Field Guides, Books, and Apps for Birding in Australia

I interrupt this travelogue series detailing our 2019 trip Down Under to describe the identification guides and other books you’ll want to read and/or take with you for your Australian birding adventure. I’ll start with my favorite field guide, Pizzey & Knight’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia:

And by favorite, I don’t just mean my favorite field guide of Australian birds. I mean, of the more than 50 field guides that I own for birds and other wildlife from all over the world, it is my single favorite book. I got my first copy, the 7th edition, in advance of my 2006 trip to Australia, and I was instantly in love with both the book and Aussie avifauna. The illustrations, by Frank Knight, are exquisite. They are large in scale, with bright and bold colors. The painting style is smooth and inviting. Each bird is presented as the best, most attractive specimen, seen up close in good lighting. I will never tire looking at these images. The accompanying text by ornithologist Graham Pizzey is crisp and detailed. Juveniles and immatures are discussed at length, as are many subspecies. I especially appreciate the habitat and range/status sections of each account.

The latest edition (the 9th) has been updated and edited by Sarah Pizzey after the passing of her father. It has wonderful touches, like a quick-find picture index, a detailed glossary, large form maps of Australia, a section on vagrants and rarities, and articles in the front on migration, behavior, and habitat. In the back there is a whole section providing short but helpful family introductions for each group of birds. I was extolling the sheer perfection of this field guide to Neil in 2018 when we were planning our trip, when he asked me if I’d heard of the Australian Bird Guide.

“THE Australian Bird Guide? Aren’t there quite a few of them?” I sniffed.

“THE Australian Bird Guide,” Neil affirmed. “By Menkhorst and … a whole lotta other people….”

I ordered THE Australian Bird Guide (hereafter ABG), mostly to point out to Neil all the ways that it was inferior to Pizzey and Knight. But when it arrived and I opened it up and began to leaf through it, my mouth fell open and I didn’t close it for several minutes. If Pizzey and Knight reminds me of the elegance, artistry, and precision of David Allen Sibley’s guide to North American birds, then ABG is the analog of our super-detailed National Geographic guide, only on steroids. The ABG aims to be nothing short of exhaustive and definitive, and it basically succeeds. The text is highly detailed, giving average wing, bill, and weight metrics. There is a comprehensive description of all plumages, a section of flight habits, and an extensive notes section for each species. All important subspecies are represented, usually in the illustrations and in the maps as well as in the text. The entry on Crimson Rosella has EIGHTEEN different birds illustrated in an attempt to show the extensive variation present in this species, and a six-color range map showing the distribution of each type.

The paintings in ABG are also quite good, although they are done by a whole committee of illustrators so the style is a little uneven. I think I like the ones by Kim Franklin the best, but all of the illustrators are quite talented. In order to fit in lots of different subspecies, sometimes the images get a little small. The aforementioned rosella paintings are only about 5 to 6 cm long on the page, which is pretty small for a bird that reaches 36 cm or more in real life.

If I had a complaint about the ABG, it’s the use of colors in the maps. For one thing, I am so accustomed to using color to represent seasonal variations in distribution that it took me quite a while to get used to their use of color to show geographic subspecies distribution. I understand that migration patterns are different in Australia (and for some species less important and/or less predictable), but it still took some getting used to. A more serious problem is that the colors were not chosen in consultation with anyone who knows anything about colorblindness, and even my moderate deuteranopia rendered many of the red/green/brown color schemes totally inscrutable.

My favorite thing about the ABG, besides the fact that it is the most information-dense field guide on the entire planet, is its use of Harvey balls to generate a visual representation of each species’ subjective ‘likelihood of encounter.’ I think all birders are interested in “what’s my chance of actually finding this thing?” and the use of Harvey balls for the authors’ best guess of this probability is just *chef’s kiss*.

Example of Harvey balls

There are of course other field guides available for the birds of Australia. If I had to take a third one with me, I’d probably go with the fine offering from Simpson and Day (Birds of Australia). I have the 7th edition, and I think they’re out with an 8th edition now. In many areas of the world, a field guide like Simpson and Day would be far and away the very best one available. Too bad in Australia it’s a distant third.

In terms of bird finding guides, we did make some use of Finding Australian Birds by Dolby and Clarke.

I bought the Kindle version (so it wouldn’t take up any room in my luggage, and because it was fractionally cheaper) and Neil bought the paperback. To be totally honest, I don’t think these printed “bird finding guides” are worth much anymore. When I first started getting into birding in the late 1990s, I found them indispensable. But with the rise of internet birding groups and listservs, birding websites, and (most importantly) eBird, what they are able to offer just pales in comparison to what’s available online for free. For one thing, their subject matter is almost impossibly broad. “Finding Australian Birds” is a bit like “Finding a Hamburger in the United States.” How can you possibly cover 900 species of birds over an entire continent in a single book? You just can’t. For another thing, a printed book is immediately out-of-date. This is not the fault of the authors, of course, but as sites and access change or birds move around, the information becomes useless (or worse, misleading). Still, Dolby and Clarke is a fine resource for giving you an overview of different regions and habitat types. It highlights some of the better know birding locations, and has some helpful maps and directions. I appreciated having it as a reference, even if we didn’t use it for much of our detailed planning.

