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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Victoria and Tasmania

Plains-wanderer, Pardalotes, and Penguins

2016 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our inaugural running of the new 17-day tour around Victoria and Tasmania encountered unseasonably cold and wet conditions. The winter of 2016 was especially cold, and once the rains started in April they simply never ceased. All over huge swaths of the country standing water and flooded creeks abounded after years of drought. Although this state of affairs is a boon to the wildlife, and farmers (assuming the rains actually do cease at some point allowing a harvest to take place), it made for challenging conditions for our visit.  With waterbirds dispersed on a continental scale and most of the dry-country nomads happily breeding in the unusually wet interior of the country there were fewer species down in Victoria than generally expected in spring. Nevertheless we had a thoroughly enjoyable trip, with 270 species of birds and 18 species of mammals.  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. And the stunningly close views of a female Plains-Wanderer under an inky black sky festooned with stars and the visible milky way figured prominently as well. But with birds like Powerful Owl, Superb Lyrebird, Regent Parrot, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, Mallee Emu-Wren, Australian Golden Whistler, Banded Stilt, Hooded Plover, Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo 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, two Platypus, a mother and baby Koala, three Eastern Quolls, a couple of Greater Gliders and a family of Sugar Gliders among the best finds. I very much look forward to returning to this corner of Australia in 2018!

IN FULL: 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. Flowering gum trees around the parking lot were hosting an array of honeyeaters including several hulking Red Wattlebirds, and lots of White-plumed Honeyeaters. Rainbow Lorikeets, clad in a virtual color-wheel of reflective hues perched atop the larger trees, and pairs of brilliantly pink and silver Galah flew overhead. 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 Laughing Kookaburra 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 Splendid Fairywrens proved quite common along the path, with the brilliantly blue and black males a definite hit. A Spotted Pardalote came in to our calls but remained stubbornly backlit in the higher part of the tree. These jewel-like sprites, with brilliantly yellow throats and vents and spotted crowns, necks and backs are members of a very small endemic family related to the Thornbills and Scrubwrens. Just a little further along the trail we chanced upon our second species of Pardalote, with a pair of Striated Pardalotes that were prospecting for nesting cavities in a large tree. Willie Wagtails and Gray Fantails were dashing about in the understory and mid-canopy, flaring their wide tails and being quite confiding. We even experienced one of those quintessential Australian moments with a pair of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos that flew overhead uttering their incredibly loud calls and then landed just a few feet away to check out a large tree cavity. Eventually we moved over to another section of the park where we were able to study two more brilliant parrots in close proximity. Pairs of the aptly named Crimson Rosella shone in their carmine and blue feathers from the spindly Eucalypts, perhaps even outdone by several Eastern Rosellas nearby. These red, blue, green, white, yellow and white birds look somewhat like they were designed by a group of schoolchildren with an imagination and full section of crayola crayons. Also along this trail we found a nesting pair of Gray Currawongs, our first White-naped Honeyeaters and a very confiding Dusky Woodswallow. Introduced European Rabbits were common in the underbrush, and we were thrilled to find a mob of Eastern Gray Kangaroos foraging out in the grassy meadow nearby. As the sun began to drop below the horizon we headed back to our hotel, enjoying Galah, Crested Pigeons, Magpie-larks and Red-rumped Parakeets feeding in the grassy medians of the highway. 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 deviate a bit from the planned itinerary because recent heavy rains had forced the closure of the central half of the Great Ocean Road. Initially we would have driven through that portion of the road near the end of the fortnight as we headed back into Melbourne, but with the road closed it made sense to bird the far East end of the coastal highway on Day 1. So we set off early, arriving at the headlands at Point Addis a little before eight o’clock. Our first bird upon exiting the van was a passing Shy Albatross! Any birding day with an albatross has to be a good one, and 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 and were rewarded with a few Caspian and Greater Crested Terns, and several small flocks of Australasian Gannets. Our main targets for the morning were all coastal heathland birds. Within just a few hundred feet of the carpark we spotted a distantly perched young Wedge-tailed Eagle, and saw a single fast flying Blue-winged Parrot flying over the heath. The star of Point Addis though were the three Rufous Bristlebirds that came out around the margins of the parking area, repeatedly foraging along the roadside edge as they swished their oddly floppy tails around. Bristlbirds resemble some odd cross of a Laughingthrush and a Thrasher, and are one of the several ancient endemic passerine families, and the three extant species are all range-restricted and potentially hard to see well. Elated with our excellent views we drove a bit further south along the coast to Airey’s Inlet. Here we took advantage of the calm winds and sun to bird a large swath of coastal heath for some of the smaller and less obvious denizens of this largely impenetrable habitat. A pair of Southern Emu-Wrens were remarkably cooperative, with the female repeatedly perching up at very close range and several lengthy looks at the beautiful blue-throated male. 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 were several singing White-eared Honeyeaters, our first Brown-headed and New Holland Honeyeaters and a quite cooperative Gray Butcherbird. As we walked back to the van we stopped to admire several small carnivorous sundew-like plants in the heath, and called in a vocal Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo that perched up on a nearby wire for us to view at length in the scope. These tiny and short tailed Cuckoos closely resemble the African Emerald and Dideric Cuckoos, with their reflective green backs, and certainly differ from the cuckoos more familiar to North American eyes. At a nearby small pond held our first stately Black Swans (yet another example of how things in Australia feel familiar but yet startlingly different to “home”), with several jet black adults and fluffy grey cygnets in tow. Here too were several vaguely menacing Australasian Swamphens, and their smaller cousins; Eurasian Coots and Dusky Moorhen. Our last stop before lunch was along a quiet gravel road through a good patch of coastal forest. Here we teased out both Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze-Cuckoos, as well as a host of Gray Fantails and our first White-throated Treecreeper (yet another endemic family). A pair of Gang-gang Cockatoos were spied as they fed quietly in some taller Eucalyptus, with both the slate gray male with his bright red head and curled crest and the lighter gray female with her beautifully yellow and red banded belly were seen at some length. This is arguably the most attractive of the many gaudy Cockatoos of Australia, and tends to be more scarce and less obvious than the more outgoing white species. We took lunch at a local bakery, which provided a good introduction to the world of Australian meat pies and the intricacies of ordering Australian coffee. 

