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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Victoria and Tasmania

Plains-wanderer, Pardalotes, and Penguins

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The winter and spring of 2018 were especially dry, with much of northern Victoria and New South Wales experiencing a historic drought. Conditions in parts of the region were actually so dry that farmers were having to sell off their stock, and the national government was coordinating grain shipments into the area and farmers were simply letting fields lie fallow. These conditions certainly affected the birdlife. Waterbirds had enjoyed bumper breeding success in the wet years of 2016 and 2017, but the dry conditions of 2018 forced them to the coastal wetlands, concentrating them in truly impressive numbers. Many of the more nomadic species and some of the spring migrants were avoiding the drier parts of the country or delaying their migrations. Nevertheless we had a thoroughly enjoyable trip, with 284 species of birds and an impressive 21 species of mammals (both records for the trip). The tour passes through a remarkably varied terrain, from the stunning coastal headlands and white sand beaches along the southern coast, often with dense heath covering the coastal slopes to dry deciduous woodland, riverine forest and grass savannahs and the dense arid mallee scrub forests, endless agricultural fields and inland lakes, and the temperate rainforests and rocky intertidal zones of Tasmania. The breadth of habitats and diversity of backdrops brings with it a corresponding diversity of birds. During our final meal we reminisced about our favourite birds and places, and virtually every place was picked by at least one participant as a standout. The beauty of many of Australia’s birds cannot be overstated, with an embarrassment of rich and boldly coloured birds to choose from. Sprightly and jewel-like Fairy-Wrens, whose tiny bodies seem to define the colour blue were mentioned as favourites by many. But with birds like Powerful Owl, Superb Lyrebird, Regent Parrot, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, Mallee Emu-Wren, an impossible sight to replicate in the form of four species of crakes visible at the same time, elegant Hooded Plovers, striking Sooty Oystercatcher and a bewildering array of Honeyeaters to choose from the task of picking a favorite proved difficult for most. The mammals were superlative as well, with several sightings of Echidna, three Eastern Quolls, a sleeping Squirrel Gliders and a rarely seen Narrow-nosed Planigale among the best finds. I very much look forward to returning to this corner of Australia in 2020!

IN DETAIL: We met in the early afternoon of the first day for a pleasant couple of hours birding in the nearby Woodlands Historic Park. This afforded us an opportunity to get to know a few of the more common birds around Melbourne, as a bit of a primer for the first full days birding on day 2. Woodlands Historic Park is a state park preserving an old homestead site and tract of the most southerly Victorian grassy woodland open forest. As soon as we were out of the van new bird species began to appear. The greeting party included our first Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and an inquisitive Little Raven that flew in right to our van for a look. Gray Fantails danced around the shrubs and soon we picked out pairs of Red-rumped Parrots and some talkative Brown-headed Honeyeaters. It was actually difficult to decide where to look… “Do I watch the pair of Red-rumped Parrots that are foraging on the lawn or look up at the Australian Magpie perched just over – wait, look a Galah just flew in!” After a half hour or so we managed to leave the carpark and began to pick up smaller woodland birds. Small family groups of Superb Fairywrens proved quite common along the path, with the brilliantly blue and black males a definite hit. We tracked down a calling Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo and also found a perched Pallid Cuckoo making for an excellent start to our Australian cuckoo list! On our walk we spent some time looking for (and then eventually at) the Striated Paradalotes that were vocalizing from seemingly every tree. These jewel-like sprites, with brilliantly yellow throats and vents and elegantly streaked crowns are members of a very small endemic family related to the Thornbills and Scrubwrens. Rainbow Lorikeets, clad in a virtual color-wheel of reflective hues perched atop dead snags and mobs of curious Eastern Grey Kangaroos followed our progress around the trails.

Although most people might most associate parrots with the thick jungles of the Americas it is here in the more open forests of Australia that the family really shine. Pairs of the aptly named Crimson Rosella dressed in their carmine and blue feathers were perhaps outdone by several Eastern Rosellas nearby. These red, blue, green, white, and yellow birds look somewhat like they were designed by a group of schoolchildren with an imagination and full section of Crayola crayons. As the afternoon waned we moved to a different section of the park where we had some pleasantly close encounters with more Eastern Grey Kangaroos (even watching several females with large pouched young that were happily grazing on the short grass from the comforts of their furry and warm bedrooms). A small pond in the forest here was proving quite attractive to a number of birds, and we spent the last half-hour or so standing along the edge of the water and watching the show around us. Lots of Striated Pardalotes were scraping their preferred prey (small scale insects called Lerps) from the surrounding trees, and with them we picked out a pair of Varied Sitellas and a few Yellow-rumped Thornbills. Sittellas are akin to our nuthatches, and although widespread in Australia are nowhere common. The pond held our first waterfowl as well, with several Grey Teal and a handsome male Maned Duck tucked along the far bank. We also opened our raptor accounts when a curious Whistling Kite circled lazily overhead in the early evening sun. We reminisced about the day over a sumptuous dinner, going to bed with thoughts of glistening parrots, bounding Kangaroos, and the haunting songs of Australian Magpies – we had arrived in Australia indeed!

For our first full day of the trip we elected to set off early, arriving at the headlands at Point Addis a little past eight o’clock. This is a coastal bluff near the beginning of the world-famous Great Ocean Rd. We arrived to bright blue sky and sparkling sea, with mild spring temperatures and a few intrepid surfers coasting the swells below the point. Sprightly little Superb Fairywrens and our first Welcome Swallows and White-browed Scrubwrens greeted our arrival at the carpark. The star species of Point Addis though was definitely the incredibly cooperative Rufous Bristlebird that came out around the margins of the parking area, repeatedly foraging along the roadside edge and even crossing the paved carpark several times, swishing his oddly floppy tail around. Bristlebirds resemble an odd cross of a Laughingthrush and a Thrasher, and are one of the several ancient endemic passerine families that form the basal clade of the passerines. The three extant species are all range-restricted in coastal heathlands around Australia and are generally hard to see well. After our amazingly good views of the Bristlebird we turned our attentions out to sea. We soon picked out several passing White-capped Albatross, several of which were actually just loafing on the water in the mild weather. Although they were generally fairly far offshore the birds were close enough to pick out their horn coloured bills, light grey heads and white underwings with narrow black edges that confirmed the identification. Being able to watch a few of these huge mollymawks passing along the coast from the comfort of land and through a scope is a definite treat. We scanned the sea a bit more and were rewarded with a few Australasian Gannets, some sitting Great Cormorants and a vocal Little Penguin that was swimming close to shore and repeatedly uttering its barking call notes. A bit inland from the point we spent an enjoyable half hour wandering around in the coastal forests, where our attentions wandered from small carnivorous sundews on the forest floor to a nice mix of woodland birds. Brown, Striated and Buff-rumped Thornbills were all on display, enabling our first of many lessons on Thornbill identification (surely one of the more difficult groups of birds to identify for a visiting birder). We were also successful in tracking down the calling White-throated Treecreeper (yet another endemic family) and a pair of Spotted Pardalotes that were more cooperative than those of the previous afternoon.

Our main targets for the rest of the morning were all coastal heathland birds and with the general lack of wind we set off to a nearby patch of dense heath with high hopes. A pair of Southern Emu-Wrens were remarkably cooperative, with the male repeatedly perching up at close range providing excellent views. These charismatic little birds can be a real devil to see, but our views were superlative, with the long and loosely veined namesake tail feathers clearly on display. Also here our first (of many) New Holland Honeyeaters, wonderful views of a perched Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, a pair of Yellow-rumped Thornbills that were attacking their reflections in the mirrors on our van, and both Red and Little Wattlebirds. A nearby small pond held our first taste of waterbirds for the tour with several vaguely menacing Australasian Swamphens, and their smaller cousins; Eurasian Coots and Dusky Moorhen, as well as a single Hardhead (Australia’s answer to the more familiar Scaup or Pochards of the northern hemisphere). We took lunch at a local bakery along the coastal road, which provided a good introduction to the world of Australian meat pies and the intricacies of ordering Australian coffee, as well as views of our first Silver Gulls.

For the rest of the afternoon we birded around the huge Werribbee Treatment Plant site just a little south of Melbourne. This site combines a wide array of impoundments, open fields, coastal salt marsh and beaches and generally acts as a massive refugia for tens of thousands of waterbirds that can linger in the area for months or years as they wait for rainfall in the interior. In 2018 much of the country was under the influence of heavy droughts and high temperatures. The previous years had been wet inland, leading to excellent breeding conditions for a lot of waterbirds. With the drought now affecting inland ephemeral wetlands large numbers of birds had shifted back to the coast, making the ponds around Werribbee full of birds. Before arriving at the beginning of the ponds we stopped to admire several Banded Lapwings in a short grass paddock near the entrance. This attractive white, black, red and yellow plover is a nomadic species that is scarce throughout its range and one that occurs only sporadically around Melbourne. Once we reached the first pond we had a rapid introduction to the varied waterfowl of Australia. Pairs of stately Black Swans made a great example of how things in the land down under feel at once instantly familiar but at the same time simply bizarre. All black swans with candy apple red bills and bright white wings? Hordes of Grey and Chestnut Teal and Australian Shoveler crowded the shoreline that was also attracting herds of bright purple Swamphens. Waders were in remarkable abundance for this relatively early date in the spring. Migratory birds like Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints formed dense packs as they busily fed along sandy spits in the lake, replenishing their weakened bodies after their long migrations from Russia. Dozens of attractive Red-necked Avocets and a few striking Pied Stilts roamed the shallows, and we were thrilled to see a tight mass of Banded Stilts in the mix as well. The stilts are in a monotypic genus, falling somewhere between the “normal” Stilts and the Avocets. They are an attractive bird, with a bright white head and odd vest-like burgundy breast band and are also highly nomadic, breeding in the heart of the desert in ephemeral saline lakes and then wandering widely across much of southern and central Australia in search of good foraging grounds.

Other ponds throughout the afternoon revealed several other species of waterfowl including several dozen Blue-billed Ducks (a small stiff tailed species quite similar to a Ruddy Duck), a few Pink-eared Ducks and a single male Musk Duck. These loggerheaded birds with their stiff tails, heavy black bodies and huge dangling wattle are surely one of the oddest species of waterfowl on the planet. Along the dikes that form the impoundments we picked out up several little flocks of Zebra Finches, a recent colonizer to the coastal parts of Victoria, several Australian Pipits, dozens of Eurasian Skylark (in full and glorious, if geographically misplaced song), many attractive White-fronted Chats and a beautiful and imposing pair of huge Brolga that seemed oblivious to our presence. Fairy Martins, a sharply patterned small martin with a distinctive reddish crown and bright white rump flew along the roadsides and sat on the fences in front of us, often with Tree Martins and Welcome Swallows along for comparison. Raptors too were in evidence, with Whistling, Australian, and Black Kites, Swamp Harriers and Brown Falcon being admired in turn. One particularly memorable sighting was furnished by a large Red Fox that had attracted the attention of a female Brown Falcon and a Swamp Harrier (likely interested in the foxes recent kill that must have been tucked into the grass along the road). As we edged up on the scene all parties refused to budge, and we were afforded incredibly close up views of all three predators.

