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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Queensland and New South Wales

Riflebirds, Reefs and Rainforests

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2019 Australia tour to the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales provided a phenomenal mix of habitats and bird species, and a wide array of other wildlife. The first week was centered around the coastal lowlands between Cairns and Daintree, and the cooler pastoral highlands of the Atherton Tablelands dotted with remnant patches of upland rainforest. It’s hard to pick a favorite sighting when you spend a week in such an incredibly diverse area. Some of the highlights included a fantastic hour that we spent with a couple of Southern Cassowary on a wonderfully picturesque tropical beach, stately Australian Bustards on a pastoral plain, a male Victoria’s Riflebird practicing its dance within a few meters of where we had just been looking at a Golden Bowerbird attending its maypole bower, a local rarity in the form of a pair of Banded Lapwing at Mount Carbine or the muppet-like Papuan Frogmouth sitting on a Creekside nest. The wealth of life here in the north isn’t limited to the birds though, and sometimes with animals like Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo, Saltwater Crocodile or some amazingly cooperative Duck-billed Platypus it can be the non-birds that really shine. 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, Paradise Riflebirds and 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. Our pelagic trip out of Sydney was very smooth this year, but it still produced excellent views of Campbell’s and Shy Albatrosses, Providence Petrels and four species of shearwater. We made the most of our day around Royal National Park where we encountered several Superb Lyrebirds, an impressive roosting Powerful Owl, nesting Rockwarbler, a completely unexpected Pilotbird and some passing Humpback Whales just offshore. On our last half-day of birding we went inland this year, to a small forested reserve where we added an impressive 6 birds to our triplist including some nomadic White-browed Woodswallows, a passing Square-tailed Kite, and Yellow, Striated and Buff-rumped Thornbills.

No trip such as this can be summed up by statistical means alone as the experiences and landscapes are integral, but our near record tally of 299 species of birds, 25 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. For those that also took the adjoining Western Australia tour the trip totals were an incredible 451 species of birds and 40 mammals!

IN FULL: Our group flight from the previous leg of the tour that ended in Darwin landed in Cairns near midday, and once we had collected the van we drove into town to meet the participants who were only taking the Eastern Tour. Although it was warm and a bit humid the temperature seemed sublime in comparison to the unseasonably hot climes of Darwin. We ate lunch at a coffee shop along the busy esplanade in Cairns, while meeting with the new participants and chatting about the trip. After lunch we took a short walk along the shoreline, taking in some of the common city park birds and a nice mix of waterbirds that were feeding on the expanse of mudflats exposed at low tide. It proved a good introduction, as along with more common species such as Silver Gull, Australian Pelican and Whimbrel we picked out a couple of more special species, like the pair of huge Far-eastern Curlews and a completely unexpected Beach Thick-Knee out on the mud. This species is possibly the holy grail of waders in Northeast Queensland. Scarcely distributed along sandy stretches of beaches with adjacent relatively undisturbed brushland this spectacularly large and colorful thick knee makes itself even more inconspicuous by being generally crepuscular, spending the heat of the day tucked away in the shady underbrush. We were likely indebted to the thousands of small crabs exposed by the low tide for our excellent views of the bird, which was feeding quite happily just a few dozen meters from the throngs of passing tourists. New birds popped up above us as well, with some flowering trees along the boardwalk attracting a few very vocal Varied Honeyeaters, some rather staid Brown Honeyeaters, 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 several tame Willie Wagtails following us around, no doubt hoping that our feet would kick up a tasty morsel or two.

As the afternoon was starting to wane we decided to wrap up our stroll along the esplanade and start the hour and a half journey up to the tablelands where we would spend much of the next four days. We stopped in at some mangroves a bit south of town for a quick check that failed to produce our hoped-for Mangrove Robin, but did produce wonderful views of a perched Brahminy Kite, a busily foraging Olive-backed Sunbird and a close Hornbill Friarbird, a large and impressive looking species of honeyeater that was recently split from the more widespread Helmeted Friarbird complex.

Leaving the lowlands of Cairns behind we then 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 the quiet and quaint town of Yungaburra, our base for the next two nights. This little village, with a beautiful historic pub and several small cafes and hotels is utterly charming; somewhat reminiscent of a tiny town in the Cornish countryside, but with brilliantly purple jacaranda trees dotted around, and lorikeets flying overhead. Before dinner we were able to wander down to the adjacent creek and watch their resident Platypus as it repeatedly dived down into the murky water in search of crayfish. Although finding these often-reclusive mammals can take some time along the creek we found nearly a half dozen animals quite quickly this year, and were able to watch them swimming around on the surface for quite some time and at very close range. When we returned from our short platypus walk along Peterson creek we stopped in the small carpark to scan the birds loafing in the adjacent field. Here we picked out about a half-dozen Bush Thick-Knees along one of the fence lines, and impressive numbers of Magpie Geese, Plumed Whistling-Ducks and Australasian Swamphens out on the fields.

After dinner several participants opted for a short spotlighting session at the nearby Curtain Fig National Park. As was the case for much of the trip we found the normally humid forests to be abnormally dry due to the persistent drought. Though much of the forest edge looked to be quite drought stressed the trees inside the forest seemed a bit better off. Perhaps because of this we didn’t find any nocturnal mammals around the carpark as we often due, but once inside the forest on the short loop boardwalk that encircles the parks namesake strangler fig tree we did find a couple of flowering trees. In those trees was a single Coppery Brushtail Possum which stubbornly refused to show well as it quietly fed on the bright red flowers high up in the canopy. A couple of Green Ringtail Possums performed much better, lingering for several minutes in the beams of our torches and staring down at us with a bit of a curious air. 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. As we drove the short distance back to our hotel for the night a quick form darting across the road proved to be a Red-legged Pademelon; a small rainforest kangaroo, making our first day in the field quite a rich one for mammals as well as birds!

There can be few experiences dearer to a traveling birder than that precious first morning in a brand-new area. The stream of unfamiliar calls emanating from the forest and the flutter of colour and motion in the canopy, all signal that long- awaited birds heretofore seen only in the pages of field guides have now arrived as living creatures. We met for a pre-breakfast walk around the nearby Curtain Fig national park car park and boardwalk, taking almost an hour and a half to cover just those tiny areas. New birds popped up at a pleasing clip, with the roadside trees holding our first little Brown Gerygones, Large-billed Scrubwrens, sprightly Scarlet Myzomelas and White-throated Treecreepers. Of particular note was the Wompoo Fruit-Dove that flew in and perched for us long enough to enjoy in the scope. Wompoos are simply spectacular birds, clad in a bright pattern of purple, green, gray and yellow. We had excellent luck over the morning with the suite of monarch flycatchers that regularly occur in these pockets of rainforest. Several bright orange and black Spectacled Monarchs were zipping about at near eye level, while a bulbous headed Black-faced Monarch was in the high canopy and a cooperative Pied Monarch was slowly working the trunks and vines along the road like some sort of brightly coloured blue/black and white nuthatch. A flock of Barred Cuckoo-Shrikes, a handsome highland species with barred underparts, a dark grey hood and bright yellow eyes, was feeding in the top of a nearby tree. While watching the show we noted a steady procession of species passing overhead as well, including a few Australian Swiftlets, two flocks of Topknot Pigeons, lots of Scaly-breasted Lorikeets and the occasional tiny Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, and even some migrating Spangled Drongos pulled our attentions temporarily from the surrounding forest. We heard several Victoria’s Riflebirds sounding off in the distance, but none appeared close enough to the track this year for us to get a good look at.

Just before we started the walk down to the boardwalk into the woods we heard the telltale whispy call of a Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Using a bit of playback, the bird actually dropped down to near eye-level, giving us uncharacteristically good views. These 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. Once we entered the woods we found the aforementioned fig tree, a strangler fig of a proportion large enough to put a park around we managed some excellent bird sightings as well. A male Golden Whistler was teed up on a wonderfully exposed branch near the boardwalk railing. Two handsome copperish Brown Cuckoo-Doves were perched overhead, and our first Pale-yellow Robin was bouncing around just off the ground, often landing perched sideways on a trunk to better watch the forest floor for any wayward insects. We eventually pulled ourselves away so that we could return to Yungaburra for a wonderful cooked breakfast at one of the towns cafes, a good reward for our morning’s work.

After breakfast we paid a visit to Lake Barrine National Park, a volcanic crater lake surrounded by a beautiful patch of rainforest. We started by scoping the actual lake, finding huge rafts of Great Crested Grebes, little groups of Eurasian Coots and the odd Little Pied or Little Black Cormorant. Along the roughly 800-meter rainforest loop trail, we stopped to admire a couple of the under huge Kari trees, an ancient Gondwanaland tree that persists in a few pockets of Australasia. The many Pale-yellow Robins along the trail were tame and confiding, often perching just a few feet away from the group. Here too were several Lewin’s Honeyeaters, and our first Macleay’s Honeyeaters, a handsome striped species endemic to these north Queensland forests. Although we heard several singing Tooth-billed Bowerbirds they all stubbornly remained hidden far off the trail. This is often a difficult species to see, as they tend to sit still for long periods of time in dense patches of the understory, seemingly throwing their voices around a bit as they utter an amazing variety of raspy reels and chuckles. While looking for the bowerbirds though we encountered several pairs of Eastern Whipbirds foraging on the forest floor. These attractive whipbirds are olive green, with a dark black head and chest and a bright white patch on their cheeks. The birds stay paired year around, regularly dueting as they forage close to each other in the understory. Their characteristic cracking whip and answer duet is one of the most easily recognized Australian bird songs, and for most people the calls are the only indication of the species’ presence. For us though, on this day, we found two pairs to be relatively fearless, and with a bit of patience everyone in our group was able to obtain excellent views. The same cannot be said for a pair of Chowchillas that were digging around in the leaf litter close to one of the pairs of Whipbirds. 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, and only a few lucky participants managed to get an angle on them before they moved off and downhill. The Lake Barrine Park used to be a reliable location for this species, but like many of the smaller protected areas on the tablelands Chowchillas have disappeared or become quite rare as they are unable to disperse across the cleared areas between parks. Efforts are underway to provide revegetated corridors between some of the parks, but it seems to be slow going.

