Trip report: Australia custom tour (Sept-Oct 2019)

Guided by Sam Woods, with Emma Juxon in the Northern Territory and Ben Knoot in Western Australia.This was a custom tour.

PLEASE NOTE: The Cairns-Brisbane-Sydney-Hobart section followed exactly the itinerary of our Eastern Australia: Top to Bottom set departure tour; the first leg in the Northern Territory was planned exactly as our Top End: Victoria River to Kakadu tour (which links with the Eastern Australia tour). The Western Australia part of this tour is currently offered as a custom tour, which can be ran as a stand-alone tour, or one that attaches to the Eastern Australia tour. It is due to appear as a scheduled tour in the near future; please check the website.

This lengthy custom tour was set up for four people wishing to get the most out of Australia on a single month-long trip. Therefore, it started out in Darwin, covering first the Top End of the Northern Territory, with its own special suite of bird and mammal species, before flying across to Cairns in the Wet Tropics of Northeast Queensland. This was followed by another flight, and short leg, in Southern Queensland, after a flight into Brisbane. Following this section was the New South Wales leg, accessed by way of a flight into Sydney. Having covered both coastal and inland New South Wales, we took another flight to the island state of Tasmania, before one final leg in Western Australia led to us breaking the 500 species barrier, with a grand total of 517 bird species recorded by the trip end (taxonomy dependent), and 42 different mammal species too.

The tour started out with a meet up in Darwin, and coverage of some Top End sites, which led us to see some real cracking Top End and Northern Australia specialties, like Rainbow Pitta in the monsoon forests, a Rufous Owl perched low in the daytime in a Darwin park, Gouldian Finches coming to drink at an Outback waterhole early one morning, electric-blue Hooded Parrots taking shade by a local tavern, a pair of Purple-crowned Fairywrens (photo right Emma Juxon) perching on some riparian canegrass, and a huddle of extremely confiding Partridge Pigeons amongst the stunning scenery of Kakadu National Park that also gave us insight into the ancient Aboriginal rock galleries. A pair of Yellow Chats in Darwin were both unexpected and highly appreciated! This leg closed with a genuinely last gasp Chestnut Rail stomping through the mangroves at Buffalo Creek.

Heading east, after about a week in the NT, we remained in the tropics, but moved into a wetter area of these by way of a flight into the gateway for this, Cairns. This city and suburbs provided us with Beach Thick-knee, Little Kingfisher and Lovely Fairywren. Moving up into some higher rainforests, a Golden Bowerbird sat stock still by its captivating bower, a White-browed Robin sat by a shady creek, an absurdly confiding Southern Cassowary walked out of the forest and onto a sandy beach full of beach-goers, while mammals were represented by daytime Platypus, sleeping tree-kangaroos, and some imposing Eastern Gray Kangaroos, to name a few.

Once we reached Brisbane, in the south of the same state of Queensland, we then ventured in the temperate zone, with a vagrant pair of Cotton Pygmy-Geese being some of the first birds seen on this leg, quickly followed by a daytime encounter with the well-named Powerful Owl, Australia’s largest owl. At the World famous O Reilly’s we had great looks at their logo bird, the well-chosen Regent Bowerbird, and we also had very good close ups of several foraging Albert’s Lyrebirds there, a male Paradise Riflebird (a bird-of-paradise), as well as a lengthy period with a Noisy Pitta, a close-up of a Marbled Frogmouth by spotlight, and some entertaining logrunners. The mammal headline of this section was a pair of Koalas a short walk from the Powerful Owl within Brisbane itself (thank you Dean!).

The third flight of the trip brought us to Sydney, and the state of New South Wales, where we enjoyed a group of Superb Lyrebirds feeding in the temperate rainforest, a group of Superb Parrots well inland from there, a male Chestnut Quail-Thrush completely exposed in the mallee heathland, and the enigmatic Plains-wanderer (an endemic, monotypic bird family), during a dedicated night drive for this species on the saltbush- studded plains of inland New South Wales. Other highlights of this state included Gang-gang Cockatoos, Crested (Eastern) Shrike-Tit, an early morning Pink (Major Mitchell’s) Cockatoo, and very well-behaved Beautiful Firetail, Eastern Bristlebird, and Pilotbird during a balmy morning around Barren Grounds. It would be remiss of me not to mention yet more mammal highlights, which on this section included a roadside Short-beaked Echidna, some giant Red Kangaroos inland, and some Humpback Whales dramatically breaching just offshore of Bass Point.

The penultimate part of the tour was based out of Hobart on the island-come-state of Tasmania, a longtime favorite of visiting overseas birders and Australians too, by way of the combination of a discrete set of attractive endemic birds and specialties, and the indisputable scenic beauty of the island. This was illustrated perfectly on Bruny Island, where a clean, pallid sandy beach held a pair of Hooded Plovers, some attractive flowering Eucalyptus trees hosted some excitable Swift Parrots, (which had only recently arrived into the area for summer), and produced a day of 4 robin species (Scarlet, Flame, Pink and Dusky Robins). Nighttime forays brought us up close to some Little Penguins waddling ashore following their daytime pursuits out to sea, a Morepork staring at us in the spotlight, and a Southern Brown Bandicoot.

Lastly, Perth was our gateway for the final spell of the tour, spent south of that city in the various unique habitats of the state of Western Australia, ranging from Wandoo woodland, which held Rufous Treecreeper and Blue-breasted Fairywren, to heaths where the “terrible trio” of Western Whipbird, Western Bristlebird and Noisy Scrub-bird were anything but terrible, and were all seen well by the entire group. A striking Red-eared Firetail on our first afternoon provided a superb opening gambit to our time in this under-birded state (relative to the others visited).

Other standouts for the tour end included, Red-capped Parrots daubed in deep-purple, lime-green and scarlet-red, an obliging Western Spinebill, a handsome Western (Crested) Shrike-tit foraging amongst the peeling bark of a eucalyptus trees in the wonderful surrounds of Stirling Ranges National Park (thank you Larry), and an incredibly approachable Rock Parrot feeding among pink blossoms on the spotless sandy beach in scenic Bremer Bay. Indeed, the landscapes of Western Australia were very impressive, enhanced during our visit by large numbers of blooming flowers, like lemon-yellow Candle Banksias, bright red fuschias, and fiery-colored orchids; Honey Possum feeding on a bank of Banksias at Cheynes Beach was a mammal highlight too (thanks Carol).

As well as producing quality individual bird and mammal species, the numbers on this Australia tour were also impressive. The wide variety of habitats, combined with many uniquely Australasian bird families, led to see representatives from 88 different bird families, including 19 ducks, Magpie-Goose, 2 Cranes, several albatrosses, 6 owls, 8 kingfishers, 13 cockatoos, 28 parrots, 2 pittas and lyrebirds, 7 bowerbirds, 2 birds-of-paradise, 11 fairywrens, 65 honeyeaters, all 4 pardalotes, 2 bristlebirds, 1 scrub-bird, 7 cuckooshrikes and a couple of shrike-tits! Australia is bursting with endemic species, and more than 250 endemic species on this trip was testament to that! Picking birds of the trip from a month-long tour was impossible, and so highlights from each of the six legs of the trip are given at the start of each section of the tour summary to follow…

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