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. With the heavy recent rains a large exodus of birds had occurred throughout Werribbee, and instead of ponds thick with waders and waterfowl we found most of the lakes relatively empty. There was still excellent diversity though, and it was a bird-rich afternoon. The reedbeds around some of the impoundments contained chuckling Australian Reed-Warbler, Little Grassbird and brightly marked Golden-headed Cisticolas. A pair of huge Brolga Crane were spotted as they foraged in the shallow waters, and deeper ponds still held Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Blue-billed Duck and White and Straw-necked Ibis. One particularly productive pond was hosting thousands of Silver Gulls and dozens of the brutishly large and surprisingly colorful Australian Pelican. Here too we scanned the submerged treetops that protruded from the lake and were rewarded with Whiskered Terns, and a few Hardhead and Gray Teal. Of particular note was a single Pink-eared Duck, quite a bizarre creature with its oversized almost tubular bill, zebra striped flanks and eye makeup that would be the envy of a Parisian runway model. IN the drier fields and fencerows we picked up several flocks of Zebra Finches, a recent colonizer to the coastal parts of Victoria, several Australian Pipits, dozens of Eurasian Skylark, and many attractive Fairy Martins; a sharply patterned small martin with a distinctive reddish crown and bright white rump. Raptors too were in evidence, with Whistling, Australian, and Black Kites, Brown Falcon and Australian Kestrels being admired in turn. We finished the day by birding along the coast, where we located our hoped-for Fairy Terns along with two Little Terns that were loafing on some offshore rocks. Hundreds of Red-necked Stints and a few Curlew Sandpiper and Pied Oystercatchers were enjoying the same rocks. While we teased through the flock of waders our attentions were often diverted by passing cormorants. Pied, Litte Pied, and Little Black Cormorants all came through periodically, allowing us to compare their disparate shapes and plumages.  Once we returned to the hotel, tired and a bit more aware of Melbourne traffic than perhaps we would have liked we discovered that we had seen an amazing 102 species for the day!

Day two found us departing for You Yangs National Park, an isolated volcanic mountain that juts out of the Melbourne plain a little SW of the city. Here we spent an enjoyable hour and a half wandering around under the canopy of an open Eucalypt forest. Several family groups of White-winged Choughs were perhaps the highlight sighting. These very communal and odd birds superficially resemble crows, but their odd gait, red eyes, weak looking downward curved bills and small heads belie that comparison. Extended family groups of Choughs assist in building their large and perfectly formed adobe nests, and the flocks forage together with near constant chatter between individuals. Around the visitor center we located our first perky Yellow-faced and Black-chinned Honeyeaters foraging in some of the blossoming trees. An Eastern Yellow Robin played hide and seek with us along one of the tracks, and we were happy to have a pair of Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes perch just above us in a large bare tree. As we were readying to depart an Australian Hobby flew overhead, affording brief but good views. These elegant and long-winged falcons are widespread but scarce across the country, with sightings hard to come by on demand. Pleased with our sightings, though admittedly saddened by the lack of Koalas we bade farewell to our local guide and journeyed around to the Northeast of Melbourne to meet up with some Australian birders and old friends who had a picnic lunch and some excellent birds and mammals laid out for us at Banyule Flats. This small city park is part of a large area of protected land along the Yarra River, and after some meat pies and cinnamon raisin bread we set off down the trail to explore the 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 four individuals along the riverbank, a testament to how thoroughly our friends had scouted the area prior to our visit. Fan-tailed and Pallid Cuckoos performed well, perching up in prominent trees and calling repeatedly.  Laughing Kookaburras and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos kept the soundscape decidedly Australian as we walked down to the riverbank in search of Platypus. Luck was on our side, as we soon spotted two individual Platypus swimming in the turbid water and occasionally diving down in search of food on the streambed. The ease in which we detected these foot long and often elusive animals was remarkable given how many Australians have never seen them in the wild. Truly a unique creature, these egg-laying mammals with their hard rubbery duck-like bills, webbed feet, poisonous spurs and thick beaver-like pelts are perhaps one of the most odd animals on the planet. A bit further down the trail we stopped to scope a White-faced Heron sitting on its large stick nest, and an Australian Darter perched just above the river. All too soon it was time to depart Melbourne and head a bit further East up the Yarra valley to the well-forested Yarra Ranges. Our last birding stop for the day was seemingly in a different world. The air had a surprising chill as 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 other Eucalypt species. Although the forest trail was quiet we did pick out several pairs of Brown Thornbill and White-browed 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. We spent a bit of time attempting to track down a calling Pilotbird, a large thornbill relative that frequents the dense understory of these wet forests. Although we did find one close to a road the impenetrable tree ferns and shrubs blocked our view (though a few participants did see motion behind the greenery). We reached our hotel, a beautiful lodge tucked into a patch of forest near the picturesque town of Healesville in time for dinner. As there was virtually no wind and no sign of the forecasted rain we elected to set off after dinner to the nearby Badger Weir for a short session looking for nocturnal mammals and owls. We scored in a big way with both groups!  An inquisitive Greater Sooty Owl came in to check us out, lingering on a high overhead branch and allowing us to obtain really superlative views of its charcoal back and wings, ashy breast and silvery-gray facial disk. Its harsh and somewhat hair-raising chatter followed us along as we continued uphill, perhaps ushering the group out of its territory. Just a little further on we detected a calling Southern Boobook Owl and were soon looking at its brown streaked breast and large yellow eyes in the light of our torch. Two fuzzy black Greater Gliders were spotted and well-studied as they calmly looked down from the comfort of their 150 foot high trees, and just before we headed back to the van we picked out the red eyeshine of a Mountain Brushtailed Possum. Two life owls and two life mammals in a scant hour and a half, with excellent views of all – I wish all owling excursions could go so well!

Day three was our day in and around the wet forests of the Yarra Ranges. A pre-breakfast stroll through the woods at Badger Weir revealed a host of new species for us, including two Superb Lyrebirds that we found walking along the edge of the paved road and scratching in the leaf litter. Superb (and the closely related Albert’s) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the world’s oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife as they were recorded imitating not only the birds that live around them, but other ambient noises like chainsaws and camera shutters with remarkable fidelity. Around the picnic tables we found a nice assortment of species feeding on some spilled birdseed. Groups of the scarlet and blue Crimson Rosellas, including several green youngsters were seemingly omnipresent. A nice surprise awaited us tucked in amongst the feeding Rosellas when we discovered an Olive Whistler bouncing around the gazebo. These normally quite retiring Whistlers can be hard to track down in the understory of the dense wet forests that they prefer, so we counted ourselves lucky to see one so oblivious to our presence and so in the open. We spent a bit of time watching pairs of White-browed and Large-billed Scrubwrens bouncing around in the foliage and with some patience also tracked down a couple of quite active Striated Thornbills in the mid-story. Despite all of these birds though I suspect that the morning’s outing will best be remembered for the show of Robins. These rotund and very charismatic birds belong to yet another Australasian bird family. The handsome males are decked out in bright reds, pinks or yellows depending upon the species. Around the picnic ground we spotted several male Flame Robins, perched up on the ground or on short posts. 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. Also here we found a few perky Eastern Yellow Robins, a flycatching male Rose Robin and, perhaps the brightest of the bunch, a male Pink Robin sitting on a fencerow at eye level. Replete in iridescent pink and coal black this is truly a beautiful bird! After about two hours we returned to the hotel for a delicious cooked breakfast and then spent the remaining part of the morning birding along the Mount Leonard Road, back up in the higher part of the Yarra Ranges surrounded by huge Mountain Ash Trees. Here we found the forests to be fairly quiet and wet. Despite a valiant effort none of the vocal Eastern Whipbirds that we detected along the road seemed willing to pop up for a view. A very vocal Shining Bronze-Cuckoo however was much more confiding. Many more Flame Robins danced along the roadside for us, and when we stopped to admire them we were briefly surrounded by a small group of delicately coloured Silvereye and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Grey Fatails. In the afternoon we acted on a tip from our local contact in the area whose efforts to check on several areas around his hometown for some species that we were interested in proved fruitful indeed. After about a 40 minute drive south of Healesville we were shown to a pair of Powerful Owls. These huge owls seem to enjoy the suburban/forest interface, feasting on possums, and the occasional cats that thrive in the fire-suppressed and flowering-plant rich gardens. We enjoyed lengthy views of a 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. After the great success with Australias largest owl we did a bit of general birding in the woods and were rewarded with views of several Eastern Spinebill, a particularly handsome and well patterned species, and a pair of nest building Varied Sittellas. Sittellas are akin to our nuthatches, and although widespread in Australia are nowhere common. The perfectly camouflaged nest looked exactly like the branch that it was attached to, and we were thrilled to find out that the nest represented the first known nesting record locally! After bidding farewell to our local guide we returned to the comfortable hotel in Healesville for another delicious dinner. Several participants were adventurous enough to order the Kangaroo steaks, and virtually all declared the Sticky Date Puddings a definite must have.