As it was late morning by this time we elected to head towards lunch near the town of Malanda, stopping to look at some fields full of Plumed Whistling-Ducks and Magpie Geese along the way. Our lunch spot was picked both for the quality and efficiency of the restaurant and the fact that it sits next to a small strip of protected forest that often houses a few snoozing Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos. These largely nocturnal and arboreal Kangaroos are truly odd creatures, looking quite ill designed for their chosen haunts, but are quite adept at clambering around in the trees. They generally spend most of the day asleep, and the one animal that we found this year was largely following the script, although he did occasionally raise his head up or reach out to grab a tasty leaf. In many ways these tree kangaroos seem the ecological analog of a central or south American Tamandua (tree anteater) though admittedly faster and perhaps more agile. Flush with success we headed back to the lodge for a brief siesta.

In the later afternoon, we headed to Hasties Swamp, a small wetland that has a nice two-storey blind overlooking a large lake that is generally stuffed with birds. Just before we arrived we stopped to admire a family group of Sarus Cranes and several Black-shouldered Kites in a large paddock. The adult cranes seemed to be starting to think about the next breeding season, with the male repeatedly jumping up and around the female. Along the entrance road we stopped to admire a large flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins that were perched in a weedy patch near the lake shore. It’s an attractive waxbill, boldly coloured in large blocks of white and brown like a living Piet Mondrian painting. Here too amongst the shallow weedy part of the lake we watched dozens of menacing Australasian Swamphens plying the shoreline. All three species of Australian Ibis were foraging out in the deeper water, and we were happy to spot a turquoise-green Sacred Kingfisher (as well as several Forest Kingfishers) around the marsh edge. A particularly nice sighting was made when we found two small fledgling Silvereyes perched near the ground, being repeatedly fed by their frenetic parents who seemed oblivious to our presence.

Once at the lake we marveled at the thousands of Plumed Whistling-Ducks that lined the margins of the lake, and hundreds of Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal and Hardheads (Australia’s version of the Canvasback or Common Pochard) that were loafing around in the center of the lake. Among the more common species we picked out a few Pink-eared Duck, a zebra-striped duck that possesses a bill that would make a Shoveler look twice, as it nearly curls over at the edges! We spent an enjoyable half hour or so working through the birds on offer, with species such as Pacific Heron, Intermediate Egret, Black-fronted Dotterel, Royal Spoonbill, Comb-crested Jacana, Dusky Moorhen and Australian Darter being admired in turn. The trees around the blind were attracting honeyeaters to their blossoms, and we enjoyed very close up views of Lewin’s, Brown and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters through the blind windows, and while looking at the bushes below us we noticed more activity further down the shoreline. By repositioning we were soon admiring a Buff-banded Rail that was creeping through the shoreline vegetation, occasionally coming completely out into the open. Here too was a displaying Tawny Grassbird that responded excellently to playback and a beautifully flowering bottlebrush tree that was full of White-cheeked Honeyeaters. Especially for the participants that just joined us the day before this site held an amazing diversity of new waterbirds! After dinner back in Yungaburra we went on an amazingly short and successful search for Eastern Barn Owls out in the farm fields. We found three birds in quick succession, all of which were perched on roadside fence posts (one with a freshly killed mouse in its talons). I wish all owling excursions were so easy!

We started the next day again with an optional pre-breakfast trip to a small side road a bit to the west of Yungaburra that has drier Eucalypt forest with a dense grassy understory. Although only a mile or two away from the rainforest site that we enjoyed the previous morning the ambience and birdlife were amazingly different. We walked up and down the road, scanning the trees and undergrowth, and amassing quite an impressive birdlist (in fact more species than we had had in the rainforest the prior day!). Rufous Whistlers seemed to be calling from all directions, and joining them in the canopy we found White-throated and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and a Noisy Friarbird. Our main target for the area, the chipper White-throated Gerygone, performed very well with a male in full song right near where we parked. We picked out a few other new species in the trees as we walked, including a Dusky Woodswallow (which proved to be the only one for the tour), a male White-winged Triller, Leaden Flycatcher, Eastern Yellow Robin and Rufous (Little) Shrikethrush. In the grassy understory we teased out two pairs of Red-backed Fairywrens, including one male that was almost completely in breeding plumage. 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 was a definite crowd pleaser, although I suspect the jury will always be out on which species is actually the fairest one of all. Just before we headed back to the car to check the next fields down the road we picked out a calling Spotted Pardalote high in the canopy. This was a bit of a surprising sighting, as the subspecies in Northeastern Queensland, dubbed the “wet forest” Spotted Pardalote is not terrifically common. We found the adjacent fields behind the strip of trees to be positively heaving with Magpie Geese, which took off in an impressive dirty blizzard easily numbering in the thousands. In the adjacent field we picked out a family group of Brolga, and dozens of Sarus Cranes feeding in some corn stubble. The view of these two similar species side by side was instructive, but our close up and personal views of the Sarus groups when we drove a bit down towards them were truly memorable.

After another sumptuous breakfast at the Whistlestop Café in Yungaburra we packed up the buses and headed a bit to the southwest. Our main birding destination for the morning was the excellent Mount Hypipamee National Park, also known as “The Crater”, which supports a large tract of high elevation forest, and the full complement of the Atherton Highlands endemics. Our first bird upon leaving the buses (with the exception of the ridiculously tame and even pushy Brushturkeys) was a pretty Grey-headed Robin that was perched near the parks welcome sign. This is one of the nearly half-dozen species that are virtually solely restricted to montane forests on the Atherton Tablelands. After admiring the bird for a bit we started to walk along the forest edge, with a stop to admire several large and vocal Bridled Honeyeaters that were foraging in the vines around the carpark. Near the Bridled Honeyeater we actually locked eyes onto a male Victoria’s Riflebird, although it spent most of the time buried in some fruiting vines overhead and then when it did finally appear it quickly shot overhead and across the car park into the distant trees. Happily for us though, as we walked up the road a bit we heard another bird giving its harsh rasping call from just overhead. We maneuvered the scopes a bit and were soon properly staring at our first official bird of paradise. The male Riflebird is a sophisticated bird, with glossy black feathers, an erectable and reflective bronzy-gold breast shield, bluish throat and bright yellow gape line. Although a bit subdued compared to the other Birds of Pardise that so regularly feature on nature documentaries it is still a very beautiful bird. A very cooperative Mountain Thornbill put on a show for us here as well, and although it is not likely to figure prominently on any of this year’s participants top 5 lists it is a range restricted species confined to these higher forests as well.

Our main reason for visiting the park was to look for perhaps the crown jewel of the endemics around the tablelands, the scarce and beautiful Golden Bowerbird. We crept up the trail and soon located the large maypole-style bower, one of the more ornate and impressive bowers made by the bowerbird family. Sadly a few years ago some mysterious (and perhaps nefarious) event has caused the disappearance of all of the regularly seen (i.e. known) adult male Bowerbirds from the Tablelands. It would seem to be an unlikely coincidence, with the local birding guides suspicious that a crime had taken place. This particular Hypipamee bowerbird disappeared as well, but a few months later a younger male appeared on the scene and soon redecorated the forest with his ideal bower. Although a few years have passed since this new male’s arrival the bird is still not coloured up, as the species doesn’t reach its full maturity until 7 or 8 years of age. It took a few minutes of us standing still and quiet but we eventually picked out the male as it sat quietly preening in the mid-canopy. The young male is a brownish-golden bird with a discernibly yellow undertail and white eye, a far cry from the bright yellow-gold adult. We watched him reverently for a few minutes and then quietly retreated back to the main trail, elated to have had a few minutes with this increasingly rare and decidedly gorgeous species. 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.

Next, we walked down to the actual crater, an impressive collapsed lava tube that has filled in with water, which makes it resemble the cenotes in the Yucatan, minus (one hopes) the many human sacrifices. Along the way we found our last new highland species of the morning; the diminutive Atherton Scrubwren, which can often be a tricky species to find. Similar to the much more common Large-billed Scrubwren, but with less buff in the face, and a more terrestrial nature, Atherton Scrubwrens often stay in the denser tangles of the forest undergrowth. Although perhaps not the most exotic looking bird, their incredibly small world range, and somewhat retiring habits make them a primary target for birders on the tablelands. Our last two highland endemics of the morning occurred together, quite close to the highway. A vocalizing Tooth-billed Bowerbird crossed the road like an olive rocket a couple of times, always landing a bit too far away to follow. Much more cooperative though was the handsome pair of Bower’s Shrike-thrushes, a larger, darker billed, and darker backed species of shrikethrush whose range is again restricted to these high elevation pocket forests.

After lunch in the nearby town of Atherton we headed north through the tablelands to visit the more arid and rocky country just west of Mareeba. 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 few dozen individuals around the campground. Generally a tricky bird to locate, the birds here are semi-tame and very approachable, even wandering close to our feet at times! Some flowering trees around the grounds held a nice selection of honeyeaters, including our first Noisy Friarbirds and Yellow Honeyeaters and several gorgeous bright Blue-faced Honeyeaters. Spangled Drongos and Olive-backed Sunbirds were coming in as well, making for quite a busy scene. As we walked around the caravan park we found a couple of Great Bowerbirds lurking at the margins. We located an active bower, festooned with snail shells, white rocks, bits of plastic and one carefully chosen green glass bottle piece. At one point the male came in to look his creation over, and we could see the iridescent magenta nuchal patch that he flares in an attempt to woo potential females. While walking about we also spotted two perched Pale-headed Rosellas, which unfortunately quickly took off in a whirl of pale blue and yellow. 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.

