Eastern Australia: From Top to Bottom

This tour’s big draw card is the dozens of new families for the first-time visitor, from birds-of-paradise and bowerbirds, to lyrebirds and cassowaries. The first days are about getting people accustomed to the new families, sub families and even the different habitat types. So many of the birds in Australia appear to have large ranges, but most species are very habitat specific; luckily the Tropical Birding guides here not only know where to go to find and identify all the species, they also understand some of the subtle differences that occur from year to year, such as rainfall and flowering changes that make some places dead one year and pumping the next. We used to think that this trip was by far the best for seeing the birds and animals of Eastern Australia, but with some of the tweaking we have done over the many years we have run this tour, we are now sure that no other Australian tour even comes close to providing what this trip offers. The covers the humid tropical forests of northern Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef, the cool mountain forests of Lamington National Park in southern Queensland, and takes in the coast, mountains and arid interior of New South Wales, and then extends all the way down to the rugged coastlines of Tasmania, seeing almost all of the available endemics along the way.


Please note: there are some terms for Australian habitats used in the text that may be unfamiliar to you, so please check out the slideshow at the end of the itinerary for photos of these distinctive habitats.

Day 1: Arrival in Cairns (Queensland)
After arrival in Cairns, the tour will begin with a meeting at 2pm so that we can head out birding around this small city. Some of the sites we may visit include Centenary Lakes, Cairns Cemetery, and The Esplanade. Targets will include Australian shorebirds along The Esplanade, such as Terek Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, godwits, sand-plovers, gulls and terns. Cairns Cemetery can be a great spot for finding common Australian birds such as Willie-Wagtails, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Australasian Figbirds, Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, and White-breasted Woodswallows, as well as sleeping Bush Thick-knees. Centenary Lakes could yield some of our first tropical species such as Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Australian Brush-Turkey, Dusky Myzomela, Brown-backed and Yellow Honeyeaters, Metallic Starling, Green Oriole, and Black Butcherbird. The night will be spent in Cairns.

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Day 2: The Great Barrier Reef (Queensland)
After breakfast we will head to the local docks, where we’ll board a ferry that will take us out to the Great Barrier Reef for much of the day. Our first stop will be the tiny, sandy islet of Michaelmas Cay, a haven for nesting seabirds. The dominant nesting species is the Brown Noddy, although we will keep a sharp eye out for the scarcer Black Noddy hiding among them. There are also numerous terns on the island, mostly Sooty and Great Crested Terns, which are also sometimes joined by other species like Lesser Crested, Black-naped, and the occasional Roseate too. We will keep an eye out for any frigatebirds marauding above, as both Lesser and Great Frigatebirds can occur on the island too, and we may even pick up a Brown or Red-footed Booby flying over. Later on the boat trip there will be chances for those who wish to, to go snorkeling, or take a glass-bottomed boat tour of the reef. In the afternoon, we’ll return to Cairns, and head west to Kuranda, and Cassowary House, for the night.

Extreme close-ups of Brown Boobies are to be expected for our day out on the reef
Extreme close-ups of Brown Boobies are to be expected for our day out on the reef (Wesley Homoya)

Day 3: Cassowary House to Daintree (Queensland)
Today we will go after one of Australia’s largest birds, the mighty Southern Cassowary, a regular visitor to the garden of Cassowary House, our breakfast venue for the morning. Before breakfast, we will check the nearby rainforest road for Victoria’s Riflebird, Pied Monarch, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Rose-breasted Fruit-Dove, or even the rare White-eared Monarch, safe in the knowledge that if a cassowary wanders into the garden our lodge host will call to alert us. As we eat our breakfast of tropical fruits overlooking the rainforest, we will check for Musky Rat-Kangarooos scampering around on the forest floor, and watch the feeders for visiting Macleay’s Honeyeaters, Australian Brush-Turkeys, Helmeted Friarbirds, or Emerald Doves. After lunch in Kuranda, we will travel up the coast to Red Mill House in the beautiful little town of Daintree. A stop along the way might produce the elusive Beach Thick-knee, and we will use the afternoon to search for Lovely Fairywrens or other Australian birds like Channel-billed Cuckoo or Blue-winged Kookaburra.

Southern Cassowary is the biggest target of the tour
Southern Cassowary is the biggest target of the tour (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Daintree River Cruise to Mareeba (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 for anything we are missing, before getting on our way to Mareeba, up on the Atherton Tableland. We will probably stop along the way to bird a few wetlands, or depending on the weather, we may even head up Mt Lewis to bird some of the high altitude rainforest. Whatever we decide, there will be plenty of new birds waiting for us, and our list will continue to build.

