Grand Australia Part II Oct 15—Nov 01, 2016

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Our arrival into Brisbane went smoothly, as we bade farewell to three folks and said hello to three folks. The next morning we were off to O’Reillys with Duncan, and we had a stunning spring day with which to kick off proceedings. Birding was good with 94 species recorded for the day, with plenty of new ones like Latham’s Snipe, beautiful Pale-headed Rosellas, emerald-green Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, well-camouflaged Little Lorikeets, the scarce Speckled Warbler and, as we approached the guesthouse, stunning Regent Bowerbirds. A pair of mating Keelbacks was something I had never seen.  Our rarest sighting was of a giant Pink-tongued Skink, a crepuscular mollusc-feeding specialist of montane rainforest. We removed it off the road so it did not get skittled.

Crimson Rosella

Crimson Rosella— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


There are few locations in the world that hold such an abundance of brilliantly plumaged and extraordinarily tame birds as O’Reillys. You are literally besieged by Australian King-Parrots and Crimson Rosellas, and Regent and Satin bowerbirds, while further into the rainforest Eastern Whipbird, Eastern Yellow Robin, and White-browed and Yellow-throated scrubwrens come to check you out at close range, keen on a few snacks. We had good luck on our morning stroll to find a quite cooperative Albert’s Lyrebird. Further afield we had magical views of Red-browed Treecreeper, White-naped Honeyeater, Variegated Fairywren, Bell Miner, and Scarlet Myzomela. Despite a lot of searching, Koala could not be found; this continued in the afternoon, and it ended up missing in action. Not surprising really, as they continue to decline. The afternoon added to the frustrations as Paradise Riflebird appeared but quickly evaporated, and Glossy Black Cockatoo called, hidden by thick rainforest. Our sole consolation was a lovely Pretty-faced Wallaby. After dinner we went for a spotlight and had a pretty lively session with Mountain Brushtail Possum, Common Ringtail (this population bright orange), a very tame Long-nosed Bandicoot (you could literally touch it as it was so intent on extracting a beetle larva from the base of a Lomandra), and best of all, a lovely Southern Boobook. Not to be forgotten was the emerald-green, purple-thighed Red-eyed Tree Frog, a typically cryptic rainforest specialty of this region with a peculiar purring call.

With a final morning of birding at O’Reillys, we were able to sight a few new birds like Crested Shrike-tit, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Rose Robin, White-headed Pigeon, and Brown Cuckoo-Dove. We enjoyed repeat sightings of the many glamorous birds that make their homes here. We then drove to Brisbane and flew to Cairns, more than a thousand miles to the north in tropical Queensland. With a quick check-in we were able to explore the Esplanade and scope a variety of close shorebirds including East Asian specials like Terek Sandpiper, Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Curlew and Sharp-tailed sandpipers, Gray-tailed Tattler, and Lesser Sand-Plover.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl

Orange-footed Scrubfowl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We started our forest birding in tropical Queensland at Centenary Lakes. It was a bad day to be a tree frog here, as first we found a Black Butcherbird literally butchering a White-lipped Tree Frog by wedging its body in a coconut husk and tearing at it backwards with the full momentum of its body, wings outstretched. Next we found the beautiful Pacific Baza extracting tree frogs and giant mantids from their hiding sites in clumps of Eucalyptus foliage, their camouflage no match for the specialist eyes of this forest raptor. It was to be a very good session here, as we had the fortune to see a Papuan Frogmouth on a very low and open nest, a Bush Thick-knee with chicks, very tame Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, had good scope views of the recently split Torresian Kingfisher (from the Collared complex), and checked off a bunch of birds ranging from Rajah Shelduck to Olive-backed Sunbird. It was time to head north and west, and we made a very pleasant stop at various wetlands in the Mareeba district. Brolga, Black-necked Stork, and a fortuitous female Cotton Pygmy-Goose were all very handy for us. We settled into Kingfisher Park for three nights and explored the forests here in the afternoon. A patient vigil produced both a Platypus foraging in a pool of a nearby stream and a very lucky break with a stunning pair of Red-necked Crakes coming to bathe at another nearby forest pool. By the time the bird list was called at the pub for dinner, more than 100 species had been recorded on this day.

