Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2011
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
Our series of Grand Australia tours this year accumulated an astonishing 503 species of birds. It was my pleasure to lead the whole program with a great bunch of folks. We enjoyed plenty of two- and three-night stays in a range of very comfortable hotels. We 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 343 species of birds during Part I, including many difficult and highly sought after species.
Regent Honeyeater— Photo: Dave Czaplak
We commenced our tour in Sydney. Our first outing to the leafy north shore produced a major highlight when after some searching I located a pair of Powerful Owls with a large, downy chick—a great way to start the tour. We continued on to Sydney Olympic Park, and with just about every bird being new for the participants, it was difficult to know which way to look. A fine flock of Red-necked Avocets, beautiful juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and a Black-fronted Dotterel led the way.
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 enjoyed great views of Superb Lyrebird, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Rockwarbler, and Southern Emuwren, amongst an impressive cross section of east coast species.
On our Sydney pelagic trip four species of albatross (Wandering, Black-browed, Shy, and Yellow-nosed) provided excellent views. Northern and Southern giant-petrels; Providence, Great-winged, and Cape petrels; Wilson's Storm-Petrel; and Hutton's Shearwater amongst others added to our diverse tally of Tasman Sea marine birds. Mammal sightings included Pantropical spotted dolphin, a humpback whale, and a bull Australian fur seal.
Heading west across the Blue Mountains we journeyed to Glen Davis, with a couple of detours picking up Great Crested Grebe, Yellow Thornbill, Australian Koel, and Blue-billed and Pink-eared ducks amongst others. Our adventure into Glen Davis turned up numerous new birds for the tour. We had a great afternoon and morning session here. Undoubtedly, observing a pair of critically endangered Regent Honeyeaters feeding chicks was a major bonus. We had a nervous wait while an adult Square-tailed Kite (a specialist predator of nestlings) circled over the nest for several minutes before eventually being driven off by the persistent attack of Dusky Woodswallows. We enjoyed superb views of Plum-headed Finch, Diamond Firetail, and a pair of fly-by Turquoise Parrots amongst a great array of woodland birds that included Little Eagle, Black-chinned Honeyeater, Crested Shrike-tit, and Little Lorikeet.
Rainbow Pitta— Photo: Dave Czaplak
Arriving in Darwin is a bit like arriving in a different country. With "La Nina" in progress, Darwin was already experiencing an early start to the monsoon season. This worked to our advantage, keeping temperatures reasonably bearable and birds active. We finished our first afternoon watching a family of Barking Owls. Amongst our many great sightings in the Darwin area were Brolga, Black-necked Stork, Little Curlew, Rainbow Pitta, Mangrove and Green-backed gerygones, Red-headed Honeyeater, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, nesting Silver-backed Butcherbird, and a myriad of Asian shorebirds that would get pulses racing if discovered in North America.
We headed southeast to the World Heritage Kakadu National Park, but not before getting great views of White-browed Crake, Tawny Grassbird, 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 several Little Kingfishers, numerous saltwater crocodiles, more than a thousand Magpie Geese in flight, and an excellent Black-breasted Buzzard. 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, Northern Rosella, White-lined Honeyeater, and Sandstone Shrike-Thrush. A night walk turned up great views of Large-tailed Nightjar.
Buff-sided Robin— Photo: Dave Czaplak
At Victoria River and Timber Creek we kicked off to a great start with several Purple-crowned Fairywrens and Australian Bustards. At Timber Creek a Buff-sided Robin put on a wonderful performance while toothy freshwater crocodiles and vocal black flying foxes added to the atmosphere. With the chance to see a nesting Red Goshawk, we made an extended pilgrimage and were rewarded with a remarkably fortuitous fine view of a perched male feeding a fluffy chick. This is definitely one of the rarest birds in Australia.
En route to Darwin, our chickens came in to roost when in quick succession we scoped up Gouldian Finch and Hooded Parrot with a supporting cast of Masked and Long-tailed finches, Cockatiel, and White-throated Gerygone.
It was time to head south to the Red Centre. Alice Springs was still in fine season after the wettest season in more than 50 years that had been 2010. On that tour we had experienced some major flood disruption. Curiously though, most of the desert nomads were missing in action, conditions being even better elsewhere. We still enjoyed excellent birding.
Splendid Fairywren— Photo: Dave Czaplak
In the West MacDonnell Ranges we were treated to that most incredible bird, the Splendid Fairywren, and had rare encounters with the delightful Slaty-backed Thornbill and the rarely encountered white-tailed form of the Gray Fantail (worthy of full species status). The Alice Springs Wetlands came through with a Banded Lapwing, Red-kneed Dotterel, 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 Red-backed Kingfisher and the enigmatic Gray Honeyeater, and superb views of Mulga Parrots.
Heading south to Uluru, we tracked down a few obscure birds on the way including Gray-fronted Honeyeater and dapper White-backed Swallows. We had a great encounter with a thorny devil, and maybe were amongst the last audience to admire the talents of the pianist, Dinky the Singing Dingo!
Uluru looked fantastic in the sunset with champagne and canapés, and Crimson Chats and Gray-fronted Honeyeaters bringing to a close our birding tally. It had been an excellent tour and I would like to thank the participants for such a great trip. I hope that we can all travel together again in the future.