Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2013

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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We started our tour following a tip from my 12-year-old daughter—a Tawny Frogmouth was nesting at her school. It was pretty much the first bird on our tour list! This was followed by Red-kneed Dotterel, Leaden Flycatcher, Curlew and Sharp-tailed sandpipers, a vagrant juvenile Ruddy Turnstone, and Rufous and Golden whistlers at Sydney Olympic Park, amongst some 60 species we spotted on our first afternoon. A Lewin’s Rail was heard in the distance.

A juvenile Salvin's Albatross off Sydney.

A juvenile Salvin’s Albatross off Sydney.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With a Navy Fleet Review shutting down Sydney Harbour, we rescheduled our Sydney pelagic trip a day ahead. It was a lumpy day at sea with the odd five meter swell rolling through and a thirty knot south wind. We could not quite reach the shelf break. We threw out a massive amount of food for the seabirds and attracted a cloud of birds. The major highlights were excellent repeat views of both White-faced and Wilson’s storm-petrels, Fairy Prion, Southern and Northern giant-petrels, and Hutton’s Shearwater, with large numbers of Shy and Black-browed albatrosses, huge numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters, a few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Fluttering Shearwaters, and even a few Australasian Gannets diving into the slick. The rarest bird was a juvenile Salvin’s Albatross, a tricky plumage to identify.

We spent a full day exploring Royal National Park. In the morning we made a beeline for a family of Superb Lyrebirds. The strategy worked well and we had great views of four lyrebirds at close range. Then we worked the coast and squeezed up a Rockwarbler, which was followed by a sensational Chestnut-rumped Heathwren that showed beautifully. In between was a massive roll call of classic Australian forest birds including Australian Hobby, Brush Bronzewing, Green Catbird, Satin Bowerbird performing at his bower, Southern Emuwren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, and Shining Bronze and Fan-tailed cuckoos. We finished the day watching a Powerful Owl with its large downy chick.

This Powerful Owl chick adopted an unusual roosting posture on a warm afternoon in Sydney.

This Powerful Owl chick adopted an unusual roosting posture on a warm afternoon in Sydney.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Before leaving Sydney behind, we made a final stop in Concord. It was very bird-rich and we had lots of great views of Eastern Rosella, Galah, Gray Butcherbird, and a Topknot Pigeon. At Lithgow we checked the local ponds and found a fine male Blue-billed Duck, plus many Pink-eared Ducks and a small number of Australasian Shovelers. After checking in to the hotel we explored the scenic and productive Capertee Valley. New birds included Wedge-tailed and Little eagles, White-browed and Dusky woodswallows, Diamond Firetail, Double-barred Finch, Brown Treecreeper, Mistletoebird, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeater.

The next morning, back in the Capertee Valley, our first bird was a stunning male Crested Shrike-tit that eventually came into view. This was followed by a frustrating Painted Honeyeater, a rare bird that flew over twice, but was chased off by White-plumed Honeyeaters. Brown-headed Honeyeater and a very fortuitous Speckled Warbler were well-appreciated. We moved to another location and had great success with a superb pair of Regent Honeyeaters that showed repeatedly and very well. One of Australia’s rarest birds, it is considered to be Critically Endangered, the few hundred surviving birds being always hard to pin down due to their nomadic tendencies chasing flowering trees. Now we were on a roll, as we had Restless Flycatcher, Black-chinned Honeyeater, and a pair of Plum-headed Finches all showing really well. We finished the afternoon with the rather bizarre male Musk Duck in display mode—quite the beast. We made our return to Sydney to make our flight the following day to Darwin.

Plum-headed Finch male with nesting material at Glen Davis.

Plum-headed Finch male with nesting material at Glen Davis.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Once settled in Darwin we explored two sites in the afternoon. The big win was a Rufous Owl perched right over the path—the first I have seen in several years in the Botanic Gardens. Pheasant Coucal, Blue-winged Kookaburra, and Forest Kingfisher were all big, brassy crowd pleasers. At East Point we picked up a pair of lanky Bush Stone-curlews (Thick-knees) straight away, followed by a run of new tropical honeyeaters like White-gaped and Rufous-banded, and tropical insectivores like Northern Fantail and Spangled Drongo. A pair of Northern Brushtail Possums were unusually located in the late afternoon—quite a patchily distributed marsupial.

Shortly after sunrise we found ourselves north of Darwin at Buffalo Creek, which drains into the Arafura Sea. This is a bird-rich spot and we were quickly onto Red-headed Myzomela, Australian Yellow White-eye, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Large-billed and Green-backed gerygones, and Gray Whistler, with Radjah Shelduck and a flock of at least 1,000 Great Knots. Our next couple of stops at our first tropical floodplain wetlands saw an extreme rush of new birds ranging from Australian Pratincole, Marsh Sandpiper, Comb-crested Jacana, Brolga, Green Pygmy-Goose, Singing Bushlark, Black-necked Stork, Crimson Finch, Golden-headed Cisticola, beautiful Rainbow Bee-eaters, and others! A last stop in downtown Darwin produced a trio of Barking Owls roosting in a shady gully—our third species of owl on the tour, all in the daytime! The afternoon was dedicated to Operation Rainbow Pitta. After some scouting around, an individual was located, and after some strategic planning everyone enjoyed a great view of this highly colorful Top End endemic.

