Category Archives: Birding

Pitta Party

The Northern Territory of Australia is vast swath of land, home to very few people. It spans more than half a million square miles, almost twice the area of Texas. And it’s home to fewer people than Madison, Wisconsin. About one-quarter of the population are indigenous aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. The northern part of the territory is classified as tropical savanna, while the interior “red centre” is mostly hot and very dry desert. Neil and I were planning to spend the first few days around Darwin, picking up few costal specialties, and then work our way south through world-famous Kakadu National Park and down into the real Outback, as far as Pine Creek or Katherine.

Our first morning in the NT, we arrived at Buffalo Creek just before dawn. The Buffalo Creek management area is 20 minutes north of Darwin. It protects valuable wildlife habitat along the banks of lower Buffalo Creek where it empties into the Timor Sea. This area can experience dramatic tidal changes of up to five or six vertical meters (nearly 20 feet!) in the span of about six hours, so we had consult a tide table to make sure that our birding area would not be underwater. Fortunately this week the difference between high and low tides was a more manageable three meters (about 10 feet), and sunrise corresponded roughly with low tide. We would have to keep an eye on the time and the tides, though. I’d heard that they wait for no man, and we didn’t want to swim back to the car.

Also, swimming back to the car would be a terribly bad idea. The area’s saltwater crocodiles are extremely dangerous, and have been known to kill and eat humans.

The very long boat ramp provided some dramatic evidence of just how much the tides could change. We found the start of a trail, and began working our way into the forest. It was tough going through the dense mangroves, and several times we had to ford small creeks or navigate around them.

Muddy silt and dripping mangrove leaves reminded us that this entire area was underwater a few hours ago.

The cool morning air was alive with birdsong. We quickly picked up a couple dozen species, quite a number of which were new for our trip including Arafura Fantail, Mangrove Gerygone, Red-headed Myzomela, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, and Varied and Red-collared Lorikeets. Chestnut Rail, a shy specialty of the area, eluded us.

After more than an hour in the forest, we returned to the beach area and noticed a large flock of birds along the waterline. We had to trek across an expanse of sand to get close enough to identify them, but soon we were looking at a giant mixed flock of shorebirds and seabirds.

During the next half an hour we sorted through six species of terns, including Little, Lesser Crested, and Whiskered, and 13 species of shorebirds including Lesser and Greater Sand-Plover, Great Knot, Red-capped Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Far Eastern Curlew. Nothing escaped Neil’s sharp-eyed seabird scanner, and he was picking out a couple of offshore Brown Boobies while I perused the seashells washed up on the beach.

Returning to the car, we realized that had notched almost 50 species, 16 of which were brand new for our trip. There is something magical about birding a totally new geographical location. A fresh, unknown experience is always just around the corner. At this point the sun was rising higher in the sky, the tide was inbound, and we had other places to check out before the oppressive heat of the afternoon descended.

The forest trail along nearby Lee Point had been recently subjected to a controlled burn (a not uncommon practice in the Top End), but we still managed to find a couple species of cuckooshrikes and a spectacular Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove. On the way back to the car, Neil was distracted by yet more shorebirds, which we were curiously unable to identify down to species.

Our next stop was the East Point Reserve. By this time the sun was high in the sky, and temperatures had reached the mid 30s C (mid-90s F). The Monsoon Forest Walk was supposed to be good for Rainbow Pitta, a bird that both Neil and I were very keen to see. Monsoon forest is a dry tropical forest biome which experiences a long, hot dry season and then heavy rains. We were in the middle of the “cooler” dry season, but it wasn’t feeling so cool right now. Before setting out, we refreshed ourselves on the Pitta’s distinctive call: a loud, multi-syllabic squawk that is often transliterated as “I WALK to WORK!” Entering the forest, we found ourselves surrounded by a still quietude, punctuated only by our footsteps crunching through the dead leaves. We hiked all of the primary trails, covering a mile and a half in one hot, sweaty hour. We had seen only a handful of birds total, although two of them (Green-backed Gerygone and White-gaped Honeyeater) were new for our trip. The White-gaped Honeyeater completed our set of white-embellished honeyeaters, as we had previously ticked the White-eared, White-cheeked, White-throated, White-plumed, and White-naped. I’m not impressed with Australian ornithologists when it comes to their creativity in naming honeyeaters.

