Eastern Australia: From Top to Bottom
Over half the birds in Australia in one tour. Prepare to be buzzed.
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 forest types. The trip then speeds up and we start seeing. 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, we are now sure that no other Australia tour even comes close to providing what this trip offers. The tour starts in the humid tropical forests of northern Queensland, Great Barrier Reef, The mountain forests of Lamington National Park in Southern Queensland and takes in the coast, mountains and arid interior of New South Wales, 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 illustrations of these distinctive habitats.
Day 1: Cairns. We start at 3:00pm at our hotel, and we will spend the rest of the day birding around the city of Cairns. Now for most clients, this will be the first visit to Australia, so we will spend time getting to know the many new families. We will likely bird the mangrove boardwalk for mangrove species, Centenary Lakes and the botanical gardens for our first rainforest species, and the Esplanade. The order which we visit these locations will depend on the tides at the Esplanade, which is a tidal flat right beside the main tourist district of Cairns. For those who have been lucky enough to bird the Texas Coast, you can imagine the Esplanade as a combination of Bolivar Flats and Venice Beach. Masses of shorebirds so close at times it seems surreal, and lines of scantly-clad joggers with their frappachinos running past our scopes and giving us strange looks. When the tides are right, we will be going like crazy searching through Great Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, Lesser Sandplovers and Curlew Sandpipers, for real targets like Broad-billed Sandpipers and Asian Dowitchers. We’ll spend the night in Cairns.
Day 2: The Great Barrier Reef. Today is the latest start of the tour when we jump onto a boat out to the Great Barrier Reef at 7.30. Although the very rare client, ie Alan Davies in 2008, has been sick, this is more of a cruise on Lake Erie than a trip on the ocean. The trip out to Michaelmas Cay takes about an hour and a half, and when we get there we will be confronted with a small sandy isle jam packed with sea birds. We will search through the thousands of Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy and Crested Tern. The other birds out there we are looking for include Lesser-crested, Black-naped Terns, Black Noddy, Greater and Lesser Frigatebirds. We have a few hours here, and some people enjoy the snorkeling, but after lunch the boat heads to a submerged reef called Hastings Reef, where the snorkeling, diving and glass bottom boat is just superb. For those not wanting to indulge in all things aquatic, this is also a pretty good area to pick up seabirds flying over including Brown Booby and Bridled Tern. The boat gets back around 5pm and we drive up to Kuranda for the night.
Day 3: Cassowary House and Kuranda Kuranda boasts superb birding in lowland tropical rainforest. We’ll spend the first morning searching for the amazing Southern Cassowary and other target species, such as Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Superb Fruit-Dove, Victoria’s Riflebird, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, and Barred Cuckooshrike. Now the breakfast at Cassowary House is something to behold, so as we are doing our pre brekky walk we may get the call that the massive Cassowary, maybe even with chicks, is back at the house and we will have to rush back. When it is there you slowly approach and all is well. These guys are normally very shy, but have become accustomed to people there, so accept a bunch of birders staring with binoculars and taking hundreds if not thousands of photos of them. Over breakfast we will be joined by Maclays Honeyeater, Helmeted Friarbirds, Green Catbirds and even Victoria´s Riflebird. It is hard to explain how truly cool it is to have a bird of paradise happily chomping away at some of your spare fruit while you are sipping coffee just a few feet away. In the afternoon we drive to the Daintree. After breakfast we hit the entrance trail for some easy roadside birding, targeting Pied and White-eared Monarchs, and Gray Goshawk. After lunch we head north towards the Daintree River, picking up Pheasant Coucal on the way, and try for Lovely Fairywren when we arrive. We spend the night at Red Mill House where Trish and Andrew do an Aussie BBQ for us. If the Australian Tourism Commission could bottle these two they would do so. Nowhere on this vast continent will you find two friendlier and more caring hosts than these guys, and they will burst a kidney to make sure that we guests get everything we need to be happy. They will also have a list of birds seen in their impressive garden that day, so we may have to change plans and track down that Cicadabird if it is around.
