we did see two Green Pigmy-Geese as well as a Chestnut-breasted Manikin, another very smart Finch.
Guy was ready for a rest in the afternoon, so Ha and I tried a little birding around Kingfisher Lodge. However, rain and gazillions of very hungry Mozzies drove us back. Time for a glass of wine for Ha and a Beer for me; and we did manage to get some laundry done.
Another pleasant dinner before Keith took us for a little walk. We passed lots of tiny Red Tree Frogs sitting on the bathroom windows and he showed us an (Eastern) Barn Owl.
Again only "BoD's" for Ha and me: Ha went for the Tooth-billed Bowerbird she had braved leeches to see; I chose the Chowchilla.
4th of January:
Guy and Keith had seen one of our target birds the previous afternoon, so Ha and I started walking the grounds at 05:30 to look for it. As it was still pretty dark we first headed for a nearby Cricket ground where we promptly saw one of the resident Black Bazas. The trees around the grounds held a huge colony of Metallic Starlings that did not seem the least perturbed by the presence of a raptor that close. As it got lighter, we headed back to Kingfisher Park and, after a few frustrating glimpses, we finally saw our target bird; two Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfishers. Both Ha and I are pretty keen on Kingfishers as many of them are outright beautiful; but the, for us, first Paradise-Kingfisher took our collective breaths away. I managed to take great photos, National Geography stuff really. You will have to take my word for it as I accidentally deleted all the photos a few minutes later. Arrrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Keith came out and asked me to mind my language at this point (just kidding, Keith).
Those stars out of the way, we started the 120-kilometer drive to the house of a friend of Guy's in the Atherton Tablelands. Apparently, this is THE place to look for Golden Bowerbird, a bird that is neither common nor easy to see. A short stop on the way at Mitchell Lake had us nail our first Glossy Ibis as well as a car-load of Bogans. Guess they were not there for the birds.
We got to G.'s house eventually and followed him up a steep and leechy path. Ha stayed behind as G. let slip that there were leeches; really regrettable as after only a short walk we came upon the massive bower (Golden Bowerbirds is the smallest of the Bowerbirds. Like many short folks, it istrying to compensate by building the largest bower. Penis envy.....) and within seconds started having amazing views of Golden Bowerbird. Another star bird, we spent quite some time taking photos, with me almost falling off the bloody hill in the process, before G. invited us for some coffee and breakfast. Birds around his house were extremely tame, with a Victoria's Riflebird joining us right on the terrace. Great stuff as we had seen them mostly way up in the trees until then.
We regrettably had to say bye to G. (we were sworn to secrecy as to who G. is and where he lives; he is not so keen on twitchers trampling all over his garden) and stopped at a massive Curtain Fig Tree near Yungaburra to look for Tree Kangaroos. Obviously, the Kangaroos had been there the previous day, dancing naked in the parking lot, and would no doubt be there the next day, but this is one Kangaroo we completely dipped on. Ha did however manage to pick up a leech, something the good folks in Mareeba 50 kilometres where alerted to by her screams. Luckily, we had seen both Golden-breasted Boatbill and Golden Orb Spider as the forest was pretty much devoid of life after Ha went ballistic.
Heading slowly back to Kingfisher Lodge, we saw lots of Black-shouldered Kites as well as two Spotted Harriers, normally a bird of the drier interior and Spinifex country. An amazing sight were a 100+ Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos on the outskirts of Mareeba. There were also a lot of Agile Wallabies in the nearby orchards. As we watched them up close, the owner of the farm showed up. Friendly enough, as long as you did not mention Wallabies; "shoot the effing lot of them, I say" was his opinion on those. We decided to move on before he considered birders a pest, too.
Guy and I did go out once more after dinner; driving up the Mount Lewis road. Should have known by now that that would be a waste of time, our batting average for night birding was about "0". We did see a few Red-legged Pademelons and Giant White-tailed Rats at least.
As Ha had not seen the Golden Bowerbird, which I chose as "Bird-of-the-Day", she chose the Victoria's Riflebird instead.