The Lovely Fairywren is confined to Northeast Queensland
The Lovely Fairywren is confined to Northeast Queensland (Sam Woods)

Days 5-6: Atherton Tablelands (Queensland)
We will spend these two days visiting a variety of sites on the Atherton Tableland; there will be a lot of birds to fit in, so expect some long days. We will visit locations including Maryfarms for Australian Bustards and other dry country birds, Mount Lewis or the Lake Barrine area for high altitude rainforest endemics like Chowchillas and Golden Bowerbirds, and also some of the wetlands in the area for whistling-ducks and Magpie Geese. The nights will be spent in the small town of Mareeba, a town that boasts healthy numbers of Easter Gray Kangaroos on their local golf course!

We'll visit a bower stakeout for the local Golden Bowerbird
We'll visit a bower stakeout for the local Golden Bowerbird (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Mareeba to Cairns (Queensland)
We will spend our final day on the Atherton Tableland chasing down any species we still need, before commencing the descent down to Cairns. Depending on how our list is shaping up, we will spend a couple of hours around Cairns, probably visiting the Esplanade (that comes loaded with shorebirds and other wading birds) or perhaps Centenary Lakes. There are quite a few wetlands around Cairns we can visit if we still need any waterbirds, or we could search for Crimson Finches and Chestnut-breasted Munias in farmland to the city’s north. Our last night in the Wet Tropics area of Queensland will again be spent in Cairns.

An Aussie Icon: Koala
An Aussie Icon: Koala (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Cairns to Brisbane, and Lamington National Park (Queensland)
After a morning flight from Cairns, we will arrive in Brisbane and head straight into the field. Our first stop will be some mangroves near the airport, searching for Mangrove Gerygone, Mangrove Honeyeater, and Collared Kingfisher. We will then make our way south to a small suburban park on the edge of Brisbane that sometimes holds wild Koalas, and occasionally nesting Square-tailed Kites. We will then head to Lamington National Park, and the comfortable lodging of O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.

Australian King-Parrots are absurdly tame at O Reilly's
Australian King-Parrots are absurdly tame at O Reilly's (Sam Woods)

As we arrive we will be straining to get out of the cars and watch the grain feeders which often attract Crimson Rosellas, Australian King-Parrots and Wonga Pigeons, and we will spend this first afternoon exploring the rainforest edges and feeders. Dinner will be in the lodge restaurant, where we may get to watch the friendly Mountain Brush-tail Possums wolfing down fruits in front of the restaurant windows. After dinner there will be an optional search for nightbirds, in particular the scarce Marbled Frogmouth and Southern Boobook. The next two nights will be spent at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.

Regent Bowerbird - you'll even be more impressed when they feed from your hand
Regent Bowerbird - you'll even be more impressed when they feed from your hand (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: Lamington National Park (Queensland)
We will have a full day to explore both the rainforest-clad plateau of the aptly named Scenic Rim, and the open eucalypt forest that cloaks the hillsides below that; all close to our lodging in Lamington. We will begin by admiring the bowerbirds and parrots clambering around the cabins in the early morning, which will include the gorgeous black-and-gold Regent Bowerbird. Wonga Pigeons should easily be found along with Red-necked Pademelons (a small kangaroo) feeding along the grassy verges. We will take a pre-breakfast walk in the rainforest to search for some of the forest-interior birds like Paradise Riflebird, Australian Logrunner, Rose Robin, Green Catbird, and, if we are really lucky, the extremely secretive Albert’s Lyrebird. After a substantial spread for breakfast we will spend more time exploring the rainforest. After lunch we will take a drive down Duck Creek Road and bird some very different habitat, wet sclerophyll forest, which holds a markedly different set of birds. We will try to track down Red-browed Treecreeper along the rainforest margin, and perhaps Spotted Pardalotes and Variegated Fairywrens too. After another dinner at the O Reilly’s, we will have the option to go looking for nightbirds again if needed.

Pretty-faced Wallabies are regularly encountered on the drive into O Reilly's
Pretty-faced Wallabies are regularly encountered on the drive into O Reilly's (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Lamington (Queensland) to Sydney and Lithgow (New South Wales)
We will have a look at the progress of our list, before deciding what to do around O Reilly’s this morning (in Lamington). We will have time to look for a few birds in the rainforest if we still need them, or we can head back down into the wet slcerophyll forest along Duck Creek Rd. Later in the morning, we will check out and make our way back towards Brisbane, in order to take an afternoon flight to Sydney, from there we will drive across the Blue Mountains to Lithgow for the night. This is a great location fro which to launch our first exploration of the forests of New South Wales, the following morning.

