Wonderful Wings Of Oz!
At the end of my last news I was accelerating down the runway on an A380 airbus from London to Sydney. Traversing a few timezones and many hours later I arrived at Sydney Airport expecting to meet Jules who was flying in from Western Australia. I checked into the hotel and was told that Jules had called to say her flight was delayed by 12 hours and she'd be spending the night on a chair at Perth Airport. I went up to my swanky room, had a shower and was in bed by 8.30pm. The next thing I knew was Jules coming into the room at 7am the next morning looking shattered. She had a shower and nap and then it was back to the airport for our flight to Cairns in northern Queensland.
We picked up the rental car and headed to our Cairns Esplanade hotel for the night. The next morning I reacquainted myself with Queensland birding which I hadn't done since my last visit 10 years before. There were a few big holes in my list and I eased myself back in by birding the park between the sea and the tropical city of Cairns. One of the most conspicuous birds was the Australian White Ibis that patrols the grass like a feral pigeon. Masked Lapwing and Figbirds were seen well and the trip list was on its way. The plan for the next 10 days was for me to find as many endemics as possible in and around the Daintree rainforest area.
After breakfast just a short drive north of the city we stopped at Cattana Wetlands, a fairly new reserve transformed from old gravel pits. The reserve is set in palm forest with easy walking tracks, bird hides, fresh and salt water lakes, crocodile-proof toilets, and information boards which mentioned that the area was home to several species of highly venomous snake - that's birding in Aussie for you!
Fortunately we didn't see any crocs or snakes, but I got plenty of birds on the list. The first encounter was with the iconic Laughing Kookaburra, two sat on a low branch on the entrance track. Spectacled Monarch, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Leaden Flycatcher, Comb-crested Jacana, Black-faced Cuckoo Shrike and the prehistoric looking Magpie Goose boosted the list.
From Cattana we drove to Cassowary House for a two night stay on the edge of Kuranda Rainforest. Southern Cassowary is one of my bogey birds, so the hope was to put this on the life list. Late afternoon we went out for a bite to eat at a pizza place in Kuranda Village. As night fell and we ate outside, we felt we were being watched. A Bush Stone-Curlew was hanging around the tables waiting for scraps. Horses for courses I guess, back home it would be Kaka; in the UK it would be Herring Gulls and Pigeons; it seems in Kuranda it's Bush Stone-Curlews.
Waking up early the next morning at Cassowary House, bins and coffee in hand I birded from the balcony of our room. The rainforest was at my fingertips and scuttling in the undergrowth was a Red-necked Crake - a lifer within four minutes! Yellow-spotted Honeyeater were common and preening on top of a tree stump in the canopy was a most wished-for bird for me, a Victoria's Riflebird. Horribly backlit, but still a great spectacle seeing the male throw its head back and call. This bird has such a tiny range in north-east Queensland I had a celebratory coffee refill and ate breakfast among the Australian Brush Turkeys.
The day warmed up and I birded in the grounds. Rufus Fantail was a complete stunner, Large-billed Scrub Wren a classic LBJ, Macleay's Honeyeater, Pale Yellow Robin, Spotted Catbird and plenty of Australian Brush Turkeys but still no sign of the star attraction, Southern Cassowary! Sue who runs Cassowary House said that the resident pair of Cassowary had young that Dad was caring for. The female, Missy, was doing her own thing, just like other Rata family (such as Kiwi) the female lays the egg which the male then incubates and rears the chick.
With a chick in his care, Sue said that Dad could be very aggressive. Female Southern Cassowary can weigh almost 60kg and some can stand over 6 feet tall! What is it with Australia? Snakes, scorpions, spiders, sharks, jellyfish, crocs want to bite, sting or kill you. And it has one of the most dangerous birds in the world!