A couple of times I thought I heard a Pitta-like “WALK” calling in the distance, but decided that it was either wishful thinking or auditory hallucinations brought on by the fact that my water bottle was empty and my body temperature was rising. I thought heard it again… up ahead, something was calling. Rounding the next bend in the trail, I paused to listen. Instead of hearing another bird call, I heard the faint rustle of a small creature walking or hopping through the dried leaves. Neil caught up, and that’s when we spied the Pitta.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

It was spectacular. More colorful and vibrant that I had even imagined. I held my breath, certain that it would instantly vanish back into the forest. But it didn’t. The Pitta was not in any hurry to go anywhere. It sauntered around on the ground, up into a low bush, and then back to the ground.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

We watched it for a good 15 minutes before it eventually slipped back into the forest. Despite the fact that we had hardly moved, I felt out of breath. Realizing that I had been alternately holding my breath and breathing very slowly and shallowly, I took a moment to take some deep breathes and give some high fives. We finished our walk, and then headed out for a well-deserved lunch and some cold drinks. In the late afternoon we checked out East Point, and then returned to Buffalo Creek where we picked up Broad-billed Flycatcher and a fly-by Torresian Imperial-Pigeon. Nothing could match our encounter with the Pitta, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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Barking Mad

I opened my eyes early the next morning, the predawn glow already lightening the eastern sky through the window above my bed. We had spent the night back at the Reef Palms in Cairns, and I was awoken by the Rufous Owls immediately outside my window duetting about 3am. It was now a little after 6am, and I turned on a light and started re-packing my bag. In less than an hour, we were leaving for the Cairns airport to catch an early flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. We were scheduled to get in late morning, and Neil had already sketched out a madcap afternoon of birding all around the Darwin metro area. I was very excited to see what Darwin would be like. Although I had visited Queensland and New South Wales before, I had never been to Australia’s Top End. I picked up my phone, and saw that I had a text message from Jetstar. It said that my morning flight to Darwin had been canceled. Well THIS was going to throw a spanner into the works!

When Neil got out of the shower and got dressed, we spent 45 minutes on the phone with Jetstar. We never got an explanation as to why the flight was canceled, but we were able to get rebooked on another flight to Darwin in the late afternoon of the same day. Hanging up, we stewed a bit in frustration. We had already seen all of our target species around Cairns, and now we were stuck here another full day. We had also planned an aggressive itinerary in the Top End, and losing most of a day was going to force us to make some difficult choices about what to leave out in the days ahead. Neil was surfing around eBird just on the off chance that something unusual had showed up, when he sat bolt upright. “Little Kingfisher was seen yesterday at the Cairns Botanic Gardens,” he exclaimed.

Careful readers of this blog will know that we searched in vain for Little Kingfisher earlier in the trip near Daintree, and Neil was bitterly disappointed that we had dipped on this uncommon specialty. Now another one had shown up only 15 minutes away. We had a plan for the day! While packing the car, we picked up a flock of Metallic Starlings in the park across the street, a new bird for the trip! We also stopped by the Esplanade, because it was directly on the way and Neil has a deep, almost unnatural love for shorebirds. I took a silly panorama of the beach at sunrise while Neil stared intently through his scope. He did pick out some Red-capped Plovers, another new bird for the trip! After a rotten start to the day, we were on a roll.