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Day 11: Capertee Valley to Forbes (New South Wales)
A dawn departure will have us in the famous Capertee Valley for breakfast, where the cool morning air will be ringing with the calls of honeyeaters. While this area occasionally hosts the ultra-rare Regent Honeyeater, we would be extremely lucky to find this after recent declines. Nevertheless, we will still be treated to some other fantastic birds and it will give us a good chance to mop up some of the species we still need on mainland Australia, with the backdrop of the imposing Blue Mountains behind us. Birds such as Diamond Firetail, Yellow-tufted and Black-chinned Honeyeaters, Restless Flycatcher, Crested Shrike-Tit, and Zebra Finch. Leaving the Capertee Valley we will head back to Lithgow, before turning west for Forbes. The main attraction here is Gum Swamp, a large wetland that is a haven for waterfowl. We should be able to find Blue-billed Duck here, along with Pink-eared Duck, Hoary-headed Grebe, and perhaps the very rare Freckled Duck, as well as Cockatiel in the trees around the edges. The night will be spent in Forbes.

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Day 12: Back Yamma to Lake Cargelligo (New South Wales)
We will spend the morning birding Back Yamma State Forest, an area of open woodland close to Forbes. This will provide us with a gradual introduction to some of the birds of Australia’s drier inland. Possibilities include Turquoise Parrot, Blue Bonnet and Mallee Ringnecks, and perhaps our first gorgeous Red-capped Robins. We will leave Forbes mid-morning to continue west for Lake Cargelligo. It is not a birding trip without a visit to the sewage works, and that will be our first port-of-call after lunch. We should find our first White-winged Fairywrens here, and it is often a good location to find some of the secretive small crakes like Baillon’s, Australian and Spotless Crakes. In the late afternoon we will make our first visit to the famous Nombinnie Nature Reserve. Swathed in mallee, a dense habitat consisting entirely of short spindly eucalypts, this reserve is home to a host of special birds, many difficult to see. Creeping through the mallee we may find Shy Heathwren, Southern Scrub-robin and Chestnut Quail-Thrush. We may have dinner in the field here, allowing us to wait until dusk so that we can see Spotted Nightjars hawking for insects from the roadside. The night will be spent in Lake Cargelligo.

Plains-Wanderer; often the bird of the trip
Plains-Wanderer; often the bird of the trip (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Round Hill & Plains-Wanderer (New South Wales)
Another pre-dawn departure will have us enjoying breakfast as the sun rises and the birds start singing around us at Nombinnie. We will spend the morning here as we work to pick up all the mallee specialists, plus a few other birds of the dry interior, including the incomparable Splendid Fairywren. While we only spend a short time in this habitat, this does allow us to add a swathe of new birds in this short period, nonetheless. We will have to drag ourselves away from Round Hill so we can get on our way to Hay and one of the highlights of the trip. The plains surrounding Hay are home to one of the most enigmatic and rare Australian birds, the Plains-Wanderer. We will take a night drive across the plains with local guides armed with spotlights and an intimate knowledge of this odd bird’s habits. Although it will mean a late finish, this is often the most highly rated outing of the trip, as we get crippling views of this amazing bird. Make sure you bring your camera!our evening searching for Plains-wanderers. We will spend the night in Hay.

Australia is rightly referred to as the
Australia is rightly referred to as the "Land of the Parrots" (Nick Leseberg)

Day 14: Hay to Griffith (New South Wales)
After a long night looking for Plains-Wanderers we will take the opportunity to have an atypical late start. When we are ready we will make our way over to Leeton where the main attraction is one of the best wetlands in Australia, Five Bough Swamp. We will check the swamp for Red-necked Avocets and Red-kneed Dotterels working the muddy edges, Australian Shovelers, Hardheads, and Musk Ducks swimming in the open waters, and Swamp Harriers quartering the reedbeds. As the water levels vary greatly in Five Bough, our afternoon plan will be flexible, and may also involve a trip out to Binya, an area of brigelow, (a woodland habitat type), to the north. The night will be spent in the town of Griffith.

Day 15: Binya to Robertson (New South Wales)
In the morning we will visit Binya, a wooded area near Griffith that holds some great birds like Splendid Fairywren, Speckled Warbler and sometimes even the rare Painted Honeyeater, along with White-winged Chough and Apostlebird. In the afternoon we’ll head eastwards towards the town of Roberston, probably arriving in time to make our first visit to the heathland of Barren Grounds, which is home to rare species, like Gang-gang Cockatoos and Pilotbirds.The night will be spent in Roberston.