Day 4: Daintree River CruiseThe next dawn we take a boat into some narrow mangrove and rainforest-fringed creeks where we’ll search for Shining Flycatcher, Wompoo Pigeon, and if we are lucky, a roosting Papuan Frogmouth or two. The boats here are small flat bottomed jobs with very quiet motors, so you can approach very closely to many species. Now although there are a few targets such as the Great-billed Heron and the Little Kingfisher, this trip is more about the unbelievably relaxing feel of being in this creek, than it is about boosting a massive list. Having said that, not even the most myopic, numbers oriented lister fails to love these few hours. Whatever camera you have, make sure it comes along for this trip. After the cruise, we have breakfast and then do some rainforest birding before we head to the drier habitat of Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands, where we base ourselves for the next three nights. On the way we will visit a few gallery forest sites and open woodlands, but the birding does not really pick up again until about 4pm when we do some of the open woodland around Mareeba for more inland birds such as Pale-headed Rosella, Pied Butcherbird and Weebill, which as the name suggests is our smallest bird in Australia. We stay down on this road until about half an hour before dusk when we will see numerous kangaroos, wallabies and the brindled looking Squatter Pigeon. This little guy is much better looking than can be portrayed in field guides, and looks just magnificent walking slowly along the edge of the gravel roads. The next three nights will be spent on the outskirts of Mareeba.
Day 5: Rainforest to the Outback We start the day in a small patch of rainforest where we will likely have cracking looks at the splendid little Noisy Pitta bouncing along the forest edge. We then turn our attention to the Yellow-breasted Boatbill, which is a small flycatcher like bird with a stunning mix of black, white and yellow. Depending on the timing of this years migration, we stand a chance of Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher, which if present, will be very vocal and easy to see. Barely a few miles from the lush rainforests, we’ll visit the edge of the outback and bird grassland savanna, as we head out to Mt Carbine. In these wooded savannas and open woodlands with grass understory, the first target is the Australian Bustard, and we may find the proud male strutting his stuff on the edge of the road. After we have had great looks and taken a load of photos of the bustard, we head a little farther west where we shall be on the lookout for species all things red such as Red-winged Parrot, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo and Red-browed Pardalote. Depending on the weather and how we are going, we may head another 50 miles or so and get into an area that is great for the northern, much darker, race of the Brown Treecreeper, Banded Honeyeater and Black-throated Finch. On the way back to Mareeba, we will stop off at Lake Mitchell for Black-necked Stork, Green Pygmy Goose and a load of other waterbirds
Day 6: Mt Lewis There are a few areas in the Atherton where you can chase the highland species in the higher rainforests. The two alternatives for this day are Mt Lewis and Lake Barine, and the location we bird depends on the rainfall over the last few weeks. If the road to Mt Lewis is open we will have an early start and get up to the top for just after dawn. Here we will have a look for Atherton Scrubwren around the car, search the understory for the Fernwren, and get amazing looks at Gray-headed Robin before hitting the trails. The main target on the trails here is the Chowchilla. One of only three species in this family, the Chowchillas are very vocal and boisterous in the early morning. They feed by walking on short legs, and flicking leaves directly out the side of the body. Later in the day they are quite difficult to get a look at, but when feeding early in the morning, they seem oblivious to people, and we could get fantastic views on this trail. Later in the day we will search the Eucalypt forest near the base of the mountain for birds such as White-headed Pigeon, Black-faced Monarch and Fairy Gerygone.
