Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2015

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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It was a case of here we go again! Everyone arrived in Sydney smoothly, and by lunchtime on October 3 the binoculars were out. We spent a few hours birding in the Royal Botanic Gardens that looked “splendiferous” with all of the spring flowering taking place. We were lucky again to locate the male Powerful Owl and even luckier when late in the afternoon he became a bit active, and even started to vocalize softly. A lovely Buff-banded Rail was another highlight as we added birds like Chestnut Teal, White-faced Heron, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Rainbow Lorikeet, Australasian Figbird, and Grey Butcherbird amongst others to our beginning trip list.

Powerful Owl

Powerful Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The weather gods were not being particularly helpful, as we began a heat wave of four days of high temperatures of 35 degrees plus C. In fact, it was to be the hottest October start in 73 years as the monster El Nino nicknamed “Godzilla” strengthened its grip on both the Pacific and Indian Ocean coasts of Australia.

We left very early to take in the cool of the morning in the Royal National Park. As usual, we enjoyed excellent birding including a trio of Superb Lyrebirds, the male feeding on the track, and a skittish juvenile running down the track with wings bouncing as it veered this way and that. Lots of interesting birds to study included a pair of Collared Sparrowhawks taking on the cockatoos, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Brown Cuckoo-dove, stunning Spotted Pardalote, Variegated Fairy-wren, Eastern Spinebill, Golden Whistler, and Eastern Yellow Robin to mention a few. With the heat and a large crowd expected in the park to go to the beach, we upped stumps early to get a spot at Wattamolla. Things were going well with a lovely pair of Eastern Whipbirds, a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, and some impressive Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Unfortunately, one of the participants had an accident, tripping over a tree root and breaking a leg. A four-wheel-drive ambulance was required, and with the assistance of two police officers we were able to stretcher the patient via the 4WD to another awaiting conventional ambulance. I can only commend the ambulance staff, police, and my good friend Steve for the heroics required. After this somewhat shaking experience, with the situation under control we moved to another forest site. Here the major highlight was studying a male Satin Bowerbird at his decorated bower. A Shining Bronze-Cuckoo was another good sighting, plus a bunch of “bushbirds” like Brown Thornbill, Large-billed Scrubwren, and Yellow-faced Honeyeater.

Our Sydney pelagic trip explored out to 30 nautical miles in light seas and winds making it a very comfortable trip. The birds were sparse, but with time we began to notch up some sightings. These included Black-browed and Shy albatross, Northern Giant-Petrel, four species of shearwaters (Wedge-tailed, Short-tailed, Sooty, and Fluttering), the Providence Petrel, and both White-faced and an excellent Black-bellied Storm-Petrel. The Humpback Whale display was simply awesome, as some whales decided to swim under the boat. Another major highlight was a big herd of Striped Dolphins, a tropical species rarely encountered this far south and, being oceanic and ship shy, rarely encountered full stop! Other birds included an Arctic Jaeger, Pied Cormorant, and several Australasian Gannets. After a break and dinner we went for a short night walk where we enjoyed the antics of several Common Brushtails and a lovely Grey-headed Flying-fox.

Black-bellied Storm-Petrel

Black-bellied Storm-Petrel— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

It was time to head out of Sydney, but we still had a few birds to look for. Again this year we stopped by a nesting Tawny Frogmouth that was brooding some chicks. We then took a lengthy walk through Sydney Olympic Park where we added a bunch of birds ranging from Hardhead, Australian Pelican, Royal Spoonbill, Red-necked Avocet, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Black-fronted Dotterel, and a displaying Brown Goshawk to such neat small passerines as Superb Fairy-wren, Australian Reed-Warbler, Red-browed Finch, Yellow Thornbill, and the smart-looking Silvereye. En route to Lithgow we spotted a beautiful pair of both Crimson and Eastern rosellas feeding in a flowering apple tree, and at the local ponds we picked up a flock of Pink-eared Ducks, several Australasian Shovelers, and a scattering of Hoary-headed Grebes. With the heat wave in full effect we had a break until midafternoon. The furnace-like conditions prevailed in the afternoon, and it was looking like hard work. However, we managed to get quite a few birds under our belts by the time we had to return to the hotel. Brown Treecreeper, Jacky Winter, Fuscous Honeyeater, White-browed and Dusky woodswallows, Galah, Rainbow Bee-eater, Sacred Kingfisher, Pallid Cuckoo, and excellent Yellow-tufted and Striped honeyeaters were all added to the list before dinner. We also spied some big mobs of Eastern Grey Kangaroos and their muscular rocky country relative, the Euro.

This day brought some cool, even downright cold temperatures as a “southerly buster” brought fog and drizzle to the Blue Mountains. The cool air was delicious. The birds were not bad either. We started with Hooded Robin and Red-rumped Parrot and followed with Restless Flycatcher, Rufous Songlark, and Masked Woodswallow, plus White-winged Chough. Another stop produced Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Weebill, and the designer plumaged Double-barred Finch. In between we spotted Wedge-tailed Eagle, Brown and Peregrine falcons, Zebra Finch and the scarce Plum-headed Finch, and a nesting colony of Fairy Martins. A tree full of Australian King-parrots and Crimson Rosellas was spectacular. Red-necked Wallaby was the mammal of the day. We finished with great views of the bizarre Musk Duck, lovely Great Crested Grebes, and the population of Little Raven right on the eastern edge of their range.

Tawny Frogmouth

Tawny Frogmouth— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

For a change of scenery we flew 4,500 km to Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory. A smooth flight and hotel check-in and again by 3:00 PM the “bins” were out. First up we made a loop through the Botanic Gardens where a Forest Kingfisher offered dazzling views. We finished the afternoon session with a good bunch of birds including a smart Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, a pair of tame Bush Stone-curlews, and the scarce opthalmicus subspecies of Sooty Oystercatcher. Tropical passerines were in good form ranging from Northern Fantail, Green-backed Gerygone, and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher to Yellow Oriole, while both Red-tailed Black Cockatoo and Red-collared Lorikeet were not to be sneezed at. Another excellent highlight was a beautiful Yellow-spotted Monitor, a large carnivorous lizard that has all but disappeared in the Northern Territory due to the introduced toxic Cane Toad. We also added both Black Flying-fox and Agile Wallaby to our growing mammal list.

Our full day in the Darwin district, divided into morning and afternoon sessions so we can siesta in the heat of the day, is always a massive birding event. This year we recorded 100 species even. We started in Howard Springs and found a cooperative Rainbow Pitta fairly quickly that showed well, which was good because this year the mosquitoes in the monsoon forest were ferocious! Knuckey Lagoon held Black-necked Stork, Brolga, Rajah Shelduck, Red-kneed Dotterel, and a host of wintering migrants like Marsh Sandpiper and Eastern Yellow Wagtail. After the break we caught up with a family of Barking Owls and then enjoyed a session with the shorebirds, some 28 species with highlights including Australian Pratincole, Pied Oystercatcher, Great Knot, Terek Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, and Red-capped Plover. Other birds of note included Australian Hobby, Lesser Crested Tern, Australian Gull-billed Tern, Tawny Frogmouth, Varied Lorikeet, and Silver-crowned Friarbird, while the best reptile was a sublime Merten’s Water Monitor.

Black-banded Fruit-Dove

Black-banded Fruit-Dove— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A morning at Buffalo Creek produced some good quality birds in quick succession including Red-headed Myzomela, Little Bronze-cuckoo, Grey Whistler, Black Butcherbird, and a fine male “Pacific” Emerald Dove. We moved onto Fogg Dam where we added Tawny Grassbird, White-browed Crake, the beautiful Crimson Finch, Broad-billed Flycatcher, and an excellent array of tropical waterbirds in good light and up close. At Adelaide River we had success with both Mangrove Golden Whistler and Arafura Fantail, while a good view of a Water Python with its iridescent sheen was another highlight. Entering Kakadu National Park, a stop at an evaporating waterhole with incalculable numbers of waterfowl was impressive. We also picked up the lovely Red-backed Fairy-wren and stunning Long-tailed Finch, here of the red-billed subspecies. After settling into our accommodations we went for a drive to try for the elusive Partridge Pigeon. No luck with this, but a superb encounter with a pair of Pacific Bazas eating katydids may have been the highlight of the day. A Pheasant Coucal walked along in front of us, and our first Blue-winged Kookaburra made an appearance. After dinner we took a short night walk for those who were keen, checking out some native and introduced amphibians and their impact on the ecology of the park. The late-stayer (i.e. the leader) found a Northern Brushtail, a Northern Brown Bandicoot, and a tame pair of Sugar Gliders. Apparently the population of Sugar Gliders here is genetically very different from the east coast population and will shortly be described as a new species!

Rainbow Pitta

Rainbow Pitta— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

An absolutely cracking boat trip on Yellow Water had many highlights. A Great-billed Heron (the first of two) from the boat ramp started things off very well. A pair of Arafura Fantails mobbing a Pheasant Coucal was quite comical. A Saltwater Crocodile thrashing an Arafura File Snake, protecting it from being stolen by another crocodile, and then swallowing it was not the sort of thing you see every day! A pair of Little Kingfishers were seen down to a distance of about two meters; we even watched them catching tiny fish. Close to 70 species of birds were seen on the two-hour boat trip. After breakfast we had success with Black-tailed Treecreeper, Dusky Myzomela, Rufous-throated and the often difficult Bar-breasted Honeyeater, and watched a pair of Torresian Crows struggle to feed a pair of baby Channel-billed Cuckoos they were unwittingly hosting. After a siesta we visited Ubirr Rock, famous for its excellent Aboriginal rock art galleries dating back over 3,000 years depicting barramundi, turtles, kangaroos, sacred spirits, even a Thylacine. It was great to see the Short-eared Rock-Wallaby (this population is now split as Wilkin’s Rock-Wallaby) plus both the Arnhem Land endemic Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush. All up it had been an excellent day.

Early the following morning we were at Nourlangie Rock, and a patient vigil brought the reward of an excellent view of the Black-banded Fruit-Dove, a rare bird endemic to Arnhem Land. Our good luck was in when a pair of White-lined Honeyeaters, another specialty endemic, gave excellent views. All of this was eclipsed though, when a Rainbow Pitta appeared right next to us for some unbelievable views—wow! We broke the drive south to Pine Creek investigating giant termite mounds, ensconced ourselves in a flock of several hundred Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, and studied the extraordinary bower of the Great Bowerbird. At Pine Creek we had almost instant success with a beautiful pair of Hooded Parrots. The locals were trying to move along a giant camp of the nomadic pollen feeding Little Red Flying-fox that can turn up overnight in numbers of biblical proportions. After a break we bumped into a few more new birds, the best of which was the scarce Silver-backed Butcherbird.

Short-eared Rock Wallaby

Short-eared Rock Wallaby— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We made the necessary pre-dawn departure to arrive at Victoria River for the limited cool of the morning. It took a bit of time, but eventually a lovely pair of Purple-crowned Fairywrens popped up and pirouetted this way and that. The population seems to have declined after two below average wet seasons, literally failed monsoons. Other birds were somewhat down in numbers, but we enjoyed several stunning Dollarbirds, the dapper Banded Honeyeater, and we had some luck when we stopped for a party of Apostlebirds finding both Masked and, quite fortuitously, the scarce and beautiful Star Finch. Another stop produced a distant Black-breasted Buzzard, and the curious leader discovered some roosting Little Broad-nosed Bats. Our afternoon session had a major highlight when we found a flock of 16 Gouldian Finches, one of tropical Australia’s most beautiful and rare birds. Most were dull juveniles, but a single male red-head morph was well-received—lucky us. To continue on the finches, we also enjoyed a flock of beautiful Chestnut-breasted Munias. All up a very good result.

