Trip report: Eastern Australia, from Top to Bottom (Oct-Nov 2010) by Tropical Birding (Sam Woods)

Guided by Sam Woods.

In many ways this was a very normal eastern Australia tour, we saw most of the specialties, and racked up a very respectable 420+ species in the process. However, in other ways it was a strange one. Over the last decade Australia has been suffering from a prolonged period of drought, and so we have become accustomed to warm weather and almost no rain at all. How different things were in 2010, where the country was experiencing a record wet season which had spilled over into this supposedly dry season. For the first time I got used to carrying an umbrella! Having said all of that, in spite of heavy rain threatening, and having to rethink plans to go after birds in alternative places, where roads were now impassable at our old haunts (something that has never previously been an issue), we still got everything that was to be expected, and actually our birding was little affected by the rains at all. By some luck we managed to pass through recently drowned areas, just after the heaviest rains had passed through!

The tour is varied and exciting as right up until the last minute we are still adding new birds, as we switched to new habitats and localities that bought ever more birds. The tour began Cairns, in the Wet Tropics of northern Queensland, where we experienced bird­filled swamps, vast tidal flats peppered with shorebirds, rich rainforests alive with strange creatures and odd Aussie birds, and also the extraordinary marine environment of the Great Barrier Reef. Highlights from this leg included a monstrous male Southern Cassowary stalking through the rainforest with several stripy chicks in toe; displaying young Victoria’s Riflebirds near the Hypipamee Crater; a glistening jewel­like Noisy Pitta hopping along a forest road near the small Queensland town of Julatten; marauding flocks of massive Red­tailed Black­Cockatoos near our hotel on the edge of the Queensland Outback; two statuesque, bark­like, Papuan Frogmouths beside their riverside nests on the Daintree Cruise; a glowing Golden Bowerbird sitting quietly beside his lichen­decorated bower in the shady Atherton rainforest; a very early, and therefore very surprising, Buff­breasted Paradise­Kingfisher that glowed like a neon light in the rainforest understorey late one afternoon in Daintree; the strikingly beautiful Pied Monarch creeping up a forest trunk in Julatten; a wonderful White­eared Monarch that flitted around a rainforest canopy in Kuranda; Australian Bustards strutting around oblivious to the heavy tropical downpour at the time in Queensland’s Outback; a pair of drenched Squatter Pigeons hunkered down after an unseasonal rainstorm on the edge of the Queensland Outback; and the cute Yellow­breasted Boatbill flitting around the trees beside the impressive Curtain Fig Tree. Birds were not the only headliners though, as a female Platypus that happily fed in the open water in broad daylight was also an undoubted standout moment, and the striking Striped Possum that appeared (all be it briefly) outside Rick’s room at Cassowary House was a very pleasant surprise indeed.

The second leg started from Brisbane and took in coastal mangroves, and a very different, temperate rainforest and dry sclerophyl woodland in and around Lamington National Park. Highlights were not all avian as the large dusky shape of a Koala in the dry woodland below the O Reilly’s Plateau proved predictably popular with all. In the rainforest noisy Green Catbirds announced their presence and a dazzling male Paradise Riflebird that showed off its true colors in the early morning sun were standouts. The first afternoon walk in the shady rainforest produced two unforgettable moments in our first hour at Lamington: a pair of Southern Logrunners bounding straight up to us on the track, and a cute Australian Owlet­Nightjar that emerged from its roost hole a short time before dusk. And no one could forget the super Spotted Quail­-Thrush we tracked down after a tip­off from another Tropical Birding group, that casually walked down an open track in front of a somewhat “shell­shocked” group! However, the real highlight on this leg is O Reilly’s itself where the birds are so tame, and so beautiful: the gorgeous gold­and­black Regent Bowerbirds of course took headline billing there, although the parrots, fairywrens, pigeons, scrubwrens and others that hopped around our feet will never be forgotten either. It truly is one of the great birding venues on Earth.

For our penultimate leg we flew further south to the cultural capital of Australia, Sydney. From this grand city we made a circuit inland, first taking in the temperate forest and coastal heaths of Royal NP, before making our way into the heartland of Australia’s agricultural lands and checking out some rich mulga and mallee habitats deep inland, before venturing onto the vast Hay Plains, and finally to the rich birding opportunities of the Capertee Valley. With such a varied New South Wales itinerary this leg more than any other was inundated with possible trip birds: the Australian national bird, the Emu turned up on three separate occasions; a “hidden” swamp just off the highway that was sprinkled with Pink­eared Ducks was a real treat; fairywrens in this state blew us away from the oh so cute Southern Emuwren that performed so spectacularly at Barren Grounds, to the neon White­winged Fairywren that brought dramatic color to the otherwise bland­looking Hay Plains, to the vibrant blue Splendid Fairywrens that hopped in and out of the mallee at Round Hill, they were all beautiful and all popular; then there was the Plains­wanderer itself, the ultimate reason for our journey onto these vast plains. Stunning views were had of numerous individuals at incredibly close range, and was topped off with the rare finding of a nest of this strange creature by our local guide. The Hay Plains also produced two separate sightings of the rare and highly nomadic Ground Cuckoo­shrike, and a trio of scintillating Orange Chats was most unexpected there too. A truly unforgettable day. On top of that New South Wales brought us into contact with another strange Aussie mammal, the odd Short­beaked Echidna shuffling its way across the highway near Junee. The same journey also produced a striking male Superb Parrot at a gas station en­route to Leeton. The mallee of Round Hill was packed full of new species as ever, although the fearless male Chestnut Quail­Thrush that continued to sing from an exposed perch in front of us all especially stood out from our action­packed morning there. While the dry woodland of Binya always brings something dramatic, and once again so it proved with a very confiding Painted Honeyeater being the mornings showstopper, and the often hard­to­find Black­eared Cuckoo being noteworthy too. Finally, who could forget our experience with the world’s largest songbird, the master­mimic, Superb Lyrebird walking calmly across the boulders in Royal, a rock­strewn area within the forest that also bought us the spritely New South Wales endemic Rock Warbler too.

Lastly, we dropped down to Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, that was a great base for us to explore the forests, dramatic rocky coastlines and sandy beaches for an array of Tassie endemics and local specialties. Our first morning saw us run into Tassie’s most famous resident, the Forty­spotted Pardalote at a small reserve just outside Hobart. On Bruny Island the beautiful sandy beaches that outline this wonderful island bought us repeated encounters with the rare Hooded Plover. Tasmania is a treasure trove for Australian robins and we took in such gorgeous birds as Flame, Scarlet and Pink Robins during our time there. On top of that we found a patch of eucalypts decked out with abundant white blossoms that attracted a beautiful Swift Parrot, and Ken’s last gasp Beautiful Firetail near the Tasman Blowhole was unlucky not to make the top five birds of the trip, as it was not only “beautiful” but scarce and to get such choice looks that late in the day brought instant relief!

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format