Grand Australia Part II Oct 15—Nov 01, 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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Cool weather greeted us in Brisbane. At Daisy Hill we found a pair of Koalas sharing a Grey Gum, a fortuitous result for this often elusive charismatic marsupial. The robust male showed off his chest gland and impressive claws. In the Kerry Valley we totaled more than 100 species of birds for the day. There were many excellent sightings with arguably bird of the day ranging between a dashing Black Falcon at Beaudesert, a dapper female Spotted Quail-thrush on the Duck Creek Road that was exceptionally tame, scope views of the diminutive Little Lorikeet, and the pumped up male Red-backed Fairy-wrens.

The famous male Eastern Whipbird (Mr. Whippy) lives on at O'Reillys - he is at least 15 years old!

The famous male Eastern Whipbird (Mr. Whippy) lives on at O’Reillys – he is at least 15 years old!— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Birding in the rainforest the next day we continued our roll of good fortune. On our morning walk we had a female Albert’s Lyrebird feeding its near adult sized chick. A Noisy Pitta made a brief appearance in the middle of the track. We tracked down a small flock of Glossy Black Cockatoos, enjoying the female with the yellow splashes on her head attending to a meekly begging large chick. Then a big female Gray Goshawk came through and the black cockatoos flashed their red tail panels in a panic to get out of there. Variegated Fairy-Wren, Bell Miner, Red-browed Treecreeper, Logrunner, Eastern Whipbird, Paradise Riflebird, White-naped Honeyeater, and Regent Bowerbird were amongst the species seen so well on this day. We also watched a male Satin Bowerbird painting the twigs of its bower with crushed charcoal—a rarely seen and unique behavior. A final morning produced both Bassian and Russet-tailed thrushes, the latter very cooperative. Some folks were lucky to spot a fine male Rose Robin, while again we enjoyed the Albert’s Lyrebird at close range. On the drive out we located a fine White-headed Pigeon. Before we knew it, we were on the plane and whisked north to Cairns in the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

Across from our hotel we had a great chance to do some shorebirding. The big highlight was an excellent Broad-billed Sandpiper, very much a declining species in eastern Australia. We could compare it to Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Far Eastern Curlew, and numbers of both Greater and Lesser sand-plovers at close range. Gull-billed and Whiskered terns worked the coastline while flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets and the odd Australian Swiftlet distracted some participants.

The next morning we had an outstanding birding session at Centenary Lakes. Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Satin Flycatcher, Gray Goshawk, Brahminy Kite, Radjah Shelduck, Bush Stone-Curlew, Cicadabird, Collared Kingfisher, Olive-backed Sunbird, Brown-backed and Yellow honeyeaters and, possibly the best of all, Double-eyed Fig-Parrots feeding low down over our heads. It was a great morning. We moved onto Mareeba Wetlands where we had excellent views of a flock of the scarce Black-throated Finch before arriving at Kingfisher Park, our home for the next three nights. We spent the afternoon getting acquainted with some of the more common birds here like Spectacled Monarch, Pale-yellow Robin, Macleay’s Honeyeater, and the confusing duo of Yellow-spotted and Graceful honeyeaters. At dusk we had a good view of a Platypus followed by a great view of a Barn Owl.

It was a cool, misty, and damp start near the summit of Mount Lewis early the following morning. The birds became more active as the rain held off and temperatures and conditions gradually improved. Almost straight away we found Gray-headed Robin, Mountain Thornbill, and Atherton Scrubwren, plus interesting subspecies of both White-throated Treecreeper and Gray Fantail. We tracked down a vocal Bower’s Shrike-thrush and were given a fine performance by a Tooth-billed Bowerbird at his display court—his powerful, sonic mimicry quite impressive. We picked up a party of Chowchillas that scratched energetically in deep leaf litter. Finally, a pair of Fernwrens cooperated beautifully while Bridled Honeyeaters chased each other about in the flowering trees of the canopy.

A male Australian Bustard beside the Cape York Road neaer Mount Carbine.

A male Australian Bustard beside the Cape York Road near Mount Carbine.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The afternoon could not have been more strikingly different. We moved from the mountain rainforest to the dry grasslands and tropical woodlands near Mount Carbine. Here we found a pair of male Australian Bustards—one in full display mode. An excellent sighting of a Black-breasted Buzzard was followed by Diamond Dove, the Cape York subspecies of Black-faced Woodswallow, and a bunch of dapper White-winged Trillers. In Mount Molloy we studied the incredible bower of the Great Bowerbird, even watching his antics in the bower. Luminous Red-winged Parrots, a male Black-necked Stork, and a confiding White-browed Crake rounded out an outstanding day.

With more rain on the horizon, we opted for a later start time for our boat trip on the Daintree River. It worked out well. We had an amazing experience with a Platypus that actually lifted its bill out of the water and eyeballed us. Next we found the male Noisy Pitta, triggered by the rain, calling in the canopy and looking amazing in the scope. Alice really enjoyed this! While having breakfast I spotted the Red-necked Crake skulking about and eventually he relaxed and came out for some good views. We enjoyed the antics of the colonial nesting Metallic Starlings and observed the alate exodus of winged termites from the mound-building species favored by the Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher. On the boat, in quick succession Murray produced nesting Papuan Frogmouth, nesting Wompoo Fruit-Dove, and a ridiculously tame juvenile Great-billed Heron. Topping all of this was a big male Saltwater Crocodile hauled out and estimated to be at least 14 feet in length.  The afternoon was going to struggle to compete with such an action-packed start to the day. With persistence we tracked down Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Fairy Gerygone and, as a grand finale, the delightful Lovely Fairy-wren.