The scenery is often overlooked when people look at Australia: this is Wattamolla in Royal National Park, home of the Rockwarbler
The scenery is often overlooked when people look at Australia: this is Wattamolla in Royal National Park, home of the Rockwarbler (Sam Woods)

Day 16: Barren Grounds to Sydney (New South Wales)
Early morning will see us back at Barren Grounds to to continue searching for the many elusive species there, like Southern Emuwren and Eastern Bristlebird; before we head down off the coastal escarpment to Bass Point. This rocky peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean, and depending on the weather conditions can be a good location to pick up a few seabirds for our list, with Wedge-tailed and Short-tailed Shearwaters most likely. We will probably have lunch in the field here before heading north back to Sydney. We should have time for an afternoon visit to Royal National Park, to start picking up birds there like Eastern Spinebill, and maybe even a Superb Lyrebird. The night will be spent in Sydney.

Day 17: Royal National Park (New South Wales) to Hobart (Tasmania)
As Royal National Park offers many birds, and varied habitats (from temperate rainforest to coastal heaths), we will return there this morning to search for any birds we are still missing, which could be Superb Lyrebird, Rockwarbler, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Beautiful Firetail, and others. In the afternoon we’ll make our way to Sydney airport to take our flight to Hobart in Tasmania, for the final leg of our trip. The next three nights will be spent in Hobart.

New Holland Honeyeater is common on the coastal heaths of New South Wales and Tasmania
New Holland Honeyeater is common on the coastal heaths of New South Wales and Tasmania (Sam Woods)

Day 18: Hobart and Bruny Island (Tasmania)
An early rise will have us birding a tiny reserve on the edge of Hobart, looking for one of Tasmania’s, and indeed Australia’s, rarest endemics, the Forty-spotted Pardalote. This site may also yield other specialties like Tasmanian Native-Hen, Green Rosella, and Yellow-throated Honeyeater. After a short visit to this small area, we’ll make our way over to the dock to take a short ferry ride over to Bruny Island (picking up a Black-faced Cormorant or two on the way), where much of the day will be spent, searching for Tasmanian endemics. Once we hit the island, we will bird our way south, keeping a watchful eye on roadside fences for Scarlet and Dusky Robins, and checking any blooming trees for the scarce Swift Parrot. The sandy beaches around Adventure Bay usually yield the endangered Hooded Plover, and may also produce Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers. In the late morning/early afternoon we will check a forested road for some more specialties such as the adorable Pink Robin, and further Tassie endemics like Strong-billed Honeyeater and Tasmanian Scrubwren. In the late afternoon we’ll return back to Hobart, by way of the ferry again. Another night will be spent in Hobart.

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Day 19: Mount Wellington and the Tasman Peninsula (Tasmania)
Our final day of the tour will find us at the base of Mount Wellington, on the western outskirts of Hobart. We will walk a flat forest trail looking for one of the more difficult Tasmanian endemics, the nondescript Scrubtit, as well as Olive Whistler and both Black and Gray Currawongs. This will be followed by a visit to the scenic summit of Mount Wellington, where open heathland can produce Striated Fieldwren and the beautiful Flame Robin. After enjoying the view from the top of Mt Wellington we will move north to Eaglehawk Neck, one of Tasmania’s scenic coastal locations, where we will search for Cape Barren Geese. There will also be an opportunity here for a bit of sea-watching, with White-capped Albatross and a few different shearwaters possible. We will have dinner before finishing our trip off at the beach as we wait for a small colony of Little Penguins to return to their burrows after nightfall. Our final night will be spent back in Hobart.

Day 20: Departure from Hobart
We will transfer you to Hobart airport for international departures.

Photo guide to habitats we bird on this tour:


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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Intense. This tour attempts to see as many bird species as possible as well as some great mammals, and we usually amass an impressive list. Typical starts are between 5:00am and 5:30am; there is one earlier 4:15am start required due to an early flight. There are four late finishes (between 10-11pm); two of these are required due to flight schedules, and the others are for spotlighting birds and mammals, one of which can be considered optional if you would prefer to relax in the hotel. There are several fairly long drives on the tour, with drives of 3 hours or more on 5 days, and the longest being 6 hours. Many breakfasts and a few lunches will be taken in the field. Two boat trips are taken on this tour, one for most of the day 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 Sydney, temperatures between 57°F/14°C and 75°F/34°C are expected. 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 New South Wales and Tasmania.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to very good throughout. Except for Cassowary House, all accommodations have private bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24-hour electricity. Occasionally, it may be necessary for some people in the group to use a shared bathroom at Cassowary House. As this lodge is very small, some of the group may need to stay in a nearby hotel (with the tour leader). However, the group will be together for meals. Most lodges/hotels have wifi either in your room or at reception.

OTHER INFO:

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 19; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 20 (if you have an early flight on this day, you may miss the included breakfast); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during restaurant meals; safe drinking water between meals; most hotels in Australia provide a kettle and tea and coffee; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the night of day 19; spotlighting tours with local guides on two nights; 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 tour leader; 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.