We headed up to Mount Lewis in the montane rainforests of the Carbine tableland, here about 3,000 feet up and a bit cooler and considerably windier. There are a number of endemic birds here, and we set out trying to see them all in a business-like manner! First up, Mountain Thornbill, then Bridled Honeyeater, a Bower’s Shrikethrush playing hard to get until we found a female building a nest, a Fernwren right under our feet tagging along with a bunch of Atherton Scrubwrens, and the highly animated and vocal Chowchillas—definitely on a roll now. Gray-headed Robins with their tortoise shell patterning were tame but jumpy; it was, however, the Tooth-billed Bowerbird that proved the toughest nut to crack on this day until our faithful male allowed nearly everyone to study him at his display court decorated with upside down ginger leaves. After a delicious lunch and siesta we turned our attention to the tropical woodlands. The truly superb Red-winged Parrots were in good form, and we studied the elaborate bower of the Great Bowerbird, with the bowerbird in attendance. A chance meeting directed us to some nearby Squatter Pigeons that were ridiculously tame and very “lovey-dovey.” With the shadows lengthening we made a short drive onto the Cape York Road and at Maryfarms had one of the best displays imaginable in the avian world, with male Australian Bustards fully inflated and pumped up in a sight that is rarely seen. We quickly dashed back to Kingfisher Park and were rewarded with a Noisy Pitta hopping about the edge of the forest in fading light, where nevertheless, the pitta still glowed. A night walk was relatively quiet with little fruiting or flowering action to attract much. We did enjoy excellent views of Northern Brown Bandicoot, some dozing Red-legged Pademelons, and Fawn-footed Melomys, while the creek held catfish and cerulean rainbow fish.

Wompoo Fruit-Dove

Wompoo Fruit-Dove— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


An early start saw us on the Daintree River and on a boat charter with friend Murray—the Daintree Boatman. It was a cracking trip with Black Bitterns leading the charge, stunning views of Azure Kingfisher, fly-by Little Kingfisher (twice), and close nesting studies of Wompoo Fruit-Dove and Pied Monarch, the beautiful cup-shaped nest decorated with lichen. A large female Amethystine Python was digesting a couple of Cattle Egrets. Further afield, a Lovely Fairywren male showed up with a yellow petal in its bill, a rarely seen display behavior. A Spotted Catbird leapt about over and around us giving us the full “caterwaul.” A few more stops produced Brahminy Kite and flocks of migrating Spangled Drongos (presumably from New Guinea), but with the heat building, the bird activity was tapering so we headed to Kingfisher for a break. The afternoon session was quite good with pride of place going to one of my favorite birds–the lovely Yellow-breasted Boatbill. I really love this bird! There was quite consistent activity with a female Victoria’s Riflebird showing well, excellent views of Cicadabird, and a quite good discovery of a little flock of the localized White-cheeked Honeyeater, a species that has eluded me on recent trips.

As we approached along Black Mountain Road the following day, Alan spotted a Southern Cassowary crossing the road. The panicked ratite quickly disappeared in thick jungle, but a phone call from Rohan had us well-placed to see the same individual, the near adult female “Gertie” that he had worked on habituating for the past four months. There she was, and she gave awesome views from the safety of the balcony. A male Victoria’s Riflebird saved Marty a small fortune, its purple, green iridescent plumage catching the sun. After this action we caught up on Lovely Fairywren for some folks who had missed the skittish individual the day before, and watched a fine female Satin Flycatcher, a scarce passage migrant in tropical north Queensland. We trawled around searching for Sarus Crane, but had no immediate fortune, although Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, a fleet Mareeba Rock-Wallaby, a crimson-chested male Mistletoebird, and citrine Yellow Honeyeaters finished the morning session. In the afternoon we found ourselves in thick montane rainforest in drizzle waiting patiently for the Golden Bowerbird. It was worth the wait as two males interacted, one retrieving a stash of purple fruit, dining at our feet, and then re-hiding its food in a different tree buttress, something I had never seen. Our luck held as we picked up a pair of Sarus Cranes and then a pair of Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos—what a great day.