5th of November:
Another pre-dawn start and, with a little effort, Ha and I managed to track down another Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher. Big relief for more as I managed to replace the pictures I had accidentally deleted the previous day. A little more birding around Kingfisher Lodge got us White-cheeked Honeyeaters, a Barred Cuckoo-shrike, a Pale-yellow Robin, a couple of White-headed Pigeons, a Varied Triller and a Brahminy Kite flying over.
After breakfast we drove to Dan's Dam along Mt. Carbine road. We stopped at the Abattoir Swamp again were we had good views of a single Black-necked Stork. First one of the trip and only our second ever as Ha and I had one seen earlier in the year in Cambodia; after looking for one for a looong time. Absolutely amazing bird. Not only nice to look at but also humongous, bigger than Ha actually.
It was still overcast but temperatures were rising, with a balmy 28 degrees by the time we reached McLeod River. Nice little walk but not too birdy. There were a few Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos about as well as the very common Rainbow Lorikeets. A few White-naped Honeyeaters were busy in the trees as well as a single White-gaped Honeyeater.
On to Dan's Dam where a sign warned us that trespassers would be hung, quartered, and drawn; good thing we only read the sign as we left. It was pretty warm by now and again there were not a lot of birds about. Among lots of Peaceful Doves there were also a few Diamond Doves. I would have probably missed them if it hadn't been for Guy as they are very similar to their commoner brethren. A lot more conspicuous was the flock of 20 or so Apostle Birds busy playing "follow-the-leader". We set around for a couple of hours hoping to see some of the rarer Finches that supposedly come to drink here, but no joy apart from 10 Double-barred Finches. A Brown Treecreeper was well seen, allowing us to see the differences of this very different looking subspecies confined to Cape York.
We stopped in Mount Molly on the way back looking for Bowerbirds. Sure enough we stumbled on a bower frequented by four not very shy Great Bowerbirds. They really put on a show for us as we were sitting a scant few meters away but once again I do not think they got any action.
At dinner Lindsay once again lived up to her reputation as a great cook and, after Ha and I chose the Double-barred Finches as "Bird-of-the-Day", we hit the sack with full bellies for a good night's sleep.
6th of November:
I got up at 04:00 but the only reward for a short night were a couple of White-tailed Rats and a Papuan Frogmouth. After breakfast we said goodbye to John as his tour had come to an end, and hello to Daniel who would join us for the tour extension to the Outback. Lindsay told us that a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo had been spotted on the Mt. Lewis Road so we headed there once more to try our luck. Sure enough, a little bit of taping, and not one, but two Chestnut-breasted Cuckoos flew in! Not only that, we also managed to nail a bird that had avoided us the previous couple of days at pretty much the same spot, a Pied Monarch. Great start to the day.
With those two birds out of the way, we started our 5-hour drive to Cape York. I had expected a horrible road but, whilst a dirt road, it was more like a Highway. Along the drive, the countryside started to look more like the Australia I had imagined: dry, hot, (35 degrees), and some real characters in Lakeland when we stopped for lunch: cowboy boots, old hats, looking like they chewed razor blades for breakfast. Only the Bluetooth ear-pieces spoilt the image a little. Whilst Ha set off to steal some Mangoes, we watched some Red-winged Parrots doing the same.
Not much birding along the drive, though we had close-up views of a male Australian Bustard as well as of three Brown Falcons.
We stopped 50 kilometres short of Lotusbird Lodge at Artemis Station, the place we would stay the next couple of days, to meet Sue; the "Golden-shouldered Parrot Lady". Sure enough she got us onto the Golden-shouldered Parrots within 30 minutes. I started taking photos from about 2 Miles away but, once again, we managed to approach the birds to within a few meters. Certainly one (another one) of the highlights of the trip; Sue reckons there are only about 50 birds in the area and not more than 2,000 in all of Australia. We would have never found them without Sue's help either, the landscape is perfct for getting completely and utterly lost.
