Grand Australia Sep 27—Oct 13, 2005
Posted by David Bishop
Parts I and II: September 27-October 27, 2005
Part I: September 27-October 13, 2005
How I envy Captain James Cook and his naturalist-surgeon friend, Sir Joseph Banks. Just imagine what it must have been like to discover "the great southern land," to have been the naturalist aboard that valiant little ship, the H.M.S. Endeavour, and to realize that you are perhaps the first non-Aboriginal to bear witness to such a completely different and quite extraordinary fauna and flora. Make no mistake, Australia's birds, mammals, reptiles, and plants are like nothing else on our planet.
Our month-long sojourn, divided into two parts and covering the eastern two-thirds of the continent, graced us with an incomparable insight into what it means to be an Aussie! We garnered an extraordinary 446 species of birds in addition to a number of neat, peculiar, and heartwarmingly appreciated Australian mammals, reptiles, and invertebrates. But these are only the statistics; this tour was indelibly a great deal more. We commenced with a record number of 42—yes, 42—Wandering Albatrosses off the back of our Sydney catamaran—and this in an age when, sadly, these great ocean beasts are in an inexorable decline. There were others, too: handsome Shy, Black-browed, and Yellow-billed albatrosses all seemingly within hands-reach, as well as ever-present shoals of petrels and shearwaters.
Royal National Park, second only after Yellowstone in the date of its declaration, was as evocatively Australian as our pelagic trip was exhilarating. One of the world's truly great avian mimics sang and displayed from his mossy lectern; this Superb Lyrebird was indeed superb! Kookaburras sang their international refrain, and the air was filled with the liquid spring songs of Currawongs and Australian Magpies. Quite simply, wow!
Australia is indeed the land of the cockatoo and parrot, as we were to discover. We encountered an impressive total of 33 species including: scope-grabbing views of a stunning male Gang-Gang Cockatoo in lovely Grampians National Park; simply sensational views of arguably one of the most beautiful parrots on earth, the aptly named Superb Parrot (that male…Superb is right!); sixty Hooded Parrots—subtle, delicate, and rather rare—characterized the Top End's propensity for elation-sprung surprises; and a pair of Major Mitchell's Cockatoos prospecting at an ancient red gum brought gasps of awe and stunned silence—this is beauty personified. Oh yes, what about those Budgerigars migrating together with flocks of woodswallows in response to drought-due rain—so familiar as cage birds and yet, here amidst the aromatic scent of Eucalypt forests, cicada sonatas, and mobs of grey kangaroos, they are immediately so very Australian. If you love parrots, as I do, there is no better place than the Island Continent (although New Guinea might give it a good run for its money!).
In so many ways Australia surprises; it really is remarkably civilized. Everything works just as it does back home (well, nearly everything, and even some a little better!). Australia is delightfully free of concerns for personal safety, tummy upsets, and other travel ailments. Perhaps the only real concern is that there is so much out there to see that you don't want to waste a moment of daylight, so when will you ever catch up on sleep?
An elongated and disarmingly easy excursion through the byways of the Blue Mountains took us to one of my favorite hideaways, the Capertee Valley. Tucked into a fold of these ancient worn down old mountains, this valley hosts a fine confection of coastal and midwestern birds and mammals. A glorious morn, surrounded by handsome sandstone escarpments, brought forth a seeming torrent of new and wonderful birds including Australia's rarest honeyeater (and arguably the most handsome), the Regent Honeyeater, along with a rich assortment of other nectar-eating species: Little Lorikeets by the dozen; and Blue-faced, Yellow-faced, Yellow-tufted, White-plumed, Fuscous, and New Holland honeyeaters to name but a few. A pair of Red-rumped Parrots glowed as they plucked seeds from a dry creek bed, and freshly arrived Rainbow Bee-eaters "pripped" overhead while Zebbies (Zebra Finches) stole the show, staging quite a "Fandango" on an aging cattle fence.
All too soon it was time to turn our heads north towards Australia's Top End and the immeasurable variety of these vast tropical lands. Just imagine 500,000—YES, half a million—Magpie Geese packed into one lagoon (you can almost smell them from here!). The Top End—including gigantic Kakadu National Park, the entire Darwin area, and our excursion out towards the Western Australia border at Victoria River—is an area so richly endowed with birds and other wildlife that a handful of highlights barely tells the story of what a truly wonderful experience this place provides: a Rainbow Pitta so confiding and exquisite made a complete travesty of all that pittas are supposed to be—?impossible to see?—I don't think so; a female Red Goshawk at the nest with young, her plumage sumptuous in the late afternoon sun; four rarely encountered Letter-winged Kites; brilliant spotting by Carolyn produced the save of the trip with a well-timed Great-billed Heron; a well-concealed rock pool failed to keep us from a fabulous Gouldian Finch, not to mention pastel-colored Masked and Long-tailed amidst hordes of Crimson and Double-barred finches, and seven delightful, teeny Little Kingfishers on a memorable Yellow-waters Cruise; alone at dawn with all of Kakadu spread before us, ancient cave paintings to explore and even older rocks, sun-burnt, glowing in the early sun, thrumming to stories imbibed over camp fires and retold over millennia; and delicate fairywrens, their names alone entrancing. This, then, is Australia.