[If you’re interested in how exactly we *did* do our detailed planning, I wrote a blog post about the process of planning our South Africa Trip in 2019. The short answer is: eBird data and a ton of spreadsheets. We went through a similar process this time, only Neil spent even MORE time using our detailed research to construct fancy, custom checklists for us, including robust use of Harvey balls, of course!]

In addition to paper and electronic books, we also used a couple of iPhone apps to help us prepare and complete our expedition. I tried out a couple of different field guide apps, and while a number of them were pretty decent, my favorite (no surprise!) was PK Birds, the Pizzey and Knight field guide app:

PK Birds

PK Birds has all of the fantastic paintings, detailed text, and accurate maps you’d find in the full Pizzey and Knight field guide. But it also has thousands of photos and audio recordings. The audio recordings were incredibly helpful. I tried to learn the 50 or so most common birds by call or song before I left, so that I didn’t go chasing every Eastern Whipbird off the trail and deep into the rainforest. And we’d listen to recordings of our target species in the car on the way to our next stop so that we could “tune in” to what was singing when we arrived. This app wasn’t cheap, but it totally delivered. I used it for several hours every day of our trip.

A book that won’t help you learn to find or identify Australian birds, but one that will help you to appreciate them more is Tim Low’s incredible new work, Where Song Began.

I read a lot of nonfiction, and this was the most enjoyable book about natural history I’ve read in a long time. Low makes fascinating connections between the geology and geography of Australia and it’s native birds and plant species. Its poor soil combined with favorable amounts of sunlight lead Australian plants to channel much of their excess energy into production of nectar, which in turn drives bird evolution in new and interesting directions. Low also charts the human impacts on Australia’s wildlands, from the aboriginal peoples through colonization and modern times. If you’re planning a trip to Australia (or you’re just interested in avian evolution and natural history), you should definitely check it out.

Of course, my all-time favorite book on birding Australia is not available in any store. It’s a Neil Hayward custom piece:

I’ve told him there’s probably a market for people willing to pay top dollar for a 75-page personalized book that includes custom checklists, itineraries, research guides, site guides with maps, daily logs, and bonus material on plant and mammal IDs. Maybe our next career is making these custom resource guides for birders who prefer independent travel over all-inclusive tours, but still need the scoop on when and where to go, and what to see when they get there? We’d have to test them all out in-country, of course, to make sure they were totally accurate!

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

Figs, Volcanoes, Tea, Tree Kangaroos, Owls, and a Platypus

The southern Tablelands are filled with charm and wonder. There is the Curtain Fig, a 500 year-old strangler fig tree as tall as an 11 story building whose aerial roots cascade downwards through the mabi rainforest.

The Curtain Fig, near Yungaburra

There is the platypus viewing platform and trail system near the tiny town of Yungaburra, which is one of the best places in the world to observe this duck-billed, egg-laying, aquatic mammal. The platypus finds food through the use of electric fields (electrolocation), and the males have a venomous spur near their hind foot. They are also much smaller than I expected, and dang cute.

A Platypus swims in Peterson Creek, just outside Yungaburra

The landscape is dotted with crater lakes, remnants of ancient volcanoes whose powerful eruptions left large, bowl-shaped depressions which have filled with water in the intervening eons. We visited crater lakes at Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham, as well as at Mount Hypipamee National Park. Birding at Lake Barrine was especially satisfying, as we tracked down a family group of Chowchillas, one of the species we thought we had missed after not seeing them at Mount Lewis.

“The Crater” at Mount Hypipamee, a diatreme hundreds of feet deep

You can also find the Nerada Tea Planation here, the largest tea farm in all of Australia. We popped in for tea and scones, and to see their resident wild tree kangaroos.

Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos (mom and baby)

It was a whirlwind couple of days. Our home base for this part of the trip was Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodge, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The rooms are clean and modern with comfortable beds and small kitchens. Their rates are very reasonable, and include laundry service (which was critical as I was totally out of clean clothes at this point).

Set in the rainforest itself (and bordered on two sides by Crater Lakes National Park), Chambers has abundant wildlife viewing opportunities directly on the premises. Victoria’s Riflebird and Spotted Catbirds came to our deck to eat ripe banana pieces. We startled pademelons (think: mini-kangaroos) on a walk through the forest. And at night, the lodge staff smeared honey on a tree to bring in sugar gliders and other nocturnal marsupials.

Sugar Glider

A little owling provided terrific views of a magnificent Lesser Sooty Owl, common in this area.

Lesser Sooty Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

We filled our days checking out the local birding locations, including Jack Bethel Park for White-browed Robin, Hasties Swamp National Park where we saw more than 4000 Plumed Whistling Ducks, and Bromfield Swamp where we spent a memorable late afternoon watching dozens of Brolga and Sarus Cranes descend through the mist to roost at the bottom of the volcano crater for the night.

The specks in the middle ground are some of the thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks that were wintering at Hasties Swamp.
The view into the crater at Bromfield Swamp. The cranes usually come in to roost there near sunset.

We packed a lot into a few short days, and our time in Queensland was coming to an end. Still, there was no time to relax.

“Why is everyone always telling me to relax?!” – Neil Hayward

We would be using our last couple days in this state to drive almost 400 km due west, deep into the Queensland outback on a one-lane road. Yes, one-lane total (for both directions). We weren’t too worried until we were checking out of Chambers, and I mentioned casually that we would be driving to Georgetown that day. “You’re driving to Georgetown in THAT thing?!” the desk clerk exclaimed, pointing at our low-slung rental sedan. Yes, we were. What could possibly go wrong?