It was with no small sense of accomplishment that we continued to Lotusbird Lodge were we were welcomed by another Sue and Gary. The Lodge is in a fantastic setting, on the edge of a Billabong. Another great dinner followed and the "Bird-of-the-Day" was a foregone conclusion as nothing could come close to the Golden-shouldered Parrots.
7th of November:
We headed out early to look for a Red Goshawk's nest. Sue had told us that the juveniles had already fledged but once again Ha came to the rescue when she spotted one of the juveniles nearby. An adult Red Goshawk flew in as well and did not look comfortable with our presence. We therefore decided to leave for a massive and excellent breakfast after also ticking a Yellow-tinted Honeyeater. Gary showed us two roosting Papuan Frogmouths and I was very pleased with my first Radjah Shelducks.
We headed to "Annie's campsite" once done with the breakfast. Pretty warm and not too many birds. Sue and Gary had told us that it was the wettest spring in 20 years and that the birds had dispersed wide and far as there was water everywhere. Two hours of sweating got us Mistletoe Birds, a couple of Torresian Imperial Pigeons, at least 2 Gould's Bronze-Cuckoos (often lumped with Little Bronze-Cuckoo), a male Yellow-bellied Sunbird (or Olive-backed as they are called in my part of the world), a Bar-breasted Honeyeater and, for once spotted by me, a Black-breasted Buzzard.
Gary prepared a great salad lunch and then we headed out for the Nifold Plains. We very quickly came across a huge flock of Black-throated Finches, certainly less effort than sitting 20 hours by a waterhole as one of our group had done (sorry Daniel for rubbing it in:-)). We were still enjoying the views when Sue, who had joined us as a tracker, radioed for us to join her. The flock of Star Finches she had found was even bigger than that of the Black-throated, we estimated at least a hundred birds. A lot more wary than their Black-throated cousins we all managed to get great views nevertheless. Whilst chasing the Finches we also saw two Rufous-throated Honeyeaters and flushed ten or so Brown Quails.
The others drove on a bit before it got dark whilst I tried to take photos of a very tame Asian Pratincole. I swear the bird fell in love with my rugged good looks, not only did it approach to within centimetres, it ran next to the car when the others picked me up. Hey, my age you pick up some sweet, tender loving wherever you can.
The day finished with a Northern Laughing Treefrog in the toilet, a Little Red Frog in the shower, a few Little Red Flying Foxes above and two Southern Boobooks in a tree.
A varied lot for "Bird-of-the-Day" as Ha and I chose the Red Goshawk, Daniel the Star Finches and Guy the Black-throated Finches.
8th of November:
Ha had a bit of a lie-in, Guy and Daniel went back to look for the Red Goshawk again whilst I walked around the Billabong (keeping a wary eye out for the local "Saltie" that called the Billabong home). Nothing new for me but it was just beautiful to walk at first light.
Once everybody was back at the lodge we had a good breakfast before heading for Cooktown. The road was pretty rough in places and with the thermometer hitting 36 degrees it was the hottest day yet. Along the way we did stop on the Nifold Plains again to score Zitting Cisticolas and White-winged Trillers as well as a Frilled Lizard.
We had a further halt at Morehead River for a Picnic lunch. Good place too as we did see both Masked and Crimson Finches here. We also saw Banded Honeyeater and an adult and two immature Black-necked Storks as well as spooking a few Wild Pigs.
Another short stop at Lake Emma finally got Silver-crowned Friarbird out of the way. We had had a few suspected sightings before but views were never good enough to nail it 100%.
Arriving in Cooktown at around 19:30 we found the place completely dead, people obviously go to bed early in these parts of the world. We checked into the rather mediocre "Seaview Motel". Actually, the prices were far from mediocre with the room going for AUD 120.00 and the breakfast (the usual: 2 slices of toast, Kellog's, Vegemite and jam) for AUD 12.50! They even charge 65 Cents extra if you want Tomato Sauce!!!! WTF???? If I pulled this stunt at the hotel I run I would be slaughtered, and rightly so. The choice for dinner was either the local RSL or the Bowls Club, both actually just excuses to get some booze in though the food at the RSL turned to be out OK. Ha also had another highlight of Australian cuisine: Mars bar fritter. Whoever thought of taking a perfectly good Mars bar, dumping it in batter, and throwing it into a deep-fat fryer probably eats small children, too.
