Grand Australia Part II Oct 15—Nov 01, 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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The folks continuing on from Grand Australia Part I flew from Uluru to Brisbane via Sydney. Spending the night at the Novotel, we took off the next morning, heading south with seven new faces to try our luck at finding a Koala. Although the Koala won the first round, we spotted Tawny Frogmouth, Pacific Baza, and Brown Goshawk, and watched a Red-necked Wallaby that appeared in birthing mode. Marsupials were in good form today, and we spotted several species including Eastern Gray Kangaroo, Pretty-face Wallaby, Red-necked Pademelon and, in the evening, the Mountain Brushtail. Birds were also in good form and we tallied 100 species.  Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Speckled Warbler, Little Bronze-cuckoo, Striped Honeyeater, Latham’s Snipe, and Plumed Whistling-Duck were amongst a bunch of classic Australian birds.

Regent Bowerbird at O'Reilly's

Regent Bowerbird at O’Reilly’s— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We had a fantastic day exploring the O’Reilly’s district. In the morning we were bombarded with new sightings of such flashy birds as Australian King-parrot, Crimson Rosella, Satin and Regent bowerbirds, Eastern Yellow Robin, Eastern Whipbird, Australian Logrunner, Golden Whistler, Black-faced Monarch, Topknot Pigeon and more. At breakfast we had sightings of three Albert’s Lyrebirds, including one from the restaurant! Moving further afield we connected with Red-browed Treecreeper, Bassian Thrush, Varied Sittella, Cicadabird, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Bell Miner, Spectacled Monarch, and a lovely Australian Owlet-nightjar. Then in quick succession we scoped a dozing Wompoo Fruit-Dove; enjoyed a pair of White-headed Pigeons; watched a Green Catbird “caterwauling”; and thanks to some good spotting by Nick, enjoyed a robust, healthy, strapping male Koala munching on some leaves of a Grey Gum.

The first few hours of the following day were spent trying to hoover up some birds we had not seen. Wonga Pigeons, reminiscent of pompous local government politicians, strutted their stuff. A pair of Russet-tailed Thrushes gave excellent views. Then it was on the road to Brisbane Airport, where a flat tire on the entrance freeway to the Gateway Bridge added to the leader’s healthy collection of gray hair. We made it in time for the flight to Cairns, but ran out of time for any birding in the late afternoon.

White-browed Scrubwren at O'Reilly's

White-browed Scrubwren at O’Reilly’s— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our first full day in the Cairns district was very full. Before breakfast we enjoyed some mixed shorebirds including Great Knot, Curlew and Sharp-tailed sandpipers, and Far Eastern Curlew. Varied Honeyeater performed well. After “brekky” (Australian for breakfast), it was off to Centenary Lakes, where for quite a while it was difficult to not see a bird. Great views were had of Collared Kingfisher, Bush Thick-knee, Black Butcherbird, Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Yellow Honeyeater and much more. We packed up and headed for the hills, making a couple of stops in the Mareeba district, including a very pleasant lunch. Green Pygmy-goose, Squatter Pigeon, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Red-winged Parrot, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Forest Kingfisher, Great Bowerbird (at a bower), Barred Cuckoo-shrike, Double-barred Finch, and Chestnut-breasted Munia were amongst the bird offerings. In the late afternoon we arrived at Kingfisher Park, our home for the next three nights, where we were well looked after by our hosts, Keith and Lindsay Fisher. Just on dusk, a Platypus gave repeat excellent views as it foraged in the stream below our viewing point.

The following morning we were in the mountain rainforest of Mount Lewis, a really beautiful location. We worked through the endemic birds including Bower’s Shrike-thrush, Chowchilla, Mountain Thornbill, Atherton Scrubwren, and Bridled Honeyeater, and had a performance from the Tooth-billed Bowerbird at his stage. Later in the afternoon we visited the Maryfarms district where the Australian Bustards performed well. In the evening we spotted various mammals including Long-nosed and Northern Brown bandicoots, Giant White-tailed Rat, and the cute Yellow-footed Antechinus. It was also a good day for reptiles including the spectacular Boyd’s Forest Dragon, handsome Major Skink, robust Red-bellied Black Snake, and a retiring Slaty-gray Snake. There was plenty of everything to look at.

Albert's Lyrebird, female, at O'Reilly's

Albert’s Lyrebird, female, at O’Reilly’s— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our boat trip on the Daintree River went well, getting off to a great start with a good view of the reclusive Great-billed Heron. Azure Kingfisher, Shining Flycatcher, Brown-backed Honeyeater, and Australian Koel all filled in blanks on the list. A Pied Monarch was very handy, while a hefty big male Saltwater Crocodile, hauled out basking on the bank, answered Sheila’s request. Exploring some vine forest we had dazzling encounters with such gems as Lovely Fairy-wren and Yellow-breasted Boatbill, and we successfully twitched a Papuan Frogmouth.

Bidding farewell to Kingfisher Park, we made a final last sweep of the orchard for the Noisy Pitta, and up it popped for a view most splendid—a great way to start what would be an exceptional day. Our next stop was Cassowary House where in quick succession we lured a Red-necked Crake across the road twice, found the scarce White-eared Monarch, and enjoyed a fabulous male Victoria’s Riflebird in display mode. All of our Christmases arrived at once when we were joined by both the adult male and female Southern Cassowary complete with month-old chick. Wow! Continuing our big day, we picked up flocks of both Sarus Crane and Brolga, and found a dark morph Dingo and several of the rare Freckled Duck. Then we returned to Cairns for our day on the Great Barrier Reef.