Golden Bowerbird

Golden Bowerbird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Our boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef found us at Michaelmas Cay by midmorning. Thousands of Common Noddies and Sooty Terns surrounded us with a sprinkling of Brown Boobies, some with small chicks. Lots of displaying Lesser Crested Terns looked smart with their tangerine-orange bills. Careful searching by us produced Roseate Terns looking almost as pink as Galahs, Little Terns in breeding plumage, several wintering Siberian Common Terns, and a trio of menacing frigatebirds, both Lesser and Greater giving great flyover studies as they harassed the tropical seabirds to hand over their catch. The snorkeling was superb, and the fish-watching surreal.

After a lengthy travel day we were transported to the Little Desert National Park in western Victoria. Our biggest highlight was a flock of the diminutive Purple-crowned Lorikeets feeding on the flowers of a Sugar Gum, while the handsome Chestnut-breasted Shelduck gave good views in afternoon light. The rainfall in the district had been enormous, and the desert looked fantastic with pools of water lying about and the flowers in full display mode. That evening people went and looked at a variety of captive endangered marsupials that are being re-established in the fox-proofed conservation areas here including Southern Brown Bandicoot, Rufous Hare-Wallaby, and Brush-tailed Bettong.

We were joined by Graham in the morning and made the short drive to a Malleefowl conservation reserve. Here we visited the active nesting mound of this semiarid dwelling megapode and, luckily, the female came in and visited the mound while we were there. This attractively patterned bird foraged at close range, but quickly disappeared in the thick broombush. We spent time searching for other special birds in the reserve and had excellent looks at Southern Scrub-Robin, the restless Shy Heathwren, and the elusive Purple-gaped Honeyeater which set a record for keeping still. Moving further afield we had a great encounter with the amazing Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, a small flock demolishing pine cones. In an expanse of sandplain characterised by Banksia ornata we had yet another good run of interesting birds including the dapper White-fronted Chat, display flighting Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters, and the rare Slender-billed Thornbill that was feeding a chick. Wildlife ecologists were conducting a fauna survey and we were able to see some quite rare cryptic animals they had trapped for research including the beautiful Silky Mouse and a rare Striped Legless Lizard. After lunch the good birds kept coming with a Diamond Firetail, glowing male Red-capped Robin, and a White-throated Gerygone, rare in this region. It was time to move along, but the Little Desert had been kind to us.  On the drive north to Ouyen we found a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, our only sighting on both tours, which was investigating some nesting Chestnut-rumped Thornbills. Our first gigantic Wedge-tailed Eagles were discovered.

Malleefowl, female

Malleefowl, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Our full day in Hattah is always a highlight of the tour, and with the good rains it was looking fantastic—the lakes full of water, the giant River Redgums enjoying the flood, and a lot of birds breeding. We started with several encounters of small parties of Emu, some with striped chicks. Golden Regent Parrots flew over and around us perching up in the morning light. A pair of Tawny Frogmouths was discovered; and Chestnut-crowned Babblers dashed around us frantically while the Splendid Fairywren did some elaborate posturing displays, flattened and whiskers out, quite something. Towards the end of the morning session a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo flew right around us, “chockalocking” noisily, the pink saturating the underwings, creating a vision most splendid! This area is rife with colorful birds that belie the gray-green austere countryside; the Mulga Parrots finished the morning visit on a high. After a siesta we returned to the park, this time exploring the Spinifex mallee. A few super high-pitched calls and a bit of hunting around and we discovered a pair of Mallee Emuwrens with two recently fledged chicks. They gave excellent views of this highly endangered and elusive species. There were plenty of Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters and the distinctive Yellow-rumped subspecies (xanthopygus) of Spotted Pardalote. We finally tracked down a superb pair of Gray Currawongs—here of the Black-winged subspecies (melanoptera).

