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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Cruise: New Zealand, the Tasman Sea and Australia

An Antipodean Adventure

2019-2020 Narrative


DAY 1: I met the team at our hotel at 6pm and took then to a meeting room for an introduction to NZ, a short safety briefing and a short preview of what to expect over the next few days. From there we all went to dinner together at a nice restaurant complete with Christmas crackers!

DAY 2: All 12 of us were ready with our luggage before the designated departure time of 7.30 am, we loaded up the 15 seater Mercedes Benz luxury coach and headed off, in good spirits.

Our first stop was at a Gannet colony where the closest Australasian Gannets were almost within touching distance. there were hundreds of them, some on eggs others with chicks. White-fronted Terns also breed at this site, and they and the Gannets gave us wonderful, close flying exhibitions as well as some courting behavior, a fantastic start to the tour. A few Kelp gulls and RED-BILLED GULLS were also present, and in the car park some Silvereyes were spotted, and we also saw our first Sacred Kingfisher. Along the road we passed and briefly stopped for common introduced species such as Song Thrush, Spotted Dove, Chaffinch, California Quail etc as well as calling in to a bakery to buy freshly made sandwiches, cakes, drinks etc to pack in a chiller and eat later. We also saw flying NEW ZEALAND PIGEONS but would get very close views of perched ones in the next few days. We pulled to the side of the road and viewed a pond with lots of the spectacular PARADISE SHELDUCKS, as well as Australasian Swamphens and the inevitable Canada Geese. From there on to some more ponds for NEW ZEALAND SCAUP, Australasian Shovellers, Pacific Black Ducks, Pied Stilts, Little Pied Cormorants, and our first NEW ZEALAND FANTAIL and VARIABLE OYSTERCATCHER. At another pond close by we found 5 of the uncommon NEW ZEALAND GREBES and some of the group saw their first GREY GERYGONE [ others saw them later in the tour]. there were sightings this, and every other of the first days of Swamp Harrier, and we got our first view in NZ of Great and Little Black Cormorants and White-faced Herons. It was time for lunch and after a bathroom stop, I took the group to the edge of an estuary where I knew a couple of pairs of an uncommon endemic wader had bred, and we sat on dry grass eating our lunch. Sure enough, one, then another NEW ZEALAND DOTTEREL walked into view. Pied Cormorants and Masked Lapwings were also present.

It was time then for a longish drive up to the far north of NZ. We checked in to our motel in a woodland setting and then went to dinner in a nice restaurant after dinner one person returned to the motel, but the rest of us headed out for an after dark adventure. We drove for a bit over half an hour to an area of bush and grassland in search of an iconic nocturnal, flightless bird and after walking for 20 minutes or so we saw our first NORTH ISLAND BROWN KIWI, when a big female trotted across the track in front of us only about 10 metres in front of us. As is often the case only the front 4 or 5 people in the walking line saw it, so the pressure was on to find another one. After a bit of searching we walked to a spot near where we had heard a call. I left the group at the bottom of a hill and quietly checked out an open area, there was another female which I could see without disturbing it and I went back for the group who were very good at walking up a steepish grass track quietly and they were rewarded when I turned the red-filtered torch beam back on for all of the group to see another female close to our feet. Before returning to our Motel for a well-earned sleep we saw 2 more, both males. Moreporks were heard but not seen. Not surprisingly all who went out on the night adventure voted NI Brown Kiwi as their bird of the day, but the person who stayed in the hotel had a really good bird of the day too— NZ Dotterel.

DAY 3: We started a bit later this morning after our late night adventure, but before leaving the motel several people spotted their first TUI (everyone got great views of them over the next few days). Also in the motel gardens were some of the very colourful introduced parrots —Eastern Rosella. After a cafe breakfast we drove south bought our lunches and headed for another estuary. As soon as we arrived we spotted a key target. A very distinctive sub-species of Fairy tern breeds in NZ but there are only about 36 of them in existence and it is NZ’s rarest and most endangered taxa, so spotting one taking a bath was great. We walked out on to the estuary as the tide was falling. We spotted more NZ Dotterels and our first DOUBLE BANDED PLOVER [a breeding endemic] as well as Bar-tailed Godwits, Red knots, Variable Oystercatchers in an array of colour morphs, more of the cormorant species we had already seen and our first Caspian Terns and Turnstones.

From there we drove through farmland and Kauri forest, found a bakery to buy lunches and headed to another estuary for another lunch with beautiful views including many of the shorebirds, gulls and terns species we had already seen ——including 3 more NZ Fairy Terns!!

From there we headed further south towards Auckland through winding rural roads to a reserve from which alien predators have been removed and where endemic birds can thrive without that artificial factor. After driving through a gate through the predator-proof fence we were seeing a lot of Paradise Shelducks, Swamphens, etc and then as we approached a place to park in a field there was a shout from the back of the bus “pipit”—Tim had spotted a NEW ZEALAND PIPIT. At first there was some confusion because one of the common European Skylarks was also present, but everyone got onto both birds. We parked and began our walk and it wasn’t long before we found a little group of 9 of the uncommon and endangered BROWN TEAL, Further on we found NEW ZEALAND BELLBIRD, NORTH ISLAND SADDLEBACK, and NORTH ISLAND ROBIN, as well as much closer views of Tui, NZ Fantail, and NZ Pigeon and a few more people saw Grey Gerygone. We also saw our first Brown Quail. We had seen so many good birds today that the vote for bird of the day at our riverside restaurant was spread over 7 species.

DAY 4: It was our day to go to another place where introduced predators have been removed and endemic birds can thrive—- the magical Tiritiri Matangi Island, but before getting on the ferry there was time for some birding and I took the group to a wetland. Along a road with wetland both sides we got great close views for everyone through the bus windows of Buff-banded Rail—we saw 3 of them. Then we walked to a pond and after a bit of patient [and quiet] waiting, a very shy and hard to see bird showed well, a Spotless Crake walked out onto a weed mat in full view.
From the ferry we spotted FLUTTERING SHEARWATERS.

Once on the island we began seeing great birds. one of the first was one of the most difficult. We had only walked 100 metres or so and were looking for a NI Saddleback that we had heard when I heard the unmistakable flute-like call of something special I asked the group to forget everything else and we walked towards the call. a volunteer was standing under the tree we were targeting pointing upwards. It wasn’t easy but eventually everyone got onto the KOKAKO—-fantastic. A little further on we heard another call and then then saw another one —it’s mate in flight. Those would be the only Kokako we would see on this or any other day of the tour. Then a RED-CROWNED PARAKEET flew over us, [we would get better views later, including some feeding on the ground]. We added the rare and endangered STITCHBIRD, got great views of WHITEHEAD, and saw more NI Robins, NZ Pigeons, Bellbirds, and Tui, all up close.

Another rare bird is found on this island. I knew that a family of them live at the top of the island but tend to go into hiding when the noisier day-trippers arrive, so rather than walking a bush track I asked the group to walk up the straightest road and get to the top of the island before the other day visitors. In a field of long grass we found the family we were looking for— 2 adult, 1 first year bird, and a chick TAKAHE. These big, primitive looking flightless Gallinules were thought to be extinct until re-discovered in the late 1940s but there are still only a little over 400 of them in existence. We got great views and photos. We could now relax, enjoy the lunches that we had brought with us from a bakery on the mainland, and just enjoy the island.

In the afternoon we wandered down a well formed bush track seeing more of the rare endemics on the island, and spent some time sitting in front of a water trough just waiting to see what would come in for a drink or bath and a slow procession did, including at one time a male and female Stitchbird side by side. Before leaving the island we visited some penguin nesting boxes which had residents visible through perspex —Little Penguin. We enjoyed dinner together in another excellent restaurant and again there was a wide choice of birds, with 6 species getting votes for bird of the day.

DAY 5: It was our day to join the cruise ship, but before that there was time for some birding in the morning and after breakfast I took the group across the city and down to a spot on the Manukau harbour. It was low tide but I knew a spot where I hoped we would find some of our target birds. We began scanning feeding birds on a mudflat and picked out our first SOUTH ISLAND OYSTERCATCHERS and BLACK-BILLED GULLS as well as our first Grey Teal and more Bar-tailed Godwits, Red knots and a couple of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. There were lots of Black Swans and various duck species that we had already seen including a single Brown Teal. We also added Royal Spoonbill to the list.

We returned to scanning the mudflat and found some WRYBILL. At first they were a bit distant but there were close to a hundred of them and eventually everyone got a good view. Then it was time to take the team to the ship, return the trusty Mercedes to the rental company, drop off some gear and get to the ship myself before it sailed.

It had been a good start to the tour with 25 endemic species seen in three and a half days of birding, many of them rare and endangered, plus another 45 native or introduced species. We were to see another 4 endemics [from the ship] in the evening ———-but that’s another story!! 

                                                                                                                                                                                  -          Phil Hammond


Over the course of the first afternoon the participants on the inaugural WINGS New Zealand to Australia cruise filtered onto the boat. Navigating the quite efficient boarding process was a breeze, and after finding our cabins, familiarizing ourselves a bit with the boat and participating in the obligatory safety demonstrations we met on the bow for our on time six pm push off from Queens Wharf. Still within sight of downtown Auckland, and its myriad skyscrapers we began to pick out some common coastal birds, such as Australasian Gannet, Kelp and Silver Gulls, White-fronted Terns and Pied Cormorants. The ship slowly motored north towards the more open and deeper waters of the Hauraki Gulf, passing a few large islands (including, eventually, Tiritiri Matangi) along the way. The archipelagos here in the gulf are a testament to the active volcanic history of the region, with some large islands, such as Rangitoto (just a few kilometers from Auckland) having emerged from the sea only in the last few hundred years. As the summer sun stays up fairly late at this latitude we were able to enjoy almost three hours of relaxed seabirding on this first day. The weather and wind cooperated wonderfully, with virtually no breeze at the bow, and light overcast conditions that made for excellent viewing conditions.

It didn’t take too long for us to pick out our first tubenoses, with a few Fluttering and Buller’s Shearwaters crossing the bow and soon after our first of three dark bodied Flesh-footed Sheawaters. I think most participants were quite pleased by the viewing conditions from deck seven; a perch that is high enough off the water for excellent visibility but still close enough that even the field marks on smaller species can readily be seen. As our ship was bound for the port of Tauranga the following morning (roughly only 200KM from Auckand by sea) we were not exactly breaking any speed records, which meant that we never really reached the deeper parts of the gulf during daylight hours where we had hoped to look for New Zealand Storm-Petrel. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a nice introduction to seabirding, and over the course of our vigil we picked out about a dozen sleek and aeronautic Cook’s Petrels, a staggering number of White-faced Storm-Petrels, many of which were performing their diagnostic pogo-stick foraging pattern as they skimmed over the water with repeated jumps, splashing both feet in the water to gain a bit of altitude. At one point a subadult Parasistic Jaeger swept past chasing a hapless White-fronted Tern in an incredibly high-speed twisting pursuit worthy of a fighter jet battle. Eventually the poor tern dropped the fish that it was carrying, and we could see the silvery little morsel falling in the air before the jaegar expertly grabbed it and continued on its way, doubtless to bother some other poor bird. A couple of closely passing Grey-faced Petrels became our last new species for the evening, showing well as they arced just off the bow.

As the day dawned we found ourselves moored on the wharf at Tauranga, a small city centered around a naturally protected harbour on the southern coastline of the Bay of Plenty. The region was settled by Europeans in the 1830’s, serving as a center for inland agriculture, but had been occupied by Maori drawn to its abundant coastal seafood for almost 700 years. We were the first folk to walk off the ship, arriving in the harbour a bit ahead of schedule. This gave us some time to bird a bit around the bay, where we picked out lots of Variable Oystercatchers (along with a single South Island Pied Oystercatcher), close up Kelp Gulls, some with fuzzy and mottled chicks, a foraging Pied Cormorant and a host of introduced birds around the carpark. Soon though our local guides and their minibuses arrived and we were off on the roughly two-hour journey inland to the Whirinaki Forest Park. Along the drive, which passes through open bucolic pastoral land with patches of native forest and swaths of Monterrey Pine plantations we made a couple of short stops around the town of Rotorua. This geothermically active town is nestled in a wide volcanic caldera, and is surrounded by a selection of over 16 lakes, some of which are highly mineralized or sulphuric in nature and quite colourful in aspect. We first stopped at Lake Rotoiti, where at a small boat ramp and dock we were soon staring at a nice assemblage of waterbirds including a raft of New Zealand Scaup, dozens of Black Swans, a mixed group of Little Pied and Great Cormorants, Pied Stilts and Caspian Terns and some New Zealand Grebes that seemed intent on trying to simultaneously break the avian records for most and longest dives in an hour. After admiring a gleamingly purple Australasian Swamphen and lovely perched Sacred Kingfisher we piled back into the vehicles and made a stop on the much larger Rotomahana Lake at the well-named Sulphur Bay. This quite large lake was formed only in 1886, when a huge volcanic eruption split Mount Tarawea in half, resulting in a vast expansion of the lake’s size and depth, and the creation of the scenic Waimangu Valley. We passed through a quite nice city park and spa center, even skirting the edge of a quite meticulously laid out botanic garden before arriving at the busy carpark on the lakeshore. Here we picked out some introduced waterfowl including Mallard and Canada Goose (but excluding the decidedly un-wild looking Graylag Geese) as well as almost farcically close views of more Black Swans and New Zealand Scaup. A small colony of Little Pied Cormorants were arrayed in the shrubs along the shoreline. Scanning the various cormorant nests it quickly became apparent how variable this species is in New Zealand, with some birds being fully white fronted (as they are in Australia) but others largely or wholly black except for a small white chin and cheek patch. Out in the deeper waters of the bay we watched a few dozen Little Black Cormorants as they cooperatively foraged for bait fish, diving down in a coordinated armada to better ball up the fish before feeding, a behaviour that is apparently isolated to this one lake in the region.