Perhaps the best area in the complex though was the small reedy marsh that we stopped at midway through the afternoon. The shallow water and exposed muddy pools were a perfect depth to attract rails and crakes. A quick stop just before we arrived at the reed bed allowed us to look at a roosting flock of Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills that were tucked in alongside the road. We briefly discussed just walking up to the reedbed but discretion won out and we elected to slowly drive up using the van as a makeshift blind. This proved an unbelievably good decision, as no sooner had we drawn even with the first of the small muddy pools we were looking at our first Australian Spotted Crakes as they foraged unconcernedly just feet from our vehicle. These medium sized dark crakes with their lightly spotted flanks, dull yellow legs and bill and brownish backs resemble the familiar Sora of the Americas and are often quite comfortable feeding in fairly open conditions near cover. While watching these birds (we counted about six individuals in the marsh) we soon picked out a couple of migrant Baillon’s Crakes also boldly foraging in the open. A small species that is brightly clad in tones of rust and pale silvery-grey Baillon’s are a scarce species through Australia, and more regular only far to the north. With two species in such rapid succession we became a bit greedy and decided to try a bit of playback for the generally reclusive Spotless Crake. Within a minute of trying we were amazed to see one of these jet black rails with its devilishly bright red eyes and legs stride out from the reeds to forage right in front of us. The show wasn’t quite over here though, as a colourful Buff-banded Rail chose to strut around in a drier section of the marsh to create a foursome of crakes. Buff-bandeds are a striking and large species, covered in fine barring and sporting a striking reddish and white striped head and buffy orange breast band. Due to the overly wet conditions of 2016 we found no crakes during the entire tour itinerary which made this almost instantaneous sweep of all the likely species all the more special.

We finished the day by birding along the coast, where we sifted through the masses of birds that were loafing along the sandy spits and rocky headlands of Port Phillip Bay. Among the flocks of Whiskered Terns we picked out several Great Crested Terns and a pair of diminutive Fairy Terns. Several Pied Oystercatchers, a few Red Knots and a small group of Bar-tailed Godwits rounded out our cast of shorebirds, while Great and Little Egrets, White-faced and Pacific Herons and many monstrous Australian Pelicans loafed nearby. While we teased through the flock of waders our attentions were often diverted by passing cormorants. Pied, Little Pied, and Great Cormorants all came through periodically, allowing us to compare their disparate shapes and plumages. As we drove out of the complex we paused to admire some perched up Crested Pigeons and a field full of grazing Eastern Grey Kangaroos that were nicely framed by the distant You Yangs mountain ranges and the rapidly reddening sky. We returned to the hotel after making a brief detour to drop of our local guide we enjoyed dinner and during the bird log discovered that we had seen an amazing 110 species for the day!

Day two found us departing for the Northeast of Melbourne to meet up with some Australian birders and old friends who had some excellent birds laid out for us at Banyule Flats. This small city park is part of a large area of protected land along the Yarra River, with Red Gum forest lining the muddy and swollen creek. Just out of the carpark we found our first Tawny Frogmouth sitting on a nest. These hulking and shaggy plumaged birds with their oversized heads and thick bills resemble some odd armless muppet, and they seem to embody a sense of zen that would make even Eeyore jealous. We saw an amazing three individuals along the riverbank, a testament to how thoroughly our friends had cased the area prior to our visit. Laughing Kookaburras, Grey Butcherbirds, Noisy Miners, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos kept the soundscape decidedly Australian as we walked down to the trail towards our main target for the day, a local pair of Powerful Owls. These huge owls seem to enjoy the suburban/forest interface, feasting on possums, and perhaps the occasional cat that thrive in the fire-suppressed and flowering-plant rich gardens. We enjoyed lengthy views of the pair of these impressively large owls as they napped in a tall tree in a shallow draw in the forest. Their massive talons and baleful stares certainly made us believe that they are well named, and the fact that the male was actually standing upon a half-eaten Ringtail Possum certainly added to their mystique.

For the rest of the morning we wandered along the river track stopping wherever bird activity dictated. Rainbow Lorikeets, Cockatoos, Pardalotes and Maned Ducks were all busily checking out potential nest cavities in the huge trees, allowing close approach and showing well as they basically ignored our passing. Along the trail we also enjoyed our first dazzlingly colourful Mistletoebirds, little flocks of chatty Silvereye, several vocal and impressive looking Pied Currawongs and a few perched Laughing Kookaburras. Near the end of our stroll we stopped to look at a small colony of Bell Miners that were guarding a group of trees along the path. 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. Our last stop before lunch was at a small wetland where we were able to see some breeding plumaged Hoary-headed Grebes and a pair of Pink-eared Ducks that were nesting in a provided nest box out in the middle of the wetland. In contrast to the birds from Weribbee the previous day these birds were close enough to actually see the small bright pink auricular spots that they are named after. A basking Eastern Side-necked Turtle was a nice find here too. We took lunch at a nearby café and then turned further north to visit another wetland complex in a successful chase for Freckled Ducks. The highly nomadic Freckled Duck is one of the more scarce waterfowl species in the country, and can be a difficult species to locate as they birds can move hundreds or even thousands of miles from year to year following the rains. At this small lake we counted twelve birds, all young birds perhaps indicating a good breeding season within the last few months. Along the muddy shores of the lake we picked out our first Black-fronted Dotterels (a small and brightly coloured wader with a pretty red eyering and bill, and almost purple shoulder bar).

As it was now mid-afternoon it was time to depart Melbourne and head a bit further East up the Yarra valley and into the well-forested Yarra Ranges. After quickly stopping at our hotel to set up dinner plans we set off for the nearby Maroondah Reservoir Park, a large greenspace with playgrounds and copses of shrubs below the huge Maroondah Dam. Here the birds are extremely habituated to people and we spent the first half hour just a few feet from the van, watching Sulphur-crested Cocaktoos, Little Corellas, Noisy Miners, Eastern and Crimson Rosellas and Common Bronzewings parading around on the lawns and sitting within arm’s reach. A saunter around the perimeter of the park revealed our main quarry for the morning as we found an active small Satin Bowerbird bower. Generally when birders think of bowerbirds or birds of paradise they think of New Guinea, but both bird families are represented in Australia as well. Rather than advertising their fitness through intricate song or flashy plumage (though the purplish-black males with their impossibly violet eyes have flashy plumage in spades) male Bowerbirds are the architects of the avian world. Carefully constructing a short runway bordered by walls of small sticks and ending in a wide flat mat lined with dried grass and straw these portly birds then decorate the mat with all manner of blue objects. Naturally a rare colour, blue used to be restricted to certain fruits or ephemeral flowers, and amassing and curating those hard to find objects would have made a Satin Bowerbirds job as an interior decorator difficult. These days however people have introduced all sorts of perennially blue objects that the male birds can collect to set their potential mates hearts aflutter. Bottle tops, drinking straws, bits of plastic bags and the odd peanut butter jar lid were carefully festooned around this bower. Frustratingly the male merely shot by us in flight, glowing like a dark purple black football in the afternoon sun, but the views of the actual bower were excellent and instructive. We closed the day back amongst the tame throngs of parrots and pigeons, and then headed to our hotel for dinner.

Day three of the tour was centered around the Yarra Ranges, and we spent the day exploring various access points to the wet Mountain Ash and Tree Fern covered slopes of the mountains. Our day opened with a pre-breakfast walk along the road that leads to Badger Weir. A cyclone back in the spring of 2016 ravaged the area and the picnic grounds were still heavily damaged and closed to the public. With the light drizzle and heavy cloud cover combined with knocked over trees and tangled understory the scene was quite atmospheric. Despite the less than ideal conditions though we had an enjoyable hour or so in the area. A large cluster of Corellas and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were screaming along the ridge and seemed to be quite upset. A quick check revealed that one of the distant white birds was not actually a cockatoo but was rather a white morph Gray Goshawk; a stunningly white raptor with reddish-orange legs and bill. The cockatoos were eventually successful at chasing the interloper out of the area, and the cacophony of their displeasure was surely enough to temper any of our enthusiasm for keeping a pet cockatoo. Also here we found our first species of Australian Robin, when a cooperative Eastern Yellow Robin flew in and perched along the roadside for us. Although he was a bit damp and bedraggled looking his bright yellow underparts and perky demeanor were clearly evident. Perhaps the best sighting here though was the pair of Gang-gang Cockatoos that flew in while uttering their odd creaky door like flight calls. The red headed male and curl crested female both put on a good show for us as they foraged in a flowering tree over the road and investigated a tree cavity in a nearby snapped off ash tree. This is arguably the most attractive of the many gaudy Cockatoos of Australia, and tends to be much less obvious than the more outgoing white species, and preferring dense and wet montane forests. We then headed back to the hotel to enjoy breakfast and some much needed hot coffee before we set off again up in the more montane forests around Mount Leonard and the Toolangi State Forest.      

No sooner had we turned onto the gravel road that winds up into the forest a stop was needed to admire a couple of perched Flame Robins that were sitting on a fence near a small paddock. Their orangey-red undersides and throats, slate gray backs and white striped wings make them stand out like beacons against the dense green forest background. A small flock of Red-browed Finches were foraging on the ground under the robins, and across the road we admired two vocal Lewin’s Honeyeaters; a large species with a very loud mechanical rattle. We then continued up the road to the Warrawilla Rainforest Trail. Here we were seemingly in a different world. We walked in the shade of towering Mountain Ash trees, surrounded by fast moving creeks, tall tree ferns, Nothofagus Beech Trees and a multitude of Eucalypt species. Although the forest trail was quiet we did pick out several pairs of Brown and Striated Thornbill and White-browed and Large-billed Scrubwren lurking in the understory. A pair of the delightfully colourful Rose Robins eventually dropped down out of the canopy to check out the group. The males delicately gray back and electric pink wash across his breast is truly a sight to behold. Despite a valiant effort none of the vocal Eastern Whipbirds that we detected along the trail seemed willing to pop up for a view, although a few participants saw flashes of olive green and a long tail bouncing through the treeferns. Just as we decided to turn around we encountered two hikers who chatted about rampant Superb Lyrebirds all through the forest. Soon after they left us we heard the unmistakable growls and chatter from a displaying Lyrebird back up the trail. We hurried up to the bird, but with the dense understory only a few participants were able to see the shimmering tail feathers of the displaying male as he sat on a small branch well off the trail. Superb (and the closely related Albert’s) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the worlds oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife as they were recorded imitating not only the birds that live around them, but other ambient noises like chainsaws and camera shutters with remarkable fidelity, and even just this mainly auditory encounter was memorable. As we walked back towards the carpark a singing Australian Golden Whistler perched just off the trail, shining like an electric yellow, black and white beacon against the tree fern backdrop.              