Day 7: Hypipamee to Cairns. We’ll start the day in the high rainforests of Hypipamee National Park where as well as Bridled Honeyeaters and our first of thousands of Pied Currawongs, we have a chance of tree-kangaroos, which just have to be seen to be believed. If there is an animal in Australia that looks as though it evolved along the wrong path, it is this baby. A lumbering wallaby which is anything but graceful sitting on the end of a branch with the look of “how did I get here” and “I am afraid of heights”. Around mid morning we will visit a bower of the Golden Bowerbird. This stunning little one builds a massive structure of sticks which he decorates with flowers and moss, and when not feeding, spends all of his free time sitting near the bower waiting for potential mates to come and take a look at his building. Later we go to one of the few places where the predominantly nocturnal Platypus is easy to see in the day. Besides being only one of two mammals that lay eggs, the platypus is the only one known to produce a poison that it uses to drug and rape females. We then hit the open fields to get looks at the two cranes in Australia. The fields around Atherton often have both Brolgas and Sarus Cranes side by side for easy comparison, so getting these should not be a great challenge. We then return to Cairns where we take another hit at the shorebirds along the esplanade as well as checking a few nearby spots for Crimson Finch and Chestnut-breasted Munia. We spend the night in Cairns.
Day 8: Cairns to Brisbane and Lamington National Park. After an early flight to Brisbane we will make a short stop at some mangroves near the airport for Mangrove Honeyeater and Mangrove Gerygone, and maybe even Collared Kingfisher or our first Chestnut Teal. Then we’ll head south towards the legendary Lamington National Park, but not before stopping first in some parkland on the edge of Brisbane where we’ll check the parking lot for roosting Tawny Frogmouths, and also a traditional nesting spot for the very rare Square-tailed Kite. However, that’s not all we’ll be checking for as this is also the heartland of suburban Koala habitat, where we’ll scour the gum trees for this famous Aussie mammal.
In the afternoon we will arrive at O Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat for a two-night stay, where the tame birds will have us straining at the doors to burst out of the van and take in the many friendly birds hopping, bouncing, and perching all around their grounds…
Day 9: Lamington National Park. O Reilly’s is world famous for the unrivalled views you can get of often shy rainforest creatures right around their cabins, restaurants and reception areas. We will awake in the morning to Crimson Rosella creeping around on our balconies looking for the first handout of the day, while shimmering male Satin Bowerbirds clamber around on the lodge roofs. A quick check of the grounds will see us run into a multitude of tame, wild O’Reilly’s residents. The first sign of any grain and an Australian King-Parrot will drop in, or lurk impatiently on the bushes nearby. Gray Shrike-Thrushes use the early hours of the morning to hop around in front of reception, or even enter into reception on some of their bolder days! The constant “whooping” calls of Wonga Pigeons will reach our ears, although rather than try and stalk them on the dark rainforest floor we’ll simply walk the roads and check the feeding areas, where these strikingly marked blue-and-white doves are remarkably approachable. However, the bird that will stand out the most is O Reilly’s flagship species, the black-and-gold Regent Bowerbird that adorns their logos, and is stamped across all of their giftware. If we did not get them five minutes after arriving yesterday, dawn should see the trees around reception loaded with expectant regents, waiting for the day’s first official feeding. If these views are still not good enough, get some grain in the palm of your hand and let them crawl all over you! Other friendly inhabitants of the grounds include the impossibly cute Superb Fairywrens, which regularly bound across the parking lots behind the cabins. Not to be outdone in the cute department, O’Reilly’s also has some adorable mammals too, that like the birds offer rare, up close views at this very special spot. In the early hours of the morning fluffy Red-necked Pademelons munch grass on the cabin lawns, and over dinner at the lavish restaurant we can eat, and drink locally produced wine, while Mountain Brush-Tail Possums wolf down fruits at the tableside feeders.
