Australia is a massive draw to birders and photographers, as not only does it offer hundreds of new birds for first-timers to the continent, it is also characterized by easy birding and photography. This more-relaxed tour targets some rare species as well as the run-of-the-mill Australian endemics (of which there are many), it is sure that many photo opportunities will arise, whether it be photographing seabirds on the Great Barrier Reef, or from the incredibly tame wild parrots and bowerbirds of O’ Reilly’s to a variety of stunning fairywrens which pepper the trip throughout, a superb photo opp will never be far away.
This tour starts in northeast Queensland visiting everything from mudflats and mangroves to sandy cays on the Barrier Reef, and rainforests, savanna and swamps, before moving into the south of the same state of Queensland, where the cooler temperate forests are home to logrunners and lyrebirds. We then move inland into the Outback where the already high parrot count will go up and the area is also home to Australia’s national bird, the Emu. Moving south from there, we head through remote western New South Wales before we will move into our third state of the trip, Victoria, and one of the most revered birding areas in all of Australia, Chiltern.
The way the trip is designed, we have early starts and birding of a morning, but many afternoons can be relaxed. There are some easy days to start the tour with boat trips, then a few intense days with early starts to the outback and rainforest, but again with some downtime in the middle of the day and optional afternoon birding. When we get to O’Reilly’s we have some relaxed days out of the one lodge with options for the afternoon, or even spa facilities for those in need of a rub.
Now Australia is big, bloody big, so there are two days getting out to western Queensland where we need to cover a lot of ground, but the terrain is interesting and the birding easy, so no one should feel overwhelmed. When we are in far SW Queensland we again have a few nights where afternoons are optional. The days from southwest Queensland to southwest New South Wales involve long drives through some remote parts of the country. We have to cover a lot of area, but do so in changing habitats, and there are no hard walks along the way.
Day 1: Arrival in Cairns; birding in Cairns (NE Queensland). After arrival in this small tropical city, we will bird the local area, searching for a swathe of local shorebirds along the scenic seafront including Terek Sandpipers and Far Eastern Curlews if the tide is right, and also check local sites for common Australian species like Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, Laughing Kookaburras, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Rainbow Lorikeets and Helmeted Friarbirds. Perhaps we will also find something scarcer, like Crimson Finch or White-browed Crake too. Make no mistake, even after just a few hours birding at this starting point, not far from our Cairns hotel, you will have got dozens of lifers (and some photos too), with minimal effort involved! A single night will be spent in Cairns.
Day 2: Michaelmas Cay (NE Queensland). Today will be a real treat for our cameras, and also provide a nice relaxing day following long flights into the country, as we spend it out on the Great Barrier Reef, with a visit to the small, sandy island (or ‘cay’) of Michaelmas Cay. This tiny dot on the map is only 90 minutes boat ride from Cairns, but feels a world away, and provides a refuge for thousands of nesting seabirds. The most conspicuous of these will be Brown Noddy, Brown Booby, and Lesser Crested and Sooty Terns, although we will look for less common birds too like frigatebirds, Bridled Tern, Black Noddy, and other terns or gulls that sometimes turn up too. After birding the island, there is also the option to explore the reef further by snorkeling, or by taking a glass-bottomed boat tour, or both! In the late afternoon, we shall arrive back in Cairns, and drive to the village of Daintree where we will spend the night at a hotel that understands birders perfectly. We may add other wildlife there during the evening, like Northern Brown Bandicoot scampering across the lawn or an enormous White-lipped Treefrog sitting on the side of the building.
Day 3: Daintree River Cruise to the Outback (NE Queensland). At dawn we will take a boat cruise along the Daintree River and some of its narrow tributaries seeking birds and other wildlife. We will scour the trees for Wompoo Fruit-Doves and minuscule Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, while this can often be the best place to find Green Orioles. The low riverside vegetation holds handsome Shining Flycatchers, and we will also keep a sharp eye out for kingfishers such as the regular Azure Kingfisher and the rare Little Kingfisher. Although massive, the remarkably inconspicuous Great-billed Heron can sometimes be found here too. Using a local guide we may also get the chance to find one of the most cryptic birds of the Daintree, the Papuan Frogmouth, which nests in the trees lining the riverbank. After two hours along the river we will return to Red Mill House for a late cooked breakfast on their veranda. After breakfast we may check a few nearby spots that offer chances to see a bird-of-paradise, Victoria’s Riflebird, as well as Macleay’s Honeyeater (a local species), and the noisy Spotted Catbird. Other possibilities in the nearby rainforest include, Emerald Dove, Superb Fruit-Dove, Yellow-breasted Boatbill (a family endemic to Australia), Spectacled Monarch, and Helmeted Friarbird. The next three nights will be spent in a small town with kangaroos on the golf course, on the edge of the Outback.