Once back at the car we drove on a bit further up the mountain and our efforts were soon rewarded when a pair of Superb Lyrebirds strode out of the forest to forage along the road in front of us. Although we had to stop at a distance to avoid disturbing the birds the long filamentous tail feathers of the male and the birds huge feet were clearly discernible. Elated with the mornings birding we returned to Healesville for a late lunch at an excellent local pie shop and then enjoyed a siesta back at the hotel. A late afternoon return to the Maroondah reservoir park allowed us to once again see a wide array of birds at ridiculously close range. The up close and personal views of Australian King Parrot in their electric red and green dress and the endlessly expressive Sulphur crests of the cockatoos were particularly excellent. Our main reason for returning to the park though was to obtain better views of Satin Bowerbird. Within a few minutes of us returning to the active bower we were thrilled to see the male come in to check on his architectural design handiwork. Soon afterwards what we took to be a younger male arrived (still in its female-like immature plumage), a much more somberly colored barred bird whose violet eyes fairly jump out from the duller green/grey plumage. Although the adult male soon chased off the interloper he remained perched up in a bare tree for quite some time, allowing us ample opportunity to study its stunning glossy blue-black feathers. Happy with our views and the lesson on bowerbird breeding behavior we returned for dinner, where several participants were adventurous enough to order the Kangaroo steaks, and virtually all declared the Sticky Date Puddings a definite must have. An after dinner excursion back up into the Toolangi Forest was strangely quiet. Perhaps the near freezing temperatures and morning rain conspired against us, for over the course of an hour or so we heard nary a night mammal or bird in the forest.

The next morning, we returned to the forests near Badger Weir, this time enjoying blue skies and a substantially more active dawn chorus. Our only new species for the hour or so that we spent in the woods was White-naped Honeyeater, but it was still a very enjoyable walk, with excellent repeat sightings of perky Eastern Yellow Robins, staid Laughing Kookaburras, garrulous Pied Currawongs and lots of active little groups of Brown Thornbill, Gray Fantail and White-throated Treecreeper. After a cooked breakfast and a bit of packing we spent a bit of time birding around the hotel grounds, seeing a cooperative flock of Red-browed Finches, a posing New Holland Honeyeater and some circling raptors like Brown Goshawk and Swamp Harrier. Then it was time to bid Healesville farwell and start the nearly 3 hour journey up to Chiltern. As we drove north we crossed the foothills of the Great Dividing Range and entered an extensive swath of rolling cleared hills, with sheep and cattle farms, and small towns with names like Yea, Barjarg, Bonnie Doon and Yarck that several participants remarked looked very much like parts of the eastern US or southern England; if not for the occasional road kill Kangaroo or field full of Cockatoos. At the large Nullacootie Reservoir we made a quick stop to scan the waters and turned up our first Little Black Cormorant (busily choking down a remarkably large fish) and two passing Caspian Terns.

We arrived at the tiny hamlet of Chiltern in the mid afternoon after taking lunch in the bustling town of Wangaratta (or Wang in local parlance) and soon met our local guide and set off for Bartley’s Paddock, a small clearing that is a locally famous birding patch filled with short golden wattle trees and huge Eucalypts laden with mistletoe for a few hours of birding. Almost as soon as we stepped into the woods surrounding the property our attentions were diverted by a perched Fan-tailed Cuckoo that sat up for us beautifully in the afternoon sun. Just above the cuckoo we found a male Rufous Whistler, also posing in the rapidly warmer conditions. As we had heard both species on several previous days it was quite nice to see them both so easily! We walked on a few meters and were thrilled to spot a male Turquoise Parrot sitting quietly in the midstory. These stunning little parrots are a rainbow of primary colours, with an especially bright blue reflective face and lovely reddish wing patch. They are small, and generally unobtrusive, preferring to feed quietly on the ground near the edges of inland forests between NE Victoria and the Queensland border. The Chiltern area serves as a bit of a stronghold for the species, but even here sightings cannot be guaranteed. During a long loop walk around clearing we found our first Restless Flycatchers, an elegantly dressed black and white monarch. The first bird was actually attacking its reflection in the side mirror of our bus (much like the Yellow-rumped Thornbill did on our first day along the coast). Several pairs of Red-capped Robins showed well as we walked around the paddock. These beautiful birds are perhaps even more impressive than the Flame and Rose Robins that we found around Healesville, with a bold red, white and black plumage. Also eliciting enthusiastic approval was the group of Silvereye that flew in to us at eye level, fairly shining in their buffy, yellow and moss green hues. We tracked down some singing Western Gerygones as well, a species whose bouncy flute-like calls definitely outshine their very somber gray and brown plumage and enjoyed good views of a host of small bush birds such as Weebill, Yellow and Buff-rumped Thornbill and the seemingly omnipresent Superb Fairywren and Gray Fantail.

It was the local honeyeaters though that really made our visit to the area special. The dominant species in the area seemed to be the comparatively dull but sprightly Fuscous Honeyeater, but many White-plumed and a few Noisy Miners were about as well. Good numbers of the bald headed and white ruffed Noisy Friarbirds were zipping from tree to tree, uttering a bewildering array of chuckles, cackles and whistles, and we were eventually able to pin them (and their smaller cousin the Little Friarbird) down a short way down the road. Perhaps the best honeyeater present though was detected once we arrived near the large mistletoe bearing trees in the center of the block where we soon heard the distinctive two-noted song of Painted Honeyeater. Somewhat of a specialty of the area these well-named birds had yet to be detected in the spring this year. We hurried over and soon found one bird tucked tightly in a dense canopy, occasionally showing bits of its plumage, a black back, white underparts, yellow wings, or perhaps a bit of the red bill. The bird then popped up onto the top of the tree for us to admire before it shot off across the clearing to another dense clump of mistletoe. The paddock held one other avian treat for us, as we managed several views of a family party of White-browed Babblers. Not true babblers, but rather yet another small Australasian family these well put together birds are elegant and striking. Once back at the car we located a small group of Brown Treecreepers across the road, and were successful in calling in a vocalizing trio of Black-chinned Honeyeaters. Remarkably this was our 16th species of Honeyeater for the day!

We moved on to another spot about a mile down the road and (with our local contacts excellent scouting) were soon watching a Speckled Warbler flitting about along the trail. This elegantly dressed bird is much brighter than the field guides might suggest, and is yet another local specialty of the Chiltern area. Our local guide maintains a network of nest and roost boxes for small mammals around the park, and at dusk we were taken out to a nearby set of boxes on his property to look at a roosting Squirrel Glider. This is an undeniably adorable mammal, clad in silvery-grey fur with black facial stripes, huge eyes and a loose fold of skin connecting its front and back legs that enables them to glide for over 100m between the trees. Also around the property we were happy to see two very cryptic Tawny Frogmouths doing an amazing imitation of some broken off branches. The nearby pond held calling Eastern Sign-bearing Froglets that serenaded us as the sun began to fall, and soon thereafter we headed to the nearby Chiltern Tavern for a delicious Thai dinner.

The next morning, we headed a bit south to a district of Chiltern Mt. Pilot National Park where we spent an enjoyable couple of hours birding in the more open forests a bit south of the motorway. A walk up a short hill where a bushfire had come through a few years prior was quite productive. Rufous Songlarks were in full display mode, perched up in the burnt treetops and giving their rollicking and exuberant song in a dashing display flight is quite a sight to behold! This species and the related Brown Songlark seem to be an odd fit in the old world warbler clade (especially while watching them display). Further down the track we enjoyed substantially better views of a pair of Dusky Woodswallows that were sitting in a nearby tree. Woodswallows are an elegant group of birds, soft plumaged and well coloured and possessing of a lot of charisma as they fly around and sit with waggling tails. Our Woodswallow show continued with several pairs of the more boldly coloured White-browed Woodswallows that we found sitting above us. This is a generally nomadic species that occurs irregularly around the Chiltern area, and one that in any given year might be largely absent from the entirety of our tour itinerary. Happy with two lovely species of woodswallows we continued down the sandy track surrounded by the dawn chorus of Songlarks, and the incessant chatter of dozens of White-plumed, Yellow-throated and Fuscous Honeyeaters. A couple of delicately plumaged Peaceful Doves came in to look us over, staring down at us through their soft blue eyerings. Our best bird of the site though was also our last; some soft chuckling from the adjacent shrubbery alerted us to the presence of a Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. This is a very scarce species in the region that is almost extirpated from the park, and one that is generally difficult to see anywhere in its range. With a bit of playback the bird popped up into view and then slowly paraded up and down some large horizontal limbs in front of us, showing off its rusty rump, long tail and delicately streaked chest. A bit further south in the park we stopped at the newly minted Honeyeater Picnic Area (which was until recently known as Cyanide Dam). A short walk around the dam revealed another Turquoise Parrot, several noisy flocks of White-winged Choughs, a wonderfully perched up Olive-backed Oriole and some garrulous Noisy Friarbirds. A very tame Black Wallaby watched our progress with a curious air, standing at attention with some half-eaten grass dangling from its lips as we walked past. The floral show here was also interesting, with several species of small native orchids along the trail.

Moving back to the hotel we packed up and then took a short trip to two nearby wetlands just a bit northwest of town. The ponds were fairly quiet from a waterbird perspective, though the close-up views of Yellow-billed Spoonbill and Australian Pelicans were memorable. Above the ponds though we witnessed a very instructive comparison of three similar raptors. Several Whistling Kites, a Black Kite and a single Little Eagle were circling overhead together. As Australia is blessed with an abundance of generally brown raptors its always very useful to have multiple species together. In the bush around the first pond we tracked down a Crested Shrike-Tit that was quietly feeding above us. These uncommon birds can be missed on tours, as the birds tend not to vocalize much and are somewhat lethargic as they feed by stripping bark strips from the canopy looking for insects underneath. Neither a shrike nor a tit, their bushy crests and bold black and white face pattern vaguely resemble an oversized chickadee, and their huge bill (more akin to a Cardinal’s than a Shrike’s) is hooked on the end like a shrikes. As we walked back to the car we were surprised to see a small mammal sitting on a low dead branch. The vast majority of the country’s mammals are nocturnal, so seeing any small mammal during the day is cause for excitement. Although it soon scurried into a hollow in the log we were able to see it well enough to identify it as a Yellow-footed Antechinus (a quite cute marsupial mouse). Although this species is known for being active during the day the sighting marked the first for any WINGS Australia tour! Our last sighting before we popped in to the excellent Chiltern bakery for lunch was of a pair of Australian Reed Warblers that were vigorously calling from a small reedbed.