For our last morning in the wet forests around the Yarra Ranges we decided to return to Badger Weir and walk the short road in to the picnic area. We again enjoyed excellent views of the semi-tame Crimson Rosellas, oblivious Laughing Kookaburras, and several Black Wallaby around the picnic grounds. As we walked a bit further into the forest a singing Australian Golden Whistler perched just off the trail, shining like an electric yellow, black and white beacon against the tree fern backdrop. Here too we finally connected with a responsive pair of Red-lored Treecreepers, a species that is on the very edge of its range here and one that can often be difficult to pin down. As we began the return trip to the van our attentions were diverted to a pair of Australian King Parrots, a strikingly colored and streamlined species clad in emerald and scarlet, which perched up in the canopy for us. After seeing several individuals flying through over the last several days it was nice to see one perched. Eastern Yellow Robins hopped along the trail in front of the group, and we were happy to see Striated Thornbill and Large-billed Scrubwren quite well as they foraged at eye level. We returned to the hotel for a cooked breakfast and a bit of packing and then 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 and Long-billed (our first for the trip) Corellas, Noisy Miners and Common Bronzewings parading around on the lawns and sitting within an 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. Within a few minutes of our finding the bower the male bird came in to check his handiwork, showing off for us well as it hopped around the bower adjusting straws that had fell out of place. Soon afterwards a female arrived, a much more somberly colored barred bird whose violet eyes fairly jump out from the duller green/grey plumage. Although she dropped down near the bower and the male picked up an especially bright blue bottle top as an overture she remained a bit reclusive. Happy with our views and the lesson on bowerbird breeding behavior we decided to leave the pair in peace and retreated to the van to 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. As we started on the motorway after a quick lunch in Benalla we were thrilled to see an Echidna waddling across the highway. A huge double oil lorry actually swerved to avoid hitting the animal, and we watched as it disappeared into the thick grasses on the edge of the road.

We arrived at the tiny hamlet of Chiltern in the mid afternoon and soon were off with our local contacts for a few hours of birding. Like much of the state of Victoria the Chitern area had experienced an abnormally wet (almost double the annual rainfall average) winter, and was unseasonably cold. A lot of the spring migrants and local breeders were still absent or not very vocal and due to a recent spate of heavy rains several of the local specialties had shifted from their normal haunts. Undeterred we headed a bit south to a district of Chiltern Mt. Pilot National Park where our local guides had spotted a female Koala with a large baby just a few hours before our arrival. To our delight she was still there, sleeping away in a short Eucalyt tree hugging her baby tightly on her chest. After missing this signature mammal in several places over the previous few days it was with a sense of relief that this one cooperated so well. Koalas are highly affected by habitat fragmentation and road construction, and populations around Australia are suffering from disease, genetic bottlenecks and brushfires, with few really robust populations across Victoria. Here too we found a few flowering White Box trees that were attracting several Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, a largish, distinctive and brightly colored yellow honeyeater that can be common around the park. After repositioning to another part of the park that had many more flowering box trees we spent the rest of the day slowly walking through the blossoming forest. As is usually the case, when you have blossom you have honeyeaters. How these nomadic birds seem to unerringly find patches of flowering trees is a bit of a mystery. 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. Perhaps the star of the honeyeater show were the few Blue-faced Honeyeaters, a very large and showy species with a patch of electric blue facial skin, bright green back and white underparts. Alas for us, the last of the local Regent Honeyeaters had departed the area about a week and a half before our visit. A signature species around Chiltern in the winter months (and occasionally over summering) these stunning birds have unfortunately recently been downgraded from endangered to critically endangered. A very active captive breeding program has proved successful and reintroductions are underway, but their rather specific habitat requirements make them susceptible to the rampant habitat fragmentation occurring in the SE part of the country. The bush held other species for us though with White-winged Choughs walking on the forest floor, Horsefield’s Bronze Cuckoos calling from the canopy and Weebill actively foraging in the midstory. The incredibly lush undergrowth filled with grasses and small orchids sat on very soggy ground, without the customary dry insect laden leaf litter that ground birds tend to forage on. As a result we saw no understory birds in the woods, with the Brown Treecreepers which normally feed a lot on the ground actually foraging up on tree trunks. As the day began to wane we managed to actually spot a perched Little Lorikeet that was scurrying around in the canopy, hanging upside down and foraging on the blooms. These tiny (almost sparrow sized parrots) are generally seen hurtling overhead, and are devilishly difficult to pin down once perched. Our local guides maintain 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 to look at a family of Sugar Gliders. These undeniably adorable small gliders, clad in silver-grey with black facial stripes, huge eyes and a loose fold of skin connecting their front and back legs that enables them to glide for over 100m are quite common in the park. We deployed a ladder and one-by-one climbed up and lifted the box lid, getting very close views of four furry faces peering back up at us. Eastern Banjo Frogs and Eastern Sign-bearing Froglet serenaded us as the sun fell, and we headed back to the Chiltern Tavern for a delicious Thai dinner.

