Grand Australia Part I Sep 20—Oct 06, 2006
Posted by Susan Myers
As a born and bred Australian from way back—of dubious convict ancestry, no less—I sometimes forget what a brilliant place I live in! This is a very special tour that takes us to many of this country's finest wild places. Truly astonishing scenery accompanied by an array of colorful, remarkable, and unique birds, mammals, and reptiles ensure that this will be one of the most memorable and rewarding tours a birder can undertake. With over 350 endemic birds, a birding trip to Australia feels like all one's Christmases have come at once! The oldest and driest continent, Australia is truly an extraordinary place with a flora and fauna to match. A two or four-week trip to Australia will inevitably only scratch the surface—an appetizer that is sure to tempt one to seek more. I have lived here all my life and traveled all around the country, but my homeland never ceases to amaze and enthrall me.
Our tour was divided into two very contrasting sections; from the cool, green surrounds of Sydney, we were transported into the very hot and humid Top End—the name given to the northern half of the Northern Territory, Australia's most remote and least populated region. From the most populous part of this land of wide, open spaces we found ourselves in sleepy Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory where the population is only about 1% of that of the whole of Australia. The transition from the lush, steamy tropical environment of the north to the semiarid mulga scrubs, mallee, and sand dunes of the Centre is quite remarkable. For many Australians, the Red Centre (Ayers Rock in particular), is the heart and soul of our national identity. Although in recent years there have been more and more visitors to this remarkable monolith, it remains a very moving experience; maybe it is because we know that we are standing in the exact center of the continent, or is it that we have spent hours and hours traveling through a flat, featureless landscape to find ourselves confronted with this awesome spectacle? Either way, it is an appropriate finale to a tour full of fabulous experiences.
One of the features of birding in Australia is that there is never a dull moment. Even if there is a lull in the birding, others will step up to the plate! We braved some rough weather on our pelagic trip, but just when we thought the day was over and we couldn't do any better than our close views of breathtaking Wandering Albatrosses in flight, we almost literally ran into a pair of humpback whales. An hour later we had to tear ourselves away, as they breached continually right before our eyes! All thoughts of seasickness were forgotten. In the Capertee Valley we found a pair of one of Australia's most endangered species, the Regent Honeyeater. What a bittersweet experience to see this once common and gorgeous bird in its natural environment, knowing that it may go extinct in our lifetimes.
There can't be too many capital cities with such incredible birding! Our day birding around Darwin was one of the most memorable of the tour—nonstop action all the way, especially at Howard Springs where we found Rainbow Pittas in pest proportions! Just when we were thinking it couldn't get much better, we found one of the world's largest owls in the botanic gardens, Beach Thick-knees came in close to investigate us, and a Gray Goshawk was found nesting in a backyard on a quiet street. Agile wallabies lazing in suburban parks merely added to the remarkable ambience of this rapidly changing town.
Kakadu is one of those places justifiably renowned worldwide for its amazing scenery and profusion of wildlife—wetlands literally teeming with thousands of whistling-ducks, pelicans, and cute pygmy-geese delighted us all. But the best of all was a huge croc devouring an equally huge Arafura Filesnake! Not as easy for the croc (or the snake for that matter) as you might think. The Yellow Water Billabong boat trip lived up to expectations, for sure.
Never say I don't take you to all the best places! It used to be any easy matter to visit the wonderful Alice Springs sewage works, but recent paranoia about litigation has seen it become a much more complex process. The effort was well worth it, however, with impressive congregations of Red-necked Avocets, Black-tailed Native-hens, and wildfowl—including the celebrated Pink-eared Duck (did anyone see a pink ear?). Being dive-bombed by aggressive nesting avocets was surely a new experience for me, too! A neat Australian Pratincole was a fitting end to our day out in the picturesque MacDonnell Ranges.
Judging by the jovial atmosphere around the dinner table each night, and general reactions and comments, this tour was thoroughly enjoyed by all. As a leader it is a great pleasure to enjoy the company of such a fine group! I'd especially like to thank Dion for his help on the Sydney pelagic—he's a much better sailor than I'll ever be, and a really great seabirder. Thanks to my friend Niven McCrie for his helpful advice and good company in Darwin. We shouldn't forget our drivers and in particular Quinton, our driver in the Top End. He was more than just our driver though; he turned out to be an enthusiastic spotter and I hope he will, in time, become a fully-fledged birder. Most importantly I hope you enjoyed the trip—the scenery, the food and wine, the laughs and, not least, the birds! I look forward to seeing you all again sometime soon.