Our last birding stop for the day was at a small dam not too far south of Kingfisher Park. Here we spent an enjoyable half-hour standing on the corner of the water and watching a steady procession of birds coming down to drink and bathe in the late afternoon heat. Our views of dazzling Rainbow Bee-eaters were superlative, as several birds repeatedly splashed down in the center of the pond, scattering water and colour in about equal measure. Here too were our first Brown-backed Honeyeaters, a staid species with a red bill and legs, brown back and slightly barred white underparts. A single male Red-winged Parrot swept through the trees in a blaze of emerald green and crimson, with its diagnostic backswept pointed wings and bouncy flight. The common species though were Brown, Yellow and White-throated Honeyeaters, each of which came in little flocks to the emergent bare branches around the ponds edge. Perhaps because earlier in the day we had extoled our sighting of White-throated Gerygone near Yungaburra as perhaps our only one for the tour we found another singing bird over the waterhole, who followed us a bit as we walked back to the buses.

A short drive to the north allowed us to reach our base for next two nights; the famous Kingfisher Park Birders Lodge. This comfortable hotel is situated in a protected track of rainforest adjacent to a small shallow creek. The grounds provide excellent birding, and we spent a bit of time in the early evening soaking in a new suite of birds. The feeders next to reception held dozens of colorful Red-browed Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannakins. While the highly patterned Macleay’s Honeyeaters, pushy Lewin’s Honeyeaters and even pushier Rainbow Lorikeets visited the provided sugar water pots. A few lucky participants who lingered on until near dark were also treated to a rare sighting of a Red-necked Crake that came in to the birdbath and splashed around for a couple of minutes. Although there are two pairs of this hard to spot rail that frequent the park grounds we only infrequently encounter them during our relatively brief visits.

We started our next day by taking an hour-long stroll around the lodge grounds prior to breakfast. This allowed us to work through some of the identification issues surrounding that most difficult of honeyeater genera, the lookalikes of the genus Meliphaga. Both 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. Busy flocks of Metallic Starlings filled the park, and eventually we found a small nesting colony where a few sat for us to study in greater detail. With their coarsely streaked and oily plumage shimmering in the morning sun and their bright red eyes staring back at us through the scope I suspect they made quite an impression on participants more used to the common European Starling. In the (very dry) leaf litter around the property we found several curious Pale-yellow Robins, and both of northern Australia’s megapode species scratching in the leaf litter with a hopeful air. Monarchs were particularly well represented here too, with several Spectacled and a single Black-faced showing well for us. Surely our most prized sighting of the morning though was furnished when we located a Noisy Pitta hopping along the edge of the entrance road. Most unlike the many often extremely difficult to see species of Pitta that lurk in the dense jungles of Asia and Africa, the two Australian species can be confiding. Happily, they don’t make up for that lapse in proper Pitta behavior by being drab, as the Noisy Pitta is a study of buff, green, blue, black and red. We were able to watch a pair of these handsome birds at length as they dug around in the leaf litter on the road edge before turning our attention to the outdoor patio and our breakfasts, wonderfully prepared by our hosts at the park. As usual our meal was accompanied by a nice array of wildlife, from bright little flocks of Red-browed Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins at the feeders, a shuffling Pacific Emerald Dove in the leaf litter and even a laconic Boyd’s Forest Dragon that was sitting on a patio-side sapling. Although they are relatively common in the wet tropics this generally arboreal lizard can be quite hard to spot as they remain motionless for long periods of time. With colourful scales, a large crest and placid demeanor it’s one of the signature species of the rainforest here. It was surely the most excellent collection of breakfast companions one could want.

For the rest of the morning we investigated the recently improved road that winds up to near the summit of Mt. Lewis. Protected as part of the wet tropics of Queensland bioregion the road now gives access to the wet heavily vegetated uplands above 900m that are difficult to access elsewhere in the tablelands. This upper elevation forest serves as a refugia for a host of rainforest species that were likely more widespread when the region was wetter and connected to New Guinea during the last ice age. We stopped first in the lower stretches of the road, at a road crossing of a tranquil creek that had thick stands of seeding grasses along the banks. Red-browed Finches and Silvereye were coming in to drink, perfectly illuminated by the morning sun, while a bit further back in the woods we spied sprightly Spectacled Monarchs. A bit further along we stopped when 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. We walked into the woods to get closer and were soon able to locate a half-made bower on a cleared patch of the forest floor. This individual appeared to be just starting up for the season, and although we could hear it constantly chuckling from the nearby understory we managed only brief perched views. While in the area though we were able to coax a pair of Fernwren up the slope towards us. These cryptic and largely terrestrial thornbills are always rather tricky to see well, but this pair circled around even perched up on a large buttress root in front of us. A flashy Rufous Fantail appeared here as well, bouncing around the group as it foraged at eye level.

At the top of the road we stopped in a small clearing in the forest where we found a Barred Cuckooshrike atop a bare tree, a pair of Brown Cuckoo-Doves in a short fruiting tree and some passing Australian Swiftlets. We walked a short distance up a trail that leads towards the upper ridge of the mountain range, surrounded by quite tall trees, wonderfully thick cycads and a reasonable chorus of birds (especially as it was by now late morning). Along the trail we found a half-dozen Topknot Pigeons loafing in the canopy, providing much better views than that of the previous two days when they were mere flyovers. It’s a sophisticated bird, large and silvery grey, with a red bill, and odd bouffant hairdo with a swept back chestnut crest. Some Spotted Catbirds played hide and seek in the canopy, but eventually showed extremely well as they sat on adjacent branches loudly mewing to one another, doubtless discussing the latest news on fruit futures. A few folk walked a bit further up the trail, finding a pair of Atherton Scrubwrens, here of the more yellowish northern subspecies that seems quite different to those on the southern tablelands. In the heat of the day the resident Chowchillas were unfortunately quiet, and despite a thorough search of an open patch of understory we couldn’t track them down. We headed down the hill and a bit north for lunch at a local roadhouse. Though there was only the sole employee working it took a remarkably short time for her to prepare the various meat pies, sandwiches, salads and coffees that we ordered. While enjoying our repast we noticed a busy female Olive-backed Sunbird putting the finishing touches on her dangling nest under the back patio roof (and right over the tables). It was great to be able to watch her from such close range as she brought in feathers and tiny strips of paperbark to line the inside of the nest.

Most of this year’s participants opted to take the afternoon off to enjoy the ambience of Kingfisher park, catching up on laundry or photo editing or just sitting by the creek or feeders to witness birds coming in to drink or bathe. The group that began the trip in Cairns however elected to go out to the Northwest of Kingfisher Park and into the drier, more open forests that occur as you move north or west from the main Atherton Tablelands. A few wetlands along the road held some very interesting birds. As we passed through a notably drier Eucalypt savannah forest we stopped to admire a perched Blue-winged Kookaburra that was sitting on a roadside tree. Seemingly larger than their Laughing Kookaburra cousins these dramatic kingfishers with their baleful yellow eyes, huge head and massive bill are quite impressive. As they are largely confined to dry forest in tropical Australia our itinerary for the Eastern tour barely gets into their range, and we were glad that this one was so cooperative for us as it turned out to be our only sighting for the eastern tour. 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. Some flowering trees were hosting a large number of Little and Noisy Friarbirds, as well as both White-bellied and Black-faced Cuckooshrikes. As we drove slowly back through the grasslands we stopped to admire perched Australian Kestrels and a Brown Falcon, and teased out a female Red-backed Fairywren and a wonderfully bright Golden-headed Cisticola from the grassy verge.

We continued a bit further north, to the outpost town of Mount Carbine, which acts as the gateway to the wilds of the Cape York Peninsula, and the Peninsula development road which stretches a further 920KM north to the tip of the country. Here, on a dusty sports oval, we spotted a few foraging Agile Wallabies, and while watching them hop about the lawn we noticed a pair of plovers tucked in the shade. They proved to be Banded Lapwing, an attractive species with a yellow bill and eyering, red loral spot, broad white eyebrow and black face, crown and breast bib. It’s a largely arid land nomad, and the birds proved to be a local rarity, apparently not having occurred in the immediate region for almost twenty years!

After leaving Mount Carbine we stopped back in at the beginning of the Maryfarms road, where we soon noticed several Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos slowly flapping along in front of a short stretch of trees. To our delight, they landed near the dam and were soon joined by several companions. 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. We watched the birds for some time as they occasionally flew from tree to tree, flashing their crimson or yellow (depending upon their sex) tail feathers, and watching a couple more Bustards striding around in the now cooler temperatures of the late afternoon. Eventually we left the cockatoos and started back to Kingfisher Park for dinner. After dinner a few participants opted for a short walk around the grounds, where we spotlighted some foraging Spectacled Flying-Foxes that were devouring the quandong fruit in the canopy. A couple of Red-legged Pademelons (a small wallaby) 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). Perhaps the most interesting mammal though was a small rodent that we found as it was scampering across the short grass. We cut ahead of it and it ducked into a bit of cover under one of the fruit trees, putting its head under a leaf in a fairly ineffective game of hide and seek. With some consultation we identified it as a Fawn-footed Melomys.

