Grand Australia Part I Oct 01—17, 2016

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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Australia is a fickle continent, and rarely do you get an average start to a tour. Last year we started with a heat wave; this year we started with a gale wave. Our first afternoon saw us dodging through strong gusts of wind, and the spot for my Powerful Owls had a fallen tree through the glade and no sign of my hitherto faithful owl family with two chicks. We had some good birds though, including Australian Brush-Turkey at a mound, the lovely Superb Fairywren and, later in the session, a beautiful Black-faced Monarch on migration at my local patch. We hoped for better weather to come.

Rockwarbler

Rockwarbler— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The next morning was still and, despite the building strong winds, it ended up being a superlative day of the tour. We were in Royal National Park, and with my friends Janene and Steve we were soon amongst the high quality birds for which this long established conservation area is famous. A roll call of Australian endemics ensued—excellent views of Topknot Pigeon, Australian King-Parrot, nesting Collared Sparrowhawks chasing Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Green Catbird, excellent views of Superb Lyrebird, an Australian Owlet-Nightjar basking at the entrance to a hollow, Wonga Pigeon, Golden Whistler on a nest, Azure and Sacred kingfishers, a lovely Leaden Flycatcher, and a pair of Pacific Bazas calling and flying over us at lunch. Post-lunch we visited the coast and enjoyed the NSW endemic Rockwarbler, a very obliging Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, stunning Variegated Fairywrens, and an amazing Echidna, all while surrounded by wildflowers and stunning coastal scenery in wind carved sandstone cliffs. We finished the day dodging the gales by scouting some gullies and came up with a pair of Powerful Owls, a hulking predator and a great pick-up from our miss the day before.

Superb Lyrebird, female

Superb Lyrebird, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

It was touch and go for the decision to run the pelagic trip, but I backed the skipper and we had a sensational day; no one was seasick (thank goodness for medication). With strong westerly winds and a three-meter southerly swell, our broad beamed boat rode it quite comfortably. With my friends David, Rob, and Dean, we had amassed an amazing volume of chum, and the birds were hungry. We had 100 White-capped Albatross and 100 Providence Petrels about the vessel at the peak of our chumming frenzy. Through this mirage of Procellariformes other species drifted through and showed well. Best of these included a juvenile Salvin’s Albatross; an adult Buller’s Albatross; three Antipodean Wandering Albatross (gibsoni); a Yellow-nosed Albatross; a juvenile Southern Giant-Petrel; a Gray-faced Petrel (without a gray face); three White-faced Storm-Petrels; several Wilson’s Storm-Petrels; and more standard fare including Black-browed Albatross; Hutton’s, Fluttering, Short-tailed, and Wedge-tailed shearwaters; and Australasian Gannet. Humpback Whale, Common Dolphin, and New Zealand Furseal rounded out one of the best pelagic trips in recent years off Sydney.

Powerful Owl

Powerful Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

Our annual visit to my son’s school produced the nesting Tawny Frogmouth, now five years in a row. Scarlet-faced Australasian Figbirds fed in the school yard trees. We pushed west to the Blue Mountains seeing a few bits and pieces including another Chestnut-rumped Heathwren on the way, as the wind remained unrelenting. A productive stop post-lunch for Musk Duck, Crested Grebe, and plenty of colourful parrots such as Galah, Eastern Rosella, and Red-rumped Parrot regained momentum. The afternoon worked well with a superb study of Eastern Shrike-tit and close perched Little Lorikeets amidst a host of woodland birds ranging from Fan-tailed Cuckoo, White-naped and Fuscous honeyeaters, Noisy Friarbird, Dusky Woodswallow, Brown Treecreeper, Little Eagle, and White-winged Chough.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Finally a beautiful spring day, and as we drove into the stunning Capertee Valley, we were soon stopping for new birds like Musk Lorikeet, Diamond Firetail, Double-barred and Zebra finches, Singing Bushlark, and Gray-crowned Babbler. There were lots of photographic opportunities for Eastern Gray Kangaroos. At the appointed spot we wandered about, and ten minutes later the call went out—Regent Honeyeater, what a beauty. We watched six of these critically endangered birds attending some hidden fledglings. A PhD student told us the estimated population is 350 individuals. It is now getting very difficult to find these nomadic and brightly colored honeyeaters. We felt privileged to have such great looks. We found an incredible mixed flock that held Speckled Warbler; Buff-rumped, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped thornbills; Weebill; a Varied Sittella; several White-browed Babblers; and then a Painted Buttonquail turned up. At the next stop we were enjoying Hooded Robin, Rainbow Bee-eater, Brown-headed Honeyeater, and Striated Pardalote. After lunch we made a couple of more stops getting excellent views of Restless Flycatcher, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, and the delightful White-throated Gerygone with its lovely silvery song reminiscent of a Canyon Wren. We drove into Sydney and said farewell to Janene, who had been so great at helping us out this year.