Crimson Finch was "Bird-of-the-Day" for all of us.
9th of November:
After a night in the shittiest bed so far we set off for the Aman River to look for Tropical Scrubwren and White-streaked Honeyeater without so much as a glimpse of either. All we got were a White-browed Robin and a couple of Varied Lorikeets. Back to Cooktown, though it should be called Cookvillage really, for some breakfast at the Cooktown Bakery. Apart from being the only bakery in town, it also serves Indian, Chinese, and Thai; go figure.
We headed for the forest patch once more and did finally see the Tropical Scrubwrens. Another bird apparently much sought after but yet another bird that turned out to be another LBJ. Then it was a long drive back to Cairns, an absolutely fantastic drive until we got to Cape Tribulation. Disneyworld really, with gazillions of tourists and "real" travellers (read dread-locked, fisherman's pants wearing, unkempt freaks with "tribal" tattoos discovering "authentic" Australia). I felt really sorry for the Beach Stone-Curlew we saw here, it was getting flushed from one side of the bay to the other by all the people and dogs walking up and down the beach. Another halt crossing the Daintree River on a ferry gave us excellent views of Shining Flycatcher and Barred Cuckoo-Shrike.
We checked back into the Cairns Colonial Club Resort and had dinner at the He Cho GAo again. Ha figured the food was not as good as on our previous visit; good thing I stuck to the brews.
It seems that Daniel did not have a "Bird-of-the-Day", these hardcore twitchers can be very blasť. Ha took the Shining Flycatcher, Guy the Tropical Scrubwren and I the Varied Parrot.
10th of November:
05:30 departure to get our 6:40 flight to Mount Isa. First bad news: the flight stopped over in Townsville and Cloncurry. Second bad news (for someone who is scared of flying); no alcoholic beverages at an International airport before 10:00! To top it all off, we came across a rude Quantas staff that gave us crap for our on-board luggage and then mocked Ha's accent when Ha told her that she had fragile coffee mugs in her luggage. This from a Bimbo with a trailer-park accent! With all this BS going on I forgot to take Ha's laptop out of the checked-in luggage and we sweated it all the way to Mount Isa two stops later. All our photos were on that one laptop.
We arrived safely, as did the laptop, and picked up our tiny car and to check into a yet another mediocre hotel, the Abacus Motel; BirdQuest style. It was bloody hot so we skipped birding until after a forgettable lunch. Mount Isa is not much to write home about; its only raison d'Ítre is the mining going on there. Apparently salaries are pretty good but I still wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life there.
After lunch we went to any birder's must-see: the local sewage works. Once again the abundant rains meant that there were much fewer birds than expected. However we did have great views of Yellow-throated Miners and Rufous-throated Honeyeaters picking off insects of the fence surrounding the works. We also finally saw Hoary-headed Grebe, a bird we had been looking for pretty hard so far. Zebra Finches still got a big kick out of us, there were a few Little Crows in attendance, we saw another Hardhead and a pair of Pink-eared Ducks, and both Marsh and Wood Sandpipers.
We drove out a little bit to Warrigal and had our first encounter with Spinifex. This plant is just plain evil and probably the worst memory I have of the trip. If I do go back, I will wear knee-high boots just do avoid this plague that a mean-spirited God must have put on earth to torment birders. I still shudder just thinking of it. However, there are good birds in this vegetation out of hell and the very first one was the aptly named Spinifex Pigeon. Stellar bird and probably the best pigeon of the trip. If only the rats-on-wings that populate European cities were half as pretty.... We walked a little and then things got crazy: Guy was busy with a Willie Wagtail, Daniel got onto a Spinifexbird and I nailed a Kalkadoon Grasswren. I had a feeling Guy did not believe me at first as it was way too easy, but luckily we did see a few more of the Grasswrens.
