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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Queensland and New South Wales

Riflebirds, Reefs and Rainforests

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2017 Australia tour to the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales provided a phenomenal mix of habitats and bird species, and a wide array of other wildlife. The first week was centered around the coastal lowlands between Cairns and Daintree, and the cooler pastoral highlands of the Atherton Tablelands dotted with remnant patches of upland rainforest. It’s hard to pick a favorite sighting when you spend a week in such an incredibly diverse area. Some of the highlights included a fantastic hour that we spent with a family group of Southern Cassowary, a pair of courting Great-billed Herons along the Daintree River, Tooth-billed and Great Bowerbirds tending their various bowers, an active lek with several dancing Australian Bustards, stunningly good views of Victoria’s Riflebirds, a surprising vagrant in the form of a White-streaked Honeyeater and a nesting Papuan Frogmouth. We then moved down to the southern part of coastal Queensland where for the first time we made a flight out to Lady Elliot Island, a forested atoll near the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Here we found thousands of Black Noddies and Bridled Terns, bold Buff-banded Rails, some ethereally white Red-tailed Tropicbirds, the local race of Silvereye that may well be granted species status at some point, many Green Sea Turtles and a dazzling array of colourful reef fish. We then moved down to Lamington National Park and the famous O’Reilly’s Guesthouse, where we were greeted by masses of Crimson Rosellas, Australian King Parrots, and both Regent and Satin Bowerbirds. In the woods here we found confiding Eastern Whip-birds, pairs of Australian Logrunners and fantastic views of Albert’s Lyrebirds, Noisy Pitta and Paradise Riflebirds. We wrapped up the tour with three days around Sydney, surely one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Our pelagic trip out of Sydney was a little rougher than we may have wished, but it produced excellent views of Black-browed and White-capped Albatross and Grey-faced, Providence and Black Petrels. We made the most of our final day and a half around Royal National Park where we encountered several Superb Lyrebirds, a family group of Powerful Owls, some cooperative Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens and a pair of diminutive Southern Emu-wrens. Here too were gaudy Yellow-tufted, White-eared, New Holland and Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters; the last of the 33 species of this distinctively Australian family for the trip.

No trip such as this can be summed up by statistical means alone as the experiences and landscapes are integral, but our record 307 species of birds, 24 species of mammals, and dozens of species of fish, amphibians and reptiles certainly played a role in making this a very successful 13 days in the field!

IN FULL: Our group flight from the previous leg of the tour that ended in Darwin landed in Cairns near midday, and once we had collected the van we drove into town to meet the participants who were only taking the Eastern Tour. Although it was somewhat damp and overcast the temperature seemed sublime in comparison to the unseasonably hot climes of Melbourne. We ate lunch in our Cairns hotel, conveniently located on the esplanade, while meeting with the new participants and chatting about the trip. After lunch we headed over to the Botanical Gardens where we walked around the Freshwater Lakes and found our first Magpie Geese, a somewhat prehistoric looking duck relative with a knobbed forehead and oddly shaped bill. Here too was a useful comparison of Intermediate and Great Egrets, and our first Pacific Black Ducks and several elegant Rajah Shelducks. Around the margins of the lake in the largely ornamental plantings we picked out our first Brown-backed Honeyeater nesting in a clump of grasses emerging from the pond. Pairs of Olive-backed Sunbirds plied the flowering shrubs, and several Rainbow Bee-eaters were flying around overhead and perching on bare snags in the canopy. A flowering tree was attracting an array of honeyeaters including a raucous pair of Hornbill Friarbirds. The adjacent tree held a calling Cicadabird that did eventually pop out for a quick view before flying off across the lake. In the understory we found both Australian Brush-Turkey and Orange-footed Scrubfowl brazenly strutting about the lawns as if they owned the place. These two species of megapods are not at all scarce in the urban interface, as they prefer open and edge habitats. With their penchant for digging and loud cries they tend to not be the favorite birds of suburban Australians. But their breeding biology, which involves the creation of huge mounds of compost (over 10m in diameter and sometimes 5m high) into which the female lays her eggs and the male tends the mound to ensure a constant temperature for incubation is simply fascinating.

As the tide was favorable we decided to visit the Cairns esplanade, where we continued to tick off new birds everywhere we looked. It was very close to peak high tide and with not much exposed beach the waders that remained on the beach were very close, and offering excellent views. We spent about an hour slowly working through the assembled flock of birds. Most individuals were Great Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits or Grey-tailed Tattler. But with some scrutiny we picked out Curlew, Terek and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Sandplover, and Far Eastern Curlew and Whimbrels in the mix. For many of the participants not used to birding anywhere outside of the Americas this little flock represented a dream trip to an offshore Alaska shorebird hotspot. The open grassy fields of the Esplanade were hopping, with Rainbow Lorikeets and the smart looking Torresian Imperial-Pigeons in the fruiting figs, flocks of Peaceful Doves and Magpie-Larks striding about on the lawn, and several tame Willie Wagtails following us around, no doubt hoping that our feet would kick up a tasty morsel or two. A few very vocal Varied Honeyeaters, some soaring White-breasted Woodswallows, and pairs of confident looking Masked Lapwings rounded out the cast.

In the later afternoon we left the lowlands of Cairns behind and made the hour long drive up to the southern Atherton Tablelands. We pulled into the quiet and quaint town of Yungaburra, our base for the next two nights. This little village, with a beautiful historic pub and several small cafes and hotels is utterly charming; somewhat reminiscent of a tiny town in the Cornish countryside, but with brilliantly purple jacaranda trees dotted around, and lorikeets and currawongs flying overhead. Before dinner we were able to wander down to the adjacent creek and watch their resident Platypus as it repeatedly dived down into the murky water in search of crayfish. We had dinner at a Swiss-Italian restaurant (naturally) and then dodged some heavy and entirely unseasonable rain showers as we walked back to our hotel, with heads spinning from the heady introduction of birds in northern Queensland.

An optional pre-breakfast trip to the nearby Curtain Fig National Park the next day was quite productive. Not only did we see the aforementioned fig tree, a strangler fig of a proportion large enough to put a park around we managed some excellent bird sightings as well. As soon as we left the cars we repeatedly heard the harsh calls of a male Victoria’s Riflebird coming from near the carpark. Some fruiting vines high in the canopy were attracting several female Riflebirds, and we were able to watch them clambering up through the vines picking off fruits. It’s not every day that one starts a daily bird list with a bird of paradise! Gray-headed and Pale-yellow Robins were fairly common around the edge of the carpark, sallying out from the trees to land on the road for our enjoyment. With a bit of effort we tracked down a calling Bower’s Shrike-Thrush in the canopy and were able to see the stout dark bill and darker back that help separate this species from the more common Little Shrike-Thrush. Both the Robin and the Shrike-thrush are restricted to the patches of upland rainforest on the tableland, truly a miniscule worldwide range, and one that may be in jeopardy given changing climactic conditions. As we walked around the short boardwalk trail that winds up to the giant fig tree we watched a pair of Australian Brush-Turkeys tending their massive mound. The birds permitted us to watch from nearly right above them as they dug a deep hole in the top of the mound; presumably in preparation for egg laying. Perhaps the best find though was a Yellow-breasted Boatbill that was actually down nearly at eye level. These brightly colored and huge billed birds can be tricky to see well as they prefer to remain high in the forest canopy, but this bird performed well. One of only two species in the world (the other occurring in New Guinea), Boatbills resemble somewhat oversized Tody Tyrants with an optimistic view of the world. Just before we returned to Yungaburra for breakfast our attentions were attracted to a vocal White-throated Treecreeper climbing up a large trunk like an exotic-looking Nuthatch. Here too was our first Spectacled Monarch; a handsome bird clad in orange and black that seldom seems to stay still. We enjoyed a café breakfast and then briefly returned to the hotel to get organized for the rest of the days birding.

