Grand Australia Part II Oct 15—Nov 01, 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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We started our tour in the usual fashion, saying farewell to four participants at Sydney Airport and the “true believers” continuing on to Brisbane where we met five new faces. We spent the day exploring a multitude of sites with my friend Duncan in the Numinbah Valley, recording 101 species for the day. Among the highlights were Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Wonga Pigeon, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Speckled Warbler, and the smart-looking “White-headed” Varied Sittellas. We also found our first mammals, enjoying Eastern Gray Kangaroo, Pretty-faced and Red-necked Wallabies, and the Red-necked Pademelon. We watched a harmless Green Tree Snake cruise across the road.

Pretty-faced Wallaby

Pretty-faced Wallaby— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Up early, we were bombarded with new and glamorous bird sightings including Crimson Rosella, Australian King-parrot, Regent and Satin bowerbirds, Eastern Whipbird, Eastern Yellow Robin, and White-browed and Yellow-throated scrubwrens. With patience we began to tease out some of the less obvious birds, and by breakfast we had enjoyed good views of mating Topknot Pigeons, Bassian Thrush, Australian Logrunner, and a beautiful male Rose Robin. After brekky we were in the “monster truck” and heading down the Duck Creek Road. We had success with Red-browed Treecreeper, Spotted Pardalote, White-naped Honeyeater, and Striated and Buff-rumped thornbills. It was, however, a Koala that stole the show when with considerable luck we found not just one, but two of these iconic arboreal marsupials, and what’s more, they were active—eating, grooming, and climbing around. After a break we dutifully ticked off Bell Miner and then went back into the rainforest where we had a good session with an excellent view of a Wompoo Fruit-Dove, a Russet-tailed Thrush and, for some, an excellent Noisy Pitta. We trawled about for Albert’s Lyrebird that we had approached closely in the morning, but could not make the breakthrough despite it pouring forth its powerful song. It was quiet, although a beautiful golden Dingo with white socks appeared on the trail in front of us briefly, out hunting wallabies no doubt. We went for a night drive after dinner that provided a view of the Southern Boobook, Mountain Brushtail, a high Sugar Glider and, amazingly, another Koala, this time with a joey on its back. Not to forget the Bush Rat!

Topknot Pigeon

Topknot Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We had a fairy tale ending to our stay at O’Reillys when we found a male Albert’s Lyrebird singing powerfully in the early morning. He could not have been at all concerned as we watched the extraordinary performance for quite some time. Then, after dashing around hoping to find a Paradise Riflebird without success, miraculously a female appeared as we were loading up the bus, and everyone was able to study her as she probed vine tangles and epiphytes. Shortly after, we were at Brisbane Airport, winging our way a thousand miles to the north to the tropical town of Cairns.

Arrival into Cairns went smoothly and we spent the final hour of the day dodging showers and trying to see a few birds which included Great Knot and Black-fronted Dotterel. The next morning it was considerably brighter, and we quickly spotted Terek Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser sand-plovers, Gray-tailed Tattler, Curlew Sandpiper, and Red-capped Plover. A few hours at Centenary Lakes were quite profitable with unbelievable views of nesting Double-eyed Fig-Parrots and Bush Stone-curlews. Other highlights included Magpie Goose, Rajah Shelduck, Cicadabird, Large-billed Gerygone, Yellow Honeyeater, and Black Butcherbird to mention a few. Driving north we made a stop at our traditional lunch place at Jabiru Safari Lodge. Here we enjoyed some tame Emus with striped chicks, Green Pygmy-Goose, Pacific Baza, a flock of over 100 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, a male Australian Koel, and small flocks of both Double-barred Finch and Chestnut-breasted Munia. A major surprise was spotting a female black-headed Gouldian Finch. Apparently this bird stems from a re-introduction program underway. Next stop was Lake Mitchell causeway, and it was humming with birds even in the middle of the day. A fine male Black-necked Stork led the charge, but it was the resurgent numbers of Cotton Pygmy-goose that interested the leader, more than 20 individuals. It had been more than a decade since we had seen this species in these numbers. At Mount Molloy we studied the Great Bowerbird and its extraordinary bower decorated with snail shells, green glass, and silver metallic objects. A beautiful male Red-winged Parrot consorted with several females and immatures. Arriving at Kingfisher Park, after a break we went to try for Platypus and had luck watching a pair interacting, although they kept to the pool about 50 meters upstream. A lot of birds were coming in to bathe including Spectacled Monarch and Pale-yellow Robin. Suddenly they started to call in an agitated fashion, and the leader discovered the source of the fuss: a sub-adult Amethystine Python coiled on the bank.

