Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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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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We started our tour in Sydney on a beautiful spring day with cool temperatures. We spent the first afternoon exploring Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and Hyde Park, taking in the views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. The gardens looked magnificent at this time of year. Luck was with us as we scored a Powerful Owl that was roosting in a Black Bean tree. We had a great experience with a pair of Channel-billed Cuckoos that were raucously screaming and perching right overhead, triggering attacks from anxious Pied Currawongs and Australian Magpies. Other great birds included Rainbow Lorikeet, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Masked Lapwing, Maned Duck, Welcome Swallow, Little Pied and Little Black cormorants, and Dusky Moorhen, with our first Laughing Kookaburra a big hit.

Powerful Owl sleeping in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

Powerful Owl — Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Royal National Park is a big day for the tour and we were up early to get the best of the morning in. Recently there has been a decline in the population of the Superb Lyrebird as a result of predation by Red Foxes, and we had to work quite hard to find this iconic species this year. Eventually we located a young male that, while belting out his powerful song, played hide and seek with us before relaxing and giving some good views. On this day most every bird we see is new for participants, if they have not visited Australia before. The roll call at night was very extensive: 70 species, with the best birds including Topknot Pigeon, Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Australian Owlet-nightjar, Rockwarbler, Crested Shrike-tit, Variegated Fairy-wren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Satin Bowerbird with bower, and Green Catbird. We also found a lovely Diamond Python, and Steve spotted an Echidna that unfortunately got away by the time we could pull over safely. Botanizing was fabulous, as we checked out flowering species of Grevillea, Banksia, Baueria, Isopogon, Kunzea, Drosera (Sundew), and Dorianthus (Gymaea Lily) too mention a few. Floristically, this park is very diverse with more than 1,000 flowering plants on the list.

A sub-adult Pacific Baza in Royal National Park: a specialist predator of stick insects and tree frogs.

A sub-adult Pacific Baza in Royal National Park.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our Sydney pelagic birding trip was held in fair seas with light wind and warming temperatures. An El Nino year with warm water, albatrosses were sparse, yet we still managed to find four species: Shy, Black-browed, Campbell, and Indian Yellow-nosed. We had a good variety of other seabirds including great views of Providence Petrel, five species of shearwaters (Hutton’s, Fluttering, Wedge-tailed, Short-tailed, and Flesh-footed), Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and some beautiful Australasian Gannets. Two other major highlights were watching two bull Fur Seals attacking a bait ball of tightly-packed golden fish, and a huge herd of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins.

Driving west out of Sydney, we stopped to take in a Tawny Frogmouth at a nest. Then we moved to Sydney Olympic Park where we enjoyed nesting Pied Cormorants, flocks of graceful Red-necked Avocets, and good numbers of stunning Superb Fairy-wrens, amongst other birds like Yellow Thornbill and Red-browed Finch. A stop in the Blue Mountains produced a Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. On the way to Lithgow we stopped at some ponds that produced a pair of the rare Freckled Duck, the male still showing a red cere. There were also good numbers of Pink-eared Ducks, Australasian Shovelers, and Hardheads. In fact, it was to become a “Duck Day Afternoon” as we scored a fantastic close pair of Blue-billed Ducks in the late afternoon, plus several Musk Ducks including a pumped-up displaying male. Also of note were nesting Little Raven, a vagrant Black-tailed Native-hen, and good numbers of brightly colored parrots like Eastern and Crimson rosellas.

One of two bull Australian Fur Seals that were dining handsomely on a

Australian Fur Seal dining on a “baitball” of golden fish.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We arose early to rain and strong winds as we drove north to the Capertee Valley; fortunately the front moved through and it turned into a glorious spring day. A Wedge-tailed Eagle lifted off a road-killed Swamp Wallaby, and we admired our first mob of Eastern Gray Kangaroos, including a big buck. Our first stop was hopping with birds including Brown Treecreeper, Fuscous Honeyeater, nesting Restless Flycatcher, Dusky Woodswallow, Jacky-winter, and a lovely blond Little Eagle. In Glen Davis itself we enjoyed Zebra and Double-barred finches, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Sacred Kingfisher, and some luminous Australian King-parrots. Then we picked up a beautiful Diamond Firetail sharing a fence line with Rufous Songlark before stopping for Black-chinned Honeyeater and Southern Whiteface. A nearby creek crossing produced a pair of feisty male Plum-headed Finches having a territorial stoush. Then we lucked onto a Painted Button-quail, a flock of bathing Red-rumped Parrots, and our first Rainbow Bee-eater. Our last stop produced one of the birds of the trip—a male Gang-gang Cockatoo that gave a splendid scope view. It was time to return to Sydney for our flight the following morning to Darwin, the largest city in the Northern Territory.