Regent Honeyeater

Regent Honeyeater— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We proceeded on to Darwin, capital city of the Northern Territory, well-located to study the birds and wildlife of Australia’s Top End. By the afternoon we had the “bins” out and really had a coup when we found a pair of Rufous Owls in a forest gully on the edge of town—a very auspicious start to see this giant and rare owl. Every bird was new for the list, and we quickly racked up Magpie Goose, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Bush Stone-curlew, Torresian Imperial-Pigeon, Forest Kingfisher, Varied Triller, and White-bellied Cuckooshrike to mention a few. A big highlight of the day was when a young girl said we could watch her release an Olive Python that they had found in their house. The clients were somewhat amazed as 2 ½ feet of snake emerged from a tin the size of a can of Coke. This non-venomous snake has a docile temperament and is quite rarely seen. Overnight we had a shower of rain. The monsoon was building.

Rufous Owl

Rufous Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The following morning we were positioned at Howard Springs, well-known as a site for the endemic Rainbow Pitta. It took a while to find a cooperative individual, but good looks were obtained by all.  There was a lot of bird activity with mixed flocks holding Spangled Drongo, Little Shrikethrush, Gray Whistler, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Dusky Myzomela, and a Little Bronze-Cuckoo giving a good view. Just as we were about to leave, a beautiful Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove popped up, and we had a great sighting of a pair of Pacific Bazas. We made another stop at some wetlands, but they were rather quiet compared to previous years, the rains having dispersed a lot of waterbirds, especially massive flooding events across the rest of the country. Still there was plenty to see with Blue-winged Kookaburra always a big hit and flowering trees attracting good numbers of Red-collared Lorikeet, and Silver-crowned and Little friarbirds. Overhead we studied Whistling, Brahminy, and Black kites. Post-lunch we kicked off to a good start with a fine Barking Owl attended by a curious Great Bowerbird. Although the tides were not brilliant, we enjoyed good views of a bunch of East Asian shorebirds including the popular Terek Sandpiper and disappearing Far Eastern Curlew while we watched Greater Sand-Plover and Red-capped Plover chasing invertebrates across the tidal flats. Our final stop for the day was at Buffalo Creek where the Australian Yellow White-eye and luminous Red-winged Parrot both performed superbly for a good finale to what had been a very good day.