Mount Hypipamee National Park, also known as “The Crater”, supports a large tract of high elevation forest, and the full complement of the Atherton Highlands endemics. En route to the park we stopped to observe a foraging Black-necked Stork that was walking along a small water-filled ditch. Huge and colourful, this is the only species of Stork found east of the Wallace Line, and one that we do not always see on the eastern tour. In the stockyards above the ditch were hundreds of Magpie Geese, and lots of Plumed Whistling-Ducks, and the culvert under the road was hosting an active colony of Fairy Martins. We also stopped for our first stately Sarus Cranes, with a small family party near the road. Once we reached Hypipamee we started our explorations by walking back along the access road into the park. With the mewing of Spotted Catbirds, the machine gun trill of Lewin’s Honeyeaters and the scratchy grating calls of Riflebirds in the background it felt like a new world. Setting off down the trail to the crater we took our time enjoying the wet forest, with its towering super-canopy trees, dense understory, waterfalls and creeks. At a small gap in the forest where sunlight streamed down to the forest floor we found a largely uncooperative Mountain Thornbill (another species with an extremely limited range), and some very approachable Grey Fantails and Australian Golden Whistlers. We then walked down to the actual crater, an impressive collapsed lava tube that has filled in with water, which makes it resemble the cenotes in the Yucutan, minus (one hopes) the many human sacrifices. Returning to the carpark for some snacks, and on the lookout for Brush-Turkeys looking for handouts we then headed further into the forest to look for perhaps the crown jewel of the endemics around Hypipamee, the scarce and beautiful Golden Bowerbird. We crept up the trail and soon located the large maypole-style bower, one of the more ornate and impressive bowers made by the bowerbird family. Sadly some recent event has caused the disappearance of all of the regularly seen adult male Bowerbirds from the Tablelands. It would seem to be an unlikely coincidence, with the local birding guides suspicious that some nefarious crime has taken place. A younger male had built another bower nearby, but sadly the bird was not around during our visit. As it takes 7 or more years for the males to fully colour up and start to breed, and the population of this species is low to begin with our lack of sightings is troubling to say the least. Our last new highland species of the morning was the diminutive Atherton Scrubwren, often a tricky species to find. Similar to the much more common Large-billed Scrubwren, but with less buff in the face, and a more terrestrial nature, Atherton Scrubwrens often stay in the denser tangles of the forest undergrowth. Although perhaps not the most exotic looking bird, their incredibly small world range, and somewhat retiring habits make them a primary target for birders on the tablelands.

We took our lunch in the town of Atherton and then headed to Hasties Swamp, a small wetland that has a nice two-story blind overlooking a large lake that is generally stuffed with birds. Bird diversity was lower than typical, perhaps due to the wetter than normal conditions across much of Queensland but there were still thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks lined up around the lake, with a few Wandering Whistling-Ducks for comparison. Both Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills were spotted around the shore, and by scanning the banks we also picked out a half-dozen species of herons including White-necked Heron and Intermediate Egret. Looking straight down at the reedbed below the blind revealed two Buff-banded Rails darting around and between patches of reeds. Here too were a couple of Australian Reed Warblers, many menacing Australasian Swamphen and a couple of dapper Black-fronted Dotterel. The trees around the blind were attracting honeyeaters to their blossoms, and we enjoyed very close up views of Lewin’s and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters through the blind windows. Ducks were well represented too, with dozens of Hardhead (Australia’s answer to the Canvasback or Common Pochard), lots of Grey Teal and Pacific Black Ducks and a smattering of the bizarrely patterned and shaped Pink-eared Ducks. These zebra-striped birds possess a bill that would make a Shoveler look twice, as it nearly curls over at the edges. Especially for the participants that just joined us the day before this site held an amazing diversity of new waterbirds! We then returned to our hotel for a short siesta.

In the late afternoon we visited the nearby Lake Barrine, a crater lake surrounded by a beautiful patch of rainforest. We walked around the 800-meter rainforest loop trail, passing under huge Kari trees and through dense stands of palm in the understory. Shortly after we began the trail we heard the unmistakable scratchy calls of a Tooth-billed Bowerbird. These Bowerbirds build a mat bower of overturned silvery leaves, and spend the majority of their day singing a complex scratchy song from well-hidden mid-canopy perches. It took less time than usual for us to pin down the first individual that we encountered, sitting just a few feet off the trail and a bit above eye level. Although the bird was singing vigorously at times we couldn’t see any evidence of a mat bower beneath him as it was occluded by dense vegetation. A bit further down the trail though we located a visible bower, and were able to see another bird bring in a large leaf and carefully place it on the margin of the mat, silver side up. As we neared the backside of the loop trail a male Victoria’s Riflebirds harsh grating call emanated from just over the trail. Carefully looking up we found a good angle and were able to scope this beautiful Bird of Paradise at length as it displayed from the top of a large stump. A seemingly jet black bird was revealed to be a glossy black, with a bright blue sheen on the tail, and a large breast shield of brassy-black. Although he never completely raised his wings in the characteristic arcing display for us he did repeatedly flare his breast shield (an action which dramatically alters his body shape) and utter his dramatic call. At one point we were able to see a puff of steam escape from his mouth as he called, a testament to both the quality of our views and the ambient temperature and humidity. With sightings of two excellent species in the books we wandered down to the lake to admire the huge flock of Great Crested Grebes that inhabit this deep and fish-filled lake. Back at the car park our departure was delayed by our discovery of a vocal Fan-tailed Cuckoo that was perched above our vans.

An early dinner allowed us to take an extended optional spotlighting trip back to Mount Hypipamee. On the drive over to the park we found a perched Barn Owl on a roadside post and some of the participants were able to see Northern Brown Bandicoots scampering across the road. Unfortunately it began to rain just as we arrived at the park, rather than spend a likely unsuccessful hour in the rain here we drove back to the Curtain Fig, where conditions were a bit less damp and were able to spotlight two Common Brush-tailed Possums as they clambered about in the canopy.

The next day started with an optional pre-breakfast visit to a largely forgotten patch of forest just a few miles out of town. Here, along an unused park road we soon heard the rollicking tones of a pair of Chowchillas emanating from the dense underbrush. These often skulky birds, with tufted crests, colored throat patches and bright eye-rings are generally loud and easy to hear, but can be frustratingly difficult to spot or follow on the ground in their preferred rainforest haunts. Over the course of an hour we located 2 groups of birds, seeing four individuals crossing the road twice, and glimpsing one other bird walking in the understory. One of the birds repeatedly walked up to front of the vegetation and occasionally showed one or two of the participants a flash of motion or a quick view of his head as he peered over a small embankment. Over the course of our observations all of the participants managed some sort of view, but not a view that was particularly soul satisfying. Deciding that we would try again later in the tour up on the forested slopes of Mount Lewis we turned our attention to another reclusive species in the undergrowth. A very vocal Fernwren, an aberrant thornbill relative, was calling from near the track and although it sang loudly and approached to within a few feet of us only a lucky few participants were able to actually spot it as it ran over a large log and into some dense brush. A little while later another individual cooperated much more by darting out into some open undergrowth and then standing motionless on a fallen limb, accidentally in full view of many of the participants. Also along the road we enjoyed singing Brown Cuckoo-Doves, several sprightly Grey Fantails, and another pair of Yellow-breasted Boatbills. After another delightful breakfast in Yungaburra we headed a bit to the south to an undisclosed location near Malanda where we were successful in locating two Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroos at a private park. These largely nocturnal and arboreal Kangaroos are truly odd creatures, looking quite ill designed for their chosen haunts. We were especially lucky in that the poor weather (occasionally heavy showers and cool temperatures) had driven one of the kangaroos down to the ground, where it was sheltering underneath a dense bush and infrequently grabbing some nearby leaves and munching on them in a abstractly contemplative fashion.

Next we headed north through the tablelands to visit the more arid and rocky country just west of Mareeba. As we passed through the agricultural fields around Atherton again we stopped to study a field that had several dozen cranes striding around. Both Sarus Crane and Brolga were present, enabling us to study the differences in their head pattern and size with good comparison views. On our drive in to Granite Gorge we passed through a recently burned patch of forest that was heaving with birds. We stopped and soon were looking at a flock of Pale-headed Rosellas, several Pheasant Coucals, a pair of Striated Pardalote, Yellow Honeyeaters and a few tiny Weebill that were foraging over the burn. The driveway into the park took a bit longer than usual as well, as we stopped to admire a couple of Agile Wallabies, closely perched Laughing Kookaburras, a single Great Bowerbird and some Bee-eaters that were hawking insects from a fence. Once at Granite Gorge we found herds of the small and undeniably cute semi-tame Mareeba Rock Wallabies hopping about in amongst the huge rounded boulders of the gorge. Small groups of Double-barred Finches and some truly odd ornamental Chickens and one randy Wild Turkey were walking around the grounds, while two male Peacocks strutted about in full display mode. Our real reason for the visit though was to look for Squatter Pigeons, and we had no trouble locating about a dozen individuals around the campground. Generally a tricky bird to locate, the birds here are semi-tame and very approachable, even wandering close to our feet at times! Some flowering trees around the grounds held a nice selection of honeyeaters, including Noisy Friarbirds, several bright Blue-faced Honeyeaters, and a few Yellow Honeyeaters. Before leaving the area we walked around the campground and were rewarded with a busy family group of Gray-crowned Babblers that were noisily foraging around the grounds and a nesting Great Bowerbird that flew in and sat in its markedly flimsy looking nest. We stopped at the burn site again on the way out for better views of the Rosellas, and a flock of Chestnut-breasted Munia that were along the road. These blue and yellow parrots with a red vent and blue cheek patches can be scarce and tricky to find on demand, and our views this year were particularly good. While stopped we noticed a large adult Frilled Dragon scamper up a tree trunk. Quickly moving over to it we were able to see this impressive lizard at close range as it clasped the side trunk providing quite a nice treat, though it refused to fan out its characteristic neck frill for our entertainment. A stop in at the causeway that crosses the man-made Lake Mitchell allowed us to access the verdant freshwater marshes that cover most of the southern end of the lake. Stately Black Swans were paddling around in the calm waters in the distance. The marshier sections of the lake held our first Comb-crested Jacanas and Green Pygmy-Geese; both of which cooperated nicely for our telescopes. Some migrant Whiskered Terns (our only ones of the tour) were foraging out in the shallower water, and Osprey and White-bellied Sea Eagles soared above us on the lookout for unwary fish. Less cooperative however was the weather. Little did we know that a record breaking storm was brewing in the west…