Our last morning at Kingfisher was quite productive. We again met before breakfast, this time driving a short distance away to a small side road in Julatten, where a couple of small ponds held our attention for much of the early morning. At the first, a larger pond with a vegetated island and lots of floating lilies we found a small flock of Wandering Whistling-Ducks sleeping along the bank. A large dead tree in front of the pond hosted a trio of Forest Kingfishers, and then, a bit later, a singing Olive-backed Oriole, our first for the trip. At the back pond though we found conditions to be perfect, with the lower water levels creating lots of open patches in the reedbeds. We carefully scanned the margins and picked out a brightly marked Buff-banded Rail, and two White-browed Crakes that were working the open patches of mud. Unlike most rails these birds seemed oblivious to the fact that they were clearly visible, with the White-browed in particular really posing well for photos. With such quick luck we decided to try for a more retiring species, and with quite a bit of patience were successful in spotting a pair of Spotless Crakes as they repeatedly crossed small open patches between reed clumps. It’s an elegantly dressed rail, jet black with a bright red eye and legs and one that is generally much tougher to see. Our luck at this pond was still going strong though, as we picked out a flock of Brown Quail coming in to drink, a couple of Mistletoebirds in the tree above the pond and spotted a male Australian Hobby that flew over, scattering the Pacific Black Ducks as it passed by. Just before leaving we found a Reed Warbler in the thicker stands of reeds. As of the time of this writing the identification of this bird is still in question, with some of the features and the scraps of vocalizations that we heard possibly favoring an early arriving migrant Oriental Reed-Warbler rather than the much more expected Australian. It is a very difficult field ID, with most (if not all) accepted records of Orientals in Australia coming from birds in hand.

After returning to Kingfisher Park for breakfast, this time with the company of a 2.5-meter long Scrub Python that was sunning on some large logs near the office we packed up and started the drive towards Kuranda. An experimental stop on a backroad in Julatten produced our hoped for Lovely Fairywrens at an incredible speed, as no fewer than six birds popped up immediately after we parked. This is a generally scarce species, and one that we actually missed entirely last year. The birds were initially quite high in the trees, seemingly atypical for fairywrens, but they stayed nearby and dropped down in front of us for some time, showing quite well for all. 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).

A roadside stop at the man-made Lake Mitchell allowed us to scan the verdant freshwater marshes that cover most of the southern end of the lake. Stately Black Swans were paddling around in the calm waters in the distance. The marshier sections of the lake held our first Green Pygmy-Geese; a small goose endemic to Australia that has a bright emerald green, black, white and grey plumage. A pair of vocal Torresian Crows passed through the trees along the lake, providing our only sighting of this species for our time around the tablelands.

Generally on this day of the tour we depart Kingfisher Park fairly early, to put us in place at the Cassowary House, run by Sue and Phil Gregory in time for the customary mid-morning visit from their male Cassowary. With the rough summer season of 2019 though many birds in the area had shifted their breeding, and many of the trees and flowers were off their normal cycle. In corresponding with Sue we determined that our best chance would likely be in later afternoon, so instead of making our way directly to Kuranda we took our time, stopping in at the beautiful Davies Creek. This rock-lined shallow creek winds through rolling hills covered in drier Eucalypt forest. The water is crystal clear and inviting (and indeed several of us had a quick dip during our visit) and the perennial flow supports a dense strip of riparian vegetation. Upon our arrival in the carpark the first birds that we heard were, amazingly, Varied Sittella. Sittellas are akin to our nuthatches, but with needle like orange bills and legs. Although they are widespread in Australia it’s a species that is generally scarce and unpredictable in occurrence in any given area, and one that we usually don’t see on the Eastern leg of the tours. The subspecies in north Queensland is heavily streaked, and the male has a full black hood. We watched them for a while as they busily foraged in the higher trees around the carpark before we felt the pull of the water drawing us down to the rocky shelves along the creek. Here we picked out a pair of perched Sacred Kingfishers that were quietly sitting above the shaded water, doubtless staring down at the many Australian Rainbowfish that were schooling in the deeper pools. This area has been productive in the past for White-browed Robin, a generally scarce and often fairly secretive species that we normally do not target on the tour. Our luck held though, and soon after starting to walk down the creek we found a cooperative Robin perched just overhead, showing off its grey, black and white plumage to good effect. This sighting was only the second in a decade of tours for us, a true bonus bird brought to us by the tardy Cassowary. As we started to drive out of the park we stopped to admire a small group of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos perched in some roadside trees. Seeing them at such a close range was wonderful, and when several other cars stopped to watch the birds causing them to take off in a whirl of black and crimson I suspect some long lingering memories were created.

We enjoyed lunch in the old part of Kuranda, a bit removed from the crush of new tourist-oriented businesses that crowd the main street near the skytrain which brings people up from the Cairns lowlands. Several participants mentioned that the burgers here were among the best they had ever had, and the calling Common Cicadabird that flew over the patio deck twice added the perfect side dish. A quick phone check with Cassowary house revealed that their birds were still a now show for the day so we headed down to a paved walking trail that winds along the Barron River, just out of town. Here we picked out several Large-billed Gerygone and one perky Fairy Gerygone that seemed intent on chasing each other around in an open tree over the path. We scanned the far bank of the river for Freshwater Crocodile without success, but some sunning Northern Yellow-faced and Kreft’s River Turtles were a decent consolation. As by now our available time was limited we elected to head to Cassowary House in the hopes that the birds might come in at the appointed 4-430 pm timeframe. We stopped a few times along Black Mountain Rd, finding a nice array of dragonflies on the forested creeks. Even for participants with limited interest in insects, with names like Golden-fronted Riverdamsel and Sapphire Rockmaster it’s hard not to look at dragonflies. It soon became clear that our appointed birds were not to be on this day. Sue told us that the male was currently on eggs (normally the chicks are already a few weeks old during the time of our visit), and their female bird was off gallivanting with a new partner and thus was coming in only sporadically. We decided that for our final afternoon around Cairns in two days’ time we would make a second attempt at the species at another site along the coast. It’s always a bit disappointing to miss a major target bird, but our dallying netted a suite of interesting birds such as Spotless and White-browed Crake, Lovely Fairywren, Varied Sittella and White-browed Robin (many of which we would not have seen had we driven straight down to Kuranda) and our back-up plan seemed to have an excellent chance of success. We pushed on north along the coastal highway on what is a stunning drive. The road winds right along the coast, with alternating rocky and sandy beaches, sparkling blue water and small offshore reefs, and mountains covered with forests in the distance. We arrived to our comfortable bed and breakfast in Daintree in the early evening, ready for dinner and a rest before our excursion the following morning out on the Daintree River.

The next day we set out on a boat trip onto the Daintree 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. After a brief introduction Murray took us upstream to take advantage of the very low tide which had resulted in some large sand bars along the river’s edge. Along the way he pointed out some of the effects of the gigantic floods of this past January, 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 (apparently they had recently commenced nesting and were being quite secretive), we did stop to admire a family group of Black-fronted Dotterels, a swimming Keelback (a bright yellow snake with a flattened tail designed to help it swim), a trio of locally scarce Maned Ducks, and a nice mix of herons including a Striated and a Little Egret. In a nearby strip of reeds with exposed muddy patches at their bases due to the tide we picked out a Latham’s Snipe that was foraging more or less in the open which Murray claimed to be the first of the year. Not too far downstream of the snipe we stopped to admire a pair of impossibly blue Azure Kingfishers, a small bicolored orange and blue species that possesses an oversized bill for its size. The pair allowed us quite close approach in the boat, enabling the photographers in the group to capture them as they sat quietly above the water before shooting off along the bank like blue Will o’ the Wisps.

With the low tide we had high hopes of finding one of the large male Estuarine Crocodiles that frequent the river. Large males can grow to an almost mind-boggling 7m, and each territorial male on the Daintree claims 2-4 kilometers of river, shared by whichever females take a liking to him and smaller crocodiles that he doesn’t consider a threat. Often in the spring the cooler weather causes the crocs to come out onto the exposed banks to sun, but perhaps due to the higher than usual water temperatures we found the sand banks to be devoid of reptilian royalty. We did however find a 4-meter male slowly cruising along the bank. With languid swishes of its tail it passed us by with a vaguely unsettling stare. Our attentions were diverted just after it passed by a fruiting tree above the bank that was hosting a secretive Pacific Koel, and briefly, a perched Superb Fruit-Dove. Just before turning up Barratt Creek we paused to watch a flock of Australian Swiflets coming down to drink, repeatedly shooting past us just a few feet away from the boat.

The creek sits in a more brackish environment, with dozens of species of mangroves lining the banks. We quietly motored up the creek using the nearly silent electric outboard that Murray had recently purchased. A few bends of the river later and we were soon admiring perky pairs of Shining Flycatchers along the bank, displaying their amazingly disparate male and female plumages as they engaged in a rigorous territorial dispute. A bit further upstream we found our main avian target of the cruise, with two Little Kingfishers tucked in under some overhanging branches. This is a seriously small deep navy blue and starched white bird, likely only one third the weight of an Azure Kingfisher. Although they are resident on the river conditions have to be perfect (tide level, boat size and breeding cycle wise) to have a good chance at locating one. It had actually been several years since we had been successful, making this sighting an extra-special one for the leaders. 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 several Black Butcherbirds in the mangroves. Graceful and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters were coming in to bathe along the creek, providing another opportunity for learning to distinguish their characteristic calls.

On the way back towards the boat dock we spent some time looking intently for perched Papuan Frogmouths. Murray generally keeps close tabs on them on this stretch of the river, and until two weeks before our visit knew where four pairs of birds were roosting. Usually they are on eggs during our visit, but this year they were a bit earlier in their nesting cycle and had recently all vanished from their roosting sites, as they undergo a two-three week “honeymoon” before settling down about 20-50m from their non-breeding roost sites. We cruised back and forth along one likely stretch, and on the third pass Murray, using his unsurpassed knowledge of the breeding biology of the species, picked out a bird sitting on a newly constructed nest. It was nearly invisible, with just the undertail showing below a fork in the tree. Happily though, its partner was sitting just a few meters away, affording much better views. This huge bird, with a massive head, thick bill, long whiskers and eyelashes and big red eyes resembles more a shaggy muppet than a bird, and is truly a species to remember.