In speaking with our local leaders, who have been birding in the Chiltern area for more than 40 years we began to appreciate just how strange the weather in the spring of 2016 is. After several years of drought the rains began to fall in April and simply have continued unabated through October. Many of the local birds seem scarce to absent, perhaps heading north to drier ground, and a lot of the flowering plants have been thrown off their normal flowering regime.  We met our local guides 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. We picked our way up to the back of the clearing, crossing supersaturated ground that more resembled a bog than a forest floor. Birdlife here seemed depressed early on but mid-morning the sun appeared and birds immediately responded by increasing their activity and birdsong. During a long loop walk around the drier parts of the clearing we found our first Yellow-rumped Thornbills foraging on the ground.  This brightly marked species, with its bright yellow rump and speckled forehead is perhaps my favorite of the many “normal” thornbills. Rufous Whistlers sang occasionally, and we tracked down an early migrant Leaden Flycatcher that was zipping about and habitually quivering its tail. A jewel-like Spotted Pardalote was found stripping bark from a low tree trunk. Its incredibly bright and intricate plumage elicited the customary Ooohs from the participants. Also eliciting enthusiastic approval was the pair 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. As we neared the road a pair of Crested Shrike-Tits put in an appearance 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.  What we thought would be a quick walk back to the car once returning to the road was anything but! Shortly after arriving around the large mistletoe bearing trees we 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. 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 but remaining stubbornly hidden. It took a while but we eventually found another individual that was happy to really show off. Elated with the find we followed it up with 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. As we watched them clamber around in a roadside shrub flaring their wide and white-banded tails we were distracted by some movement back in the woods. To our surprise the motion turned out to be a beautiful Speckled Warbler creeping around on the floor of the forest. This elegantly dressed bird is much brighter than the field guides might suggest, and is a local specialty of the Chiltern area. With the soggy conditions our local guides had not seen one for several months, so we were quite pleased with our impromptu sighting. Just before heading to lunch at the bakery in downtown Chiltern we walked along a powerline clearing that seemingly held the world’s population of Fuscous Honeyeaters that were being attracted by some low flowering Gravellia bushes. During the afternoon we made the drive north and west, crossing over the swollen Murray River and into New South Wales and arriving in the small city of Deniliquin in the late afternoon. Here we met 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. With the recent rains following several years of extensive drought the birds had actually vanished from their normal haunts, but luckily for us a few individuals returned to the region a few weeks before our visit. Although the birds were around the paddocks in which Phil usually accesses them were too wet to drive on. Consequently we had to walk, which meant arriving before dusk to listen for the females quite booming calls. We had an abbreviated check-in process and then quickly purchased dinner to go and headed out west to the plains. As we drove off the main highway and through open plains, lush with new grass growth from the rains we paused to admire a Banded Lapwing sitting near the track. This attractive white, black, red and yellow plover is a nomadic species that is scarce in the district, and one that had been absent from its regular haunts around Werribbee at the beginning of the tour. Once at the appropriate field we wondered what about this patch of plains made the area special. Phil informed us that the birds prefer a certain mixed structure of grass, with the appropriate amount of open ground and forb growth. As the sun set we strained our ears in an attempt to hear the low hoots of the female birds. Plains-wanderers have a “reversed” sex role, where the females call and display and the males incubate the eggs and look after the precocial young. This may be an adaptation that benefits the species as the females can produce a large number of eggs in a short time frame, thus rapidly increasing the overall population in times of plenty. Just after it was truly dark Phil and his friend the landowner of the station signaled that they had found a bird well out into the field. We hastened over, ignoring the squelchy ground and hordes of rapacious mosquitoes and were soon standing right next to a beautifully marked female Plains-wanderer. This is an oddly shaped bird, vaguely shaped like a long-legged and necked buttonquail with a bill that resembles that of a young upland sandpiper and virtually no tail. A bright rufous/chestnut breast band and black and white speckled collar add to its appeal. We were able to approach to within just a few meters of the bird, who soon crouched down watching us without any obvious discomfort. After a nice study and a few pictures we walked back towards the vans, stopping to admire a perched Little Buttonquail that cooperated almost as well as the Plains-wanderer. Under an inky black sky, with the Milky Way and the Southern Cross in plain view we congratulated ourselves on an amazing hour of birding! Enroute home we stopped to move a Sudell’s Spadefoot Toad off the road, and to watch Red and both Western and Eastern Grey Kangaroos loping in the fields. To top off the evening an Eastern Barn Owl flew past out van once we rejoined the highway! Arriving back at our Deniliquin hotel tired but elated, we fell into bed.

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. This normally modest sized creek had long passed flood stage and was straining its banks and still rising during our visit. Countless side creeks and billabongs were flooded and the access to the forest was made difficult as the normal walking tracks and access roads were all partly underwater as well. Still, the birds that we were hoping for were around, and by carefully picking our route we were able to soon find a quite cooperative male Superb Parrot that perched for a few minutes in front of us. 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. These huge trees are impressive and very slow growing, with the largest individuals perhaps topping 1000 years old. 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 wet 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. A beautiful male Sacred Kingfisher performed very well as it perched up in a large dead snag, fairly gleaming in its teal green and buff-bronze plumage. Some coaxing was required but we eventually sifted through the hordes of Brown Treecreepers, Weebill and White-plumed Honeyeaters to find our first Buff-rumped and Yellow Thornbills. Also new for us here were several pairs of Jacky Winter, a species of dully colored yet still charismatic Australian Robin. We watched as one pair fed their spotted youngster just above our heads, and later on in the morning found another pair tending their flimsy nest (so thin that you can actually see the eggs from underneath).

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. We stopped to admire a pair of huge Wedge-tailed Eagles that were perched and alternately soaring along the roadside, and while watching the eagles were thrilled to pick up a small flock of Cockatiels perched in a nearby dead tree. These familiar birds look perfectly in place in the Australian outback landscape (though it is perhaps odd for many non-Australian birders to see “pet” birds in the wild), and are highly nomadic, often appearing as if through spontaneous generation with the coming of the rains. Just a bit down the road we stopped for a small group of Apostlebirds (sadly not numbering 12) that were busily feeding a begging juvenile. 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. Once in the Black Box forest we soon found a largely elusive family group of Hooded Robins that after showing briefly melted into the open forest. A small flock of Southern Whiteface, a type of Thornbird proved much more cooperative. The star species of the late morning though was undoubtedly the pair of Diamond Firetail that we found foraging on the ground with the Whiteface. 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.

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. WE birded two small patches 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. Walking through the dense grasses (mostly of introduced species) we gained an appreciation for just how much the area had responded to the recent rains. 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!  As we returned to the car we stopped to admire a family group of Variegated Fairy-Wrens in a dense thicket. The males with their bright blue heads and chestnut wing patches are striking indeed, and after daily sightings of Superb Fairy-Wrens it was nice to have a second species of these dazzling birds in sight. We finished the day at another small revegetation plot adjacent to a large swamp. A vocal and displaying pair of Striped Honeyeaters and a flock of Yellow-throated Miners added to our ever-growing Honeyeater list, and a large family group of the exquisite White-winged Fairy-Wrens was found out in the saltbush flats. It’s not an easy task to pick a favorite Fairy-Wren, but for me these dazzlingly bright navy blue males with huge white wing patches are hard to beat. A quick scan of the swamp revealed a lone Yellow-billed Spoonbill sweeping its bill back and forth in the shallow waters, and a distant but identifiable Red-kneed Dotterel that was walking among the many nesting pairs of Pied Stilts.