In the late afternoon we completed the short drive up to our base for next two nights; the famous Kingfisher Park Birders Lodge. This comfortable hotel is situated in a protected track of rainforest adjacent to a small shallow creek. The grounds provide excellent birding, and we spent a bit of time in the late afternoon drizzle soaking in a new suite of birds. The feeders next to reception held dozens of colorful Red-browed Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannakins. While the highly patterned Macleay’s Honeyeaters, pushy Lewin’s Honeyeaters and even pushier Rainbow Lorikeets visited the provided sugar water pots. A few lucky participants who lingered on until near dark also were treated to a rare sighting of a Red-necked Crake that came in at the birdbath and splashed around for a couple of minutes (in the rain). Although there are two pairs of this hard to spot rail that frequent the park grounds it had been several years since our last sighting on the tour. Dinner at a nearby restaurant was accompanied by a impressively hard rain that persisted through much of the evening.  

Happily for us though the following morning dawned clear and pleasantly cool. This allowed us to wander around the slightly soggy grounds of the park for a pre-breakfast birding session. We started off with a walk around the perimeter of the property where we relocated a staked out White-streaked Honeyeater that our hosts had found a few weeks prior to our arrival. This handsome species, with a black back, streaked underparts and an orange loral spot is normally confined to the upper stretches of the Cape York Peninsula, regularly occurring no closer to Kingfisher Park than 500KM’s to the north. The bird seemed perfectly at home though, as it repeatedly pushed out Brown and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters that were encroaching on its chosen flower clusters. Here too was an uncharacteristically brazen Red-necked Crake that was taking advantage of the recent rain by foraging out on an open lawn! Busy flocks of Metallic Starlings shot past us for much of the morning, and eventually a few sat in a fruiting tree for us to study in greater detail. With their coarsely streaked and oily plumage shimmering in the morning sun and their bright red eyes staring back at us through the scope I suspect they made quite an impression on participants more used to the common European Starling. Before breakfast we walked around the orchard behind the lodge where we found a huge flowering tree that was attracting dozens of honeyeaters (mostly Dusky and Scarlet Myzomelas, but lots of Yellow-spotted, Macleay’s, and Graceful as well) and good numbers of Rainbow Lorikeets. With some patience and scanning we picked out a few Scaly-breasted Lorikeets as they clambered around the flowering sections of the tree. Small flocks of Topknot Pigeons were occasionally flying over the orchard, and by staying under the canopy of the fruit trees we were able to obtain scope views of a few birds sitting on their customary emergent canopy trees.  Perhaps the highlight around the grounds though was a nesting Papuan Frogmouth that had built its customary flimsy nest in one of the larger fruit trees. Papuan is the largest of the three species of Frogmouths found in Australia, and looks remarkably like a Jim Henson Muppet Show puppet come to life. An oversized thick bill, huge head, shaggy looking plumage and beatific smile they are at once comical and imposing. While we walked back to the lodge and breakfast we found tame Australian Brush-Turkeys and Orange-footed Scrubfowl foraging unconcernedly near the trails and admired several nearly hand-tame Pale-yellow Robins that were seemingly following us in a hopeful fashion. Breakfast under the canopy tent was most delightful, especially with the interruption of our meal by a nearly constant parade of Rainbow Lorikeet, Macleay’s, Yellow-spotted, Lewin’s and Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Bar-shouldered Doves that were all interested in the bird feeders sprinkled around the breakfast area.              

For the rest of the morning we investigated the recently improved road that winds up to near the summit of Mt. Lewis. Protected as part of the wet tropics of Queensland bioregion the road now gives access to the wet heavily vegetated uplands above 900m that are difficult to access elsewhere in the tablelands. This upper elevation forest serves as a refugia for a host of rainforest species that were likely more widespread when the region was wetter and connected to New Guinea during the last ice age. We stopped first in the lower stretches of the road, locating a couple of Wompoo Fruit Doves that were perched way up in the canopy occasionally uttering their onomatopoeic song. At the same spot we heard several Superb Fruit-Doves calling from the treetops, but as is often the case, were unable to spot these diminutive doves as they perched motionless in the dense canopy. A few other species of pigeons proved a bit more showy though, with several pairs of Emerald Dove and Brown Cuckoo-Dove along the road. A bit higher up the road we stopped in a small clearing and were able to track down another pair of Fernwren that were bouncing along in the understory below the road. Here too a mixed flock kept us entertained for quite a while, with Pied and Black-faced Monarchs, Rufous Fantail, Golden Whistler, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and White-throated Treecreeper being admired in turn. Near the top of the road we stopped at a larger clearing and found it to be full of Cairn’s Birdwings, a huge and spectacular butterfly endemic to the wet tropics. In the brush around the clearing we found a pair of Atherton Scrubwrens, here of the more yellowish northern subspecies that seems quite different to those on the southern tablelands. A walk up through the forest here produced amazingly good views of Chowchilla, with four birds foraging in full view just a few feet off the trail. In stark contrast to the very reclusive birds that we had found a few days before these birds lingered in front of us for quite a while as they scratched through the leaf litter with their odd sideways kicks. The walk was a feast for the ears, with a near continual background din of singing Tooth-billed Bowerbirds, Spotted Catbirds, chattering Brown Gerygones and calling Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens. On the way down the mountain we stopped to admire a Boyd’s Forest Dragon that was clasping a roadside tree trunk. Although they are relatively common in the wet tropics this arboreal lizard can be quite hard to spot as it remains motionless for long periods of time. Its colourful scales, large crest and placid demeanor make it one of the signature species of the rainforest here, and our sighting continued our run of impressive Australian lizards.              

Lunch was supposed to be at the same restaurant as our previous night’s dinner, but when we arrived we discovered that the chef was out and the only food on offer was pizza. We decided to drive a bit further north to a roadhouse along the main road. Here we found our host to be a bit overwhelmed by the arrival of such a large group. Though she was the sole employee working it took a remarkably short time for her to prepare the various meat pies, sandwiches, salads and coffees that we ordered. In a quirk of fate this roadhouse proved to be excellent for more than just the food; a quick check of the backyard revealed an amazing array of birdlife using a narrow strip of forest along the back of the property. Without moving more than a few feet along this stretch of woods we were treated to a parade of almost 20 species of birds including all three of the possible monarchs in the region. Flashy orange and black Spectacled Monarchs looked ready for Halloween as they repeatedly crossed our line of view. Bulbous headed Black-faced Monarchs stayed in view for the duration of our visit, creating a conundrum for the photographers in the group who were at times unsure where to focus. Their confusion vanished quickly though when a pair of Pied Monarchs appeared. This spectacularly plumaged blue/black and white monarch is flashy at the worst of times, but with a bit of judicious use of playback we were able to elicit some territorial behaviour from the pair. The male (presumably) was particularly agitated and it showed off by flaring its white nuchal crest and cheeks. This transformed the bird from a black- faced bird with white nape and throat to a white headed bird with a thin black area in the lores. Even the birds shape took on a new look, as the raised white feathers rounded out the birds head into a fuzzy looking ping-pong ball. The effect was transfixing, and our lengthy views of the performance ranked high among the best sightings of the tour for many participants.