Once back in Daintree village we ate breakfast at the local coffee shop, packed up and then stared to drive south, with plans to go well past Cairns to look for Southern Cassowaries on a sandy stretch of beach near Etty Bay. Although it was to be a longer than normal drive we did make a few stops along the way. We stopped at a couple of Barramundi Farms near Wonga Beach where some of the fish paddocks were nearly dry and were attracting migrant Sharp-tailed Sandpipers Sandpipers, red-necked Stints and good numbers of Pied Stilts and Masked Lapwings. Our first Great Crested Terns were flying over the ponds and in the distance we could see Brahminy, Black and Whistling Kites circling over the trees. We had lunch just south of Cairns, accompanied by a hunting Brown Goshawk that were being chased by a procession of songbirds, with one particularly aggressive Willie Wagtail actually repeatedly hitting the hawks back in flight. Just past the small city of Innisfail we turned towards the coast, crossing over a low set of forested hills before dropping down at a small but very pretty white sand beach at Etty Bay. As we neared the coast we started seen some helpful signs that raised our expectations. Every 100m or so there would be a placard proclaiming Cassowary Crossing, slow down for our Cassowaries, no-dog Zone, we love our birds etc. Sure enough just before reaching the car park we spotted a juvenile Cassowary that was walking along the road edge. We parked and walked back up the road for a closer look at the nearly 4-foot tall brownish youngster. The beach serves as a territorial boundary between two female birds, with several adult males and a few young around as well. This group of birds has become used to gawking humans, and often the birds even come out onto the sand beach to forage early and late in the day. Soon after we arrived an adult appeared from behind some of the buildings and then proceeded to walk the length of the beach at an impressive pace, ignoring our clicking shutters and stares as it passed. 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. After our disappointing miss a few days prior at Cassowary House we were elated with our sightings here. We spent a bit of time just birding around the beach area, finding some photogenic Laughing Kookaburras, a passing White-bellied Sea-Eagle and some postcard worthy scenery. The adult Cassowary eventually returned for a second view, after it chased the younger bird off into the woods, and once our camera cards were full we started the hour long drive back north to Cairns, where we celebrated our good fortunes over dinner.

An early flight to Brisbane the next day brought us to the third largest city in Australia at the convenient hour of 8:00am. This year we opted to fly up to Hervey Bay rather than drive to cut down on the hours in the van and to free up more time for birding the very rich Fraser Coast. After some flight delays at the airport and an odd routing that took us well out over the Pacific to avoid some weather north of Brisbane we arrived in Hervey Bay at 1pm, roughly 2 hours later than scheduled. Once we gathered up our luggage and secured our new chariots we drove about fifteen minutes to a café at the base of the impressively long pier on the Hervey Bay esplanade. Here we accomplished the much-appreciated double play of some excellent birds and an excellent lunch. While waiting for our food we watched our first (but certainly not last) Noisy Miners patrolling the grounds. Crested Pigeons were courting on the lawn, with the male repeatedly fanning his tail and bobbing frantically to the seemingly nonplussed female. Eastern Ospreys were soaring along the sandy coastline, and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets were chattering away in the flowering trees above us. A short walk out the nearly kilometer long pier allowed us to spot our first Brown Booby and Caspian Tern of the trip as they soared around over the end of the pier (where a busy ball of fishermen were potentially throwing back their smaller catches).

In the mid-afternoon we drove down to Maryborough, a small but bustling town that is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of Helen Goff, the author of the Mary Poppins series of books. In fact, the local city council recently replaced several of the pedestrian crossing signals around downtown with a Mary Poppins outline complete with an umbrella rather than the usual (and much more boring) male stick man. We took a short break and then most of the group met up for a short afternoon of birding some coastal spots along the Great Sandy Straight. The Fraser coast region is defined by the presence of the huge Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, which sits just a little offshore to the east of the mainland. A fairly narrow channel winds around the inner shore of the island. Although tidal and largely saline there are dozens of small rivers that flow into the straight from the mainland, creating an ever-changing mix of sand bars, mudflats and mangrove atolls. The entire region is a RAMSAR designated shorebird site, and collectively the area hosts tens of thousands of migrant waders through the southern hemisphere summer, as well as thousands more that stop by on their way to and from sites further south. As we neared the coast at our first stop in Maaroom we stopped to admire our first huge Eastern Grey Kangaroos that were along the road, likely trying to stay a bit drier than they would if back in the very flooded bush. This is the second largest extant Macropod in the world, with large males standing over six feet tall and weighing almost 150lbs. One of the females had a quite old joey next to her and when we stopped to take a closer look the young animal hid by using the time honoured technique purportedly preferred by ostriches; sticking his head in the proverbial sand (in this case in his mother’s pouch). Around the tiny hamlet of Maarooom we actually saw more kangaroos than people, including a particularly large male that was grazing on the lawn of one of the houses. We parked at the end of the road and within just a few feet of the car were happy to spotted a bunch of Australasian Figbirds (here of the southern and much greener subspecies), two Masked Lapwings (also here of the southern subspecies, which is substantially different from the northern birds and may well be split in the future), and spent a bit of time unsuccessfully tracking down a calling but distant Mangrove Honeyeater. We then turned our attention to the beach, and since the tide was well out during our visit, there were a good number of waders, including many Far Eastern Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Terek Sandpipers and Pied Stilt scurrying across the exposed muddy beach. With some judicious scanning, we picked out a few Red-necked Stint, Marsh Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler and Great Knot, and also our only Red-necked Avocet of the trip. We walked out onto the sand and after admiring a few pairs of quite approachable Red-capped Plovers made our way out to a small patch of mangroves where we soon found a pair of very cooperative Mangrove Gerygones that perched on the small mangrove roots nearly at our feet.

Returning to the carpark we found a fruiting fig that was being visited by two Pacific Koels. After several flight views or distant calling birds it was great to finally get to study these large cuckoos at close range. Or at least we thought them to be large, until several truly massive Channel-billed Cuckoos joined them in the fruiting tree; looking like some sort of cross between a toucan and a falcon as they swept overhead. A really impressive storm front came upon us quite quickly, proving the somewhat colourful local man who had warned us about the impending storm correct. A rolling, and roiling dark line of clouds came at us from the south, with obvious hard rain at its heels. Just before we retreated from the impending deluge we scoped a Pale-headed Rosella that was perched in a distant tree, and had an opportunity to study a Bar-tailed Godwit at an incredibly close range. As the day drew to a close we returned to Maryborough, somehow staying ahead of the rain and quite content with our birdlist for what was essentially a travel day, and very much looking forward to our scheduled trip out to the Great Barrier 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 aircraft 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. 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 she had to compete with the nearly hand tamed Buff-banded Rails, and dozens of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies that were simply everywhere that we looked and completely untroubled by our presence.

Once properly oriented we set out on a small loop walk around the northern half of the island, where we picked out a Tawny Grassbird along the airstrip, about a dozen Pacific Golden-Plovers (several of which were still partly in their dapper breeding plumage) and a seemingly uncountable number of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies. Most seabird colonies around the tropics are largely unvegetated, and the visiting birder has to search through Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies in the hopes of finding just one Bridled or Black. Here we found the experience reversed, and with some careful searching we noted good numbers of Brown Noddies tucked into the low shrubs along the beach and just a scarce handful of Sooty Terns among the masses. The island possesses and endemic subspecies of Silvereye, and we were able to see several of these large and distinctively coloured birds as we walked the small paths that wind through the forested half of the island. Dubbed the “Capricorn” Silvereye, this form is endemic to a handful of islands along the Great Barrier Reef, and given the propensity for island-based endemism of white-eyes may well deserve full species status. Along the north beach we were surprised 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 100 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 small Sternula tern in winter plumage that we, after consultation with a few tern experts have identified as a Little Tern, which seems to be the first record for the island. Perhaps the best bird of our first walk was the adult and chick Red-tailed Tropicbird that we found on a nest near one of the cabins. 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 4m distance from the nest sight our views were superlative, with the adult birds’ namesake tail streamer curled up and over its back as it sat in the shade of a tree next to its mostly grown chick.

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. As no one in our party wanted to snorkel off the boat we were able to go out a bit farther in the boat than usual, visiting a shallow area that was teeming with corals and fish. Among the nearly 45 species of fish identified we also picked out two small Green Sea-Turtles, and a few colourful Giant Clams, and the crystal clear water allowed those who would not be out snorkeling later in the day to experience a bit of the underwater life out on the reef.

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, where many in the group were able to spot a very large Cowtailed Stingray just off the beach), or a lounge on one of the many beach chairs with a drink in hand. Many of the group kept birding though, and the walk out to the rocky point on the islands south shore kept us happily occupied for quite some time. The coralline shelf was hosting an array of waders including a nesting pair of Sooty Oystercatchers and several Tattlers. Just as we started to talk about the differences between the two species of Tattlers a Wandering flew by uttering its diagnostic stuttering flight call. With some scanning we were able to compare both species together, noting the darker overall plumage, and duller supercilium of the two Wanderings that we found. A few Lesser Sandplover, including one bird still retaining much of its attractive breeding plumage, a small flock of Bar-tailed Godwit, two Red-necked Stints and a couple of Pacific Reef-Herons rounded out the cast. Just a bit offshore a fishing vessel was moored for the day, and on the outriggers we found ten Brown Boobies loafing for much of the day. Unlike many years where we see a handful of Frigatebirds in the early morning and then none until the mid-afternoon this year there were a few dozen birds (mostly Greater, but with a handful of Lessers) lazily circling overhead for much of the day. Also overhead was the occasional White-bellied Sea-Eagle, who scattered the throngs of terns and noddies with every pass overhead. At one point in the afternoon two eagles appeared, and briefly engaged in a courtship ritual, spiraling down towards the island with locked talons in an incredible show of coordination and daring.