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

Atherton Tableland Adventure

The Atherton Tableland is an area of rolling hills amongst the Great Dividing Range, about 90 minutes west of Cairns. It varies in elevation from about 400 meters to over 1200 meters at the top of Mount Lewis. And, critically for the traveling birder, it hosts about a dozen endemic species found no where else on Earth. We had about three days to track down as many of them as possible. Our first stop was Abatoir Swamp Environmental Park, a small protected wetlands area near Julatten. We immediately lucked into a feeding flock in the parking lot, and tallied nine species of honeyeaters, a Rainbow Bee-eater, and a Little Bronze Cuckoo. Down the road, we stopped for lunch at the Mount Molloy Cafe, and feasted on their delicious bagel sandwiches, smoothies, muffins, and (importantly for Neil) coffee. We tried out several different eateries on the Tablelands, and this simple take-away place had some of the best food.

Mount Malloy Cafe

We also did a little birding around the town of Mount Molloy, picking up some snazzy Red-backed Fairywrens, the local and sometimes shy Squatter Pigeons, and a sharp-looking Forest Kingfisher. At the Mount Molloy School, there is sign on the gate that said, “Birders Welcome.” We parked and walked around the grounds. A highlight here was finding the bower of a Great Bowerbird.

Great Bowerbird bower

Bowers are structures built by the male bowerbirds out of sticks, shells, and rocks for the explicit purpose of impressing and courting females. This is an “avenue” type bower, with walls made of twigs and an impressive pile of snail shells and white stones at one end. It was not breeding season so the bower was unattended when we stopped by. But we did see a number of Great Bowerbirds in the area.

As the afternoon waned, we made our way to Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge, a well-known fixture on the birding circuit run by avid birders Carol and Andrew Iles. Andrew showed us to our room, which was clean and comfortable, and more importantly had a feeding station right outside frequented by Macleay’s Honeyeaters, a specialty of the region. I was pretty wiped out, and voted for a short rest before dinner, but Neil had heard about a local marsh that was good for rails. So instead of a refreshing nap, I spent most of the next hour slogging around a wetland looking for Spotless Crake. Unfortunately, instead of Spotless Crakes, the theme of the afternoon turned out to be a crake-less spots. At dusk we gave up and headed for the only restaurant in Julatten for a well-earned dinner. Returning to Kingfisher, we walked across a field of fragrant, knee-high grass to an ancient tree. The moon rose, the stars began to twinkle, a cool breeze rustled across the darkened landscape. After maybe 20 minutes, a Barn Owl poked its head out of a hole, some 50 feet up. We shone our torch (Aussie for ‘flashlight’) a few feet below the owl so that we could observe it in the indirect light at the edge of the beam. The owl looked around for a few moments, then took wing into the night. We retired to our room. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The next morning we walked the grounds of Kingfisher, notching more than 40 species in about two and a half hours. We picked up some good birds, like Pacific Emerald Dove, Striated Pardalote, and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher. Mid-morning we hopped in the rental car and began the long drive up Mount Lewis. Mount Lewis National Park has the best high altitude rainforest habitat in the Tablelands, and is the best (or only) spot for many of our remaining Atherton-area target species. Fortunately the road was in good condition, as the last 10 km or so is all muddy dirt track. Our rental car was up to the task, and after traversing many miles of dense rainforest we broke out into the bright sunshine of a small clearing. Parking the car, we gathered our gear and began to look around.

The clearing at the parking area near the top of Mount Lewis

The birding was slow, but almost every new species was new for our trip: Atherton and Yellow-throated Scrubwrens, Mountain Thornbill, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, and Grey-headed Robin. Half a mile in, we were granted terrific looks at a Tooth-billed Bowerbird. We heard several Fernwrens calling, but they were frustratingly hard to spy in the thick undergrowth. After a great deal of searching we finally got good looks at one near the car. We dipped on Golden Bowerbird and Chowchilla, the former of which is rare and not expected, but the latter is more common and we were disappointed to miss. Still, it was a very productive morning, and we headed back down the mountain for some late lunch at the Mount Molloy Cafe and a rest.

The Mount Lewis Trail

I had a brief nap while Neil studied his field guides, and then we decided to head west to check out some drier areas near Mount Carbine and Maryfarms. The late afternoon sun bathed the entire landscape in a golden glow, and there were birds everywhere feeding, fighting, flying, or just loafing in the warm breeze. We counted no fewer than 12 Australian Bustards: impressive, largely terrestrial, omnivorous birds standing almost four feet tall.

An Australian Bustard

We also picked up a number of other new birds for our trip, including Blue-winged Kookaburra and Banded Honeyeater. It was a satisfying end to wonderful few days in the northern Tablelands. Tomorrow we would be leaving Kingfisher for points south.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

North to Daintree

Centenary Lakes, Cairns Botanic Gardens

We spent the next morning mopping up, which is birder talk for picking up a few species that we hadn’t yet seen around Cairns. A pre-dawn breakfast of coffee and eggs was mostly satisfactory, although Neil was not impressed when he asked for hot sauce, and the cook/cashier/sole proprietor of the cafe gave him a scornful look. “We don’t ‘ave any ‘ot sauce! Thot would change the taste,” he explained. Neil furrowed his brow and muttered under his breath, “Yes, that’s the general idea of a condiment. It changes the taste.”

Fortified with caffeine and a hot sauce-free brekky, we fired up our trusty rental car and hit the road. A stop at some mangroves near Edmonton netted us a small group of very appropriately named Lovely Fairywrens, their purple helmets contrasting with their bright white lores (the space between the eye and the bill). Back at Centenary Lakes near the Cairns Botanic Gardens, the morning sun provided breath-taking illumination for a couple of Papuan Frogmouths. These nocturnal beauties, relatives of the North American nightjars, were dozing in a tropical tree. At nearly two feet in length, the frogmouths made an easy photographic target even as we kept a respectful distance.

Papuan Frogmouth

Heading north, we stopped at the Cattana Wetlands, an old sugar cane farm that had been converted to a wildlife preserve. An ominous sign on the way in warned us that we were entering an Electric ant biosecurity zone.

Shocking! We were careful not to move any vegetation or soil. Electric ants are an invasive species which arrived several decades ago from South America. Their name comes from their powerful bite; they are also known as the ‘little fire ant.’

Cattana is a beautiful area. A boardwalk encircles several lakes, with regenerating forest along the fringes. Highlights here were Green Pygmy-Geese, a Brown-backed Honeyeater, Brahminy Kite, and a Brown Goshawk.

Cattana Wetlands

Keen to keep moving north towards Daintree National Park, we pressed on. We left the farms and settlements behind, moving into primeval rainforest habitat. The highway hugged the coast in places, allowing for spectacular views of golden sand beaches, frothy azure water, and glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef at the edge of the horizon. By the time we rolled into tiny Daintree Village, we were ready to explore this new world.

After checking into the quaint but comfortable Daintree Riverview Lodge and Van Park, we took a walk along the Daintree River on the only road out of town. We immediately stumbled, almost literally, upon a Short-beaked Echidna. Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters, are found only in Australia and New Guinea. Along with the platypus, they are the only species of mammals who lay eggs. This little guy was foraging for grubs along the side of the road, quite oblivious to our birding efforts. We watched him for a good 10 minutes before he disappeared into the rainforest. The road wasn’t too birdy, but we did pick up Green Oriole and Wompoo Fruit-Dove, a large colorful dove named for its booming call. We headed back for dinner and an early bedtime, because tomorrow morning we had an early appointment with Murray.

Murray Hunt, “the Daintree Boatman,” runs nature tours on his small flat-bottomed boat. Neil and I had reservations for the sunrise trip, so at 6:45am the next morning we made our way down to the river.

Neil attempts the impossible: birding without coffee

Neil, bereft of coffee, was anxious. Birders on Murray’s tours commonly encountered three rare specialties of the Daintree area: Great-billed Heron, Little Kingfisher, and Double-eyed Fig-Parrot. We needed all three. This was our best, perhaps only chance to see them. But they are all shy, and bit elusive. It would take some luck to see them all. Neil hated relying on luck.

The boat tour started well enough. We saw a distant White-bellied Sea-Eagle as we set off. Murray was also able to track down some roosting Papuan Frogmouths and a Black-necked Stork. We spotted our first target, a pair of diminutive Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, eating fruit on a branch over the water. These colorful characters are only about 5 inches long, the smallest parrots in Australia. Their “double eye” is a bright blue spot on the lores. I gave Neil a “thumbs up” when we spotted them. He maintained his serious composure. “Now we need the other two,” he replied.

The ‘other two’ proved difficult. The tide was extremely high, meaning that many of the typical hangout spots for the kingfisher and the heron were totally under water. Seeing two avid birders at the bow, Murray pulled out all of the stops to try to locate these special birds. He squeezed his boat into side tributaries. We patrolled up and down promising coves. The advertised two-hour trip stretched into two and a quarter hours. Then two and a half. Finally, Murray gave up and headed the boat back towards the dock. It was a lovely trip, and we saw many cool birds. Murray was knowledgeable and entertaining. But I could tell that Neil was disappointed that two of the star attractions were no-shows. “We might still pick them up down the road,” I told him. He looked skeptical as we packed up the car and headed south. But both of our moods lightened as the morning wore on and we remembered our next destination: the famous Atherton Tablelands.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

Cairns and Cassowaries

The cheapest and most convenient flight from Sydney to Cairns was on Jetstar, the low-cost “sister” carrier to Qantas.  Jetstar is a distinctly “no frills” airline.  The gate agents weigh your carry-on to see if you have exceeded the strict 7 kg limit; if you have, hefty penalties apply.  There is no entertainment or Wi-Fi on the flight, but you can get water – if you pay extra for it.  Despite the relative lack of amenities, I had no complaints about my Jetstar experience.  The gate agents and flight attendants were polite and professional, the plane was new and clean, and we touched down in Cairns (pronounced like “Cans” if you’re an American) right on time.

Kuanda Rainforest

Kuranda Rain Forest, just outside of Cairns

Cairns is a bustling tourist hub of about 150,000 people right on the coast in Far North Tropical Queensland.  At about 17 degrees south latitude, it experiences sweltering, wet summers and warm, drier winters.  We had perfect weather (highs in the low 80s and dry) most days.  Cairns is a popular birding destination in its own right, and also serves as a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef (to the east), Daintree National Park (to the north), the Atherton Tablelands (to the southwest).  The city is flanked by pristine rainforest on several sides.