Koala

Koala— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

A light-sleeping leader was awoken at 3 am by a juvenile Lesser Sooty Owl outside his room that showed well. A list of participants willing to arise at this hour was noted if the owl reappeared! We had a superb foray along the mountain rainforest trails at Mount Lewis. In four hours we notched up a displaying Victoria’s Riflebird, displaying Tooth-billed Bowerbird, stunning Chowchillas less than two meters from us, a cracking male Yellow-breasted Boatbill, and excellent views of an assortment of endemic passerines including Fernwren, Atherton Scrubwren, Mountain Thornbill, Bridled Honeyeater, and Bower’s Shrike-thrush. The rarest bird of the morning was, however, a pair of Blue-faced Parrotfinches, an adult and immature that gave some repeated good views in the forest interior. After a break we headed out west and north into the dry country where we enjoyed several tame and close Australian Bustards that performed well. Also of note were a Blue-winged Kookaburra, very tame “Black” Brown Treecreepers, and “Blue-cheeked” Pale-headed Rosellas.

Albert's Lyrebird

Albert’s Lyrebird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our boat trip on the Daintree River started out a bit foggy. Thanks to Murray though, we were soon studying a giant Papuan Frogmouth on its nest, the bird looking especially large, as it was fluffed up after a damp cool morning. A fine White-bellied Sea-Eagle cruised past, and we were soon studying some classic mangrove and rainforest birds like nesting Shining Flycatcher and Brown-backed Honeyeater, “chonking” Yellow Orioles, and a mating pair of Azure Kingfishers. A passage migration of Satin Flycatchers was underway, and we saw at least two males and two females, some very close indeed. A stop at Newell’s Beach on the return drive proved quite profitable when a lovely Brahminy Kite lured us to a pair of Beach Stone-Curlews that were actively hunting crabs on the mudflats. They were joined by a Far Eastern Curlew. After lunch and a rest we explored some patches of vine rainforest, and initially a bit quiet, we picked up a mixed flock that held a fine pair of Pied Monarchs, a very tame male Yellow-breasted Boatbill, some canopy dwelling Fairy Gerygones and, best of all, a Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, a rare species at the southern end of its range. Returning to the bus we found it was broken down. Luckily the local neighbor in this mobile phone free zone was a diesel mechanic and the fault was quickly recognized and temporarily jury-rigged. We returned to Kingfisher Park where everything proceeded to give us the runaround, with a procession of nocturnal heard birds and stop-start Noisy Pitta. Several raucous trumpeting Channel-billed Cuckoos provided some entertainment. Fortunately, the following morning both the Noisy Pitta and the Superb Fruit-Dove gave some stellar views.

Azure Kingfisher

Azure Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The following day started out with a certain sense of despair on the leader’s outlook. The news from Cassowary House was not good. “Missy,” the regular female Southern Cassowary for over 12 years, had been found dead; an autopsy revealed peritonitis. The male with a chick had completely vanished 10 days before our visit. Cassowaries on the Black Mountain Road were in big trouble. Sue and Rohan organized access to a nearby property where there had been recent sightings, but a couple of hours of searching produced zip. Exploring west, we had some success with a fine pair of Sarus Cranes and a fortuitous Squatter Pigeon. Following a hunch, we continued further south and, as luck would have it, we bumped into a Canadian birder who said he had just found a Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo, a rarity in itself. As he walked us back, a Southern Cassowary female was spotted by the leader just off the road in thick rainforest—relaxed and tame, preening itself; it was a halcyon moment. After taking this all in, we relocated the tree kangaroo for awesome views. Then a Golden Bowerbird started to call, and we tracked it down in the rainforest for an experience most splendid, now to find we were accompanied by the Cassowary. It was still relaxed, but when we began to leave, it became a bit agitated and keen for food, and gave every participant an experience they will never forget, as it approached very closely in an upright fashion. It was the most extraordinary roll of great fortune I have ever experienced in the rainforest of north Queensland. Golden Bowerbird, Southern Cassowary, and Tree Kangaroo—bang, bang, bang! Our good luck continued when we found the rare Freckled Duck at Hastie’s Swamp. Then it was time to track to Cairns for our day on the Great Barrier Reef.