Days 4-5: Highland Rainforest, Outback, and Swamps of NE Queensland. As mentioned before, this part of Queensland is sprinkled with so many birding sites, the exact order in which they will be visited on these days is not known, and will be flexible with local bird news at the time. We may cover wetland sites like Lake Mitchell, Mareeba Wetlands and Hasties Swamp, for species like Plumed Whistling-Duck, Cotton Pygmy-Goose (some years only), Magpie-Goose, Black-necked Stork, and White-cheeked Honeyeater; wooded Outback areas like Mount Carbine and Maryfarms for species like Australian Bustard, Pale-headed Rosella, Australia’s tiniest bird, Weebill, Apostlebird, Brown Treecreeper, and the local White-gaped Honeyeater; and highland forest sites like Mount Lewis and Hypipamee NP for specialties like Golden Bowerbird, Fernwren, Bower’s Shrike-Thrush and Wompoo Fruit-Pigeon. The Curtain Fig Tree will be in our plans too, not only for this dramatic tree, but also for the chance at Pied Monarch, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, and Gray-headed Robin. We will also drop into a site to see Platypus by daytime that also often holds the melodic White-throated Gerygone too. While we burn through the many hotspots of this mega birding region, known as the “Atherton Tablelands”, we will also pick up mammals as we do so, like Agile Wallaby, Mareeba Rock Wallaby, and the enormous Eastern Gray Kangaroo. These two nights will also be spent in the town of Mareeba, right on the edge of the Outback.
Day 6: To Cairns (NE Queensland). We will have a final day to explore any of the sites we need to most for whatever we are still looking for. The precise locations of these will depend on what we are still seeking at this time. On arriving back in Cairns, if we need too, we can spend more time scanning the seafront for shorebirds, like Red-capped Plovers, Sharp-tailed, Broad-billed and Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, Greater and Lesser Sand-Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Gray-tailed Tattler, as well as Royal Spoonbill, Pacific Reef Heron, and Australian Pelican. The night will be spent night in Cairns.
Day 7: Cairns to Brisbane; drive to O’Reilly’s (SE Queensland). Early in the morning we will fly out of Northeast Queensland, and head to Brisbane in the southern part of the same state. Our stop in Brisbane will be brief though, with only a short stop in some mangroves for a handful of habitat specialists there, before we head to one of the Australia’s most revered birding sites, O Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. Although we will have been in rainforest before in northeast Queensland, this will be markedly different, being cooler subtropical rainforest, with a completely different suite of birds. Before the end of the afternoon, we will be enjoying the incredibly tame, but wild, birds around this superb lodge, with Australian King-Parrots, Crimson Rosellas, Australian Brush-Turkey, Regent and Satin Bowerbirds, and Superb Fairywren all likely to be found. At night, we can search for nightbirds like Southern Boobook and Marbled Frogmouth too. Two nights will be spent in the comfortable surrounds of O Reilly’s, which even produces its own, local wines from their nearby vineyard.
Day 8: O’ Reilly’s (SE Queensland). The lodge we will be staying in is surrounded by excellent rainforest, just seconds’ walk from the hotel reception; but there is also very different wet sclerophyll forest, a short drive away too. We will visit both habitats on this day, the first will require some trail walking (easy) for interior rainforest birds like Albert’s Lyrebird, Green Catbird, Rose Robin, Australian Logrunner, and Eastern Whipbird. While the drier wooded areas along Duck Creek Road will be searched for Bell Miner, Red-browed Treecreper, Spotted Pardalote, White-naped Honeyeater, and perhaps even a Koala, although lots of luck is required for the latter. At night a second venture can be made for those who wish to do so, to look for birds and mammals, like Mountain Brushtail Possum, and Red-necked Pademelon.