We eventually wrested ourselves away from the service station in the mid-afternoon, heading to the Northwest of Kingfisher Park and out into the drier, more open forests that occur as you move north or west from the main Atherton Tablelands. A few wetlands along the road held some very interesting birds. Apart from views of Pacific Black Ducks, Comb-crested Jacanas and Eurasian Coot we found five Cotton Pygmy-Geese paddling around in a well-vegetated pond. These tiny white geese are generally scarce around northern Queensland, and are seemingly in decline over most of their wide range. As we passed through a notably drier Eucalypt savannah forest we stopped to admire a perched Blue-winged Kookaburra that was sitting on a roadside wire. Seemingly larger than their Laughing Kookaburra cousins these dramatic kingfishers with their baleful yellow eyes, huge head and massive bill are quite impressive. As they are largely confined to dry forest in tropical Australia our itinerary for the Eastern tour barely gets into their range, and we were glad that this one was so cooperative for us as it turned out to be our only sighting for the eastern tour. While watching the kookaburra we flushed a Buttonquail out of the dense grasses in the understory and were unfortunately unable to track it down to confirm the species. A bit further to the north we quickly located an unusually large number of Australian Bustards that were taking advantage of the overcast skies and low temperatures by striding around in the short- grass fields in full view (rather than remaining huddled in the shade of the scattered trees as they often do mid-day). These large Bustards can be incredibly good at hiding in the tall grassy areas that they often prefer. A few individuals were right along the roadside, providing much better views than is customary. Soon after we began to watch them we realized that we had stumbled upon an active lek site. Several males were actively displaying, with huge and feathered pendulous wattles dangling from their chins. The females seemed less impressed than we were at the sight of these huge birds strutting about and uttering deep resonant roars with their rumps flared and their wings drooped. Eventually a third male came in to the lek site and the main two males drove him off into another field, breaking up the display party. We felt especially fortunate to witness this amazing display, but the road held more treats for us as well. Some flowering trees were hosting a large number of Banded Honeyeaters. This striking black and white honeyeater is semi-nomadic across its range and this sighting represented only our second recording of the species over the last decade on the eastern tour. A small flock of Red-winged Parrots flew through the trees here too, offering quick views for a few lucky participants. Our last stop for the day was at the small grammar school at nearby Mount Molloy where we found an ornate Great Bowerbird bower, attended by its maker. This large (if not overly colorful) bowerbird builds an intricate and large runway of sticks, decorated with a mat of white objects (in this case bits of plastic and snail shells) and green fruits. Last year this particular individual was quite enterprising and had found a pile of polished green glass pieces, which would not fade (and thus not need replacing). This year though, he moved the glass out of the vestibule and into the actual runway of the bower, and developed a taste for bright pink plastic bits out on the front deck of the bower. Once again at dinner the rain began to fall, only this time it arrived with more determination.

We awoke the next morning to a bit of a surprise. Incredibly, 15 inches of rain had fallen locally, a record amount for the park. Apparently a strong La Nina forming over the eastern Pacific was responsible for a major low pressure system forming over the tip of Queensland, dropping record rainfall roughly a month before the expected onset of the monsoon system. Even the wet tropics can only take so much rain at a time, and when we opened our doors many were shocked to see over a foot of water carpeting much of the property. The creek had overflowed its banks by several meters, and tons of broken up sugar cane had washed into the orchard from adjacent fields. The birds seemed a bit shell-shocked, but there were still flocks of Red-browed Finches and Chestnut-breasted Munia at the feeders, and a host of honeyeaters and lorikeets coming in to the sugar water. It was a bit difficult getting around the property for our pre-breakfast walk, but we managed to do a quick circuit. A pair of Lemon-bellied Flycatchers (actually a robin) were a nice find along the neighbors fenceline, and we were happy to see that the Papuan Frogmouth was still placidly sitting on its nest (although it had not quite fully dried out). Noisy Pittas were calling from the depths of the forest, but we bowed to discretion and decided not to wade over to them. Somehow without power or running water our gracious hosts managed to prepare a full breakfast for us, which we took under the patio rather than the normal location that was effectively underwater. We packed up and prepared to leave the park, making a quick stop to look at some roosting bats under the neighbor’s car port (likely Large-footed Myotis and Northern Broad-nosed Bats). Acting on a tip from our hosts at Kingfisher we also stopped in at the lowest bridge on the Mount Lewis Road where several fruiting fig trees were attracting many Brown Cuckoo-Doves, several placidly sitting Wompoo Fruit Pigeons and a flock of Barred Cuckoo-Shrikes; a handsome highland species with barred underparts, a dark grey hood and brigh yellow eyes. We didn’t linger long as the rain was again falling, so we soon started our drive down to Cassowary House near the town of Kuranda. Unfortunately for us though the shortest route was blocked by a running stream that was over the road, forcing us to drive the long way around along the very scenic but not particularly quick coastal highway. We arrived in Kuranda in time to pick up a picnic lunch which we then ate along Black Mountain Road close to Cassowary House. Just after lunch Gavin headed to the lodge to speak with Sue Gregory and while he was away pandemonium ensued when a male Cassowary and three small striped chicks popped out of the forest and for a minute or two mingled with our group. With visions of human disembowelment and grievous injury dancing in his head Tim shouted for the people to go one way, and by and large they did, although at least one of the chicks seemed intent on following the group rather than his dad. Cassowaries are impressive birds, weighing as much as 60 Kilos as adults, and covered in thick hair-like feathers (rather like giant Kiwis). Their huge muscular feet and large claws are formidable, as is their stout utilitarian bill. The bright blue and red neck, protruding red wattles and huge keratin head casque are quite ornate, combining to make for one of the more unique bird species in the world, and a signature species for Australia. Although nearby New Guinea has two additional species, Cassowaries are nowhere easy to observe, and are heavily impacted by roads and stray dogs (and in New Guinea, hunters). The family group at Cassowary House is perhaps the most easily observed group of Cassowaries in the world, but even here a sighting is not guaranteed on any given day, and certainly not an adrenaline inducing close encounter like we had this year! After the group reunited and the Cassowary family had melted back into the forest we set off further north down Black Mountain Road and into the national park to look for Lovely Fairy-Wren. Our normal stake-out area for Fairywren had recently been logged, so we decided to drive back a bit further along the park boundary, passing several fresh clear cuts before arriving at a more forested track. Although we were unfortunately unsuccessful at locating our main quarry here the birding was excellent. A female Superb Fruit-Dove perched just over the road for our enjoyment, several of our group managed to see parts of a perched Noisy Pitta that was calling from the mid story, and a flashy male Victoria’s Riflebird showed well as it clambered up a fruiting tree. Also of interest here was a large (over a meter long) Lace Monitor that climbed up a tree and then stared back at us with a vaguely menacing air.  We were about to walk further down the track in search of Fairy-Wrens when we received a call about the return of the Cassowary family to Cassowary House. We returned to find the male and three chicks relaxing in the lodge gardens, taking short naps under the shade and generally ignoring our presence and cameras. After the somewhat electrifying first looks at this family group we found this second sighting to be almost too easy, although much better for photography. We then pushed on north along the coastal highway on what is a stunning drive. The road winds right along the coast, with alternating rocky and sandy beaches, sparkling blue water and small offshore reefs, and mountains covered with forests in the distance. We arrived to our comfortable bed and breakfast in Daintree in the late afternoon, where we soon settled in to our comfortable lodge under occasional heavy rain bouts. The unseasonable rains were definitely welcome by the local frogs, and around the lodge and in our restaurant we were treated to views of Australian Green Treefrog and the impressive White-lipped Treefrog before heading off to bed.

The next day we set out on a boat trip onto the Daintree River and adjacent Barratt Creek. Given the recent poor weather we used a large boat with a full roof rather than the smaller and unshaded craft that we typically use. This meant that we were not able to venture far upstream on the rivers tributaries (which given the very high water and low bridges was also likely impassible to our normal boat). This restriction turned out to be a mere annoyance though as our trip on the main river was incredibly productive and happily rain free. We cruised downstream under the guidance of Murray Hunt, an accomplished local birder and boatman who has been leading birding tours along the river for years. A few bends of the river later and we were soon admiring perky pairs of Shining Flycatchers along the bank, displaying their amazingly disparate male and female plumages. Our point blank views of an impossibly purple-blue pair of Azure Kingfishers as they sat on an eye-level branch and allowed us to approach to within just a few meters flashing upstream was exceptional. The real avian treat of the roughly two hour cruise occurred just a few hundred meters upstream from the boat dock when first one and then another Great-billed Heron flew along the bank and then dropped into a tall grassy area along the bank. These impressively large herons are quite scarce in Australia, and are frustrating difficult to see in their preferred riparian habitats. We slowly motored over to a closer position and were thrilled to find both birds standing in full view. Over the course of the ensuing five minutes we were amazed to watch the two birds engage in active courtship. The male would bow, puffing out its throat and uttering a deeply resonant growl (somewhat reminiscent of the sounds a female Saltwater Crocodile makes around its nest). At times the birds would stand stock-still, necks and bills partly entwined or with raised wings. The pair took little notice of us, although they slowly made their way into denser cover and eventually disappeared into the thick brush. We slowly exhaled, amazed at the length and quality of this sighting, which was made even more special when Murray announced that over his nearly 10 years of birding the river he had never before seen this display take place. For the rest of the cruise we just enjoyed the sights along the river, with another flock of Barred Cuckoo-Shrikes eating fruits from a riverside tree, hundreds of Australian Swiflets foraging over the fields, flocks of ethereally white Torresian Imperial-Pigeons passing overhead and several Black Butcherbirds in the mangroves. We were also treated to an especial nice sighting of a Wompoo Fruit-Dove sitting on a nest. The nest was low and over the water, allowing us to get quite close to the bird, which placidly stayed frozen in place, with its bold purple, green and yellow plumage glowing in the morning sun. The highlights were not all avian though, with a pair of Saltwater Crocodiles along a sandy bend on the river and a bright green and yellow Common Treesnake that allowed close approach. Just as we neared our return to the boat ramp we heard the unmistakable cackle of a pair of Pale-vented Bush Hens emanating from some dense vegetation across the river. This is a very secretive moorhen-like species that is generally more vocal and obvious during the wet season, and one that we had only encountered once before on the tour. The pair was quite vocal, perhaps due to the recent weather, and by slowly gliding towards them in the boat we were able to spot one bird as it stood on the riverbank before it dashed back into cover. In short I doubt I could have scripted a better visit on the river, and the wealth of animals and birds and the scenic beauty of the tidal creek that we visited made for a truly memorable morning.