The flight went smoothly and we were soon exploring some parks in the Darwin city region. Just about every bird was new again ranging from comical Orange-footed Scrubfowl and the red eye-ringed Little Bronze-cuckoo to the navy-blue Forest Kingfisher. At East Point we studied a Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove at close range and watched a pair of lanky Bush Stone-curlews. In the evening we watched the lunar eclipse in the telescope.

The next morning we explored the Howard Springs Nature Reserve and found a pair of the scarce Silver-backed Butcherbird. In the monsoon forest proper we had a superb series of encounters with Rainbow Pitta. We visited our first tropical wetlands at Knuckey Lagoon, notching up Radjah Shelduck, Australian Pratincole, and migrant shorebirds like Marsh, Sharp-tailed, and Wood sandpipers. We saw out the midday heat with a siesta. A family of Barking Owls kick-started the afternoon session, the fluffy chick looking particularly adorable. Then we moved to the coast at Nightcliff. Here again, a lot of migrant shorebirds including East Asian flyway specialties like Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser sand-plovers, and Gray-tailed Tattler. We finished up at Buffalo Creek, but it was quiet for birds (although a pair of Eastern Curlew and Green-backed Gerygone was notable) and busy with boat fishers so we resolved to return the next morning. King tides, here 7 metres (21 feet) in height, kept the mangroves deeply inundated at the time of our visits.

A Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove posed beautifully in Darwin.

Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove — Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Back at Buffalo Creek the unfinished business was dealt with fairly promptly, getting good views of Red-headed Myzomela, Yellow White-eye, Black Butcherbird, and Gray Whistler. Leaving Darwin behind, our next stop was Fogg Dam which was typically productive. Brolga, Green Pygmy-goose, and Pied Heron competed with Broad-billed Flycatcher, White-browed Crake, Tawny Grassbird, and Crimson Finch for inspection. Heading east to Kakadu National Park, we visited the spectacular wetlands at Mamukala, taking in thousands of Magpie Geese and lovely flocks of both Plumed and Wandering whistling-ducks. Here we also found our first Black-necked Storks. After checking in and a bit of a break, the late afternoon was spent on Operation Partridge Pigeon! We had success seeing five of these elusive birds in total, plus picking up Black-tailed Treecreeper and our first Brush Cuckoo.

The morning boat trip on the Yellow Water is one of the highlights of the entire tour and this year was no exception. Seventy species were seen in two hours. We had good fortune to find the scarce Little Kingfisher which showed superbly. Other good sightings included wonderful Blue-winged Kookaburra, Arafura Fantail, Buff-sided Robin, Red-kneed Dotterel, Bar-breasted Honeyeater, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, and plenty of Rufous Night-Herons. Saltwater Crocodiles were abundant, and the leader had a brief view of a Pig-nosed Turtle coming to the surface to breathe. After breakfast we visited the Aboriginal Cultural Centre that is well-presented. Lots of honeyeaters were attracted to the sprinklers, with cracking views of Mistletoebird well-appreciated, as most people had failed to catch up with this hyperactive little sprite. In the afternoon we spent an hour taking in the aboriginal rock art at Ubirr. We then made a dash to try for the scarce endemic Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, and luck was with us again, as we had good views of a trio of these quiet, well-camouflaged birds.