Barron Falls

Barron Falls, just NW of Cairns

After we picked up our rental car, we headed straight for the Cairns Esplanade, the walking path that runs for several miles along the water from the city center to a productive patch of mangroves at its northern terminus.  Although the austral summer (e.g. winter in the Northern Hemisphere) is much more productive for shorebirds along the Esplanade, we still managed to rustle up Pied Oystercatcher, Black-fronted Dotterel, Far Eastern Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, and the ubiquitous Masked Lapwing.

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Cairns Beach at the Esplanade

Other highlights were Torresian and Sacred Kingfishers, Varied Honeyeaters, a Pacific Reef Heron, and a relatively shy Mangrove Robin.  We would return a couple more times to the Esplanade, picking up Beach Thick-knee and several other species.

After strolling the Esplanade (well, I strolled; Neil intermittently power-walked and peered through his telescope intently) we decided to head down to Etty Bay to search for the largest bird in Australia.  The Southern Cassowary is a rare resident of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland and New Guinea.  Adults can reach 6 feet in height and weigh nearly 200 pounds.  Although it cannot fly, the cassowary is not a bird to be trifled with.  It has powerful legs and a dagger-like toe that can eviscerate would-be predators or hapless birders.

As we approached Etty Bay, I picked up on some subtle signs that cassowaries might be close by.

Cassowary Sign

As we rounded a curve, I caught a glimpse of a large black and blue shape near the edge of the forest.  “Whoa!  Did you see that?!” I hollered at Neil.  His eyes remained on the road and his foot on the accelerator.  He calmly replied, “yep.”

I gave him a hard look.  “It was a large statue of a cassowary, right?” he responded.  The car drove on around another curve.  Panic was rising in my chest as I blurted, “That was not a STATUE of a cassowary!  That.  Was.  A.  Cassowary!”  Neil spared a glance at me, took in my wide eyes and open mouth, and decided that I wasn’t pulling his leg.  The car fishtailed as Neil deftly made a U-turn at speed, and we were hurtling back down the winding hill.  When a mammoth dark shape appeared on the right, Neil pulled the car off to the side of the road 25 meters away.  We took a good long look at the cassowary.  It gave us a glance, and then went back to lounging near the forest.  We carefully got out of the car and crept a little closer, mindful to stay a respectful distance away.

Southern Cassowary

Southern Cassowary – photo by Neil Hayward

The cassowary remained nonchalant, the sunlight gleaming off its horn-like casque.  Its brilliant blue neck extended and then pulled back, its pink wattles swinging in the breeze.  For ten minutes we just marveled at it.  Neil snapped some terrific photos.  We returned to the car, buzzing, and continued onwards towards Etty Bay to see if we could find any other cassowaries.

The beach at Etty bay had picnickers, volleyball players, and beachcombers.  I doubted we would run into any other cassowaries down here.  Until I saw a footprint in the sand.

Cassowary footprint

A very large footprint.  With three toes.  Raising my binoculars, I scanned again.  My eyes alighted on a dark shape stepping out of the rain forest.  It was coming towards me.  I backed out of the way as the prehistoric monster sidled by.  It was not coming for me after all.  It was headed directly for…

Cassowary Picnic Basket

Cassowary Loots the Picnic Basket – photo by Neil Hayward

an unattended picnic basket.  Deftly removing a tea towel covering the food, the cassowary proceeded to pull out a huge bunch of bananas.  In a flash, it ripped off a banana, threw it in the air, and swallowed it whole.  Seconds later another followed, and then another.  It was six bananas in when the owner of the picnic basket arrived and tried to shoo the cassowary away.  The cassowary stood up and stared at the woman, as if to say, “really, what do you intend to do?”  It then proceeded to eat the rest of her bananas, poke around in the basket to see if there was any other ripe fruit, and then slowly amble away.

After having our fill of cassowaries (we spotted an immature bird on the way out), we returned to Cairns.  At this point, I was starving.  Neil asked if I liked pies, “Because, if you do, I know a place.”  The ‘place’ turned out to be a gas station with a Pie Face fast food chain inside.  Let’s just say that after we sampled their “food,” there were only two smiles in the car as we pulled away.

Pie Face

Returning to Cairns, we decided to follow up on a hot lead.  A pair of uncommon Rufous Owls was being reported in a park… which turned out to be immediately adjacent to our hotel – the Reef Palms!  It took us a couple of tries to catch up to them, but eventually we had smashing looks at the owls both in the evening twilight as we watched them court each other and during midday in their roost tree.  You couldn’t quite see them from our room, but you could catch a glimpse of them from inside the hotel at the bottom of the stairs.

Neil looking at owls

They were truly magnificent.  We ended up having great luck with owls on this trip (with five species seen well and another heard only), but these might have been my favorites.