Day 9: O’ Reilly’s to Warwick and Goondiwindi (SE Queensland). First we will stop off to pick up a Bell Miner or seven, then towards the rangelands town of Warwick, where we will have lunch looking for parrots, like Little and Musk Lorikeets, and Eastern Rosella. This is an interesting zone where the Pale-headed and Eastern Rosellas can be found together. On the way west we hope for one of them, and on the way east we go for the other rosella. After lunch we continue west through the wheat fields towards the very cool town of Goondiwindi. It may be a stop off for just one night, but there is some very good birding nearby where we may find Speckled Warbler, Varied Sittella and Crested Shrike-Tit, among others. This is also the region of iconic Australian species such as the very vocal Grey Butcherbirds and the graceful and arboreal Black-faced Cuckooshrike. A single night will be spent in a hotel in the town of Goondiwindi.
Day 10: Goondiwindi to Cunnamulla. Today we will be striking deep into the heart of our destination, Southwestern Queensland, and we can expect to start seeing our first real “inland” birds. An early start will ensure that we make the most of the cool morning temperatures, possibly encountering our first flocks of Budgerigars, Cockatiels, and if we’re lucky, some of the more difficult inland birds like Red-backed Kingfisher. We will arrive in the Cunnamulla area in the afternoon, and spend some time birding the roads that cut through the Outback there for species like Galahs, Pink Cockatoos, Chestnut-breasted Quail-Thrush, and White-browed Treecreeper. Any wet local areas could also produce Yellow-billed Spoonbills, and Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels, as well as parrots coming into drink in the late afternoon. The next three nights will be spent in the Outback town of Cunnamulla. We will have two early morning starts, but there is ample down time in the middle of the day, and birding in the afternoon is optional.
Days 11-12: Bowra reserve and SW Queensland. We will have two entire days to bird the Outback of southern Queensland, where roads dissect excellent habitat that can produce an impressive bird list. We will concentrate on the Bowra reserve which is one of the best examples ofmulga in this part of the country. Among the lengthy list of species on offer will be Black-breasted Kite, Little Eagle, Brown Quail, Banded Lapwing, Diamond Dove, Australian Ringneck, Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Crimson Chat, Crested Bellbird, Restless Flycatcher, Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Red-capped and Hooded Robins, Red-browed Pardalote, White-browed and Masked Woodswallows (sometimes in the same flock together), Southern Whiteface, and Double-barred and Zebra Finches. A second night will be spent in the town of Cunnamulla.
Day 13: Cunnamulla to Mount Hope (New South Wales). On this day we will bird and drive our way south into the next state down, New South Wales, where we will overnight near Mallee habitat, an exciting and unique Eucalypt-dominated habitat type that has a discrete set of specialty birds. Our journey there will be another drive, bird, drive, bird, drive affair, as we make numerous roadside stops while driving right through good bird habitat. Expect to have your bins and cameras ready because we will not know what we may find until we are on top of it. The locations where we stop will be dictated by recent rain and seeding or blossoming in the grassland and mallee habitats. This part of NSW is exceedingly remote, with almost no human habitation and vast expanses of only slightly-modified vegetation. The night will be sent in a large hotel in the rural town of Mount Hope, close to Round Hill.
Day 14: Round Hill to Binya Dam and Leeton (New South Wales). This is likely to be a standout day of the tour, as we move into mallee habitat for the only time on the tour. This habitat does not look much, it is made up of coppice-structured eucalypts, all of which are of a similar height. Although the habitat appears quite uniform and uninteresting, the selection of birds we could see is anything but: Chestnut Quail-Thrush, Southern Scrub-Robin, Shy Heathwren, and Gilbert’s Whistler are all scarcities that are possible here. In some periods, when there are abundant nectar sources available, there can be an influx of nomadic honeyeater species too, like Black, Pied, White-fronted, and White-eared Honeyeaters. Other birds that occur include the spectacular Splendid Fairywren, Mulga Parrot, Western Gerygone, Inland and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, Yellow-plumed Honeyeater, and in some years, Crimson Chat. After much of the day and a field lunch at this excellent site, we will drive towards the town of Leeton, which is located right next to Five Bough Swamp (that we will visit the following day).
A late afternoon/evening visit will be made to Binya Dam before arriving at the hotel, for one very special bird indeed. At this time of day, this small dam can attract birds coming into drink, which we hope will include the stunning Turquoise Parrot, arguably the best-looking parrot in Australia that is known as the “Land of Parrots”. Two nights will be spent in a hotel in the town of Leeton.