After breakfast we spent about an hour birding along Stewart Creek Road, a quiet narrow lane that winds out from the back of Daintree Village passing through cleared pastoral lands, patches of lowland rainforest and over several small creeks. A circling pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles put on a good show for us near the start of the road, but it was our views of a distant Double-eyed Fig Parrot, male Mistletoebirds and a very approachable pair of Red-backed Fairy-Wrens that likely were the highlights. The intermittent rain showers became a bit more insistent as the morning wore on and we elected to head for the cover of the vans and start our drive south a little earlier than originally planned.

Our first stop was at the fish farm near Wonga where some of the fish paddocks were nearly dry and were attracting migrant Sharp-tailed and Common Sandpipers and many Pied Stilts. A roosting flock of terns was comprised largely of our first Gull-billed Tern, with one Caspian lording over them. While watching these waders, and discussing whether the Barramundi that several participants had consumed during the previous night might be wild-caught or farm-raised we were happy to find a Buff-banded Rail parading around on one of the exposed berms between the ponds. A quick stop at a petrol station just a tad north of Cairns allowed us to find a flock of Scaly-breasted Munias that were foraging in an adjacent patch of sugar cane. Along with this little flock of introduced finches we found several Chestnut-breasted Munia while the wires overhead held several handsome White-breasted Wood-Swallows and some introduced Spotted Doves. We checked into our comfortable hotel on the Cairns esplanade and after a short break many of the participant joined us for a couple of hours of birding around town. We started by visiting the dense mangroves at the north end of the esplanade, where with a little bit of patience we were able to track down a calling Torresian Kingfisher. This species is a recent split from the very widespread Collared Kingfisher, and resembles a more robust and darker version of the common Sacred Kingfisher. As it was still a fairly low tide we were actually able to walk a bit into the mangrove forest to obtain the best views. This was a bit of a muddy experience, but it certainly allowed for a greater appreciation for the preferred habitat of this coastal species. Out on the mudflats of the bay we spent a bit of time trying to coax a calling Mangrove Robin into view. Unfortunately the bird remained stubbornly hidden in the trees, but we had much more success with the assemblage of waders along the shoreline. Being so close to giant Far Eastern Curlew, foraging Bar-tailed Godwit, sprightly Terek Sandpipers, Grey-tailed Tattler and Great Knots is always a treat, especially for birders more familiar with western European or North American waders. The trees along the esplanade hosted several vocal Varied Honeyeaters, Hornbill Friarbirds and a couple of diminutive Double-eyed Fig-Parrots that whizzed past us with their high scratchy voices echoing over the sounds of children playing and the background din of a nearby soccer game.

An early flight to Brisbane the next day allowed us to arrive into the third largest city in Australia at the convenient hour of 8:00am. Once we gathered up our luggage and secured our new chariots (which unfortunately took quite a bit longer than intended) we started the roughly three hour drive north to the Maryborough region just north of the sunshine coast. The unseasonable rains continued for much of our drive north, finally easing off just in time for us to enjoy an early lunch at an excellent café just off our exit from the main motorway. We arrived at our main birding destination of the day in the very early afternoon. Inskip Point, a long sandy peninsula that juts out towards the huge world heritage designated Fraser Island provided a wealth of birdlife for us. Along the entrance road to the point we stopped at some flowering Banksia bushes and spent about a half-hour walking along the mangrove lined road. Here we located a large number of honeyeaters including our first (and only) Mangrove Honeyeaters; a close relative of the Varied Honeyeaters that we found in the mangroves at Cairns. Some White-cheeked Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were also enjoyed, which continued the ever- growing tally of honeyeater species for the tour. Also here were several “southern” Australian Figbirds, a much duller version of the bright northern birds. The parking lot at the point was crowded with Australians who, despite the weather, were readying their various trucks for the sandy beach driving that is popular around the margins of the coast here. In the carpark though, despite the human activity we were able to see male Rufous and Golden Whistlers at close range, and to spot a circling Brahminy Kite that was patrolling the coast. The tide was well out during our visit, and a good number of waders, including many Far Eastern Curlew and Red-necked Stints were scurrying across the exposed muddy beach. Some loafing cormorants and terns proved instructive as well, with our first Lesser Crested and Common Terns and Pied Cormorants lurking in the flock. As we walked further out onto the beach we were thrilled to find a pair of the giant and really impressively patterned Beach Thick-Knees among the waders. This species is possibly the holy grail of waders in Northeast Queensland. Scarcely distributed along sandy stretches of beaches with adjacent relatively undisturbed brushland this spectacularly large and colorful thick knee makes itself even more inconspicuous by being generally crepuscular, spending the heat of the day tucked away in the shady underbrush. We were likely indebted to the thousands of small crabs exposed by the low tide for our excellent views of the Thick-Knees. Just offshore our attentions were diverted by a passing Inshore Bottlenosed Dolphin, a smaller version of the more widespread offshore species that prefers to feed in shallow waters over sandy shores. Elated by the Thick-Knees we walked back through the brushy point, stopping to admire some very tame Eastern Yellow Robins, our first Brown Thornbills of the tour, and a busy family group of inquisitive White-browed Scrubwrens. Thankful that the rains had abated for our afternoon on the point we were soon inundated by another rain squall which precluded us from a concentrated search for the other specialty of the point, the cryptic and generally scarce Black-breasted Buttonquail. We made the final hour long drive up to our hotel in the late afternoon, passing by an impressive amount of non-native Pine plantations and spotting a couple of Eastern Grey Kangaroos along the road as we neared the well-kept town of Maryborough, our base for the next two nights.

The following day dawned amazingly clear with blue skies and only a few distant clouds on the horizon, in short, a perfect day to visit the sparkling waters of the Great Barrier Reef. In previous years we had accessed breeding seabirds and the Great Barrier Reef via a catamaran from Cairns. With the recent and significant bleaching events that have severely affected the overall coral health of the northern sections of the reef we decided this year to access the southern edge of the reef via a short flight out to Lady Elliot Island, a small coral atoll surrounded by a vibrant and healthy fringing reef and liberally covered with trees and shrubs which support a wealth of breeding seabirds. We drove up to the tiny airport at Hervey Bay and were soon ushered into a small waiting room that was covered in large photos of swimming Sea Turtles, Manta Rays and an array of colourful fish. Dividing into two 12-passenger aircraft we flew over the incredibly beautiful Fraser Island, passing a seemingly endless expanse of native forest, small lakes and hills and a miles long bright white sandy shoreline. Some lucky participants even spotted a mother and calf Humpback Whale from the air! As the plane neared the atoll we circled around a few times as we dropped towards the grassy airstrip that neatly bisects the small round island. It took only a second of looking out of the airplane windows for everyone to realize that this was indeed a special place. Hundreds of Black Noddies were perched on trees and bushes or flying overhead as they performed their tandem display flights. We were greeted at the airplane by a host from the on-island lodge who was soon trying to give us the rundown of our day on the island; though she had to compete with the nearly hand tamed Buff-banded Rails, and dozens of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies that were simply everywhere that we looked and completely untroubled by our presence. Once properly oriented we set out on a small loop walk around the northern half of the island, where we picked out a couple of Tawny Grassbirds along the airstrip, about a dozen Pacific Golden-Plovers (several of which were still partly in their dapper breeding plumage) and a seemingly uncountable number of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies. Most seabird colonies around the tropics are largely unvegetated, and the visiting birder has to search through Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies in the hopes of finding just one Bridled or Black. Here we found the experience reversed, and with some careful searching we noted several dozen Brown Noddies and just a scarce handful of Sooty Terns among the masses. The island possesses and endemic subspecies of Silvereye, and we were able to see several of these large and distinctively coloured birds as we walked the small paths that wind through the forested half of the island. Dubbed the “Capricorn” Silvereye, this form is endemic to a handful of islands along the Great Barrier Reef, and given the propensity for island-based endemism of white-eyes may well deserve full species status. Just before we finished our first circuit we stopped in at the near end of the runway and were elated to see several Red-tailed Tropicbirds (a specialty here) circling overhead. These are the smallest and most pelagic of the world’s three species of Tropicbird, with a very buoyant flight, ethereally white body plumage and bright red tail streamers. The sighting was actually a life bird for both of the leaders, as well as most of the tour participants. In the late morning we took a short ride in a glass bottom boat that allowed us to see the huge coral heads that rise from the sandy bottom along the north side of the island. A few Green Sea Turtles and an array of colourful reef fish livened up the scene as well.