The top of the plateau at O Reilly’s is cloaked in lush rainforest, and we will walk some of the tracks in order to track down some of the shyer rainforest inhabitants. The loud mimicry of Albert’s Lyrebirds are regularly heard along the park trails, and with luck we might find one stalking quietly through the forest. Indeed, some of the rainforest interior birds are like the birds right around the lodge: astoundingly approachable. Nowhere in Australia can it be easier to get up close to the whip-cracking Eastern Whipbird, whose distinctive calls haunt many sites on the tour, and an assortment of scrubwrens and Yellow Robins often hop on and off the tracks. The early hours of the morning are often the best time to catch sight of one of Lamington’s most comical residents, the Australian Logrunner, that readily bounds across the leaf litter and, appropriately, along the logs, close to the lodge. Strangled, cat-like calls should lead us to our first Green Catbirds, and the loud rasping calls of Paradise Riflebirds echo through the forest, a magnificent bird-of-paradise, that should turn up some time during the day. Other possibilities in the rich rainforest on the summit include Bassian and Russet-tailed Thrushes, the beautiful Rose Robin, and the dashing Rufous Fantail.
Some time will also be spent in the markedly different habitat below the plateau, where dense green rainforest gives way to dry sclerophyll woodland, dominated by pale gum trees, bringing a much more open nature to the birding. Here we’ll seek the Red-browed Treecreeper on the forest edge, and then descend to a Bell Miner colony, where we will soon be wishing we could switch off their incessant school bell-like calls. These drier woods are also home to the scarce Koala, and the prettiest of the wallabies, the well-named Pretty-faced Wallaby, that are often seen bounding through the grassy understory. At night we’ll check some regular rainforest spots for Southern Boobook and Marbled Frogmouth.
Day 10: Lamington NP to Lithgow. After a final morning to mop any missing Lamington species, or just take photos of the very tame birds here, we will take an afternoon flight to the capital of New South Wales, Sydney, and drive straight on to Lithgow for the night…
Day 11: Capertee Valley to Forbes. Our New South Wales birding will open in the Capertee Valley, the last stronghold of the rare Regent Honeyeater. Other, more likely, possibilities include the dazzling Diamond Firetail, Dusky Woodswallow, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, and Crested Shrike-Tit. In the afternoon we drive inland to Forbes for the night, which boasts a fantastic swamp that often holds Pink-eared Duck, Australian Shoveler, and Blue-billed Duck.
Day 12: Back Yamma State Forest to Lake Cargelligo. The morning will be spent in the open woodland and cypress pines of Back Yamma, where we’ll search for Speckled Warbler, Hooded Robin, and Gilbert’s Whistler. However, our main target will be the inconspicuous Turquoise Parrot. We drive to Lake Cargelligo for the night.
Day 13: Round Hill and Plains-wanderer. We make our only venture into the mallee (a strange and declining habitat in southern Australia), with cracking birds like Chestnut Quail-Thrush, Shy Heathwren, and White-fronted and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters all possible at Round Hill. In the afternoon we’ll drive to Hay, and undertake a night safari for one of the highlights of the tour: Plains-wanderer. We will also search for Stubble Quail, Banded Lapwing, Inland Dotterel, and the largest of all the kangaroos, the giant Red. We overnight in Hay.
Day 14: Hay to Five Bough Swamp. After our long night (searching for Plains-wanderer and plenty of others), we will enjoy a rare late breakfast, and then drive to Leeton, which boasts one of the best swamps in Australia, right on the edge of town. In the afternoon we’ll scour the muddy edges for Red-kneed Dotterel and Red-necked Avocet, and the open waters for Musk Duck, while over the reeds we should find quartering Swamp Harriers, or Australian Hobbies hunting on the wing, or even an Australasian Bittern cruising over at dusk. There may also be a chance for rails; Australian, Spotless, and Baillon’s Crakes all occur. We overnight in Leeton.
Day 15: Binya to Robertson. Binya is an under-birded area with exceptional potential. Here we regularly find Painted, Singing, White-plumed, and Striped Honeyeaters. In Griffith, we’ll check the golf course for Bluebonnets and other parrots competing for the sprinklers, before we drive east towards the coast, and overnight in Robertson.
