Grand Australia Part I Sep 29—Oct 15, 2010

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 series of Grand Australia tours this year accumulated an astonishing 492 species of birds. It was my pleasure to lead the whole program with a great bunch of folks. We enjoyed plenty of two- and even three-night stays in a range of very comfortable hotels. We mostly enjoyed a 20-seater coaster bus to accommodate our group of 10, and we sought out the best cuisine on offer in my home country.

Covering several thousand kilometers in a variety of amazing habitats, with some equally amazing scenery, we were able to record just on 335 species of birds during Part I. This included many difficult and highly sought after species.

We commenced our tour in Sydney. Our first outing to Centennial Park produced a fine Tawny Frogmouth on a nest, and everyone enjoyed their first Superb Fairywrens, Black Swans, Rainbow Lorikeets, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Our first full day took us to Royal National Park. One of the oldest protected areas in the world, Royal encompasses a variety of habitats from subtropical rainforest to florally diverse coastal heathlands. We connected with Superb Lyrebird, Topknot Pigeon, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Green Catbird, Crested Shrike-tit, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Rock Warbler, and Southern Emuwren amongst an impressive cross section of east coast species.

Our Sydney pelagic trip provided us with excellent views of five species of albatross including the rare Buller's Albatross. Providence, Great-winged, and Cape Petrel, plus White-faced Storm-Petrel and Fairy Prion amongst others, added to our diverse tally of Tasman Sea marine birds. We added bottlenose and common dolphins, humpback whales, and a bull Australian fur-seal to our list of mammals.

Heading west across the Blue Mountains we journeyed to Glen Davis, with a couple of detours picking up Great Crested Grebe, Pacific Golden-Plover, Gray Goshawk, Australian Reed-Warbler, and smart-looking Chestnut Teal. Our adventure into Glen Davis turned up numerous new birds for the tour. Two of the best were crippling views of Turquoise Parrot and a pair of the scarce Plum-headed Finch. Other good woodland bird observations included the stunning Diamond Firetail, smart Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, White-backed Swallow, Little Eagle, and well-camouflaged Little Lorikeets.

Arriving in Darwin is a bit like arriving in a different country. An early start to the monsoonal "Wet Season" had the umbrellas out as afternoon storms built up and unleashed tons of airborne moisture. This worked to our advantage, keeping temperatures down and birds active, and had little impact on our birding. The Botanic Gardens came through with a tightly-concealed Barking Owl, while Knuckey Lagoon heaved with wetland birds highlighted by a small flock of Little Curlews. Buffalo Creek tantalized with a fast disappearing Chestnut Rail, and plenty of gems like Red-headed Honeyeater, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, and a myriad of Asian shorebirds that would get pulses racing if discovered in North America. At Palmerston we added Mangrove Robin and Mangrove Gerygone, while Howard Springs saw the Rainbow Pitta as the glamour bird of the afternoon, giving multiple fine views for all. This bird had been turned on by the rain.

We headed southeast to the World Heritage Kakadu National Park, but not before getting great views of White-browed Crake and glowing Crimson Finches. This 4,000-square-mile park protects a vast array of important habitats and aboriginal cultural sites. We took the time to explore the best of it.

Our boat trip on Yellow Water was a photographic dream in fabulous light. We were lucky to get on to a Little Kingfisher, numerous saltwater crocodiles, more than 3,000 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. A female black wallaroo was a bonus at Nourlangie.

As we headed further south to Katherine, planned stops turned up a fine male Hooded Parrot, and an unplanned stop saw us looking at some fine Australian Bustards. With the chance to see a nesting Red Goshawk, we made a pilgrimage further south than usual and were rewarded with a remarkably fortuitous fine view of a perched male near the now abandoned nest. This is definitely one of the rarest birds in Australia.

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 with flowering trees full of Varied Lorikeets and Banded Honeyeaters. Our good karma continued (we had named our group the Karmaroos) when we bumped into two flocks of the endangered Gouldian Finch. With patience we enjoyed good scope views of red and black-headed males amongst the more numerous drab juveniles. On our return drive to Darwin our great luck continued with a pair of chortling Silver-backed Butcherbirds and a trio of the uncommon and inconspicuous Northern Rosella providing excellent views.

It was time to head south to the Red Centre. Alice Springs was enjoying the wettest season in more than 50 years; we were going to obtain some first-hand Outback adventure experience during the next few days. The birding was outstanding, and on our first walk at the edge of the airport we picked up, in quick succession, the elusive Black Honeyeater, beautiful Crimson Chats, and a superb Black Falcon with a Budgerigar, Cockatiel, and Masked Woodswallow in every bush!

The next morning, in the West MacDonnell Ranges, we were treated to that most incredible bird, the Splendid Fairywren, while the Alice Springs Wetlands came through with a Freckled Duck, Red-necked Avocets, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, and bunches of Black-tailed Native-hens. Watching the antics of a male Western Bowerbird working in his display arena was a treat. Our afternoon on the Tanami Road was jumping with great views of the scarce Ground Cuckoo-shrike, a Red-backed Kingfisher dealing out pulverizing treatment to a skink, and Little Buttonquails wandering across the trails unconcerned by our presence. Then it began to rain.

It rained throughout the night, and our plans for the next morning were changed, as one road I was keen to bird along would now be impassable. We headed back out to the west and were rewarded with a stunning couple of pairs of Major Mitchell's Cockatoo—one pair chasing around an Australian Hobby.

We headed south to Uluru, and again came the torrential rain. I was developing a sinking feeling, as experience had taught me that we were running the gauntlet of flash flooding. At the Erldunda roadhouse they were running pumps and hoses in the kitchen, and buckets were collecting drips from the ceiling. The road to Uluru was being closed, and video footage of swirling water more than a meter deep and tales of French tourists having their cars swept away convinced us to do an abrupt about-face and head back to Alice. Complications arose in the form of changing flights, finding emergency accommodation, and even making it back to Alice.

We rearranged everything, with only one major problem: our only available rooms were 140 kilometers west of Alice. Driving out, I spotted some dingo pups and our driver, Macca, pulled off so we could have a view. Unfortunately, our bus sank to its axles in soft clay. Stuck—with only hungry dingos for company! Our karma resurrected when a traveling couple arrived in a landcruiser complete with chain and pulled us from the mire. We made it to our lovely accommodation and a fabulous meal.

Our last hurdle was returning to Alice for our flight at midday. It was a nervous drive as first we crossed Ellery Creek and finally the Hugh River, both swollen with floodwater. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our plane departed Alice. 

I would like to thank the participants for such a great tour. I hope to travel with you again in the future.