We spent a little time near a puddle in a dried-out stream and were rewarded with better views of Spinifex Pigeon and a Common Bronzewing. Ha and I stuck around a little longer and also managed to see Spotted Bowerbird and a pair of Painted Finches as well as a Grey Shrike-Thrush.
Another great day, and rounded of nicely with a good dinner at the Abyssinia Restaurant. Spicy like hell, but great service and really yummy. Never thought I'd come across "Injera" (Ethopian Bread) in Mt. Isa of all places/
Ha and Guy took the Kalkadoon Grasswren as "Bird-of-the-Day" and Daniel the Spinifexbird. Once again I thought the honours should not go to a difficult, but dull, bird and I felt the Spinifex Pigeon just did it for me.
11th of November:
Another day, another effort to crawl out of bed. We drove about 40 minutes out of town to look for yet another Grasswren and to have our ankles perforated by yet more bloody Spinifex. But it took us only 15 minutes to get brief views of a much sought-after bird, Carpentarian Grasswren. According to a log book placed under some rocks nearby this is not an easy bird by any means. Birders had spent hours and even days without as much as a whiff whilst we managed to get some pretty good views over the next couple of hours. Forget photos though, these birds were on some serious drugs and never sat still for more than a fraction of second. They'd pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Tracking the Grasswrens we did also see a few Little Woodswallows, a very restless Restless Flycatcher and a Black-tailed Treecreeper. Grey-fronted Honeyeaters were easy to see, but the male Crested Bellbird took some effort. I found it very hard to judge the distance of the pretty conspicuous call, luckily the bird decided to sit right on top of a tree.
We headed back to the charming town of Mount Isa and got completely washed out. A massive thunderstorm hit us and we saw the impressive spectacle of rivers running through downtown Mount Isa. We ducked into the local bookstore; there were about three hundred books on mining and lots of magazines involving "Utes" (do read the article, but only if you are over 18), under-dressed women, or both.
We did head back to the same area as the previous afternoon but birding was slow with plenty of water all around after the masses of rain dumped earlier. Guy and Daniel got onto some good birds but for Ha and me sitting by "our" water hole it was pretty much zilch. Back in Mount Isa, we did find a tree full of Varied Lorikeets vying for food with Little Red Flying-Foxes and we had a spectacular sunset.
Went back to the same Abyssinian Restaurant, tucking into another great dinner. Could have stayed there for a little while but Guy needed his beauty sleep. Carpentarian Grasswren was the "BOD" for all if us. Not really spectacular, but I still feel the pain inflicted by the Spinifex looking for the SOB (no, not really).
12th of November:
We had briefly met local bird expert Bob the day before who told us that the Golf course was a good bet for Ringnecks and this is were we headed first. Sure enough we came across a flock of "Clooncurry Ringnecks" right by hole one. They are a quite distinct race of Ringneck previously treated as a separate species. As Golfers started rolling up and warming up (though why one would warm up for Golf beats me), we headed back to the Irish Pub; again on the advice of Bob. He was on the money once again, with the neighbourhood full of Spotted Bowerbirds, more Varied Lorikeets and White-plumed Honeyeaters.
Checking another site near town, a bow-and-arrow and axe-throwing club for the local rednecks, we did not come across much bird-wise but Ha did spot 6 Purple-necked Rock-Wallabies. Under good light the necks really are purple; also obvious were the mangled ears on a couple of them, they either fight a lot or play in the Australian Rugby Union. A bit further we came across a massive Red Kangaroo; never knew that Kangaroos had such huge cojones. We patrolled the shores of Lake Moondarra for a little while and saw Restless Flycatcher as well as Chestnut-breasted Mannikins; the Mannikins in Oz sure beat their mostly dull counterparts in South-East Asia.
We drove back to the Motel to meet with said Bob around 10:00 and headed once more for Lake Moondarra. A beautiful lake in a great setting, and plenty of birds too. The first highlight were a few Pictorella Mannikins, yet another great Finch(?). At first glimpse these birds look rather dull; but on closer inspection (assuming the birds play along) they do look quite smart. We also saw our first Singing Honeyeater here; we would see lots more at the end of the trip. Plenty of "old" stuff for the seasoned experts on Australian birds that Ha and I were by now. We had no problem identifying the 200+ Black Swans that were floating about, the 3 Black-necked Storks were a doodle and even the Whiskered, White-winged and Gull-billed Terns posed no real challenge. Then reality caught up in the shape of four Sharp-tailed Sandpipers; I have no idea how anyone can keep apart all these waders.