Day 15: Binya State Forest and Five Bough Swamp. This will be a day of two distinct halves, the morning being spent in the mulga and brigalow (scrubby and wooded) habitats of Binya State Forest, while the afternoon will involve a stop at Five Bough Swamp, a superb site for wetland species. Binya holds many special birds, like Black-eared Cuckoo, Crested Bellbird, and our principal target at the site, the striking Painted Honeyeater. Red-capped Robins, Mulga Parrots, Australian Ringnecks, Yellow Thornbills, Speckled Warblers, Striped and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, White-browed Babblers, and White-winged Choughs can also be found there. If we have not managed to find a Pink (Major Mitchell’s) Cockatoo by this point, we can check around the golf course at Griffith, which is a good site too for Red-rumped Parrots, Greater Bluebonnets, and sometimes hosts a nesting Tawny Frogmouth too.
In the afternoon, following a lunch in Griffith or Leeton, we shall visit Five Bough Swamp, just outside of where we are staying in Leeton. This is a brilliant wetland, with a long list of possibilities including Magpie-Goose, Australian Shelduck, Chestnut Teal, Australasian Shoveler, Musk, Blue-billed, White-eyed and Pink-eared Ducks, Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes, Australasian Darter, Nankeen Night-Heron, Yellow-billed and Royal Spoonbills, Red-necked Avocet, Red-kneed Dotterel, Black-tailed Native-hen, and the chance at some crakes; in good crake years Australian Spotted and Spotless Crakes occur in good numbers, but require some luck to see, depending on local water levels during our visit. Other species possible at Five Bough and in the local area include: Swamp Harrier, Australian Hobby, Australian Kestrel, Australian Kite, Variegated Fairywren, Yellow Thornbill, Australian Reed-Warbler, Little Grassbird, Golden-headed Cisticola and Zebra Finch. Groves of Red Gum trees along riverbanks nearby are also a good spot to try and find ‘Yellow’ Rosella (a form of Crimson Rosella), and the incredible Superb Parrot.
Day 16: Leeton to Mt. Pilot NP, Chiltern (Victoria). This will be a big day as we make our first visit to the highly-touted Chiltern area in the north of Victoria, which is arguably the most celebrated part of the state. We will leave early, so that we can spend most of the day in this exciting area. Birding is close to the town, so people wanting downtime can chill in the middle of the day, and meet up with the group for the afternoon session. This site and area has a massive bird list, which is to be admired and chased after! Among the long list of species are Painted Buttonquail, Turquoise Parrot, (Swift Parrot may or may not still be there when we get there, as this is migration season), Little Lorikeet, White-throated and Brown Treecreepers, Yellow-tufted, White-plumed, Brown-headed, Black-chinned, and Fuscous Honeyeaters, Crested Shrike-Tit, Scarlet, Rose and Flame Robins, Rufous Songlark, Mistletoebird, and Diamond Firetail. Much of the day will be spent in this park, before departing for nearby Chiltern for a single night’s stay.
Day 16: Leeton to Mt. Pilot NP, Chiltern (Victoria). This will be a big day as we make our first visit to the highly touted Chiltern area in the north of Victoria, which is arguably the most celebrated part of the state. We will leave early, so that we can spend most of the day in this exciting area. Undoubtedly, the species for which the Chiltern area is most famed for is the very rare Regent Honeyeater, as this has been the most reliable area for this declining species in recent years. If there is any positive news on recent sightings, we will chase these as a priority, but some luck is still required to see it, even though we will be visiting at a potentially good time. It is simply becoming that rare, sadly. However, even without the honeyeater, this site and area has a massive bird list, which is to be admired and chased after! Among the long list of species are Painted Buttonquail, Turquoise Parrot, (Swift Parrot may or may not still be there when we get there, as this is migration season), Little Lorikeet, White-throated and Brown Treecreepers, Yellow-tufted, White-plumed, Brown-headed, Black-chinned, and Fuscous Honeyeaters, Crested Shrike-Tit, Scarlet, Rose and Flame Robins, Rufous Songlark, Mistletoebird, and Diamond Firetail. Much of the day will be spent in this park, before departing for nearby Chiltern for a single night’s stay.
Day 17: Chiltern area to Yea (Victoria). After another morning in the Chiltern area, we will drive south to Yea for the night. Still within Victoria, but our journey will have taken us into a different temperate forest type, which will hold some different targets for the following morning than in previous days. For people familiar with the Tropical Birding Australia Top to Bottom tour, this day is this tour’s equivalent to the days around Sydney and the Capertee Valley.