Arafura Fantail

Arafura Fantail— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We returned to Buffalo Creek the next morning and enjoyed sublime views of the delightful Red-headed Myzomela and the glossy-black Pacific Koel. Great Knots and Black-tailed Godwits were amongst the best shorebirds on offer. We traveled south and west on the Kakadu Highway making a stop at a very dry Fogg Dam. What little water remained had extensive muddy margins, and by waiting patiently we picked up Buff-banded Rail, White-browed Crake, and even a pair of Brown Quail. Our first Brolgas and Black-necked Storks were as popular as ever. Crimson Finches were in abundance; we even had to remove two birds that managed to find their way onto the bus, so we had in-the-hand views. Both birds made their getaways unscathed fortunately. Our next port of call was Adelaide River, and we had good luck with the often tricky Mangrove Golden Whistlers here. They were joined by a pair of Broad-billed Flycatchers and a scouting female Little Bronze-Cuckoo. Two iridescent Water Pythons were seen basking in the now high temperatures. Once into Kakadu proper, we stopped at Mamukala. The recent rains had greened everything up, and the birds were in abundance. Best here was the sometimes elusive Bar-breasted Honeyeater, a delightful Arafura Fantail, and a stunning Masked Finch.

Partridge Pigeon

Partridge Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

A private boat charter on the Yellow Water is a highlight of the tour, the boat being skippered by the affable Dennis. It was a great trip as we studied several Saltwater Crocodiles, had luck with the elusive Little Kingfisher, and enjoyed endless great views in perfect light of a huge diversity and biomass of birdlife. These included giant White-bellied Sea-Eagles, trumpeting Brolgas, very tame Black-necked Stork, our first Pied Herons, Plumed Whistling-Duck, and Rajah Shelduck. Sixty species were seen on the boat! After breakfast we had success with a small flock of Partridge Pigeons, one of the difficult Top End endemics in the park. After a siesta we journeyed to the northwestern border of the park with Arnhem Land, entering the spectacular sandstone country. We explored the Aboriginal rock art galleries of Ubirr. Our good luck continued as first a Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon turned up, followed immediately by a dulcet Sandstone Shrikethrush that sang and sang and sang without any prompting from us. Some folks had good views of the Short-eared Rock Wallaby, a beautifully patterned, quite diminutive macropod. We made another stop at my sure-fire location for both rock pigeon and shrikethrush only to find them both missing in action. We did enjoy a series of good birds including a tame Rainbow Pitta, our first Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, and a Dollarbird. A night walk produced Northern Brushtail Possum and two of the distinctive Sugar Gliders of this region.

Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon

Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The hoped for Black-banded Fruit-Dove could not be located the beginning of the next day despite a solid effort. We had a rare sighting of a male Black Wallaroo, a hefty rare endemic kangaroo of these sandstone cliffs. Other birds proved timid or distant with White-lined Honeyeater showing, but difficult to get onto, and Little Woodswallow sailing against the monolithic cliffs. Bucking the trend was the sandstone subspecies ammitophila of Helmeted Friarbird, which is quite a beast. We enjoyed the spectacular rock art. After checking out the Aboriginal cultural center, we drove out of Kakadu. We made a quick stop at Pussy Cat Flats to look at the spectacular bower of the Great Bowerbird as the builder of it chortled and hissed at us. Later we saw another Great Bowerbird with its purple nuchal crest exposed. At Pine Creek we had excellent success with the hoped for Hooded Parrot, a very beautiful and highly localized and specialized parrot that nests in termite mounds. A final stop at a remote waterhole turned up just a small number of finches (both Long-tailed and Masked) while a pair of Brolgas put on a spectacular performance, and we watched a Wedge-tailed Eagle soaring overhead.

Our big day in Victoria River got off to a great start when a fortuitous stop for some finches produced the rare Gouldian Finch, two small parties of four to five birds. We had some great scope views including both red and black-headed males. Lucky! A pair of Australian Bustards allowed a close approach, while good flocks of Cockatiels and a small party of Budgerigars were well handy. Another great bird was a party of the golden-backed subspecies of Black-chinned Honeyeater. A bit behind schedule, Purple-crowned Fairywrens did show well, along with a nesting pair of didimus Brown Goshawks and a pair of conniving Pheasant Coucals. Trekking back to Katherine produced Apostlebirds in good numbers, a male Red-backed Fairywren, and a couple of flighty Banded Honeyeaters. There was, however, little in flower. Extensive fires were burning and the overall country looked like it was suffering from failed monsoons; overall bird abundance was quite depressed. We had, however, done well. The afternoon was also a bit quiet, although Rufous-throated Honeyeater, White-winged Triller, amazingly another Australian Bustard, and a Wedge-tailed Eagle that narrowly avoided being taken out by the bus were notable.