From Rotorua our path took us further to the Southeast, through quite large pine plantations and then up a somewhat windy road leading to the protected Whirinaki Forest Park. It’s a fairly vast and continuous area of lowland Podacarpus forest, with an impressively tall canopy and dense understory laden with ferns, mosses and a bewildering array of tree-ferns. The area was protected at quite a cost, with dozens of environmental activists actively campaigning for decades (even physically strapping themselves to trees) to save the region from logging activities. After spending much of the pre-tour extension in relatively young regrowth forest it was a bit of a shock to see how tall the canopy used to be throughout much of the North Island. The forest has a definite Jurassic feel to it as well, making some participants think that there might be the odd dinosaur still lurking under a tree-fern somewhere along the track. Alas no terrible lizards appeared, and neither did any remnant population of Moa, but we were entertained by the gorgeous surroundings, and somewhat confounded by the virtually continuous calling of seemingly invisible Whitehead and Tomtit from the high canopy overhead. We walked about forty-five minutes in from the carpark, roughly paralleling the course of a rocky rushing stream before our local guide Tom decided to scramble down the forested bank in order to better scan a particular section of the river’s shoreline. To our delight he popped back up on the trail with the happy news that he had just seen a small group of five Blue Ducks tucked in amongst the emergent rocks on the far bank of the creek. The news prompted most of us to pick our way down to the creek as well, but we soon discovered that the thick riparian vegetation did not pair well with the somewhat wary ducks which soon zipped downstream at a good clip, buoyed by the fast water currents. Happily for us though this move put the ducks in a more open stretch of the river, and we were able to watch them at length from an excellent vantage point back up on the main trail. This is a critically endangered endemic species, with a global population estimated at around 2500 individuals. This particular park hosts about ten percent of the global population, but with several miles of river and dense vegetation sightings are hardly guaranteed even here. The walk back towards carpark was punctuated by views of a couple of pleasingly plump and cooperative North Island Robins hopping about near the ground, and at least two different Long-tailed Cuckoos that were giving their odd upslurred call notes from the canopy. One bird was spotted as it drifted overhead, but it stubbornly refused to land in a visible location (as is often the case with this large but retiring species). Over a nice picnic lunch of sandwiches, cookies and fruit we spotted a few Silvereye, a single New Zealand Fantail and some fairly furtive Whiteheads in the surrounding trees. We had some more time available after lunch and elected to take a second road into the forest, where some lucky participants spotted a (briefly) more visible Long-tailed Cuckoo. The whole group though enjoyed a wonderfully close flyover of a Kaka, a large New Zealand Parrot that is still fairly widely distributed across the North Island. In many parts of its range the birds have learned to pick apart the cones on the plantations of Monterrey Pines, an ever-increasing food resource. Here too we picked up Common Chaffinches feeding on some roadside seeding plants, and a couple of pretty Yellowhammers. We closed our time in the woods with another short walk through a section just dripping with tree ferns and mosses, where we enjoyed better views of Whitehead. These vocal and social little birds are one of only three members of the New Zealand endemic family Mohouidae. Unlike so many of the countries native bush birds they seem fairly resilient to the widescale habitat alteration and mammalian predation, as they persist in many patches across the islands, both in managed reserves and “the wild”.

As the afternoon was beginning to wane and the cruise ship was highly unlikely to wait for our return to leave port we decided to head back north to Tauranga, where we arrived comfortably ahead of the prescribed all-aboard time. This allowed us to have a bit of a more in-depth meeting about the ships and the general tours logistics and to go over the bird list for the first two days of the main tour. We left port a bit before 6pm, and most of the group elected to spend the final two hours or so of the day back on the bow, scanning for seabirds. It proved an excellent choice, as we tallied impressive totals of Gray-faced Petrel (37), Cook’s Petrel (122) and Little Shearwater (16) during the vigil. Many of the birds were quartering in the wind, crossing just in front of the bow and then giving us very close passes as they angled around. Often they were right underneath us, providing good opportunities for photography, and also allowing us to really take in some of the finer plumage details that helped to cement the species identifications in our minds. Just as we started losing the light we enjoyed our last new bird of the day when a closely passing dark petrel banked, revealing a pale bill with a decidedly dark tip to the upper mandible. Some photos were quickly examined, and in several we could discern trailing toes past the tail, confirming the identification as a Parkinson’s (Black) Petrel. It was a great end to a fun day in the field, and we headed off to bed eager for the next morning, which was to be our first full at-sea day.

There is something zen-like and relaxing about birding from the bow of a giant ship. The waves hardly effect you at all, and the deck is stable enough to easily use a scope while panning out to sea. It’s almost as if one is on a small oceanic island, a feeling quite unlike the usual bouncing and low riding craft that tend to take eager birders out to see for a few hours at a time. We greeted the new year at the bow, a bit Southeast of East Cape and roughly 35 miles offshore. In stark contrast to the usual first bird species of the year, which for American birders is likely a House Sparrow or Grackle we arose to passing Buller’s Shearwaters, and Cook’s and Grey-faced Petrels; an auspicious start to 2020 to be sure. We manned the bow from 7:15am right through to 5:20pm, with at least one leader and a few participants scanning the water at all times. It’s a flexible arrangement, with folks coming and going throughout the day, perhaps taking a break for a nap or meal, or just to enjoy some of the shipboard amenities as they saw fit. Over the course of the day the seabird numbers ebbed and flowed, with more birds around the ship when we crossed over underwater upwellings or canyons and fewer when the ship was a bit closer to shore. It was warm and hazy all day, with some discernible smoke from the far away fires in eastern Victoria clouding the horizon. The winds were generally light, which meant that for much of the afternoon most of the seabirds were loafing on the water, only rising up upon our approach. There were more than enough birds to keep us entertained throughout the day, with lots of repeated chances to observe most of the species, which made it possible for many of the participants to get a real feel for the finer identification points for most of the common tubenoses. Likely the most well-appreciated birds were, as usual, the albatrosses. As we were in relatively deep water all day, these gargantuan tubenoses were nearly constant companions as we slowly motored south. The most common species was undoubtedly White-capped Alabatross, which was somewhat recently split from Shy Albatross. Just slightly less common were the huge Northern Royal Albatrosses with their dark brown/black upperwings, white bodies and huge pink bills. We picked out a couple of New Zealand Wandering Albatross as well, including one very handsome chocolate brown immature. Two immature Buller’s Albatross and at least two young Salvin’s Albatrosses (whose identity was confirmed once we studied our photos later in the day) rounded out a quite satisfying cast of these most magnificent birds. Among the smaller tubenoses we were again surprised by the number of Grey-faced Petrels present off the coast. Lots of the birds were in heavy wing moult, perhaps having just wrapped up their breeding cycle along the adjacent coast. A group of four all dark petrels that were hanging around a pod of Pilot Whales that were loafing just off the bow proved to all be Parkinson’s Petrels. Another new tubenose for the day was a single hulking Northern Giant Petrel that spent much of the day riding the draft behind the ship, occasionally circling around the bow at close range. As separating the two species of giant petrels can be a challenge, our repeated views at very close range were much appreciated. The birds reddish tipped bill was readily apparent, as it drifted just past the bow. At several points during the day the ship was joined by pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, which seemed intent on briefly riding the bow wave. These playful cetaceans also piqued the interest of the many passers-by on the deck, many of whom seemed to struggle a bit understanding our interest in long vigils for seabirds, but who gleefully ran over to look at the dolphins. It seems that the marketing board for cetacean relations has done its job well, and that much could be done to enhance the image of such regal birds as albatrosses with the general public.

After dinner and our daily checklist, we again opted to visit the bow, although our time was cut a bit short by the abrupt closure of the front of the ship due to building winds. We moved down to the outer deck on level 7 and found the visibility (and benches) excellent. Over the last hour of the day we found ourselves closer to shore, with good numbers of Flesh-footed and Buller’s Shearwaters passing by the ship at close range, and the occasional albatross, White-faced Storm-Petrel or little group of Dusky Dolphins providing ample companionship.

We awoke the next day already moored in the well sheltered Wellington harbour. As the cruise ship harbour shares wharf space with the commercial vessels the area is under heightened security. This meant that we were not able to simply walk off the ship, but rather were met by some private small vans which took us out of the port to our waiting taxis. About fifteen minutes later, after a quick drive past the national parliament and executive branch offices and the very attractive botanic gardens we arrived at our destination for the morning; a reserve with the catchy name of Zealandia. Originally this valley above the city functioned as a water catchment for the municipal supply. But some enterprising local conservationists recognized that with some planning, fencing and effort the forested area around the dam could function excellently as a refugia for New Zealand wildlife. They created a 225-hectare, fully predator proof fenced preserve which serves as a testament to the perseverance of the country’s conservation community. New Zealand stands apart from the rest of the world in its proactive and intense efforts to save its remaining endemic species, remove introduced predators and plants and restore as much of the historic ecosystems as possible. This park is the world’s first fully fenced urban sanctuary, with many endangered species being reintroduced or protected inside the boundaries. The managers of the park claim to have a 500-year plan to restore the region to as close to its pre-human state as possible. Admittedly this makes the area feel a bit like a giant zoo exhibit, but to the wildlife contained within it is a haven from the ravages of cats and possums. The populations of several bird species here have increased dramatically, leading to a corresponding increase in sightings around greater Wellington as several species begin to expand into the surrounding suburban neighborhoods.

We were greeted at the entrance gate by Brent Stephenson, one of the owners of our New Zealand ground agency, and a very well-known ornithologist. While waiting for the reserve to open we stood around below the dam, taking in the groups of New Zealand Pigeons and New Zealand Kakas that were flying around against the forested slopes above us. Perhaps the species that has most benefitted by the protection is the Tui, New Zealand’s quite successful and very attractive honeyeater. It’s a gorgeous bird; glossy blue-green and copper, with wispy white feathers on the neck and two pom-pom like white feathers projecting from the throat. Around the entrance to the park, and indeed once we were in the park as well these birds were constant companions, and their whistles and cackles provided a welcome native avian background to the aural landscape. Once the facility opened we entered through the quite fancy visitors center and then were ushered to the gate for a short biosecurity check. The staff are quite serious about keeping predators out of the park, and apparently over the last twenty years of operation these simple bag checks have actually revealed a half dozen animals (from mice to a rabbit) hiding out in visitor’s backpacks. Any incursion of a stoat or cat results in a massive (and expensive) trapping effort, and even with the fence in place the staff maintain an incredible number of poison bait and physical mammal traps throughout the park. We wandered slowly along on the well-maintained trails of the preserve (most are even paved), stopping wherever activity caught our eye. The main water catchment lake held a nice breeding colony of Pied, Great and Little Pied Cormorants, many with young chicks in their bulky stick nests. We also picked out a couple of dainty Brown Teal, a scarce endemic duck that persists mainly in protected reserves. Near the lake margin we spotted a giant South Island Takahe relaxing on a small lawn; preening in the morning sun and showing off its almost comically oversized bill and feet for us. These huge rails, indeed the heaviest extant species in the family, resemble a Purple Swamphen that has been overinflated with a bicycle pump. Like so many of New Zealands native birds they require predator control to persist, but happily the populations seem to recover steadily once protected, and the department of conservation has been able to reintroduce the species in dozens of spots throughout the country.

The trail then meandered along a forested creek, with a short and wondrously diverse forest overstory. Although there were quite a few Blackbirds in the understory we found lots of native birds as well. Tui were again the most common species, but along the track we found several little flocks of Silvereye, a few North Island Robins, and (with a bit of effort) a couple of cooperative North Island Saddlebacks. Eventually we walked our way up to near the head of the lower valley, stopping in a wide clearing where the staff have constructed an array of feeders. For the local nectivores, principally Tui, Bellbird and Stitchbird, they have supplies large bottles of sugar water. Rather than small ports above the reservoir (like in hummingbird feeders) these feeders employed the same technology as water bottles for pet rodents. A long hollow straw with a ball bearing in the end to seal the flow allows these nectar feeding birds to push on the ball to get a flow of sugar water. No less ingenious were the feeders set up for Kaka, which have a counterweighted door that opens only when a bird as heavy as a Kaka sits on the provided perch (which works as a lever). Interestingly several Blackbirds seemed to have learned that if they waited long enough a Kaka would fly in and open the feeder door, allowing them to grab a quick bite before the Kaka flew away. We waited a bit around the feeders, marveling at the glossy tones in the Tuis complicated plumage, admiring a male California Quail that was standing guard over its nearby family and watching an adult and juvenile Dunnock foraging quietly under the feeder array. Soon enough a couple of Kaka flew in to grab some food, and then a few more. Before we knew it about a half-dozen birds were perched all around us, some stripping the hearts from nearby tree ferns, some on the feeders and some just sitting around in the sun. Up to this point we had seen the species only in flight, but now that they were up close it became possible to really see the birds subtle colours. A bird that we had thought of as only olive-brown became a multihued parrot, suffused with shades of brown, yellow, grey, rose and plum. Eventually our attentions were wrested away when a pair of Red-crowned Parakeets (or Kakarikis as they are locally known) flew in and perched just over the trail. This is yet another scarce endemic; a small and long-tailed bright green parrot with a scarlet band across its forehead and crown. They can be quite unobtrusive birds as they forage in the dense foliage, so our views of this adult on a large bare branch just overhead were excellent. Once sated with the parakeets, and after another look at the still closely perched Kakas we decided to return to the visitor’s center via the lower forested track, in the hopes that we would encounter a Stitchbird for those that had not attended the pre-tour extension. This proved an excellent choice, as not only did we encounter two male Stitchbirds along the trail but when we stopped to look for a calling Saddleback we heard the high-pitched piping of a nearby Rifleman! The Stitchbird is a colourful beast, and the sole representative of its family. The male has a black mantle, head and breast, offset by a bright yellow-orange sash around its middle, a white eyeline and wingstripe and pale belly. It’s a pushy and vocal bird, but one that has not fared well with introduced predators. Now restricted to about a dozen protected areas around the North Island it’s a species of definite conservation concern. Elated as we were by our sightings of Stitchbird it was the female Rifleman that we watched for several minutes as she clambered around on epiphyte laden trunks and vine clusters like a tiny nuthatch. It’s a plump and nearly tailless bird, with a long thin bill and sturdy legs. One of only two extant species in its family, the Rifleman is among the oldest of the passerine birds. The Zealandia population of Rifleman represent a new introduction, with 57 birds being translocated into the reserve from nearby forest patches. They are doing well, with evidence of breeding proving that the habitat meets with their approval. We had known that there were a few birds in the park, but with their small size, weak voice and retiring nature had not really thought that we would be lucky enough to find one.

