Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Desert Harrier Down Under

Louise and I have just returned from wonderful three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand.  Though this was not solely a birding trip, I did plan much of the route and destinations with bird watching in mind.  The following is the first of several posts describing this adventure from the standpoint of bird watching. Enjoy!
November 9, 2013 Saturday: Louise and I leave Tucson just after sunset. We are chasing the red glow to the west in a jet aircraft that appears to be designed for hobbits.  We have just embarked on an adventure we had been planning to take for several years.  After a short flight to and a long layover in LA we catch an overnight flight to Australia.  We leave LA just before midnight Saturday and arrive in Brisbane 8:00 Monday morning. This week we have no Sunday. Thinking about the time zone changes, crossing the International Date Line, and a fourteen-hour flight will make one batty or in my case crazy as a Laughing Kookaburra.
Our aircraft for the long flight.

November 10, 2013 Sunday: For Louise and I this day did not exist!
November 11, 2013 Monday: Louise and I arrive in Brisbane approximately on time, clear customs (long wait), find our luggage, and clear customs again.  I read that there would be Mangrove Honeyeaters feeding on the flowers at the Brisbane Airport. There well may be, they must have been at some other flowers since I did not see them while we waited for the Apex Car Rental transport to pick us up.  While sitting in the back of the Apex van, traveling at amazing speeds through a very urban section of Brisbane, I do spy my first birds for Australia; pigeons or doves, starlings, house sparrows, a large shorebird that I later identify (and see better) as a Masked Lapwing, and an Australian Magpie.  The attendant at Apex was unsuccessful in getting us pointed in the right direction for a natural food store. I drove and Louise held on tightly as I got acquainted with driving on the wrong side of the road. After a good forty minutes of searching for any kind of grocery store, I decide to get out of the city.  Urban driving is no way to learn to drive on the left.  
I had two objectives before we head north; one to get some groceries and the other take a walk after being trapped on a plane for so long.  So far no grocery store, however upon reaching more open parkway type road we come upon Boondall Wetlands. In my research I found this sanctuary and thought it would be a good place to stretch our legs and hopefully see some birds.  Three very nice ladies in the visitor center help to find a service center along the highway where Louise and I get lunch and some supplies.
Near the highway service center, we find a small lake covered with birds. Nudgee Waterhole turns out to be an eBird hotspot.  This becomes my first non-incidental birding in Australia. Most of the birds are Dusky Moorhens, Australian Ibis, and Pacific Black Ducks and all the birds were “lifers”. [eBird checklist]
Australasian Grebe at Nudgee Waterhole

After leaving the Nudgee Waterhole and as a result of a wrong turn (there were many of these) Louise and I drive out to Nudgee Beach Reserve.  Here we find a walk out through the mangroves.  The first bird I see is a White-faced Heron and the first bird I am learning the calls of is the Noisy Miner.  As I approach the heron, a Little Egret and then an Intermediate Egret distract me.  The Little Egret is very much like the North American Snowy Egret and the Intermediate Egret appeared slightly larger with a yellow-orange bill. Much of this trail is a boardwalk through and along the edge of the mangroves. While unfamiliar bird noises are frequent, sightings of these birds are not. The frustration of hearing so many unfamiliar calls but not seeing them is tempered by the thrill of finally seeing a new species of bird.  Totally unexpected while walking along the edge of a mangrove swamp was a shearwater floating in the bordering creek.  At first I thought it was a jaeger but after closer examination it was a shearwater [likely Short-tailed Shearwater].  I snapped a couple of pictures of the bird as it drifted up stream on the incoming tidal current while facing out towards open water. It looked like it was swimming backwards.  Where this creek opened up into a bay, there were a few Whimbrel, two Caspian Terns, and many Bar-tailed Godwits.  Wow, that’s three species I’ve seen before in North America.  Also present were numerous Silver Gulls. 
Little Pied Cormorant at Nudgee Beach Reserve
I had loosely picked three species of birds I wanted most of all to see in Australia: the Rainbow Bee-eater because it is so photogenic, the Willie-wagtail because of its cool name, and the Laughing Kookaburra because it is such a cool bird.   We come around bend in the trail where the mangroves open up into a sandy grassy clearing; I hear another new bird calling from a lone bush.  I am thinking I should be able to see this bird, one bush one bird.  I glance down at the sign next to me, Bee-eater territory.  Oh, maybe that’s what’s making the calls.  There it is, it appears on a snag above the lone bush and then flies down to the ground and disappears behind the clump of grass.  I’m thinking it will reappear shortly, picking up an insect or something.  Must be one tough insect to catch. 
After more than a minute, it reappears flying off and disappears into the mangroves a hundred meters away.  What’s going on? I check the sign again and actually read it.  Rainbow Bee-eaters dig borrows for nesting.  A few minutes later as we are approaching the car park, Australian for parking lot, I spot a Willie-wagtail.  Willie is bouncing around the top of a fence, not only does it wag its tail it wags its entire body.  This behavior proves to be a good way to quickly identify.  And locals refer to this behavior as “cheeky”.  [eBird checklist] 
Eventually we get back to Boondall Wetlands to walk some of the trails around the visitor center.  As we are driving into the car park, Louise sees several “wrens” along side the roadway.  After parking I run back to look for what she saw.  There are no true wrens in Australia but many species behave like wrens and cock their tails.  The first bird I see reminds me of a Rufous-winged Sparrow perched up on a fence.  Not wren-like in anyway and not like anything I remember in the field guide.  So I quickly snap a couple of images before it drops from view into the tall grassy area below.  Then the Fairy-wrens appear.  There’s two of them, then there’s six, no just three, maybe twelve, … I ultimately settle on at least six.  There are two males and at least four female/ immature.  I watch one of the females feeding a nearly identical plumaged immature.  The Superb Fairy-wrens are darting about the grasses and bushes, still only for a split second.  I manage a few acceptable photographs before the group moves off.
Pale-headed Rosella at Boondall Wetlands
As Louise and I walk back towards the short trail we plan to walk, an Australian Magpie and two Magpie-larks are harassing a Torresian Crow. Out on the trail we find a Fan-tailed Cuckoo, a few Gray Butcherbirds, and several Pale-headed Rosellas.  Since we wish to get to our lodging for the night before sunset, we turn back after a few hundred meters.  Then we see it, a large bird with a grotesquely large bill and oversized head.  It’s a Laughing Kookaburra.  Louise is the first to spot the Kookaburra.  Which is quite appropriate since she has wanted to sing to me the Kookaburra song since she learned we might see them in Australia.  I told her she’d have to wait until we actually found one.  While I happily listen to Louise singing, she spots more great birds, a family of Tawny Frogmouths.  I had not expected to see these birds sitting out on an open branch in the middle of the day.  These are nocturnal birds, related to nightjars.  While I am taking way too many pictures of these “so ugly they’re cute” adult female & two juveniles I spot the adult male perched in a tree about five meters away.  I rush to the visitor center to tell the nice ladies about our exciting find.  Though they know about the Frogmouth family, two of them are kind enough to come out and talk to us about them. This Frogmouth family nested a few meters from where the male was perched almost directly over the trail.  The ladies stated that the female and two young ones had moved several meters since they saw them earlier in the day.  I wish we could spend more time here, which is a wish I will frequently have throughout this adventure. [eBird checklist]
Laughing Kookaburra
Tawny Frogmouth - mom & youngsters
The drive to Rainbow Beach would have been uneventful if not for learning how to trust the navigation set and driving on the wrong side of the road at highway speeds. I managed to see a group of Black Kites soaring over the highway and one Australian Kestrel perched atop a bush.  We arrive at Debbie’s Place, our lodging for the night at sunset.  There are hundreds if not thousands of noisy Rainbow Lorikeets going to roost in trees across the street.  I hope to wake up early tomorrow and get some photographs of them before they leave.  We finish the day with dinner at a little Indian restaurant.

Blue-faced Honeyeater at Rainbow Beach
November 12, 2013 Tuesday: I get up too late to catch the lorikeets before they leave the roost.  Apparently the Lorikeets disperse for feeding prior to sunrise.  I walk around the block and nearby neighborhood. A few of the Rainbow Lorikeets are feeding in fruiting tree throughout the neighborhood, as well as a couple of Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, and at least one each Cockatiel, Crimson Rosella, and Eastern Rosella.  A small town park across the street from our lodging has many fruiting trees and bushes.  Feeding on the fruit and flitting around the bushes are Little Wattlebirds, Noisy Friarbirds, Lewin’s & Blue-faced Honeyeaters, and Australasian Figbirds. Foraging between the bushes and in more open areas are Magpie-larks and a pair of territorial Masked Lapwings.  Flying with the Welcome Swallows is at least one Eurasian Barn Swallow.  This Barn Swallow is apparently the same species that we have in North America and is very similar to the Welcome Swallow.  The Barn Swallow has a blackish breast band below the dark rusty throat, whitish under-parts including the under-wing coverts whereas the Welcome Swallow lacks the breast band and appears dirty grayish below.  Also hawking insects were several Fairy and Tree Martins. [eBird checklist].
Our host Debbie suggests we take the walk out to the "sandblow" before we leave town. She says this is a very scenic spot where one may see the rainbow-colored sands that give the area its name.  Even though this was a walk for scenery, I took advantage of the situation and birded.  Upon getting out of the car I learned where many of the Rainbow Lorikeet forage for the day.  The canopy of the Eucalyptus forest was full Rainbow Lorikeets with a scattering of Scaly-breasted Lorikeets.  I never saw the Scaly-breasted Lorikeets perched, just flying past.  The 600-meter walk out to the sandblow is through a Eucalyptus forest.  I find several Noisy Friarbirds, one of which is very cooperative from the photographic standpoints.  Noisy Friarbirds look like miniature vultures with the head and neck un-feathered & black. I also find a flock, probably a family, of Brown Gerygones, as well as a male Variegated Fairy-wren and a female Scarlet Honeyeater. Louise and I both hear rustling in the undergrowth.  It sounds like a larger creature and I begin thinking about a Brush-turkey. I’ll have to wait a few more hours for the Brush-turkey.  Louise finds the source of the rustling. It is a Goanna. Goannas are very large lizards and this one is huge by my standards.
Cockatoo upside-down
From out on the sandblow, between glimpses at the vista, I catch a view of an Eastern Spinebill and watch a calling Sulphur-crested Cockatoo fly back & forth across the open sand.  I am not sure what the Cockatoo was doing but I took the opportunity to take a few distant flight shoots of the bird.  While reviewing my photographs at home a few weeks later I find in one of the shoots the Cockatoo is flying upside-down.  How strange! [eBird checklist]
Our next stop is Inskip Point, which is about 20 minutes north of the Rainbow Beach and is a local birding hotspot for Black-bellied Buttonquail.  Bottonquail create shallow circular depressions in the in the leaf litter called platelets.  While we find plenty of platelets indicating the presence of Buttonquail, we do not see any.  We do see many other birds and have a great time walking through the forest and along the beach.  Louise & I walk and bird for two & half hours. Birding get more fun as both of us get more familiar with many of the more common species like Lewin’s Honeyeater, Olive-backed Oriole, and Australian Figbird.  Louise finds another Goanna, this one is huge at about two meters long. 
Though they look rather threatening we learn from a local ranger that unless the Goanna is cornered it is rather harmless and afraid of humans. We find Bar-shouldered Doves taking dust baths and sunning.  A female Leaden Flycatcher appears to be tending a young in her nest.  There are several family groups of Silver-eyes with the adults feeding their fledgling young.  Louise is the first to recognize the call of an Eastern Whipbird.  I see and manage a poor photograph of the male.  We find a Rufous Whistler and the first of many Eastern Yellow Robins.  In quick succession we find three birds that I am clueless to their identity.  I record verbal notes with Louise’s input and photograph them.  Later I learn that we had seen Brown Thornbill, Rufous Shrike-thrush, and Varied Triller.  A Rainbow Bee-eater poses for photographs in the same dead snag that a
Rainbow Bee-eater at Inskip Point
pair of White-breasted Woodswallow is allopreening. Out on a mudflat I see more Whimbrel, a Far Eastern Curlew, Red-neck Stints, Lesser Sand Plovers, and a pair of Red-capped Plovers.
  In the distance I see gulls and terns that I leave unidentified.  We walk out on to the sandy beach and approach several of the gulls. Identification of the gulls is easy; red bill, legs, & orbital ring, white eyes with black iris, pale silvery gray mantle. These are Silver Gulls, one of only three gull species regularly occurring in Australia.  The other two species are larger and dark mantled. Before we get back to the car, we notice several small birds very actively flitting through the brush.  They turn out to be a pair of Red-backed Fairy-wrens.  While I am attempting to photograph the Fairy-wrens I find that there is a different species in the viewfinder.  Now I’m photographing a White-browned Scrubwren.  I leave the Scrubwren and cannot re-find the Fairy-wrens so turn back to head for the car. 
White-breasted Woodswallows
There’s a pair of Bee-eaters in my way and they alternate taking food to a nest borrow.  I photograph them from a distance that they seemed comfortable continuing to service their unseen young.  Their borrow entrance was about a meter from the edge of a road. Before we get a kilometer down the down we see a Willie-wagtail foraging along roadside.  Not satisfied with my previous photo opportunities I take many photographs of this wonderful bird as it dances around catching insects. [eBird checklist]

Before we start traveling to our destination for the evening, we stop for another walk.  I had researched several more places to bird watch in the Rainbow Beach area.  One of them, the Bymien Picnic Area trek to Poona Lake, seemed most interesting and doable with the little spare time we had.  This is a trek (Australian for a walk or hike) through coastal rainforest. We were greeting at the trailhead by several Australian Brush-turkey.  The thick undergrowth, closed canopy, and darkness of this forest sharply contrasts the forest we had just walked through at Inskip Point.  We hike for nearly two hours, hearing many birds but seeing very few.  We catch views of Pale-yellow & Eastern Yellow Robins, and a tail wagging bird that we identify from our notes and poor photographs as a Rufous Wagtail.  We hear but do not see Eastern Whipbird and Wompoo Fruit-Dove as well as many sounds that will forever be left unidentified.  There was one particularly annoying call that taunted us for the longest time.  We finally see the source of the noise, our first Green Catbird. [eBird checklist]
Australian Brush-turkey checking our tire pressure
The time has come for us to get on the road and head towards our lodging for the night, O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat about five hours away.  Like our previous stops near Boondall Wetlands, I wish we could spend more time in this area. More of my photos are being uploaded to my Australia Set on Flicker

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