Day 18: Toolangi State Forest to Melbourne (Victoria). Our journey south will have brought us into the range of the cool temperate forests just north of Melbourne on the map. There will be a handful of key target species here, most notably the vociferous Superb Lyrebird, one of Australia’s most iconic birds, following its camera shutter impersonations featured in the famous BBC wildlife series ‘Life of Birds’ with David Attenborough. We cannot guarantee they will mimic shutters in this digital age, but we have a good chance of finding one, and hearing a range of more traditional mimicry! Other key species we will seek in the forests are Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Gang-gang Cockatoo, Red-browed Treecreeper, Pilotbird, Red Wattlebird, Olive Whistler, Gray Currawong, and Crescent Honeyeater. Other species we may encounter, include Bassian Thrush, Rufous Fantail, Satin Flycatcher and Golden Whistler. From there we depart for Melbourne and overnight in a hotel near the airport.
Day 19: Departure. The tour ends this morning in the Melbourne airport.
PACE: This is a very “stop and start” type of tour. Birding in the mornings can be pretty intense, but there will be a lot of downtime in the middle of the day, and more relaxed birding in the afternoons, with some afternoons being taken off entirely. We have tried to minimize changing hotels on this tour, so that there are fewer long travel days than most of our other Australia tours. Typical starts are between 5:00am and 5:30am, occasionally later. There are some long drives on the main tour, on four of the days they exceed 4 hours and two of these are likely to be 6-7 hours. However, all of these drives are not done direct, as they are literally within bird habitat, so the drives will be birding drives picking up new birds as part of the journeys. Many breakfasts and a few lunches will be taken in the field. Two boat trips are taken on this tour, one for most of a to the Great Barrier Reef, and a two-hour trip on the Daintree River.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding will be done from roads and mostly flat, well-maintained trails. You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles per day on average. There are no high altitude sites; the highest point is about 4000 ft (1200 m) on 2 days.
CLIMATE: Highly variable. In the Cairns area it is tropical and humid, with highs of around 86°F/30°C. In temperate areas around Brisbane and Victoria, temperatures between 57°F/14°C and 75°F/34°C are expected. The extension to Tasmania will be the coldest part, with temperatures typically 48°F-64°F/9°C-18°C, but may be significantly cooler in the early mornings, when temperatures can drop to near freezing. Some rain can be expected, mostly in Victoria.
ACCOMMODATION: Good throughout, with one very notable exception in the mallee for a single night (it saves hours of driving, so we will tolerate it for one night). All accommodations have private bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24-hour electricity. Most lodges/hotels have Wi-Fi either in your room or at reception.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Australia is an excellent destination for bird and nature photography. While there are few feeding stations in the country (there is just one on this tour at O’ Reilly’s, where parrots, bowerbirds, brush-turkeys and pigeons visit), the birding and photography is generally easy, with plenty of open country situations, where the light is not challenging, and with a healthy populations of birds endemic to Australasia. At the O’ Reilly’s feeders species like Australian King-Parrot, Crimson Rosella, Regent and Satin. Bowerbirds, and Red-browed Firetails are regular; other birds that are often (though not always) photographed on this itinerary include Southern Cassowary, Emu, Australian Bustard, Australian Brush-Turkey, Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Rainbow Lorikeet, Black Swan, Magpie-Goose, Australian White Ibis, Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Australian Pelican, Silver Gull, Bush Thick-knee, Laughing Kookaburra, Tawny Frogmouth, Squatter Pigeon, Wonga Pigeon, Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Superb and Variegated Fairywrens, Lewin’s, Blue-faced and Macleay’s Honeyeaters, Noisy Miner, Magpie-lark, Eastern Yellow Robin, Pied Currawong, and Willie-wagtail! This is a targeted bird tour, but there are just lots of photo opportunities while birding, and often in good light, making the photography both pretty straightforward and rewarding. While any gear configuration is welcome, people will do best with an SLR with a 100-400mm or 500mm fixed lens, or if they are using a micro 4/3s system a 300mm prime lens is optimal.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Australia, which must be valid for at least six months beyond your departure. All visitors must obtain a visa or travel authorization in advance, however this can usually be done online fairly painlessly; check the Australian immigration website, or ask our office staff for help if you are unsure.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides; accommodation from night of day 1 though to night of day 18; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 19; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during restaurant meals; safe drinking water between meals (most hotels in Australia also provide a kettle to make tea and coffee in your room); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the night of day 18; transfer by taxi to the airports at the start and end of the tour; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; one boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef (this will be shared with other people); one private two-hour boat cruise on the Daintree River; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader (who also drives on this tour); international flights; domestic flights (these can be booked by our staff and added to your invoice); excess baggage fees; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.