Double-eyed Fig-Parrot

Double-eyed Fig-Parrot— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our day on the Coral Sea went well, as we had very light seas and the usual excellent cooperation from the skipper and staff on the “Seastar.” Michaelmas Cay held the usual huge numbers of Common Noddy and Sooty Tern. Searching produced more typical species like nesting Brown Booby, loafing female Great Frigatebirds, a sprinkling of Ruddy Turnstones, plus quite good numbers of both Lesser and Greater crested terns. More diligent searching produced the delightful Black-naped Tern, a single Black Noddy, about ten Siberian Common Terns, and a flock of four Roseate Terns in breeding plumage. The most unexpected highlight was, however, a Red-tailed Tropicbird that flew over and around the Cay repeatedly, very much a first for the leader at this location on 20 plus visits! Snorkeling was superb with excellent visibility, healthy coral ecosystems, and fabulous fish-watching. Amongst the rarer fish seen were Titan Triggerfish, Blue-spotted Sting Ray, Bicolor Angel Fish, Bicolor Cleaning Wrasse, Black-spotted Wrasse, Coral Trout, an enormous Hump-headed Maori Wrasse about five feet in length, and many, many more. We had excellent views of Green Turtle. Back on terra firma we met a lovely bunch of shorebirds on the Cairns Esplanade, enjoying both a single Broad-billed Sandpiper and a local rarity in the form of a migrant Asian Gull-billed Tern.

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We spent the last couple of hours in Cairns visiting some nearby wetlands. A White-browed Crake gave excellent views and a male Mistletoebird was very extroverted. We hunted around for Crimson Finch, but the only one seen was in flight briefly, although some folks managed a decent view. With a hot, humid day developing, we headed to the airport for our flight to Melbourne and our stint of birding in Australia’s mallee and Riverina country.

Our morning session in Deniliquin with good friend Philip Maher took us first into some beautiful old growth River Redgum forest, full of hollow trees and full of parrots. We had great encounters with nesting Superb Parrots and watched a male Crested Shrike-tit have a conflict with a White-plumed Honeyeater. A nesting Tawny Frogmouth was well handy. Later we checked out a variety of woodland birds including both Hooded and Red-capped robins. It was, however, the Australian Owlet-nightjar that was the big hit! After a break post lunch at a delightful café, we headed out to the north of town. A big female Black Falcon turned up near the Tip and gave repeated good flight views. Well into the Hay Plains, we picked up a big flock of Banded Lapwings associating with a few Australian Pratincoles. We tracked down a female Orange Chat, with a male Brown Songlark being another handy sighting. Emus and Red Kangaroos were in good numbers. Just on dusk we found a small flock of the elusive Inland Dotterel and, with patience, we were able to drive quite close to some individuals that pirouetted nicely for us in the spotlight. Our search for the Plains-wanderer was this year extremely quick—15 minutes and up popped a female. It is almost never this easy, and given the dry conditions we were extremely fortunate. Great job Phillip! It had been an awesome day of birding, some 91 species all up.

Crested Shrike-tit

Crested Shrike-tit— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Driving west and north the following day to the mallee districts of northwest Victoria, we took a bit of a “lie-in” in the morning to recharge the batteries after our night of spotlighting. In Kerang we picked up a pair of Australian Shelducks and had a brief view of a Black-tailed Native-hen. Further west we had luck finding a flock of several hundred mixed Red-necked Avocets and Banded Stilts. Mixed in were a good bunch of shorebirds including Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Red-capped Plovers, plus nearly a thousand Whiskered Terns. Both White-fronted and a single male Orange Chat were seen.  Also of note were several Musk Ducks showing well, complete with “appendaged” males amidst a bunch of waterfowl that included several Pink-eared Ducks and our first Hoary-headed Grebes. Another stop produced excellent views of perched Bluebonnets and a perky pair of Rufous Fieldwrens. As we were heading to dinner at the pub at Ouyen, the call went out for a pair of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos that were feeding quietly in the hotel garden. It was an excellent way to finish the day.