Bidding Ouyen farewell, we headed south and east where four Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos dropped by the motel to see us off in style. We made a variety of stops that produced several new birds including a singing Rufous Fieldwren, displaying Brown Songlarks, and the rather “toey” Bluebonnet. At a salt lake we discovered a flock of nearly a thousand Banded Stilts, a beautiful, highly localized, and rather mysterious endemic shorebird. There were quite a bunch of Red-necked Avocets scattered in amongst them. Another stop produced a Musk Duck amongst dozens of Black Swans while a flock of Musk Lorikeets was a colorful and noisy pick-up in some flowering Eucalypts. Before lunch at a local café we made a visit to a nesting colony of Straw-necked Ibis. The colony was pumping with tens of thousands of ibis present producing an impressive spectacle. We finished our drive to Deniliquin, stopping at fields of purple Paterson’s Curse, admiring the flood peak of the Murray River at Barham, and seeing vast areas of the district underwater and providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It would make for an interesting day to follow.

Mallee Emuwren

Mallee Emuwren— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We started our big day in the Deniliquin region heading south via farming laneways to the Gulpa Forest. We were joined by my good friend Philip Maher, well-known “Outback” birding specialist. The widespread rain had led to a frenzy of grass growth, and we were soon in amongst flocks of ravenous and brilliantly colored Superb Parrots. They were remarkably tame this year. Walking about the Redgum and box woodlands, there was a lot of bird activity: Long-billed Corella, Yellow Rosella, Red-rumped Parrot, Varied Sittella, Western Gerygone, Brown Treecreeper, nesting Jacky Winter, and nesting Striated Pardalotes were amongst many species recorded. Philip received a report of a Square-tailed Kite so we decided to chase after this unsuccessfully, but while waiting located Little Eagle, Azure Kingfisher, and a stunning male Crested Shrike-tit. A Yellow-billed Spoonbill drifted past. It was interesting to find several recently deceased Murray River Crayfish, an endangered giant crustacean of this river system.

After a delicious lunch and a break, we headed to the north of “Deni.” We ploughed through grasses of many species to reach the Wanganella Swamp, but the conditions had changed, and we were now firmly in the teeth of a Southern Ocean cold front and gale conditions. We struggled on and found some good birds, best of which was a pair of nesting Brolga. We finally picked up some of the nomadic waterbirds that were absent across vast swathes of the interior including Black-tailed Native-hen, Pink-eared Duck, Hardhead, Red-kneed Dotterel, and a rare sighting of Hoary-headed Grebe on a nest, this species rarely being seen breeding. Moving onto the Hay Plains proper, we enjoyed Red Kangaroos, more Emus, nesting Wedge-tailed Eagles, and made a stop for White-winged Fairywrens that were very difficult to bring up into view. After some drama we moved along and at the last minute disturbed an Owlet-nightjar that perched out superbly, gripping the tree as it held itself in the teeth of the wind. After dark we commenced our search for the Plains-wanderer. The strong winds were making all the grasses and flowers jitter furiously, making it seem a real long shot we would find this rare, cryptic, special bird. Even the Banded Lapwings were proving difficult to pin down. By a miracle, Alan made the breakthrough when he told Rob he had seen a baby lapwing. It was no baby lapwing, but a stunning female Plains-wanderer. Never have I been so happy to see this bird—fantastic work Al!  Talk about build-up!

Plains-wanderer, female

Plains-wanderer, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We made the final leg of our journey to Melbourne. An attempt for the Square-tailed Kite produced no reward, but it was interesting to see Rainbow Lorikeets in Deniliquin. There were lots of great photographic opportunities from displaying Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, nesting Galahs, and tame Laughing Kookaburras. A stop in some box woodlands near Heathcote produced a last final rush of bird activity with literally birds everywhere. We had great looks at Black-chinned Honeyeater, Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, Diamond Firetail, and gorgeous male Scarlet Robins. Our farewell dinner was good fun as we celebrated Alan’s birthday with champagne and lots of tasty local produce. It had been a very good tour with a great bunch of travelers. Till next we meet!