A juvenile Great-billed Heron stretches its wings on the Daintree River. This scarce crepuscular giant heron is a difficult species to find.

A juvenile Great-billed Heron stretches its wings on the Daintree River. This scarce crepuscular giant heron is a difficult species to find.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Packed up and on the road, we found ourselves at Kuranda. Distracted initially by a pair of flighty Pied Monarchs, we made our breakfast appointment at Cassowary House. We were in great luck again as the matriarchal female Southern Cassowary made an appearance—an experience no participant will soon forget. A male Victoria’s Riflebird went into display mode, holding out his wings and gaping yellow. Exploring further afield we found Sarus Crane, Brolga, Tawny Frogmouth, Squatter Pigeon, Gray-crowned Babbler, and the dainty Mareeba Rock Wallaby. After a tasty lunch in a local artisan café we visited some wetlands that were heaving with Pink-eared and Plumed whistling-ducks. Careful scanning revealed a trio of Australia’s rarest duck—the Freckled Duck. We finished by exploring some mountain rainforest at The Crater. Nest building Topknot Pigeon was the best here.

Inland Dotterel at night on the plains north of Deniliquin. Like the Plains-wanderer, this bird's superb camouflage means we have a better chance of finding it after dark.

Inland Dotterel at night on the plains north of Deniliquin. Like the Plains-wanderer, this bird’s superb camouflage means we have a better chance of finding it after dark.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The Seastar took us out to the Great Barrier Reef. Just before embarking, a five-minute stop at the Esplanade produced a pair of Black-tailed Godwits and a Varied Honeyeater. Our first stop was Michaelmas Cay, home to hundreds of nesting Sooty Terns and Common Noddies, with smaller numbers of Brown Boobies sprinkled in. Looking through this cacophony of terns revealed Bridled, Lesser Crested, Greater Crested, Black-naped, and Common terns, and a quartet of Black Noddies. Raptorial Lesser Frigatebirds pushed around loafing terns, this species not frequently seen at Michaelmas. Our second stop was all about snorkelling, with water clarity a stunning twenty meters at Hastings Reef. Fish-watching was spectacular and a Green Turtle gave amazing views.

With a final morning in Cairns before our flight to Melbourne, we visited a few sites close to the city. We had great looks at Mangrove Robin, Crimson Finch, Green Pygmy-goose, Comb-crested Jacana, and a host of other birds. Then we found ourselves winging it across the Great Southern Land to find ourselves in a decidedly cooler Victoria!

Malleefowl in the Little Desert.

Malleefowl in the Little Desert.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

In Deniliquin we caught up with my good friend Phil Maher. In the morning we explored the Gulpa Forest where the amazingly tame small flocks of Superb Parrots were the major highlight. These emerald-green, yellow, and orange long-tailed beauties fed at arm’s-length from us. In the afternoon we had great bird after great bird including a charming Australian Owlet-nightjar peering out from a Eucalypt hollow, a roosting pair of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes, and piping Black Honeyeaters. As darkness fell we commenced our search for the Plains-wanderer and had almost instant success finding a juvenile. In quick succession we found Stubble Quail, Banded Lapwing, Australian Pratincole, and a beautiful Inland Dotterel. It was a mega, mega day.
After a bit of a lie-in following our big day, we explored a variety of locations en route to Ouyen in northwest Victoria. Little Eagle, Long-billed Corella, Musk Duck, Rufous Fieldwren, Spotted Harrier, Bluebonnet and, as a grand finale, a stunning Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo ensured we had a lively time on what was largely a travel day.

We spent a full day exploring the Hattah Lakes National Park. In the morning we explored the River Red Gum forests and mixed shrubland sand dunes. Parrots were especially conspicuous and we managed to find perched Regent Parrots and Mallee Ringnecks to scope up. Emus were in good form. We found a flock of Chestnut-crowned Babblers attending a nest, studied the electrifying Splendid Fairy-wren males at close quarters, and enjoyed a flock of Red-necked Avocets on a receding wetland. In drier habitats in the afternoon we were led on a merry chase by a Crested Bellbird that finally settled for a scope view. A pair of highly elusive Striated Grasswrens came very close to us and gave a couple of feeble glimpses. The strong winds really prevented us from having much of a chance with these notoriously shy birds.

A classic Australian scene - a female Eastern Gray Kangaroo with a large joey peering out of the pouch at Deniliquin.

A classic Australian scene – a female Eastern Gray Kangaroo with a large joey peering out of the pouch at Deniliquin.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With some unfinished business, we returned to Hattah the next morning. The winds had died down overnight. We had almost instant success with Shy Heathwren, had a fly-by and quick views of a pair of Chestnut Quail-thrush, and then an absolutely magical encounter with a male Mallee Emu-wren. We journeyed south to the Little Desert National Park, entertained by a tree full of Purple-crowned Lorikeets in the town of Rainbow. Some were so tame you could literally touch them.

At the Malleefowl Reserve, a male Malleefowl came right up onto his incubator mound in front of the whole group. What a special encounter. We hoovered up the last few outstanding birds we could find including Southern Scrub-Robin and Slender-billed Thornbill. Our last bird for the tour was a well-appreciated Yellow-billed Spoonbill in the town of Beaufort. Before we knew it we were at our very comfortable hotel at Melbourne Airport enjoying a tasty farewell dinner with a glass of wine. Our stunning journey through the fascinating “Great Southern Land” was complete.