After the boat trip we enjoyed a buffet lunch where we were joined at the table by pushy Buff-banded Rails that didn’t think twice about climbing over our feet or grabbing a stray chip from a plate (proffered or not).  After lunch the group split up to enjoy the leisure activities of the island, with many people opting for a short snorkel trip out on the reef, or a lounge on one of the many beach chairs with a drink in hand. Many of the group kept birding though, and the walk out to the rocky point on the islands south shore kept us happily occupied for quite some time. The island supports an amazing diversity of tern species (we noted 8 species during the day) and we were able to obtain close up views of our first Roseate and Black-naped Terns (both low density breeders here) as well as comparison views of Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns and a couple of migrant Common Terns. The coralline shelf was also hosting an array of waders including a nesting pair of Sooty Oystercatchers and several Grey-tailed Tattlers. It took a bit of time and effort but we were eventually successful in pinning down one Wandering Tattler among the Grey-taileds, noting its darker overall plumage, duller supercilium and different flight call. Just before it was time for us to leave the lodge put on a short fish feeding demonstration along the beach. For those who opted to come down for it the experience of standing in calf-deep water surrounded by dozens of colourful wrasse, triggerfish, jacks and damselfish ranked high on the tour highlight reel. Indeed at the end of the tour when we reminisced about the best parts of the tour it was this day on Lady Elliot Island (and the incredible Cassowary sighting) that won the day. In the late afternoon we flew back to the mainland, again with excellent visibility which enabled a couple of people to spot a Manta Ray that was swimming just off the end of the runway. Once back on the mainland we drove to Maryborough, with stops for fuel and to admire some perched Pale-headed Rosellas (here of the southern subspecies). As the restaurant near our hotel that we had enjoyed the previous night was not open we ventured a bit out into town and experienced a memorable ambiance at the veterans club of Maryborough (once we cleared the security hurdle at the door). We capped the night off with some bat watching, with dozens of huge Black Flying-Foxes passing over the parking lot.

The next day was largely a travel day as we made our way south past Brisbane and up into the mountainous Lamington National Park for our base for the next two nights at the incomparable O’Reilly’s Eco-Lodge.  An amazingly opulent poolside buffet breakfast started our journey off on good footing, and by mid-morning we were well to the south which allowed us to stop for an excellent birding session at Sheep Station Creek Conservation Park, a well forested park to the northwest of Brisbane that conserves a remnant patch of Ironbark and Grey Gum forest. This is an endangered forest type that we previously did not visit on our eastern tour, and luckily for us we arrived at the trailhead to find that many of the trees were in full bloom. Dozens of Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets joined a host of Noisy Miners and Blue-faced Honeyeaters in the blooms, in a mad rush for sugar. A vocal family group of Grey Butcherbirds and several garrulous Australian Magpies joined some quite cute miniature ponies in a paddock next to where we were parked. As we began to walk down the trail through the preserve we found several more blooming trees that held small numbers of Yellow-faced and Fuscous Honeyeaters. Although Fuscous are admittedly a dully plumaged species this sighting was a first for our tour’s cumulative list as they are generally tied to Grey Gum/Box Ironwood forest. The dense understory along the trail was busy as well, with several pairs of dazzling Variegated Fairy-Wrens (including at least two fully coloured males) keeping us entertained for quite some time. A calling Common Cicadabird came in to our imitations of its call, allowing many participants a better look at this often heard but seldom seen species. The forest floor was quite wet, with many standing puddles and we found much of the interior of the woods to be fairly quiet, although the White-throated Treecreeper and several perky Eastern Yellow Robins were nice finds. As we turned around to head back to the vans a passing raptor that was hunting just above the treetops proved to be a Square-tailed Kite, a scarcely distributed species across the forested sections of Australia. Once back at the vehicles we spent a bit more time looking at the flowering trees, admiring perched Sacred Kingfisher and Laughing Kookaburras as well as a fast-moving White-throated Needletail that coursed overhead at an impressive rate. Lunch at a local café followed and then we spent the early afternoon driving to the mountains near the New South Wales border, with stops to admire perched Wedge-tailed Eagles, foraging Little Corellas and a large camp of Black Flying Foxes with many nesting Australian White Ibis mixed in.

We arrived at the beginning of the ascent into the park in the late afternoon, a perfect time to spot Pretty-faced and Red-necked Wallabies along the roadside clearings. The narrow and very windy road that snakes its way up into Lamington National Park is a bit of an experience in and of itself. As we neared the lodge a sudden shift from dry Eucalypt forest to a temperate rainforest full of cycads, moss, some Nothophagus trees and ferns was a surprise to many. We stopped to admire our first Crimson Rosellas and Australian King Parrots that were foraging along the road, and many of the participants enjoyed views of portly Wonga Pigeons that were waddling alongside the forest edge just below the lodge. Once we arrived at the end of the road most participants headed directly to the open clearing below the check-in area where they were immediately surrounded by more Rosellas and King Parrots, as well as Red-browed Finches, White-browed Scrubwrens and Regent Bowerbirds that came in to see if the newcomers were bearing treats. O’Rielly’s is a beautiful eco-lodge, often noted as one of the premier ecolodges in the country. It directly abuts the beautiful MacPherson Range, and Lamington National Park. The original development in the area was a dairy farm operation started by the O’Rielly family in 1911. Four years later, Lamington National Park was created, effectively isolating the dairy farm from any future developments. Although the original guesthouse was built in 1926, road access was given in the 1970’s, and an eco-lodge model soon sprung up. Birds in the area here are exceedingly tame, with many gaudy species such as Regent and Satin Bowerbirds, Australian King Parrot, Crimson Rosella, Brush Turkey and Pied Currawong all coming in to feed from guests’ outstretched hands! Also around the grounds of the lodge we looked at a well-developed Satin Bowerbird bower, decorated with the blue flotsam of humanity; bottle caps, straws, plastic bits, and pen tops. Although not perhaps as natural as rosella feathers and flowers, these plastic replacement parts are a part of these birds environment now, and they have the added benefit of not decomposing and needing constant replacement.  As the sun set over the distant forested ridges of Lamington National Park we watched Red-necked Pademelons hopping out of the forest edge and onto the trimmed lawns around the lodge buildings.

We spent the entire next day exploring around the lodge grounds and on the adjacent trails into the national park. An optional pre-breakfast walk proved incredibly productive, with point blank views of a wide array of species. We met early, and soon after convening near reception could hear the unmistakable calls of an Albert’s Lyrebird singing from the forest below the cabins. Perhaps because of the local drought, combined with the lack of aggression or hunting in the visiting hordes of people a male Lyrebird has become semi-acclimatized to the forests immediately around the lodge grounds. Starting in late 2013 a pair of birds has been seen with some frequency, sometimes even in the heavily developed parts of the lodge grounds, but they are not present every day. Seeing an Albert’s Lyrebird in the forest away from the lodge is quite a tricky proposition, as the birds tend not to be displaying during the time that we visit, and often run downslope when people are nearby.  In 2017 a pair was being regularly seen near the lodge grounds. We decided to walk down the trail to see if we could get a bit closer to the bird and about 200m down trail we located a male in full display just a few meters off the path. With quite a bit of brush occluding our view the bird seemed to not mind our arrival, and he continued his rhythmic dance for about 15 minutes with us as his only audience. He would hold his ornate tail feathers up over his back and slowly prance in a balletic fashion with drooped wings while uttering a wide array of calls, whistles and cackles. Albert’s (and the closely related Superb) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the world’s oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife. As both species generally display and mate in the winter months seeing the full display at such a late date in the year was a special experience. After an almost guilt-inducing breakfast buffet we set set off down the park service trail above the lodge. Here, Large-billed, Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens hopped around us at incredibly close range, while pairs of Australian Logrunners scratched hopefully in the leaf litter just a few feet away. Eastern Yellow Robins were plentiful, often perching within touching range and looking at us inquisitively. Even normally retiring species like Eastern Whip-bird are somewhat tame here, boldly hopping by in the open, or (in the case of one bird) even climbing up to an eye-level perch and checking out the contents of our outstretched hand.  It is, simply put, an amazing experience here, akin to the Galapagos Islands in some respects. Passing through a mile of rainforest, we found the trail to be quite active, with pairs of Brown Gerygones at every bend, and a near constant background din from Lewin’s Honeyeaters and Golden Whistlers. With some effort we tracked down several Green Catbirds that were foraging high in the canopy among clusters of epiphytic plants. Their odd calls sound much like a cat being strangled (or at least what I would imagine that a cat being strangled sounds like), but although they were often calling and are fairly hefty birds it took some time to obtain scope views. Closely related to the Spotted Catbird that we saw repeatedly on the Atherton Tablelands, Green Catbird was our sixth (and final) species of bowerbird for the trip!