Looking a bit like

A fledgling Tawny Frogmouth.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

At Nourlangie Rock the next day, we searched for the Banded Fruit-Dove and found one almost immediately, although it was definitely a scope job. We nearly collected one with the bus on the drive out! Sandstone Shrike-thrush and White-lined Honeyeater gave some views and were in good voice, although both proved rather annoying. Much better behaved was a quartet of Northern Rosellas that fed quietly next to us. Little Woodswallows were seen sailing against the cliffs of this monolithic lump of sandstone. Again, the rock art was spectacular. We packed up and left Kakadu and arrived in Pine Creek in the heat of the day. Our good luck continued as we found several Hooded Parrots loafing in some street trees. Checking into our comfortable hotel in Katherine, we had a pleasant siesta. In the late afternoon we went to Edith Falls. Initially it was quiet, but then we picked up both Long-tailed and Masked finches, Cockatiel, Weebill, White-winged Triller, more Northern Rosellas and Hooded Parrots, and the late afternoon light on the Dollarbirds was spectacular.

Operation Purple-crowned Fairy-wren was the agenda the following day. A predawn departure had us taking in Agile Wallabies and a skittish Northern Brown Bandicoot. A flock of finches brought the bus to a halt, and it was great to see a flock of the now rare Star Finch with several Chestnut-breasted and the even rarer Yellow-rumped Munia mixed in. Fortunately the Purple-crowned Fairy-wren provided good views, as it was to be a hot day and there is a narrow window for success. Pacific Baza, a trio of raucous Peregrine Falcons, and Pheasant Coucals were also sighted. It was particularly hot this day and there was not much to do except return to Katherine and lie low in the air-conditioning. In the late afternoon we hoovered up some more new birds including Apostlebird, Diamond Dove, Singing Bushlark, Red-backed Fairy-wren, and Common Bronzewing. We watched 100,000 Little Red Flying-foxes move out to feed in the evening.

Rainbow Pitta is endemic to the

Rainbow Pitta, endemic to the “Dry Tropics” of N. Australia.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our last morning in the Top End we tried to catch up with a reported flock of Gouldian Finches near Pine Creek, but alas, no luck with this endangered species. A pair of Partridge Pigeons was the best we could do. Then it was largely a travel day as we flew to Alice Springs. We squeezed in a bit of birding, spotting our first Little Crow, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater and, best of all, our first Budgerigars. Then it was dinner, bird list, and bed, ready for a full day to come.

We kicked off watching two Black-flanked Rock Wallabies sunning themselves on a ridge after a chilly night. Moving to various points in the West MacDonnell Ranges, we spotted gems like Red-capped Robin and Splendid and White-winged fairy-wrens, and enjoyed flocks of Budgerigars drinking at small, rapidly evaporating waterholes. After lunch we spotted desert specialties like Red-backed Kingfisher and Western Bowerbird, and found a Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo being hosted by Variegated Fairy-wrens. Other good birds included Mulga Parrot and both Inland and Chestnut-rumped thornbills, plus the lovely Gray-headed Honeyeater. A spectacular Gould’s Sand Monitor allowed us to make a very close approach.

The Alice Springs Water Treatment Plant the next day was, as always, a great place. Before we arrived, we scoped a Euro, a large muscular hill kangaroo, on a rocky slope.  One of the first birds sighted was a Little Curlew, a rarity this far south and a difficult bird to see globally. Beautiful Red-capped Plovers were tame. Little Grassbirds crept about in aquatic vegetation, and George did well to spot a Spotless Crake, always a secretive rallid. The scarce Yellow-billed Spoonbill was a big hit. A trio of Dingos gave great views.  We squeezed in a bit of birding in some woodland and picked up Western Gerygone. A road-killed Red Kangaroo attracted four Wedge-tailed Eagles that allowed a close approach from the coaster bus. Then we did some miles to arrive at Uluru in the afternoon and take in champagne, canapés, and a glorious sunset at “The Rock.”

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo at Uluru was a lucky sighting here where it is rare.

Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo at Uluru; a lucky sighting here where it is rare.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

With dry conditions at “The Rock,” which is seriously arid at the best of times, I was not holding out much birding expectation for a grand finale to the tour. However, a couple of classy endemics finished the trip in style. En route to Kata Tjuta we picked up a White-backed Swallow, a sharp-looking scarce endemic species. It was, however, the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo that stole the show, flying right up to the participants, crest up and “chockalocking” noisily. A black Dingo gave a great view, hunting through the red dunes. Then it was on the plane and off to Brisbane.

I would like to thank Steve, Felicity, Ian, and Harry who helped me out in the field with our great group, plus the many cooks, chefs, waiters, and other folks who did their best to keep our show on the road!