Rufous Owls2

A Pair of Rufous Owls

Getting ready for bed that night, it was hard to imagine that I had actually woken up in Sydney that morning, 1500 miles away.  “Surely we can’t keep up this pace for the entire trip,” I thought as I drifted off to sleep.  I was wrong.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

Triumph and Disappointment in NSW

Although it was cold and dark the next morning when we left the hotel, a rosy glow was already gracing the eastern sky.  I was anxious to get going, but first Neil needed to finish fighting the barista at the local coffee shop.  “No, a LARGE cup,” Neil insisted.  The barista put back the 8 oz cup and picked up a 12 oz one.  “Don’t you have anything bigger?” Neil asked as he craned his neck to see around the side of the espresso machine.  “Ah, mate, you want a JUMBO cup,” replied the tired looking man behind the counter.  “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!” Neil exclaimed.  “Yeah, we don’t carry Jumbo cups,” the man responded.  “They do make ’em, though: 16 ounces – it’s like half a liter!”  Neil gave me an exasperated glance as he handed over his bank card.  I chuckled under my breath as he grabbed his flat white and we headed for the car.  Soon we were hurtling west on the M5 motorway towards my second-favorite birding spot in New South Wales, the Australian Botanic Gardens at Mount Annan.

The ABG is a naturalist’s delight.  It has more than a dozen specialty gardens spread out over 1000 acres.  Between the visual beauty and the rich diversity of bird life present, I totally forgot to snap photos of the place!  We ended up spending over five hours there, and racked up 54 species including 9 species of honeyeaters.  One of my favorites were the Bell Miners, which live in dense colonies and give a loud and persistent “BLINK” call, not unlike a bell.  There are some interesting theories explaining why Bell Miners live in colonies.  One is that they “farm” psyllids, a group of insects which feed on eucalyptus.  The young psyllids, called nymphs, form a sweet, sugary shell called a lerp to protect themselves.  The miners sometimes eat the lerps but not the nymphs themselves, and chase away other forest birds which might eat the psyllid nymphs and adults.  There is even some evidence that colonies of Bell Miners can cause whole stands of eucalypts to die when the psyllids that eat them multiply relatively unchecked.  This phenomena is called Bell Miner Associated Dieback.

While I did not get any photos of the Bell Miners, their nosy cousins, the Noisy Miners, visited me at the cafe and tried to steal my scones.

Noisy Miner

Noisy Miner wants my scones

After some fortifying scones and a flat white, we returned to the Banksia Garden in search of the Swift Parrots.  Swift Parrots are critically endangered, with perhaps only 2000 individuals remaining in the wild.  They breed in Tasmania and migrate to mainland Australia in the winter.  Uncommon anywhere, they are especially rare in this area of New South Wales.  However, a small flock of them had been seen intermittently for the last week or so feeding on the Banksia flowers in the southwest corner of the park.  After half an hour amongst the Banksia, we caught a glimpse of a parrot flock blasting through the trees.  These green streaks were indeed quite swift as they wheeled and twisted in a tight group through the canopy, and it was hard to get a good look at them.  They finally settled in the treetops, and we got brilliant scope views of some 25 Swift Parrots (more than 1% of the global population!).  They were the ninth parrot species for the day, joining such other beauties as Australian King Parrot, Crimson & Eastern Rosellas, Galahs, and Red-rumped Parrots.

Soon enough, the Swift Parrots zipped away to check out another corner of the gardens, and our attention was drawn to a brightly colored songbird across the trail.  I re-directed my scope just in time to see a magnificent male Variegated Fairywren in full alternate plumage.

Variegated Fairywren

Variegated Fairywren – photo by Neil Hayward

“Bird of the trip,” I whispered to Neil as he snapped away with his birding camera.  People often ask me what my favorite bird is, and I never had a good answer before.  Now I do: it’s that particular male Variegated Fairywren in the Banksia Garden of the ABG.

After we had our fill of parrots, honeyeaters, and fairywrens, we started working our way towards the exit.  At the north end of the gardens, we stopped by the lakes and picked up a group of Buff-rumped Thornbills and a very handsome male Rose Robin.  Driving home on the M5, we were feeling quite satisfied with our day.  We wanted to turn in early because we were scheduled to get up hours before dawn the next morning for a pelagic birding trip out to the deep ocean off the coast of Sydney.  Near our hotel however, we were graced with an unsettling omen: a white car with a “no birds” logo emblazoned upon both doors.

No birds

But why not?

The car turned out to be a prescient warning.  When Neil checked his messages back at the hotel, we received some unpleasant news.  The weather offshore was quite rough, with high winds and deep swells.  Our pelagic trip had been canceled.  I was devastated.  We had adjusted the timing of our whole trip to coincide with the July pelagic trip out of Sydney.  I was hoping to spend the next day seeing albatrosses, petrels, prions, and shearwaters.  Now we were left with an extra, unscheduled day in NSW.  What to do?  We spent a little time searching the internet for a backup plan, and decided to spend the day at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, about 45 minutes north of Sydney.

Ku-ring-gai Chase is a huge protected area, almost 60 square miles.  We started at the Chiltern Trail, where we ran into a delightful local birder named Robert Griffin, with whom we spent the next two hours.  Highlights of the Chiltern Trail included White-cheeked, White-eared, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters.  Later on we stopped at West Head, which was spectacularly beautiful but not tremendously birdy.