Perhaps the morning highlight on the walk was a beautiful male Rose Robin, clad in delicate pink-red and slate grey, that was spotted coming in to bathe in a small pool in the botanic gardens. Seeing this beautiful bird down at eye level rather than up in its normal canopy haunts was especially welcome. A large fruiting fig tree near the gardens was attracting a couple of White-headed Pigeons, a large and well named species that is often difficult to pin down on our itinerary. Once back on the boardwalk part of the trail we were excited to find an uncharacteristically tame Bassian Thrush that was foraging in the leafy understory just a few meters off the trail. A pair of Crested Shrike-Tits greeted our return to the trailhead. These uncommon birds are often missed on tours, as they tend not to vocalize much and are somewhat lethargic as they feed by stripping bark strips from the canopy. Just before lunch we again visited with the throngs of Regent and Satin Bowberbirds, Australian King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas that frequent the lodge grounds. During lunch at the O’Reilly’s café we were treated to point blank views of pushy Pied Currawongs and even more Satin Bowerbirds that were a bit too interested in our piles of chips. A few participants sitting out on the balcony were even treated to a visit by a stunning adult Grey Goshawk whose arrival sent the various Currawongs and Bowerbirds scattering for cover.

After a short siesta we spent the late afternoon a few kilometers downslope, birding in some drier more open forest on the lower slopes of the mountains.  We stopped at a wide clearing along the road that was once a gravel quarry. Here a small pool of water has formed in the old gravel pit and in the mid-afternoon sun a steady parade of birds were coming in to drink or bathe. We watched the pond for a few minutes, delighted to see Silvereye, Leaden Flycatcher, Golden Whistler and Brown Gerygone at such a close range. The trees around the clearing held several dazzlingly red Scarlet Myzomelas, which finally remained still enough for us to enjoy them in the telescope. A pair of large Wedge-tailed Eagles made for an impressive sight as they climbed up some thermals, doubtless trying to gain enough altitude to check the nearby road system for roadkill. While birding from the clearing we could hear the unmistakable ringing calls of a group of Bell Miners coming from down the trail. These olive-green honeyeaters, with bright orange legs and bill, and loud pinging calls are often extremely frustrating to see well as they call from the mid to upper canopy. A colonial, cooperatively breeding species that specializes on feeding on small scale insects called Lerps, Bell Miners are aggressive towards competitive species, chasing other species out of their large colony sites. This makes them effectively farmers of the lerps, a somewhat unique arrangement. This colony seemed to be only recently established and although the miners were plentiful there were still many other birds about, including our only Red-browed Treecreeper of the trip, several pairs of White-throated Honeyeaters, many vocal Spotted Pardalotes and a host of Lewin’s and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters that were being constantly harassed by the Miners. Also on this trail we were alerted to the presence of some baby cockatoos by their harsh begging cries. We crept up slowly and were soon able to spot two huge juvenile Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos sitting on a branch near a large cut-off stump that was likely their birthplace. The female came in and we were able to watch as she regurgitated lunch to her two young, before they fluttered and climbed a bit clumsily higher up in the canopy. Australia is often termed to be the land of parrots, and certainly they form a highly visible and colourful component of the avifauna here. It is perhaps the six species of Black Cockatoo though that are the most unique. With huge bodies and long tails they appear to be hefty birds, but in reality they are mostly feathers and beak and they fly with an incredibly graceful and buoyant flight. Once back out at the clearing we spent about a half hour playing hide-and-seek with a couple of calling Noisy Pittas. One of the birds slipped up and showed itself to several in the group, but most of us were only able to glimpse this feathered rainbow as it flew through the dense understory.

As we slowly drove back up the road we heard the grating calls of a male Paradise emanating from some overhanging trees. Unlike the previous few birds that we had heard though, this individual responded well to our imitations and soon flew in overhead. This beautiful bird of paradise has a reflective blue uppertail and bright blue-green throat, both of which showed well for us in the field. At times we were even able to see the birds yellow-green mouth lining as it called back to us. Recent research has shown that the Birds-of-Paradise likely evolved initially in Australia, retreating to the lowland humid forests of New Guinea as the country began to dry out and Australian rainforest patches shrank. Although the Paradise Riflebird is now the most southerly-distributed species of BoP it is quite probable that a hundred thousand years ago there were many species present in the mountains of southern Queensland. We then headed back to the lodge for an early dinner where we were joined at the restaurant by a quite cute Short-eared Possum that was happily munching on some proffered fruit at the bird tables. Afterwards we set off for an optional spotlighting trip in perfectly calm and quite warm conditions. Within just a few minutes of our arrival along a forested creek below the lodge we heard a response from a Marbled Frogmouth in the distance. Generally this species is reluctant to move in response to playback, but this individual flew in quickly, perching in a perfect position opposite our bus. This is undoubtedly the most difficult species of Frogmouth to see in Australia, with a fairly restricted range and more retiring habits than the other two species. Our views this year would be difficult to beat, with the bird remaining in view for over 10 minutes, quietly croaking to itself and sitting with fully fluffed up feathers. Also in the area were many Red-necked Pademelons grazing on the open fields near the end of the road under a beautifully inky black, star-filled sky.

For our last morning around O’Reilly’s we decided to make a special effort to get good views of Noisy Pitta. Generally this is perhaps the easiest species of Pitta to see, but with the wonky weather around Kingfisher Park and their seemingly early arrival around Lamington (which meant that the birds were further along in their nest cycle than usual, and less vocal or responsive). We decided to leave for a pre-breakfast walk down the Python Rock trail, a less traveled and well-groomed trail that winds through tall rainforest with a remarkably open understory. It began as a nice stroll through really pretty forest, with pairs of Logrunners foraging along the trail and Black-faced Monarchs and Green Catbirds calling from the canopy. Soon after starting the trail we heard several Pittas calling and were able to finally get one bird perched for scope views as it showed off its buff, green, blue, black and red plumage to excellent effect. In a sublime quirk we also located a displaying male Paradise Riflebird that was sitting on an exposed limb above the Pitta. With outstretched and arched wings and flared breast shield he put on quite a good show for a visiting female (though unfortunately from our angle much of the display was blocked by the large limb that he had chosen to display from). We headed back for breakfast with stops in the parking area of the lodge where a flowering bottlebrush tree was being visited by a parade of Eastern Spinebills and Lewin’s Honeyeaters that were content to feed just a few feet away from our expectant camera lenses. All too soon we had to pack up, saying goodbye to the throngs of Rosellas and King Parrots (a few of which remained perched on our heads or open car doors till the final moments!).

As we headed downslope with the occasional stop for some road improvements we were delayed when we heard the begging calls of another cockatoo through our open front windows. We pulled over and walked back to the source of the sound. We were thrilled to find that the noises were coming from a family group of four Glossy Black Cockatoos instead of the more expected Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo. These slightly smaller cockatoos are more sparsely distributed than their larger cousins, with a bright red flash in the tail and a perchance for a rather particular mix of Eucalypt and Casaurina forests.  We watched the three young birds and their mother for quite some time as they huddled together, occasionally walking over to another limb or uttering their grating begging calls. While we were standing around watching the Glossy Blacks (incidentally only our second sighting of this species over the past 10 years of tours) an astute participant notice a snoozing Tawny Frogmouth that was sitting just feet off the road giving the photographers in the group some decisions to make. We continued on from this truly excellent roadside stop and took a picnic lunch near the coastal motorway at a little city park. As our flight out of the small Gold Coast airport was scheduled for early evening we were able to spend a bit of time birding at wetland preserve in the suburb of Arundel. We arrived to find that the recent rains had caused the previously low water levels to be much deeper. This made searching for (and especially finding) the couple of Australian Painted Snipe that had recently been in the area quite a difficult proposition. Our search was not in vain though, as we flushed up a cooperative Latham’s Snipe which made several in-flight passes of our group before it dropped into the far end of the lake. Here too were some cooperative Red-backed Fairy-Wrens, a foraging Comb-crested Jacana, both Gray and Pied Butcherbirds and some almost tame Pale-headed Rosellas. With the bright blue skies and pleasant temperature it was a relaxing and pleasant place to bird. The highlights were not all avian though, as we were happy to see a couple of Eastern Grey Kangaroos and another large Lace Monitor as well. In the late afternoon we completed the drive back up to the gold coast airport and flew south, leaving Queensland behind us as we arrived in Sydney in the early evening.