Just before we had to leave we made a repeat trip out to the coralline shelf on the island northeast side. Here we were surprised to spot a half-dozen or more Wedge-tailed Shearwaters flying just a bit offshore. Though this species breeds on the island the birds tend to be on land only at night, preferring to forage offshore during the day. Some of the deeper water snorkelers came back reporting a pair of Lesser Crested Terns out on the west beach, but our efforts to repeat their sighting came up empty. Several small Black-tipped Reef-Sharks were plying the shallow water around the coral shelf though, and we could follow their progress as the occasional caudal or dorsal fin poked up out of the water. We had a bit of a wander around, filling camera cards with point-blank images of Black Noddies, Buff-banded Rails and Bridled Terns and then 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. Indeed, at the end of the tour when we reminisced about the best parts of the tour it was this day on Lady Elliot Island (and the incredible Cassowary sighting) that won the day. In the late afternoon we flew back to the mainland, again with excellent visibility which enabled a couple of people to spot a Manta Ray that was swimming just off the end of the runway. Once back on the mainland we drove to Maryborough, and after a bit of down time ventured downtown to experience the memorable ambiance at the Veterans Club of Maryborough (once we cleared the security hurdle at the door).

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 by mid-morning we were well to the south which allowed us to stop for an excellent birding session at Inskip Point, a long sandy peninsula that juts out towards the huge world heritage designated Fraser Island. Along the entrance road to the point we stopped at a random location when we noticed a few birds zipping across the road. Walking into the mostly open forest we soon pinned down a pair of White-browed Scrubwren bouncing around in a thicket of branches. They eventually popped up and showed well, clearly differing from the spotted birds of the far west in their clean breasts. Just above the Scrubwren we found a busy group of Brown Thornbills chattering away, and a bit further into the woods we found some Grey Shrikethrush and a very cooperative female Rufous Whistler. At another stop a bit further out towards the point we found some flowering Banksia bushes and spent about a half-hour walking along the mangrove lined road. Here we located a large number of honeyeaters including our first (and only) Mangrove Honeyeaters; a close relative of the Varied Honeyeaters that we found in the mangroves at Cairns. Some White-cheeked Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were also enjoyed, which continued the ever- growing tally of honeyeater species for the tour. Also here were several “southern” Australian Figbirds, a much duller version of the bright northern birds. The parking lot at the point was crowded with Australians who were readying their various trucks for the sandy beach driving that is popular around the margins of the coast here. In the carpark though, despite the human activity we were able to see male Rufous and Golden Whistlers at close range, and to watch a horde of bee-eaters hawking insects over the roundabout.

We walked out through the forested point towards the sandy tip of the peninsula, looking for signs of the Black-breasted Buttonquail that sometimes frequent the understory. Like many other species of Buttonquail, they tend to leave characteristic scrapes in the ground, called platelets, as they forage through the leaf litter. Although we didn’t see much recent sign of their activity the walk was certainly worthwhile, with several large Sand Monitors lounging in patches of sunny ground, a couple of groups of Variegated Fairywrens in the understory (which given the recent split of the complex was a new bird for us, and our 9th species for the combined tour list). At the very tip of the forest we heard some loud yapping and tracked down three Beach Thick-Knee that were sheltering from the heat of the sun, 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. After spending a bit of time with this undisputed king of Australian waders we headed out to the sand to scan the beach. As the tide was quite high there weren’t that many birds about, but we did spot our first Pied Cormorants, and a nice mixed flock of waders including lots of Far Eastern Curlew displaying their comically oversized bills.

We departed Inskip in the late morning, starting the drive south to the Border Ranges; the mountains that straddle the Queensland/New South Wales Border. A lunch stop in the somewhat confusingly named town of Gympie gave us our first sitting Little Corellas and an unwelcome avian surprise in the form of a European Starling, which seem to be spreading north with the rapid urban development on the coast. A refueling stop proved interesting, with a host of police cars surrounding a fetching purple Lamborghini that was apparently being illegally driven by an underaged driver (who was grinning in the back of one of the police cars). Judging by the wide grins on the faces of the police, we suspected they were negotiating who would be the one to drive the impounded car back to the station. As we neared the bottom of the road up to O’Reilly’s we screeched to a halt when a group of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos were spotted in some roadside trees. A close relative of the Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, these huge but seemingly weightless birds are always a crowd pleaser. We watched them for a bit, as they stripped bark from some of the upper branches, pulling out what looked to be small grubs in the process.

After a stop to regroup and use the facilities in Canungra, accompanied by a host of honeyeaters, figbirds, friarbirds and lorikeets in the adjacent flowering trees we started the ascent into the park in the late afternoon, a perfect time to spot Pretty-faced and Red-necked Wallabies along the roadside clearings. The narrow and very windy road that snakes its way up into Lamington National Park is a bit of an experience in and of itself. As we climbed we could see the dramatic signs of the nearly apocalyptic fires that struck the area about a month prior to our visit. The Binna Burra Wilderness Lodge on the adjacent ridge of the mountains was completely consumed in the blaze, with even some of the high elevation rainforest burning (something that was generally considered virtually impossible under normal conditions). O’Reilly’s lodge was evacuated for a day or two so that the fire crews would not have to worry about having people trapped at the top of the road. Thankfully they were able to control the fires on the ridge leading up to the lodge, with patches burning but no wholesale clearing of the slopes. Already new grass growth was evident, though clearly the fires had been hot, and flames had reached the crowns of a lot of the larger trees. As we neared the lodge a sudden shift from dry and partially burnt Eucalypt forest to a temperate rainforest full of cycads, moss, some Nothophagus trees and ferns was a surprise to many. Once we arrived at the end of the road most participants headed directly to the open clearing below the check-in area where they were immediately surrounded by more Rosellas and King Parrots, as well as Red-browed Finches, White-browed Scrubwrens and Regent Bowerbirds that came in to see if the newcomers were bearing treats. O’Reilly’s is a beautiful eco-lodge, often noted as one of the premier ecolodges in the country. It directly abuts the beautiful MacPherson Range, and Lamington National Park. The original development in the area was a dairy farm operation started by the O’Reilly family in 1911. Four years later, Lamington National Park was created, effectively isolating the dairy farm from any future developments. Although the original guesthouse was built in 1926, road access was given in the 1970’s, and an eco-lodge model soon sprung up. Birds in the area here are exceedingly tame, with many gaudy species such as Regent and Satin Bowerbirds, Australian King Parrot, Crimson Rosella, Brush Turkey and Pied Currawong all coming in to feed from guests’ outstretched hands! We spent a bit of time enjoying taking photos of each other wearing the latest parrot fashion, and then headed off to our rooms, some taking the time to watch the sun set over the distant forested ridges of Lamington National Park or the Red-necked Pademelons that were hopping out of the forest edge and onto the trimmed lawns around the lodge buildings as dusk fell.

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 Golden Whistler! It’s not just the species here that make an impact, but the tameness and approachability that a visiting birder revels 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 here, akin to the Galapagos Islands in some respects. Near the lodge buildings we spent a bit of time watching a pair of Topknot Pigeons stripping fruit out of a large tree over the carpark. A bit down the road we picked up a pair of perched White-headed Pigeons (our only ones for the entire trip this year), and tracked down a calling Fan-tailed Cuckoo. We then walked down to the campground area, and after a bit of patience found a pair of Albert’s Lyrebirds quietly foraging in the understory a few meters off the trail. Perhaps because of the local drought, combined with the lack of aggression or hunting in the visiting hordes of people a male Lyrebird has become semi-acclimatized to the forests immediately around the lodge grounds. Starting in late 2013 a pair of birds has been seen with some frequency, sometimes even in the heavily developed parts of the lodge grounds, but they are not present every day. Seeing an Albert’s Lyrebird in the forest away from the lodge is quite a tricky proposition, as the birds tend not to be displaying during the time that we visit, and often run downslope when people are nearby. In 2019 two pairs were being regularly seen near the lodge grounds. With quite a bit of brush occluding our view the birds seemed to not mind our arrival, and soon after we located them the male started to perform a rhythmic dance for the nearby female. He would hold his ornate tail feathers up over his back and slowly prance in a balletic fashion with drooped wings while uttering a wide array of calls, whistles and cackles. Albert’s (and the closely related Superb) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the world’s oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife. As both species generally display and mate in the winter months seeing a displaying at such a late date in the year was a special experience. Eventually both birds walked up and crossed the path in front of us, before walking down the road edge and giving us truly excellent views. As if this wasn’t enough, from the same spot that we were standing and watching the Lyrebirds we spotted a singing Noisy Pitta that was perched high up in the mid-canopy, with its dazzling colours on full display in the morning sun. It was heady going to be sure, and definitely whetted our appetites for more birding locally, and for breakfast.

After an almost guilt-inducing breakfast buffet we set off down the park service trail above the lodge. Here, Large-billed, Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens hopped around us at incredibly close range, while pairs of Australian Logrunners scratched hopefully in the leaf litter just a few feet away. Eastern Yellow Robins were plentiful, often perching within touching range and looking at us inquisitively. Even normally retiring species like Eastern Whip-bird are 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 the trail to be quite active, with pairs of Brown Gerygones at every bend, and a near constant background din from Lewin’s Honeyeaters and Golden Whistlers. With some effort we tracked down several Green Catbirds that were foraging in the canopy among clusters of epiphytic plants. Their odd calls sound much like a cat being strangled (or at least what I would imagine that a cat being strangled sounds like), but although they were often calling and are fairly hefty birds it took some time to obtain scope views. Closely related to the Spotted Catbird that we saw repeatedly on the Atherton Tablelands, Green Catbird was our seventh (and final) species of bowerbird for the trip! Also on our walk around the lodge we looked at a well-developed Satin Bowerbird bower, decorated with the blue flotsam of humanity; bottle caps, straws, plastic bits, and pen tops. Although not perhaps as natural as rosella feathers and flowers, these plastic replacement parts are a part of these birds environment now, and they have the added benefit of not decomposing and needing constant replacement. Perhaps the morning highlight on the walk though was a beautiful male Rose Robin, that although it stayed at its customary canopy height, we were able to see quite well given the winding and sloped paved trails through the gardens giving us a good angle.