Despite some lumpy seas, our day-trip out to the Reef scooped a number of good birds. Best of all were two juvenile Red-footed Boobies and at least four Roseate Terns (one of 12 tern species for the day). We also spotted Great Frigatebird, nesting Brown Boobies, and a small number of Black Noddies amongst the huge number of Common Noddies and Sooty Terns. Both Greater and Lesser Crested terns were in good numbers, with a sprinkling of Black-naped, Siberian Common, and Bridled terns. We had good views of a couple of Green Turtles, snorkelled with a myriad of colorful reef fish, and had a good time all up. On the Esplanade in Cairns we had great comparison views of Greater and Lesser sand-plovers, Terek Sandpiper and, best of all, a lovely Broad-billed Sandpiper.

Koala, male

Koala, male— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We had a last morning in Cairns where we explored some nearby wetlands. Crimson Finch, Golden-headed Cisticola, Tawny Grassbird, and some lovely views of White-browed Crake rounded out our list in Far North Queensland. Then we winged it south to Melbourne, picking up a new bus. As luck would have it, just as I was accelerating up to 100 kilometers per hour, a family of Maned Ducks— mum, dad, and 20 ducklings (this is a dump-nesting species)—decided to choose this moment to cross the highway. It looked like imminent disaster, but avoiding both rear end collisions and miraculously every duckling by decelerating appreciably, participant Jane declared it my finest hour! We made it through to Deniliquin, ready for a huge day of birding to follow.

In Deni we caught up with my friend Philip Maher, one of Australia’s best known birders. We started off in great fashion with a mid-level front producing spectacular lightning displays, followed by an Antarctic gale as a cold front moved in behind us—not brilliant weather by any stretch, exacerbated by the drying conditions prevailing in the Deni district. Still, by persevering, we totalled 101 species for the day. In the morning session, Superb Parrot, Crested Shrike-tit, Australian Owlet-nightjar, Red-capped Robin, and dapper White-browed Woodswallows led the charge. In the afternoon we had outstanding views of Baillon’s and Australian Spotted crakes, with a more typical skittish glimpse of the timid Spotless Crake. Beautiful male White-winged Fairy-wrens, crisp White-backed Swallow, Bluebonnets, Emus, and a fortuitous Spotted Harrier were amongst the highlights as it became dark. Next we commenced our nocturnal search for the enigmatic Plains-wanderer, a most unusual quail-like shorebird that is essentially impossible to find in the day. Rob made the breakthrough, finding a stunning female that even started to vocalize—a strange bovine “mooing.” Philip then miraculously found a solitary Inland Dotterel. What a day—definitely among the best the birding world has to offer.

Great-billed Heron on the Daintree River

Great-billed Heron on the Daintree River— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

After a bit of a lie-in the next day to recharge our batteries, we traveled west via Barham, then Kerang, to end up in Ouyen in northwest Victoria. First up we enjoyed Long-billed Corella in the scope, followed by flocks of Australian Shelduck, a close Swamp Harrier, and a tame flock of Gray-crowned Babblers—rare in Victoria. A landholder gave us permission to check out a wetland adjoining his orchard. It held an astonishing 100 Blue-billed Ducks, several female Musk Ducks, and a few Red-necked Avocets, with singles of both Common Greenshank and Red-capped Plover. A last stop produced a tame pair of Rufous Fieldwrens.

Hattah Lakes lie north of Ouyen, a large national park dominated by vast tracts of mallee vegetation. This year a water allocation for an environmental flow flooded the lake system, and access to some parts of the park were impossible. Birding was excellent with our first stop producing such superb birds as Mulga and Regent Parrot, fly-over Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, nesting Little Eagle, a female Crested Bellbird, several Masked Woodswallows, Gray Currawong, numerous Yellow-plumed and Spiny-cheeked honeyeaters, a cooperative pair of Shy Heathwren, and the wonderful Splendid Fairywren. Exploring drier sections of the park searching for scarce mallee endemics turned up a fabulous male Chestnut Quail-thrush.

Southern Cassowary, female, known as

Southern Cassowary, female, known as “Missy”— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Returning the following day, we were lucky to have a brief encounter with the skittish Striated Grasswren. An Emu crossed the trail ahead of us. A Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo came in for a good view. We began heading south towards Nhill; two strategic stops turned up Purple-crowned and Musk lorikeets, both species feeding in flowering Eucalypts. Arriving in the Little Desert, it was clear that dry conditions prevailed. Our luck was in when we found a Short-beaked Echidna, the ant-feeding, spine-covered monotreme that is never easy in mainland Australia. The birds continued to perform well when in quick succession Black-tailed Native-hen, Tawny-crowned and Brown-headed honeyeaters, Scarlet Robin, and the scarce Slender-billed Thornbill gave great views.

The last day of the tour proved to be rather tough birding. The dry conditions had prevented the Malleefowl from working on their nest mounds, the lack of rain not allowing humidity to develop in their unique laying chamber. Despite some serious searching, we missed this species. We had good luck with both White-eared Honeyeater and, after a serious effort, the skittish Purple-gaped Honeyeater, plus the elusive Gilbert’s Whistler. On the return drive to Melbourne a juvenile Wedge-tailed Eagle was found in a paddock right next to the road. Our tour was at end—an extraordinary journey complete with more than 340 species recorded through three biomes in eastern Australia.