Part II: October 11-27, 2005
The second part of this remarkable odyssey found us in the hills (Australians call them mountains; however, after you've been to the Himalayas…) above Brisbane. Here amidst statuesque trees of enormous girth, many festooned with seemingly impossibly huge vines and epiphytes, we treated ourselves to a wonderland of birds and mammals. Hordes of Crimson Rosellas and King Parrots vied for handouts whilst male Regent Bowerbirds just glowed. So many birds, so many highlights, but those Top-knot Pigeons we scoped at length stuck in our memories. But then, what about the totally endearing male Rose Robin; pretty-faced wallabies; pairs of Australian Logrunners, Whipbirds, and the infrequently seen Spotted Quail-thrush; exceptional views of a pair of rarely seen Marbled Frogmouths; our first Noisy Pitta; and, much to everyone's relief, an Albert's Lyrebird. But O'Reilly's is so much more: a fabulous staff—Tim is a joy to work with, and his gentle manner and local knowledge is truly impressive; scrumptious food; and just a joyous place at which to stay.
Despite pouring rain as we departed Ayer's Rock and again at O'Reilly's, as luck would have it we managed to always be at an airport, so it never mattered. And who would begrudge Australian farmers?
Cairns and the Australian wet tropics, characteristically the most bio-diverse spots on our trip, did not disappoint us. An all-day boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef was a major hit for everyone; tropical coral reefs are even richer than rainforests in the number of species they support, as anyone could see! Not to be outdone, the birding on Michaelmas Cay, albeit brief, gave us close-up views of several tropical seabirds including a totally unexpected immature Red-footed Booby. Back on dry land, one of my personal favorite spots, the Mareeba Wetland Centre, put on a delightful show: delicious morning "tea" all ready and waiting for us after our excursions; a dapper group of five Black-throated Finches; several Squatter Pigeons; a total of six Freckled Ducks—we don?t see those everyday; and a fine scope view of an Australian Hobby; all were the icing on a very big cake.
Kingfisher Park with the bird-laden forests of Mt. Lewis rising above, the Atherton Tablelands (a charming mix of forest and farmland), our Daintree River trip with the incomparable Chris Dahlberg, and even a quick dash to Cairns to catch the tide and the shorebirds—it was all too much, but somehow we managed. Who will ever forget our afternoon with 124 Australian Bustards feeding in a Lucerne Paddock—and the kindness of a local lady farmer, and an incredible evening that included point-blank views of two Lesser Sooty Owls and an amazingly cooperative Masked Owl—quite a rarity. There were, of course, disappointments; with the exception of lucky ole Phil, no one got to see the male Golden Bowerbird. However, just when we were beginning to think things were running against us, our final few hours in Cairns produced an immature Great-billed Heron on the Cairns esplanade—the first I have ever seen there! And within just a couple of hours over breakfast at Cassowary House we had garnered Red-necked Rail, Pied Monarch, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Yellow-eyed Cuckoo-shrike, and, literally at the eleventh hour, an enormous, adult female CASSOWARY. Thank you Sue. Phew! That was too close. What a bird!
Our final geographic point of call was the garden state of Victoria. Looking lush and fresh after all the rain Australia had finally been getting, it was quite "civilized" by comparison to what we had been doing to date. Never fear, it didn't last long. A delightful day of driving amidst a remarkably changing landscape took us from rolling farmland to Grampians National Park, and on finally to the fascinating Mallee habitat of Victoria's northwest. Highlights included a delicious lunch in Halls' Gap surrounded by eastern grey kangaroos, a very obliging male Gang-Gang Cockatoo, flights of huge Yellow-tailed Cockatoos, and our first Pink-eared Ducks. A morning with the equally fascinating Wimpey at his Little Desert Lodge gave us an insightful introduction to this region and, in particular, the plight of the Malleefowl which, to my relief, performed admirably, even working his huge mound for us. Despite a rather overcast day, Hattah Kulkayne performed generously, not only keeping temperatures low (the flies loved it, though), but showing us some of its most elusive specialties including dainty Mallee Emuwrens, Chestnut Quail-thrush and, after a bit of work, a fine pair of Striated Grasswrens. But, as so often was the case, it was parrots that held sway; we enjoyed fine, multiple views of Mulga Parrot (now that bird is quite something), Regent Parrot, and hordes of Long-billed Corellas, to mention but a few.
Plains-wanderer and Deniliquin have become synonyms, and, with the help of Phil and Robert, we achieved our goal beyond our wildest dreams. This seriously endangered grassland specialist, the sole member of its family, is virtually impossible to see anywhere else; even in Deniliquin it's not guaranteed. However, we were lucky and enjoyed relaxed, long, lingering views of a handsome female. Deniliquin, however, is a great deal more. The rains bringing birds in that had been absent for so long provided a huge finale to our tour. Just some of the species that come to mind include Superb Parrots—sensational views of what is surely one of the world's most beautiful species; hordes of endearing Budgies migrating with White-browed and Dusky woodswallows, while we were carefully studied by a mob of 150+ eastern grey kangaroos; an Inland or Australian Dotterel that dropped in right next to the bus—arguably one of Australia's most difficult species to find anywhere; several Orange Chats—classic harbingers of rain; unbelievable scope views of an Australian Owlet-Nightjar; a surprise pair of gigantic Australian Bitterns; and an equally surprising male Blue-winged Parrot still on his winter grounds. In a word, fantastic!
My heartfelt thanks to all the birders, farmers, drivers, and innumerable other folks who all contributed to making this Grand Australia trip THE trip of a lifetime.
It is my great pleasure to thank all participants: Larry and Carolyn Broeren; Phil and Beverly Guthrie; Ben Olewine; Alexa Sulak (and not forgetting Jack!); Britt and Steve Thal; and Dom Toms for helping to make our Grand Australia trip such a wonderful and enjoyable success. It was a real pleasure traveling with each and every one of you, and I very much look forward to traveling with you again.