Day 16: Barren Grounds to Sydney. The morning will be spent on the heathlands and subtropical forests of Barren Grounds searching for Gang-gang Cockatoo, Superb Lyrebird, Eastern Bristlebird, Beautiful Firetail, and Pilotbird. Lunch will be taken in the field at Bass Point, where we’ll search for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters or other seabirds that may have been blown inshore, check for resting Pied Cormorants loafing on the pier, or Black Oystercatchers foraging on the rocks. In the afternoon we’ll drive to the suburbs of Sydney for the night, picking up Red Wattlebird in the process.
Day 17: Royal NP to Tasmania. We visit the remarkable Royal NP, and area of unspoiled wilderness on the edge of Sydney. Here we bird the temperate forests for that skilled mimic, the Superb Lyrebird, and Rockwarbler, the sole endemic of New South Wales. Heathlands in the park also harbor Southern Emuwren, and Tawny-crowned and New Holland Honeyeaters. In the afternoon we take a flight from Sydney to Hobart in Tasmania, where the following three nights will be spent.
Day 18: Hobart and Bruny Island. Dawn will find us at a tiny reserve at the edge of Hobart, where unfamiliar sounds will greet us for the first time: Yellow Wattlebirds should grace the eucalypts around the edge of a small dam, and Tasmanian Native-Hens will be seen scurrying across the park lawns. However, our short trip here will be for Tassie’s rarest resident, the cute and endangered Forty-spotted Pardalote. A short time and (hopefully) a pardalote later, we will head south to Kettering where we will pick up a Black-faced Cormorant or two at the docks and board the short ferry to Bruny. This island offers up almost all of the Tasmanian endemics that are the focus by this point of the tour: in some years 80% of the world population of Swift Parrots breed on the island, and it is also home to some incredible robins. In our day on the island we’ll be looking to track down the endemic Dusky Robin, and also the dreamy Pink and Scarlet Robins too. Visiting the island’s state forest we will search for a trio of endemic honeyeaters: Strong-billed, Black-headed, and Yellow-throated all occurring there, in addition to less flashy endemics like Tasmanian Scrubwrens and Tasmanian Thornbills. After a lunch stop by one of the many deserted white sandy beaches that border Bruny we’ll walk the beach for Hooded Plovers, and check the rocky headlands for loafing Pacific Gulls. After a full day on Bruny we will head back to Hobart for the night.
Day 19: Mount Wellington and the Tasman Peninsula. Our last day of the tour, and final days birding on Tasmania, will focus on any missing endemics and specialties from the day before. After a short trip into the temperate rainforest on the lower slopes of Mount Wellington for Olive Whistler and the endemic Scrubtit, we will venture up to the heath that cloaks the summit of the same mountain. As we drive up, the road will be our best bet for currawongs, both the endemic Black Currawong and Gray Currawong occurring on Wellington’s forested slopes. Up on the heath Crescent Honeyeaters occur in good numbers and we will try to tempt a Striated Fieldwren into the open or encourage a fantastic Flame Robin up onto an open snag. After a brief stop at the very summit to admire unrivalled views of the City of Hobart sprawling down below, and to take in its impressive geological feature: a cliff of dramatic dolerite columns known locally as the “Organ Pipes”, we’ll head over to the airport to check if there are any Musk Lorikeets dangling among the eucalypt blossoms.
In the afternoon we will drive out onto the Tasman Peninsula, a stronghold for the scarce Cape Barren Goose, and to check the scenic beaches for Red-capped Plovers and Fairy Terns, before we return to Hobart for a final farewell dinner.
Day 20: Hobart departure. Today the tour finishes in the morning, when people are transferred to Hobart airport for international departures that leave early in the morning.
Guide to habitats we bird on this tour
CLIMATE: Warm to a bit cold. Expect some rain in Tassie.
DIFFICULTY: Physically this is an easy trip with no difficult walking involved. However, it is fast-paced, and you can expect to be starting early on most days, departing the hotel from between 4:30am and 6:00am, and having breakfast in the field. These early starts aren’t just for fun, they will get you many more birds and allow us to visit more habitats in a short amount of time.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent.