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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Queensland and New South Wales

Riflebirds, Reefs and Rainforests

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2022 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 spent in the coastal lowlands around Cairns and Daintree, and the cooler pastoral highlands of the Atherton Tablelands. It’s hard to pick a favorite sighting when you spend a week in such an incredibly diverse area. Some of the highlights included our fantastic sighting of a male Southern Cassowary with four striped chicks along the Barron River, displaying Tooth-billed and Great Bowerbirds tending their various bowers, nesting Papuan Frogmouths, multiple pairs of Yellow-breasted Boatbills and nesting colonies of scarlet-eyed Metallic Starlings. We then moved down to the southern part of coastal Queensland where we took 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, Green Sea Turtles and a dazzling array of colourful reef fish. A bit further to the south we visited 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 around the grounds of the lodge. And in the woods, we found confiding Eastern Whip-birds, pairs of Australian Logrunners, cooperative Paradise Riflebirds and (eventually) fantastic views of Albert’s Lyrebirds. We wrapped up the tour with three days around Sydney, surely one of the most picturesque cities in the world. We spent the first day around Royal National Park, where we connected with an eventually cooperative Superb Lyrebird, as well as a host of new species with a more southerly distribution such as Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Beautiful Firetail, Rockwarbler and a family group of Powerful Owls. Our pelagic trip out of Sydney was, sadly, cancelled this year due to marginal weather conditions and some logistical issues, but we made good use of our “extra” shore day by spending more time in Royal National Park, where we found Southern Emu-Wrens out in the heath, and Wedge-tailed, Short-tailed and Fluttering Shearwaters passing by as well as several migrating Humpback Whales. In the afternoon we ventured a bit inland, where we were thrilled to connect with a couple of snoozing Koalas and some very attractive Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters. We made the most of our final half-day with a visit to a local Sydney Park where we rounded out our birdlist with our first Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Yellow and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Eastern Rosella, and Australian Reed-Warblers. No trip such as this can be summed up by statistical means alone as the experiences and landscapes are integral, but our 281 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 DETAIL: Our group flight from the previous leg of the tour that ended in Melbourne 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 warm and a bit humid the temperature seemed sublime in comparison to the unseasonably cold climes of the deep south. We ate lunch at a local mall, which offered a wide range of food options for folks and allowed us to do a bit of shopping for water and snacks for the upcoming days. After lunch we took a short walk along the shoreline, taking in some of the common city park birds. We had hoped to spend some time with the often amazingly diverse and numerous waders that ply the shoreline here at most tides, but unfortunately our timing coincided with high tide and an onshore wind. The park was active though, and it proved a good introduction, with common species such as Silver Gull, Black-fronted Dotterel, Australian Pelican, Welcome Swallow and White-breasted Woodswallow admired in turn. New birds popped up above us as well, with some flowering trees along the boardwalk attracting a few very vocal Varied Honeyeaters, a rather staid but remarkably cooperative Brown Honeyeater, little flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets, and even a few brightly plumaged Australian Figbirds. In one particularly large fig we located about a half-dozen Rufous Night-Herons resting in the heat of the day, doubtless preparing to descend upon hapless crabs along the shore at dusk. The open grassy fields of the Esplanade were hopping, with the smart looking Torresian Imperial-Pigeons and fast flying flocks of Metallic Starlings passing overhead, groups of Peaceful Doves and Magpie-Larks striding about on the lawn, and introduced ferals like House Sparrow, Common Mynah and Rock Pigeon looking quite out of place in such a tropical setting.

Since the tides were certainly not in our favour we opted to leave the shoreline behind and make a short visit to the freshwater lakes section of the Botanic Gardens. We made a short loop walk around the lake and along the adjacent saltwater creek, finding a wealth of birds on the way. The main lake was choked with aquatic vegetation, but still harboured several pairs of handsome Pacific Black Ducks and our first Magpie Geese. These large and gangly “geese” are not actually geese at all, but rather a relict species of waterfowl that is not closely related to any other extant species and is placed in a monotypic family. Rainbow Bee-Eaters were hawking insects from the trees that ringed the water’s edge, and we spotted several Brown-backed Honeyeaters splashing down into the water to cool off in the abnormally hot afternoon. Flowerbeds held many Australian Brushturkeys that were striding around and digging around the plantings in a hopeful fashion with their oversized feet. These pretty, but ungainly looking birds belong to the Megapode family, but unlike many of the megapodes have adapted well to human habitation, to the point where many a suburban gardener has rued their existence. Leaving the lake behind we successfully tracked down calling Black Butcherbird and Common Cicadabird, two monocolored but still subtly beautiful birds that we see few of on the tour itinerary. Here too we enjoyed our first bright yellow and blue Olive-backed Sunbirds, a perched male Mistletoebird, Varied Triller and several flyover and very vocal Hornbill Friarbirds, a large and garrulous honeyeater that was recently split from the Helmeted Friarbird complex.

As the afternoon was starting to wane, we decided to wrap up our stroll through the gardens and start the hour and a half journey up to the tablelands where we would spend much of the next four days. We stopped once along the way to ogle a circling White-bellied Sea-Eagle that was flying above the road and carrying some fairly large prey item in its oversized talons. Soon after we left the lowlands of Cairns behind and drove uphill on a short but remarkably windy road that passes through alternating bands of rainforest and drier eucalypt forest before reaching the southern Atherton Tablelands. We pulled into our secluded lodge that is tucked into the Lake Eachem Rainforest and met the gracious owner before checking in and enjoying a delicious catered dinner. After we did the bird log for the day most of the group opted to make a short foray down to a special area where the lodge has set up an excellent viewing area for nocturnal mammals, with floodlights along the edge of the forest illuminating a nice patch of tree trunks. Here we quickly found a couple of Krefft’s Gliders lapping up sap from a couple of close trunks. These silvery-grey marsupials resemble overly fluffy flying squirrels, and like those animals have thin furred membranes along their flanks and limbs which allow them to glide long distances to escape potential rivals or predators. We were able to watch them at length, and at a ridiculously close range (thanks to their near daily exposure to human paparazzi). A couple of Long-nosed Bandicoots, a cute rabbit-sized terrestrial marsupial with a long snout, pointy ears and a curious running hop were snuffling around in the leaf litter below the observation platform, and out in the parking lot we found our first Red-legged Pademelon; a small and oddly hunchbacked kangaroo that prefers humid forests. The little pond near the reception area proved excellent for frogs, with excellent views of Jungguy Frog and Green-eyed Treefrog, and a quick view of a fleeing Striped Marsh Frog. For just a few hours in the afternoon it was a real whirlwind of sights and sounds, and we headed off to bed with great expectations for our first morning in Australia’s wet tropics the next day.

The next morning, we met for a pre-breakfast walk around the carpark of the lodge; a walk that basically became an impromptu big sit as several of the trees around the margins of the small clearing were in fruit and attracting a heady mix of birds. The most prominent group of birds were pigeons, and not of the comparatively drab northern hemisphere type. Here were flocks of the large and oddly charismatic Topknot Pigeons, with their flared bouffant hairdos and long black and white banded tails, flying over in scattered small groups throughout our vigil. A brilliant green and purple Emerald Dove flashed by through the clearing in a blur of metallic colours. The best pigeons though were undoubtedly the pair of Superb Fruit-Doves that were quietly perched up along the edge of the clearing. They were a little flighty once we noticed them, but we were able to scope the brilliant male with his breast band and bright violet crown and the deep green and grey female.

Our time in the carpark was certainly not limited to pigeon watching though, as our attentions were soon arrested by the arrival of several hungry Victoria’s Riflebirds. It’s not everyday that one starts a daily bird list with a bird of paradise! We were able to watch several flashy males showing off their reflective green crowns and throats as they clambered around the trees looking for the best patches of fruit. One Female too was in evidence, more muted in colour, but still a very attractive study in brown and white, with an impressively strong and curved bill. Hulking Spotted Catbirds (a type of bowerbird) gave their scratchy catlike growls from the trees above us as, although none of them came out into the open for us. Even after all the pigeons, birds of paradise and bowerbirds appeared this magical carpark had more in store. Australian Swiftlets and a single Pacific Swift coursed over the clearing, occasionally joined by a passing flock of Rainbow Lorikeets, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos or White-breasted Woodswallows. And over the course of the hour we amazingly found all four species of tropical monarchs that occur in the area. Several Pied and Black-faced Monarchs were singing in the canopy and occasionally foraging in a large fruiting fig just over the main lodge building. Both species are flashy and ooze that confident air of birds that know when they are being admired. Smaller Spectacled Monarchs, clad in their best Halloween black and orange colours darted around in the midstory, and, best of all, we found a young White-eared Monarch that was hunting for insects in the canopy of a mid-sized tree. This is yet another pretty monarch, with a boldly pattered black and white face. It’s a species that we see on fewer than half of our tours, and running into one without directly seeking it out was a real treat. It might take a lifetime of dedication but trying to travel through the south pacific and Australasia to see all the worlds monarch flycatchers would definitely be a rewarding pursuit.

The fruiting fig was attracting other birds as well, with small flocks of Australian Figbirds, White-bellied and Black-faced Cuckooshrikes, a handsome Barred Cuckooshrike and the occasional mistletoebird. Since we were in Australia there had to be some honeyeaters around as well, and we tallied our first streaked Macleay’s and loud Lewin’s around the fig tree, and Dusky and Scarlet (another truly gaudy species) Myzomelas around the margins of the forest. Several Rufous Shrikethrushes, a recent split from Little Shrikethrush showed well, as did a single Bower’s Shrikethrush; a larger, darker billed, and darker backed species of shrikethrush whose range is wholly restricted to these high elevation pocket forests. A Gray-headed Robin (another Atherton tableland endemic) sat out on one of the short posts that mark the edge of the parking area, and just underneath it we located a seemingly tame Eastern Whipbird that was foraging on the gravel path and generally ignoring our presence. We even managed to get several pairs of Double-eyed Fig Parrots in our scopes, a difficult feat as this species tends to be quite active and not very vocal and given their size it is often very hard to see them perched in among the dense canopies.

Eventually we turned our attention to breakfast, which proved to be a most satisfying affair with fresh cut fruit, eggs, bacon and mushrooms as well as cereals and yoghurts. After breakfast we set out to explore a few spots nearby, starting with the boat ramp and shoreline of Lake Tinaroo, a large lake just to the north of Yungaburra. The open nature of this area and planted bottlebrush trees make for a very different avifauna to the comparatively cool and shady dense forests around the lodge. In the trees around the boat ramp we found our first Yellow and White-throated Honeyeaters, as well as a pair of foraging Scaly-breasted Lorikeets that allowed us quite a close approach as they busily clambered around in the flowering bottlebrush. Figbirds and Black-faced Cuckooshrikes were up in the larger eucalypts, and with all the open sky we picked out a passing Whistling Kite and a beautiful adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle that came right overhead. The lake was busy with boaters and fisherfolk, but on the distant shores we could make out throngs of Plumed Whistling-Ducks and Magpie Geese, and there were scattered clumps of Pacific Black Ducks, Little Black, Little Pied and Great Cormorants about. We also found a few family groups of Sarus Cranes out in the fields or along the shoreline, but given the distance vowed to seek some out in roadside fields later in the day. As we departed the area we paused to look at Australasian Swamphens along the roadside. It’s an impressive, if vaguely menacing looking rail, clad in deep royal purple, black and crimson with a flashing white undertail. Here too was a pair of Bush Thick-Knees that stared at us with their unblinking giant yellow eyes before slinking off with their odd and somewhat reptilian gait.

We headed for the cool forests around Lake Barrine, a caldera lake not too far from our lodge that has a large patch of protected forest around its still and deep waters. In the late afternoon we visited the nearby Lake Barrine, a crater lake surrounded by a beautiful patch of rainforest. We walked along the 800-meter rainforest loop trail, passing under huge Kari trees and through dense stands of palm in the understory. Just at the trail entrance we picked up a busy trio of Spectacled Monarchs that were chasing each other around and displaying, with little flashes of orange that glowed against the deep green and shady background. Here too was a pair of Long-billed Scrubwrens that were climbing around in a small palm thicket and occasionally chattering down at us.

Shortly after leaving the scrubwrens behind, and just after we met a doctoral student from Austria who was working with the local population of Riflebirds and was eager to share his knowlegde 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 getting everyone onto the bird as it sat motionless in the shade did take a bit of time. The bird’s bower was visible from the trail; a shining gray-green patch on the forest floor. A bit further into the woods we heard the telltale whispy call of a Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Using a bit of playback, a pair of birds actually dropped down out of the upper canopy, giving us uncharacteristically good views. These tiny, brightly colored and huge billed birds can be tricky to see well as they prefer to remain high in the forest canopy. 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. With our two hoped for birds showing well we packed up and drove over to Atherton, where after a bit of shuffling around due to the public holiday (the late Queen’s Birthday) we found a restaurant that was open. The location was fortuitous, as while we munched on kebabs on the patio we witnessed a Peregrine Falcon grab a Common Mynah and then perch up on a nearby building to have his lunch as well.

In the afternoon, we headed to Hasties Swamp, a small wetland that has a nice two-story blind overlooking a large lake that is generally stuffed with birds. Along the entrance road we stopped to admire foraging Australian Ibis, a nice comparison of Great and Intermediate Egrets, our first Hardheads (Australia’s only diving duck) and some Agile Wallabies that were foraging out on the grasses across the lake. We spent some time in the blind, scoping a wealth of new waterbirds such as Royal Spoonbill, Eurasian Coot, Pied Stilt, Gray Teal, Australasian Grebe, Comb-crested Jacana and Australasian Darters and chatting a bit about each in turn. The trees ringing the blind were busy with birds, and we managed good views of a handsome White-cheeked Honeyeater in the bottlebrushes, and Brown and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters in the Eucalypts. At one point a foraging Forest Kingfisher swept past and then perched up just outside the blind, staying for several minutes on a small bare branch. It’s a very attractive bird, with a white breast and deep ultramarine blue back. As a group the Australian Kingfishers are far more colorful and varied than their American counterparts, and they often number among the favorite birds for visiting birders. Part of the group also enjoyed views of a buff-breasted Sacred Kingfisher that was perched across the lake. Leaving the blind we walked a bit back along the road, which proved productive for excellent views of a pair of Rufous Whistlers, and several more cooperative Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. The lake shore along the road is hidden by dense grass thickets, but as we walked we started a snoozing flock of Wandering Whistling Ducks that moved offshore just enough that we could see them from the road. This is generally the less numerous of the two Australian Whistling-Duck species, and one that we have in the past struggled to find. They are perhaps not as showy as the Plumed Whistlers, whose ornate pale flank plumes make it look like some New York Fashion models on the runway but with their rusty flanks, scalloped backs and dark crowns they are still very attractive ducks.

We then made our way on back roads towards Yungaburra, scanning the fields as we went. Near a small dairy farm we stopped to look at some loafing Magpie Geese at a closer range than the mornings birds at Lake Tinaroo. While chatting a bit about these odd birds we noted a few dozen little red-capped Fairy Martins swooping down to a culvert in the road and picked out a perched Whistling Kite siting out on a fencepost. Here too we found a large flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins that were feeding in a weedy patch along the road edge. It’s an attractive waxbill, boldly coloured in large blocks of white and brown like a living Piet Mondrian painting. About a kilometer further down the road we screeched to a halt in a field that was hosting impressive numbers of cranes. The close groups were all Sarus Cranes, with their crimson heads and upper necks, but a bit further out in the field we picked out plenty of Brolgas. The view of these two similar species side by side was instructive, and much more rewarding than the distant gray shapes at Lake Tinaroo. Out in the back of the field we also spotted a young Black-shouldered Kite flying along the treeline and several circling Black Kites, adding to our already impressive raptor list for the day.

Our last stop for the day was along the small but very pretty Peterson Creek that runs along the edge of the town of Yungaburra. Some local conservation minded folk have constructed an excellent trail and that parallels the creek, offering excellent views of the water and done an excellent job of revegetating the riparian corridor. Our main goal along the creek was to find one of the local celebrity Duck-billed Platypus that have become somewhat habituated to the throngs of eager onlookers. Although finding these often-reclusive mammals can often take some time, we were able to find several animals quite quickly. One pair behaved very well, and were able to watch them swimming around on the surface and diving down for prey for quite some time and at very close range. Here too was a loud camp of Spectacled Flying Foxes up in the riverside trees. Many of the animals were active, occasionally stretching their impressively large wings or having a contemplative scratch. A basking Eastern Waterdragon, swimming Macquarie Turtles and a few Eastern Rainbowfish and sitting (briefly) Tropical Rockmaster (a large and stunning blue and black damselfly) lived up the creek walk as well. After dinner back at the lodge we set out for a brief spotlighting expedition to the Curtain Fig Park, just west of Yungaburra. Almost as soon as we got out of the cars, we found a quietly sitting Coppery Brushtail Possum which stayed in view on its high perch for several minutes. A few trees over we found a Green Ringtail Possum that was facing us and which seemed quite nonplussed to be spotted in our lights. It lingered for several minutes in the beams of our torches and stared down at us with a bit of a curious air occasionally reaching out for some food. This small and quite cute species of possum is a delicate grey-green on the head and back, with a white belly and short tail. The species has a tiny worldwide range, being nearly limited to the rainforest pockets on the Atherton Tablelands and some adjacent blocks of forest to the south. Once we entered the woods on the short boardwalk trail we found the aforementioned fig tree, a strangler fig of a proportion large enough to put a park around. Seeing this huge tree with its myriad trailing roots is somehow even more impressive at night as it takes on an almost alien appearance. In the woods we managed to find a little group of Brown Gerygones sleeping in a tight cluster up on a bare branch. The puffed-up nature of the birds combined with their shoulder-to-shoulder arrangement made it hard to discern exactly what we were looking at. We finished off the drive with a short road excursion out into the cane fields behind the park, where we quickly connected with an “Eastern” Barn Owl that was perched on a roadside post. It was a great way to cap off an incredible first day in the field!

The following morning, we again met up in the carpark of the lodge for a pre-breakfast big sit. In some ways this morning was even better than the previous one, as the large fruiting fig was attracting a steady stream of frugivores that lingered and showed extremely well for us. Likely the most memorable species were the fruit doves, with several Wompoos, a single male Superb and roughly a half-dozen Rose-crowneds all popping in and out of the fig. At one point all three species were visible at once! Wompoos are simply spectacular birds; large pigeons clad in a bright pattern of purple, green, gray and yellow. But the two smaller species are stunning as well. Several male Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves, with their orangey-yellow bellies and electric purple crowns showed particularly well on sunlit perches high up in the canopy. With Barred Cuckooshrikes, Pied Monarchs, Bower’s and Rufous Shrikethrushes and Macleay’s and Lewin’s Honeyeaters all bouncing around in the tree as well it made for a heady mix of birds. We were particularly happy to spot three or four Spotted Catbirds grabbing fruit from lower branches. After hearing several of these hulking bowerbird relatives uttering their scratchy strangling cat like calls the previous day it was very nice to get a look at them in the early morning sun.

We packed up and left this little gem of a lodge behind, turning south towards Mount Hypipamee National Park, which is generally known as ‘The Crater’. This higher elevation park supports a large tract of forest over 700m, and still has the full complement of the Atherton Highlands endemics, although a few are no longer findable on the short nature trail out to the crater. Our first bird upon leaving the buses (with the exception of the ridiculously tame and even pushy Brushturkeys) was a female White-throated Treecreeper that was busily gathering nesting material from the ground around the trailhead. Although called a treecreeper this species (and its relatives) bear no taxonomic affinities to the Eurasian Treecreepers or North American Creepers. Rather, they belong to a small endemic Australasian family whose foraging behavior reminded Europeans of those more familiar groups. The car park held several large and vocal Bridled Honeyeaters that were foraging in vine tangles and up in the surrounding canopy. Uncharacteristically for this species one bird came down to nearly ground level, offering exceptionally good views of its grey-blue eyes and striped face. A few Victoria’s Riflebirds were rocketing about and picking silver quondong fruit from the canopy. The fruit was also attracting a small flock of Topknot Pigeons; this time actually perched so that we could admire their wavy brown bouffant-like hairdos.

We then walked down to the actual crater, an impressive collapsed lava tube with a small but likely very deep lake at the bottom. It resembles in some ways the cenotes in the Yucutan, minus (one hopes) the many human sacrifices. This year the crater was more than just a geological stop for us, as a pair of Peregrine Falcons had set up a nest on the cliff face well below the viewing platform. Two large chicks were visible on the cliff from our vantage point, and over the 20 minutes or so that we spent with them we enjoyed excellent views of the male and quick views of the female as they flew around below us (an interesting and excellent angle to observe these masters of flight at work). The forest along the trail to the crater had a few species of interest as well, with great looks at Pale-yellow Robin, Gray Fantail (here of the montane Queensland subspecies), Australian Golden Whistler and Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Once we returned to the carpark, we took a quick snack break and then walked back up the road, looking for, and happily finding a few pairs of Mountain Thornbills. This is a species that is not likely to figure prominently on any of this years’ participants top 5 lists but it is a range restricted species confined to the higher forests of the Tablelands. Here too we enjoyed good views of another Bower’s Shrikethrush and a few Barred Cuckooshrike. We spent a bit of time here looking at a couple of bower sites for Golden Bowerbird. These paired maypole-style constructions are impressive, topping out at nearly three feet in height and often with horizontal display perches built in. I dare say that most humans would struggle trying to replicate one. Sadly, there was no male in attendance, and by the look of the bowers (lacking in decorative touches) the local male may not yet have begun to display for the season. Many species of birds across Australia seem to have delayed the start of their breeding cycles, perhaps due to the overly cool and rainy conditions throughout the previous winter or the shifting fruiting or flowering schedules. Golden Bowerbirds are stunning birds, but as they require large tracts of high elevation forest and occur only in the mountains around the tablelands they are generally scarce. With the current shifting of the weather, impending climate change issues, habitat fragmentation and a small and declining population the future for this species is somewhat bleak. Hopefully its charisma will be enough to mount a recovery and support plan. A few lucky folk had reported a bird in the area over the past few months, so hopefully the local male is still around, biding his time to spruce up his bower and start displaying for his appreciative females.

We took lunch in the town of Mareeba, about an hour north of Hypipamee, and after lunch dropping in at a small park near the edge of town on the banks of the Barron River. It didn’t look like much, but the park was hosting a lot of birdlife, with Scaly-breasted and Rainbow Lorikeets, Australasian Figbird and our first Olive-backed Orioles coming in to fruiting mulberry and eucalyptus trees. White-throated, Yellow, Yellow-spotted, Cryptic and Blue-faced Honeyeaters were around in the canopy, and along a small tributary creek we found a pair of White-browed Robins, a generally scarce and often fairly secretive species that we normally do not target on the tour. It’s a much flashier species than field guides tend to show, well-marked in bold grey, black and white and often with a dramatically cocked-up tail.

We left the park in good spirits and headed west of Mareeba and out into dramatically more arid and rocky country. The west side of the tablelands consists of more arid eucalypt savannah that slopes down towards the Gulf of Carpentaria lowlands. Our destination was Granite Gorge, a small private park/zoo/caravan park centered on some impressive granitic domes that pop up from the dry forest providing sweeping views of the tablelands. The park is well-watered, which makes it very attractive to a wide range of birds in the area. The primary bird here was, as always, Squatter Pigeons, and we had no trouble locating 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! A flowering Gravelia robusta over the carpark area held a nice selection of honeyeaters, including our first Noisy and Little Friarbirds and several gorgeously bright Blue-faced Honeyeaters. Spangled Drongos and Olive-backed Sunbirds were coming in as well, making for quite a busy scene. The tree was also hosting busy and vocal Scaly-breasted and Rainbow Lorikeets and at least three Pale-headed Rosellas. Eventually we made it down to the gorge itself, where a small mob of undeniably cute Mareeba Rock Wallabies were loafing around in the afternoon sun hoping for handouts. These particular animals have become hand tame, and their steady diet of handouts hasn’t exactly made them the paragons of their species. However, since the species tends to be quite wary and typically lives on quite rugged terrain visiting this site is the only easily feasible way to see them, and perhaps the hundreds of people a week who come through leave with a bit of a soft spot for wallabies and (dare we hope) the willingness to do a little something to protect them.

We went for a short walk around the perimeter of the park, where we located a couple of very active Great Bowerbirds that seemed quite intent on simply chasing each other around in a never-ending circuit. Eventually we did find one that stayed put, but since it was badly backlit, we decided that we would seek them out the following day as well to improve our views. We did find two active bowers though, which consist of two virtually semicircular walls of woven twigs with a runway between and a large display mat at one end which is liberally decorated with white (and sometimes green) objects like snail shells, white pebbles, flowers, bits of plastic or glass or even the odd drinking straw. Out in the back of the park we found a couple of perched Laughing Kookaburras and a responsive pair of White-throated Gerygones which sat above us showing off their jaunty and twittery calls for some time.

As we travelled further north, we stopped to scan the marshes around Lake Mitchell. From our roadside vantage point we were able to scope a few Green Pygmy-Geese and a loafing flock of Black Swans out in the distance. We pressed on, arriving at Kingfisher Park, which was to be our base for the next two nights a little before five o’clock. 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 early evening soaking in a new suite of birds. The feeders next to reception held dozens of colorful Red-browed Finches and Chestnut-breasted Munias that were occasionally pushed off the piles of seed by passing Brushturkeys or Orange-footed Scrubfowl. Highly patterned Macleay’s Honeyeaters were coming in to the bananas, and small birdbaths around the yard were being visited by the occasional Cryptic, Yellow-faced or Brown Honeyeaters. Out on an adjacent park we located a large nesting colony of Metallic Starlings and spent a bit of time watching these glossy birds with long tails and scarlet eyes chatter incessantly about their day and compared notes on the best way to build a nest. Our usual restaurant just down the road from the park had succumbed to covid stresses, so we had to backtrack to Mount Molloy (only 15 minutes away) for dinner at the local pub.

The next day we met up in the morning for a pre-breakfast stroll around the Kingfisher Park grounds, spending about an hour just soaking in the local birdlife. During the previous night it had rained for several hours, and the dawn chorus was nearly deafening in the early morning. Once the sun came up though the clouds rolled in, and we found that the overcast conditions and high humidity depressed the bird activity quite a bit. Our walk allowed us to work through some of the identification issues surrounding that most difficult of honeyeater genera, the lookalikes of the genus Meliphaga. Both Cryptic (a recent split from Graceful) and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters are common on the grounds, and happily for us their calls are quite distinctive. A demurely plumaged Grey Whistler showed on cue, and noisy flocks of Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets regularly zipped overhead. In the leaf litter around the property we found several curious Pale-yellow Robins, and both of northern Australia’s megapode species scratching around with a hopeful air. As we neared the breakfast area we froze in our tracks when we spotted a Pacific Emerald Dove strutting around in the shade of the entrance road. We had seen several of these brilliantly coloured doves in flight or flushing off the road during the previous two days, so these lengthy views were much appreciated; especially when the bird walked into shafts of sunlight, with its brilliantly hued back glinting a deep emerald green. Breakfast here involved a lot of locally grown fruit, homemade yoghurt and local coffee. None of the participants deigned to try the offered Vegemite on their toast, but the curious tasting Rollandia fruit that Carol cut up for us (with strict instructions on how to deal with the peels which are apparently capable of staining even China plates) was deemed interesting and well worth a try.

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. Near that base of the mountain we admired a Brahminy Kite (a scarce species up on the tablelands) that perched on an exotic pine tree after circling around over the field for several minutes. We stopped at a random bend in the road fairly low on the hill and were surprised to hear three different Noisy Pittas vocalizing from the surrounding forest. Unfortunately, none of them budged for us, and given the dense vegetation it was hardly surprising that we couldn’t find them in their hidden song perches. A few Spectacled Monarchs, Brown Gerygones and a pair of Mountain Thornbill showed very well though.

At the top of the road, we stopped in a small clearing in the forest where we found a few pairs of Brown Cuckoo-Doves in a short fruiting tree and some passing Australian Swiftlets. We walked a short distance along a trail that leads towards the upper ridge of the mountain range, surrounded by quite tall trees, wonderfully thick treeferns and a reasonable chorus of birds (especially as it was by now late morning) and then angled a bit off the track and out into a flatter area of forest. Soon after leaving the track, we heard a family group of Chowchilla rustling around in the leaf litter. 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. This pair fed for quite some time in front of us, carefully flinging leaves out to the side with their oversized feet and generally ignoring our presence. It’s a species of great conservation concern, as they are poor dispersers and need a decent amount of good forest to forage in. Just during the most recent decade populations have winked out in most of the smaller tableland parks, with good populations persisting only in the largest blocks of forest. While watching the Chowchillas we noted the high-pitched reeling sound of a Fernwren coming from a bit further off track. We picked our way back towards the sound, and eventually were able to get a couple participants onto one member of the pair as it crept around on the leaf litter. These cryptic and largely terrestrial thornbills are always rather tricky to see well, so the fact that we were had one in sight long enough for several participants to get onto them was great. A bit further up the trail we found a much more cooperative pair of Atherton Scrubwrens that were bouncing around in the canopy of a fallen-down tree. 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. On the way back down to the cars we noted several singing Tooth-billed Bowerbirds, a perched Spotted Catbird and a very active Bower’s Shrikethrush that seemed to be in full display mode. Back at the cars we spent a bit of time watching the edge of the clearing, happily taking photos of a pair of Victoria’s Riflebirds that were foraging in a largely open tree, and marveling at the wealth of butterfly life that had sprung up with the arrival of actual sunshine.

We chose to have lunch at nearby Mount Molloy, with half the group opting for burgers or empandas at the locally famous Swiss-Mexican restaurant, and the other half going for fruit smoothies and meat pies (even Kangaroo was on offer) at a new coffee shop across the street. The gardens and parks around town are often excellent for birds, and as we had lunch we picked up some very close Olive-backed Sunbirds, lots of Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Australian Figbirds and some cooperative and beautiful Red-winged Parrots that were near the toilet block. The birding continued a bit just after lunch, when some participants found a mixed flock of finches foraging in some taller grasses. Most were Red-browed Firetails, but we found at least two dozen jewel-like Double-barred Finches and a half-dozen Scaly-breasted Munias (an introduced species in Australia, and apparently the first sighting for the Mount Molloy area). After admiring the finches some participants opted to head back to the lodge for a bit of a rest in the early afternoon. Others decided to bird a bit more around town, which proved a quite productive choice. At the nearby school we found an ornate Great Bowerbird bower, being loosely watched over by its maker. Some of the school chickens were getting too close to the bower and seemed to be threatening to redecorate the entrance mat, which sent the bowerbird up a nearby tree where he scolded at the hens with all his might. The chickens moved off, and the bowerbird took off for the back of the school, no doubt to find some new art project ingredients. This departure allowed us to walk up and take a close look at the bower without fear of disturbing the bird. Great Bowerbirds build 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. On our last visit a few years ago 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, there were few bits of glass remaining and the bird was instead decorating with various bright pink plastic bits, a pink-coloured pencil, and some folded pieced of aluminum foil that were scattered out on the front deck of the bower. We left the schoolgrounds (which were actually in session during our visit – something that would be hard to imagine in the United States these days) and spent a bit of time along the dirt road that winds back into a section of drier eucalyptus forest behind town. Here we were surprised to find a nesting Masked Lapwing that had laid four pretty spotted eggs right on the road edge! Here too we teased up a trio of Red-backed Fairywrens from a tangle of grasses and lantanas along the edge of a well vegetated creek. This amazing group of birds combines a fascinating social biology with a perky demeanor and colours that would put most hummingbirds to shame. As a group, the fairywrens are perhaps the most beloved of Australia’s birds. The jet-black male with his scarlet back and uppertail coverts is a definite crowd pleaser, although I suspect the jury will always be out on which species is actually the fairest one of all.

In the later afternoon, after we collected the participants who were back at the lodge we headed a bit inland of Mount Lewis along the highway that eventually runs the nearly 950KM jaunt up to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula. On the way north we stopped to look at a perched Red-winged Parrot that was sitting up in a roadside tree, and while stopped also found our first Torresian Crow and a as yet unidentified small rodent that hopped across the road and then hid in a grass clump underneath our parked cars. A bit further to the north we quickly located an unusually large number of Australian Bustards that were 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). 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. At least two of the males were parading around the lekking grounds, with their pendulous wattles dangling from their chins. The nearby females seemed quite unimpressed, preferring to remain across the road in better foraging habitat. Behind the displaying bustards we were thrilled to spot a small group of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos foraging on the ground in the back of the field. 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. This first group of birds occasionally popped up and shifted a bit, allowing us to see the scarlet tail spots of the males and orangey-yellow tails of the females. The fields also held perched Brown Falcons, hunting Nankeen Kestrels and our first good views of Australian Pipits. Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the Bustard show and started back towards Kingfisher Park. On the way we found another small group of Black-Cockatoos, this time perched close to the road. We hopped out for a better look, and in the process one van flushed a Pheasant Coucal from some roadside grass. We picked up a couple of Golden-headed Cisticolas too, which were singing from a grassy water-filled water hole a few meters off the road. After dinner, pizza night at the local pub, a few participants opted for a short walk around the grounds, where we spotlit a couple of Red-legged Pademelons (a small wallaby) that were feeding out on the fresh grass in the orchard, remaining frozen in our torchlights with twitching noses and a somewhat guilty expression on their faces (and fresh grass sticking out from their mouths).

The next morning, we had to shift our planned itinerary around a bit in order to have a good chance at finding Southern Cassowary. Since our last visit to the area (pre-covid) our normal spot for seeking out this iconic species had changed hands, and the new owners have chosen not to continue to feed the family group that has frequented their property for years. Without the regular meals sightings have become much less predictable. We decided to act on a tip from the new owners and timed our departure from Kingfisher in such a way to arrive on the banks of the Barron River in Kuranda before nine in the morning. Rather amazingly, the plan worked, as right on cue four small striped chicks (and then their dad) popped into view in a small clearing across from our vantage point. 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. The Australian Cassowary population is in decline, as they are heavily impacted by habitat fragmentation, vehicle collisions and stray dogs (and in New Guinea, hunters). Finding fully wild (ie unacclimated) birds can be incredibly difficult, as although the birds are huge they can be remarkably elusive in the dense understory of the forest. Elated by our success we headed down to Cairns with plans to tangle with shorebirds on the foreshore on a better tide. When we arrived, we found that the tide was well out, and falling. Birds were distant, but identifiable, but conditions were certainly not ideal. We started off on the northern end of the esplanade, finding several perched and very vocal Torresian Kingfishers. This can be a hard species to see well, as they generally prefer to remain buried in the mangroves, calling loudly but staying inaccessible. These three birds were very much in the open, likely enjoying the feast of crabs that were scuttling around in the shoreline mud in prodigious numbers. Here too we found our first Far-eastern Curlew and Terek Sandpiper near a small flock of Silver Gulls. We scanned down the beach and could see that most of the waders were over on the southern end of the esplanade, so we shifted over to the boardwalk for a closer look. Almost unbelievably one of the first birds we found while scanning was an Asian Dowitcher! This very scarce bird was first found a few days prior to our visit, and luckily for us it decided to hang around. Initially the bird was foraging with a Bar-tailed Godwit, looking markedly smaller, with a thicker based and straight bill and active feeding style. Apparently, the last record of the species in the Cairns area occurred more than a decade before, and as only one or two of these globally threatened birds are seen in Eastern Australia each year, we felt fortunate indeed. After everyone had a chance to look at the bird in a scope, we moved on to canvas the rest of the mudflat, finding a single Greater Sandplover, small flocks of Great Knot and Red-necked Stint, and a few more Bar-tailed Godwit and Gray-tailed Tattler. Here too we were surprised to see a pair of huge Black-necked Storks wading out in the shallow water. These are impressive birds, nearly four feet tall with long and ornate bills, black heads and bright red legs. It’s a species that we regularly miss on the tour, as it is most common inland, and one that I can’t remember seeing on the esplanade before. Pleased with the avian show on offer, but ruing the persnickedy nature of Cairns tides we took a short drive to a neighborhood park in town where we were soon successful at locating a male Rufous Owl perched up in a tall spreading Paperbark tree. This is an impressively large owl, with particularly large feet that help it take prey items such as Possums and Flying Foxes. It has a limited and patchy range in Australia, largely confined to the tropical forests of the top end and northern Queensland. It had been some years since we had managed to locate this species around Cairns, making our views of this even more sweet. Feeling like we were on a roll we drove over to the back of the Cairns botanic gardens to look for a reported Papuan Frogmouth nest. We had only general instructions, and were prepared for a bit of a search when we arrived. In reality things went far more smoothly, as even before a single participant had exited the vans, we spotted a perched frogmouth sitting high up near a Pandanus palm right along the edge of the road. 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. With an oversized thick bill, huge head, shaggy looking plumage and beatific smile they are at once comical and imposing.

We had lunch at a wonderful little café in Yorkey’s Knob, a small community a few kilometers to the north of Cairns, and then checked a few spots as we headed northwards towards our hotel for the night out in the Daintree Rainforest. We tried a small billabong just a bit off the highway for Lovely Fairywren. We dipped on that species, but our point-blank views of a female Shining Flycatcher, our first Leaden Flycatcher and a huge Lace Monitor were excellent substitutes. A beachside stop gave us our first Great Crested Terns and Pied Oystercatchers, as well as a sweeping white sand beach that would give any hotel developer the jitters if it weren’t for the riptides, jellyfish, saltwater crocodiles and mangrove silt. Our final stop was at a large Barramundi farm near the town of Wonga, where we were able to scan the ponds and berms from the road. Here were our first handsome white and burgundy Rajah Shelducks, a small flock of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a passing Osprey and impressive numbers of Pied Stilt and Australian Ibis.

This year we had some complications with our regular hotel in Daintree Village and had to scramble a bit at the last minute to locate an alternate hotel. Happily for us we wound up at the Heritage Rainforest Resort; a wonderful little lodge tucked away in the forest several kilometers north of the Daintree River. This change meant that we had to cross the river via the cable ferry, and then had a chance to explore a bit of the extensive and ancient (apparently the world’s oldest continuous rainforest) forest. We went for a short walk along one of the boardwalk trails that snakes out into the forest, marveling at the huge trees, mats of vines, spreading palms and thick understory tangles that we were soon enveloped in. In the heat of the afternoon there weren’t too many birds about, but we did spot a Little Bronze Cuckoo perched way up in the canopy, a Black Butcherbird that was giving us an excellent sampling of his vocal talents, a few Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters and another calling but invisible Noisy Pitta. The lightly developed road reaches up to Cape Tribulation, some 70 KM to the north of the river, with forests extending from the mountain peaks right down to the coast the entire way. We soon realized that one could easily spend a week birding and biologizing just this area, and once we had checked into our cabins and eaten some quite sophisticated and very tasty food at the restaurant, we were soon tempted to try to find a way to do just exactly that!

The next day we set out early so that we could cross the ferry back to the south bank of the Daintree River and meet our boats for our planned cruise on the River and adjacent Barratt Creek. 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. This year we opted for two smaller boats so that we could more easily get around the smaller creeks. The plan, which worked quite well, was for the two boatmen to be in constant contact, in case one craft located a particularly interesting sighting. After a brief introduction Murray took us upstream, pointing out some of the effects of the gigantic floods of January 2019, where the river reached an incredible 15m above average, flooding the town and washing away buildings, cars, and virtually all the cattle in the adjacent fields. This flood had changed the character of the river, with many of the larger trees broken, higher sand banks along the edges and still visible debris hanging high in the trees. Although the local pair of Great-billed Herons were unfortunately not on display for us this morning we did locate a very cooperative Azure Kingfisher that flew in and then conveniently stayed put on an open branch above the water. Both boats were able to converge and lots of photos were taken of this small bicolored orange and blue riverine species that possesses a remarkably long bill for its body size. A bit further upstream we located a flock of Spangled Drongos and Green Oriole that were being very vocal and visible in the mangroves lining the creek. Here too were three striking Rajah Shelducks, a recent and successful colonizer of the Daintree, and a locally scarce Great Cormorant. Just before we started moving downstream a mid-sized dark heron came flying up the bank, passing both boats just a bit above eye level. Its dark plumage and small but bulky profile nailed the identification for us as a Black Bittern! This write-in species was a long awaiting sighting for the tour, whose cumulative list stretches back over the previous decade-plus of tours. It’s largely a wet season migrant, coming from its “wintering” home in New Guinea to swampy wetlands and rivers in the region.

We cruised downstream, tucking the boat under some twisted water gums and were soon made aware that we were sharing the space with Barrat, the local dominate male Saltwater Crocodile. Just his eyes and snout protruded from the water, but we could all imagine the weighty body lying under the surface. Murray explained that the territory of this male covers nearly 4KM of the river, and that much of his time is spent patrolling his stretch and keeping out rival large males. With the particularly high tide there were no sandbars for Barrat to haul out on, so we had to content ourselves with our close-up views under the water gums. Given how difficult this 3.5m animal was to spot from just a few meters away we quickly realized why swimming in the river was not recommended! We left Barrat behind, and after stopping to admire a cluster of birds that included Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, Hornbill Friarbird and Yellow-spotted and Brown-backed Honeyeaters. Nearby we stopped when a smartly marked black and white bird made an arcing flight out of the trees in front of us. It sat on a low branch, glowing with a rich blue-black gloss on its head and back, with a snow-white breast and vent. The richly coloured upperparts with a downward curving breast edge marked it as a quite clear Satin Flycatcher, a scarce wet season migrant that winters in New Guinea and migrates down the coast to its breeding grounds in Eastern Australia. They seem to have a very narrow migration window around the Daintree, and Murray told us that he only sees one or two a year. Murray pulled into a small cove and announced a contest to see who could spot the nearby nesting frogmouth. We failed spectacularly, and it wasn’t until the third pass that we spotted the bird sitting out on a horizontal limb, in plain sight but so closely resembling a broken branch that we had all failed to resolve it. We had heard through the grapevine that Murray did not have any active nests “on tap” at this point in the year, but within a few days of our arrival he found two. The other nest, tucked up Barrat Creek was a bit easier to spot, and the bird was open-eyed and active, rummaging around in its nest and shifting what appeared to be a single pale pink egg. This smaller tributary creek sits in a more brackish environment, with dozens of species of mangroves, many with epiphytic orchids lining the banks. We found it to be excellent for birds, as the narrower channel and generally shadier conditions seemed to bring more species to the waters edge. Here we admired a few perky pairs of Shining Flycatchers along the bank, displaying their amazingly disparate male and female plumages as they investigated possible nest sites. Here too was a responsive Little Bronze-Cuckoo, a flock of Barred Cuckooshrikes, a pair of Cicadabirds and a couple of dainty Large-billed Gerygones that were busily bringing nesting material into their remarkable dangling woven nest that closely resembles flood debris trapped in the canopy. For the rest of the cruise, we just enjoyed the sights along the river, with chortling Green Orioles perched in the larger trees, flocks of ethereally white Torresian Imperial-Pigeons passing overhead and a Black Butcherbird in the mangroves. A few Australian Swiflets were making sorties over the water to drink, and the peace was broken (thanks to Murrays new and remarkably quiet motors) by the occasional croaking Sulphur-crested Cockatoo or passing flock of Metallic Starlings. Once back in Daintree village we ate breakfast at the local coffee shop and fortified for the rest of the morning, we drove north along the Upper Daintree Road. This unsealed road eventually winds and bumps its way across the River and on up the coast, joining the road system around Cooktown and the Cape York Peninsula. We restricted ourselves to just the first 9KM, which have been recently graded and were eminently passable in our vehicles. Our first target species was the well named Lovely Fairywren. This is a generally scarce species, occurring in coastal forests around the Cape York Peninsula down to about Townsville. At our first stop we managed to track down three birds calling from dense vegetation above the road.

As is typical for this particular species the birds were quite high in the trees, seemingly atypical for fairywrens, but they stayed nearby and dropped down in a bit, coming down to near ground level (but staying well above the road due to the slope). They were quite active, making following them through the shrubs a difficult task, but in the end most folks got decent views. The brightly iridescent male is wonderful, but quite similar to several other species of red-winged Fairywrens. The distinctive plumage for this species belongs to the female, which have all-bluish backs and heads, with a white ring around the eye (quite a bit more colorful than most female Fairywrens). With our target achieved we explored further up the road, stopping at a huge spreading fig that was stuffed with an almost unbelievable number of Imperial Pigeons, Figbirds and Metallic Starlings. Most of the road passed through cut over fields, but out in the pastures we enjoyed eye-level views of hundreds of foraging Australian Swiftlets and Welcome Swallows, with a few Tree Martins and White-breasted Woodswallows that were hunting the aeolian plankton that was obviously heavy over the fields. The road eventually rejoined the river, and one of the vans used up some built-up karma when a sharp-eyed participant noted a large heron paralleling the van low over the water. Amazingly it was our hoped for Great-billed Heron, and even more amazingly everyone in that van managed excellent views!

Leaving the Daintree area behind we travelled south, stopping at the very pretty, and remarkably busy Mossman Rotary Park. Here a shallow sandy-bottomed creek winds through tall forest, providing locals with a safe spot for a swim in the unseasonably warm conditions. In addition to this little slice of local culture we found a fruiting fig that was heaving with Hornbill Friarbirds and Figbirds, and with a bit of effort, a responsive Fairy Gerygone that bounced along the riparian trees, sometimes chased by a quite irate Large-billed Gerygone that was busily nest building. After lunch we continued south to bird the mudflats and sandbars at the Barron River mouth. When we arrived, there were many small islets and exposed bars around the point, with a nice array of waders foraging in the shallow water. Most were Red-necked Stints and Bar-tailed Godwits, but we found a few Red-capped, Lesser Sand and Greater Sand Plovers, two dapper Ruddy Turnstones, a few Great Knot and a single Gray-tailed Tattler. Little Terns were common here too, diving into the shallow water like little white lawn darts. We pulled into our beachside Cairns hotel with a bit of time off to pack and organize for our morning flight to Brisbane the next day.

A late morning flight to Brisbane the next day brought us to the third largest city in Australia at 11:00am. Once we gathered up our luggage and secured our new chariots we headed south of the airport to look at the mangroves around Fort Lytton. This national park used to be a convenient place to look for Mangrove Honeyeater, but when we arrived, we could see that a massive development project had drained the mangrove area of water, and cut back about 90% of the trees. Progress I suppose… We had lunch at a nearby café that was just up the road from our next birding stop, in Wyndum where a constructed bird hide overlooks a high-tide-wader roost behind the mangroves and a very nice boardwalk winds through tall mangrove forest and out to an overlook of Moreton Bay. The grassy verges of the trail out to the hide held two pairs of dazzling Red-backed Fairywrens, with the males quite intent on chasing their respective females around and repeatedly perching up on tall grass stems for us to admire them in their black and crimson finery. Fairy Martins and Welcome Swallows were hawking insects along the margin of the mangroves, and taller trees held our first (of many) Noisy Miners, Gray and Pied Butcherbirds, Little Corella and Torresian Crows. The pond below the blind was devoid of shorebirds, as the local tide was out and the birds were all foraging out on Moreton Bay. We did however, find a few handsome Chestnut Teal, and an impressive Carpet Python that had apparently claimed the inside of the blind as a personal refugia. A walk down the mangrove boardwalk revealed our hoped-for Mangrove Gerygones, as well as very close-up views of Black-faced Cuckooshrike, a vocal Rufous Whistler, several Torresian Kingfishers and huge tidal flats covered in fiddler crabs, the odd mudskipper and quite a few waders. Particularly noteworthy sightings for us included the Royal Spoonbill that was foraging just below the observation deck, our first White-faced and Striated Herons, and several Gull-billed Terns, here of the heavy billed and large Australian subspecies that most authorities have already split from the cosmopolitan Gull-billed Tern. We spent the rest of the afternoon making the way up to Maryborough, with a bit of a delay due to a faulty GPS system in the car that seemed intent on giving us a tour of downtown Brisbane. Maybe it’s a feature the tourist board is trying out to encourage more visitors to the city’s vibrant center core. Our views of an impressive number of people dressed as zombies, complete with face paint, paired with a ton of folk streaming into the local football stadium and a few folks obviously heading to a local Octoberfest celebration were certainly illuminating, but I’ll wager that most folks would have traded them all for the hour we lost navigating back out of the maze that is Brisbane’s road system. We arrived at our lovely Best Western in Maryborough in time for dinner at the local, and totally renovated White Lion Pub; very much looking forward to our day out on the reef.

The following day dawned 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. Our 12-passenger aircrafts took off as scheduled and passed 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. 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. As we disembarked, we noted several Great and one Lesser Frigatebird wheeling around over the trees; a great start to our birding here. We were greeted at the airplane by a host from the on-island lodge who was soon trying to give us the run-down of our day on the island; though he 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 southern half of the island, where we started off by locating a few pairs of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that were tucked in the deep shade of some large octopus plants. These are the largest 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, and although we kept the prescribed 2m distance from the nest sight our views were superlative, with several adult birds with their namesake tail streamers curled up and over its back and a couple of mostly grown chicks. Moving over to the end of the runway we found our first Pacific Golden-Plovers an 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 good numbers of Brown Noddies tucked into the low shrubs along the beach. Along the coralline coastline were several Eastern Reef-Egrets feeding in the shallows. Over the course of the day, we found eight or nine of these long-billed herons, most were white morph birds but at least two were deep purple-black. The island possesses an endemic subspecies of Silvereye, and we were able to see several of these large and distinctively coloured birds as we walked along the edge of the forested half of the island. Dubbed the “Capricorn” Silvereye, this form is endemic to only 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. As a bit of a test, we played some calls from mainland birds to no effect, but when we tried tape from the form of Silvereye from Lord Howe Island these birds responded vigorously. Along the north beach we were happy to find several dozen Roseate Terns huddled under the trees. This elegant species breeds here in small numbers, and over the course of the day we estimated a local population of a bit over 50 birds, several of which were nicely blushing pink. The loafing flock of Great Crested Terns here numbered over 300, and in with them we picked out a few starch-white Black-naped Terns, an elegant tropical species that breeds in scattered colonies around the south Pacific and Indian Oceans.

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. On the ride over to the beach we spotted an adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle perched in the tall lighthouse structure. The bird remained in that spot all day, obviously sated with all the ready access to prey. Once out on the beach the local staff indicated that we would get our feet wet, but as the tide was quite low, we had to wade out to the craft. Luckily most of the participants had opted for sandals or had picked out a pair of the provided water shoes. The boat trip allowed those who would not be out snorkeling later in the day to experience a bit of the underwater life out on the reef, with clear views of the impressive coral heads teeming with fish, a couple of Green and one Loggerhead Sea Turtle, and a distant pod of (likely) Spinner Dolphins. We also spotted a few passing Brown Boobies, and two Sooty Oystercatchers that were foraging along the shore across from where we were anchored. Oddly this was the only sighting of Sooty Oystercatcher for us on the island this year.

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). In the afternoon 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 we started off by walking out to a spot that Tim had scouted in order to get good views of a small group of Sooty Terns. After seeing so many close Bridled Terns during the day these 5 chocolate brown birds with their white headlights and shorter tails really stood out. Nearby we enjoyed excellent scope views of a perched Brown Booby, a pair of posing Black-naped Terns and two foraging Wandering Tatters. Over on the south beach we found that low tide had well and truly arrived, exposing vast amounts of coralline shelfs. Hundreds of Great Crested (but sadly no Lesser Crested) Terns, along with at few Roseates and lots of Pacific Golden-Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones were lounging on the rocks. After a bit of time to wander around independently we headed back to the runway to board our plane, sad to leave this island paradise, but very much glad to have had the chance to visit. In the late afternoon we flew back to the mainland, again with excellent visibility which enabled a couple of people to spot a few Humpback Whales that were swimming out in the still waters off Fraser Island.

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 buffet breakfast started our journey off on good footing, and we arrived at our first birding location at the Maroom Boat Dock well before 8. Our principal reason for visiting this small community was to look for Mangrove Honeyeaters, a task that we were quite elated to easily achieve. The target species soon took second stage when we realized that we had hit the tide just right (for a change), with a huge flock of waders tucked right up on shore and awaiting our perusal. The vast majority were Bar-tailed Godwits, but we found good numbers of Great and Red Knots, and a few Marsh, Terek and Curlew Sandpipers. Having such diversity at close range is always a treat, and given that the species mix is most of the birds that north American birders can only dream of finding around home our time with the flock seemed doubly special. Apart from the shorebirds we watched Gull-billed and Caspian Terns foraging over the bay, flocks of Australian Ibis probing in the mangrove mud, a single Pipit out on the lawn and a few passing Sulphur-crested Cockatoos announcing their presence with their customary ear-splitting squawks. As we left we elected to do a little circle route of the neighborhood as we had seen a couple of Eastern Grey Kangaroos between the houses on the way in. Sure enough, we found a small mob of these delightful macropods, complete with some young joeys and an adult male that had obvious amorous intentions and after flashing his pecs at us a few times returned to his potential partner… Here too we found our first good views of Galahs, a striking, if a bit dopey looking, pink and silver cockatoo that is perhaps one of dry-land Australia’s most common birds.

Leaving Maroom behind we continued south, heading for our main birding destination for the morning at Inskip Point. In the little town of Rainbow Beach we made a comfort stop that quickly turned into a birding stop. Right behind the block of toilets a termite hatch was occurring and a horde of birds were coming down to grab the emerging insects. Such was their focus that they didn’t seem to mind our presence at all. Here we found a half-dozen brilliantly hued Blue-faced Honeyeaters, a family group of Little Wattlebirds, two brazen Brushturkeys and some very approachable Crested Pigeons and Spotted Doves. Once we reached Inskip Point it quickly became clear what the major user group of the area was. Dozens of tricked-out utility vehicles and off-road campers were lined up in the carpark, with most drivers hunched over the tires busily letting air out. The point serves as the connection between the mainland and nearby Fraser Island; the worlds largest sand island and a “protected” World Heritage designated area that harbours great biodiversity and lots of sand tracks and camping areas for the motorhead crowd. We parked and spent a bit of time on the windward side of the forest patch near the point where we found a roaring wind, and a nice mix of terns and shorebirds huddled down along the beachfront. Surprisingly, a large percentage of the birds were Little or Common Terns, though there were Caspians, Gull-billed and Great Crested as well. On a small sandy spit out in the bay we could make out several Pied Oystercatchers, our first Pied Cormorants and another decent sized flock of Bar-tailed Godwits. With no sign of our hoped-for Beach Thick-Knees, we turned our attentions to the more sheltered lee side of the woods. Here we located our first Variegated Fairywrens, White-browed Scrubwren, Brown Thornbill and a very cooperative pair of Rufous Whistler. Just before leaving we checked another patch of beach and were thrilled to spot a pair of Beach Thick-Knee that were sheltering from high winds, likely waiting for the tide to fall so they could go out and bash some hapless crabs to bits. They are impressive birds up close, much larger and more imposing than their Bushy cousins, and more striking and colourful than the field guides suggest. After spending a bit of time with this undisputed king of Australian waders we headed back to Rainbow Beach for lunch.

We still had quite a lot of ground to cover in order to get down to O’Reilly’s that night, so we made only one other birding stop for the day; at the small lake near the Chatsworth Rest area along the motorway. Here three small lakes support a remarkably large breeding colony of White Ibis. The ponds held a few Comb-crested Jacanas, Pacific Black Ducks and Dusky Moorhens as well as a couple of cormorant species, a single Australian Grebe and a mixed flock of Fairy Martins and Welcome Swallows that were hawking insects over the water in the light drizzle. The surrounding trees were hosting numbers of Noisy Miners and a few Little Friarbirds, and out in the grasslands we could hear a displaying Tawny Grassbird. It was a surprisingly birdy area, but likely the best sighting was of an Azure Kingfisher that landed right in front of the parked vans and lingered there for a minute or two allowing the photographers to compose a good shot. The drive south through Brisbane involved some heavy rain, and a bit of rush-hour traffic, making our arrival into the small town of Canungra, which serves as the jumping off point for the windy driveway that snakes its way (35 KM) up into the higher reaches of the Border Ranges and eventually onto the O’Reilly’s Plateau. This narrow and very windy road is a bit of an experience in and of itself, especially given the current road works that are underway in an attempt to shore up the road edges from frequent erosional hazards. We didn’t reach the lodge until just on dark, but as we neared the plateau there was still enough light that we could easily discern the sudden shift from a dry Eucalypt forest to a temperate rainforest full of cycads, moss, some Nothofagus trees and ferns. After hearing about the riot of colourful and ridiculously tame birds that frequent the carpark of this famous lodge a 6:30 start for a walkabout the following morning was an easy sell!

We began our full day around Lamington National Park with a short pre-breakfast walk around the lodge grounds where we caught everyone up on the common birds that frequent the clearings around the lodge. It’s certainly nice when the common birds include such absolutely stunning species as Regent and Satin Bowerbird, Australian King Parrot and Crimson Rosella, Superb Fairy-Wren (our 4th and final species of these amazing little birds for the trip) and Wonga Pigeon! It’s not just the species list here that make an impact, but the tameness and approachability that a visiting birder can revel in. Instead of quietly lurking in the underbrush and hoping for a quick part-view of a calling Eastern Whipbird here one just scans the lawn or holds out some walnuts and one waltzes in without a care. It is, simply put, an amazing experience, akin to the Galapagos Islands in some respects. After spending the requisite amount of time taking in the colour show and getting selfies of King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas perched on various heads and shoulders we started a short walk around the periphery of the lodge grounds. Down around the recently (and drastically) renovated campground loop we were shocked to find a pair of Rose Robins actually down near the ground at the edge of the clearing. This dapper little pink and slate robin is generally an active canopy species, and can often be hard to spot up in the tall rainforest trees. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but as we noticed a general lack of insectivorous bird activity around the plateau this year, with usually common species like Welcome Swallow being less numerous than normal and generally feeding right at ground level. We chalked this all up to the long, lingering and particularly cold and wet winter that much of temperate Eastern Australia was still enduring. Excising the Cairns section of the trip the temperatures were 3-8 degrees below average, with considerably more clouds and rain than usual. Weather and lack of bugs aside, having these delicately colored little robins in good light and eye level was a real coup. Near the campground we could hear a calling Albert’s Lyrebird off in the woods, but he was far enough in and at such an angle that we decided there was no point in pursuing him. A Grey Goshawk was more confiding though, perching for a few minutes over the trail before dropping off its perch and flying over to scare the wits out of all the birds around the main building.

After our buffet breakfast we decided to go back and check around the staff quarters for any Lyrebird activity, and this time we could clearly hear a singing male that seemed to be not too far down along the Wishing Tree Track. We hurried down and were astonished to not only be able to spot the male about 4 meters off the trail, but to be able to watch him display for some time. He would hold his long and ornate tail feathers up over his back and slowly prance in a balletic fashion with drooped wings all 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. They generally breed near the tail end of winter, so perhaps our wonderful experience with this male was only possible due to the lingering winter-like temperatures. After several minutes of the bird bouncing around and showing off incredibly well, he suddenly stopped his efforts and bounded off through the forest away from the trail with astonishing speed. A bit further down the track we lucked into a Noisy Pitta that was sifting through a patch of leaf litter a bit below the trail. It would occasionally cross through small patches of sunlit forest floor, and immediately change from a round dark ball of a bird into a dazzling riot of color. Emerald green on the back, with a deep red vent, black and buff striped head and bright sky-blue shoulders it is a bird that would widen even an ardent non-birders eye. We decided that seeing two such magnificent and memorable species in quick succession was a near perfect birding experience! Leaving the Wishing Tree trail behind we set off down the network of park service trails that run out from 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 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. We walked about a half-mile through the rainforest, and found pairs of Brown Gerygones, a few Brown Thornbills and a near constant background din from Lewin’s Honeyeaters and Golden Whistlers. Oddly the Green Catbirds were largely quiet, but we did manage to pick up a couple of these hefty bowerbirds as they foraged around on or near the ground. 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. Again, this is a species that we typically see up in the canopy grabbing fruit, but with current weather conditions as they were there was precious little fruit to be had.

By this point it was lunchtime, so we enjoyed lunch on the outdoor patio of the café, surrounded by sweeping valley views and dozens of anxiously hungry Pied Currawongs and Crimson Rosellas and a few Satin Bowerbirds. We tried to keep them away from the food but a few chips were stolen, with the Currawongs and Bowerbirds immediately heading out to consume or hide their prizes from the other assembled birds. The Rosellas took a different approach, simply grabbing one and sitting at the table, delicately balanced on one foot as they slowly nibbled the chips away to a small nub. During our afternoon siesta the winds started to pick up and the clouds became even thicker, making the daytime high of 18 degrees seem much colder. Once we met up in the afternoon, we opted to walk out to the nearby Python Rock Track. This popular trail passes through some very nice rainforest with a largely open understory, with many towering trees laden with impressively large epiphytes. Our primary goal here was to look for Paradise Riflebird, a species that until this point we had only heard out in the distance, uttering its grating and raspy callnote. We took our time getting out to the trail, spending time learning a bit about the local ecology and revisiting the suite of species that are common up at this elevation including a very cooperative family group of Superb Fairywrens and a few more Green Catbirds. By the time we reached the trail it already seemed to be getting dark, and we found the area to be surprisingly quiet. Since we wanted to get out in the evening for a bit of nocturnal prowl and still had dinner to arrange we headed back up to the lodge, arriving in time to participate in the wearing of parrots around the reception area.

After dinner, we left the lodge on foot, quickly finding a couple of Common Ringtail Possums sitting about in the trees. Nearby we found a Short-eared Brushtail Possum as well, which provided an excellent chance to make ready comparisons between the two species. A bit later we found another family group of Common Ringtails, which stayed frozen to their perches and stared down at us with a quizzical eye. The conditions for night birding were perfect, with a relatively clear sky, no moonshine, cool but not outright cold temperatures and calm winds. We walked down the road and out to an area where I have had multiple sightings of Marbled Frogouth over the years. Amazingly, soon after I started a bit of playback we heard a response, and soon after one individual flew in wonderfully, perching in a perfect position opposite our waiting torches and sitting on a small bare branch with drooped wings, puffed up feathers and a stare worthy of an American boxer trying to psyche out his opponent during the pre-match televised interview. 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. We ended up walking away from the bird, which after calling and rocketing in had simply frozen in place, amazed at just how productive our hour-long night walk had been!

For our last morning around O’Reilly’s, we decided to make a special effort to look for Paradise Riflebird. After our obligatory early morning commune with the reception bird flock (who can resist an in-hand male Regent Bowerbird?) we decided to check a few spots where we had heard a bird calling the day before. A wander around the carpark and up at the staff quarters revealed nothing so we set out along the boardwalk trail, joined at times on the trail by Eastern Yellow Robins, Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens, or even the occasional Wonga Pigeon or Brushturkey. We headed for the botanic gardens, and just at the entrance found an active flock of birds buzzing around the gate. While sorting through the Brown Gerygones, Brown Thornbills and Lewin’s Honeyeaters we noted a distant fantail behind the group. It proved to be a Gray, rather than our hoped-for and strangely absent (due to the persistent cold weather perhaps) Rufous, but while checking it out we found a female Riflebird rummaging around in a rotting stump just a few feet off the ground. The males of the three species of Australian Riflebirds are very similar, but the females each have a distinctive plumage. Paradise females are striking, with a whitish throat and eyeline, spotted breast and barred flanks; much more boldly patterned than the rusty and flecked underparts of Victoria’s Riflebird. Recent research has shown that the Birds-of-Paradise likely initially evolved in Australia, retreating uphill and into the humid montane forests of New Guinea as the lowlands 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. This particular female changed perches a few times, each time digging around in a new stump or bromeliad, and then zipped off further into the woods.

We breathed a hearty sigh of relief to have had such good views and then headed back to the lodge for breakfast and a bit of time to pack up and get organized for our early afternoon flight to Sydney. We bade farewell to the lodge and started the drive down the mountain shortly after 9am. This allowed us to explore a side road that leads down to Duck Creek. Here we bumped along for a few kilometers, dropping down from the main road until we came to a patch of open Eucalyptus forest with an understory of grasses, grass trees, and lantana thickets. In this generally drier habitat we were soon able to track down several parties of White-naped Honeyeaters, some close enough that we could discern the red arc over their eyes. A calling Spotted Pardalote was extremely confiding as it dropped down from the lofty heights of the canopy and came to some eye-level bare branches along the edge of the road. This tiny jewel of a bird, with bright patches of red and yellow, and a dazzling pattern of small white spots on its black crown, mantle and tertials is a real stunner. It took a little longer to locate our other main target for the area, the generally scarce Red-browed Treecreeper. It was a little confusing initially, as with the pair of Red-browed a single White-throated Treecreepers arrived as well, with half the group getting on each species. Thankfully the White-throated soon left, and the Red-broweds lingered for a while, clambering about on a selection of nearby trunks before eventually disappearing downslope, and showing off their rusty faces and dark crowns and white spotted chests and flanks to nice effect. A bit further down the mountain we stopped at a wide clearing along the road that was once a gravel quarry. This proved quite a productive stop, as from the clearing itself we spotted a passing Brown Goshawk and teased up responsive Shining Bronze-Cuckoo and Scarlet Myzomela. A short walk down the side road that takes off from behind the pond revealed a trio of Brown Cuckoo-Doves foraging in the canopy, a responsive male Cicadabird (perhaps just back from New Guinea), a few more White-naped Honeyeaters and several bubbly Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. We reached the bottom of the mountains and the village of Canungra in the late morning, with time to have a quick lunch at the local bakery before making the roughly hour-long drive over to the Coolongatta Airport. With the flight time and the one-hour time change we didn’t get in to Sydney until after 5pm, and to our hotel until about 6:40, just early enough that we could get our daily birdlog in over drinks and then have a slightly late dinner.

Normally we schedule a one-day pelagic trip out of Sydney, but this year due to various logistical concerns and a not so rosy marine forecast we decided to skip the boat trip, and instead spent two full days birding around coastal New South Wales. We spent the first 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. The effects of the three-year long cool and wet conditions were very evident here, as the Hacking River has been flooding out of its banks every few weeks for much of the winter. The trail was rockier than normal, and the river banks and river had been scoured of their normal leaf cover and emergent vegetation. Water was dripping off of the sandstone shelfs in the forest, and even some of the larger trees were struggling to cope with the overabundance of water. By the time of our visit in early October the area had already exceded (by a wide margin) the wettest year on record, and all the available forecasts were indicating that the wet conditions would continue unabated. Our primary goal for the walk was to locate a Superb Lyrebird, and although we had to walk a bit further than normal, we were eventually able to track one of these incredible birds down, 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. Our bird this year was walking below the trail and along the river, and by getting in front of it at a spot with good visibility through the undergrowth we just waited a bit for our views.

Though it was near the end of our nearly month-long set of tours through the country new bird species were still popping up throughout the morning. New Holland Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were common companions down the trail, soon becoming almost a distraction when they appeared in denser cover. Golden Whistlers seemed to be almost everywhere, giving a musical counterpart to the errant and raucous yarks from passing Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and the maniacal cackling of distant Kookaburra. Fairly early on in the morning walk we were thrilled to spot a pair of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos slowly flying down the river above us. These huge and impressive birds, with their bright yellow tail flashes, and mournful eerily gull-like calls are utterly captivating. Along the Hacking River we spotted loafing Macquarie Turtles, and a nice mix of waterbirds including three cormorants, and perched Azure and Sacred Kingfishers. We tracked down calling Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze-Cuckoos, Green Catbird, foraging Brown Cuckoo-Doves and Topknot Pigeons, and picked out a Dollarbird that was sitting high up in the canopy. Understory birds put on a good showing as well, with all three of the resident Scrubwren species (Yellow-throated, White-browed and Large-billed) showing well. Brown and Striated Thornbills, Gray Fantails and two small family groups of Variegated Fairywrens were ogled in turn as well. The car park held a continuous array of Maned Duck, Laughing Kookaburra, Little Corella, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Rainbow Lorikeets, all absurdly tame and eminently photographable. We even found an active Satin Bowerbird bower that had been liberally decorated with little bits of blue and yellow plastic!

We took lunch at the small café back on the banks of the Hacking River. The open lawns around the cafe were playing host to flocks of very tame Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Little Corellas and a healthy crop of Australian Magpies and lurking Laughing Kookaburras. During our meal we were treated to overhead passes by a White-bellied Sea-Eagle and a Peregrine Falcon, and an aural visitation by an Australian Koel that was buried somewhere in the crown of a small fruiting fig, somehow avoiding the prying eyes of our dozen or so birders who were ringed around the base of the tree. The birds here have always had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the dining area, but during the covid years they seem to have grown even more attentive to the arrival of food. The long suffering waitstaff have to bring baskets to cover the food, and indeed one of our participants had his entire fried fish fillet grabbed by a lightning-fast aerial swoop by a Kookaburra just as the waiter was delivering the plate to the table! I suppose dining outside in Australia always carries a bit of risk that one will end up sharing a meal with the local wildlife.

After lunch we headed out to the stunning coastline of the park. Here, at the somewhat exotic sounding Wattamolla Point we walked on a newly constructed boardwalk that leads out to the Sandstone ledges that form the clifftops of the shore. With 40-60 Meter drops to the sea, crashing surf on the rubble below, small ravines with patches of short heathy vegetation and azure-blue bays the coast here could easily fill a tourist catalogue. Happily though, instead of the somewhat expected resort hotels and beach umbrellas we found the region largely empty of people (save the big group of bubbling schoolchildren all dressed in their green and gold school uniforms as they tromped down the trail), and generally unspoilt. We spent a bit of time scanning the ocean from the first point, finding long strings of passing Wedge-tailed Shearwaters flying passed with their languid wheeling flight style and long tails aiding in their identification. A couple of Humpback Whales and a small group of (likely) Common Dolphins livened the seawatch up a bit as well. In the flowering heathland around the point, we were thrilled to spot an adult Tawny-crowned Honeyeater with a recently fledged youngster just a bit off the trail. This well-marked species with its cream-colored crown and white throat bordered by a black mask and flanks is a recent recolonizer along the coast, coming back after the fires swept through the area a few years ago. A couple of Australian Ravens were sitting up on trailside shrubs, doubtless hoping we would stop for a snack break. As we started back, we noticed some motion along an open shelf of sandstone and were very happy to find a cooperative Rockwarbler that popped up and sat on top of the rocks just a few feet off the trail. This is another aberrant thornbill which has the distinction of being the only endemic bird in New South Wales. It occupies the same general niche as a Canyon Wren or Wallcreeper, preferring smaller sandstone outcrops in the hilly forests and coast east of the Great Dividing Range. Our views were particularly good, as the bird seemed completely unconcerned by our presence on the boardwalk and sat up well on several boulders in the sunshine, showing off its orange-rust chest to excellent effect.

After getting back to the vehicles 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 the adults and two large chicks as they napped in the shade of some tall creekside trees. Their massive talons and baleful stares certainly made us believe that they are well named. We then headed to a nearby public garden where we stopped to look at a colony of Grey-headed Flying-Foxes that were hanging by the dozens in the trees around the carpark, like oversized paper Halloween ornaments. Below the bat roost we enjoyed close views of a handsome male Chestnut Teal, a ridiculous number of Australian Magpies and some very approachable Australian White Ibis and Crested Pigeons. The carpark attendant ushered us out around 4:30 so that he could close the gates, a clear signal of the end of our birding day, and we arrived back at the hotel with time to relax a bit before dinner.

After getting back to the vehicles 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 the adults and two large chicks as they napped in the shade of some tall creekside trees. Their massive talons and baleful stares certainly made us believe that they are well named. We then headed to a nearby public garden where we stopped to look at a colony of Grey-headed Flying-Foxes that were hanging by the dozens in the trees around the carpark, like oversized paper Halloween ornaments. Below the bat roost we enjoyed close views of a handsome male Chestnut Teal, a ridiculous number of Australian Magpies and some very approachable Australian White Ibis and Crested Pigeons. The carpark attendant ushered us out around 4:30 so that he could close the gates, a clear signal of the end of our birding day, and we arrived back at the hotel with time to relax a bit before dinner.

Our second full day around Sydney dawned under overcast skies and light rain, but happily for us by the time we reached our first birding destination, back at the coast in Wattamolla the rains had ceased. For most of the day we finally experienced sunny and warm spring-like conditions, with temperatures climbing up to 24 degrees C. We walked a bit further out on the newly constructed boardwalk trail than we had the previous day, out to a spot where, with a bit of patience, we managed to entice a small group of Southern Emuwrens to pop up out of the heath. These coppery little wrens with their long and unstructured tails (which lack the barbules that knit most feathers together) are closely related to Fairywrens, but have a much more retiring nature. The three species generally stay close to the ground in a dense undergrowth of heath or spinifex grass (depending upon the species). Luckily for us this pair of birds perched up on some bare branches, allowing us to better appreciate their rich colouration (the male in particular with his reflective blue throat is quite spiffy). Here too we found another Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, a pair of flying Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos, a very vocal Eastern Yellow Robin, a pair of Brown Quail that shot off into the heath as we walked by, as well as uncountable numbers of New Holland Honeyeaters and an Australian Raven that managed to get away with the tail end of our package of biscuits; although given that it took them right over the cliff edge and loosely hanging out of the package I’m not sure that it was able to enjoy them. The walk proved excellent for reptiles and an array of pretty wildflowers as well, with both Cunningham’s and White’s Skinks appearing along the trail. A bit of a seawatch from one of the promontories proved quite productive. The line of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters was much closer to shore than on the previous day, and with some scanning we could discern a steady trickle of smaller and darker Short-tailed Sheawaters and a few black and white Fluttering Shearwaters in the mix.

Leaving the shoreline, and the park behind, we set off a bit inland to a secret area that Steve has recently been conducting Koala surveys in. It’s council land, and prior to his work the species was not thought to be in the area, but Steve and his colleagues have found at least 22 animals living in a small forest patch, and plan to continue surveying adjacent areas as well. We walked down into the ravine, taking in our first Red Wattlebirds, chortling Gray Butcherbirds, several Olive-backed Orioles and some calling Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters while we waited for our advance scouting party to report in. It didn’t take long before Steve called to say he had a Koala, and we clambered down the slope on an old disused trail to reach the grove of Grey Gums that held our little beastie. Even when we knew which tree the Koala was in it was hard to spot, but eventually everyone got onto the young female that was perched high up in a dense patch of leaves. We poked around a little bit more, finding a second Koala nearby, as well as a few basking Macquarie Turtles and a stunning Whitewater Rockmaster (a dragonfly) along the creek. Koala populations are in steep decline over much of their range, with more frequent and intense wildfires, habitat destruction and fragmentation, more roads and domestic dogs and a number of other factors all contributing to their decline. The New South Wales government has signed a commitment to double the number of wild Koalas in the state over the next few decades, and we certainly wish them well in their attempts to foster the recovery of such an iconic, and undeniably cute mammal. We generally do not see Koala on the trip, and this sighting was entirely due to having Steve along as a local expert. As we walked back up to the vans, we stopped to look at a small mixed flock which contained Grey Fantail, White-browed Scrubwren and Brown Thornbills all chattering away just a few feet off the ground.

Our last stop of the day was to Gannon’s Park, a long and thin strip of parkland that contains some very large ball fields, a few small ponds and some nice patches of forest. We had a very pleasant stroll here, taking in the city life of Sydney (which seems excellent) as well as a nice mix of birds. Perhaps the best sighting was of a large Eastern Blue-tongued Skink that we found close to our parking area that flicked its namesake deep purple tongue at us before scuttling back under its hiding area. Like the Koalas this handsome animal has a declining population, and for much the same reason, so it was nice to see a large adult in such an urban park setting. Some flowering trees held foraging Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, and we had an opportunity to discuss some of the negative consequences of the burgeoning numbers of Noisy Miners through the suburbs on the populations of smaller bush birds.

As most participants were leaving the following afternoon, or indeed staying on for a few days extra after the tour to explore the delights of Sydney we decided to offer a bit of birding for the last morning. We started off with a visit to the nearby Landing Lights Wetlands, where we walked along about a mile of mixed parkland, with open fields, a golf course, dense riparian woodlands and even a sedge-lined marshy lake. The walk produced our first Red-whiskered Bulbuls (a handsome introduced bird that is largely confined to the Sydney area), a flying Pacific Koel, both Yellow and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, a few bubbling Australian Reed-Warblers and a striking Eastern Rosella – not too bad for a small park just a mile from the international airport! The walk also allowed us to see a wide array of birds common throughout much of Australia, and now perhaps old friends. Willie Wagtails swayed on the lawns, while Masked Lapwing screeched at our passing. Australian White Ibis and White-faced Herons stalked the canal, and Magpie-larks strutted along the trail edge, and Golden-headed Cisticolas performed their impressive skylarking displays. We finished our birding out on the Sydney coast, on a sandstone point not too far south of the famous Bondi Beach. With the warm and sunny conditions, sailboats drifting by underneath us, and throngs of people enjoying the surf and sand it was easy to see why Australia’s population has been booming. All too soon it was time to pack up the binoculars and head to the airport as we wrapped up a fantastic 13-day tour through Queensland and coastal New South Wales.                                                                                                                                    

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 29 October 2022