During the afternoon we made the drive north and west, crossing over the Murray River and into New South Wales and arriving in the small city of Deniliquin in the late afternoon. We made one short stop in the little town of Finely, where the town lake held a couple of Magpie Geese (a bit of a surprise this far south), a tree that was heaving with over a hundred Little Corellas and a small pier that was hosting a nice array of Great, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants as well as our first Australian Darter that was holding its wings out in the afternoon sun. Once we reached Deniliquin we had a bit of time to relax before readying for our late afternoon outing with Philip Maher, the world authority on the enigmatic Plains-wanderer. Phil found a small population of this cryptic and nocturnal bird living out on the plains west of Deniliquin and has been monitoring the birds and showing them to grateful birders for decades. WE drove out to the west of Deniliquin, quickly losing the riverine forests of the Edwards river and then soon thereafter entering the very open saltbush plains of the Hay Plain. Flocks of bright pink Galahs jumped off the road edge at our approach, and raptors including Australian Kestrel, Brown Falcon and Black and Whistling Kites patrolled the road. As we drove onto the sheep station roads off the Cobb Highway we were thrilled to spot our first Emus dashing across the fields with their odd feathered skirts flouncing as they ran. In the late afternoon sun the Kangaroos were quite active, and we spent a bit of time looking at Eastern and Western Grey Kangaroos as well as a few of the larger Red Kangaroo. A family group of Fairywrens alerted us to their presence with a few females perched up along a nearby fenceline. It’s not an easy task to pick a favorite Fariy-Wren, but for me these dazzlingly bright navy blue males with huge white wing patches are hard to beat, and we were treated to excellent views of this male as it bounced around in the open along the edge of the track. We stopped at a copse of trees around one of the stations homesteads to enjoy a picnic dinner and a bit of birding in the rapidly reddening sky. Phil picked out an Eastern Barn Owl peering out from a roost cavity in a large dead Eucalypt, and with a bit of trial and error located a diminutive Australian Owlet-Nightjar that peered out from its tree cavity and then actually flew out and perched in full view for us. These oddly alien looking birds with their huge forward-facing eyes belong to a small family endemic to the Australia/New Guinea region, and although quite common throughout the country can be hard to find without checking an exhaustive number of tree cavities. Our picnic dinner under the stunning sunset was accompanied with some star watching as the skies turned inky black.

The historic drought that has gripped the area for much of 2018 has seriously affected the plains, with no new grass growth leading the local sheep ranchers to sell off stock and augment their animals feed with trucked in grain. The native fauna too are experiencing tough times, with a lot of nomadic species exiting for greener pastures and populations of resident birds being lower than usual. Once finished with our sandwiches and desserts we set off in two 4x4 trucks bound for a six hundred acre ungrazed paddock that has been set aside by the land owners for breeding Plains-wanderers. Phil had last been in the area a few weeks prior and had found a individuals in the field, so we had high hopes that the drought would not cause the birds to depart the area. We spent about three hours slowly diving around the paddock and scanning with headlights and torches. Unfortunately for us the birds seem to have departed for greener fields this year rather than opting to stay and breed as they have done for many years running. The trip was certainly not in vain though, as we enjoyed excellent views of a beautiful Inland Dotterel that remained frozen in our lights for several minutes. We also found several Australian Pipits, Brown Songlark and Australian Bushlarks out in the field, and flushed a pair of Banded Lapwing. Apart from the birds and the magic of the location though we had what was likely the most impressive mammal night possible in the region. All three species of large macropods were common, with several huge Red Kangaroos likely being the highlight. Small mammals too put in appearances, with one of the two vehicles finding a cooperative Fat-tailed Dunnart (an impossibly cute small carnivorous marsupial) that lingered above ground for us to photograph. An even rarer find came a bit later, with a Narrow-nosed Planigale (the world’s second smallest marsupial) that also lingered for views before dashing into a bush and vanishing. The Dunnarts are generally present in the paddock, but Phil sees them on maybe ten percent of his trips. The planigale is much rarer (it had been over 5 years since the last sighting), and was likely only visible to us due to the very open and dry conditions. As the hour was turning late we eventually gave up on our quest for the Plains-wanderers and set off back to Deniliquin where we sank into a fully justified slumber after a full but terrific day.

We spent the full morning on the next day birding around the Red Gum and Black Box forests that are adjacent to the Edwards River. In contrast to much of the surrounding landscape the riverine forests are tall, with a largely closed canopy and open understory. These huge trees are impressive and very slow growing, with the largest individuals perhaps topping 1000 years old. With the drought holding firm across the region many birds had retreated to the relative shade and humidity of these streamside woods. Our chief (and very successful) goal of the morning was to obtain good views of some of the Superb Parrots that frequent the area. These endangered birds are sleek and electric green, with a brilliant yellow and red face and throat and very long graduated tail. Superb Parrots are largely confined to the Eastern and Central reaches of the Murray river and its tributaries as they nest in the large Red River Gums that line the riparian corridors. Also here we admired the Yellow form of the Crimson Rosella, once (and perhaps again) considered a separate species from the deep red Rosellas that prefer wetter forests. Parrots actually proved to be quite common in the woods, with Red-rumped Parrot pairs winging by, and Long-billed Corellas, Galah and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos milling around and prospecting for nest sites. Several delicately plumaged Peaceful Doves were tracked down by their quavering two-parted call. We also enjoyed close studies of White-breasted and Dusky Woodswallows and our first large and colourful Blue-faced Honeyeaters. At the nearby park in town we were happy to hear a calling Little Grassbird that was tucked into a small patch of reeds along the shore. This proved most fortuitous, as we were able to see it quite well as it worked along the edge of the reedbed in the shade of a willow tree.

In the late morning we moved away from the river to bird a quiet rural road lined with fields and patches of Black Box trees. Some agricultural fields near the start of the road were being flooded, and the welcome water was attracting hordes of Pacific Herons and Little Ravens that were intent on devouring whatever insects were coming in to the emergent grasses. Just a bit down the road we stopped for a small group of Apostlebirds (sadly not numbering 12) that were busily foraging along a hedge. These portly relatives of the White-winged Chough are scarce in the area, and with their overstuffed bodies and sweeping wide tail movements have always reminded me of portly old gentlemen lounging on a chaise; they are just missing their petty waistcoats and monocles. Also here we were surprised to find about a dozen Superb Parrots, including many handsome males, that were feeding on a flowering Eucalypt. Many of the birds were at nearly eye-level in the tree and allowed us to approach quite closely as they clambered around in the branches.

Once in the Black Box forest we soon found a small flock of Southern Whiteface, a type of Thornbill that spends much of its time foraging on the ground. A singing Western Gerygone performed well for us here too, showing off both its muted plumage and its ebullient song. The star species of the late morning though was undoubtedly the Diamond Firetail that we found foraging on the ground with the Whitefaces. These incredibly attractive waxbills are sharply patterned in white, black and crimson. Due to the recent many years of drought their population has dropped and they are now generally scarce throughout their range. With the morning done we headed back to Deniliquin for lunch and a short afternoon rest. Our return was delayed when Phil noticed tractors working in a small field near the road. The tractors were attracting a crowd of Black and Whistling Kites that were diving down to grab hapless mice and insects that were fleeing the reapers. We stopped to watch the show and were thrilled to discover that the action had attracted a Black Falcon as well. These scarce birds act almost like skuas as they habitually harass other raptors in an attempt to pirate their prey. This group of kites was quite active, and over the course of a half-hour we had front road seats for the air show put on by no less than three Black Falcons! The birds stooped down and repeatedly hammered kites, sometime getting tangled up with them until nearly hitting the ground in an incredible display of aeronautics.

Meeting Phil again in the midafternoon we then set off west into the beginning of the plains country, where shrubs and saltbushes begin to replace the larger trees that are closer to watercourses. A short stop at a small pond just outside of town revealed a handsome Chestnut Teal tucked into a large flock of Grey Teal, both Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills, huge Australian Pelicans and a responsive pair of Restless Flycatchers. We then birded a small patch of scrub that Phil and others have painstakingly been revegetating for the past 20 years. New bird species came thick and fast, starting with several pairs of the somewhat somberly but still attractively plumaged Bluebonnets perching up for us. A family group of Gray-crowned Babblers put in an appearance but vanished quickly when we turned our attentions to a few beautiful Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and a Singing Honeyeater that flew in. Direct proof of the old saying “if you build it they will come” soon came to our attention as well during the walk. Phil had dug out a small embankment in the center of the reserve and drilled some makeshift holes in the bank. Less than two months later a pair of White-backed Swallows moved in. Black, with a white head, back and throat these elegant swallows are scarce throughout the interior of the country, needing vertical relief and old kingfisher or bee eater holes to nest in. Prior to Phil creating this embankment there had not been any birds locally nesting! Some very vocal Striped Honeyeaters appeared and perched for our enjoyment, adding to our swelling list of these singularly Australian of birds. As we returned to the car we stopped to admire a family group of Purple-backed Fairy-Wrens in a dense thicket. The male with his bright blue head and chestnut wing patches are striking indeed, and after daily sightings of Superb Fairy-Wrens it was nice to have a different species of these dazzling birds in sight.

We spent the first half of the morning continuing to investigate the riverine forests near Deniliquin. This time we traveled a little further afield, visiting the huge Murray Valley National Park (which protects almost 400000 acres of seasonal wetlands and gallery forests across the Murray River valley). We found the woods here to be surprisingly active, with the songs of Rufous Whistlers, Western Gerygone and Gray Fantails drifting down from the canopy at nearly every turn. We spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering amongst the trees. A family group of Red-capped Robins, with several spotted youngsters greeted us near the carpark, and just a few meters further down the trail we coaxed a Spotted Pardalote down from its lofty perch. After several poor sightings of this living jewel (surely one of the most beautiful birds in the world) being able to study its intricate and bold colours at close range in the morning sun was a special treat. We flushed Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Common Bronzewings and a busy family party of White-browed Babblers as we walked through a slightly rolling sandy section of the forest, and spent some time watching the antics of the many Jacky Winters, whose call seemed reminiscent of the Tufted Titmouse of the eastern US. It was near the end of our walk that we finally connected with a pair of largely elusive Hooded Robins. The handsome male put in only a brief appearance before jetting off in a streak of black and white, but the female lingered for a short time. All too soon we had to head back to Deniliquin to pack up and begin the journey west and back into Victoria. After lunch in Kerang we spent the afternoon exploring some of the many wetlands that make up the region known as the Kerang Lakes. When conditions are good the area can support well over a million breeding waterbirds, with ibis rookeries numbering in the tens of thousands. Given the drought we were surprised to find that nearly all the locations we visited had substantial water (perhaps drawn up by the state environmental agency), but we saw little evidence of breeding waterbirds this year. It is quite typical in Australia that during periods of drought a substantial number of birds do not even attempt breeding, and bird populations dwindle until the rains come and a frenzy of breeding activity occurs.