No birding in the afternoon as Guy was tired (wimp); but Bob did join us for another good meal at our regular restaurant.
The Pictorella Mannikins made the "Bird-of-the-Day" list for all of us.
13th of November:
We had a quick spin before leaving for the airport, setting off in hammering rain which thankfully stopped just as we got to the Warrigal Waterhole. Ha slept in but I got great views of a Long-tailed Finch. We also saw two Golden-backed Honeyeaters, a sub-species of Black-chinned Honeyeater. I did a small detour on my own and got pretty close to both Zebra Finch and Red-backed Kingfisher. The latter made me stumble up and down hills and through more Spinifex but it would eventually let me get close enough for a few photos.
We checked in and Ha, Guy, and Daniel buggered off again whilst I had a couple of cold ones to mentally prepare myself for the flight (no restrictions on the times booze can be served in this mining town; the only good point of Mt. Isa I could discern). Should have gone with them as they flushed a Stubble Quail. They came back as the flight was already boarding; I was shitting bricks (Guy had all the bookings for the rest of the trip), but they were very nonchalant.
Back to Brisbane and on to Toowoomba. We stayed at the decent, if not outstanding, Riviera on Ruthven Motel. The owner was friendly and wanted to know a lot from Ha about Vietnam, but the big sign at the entrance proclaiming "Free Internet" was a bit of a scam: we got a voucher for all of 5 minutes on a connection that was so slow it made watching paint dry exciting in comparison. Once the voucher was used up: ka-ching!!!! Dinner at a Thai-Malay-Chinese "Pandan Delight" restaurant next door. Exotic for Australian tastes, but whilst decent the food was not really Asian.
"Bird-of-the-Day" was the Long-tailed Finch for Daniel, Black-chinned Honeyeater for Guy, Stubble Quail (darn, darn, darn!) for Ha, and Red-backed Kingfisher for me.
14th of November:
I hated to leave the comfortable bed, but leave it we had to at 06:00 for the 700 kilometre trip to Cunnamulla. Not too many birds, in particular as it was foggy as we left Toowoomba, but we did have lots of Cockatiels on wires close to the road as well as a Square-tailed Kite flying over. There were also a couple of Inland Thornbills at one of our many stops.
As we got closer to Cunnamulla it started raining yet again. Unimaginable that this part of Oz had been in the grip of a draught for many years; everything was green and there were flowers everywhere. Emus became more numerous but they really had a knack of always having a bush between them and us. Still, I was happy to see them; like Kangaroos I expected Emus to be everywhere: downtown Brisbane, at the meat pie shop, in the Pub,.....
I thought Mt. Isa and McKay were pretty dire towns, but Cunnamulla can only be described as the a**e-hole of the world, especially on a Sunday. Nothing to be had here, not even lunch; the highlight of the day is at 16:00 when the local "supermarket" (think of shelves of processed foods) opens, the inhabitants actually dress up for this event; that is how little goes on.
We checked into the Warrego Hotel/Motel which proudly advertises itself as the only hotel with "pokies" and a drive-through bottle shop. I never did figure out how pokies worked, but at least the bottle shop meant that beers were available.
We did have time for a quick gander around the Cunnamulla International Airport (closed, 800 meters of cropped bush) and the Cunnamulla Golf Club (closed, 500 metres of cropped bush). The birds were certainly a nicer sight, with 5 Red-rumped Parrots quietly feeding on grass seeds and a group of 7 Blue Bonnets perched in a tree. We also added to our Fairy-wren list with 4 White-winged Fairy-wrens including a very nice male. We finished the day with a Black Falcon and headed back for dinner at our Motel.
