Monthly Archives: February 2021

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!

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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?

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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.

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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.

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