After the female Rifleman clambered up to the top of a large vine tangle and then flew off deeper into the woods we finished the walk back to the entrance and had a nice group lunch at the center’s café. Most folk then opted to take a taxi bus back to the ship, but a few went in to the harbour area of Wellington to investigate the national museum, take in the sights or perhaps even find one of the areas many famous breweries to take a sample from. We met again as a group in the early evening, back up on deck so that we could watch the ship’s exit from the Wellington Harbour and be in place for the last hour of the day which would find us in the northeast reaches of the Cook Straight. In the harbour we saw our first (distant) Spotted Shags, a passing Parasitic Jaegar and some quite close Fluttering Shearwater, but once we hit the open waters of the Straight we began to spot albatrosses again, with lots of White-capped, a few Northern Royals and our first Southern Royals. It was much windier than on our previous day at sea, with lots of small whitecaps on the water and the birds were really cruising by at pace as we stood at the bow. We were travelling with the wind though, so the bow was quite sheltered, which made it comfortable for us but did not bring the birds in particularly close. Lots of dark plumaged petrels were off at distance, with only a few coming in close enough to firmly identify as either Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel or Gray-faced Petrels. Quite a few groups of Common Dolphins were coursing through the chop, and occasionally leaping out of the water in a playful manner as we approached them. In the waning bit of daylight we finally spotted our first couple of Fairy Prions, an elegantly marked silver and black coloured small tubenose that is typically abundant around New Zealand waters but that somehow eluded us to this point in the tour.

Normally the interisland ferry takes only four hours to make the crossing from Wellington to the Picton harbour, but our ship (which moves faster than the ferry) had to accomplish the feat in about 11 hours. Likely to avoid expensive docking fees the ship travelled far to the south before looping back up into the Straight and finally entering the protected waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Whatever their route actually was we awoke as planned comfortably sitting on the commercial wharf at Picton and surrounded by steep sided forested slopes in nearly all directions. The town supports a population of only three-and-a-half thousand people, but with its position as the opening port for the entire of the South Island and its frequent summer cruise ships it seems a bustling and quite comfortable place. The downtown is lined with galleries, cafes, bookstores and souvenir shops, and the little harbour was full of small pleasure boats. With houses up the surrounding hills, and a very laid back feel the town seemed like it would be perfectly in place somewhere around the Puget Sound or Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The ship calls in here largely because the Marlborough region is the heart of New Zealands wine country. Most of the cruise ship patrons likely visited a winery somewhere inland, or at the very least enjoyed local seafood paired with drinks in one of the many harbourside cafes. For us though, this port of call offered an excellent set of landbirds to look for. After we took the short shuttle into town we spent the majority of the morning walking the coastal trail out to a small beach at Bob’s Bay. The trail offered excellent views of the harbour and surrounding mountains, with the scrubby slopes near the beginning supplying a nice set of introduced birds including Greenfinch, Chaffinch and European Goldfinch, as well as some quite cooperative Silvereye and several close views of New Zealand Bellbird. Once in the woods we started to pick out New Zealand Fantails, Tui and a couple of somewhat furtive Grey Gerygones amongst the wonderfully twisted trunks of the local podacarpus trees. Our main quarry for the walk though was to be found at the bottom of the somewhat steep hill leading down to the beach. In the scrub along the edge of the clearing we eventually teased out a quite cooperative Weka that put on a bit of a show for us after it eventually walked out from the denser vegetation. The Weka is an amazingly stout species of flightless Rail endemic to New Zealand. Males weigh up to a kilo, making them roughly seven times the mass of a Buff-banded Rail (a species that itself feels fairly large to a North American eye). Weka’s somewhat resemble an oversized Clapper Rail, but their brazen personality and just general coolness make them one of the more charismatic rallids in the world. The walk back to town seemed to take no time at all (once we were back up the hill at any rate), and after a short pause in the harbour to admire a passing Sting Ray and some small colourful blennies in the intertidal zone we visited a local café for lunch.

Our plan for the afternoon was to visit one of the predator-free islands further out in the Queen Charlotte Sound. We were delighted to find out that the captain of the boat had shifted some things around, enabling us to have a private tour out to Blumine Island, roughly 15K out from Picton. This nature cruise took the entirety of the afternoon, and I think that when most participants look back at the trip it may well prove one of the most favorite activities that we undertook during the cruise. Our charming captain knew all the nooks and crannies in the fjiord, and within a few minutes of our leaving Picton we were admiring a flock of perched White-fronted Terns on a nearby rock (he expertly brought the craft to within a few feet of the loafing birds), lots of Fluttering Shearwaters sitting on the water all around the boat, and, perhaps best of all, three New Zealand King Shags. This huge species of cormorant is restricted to the waters of the Marlborough Sound, and with a global population of only 650 birds is one of the most endangered birds in New Zealand. Although there are several people studying the species and its habits not too much is known about its foraging habits. Surveys decades ago revealed a similarly small population, so it may be that, for whatever reason, the species is near the carrying capacity of its small range and does not have the capability of significant range expansion. The first two birds we found were juveniles, but soon we located an adult sitting high on a shoreline ridge. With bright yellow caruncles around its nostrils, an intensely blue eye, and bright black and white plumage it is quite a handsome cormorant. On some adjacent rocks we were also able to observe several dozen Spotted Shags, which even though they were no longer in full breeding plumage are also particularly pretty for cormorants. Clad in a dark grey coat, with blue-black rumps, small ocelli on the scapular feathers, a turquoise eyering and black and white neck they somewhat recall the Red-legged Shag from the Humbolt Current, only with a different costume designer.

After our success with the local cormorants we pushed on to Blumine, eager to get ashore and spend a bit of time looking for some of the transplanted birdlife that now call this rather large and mountainous island home. It’s a famous location from an ornithological standpoint, as it hosts a small population of the critically endangered Malherb’s Parakeet (which the New Zealanders call Orange-fronted Parakeet). Malherb’s were long thought to be a regional variant of the more widespread Yellow-fronted Parakeet, but some thorough research including extensive DNA work confirmed that they would be better recognised as a separate species; one which almost immediately became one of the rarest of New Zealand’s bushbirds. Most of the historically known mainland populations are now gone or almost so, and in a last ditch effort to save the species several birds were translocated to a set of offshore predator-free islands. Fifty-seven birds were put on Blumine Island, and they seem to be doing well there, with several pairs successfully raising young. Malherb’s are a bit smaller than the more widespread Red or Yellow-crowned Parrots, and tend to spend most of their time perched in the canopy. Their soft chatter-like calls tend not to carry terribly well, making it quite a difficult bird to census for, or indeed, see on demand. Luck was most certainly on our side, as within twenty minutes of arriving on the beach (by way of an ingenious ladder rigged to the bow of the boat) we were amazed to see two parakeets fly overhead and land in a dense tree near the trail. It took a bit of time and jockeying for an angle but we eventually found a young bird quietly sitting near some large clusters of fruit. Amazingly the bird stayed put for several minutes, and we even spotted one of the two adults sitting briefly out in the open and showing its namesake orange crown band. It was a bit of a long shot that given only a short afternoon visit we would be successful at finding one of these tiny parrots, so it felt incredibly good to see it so well. The island held other prizes for us as well, with a very cooperative Tomtit perching up near the island’s welcome sign, and several brash Weka wandering along the beach or crossing the path in front of us. Some participants even managed to spot the other very scarce avian inhabitant of the island, the critically endangered South Island Saddleback. It quite closely resembles the North Island bird, but differs a bit in plumage maturation and colour. Saddlebacks are known to be fast moving and often a bit skulky, and their loud calls seem almost mocking in nature (especially for those participants who did not manage to get a look at one)! All too soon our time on the island drew to a close, and with a Weka watching us depart from the beach, we hurried back to the port at Picton to make sure that we arrived with plenty of time to spare before our ship pulled out.

After a checklist and some time for relaxation we met again just as the ship was leaving the Queen Charlotte Sound and entering the Cook Strait. As we had hoped the mixing of the waters here was attracting a lot of birds. Just before we passed a series of large rocky islets at the mouth of the sound we picked out a large raft of Hutton’s Shearwaters sitting on the water. Similar in size and structure to the by now familiar Fluttering Shearwater these birds differed by their more extensively dark axillaries and underwings, darker back and longer bills. Unfortunately, this one flock (and a few stragglers a bit out into the Strait) would be our only Hutton’s for the night, but as we neared the islets where the New Zealand King Shags breed we began to see clouds of birds on the horizon. Amazingly we were soon surrounded by hundreds of Fairy Prions, a species that until then had been strangely absent. At times we had multiple birds just below us right off the side of the ship, which allowed us to see (and photograph) a lot of birds at close range. We estimated at least 2500 Prions, along with nearly 1000 Sooty Shearwaters and a nice mix of Albatrosses including an adult Wandering, and at times we were simply surrounded with birds.

The next day we awoke a few miles shy of the volcanic peninsula near Christchurch and just a bit offshore. We started watching off of deck 7 fairly early, hoping to catch a few pelagic birds around the shelf break before entering the mouth of the fjiord leading into the small port of Akaroa. That part of the plan worked fairly well, with our first Cape Petrels passing by at close range, and some very good views of Southern Royal Albatross and White-chinned Petrel. About an hour before we were due to dock the captain slowed down and we could see another cruise ship to our south that seemed to also be in a holding pattern. After about a half-hour it became apparent that something was amiss, and just as we were offering various theories an announcement on the PA system revealed that due to the high winds and wind direction (which was unfortunately blowing right into the fjord) the ship was not allowed to enter the harbour. Apparently, the port lacks a tug service, and the narrow channel makes turning the ship around safely difficult in the best of times, and nigh impossible with a stiff cross breeze. Rather than have his boat pushed broadside onto the rocks the captain informed us that we would be skipping Akaroa (and our only chance for Kea and Black-fronted Tern). Instead of a port visit he would start to head further south towards our next port of call at Dunedin. Although certainly this was a disappointment, the change in itinerary did give us an unexpected day at sea along the east side of the South Island; an area rich in seabirds. For most of the day the ship slowly headed south, a bit too far inland from the shelf break for true deepwater species, but too far offshore for the more coastal ones. Cape Petrels and a subadult Northern Giant Petrel stuck with us for much of the day though, and we had impressive numbers of Sooty Shearwater and plenty of Buller’s Shearwater and White-capped, Salvin’s and Southern Royal Albatrosses to keep us company as well. Without a doubt though the most exciting seabirds for the day were the two Mottled Petrels, spotted in close succession, that we found midmorning. This is a very flashy species, with a distinctive dark grey belly patch, and thick black underwing bars. Although Mottled Petrels breed on some offshore islands near Stewart Island they are seldom seen off of the east coast of the country, preferring to forage further south. After our meeting for a checklist most of the group elected to enjoy dinner or other shipboard activities, some though headed back out to the deck to see if our ship had changed position at all. To our delight the captain had finally angled a bit further out to sea, and we soon found ourselves motoring right along the shelf break at a quite slow speed (since we were well ahead of our scheduled position by this time). Amazingly we found ourselves quite surrounded by Cooklaria petrels. For over two hours we had multiple Cook’s and Mottled Petrels in view, often close together for an instructive comparison. At the end of the session we had conservatively tallied almost 150 Cooks (a species that is also usually quite scarce of the east coast of the South Island, and a truly staggering 42 Mottled Petrels). As if that were not enough the sharp-eyed cadre of assembled birders picked out a smattering of Storm-Petrels pattering around just off the boat. Most were White-faced Storm-Petrels, but several birds were black above with white underparts bisected with a dark stripe; Black-bellied Storm-Petrels! In short, it was a simply magical session with seabirds, it’s certainly nice when perseverance pays off!

On the following morning we received word that ships had also been unable to land at Port Chalmbers due to the high winds. Thankfully though for us the day dawned calm, though initially a bit damp with a persistent driving mist (dubbed mizzle by some onboard). The harbour sits about half-way down a long natural harbour formed by the jutting out Otago Peninsula. Although it’s a long and well protected harbour the navigable channel is quite narrow, with lots of emergent sandbars just outside the markers making it a bit slow going for the captain. This was good for us though, as we had ample time to scan the shoreline and sandbars, marvelling at the hundreds (thousands) of Silver and Kelp Gulls ringing the shore. A smattering of Variable and South Island Oystercatchers, some White-fronted Terns, a few White-faced Herons and one lonely looking Royal Spoonbill were using the sandbars as well. Just as we neared the docks we spotted a single dark cormorant that was swimming just off the boat. It proved to be our first of many Otago Shags; a recent if not fully accredited split from the old Stewart Island Shag. This species, and its newly minted congener the Foveaux Shag both occur in two quite distinct colour morphs. Our bird was a “bronze” morph bird, but many of the individuals that we saw later in the day were handsomely marked in black and white. Shortly after admiring the cormorant we slid into our berth at the dock with the rather involved help of a pair of tugboats that managed to get our ship rotated around and then backed into the dock in a neat little bit of oversized parallel parking.