We usually schedule our pelagic for the second full day around Sydney, but given the impending high winds in the forecast elected to conduct the pelagic trip on the first day. Although the winds were fairly calm on the day the previous few days had been somewhat tempestuous, and there was still an appreciable cross swell, revealing the fallacy of the “pacific” part of the Pacific Ocean. Our trusty commercial sport fishing boat left from the Rose Bay Ferry terminal early in the morning, with great views of the magnificent Sydney Harbour (including the Opera House and Harbour Bridge) as we left port. Just after passing through the somewhat narrow harbour mouth our first flocks of shearwaters began passing by, with many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters lingering behind the boat as we tossed out chum. Using their languid flight style as a base we soon worked out the quite different flight styles of Short-tailed and Fluttering Shearwaters as they zipped through the flock. Having a steady trickle of chum jettisoned from the stern kept the flocks interested and close, which really facilitates close study. While watching the first groups of birds at leisure a flurry of excitement was created by our first Black-browed Albatross that glided up our wake and circled the boat several times, making the shearwaters look like toys under its outspread wings. A few Hutton’s and Sooty Shearwaters came by as well, making for quite the diverse shearwater assemblage. We continued to motor out to deeper water, heading towards the continental shelf and a small seamount about 20 miles offshore. With a continual stream of shearwaters following the boat we kept attracting new species including our first of several Pomarine Jaegers, and a couple of Flesh-footed Shearwaters. At one point a quick flyby from a poorly seen petrel caused a stir, though the bird escaped without providing excellent views. Some fast photography work from a couple of people on board revealed the bird to be a Gould’s Petrel, a rare species of tubenose that breeds on a few small islands off the coast of New South Wales and one with an estimated worldwide population of only 2500 birds (for the Australian subspecies).

Eventually we arrived at the seamount and cut the engines, chumming and drifting with the stiff current while birds came in to sit on the water near our stern, or to lazily fly around the boat. Soon enough we were watching two species of the “real” tubenoses – Pterodroma petrels. Several Grey-faced (a recent split from Great-winged Petrel) and Providence Petrels gave extended flight views as they cruised around, and a few individuals even sat down on the increasingly calm water for even closer scrutiny. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels pattered on the chum slick behind us, with up several dozen birds visible at a time. After about ten minutes of drifting with the current we were surprised by a sharp-looking Black (Parkinson’s) Petrel that came in to the back of the boat and then lingered at the chum line, repeatedly landing on the water and providing excellent comparison views next to the smaller Grey-faced and Providence Petrels. Sightings of this very good looking tubenose are scarce off Australian waters during the breeding season as this species breeds well to the southeast, on islands adjacent to New Zealand. A couple of White-capped Albatross cruised by as well, although we failed to find any of our hoped for Wandering Albatross which may well have been sitting on the water rather than flying around much due to the lack of wind. We motored back to Sydney in the afternoon, with close views of two different pods of Common Dolphins and some distant views of breaching Humpback Whales to keep us occupied. It was a good day out on the water, though rougher than several participants were likely hoping for, so it was likely with some relief that we reached dry land and (after tangling a bit with Sydney traffic) our hotel for the night.

We spent our final full day exploring the large and wild Royal National Park, just a little south of metropolitan Sydney. The first National Park created in Australia (and second designated in the world), Royal encompasses 15000 hectares of coastal heath, dry forest, and patches of temperate rainforest in the valleys and boasts an amazing diversity of bird (and plant) life. Our local contact in Sydney lives close to the park, and has spent decades exploring the various sub habitats. Acting on his suggestion we spent the morning walking down Lady Carrington Drive, an old roadbed that follows a meandering stream and passes through patches of more humid forest. Though it was near the end of our nearly month-long tour through the country new bird species were still popping up throughout the morning. Our primary goal for the walk was to locate a Superb Lyrebird, and we managed to see not one, but 3 of these incredible birds, and hear several others giving rollicking and varied calls from the other side of the creek. Similar in size and overall habits to the Albert’s Lyrebirds that we saw around O’Reilly’s these Superbs are perhaps even better acoustic mimics, and also possess an even finer and more impressive tail. Generally wary and hard to see in the field the birds in Royal National Park are somewhat used to people and allow a closer approach. New Holland Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were common companions down the trail, soon becoming almost a distraction when they appeared in denser cover. Little family groups of Superb and Variegated Fairywrens livened up the understory, and we enjoyed superlative views of several Azure Kingfishers that were perched along the picturesque Hacking Creek.

The open lawns along the creek were playing host to flocks of very tame Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Little Corellas. Just before lunch we left the park behind and Steve took us to a nearby site where he keeps tabs on a pair of Powerful Owls. These huge owls seem to enjoy the suburban/forest interface, feasting on possums, and the occasional cats that thrive in the fire-suppressed and flowering-plant rich gardens. Along a small creek we enjoyed lengthy views of one of these impressively large birds as it napped in the shade of a small creekside tree. Its massive talons and baleful stare certainly made us believe that they are well named. After the great success with Australia’s largest owl we headed back to the park for lunch, which was accompanied by several groups of flying Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos over the ridge, and some inquisitive Australasian Swamphens and Australian Magpies who looked at our food selections with appraising eyes. Out on the cliff side at Wattamolla we were a bit hampered by the high winds, but our views of the sparkling ocean and roaring surf were superlative (and made us glad that we had scheduled the pelagic for the prior day). The walk produced a small flock of Brown-headed Honeyeaters in the dense coastal Banksias, an odd location for this typically more inland species as well a surprising array of wildlife. White’s Skinks were sunning themselves along the path, and in a dense tangle of branches we found a placid Carpet Python that showed well for us. The highlight though was likely the Echidna that was crossing the path. We were able to see this odd and uniquely Australasian animal (there is another species in New Guinea) at very close range, and some participants even reached out to feel the rubbery spines and very strong feet and claws.  

In the afternoon we stopped in at another section of the park near Bundeena Beach, where we in a small coastal lagoon we finally located a couple of pairs of Chestnut Teal, happily with many Grey Teal nearby for comparison. Although the dapper chestnut and green males are distinctive in their breeding plumage the females of these two closely related ducks are only subtlety different. Here too was a nesting colony of Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants with a few Little Egrets sprinkled in amongst them and about a half a dozen roosting Nankeen Night-Herons. These handsome birds are named for the colour on their wings and back, which resembled the colour of pants worn by the Chinese railroad workers decades ago as they completed the trans Australian railway lines. These pants were made of a material called Nankeen, a pale yellowish cloth that would become stained red by the Australian soil. Around the margins of the pond we found another active Satin Bowerbird bower, complete with an impressive collection of blue bottle caps. As the afternoon waned we contented ourselves with walking around the beach and local park, spotting some distant Far Eastern Curlews and Bar-tailed Godwits, and photographing the nearly tame Galahs and Superb Fairy-Wrens that were sprinked around on the lawn. Our final stop for the day was at a nearby Camellia garden, where it took less than a minute to spot the Grey-headed Flying-Foxes that were hanging by the dozens in the trees around the carpark, like oversized paper Halloween ornaments.

Our last half-day in the park saw us visiting the beautiful sandstone cliff ledges of the coast at Wattamolla in less windy conditions, where we really got to know New Holland Honeyeaters well, played hide and seek with a pair of Southern Emu-Wrens out in the coastal heath and found an endangered Heath Monitor sunning itself on a large boulder and our last new mammals of the trip; introduced Rusa Deer and a handsome Swamp Wallaby.  Perhaps due to just bad luck, or perhaps due to the disturbance caused by a trail building project we did not connect with a Rockwarbler in its regular haunt along the cliff edge. Our views of a very inquisitive and uncharacteristically bold Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens that were seemingly content to run around almost underfoot provided a bit of consolation though. The roar of the surf below the cliffs, and passing groups of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters just added to the ambience. Then we left the park for a visit to the adjacent Heathcote National Park, just a bit inland from Royal. Here we walked down into a ravine that was filled with Grey Gums, and soon were watching several attractively marked Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, a species closely associated with this species of tree. Some cooperative Spotted Pardalotes and our first White-eared Honeyeaters livened up the walk as well, and the pitch of the slope kept our heart rates up a bit – perhaps a good strategy as many of the participants had lengthy flights ahead later that afternoon. Nearby we walked down an unused road along one of the park ridges and were able to locate our final (out of an amazing 33 species of honeyeater on the eastern tour, and 54 for the combined tours) species of honeyeater when several attractive Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters popped up in front of us as we walked across a powerline clearing. We walked out as far as a large exposed slab of sandstone, where Steve pointed out an array of pictographs created by the Dharawal people who used to inhabit the area. All too soon though it was time to pack up the binoculars and head to the airport as we wrapped up a fantastic 14-day tour through Queensland and coastal New South Wales.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 16 November 2017