Neil at West Head

Neil at West Head in Ku-ring-gai Chase NP

We made a stop at Warriewood Wetlands on the way back to town, and ended the day at Long Reef Aquatic Reserve, a finger of land that extends into the Pacific Ocean just northeast of Sydney.  At the ocean watch near the tip, we watched a dozen Black-browed Albatrosses bank and soar over the waves, circling over the cormorants, gulls, and shorebirds roosting on the offshore islets.  It was not nearly as good as a pelagic trip, but I didn’t leave Australia without seeing at least a few seabirds.

Long Reef Aquatic Reserve
Long Reef Aquatic Reserve (those specks are albatrosses)

We returned to Miranda and packed up our things.  We had an early flight out to Cairns the next morning, our first taste of tropical Queensland.  Four days in NSW had netted us 125 species; not as many as we would have seen had our pelagic trip run, but not too bad for mid-winter in the Sydney metro area.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

An Australia Birding Adventure Begins

The pre-dawn air was cold and still as I made my way through the wrought-iron gates into Centennial Park in southeast Sydney.

Gates to Centennial Park

This was my rendezvous point with Neil Hayward, my “Big Year” birding buddy. We met in Nome, Alaska during our North American Big Years in 2013. Then we birded Costa Rica in July of 2015 (Big Year Birders II) and South Africa (BYB III) in July of 2017. Now we were embarking on BYB IV: Australia. It was early July, mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and we had planned a two and half week trip spanning New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory.  My family had joined me for a warmup trip in June, and I had just packed them on a plane back to Seattle the night before.  Now I was ready to spend a few weeks with Neil sampling a whole continent’s worth of avifauna.

Black Swans were already browsing the vast lawns, and Rainbow Lorikeets munched on the flowering trees and shrubs.

Centennial Park just after dawn

Immature Rainbow Lorikeet

The flying foxes were making a tremendous racket as they returned to their day roosts high in the paperbarks.  I picked out Long-billed and Little Corellas as the sun crept higher and began to take the chill out of my fingers.  Soon I saw Neil, his lovely wife Gerri, and half-pint mini-me son, Henry.  We spent a few minutes catching up, and then were off to see the other specialties of Centennial Park.  In short order, we picked up a resident Powerful Owl roosting high in a tree and an out-of-range Freckled Duck loafing on one of the islands in a small lake.  The Tawny Frogmouths were playing hard to get until Gerri expertly spotted a sleepy one nestled next to a tree trunk in Lachlan Swamp.  After a couple hours at Centennial Park, we drove west to Bicentennial Park.

Bicentennial Park is located on the shores of Homebush Bay, and is part of Sydney’s Olympic Park (developed in preparation for the 2000 Olympic Games).  Highlights here were Red-necked Avocets, Chestnut Teal, and Brown Quail.  We put together a decent list in less than 90 minutes, and then headed off for pizza dinner.  Gerri and Henry were flying home that night, and after dropping them off at SYD, we made our way south to Miranda where we would be spending the next few nights.

The next morning before dawn we set out for Royal National Park, one of the best birding spots in New South Wales.  We began our day at the Mt. Bass fire trail, which was advertised as being good for birds of the open country heath. 

Photo Jul 10, 2 42 28 PM

While there were no Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens or Southern Emuwrens in evidence, we did pick up some very handsome singing Tawny Honeyeaters.  After a quick stop at the Ironbark Flat visitor’s center to pay our entrance fees and say hi to some Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, we were off to one of my favorite places on earth.

Sulfur-crested Cockatoo

Lady Carrington Drive, named for the wife of a former governor of NSW, is a 10 km trail running through the heart of Royal NP.  Originally designated as a “carriageway,” it was officially opened by Lady Carrington herself in 1886.  Nowadays it is a scenic trail for hikers, cyclists, and birders who want to explore the prime eucalypt forest and riparian habitat.

Photo Jul 10, 3 47 56 PM

We walked south from the trail’s northern terminus for several hours, constantly serenaded by the ubiquitous Yellow-faced Honeyeaters.

Lady Carrington Drive

Highlights included our first Scarlet Myzomelas of the trip, terrific views of perched Topknot Pigeons, scads of Eastern Spinebills, and two obliging Rockwarblers. 

Photo Jun 23, 5 29 24 PM

Despite diligently searching, we did not pick up the Superb Lyrebird, as expected.  After a spot of lunch back at Ironbark Flat, we headed south.  The southern terminus of Lady Carrington was largely birdless in the listless heat of the day, with the noted exception of a spectacular Bassian Thrush.

Photo Jul 10, 8 13 13 PM

We ended the day at Curra Moors in a final attempt to pick up some heathland species.  On the way down the path, I noted the characteristic song of an Eastern Whipbird coming from deep inside a nearby bush.  Despite being one of my favorite sounds of the Australian forest, I continued down the trail thinking about my tired feet and the general lack of Heathwrens.  The Whipbird sang again, but it didn’t sound quite right.  An instant later, a Yellow-faced Honeyeater sang from inside the same bush.  Then a bird I didn’t recognize.  Then a Laughing Kookaburra.  Then the drunk Whipbird again.  I stopped in my tracks.  Something was not right.  What was wrong with that Whipbird?  And was it hosting a bird party inside that bush?  And why is a Kookaburra lurking deep inside the undergrowth?  Unless… 

