Grand Australia Part I Oct 03—19, 2007
Posted by Susan Myers
As a born and bred Australian from way back—of dubious convict ancestry, no less—I sometimes forget how brilliant Australia is! This is a special tour that takes us to many of this country's finest wild places. Astonishing scenery accompanied by an array of colorful, remarkable, and unique birds, mammals, and reptiles ensure this tour 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, (Uluru 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.
This year our pelagic trip was blessed with perfect weather, and, although the numbers of birds were low, the diversity of species recorded was remarkable. We had close views of breathtaking Wandering Albatrosses in flight, and the calm weather meant that we were able to enjoy close and long views of some of the smaller seabirds such as Wilson's Storm-Petrel and Fairy Prion. Non-bird highlights included a weird and spectacular mottled sunfish, and close bow-surfing common dolphins.
In the Capertee Valley we just kept ticking off those new birds and caught up with a number of the woodland specialties that are becoming so increasingly scarce. Sadly, the prolonged drought has affected the flowering in the area so that Regent Honeyeater was not to be seen this year. We made up for it though, with lovely Painted Honeyeaters and lots of other goodies, and an impromptu visit to the Lithgow Sewage Ponds paid off with a bagful of excellent waterfowl and others.
There can't be too many capital cities with such incredible birding! Our birding around Darwin was some of the most memorable of the tour—especially at suburban East Point, where the action was nonstop on our late afternoon visit. Palmerston Sewage Ponds (don't say I never take you anywhere nice!) and Howard Springs turned up trumps, as always, and Fogg Dam is always such a great experience. Next came Kakadu National Park, which 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. This year the bird spectacle at Mamukala Wetlands was simply amazing, as huge congregations of waterbirds gathered at the shrinking lagoon towards the end of the dry season. We found most of the Kakadu specialties at Nourlangie, where we also admired the fascinating ancient aboriginal rock art. Things were slower out towards Timber Creek, maybe due to too much water around—ironically. Nevertheless, we had a number of great sightings, notably Australian Bustard and Oriental Plover. Later in the afternoon we went down to Mataranka to see a family of the very rare Red Goshawk on the nest. Great stuff!
We returned to Darwin to fly to Alice Springs in the Red Centre to spend a day birding in the picturesque MacDonnell Ranges and ended the day watching the sun set at a remote bore where birds and red kangaroos came in to drink late in the day. Our tour ended at the remarkable Uluru, or Ayers Rock, where the birding was slow (incredible looks at a family of Tawny Frogmouths were much enjoyed though), but the scenery was out of this world!