Red-backed Kingfisher

Red-backed Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

So it was time to head north to Darwin and fly to Alice; the day progressed smoothly for what is largely a travel day. We made a stop at a stakeout for the uncommon Silver-backed Butcherbird, actually found it on a nest, and watched one of the pair hoard and dismember a locust. A pair of Channel-billed Cuckoos loped over up high. Pine Creek was alive with birds in the cool of the morning, and the Hooded Parrots were unbelievable. We made it into Alice with just a bit of time to walk about the hotel gardens where we picked up Port Lincoln Parrot, Fairy Martin, and our first Little Crows. It was off to bed enjoying the cooler overnight temperatures.

We started our Centralian birding at Simpson’s Gap, a spectacular rock cutting with permanent water in the West MacDonnell Ranges. In the telescope we soon had a Black-flanked Rock Wallaby sitting in the rock scree. Exploring further afield, the luminous Splendid Fairywren brought out a lot of “oohs and aahs” as this glamorous little turquoise ball bounced about. More subdued were Inland Thornbill and Western Gerygone. Moving east of Alice, we spent the rest of the birding session exploring Spinifex-clad rocky hillsides and mulga shrublands. We had some great sightings with an incredible pair of Rufous-crowned Emu-wrens, a male Painted Finch really close, beautiful Red-backed Kingfishers, and tame Gray-fronted Honeyeaters. Just before our break we enjoyed the wonderful antics of Western Bowerbirds attending their bowers and, in one instance, displaying to the female, purple crest exposed. Post-break we returned to the east where again our good luck held with outstanding views of White-browed Treecreeper, Crested Bellbird, Pallid Cuckoo, Mulga Parrot, Southern Whiteface, Diamond Dove and, after some effort, a timid pair of Spinifexbirds. Reptiles were in good form with stunning Gould’s Sand Monitor and a brilliant breeding colored Inland Bearded Dragon, plus the lightning-fast skink, Ctenotus leonhardii.

Western Bowerbird

Western Bowerbird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

 

 

 

With considerable negotiations (thanks to Mark Carter) we were able to get permission to enter the Alice Springs Wastewater Farm. Despite flooding events across vast swathes of inland southern Australia, the birding was excellent. We caught up with Gray Teal; Hardhead; Pink-eared Duck; Black-shouldered Kite; Red-necked Avocet; Marsh, Wood, and Sharp-tailed sandpipers; White-winged Fairywren; Little Grassbird; and best of all, a lovely Orange Chat. We headed south and west towards Uluru, and the widespread rains made for a wildflower extravaganza. With friend Harry we admired Parakeelya, Sturt’s Desert Pea, various species of Mulla Mulla, diverse Eremophila, and three species of Grevillea; even the Mulga was seeding. It was spectacular—one of the best showings in five years. A Centralian Bluetongue was a rare sighting. The birds had responded to the rain events, and we stopped to admire Budgerigars (sharing the scope with a bunch of enthusiastic Aboriginal kids), Crimson Chat, Masked Woodswallow, and numerous Pied Honeyeaters, and we whistled up a Chiming Wedgebill. Arriving at “The Rock,” it was time for champagne and canapés and a Black-breasted Buzzard. As the sun set on Uluru, a full moon rose—it was mega.

Our last morning saw us exploring to the west of Uluru to the sacred domes of Kata Tjuta. The desert was pumping with flocks of nomads (Budgerigar, Crimson Chat, Black and Pied honeyeaters, White-winged Triller, and hordes of Masked Woodswallows). It was, however, a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo that stole the show and provided a fitting finale to what had been a fantastic tour. Thank you folks!