Arriving at the Botanic Gardens, we spent a pleasant but Kingfisher-less half hour prowling its last known location. After a while, we bumped into another birder who had just seen the Little Kingfisher in the ponds across the park. We got precise directions, and then set off. “It was right there! You can’t miss it!” he called after us. My heart skipped a beat. If it’s one thing that you never, ever say to a birder chasing a rarity, it’s “you can’t miss it.” Because, dear reader, you very much CAN miss it. In fact, that’s why they’re called “rarities” – they show up rarely, are sometimes very hard to find, and often disappear without a trace. And the worst karmic curse one birder can bestow on another is telling them “you can’t miss it.”

We missed it. One hour stretched into two. We walked all of the trails along the ponds, through the gardens, along the small stream, through the forest boardwalk, and back again. Over and over. The Little Kingfisher is, in fact, quite small: less than 5 inches from tip to tail, about the size of a sparrow. And it is quite shy and somewhat sedentary. It will often sit quietly, tucked away on a small branch overhanging the water, just out of view amongst the foliage. Walking back to the car, I was hot, frustrated, thirsty, hungry, dusty, and tired. I was also wishing some rather uncharitable unpleasantness on Mr. Can’t Miss It. Neil’s brows had furrowed so deeply I contemplated planting some seeds in there. As I turned my head towards the pond, something whipped by my peripheral vision and zipped into a well-vegetated branch near the pond. I looked white and … blue? I scanned with my binoculars, but saw nothing. Then, I saw a small bird dipping its tail. It was … “Little Kingfisher!”

Neil had one panicked moment in which he couldn’t find it, but eventually we both got very satisfying views. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that we were standing about 20 feet from where we had parked the car. Relieved and happy, we piled into the our vehicle and headed out for some well-deserved lunch. Later in the afternoon we headed to the airport for the (fortunately uneventful) flight to Darwin. At the Cairns airport I stopped for a wrap and found myself face-to-face with another one of Australia’s mysteries:

I ate one, but I’m not sure that it changed my lifestyle that much. Landing in Darwin after dark, I was in favor of a quick dinner and an early bedtime. All of the airline and kingfisher drama had really wiped me out. Neil, of course, had other plans. “I have a place for Barking Owl in Darwin!”

I tried to argue that tomorrow night would be better for owling, but our lost day in the Top End was looming large over both of us. So I agreed to at least scout out the location. Neil’s “place” turned out to be an outdoor movie theater in the heart of Darwin’s urban core. We parked across the street from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and began to walk around the tiny park on the edge of the harbor. It was a very small area, and I didn’t hear anything except for the movie playing in the outdoor cinema below. There was the sound of two actors arguing, the rippling laughter of the audience, and a dog barking. A dog barking….? I quickly queued up the call of the Barking Owl on my phone and pressed it to my ear. The sound was nearly identical. Pocketing my phone, I took a couple steps down towards the cinema entrance, and suddenly a Barking Owl appeared in the trees above.

Barking Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

It barked at us for a few minutes, as if chastising us for interrupting the movie, then flew back down towards the cinema to catch the car chase scene. As Neil drove us to our hotel, my heavy eyelids drooped and my mind replayed the events of the day in bursts and flashes. It was not the day I was expecting, but it was a pretty great one nonetheless.

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Birding the Queensland Outback

We were on the road just after dawn, heading west. The rolling hills and tropical rainforests of the Tablelands gave way to Eucalypts as we descended the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range and into much drier habitat. Towns and settlements thinned out, and we were warned that enormous cows might try to consume our car.

We followed Highway 1, the Kennedy Highway, past Millaa Millaa and Ravenshoe. There was much discussion about whether this latter town was named for one corvid’s footwear or many corvids sharing a digging tool. As that debate was winding down, I saw several enormous black shapes drifting buoyantly through the trees. Fluffy hawks? Puff eagles? Or… Red-tailed Black Cockatoos!