As it was just late morning when we returned to the lodge we decided to go a bit back down the road to do a short walk on the Python Rock Trail. 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. As we hoped we heard a couple of birds calling close to the trail, and were soon able to track one down as it fed in a large birdnest fern in the canopy. This beautiful bird of paradise has a reflective blue uppertail and bright blue-green throat, which were hard to make out against the sky, but even so it is an unmistakable bird. Recent research has shown that the Birds-of-Paradise likely evolved initially in Australia, retreating to the humid forests of New Guinea as the country began to dry out and Australian rainforest patches shrank. Although the Paradise Riflebird is now the most southerly-distributed species of BoP it is quite probable that a hundred thousand years ago there were many species present in the mountains of southern Queensland.

After lunch and a siesta, we spent the late afternoon a few kilometers downslope, birding in some drier more open forest on the lower slopes of the mountains. In a patch of open Eucalyptus forest along a shallow ridge we found the wind surprisingly strong and cold, several degrees lower than the sunny flats around the lodge. This made the birding a bit challenging, but we persevered and 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. 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 Red-browed a pair of White-throated Treecreepers arrived as well, with half the group getting on each species. Thankfully the White-throated pair left, and the Red-broweds lingered for a while, clambering about on a selection of nearby trunks before eventually disappearing downslope. Given our success and the winds we decided to head a bit further down the road, hoping to get over to the calmer side of the ridge.

We stopped at a wide clearing along the road that was once a gravel quarry. Usually a small marshy pond persists here, but with the fire damage that swept through the area, and the drought we found the pond dry. Some local rangers had put up a small plastic swimming pool and several pots full of water near the mostly dry pond to provide the local frogs with some refuge. Birds were using the proffered water as well, with Yellow-faced and Lewin’s Honeyeaters, Gray Fantails and Red-browed Finches coming in to drink. While birding the clearing we could hear the unmistakable ringing calls of a group of Bell Miners coming from down the trail. This colony has been established for only a few years, and even though the trees were leafless and the understory mostly charred the birds were persisting in the taller trees that retained a little bit of leaves. These olive-green honeyeaters, with bright orange legs and bill, and loud pinging calls are often extremely frustrating to see well as they call from the mid to upper canopy. A colonial, cooperatively breeding species that specializes on feeding on small scale insects called Lerps, Bell Miners are aggressive towards competitive species, chasing other species out of their large colony sites. This makes them effectively farmers of the lerps, a somewhat unique arrangement.

In the late afternoon we returned to the lodge for an early dinner where we were joined at the restaurant by a pair of cute Short-eared Possums that were happily munching on some fruit at the bird tables. After dinner we left the lodge on foot, quickly finding a couple of active Common Ringtail Possums crashing about in the trees, and some Red-necked Pademelons hopping around on the lawn. The conditions for night birding were perfect, with a clear sky, warm temperatures and calm winds. Not too far from the lodge buildings we could hear a calling Southern Boobook just a bit into the forest. It took a little bit of patience and some repositioning, but we eventually were rewarded with very close views of the bird as it sat on a mid-story branch quietly croaking, with a puffed-out throat and large seemingly curious eyes. A bit further down the road we stopped near a small creekline, where we heard a response from a Marbled Frogmouth in the distance. Generally this species is reluctant to move in response to playback, but this individual flew in winderfully, perching in a perfect position opposite our bus. This is undoubtedly the most difficult species of Frogmouth to see in Australia, with a fairly restricted range and more retiring habits than the other two species.

For our last morning around O’Reilly’s we decided to make a special effort to look for the two species of Thrushes that can be found around the park. Bassian and Russet-tailed Thrushes are very similar looking birds, and, in fact, were only recognized to be different species a few decades ago, when it was realized that they have substantially different songs. In general, the Bassian Thrushes prefer the more humid rainforest along the ridgetops, while Russet-taileds occur lower on the mountain and often in generally more open forest. We set off once again along the border track, enjoying excellent views of several pairs of Logrunners, all three of the local Scrubwrens, the hand-tame Eastern Whipbirds and even a Brown Cuckoo-Dove that allowed us very close approach. After breakfast we tried a second time, and this time were thrilled to spot a thrush walking near the boardwalk in a patch of dense leaf litter. Its short tail, evenly toned barred rump and back, and lack of discernible white in the tail corners identified it as a Bassian Thrush. It’s always a bit more satisfying when a target bird is seen well after some effort, and this sighting was definitely an 11th hour find. All too soon we had to pack up, saying goodbye to the throngs of Rosellas and King Parrots (a few of which remained perched on our heads or open car doors till the final moments!).

As we headed downslope with the occasional stop for some road improvements we tried a couple of likely spots for Russet-tailed Thrush, a species that we had heard giving its simple evening song the night before. Although unsuccessful in that quest we did, at one stop, find a much rarer bird. It had been several years since our last sighting of White-eared Monarch on the tour, but since we were not too far away from where I had seen them in 2013 I decided to play a little tape. To our surprise a bird answered, flying in overhead, but staying frustratingly high in the canopy. It moved perches several times, allowing most of the participants a view before it melted back into the forest, heading downslope and out of sight.

As our flight out of the small Gold Coast airport was scheduled for early evening we were able to spend a bit of time birding at some sites around Canungra before heading towards the coast. We made a short stop at the picturesque Canungra Creek; a small and shallow creek that winds through town. We parked at a road crossing, and soon found that the black bean and grevillea trees that lined the banks were in flower and were attracting hordes of Rainbow Lorikeets, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Friarbirds. Amid the cacophony we heard the buzzing song of a Common Cicadabird, and with a bit of prompting were soon looking at this slaty-black cuckooshrike as it perched above the vans. On the creek we found a hunting White-faced Heron and a pair of dazzlingly blue Azure Kingfishers that were tucked under some overhanging branches and involved in what appeared to be some courtship feeding. The male had a quite good-sized fish and was flashing it around to the female, who eventually took it and flew off upstream in a blur of orange and blue. The non-bird diversity here was excellent, with views of Macquarie and Eastern Long-necked Turtle, a large Eastern Water Dragon, and a nice selection of damselflies and dragonflies.

We then headed a bit to the west of Canungra, getting just far enough inland to have access to a few species that we generally do not see on the tour. Near Beaudesert we stopped at a small forested dam where we found an encampment of Little Red Flying-Foxes (which make excellent picnic lunch companions). Here too, in some flowing Grevilleas we tracked down a pair of calling Striped Honeyeaters, a large and striking species with a rollicking voice. While searching amongst the flower clusters for lorikeets (which revealed themselves eventually to be Scaly-breasted) we were sidetracked by a flyover Little Eagle, somewhat amazingly the first sighting of this widespread species on our Eastern tour for over a decade! We then drove a bit to the south, passing through a procession of fairly swanky farm paddocks and horse properties before reaching a small roadside dam that was stuffed with waterbirds. Here we were thrilled to find a pair of Speckled Warblers (another write-in for the tour) foraging on the ground near the road. It’s a superbly patterned bird, with bold striping on the underparts and back, and a rusty crown. Alongside the “warblers” (really a species of thornbill) was a family group of Red-backed Fairywrens with a brilliantly coloured male, and a flock of Rainbow Bee-eaters hawking insects in the open canopy. In the late afternoon we completed the drive back up to the gold coast airport and flew south, leaving Queensland behind us as we arrived in Sydney in the evening.

We usually schedule our pelagic for the second full day around Sydney, but given the impending high winds in the forecast elected to conduct the pelagic trip on the first day. This proved an excellent decision, as by the mid-morning the seas were nearly flat, and the day out on the water was warm and comfortable, with no one on board feeling any effects from mal-de-mer. Our trusty commercial sport fishing boat left from the Rose Bay Ferry terminal early in the morning, with great views of the magnificent Sydney Harbour (including the Opera House and Harbour Bridge) as we left port. Just after passing through the somewhat narrow harbour mouth our first flocks of shearwaters began passing by, with many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters lingering behind the boat as we tossed out chum. Using their languid flight style as a base we soon worked out the quite different flight styles of Short-tailed and Fluttering Shearwaters (and for a lucky few one or two Hutton’s Shearater) as they zipped through the flock. With the relatively flat seas and calm winds a lot of birds were just sitting on the water, rather than working harder than usual to fly around in search of breakfast. It wasn’t until mid-morning that our first Albatross, an immature Shy, cruised by the boat to check out the chum line. This was the first albatross for many in the group, a sighting that called into mind the quote “I now below to a higher cult of mortals for I have seen the albatross” uttered by the American ornithologist Robert Cusham Murphy. We continued to motor out to deeper water, heading towards the continental shelf and a small seamount about 20 miles offshore, on the way attracting the attention of a couple of Campbell Albatrosses (a recent split from Black-browed). Both birds were adults, with orangey bills and striking yellow eyes, and they thankfully sat at close range to the boat for several minutes allowing us to really study them. Just before we restarted the engines a “real” Black-browed cruised by, giving us a respectable three albatross day.

Eventually we arrived at the seamount and cut the engines, chumming and drifting with the stiff current while birds came in to sit on the water near our stern, or to lazily fly around the boat. Soon enough we were watching Providence Petrels giving extended flight views as they cruised around, with a few individuals even sitting down on the increasingly calm water for even closer scrutiny. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels pattered on the chum slick behind us, with up to a half-dozen birds visible at a time. Perhaps even better than the pelagic birds here though was the incredible spectacle of hundreds of offshore Bottlenosed Dolphins that were playing all around the boat, leaping out of the water in the distance, and just generally putting on a show for us. These offshore dolphins are much more heavily bodied than the inshore version of bottlenosed, and are surely someday to be recognized as a different species. At one point a larger animal briefly surfaced, showing a large and blunt head with a tiny dorsal fin. We waited a while but it never reappeared. Some subsequent research seems to confirm our in the field impression that the animal was likely a Pygmy Sperm Whale, a species that is rarely encountered in the wild. The flat seas made the drift quite pleasant, and also facilitated our many sightings of Southern Mola (Ocean Sunfish), Bluebottles, and even a small manta ray! We arrived back at the dock at 4:30, and after tangling a bit with the Sydney traffic, which did allow for excellent people watching opportunities in this cosmopolitan city reached the hotel in time for a rest and dinner.