“Neil!” I hissed.  He was, as usual, already quite a ways down the trail, but he heard me and turned around.  I pointed furiously at the bush in the mid-distance.  The Kookaburra was laughing again, but stopped abruptly only to be replaced by a honeyeater, then something else I didn’t recognize, then the drunk Whipbird again.  Unless I was very much mistaken, we were actually listening to one of the best avian mimics in the world, the Superb Lyrebird.  (Perhaps you have seen this one singing for Sir David Attenborough?)  We crept closer to the bush, but couldn’t get a clear view of the bird.  When we were within five meters, the singing suddenly stopped.  Silence descended.  We walked over to the bush, but it was deserted.  Then, down the trail, we heard it again: drunken Whipbird, honeyeater, Kookaburra.  The Lyrebird was singing again.  We retraced our steps, and listened to this incredible mimic go through its entire repertoire, which included at least six or seven different species.  The concert went on and on but the star performer stayed just out of sight.  Finally, at the end of a particularly magnificent passage, there was an explosion of feathers as the Lyrebird bounded down the hill, leaping fallen branches and other debris like an Olympic hurdler.  In less than 20 seconds it had disappeared completely into the late afternoon heath.  Neil and I grinned as we made our way back up the hill to the car.  It was a concert we would not soon forget.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Birding

Arrival at the Indian Ocean: Birding St. Lucia and iSimangaliso

On the afternoon of Day 12 of our South African birding adventure, we drove into St. Lucia. This is not the island nation of Saint Lucia in the eastern Caribbean. This is St. Lucia, a tiny tourist town (population 1100) in KwaZulu-Natal on the shores of the Indian Ocean in eastern South Africa. I fell in love with it at once. The main street had a welcoming and low-key vacation vibe. A warm ocean breeze stirred the palm trees outside the coffee shop, where we drank coffee and ate pastries. There was both WiFi and cell service, and Neil and I took the opportunity to send reassuring texts to our families after a number of days of radio silence. And after five or six meals in a row of granola bars, dried fruit, and sandwiches (and wondering if I should buy some sketchy looking warthog chops to cook with my bare hands over the braai), we were greeted by a number of real restaurants. We had reserved a room at St. Lucia Wilds for two nights, which was a perfectly nice place to stay with a quiet setting, clean and comfortable accommodations, friendly hosts, and a very reasonable rate.

Over the course of the next two days, we explored the lush coastal forests and estuaries around St. Lucia. One of our first stops was the beach just east of town. We marveled at the roaring surf of the Indian Ocean, and watched several humpback whales cruise just offshore.

There were a healthy number of new birds to add to our list as well, including some stately Pink-backed Pelicans, Cape Gannet, Kittlitz’s Plover, and Yellow-billed Stork.

Pink-backed Pelicans – photo by Neil Hayward

We visited the nearby Igwalawala nature trail several times, and enjoyed seeing the multitude of forest birds that were drawn to the fruiting figs, including Trumpeter Hornbill and both Purple-crested and Livingstone’s Turaco.

Trumpeter Hornbill – photo by Neil Hayward

On Day 13, we spent most of the day at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This spectacular reserve protects a swath of lowland forest and coastline stretching north from St. Lucia all the way to the border with Mozambique. We drove the main road that snakes between Lake St. Lucia on the west and the ocean to the east all of the way up to Cape Vidal. In the misty forest at the Cape we saw several Woodward’s Batis, a bird that is rarely found in South Africa outside
iSimangaliso Park. Along the Grassland Loop road, a highlight was Collared Pratincole.

Neil has all of his optics at the ready
Woodward’s Batis – photo by Neil Hayward
Collared Pratincole – photo by Neil Hayward

Coming back in the late afternoon, I was gazing sleepily out the window when a couple of dark shapes in the distance caught my attention. “Stop!” I shouted to Neil, and our SUV fish-tailed slightly on the muddy road as Neil executed his patented full-stop emergency birding maneuver. It wasn’t birds that had caught my attention, but a trio of White Rhinoceroses including a young calf ambling through a wet meadow. Although we had seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, water buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos, vervet monkeys, jackels, hyenas, meerkats, and whales, we had totally dipped on rhinos. Problems with poachers had led rangers and park officials throughout the country to be tight-lipped about rhino sightings, and in some cases rhinos were even relocated to more remote, more protected areas. But at last, here at iSimangaliso we found them. After watching the rhino family for half an hour or so at a respectable distance, we continued our drive back to St. Lucia.

White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward
White Rhinos – photo by Neil Hayward

The St. Lucia area provided a very satisfying conclusion to our trip. I was a little worried that everything after Kruger would be anti-climactic, but the last few days were a wonderful way to wrap things up. We submitted eBird checklists from False Bay, St. Lucia Estuary, and iSimangaliso Park.

Now it was time for us to drive back to Johannesburg. I needed to catch a flight back to Seattle, and Neil was meeting his family for a little vacation time in Cape Town. We stopped by Mtunzini to look for Palm-nut Vultures, and the Dlinza Forest in Eshowe. The aerial boardwalk through the trees was quite impressive, but our bird list at Dlinza was pretty meager.

All told, I saw 333 species in 14 days traversing northeast South Africa. Neil picked up some bonus species around Cape Town, and ended his trip close to 400. It was an absolutely amazing experience that exceeded my expectations in every way.

So what’s next? That whole story will have to wait for future posts this summer. But this arrived in the mail at my house last month:

Leave a comment

Filed under Birding, South Africa