Our first stop was a few miles south of Kerang, at the Ramsar listed Hird Swamp Wildlife Reserve. This large marsh tucked into a largely pastoral landscape was largely dry. A small ribbon of water out in the marsh was attracting hundreds of White-fronted Chats, a few Black-tailed Native-Hens and four migrating Sharp-tailed Sandpipers though. Along the entrance road we found a good showing of Woodswallows, with excellent comparison views of perched White-browed and Masked, and flight views of White-breasted and Dusky. Some Swamp Harriers were plying the edges of the reedbeds, and little packs of Superb Fairy-Wrens shot repeatedly across the road in front of us. We then moved north to the twin Reedy and Middle Lakes. At Reedy we were very happy to spot a perched Sacred Kingfisher sitting on a small sign along the creek. Generally by late September Sacred Kingfishers have returned to the southern coast, and we see them throughout the tour. This year the birds were lingering in the north, and seemed to be scarce to absent throughout Victoria during our visit. It’s a handsome Kingfisher, clad in buff and teal and sporting a business-like dirk for a bill. At the two-story blind at Middle Lake we found some handsome Australian Shelduck, sunning Australian Darters, and a nice mix of waterbirds arrayed in front of the blind. This is generally the location of the largest ibis rookery in the region, but we found no evidence of breeding this year, seeing only a few dozen Australian White Ibis and a few scattered Straw-necked hanging about the lake. Our last birding area for the afternoon was the huge Cullen’s Lake Wildlife Reserve, where a hard- packed sandy track rings the lakeshore allowing for excellent viewing of the birds using the lake. The lake was literally heaving with birds, with thousands of Black Swans, and even more Gray Teal and Eurasian Coots. The coot flocks in particular was amazing, as the birds were packed in very densely, looking like a black stain on the water. As we drove around flocks of Gray Teal numbering in the thousands, with a few Shoveler and Shelduck for variety, lifted off at our approach. Roosting flocks of Whiskered Terns and Silver Gulls numbered in the hundreds as well, and around the shoreline we picked out numbers of waders such as Sharp-tailed, Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers and Red-capped Plover. Of particular interest were several small groups of Glossy Ibis (a write-in species for the tour) and a huge herd of Black-tailed Native-Hens that scurried away from us across an adjacent field like a bizarre flock of irate chickens. We found a few interesting reptiles around the lake as well, including a male Eastern Bearded Dragon that spent quite some time hiding under the shade of our van and a large Shingleback skink that sadly scuttled off into the shrubs before everyone could see its pleated scales and oddly proportioned tail. A passing bird watcher told us about a nearby White-bellied Sea-Eagle nest, and then agreed to lead us on what turned out to be quite a circuitous route of back roads. Although the nest was not attended the drive was productive, with a wonderfully perched Wedge-tailed Eagle, and a very picturesque hidden lake surrounded by a field of short green grass (a colour generally lacking this year due to drought) that was attracting a horde of Swamp Wallabies. We finished the drive up to Swan Hill in the early evening, in time for a bit of a rest before dinner at a local Italian restaurant.

The next day we traveled a short distance south to bird in a small bushland reserve near the now defunct town of Goschen. Despite the reserves small size it has hosted an array of interesting species that are attracted to the many flowering plants and dense mallee stands on the property. We spent about two hours wandering around the park, taking in a nice selection of bush birds. Of particular interest were our first White-fronted Honeyeaters and Yellow-throated Miners. The White-fronts are a nomadic species, and only irregularly in the region. They possess a certain shabby-chic charm with their somewhat irregularly streaked plumage and odd white headband. The miners replace their more aggressive Noisy cousins in the mallee country, and although quite similar differ in their white rump and scattered yellow feathers in their chests and throats. Here too we enjoyed second (and better) sighting of a pair of Hooded Robins around the old tennis courts that happily remained perched for quite some time. Although the reserve was quite dry and had very little flowering plant activity it was still attracting some species of interest such as the family group of White-browed Babblers, many groups of vocal and active Brown Treecreeper, several Greater Bluebonnets, Red-rumped Parrots and a cooperative Spotted and Striated Pardalotes. Some flowering trees near the defunct schoolhouse were attracting not only the White-fronted Honeyeaters but a good number of Spiny-cheeked, Singing and White-plumed as well.

At the nearby Round Lake we found a couple of dozen Musk Duck in much closer conditions than our single bird at Werribbee. The dangling wattles and huge heads of the males combine to make one truly odd duck! One of the males was even displaying, and we were treated to audio of the strange metallic pop that caps the display. The lake held a nice assortment of other water birds, but as we had seen them all well the previous day we elected to head west a bit earlier than planned. We took lunch at the small town of Sea Lake, well poised just a bit south of Lake Tyrrell; the largest evaporative basin in the state of Victoria that serves as a source for granular salt. Fully three quarters of the over 20000 hectare lakebed is reserved as a wildlife refuge. The margins of the lake are lined with a low ground cover of Bluebush and Glassworts, a dense habitat that is preferred by our two main targets of the area; Rufous Fieldwren and the bright Orange Chat. It took quite some time for us to track down these often elusive birds in the windy afternoon conditions, but track them down we did. A single bright male Orange Chat perched up nicely for us along the sandy road that rings the lakeshore, resembling a miniature thin-billed African Weaver. We heard several snippets of calls from various Rufous Fieldwrens before finally spotting one bird perched up in a patch of purplish Bluebush. The area also held our first Black-faced Woodswallow that perched for us on a distant fenceline, and several family groups of the sublime White-winged Fairywrens.

In the late afternoon, we pulled into our hotel in the small town of Ouyen, where we were greeted by a territorial New Holland Honeyeater that was patrolling the flowering shrubs around the carpark. After checking in we also discovered that in a row of tall dead trees on the adjacent property were three Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos! Two of the birds seemed intent on checking out some possible nesting cavities in the trees, while the other bird seemed to be just hanging nearby. Delicately salmon-pink, with a gleaming white back and upperwing, rosy underwing and tricoloured pink, yellow and white crest this is a bird that packs a visual punch. Generally uncommon across its range Major Mitchell’s often undergo local movements to follow seeding trees or desert gourds.

Happily for us our full day in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park was warm and sunny, with lighter winds than the previous few afternoons. Our day actually started off most auspiciously when a sharp eyed participant located two odd grayish honeyeaters foraging in one of the flowering shrubs around the carpark. The birds proved to be female Black Honeyeaters, a scarce and nomadic species in Victoria and one that given the general lack of flowering trees we had thought to be most unlikely this year on the tour. After the excitement we headed the short distance north to the national park. A quick stop along the highway failed to produce the pair of Striated Grasswrens that had recently been reported in a small patch of seeding spinifex. We did however, find our first White-eared Honeyeater, a handsome olive-green bird with a mostly black head and throat, and bright white ear patch. A bit further to the north we entered Hattah-Kulkyne National Park. This large park protects a vast swath of mallee habitat as well as a series of lakes with adjacent Red Gum forest. We were particularly interested in the mallee section of the park, a habitat filled with short multi-trunked mallee Eucalypt trees and an understory of spinifex grasses. Spinifex looks somewhat innocuous, but its razor sharp stalks pierce through jeans with ease, and are the bane of traveling naturalists intent upon finding some of the more elusive species in the park. Unlike our visit in 2016 when a significant portion of the tracks were closed due to high water this year we found them all open and covered well drained sand. We started birding on the western side of the park where the bulk of the older-growth (i.e. not recently burned) stands of mallee lie.

We drove up one of the small roads until and then started walking along the road and occasionally off track through the spinifex, listening carefully for the two elusive denizens of this spiky habitat. As had been the case in several other locations over the past few days we encountered migrant flocks of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows foraging overhead and occasionally entering the forest to perch or feed. We walked into the woods and were soon surrounded by woodswallos and by Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters, a common species in the mallee here. Up a small rise and in an area with extensive spinifex we heard the telltale scratchy calls of a Striated Grasswren emanating in the thicker mallee. Uncharacteristically for a Grasswren the male actually perched up on a well-lit branch about five feet off the ground, and then remained perched for several minutes! Grasswrens may not be as brightly coloured as some of the more obvious members of Australia’s avifauna but their hyper alert and very interactive manner makes them very charismatic. Many an Australian birder holds their Grasswren tally in high esteem, as most species live in very remote and often difficult to access areas. Just a bit further along the ridge we located a pair of Mallee Emu-Wrens, an endangered species that is perhaps best seen in this national park, and one that, happily, has undergone a recent resurgence in numbers. Very similar to the Southern Emu-Wrens that we saw on the first day these birds have paler blue throats and more richly coloured crowns. This short and incredibly productive walk held one more surprise for us, as when we returned to the car we found a Crested Bellbird feeding on the edge of the road. This is an odd species, recently elevated (along with two equally dissimilar birds from Papua New Guinea) to a newly created family. Although widespread in the mallee forests across southern and central Australia they can be devilishly hard to track down in the dense habitats that they prefer. Sporting a short black crest, bright orange eye, white throat and lores and a black bib they are distinctive birds, and for a bird tour leader always a bit of a coup to see well. Elated with our success we celebrated with some fruit and granola bars and then spent the rest of the morning slowly driving through the park, stopping wherever we spotted motion in the bush. Covering a lot of ground is often key in mallee parks, where bird densities tend to be low.

We found a few mixed flocks over the course of the morning, containing birds such as our first Inland Thornbill, heaps of Weebill, a cooperative Pallid Cuckoo, and another prize for the day; Gilbert’s Whistler. This modestly coloured whistler is a mallee specialist, and has a knack for avoiding visiting birders by melting away into the woods. Luckily for us the bird was calling from right on the roadside, and although he did not exactly perch out in the open for us it was a good enough view to count. As the morning began to warm up we found a few reptiles sunning themselves on the sandy track. A healthy looking Central Bearded Dragon was a nice find, but was eclipsed soon after by the larger Sand Goanna that lingered for us to enjoy. We even found a snake on the road! One look at it through the windscreen and it was quite apparent that we would not be getting out for a closer look. It’s large and forward-facing eyes and heavy-set head were decidedly menacing and as it slowly wandered off the road looking quite confident we confirmed the identification as an Eastern Brown Snake, the species responsible for more bites and more fatalities than any other species of Australian snake. We decided that seeing such a creature from the comfort of the bus was ideal. WE drove a bit north into a more open parklike habitat with scattered Cyprus-like pines. Here we stopped to scope a distant Brown Falcon perched on a ridge above the road and were soon distracted by a small party of Chestnut-crowned Babblers in a nearby scrubby tree. This is perhaps the most handsome of the Australian Babblers, with buffy-white wingbars and a russet hue to the chest. By then it felt like lunchtime so we headed out of the park for a very conveniently placed new roadhouse just a few kilometers away.