“Stop the car!” I hollered. Neil, now having learned that there was either a dangerous unseen obstruction ahead (cough, cough, that chain across the road in Costa Rica) or a very important avian sighting in-progress, expertly performed an Emergency Birding Maneuver (EBM) and parked the car swiftly and safely off the side of the road. I pointed to three Red-tailed Black Cockatoos perched in a tall Casuarina tree. Nearly the size of another “red-tail,” the hawk known to all North American birders, these large black parrots preened in the sunlight, showing off their bouffant crests and their broad blood-red tail panels. We had excellent views in the scope before the cockatoos fluttered away in search of a mid-morning snack.

At some point, the narrow two-lane highway gave way to a single lane mostly-paved road with dirt shoulders.

The custom when driving along this Gulf Developmental Road is to drive full speed in the middle of the road. When a vehicle approaches from the other direction, you jerk the wheel to the left and drive with two tires on the dirt shoulder and two on the paved road. Hopefully the shoulder is relatively smooth in that spot, because you’re usually still traveling at high speed. The other car does the same, and you pass inches from each other in a roaring cloud of dust. Then it’s another jerk to the right to get yourself back on the pavement.

The exception to the rule above is when you meet a road train. I’m bummed that I didn’t get any good photos of road trains, because they are something to behold. Essentially giant forms of the North American “semi” or “tractor-trailer,” the road train has a motorized cab that pulls up to three (and in some cases even four!) trailers behind it. These road trains are truly massive in scale, and are used to transport goods on the long haul routes through the vast Australian outback. They can be over 150 feet long with up to 80 tires in contact with the pavement. When a road train approaches a regular car, it does not slow down or move over. So when you see a road train materialize around the bend ahead, your heart goes a bit into your throat as you wrestle the vehicle completely off the road (at speed) and try to avoid termite mounds, boulders, trees, and ditches. If your passenger is an American chemistry teacher, sometimes they grab the handhold above their left shoulder and yell, “rooooooooad traaaaaaaaain!” It’s a bit of an adventure.

The other thing we noticed, especially west of Mt. Surprise, was that there were very few passenger sedans out on the road. In addition to road trains, we saw mostly other assorted trucks and SUVs. Even the smaller private vehicles had engine snorkels for river crossings, huge tires (with two of three spares on the back and/or roof), extra external fuel tanks, and “roo bars” – thick steel bars the diameter of a softball bat that wrapped around the front of a vehicle to protect from “roo strikes.” We did indeed see many dead kangaroos on the side of the road, some of them quite large. And we were repeatedly warned not to drive after dark when “the roos are on the road.” A direct roo strike on an passenger car was often fatal for both the roo and any humans traveling in the vehicle. We updated our travel plans to make sure we were off the roads before sunset.

Some 5 hours and 350 km after we set out, we arrived in Georgetown. The last stretch was entirely on dirt roads, so it felt weird to be back in a place with electricity and petrol stations. Georgetown is not big (348 people according to the 2016 census), but it’s the one of the largest towns between the Tablelands and the Gulf of Carpentaria. We had come all the way to the Georgetown area to see birds of the dry country. There are a great number of Australian bird species that roam the vast dry interior, following transient moisture and food supplies. A special thing about Georgetown is the old Cumberland mine and dam, another 20 km west of town. This abandoned gold mining site often has permanent water, even in the dry season, and is an oasis for birds in the middle of the desert. After a quick stop at the Georgetown racetrack where we picked up two new charismatic species, Apostlebirds and Weebills, we headed out to Cumberland in the waning afternoon light.

Cumberland is the site of a 19th Century gold mine. By 1886, its annual output was more than 11,000 ounces of gold. Steam engines were used to excavate the gold ore and crush it. A dam along Cumberland Creek was built to ensure a constant supply of water. A town of 400 people sprung up – larger than present-day Georgetown. And this giant masonry chimney was built to disperse the smoke of the engines and machinery. Within a couple decades, all of the gold-rich ore was removed, the mine went bust, and people moved away. Today all that remains is part of the dam and the towering brick chimney. There’s also a small RV park and a picnic table. It sure doesn’t look like much in terms of “great birding habitat,” and when we clambered out car in the stifling heat of the afternoon I briefly wondered if we had made a two-day, 800 km mistake. But there were birds here, and it wasn’t long before we started finding them.