We spent our final full day exploring the large and wild Royal National Park, just a little south of metropolitan Sydney. The first National Park created in Australia (and second designated in the world), Royal encompasses 15000 hectares of coastal heath, dry forest, and patches of temperate rainforest in the valleys and boasts an amazing diversity of bird (and plant) life. Our local contact in Sydney lives close to the park, and has spent decades exploring the various sub habitats. Acting on his suggestion we spent the morning walking down Lady Carrington Drive, an old roadbed that follows a meandering stream and passes through patches of more humid forest. Though it was near the end of our nearly month-long tour through the country new bird species were still popping up throughout the morning. Our primary goal for the walk was to locate a Superb Lyrebird, and we managed to see two of these incredible birds, and hear several others giving rollicking and varied calls from the other side of the creek. Similar in size and overall habits to the Albert’s Lyrebirds that we saw around O’Reilly’s these Superbs are perhaps even better acoustic mimics, and also possess an even finer and more impressive tail. Generally wary and hard to see in the field the birds in Royal National Park are somewhat used to people and allow a closer approach. New Holland Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were common companions down the trail, soon becoming almost a distraction when they appeared in denser cover. 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 few Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos perched a bit upslope from the trail. We found these huge and impressive birds, with their bright yellow tail flashes, and mournful eerily gull-like calls utterly captivating, and were doubly thrilled on the walk back when their numbers swelled to a couple of dozen birds, perched right over the trail. Along the Hacking River we spotted loafing Macquarie Turtles, Water Dragons, and a nice mix of waterbirds including three cormorants, several perched Azure Kingfisher and lots of foraging Swamphens and Coots. It was a good stroll, managed mostly before the day became too hot, and one in which we were able to see a few new birds and bid a fond (almost) farewell to a host of birds that had become our near daily companions over the month.

As we returned to the trailhead in the late morning we decided to take a quick trip out to the stunning coastline of the park. Here, at the somewhat exotic sounding Wallamolla 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, and generally unspoilt. Near the trailhead we heard a quite unexpected Pilotbird singing from the dense heath, and with only a little effort were able to bring him close enough to see as it walked around under some large bushes and crawled up into a tangle of downed branches. This sighting was our first for Royal National Park, and only the second for the past decade of the tour. Pilotbirds are an odd and very poorly studied bird that is currently classified as an aberrant species of Australian Warbler (a family containing the Thornbills, Heathwrens, Scrubwrens and Gerygones), but likely is better regarded as allied with the Bristlebirds, or perhaps even better belonging in its own family. Leaving the bird behind we reached the coast and though it took a bit of searching a sharp-eyed participant eventually picked out a Rockwarbler foraging on the cliffs below us. 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. Looking out to sea behind the tiny Rockwarbler we could see a pair of passing Humpback Whales (an interesting combination of animals) that were slowly cruising south just offshore. A few Wedge-tailed and Short-tailed Shearwaters were flying by as well, at a much different angle than we had seen them from the boat. 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 nesting pair of Masked Lapwings that seemed intent on guarding the entire lawn as they constantly had to leave the cover of shade to chase an unwary human off the welcoming grass. As we finished lunch a Laughing Kookaburra who had been patiently sitting near the patio surveying the tables with an appraising air finally decided to strike. Swooping down just over our heads it made a beeline for a distant crowded table, executed a spectacular mid-air corner and grabbed a large hunk of sandwich from a little girl’s plate. To her credit, after the initial shock she started laughing and grinning wildly pointed at the bird who had landed back up on its high perch. 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 polishing off our meals 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 two large chicks as they napped in the shade of a small creekside tree. Their massive talons and baleful stares certainly made us believe that they are well named. A handsome and quite cooperative pair of Pacific Bazas were here as well, showing their short crests and banded bellies off to good effect. We then headed to a nearby public garden, where a fairly swanky wedding party had just wrapped up. Here, amid the glamorously dressed wedding guests and caterers 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 dozen or more handsome Chestnut Teal, happily with a few Grey Teal nearby for comparison. Although the dapper chestnut and green males are distinctive in their breeding plumage the females of these two closely related ducks are only subtlety different. Steve had one more treat in store for the day, as just down the road from his house he had recently located a roosting Tawny Frogmouth. We walked down the staircase that led to the small pocket park and were soon staring at a beautiful Tawny Frogmouths eye to eye. Although not quite as large or supercilious as their Papuan cousins Tawnies are still big birds, with an amazingly effective camouflage.

Our final birding stop for the day was quite close to our hotel, at a weedy little park just off the golf course, and in sight of the International runway. We found the trail to be choked with fruiting blackberry bushes, which were attracting a lot of birds. Most were exotic species (much like the blackberry itself), with flocks of European Starling, several Eurasian Blackbirds, and lots of House Sparrows. But a few native species were about as well, including particularly approachable Red-browed Finches and Silvereye. The small wetland pond held breeding Pied Stilts, with several half-grown and still fuzzy young. A little flock of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were there too, and in the reedy margins of the pond we enjoyed excellent views of both Tawny Grassbird and Golden-headed Cisticola. As we walked back to the buses we were happy to see a female Red-rumped Parrot feeding on the lawn, a species we do not generally encounter on the trip.

Some of the participants had early flights or a desire to check out downtown Sydney on the final morning of the tour (which officially ends just before lunch). The rest of us had one more morning for birding, and in looking over the potential new birds we decided on two possible directions for travel. I put it to a vote and a trip inland to the northwest of Sydney won out over a repeat visit to the coastal heathland of Royal National Park. This was actually a novel direction for the tour, and over the course of a few hours of birding we added two new species to the cumulative trip list, and six new species for this year’s trip. We spent the majority of the morning birding in the dry Castlereagh Nature Reserve, a nearly 500-hectare reserve that now protects a large patch of Cumberland Plain woodlands dominated by Ironbark, Woollybutt and Scribblybark Eucalyptus. Most of the native forest west of Sydney has been cleared for pasture or farmland (and is now being steadily converted into new housing), making Castlereagh and several adjacent blocks of forest locally important sites for woodland birds. Our principal birding hope here was to find some of the other species of Thornbills that frequent the area. Within just a few minutes of our arrival we had located a very busy pair of Striated Thornbill and a single chattering Yellow Thornbill along the trail. Although both species occur in Royal National Park we do not see them every trip. Later in the morning we found several Buff-rumped Thornbills (a write-in for the trip and the final of the local species) as well, making it quite a successful walk. Apart from the thornbill show, and nice views of many common woodland birds like Rufous Whistler, Scarlet Myzomela, Australian Raven and Variegated Fairywren the stroll revealed two excellent surprises. Perhaps due to the intense droughts inland we found this park to be absolutely stuffed with White-browed Woodswallows. This is perhaps the most striking woodswallow in the country, with a deep burgundy breast, ash-grey head and bold white eyebrow. A true nomad, flocks of White-broweds can appear almost anywhere in the country, following recent rains. We estimated several hundred birds were present in just the small corner of the reserve that we walked, so surely there would be many more over the entire park. Many of the birds appeared paired off and it certainly looked like they might be intent on breeding locally.

As we started to head back towards the bus a calling Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo stopped us in our tracks. Cuckoos had been in short supply this year all across the two tours, and this was actually only the second Horsfield’s that we had heard all month. Happily the bird rocketed in when we used a bit of tape, staying perched in a near perfect pose, with its emerald green back and broadly broken breast bands shining in the late morning sun. We were doubly thankful to the bird for stopping our return to the bus when a low flying raptor gave us a close pass, clearly showing the whitish head, boldly barred flight feathers and turned up tail corners that cinched the identification as a Square-tailed Kite. This is a thinly distributed bird over much of the country, and one that generally occurs over thicker or even closed canopy forests.

Our last half-day in the park saw us visiting the beautiful sandstone cliff ledges of the coast at Wattamolla in less windy conditions, where we really got to know New Holland Honeyeaters well, played hide and seek with a pair of Southern Emu-Wrens out in the coastal heath and found an endangered Heath Monitor sunning itself on a large boulder and our last new mammals of the trip; introduced Rusa Deer and a handsome Swamp Wallaby. Perhaps due to just bad luck, or perhaps due to the disturbance caused by a trail building project we did not connect with a Rockwarbler in its regular haunt along the cliff edge. Our views of a very inquisitive and uncharacteristically bold Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens that were seemingly content to run around almost underfoot provided a bit of consolation though. The roar of the surf below the cliffs, and passing groups of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters just added to the ambience. Then we left the park for a visit to the adjacent Heathcote National Park, just a bit inland from Royal. Here we walked down into a ravine that was filled with Grey Gums, and soon were watching several attractively marked Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, a species closely associated with this species of tree. Some cooperative Spotted Pardalotes and our first White-eared Honeyeaters livened up the walk as well, and the pitch of the slope kept our heart rates up a bit – perhaps a good strategy as many of the participants had lengthy flights ahead later that afternoon. Nearby we walked down an unused road along one of the park ridges and were able to locate our final (out of an amazing 33 species of honeyeater on the eastern tour, and 54 for the combined tours) species of honeyeater when several attractive Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters popped up in front of us as we walked across a powerline clearing. We walked out as far as a large exposed slab of sandstone, where Steve pointed out an array of pictographs created by the Dharawal people who used to inhabit the area. All too soon though it was time to pack up the binoculars and head to the airport as we wrapped up a fantastic 13-day tour through Queensland and coastal New South Wales.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 06 November 2019