After lunch, we concentrated on the eastern half of the park. This end of the park is dominated by more open forest, with Cyprus-like trees and low shrubs and has many lakes ringed by gallery forests of gum trees. At the Hattah Lake Campground we located a couple of Apostlebirds around one of the campsites and spent some time scanning a small and rapidly drying lakebed that was attracting an array of waders. A good-sized flock of Red-necked Avocets was joined by Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels, two migrant Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and some placid Grey Teal. We checked several of the other lakes in the region as well, finding a nice assortment of ducks including several Australian Shelducks with their cute brown and white striped young, our first Great Crested Grebes and an excellent comparison of Australasian and Hoary-headed Grebes. Along the public nature drive we connected with a flock of the dazzling Regent Parrots, a threatened specialty of the area. These sleek parrots glow with a bright chartreuse, black and coral-red plumage; surely one of the most handsome of the worlds parrots. The flock was busily devouring small berries on some roadside saltbushes, and when we stopped the birds flew up into the trees in an amazing flash of colour before eventually dropping back down to the ground to feed. Although it was already an incredibly successful day in the field the park had one more avian gift for us in store. Back on the sandier tracks in the west of the park we stopped at a somewhat random patch of mallee and were shocked to see a Chestnut Quail-Thrush walk across the road in front of us, lingering for just long enough for everyone to take in the view. Quail-Thrush are generally quiet and wary, generally quietly walking away from observers when detected and not particularly responsive to playback. Although not rare in the park they are rarely encountered, so this sighting was a real stroke of luck and capped off a truly remarkable day in the field.

The next morning we left Ouyen behind and started to drive south towards our base for the next two nights near Little Desert National Park. Our first stop for the day was at the tiny and charmingly named Timberoo Flora and Fauna Reserve which lies about 40KM Southwest of Ouyen. This small reserve protects a patch of pine-buloke habitat; a pine-like tree that prefers sandy and well drained soils. Adjacent to the reserve is a very small lake surrounded by mallee and scrub, providing a nice mix of habitats in a very small area. WE spent about an hour walking around the forest edge before driving through the reserve’s sandy tracks. Just a few feet from our parked van we heard the distinctive rattling call of Australia’s only Bee-eater, the aptly named Rainbow Bee-eater. Bee-eaters are always special birds, and this species, clad in hues of green, blue, yellow and black with bronze coloured wings was a definite crowd pleaser even if they largely remained airborne. Like many of the summer visitors to Victoria they seemed to be a week or two behind their normal migration dates, perhaps choosing to linger to the north above the areas most affected by the severe drought. As far as we could tell our sighting represented the first for the state of Victoria for the spring. Just a bit further down the edge of the woods we found our first pairs of Splendid Fairy-Wrens glowing in the morning sun, and happily sitting up in the open for us to enjoy. A Fairy-Wren beauty pageant would be an impossible competition to judge, but the male Splendid simply redefines the colour blue. Fully covered in at least 5 different shades of incandescent feathers these little sprites seem to burn with an inner blue flame. The short walk held one more surprise for us in the form of a pair of perched Mulga Parrots. Although they were quite high in their chosen tree and at a difficuly light angle it was still possible to make out the golden shoulder, reddish-orange belly and emerald green colours of the male. Surprisingly this sighting was the only one for the tour this year, as with the dry conditions most of the Mulga Parrots had apparently vacated the region. Happy with three new, and extremely colourful species of birds we then drove around the reserve, stopping to look at flocks of White-winged Choughs, perched Pallid Cuckoos, a family group of Red-capped Robins and several Mallee Ringneck Parrots.

Leaving Timberoo behind we set off further south intent on exploring parts of the vast Wyperfeld National Park. We started by driving in to the northeastern end of the park where we spent the first part of the morning surrounded by native “pine plains” habitat. This very open forest with scattered pine-like trees and low bushes over very sandy soil is a bit reminiscent of the pine barrens in New Jersey. Only this patch is full of parrots. Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Australian Ringnecks, Red-rumped Parrots and Bluebonnets were in the area, somehow still able to find sufficient food despite the very crispy conditions. Most of the ground was laid bare, with tufts of now-more-than-year old grasses and forbs reduced to dizzying heights of half an inch. Arriving in a patch of open casaurina forest we went for a short walk out and were surprised to find numbers of small bush birds present as well. Yellow, Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Southern Whiteface and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater all put in appearances as we walked further out from the car. Soon though we heard the distinctive trill of our main target bird for the northern section of the park; the White-browed Treecreeper. This attractive species is superficially similar to the widespread Brown Treecreeper but is much more strongly marked, with a blacker flank and black-streaked auriculars offsetting the bright white brow. It’s a very localized bird in Victoria, generally occurring in the more arid interior of the country. With our target species appearing on queue we drove out of the park. Although the southern access point into the park around the Wonga Campground is a mere 25 miles from our morning birding location there is no connecting road save a very sandy 4X4 track, so we were forced to make the large circle around the East end, stopping in the hamlet of Hopetoun for lunch at a café. We then drove back into the park from the south entrance to go for an afternoon walk out the Discovery Trail. This sandy walk passes through a section of open gum forest in a dry arroyo and then passes over some short rolling dunes covered in dense Tea Tree shrubs. Under the shade of the gum lined trail we were happy to locate a somewhat regal looking Grey Currawong that showed off well as it moved from tree to tree in front of us. A bit larger and more imposing looking than its more widespread Pied cousins it was a bird that had been oddly absent to this point in the tour, although we saw several more in subsequent days. A bit further down the trail and in the rolling and sandy tea-tree covered dunes we dipped on the hoped-for Redthroats (perhaps due to the heat of the afternoon) but we did find a cooperative pair of Shy Heathwren. This was our fourth (and final) of the –wren birds. It’s a generally difficult group, and I doubt we will regularly manage the sweep. This pair performed well, coming into some close bare branches with cocked up tails and a curious air. A steady stream of Corellas, Galahs and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos passed over in the afternoon, all heading for some distant watering hole – perhaps a long way out of the park given the paucity of moisture this year.

We then made the hour and a half journey south to our base for the next two nights around NHill, stopping along the way to admire a perched Peregrine Falcon, and a passing Wedge-tailed Eagle that was being heavily mobbed by several Magpies and a few Ravens. For our first night in NHill we stayed at a hotel in town as our normal lodging at Little Desert was booked solid by a very large group of Australian Birding Clubs for the long weekend. This proved quite an acceptable alternative for the lodge in NHill was an eclectic spot- with Australia’s national Pinball museum attached to the reception (one game participant particularly enjoyed a game or two) and the owners being frequent customers of the Tucson Gem and Mineral show, with dinosaurs, fossils, rock samples and jewelry all on display. We took dinner at the main lounge downtown, an affair filled with local families, and a true rural Australia experience.

We started the next day just down the road from the hotel, where a flowering Eucalypt along the motorway was attracting a wheeling mob of Lorikeets intent on denectaring the entire tree. Most of the birds were Musk Lorikeets, a species that we saw in flight early on the trip. This time though we were able to get several individuals in the scope as they bustled around the large inflorescences. Musks are a brilliant emerald green with intense and bold scarlet markings on their heads. While watching the Musk Lorikeets it became evident that somewhere in the tree were lurking some Purple-crowned Lorikeets as well. It took a bit more time before one popped out into view, but eventually we were able to study this fine species in the scope as well. Purple-crowned Lorikeets are more subtly coloured than the Musks, but their pale blue chests, golden ear patches and dark purple forecrowns make for an equally stunning bird. For the rest of the morning we walked around some sandy trails in Little Desert National Park in search of Malleefowl. Although the aforementioned species failed to walk across our paths we nevertheless enjoyed the morning, taking time to inspect some of the spring blooming orchids on the forest floor, finding our first Red-necked Wallaby of the trip and enjoying excellent views of an extremely cooperative male Scarlet Robin. After an early and somewhat busy lunch (we managed to coincide with no less than two giant tour busses that were plying the Adelaide to Melbourne route) we made the very short drive south to our base for the night at the Little Desert Nature Lodge. The grounds of this lovely lodge are surrounded by a 4km long electrified predator-proof fence, and the lodge staff is heavily involved in an impending breeding and reintroduction program for several species of endangered mammals that used to inhabit the adjacent Little Desert National Park. We had a short siesta in the early afternoon and then met to walk a bit around the grounds where we were thrilled to find out that they had an active Malleefowl nest about a kilometer from the lodge buildings! When we arrived at the mound many of the participants were (I think) surprised at the size of the structure. Malleefowl mounds are about 3.5 feet high and easily 10 feet in diameter, and are comprised of a substantial amount of decaying vegetation surrounded by a with a conical ring of sand. These large chachalaca-like birds are the only temperate Megapode in the world, and unlike their more tropical cousins in Australia are scarce, shy, and unpredictable in their habits. Although early October is traditionally a good time for the species to begin tending their giant mound nests individual birds respond to local weather conditions and do not begin daily visits until the temperature regime is to their liking. The males work hard to maintain a constant temperature of 33 degrees C while incubating the eggs. Truly an engineering feat that surpasses the ability of most humans! Some passing birders mentioned that the male had just been at the mound and had covered it back up for the evening, making us think that our time might be better spent elsewhere. The grounds of the lodge were quite busy, with Eastern Banjo Frogs calling in the pond, flocks of White-winged Choughs and White-browed Babblers bouncing along the ground, the resident emu “George” confidently striding around as if he owned the place and a nice array of bush birds in the woods including several White-winged Trillers, a calling Horsefield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, bold Golden and Rufous Whistlers and (with some effort) our only Southern Scrub-Robin of the trip. These large robins look quite different from the other mostly rotund and brightly coloured Australian robins. Much larger, and with a long and rounded tail, the Southern Scrub lives up to its name by generally inhabiting thick mallee or heath understories. Happily for us though in the spring males often perch up on somewhat obvious perches while singing, and we were able to watch this one at some length. We made a brief foray off the lodge grounds to search for Purple-gaped Honeyeaters. This species is a bit of a specialty around Little Desert, although it is generally only found commonly here during winter months. We found the area quite quiet, perhaps with the suddenly cooler temperatures and overcast skies a lot of birds decided to call it a day earlier than usual, so we decided to do likewise!

After dinner, we took a short stroll around the property revealed a surprisingly large number of Common Brushtail Possums (several with half-grown babies on their backs) that were somewhat atypically mostly foraging on the lawns around the buildings. A short trip back off the lodge property was extremely successful in tracking down a Southern Boobook. This medium sized owl is widespread and generally common across much of the country. We called one in and marveled as it sat just a few feet away from us while giving its growling “frog” call and being generally oblivious to our presence.