The next morning was dedicated to locating a Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove and we had almost instant success, with a glorious male perched out in the open, calling mournfully away. A high tide roost of shorebirds  at Nightcliff allowed  scope studies of Lesser Sand-Plover, Terek Sandpiper, and Gray-tailed Tattler before we moved on to Fogg Dam, spotting a White-faced Heron en route, scarce in the Top End. Fogg Dam, Adelaide River, and Mamukala provided excellent photographic opportunities for many tropical birds like the Brolga, and we added more species to our growing list including Paperbark Flycatcher, Broad-billed Flycatcher, the delightful Arafura Fantail, and Tawny Grassbird.

A male Hooded Parrot escapes the heat of the day in a shady tree near Pine Creek.

A male Hooded Parrot escapes the heat of the day in a shady tree near Pine Creek.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

An early morning cruise on the Yellow Water in Kakadu National Park is a sensational experience with outstanding photographic opportunities. Nathan played some didgeridoo for us while we enjoyed the wildlife dynamics including several hefty and toothy Saltwater Crocodiles, plus point-blank views of both Little and Azure kingfishers, with an adult Black-breasted Buzzard another highlight. In the afternoon we explored the aboriginal rock art galleries at Ubirr and were lucky to score the elusive Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, endemic to Arnhem Land.

With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Celsius, we made the most of every morning. Our second morning in Kakadu had us out to Nourlangie Rock. Spectacular aboriginal rock art is a feature here. We also scoped up the scarce endemic Black-banded Fruit-Dove, watched a songful Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and had good looks at the dapper Little Woodswallow. On the drive back to Cooinda we found a spectacular and rather feisty Black-headed Python, followed by a quartet of elusive Partridge Pigeons. It was a great morning and we were on a definite roll when we found a juvenile Channel-billed Cuckoo being hosted by a Torresian Crow, followed by a pair of Pacific Baza that called and perched overhead. Our good luck continued in Pine Creek with a beautiful pair of the scarce Northern Rosella, a lovely trio of Cockatiels and, best of all, a flock of luminous Hooded Parrots. With the big heat continuing, we made a short exploration out to Chinaman Creek near Katherine. It worked out quite well with the dapper Masked Finch and a smart male Collared Sparrowhawk making crucial appearances.

The following day saw us motoring out to Victoria River, set in glowing red sandstone escarpments and home to the range restricted Purple-crowned Fairy-wren. The fairy-wren was in excellent form this year and we had fabulous views of this striking malurine. Diamond Dove, Yellow-tinted and Rufous-throated honeyeaters, Black-faced Woodswallow, and Brown Quail followed by flocks of Budgerigars kept the list on the move. A muscular male Antilopine Kangaroo had pecs Schwarzenegger would be proud of. A last stop at some flowering Eucalypts came through with great perched views of Varied Lorikeet, Golden-backed Honeyeater, and the beautiful Banded Honeyeater. The heat spell was really on today and with temps exceeding 46 degrees Celsius, we headed in to Katherine so we could rest up a little. In the late afternoon we went south to Mataranka. The era of the Red Goshawk at this site is at an end, sadly—the major highlight a really cooperative Bar-breasted Honeyeater.

Our time in the Top End was almost up as we headed to Darwin for our flight to Alice Springs. We enjoyed a couple of last hurrahs with Apostlebird, a cloud of Cockatiels, a trio of Brolgas, and the stunning Long-tailed Finch. Today the weather turned and we experienced coolish temperatures with clouds and some rain.

Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove in Darwin.

Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove in Darwin.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


After the flight to Alice Springs, we met Jim and spent half an hour in the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. The male Western Bowerbird was courting a female in his bower; in full display mode he exposed his strikingly pink nuchal crest, normally kept concealed from view. While this performance was underway, we were joined by the red-breasted population of Gray-crowned Babbler and serenaded by gurgling Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters.

We made a full day of exploring different habitats in the Alice Springs district, starting in the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges. At Simpson’s Gap we found a White-tailed Fantail (surely a separate species), beautiful Black-flanked Rock Wallabies, our first Red Kangaroos, and then a great little mixed flock. The group was wowed by the male Splendid Fairy-wren, the male Red-capped Robin also a crowd pleaser. Further afield we whistled up a Red-browed Pardalote and lucked onto a pair of secretive Spinifexbirds before finishing the day with a radiant male Crimson Chat at four paces and a luminous flock of Mulga Parrots.

No visit to Alice is complete without a visit to the amazingly bird-rich sewage ponds. It was a great morning. Amongst the first birds spotted was an Oriental Plover—a graceful grassland breeding shorebird of Mongolia, always scarce. This was followed by Australian Spotted Crake, Red-necked Avocet, vagrant Sanderling and male Chestnut Teal, and White-winged Fairy-wrens to mention a few. We traveled south to Uluru in increasingly warm conditions. White-backed Swallow was well-appreciated, as were the champagne and hors d’oeuvres as we watched the sun set on “The Rock.”

On our last morning we explored the equally stunning Kata Tjuta, followed by a return visit to Uluru. The scenery was superb and the birds fairly quiet, highlighted by a big female Peregrine Falcon dashing over and terrorizing the local Gray-headed and White-plumed honeyeaters and Little Woodswallows. Our tour was at an end—it had been a great Australian journey!