Hattah Lakes still had quite a pulse of water in the system following a massive environmental flow allocation that had flooded the park on last year’s tour. On the lakes we spotted a pair of Great Crested Grebes along with a single male Musk Duck and a pair of Pink-eared Ducks. Lots of parrots were attracted to the old growth River Redgums including several spectacular Regent Parrots, plus quite a few Little Corellas. Further afield we enjoyed a flock of Apostlebirds, a pair of Emus, and a glowing turquoise bundle of feathers in the form of the male Splendid Fairywren. A flock of Chestnut-crowned Babblers gave some uncharacteristically good views for this typically timid species, here at the extreme southern limit of their range. The luminous Mallee Ringneck was also well-appreciated, and we retired back to Ouyen as the day heated up for a lengthy siesta. In the late afternoon we tried our luck with some of the scarcer mallee birds, but it was slow in the warmth in what were extremely dry conditions away from the lakes. A bonus was a fine male Crested Bellbird that fed around us quite tamely. We located two parties of the elusive Striated Grasswren, but apart from a few glimpses they were keeping well-hidden in the Porcupine Grass.

Plains-wanderer

Plains-wanderer— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

With our last full day of birding upon us, I again opted to try and work on some of the “tougher” species in the mallee. Before we even set out though, we enjoyed the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos again feeding in an Acacia. This time we had some success with first crippling views of the exquisite Mallee Emuwren, and then a stunning male Chestnut Quail-thrush rocked up and posed beautifully for the photographers. In between we added Brown-headed and White-eared honeyeaters, both Masked and White-browed woodswallows, and a pair of Mulga Parrots. A Striped Honeyeater was feeding a chick in its superb nest made out of Emu feathers. Leaving the park we spotted a Gray Currawong and a close Little Eagle. Now we did some miles south to the Little Desert where if anything the countryside became even more parched. There was not much moving, but we made sure we stopped for a pair of Yellow-throated Miners for a decent view, and a flock of boisterous and colorful Musk Lorikeets were a treat. After a break we explored around the lodge and picked up a stunning male Scarlet Robin feeding a fledgling. This was followed by a family of Hooded Robins, a pair of European Goldfinches, and then a pair of the rare Slender-billed Thornbill, plus a briefly cooperative Southern Scrub-Robin. We had done well on this day.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo

Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our final morning of birding was spent with my friend “Creeky” at a fox-proof fenced mallee broombush sanctuary close to the Little Desert National Park. Graham had one active Malleefowl mound, which was quite miraculous considering the severe drought affecting the entire region. We approached the mound, but there was no sign of life. While Graham explained about the complicated reproductive biology of this aberrant semiarid zone megapode, the leader wandered around a bit and found a Malleefowl outside the reserve. After a bit of panic we all enjoyed good views of this beautifully patterned species. We returned to the mound and this time two birds showed up, a tame female and a very timid male who quickly shied away. Looking at photos, it appeared the bird outside the reserve was not the same female. We were again lucky! Other birds played hard to get in the dry conditions, but we did see Shy Heathwren, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, beautiful Golden Whistlers, Variegated Fairywren, and timid White-browed Babblers. A Shingleback was a big hit, and we saw both Western Gray Kangaroo and a hefty male Swamp Wallaby. Driving back to the lodge we found a cooperative flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Our last bird for the tour was the beautiful Tawny-crowned Honeyeater. A few hours later we arrived at Melbourne Airport for a farewell dinner in our comfortable hotel, and it was time to wing our way home. Our odyssey across the Great Southern Land, Terra Australis, was at an end. Thanks to all the great folks who traveled with me and made this a very enjoyable tour.