The next day we started quite early with a repeat visit to the active Malleefowl mound. This time we approached with extreme caution and found a distant spot from which we could just make out the top of the mound. To our delight we were soon rewarded with repeated views of the male Malleefowl as he scratched off the top layers of compost to let the morning sun in to warm the eggs. After our previous failures with the species this seemed a most fortuitous way to start our day! After everyone had had a chance to watch this handsome and quite large bird for a bit we quietly backed off and wandered back to the lodge and breakfast, stopping to admire a pair of Hooded Robins and some flighty Restless Flycatchers along the way. The trees just outside our rooms were in flower and were attracting an impressive number of New Holland Honeyeaters and Red Wattlebirds; two species whose aggressions make the average hummingbird seem like a pacifist. As we packed the van a Collared Sparrowhawk flew overhead with several honeyeaters in hot pursuit (so sometimes perhaps the visiting birder benefits from their aggressions)!

Our first stops as we headed south from the lodge were along the road in the short scrubby heathlands. Here we made a couple of short walks out into the sandy heath, spotting Brown Thornbill, Australian Pipit, White-fronted Chat and Shy Heathwren as we walked along the track. A responsive Tawny-crowned Honeyeater put in a short appearance for us (our 30th species of Honeyeater for the trip!) It didn’t take us long to track down our main target species for the habitat; the sometimes elusive Slender-billed Thornbill; here at nearly the eastern edge of its generally limited range. Here too were our last Western Grey Kangaroos of the trip, and several more attractive species of orchids. We then began the roughly two-hour drive down to the coast, using back country roads so that we could gain an appreciation for the more settled rural countryside of southern Victoria. After a very nice lunch near the coast we set out for the various peninsulas that jut out into the Southern Ocean near the city of Portland. At the Cape Nelson lighthouse we scanned the frothy waters below the incredibly scenic cliffs and were rewarded with views of passing Short-tailed Shearwaters, dozens of Australian Gannets and a graceful White-capped Albatross that cruised by at a fairly close range with a languid grace that belied its great size. A small back road took us out to the tip of nearby Point Danger, the location of the only mainland rookery for Australasian Gannets. A Brush Bronzewing flushed off the road as we neared the gannet colony, providing only the briefest of views before vanishing into the thick coastal heath. The tip of the peninsula itself is fenced off with predator proof fencing, allowing the several hundred pairs of Gannets to breed unmolested by feral cats and foxes. Most of the birds were snoozing in the afternoon sun, but a few were flying around the coast or courting around the periphery of the colony. We spent about a half hour here, watching the Gannets and spotting a few passing Cormorants, Great Crested Terns and Silver and Kelp Gulls before making a quick stop at the nearby Fawtbrop Lagoon near downtown Portland. This shallow and tidal lagoon provides good habitat for birds at high tide, and we spent about a half hour picking through the assembled birds. Some close male Chestnut Teal showed well, as did a screaming pair of Pied Oystercatchers that sailed right overhead as they headed out to the beaches, and a handsome pair of Kelp Gulls that were loafing in the center of the lake. Leaving Portland behind we traveled west along the coastal highway which passes through pasture lands and small villages, all set against the huge coastal dunes.

A late afternoon leisurely stop at Killarney Beach was very productive as we managed to arrive at high tide and at a period where a lot of decaying kelp was lying on the beach. The coastal lagoons before the beach were full of birds, and we spent a bit of time ogling the breeding plumaged Hoary-headed Grebes, family groups of Pacific Black Duck and Black Swan, and foraging Whiskered and Little Terns at close range along the entrance road. Arriving at the stunningly attractive sandy beach that is protected from the impressive surf by a series of black volcanic fringing islands we then walked along and found an excellent mix of waders loafing on the islands. Among the many Ruddy Turnstones and Red-necked Stints were a few Sanderling (a scarce wintering species in Australia) and both Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers. A bit further down the beach we found the real prize, with two pairs of elegant Hooded Plovers along a more secluded section of beach. These are perhaps the most attractive of the Australian plovers, with a solid black head and red eye ring and bill. Much like other beach-breeding plovers in the United States and elsewhere these birds are heavily impacted by beach disturbance, and are a species of great conservation concern. They breed along the south coast of the country, as scattered pairs on isolated beaches, and are listed as globally endangered. As the sun began to sink lower in the sky we were treated to a breathtaking spectacle of lighting on the shallow waters of the bay. With the sun’s rays poking out through a dramatic sky and the white beach and dunes offsetting the bright blue-green waters the overall effect was mesmerizing. While taking in the view we also picked up a few more beach species including some perched Great Crested Terns and a very cooperative Red-capped Plover. Happy with our views we finished the drive over to Warrnambool arriving in time for a really delicious dinner.

A bit to the north of our hotel in Warrnambool a farmer had recently reported an Australian Bustard in a large paddock with some of his cattle. The bird was seen on subsequent days but there hadn’t been any news for about a week. We decided to start the day on a bit of a wild bustard chase, and although the bird was not apparently in the area we enjoyed the scenery and the small flocks of Australian Shelduck, Australian Magpies and Skylarks that dotted the fields (along with some quite curious cattle). For the majority of the morning though we were on track and exploring the world-famous Great Ocean Road. This coastal highway allows access to one of the most picturesque vistas in the county. Huge volcanic cliffs eroding away into the sea create towering rock stacks, small islets, arches and blowholes and attract millions of visitors annually. Although the morning dawned colder and windier than the previous day it soon warmed up nicely for our visit to the coast. Our first stop, the Bay of Islands, took a little longer than I had anticipated. A nice colony of Silver Gulls was on one of the stacks just off the viewing platform, with several pairs of cliff nesting Long-billed Corellas mixed in. At one point all the birds took off screeching and shortly thereafter a large female Peregrine came shooting over the cliffs at eye level. Another close sea stack held a small colony of Black-faced Cormorants, our 5th and final species of cormorant for the trip, and one that is largely restricted to the Bass Straight coastlines of Tasmania and Victoria. Also here we spent some time watching passing White-capped Albatross and Short-tailed Shearwaters, some of which were actually quite close to shore, and were happy to see a Rufous Bristlebird gallop across the carpark. Our other stops along the coast were truly scenic, with white sand beaches, cliffs, arches and sea stacks galore. At the world famous 12 Apostles (A series of large seastacks jutting out from an incredibly picturesque beach) we enjoyed the view as well as a pretty flowering Banksia, whose large yellow flower cones were attracting a cooperative Little Wattlebird. The bird diversity in the heath was actually quite good, with singing Yellow-faced and New Holland Honeyeaters, displaying Superb Fairy-Wrens, sprightly groups of Silvereye and hunting Brown Falcon and Australian Kestrel.

We left the coast (and the crowds) behind and turned inland for the town of Colac, where after lunch we visited the Colac Lake Bird Reserve; a small marshy section of the lake shore that was simply stuffed with waterbirds and a nice selection of passerines in the hedges and reedbeds. One of the first species that we noticed was an Intermediate Egret that was involved in some sort of squabble with a nearby Great Egret. This bird had been reported in the area prior to our discovery, and is a quite rare species this far south in the country. The heron show also included a handsome White-necked (Pacific) Heron, that we took the time to really look at closely. Although a common species it is a stunning one, and this individual was in full breeding regalia with long purplish feathers over its wings. The fields around the marsh were hosting an array of giant Australasian Swamphens that were walking around and flicking their tails in a generally irate way. The marsh held a nice array of waterfowl, with several family groups of Pacific Black Duck and Black Swan, and a few Hardhead and Pink-eared Ducks. Here too we enjoyed close views of all three Australian grebe species and a cute Golden-headed Cisticola that was tucked into the drier grasses along the trail. Our triplist also received a boost from the male Greenfinch that was singing over the walkway, to varying degrees of acclaim from our group.

Our last stop of the day was to another large lake, just a bit to the west of Geelong. The shallow Lake Modewarre held thousands of waterfowl, with massive groups of zebra-striped Pink-eared Ducks and herds of Black Swan. Along the back of the lake we found a flock of Banded Stilts numbering in the high hundreds, as well as good numbers of Red-necked Avocets and migrant Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpipers. The sheer number of birds here was staggering, with the numbers likely bolstered by waterbirds retreating to the coast from their breeding areas in the drought stricken interior of the country. The stars of the show here though were the pair of Cape Barren Geese that were sedately grazing on the short grassy margins of the lake. These odd geese are of an uncertain taxonomic placement, but are likely most closely related to the extinct geese of New Zealand or perhaps the shelducks. The have the somewhat unique capacity to drink salt or brackish water, which permits them to survive on small islands around the Bass Straight that have no freshwater sources where most of the species breeds. In recent years pairs have begun to use more inland locations with suitable short grasses, and their population appears to be on the increase. With the winds building and the temperature dropping quite a bit from the comfortable conditions that we had enjoyed midday we decided to avoid the worst of Melbourne traffic by heading to our hotel, arriving in the early evening for dinner and preparation for our early flight to Hobart the next morning.

Our final leg of the trip involves a three-day, two-night visit to Tasmania, the smallest and most wild (and some would claim most scenic) state in the country. We boarded our flight in the early morning and a short hour and a half later landed in a sunny and spring-like Hobart. Here we encountered our first and only logistical snafu with the tour when our van hire company had neglected to actually hold onto a van for us. With no feasible replacement available we decided to use a smaller car, and luckily for us, with a friendly group and little luggage we made it work with few to no complications. Sorting the issue out though did take a bit of time. Eventually we headed just a few kilometers up the road to make several stops around the RAMSAR designated Orielton Lagoon, perhaps the best area for wintering migratory waders in all of Tasmania. Here we found a resting flock of Bar-tailed Godwits and were thrilled to find a single Hudsonian Godwit resting alongside them. This is a truly rare bird in Australia; and one that should be wintering on the other side of the Pacific Ocean somewhere in the southern cone of Argentina or Chile. The previous year one bird had over-summered (during the northern hemisphere’s winter) in the area and the theory was that the bird successfully returned for a second season after migrating to the arctic. The lagoon was hosting a nice selection of birds including another hulking Musk Duck, several breeding plumaged Hoary-headed and Great Crested Grebes, and lots of Silver and Kelp Gulls.

Around the margins of the marsh, and out in some adjacent fields a few participants found our first of the 12 Tasmanian endemic birds, with a pair of giant Tasmanian Native-Hens that were stalking around looking like some sort of oversized hen chicken with a flashing ruby eye and bright yellow legs. Those that missed the first few were soon satisfied, as we saw many more along the road edge as we drove south through the heart of Hobart, a beautiful city with a lot of quite old colonial buildings and a vibrant downtown core to our next birding destination near the tiny town of Margate. At Dru Point Park we quickly found two more endemics, with a pair of quite vocal Black-headed Honeyeaters foraging in a flowering gum tree, and several massive (it’s the largest species of honeyeater), Yellow Wattlebirds. The views of the small children in the nearby park riding their bicycles around a mock-up city street network containing stop signs and signals were also memorable. I just hope that when the kids grow up a bit and get behind the wheel of an actual car they obey the traffic signs to a higher degree than they displayed for us! In the early afternoon, we hopped on the small car ferry that plies the short passage between Kettering and North Bruny Island. We noted the several Black-faced Cormorants that were sitting on the ferry dock drove onto the boat, and saw several plunge diving Australasian Gannets as we crossed the straight to the island.