The dinner was a close call as we left it way too late, arriving at 19:30. Might not really be late to you and me but I guess the only way to live and stay sane in Cunnamulla is to sleep 23 hours a day and dream of some place far, far away. We grabbed the German Chef (wonder what he did to deserve this fate) just as he was leaving and managed to get some food out of him. The food was much like the hotel: uninspiring. Though I hope to think that the kitchen was cleaner than the rooms; Ha had to clean the fridge before she dared put in our meagre supplies.
Another mixed bag for "Bird-of-the-Day": Ha and Guy the White-winged Fairy-wren, Daniel the Black Falcon and I went for the Blue Bonnets. Great birds but the name makes me think of some widow from the 18th century.
15th of November:
For some strange reason I stopped writing down notes but I did continue to write down bird and place names and will just have to rack my alcohol-addled brain to piece together the last two days.
Pretty much same-same: early start and drizzle. First stop was the "Eulo Bore", not a dull native but supposedly the favourite pub for all the birds from the surrounding parched countryside. Only problem with this was that the countryside was far from parched, more like ankle-deep in water and mud. Therefore not many birds to be seen here though a juvenile Pallid Cuckoo was nice.
We stopped in Eulo to get some coffee only to find out that not only do the natives go to bed in the late afternoon; they also get up real late. Whilst we waited for the petrol station/store/souvenir shop/bakery/jewellers/butcher/garage to open we were rewarded by our first Major Mitchell's Cockatoo. A beautiful male, it made sure we did not miss it by constantly calling or rather screaming out its presence. Along a dirt road we saw two Chestnut-crowned Babblers, Chestnut-rumped and Yellow-rumped Thornbills as well as a Red-capped Robin.
The plan for the day was to drive to the Currawinya National Park but we had to give up that idea after a few kilometres; it had rained too much and the road was impassable, even for a four-wheel drive. That is what the local copper said anyway, by now we had learned that the Oz government is ultra cautious; the road looked like a highway to me but then I had learned how to drive in Kenya (where men are still real men;-)).
We did bird at the beginning of the road and Ha and I flushed what we were sure was a Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush. Guy and Daniel were less convinced, but some serious searching eventually turned up the bird again. There were quite a few Splendid Fairy-wrens about. Views were not easy to get but this is probably the nicest of the family, at least of those Fairy-Wrens we saw.
As Currawinya was a no-go, we headed to Lake Bindegolly instead. On the way there we did see a few Little Crows as well as a single White-necked Heron. The weather had changed and it was sunny and hot by the time we reached the lake's picnic area. I would have liked to walk the 10 km around the lake but the water levels were too high for that. A good year for Pink-eared Ducks with quite a few ducklings about; there was also a single male Blue-billed Duck. A Crimson Chat was very nice as were our only Black-tailed Native-hens.
Slowly heading back, Ha saw a few small birds that turned out to be Budgies. Not in a cage, chewing cuttlebone and pecking at mirrors, these were the real McCoy. A much sought-after bird by Ha and myself this would also remain the only ones we would see. What struck me is how small they were, they seem to be a lot smaller than the popular cage birds from my youth (or I was smaller then, all relative I guess). Another find here were a few Masked Woodswallows among lots of White-browed Woodswallows.
We finished the day with some birding in extremely painful vegetation. I don't think it was Spinifex, but it hurt just as much. I had trailed behind which was a mistake as the others saw good birds. By the time they called me all I got onto was another Crimson Chat, and "Mallee" Ringnecks (if they ever get split). I also watched a Pallid Cuckoo getting fed by its Singing Honeyeater "parents", they were about a third the size of their bastard child.
If I remember right we went to a different restaurant for dinner. This being Cunnamulla; the restaurant was just dreary as the one the previous night but at least the "Bird-of-the-Day" brightened up the evening. Ha and Guy chose the Budgie, Daniel and myself went for Major Mitchell's Cockatoo.
16th of November:
It was not raining, but it was early and pretty foggy when we set off for Bowra Station, an old farm purchased by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and donors. A beautiful place but obviously not viable as a working farm. The habitat appears not much disturbed and I believe it is a Godsend that the AWC managed to secure it.