There were Green Pygmy-Geese and Hardheads in the swallow pond, along with some Australasian Grebes. A darter and several species of cormorants rested on a fallen tree over the water. A Pacific Heron and various egrets stalked the shallows, and a number of Comb-crested Jacanas walked across the emergent vegetation. We picked up a number of new passerines for our trip, including Yellow-throated Miner, Rufous-throated Honeyeater, Gray-crowned Babbler, and Rufous Songlark. Neil is a truly outstanding birder, and he was picking out new species left and right. Finches were feeding on grass seeds, and we had great looks at the snazzy Zebra, Masked, and Black-throated Finches. Another crowd of Apostlebirds came by, followed by a small flock of honeyeaters. A Wedge-tailed Eagle soared by. A small flock of Diamond Doves came in to drink at a muddy puddle. We checked out the local Toxic Waste Site (because, hey, no self-respecting birder is going to let a little toxic waste get between them and a lifer, right?!).

In two and a half hours we covered nearly three miles. We totally ran out of water, I ripped my shirt crawling under a barbed wire fence, and we arrived back at the car hungry, thirsty, dirty, and exhausted. But with 50 species recorded, including more than a dozen that were new for our trip, it was an extremely successful afternoon. The grand finale was waiting for us when we returned to the mammoth brick chimney where we parked our car. I noticed that there was a little extra bump on top that hadn’t been there earlier. That bump turned out to be… a Brown Falcon scanning for dinner!

Brown Falcon at the top of the chimney

We spent the night at the Latara Motel, which is the nicest motel in all of Georgetown. It was also the only commercial accommodation in town, and it was mostly adequate for our modest purposes. Food was a bit hard to come by, though, but we did rustle up a beer and a snack. At first light we were back at Cumberland dam where we had a delightful morning, seeing many of the species from yesterday as well as a few new ones, but at a more relaxed pace. A singing Red-browed Pardalote led us on a merry chase, but we finally tracked it down and got great looks. We also stopped at nearby Durham dam, another watering hole in the desert. Neil hiked all the way in, and reported good numbers of water birds.

At this point, we were both starving. It had been a couple days since we’d had a real meal, and even our snack supply in the car was running low. Neil looked at me, and wondered aloud if we could possibly make it back to the Whistle Stop Cafe in Yungaburra, one of our favorite restaurants. The problem is that the Whistle Stop is only open for breakfast and lunch, and closes about 2:30pm. I looked at the map, did a little mental math, and told Neil the bad news. “There is no possible way we can make it,” I said. “We’d have to average, like, 150 km/hr on those crazy one-lane roads.”

I had meant this as a statement that we’d have to find someplace else to eat, but Neil instead took it as a challenge. And we were off through the Outback, driving east at high speed. “What about Emu?” Neil asked as we rounded a bend fast enough for everything in the car to slide to the right.

“No recent records of emu at all,” I replied. “They’re quite rare here.”

“Disappointing,” replied Neil. As we passed an large field surrounded by some scraggly Eucalypts, I thought I saw…

Emu

“Stop the car!” When the car skidded to a halt and the resulting dust cloud rolled by, we saw, off in the distance a whole flock (herd?) of Emu. At nearly two meters tall, they made an impressive sight as they strolled their way across the dry grass. After five minutes of studying them through his optics, Neil checked his watch, slammed the car back into gear, and we were once again hurtling towards either a very late lunch or crippling disappointment at the Whistle Stop.

At 2:26pm we parked smartly in front of the cafe, and a scant 15 minutes later we were tucking into an extra large portion of eggs, toast, fruit, juice, and coffee. Mission accomplished! We ate several lunches in one sitting, and talked about the last leg of our trip which would be kicking off early tomorrow morning with a flight to the Northern Territory (or so we thought at the time).

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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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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.

 

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