The next day dawned clear but soon the long-forecast front edge of the storm found us and the weather took a decided turn for the worse. For the first few hours though we enjoyed just slowly driving west and back into Victoria. Stopping for whatever caught our attention we were able to enjoy good views of Australian Kestrels and Brown Falcons, flocks of Zebra Finch, Fairy Martins gathering mud for their nests or gaudy roadside herds of Galah and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. After crossing over into Victoria we stopped for a comfort break and found several Little Friarbirds foraging in a blooming bottlebrush tree as the winds began to pick up. Entering the Kerang region we began to see small flocks, and then huge groups of Straw-necked Ibis flying over or foraging in the fields. Their numbers grew after lunch as we neared Middle Lake, a permanent Ibis rookery with 20000 pairs of mostly Straw-necked Ibis. By the time we reached this rookery were experiencing 35-50 kph winds, and frequent short rain squalls. We stopped to admire a family group of Grey-crowned Babblers that were foraging under the sparse shelter of some small bushes. We checked as many of the Kerang Lakes as we could given the weather and road conditions (dirt tracks around the region turn to sticky clay whenever it rains) and were able to find many handsome Australian Shelducks, several Red-capped Plover and one Musk Duck. These loggerheaded males with their stiff tails, heavy black bodies and huge dangling wattle are surely one of the oddest species of waterfowl. We eventually decided to give up on the weather and head in to our hotel in Swan Hill for the night. When we turned on our TV’s in the rooms we discovered that the storm had wiped out the state power lines for the entire state of South Australia, dumping inches of rain out in the desert and clocking sustained windspeeds over 80kph a few hundred kilometers west of Swan Hill. This storm in conjunction with the much lower than average temperatures and several months of well above average rainfall certainly made the region feel like it was still locked in the depths of winter rather than halfway through spring. Checking on the average climactic data we noted that we were experiencing temperatures about 10 degrees Celcius lower than the average means, and with the huge influx of water across a swath of the country any waterbird species had dispersed over a correspondingly large area.

The next day happily dawned clear if quite windy. 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 quite muddy park, taking in our first Rufous Songlarks in full display mode. Their rollicking and exuberant song given in a dashing display flight is quite a sight to behold! Here too we enjoyed second sightings (and better sightings) of Cockatiel, a family group of White-browed Babblers, a perched Blue-winged Parrot and a pair of Hooded Robins feeding their spotted fledgling. Although none of the hoped for nomadic species (birds such as White-browed Woodswallow, Budgerigar, Black Honeyeater and Crimson Chat) were about this year, perhaps due to the expansive rains to the north there were plenty of birds to look at. Flowering Eremophila bushes attracted White-plumed, Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, and the denser patches of trees harboured groups of Brown Treecreeper, Bluebonnets, Red-rumped Parrots and Gray Shrike-thrush. On the drive over to Lake Boga after departing the reserve we stopped frequently to admire birds along the back roads. Flocks of pink Galahs foraged along the road edge, while Whistling Kites, Australian Kestrels and Black-winged Kites plied the skies. Chuckling parties of White-winged Choughs padded in the verges, and we flushed more Bluebonnets at our passing. At Round Lake we found a pair of Musk Duck in calmer conditions than the previous day, and spotted dozens of Black Swans foraging in the deeper water. Our other main destination for the morning was a return visit to Lake Tutchewop, a bit south of Lake Boga. This large and sand-ringed lake is often a magnet for waders and has attracted its fair share of interesting birds as well, such as the continent’s first Long-billed Dowitcher. Although we had quickly scanned the lake the previous day in the high winds and rain I decided to check it more thoroughly in better conditions. The main road around the lake was too wet to drive on, with the ground quickly turning into a quagmire with the rains. As a consequence we had to scan from the north and south ends of the lake only, and were rewarded by picking out a large flock of waders along the center of the western shore (about as far away as possible). I tried a few different vantage points that we could access, finding a foraging Little Eagle and some White-breasted Woodswallows in the process, but eventually decided that we would have to walk in. Far from the muddy walk that I had feared this proved to be an easy 1KM walk through firm saltbush flats. Once at the lakeshore we soon were watching a mixed flock of Banded Stilt and Red-necked Avocets at close range. Both species are large, sharply marked and elegant, and we were thrilled to encounter them after missing them along the coast. In a monotypic genus, and falling somewhere between the “normal” Stilts and the Avocets these white headed birds with their odd vest-like burgundy breast band are highly nomadic, often breeding in the heart of the desert in ephemeral saline lakes I had doubted that we would cross paths with one, let alone the 1000 that were arrayed in front of us. Tucked into the throng of Avocets and Stilts were two Black-tailed Godwits, doubtless recently arrived from their breeding grounds in northern Russia. As we walked back to the van the rains began, and the wind picked up (as did the amount of mud stuck on our soles). We took a pub lunch at Swan Hill to unsuccessfully wait out the rains, and then spent the afternoon driving over to Ouyen, our base for the next two nights. The drive was punctuated with a bit of excitement when a pair of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos swept past our car. During a brief gap in the rain one of the birds landed on a roadside wire and preened contentedly for several minutes, allowing us to study this most gaudy of Cockatoos in some detail. 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. We arrived in Ouyen with time to check in, clean up and meet for dinner at the local pub.

Happily for us our full day in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park was warm and sunny, with low winds. 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 new habitat filled with short multi-trunked mallee Eucalypt trees with 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. A quick perusal of the main park road to look at road conditions and closures revealed a couple of Apostlebirds around the visitor’s center. Hattah Lake, completely dry just a few years ago was huge, even flooding into the main campground areas. A few Great Crested and Australasian Grebes, Maned Duck and Grey Teal plied the edges of the lake, passing through submerged tree trunks as they paddled along. As most of the tracks in the park were open and covered well drained sand we repositioned over to the western side of the park where the bulk of the older-growth (ie not recently burned) stands of mallee lie. We drove up one of the small roads until puddles and mud made further passage unwise 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. We succeeded in locating two groups 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 richer coloured crowns. Many Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters were spotted in the mallee trees, as they fed in the small white flowers. Perhaps the bird of the morning though was found at a large puddle in the road. A Malleefowl (generally a very difficult species to simply stumble upon) was walking down to the pool for a drink. Initially we flushed it away but soon were able to refind it as it walked back towards the pond, pausing often to show off its intricate plumage to us. This is the southern-most and only temperate species of Megapode (or mound builder) in the world. Pairs dig a large hole and place copious amounts of compostable material in it. After laying their eggs the pair covers the hole with soil and more compost, and then tends the mound by adding or subtracting material as needed to keep the incubation temperature suitable for their clutch. Elated with our success we celebrated with some chocolate and cookies 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. A pair of the aptly named Rainbow Bee-eaters, one of the few migrants that seemed to leave the wet center of the country for Victoria this spring, performed very well for us. 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. We found a few mixed flocks over the course of the morning, containing birds such as our first Inland and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, heaps of Weebill, a cooperative Fan-tailed Cuckoo, and another prize for the day; Splendid Fairy-Wren. As previously mentioned a Fairy-Wren beauty pageant would be an impossible competition to judge, but the male Splendid redefines the colour blue. Fully covered in at least 5 different shades of incandescent blue feathers these little sprites seem to burn with an inner blue flame.  After lunch at a very conveniently placed new roadhouse just a few kilometers outside of the park we spent the afternoon in the eastern end 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. Just a few meters in from the access road we stopped when we detected a mixed flock. Along with more Splendid Fairy-Wrens we found a stunning male Red-capped Robin (surely the perfect color balance point to the wren), with his fiery red cap and chest and jet black back. As both species were quite confiding it made for a difficult decision for the photographers in the group. Nearby was a very furtive extended family party of Chestnut-crowned Babblers that did well with their hide-and-seek game through the trees but eventually showed well for us. This is perhaps the most handsome of the Australian Babblers, with buffy-white wingbars and a russet hue to the chest. Some quite tame Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos watched our birding progress with disinterest from a nearby huge tree as we drove on to some large gum trees just a few kilometers on were laden with fruiting mistletoe, and once we started wandering around under them we soon detected several calling mistletoebirds tucked into the clumps. Yet another dazzlingly colorful bird, these small flowerpeckers were quite active, but several navy blue and crimson males perched overhead for us nicely.  We soon entered a good patch of mallee forest we went for a loop walk out into the spinifex flats and were rewarded with views of a pair of Shy Heathwrens (a bird that often lives up to its name), more audio of a singing distant Crested Bellbird, and a second group of Mallee Emu-Wrens! As we began to drive out of the park we paused several times to admire Western Grey Kangaroos and Emus with half-grown chicks that were along the road. Some diligent searching in the big gum trees revealed multiple sightings of Australian Ringneck (here the Mallee form with the pale head) before our last target for the day showed up. A few pair of the deliciously chartreuse and red Regent Parrots were prospecting for nest cavities along the road. We were able to put the telescope on a couple of these regal and streamlined birds, with coral-pink bills and silky plumage, a perfect birding ending to a fantastic day out in the field!

Some unexpected complications with the hotel in Ouyen, combined with the switch to daylight savings time and the fact that it was Sunday meant that we began the next day with breakfast in the Ouyen Roadhouse. The group was quite content to roll with the situation though, and with cereal, juice, coffee, banana bread, chips and bacon and egg sandwiches on offer we certainly did not starve. Leaving Ouyen behind we set off to the South intent on exploring parts of the vast Wyperfeld National Park.  Driving in to the northeastern end of the park 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. Lots of Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Australian Ringnecks, Red-rumped Parrots and Bluebonnets were in the area. We made a couple of short walks out into the open forest and were successful at tracking down a calling male Gilbert’s Whistler, a species that had eluded us the previous day in Hattah. This attractive grey whistler with its orange throat is basically a mallee specialist, but its vaguely Northern Cardinal-like song made the comparison to the Pine Barrens even more apt. During the walk we found cuckoos to be quite vocal, and with a bit of patience tracked down both a singing Horsefeld’s Bronze-Cuckoo and a Black-eared Cuckoo (a scarce inland species that can be hard to encounter). Our main target for the morning eventually popped into view as well, when we located a White-browed Treecreeper foraging on a nearby trunk. Although superficially similar to the widespread Brown Treecreeper this species is much more strongly marked, with a blacker flank and black-streaked auriculars offsetting the bright white brow. With all of our target species performing well 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 (and for us also muddy) 4X4 track, so we were forced to make the large circle around the East end, stopping in the hamlet of Hopetoun for a slightly early lunch at a café with excellent fresh fruit salad. We then drove back into the park from the south entrance with the intention of walking out to the Devil’s Pools in search of Redthroat, an aberrant thornbill relative that is quite scarce in Victoria. Unfortunately for us the called for storm arrived during our walk, with howling winds and the occasional rain squall. Not ideal conditions for locating a bird that tends to hide even in good weather! Although we dipped on the Redthroat we enjoyed multiple views of more Splendid Fairy-Wrens, several handsome honeyeaters including a perched White-eared, another pair of Shy Heathwren and a passing Peregrine Falcon. With the weather largely deteriorating we elected to slowly drive the park nature trail where we were successful (at the 11th hour and during a dry period) in finding a pair of cooperative Mulga Parrots along the road. Despite the rather off-putting name these exquisite birds, with distinct sexual dichromatism are perhaps the brightest of the small green parrots in Australia. The pair allowed close approach, and the bright emerald, yellow and red male really sparkled even in the overcast skies. We then made the hour and a half journey south to our base for the next two nights at the Little Desert Nature Lodge where we enjoyed great hospitality and a very excellently prepared dinner.

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. After breakfast we met the lodge manager who took us back into a separate area to show us a Malleefowl mound that their breeding pair of Malleefowl were actively working. 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. 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 comprised of a substantial amount of decaying vegetation topped with a conical cap of dirt. 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! Even though this pair of birds was penned it was a treat to be able to see the mound at close range. After our time with the captive Mallefowl we walked around the lodge grounds for the rest of the morning. A nesting Tawny Frogmouth tucked into the crook of a large gum tree remained unmoved by our presence. Mixed flocks of Buff-rumped, Yellow, and Inland Thornbills kept us entertained for a bit, until a brilliantly red and black male Scarlet Robin arrested our attentions. It was in the back of the property though that we spent most of the time, as a grove of Eucalypts was flowering an attracting a wide array of honeyeaters. Among the many New Holland Honeyeaters we picked out our first White-fronted and Tawny-crowned, two fairly flashy and distinctive birds. By late morning the winds had reached fever pitch, with gusts over 60kph and sustained flows of 35-40. After lunch and a bit of a siesta we attempted to go out to look for the few available target birds remaining but the conditions were nearly hopeless. Driving the van in the buffeting winds was a challenge, but the Spotted Harrier that drifted between two fields and just past the car evidently was not having the same issues. This is a very attractive Harrier, with silvery-gray wings and light almost maroon underparts covered in small white spots. As it proved to be the only Spotted Harrier that we saw during the trip it made the afternoon outing worthwhile. We did have a bit of a walk around a forested patch of Little Desert National Park where we found another Mallefowl and its mound, and a family group of the delightful Variegated Fairy-Wrens. As we came back into the lodge property we stopped to watch some flightly Blue-winged Parrots that were feeding on the flowering Eucalypts. Though we did get them in the scope the birds seemed remarkably adept at remaining backlit. After dinner the winds finally relented and a short stroll around the property revealed a couple of Common Brushtail Possums (one with a half-grown baby on her back) that were clambering around the isolated trees surrounding the lodge. We also had a close encounter with the resident Tawny Frogmouth, who buzzed right over our head and landed on a nearby tree to devour a large insect. As our views of that species had up to that point involved inanimate birds imitating tree bark, this more dynamic sighting was quite satisfying.

The next day we awoke to a frigid 9 degrees, with heavy squalls of rain and sleet and continuing high winds. Not exactly what you would expect around Little Desert, where by early October the average temperatures should be around 20-22 C, with sun and no precipitation. This typically near-desert area had (like much of Victoria) been experiencing a very wet and cold spring, but this morning’s weather certainly did not help our case. We packed up and decided to head south towards the coast, hoping that the rains would dissipate during the 3-hour journey. Before heading south though we made a quick trip back up to a region to see if a Purple-gaped Honeyeater would volunteer itself along the road edge. With water flowing over the road in places and heavy rain it was a bit of an optimistic attempt, and after 20 minutes or so driving slowly through the dense mallee forest that this species prefers we turned the van south. A brief spell in the rain as we passed through open heath country allowed us to go our for a walk where we tracked down a soggy pair of Slender-billed Thornbills (a rare species in Victoria), but unsurprisingly were unable to coax a Rufous Fieldwren to pop up in the wind. We then took a winding drive through back roads, with heavy wind and a few showers, but remained nice and toasty in the van. 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. A rutted dirt road took us out to the tip of Point Danger, the location of the only mainland rookery for Australasian Gannets. The tip of the peninsula 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 huddled down in the intense wind, but a few were flying around the coast or courting around the periphery of the colony. In an incredible stroke of luck for us one of the courting birds turned out to be the Cape Gannet that has periodically been reported from the colony. Native to South Africa a few of these birds have been found intermixed with colonies of Australasian Gannets throughout southern Australia. This individual has been reported off and on for many years, but we were fortunate indeed to find it. At the nearby Cape Nelson lighthouse we scanned the frothy waters below the cliffs and were rewarded with hundreds of passing Fluttering and Short-tailed Sheawaters, dozens of Gannets that were following a large pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins and three or four graceful Shy Albatrosses treating the 70KPH winds as if they were a light breeze. After enjoying coffee in the little café run by a delightful man who seems to have just stepped off the Broadway Stage we made a quick stop in at Cape Bridgewater, where we found several hundred Great Crested Terns and a few Pied Oystercatchers huddled down on the beautiful crescent white sand beach below the coastal bluffs. For the rest of the afternoon we journeyed east along towards our base for the night in Warrnambool. We passed countless fields and ponds along the way, with water seemingly in every paddock. Some Kelp Gulls sitting out in an ephemeral pool made us stop, and a passing Collared Sparrowhawk rewarded us even further. Pairs of the colorful Australian Shelduck livened up the fields, and Masked Lapwing, Australian White Ibis and Little Raven seemed omnipresent. 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. We walked along a short stretch of beach and found an excellent mix of waders foraging in the rack of kelp. Among the many Ruddy Turnstones and Red-necked Stints were a few Sanderling (a scarce wintering species in Australia) and Curlew Sandpipers. A bit further down the beach after admiring some breeding plumaged Red-capped Plovers we found a flock of larger waders that included many Bar-tailed Godwits and a single Whimbrel. It was at the end of our walk though that we found the real prize, with a pair of elegant Hooded Plovers tucked in between a row of boulders huddled out of the wind. 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. Happy with our views we finished the drive over to Warrnambool arriving in time for dinner.

We spent the majority of the morning on the next day 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 still windy and unseasonably cold our time there, visiting the Bay of Islands with its attendant breeding colony of Silver Gulls and cliff nesting Long-billed Corellas, the Arch, and the 12 Apostles (a series of rock stacks that liberally adorn tourist brochures for Australia) was a nice way to see a bit of the more traveled part of the country. We did, of course, see some birds along the drive, with the highlight likely being two lingering female Freckled Ducks that we found in a roadside pond near the grandiosely named Cheeseworld factory and gift shop. The highly nomadic Freckled Duck is one of the more scarce waterfowl species here, and even without the widespread dispersal of waterbirds that we experienced this year it can be a difficult species to locate. Along with the Freckled Ducks was a nice assortment of other waterfowl including two Pink-eared Ducks that were close enough to actually see the small bright pink auricular spots that they are named after. Some brief checking of a series of wetlands where Latham’s Snipe often overwinter failed to produce the hoped for Snipe but did enable close studies of Black Swan cygnets, a singing Striated Fieldwren and some sprightly families of Superb Fairy-Wrens, a species that one can simply never tire of watching. Given the list of potential new birds along the route for the afternoon I elected to visit the agricultural areas around You Yangs National Park. Near Serendip Sanctuary we located several Cape Barren Geese in a roadside field and then later in a small city park. This population originated from a reintroduction program but the birds are mobile and free-flying and are now regarded as countable. In the sanctuary itself, a sprawling complex with both wild birds and penned breeding stock, and many native mammals such as Pademelons and Wallabies we found the main billabong to be full of birds. Pairs of Chestnut Teal in full breeding regalia paddled around the shores while Australian White Ibis sailed overhead and pairs of Masked Lapwing tended to their fuzzy chicks. Here too were our only Black-fronted Dotterel of the tour, a smartly dressed small plover with a zorro mask and neat black vest. On the walk back to the van we found a singing Restless Flycatcher, a large black and white monarch flycatcher with a characteristic slurred buzzy call and an endlessly twitching tail. We then went a bit north to drive along a series of grassy fields, where we were only somewhat successful in locating a Horsefield’s Bushlark that sat on the wire and flew off as a passing car spooked it just a touch too soon for most of the group to see well. We attempted to lure it back out of the dense grasses, but the speaker was no match for the winds. In an attempt to avoid the worst of Melbourne traffic we then headed to our hotel, arriving in the early evening for dinner and preparation for our very 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 at the somewhat mind-numbing time of 6am and a short hour and a half later landed in a sunny and spring-like Hobart. With ongoing airport construction at Hobart our first breakfast location was no longer an option, but the backup plan turned out to be a real winner. We ordered a sumptuous breakfast (undoubtedly made even tastier by the hour) that came complete with old china tea mugs and fresh farm-raised eggs. Just down the road from our breakfast spot in Sorrell we made several stops around the RAMSAR listed Orielton Lagoon, perhaps the best area for wintering migratory waders in all of Tasmania. Here we found another hulking Musk Duck, several breeding plumaged Hoary-headed Grebes, and (finally) our first Royal Spoonbill of the tour, with his full breeding crest (like an artfully coifed mullet) on show. Here too among the many Red-necked Stints and Red-capped Plovers we found a few Pacific Golden-Plovers, doubtless recently arrived from their arctic tundra summer homes. Around the margins of the marsh, and out in some adjacent fields we 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. We then 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 Bicentennial Park we quickly found three more endemics, with a pair of quite vocal Black-headed Honeyeaters foraging in a flowering gum tree, several Green Rosellas (quite an understated common name for these gorgeous birds) and a nesting pair of 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 as we bought some coffee and postcards from the gift shop while waiting for the boat. Once on Bruny we drove directly down to South Bruny Island to meet up with Dr. Tonia Cochran, stopping only once to admire a pair of Sooty Oystercatchers that were resting on a small rocky peninsula near the road. While scoping the Oystercatchers (who were happily standing next to a pair of Pied Oystercatchers providing an excellent comparison) we noticed a sleeping pair of gulls that turned out to be our only Pacific Gulls of the trip. 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 newly 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 nearly 80 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 oily 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. Also as we walked around her property we found a Beautiful Firetail (a very flashy native waxbill with a fiery red rump, tail and vent, and smartly barred body) and our first of many Strong-billed Honeyeaters that were clambering around and digging into flaky treebark like oversized Treecreepers. Hordes of Bennet’s Wallabies were hopping around the margins of the paddocks, and male Flame and Scarlet Robins were perched up along the fenceposts. Behind Tonia’s house we walked down into a more wet gully in the forest, and with some judicious use of playback managed excellent views of a Scrubtit (a fairly flashy thornbill relative that is endemic to Tasmania and often hard to track down) and a pair of quite cooperative Tasmanian Thornbills that flashed their puffy white pantaloons at us as they repeatedly crossed the track in front of us. 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. Despite the early start we were still (mostly) ready for more birds, so after dinner we elected to offer a nocturnal outing for birds and mammals. We drove north to the narrow isthmus that connects the two halves of Bruny Island and after affixing red cellophane onto our torches climbed up the staircase that leads into the thin line of tall sand dunes. Here we located several Little Penguins tucked in the dunes next to their burrows. In the red torchlight we watched the birds waddling around the burrow, occasionally clacking their beaks together and uttering their tinny donkey-like brays. This small colony site is very conveniently located and lacks the massive tourist crowds that regularly flock to better known rookeries like Phillip’s Bay in coastal Victoria. The Penguins are always the star of this little excursion to the neck, but our views of a Short-tailed Shearwater that was sitting on the sand just below the boardwalk were excellent. To think that this bird, so ungainly on land had only just now arrived from its circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean and over-summering in the Arctic and Bering Seas! We then 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 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. First two ginger Quolls dashed past our van, giving only brief views. But then we found a beautiful black Quoll that lingered for over a minute along the roadside before melting away into the underbrush. 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. After the black Quoll put on its show for us we drove back to our cottages for a well-deserved nights rest.

For our penultimate day we spent our time exploring South Bruny Island with Tonia along as our guide. Although mostly sunny there were some occasional rain showers and by the afternoon it was again quite windy. Nevertheless we did very well, catching up on all the remaining endemics save one, enjoying the wonderfully scenic island and learning a bit about its history and the ecology of its disparate habitats, from temperate rainforest to coastal heath and open dry gum forests. Our first stop was around a campground near the southern tip of the island where many of the forest birds have become quite accustomed to people. Along the entrance road we stopped to watch a group of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos feeding in some low Banksia bushes. It was with some relief for me that we found these birds to be so cooperative, as it is an amazing bird and one that I really did not want to miss. Later on in the day we found another even more cooperative group of these large black birds, with their long yellow-based tails, bright yellow auriculars and oversized bills that they use for picking apart the remarkably tough nuts of Casaurina and Banksia pods. Around the campground we found several families of campers, likely ruing the conditions a bit as they wrapped up the end of school holidays. Despite the crowds the Dusky Robins and Tasmanian Scrubwrens showed well, foraging out on the lawn unconcerned by our presence. 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 pair of Brown Quail feeding on the lawns, and several more Shy Albatross soaring down below us. As we began the trip back north towards Adventure Bay we stopped in 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. We ate a picnic lunch on a postcard-perfect white crescent beach, the site of one of the original European visits to Tasmania and under the watchful eye of a couple of large Yellow Wattlebirds and hopeful Silver Gulls. Later we walked in a humid forest a bit uphill from the coast. Filled with huge tree ferns, a dense mid-story and a towering Eucalypt canopy and riddled with small clear streams bubbling over rocky streambeds lined with moss and bracken it felt like some primordial world. Our hoped for Bassian Thrush failed to appear, but the pretty Tasmanian form of Silvereye, a pair of Tasmanian Thornbills and a glowing male Pink Robin were very nice consolations. Here too were several Black Currawongs, yet another Tasmania endemic, and one with a rollicking and unique voice. We scanned the streambed too, and were rewarded with a single Spotted Galaxias, a small Gondwanaland based salmonid-like fish that undergoes a journey sea to grow, returning to these small streams to breed. A second pair of Scrubtit for the tour kept us entertained along the banks of Captain Cook Creek, allowing the couple of participants that opted out of the previous days walk to catch up with this skulky but pretty endemic. 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. After dinner we spent a bit of time trying to connect with some of the nocturnal birds of the island, but were stymied by the colder conditions and buffeting winds. We contented ourselves with views of multiple Common Brushtail Possums in a wide variety of colours, and more Red-bellied Pademelons and Bennett’s Wallabies.

We had one outstanding endemic to find on the last full day, and after breakfast and packing up managed to locate a small group of Yellow-throated Honeyeaters around the Explorer’s Cottages. Strangely silent the day before these striking birds with their bright yellow throats, olive backs and gray underparts were quite vocal for us on this morning. They led us on a merry chase as they zipped around the road edge, but eventually they slipped up and we were able to enjoy them at some length. Possibly eclipsing the honeyeaters in our minds though was the interaction that we witnessed between a White-bellied Sea-Eagle and a Wedge-tailed Eagle around the Inala paddocks. The Wedgie actually plucked the Sea-Eagle out of a grove of trees where it was attempting to be unobtrusive, nearly tossing it to the ground and then chasing it out of the area, all the while being chased by an irate pair of Forest Ravens. The Robin show with Flame and Scarlets lining the fence caused a few camera cards to fill, and the ghostly white Gray Goshawk that came down to forage on a wallaby carcass seemed almost too white to be real. One last drive around the south part of the island was successful in locating a pair of perched Brush Bronzewings, a handsome milk chocolate pigeon with a veritable rainbow of colours on its wings. Mid-morning we bade farewell to Tonia, with Pallid Cuckoos overlooking our parting and then drove north to the ferry terminal, reaching 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 another Freckled Duck, two Australian Shoveler and a single female New Zealand Scaup (that has been around off-and-on for several months and is generally regarded as an escapee by the local birders). Our final birding stop was again along the shores of Orielton Lagoon, where we were buzzed by fast moving small flocks of Musk Lorikeets as we picked out several Common Greenshanks foraging in the shallow waters. 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: 11 November 2016