Later in the afternoon I contemplated another dip as I folded my scope up. Disheartened I took one last glance down the track to see a Cassowary walking towards me. I took a couple of record shots and then it dawned on me - was it the male or female? I backed off and looked for a chick in tow and was relieved to see it was a female. I called to Jules and we watched Missy from the safety of the garage. She was fairly approachable and we spent the next 20 mins or so in her company as she fed on scraps left out for the Kangaroo Musk Rats and Turkeys. It might have been our first Cassowary but we weren't her first humans! She was an incredible bird - a bony horn-like shield on top of her head, unbelievably coloured fleshy skin on the neck - shades of red, purple and electric blue - and she had feet that Edward Scissorhands or Freddy Kruger would be proud of! Safe to say, we kept out of kicking range. After this awesome encounter, she just melted from the track into the bush.
Up early the next morning I walked the nearby trails and got Pied Monarch and Yellow-breasted Boatbill on my list. On the way back to Cassowary House for breakfast I flushed something electric blue which I can only surmise was a Noisy Pitta. Back at the house, Sue called us to say that the male Cassowary and chick was beneath the balcony. My bogey bird was well and truly buried as I saw my second and third Cassowary. The male Cassowary is a bit smaller than the female and the lone chick was about the size of a large chicken with beige and black stripy plumage, like a giant humbug. Dad and chick soon disappeared into the bush and it was time for us to leave Kuranda and on the way lay another bogey species to rest.
Jules had always wanted to see a Duck-billed Platypus and with the help of a local guide we found five or six of these curious little beasties. What a weird, incredible little animal. A beaver's tail, a duck bill, fur and flippers. The male has a poisonous spike hidden in its flippers. Like I said, it seems like everything in Aussie wants to kill you. Our next mammal was a family of Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroos which came to the ground with a joey and proceeded to have a domestic in front of us. They weren't too curious about the onlookers lined up like paparazzi taking photos of their fighting.
Our next destination was Julatten for four nights at the Kingfisher Park Lodge, known as the birders' accommodation and now owned by local guides, Andrew and Carol. An incredible dawn chorus woke us the next morning; kookaburras, honeyeaters and doves.
It was still dark when I walked the five minutes from the room to an area called The Orchard which was a clearing surrounded by native forest. Kingfisher Park is a small area of ten acres of bush, river and small pond but has recorded over 300 species. I spent the whole day wandering this special park, lifers and species I hadn't seen for many years. To be honest, there were so many I can't recall in which order they arrived. They were plentiful, colourful, easy and challenging. A few highlights were Papuan Frogmouth, Double-eyed Fig-parrot, Barred Cuckoo Shrike, Fairy Gerygone, and Grey-headed Robin.
Mount Lewis was not far from Kingfisher Park and we headed there the next day with the hope of finding some high altitude specials. A cool low cloud hung around at the top as we started to walk the dense bush tracks. Birds came thick and fast. Mountain Thornbill was first on the list as we left the car park. Next came a real skulky speciality Atherton Scrubwren followed by two more colourful wrens, Yellow-throated Scrubwren and Fern Wren. I was aware of a noisy scratching call coming from the forest floor and I soon found my first Tooth-billed Bowerbird. Its bower was a clearing around a small tree with leaves turned upside down, meticulously placed. Further down the trail I found Chowchilla, a bird I thought I might struggle to see but eventually walking slowly I found a few family groups of them as they scraped around the forest floor disturbing the leaf litter like demented chooks. The colourful Golden Whistler and the strange-looking Topknot Pigeon were other birds of note. That evening I went out in the feint hope of finding a Lesser Sooty Owl that had been reported a couple of days prior. After half of hour walking around not hearing a thing I suddenly heard a call I was not familiar with. I found two Lesser Sooty Owls sitting on an exposed branch above a field in the torchlight. Mega!
The next day we headed to Mount Hypipamee National Park in the Atherton Tablelands with the chance of an encounter with a Golden Bowerbird. En route we stopped at Mount Molloy School which welcomed birders to view their resident Great Bowerbirds and Squatter Pigeons. What a great rural school, really in touch with their rural environment. Once we arrived at Hypipamee I found the trail to the bower which was like a giant horseshoe shape with a living tree in the centre full of twigs and white petals on one side and a white moss on the other. While I waited some metres away I noticed a Crimson Rosella looking down at me, what a beautiful looking parrot. And then with a whistling entrance there was a stunning male Golden Bowerbird! He sat in the middle of the bower making fine adjustments to his architectural masterpiece. It has to be one of the most stunning birds I've ever seen. An incredible golden glow seemed to light up the gloom of the forest. With Golden Bowerbird safely cemented in my memory and on the list we went to nearby Hasties Swamp; good views of Magpie Geese, Banded Rail, Freckled Duck and Latham's Snipe. Intermediate Egret was in amongst the Royal and lone Yellow-billed Spoonbill. Let's face it, no birding trip is complete without a trip to a swamp!
Every morning at Kingfisher Park I'd been up at first light in in the hope of finding an early migrant Noisy Pitta. I was not happy with my flushed views I'd got earlier on in the trip. My last morning at Kingfisher Lodge I walked around the orchard getting good looks at Dusky Honeyeater and Metallic Starlings and just like the Cassowary I was suddenly aware of a bird very close to me on the edge of the forest. As my eyes and brain focussed I realised I was looking at a beautiful Noisy Pitta. I stepped back to give the bird some space and soaked up the views and took a few shots, what a fantastic few days birding.
From Julatten to the small village of Daintree, our next two nights were at Red Mill House with wonderful and generous hosts, Andrew and Trish. A month earlier I'd met Andrew and Trish at the British Birdwatching Fair - they were on the Australian stand next to us on the New Zealand stand.
Red Mill House was full but Andrew and Trish kindly put Jules and myself up in the guide's accommodation. I say if the cap fits … we had a lovely unit overlooking the garden with a pair of Orange-footed Scrubfowl for neighbours that spent most of their time in the compost bin.
Andrew and Trish were very generous with their local knowledge and we explored the surrounding Daintree area up to Cape Tribulation. A lunch stop at Thornton Beach proved a good choice as one of my most sought after birds put on a great show - a pair of Beach Stone Curlew - needless to stay I took plenty of photographs.
One of the main reasons for staying at Daintree was to go on a dawn river cruise for Great-billed Heron. The first bird seen was its smaller cousin, Striated Heron. Sacred Kingfisher followed soon after, then a very showy Azure Kingfisher, and a pair of Satin Flycatchers put on a good show. High in a tree above the water was our quarry, the huge Great-billed Heron. Great stuff! We jetted up and down the river, sometimes slowing into smaller areas with overhanging trees, one of which was camouflaging three roosting Papuan Frogmouths. On the way back to the wharf we saw a pair of Pacific Baza displaying and on the bank a pair of Radjah Shelduck.
After a couple of hours on the river we headed back to Red Mill House for breakfast and then the drive to Cairns for our last night in tropical north Queensland. My timing was a bit better and I caught the tide coming in at The Esplanade which is world famous in birding terms for getting good looks at a great selection of waders. I set the scope up as dog walkers, children, parents, joggers went past and I had great views of Far Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, and Great Knot. A huge Australian Pelican was surrounded by dainty Red-necked Stints, elegant Curlew Sands, Red-capped Plovers, a single Terek Sandpiper, a couple of Wandering Tatler, a few Gull-billed Terns, and a scattering of the busy Black-fronted Dotterels.
To break the journey back to Stewart Island we spent a few nights in Sydney. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind cities, I'm just not good with a lot of people and tend to migrate to the green spaces on the map. We found ourselves in the Botanical Gardens which has great views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I took my camera to get some shots of the more common species that are used to human presence - Chestnut Teal, Pacific Black Duck were showy plus Australian Raven, Noisy Minor and the comical looking Crested Pigeon. What was a real surprise was finding a Powerful Owl roosting above the path in the gardens, thanks to a tip from one of the ladies at the Information Desk!
With the obligatory photos of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House in the bag, we had a cold beer at Darling Harbour, watched the human race do its thing and headed home to the quiet of Stewart Island.