We spent the last morning tracking down the last couple of birds we had a chance for. Unfortunately, the Partridge Pigeon held out at the location where I had jagged a pair on last year’s tour, but a lovely flock of Northern Rosellas was much appreciated. We also caught up with the Grey-crowned Babbler, popularly called the Yahoo-bird in the Australian country after its rollicking song.  Then we motored to Darwin for our flight to Alice Springs some 1,000 miles to the south in Australia’s Red Centre. On the drive north to Darwin we spotted a Dingo crossing the Stuart Highway and watched as it jumped up on the water pipeline running parallel to the road and stopped to check us out.

The Olive Pink Botanic Gardens is an excellent site for the localized Western Bowerbird. We enjoyed four birds bounding about near the bower, sometimes flashing the lilac nuchal crest. We also enjoyed luminous Port Lincoln Parrots, Singing and Spiny-cheeked honeyeaters, and a family of dust-bathing Grey-crowned Babblers that looked like a litter of puppies playing.

Star Finch

Star Finch— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our full day in Alice Springs district saw us exploring to the west, east, and north of the town, taking a break in the heat of the day. Our first stop at Simpson’s Gap produced a beautiful Black-flanked Rock-Wallaby poised perfectly on a scree boulder. We began to notch up a few new birds like Inland and Chestnut-rumped thornbills, Western Gerygone, the dazzling Splendid Fairy-wren, and the “not too shabby” Red-capped Robin. To the east we examined a few puddles of water created by road works trucks and, as luck would have it, found a small flock of both Budgerigars and Crimson Chats—we were a bit lucky here! Even luckier was finding a pair of the rare White-browed Treecreeper and a small party of Varied Sittellas, here of the “Centralian” population with black skull caps. The often elusive Red-browed Pardalote gave good views and, at the opposite side of the spectrum, an enormous juvenile Wedge-tailed Eagle perched beautifully beside the bus before taking to the wing and soaring magnificently over the enthralled group. After our break we headed north to some dense Mulga woodlands where we had more luck finding a rare Slaty-backed Thornbill that we tagged along with for 15 minutes as it did its typical keeping one step ahead. It was joined by another scarce bird, the white-tailed desert subspecies of the Grey Fantail, clearly a separate species in its own right. We also enjoyed stunning views of the beautiful Mulga Parrot.

Gray-crowned Babblers

Gray-crowned Babblers “red-breasted” subspecies— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A morning at the Alice Springs Sewage Farm produced an amazing variety of birds, some 60 species in two hours. Amongst the highlights were a party of glowing Orange Chats, stunning White-winged Fairy-wren, a single Yellow-billed Spoonbill, a vagrant Ruff, comical Black-tailed Native-hens, piping Little Grassbird, and the graceful Black Swan. Heading south, we had a fine Black-breasted Buzzard sail right around and over us, and this was followed by a Little Eagle clutching a large lizard in its talons and a beautiful pair of dapper White-backed Swallows. As we drove west to Uluru, it became increasingly arid and birds became scarce. At the Rock itself we tracked down the Grey-headed Honeyeater and then enjoyed champagne and canapés as we watched the sun set on the spiritual heart of Australia.

On our last birding session we moved from Kata Tjuta to Uluru and spotted a handful of bird species including a small flock of Budgerigars, another Black-breasted Buzzard, and some well-appreciated Little Woodswallows that flew and perched quite close to us due to the gale force winds. Then it was on the plane to begin our next adventures on Grand Australia Part II.

Thanks to a wonderful group of participants and my friends David, Brigitte, Dean, Ian, and the inimitable Steve, plus a host of service providers who made our tour very successful.