We disembarked and after a short wait were met by our local guides (and their ever so slightly snug bus) who greeted us with great enthusiasm. It’s always nice to meet people that love what they do, and Joanne and Teresa both clearly loved showing visitors the wilder side of the Otago region. With an amazing (if not daunting) 126 cruise ships scheduled to call in at Port Chalmbers this summer they are certainly kept busy with day visitors. Our main destination for the morning was the Orokonui Ecosanctuary, a large fenced in preserve atop one of the hills above town. Here an incredible amount of volunteer sweat and hours has once again paid off, with some excellent regenerating native forest, a bit of true old-growth in the steeper draws and a very well laid out trail network to explore it all. The reserve hosts a pair of South Island Takahe which until recently had only been used as foster parents for chicks from other pairs. Recently though they have started to produce fertile eggs, adding valuable genetic diversity to this scarce species that is wholly dependent upon active conservation effort. We saw the male Takahe, who seemed totally unconcerned by our presence (a habit which likely led to many of them being hunted out of much of the country) as he followed us around the grassy area at the top of the reserve. Around the clearing we also pinned down our first Common (Lesser) Redpolls, an introduced species that has done well around the South Island. Once in the woods we found New Zealand Bellbirds and Tuis to be remarkably common as they foraged on natural foods and at provided feeding stations. Also pleasingly common were South Island Robins, a species which was translocated to the reserve from some nearby forest patches and that has responded remarkably well to their new home. Splitting into two groups, we walked a circular track through the center of the reserve, with both groups connecting with our two main target birds; the New Zealand Brown Creeper, better known as the Pipipi, and (for those that missed it back in Zealandia) the diminutive Rifleman. The Pipipis were our second species from the family Mohouidae. They closely resemble the Whitehead in body shape and foraging habits, but differ in their more richly brown and tawny bodies and tail, and grayer head. We found them to be relatively common as well, but with their proclivity for staying higher in the canopy getting really clear views of them was certainly more challenging that finding the Robins, many of whom were placidly hopping about in the middle of the trail. Riflemen were another transplant here, and after many years their population seems to finally be on the upswing in the park. We found three pairs, one of which was clearly feeding chicks, so they seem a success story for the reserve. As we neared the end of the loop trail we headed back up to the Takahe clearing for a half-hearted attempt at finding one of the resident pairs of New Zealand Fernbird that often frequents the thickets around the margins of the clearing. We didn’t have too much hope as this species tends to stay deep in thickets, and the use of playback is outlawed in the reserve. Luck was definitely with us though, as a Fernbird was perched up and singing when the first group arrived, showing extremely well as it sat up on a high bush before diving down into cover. The second group arrived on the scene about fifteen minutes later, but our luck held, and they too enjoyed a view before the bird zipped off again, seemingly carrying food to a hidden nestling.

With all of our potential new birds secured we left the reserve and drove a bit to the north along the coast. An excellent picnic lunch (taken in the lee of the bus due to a sudden turn in the weather) featured local produce and sandwiches, as well as hot tea and coffee and even homemade anzac biscuits, all just feet away from a gorgeous sandy beach covered in gulls and several pairs of Oystercatchers. An after lunch stroll through the ponds at Hawkesbury Lagoon proved quite fruitful, with dozens of Paradise Shelduck and Australian Shoveler, and hundreds of Black Swan and Grey Teal dotting the open water. The margins of the ponds held pairs of Pied Stilts and Masked Lapwings as well as our first Great Egret of the tour and a stunning Royal Spoonbill that seemed intent on showing off just how long his crown feathers could be in breeding plumage.

After the lagoons we drove still further north, to a small peninsula named Katiki Point. Here the department of conservation has partnered with some local land owners to provide breeding habitat for Yellow-eyed Penguins. These large and handsome penguins are perhaps the rarest species of penguin in the world as they breed on vegetated headlands in a few scattered locations on the South Island and several offshore islands. Predation by dogs, stoats and cats, and the removal of coastal forests have affected the species greatly. At Katiki a predator fence has been erected around a small but lush patch of coastal forest, with the surrounding bays and reefs providing good foraging ground for the penguins, who are largely resident in their restricted range. Just prior to our visit a nearly fledged chick had been found attacked inside the reserve fence, prompting the managers to take the remaining chicks into care. Although this may well help the current generation of penguins to grow up in strong numbers we were worried a bit that the adult birds might not be around in the afternoon during our visit. We needn’t have worried though, as we found three adults out on the point or its beaches, two of which posed very well for our poised cameras. Yellow-eyed Penguins belong to a monotypic genus, and seem to be more closely related to a set of now extinct species than they are to the other extant species in the region. We ogled the birds for quite some time, taking in their namesake pale irises, bubble gum pink lipstick and heavily streaked crown. The peninsula held other treats for us as well, with nesting Kelp and Silver Gulls, loafing New Zealand Fur Seals and even a passing White-capped Albatross; a sight which represented the first from land albatross that many of the participants had ever seen. Although the day had started with a bit of drizzle, and had turned temporarily windy during lunch the afternoon was sunny and warm, and the pleasant conditions and excellent scenery was almost hard to tear ourselves away from. But, as cruise ships don’t wait in port for wayward passengers and the afternoon was waning we piled into the bus and made the hour-long drive back to the harbour, arriving with a half-hour to spare before the all-aboard time.

We bade farewell to our local guides and soon found ourselves once again up on deck, where, as we neared the head of the harbour, we reveled in excellent views of the local breeding population of Northern Royal Albatrosses (the only such colony on mainland New Zealand). About ten birds were visible in the grass around the head of the Otago Peninsula, with several pairs displaying a bit to each other. Another ten or so birds were in flight over the hill or just out to sea, putting on quite a good show for us. Also on the hill was a quite large nesting colony of Otago Shags, and we passed close enough that we could see lots of both colour morphs as they stood atop their nests. As we left the harbour behind the ship seemed to be plotting an odd course, heading out to the east instead of making the turn to the south down the coast. As we were puzzling this out the captain came on the PA and announced that due to a very strong low-pressure zone that had sprung up off the South Island he had decided to alter the itinerary of the cruise. Rather than heading south and rounding the bottom of the South Island before spending a day of scenic cruising in Fjiordland National Park he declared it necessary to run back to the north, crossing over the Cook Strait and then heading west to Hobart. Although we were initially disappointed by this change of plans we soon learned that the Stewart Island region was experiencing sustained 80 mile and hour winds and nearly 50-foot seas; hardly conditions that any of us wanted to experience. An hour and a half vigil up on deck 7 as we started north at the end of the day produced a few more Mottled and Cook’s Petrels and a Prion that we confirmed to be a Slender-billed once we had time to look closely at our photographs.

We spent the next three full days at sea, traveling through the Cook Strait on the first day, and then spending two days crossing the Tasman. Our first day saw us wake up just a bit offshore from Kaikoura, perhaps the most famous seabirding area around the country. Here the continental shelf comes very close to the coast, bringing tubenoses to within a few miles of shore. Our ships position was just a bit to the north of the shelf break, in the shallower waters near the coastline. This was a perfect position for Hutton’s Shearwater, which breed in good numbers on the coastal slopes just a bit inland. Over the first few hours of the morning we logged large flocks of Hutton’s streaming along the coast, often skimming just off the ship and showing their dusky underwings and blacker upperparts to excellent effect. Both Salvin’s and White-capped Albatrosses were quite common, allowing us to practice telling these closely related birds apart. Also of note early in the day were two close Westland Petrels, which passed close enough that we could clearly discern their black tipped bills. One of the birds had a White-chinned Petrel nearby for a handy comparison as the Westland was clearly smaller and a bit more lightly built.

Midday we turned into the Cook Strait, a body of water that can be tempestuous at the best of times. With the building winds and swell from the incoming storm behind us the conditions were definitely deteriorating. Inside the strait we found the birding to be a bit on the slow side, with birds perhaps pushing out in front of the storm front and away from the coast. Near the western side of the strait though, as we rounded Stephen’s Island we picked up a nice assortment of birds, with thousands of Fairy Prions, and dozens of Buller’s, Hutton’s, Fluttering and Sooty Shearwaters, as well as an impressive number of Albatross and a single passing Parasitic Jaeger. By the time we neared Cape Farewell; the northwest tip of the South Island the seas were getting noticeably higher, and the buffeting winds drove us off the outer deck by the mid-afternoon. An announcement from the captain indicated, that despite our nearly 800KM detour to the north of our planned route the southern storm would still be affecting the ship for the next 24 hours, with seas of up to 10-25 meters and winds over 50 nautical miles an hour.

The following day we awoke to the promised conditions, and we met at the decadent hour of 8am in one of the bar lounges on deck 7, preparing to spend much of the morning looking out the windows. Although a very nice young Wandering Albatross did indeed grace us with its presence; hanging just off the side of the ship and even with our viewing angle for almost a half hour we couldn’t see much else out of the slightly salt-crusted windows. We chatted with the ship security and regained access to a small portion of the outer deck (on the downwind side so as not to be regularly washed with spray). This allowed us to bird in relative comfort, some even sitting on the deck chairs until a passing bird was called out and then springing into action. Admittedly it was chilly on deck though, so most folks cycled in and out through the day, catching the odd nap or show, or perhaps doing laundry or a bit of reading. The day didn’t hold a huge number of birds, with a day list of only 14, but a few of the species were new and particularly interesting. Perhaps the bird of the day for most people was White-headed Petrel; a distinctive and beautiful large Pterodroma with a bright white head, dark eye patch and pale tail. We saw four through the day, with several coming quite close to the boat. Another excellent addition to our burgeoning tubenose list was the elegant Black-winged Petrel, which resembles a Cook’s Petrel but has a darker upperwing and head, and a much longer and thicker black underwing bar. These two petrels were an interesting combination, as the White-headed is a cold-water species that breeds on Subantarctic Islands, and the Black-winged is a much more tropical bird, breeding north of the North Island. Perhaps the warmer overall ocean temperatures in the region this year were encouraging more northerly birds to come south, while the storm from the south was driving some cold-water birds northwards. In addition to the petrels we also picked up an assortment of Albatrosses, including a Snowy (Wandering) Albatross and an adult Buller’s Albatross that was close enough that we could more easily see the thick black leading edge to the underwing, grayish head and pale fringed bill that seperate this species from the much more common White-capped Albatross. With Mottled, Gray-faced and Cook’s Petrels as well it made for an exciting 5 gadfly petrel day, a record that we thought (incorrectly as it turns out) would last the rest of the trip. We met a bit early for our checklist and then enjoyed a delicious group dinner in the Michelangelo Formal dining room (after a few people had to go back to change into fancier attire).

Our final day at sea crossing the Tasman dawned amazingly clear and calm, with nearly flat seas. The captain authorized the opening of the promenade deck at the bow, which had been closed for several days during the rougher weather. This allowed us an excellent vantage point looking forward, and we were not disappointed. As we were still in very deep water the bird numbers were not high, but the diversity was excellent, and in the mid-morning we crossed over a pair of small seamounts and found a surprisingly large number of birds around the ship. Albatrosses included a close Buller’s and impressively large and pale Wandering among the several dozen White-capped. After having several distant Buller’s closer to New Zealand it was nice to be able to see the bill coloration and underwing clearly as the bird languidly flapped off from the water just in front of the ship. At the seamounts we picked out a few foraging Storm-Petrels, and were very happy to have extremely close views of several Black-bellied among the more common White-faced. A single tiny Grey-backed Storm-Petrel appeared briefly as well, skipping over the water with fluttering wings. But the morning belonged to the gadfly petrels, with repeated and excellent views of White-headed (several even sitting on the water just off the rail), Mottled, Black-winged, Cook’s and our first Gould’s Petrel; a very attractive Cooklaria species with a nearly black crown, nape and collar. The midday was a bit slower as we were over extremely deep water without any particular underwater features to concentrate upwellings. We still averaged a bird or two every ten minutes, and enjoyed more views of gadfly petrels, Sooty Shearwater and White-chinned Petrels. Also of interest were the several huge Mola Molas, or Ocean Sunfish that we spotted as they lay just beneath the waters surface, often with the tip of their tall dorsal fin protruding out of the water. After an early checklist we again visited the deck, which proved perhaps the most exciting session of seabirding for the cruise. When we got up on deck we were still in the open Tasman Sea, but just before dusk we crossed over the 200 mile boundary into Australian Waters, giving those that opted to come out on deck an opportunity to start their Australia lists.

While we were having dinner a light rain squall passed through, flattening out the water and seemingly activating the local cetaceans. With the mostly calm conditions throughout the day we had been looking hard for whales to no avail, though we did see a couple of pods of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins midday. After dinner though we could see lots of tall blows on the horizon. Eventually we spotted the long back and small dorsal fin that solidified the identification of the big whales as Fins. Soon afterwards we found a pod of Pilot Whales slowly swimming parallel to the boat, and while watching them (and the albatross and petrels that were milling around overhead) we were startled by a tight pod of very actively jumping and brightly marked black and white dolphins. Their attenuated shape and bold colour pattern made for an easy ID, as Southern Right Whale Dolphins are basically unmistakeable. Although relatively common in a narrow band of southern latitudes this species is not regularly encountered near shore, preferring the deeper waters. Apparently, they often associate with Pilot Whales, so it’s likely that the convergence of the two pods was not coincidental.              

The evening’s birds were staggering, with the prize find doubtless being the Providence Petrels that we picked out near the end of the day. It’s a variable species at this time of year, with an amazing array of moult induced colour changes. These birds were largely white bellied but possessed dark hoods and dusky brown underwings with bright, almost jaeger-like, pale wing flashes at the base of their primaries, closely resembling Kermadec Petrels in some cases (which we initially thought them to be). Here too we picked up a single Soft-plumaged Petrel with its characteristic all dark underwings. A couple of white-faced Little Shearwater, several huge Wandering Albatross and our first close-up Short-tailed Shearwaters rounded out the cast. In tallying up the days birdlist we were amazed to find that on this single day we had recorded 20 species of tubenose, including a truly impressive 9 species of gadfly petrels!

