Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2008

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

Hobcroftdion

Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Our 2008 series of Grand Australia tours accumulated an astonishing 493 species of birds—with just one "heard only"! It was my pleasure to lead the entire program with a great bunch of folks. We enjoyed plenty of two- and three-night stays in a range of very comfortable hotels. A coaster bus accommodated our group of 10, and we sought out the best cuisine on offer in my home country. We made time for shopping and cultural visits, and even visited such icons as Uluru in the Red Centre of this ancient continent.

Covering several thousand kilometers in a variety of amazing habitats, with some equally amazing scenery, we were able to record just about 340 species of birds during Part I, which may be a new benchmark. This included many difficult and highly sought after species.

In Sydney, despite some cool and rainy weather, we bounced off to a great start with a Southern Boobook owl perched right in the heart of the city next to the hotel. A New Zealand Shining Bronze-Cuckoo male was only my third mainland Australian sighting, but I think the participants enjoyed their views of Rock Warbler, Southern Emuwren, Superb Lyrebird, and Chestnut-rumped Heathwren even more in Royal National Park. Our Sydney pelagic trip was pretty lumpy, with the large seas turning up a diverse range of Tasman Sea oceanic birds. Pride of place went to a vagrant Northern Royal Albatross and a Kermadec Petrel, while tail-slapping and cavorting by a pair of humpback whales started our mammal list in style.

We journeyed west to Glen Davis, with a stop in Bicentennial Park turning up a bunch of stylish Red-necked Avocets and smart-looking Chestnut Teal. Our first venture into Glen Davis was truly monumental when in quick succession we had a male Turquoise Parrot in the scope, a stunning male drought refugee Crimson Chat, followed by a nesting pair of Regent Honeyeaters! The next morning, a Spotted Quail-thrush and Gang-gang Cockatoo, followed by a pair of Painted Buttonquail and flocks of Little Lorikeets, kept us all on our toes.

Arriving in Darwin is a bit like arriving in a different country. A very pleasant afternoon at the Darwin Sewage Ponds was a birder's dream. The diversity and numbers were impressive, as were the rarities in the form of Eurasian Little Grebe, Oriental and Little Ringed plovers, Little Curlew, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail; most seasoned Australian birders would have probably racked up a few lifers by this time!

Buffalo Creek kept our good fortune rolling along when both Chestnut Rail and the giant, secretive Great-billed Heron added their names to the roll call. The Botanic Gardens came through with a pair of Rufous Owls and a very tightly concealed Barking Owl. At Palmerston we added Mangrove Robin and Silver-backed Butcherbird, while Howard Springs saw the Rainbow Pitta vying with Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove for glamour bird of the afternoon.

Heading south to Katherine, our day at Victoria River and Timber Creek is always a great birding day. We kicked off to a great start with several Purple-crowned Fairywrens, only to be distracted by the likes of Varied Lorikeet and the scarce Yellow-rumped Munia. Spinifex Pigeon, Black-breasted Buzzard, and Buff-sided Robin kept the pace at a suitably high level, but perhaps it was the flock of Budgerigars or toothy freshwater crocodiles that made it to the fore of our hearts today.

With the chance to see a nesting Red Goshawk, we made a pilgrimage further south than usual and were rewarded with fine views of an incubating female. This is definitely one of the rarest birds in Australia on the list. We headed north again to World Heritage Kakadu National Park. This 4,000-square-mile park protects a vast array of important habitats and aboriginal cultural sites, and we took the time to explore the best of it.

Our boat trip on Yellow Water was a photographic dream: Little Kingfisher perched down to one meter; four-meter-long saltwater crocodiles basking and looking stuffed to the gunnels; more than a thousand Magpie Geese in flight; and a stately pair of Brolgas. We explored the rock art galleries before turning our attention to the rare endemics. In quick succession at key locations we picked up Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Partridge Pigeon, Banded Fruit-Dove, White-lined Honeyeater, and Sandstone Shrike-Thrush.

It was time to head south to the Red Centre. In Alice Springs dry conditions prevailed, which sort of put a cold bath on my prospects of clouds of desert nomad birds. Still we put in a comfortable effort and focused on such gems as Western Bowerbird, Red-browed Pardalote, Red-capped Robin, Crested Bellbird, the electrifying Splendid Fairywren, luminous Orange Chat, and the dapper White-backed Swallow.

Our tour concluded at Uluru with a bottle of champagne as we watched the sunset at the Rock. Does life get much better than this?

I would like to thank the participants for such a great tour, and hope that we can all travel again in the future.