Once on Bruny we drove directly down to South Bruny Island to meet up with Dr. Tonia Cochran. A brief stop to pick up some of the hotel keys permitted us to study some loafing Pacific Gulls along the road. These large headed and massive billed birds look like they would have no problem digging into an unopened can of Campbell’s Soup with their hatchet-like bills. Saddled with a poor choice of common name as the species largely occurs in the Southern Ocean rather than the Pacific these birds are local and never numerous, and are possibly in decline due to the recent arrival of Kelp Gulls to the region. We arrived at Inala (Tonia’s place) in the mid afternoon and spent a bit of time checking in to our various cabins. Tonia has lived on Bruny for several decades, and manages and owns a large property on South Bruny that regularly hosts all 12 Tasmanian endemics. Her almost herculean efforts in local conservation, especially her work with Swift Parrots and Forty-spotted Pardalotes have gained her national and international attention, and her knowledge of the ecology of the area is exceptional. In the late afternoon, we took a walk around her property. Climbing up into the specially constructed Pardalote viewing tower allowed us to have nearly eye-level views of two nesting pairs of Forty-spotted Pardalotes. Although perhaps not as colorful as the other species of Pardalotes these guys with their bright yellow faces and rows of small white spots on their otherwise black wings are still sharply marked. With an estimated global population of only 1500 birds, of which half live on Bruny Island and over 100 live on the Inala property it is a species of great conservation concern. The species seems to be a specialist on White Gum Eucalyptus, foraging on an sugary secretion that the tree makes in response to the pardalotes biting into the meristems of the leaves. Without stands of mature White Gums the Pardalotes do not thrive, and these groves are irregularly scattered (and being cleared) throughout the birds tiny range. After our fill of pardalotes we walked back into the more forested section of the property where we soon located a Bassian Thrush hopping along the edge of the road. These handsome and large thrushes spend most of their time hopping about the dense understory of wetter forests, and can be a devil of a bird to track down on command. It soon jumped off the road edge and dashed down a large tunnel in the grasses made by pademelons as they do their daily commute out to the pastures to graze. Further down the trail we found our first Strong-billed Honeyeaters that were clambering around and digging into flaky treebark like oversized Treecreepers, as well as our only Olive Whistler of the trip. Back at the more open areas around the lodge we stopped to observe the hordes of Bennet’s Wallabies and Tasmanian Pademelons that were hopping around the margins of the paddocks, as well as male Flame and Dusky Robins that were perched up along the fenceposts. With a lot of new species, and over half of the endemic Tasmanian birds already seen well we were a jovial bunch when we set off to dinner at the local pub.

After dinner and despite the rather long day the group was eager for more. With ongoing construction on the Little Penguin viewing boardwalk we were concerned that access might be more difficult than usual. Given the uncertainty we decided to visit the Penguins on the first night so that we would have more time for nocturnal mammals the next day. We drove north to the narrow isthmus that connects the two halves of Bruny Island and after affixing red cellophane onto our torches climbed down the makeshift trail to the beach. It was then an easy matter to stroll down the beach to penguin rookery area, although within just a few feet it was apparent that it was to be a rather noteworthy walk. Apparently, a series of midwinter storms and the now regular occurrence of previously rare “King” tides had ravaged the eastern coastline of the neck. What only last year was a gently sloping beach with low dunes and ready access for Penguins to waddle up into the more vegetated section of the isthmus was now a rapidly eroding and quite dramatic sandy cliff that was well over three meters high. Large heath trees and clumps of coastal grasses and sedges were lying on the beach or protruding from the sheer cliff at a bewildering array of angles. This rather shocking development took all of us (including Tonia) by surprise and given the impossibility of a penguin making the ascent was likely equally shocking to the Penguins returning to the colony to breed this year. We did manage to find two Little Penguins at the base of the cliff, both wearing somewhat confused faces as they stared up the precipice and rued the day their ancestors gave up on flight. As we could hear penguins up above the cliff it was apparent that at least some birds were using the provided culverts under the road and accessing the area from the west side of the isthmus. A stronger example of the effects of global climate change would be hard to come by, and if the erosion continues unabated it will not be long before the two halves of Bruny Island become separate islands once again. As we drove back to Inala we paused often to look at Common Brushtail Possums along the road edge and, especially exciting, a large Echidna that was tucked into the brush.

For our penultimate day we spent our time exploring South Bruny Island with Tonia along as our guide. The weather was postcard perfect, with bright sunshine and comfortable spring temperatures. Our first stop was along a short track through a patch of drier woods where we found a couple of perched Swift Parrots high in the canopy. These endangered birds are an endemic breeder in Tasmania, but cross the Bass Straight to winter around Southeast mainland Australia. With the introduction of Sugar Gliders, likely escaped pets, around Tasmania the birds are in steep decline as they evolved with the absence of a mammalian nest predator. The breeding birds move around from year to year, and in 2016 nearly all the recorded nest sites were on Bruny Island (which remains thankfully glider free). An ongoing project involving land owners and volunteer arborists was in full swing (so to speak) during our visit, with nearly 30 people installing artificial nest boxes or creating hollows in larger trees in an attempt to bolster the population. As the bird is officially protected in Australia its presence serves as a deterrent to the logging companies and state forest managers, ensuring that at least around Bruny Island little commercial logging is underway. A pair of Tasmanian Scrubwrens was hopping along on the track here too, and with a bit of effort we located a couple of Yellow-throated Honeyeaters. The track led down to a very picturesque beach and the narrow channel into Cloudy Bay. Along the shore we picked out pairs of Pied Oystercatchers and a scarce for the area Hoary-headed Grebe. Here too we experience an interesting phenomenon when the tide suddenly shifted to an incoming one, creating a few wet shoes and a small bore tide that rolled through the channel. Around the South Bruny Lighthouse, an imposing structure perched up on a seaside cliff near the southern tip of the island and overlooking a rough patch of the Southern Ocean we spotted a several Shy Albatross soaring down below us and called in a brilliantly coloured Shining Bronze-Cuckoo that perched next to us in the heath. After a picnic lunch along the beach that Captain Cook landed on many years before we moved inland and uphill. A walk through the denser upland rainforest produced a pair of the pretty Tasmanian form of Silvereye, several Tasmanian Thornbills that flashed their puffy white pantaloons at us as they repeatedly crossed the track in front of us, and a glowing male Pink Robin. Here too were several Black Currawongs, yet another Tasmania endemic, and one with a rollicking and unique voice.

At this point we had only one endemic withstanding, the often difficult and generally unobtrusive Scrubtit. It took us a few tries at various spots on the mountain but eventually we found one of the somewhat flashy thornbills along the road. We drove back to our cottages by going over the South Bruny Ranges on a mostly unused old logging road that provided a sweeping view of this dynamic place that is so strongly reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. The similarities to that part of the world didn’t end with the scenery, as dinners featured local seafood, and berry-rich pies that could easily be served up in a Seattle restaurant. Back near Inala we made a final stop along the road at a particularly grassy and weedy paddock where our hoped for Beautiful Firetail performed perfectly. This is another stunningly attractive Australian waxbill, with a pale blue eyering, bright red bill and rump and a brown body liberally banded with white and black stripes. While watching the firetail as it hopped along the fenceline we were alerted to the presence of more Swift Parrots feeding on the flowers in a huge Eucalypt. Many of the birds were low in the tree, affording amazing views as they clambered around in the branches and hung upside down to feed. We estimated that the tree held several dozen birds, sadly a measurable percentage of the global population.

After dinner, we drove a bit further north onto North Bruny Island, which has a bit more extensive dry forest than the wetter forests in South Bruny. We stopped several times to watch Red-bellied Pademelons (a very small wallaby-like creature) hopping away from the van and also enjoyed views of several more Common Brushtail Possums. One of the Brushtails was a very rare “Golden” colour morph, a buffy-beige toned animal that is not encountered on mainland Australia and very rare even on Bruny where the general lack of predators and high incidence of inbreeding make the survival and creation of hypomelanistic or albino animals more likely. It took us some time however to find our real quarry for the evening. We eventually did find three Eastern Quolls, a delightful small carnivorous marsupial that occurs in several color varieties and is covered with small white dots. Our first was a beautiful young black specimen that lingered for quite some time in the light of our torches. Quolls are in trouble across their range in Australia, with many species reduced to off-islands or tiny reserves. Once occurring through much of SE Australia the Eastern Quoll is now effectively a Tasmanian endemic. The population on Bruny is quite healthy, perhaps due to the lack of Foxes and plentiful small mammal and insect prey populations.

Our last full day of the tour started back at the Lighthouse where despite our efforts we could not coax any Brown Quail out of their heathy bowers. Along the road though we flushed up a Brush Bronzewing from a small puddle, and spotted brilliantly flashy male Flame and Scarlet Robins in the forest. Back at the Inala lodge grounds we enjoyed more views of fidgety Superb Fairy-Wrens, a perky pair of Forty-spotted Pardalotes that were gathering nesting material from along the driveway, and several tame Pademelons. Just as we were preparing to depart Tonia spotted a White-bellied Sea-Eagle that came in to the proffered wallaby carcasses that the staff pick up off the islands roads to place in the back paddock at the lodge. We hastened over to the official viewing blind and were treated to amazingly close up views of this majestic raptor, a great ending to our time at Inala. In the mid-morning we bade farewell to Tonia and then drove north to the ferry terminal. Our trip was interrupted when we spotted a young Echidna shuffling along in an open paddock. We watched him for a while as he slowly worked down towards us, occasionally raising his rubbery snout up to smell the air or stopping for a scratch. We reached Margate again in time for a bakery lunch. As our flight this year was departing in the late afternoon we were able to take in a few more spots around Hobart, where we found a nice array of ducks including several Freckled Ducks, some Australian Shoveler and Native Hens and Swamphens with fuzzy chicks. After the lagoon we opted to take the back roads to the airport, for a chance to see some of the Tasmanian countryside. We returned to our base in Melbourne in time for dinner, and had a good time reminiscing about our 2.5 week tour that covered 3500KM around Victoria and Tasmania and a wide array of habitats and birds. Looking over the country map of Australia it was a bit sobering to see how little of the continent we actually covered, and left many participants dreaming of returning to this truly special country.

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 30 October 2018