Monthly Archives: November 2019

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.

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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.

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