The day started off well with a Painted Honeyeater but then I made the mistake of deciding to walk back the 20 or so kilometres to Cunnamulla. I'll get it out of the way: whilst I was walking my feet off, the others saw Red-chested Buttonquail, Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush, Hall's Babbler, Redthroat and Bourke's Parrot. There, I've said it. And no I am not envious at all, the Valium is working. I had a great walk and saw such super-duper birds as Bellbird, Nankeen Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, and Little Woodswallow. Yeah I know, doesn't compare. Mind you, I did have a highlight of sorts as I discovered how to reel in Emus that had so far eluded our efforts to take photos. Thoroughly dispirited, tired, and thirsty I sat on a log and started grumbling to myself. This piqued the interest of some nearby Emus that would eventually come close enough to almost touch.
Once back at the Motel I made the acquaintance of the hotel manager. When he heard that I was a hotel manager as well we got quite a conversation going (even though I do think the hotel I run is just a little better;-).
"Bird-of-the-Day" was a sad affair for me, with my fellow birders showing off and rubbing it in all at the same time. Ha and Daniel went for Bourke's Parrot, Guy for Hall's Babbler, I was left with White-browed Treecreeper.
17th of November:
Guy agreed to take me out once more to Bowra whilst Daniel and Ha slept and/or packed. As we walked down a path we saw six (6) Bourke's Parrots, much to my relief. They even had the decency to hang out right near a sign that proclaimed the area to be Bourkie territory. We also had 5 Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrushes that gave more than excellent views. The suckers called all the time and Guy and I scanned the ground and beneath bushes before we realized that a couple of them were sitting on a tree above us, right in the open! We finished the morning with a Little Eagle before tackling the long drive back to Toowoomba. Tedious drive indeed but we did manage to take ample photographs of Major Mitchell's Cockatoo's in trees right by the road, busy feeding and saw a big flock of White-throated Needletails zipping about above us. We finished the drive with another great Lizard, Eastern Shingleback.
Well boys and girls, and that was that, We did some more half-hearted birding the next day but Ha and I were really keen to get to Sydney and relax after weeks of birding. Once there, we did the usual thing: eat "Pho" (Vietnamese noodle soup; guess whose idea that was) every morning, do Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour, shop, drink beer, shop some more.
Wait, almost forgot. We had heard about little Penguins breeding somewhere in Sydney. Thanks to the Internet, we soon enough had a location and headed out to Manly Beach and, more specifically, Manly Wharf. It was a glorious day and the boat trip alone was well worth it. It was a bit strange to see a huge Bavarian Bier Cafe on the Wharf but it provided a good excuse to have a few cold ones. We did check under the pier but saw nothing resembling Penguins, just rubbish and kids. However, as it really was a great day, we decided to kick back and wait for dusk. Sure enough, soon after it got dark, an adult Little Penguin excited the sea and joined the rest of the family a couple of metres from where we were standing. An adult and a juvenile had been sitting underneath our feet all afternoon.
A great end to a great trip, marred by two things: first the lady guarding the Penguins. I understand the need of protecting the penguins; I do not understand employing a tone worthy of a Nazi prison guard. The people watching the penguins are tourists; screaming at them for some real or imagined misbehaviour is not going to kindle any interest in their protection. The there was the guy on the ferry that pounced on me when I opened a beer; citing the need to protect children from becoming alcoholics. It was 10 pm, not only were there no children, there was nobody else on the whole bloody ferry.
Overall, a great trip. We saw more than we expected and were particular happy with the large numbers of some key species we saw: Parrots, Honeyeaters, Bowerbirds and Fairywrens were all well represented. We certainly were lucky with the mammals as well, from Platypus to Humpback Whale. The accommodation and food certainly left room for improvement; I understand that the boss of BirdQuest is not big on creature comforts and assumes that all birders are like that. Wrong!
Enough bitching; end of the day it was a great trip and Ha and I are planning our return to down-under next year.
List of Birds seen:
List of Mammals seen: