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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Queensland and New South Wales

Riflebirds, Reefs and Rainforests

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Our 2023 Australia tour to the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales provided a phenomenal mix of habitats and bird species, and a wide array of other wildlife. The first week was centered around the coastal lowlands between Cairns and Daintree, and the cooler pastoral highlands of the Atherton Tablelands dotted with remnant patches of upland rainforest. It’s hard to pick a favorite sighting when you spend a week in such an incredibly diverse area. Some of the highlights included two independent sightings of Southern Cassowary, Beach Thick-Knee and Great-billed Heron on the Cairns Esplanade, Blue-faced Parrotfinches lurking in dense grasses near Kingfisher Park or the pair of the Muppet-like Papuan Frogmouths sitting in a tall bamboo thicket. The wealth of life here in the north isn’t limited to the birds though, and sometimes with animals like Coppery Brushtail Possum, Green Ringtail Possum, Platypus and an adorable Fawn-footed Melomys it can be the non-birds that really shine. We then moved down to the southern part of coastal Queensland where we took a flight out to Lady Elliot Island, a forested atoll near the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Here we found thousands of Black Noddies and Bridled Terns, bold Buff-banded Rails, some ethereally white Red-tailed Tropicbirds, the local race of Silvereye that may well be granted species status at some point, and a dazzling array of colourful reef fish. A bit further to the south we visited Lamington National Park and the famous O’Reilly’s Guesthouse, where we were greeted by masses of Crimson Rosellas, Australian King Parrots, and both Regent and Satin Bowerbirds around the grounds of the lodge. And in the woods, we found confiding Eastern Whip-birds, pairs of Australian Logrunners, Paradise Riflebirds and fantastic views of Albert’s Lyrebirds. We wrapped up the tour with three days around Sydney, surely one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Our pelagic trip out of Sydney was not so smooth this year, but it produced excellent views of Campbell’s, Black-browed, Buller’s and Shy Albatrosses, Providence and Gray-faced Petrels and three species of shearwater. We made the most of our day around Royal National Park where we encountered several Superb Lyrebirds, and an impressive roosting family of Powerful Owl. On our last half-day of birding, we went inland this year, to a small, forested reserve where we added an impressive number of birds to our trip list including some White-winged Chough, Australian Spotted Crake, Musk Lorikeet and a very confiding Rockwarbler.

No trip such as this can be summed up by statistical means alone as the experiences and landscapes are integral, but our tally of 294 species of birds, 26 species of mammals, and dozens of species of fish, amphibians and reptiles certainly played a role in making this a very successful 13 days in the field, all the more impressive for our missing the first day and a half due to travel complications! For those that also took the adjoining Western Australia tour the trip totals were an incredible 452 species of birds and 36 mammals!

IN FULL: Our group flight from the previous leg of the tour that ended in Darwin was delayed due to airline logistics, and in the end landed in Cairns almost a full day late. Once we had collected the van, we drove into town to meet the participants who were only taking the Eastern Tour. As the tide was at an advantageous level we headed down to the Esplanade to have a short introduction with local shorebirds and common birds of city parks. Just by where we parked we could hear a singing Varied Honeyeater (a local specialty on the esplanade), and shortly thereafter spotted the bird bringing food to its tightly woven nest. Along the coast we found several manageable sized flocks of waders that were quite close to the viewing boardwalk. As conditions were perfect, we worked through the flock slowly, picking out the salient identification features of birds that most North American birders dream of while scanning flocks at home. The most common species were Great Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, but we found decent numbers of Gray-tailed Tattler and Curlew Sandpiper, and a couple of snoozing Terek Sandpipers. The beach was active for non-waders as well, with common species such as Silver Gull, Caspian and Black-fronted Dotterel, Australian Pelican, Welcome Swallow, Willie Wagtail and Magpie-Lark admired in turn. Before we left the coast we tried the northern end of the beach, which proved to be excellent. Although initially we were looking and listening for any sign of Double-eyed Fig Parrot we soon noticed a large heron tucked into the edge of the mangroves. We hustled over and realized that it was a Great-billed Heron. These large herons are quite scarce in Australia, and often are frustratingly wary. To see one in plain sight, at close range for so long was truly exceptional and this bird marked the first one that we had ever encountered in Cairns. To make the stop even more incredible we also spotted a Beach Thick-Knee that was initially out on the sand near the heron. That bird walked into the mangroves but remained motionless in a small window between the branches for us to study it in the scopes. This hulking shorebird is an impressive bird up close, much larger and more imposing than their Bushy cousins, and more striking and colourful than the field guides suggest. After spending a bit of time with this undisputed king of Australian waders and snapping a few more photos of the Great-billed Heron we left the Cairns area behind and drove south towards Innisfail and the small but picturesque Etty Bay Beach in search of an even larger bird; the imposing Southern Cassowary.

Just past the small city of Innisfail we turned towards the coast, crossing over a low set of forested hills before dropping down at a small but very pretty white sand beach at Etty Bay. As we neared the coast, we started to see some helpful signs that raised our expectations. Every 100m or so there would be a placard proclaiming Cassowary Crossing, slow down for our Cassowaries, no-dog Zone, we love our birds etc. We arrived in the heat of the early afternoon and gave the birds about an hour to stroll out of the nearby forest. We met camper after camper who shared comments like “It was right here about an hour ago” but for us there was no sign of our hoped-for beast on the beach. Since we were outside, with binoculars in hand though we couldn’t help but spot some birds, with a busy pair of Olive-backed Sunbirds that were feeding young in their dangling nest, many Australian Figbirds, a passing White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Spangled Drongo, Varied Triller and a photogenic pair of Laughing Kookaburras. As we readied to leave a passer-by indicated that he had recently seen a Cassowary out on the entrance road, so we headed out, keeping a close eye on the roadside verge and forested edge. Around one of the bends we were thrilled to spot an adult male walking along the road towards us. Cassowaries are impressive birds, weighing as much as 60 Kilos as adults, and covered in thick hair-like feathers (rather like giant Kiwis). Their huge muscular feet and large claws are formidable, as is their stout utilitarian bill. The bright blue and red neck, protruding red wattles and huge keratin head casque are quite ornate, combining to make for one of the more unique bird species in the world, and a signature species for Australia. The Australian Cassowary population is in decline, as they are heavily impacted by habitat fragmentation, vehicle collisions and stray dogs (and in New Guinea, hunters). Finding fully wild (i.e.. unacclimated) birds can be incredibly difficult, as although the birds are huge they can be remarkably elusive in the dense understory of the forest. The birds around Etty Bay have become used to gawking humans, often walking around the roadsides, campgrounds and even the open beach, but as our first hour of searching revealed even here sightings are by no means guaranteed. The bird melted off into the woods, and as we waited to see if it would come back out we passed the time looking at perched up Rainbow Bee-eaters and another Laughing Kookaburra. After a few minutes passed we decided to press on to our lodge for the night; a wonderful ecolodge surrounded by a national park up on the Atherton Tablelands. The drive was, as always, punctuated by impromptu bird stops, including (incredibly) for another Cassowary that was slowly crossing the highway, and a hovering Black-shouldered Kite. A short stop at a small roadside pond revealed 19 Cotton Pygmy-Geese paddling around. These diminutive geese are scarce in Australia, and this was by far our largest count on a WINGS tour. The pond also provided good views of Pacific Black Duck and Hardhead, as well as a lounging Australasian Darter.

We pulled into the quiet and quaint town of Yungaburra at just the right time to try for the locally famous Platypus along Peterson Creek. The small trail that winds along the creek has (unfortunately) been closed by the landowner; perhaps the platypus were a tad too famous, but the viewing blind and bridge section was still accessible. We walked down to the creek, and within a minute or two spotted an adult platypus that proceeded to swim right underneath our position; diving a few times as it slowly made its way downstream! Most Australians have never had an encounter with a wild Platypus, so our timing was incredibly fortuitous. We stopped in town to buy breakfast supplies for the next day and make dinner reservations and then headed to the lodge to check in. Since we arrived right before dusk, we didn’t have any time to bird around the grounds, saving that experience for the following morning.

After dinner we tried a few fields in the area that had recently hosted Grass Owls but found the crops to be quite different than expected. No doubt the owls were still present somewhere close by, but after trying a few spots we decided to turn our attentions to mammals around the Curtain Fig carpark. Here we quickly found two different “Coppery” Brushtail Possums and a pair of Green Ringtail Possums. The Greens were particularly interesting as one animal was chasing the other around in the canopy, and Jake was nearly hit on the head by one of them that lost its balance and hurtled nearly 30 feet down from a branch, landing just a few feet in front of him! The Possum was unhurt, and luckily for us it climbed back up onto a small branch and had a bit of a think about things as we looked on. This small and quite cute species of possum is a delicate grey-green on the head and back, with a white belly and short tail. The species has a tiny worldwide range, being nearly limited to the rainforest pockets on the Atherton Tablelands and some adjacent blocks of forest to the south.

After we returned to the lodge most of the group opted to make a short foray down to a special viewing area for nocturnal mammals, with floodlights along the edge of the forest illuminating a nice patch of baited tree trunks. Here we quickly found a of Krefft’s Glider lapping up syrup from an eye-level trunk just a few feet from the viewing platform. These silvery-grey marsupials resemble overly fluffy flying squirrels, and like those animals have thin furred membranes along their flanks and limbs which allow them to glide long distances to escape potential rivals or predators. We were able to watch it at length, and at a ridiculously close range (thanks to their near daily exposure to human paparazzi). The little pond near the reception area proved excellent for frogs, with views of Green-eyed Treefrog, and Striped Marsh Frog. We then piled into our beds, reveling in a real whirlwind of sights and sounds from the day. After all, seeing Cassowary, Great-billed Heron, Beach Thick-Knee, Platypus and an array of nocturnal mammals in just a few hours of birding is no mean feat!

There can be few experiences dearer to a traveling birder than that precious first morning in a brand-new area. The stream of unfamiliar calls emanating from the forest and the flutter of colour and motion in the canopy, all signal that long- awaited birds heretofore seen only in the pages of field guides have now arrived as living creatures. That next morning, we met for a short walk around the carpark of the lodge; a walk that basically became an impromptu big sit as several of the trees around the margins of the small clearing were in fruit and attracting a heady mix of birds. The most prominent group of birds were pigeons, and not of the comparatively drab northern hemisphere type. Here were hulking Topknot and White-headed Pigeons in flight overhead or occasionally perching up in the canopy, dazzlingly bright emerald green, purple, yellow and gray Wompoo Fruit-Doves stuffing their bellies with small fruits and perching out in perfect lighting, comparatively staid Brown Cuckoo-Doves chasing each other around on the roof and even a brilliant green and purple Emerald Dove that flashed by through the clearing in a blur of metallic colours. Our time in the carpark was certainly not limited to pigeon watching though, as our attentions were soon arrested by the arrival of several hungry Victoria’s Riflebirds. It’s not every day that one starts a daily bird list with a bird of paradise! We were able to watch several females at length as they came into fruit. Less boldly coloured than the males these females are still a very attractive study in brown and white, with an impressively strong and curved bill. A few males came in briefly as well, flashing their reflective uppertails or crowns as they gathered up fruit. Spotted Catbird were particularly common and oddly very obvious during our vigil this year. One less colourful Tooth-billed Bowerbird appeared as well, perched up near a fruiting fig tree for long enough for everyone to get a scope view of its dark bill and dull olive back.

Even after all the pigeons, birds of paradise and bowerbirds appeared this magical carpark had more in store. Australian Swiftlets and a steady trickle of Rainbow Bee-eaters coursed over the clearing, occasionally joined by a passing flock of Rainbow Lorikeets, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos or White-breasted Woodswallows. Both Rufous and Bower’s Shrikethrush showed well as they clambered around the palm trunks near the reception area. White-bellied Cuckooshrikes sallied out from the canopy before landing again with shuffling tails, a male Mistletoebird sang its ringing song from the crown of a nearby tree, with his scarlet throat flashing in the morning sun, Lewin’s Honeyeaters rattled from the fig, with one bird even perching out on a television aerial for long enough to cover an introduction to honeyeater identification lesson. We even managed to get a Double-eyed Fig Parrot in our scopes, a difficult feat as this species tends to be quite active and not very vocal and given their size it is often very hard to see them perched in among the dense canopies.

We packed up and headed over to the Curtain Fig National Park, where we spent a very productive hour checking the forest edge and walking around the short boardwalk that encircles the tree that the park was created to protect; a huge leaning strangler fig whose hundreds of tendrils cascade down from the angled trunk creating a waterfall in wood. Around the carpark we enjoyed several views of Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Uncharacteristically the birds were somewhat low, and one perched repeatedly just a little above our heads along the road edge. These tiny, brightly colored and huge billed birds can be tricky to see well as they prefer to remain high in the forest canopy. One of only two species in the world (the other occurring in New Guinea), Boatbills resemble somewhat oversized Tody Tyrants with an optimistic view of the world. Here too were our first well-seen Spectacled Monarchs, a handsome and active bird clad in Halloween black and orange with bold white tail corners and a silvery-grey back. A Gray-headed Robin (another Atherton tableland endemic) sat out on one of the short posts that mark the edge of the parking area and even hopped around on the open paved road; seemingly showing off for the cameras as it hopefully moved some leaf litter around in search of breakfast. The boardwalk through the woods was a little quiet, perhaps due to the presence of a large Grey Goshawk which flew over while we walked, sending most of the local birds into an auditory frenzy. We did get decent views of a quarreling group of Large-billed Scrubwrens as they chased each other around just off the boardwalk railing. A pair of well-marked and showy Pied Monarchs (yet another Atherton endemic) preformed wonderfully here too, with one bird flashing its wings and tail around in a fashion that would make a Redstart jealous, and occasionally clambering around the trunks in a vaguely nuthatch-like fashion.

In an effort to pack in as many spots as possible given our unfortunately truncated schedule we then moved on to a nearby side road that passes through a small section of open Eucalyptus woodland with a grassy understory. The birdlife here is incredibly different to that around the Curtain Fig, even though the two sites are, at best, a kilometer apart. We spent about forty minutes birding a grand total of 100m of this road, finding our first Yellow-faced, White-throated, and Scarlet Honeyeaters, responsive Rufous Whistlers and a very vocal White-throated Gerygone that was pouring out its stupendously varied and cascading whistled song. Perhaps the best sighting though was the busy group of Varied Sittella up in the canopy; here of the black hooded and heavily streaked Queensland race. Although widespread in Australia, Sittellas occur at relatively low densities and are generally infrequently encountered. They strongly resemble social Nuthatches in form and behavior, but belong to their own tiny family, restricted to Australia and New Guinea.

Moving south towards the higher forests around Mount Hypipamee we passed through a section of agricultural land, soon screeching to a halt when we noticed three huge gray cranes out in one of the fields. As hoped, they proved to be Sarus Cranes, clearly showing the fully red hood and upper neck that helps differentiate them from the (slightly) smaller Brolgas which are also in the area. It proved a great stop, as some local farm workers were tilling an adjacent field. Their actions were attracting the attentions of an uncountable number of Cattle Egrets, dozens of Black Kites (with a few Whistling Kites thrown in for good measure) and even a passing adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle!

Mount Hypipamee National Park, which is generally known as ‘The Crater’ supports a large tract of forest over 700m in elevation, and still has the full complement of the Atherton Highlands endemics, although a few are no longer findable on the short nature trail out to the crater. Our first bird upon leaving the buses (with the exception of the ridiculously tame and even pushy Brushturkeys) was a sprightly little Grey Fantail, here of the local Atherton race, flashing its tail around like a proud father showing off a newborn baby. Here too were several large and vocal Bridled Honeyeaters that were foraging and gathering nesting material up in vine tangles and in the surrounding canopy. Uncharacteristically for this species one bird came down to nearly ground level, offering good views of its yellow-based bill and striped face. Along the entrance road we were surprised to quickly locate a pair of Atherton Scrubwrens fossicking about on the ground just meter or so off the road. Atherton Scrubwrens often stay in the denser tangles of the forest undergrowth, making them less obvious than their (more common and very similar-looking Large-billed cousins). Although perhaps not the most exotic looking bird, their incredibly small world range, and somewhat retiring habits make them a primary target for birders on the tablelands.

We then walked down to the actual crater, an impressive collapsed lava tube with a small but likely very deep lake at the bottom. It resembles in some ways the cenotes in the Yucatan, minus (one hopes) the many human sacrifices. This year the crater was more than just a geological stop for us, as a pair of Peregrine Falcons had set up a nest on the cliff face well below the viewing platform; an interesting and excellent angle to observe these masters of flight at work.

Once we returned to the carpark, we took a quick snack break and then walked back up the road, stopping to watch a Yellow-breasted Boatbill flitting around in the lower canopy and a few chittering Brown Gerygones that were engaged in an impressively aggressive and loud game of tag. Our main goal here was to a bit of time here looking at a couple of bower sites for Golden Bowerbird. These paired maypole-style constructions are impressive, topping out at nearly three feet in height and often with horizontal display perches built in. I dare say that most humans would struggle trying to replicate one. Sadly, there was no male in attendance, and by the look of the bowers (lacking decorative touches) the local male may not yet have begun to display for the season. A new (to me) bower a bit further into the forest looked well-maintained, and a few lucky birders had reported a bird in the area over the past few weeks, so the local male is still around, biding his time to spruce up his bower and start displaying for his appreciative visiting females. Many species of birds across Australia seem to have delayed the start of their breeding cycles, perhaps due to the overly cool and rainy conditions throughout the previous winter or the shifting fruiting or flowering schedules. Golden Bowerbirds are stunning birds, but as they require large tracts of high elevation forest and occur only in the mountains around the tablelands, they are generally scarce. With the current shifting of the weather, impending climate change issues, habitat fragmentation and a small and declining population the future for this species is somewhat bleak. Hopefully its charisma will be enough to mount a recovery and support plan.

After a tasty lunch at a café in Atherton we visited the nearby Hasties Swamp. This large wetland has a nice two-story blind overlooking the lake that in the latter stages of the dry season is often generously stuffed with birds from the surrounding arid country out to the west.

This year the banks of the lake were full of waterfowl, and although our estimates come with a low confidence limit we guessed that over 8000 Magpie Geese and 5000 Plumed Whistling Ducks were present. Among those two abundant species we picked out a couple of little groups of Wandering Whistling-Ducks, our first Dusky Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Australasian Grebe and Intermediate Egrets and a nice comparison of Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants. Some of the Magpie Geese were standing on a nearby log, and from our elevated vantage point we could see their bright orange and unwebbed feet; further proof that these vaguely prehistoric birds are not at all closely related to other waterfowl. Some of the trees lining the entrance road to the lake were in blossom, and we spent a bit of time slowly walking along the track, tallying our first White-cheeked and Macleay’s Honeyeaters, Red-browed Finches, and Olive-backed Orioles amongst the blossoming bottlebrushes. A portly Pacific Emerald Dove tottered across the road, occasionally crossing through sunny patches on the ground and glowing like a green traffic light in the sun; offering much lengthier views than the two earlier in the morning.

Leaving Atherton behind we headed north across the Tablelands, noting that as we did the elevation dropped and the countryside seemed to dry out. A quick stop at Lake Mitchell revealed a distant pair of Brolgas foraging in the marsh and our first Green Pygmy-Geese swimming amongst a lily-laden pond. Just before arriving at our lodge we decide to make a last stop in Mount Molloy at the state school grounds. Our chief reason for the visit was to acquaint ourselves with the locally famous Great Bowerbird bower in one of the school garden beds. We succeeded in that task quite easily, with views of a bowerbird before we even reached the carpark, and a truly opulent bower. Great Bowerbirds build an intricate and large runway of sticks, decorated with a mat of white objects (in this case bits of plastic and snail shells) and green fruits. On our last visit a few years ago this particular individual was quite enterprising and had found a pile of polished green glass pieces, which would not fade (and thus not need replacing). This year though, there were few bits of glass remaining and the bird was instead decorating with various bright pink plastic bits, a lovely and carefully placed pink plastic espresso cup, some folded pieced of aluminum foil and, the coup de grace, a bright blue mini hula hoop. Surely no visiting female bowerbird would be able to resist such artistry! The schoolgrounds were hopping with birds, and in addition to the bowerbird show we enjoyed close views of the dazzling Blue-faced Honeyeater, a family group of chattering Gray-crowned Babblers, little flocks of Scaly-breasted Lorikeet and Red-winged Parrots perched in the isolated trees above the playground and even a group of four Squatter Pigeons striding around along the back fenceline behind the basketball court. I wish all quick birding stops were this productive!

We pressed on, arriving at Kingfisher Park, which was to be our base for the next two nights a little after five o’clock. This comfortable hotel is situated in a protected track of rainforest adjacent to a small shallow creek, just a kilometer or so from the extensive forests of Mount Lewis. Our gracious hosts, Carol and Andrew, are excellent birders and naturalists, and in addition to showing us all our rooms they also introduced us to some of their local White-lipped Treefrogs, a roosting Yellow-breasted Boatbill, and a Northern Brown Bandicoot hopping across the entrance road.

The next morning, we investigated the recently improved road that winds up to near the summit of Mt. Lewis. Protected as part of the wet tropics of Queensland bioregion the road now gives access to the wet heavily vegetated uplands above 900m that are difficult to reach elsewhere in the tablelands. This upper elevation forest serves as a refugia for a host of rainforest species that were likely more widespread when the region was wetter and connected to New Guinea during the last ice age. We took our time ascending, driving slowly with the windows down and stopping wherever activity dictated. In this fashion we connected with our first Black-faced Monarchs; a large and well-patterned species with a ringing and pleasant song. On that same stop we found a Grey Whistler, here of the eastern Gray-headed race that is markedly different in colour and song to the birds in the top end. We tried a few stops for Fernwrens; a skulky brown terrestrial thornbill relative that is endemic to the Tableland mountains. We heard several on the drive up, but each time the undergrowth was too thick or the slope too steep for a clear view of the forest floor. Those stops were still productive though, as we detected our first audible Noisy Pitta which stubbornly refused to sit up for a view, marveled at the vocal stylings of the local Tooth-billed Bowerbirds and found our first Yellow-throated Scrubwren creeping around on the ground. As we neared our eventual destination, a trailhead that gives access to a dam a few kilometers out from the road we heard a Fernwren sound off right by the road. Piling out we were soon looking at the bird as it marched steadily to the right and away from our prying eyes. Just up the road from here we found our first Mountain Thornbills, an admittedly dull-colored but cheerful little species, that is yet another local endemic. After a bit of a snack and some water replenishment we set off up the trail. We were only a little way from the trailhead when we decided to check an adjacent and more open part of the forest. Soon after leaving the track, we detected a family group of Chowchilla rustling around in the leaf litter. These often skulky birds, with tufted crests, colored throat patches and bright eye-rings are generally loud and easy to hear, but can be frustratingly difficult to spot or follow on the ground in their preferred rainforest haunts. It took a bit of negotiating to get the group over to where the birds were, but once we were in place, they seemed to take no notice of us, foraging by carefully using their oversized feet to fling leaves out to their sides with oversized feet and generally ignoring our presence. Chowchilas are a species of great conservation concern, as they are poor dispersers and need a decent amount of good forest to forage in. Just during the most recent decade populations have winked out in most of the smaller tableland parks, with good populations persisting only in the largest blocks of forest. After twenty minutes or so we backed out of the woods, grateful to have shared the time with these unique birds (one of a tiny family with only three extant species). We walked a bit further down the road, stopping along a pretty forested creek where we enjoyed good views of a couple of Gray-headed Robins along the roadside, and a Tropical Flatwing damselfly, another species confined to the tablelands. We then headed down the slope, where, near the bottom of the hill we noticed some activity around a set of lightly fruiting trees. Here we enjoyed good views of Silvereye, Yellow-spotted and Macleay’s Honeyeaters and a passing Wompoo Fruit-Dove. While watching the forest edge for any additional activity we heard some high-pitched twittering emanating from a tangle of grasses and lantanas along the edge of a well vegetated creek. The authors proved to be a group of Red-backed Fairywrens, with two alternate plumaged males that came up out of the thicket and put on a good show. This amazing group of birds combines a fascinating social biology with a perky demeanor and colours that would put most hummingbirds to shame. As a group, the fairywrens are perhaps the most beloved of Australia’s birds. The jet-black male with his scarlet back and uppertail coverts of the Red-backed is a definite crowd pleaser, although I suspect the jury will always be out on which species is actually the fairest one of all.

We chose to have lunch at nearby Mount Molloy, with most of the group opting for burgers or empanadas at the locally famous Swiss-Mexican restaurant, and the other half visiting the Mount Molloy Hotel for a more standard restaurant meal. The gardens and parks around town are often excellent for birds, and as we had lunch, we picked up some very close Olive-backed Sunbirds constructing nests, and lots of close-range Blue-faced Honeyeaters foraging in the flowering bottlebrush trees along the sidewalk.

After some time off back at the lodge we set of in the late afternoon bound for the western side of Mount Lewis and the town of Mount Carbine. This small ex-mining town sits in the rain shadow of the coastal range, nestled in a wide tropical grassland plain. Small creeks with riparian vegetation and lightly timbered patches give the region a vastly different feel to the much wetter and lusher coastal side of the range. We started birding at the Mount Carbine Caravan Park, a sprawling RV park with well-watered lawns and several residents who regularly feed the local birds. Here new species came thick and fast, with large numbers of Galah and a group of curious Apostlebirds greeting us as soon as we had parked near the manager’s residence. We greeted the enthusiastic park owner who is obviously quite proud of her local birds and wildlife and after paying a nominal entrance fee walked around the ring of the largely forested campground area. Several lots were actively watering their lawns and gardens, and the water and shade were attracting quite a few birds. We enjoyed our first Black-faced Cuckooshrikes, Pale-headed Rosellas, Torresian Crows, hulking Blue-winged Kookaburras and striking Pied Butcherbirds in turn, keeping a close eye out for one of the local Tawny Frogmouths on a day roost. Just before we reached the residence house again, we paused to admire a little mob of Agile Wallabies along the back fence. For a while the animals stared back at us with obvious curiosity, but eventually their mettle broke and the whole group bounded off, somehow squeezing through the gaps in the fence without even breaking stride. Our host took pity on us, walking partway around the loop again and then spotting a snoozing Frogmouth that was right on the edge of the road. There is something innately pleasing about frogmouths; plump, obviously soft and well feathered, with a wide head and expressive face and being able to see one at such close range, with its feathered tuft flopped neatly over its oversized bill was a real treat.

After thanking our host and leaving Mount Carbine we traveled a bit back to the south to investigate the ranchland roads around the Mary River. Here we quickly located an unusually large number of Australian Bustards that were striding around in the short- grass fields in full view (rather than remaining huddled in the shade of the scattered trees). These large bustards can be incredibly good at hiding in the tall grassy areas that they often prefer. A few individuals were even right along the roadside, providing excellent views. Soon after we began to watch them, we realized that we had stumbled upon an active lek site. At least two of the males were parading around the lekking grounds, with their pendulous wattles dangling from their chins. The nearby females seemed quite unimpressed, preferring to remain across the field in better foraging habitat. Some flowering trees nearby were hosting a large number of Little and Noisy Friarbirds, as well as both White-bellied and Black-faced Cuckooshrikes and (briefly) a single male Banded Honeyeater that was unfortunately flushed by a passing Brown Falcon before most of the group could resolve it. As we drove back towards dinner in Mount Molloy we passed through a significant area of recently burned forest; an all-too familiar sight throughout northern Australia where there has been a continuous uptick in the intensity and frequency of human caused wildfires for years.

We weren’t quite done for the day once we returned to Kingfisher for the night as we elected to take a short nocturnal walk around the grounds to look for some of the local mammals. We started by lifting the lid to the compost bin, finding a tame Fawn-footed Melomys (a cinnamon coloured native rodent) busily chomping down on the fresh fruit rinds. Around the buildings we found a couple of large White-lipped Treefrogs and a comparatively tiny Desert Treefrog. A walk around to the orchard produced several Red-legged Pademelons (a small wallaby) that were feeding out on the fresh grass, remaining frozen in our torchlights with twitching noses and a somewhat guilty expression on their faces (and fresh grass sticking out from their mouths). A large flowering tree at one end of the clearing was hosting some foraging Spectacled Flying-Foxes that occasionally floated over us with their slightly ungainly lumbering flight. While scanning that tree for bats on the flowers we found eyeshine from a small rodent way up in the canopy. Consulting with Carol and Andrew this could only have been a Prehensile-tailed Rat; a write in for the tours’ mammal list!

The next morning, we met up for a walk around the Kingfisher Lodge grounds, beginning the day by walking the outer edge of the property where the first sun hits the trees. Some flowering bottlebrushes along the path were hosting Cryptic and Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters, which allowed us to spend a bit of time teasing apart the identification issues that surround Meliphaga honeyeaters. We then passed along the edge of a large paddock, picking out Laughing Kookaburra and our first Forest Kingfishers hunting from an overhead wire that stretched across the field. Some tall trees across the field were stuffed with Figbirds and some Topknot Pigeons, and at one point a stunningly elegant and large White-bellied Sea-Eagle that cruised by scattering the Figbirds like a school of flying fish evading an oncoming boat. Our principal mission on the road though was to reach the small bridge over Brushy Creek, where we quickly located a snoozing pair of Papuan Frogmouths that were tucked into a dense stand of bamboo just a few feet above our heads. Papuan is the largest of the three species of Frogmouths found in Australia and looks remarkably like a Jim Henson Muppet Show puppet come to life. With an oversized thick bill, huge head, shaggy looking plumage and beatific smile they are at once comical and imposing. We enjoyed another excellent breakfast, accompanied by George and Matilda, the local pair of Orange-footed Megapodes who roamed the edges of the breakfast area hoping for falling table scraps. The feeders were attracting a busy mixed flock of Chestnut-breasted Munia and Red-browed Finch, with a pair of Emerald Doves picking up the seeds that were dropping to the ground.

We spent the rest of the morning birding a few spots near the park, beginning a few kilometers down the road in a dense patch of grasses along a forested creek. Here we were eventually successful in tracking down (often three people at a time) a few Blue-faced Parrotfinches that were quietly foraging on some low herbs along the creek. This is a scarce species in Australia, with a small breeding population centered around the Mount Lewis highlands and an even smaller group near the southern end of the tablelands. It’s an altitudinal migrant, with a few birds generally “wintering” near Julatten during the dry season and then heading back up into the higher parts of the mountain in the wet. Its bright green body plumage is unique among the Australian Finches, and we managed to spot several adults with deep blue faces and red rumps and tails, although it definitely took a while for everyone to catch up with as the birds were staying quite low in the vegetation. The area held a few other excellent species as well, with a female Lovely Fairywren showing well (a generally scarce species, occurring in coastal forests around the Cape York Peninsula down to about Townsville), and some very tame Pale-yellow Robins and Spectacled Monarchs. At one point a Pacific Baza sailed over the treetops, oddly our only sighting of this attractive tropical raptor during this years Eastern tour.

At a small pond nearby, we spent a bit of time scanning the margins, finding a little covey of Brown Quail, a hunting Pacific Heron and, in the adjacent bare trees, two quite low Mistletoebirds and a quietly perched Little Bronze-Cuckoo. We left the highlands behind, heading north and dropping down to the town of Mossman where we ate lunch. For the 2023 tour we again were planning a one-night stay at the Heritage Lodge up north of the Daintree River, and this year wanted to have a bit of time to explore the wonderful forest in the National Park. We made one more stop before taking the ferry across the Daintree River; spending twenty minutes or so scanning the edges of a large complex of Barramundi farm ponds just off the highway. Here were our first handsome white and burgundy Rajah Shelducks, a small group of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a few Pied Stilt and Australian Ibis and lots of Australian (Gull-billed) Terns, surely a species in its own right. Our hotel is nestled along a clear-flowing forested creek deep within the park, with the buildings tucked into the woods. Several participants opted for a local walk on the short trail system, a nap, or even a swim in the creek for the afternoon, but about half the group ventured a bit further north towards Cape Tribulation. Perhaps due to the overcast and humid conditions in the afternoon we found the forest to be fairly quiet, but the creeks were spectacularly clear, with a few fish swimming below the bridges, a Gray-tailed Tattler slowly walking along the river’s shoreline and Black Butcherbirds and Victoria’s Riflebirds sounding off from the jungle. We stopped at one of the stunning sand beaches, a sweeping coastline vista with mountains right down to the water to the north and a small palm filled island just offshore. Even though the beach was just off the road we had it all to ourselves, with just the speedy Ghost Crabs and some passing Great Crested Terns and Pacific Reef-Egrets for company. We realized that region with a lightly developed road extending some 70KM north of the Daintree up to Cape Tribulation has forests extending from the mountain peaks right down to the coast the entire way and one could easily spend a week birding and biologizing just this area, barely scratching the diversity. With comfortable lodgings and some quite sophisticated and very tasty food at the restaurant, we were soon tempted to try to find a way to do just exactly that!

We had other plans for the next day though, heading out early back across the river and then upstream to the village of Daintree, where we met our boat for a cruise along the river and adjacent Barratt and Stewart’s Creeks. This year we had to break the group in half, with the other half taking breakfast at the local café. The two cruises went in different directions on the river, with the first boat locating a group of Spotted Whistling-Ducks up Stewart Creek (an area we can only access on a high tide with a small number of people aboard). As luck would have it Murray Hunt (our very experienced captain and an excellent birder and naturalist) called the other half of the group and we were able to drive down Stewart Creek Road, finding the same ducks perched at a great vantage point. This is another scarce species in far north Queensland, a relative newcomer to the country that has spread (sparingly) from adjacent New Guinea. A somewhat ephemeral breeding population seems to be becoming established around the Daintree drainage, but this marked the first time we had encountered them here on the tour. The boat trips offer amazing access to the mangrove lined channels, and Murray is intimately familiar with every living thing in the area. We slowly motored along, stopping to admire perched Sacred Kingfisher, Black-fronted Dotterel and a young Black-necked Stork on the main river before heading up one of the small tributaries where the overhanging trees almost made for a complete canopy over the boats. We found a few Common Treesnakes curled up and sunning on overhanging branches, and even a huge Wulfing’s Stick Insect (almost a foot in length) hiding amongst the leaves. A nesting Papuan Frogmouth took a bit of time for everyone to locate, as the adult was almost perfectly camouflaged between a couple of bare branches. Shining Flycatchers and Large-billed Gerygones were courting and nest building along the creek, and we enjoyed chortling Green Orioles, Australian Figbirds and Spangled Drongos perched in the larger trees, flocks of ethereally white Torresian Imperial-Pigeons passing overhead and wonderful views of an approachable Great-billed Heron that kept a wary eye on us as we edged closer for photos. Go figure, the one year that we find one of these rare herons on the Esplanade we also enjoy the best views ever on the river! Back at the boat ramp we found a large fruiting fig that was hosting dozens of birds including a pair of garrulous Hornbill Friarbirds and a striking and uncharacteristically showy Pacific Koel.

Since our tablelands time was a bit shorter than originally scheduled due to the airline issues at the beginning of the tour we opted to take the longer way back to Cairns rather than the coastal road. Back up on the northern tablelands we tracked down an eventually cooperative pair of Lemon-bellied Flycatchers (actually a species of arboreal Australian robin) in a small park near Julatten. We tried for a pair of recently reported Northern Fantails at another nearby park, but had to settle for lengthy views of our first Fan-tailed Cuckoo that was busily tucking into a tent caterpillar nest time and time again, carefully rubbing the fuzzy caterpillars against a branch before swallowing them with obvious satisfaction. Here too was a cooperative Yellow Honeyeater which lingered in front of the group for quite some time, and another impressive Great Bowerbird bower with its attendant artist in residence. After lunch in Mareeba we investigated a little city park along the Barron River, finding a perched up Brush Cuckoo, lots of Noisy Friarbirds living up to their reputation and a couple of very attractive dragonflies including a stunning Zircon Flutterer. We often are able to locate the resident pair of White-browed Robins that frequent the park, but given the mid-afternoon timing and windy conditions it wasn’t too surprising that the birds remained hidden somewhere in the dense tangles of riparian vegetation. After the park we dropped back down to the coast, with a brief stop along Black Mountain Road in Kuranda where we found a handsome Wompoo Fruit-Dove and several Brown Cuckoo-doves sitting in the canopy, some basking Eastern Water Dragons and a wealth of dragonflies including a striking male Tropical Rockmaster (a species so brightly colored that it elicited some interest from nearly the entire group). Back in Cairns we checked into the hotel, and after a short break several folk opted to meet up for a short trip to the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

We made a short visit to the freshwater lakes section of the Botanic Gardens, taking a short walk around the lake and along the adjacent edge of saltwater creek, finding a wealth of by now somewhat familiar birds on the way. The main lake harboured several pairs of handsome Pacific Black Ducks, an Australasian Grebe, hawking Rainbow Bee-eaters and an instructive comparison between Intermediate and Great Egrets. The adjacent flowerbeds held many Australian Brushturkeys that were striding around and digging around the plantings in a hopeful fashion with their oversized feet. These pretty, but ungainly looking birds belong to the Megapode family, but unlike many of the megapodes have adapted well to human habitation, to the point where many a suburban gardener has rued their existence. Here we also successfully tracked down a calling Common Cicadabird, a monocolored but still subtly beautiful bird that we see few of on the tour itinerary. Here too we enjoyed a few bright yellow and blue Olive-backed Sunbirds, a perched Varied Triller and several flyover and very vocal Hornbill Friarbirds, a large and garrulous honeyeater that was recently split from the Helmeted Friarbird complex. We capped our last day in the tropics off in style with dinner at the hotel restaurant, turning in early so as to best prepare for our early morning flight to Brisbane the following day.

An early morning (but slightly delayed) flight to Brisbane the next day brought us to the third largest city in Australia at 9:10am. Once we gathered up our luggage and secured our new chariots, we headed south of the airport to look at the mangroves around the Port of Brisbane. We timed the visit perfectly from a tidal perspective, with decent numbers of waders (including our first Whimbrels), Australian Ibis and various herons out on the mudflats. Our principal reason for the visit was to catch up with a trio of mangrove-based birds that we had not had an opportunity to look for up north. Our run of excellent form continued, as while scanning the open mudflats we quickly found two Torresian Kingfishers. This husky kingfisher was split from part of the old Mangrove/Collared complex, with a range that encompasses coastal north and northeast Australia and a bit of the adjacent New Guinea coast. This can be a hard species to see well, as they generally prefer to remain buried in the mangroves, calling loudly but staying in inaccessible haunts. These two birds were very much in the open, likely enjoying the feast of crabs that were scuttling around in the shoreline mud in prodigious numbers. We walked to the edge of the mangroves and were able to also locate Mangrove Gerygone and Mangrove Honeyeater in fairly quick succession as well. While queuing up for the restroom a few folk wandered along the edge of the access road noting that the tangled undergrowth looked an excellent spot for Fairywrens. In no time we were successful at teasing up two Red-backed males in their full glorious breeding dress as well as a very flashy male Variegated Fairywren! This snazzy species is restricted to a narrow band along the eastern side of the Great Dividing Range (with the split off Purple-backed Fairywren occurring over the rest of the country). The male was quite curious, coming right up to the edge of the road and actually staying still enough to allow for a lengthy study and photo shoot.

We then had lunch at a nearby (excellent) café, sitting out on tables in the backyard with Noisy Miners and Australian Magpies for company. Most of the afternoon was spent making the drive up to our base in Maryborough, where we would spend the next two nights and take our foray out onto the Great Barrier Reef. In the late afternoon though we did fit in one more stop at the coastal village of Maaroom. This small but well-kept collection of houses and a sprawling caravan park always has lots of parked cars but remarkably few (to no) visible people. With a significant number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos foraging out on the lawns and hopping along the driveways it could easily be seen as a set for some post-apocalyptic movie in which kangaroos have risen to be the preeminent form of sentient life. Our final total in the counting contest between town residents and kangaroos was a very lopsided 2-22 this year! Once at the shoreline we realized that we had hit the tide just right, with a huge flock of waders tucked right up on shore awaiting our perusal. The vast majority were Bar-tailed Godwits, Far Eastern Curlew, Pied Stilts and Great Knots, but we found a smattering of Red Knots, a few Curlew and Terek Sandpipers and a couple of dozen Red-necked Stints and Red-capped Plovers. Having such diversity at close range is always a treat and given that the species mix is most of the birds that north American birders can only dream of finding around home our time with the flock seemed doubly special. Apart from the shorebirds we watched Australian Gull-billed and Caspian Terns foraging over the bay and loafing on the beach, flocks of Australian Ibis probing in the mangrove mud, and close views of Galah, a striking, if a bit dopey looking, pink and silver cockatoo that is perhaps one of dry-land Australia’s most common birds. We arrived at our lovely Best Western in Maryborough very much looking forward to our day out on the reef.

The following day dawned clear with blue skies and only a few scattered clouds, in short, a perfect day to visit the sparkling waters of the Great Barrier Reef. In previous years we had accessed breeding seabirds and the Great Barrier Reef via a catamaran from Cairns. With the recent and significant bleaching events that have severely affected the overall coral health of the northern sections of the reef we decided a few years ago to shift our reef day from Cairns to this new location offshore from Hervey Bay; accessing the area via a short flight out to Lady Elliot Island, a small coral atoll surrounded by a vibrant and healthy fringing reef and liberally covered with trees and shrubs which support a wealth of breeding seabirds. The island supports continentally important numbers of several species and has the second highest diversity of breeding seabirds of any site on the Great Barrier Reef. We drove up to the tiny airport at Hervey Bay and were soon ushered into a small waiting room that was covered in large photos of swimming Sea Turtles, Manta Rays and an array of colourful fish. In contrast to recent years we found the waiting room to be quite busy, with a large school group gearing up to go out to the island on an overnight class trip. Our aircraft took off as scheduled though and passed over the incredibly beautiful Fraser Island, covered with a seemingly endless expanse of native forest, small lakes and hills and a miles long bright white sandy shoreline. As the plane neared the atoll we circled around a few times as we dropped towards the grassy airstrip that neatly bisects the small round island. It took only a second of looking out of the airplane windows for everyone to realize that this was indeed a special place. Hundreds of Black Noddies were perched on trees and bushes or flying overhead as they performed their tandem display flights. We were greeted at the airplane by a host from the on-island lodge who was soon trying to give us the run-down of our day on the island; though she had to compete with the nearly hand tamed Buff-banded Rails, and dozens of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies that were simply everywhere that we looked and completely untroubled by our presence and also by a passing Lesser Frigatebird that hung overhead like a menacing kite. Uncharacteristically we had a bit of light rain shortly after arriving, and throughout the day had to contend with a building wind; the more overcast conditions did keep the temperatures and solar radiation down a bit though, which was certainly appreciated.

Once properly oriented we set out on a small loop walk around the island, where we started off by locating a few pairs of Red-tailed Tropicbirds that were tucked in the deep shade of some large octopus plants. These are the largest and most pelagic of the world’s three species of Tropicbird, with a very buoyant flight, ethereally white body plumage and bright red tail streamers, and although we kept the prescribed 2m distance from the nest sight our views were superlative, with several adult birds with their namesake tail streamers curled up and over its back and a couple of mostly grown chicks. Moving over to the end of the runway we found our first Pacific Golden-Plovers an and a seemingly uncountable number of Bridled Terns and Black Noddies. Most seabird colonies around the tropics are largely unvegetated, and the visiting birder has to search through Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies in the hopes of finding just one Bridled or Black. Here we found the experience reversed, and with some careful searching we noted good numbers of Brown Noddies tucked into the low shrubs along the beach. Along the coralline coastline were several Eastern Reef-Egrets feeding in the shallows. Over the course of the day, we found eight or nine of these long-billed herons, most were white morph birds but at least two were deep purple-black. The island possesses an endemic subspecies of Silvereye, and we were able to see several of these large and distinctively coloured birds as we walked along the edge of the forested half of the island. Dubbed the “Capricorn” Silvereye, this form is endemic to only a handful of islands along the Great Barrier Reef and given the propensity for island-based endemism of white-eyes may well deserve full species status. In previous years we have tried experimenting with playback on these birds, finding that they generally ignore calls from mainland birds but respond vigorously to calls from the form of Silvereye from Lord Howe Island. Along the north beach we were happy to find several dozen Roseate Terns huddled under the trees. This elegant species breeds here in small numbers, and over the course of the day we estimated a local population of about 150 birds, several of which were nicely blushing pink. The loafing flock of Great Crested Terns out on the coralline shelf grew throughout the day, eventually numbering well over 500 birds. Nearby we enjoyed excellent scope views of a group of perched Brown Boobies, a foraging Wandering Tattler with a nearby Grey-tailed for comparison, some courting Sooty Terns and a flyby pair of Sooty Oystercatchers. During the course of the walk we would occasionally spot a passing Frigatebird overhead. Most were Lessers but we did pick out at least one female Greater that cruised by a few times in the morning. Often, we find a couple of unexpected species lurking around the island while we visit, and this year our surprises included a Little Black Cormorant that was doing periodic laps around the island, a couple of Magpie-Larks and a single Bar-tailed Godwit. We then headed to the lodge to enjoy a buffet lunch where we were joined at the table by pushy Buff-banded Rails that didn’t think twice about climbing over our feet or grabbing a stray chip from a plate (proffered or not). In the afternoon the group split up to enjoy the leisure activities of the island, with many people opting for a short snorkel trip out on the reef, or a wander around with bins or cameras in hand. A few kept birding though, finding a small covey of Brown Quail (which have a tiny but persistent population on the island but are not commonly encountered on day-trips) and better and repeated views of the wealth of breeding seabirds that call this island paradise home. In the late afternoon we boarded our flight back to the mainland; a bit sunburnt, but pleased to have been fortunate enough to spend our day surrounded by such intense, wheeling life.

The next day was largely a travel day as we made our way south past Brisbane and up into the mountainous Lamington National Park for our base for the next two nights at the incomparable O’Reilly’s Eco-Lodge. An amazingly opulent buffet breakfast consisting of a spread of local fruit, cheese, quiches, and pastries started our long journey off on a good footing. This year we opted to travel a bit inland before heading south, in a bid to connect with a few species of birds more typical of the drier country, and also to avoid having to pass through Brisbane during rush hour traffic. As we progressed to the west the palette of the landscape shifted quickly, with dried frass and bare brown fields and open eucalypt woodland replacing the comparatively lush greenery and pasture around Maryborough. 2023 was the driest year in recent history over much of Australia, and certainly for this part of Queensland the lack of water was readily evident (even most creeks were dry as we drove over the bridges). Our first stop was at a petrol station in the tiny town of Kilkivan. Here our refueling stop stretched out a bit, with several flowering trees nearby attracting a near constant stream of activity. Most of the birds were Rainbow Lorikeets, but we also spotted Australian Figbirds, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Noisy Friarbird and a pair of (our first on the Eastern Tour) Pied Currawong. A bit further to the Southwest we stopped along the road near a large farm pond that had significant aquatic vegetation. We initially noticed the lounging flocks of Black Swan, Hardhead and Grey Teal, but once we were stopped and able to scan the edges more thoroughly, we noticed a surprising diversity of species using the area. Perhaps the best birds were the pair of Red-kneed Dotterel and the single Latham’s Snipe that we were able to spot along the back shore, but our views of a perched Sacred Kingfisher, foraging Comb-crested Jacana, sunning Eastern Long-necked Turtle and dozens of Australasian Grebes were all noteworthy as well. From the pond we headed southwards, on a progressively more rural and remote series of roads, eventually leaving the pavement behind. It was a wonderful route; one that enabled us to really get a sense for what the area looks like and also to stop wherever something of interest caught our eye. The one drawback was that the unpaved road eventually contributed to a tire failure on one of the vans, and given the puny nature of the provided jack we lost about an hour and a half in completing the repair. In the end we resorted to driving back a few kilometers to a road construction crew, where one plucky soul decided to hop into a road grader and come to the rescue. He first attempted to lift the entire van using the hydraulic grader blade (which would have been an epic solution to the – I have to go get a bigger jack) but in the end he couldn’t quite get the blade under the tow hitch because of the angle of the roads shoulder. A well-placed flat rock and some more aggressive jack positioning did the trick though, and soon enough we were on our way. While we struggled with the jacks the participants wandered around and found a few good birds, including our first Eastern Yellow Robin and Brown Thornbill and a few Gray and Rufous Fantails, they also found multiple hubcaps in the bushes, a sign that we were not the only ones to share this fate. We arrived at our targeted birding destination quite later than anticipated, but even in the middle of the day we found the small, forested dam to be fairly active, with birds coming down to the water’s edge to drink. In quick succession we identified our first Fuscous, White-naped and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, as well as a little group of Red-browed Firetails, a perched Dusky Woodswallows and an active pair of Restless Flycatchers (a write-in species for the tour). We couldn’t stay long, as we still had some ground to cover and were running late so after the initial activity died down, we continued south, taking lunch in Kilcoy. As we still had some ground to cover we spent most of the rest of the afternoon finishing the drive to O’Reily’s, stopping a few times for perched Brown Falcons, a soaring Wedge-tailed Eagle, and, as we neared the bottom of the winding 25 mile long driveway up to the lodge, an impressively large camp of Gray-headed and Black Flying-Foxes. Many of the bats were active and feeding on some nearby Grevillia trees, but several thousand more were chattering away in dense groups just off the road. We didn’t reach the lodge until after dark, but as we neared the plateau we could still easily discern the sudden shift from a dry Eucalypt forest to a temperate rainforest full of cycads, moss, some Nothofagus trees and ferns illuminated in our headlights. After hearing about the riot of colourful and ridiculously tame birds that frequent the carpark of this famous lodge a 6:30 start for a walkabout the following morning was an easy sell!

We began our full day around Lamington National Park with a short pre-breakfast walk around the lodge grounds where we caught everyone up on the common birds that frequent the clearings around the lodge. Quite a few of the participants mentioned that when they awoke and opened the blinds they were already tallying lifers from (and on) their balconies! It’s certainly nice when the common birds include such absolutely stunning species as Regent and Satin Bowerbird, Australian King Parrot and Crimson Rosella, Superb Fairy-Wren (our 4th and final species of these amazing little birds for the trip) and Red-browed Firetail! It’s not just the species list here that make an impact, but the tameness and approachability that a visiting birder can revel in. Instead of quietly lurking in the underbrush and hoping for a quick part-view of a calling Eastern Whipbird here one just scans the lawn or holds out some walnuts and one waltzes in without a care. It is, simply put, an amazing experience, akin to the Galapagos Islands in some respects. After spending the requisite amount of time taking in the colour show and getting selfies of King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas perched on various heads and shoulders we started a short walk around the periphery of the lodge grounds and down around the nearby campground. Some flowering bottlebrush trees were attracting a steady stream of Lewin’s Honeyeaters and dapper Eastern Spinebills, both of which posed nicely for photos. Eastern Yellow Robin, Gray Shrikethrush and White-browed Scrubwren were along the forest edge, occasionally coming right out onto the lawns or nearby posts, and Brown Gerygones were chattering away from the trees. The campground has been recently renovated, with a lot of upscale African-safari style tents and some substantial clearing around the edges. This clearing has produced a small hill that overlooks a substantial amount of forest canopy, and when we reached the hill we heard the unmistakable raspy call of a male Paradise Riflebird emanating from somewhere downslope. A quick scan of the treetops revealed the inky black bird perched in the canopy of a tree, roughly eye-level from our position. Happily, he stayed put for everyone to enjoy scope views, occasionally turning his head to reveal the flash of green iridescence on his throat. Getting views of this species around the road system near O’Reilly’s is becoming harder with each passing trip as the forest here has been receiving below average rainfall for many years. Recent research has shown that the Birds-of-Paradise likely initially evolved in Australia, retreating uphill and into the humid montane forests of New Guinea as the lowlands began to dry out and Australian rainforest patches shrank. Although the Paradise Riflebird is now the most southerly-distributed species of BoP it is quite probable that a hundred thousand years ago there were many species present in the mountains of southern Queensland. We played with some particularly confiding Eastern Yellow Robins on the way back up to the lodge, where we enjoyed their extensive buffet which included many locally made goodies.

After breakfast we set off down the network of park service trails that run out from the lodge. Here, Large-billed, Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens hopped around us at incredibly close range, while pairs of Australian Logrunners scratched hopefully in the leaf litter just a few feet away. Eastern Yellow Robins were plentiful, often perching within touching range and looking at us inquisitively. Even normally retiring species like Eastern Whip-bird are tame here, boldly hopping by in the open, or (in the case of one bird) even climbing up to an eye-level perch and checking out the contents of our outstretched hand. We walked about a mile through the rainforest, and found pairs of Brown Gerygones, several hefty Green Catbirds up in the canopy, and a few Gray and Rufous Fantails flashing about in the midstory. Near the far point of our stroll, we heard the magical three-parted breezy whistle of a singing Noisy Pitta coming from the forested slope below the trail. We managed to find an angle to spot the author as it sat along a tangled vine. Initially it was facing away, with just the emerald-green back and turquoise shoulder spot visible, but eventually the bird turned, revealing the tawny underside and buff and black head in our scope. After missing this signature species during our week up north it was a doubly special treat to connect with this one. Leaving the Pitta in its leafy bower we headed around on the higher section of trail, where we encountered some more Logrunners busily foraging in the leaf litter, toyed with two Rose Robins that remained stubbornly high up in the canopy, found a thrush that was remarkably adept at keeping obstacles between our vantage point and its furtive meanderings. There are two species of extremely similar thrushes in the mountains around O’Reilly’s. Bassian Thrushes tend to prefer the higher reaches of the montane ridges, dominating in the sections of forest with thick undergrowth, tree ferns and cycads while Russet-tailed Thrushes are the more common species on the lower slopes in drier and more open forests. The lodge sits right between these two zones, and there is considerable overlap between the two species on the trails near the lodge. When they are not calling separating the two species is tricky, and this particular bird refused to show the relevant fieldmarks for us during our observation. Earlier in the morning several participants had found and photographed a thrush near the trail head, and upon reviewing the photos over breakfast that bird, at least, seemed consistent with a Bassian Thrush. We arrived back near the lodge in the late morning, and decided that we should spend a bit of time over near the Wishing Tree Tract; an area where we have had considerable luck finding Albert’s Lyrebirds in the past. We didn’t have any luck along the top of the trail or at the lodge compost pile, but while going over the plan in the carpark Jake spotted a male lyrebird digging just a few meters off the asphalt (and just a few meters from the back patios of many of our rooms)! We were able to follow its progress for several minutes as it moved further into the forest, and then a select few who wished better and longer views walked in a bit. From our selected vantage point we watched the bird as it foraged along a fallen log, occasionally showing its shimmering cobweb-like tail, or bright rufous back as it passed through shafts of sunlight. Albert’s (and the closely related Superb) Lyrebirds are the world’s largest (and among the world’s oldest) passerines. Accomplished mimics, they are perhaps best known for their starring role in many a nature documentary concerning Australian wildlife.

By this point it was lunchtime, so we enjoyed lunch at the café, surrounded by sweeping valley views and dozens of anxiously hungry Pied Currawongs and Crimson Rosellas and a few Satin Bowerbirds. We selected indoor seating for our meal, and from that vantage we could see the birds scouring the tables as soon as plates were finished (or even before). The Currawongs and Bowerbirds immediately heading out to consume or hide their prizes from the other assembled birds but the Rosellas took a different approach, simply grabbing a snack and sitting at the table or on a patron, delicately balanced on one foot as they slowly nibbled the chips away to a small nub. After some time off we met up in the mid-afternoon and hopped in the cars to explore a side road that leads down to Duck Creek. Here we bumped along for a few kilometers, dropping down from the main road until we came to a patch of open Eucalyptus forest with an understory of grasses, grass trees, and lantana thickets. In this generally drier habitat, we were soon able to track down several parties of White-naped Honeyeaters, some close enough that we could discern the red arc over their eyes. It took a little longer to locate our other main target for the area, the generally scarce Red-browed Treecreeper. It was a little confusing initially, as just before we found a pair there was a singing White-throated Treecreeper calling from just above the road. As is often the case the Red-browed simply appeared, but thankfully they lingered for a while, clambering about on a selection of nearby trunks before eventually disappearing downslope, and showing off their rusty faces and dark crowns and white spotted chests and flanks to nice effect. On the way back up the road we stopped along the edge of a large cleared field, finding a hive of activity along the edge of the woods. Eastern Spinebill, Golden Whistler, Gray and Rufous Fantail, Superb and Red-backed Fairywrens and a busy flock of Striated Thornbills were all working the branches lit up in the evening sun. The views of the mountain ridges were superb, and in looking over the field we noticed a flock of foraging Sulphur-crested Cockatoos out on the grass with the cows. The parrots took off in a panic, scattering in all directions when an adult Wedge-tailed Eagle soared past on upturned wings, seemingly oblivious to the pandemonium that it was causing (but not perhaps oblivious to the various Torresian Crows, Magpies and Currawongs that were escorting it over to the next valley.

After dinner a few folk set out for a short drive to look for some of the areas nocturnal life. The conditions for night birding were perfect, with a relatively clear sky, no moonshine, cool but not outright cold temperatures and calm winds. We drove down the road and out to an area where I have had multiple sightings of Marbled Frogmouth over the years. Amazingly, soon after I started a bit of playback we heard a response, and soon after one individual flew in wonderfully, perching in a perfect position opposite our waiting torches and sitting on a small bare branch with drooped wings, puffed up feathers and a stare worthy of an American boxer trying to psyche out his opponent during the pre-match televised interview. This is undoubtedly the most difficult species of Frogmouth to see in Australia, with a fairly restricted range and more retiring habits than the other two species. We ended up walking away from the bird, which after calling and rocketing in had simply frozen in place! Some spotlighting a bit lower on the road revealed a calmly sitting Common Ringtail Possum and a few Red-necked Pademelons out on the lawns.

Our final morning around O’Reilly’s started much as the first, with a wheeling show of colourful species nearly at our fingertips. This time we also enjoyed excellent views of waddling Wonga Pigeons around the carpark which posed nicely for photos. We took a walk along the boardwalk trail and around part of the small botanic garden, enjoying repeated views of a nice array of by now familiar birds. We did manage to track down a male Paradise Riflebird at close range, with one participant even obtaining a fabulous image of the bird with its yellow mouth lining and green breast shield showing as it uttered its harsh song from atop a tree. The nearby Rose Robin was about as reticent as the previous day, although a few more folk saw it as it sang from a super canopy tree near the treetop walk. We bade farewell to this justifiably famous lodge and its ever-revolving flock of semi-tame birds a bit after 8 o’clock, trying to leave some birding time for the road down and the lowlands as we made our way back to the Brisbane Airport for our mid-afternoon flight on to Sydney. We didn’t get very far down the road though before stopping at a curve where a thrush had flown in front of the lead car. The thrush never reappeared, but the forested clearing that we found ourselves in was alive with birdlife. Here we (finally) found a sitting Shining Bronze-Cuckoo that perched overhead and then moved into some sunlit vines with its metallic emerald back glistening against the light brown vegetation. Here too a busy little flock of Striated Thornbill, Silvereye and Brown Gerygone were working the canopy, and we could hear both Riflebird and Pitta sounding off from the adjacent forest (both of these species seemed particularly vocal in the area this year). A bit further down the road we stopped at a site which has regularly produced some interesting birds for us on past tours. This year was no exception, with a striking pair of White-eared Monarchs foraging and calling from the tops of leafy midstory branches. This somewhat scarce species has a large range across a narrow band of eastern Australia but is nowhere common, and we record it on slightly less than half of our Eastern Tours. After a restroom stop at the bottom of the hill we travelled a short way to the East, to check out a long-standing colony of Bell Miners. We parked at the normal spot, but when we exited the vans we could hear their telltale ringing notes coming from behind a fenced in municipal area on the opposite side of the road to where they have generally been for years. It took a bit of driving around to locate a few more birds in a more accessible spot, but once we did, we were soon looking at several Miners in the trees above us. These olive-green honeyeaters, with bright orange legs and bill, and loud pinging calls are often extremely frustrating to see well as they call from the mid to upper canopy. A colonial, cooperatively breeding species that specializes on feeding on the concentrated and sugar rich waste of Scale Insects called Lerps, Bell Miners are aggressive towards competitive species, chasing other species out of their large colony sites. This makes the Bell Miner society effectively an agrarian one, with the birds tending their lerp colony and preventing unwanted pests. We made one more stop enroute to Brisbane, at a small pond near the town of Tambourine, where we were able to quickly connect with a Tawny Grassbird in a patch of dense grasses along the pond edge. The bird initially flew past us and then perched up on some taller grass stalks, showing off its long tail and namesake tawny-russet crown to excellent effect. It was to be our final new bird for the wonderfully birdy state of Queensland, as soon enough we were in the air bound for Australia’s largest city, ready to open our accounts for a New South Wales birdlist. The Sydney airport was a little bit disorganized due to ongoing construction, so it took longer than expected to secure our vans, but we arrived at our hotel in plenty of time for dinner, ready to see what Royal National Park would offer us the following day.

We spent the first full day exploring the large and wild Royal National Park, just a little south of metropolitan Sydney. The first National Park created in Australia (and second designated in the world), Royal encompasses 15000 hectares of coastal heath, dry forest, and patches of temperate rainforest in the valleys and boasts an amazing diversity of bird (and plant) life. Our local contact in Sydney lives close to the park, and has spent decades exploring the various sub habitats. Acting on his suggestion we spent the morning walking down Lady Carrington Drive, an old roadbed that follows a meandering stream and passes through patches of more humid forest. Some recent and highly political machinations between local residents and the road authority has resulted in a lowering of the river level above the dam. This has left substantial exposed shoreline and little islands in the river, and certainly affected the local wildlife. Our primary goal for the walk was to locate a Superb Lyrebird, and although we had to walk a bit further than normal, we were eventually able to track a pair of these incredible birds down. Similar in size and overall habits to the Albert’s Lyrebirds that we saw around O’Reilly’s these Superbs are perhaps even better acoustic mimics, and also possess an even finer and more impressive tail. 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. Our pair this year was initially along the creek below the trail, but after crossing up onto a rocky ledge above us the male stopped for a lengthy preen. We watched him, and his partner who was foraging right on the road for at least a half-hour! At one point Steve imitated a call of a Sooty Owl and without skipping a beat the male repeated the noise back perfectly, occasionally repeating it thoughtfully afterwards as it chuckled to itself. It was simply the best experience I can remember having with this iconic species, and well worth the extended walk! Though it was near the end of our nearly month-long set of tours through the country new bird species were still popping up throughout the morning. New Holland Honeyeaters and Little Wattlebirds were common companions down the trail, soon becoming almost a distraction when they appeared in denser cover. Golden Whistlers seemed to be almost everywhere, giving a musical counterpart to the errant and raucous yarks from passing Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and the maniacal cackling of distant Kookaburra. Fairly early in the morning walk we were thrilled to spot a few pairs of Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos slowly flying down the river above us. These huge and impressive birds, with their bright yellow tail flashes, and mournful eerily gull-like calls are utterly captivating. Along the Hacking River we spotted loafing Macquarie Turtles and swimming Australian Water Dragons, and a nice mix of waterbirds including three cormorants, and perched Azure and Sacred Kingfishers. We tracked down Green Catbird, calling Black-faced Monarch, Spotted Pardalote and Topknot Pigeons. Understory birds put on a good showing as well, with Brown and Striated Thornbills, Gray Fantails and two small family groups of Variegated Fairywrens ogled in turn. The car park held a continuous array of Maned Duck including several family groups with fuzzy young in tow, Laughing Kookaburra, Little Corella, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Rainbow Lorikeets, all absurdly tame and eminently photographable. It was a good stroll, managed mostly before the day became too hot, and one in which we were able to see a few new birds and bid a fond (almost) farewell to a host of birds that had become our near daily companions over the month.

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, a family group of Australian Swamphen and a healthy crop of Australian Magpies and lurking Laughing Kookaburras. The birds here have always had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the dining area, but during the covid years they seem to have grown even more attentive to the arrival of food. The long suffering waitstaff have to bring baskets to cover the food, and another table experienced a lightning-fast aerial swoop by a Kookaburra just as the waiter was delivering the plate to the table! I suppose dining outside in Australia always carries a bit of risk that one will end up sharing a meal with the local wildlife. After polishing off our meals we left the park behind and Steve took us to a nearby site where he keeps tabs on a pair of Powerful Owls. These huge owls seem to enjoy the suburban/forest interface, feasting on possums, and the occasional cats that thrive in the fire-suppressed and flowering-plant rich gardens. Along a small creek we enjoyed lengthy views of two large chicks and a watchful adult in the shade of a small creekside tree. Their massive talons and baleful stares certainly made us believe that they are well named. In the more open part of the park we found a nesting Tawny Frogmouth up on a heavy horizontal branch. Although not quite as large or supercilious as their Papuan cousins Tawnies are still big birds, with an amazingly effective camouflage. The park was also hosting our first Gray Butcherbirds, nesting Rainbow and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets and a group very irate Noisy Miners that had seemingly found an unseen (to us at least) Possum or snake that was up in a tree hollow. We then headed to a nearby public garden, where a fairly swanky wedding party had just wrapped up. Here, amid the glamorously dressed wedding guests and caterers 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. 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.

Our final birding stop for the day was quite close to our hotel, at a weedy little park just off the golf course, and in sight of the international runway. We found the trail to be choked with fruiting blackberry bushes, which were attracting a lot of birds. Most were exotic species (much like the blackberry itself), with flocks of European Starling, several striking Red-whiskered Bulbuls, and a few Spotted Doves and Common Myna. But a few native species were about as well, including particularly approachable Crested Pigeons and Silvereye. In the small section of mangroves near the ponds we found a chattering flock of Yellow Thornbills, a handsome bright yellow species with an almost orange face and throat. In the small wetland pond we found Pied Stilts and White-faced Herons hunting in the shallows, and a few more Chestnut Teal. The adjacent municipal park gave us some flowering trees with a few bulky Red Wattlebirds foraging in the blossom, as well as our first Yellow-rumped Thornbills and a flock of Galah out on the grassy lawn, and a Long-necked Turtle and Little Egret foraging in the drainage canal. For a small urban park, it was quite a productive stop!

The coastal sections of New South Wales had been battered by near-constant high winds and rain for nearly a week prior to our visit. By some minor miracle the three days that we were birding in the region were comparatively calm. The ocean swells though were still significant but given several discussions with the Sydney-based pelagic birding organizers and the boat captain we decided to make a go of it, waiting until our second full day for the swells to subside as much as possible. The seas were indeed still rough, with an appreciable cross swell, revealing the fallacy of the “pacific” part of the Pacific Ocean. Our trusty commercial sport fishing boat left from the Rose Bay Ferry terminal early in the morning, with great views of the magnificent Sydney Harbour (including the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and a new naval aircraft carrier) as we left port. Just after passing through the somewhat narrow harbour mouth our first shearwaters began passing by, with many Wedge-tailed Shearwaters lingering behind the boat as we tossed out chum. Using their languid flight style as a base we soon worked out the quite different flight styles of Short-tailed and Fluttering Shearwaters as they zipped through the flock. Having a steady trickle of chum jettisoned from the stern kept the flocks interested and close, which really facilitates close study. While watching the first groups of birds at leisure a flurry of excitement was created by our first Black-browed Albatross that glided up our wake and circled the boat several times, making the shearwaters look like toys under its outspread wings. We continued to motor out to deeper water, heading towards the continental shelf about 25 miles offshore. Near the shelf break we spotted a small group of Humpback Whales that seemed extremely agitated, with one or two animals surging forward and rolling over in the water, and the entire group very tightly pressed together. With them were some dolphins which Steve surmised were likely offshore Bottlenose Dolphins. We were able to watch the whales for a bit before they swam away at an impressive speed, but never were able to determine what was causing them to be quite so agitated. As we dropped off the shelf, we lost most of the shearwaters, and began to spot passing Pterodromas, first a distant Gray-faced and then several close passes from Providence Petrels. Soon afterwards a couple of Shy Albatrosses drifted by, stopping in the wake to pick up pieces of fish skin dropped by our faithful and very persistent chum master. A short while later we arrived at the Brown Seamount and cut the engines, chumming and drifting with the stiff current (and annoyingly disorganized water) while birds came in to sit on the water near our stern, or to lazily fly around the boat. A couple of Grey-faced (a recent split from Great-winged Petrel) and several dozen Providence Petrels gave extended flight views as they cruised around. The Albatross numbers climbed quickly, with over a dozen Shy and four or five Black-browed scrapping over the choicer bits of fish. The Shys were graceful if a bit imposing birds and were noticeably larger than the adjacent Black-browed, making quite the impression as they paddled around the back of the boat. While trying to hold steady in the washtub-like ocean conditions was tricky the views were truly excellent. After a half-hour or so we were still attracting new birds to the boat, with one incoming albatross banking right off the stern and revealing a thick black leading edge to the wing. Paired with the brighter yellow bill edges and darker grey head it was apparent that we had a Buller’s Albatross with us; a somewhat unexpected species this late into the spring, and a write-in for the tour’s cumulative list. Careful scrutiny of the assembled birds due to the excitement of the Buller’s also revealed a young Campbell Albatross with honey-coloured eyes in amongst the Black-browed! A four-albatross day is nothing to sneeze at, especially as we were still (barely) in sight of land! We bobbed along with the slick for a while longer, taking in a few Wilson’s Storm Petrels that were pattering on the chum slick behind us, with two or three birds visible at a time. Eventually the new species petered out and we tired of the boats irregular motions and elected to head back a bit earlier than initially planned. Thankfully the winds and waves came into alignment for the ride back, and we stopped along the coast a bit south of the Heads to look at a couple of loafing New Zealand Fur Seals that were stretched out on rocks at the base of the cliffs.

As most participants were leaving the following afternoon, or indeed staying on for a few days extra after the tour to explore the delights of Sydney (or other parts of Australia) we decided to offer a bit of birding for the last morning. This half-day outing was stretched a bit into the late afternoon as the various flights allowed for a bit more time in the field than usual. Looking at the available new birds in the Sydney region and discussing some of the species that we normally would look for on a return trip to Royal National Park (which Steve indicated were not particularly likely this year due to the dry conditions) we decided to head a bit inland to the valley below the Blue Mountains. This marked only the second time that we have wandered inland from Sydney on the final day, and over the course of the morning we added an amazing four species to the trip’s cumulative list, which now stretches back over thirteen trips! Our first stop was at a small but lovely city park along the Georges River in Southwest Sydney. Here we walked along the forested trail that runs parallel to the river, with sandstone ridges forming cliffs in the understory. On one of these ridges, we successfully located a Rockwarbler bouncing along the boulders. This is an attractive species, with a bright rusty breast and expressive tail. Rockwarblers are aberrant thornbills and are endemic to the eastern half of New South Wales. With long bills that they use to pry into cliff cavities, and a preference for ledges and rock rubble they seem an ecological equivalent to our Rock or Canyon Wrens. The park was filled with flowering trees, and a seemingly ceaseless stream of lorikeets (both Rainbows and Scaly-breasted), and a pair of White-faced Herons that were out on the sports pitch doing an excellent job of playing a live chess game with the roving pack of tiny dogs enjoying a bit of Sunday morning exercise. We then travelled a bit further out to the west, to spend the majority of the morning birding around the sprawling (and excellent) National Botanic Gardens in Mount Annan. As we pulled in several folks were wandering around a line of tall Eucalyptus trees along a creekline surrounded by open and dry grassland. A nearby pond provided an easy parking spot, but before we could even check to see what the photographers were tracking, we heard a singing Australian Reed Warbler calling from the edge of the small reedbed. To our surprise the bird (and several others) were all readily visible, hopping around in the open in a most uncharacteristic fashion for these often skulky warblers. While watching the warblers we also spotted an Australian Crake that was also out in the open, seemingly oblivious to the dozen-plus birders ogling it from only a few meters away. It was hard to tear ourselves away from these two often cryptic species that were parading around in the sunshine, but Jake called on the radio to let us know that the treeline was hosting a veritable buffet of parrots that were prospecting nest cavities in the tall trees. Of particular interest to us were the pair of Musk Lorikeets, a single Eastern Rosella and several pairs of Red-rumped Parrots, all of which are species that we do not regularly encounter on the trip. Striated Pardalotes were here too, busily displaying to one another as they chattered about potential nest sites, occasionally wheeling around and landing with quivering wings. We watched the assembled activity for a while and then wandered back to the pond, where a local birder that we had been chatting with indicated that a couple of Baillon’s Crakes had also recently been spotted. It didn’t take us long before we found one along the edge of the reedbed foraging in amongst the last of the reeds. Another write-in species for the tour, this is an attractive small rail, with brownish-bronzy stripes across its back and a lovely slate-grey body, and while it was not quite as brazen as its Australian Spotted Crake cousins it was nonetheless just as satisfying. The gardens held a lot more birds for us, with a male White-winged Triller, nesting Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants and Australasian Grebes and, just as we were departing, yet another write-in for the tour; White-winged Chough! These very communal and odd birds superficially resemble crows, but their odd gait, red eyes, weak looking downward curved bills and small heads belie that comparison. Extended family groups of Choughs assist in building their large and perfectly formed adobe nests, and the flocks forage together with near constant chatter between individuals, occasionally even raiding adjacent territorial families in a bid to “kidnap” young unrelated birds to press into service looking after their own young. On our way to lunch in the bustling little town of Camden we swung a bit further south and out into a more pastoral landscape in the Menangle Valley, here we picked up a small flock of Long-billed Corellas (also a write-in), marking our 11th species of parrot for the morning!

After lunch we headed to the airport to drop off the participants that had flights, and those remaining decided to make one more nearby stop before heading to the hotel and closing out the tour list. We had a very enjoyable hour or so walking around the several well vegetated ponds in the parks center, finding a surprise Latham’s Snipe tucked into the shade of a pondside tree, a huge Long-finned Eel snaking its way under the boardwalk, and a nice selection of more common Sydney birds that by now all of the participants were identifying with ease. A Lewin’s Rail remained stubbornly hidden in its chosen dense patch of reeds, but it called a few times, giving us two-and-a-half species of rails for the day! The park held a good selection of dragonflies too, keeping the couple of participants who were keen on their odonates busy, and adding a few more species to the triplist. With the warm and sunny conditions, couples strolling by, walking their dogs or groups of kids putting the finishing touches on their next YouTube or TikTok sensation it was easy to see why Australia’s relaxed and outdoor-oriented lifestyle is so appealing. All too soon it was time to pack up the binoculars and head to the airport as we wrapped up a fantastic 13-day tour through Queensland and coastal New South Wales over a dinner at a local Thai restaurant.

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 25 October 2023