We awoke already well inside the huge Hobart harbour, and a brief check on the outer deck revealed our first views of the Australia. Nice neighborhoods tucked into the lower slopes of the hills ringing the harbour, kayakers out on the calm waters of the bay and little groups of Common Dolphins playing just off the bow. A few Pacific, Kelp and Silver Gulls passed by, and at one point a young Australasian Gannet flew across the bow; a welcoming party to Australia’s birds. Once we docked and cleared immigration (quite a quick process actually, all things considered) we had a bit of time waiting for our local guide to pick us up. We made good use of it, finding a couple of Black-faced and Little Pied Cormorants in the harbour, our first Tree Martins hawking insects over the road near the pier, and some passing Forest Ravens. The black corvids of Australia are a source of constant confusion for visiting birders, but thankfully for us only one species (of the 5) reaches Tasmania.

Once our bus arrived we traveled a bit to the south of Hobart to the Peter Murrell Reserve, a small forest reserve that is increasingly ringed by new housing developments. Much of Australia, and Tasmania in particular is in the throes of a decade long housing boom, with lots of new developments driven by soaring home prices and a steady population growth. We spent a very pleasant hour or so walking up and down a firebreak trail in the woodlands. It was a great introduction to Australian birdlife, with dapper New Holland Honeyeaters clad in a wonderful costume of black, white and yellow in the bushes, Little Wattlebirds calling from the canopy, and Laughing Kookaburras staring down at us from their customary gum tree perches. Although virtually all the birds we saw in the preserve were new for the tour we concentrated particularly on the few Tasmanian endemics, as this would be our only day on the island. Happily we found three of Tasmania’s endemic honeyeaters; Black-headed and Yellow-throated and the giant Yellow Wattlebird all quite easily on the walk. We also enjoyed excellent and close-up views of Spotted Pardalotes foraging along the trail. This small Australian family (with four species currently recognized) somewhat resemble oversized nuthatches with short stubby bills. They specialize on feeding on scale insects, which they scrape off the leaves with their strong prying bills. They often stay stubbornly high in the canopy, making their presence known only with their repetitive call notes, so it was a bit of a surprise to see over a half-dozen birds quite well down at nearly eye-level. Around a small pond we picked up a pair of Chestnut Teal, a fairly common duck in the southern part of Australia, but a pretty one. We completed the walk with a couple of thornbills, finding Brown Thornbills foraging near eye level in some denser shrubs and a pair of perky Yellow-rumped Thornbills bouncing around on the ground. Thornbills and Gerygones fill the small insectivore niche in Australia, with roughly three dozen species spread out over the country. They are one of the few groups of birds that offer identification challenges, with many species differing primarily by subtle field marks and voice.

After some cold drinks, as the day was already unseasonably hot we piled back in the bus and drove a bit farther south along the coast to the small town of Margate. Here we spent the rest of the morning birding around Dru Point, a rather idyllic city park set on a shallow bay with sandbars and oyster beds and encompassing patches of dry Eucalypt forest and open fields, playgrounds and scrub. Here we added a few waterbirds, like Pied Oystercatcher (a larger and shorter-billed version of New Zealands South Island Oystercatcher), Grey Teal, the impressive Pacific Gull (with its huge hatchet-like bill designed for dismembering hapless crabs) White-faced Heron and Black Swan. As we started to walk around the park we skirted the edge of one of the playgrounds. Our views of the small children 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! Along the edge of that playground in a planted bed we heard a Superb Fairywren giving a highly agitated call and when we went over to investigate we found a beautiful Blotched Blue-tongued Skink under the bushes, a reminder that Australia is home to far more than a wealth of birds! A short stroll around the park revealed lots of birds feeding chicks. Several pairs of Dusky Woodswallows, a pair of Black-faced Cuckooshrikes, families of Welcome Swallow and the aptly named Superb Fairywren were all actively bringing food in to nearly fully fledged young. I suspect the Fairywrens, bold and dazzling in colour were the firm crowd favorite at this site, as they bounced around on the open lawns like tiny long tailed gleaming blue and black wind up toys. In some shrubs along the shoreline we spotted two quietly sitting parrots, and when we scoped them quickly realized that they were Blue-winged Parrots. These small parrots are exquisitely coloured in olive, yellow and blue. They feed on seeding grasses and flowering heath, and often can be tricky to spot as they forage inside the vegetation, only becoming visible when they shoot off like little green darts across the sky. A flowering tree near the back of the park was full of birds, and by standing near it and quietly watching we picked out the last of the Tassie endemic honeyeaters with a well-marked adult Strong-billed foraging in the canopy. Here too was a Striated Pardalote and several Black-headed and Yellow-throated Honeyeaters. Nearby we stopped to watch a paid of Grey Fantails bouncing just over our heads, and picked out a young Grey Butcherbird perched quietly in the understory. Perhaps the most unusual sighting was of a Common Ringtailed Possum that was asleep in the fork of a larger tree. These nocturnal animals generally roost in bulky nests or perhaps tree hollows, and seeing one out in the open like this certainly raises questions about its general health. Our local guide intended on contacting the Margate council to see if they could assess its condition, but at a glance it seemed to be quite comfortably asleep.

Once back at the bus we enjoyed a fine picnic lunch in the company of the local Masked Lapwings and then decided to head up towards Mount Wellington; the towering peak that looms above downtown Hobart. Before we even reached our chosen trailhead the bus pulled to a screeching halt when a Black Currawong crossed in front and landed in some trees just upslope. This attractive Tasmanian endemic is an altitudinal migrant, heading upslope to breed in the spring and coming back down to the coastal forests in the winter. Currawongs are in the Bell Magpie family, along with such other Australasian birds as the well-known Australian Magpie, Butcherbirds. They are impressive birds, glossy black, with a bright golden eye and a huge bill. While watching the Currawong as it moved steadily upslope we noticed a pair of Green Rosellas quietly feeding nearby. Green hardly describes these quite attractive birds (another Tasmania endemic), which have a yellow cast to the belly and bright blue throat. With some additional looks at foraging Grey Fantails and a lively little group of Silvereye it was quite a productive roadside stop.

The walk up a wet wooded drainage leading to a set of small springs was beautiful, though a bit quiet in the heat of the afternoon. As we walked a bit uphill we were surrounded by small tree ferns and a tall Eucalypt overstory. It didn’t take too long to hear our first target species, as just a few meters from the onset of the trail we could hear a Tasmanian Thornbill chattering away at us from the canopy. Actually finding it did take a bit of time, but eventually everyone got on to a pair of these small thornbills, at a close enough range to make out the very light breast streaking, whitish pantaloons, and brown wash to the wings that help to separate this endemic from the more widespread Brown Thornbill. A bit further up the trail we hear the scolding and sputtering notes of a Tasmanian Scrubwren coming from a dense tangle of downed tree limbs and ferns below the trail. The Scrubwrens are closely related to the thornbills, but are a bit larger and longer tailed, often staying low in dense foliage or clambering around in vines in the midstory. This pair of birds showed quite well as they bounced around some tree ferns, before vanishing back into the understory. With little bird song around in the afternoon heat we decided to head back downhill, making our last stop for the day around one of the large lakes that serve to provide the city of Hobart with drinking water. Here we walked along the paved road and trail that skirts the edge of the lake, watching particularly (and unsuccessfully) for Dusky Robins along the forest edge. It was quite a pleasant walk, with a smattering of new birds including such iconic Australian birds as Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Gray Shrikethrush (which is neither a Shrike or a Thrush). The open water above the dam held a few interesting birds, with Australian Wood Duck, Pacific Black Duck and Eurasian Coots joining throngs of Silver and Kelp Gulls that were bathing in the lake. While scanning these birds we picked out a pair of Hoary-headed Grebes, a small and attractive species with a flashy silver and black streaked head in breeding plumage. Here too were a few Hardhead; Australia’s answer to a Canvasback or Scaup, clad in dull chestnut but with a silver eye and broad blue-gray bill band. Along the edge of the woods we picked up an inquisitive Bennet’s Wallaby that peered down at us from around a large tree trunk. This prompted a brief discussion about macropods, and how they come in a variety of size classes. The discussion proved imminently useful, as just a few minutes later we spotted a much smaller Rufous-bellied Pademelon sitting quietly in the understory. These small kangaroo-relatives are only about two feet tall, weighing less than 22 lbs and are undeniably cute. We made a last little foray along a shallow streamlined with tree ferns where the more humid conditions seemed to be attracting a nice array of birds. Most were Silvereye and Grey Fantail, but we picked out a few Brown Thornbill, a pair of Tasmanian Thornbill, and a female Scarlet Robin with a young fledgling. Although we didn’t connect with any Dusky Robins along the creek it was still a nice stroll, but as the afternoon was beginning to wane and the temperatures were still hovering around an unseasonable 30 degrees Celsius we headed back down to Hobart. Coming down the side of the mountain was rounded a corner and had a beautiful sweeping view of the city, and our cruise ship, which seemed from our vantage point to temporarily be the largest building in the downtown core. We pulled out of the harbour a bit after six in the evening, and met on the bow. Over an hour and a half we chatted about the day, pleased by our introduction to Australia and our good success with Tasmania’s endemics (we saw 9 of the 12 species)! We had hoped that the ship would reach the continental shelf before dark but the ship left quite slowly, cruising down the shore of Bruny Island at about half-speed. We did enjoy massive flocks of Short-tailed Shearwaters milling about in Storm Bay, likely waiting until sunset to head to their nearby nesting sites. At times we were witness to flocks of thousands of birds at once, looking like a swarm of insects over the water at a distance or streaming by in long lines off the bow. Australian Gannets, Pacific Gulls, Black-faced Cormorants and a few Great Crested Terns livened up the proceedings as well, and just before we called it a day we could make out the towering basaltic columns along the point of Cape Rauol, near the Southeast point of Tasmania.

The next day we had at sea, waking up to overcast skies a bit off of the eastern coast of Tasmania. Happily, for the first few hours we were traveling right over the shelf break, with lots of birds arcing along with us against the northerly headwind. By far the most common species was the expected Short-tailed Shearwater, which were constant companions until we eventually left the shelf break to start heading into the shallow Bass Strait. Along with the Short-taileds we encountered several hundred Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. These elegant tubenoses have a very different flight style than the more utilitarian Short-tailed or Sooty. They fly with slightly forward pushed angled wings, making languid turns with long glides. It’s a species normally associated with warmer waters, and one that really should not occur off Tasmania at all. The fact that we found so many may well have something to do with the recent and ongoing fires around the east coast of New South Wales and Victoria. With plumes from the bushfires reaching all the way across the Tasman sea and occasionally darkening the sky of cities as far away as Auckland it was perhaps not surprising that birds typically found offshore from there moving out to more smoke-free areas. The first few hours of seabirding were good for several other interesting species as well, with some of the highlights including a couple of fluttering Grey-backed Storm-Petrels, a passing Parasitic Jaeger, a single Soft-plumaged Petrel which stayed with the boat for several minutes and our first Black-browed Albatross. In the mid-morning we veered west of the shelf break, to head into the narrow channel between the northeastern cape of Tasmania and the nearby Forneaux Islands. As we passed through the channel we picked up some Pacific Gulls, Black-faced Cormorants and a seemingly out of place Australian Pelican heading across the water for Tasmania. The rest of the day was spent steaming to the northwest through the relatively shallow Bass Strait. The winds increased over the day, and although we had a steady trickle of birds out on the water the shallow strait didn’t seem particularly productive for seabirds. Just before we called it a night though we did pick up a couple of Fairy Prions, several of which were following along just off the side of the ship for several minutes and giving exceptionally good views.

When we awoke the following morning, we were already well into Port Phillip Bay; the huge bay that forms the outer part of Melbourne’s Harbour. After docking we walked off the commercial pier and while waiting for Steve, our local guide and driver here in Melbourne we amused ourselves with our first mainland Australia birds. A pair of Crested Pigeons, a quite attractive and widespread species that seems comfortable in even urban environments greeted us on the lawn. And in the nearby hedgerow we found a flowering Banksia that was attracting some Rainbow Lorikeets to its cone-like yellow blossoms. Given the amazing colours of both of these birds it made for quite a welcoming committee! For our birding day in Victoria we settled on a visit to the Western Treatment Plant in Werribbee. 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 2020 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. As we left the highway and started towards the plant we stopped along some agricultural fields to admire our first Little Ravens, Magpie-Larks, Straw-necked Ibis, bright pink and silver Galahs and a perched Brown Falcon. It seemed like everywhere we looked there was a new species in view, making it sometimes hard to decide where to look next!

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 Australian Shelduck, Grey and Chestnut Teal and Australian Shoveler crowded the shoreline that was also attracting herds of bright purple Australasian Swamphens. The Shelducks were incredibly common, with some fields just blanketed in them, and flocks of thousands in the air at once. We made a very rough estimate of 27,000 birds, but the actual number could easily have been double that amount. Some shallower impoundments held migratory shorebirds such as Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints which formed dense packs as they fed along sandy spits in the lakes, replenishing their weakened bodies after their long migrations from Russia. 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, 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. Recently flooded fields were hosting hundreds of Whiskered Terns that were hawking for insects over the water. 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 Welcome Swallows along for comparison. Raptors too were in evidence, with Whistling and Black Kites, Swamp Harriers and more Brown Falcon being admired in turn.

Perhaps the best area in the morning 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 bus 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 silvey-grey Baillon’s are a scarce species through Australia, and more regular only far to the north. The crake show wasn’t quite over though, as over in a drier section of the same impoundment we picked out two Black-tailed Native-Hens strutting about the marsh. While watching the crakes we also picked out a couple of bright Golden-headed Cisticolas and some rather more subdued Little Grassbirds sitting in the marsh grasses or (in the case of the Cisticolas) doing their towering display flights before diving back into cover).

Across the road we found a shallow rocky pond filled with roosting birds including our first Red-capped Plover and a couple of White-winged Black Terns; here an uncommon migrant visitor from Asia. The last little wetland that we visited before heading out for lunch held a striking White-necked Heron among a dozen or so White-faced and a little assortment of Cormorants including Little Black and Little Pied. We stopped at some dry fields back near the highway to scan for Banded Lapwings out in the paddock. It didn’t take too long to find them out in the short grass. This attractive white, black, red and yellow plover is a semi-nomadic species that is uncommon throughout its range and one that occurs only sporadically around Melbourne, although the Werribbee area does tend to have a few birds around most of the year. Here too we found a couple of Red-rumped Parrots in the hedgerow and a couple of close Whistling Kites.

We enjoyed a varied lunch at a nearby service station café and then after weighing our options decided to spend the afternoon back at the plant, this time on the more northerly side, on the Paradise Road birding loop trail. Here there are deeper lakes, many with fringing reedbeds, as well as coastal ponds used by roosting waders at high tide and some rocky shoreline. Once back on the property the throngs of Australian Shelducks continued to line the wetland margins, with several thousand on the first impoundment alone. Right along the road though our attentions turned to several pairs of Cape Barren Geese that were grazing on fresh grass along an irrigation channel. These pale silvery grey geese are restricted to a narrow coastal band in parts of southern Australia and Tasmania. With dark polka dots on their wing coverts and a swollen bright yellow cere they are an attractive bird, and one that is unfortunately under threat from predation on the mainland (especially from introduced Foxes).

Other ponds throughout the afternoon revealed several other species of waterfowl including several hundred Blue-billed Ducks (a small stiff tailed species quite similar to a Ruddy Duck), literally thousands of bizzarely plumaged Pink-eared Ducks which have a massive bill that would make any shoveler have an inferiority complex, and a half-dozen Musk Ducks. 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. The best prize in the waterfowl department though was furnished by our two sightings of Freckled Duck. This scarce and nomadic duck is likely the rarest Australian endemic duck, and its scarcity and proclivity for moving make it by far the most difficult duck to consistently see in the country. Around the other side of the lake we found a flock of several dozen Hoary-headed Grebes with a couple of pair of Australasian Grebes nearby for comparison. Here too was a duck of much repute that had all the local birders chattering. About two weeks before our visit a birder had located a very rusty shelduck with a mostly white face and a dark crown stripe. Its identity is still up in the air, with the plumage suggesting but not perfectly matching a vagrant Paradise Shelduck. Some have opined that it might actually be a Cape Shelduck from Africa, although that seems exceedingly unlikely and would represent the first record for Australia. Still others think that the bird is a hybrid, perhaps with a captive Ruddy Shelduck. Perhaps when the bird finishes moulting its identity will be solidified, but for now most folk have simply dubbed the bird Amy.

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. The high tide had driven thousands of waders into the shallow pools near the coast. Most were Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, but we picked out a couple of dozen Red-kneed Dotterels; a handsome and boldy marked plover that seems like it has dressed up in a black waistcoat for a night out on the town. Among the flocks of Whiskered Terns we picked out several Great Crested Terns, a few Little and Common Terns and a couple of diminutive Fairy Terns. A Pied Oystercatcher and two Black-tailed Godwits rounded out our cast of shorebirds, while many monstrous Australian Pelicans and a couple more Cape Barren Geese loafed nearby. We headed back to the ship in Melbourne, and at the evening checklist were amazed to find that without even entering any forested habitats we had recorded 91 species in the day; our highest one-day total for the trip.

Our last day of the cruise found us slowly sailing east out of the Bass Strait and then turning northwards, chugging right along the steep continental shelf break. On a normal year I suspect that these waters would be rich with birdlife, but with the recent heavy smoke pouring off the coastal mountains and out to sea it seemed like a lot of birds had indeed cleared out of the area. The first few hours before we made the corner and turned northwards off the New South Wales coast we found a lot of White-capped Albatross, Wedge-tailed and Short-tailed Shearwaters, and, as we briefly entered deeper water, Gray-faced Petrels and White-faced Storm-Petrels. After the turn north, we were more downwind from the fires, and the birds markedly thinned out, with only the occasional Albatross, Gray-faced Petrel or little push of Wedge-taileds to keep us company. Over the course of our seawatch from the deck we did turn up a locally scarce Salvin’s Albatross, a single Buller’s Albatross and two Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, as well as a couple of passing Pomarine Jaegers. With a following wind very close to our speed there was virtually no wind at the bow, and the temperature was exceedingly pleasant, with some folks even birding in shorts! Dolphins put on an excellent show throughout the day, with multiple close groups of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins coming in to ride our bow wake. With the addition of the Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross to our lengthy tally of tubenoses we finished up with an incredible 39 species, including 9 Albatrosses (assuming a split of Royal and Wandering) and a simply stunning 10 Pterodromas! At our checklist the final evening we offered our individual choices for top five birds of the trip, and in a testament to the wide array of highlights over 30 species were mentioned as contenders. The runaway winner was, of course, the very cooperative North Island Brown Kiwis that were seen at such incredibly close range during the pre-tour extension, but honourable mentions also went to the Yellow-eyed Penguins at Katiki Point, jewel-like Superb Fairywrens in Tasmania, tiny Riflemen at the Orokenui Ecosanctuary and hordes of waterfowl, especially the bizarre Pink-eared Ducks at the Western Treatment Plant. For those not continuing on with us on the post-tour, including Phil; our stalwart and wonderful Kiwi leader it was time to say our farewells. Most folk though started packing up and preparing to disembark the ship early the next morning to continue the next phase of the holiday in the Royal National Park, just a little to the south of Sydney.


Princess Cruises continued their excellent track record of service by delivering a remarkably smooth and quick disembarkation the following morning. The logistic involved in unloading almost 3000 people and their bags off the ship and then reconnecting luggage and people is an immense undertaking, but one that was accomplished with aplomb. Once we were all back together we met up with Steve and boarded our comfortable bus, handily equipped with a luggage trailer. We then headed southwards, quickly leaving the downtown core of Sydney behind. Although it was a Monday morning we found the traffic to be moving smoothly, perhaps as lots of local were out of town during the summer school holidays. As we rounded the airport heading towards the Botany Bay bridge we were startled to see a couple of White-throated Needletails coursing along the roadside, skimming the adjacent houses as they zipped along on their aerofoiled wings. This large swift is a summer migrant in Australia, coming down from their breeding grounds in Asia during Australia’s summer. It holds the distinction of apparently being the fastest bird in level flight in the world, and by the ease that these birds outpaced our bus which was traveling at a fairly healthy clip down the highway it was certainly easy to believe that they deserve the honour.

After picking up some drinks and provisions we arrived at Royal National Park, where we would spend the rest of the morning. The Royal was the first National Park created in Australia (and only the second designated in the world). Encompassing 15000 hectares of coastal heath, dry forest, and patches of temperate rainforest in the valleys Royal boasts an amazing diversity of bird (and plant) life. We spent our time walking down Lady Carrington Drive, an old roadbed that follows the meandering Hacking River in a section covered where it is surrounded by patches of humid forest and drier sclerophyll forest. Our primary goal for the walk was to locate a Superb Lyrebird, and although it wasn’t until late in the walk back to the bus we did manage to see one these incredible birds, watching it for several minutes as it scratched around in the leaf litter along the close riverbank. Superb (and the closely related Albert’s) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife. Generally wary and hard to see in the field the birds in Royal National Park are somewhat used to people and allow a closer approach, and our bird seemed completely nonplussed by the dozen or so pairs of binoculars trained on it as it foraged. The walk was extremely birdy throughout, so much so that it took us over a half-hour just to leave the carpark. A large fruiting fig tree just above where we parked the bus was attracting a half-dozen or so Topknot Pigeons. These large steel-gray pigeons sport a rusty bouffant hairdo and striking white banded tail, and as confirmed frugivores they move around a lot in response to fruiting cycles. The water levels in the river were low, making for excellent edge habitat on the banks. Here we found very tame Pacific Black Ducks, a beautiful pair of Australasian Grebes and our first Dusky Moorhens. For most of the morning we slowly walked along the road, stopping to take in a wealth of new birds. Rufous Fantails flashed about in the understory, while busy little groups of Brown and Striated Thornbills, Gray Fantails and White-throated Treecreepers livened up the midstory. As usual, honeyeaters formed a significant component of the avifauna, and over the course of the morning we admired Lewin’s Honeyeaters with their machine gun rattling call, Yellow-faced Honeyeaters; a study in streaking, sprightly little Eastern Spinebills frenetically zipping from flower to flower, and a remarkable number of dazzling red Scarlet Honeyeaters, which seemed to be one of the most vocal and common species in the forest. The raucous calls of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos filled the air, with birds often flying past giving such a racket as they did that one might wonder how anyone would consider keeping one of these large and intelligent birds as a house pet. A related but entirely different cockatoo also graced us with your presence when a handful of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos flew over with their characteristic languid deep wingbeats. We found these huge and impressive birds, with their bright yellow tail flashes, and mournful eerily gull-like calls utterly captivating, and so unlike their boisterous white cousins. A pair of Variegated Fairywrens was a nice find, and we were able to watch the male, with his bright blue helmet and rufous wing at close range as he foraged in brush along the track. As our trip was in January, the heart of Australia’s summer months there were several summer migrants about as well, and we particularly enjoyed our multiple views of Dollarbirds perched up on prominent perches with their multihued blue, green and purple plumage glistening in the morning sun and a quite responsive Common Cicadabird sitting up just over the trail. Perhaps the best summer migrant though was a Pacific Baza that we found perched a bit off trail. These mid-sized raptors sport a beautiful banded belly, bright yellow eye and small rear facing crest that at once gives them a cute and menacing air.

We took lunch at the small café back on the banks of the Hacking River. The open lawns around the cafe were playing host to flocks of very tame Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Noisy Miners, and Australian Swamphens that seemed intent sharing as much of the available lunches as they could snatch from unwary diners. It’s always a peasant place to spend a bit of time, and as we enjoyed the food we also tallied our first Olive-backed Orioles and a passing Australian Darter that was flying down the river. We then headed to a nearby public garden, where we stopped to look at a colony of Grey-headed Flying-Foxes that were hanging by the dozens in the trees around the carpark, like oversized paper Halloween ornaments. Below the bat roost we enjoyed close views of a dozen or more handsome Chestnut Teal, happily with a few Grey Teal nearby for comparison. Although the dapper chestnut and green males are distinctive in their breeding plumage the females of these two closely related ducks are only subtlety different. Here too some other visitors were feeding birds, and we were able to watch Rainbow Lorikeet, Crested Pigeon and Australian Ibis at ridiculously close range. After filling our camera cards a bit we headed a little further east towards the suburb of Kurnell on the coast. About a week prior to our visit a local birder had located a Kentish Plover on a sand bar just a little way down the bay from a well-known wader roost. This represented only the fourth record of the species for Australia, and since we had many wader species still to look for and the site was just down the road we decided to roll the dice. We arrived at near high tide, and although we found a couple of Pied Oystercatchers, several Bar-tailed Godwits and an impressive flock of over thirty Whimbrels around the bay there was no sign of any small plovers. Another birder happened to walk by though, with the news that he had just spotted the bird about a 10-minute walk down the shoreline. As they say, in for a penny, in for a pound! We walked out and quickly located the plover, as well as nearly a dozen pretty Red-capped Plovers on a small sand bank. Truly an unexpected species for the country, and a lifer for our local guide and several of the participants. On the walk back to the bus we were amazed to be witness to a mass emergence of Pale-blue Soldier Crabs. Tens of thousands of these inch-long round crabs had crawled up from their sandy lairs and were walking in formations, following the ebbing tide. Small squadrons in tight groups ran away from us as we approached, and in places the exposed sand was simply covered with crabs. It felt as if we had just transported ourselves into a well- produced nature documentary, or as if we were giants marshalling armies of tiny round gnomes into battle. Although the Kentish Plover (and our excellent close-up views of Pied Oystercatcher and Red-capped Plover) were great, I suspect that the experience with the soldier crabs will be the more memorable event from the site.

By this time the afternoon was beginning to wane, as we still had a lot of ground to cover. We turned the bus west, winding our way back through southern Sydney and then out west. Passing through progressively less urban country we eventually reached the base of the Blue mountains. Here we made a quick comfort stop, where in addition to some excellently flavoured crisps (Camembert and Fig, or Sweet Chili and Sour Cream) we found a couple of Little Corellas and a perky Willie Wagtail. The final 45 minutes of the drive saw us winding up into the Blue Mountains plateau, where we reached our comfortable hotel in the town of Katoomba in time for a bit of a rest before dinner at a local pub. After a couple of weeks on a cruise ship dining at a restaurant seemed almost novel, and the food was delicious if a bit oversized.

Our second day of the extension started with a trip to the nearby lookout at Echo Point. We drove through downtown Katoomba, a pleasant if slightly aging town full of small cafes and local shops, and then, seemingly out of nowhere came to the end of the road at a wide lookout. Most of the towns in the Blue Mountains sit on various wide mesas, and around those plateaus are amazingly tall sandstone cliffs and towers. This particular lookout was on the edge of the plateau, with sweeping views of forested slopes several hundred feet below, sandstone rock formations and the famous spires dubbed the three sisters. After the suburban country feel of the town this magnificent view was definitely unexpected! Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were flying around far below us, making steep and twisting flights off the ridgetops and also perching around the carpark. Given how far away some of them were from us and how clearly we could still hear them their vocal power was very evident. After admiring the view we walked a bit along the trail that winds along the forested edge of the cliff. Small roving bird parties here included Brown and Striated Thornbill, our first White-browed Scrubwrens, Gray Fantail, Silvereye and White-naped, Yellow-faced and New Holland Honeyeaters. The views from the lookouts were spectacular, but unfortunately, we were not able to track down a Rockwarbler, a bird limited to the local areas of Hawkesbury Sandstone around the Blue Mountains and a few spots nearer the coast in central New South Wales. Given the mid-summer date and the above average temperatures and fires they seemed unusually reticent. All was certainly not lost though, as our failure to find this species lead to a decision to check a few more spots along the rim. As we were slowly working along the road along the cliff top we found a few more interesting birds including a showy male Golden Whistler and a very cooperative Grey Shrikethrush that hopped around unconcernedly just a few feet away from us. Undoubtedly our best find of the morning though was the pair of Gang-Gang Cockatoos that we found in a high-end neighborhood bordering the park. 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.

Before leaving Katoomba behind we stopped at a local park for their restrooms, and spent a bit of time studying the many Red Wattlebirds, Maned Ducks and Masked Lapwings that were around the cricket oval. Before dropping down from the plateau of the Blue Mountains we made one final stop in an area that looked good for Rockwarbler. We were again not able to locate one, but the stop was quite productive. A little group of Brown-headed Honeyeaters were busily clambering around in a nearby blossoming tree, with several young birds indicating that some of the local birds at least had been successful raising young during the recent fires. Here too we found a cooperative Leaden Flycatcher, a mixed group of Fantails that included a pair of wonderfully close Rufous Fantails, and a family group of Australian Kestrels. Our base for the night was to be in the town of Lithgow, only an hour or so inland from Katoomba. We arrived in the late morning, and were able to quickly check in to our hotel and drop off the luggage trailer, which would make the afternoon around the Capertee Valley a bit easier going. Lithgow was surrounded by fires the month before our tour, and evidence of widespread damage to the hills that ring the city was still very evident. The flames reached a corner of town, wiping out nearly a dozen houses, and there were signs all over thanking the mostly volunteer firefighters who kept the damage to a minimum. After lunch at a local café we drove further inland, bound for the Capertee Valley. The landscape was incredibly dry here, as the region has been in drought for nearly a decade. Small farming towns and ranches were boarded up and abandoned, and a lot of the open paddocks that should have held grazing stock were simply empty, no water in most of the normally wet dams, and almost bare ground. Local rainfall totals over the previous year were 1/6 the historic average, with only 4 inches for the entire year. With the increasingly dire drought the recent fires had made conditions even worse, with even the international news media picking up the story and broadcasting images of the landscape, burnt buildings and wildlife and scenes of firefighters braving the blazes. Thankfully for us the local fires were basically all contained, with the bulk of the extant issues well to the south in east Victoria. It was an interesting, but sobering, thing to witness first hand. Just before reaching the Capertee we stopped at a small city park in town, where in addition to the restroom block we found a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, several Double-barred Finches and Yellow-rumped Thornbill, and a few circling Tree Martins.

The Capertee Valley is, among Australian birders at least, a very famous and rich birding area. It’s a beautiful wide valley, surrounded by towering escarpments, with large patches of sclerophyll forest, winding creeks and some agriculture. When conditions are good the valley offers an excellent mix of birds, with many western species from the drier inland meeting birds from the nearby wetter mountains. We found the region desperately dry, with some slopes covered in huge groves of trees that had simply dried out and died due to lack of water. Amazingly, even given these truly extreme conditions we found a wealth of birdlife. At our first few stops, all in tall forest near the edge of the Garden of Stone National Park we were successful at finding a pair of cooperative Red-browed Treecreepers; a scarce species of drier forest. An impressively large Lace Monitor was on a nearby tree, and uncharacteristically it stayed motionless at our approach, staring down at us with a vaguely unnerving air. Each stop produced a couple of new species, including a couple of Brown Treecreepers (giving us the sweep of all three possible species on the tour route), a flock of tiny Weebill, a very vocal and remarkably confiding White-throated Gerygone and a beautiful Dollarbird perched up high in a bare tree. The ridges though seemed generally quiet, so we pressed on into the valley proper, making our first (and as it turned out last) stop along the dry Coco Creek. Here in the slightly moister lowlands there were some trees in blossom and a bit of seeding grass in the understory. Our planned 5-minute stop stretched to over an hour as we reveled in a site that actually held an impressive number of birds. The blossoming trees were attracting an array of honeyeaters including lots of White-plumed, a small group of Yellow-tufted (perhaps one of the most attractive species in the family), and a fly-by Black-chinned. Tall bare trees along the river channel served as the perfect perch for a couple of Rainbow Bee-eaters and across the river we found a small group of White-winged Chough and a White-bellied Cuckooshrike. 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. The Choughs are odd birds, superficially resembling their northern hemisphere namesakes, but belonging to a small endemic Australian bird family. With their glossy black plumage, oddly small and curved bill, flashing red eyes and huge white flashing in their wings they cut quite a figure. In addition to their looks and varied vocalizations the species has an incredibly complicated life history, with groups of related birds forming small roving gangs and occasionally making raids into neighboring territories to kidnap young birds. Our last species for the site was the unmistakable Mistletoebird. Two beautiful males were grabbing berries from some fruiting mistletoe just over where we had parked the bus. This is the only species of Flowerpecker in Australia, and the males, armoured in an array of scarlet, white and deep navy-blue feathers are truly wonderful birds. More than happy with our afternoon introduction to the valley we headed back to Lithgow for an excellent dinner at our hotel, eager to further explore the Capertee the following day.

Our hotel came through again for us in the morning, with an excellent cooked breakfast ready to go at six am. This enabled us to pack up and get ready early, a good thing as we had an ambitious itinerary for the day, planning to bird the length of the Capertee in the morning and then drive north and east around the top of the Blue Mountains to our base for the next two nights in the town of Cessnock, nestled in the heart of the Hunter Valley; one of Australia’s premiere wine growing regions. We made several stops enroute to the Capertee, first to look at some ornate Eastern and Crimson Rosellas that were foraging on grasses along the highway and then at a small paddock with a bit of water and lots of scattered trees. At this second stop we found a hive of activity. Red-rumped Parrots and Crested Pigeons were coming into the small pond to drink, while all three of the countries widespread swallows were hawking over the field and perching in nearby trees. Among the swallows we found a few White-browed Woodswallows, an exceedingly handsome and nomadic species that is undoubtedly the most colourful species in the genus, with a burgundy, silver and black colour palette. Also here was a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo sitting in a high bare tree, a nesting pair of Dusky Woodswallows feeding young and a pair of White-throated Treecreepers in what seemed like unsuitably dry forest. A quick stop back at the city park in the town of Capertee (confusingly not in the Capertee Valley) produced likely the same little flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills around the bathroom block and a male Brown Goshawk that was lazily circling overhead, showing its long and rounded tail to excellent effect.

Once back in the valley we made a beeline back to Coco Creek, where among many of the same birds that we enjoyed the previous afternoon we located a couple of Fuscous Honeyeaters foraging in the blossoming trees. This is likely not the species of honeyeater that will immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the family, but these birds made up for their general lack of bold fieldmarks with their willingness to stay out in the open for us to study at length. Our best find at this spot though was annoyingly brief, as a single Turquoise Parrot flashed past us with its twinkling wingbeat and high-pitched calls giving away its identity. This is a scarce and truly beautifu bird, and one that the Capertee Valley is known for. Sadly the bird did not return, and this individual was the only one that we detected during the day. The Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters and Rufous Whistlers showed extremely well though, as did a little group of perky Yellow Thornbill and a family of Superb Fairywrens that were feeding out in the middle of the road. A bit further down the road we stopped when a small bird crossed the road in a flash of black and white. Luckily this bird was much better behaved than the Parrot, and we were soon enjoying a Restless Flycatcher as it repeatedly made short flights around us, perching up high on a sequence of branches and showing that it truly deserves its common name. Nearby we picked up a couple of male White-winged Trillers, continuing the thread of flashy black and white Australian birds.

As we continued further into the valley and away from the mountains the landscape opened up, with large fields (many actually green due to irrigation and perhaps a bit of recent rain). Ponds dotted the paddocks, many with small flocks of Gray Teal, Pacific Black and Maned Ducks or the odd White-faced Heron. A couple of Pied Butcherbirds captured our attention for some time and while admiring their striking features we were distracted by some passing Australian Ravens that were obviously distressed. We looked around a bit and soon detected a high-flying Wedge-tailed Eagle soaring over the field. It’s an impressive species, markedly larger than the familiar (to most visiting birders at least) Golden Eagle and possessing a long pointed tail that stands out even at a very large distance. We turned down a side road that heads down to the tiny hamlet of Glen Davis. Our main reason for the stop was to use the campground bathrooms, but since we were out of the car we did a little bit of birding around the mostly deserted town. Initially we didn’t turn up very much, but just as we were diving into our snack supplies we noticed a little group of Brown Treecreepers on the ground a bit upslope from the park. Walking over for a closer look we were thrilled to find a family group of Jacky Winter; a gray and white Robin that tends to stay close to the ground and is often quite approachable. While watching the birds bounce between the barbeque pit and some nearby dead logs we noticed some additional movement on the ground behind them. To our surprise there was a pair of Speckled Warblers walking slowly across the undergrowth. This is a superbly patterned bird, with bold striping on the underparts and back, and a rusty crown and one that is generally restricted to the dry forest of inland Southeast Australia. Here too we tracked down a perched Peaceful Dove; a lovely small scaled dove that somewhat resembles a North American Inca Dove with ornate makeup.

Leaving Glen Davis behind we stopped along the road when Steve spotted a perched Pallid Cuckoo on the overhead wires. The bird lingered for long enough for all of us to pile out and study it in detail before a passing water truck sent it flying out over the adjacent pasture. A bit further north we found roadside hedgerows to be in excellent flower. The blooms were attracting a wealth of birds, from Noisy Miners and Eastern Rosellas to Striated Pardalotes and White-plumed Honeyeaters. In the even smaller town of Glen Alice we went for a short walk down to the dry riverbed that winds around the back of the town cemetery. In the lusher vegetation along the creek we teased out a beautiful little group of Double-barred Finches and watched a group of Black-faced Cuckooshrikes sailing around in the canopy. A thin one-toned whistle attracted our attention from the canopy, and although it took a bit of time to pin down the author we were eventually successful. A single male Diamond Firetail was sitting up on a high bare perch above us. This is an incredibly attractive waxbill; 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, and for many participants I suspect the find was the bird of the morning.

We had lunch in the quaint town of Rhylstone, a fairly old but still vibrant country town just to the north of the Capertee Valley. It was a small café, with only two workers on staff, but somehow they turned out our order in amazing time, and to high acclaim. A bit to the north we started to drive through the incredibly scenic Bylong Valley, an area that has recently been touted for development as a tourist route between the wine country of the Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains. It was a beautiful drive, through steep sided valleys clad in large forest and surrounded by impressive rock formations. Around the town of Bylong itself the valley opens up into a more agrarian region. It was hardly verdant, but the valley was markedly wetter than the Capertee, and we found a nice array of raptors including our first Black-shouldered Kites, another Australian Hobby and several Kestrels and Wedge-tailed Eagles. The most exciting find though was a Black Falcon that we found circling over the town’s sports oval while we stopped for a quick break. This is a scarce species throughout Australia, a sleeker, darker and larger version of the common Brown Falcon. Rather than being a sit and wait type predator (like its Brown cousin) the Black Falcon is a fast and active hunter, often pursuing other birds much as a Jaeger might chase a passing tern or gull.

Our streak of good luck combining comfort stops and birding continued a bit later in the afternoon as we made our way around the top of the Blue Mountains and down into the Hunter Valley. As we descended towards the coast the countryside became noticeably greener and more affluent. Vineyards began to pop up along the road, and we even passed a massive complex owned by one of the world’s premiere racehorse breeders. Nearby we stopped at a playground, once again accomplishing a short break with some excellent birds. A perched Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater was a nice find here, as we were only barely within its mostly inland range. Here too were some grazing Eastern Grey Kangaroos, a flock of silver and pink Galahs chattering around under a grove of trees, and little groups of Straw-necked and Australian Ibis were out in the adjacent fields. In the late afternoon we drove past some colossal open coal mines, a bit of a jarring sight after all the vineyards and horse paddocks. In the tiny and slightly oddly named town of Broke we stopped to admire a pair of Bar-shouldered Doves that were coming into a roadside pond for a late day drink. This stop stretched out a bit as we also took in a group of distant Banded Lapwing, and an array of ducks in the wetland. Leaving Broke behind we made our final stop for the day at a large lagoon in the lower Hunter Valley. The open water held an impressive number of huge Australian Pelicans, while the sand spits that jutted well out into the lake due to its low water level were providing foraging habitat for Black-fronted and Red-Kneed Dotterels, Pied Stilts and an array of other waterbirds. We reached Cessnock in the early evening, after a long but beautiful drive and a quite successful day of birding!

The fires that had ravaged a large swath of the southeastern mountains over the course of a month prior to our tour had largely subsided by the date of our tour (at least in central New South Wales). We had expected to encounter smoke or more extensive burnt forests during our extension around the Blue Mountains, but had until the penultimate day largely avoided any complications, and been able to visit all of the areas that we had originally planned on visiting. On this day however, our plans to drive north of Cessnock and up into the vast Barrington Tops National Park became complicated with lingering forest closures. Although the area had not burned, forest managers had closed large sections of the mountainous forest as a precaution. After some diligent searching of the internet and some time spent poring over detailed maps of the area we decided that there might be an accessible section of temperate rainforest in the far southeast corner of the mountains a bit to the north of the town of Dungog. We set off from Cessnock on back roads heading roughly north across the Hunter Valley. We passed through small country towns, patches of dry forest, estates with horse or stock paddocks (often with small ponds) for about an hour before Steve came to a screeching halt just past a small river crossing. A Grey Goshawk had just flown past the bus, and he was fairly confident that the bird had landed just off the road. We backtracked and spent a quite enjoyable half-hour birding around a small boat ramp that led down to the river. We were indeed successful at relocating the Goshawk; a most handsome silvery-grey raptor that generally prefers humid forest. Here too we found a large camp of Grey-headed Flying-Foxes that were roosting in some very short trees, oddly right next to the road. A fruiting fig tree along the river was attracting swarms of Australian Figbirds, with a few Noisy Friarbird, Olive-backed Oriole, and Silvereye, and in a nearby stock pond we spotted foraging Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills and a herd of bright purple Australasian Swamphen.

We stopped in at a small city park in Dungog, where in addition to the convenient restrooms many people watched a family group of Torresian Crows at the edge of the park. This was our fourth species of black corvid for the tour, and one that we were not expecting. Torresians are basically a crow of the tropics, and our tour itinerary barely scraped into their mapped range. The birds were a bit smaller than the Australian Ravens that we had been seeing throughout the morning, with less prominent throat hackles and a clipped more crowlike call. The town had another surprise in store for us as well, as just a few meters down the road from the park we spotted several White-headed Pigeons sitting on some roadside wires. This plump pigeon is native to a small mostly coastal strip of forest along much of Australia’s east coast. It’s a somewhat nomadic species within its range, following fruiting trees and although not rare can often be hard to pin down.

In the late morning we turned up a progressively smaller road that wound through some large country estates and then entered the forest along a dry creekbed. With large birdsnest ferns hanging off the larger trunks, clusters of vines tumbling down from the canopy and lots of broader leafed trees it was quickly apparent that we had reached a new type of forest. The highlands around Barrington Tops formed through volcanic action well before the continent of Gondwanaland began to break up. The lower slopes, where we were able to access, are clad in subtropical rainforest, while the higher reaches get up to subalpine and even alpine habitats at the peaks. We spent the rest of the morning slowly walking up the dirt road that wound further up into the woods, roughly following the creekbed. Pairs of chattering Scrubwrens alerted us to their presence in the understory, and over the course of the morning we tracked down a few White-browed, two pairs of the striking Yellow-throated and a few Large-billed; a sweep of the available Scrubwren species. Brown Gerygones provided a constant aural backdrop, with a few coming down to our pishing and showing well. At one point a Superb Lyrebird scuttled across the track in front of us, melting into the foliage remarkably quickly for such a large bird. Its disappearance was fortuitous though, as we stood around hoping that it might reappear we heard something scratching around in the leaf litter not too far off the trail. It took a minute or two to locate the source, but when we did we were elated to find a pair of Australian Logrunners quietly kicking leaves up in search of breakfast. These vaguely quail-like birds belong to an ancient Australasian passerine family. They are cryptic, but beautiful birds, with a scalloped reddish-brown and black back, grey face and two bold grey wingbars. Males sport a bright white throat and upper breast, while females have an orange throat bordered with a thin black line. Virtually wholly terrestrial, pairs or small groups forage in dense leaf litter, kicking leaves up and out to the side with their powerful feet. We spent a bit of time trying to coax in a couple of fancy robin species, and in the end, everyone present enjoyed good views of a Pale-yellow Robin in the midcanopy and a tiny Rose Robin just over the trail. I suspect the Rose Robin, a sprite of a bird that really livens up the forest with its bouncy breezy song and slate and pink plumage was the firm favorite at the site. All in all, it was an excellent introduction to some of the birds that frequent wetter forest.

We returned to Dungog for lunch and were initially planning on heading around to a higher section of the mountains but the weather intervened. Heavy storm clouds were visible to the west, with lots of lighting flashing on the horizon and rain showing on the local radar. Given the conditions we decided to make a longer drive out to the coast, hoping to avoid the bulk of the rain. Little did we know that the storm was much larger than forecast, and would be dumping over a month’s worth of rain in the area in just one afternoon. Our drive out to the coast passed through some of the heaviest rain, with an impressive lightning show and water coming down from all sides. We actually had to pull over to wait out particularly heavy bouts. Given the drought and wildfires the landscape really needed the water, but it would have been nice if it was spread over a few days (and perhaps just after our trip) rather than occurring in such a torrential event. The rains slowed us down a bit as well, so it was late afternoon by the time we reached the beautiful sandy peninsula at the southern end of the Farquhar Inlet. We picked this spot because the estuary inland from the point usually supports a nice array of shorebirds and the point itself has a large breeding colony of Red-capped Plover and Little Tern. Also, for the past three years a couple of wintering Aleutian Terns have called the spot home for the Australian summer. Aleutian Terns are an enigmatic species; breeding on islolated and generally inaccessible coastal bars around the eastern Bering Sea, and wintering somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Despite our efforts at scouring the assembled flocks of terns (numbering in the hundreds of birds) we didn’t connect with an Aleutian, but did find a host of other interesting birds which made the trip out worthwhile. The tern diversity here was impressive, with Caspian, Australian (a recent split from the globally distributed Gull-billed Tern), Common, Great Crested and Little all showing well. Thankfully our time here was rain free, but the storm had whipped up the sea, and we could see flocks of foraging terns, Gannets and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters coursing along over the frothy coast. Shorebirds were in evidence as well, with our first Lesser Sandplover, Far Eastern Curlews and Sanderling joining flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-capped Plover and Red-necked Stints. We watched our first Little Egret here too, as it ran about in some shallow sandy pools looking much like the Reddish Egrets that patrol Caribbean beaches. As we walked back along the beach we were startled to see a Parasitic Jaeger (an adult with visibly regrowing tail points) chasing a Great Crested Tern right along the breaking waves. As one typically sees such chases from a considerable distance it was interesting to be right on top of them as they wheeled around, banking and switching directions with remarkable agility. The site held one other surprise for us, as just a bit before we reached the bust we picked out a family group of Ravens in the dunes. Their heavy build and low croaks confirmed them as Forest Ravens. The range of this species is mostly in Tasmania and coastal Victoria, but there is also a small remnant population near the coast in far NE New South Wales. These birds are very isolated from the other Forest Ravens, likely from a time when there was more contiguous forest across eastern Australia. We then turned the bus back south towards Cessnock, still dry and with tales to tell of terrific storms and a nice mix of birds.

For our last full day we spent much of the time around the city of Newcastle. Our main site for the morning was Ash Island, a large island in the Hunter River estuary. The estuarine islands here have been inhabited for thousands of years, although through much of the 1800’s a significant amount of deforestation, agriculture and even some industrial uses. After a large flood in 1955 the island was largely abandoned, and starting in the late 70’s the region was earmarked for environmental restoration and preservation. Now uninhabited, the island supports dense mangrove forests, open fields and marshes, and patches of taller forest; a nice mix of habitats for the visiting naturalist. Once we crossed the small bridge leading onto the island we felt miles away from the busy traffic of industrial Newcastle. A quick stop just a few hundred feet onto the island revealed our first White-breasted Woodswallows soaring overhead and little groups of Eastern Cattle Egrets heading off on their morning commute. After passing a long stretch of mangroves the road turned inland, and we soon found ourselves in an open grassland, with patches of reedbeds and weedy gullies. A little brown bird perched up on top of the reeds revealed itself to be our first Tawny Grassbird, and as the angle wasn’t great for those in the rear of the bus we elected to park and get out to properly enjoy this warm-toned grass warbler in all its glory (several males were actually still doing their high display flights, so there really was a bit of glory involved). This proved an excellent choice, as in addition to the Grassbirds we picked out several brightly coloured Golden-headed Cisticolas and a couple of furtive Australian Reed-Warblers in the grass as well. The best surprise here though was a calling Streaked Honeyeater; a bit of a rarity this close to the coast. As is often the case with this strikingly patterned species we found the bird (and its partner) to be quite responsive. We were soon able to pin them down in the telescopes as they sat up on a distant bare tree. Just a bit further down the road the grassland became wetter, with some very shallow pools ringed with patches of cattails, as we drove up we flushed a Latham’s Snipe that promptly disappeared (although once we were all back in the bus after getting out to look for it the bird reappeared as if by magic, flying past the front of the bus and then diving into some impenetrable grasses on the other side of the road). Although the island is an excellent birding site in its own right (we recorded over 60 species in the morning there) our main reason for visiting was to see if we could catch up with the two Banded Stilts that had recently been located amongst a large throng of Red-necked Avocet and Pied Stilts near the center of the island. Once we reached the site; an expansive wetland bottom with open lakes and large patches of samphire and grasses it took no time at all to find the Avocets and Pied Stilts. Picking out the Banded Stilts took a bit longer, but we succeeded after changing our viewing angle on the flock. 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 (although these birds generally lacked the 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. The wetlands held some other interesting birds as well, including a teed up male Brown Songlark perched on a distant grass tuft, Australian Pipits sitting in the road in front of us, a flock of White-throated Needletail zipping across the clearing, a perched Swamp Harrier, and lots of White-breasted Woodswallows, and Tree and Fairy Martins sitting on overhead wires.

After surveying the wetlands we stopped at a likely looking patch of mangroves and almost instantly found a singing Mangrove Gerygone bouncing around at near head height. Although it is not the most colourful of birds its cheerful and melodic song are wonderful to hear. It turned out to be a pretty bird rich stop, with several dozen Red-capped Plovers dotting the adjacent mudflat, family groups of Superb Fairy-Wren and Yellow Thornbill in the shrubbery and some very inquisitive Silverye. By now the morning was on the wane, so we drove back to one of the nature trailheads near the islands north shore to use the toilet. As is often the case when birders exit the car we found the area to be full of birds. Pied Butcherbirds, Grey Fantails, Magpies and Golden Whistler were all around the common area near the toilet block. Along the shoreline we picked out an impressive four species of cormorants, and then while waiting for everyone to conclude their business noted a sitting Australian Hobby on the electrical tower above the carpark and witnessed a wonderful interchange between a young White-bellied Sea-Eagle and an (Eastern) Osprey. The two birds compete somewhat for food, and the Osprey seemed quite insistent that the eagle had no business here. Leaving the island behind, with a quick stop to admire a trio of Brown Quail that were scuttling around on a small side road back in the grasslands we headed towards our next stop at the Hunter Wetlands Center.

This small reserve boasts several small lakes, a breeding colony of herons and a nationally recognized breeding program for Freckled Ducks. After admiring the very well put together visitor’s center and its displays of some native wildlife we turned our attention to the large lake below the centers impressive upper deck. The most obvious inhabitants of the pond were the nearly 100 Magpie Geese that crowded along the muddy fringes of the water. These large geese actually are not “true” waterfowl as they form a monotypic family basal to the other swans, geese and ducks. They are large birds, boldly patterned in black and white, with a bright red face and bill base, orange legs and feet, and odd bony knob on their head. The lake also held instructive comparison views of Chestnut and Grey Teal and an impressive number of Dusky Moorhens and Australasian Swamphens, many with young chicks in tow. Before coming back to the deck for lunch we made a quick foray further into the park, finding all of the other wetlands dry. The walk was worthwhile though, as we (finally) managed good views of Little Corellas, and also were able to really soak in the amazing colours on the Dollarbirds that were hawking insects over one of the dry pond beds.

Lunch was a bit protracted, but tasty, and with the lake below us we took an opportunity to soak in the activity, watching as an array of birds came into the pond or passed by. A Royal Spoonbill came in with aplomb and then went right to work straining out food from the algal-rich water with sweeping arcs of its head. Our lunch was even briefly interrupted by the arrival of a Latham’s Snipe, which landed in the open below us and spent about a minute running around in a pile of downed sticks before it zoomed off to some other site. We checked the tide table and decided that a trip out to the mouth of the Hunter River estuary might be worthwhile for more waders. Tens of thousands of shorebirds use the area as a stopover or wintering site, as parts of the estuary become vast mudflats at low tide. We started at a high tide roost site just inland from Stockton, where we were amazed to see a tight flock of Avocets numbering well over 500 birds. Here too we picked out good numbers of Far Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Bar and Black-tailed Godwits, and our first Curlew Sandpipers and Pacific Golden-Plovers. The sight of all these birds taking flight at once when an adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle passed by will be with us for a while. Along the nearby Stockton breakwater we were able to get up close and personal with some loafing Australian Pelicans (finally realizing just how big they actually are). The little city parks that we passed as we made our way to the river mouth held busy Crested Pigeons running around like clockwork toys, pairs of Masked Lapwing, and an impressive number of Magpies and Magpie-Larks. Once out at the beach we were surprised by a sudden buffeting wind. We didn’t spend too much time scanning the rocks before retreating, taking in passing Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and watching a giant container ship being guided through the narrow channel by two expert tugboat captains before we turned the bus southwards towards Sydney.

It’s almost a two hour drive down to Sydney, which was for some reason made longer by a surprising amount of traffic around Newcastle before we reached the highway. Since we had the time and felt like breaking the drive up a bit we decided to make one final birding stop at the scenic Somersby Falls. It’s a small park nestled in the eastern edge of the Blue Mountains. After exiting the highway we wound up past the world famous Australian Reptile Park and then through a light industrial zone; hardly the environment that one would expect to find a scenic waterfall. The road turned though, dropping into a small valley with some large rural estates and then terminating at a forested ravine. We didn’t walk down to the falls, but close to the carpark could see the waters of the creek running over a series of open sandstone shelves, with water vapor spilling out and over the forest below the falls. The carpark held some Eastern Yellow Robins and our hoped-for Australian Brushturkey. This large bird belongs to the Megapode family, a small group of gallinaceous birds with amazingly complex breeding strategies. Rather than sitting on a traditional nest these birds build massive mounds of dirt and rotting vegetation; laying their eggs deep in the mound and then monitoring the internal temperature using a thermometer like structure on their bill. This allows the adults to spend much less time looking after their eggs, and as the young are precocial and independent upon birth as well makes the adults followers of the laissez-faire school of parenting. Some flowering Eucalypts back up the road a bit from the carpark were alive with birds, hosting a steady procession of Yellow-faced, Scarlet and Lewin’s Honeyeaters as well as a few Eastern Spinebill. We boarded the bus just as a Laughing Kookaburra began to sound off with its characteristic monkey-like rattle, a fitting send-off to our last birding location for the trip.

Over dinner at our hotel, conveniently located right next to the airport terminal we reminisced about the tour, a wonderfully sprawling exploration of northern New Zealand, the Tasman Sea, Hobart and a bit of Southeastern Australia. I think all involved enjoyed the comfort and convenience of the cruise ship as a floating hotel, and apart from the weather-related shuffle to our landing schedule on the South Island the logistics of this maiden voyage went by spectacularly. Counting both extensions we recorded 325 species on the trip, with 255 in Australia, and 122 in New Zealand and an especially impressive 38 species of tubenose! Thanks to this years’ excellent crop of participants and local leaders, who were unfailingly a joy to travel with, I look forward to reprising this tour in 2021!

-          Gavin Bieber

Created: 30 January 2020