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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Australia: Victoria and Tasmania

Plains-wanderer, Pardalotes, and Penguins

2022 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The winter and spring of 2022 was an especially cool and wet one, with much of Victoria and New South Wales experiencing periodic widespread flooding and lower than average temperatures. Our tour certainly experienced the effects, with several of our starting days blusterier and rainier than we would have liked, and waterbird numbers to be generally low due to their dispersal across the landscape. Nevertheless, we had a thoroughly enjoyable trip, with 260 species of birds and 17 species of mammals. The tour passes through a remarkably varied terrain, from the stunning coastal headlands and white sand beaches along the southern coast, often with dense heath covering the coastal slopes to dry deciduous woodland, riverine forest and grass savannahs and the dense arid mallee scrub forests, endless agricultural fields and inland lakes, and the temperate rainforests and rocky intertidal zones of Tasmania. The breadth of habitats and diversity of backdrops brings with it a corresponding diversity of birds. During our final meal we reminisced about our favourite birds and places, and virtually every place was picked by at least one participant as a standout. The beauty of many of Australia’s birds cannot be overstated, with an embarrassment of rich and boldly coloured birds to choose from. Sprightly and jewel-like Fairy-Wrens, whose tiny bodies seem to define the colour blue were mentioned as favourites by many. But with birds like Plains-Wanderer, Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, Spotted Pardalote, Chestnut Quailthrush, Mallee Emu-Wren, elegant Hooded Plovers and Banded Stilts, striking Sooty Oystercatcher and a bewildering array of Honeyeaters to choose from the task of picking a favorite proved difficult for most. The mammals were superlative as well, with several sightings of Echidna, five Eastern Quolls, and a couple of seemingly frozen Fat-tailed Dunnarts among the best finds. As always, the many welcoming and friendly Australians, comfortable lodges and excellent (if often excessively large) meals were honorable mentions as well. I very much look forward to returning to this corner of Australia in 2024!

IN DETAIL: We met in the late afternoon of the first day for a short visit to the nearby Woodlands Historic Park. This afforded us an opportunity to get to know a few of the more common birds around Melbourne, as a bit of a primer for the first full day of birding on day 2. Woodlands Historic Park is a state park preserving an old homestead site and tract of the most southerly Victorian grassy woodland open forest. The late afternoon was quite overcast, making the lighting conditions less than optimal, but still, as soon as we were out of the van new bird species began to appear. The greeting party included our first Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and an inquisitive Little Ravens making their presence knows with their raucous calls. Gray Fantails danced around the shrubs and soon we picked out a few Striated Pardalotes and a couple of pairs of Superb Fairywrens, with the brilliantly blue and black males a definite hit. As is generally the case over much of the country, we found parrots to be a prevalent part of the avifauna. Although most people might most associate parrots with the thick jungles of the Americas it is here in the more open forests of Australia that the family really shine. Pairs of Eastern Rosellas were perching up above the trail, showing off their red, blue, green, white, and yellow feathers even with the poor lighting and looking somewhat like they were designed by a group of schoolchildren with an imagination and full selection of crayola crayons. Several pairs of Rainbow Lorikeets, clad in a virtual color-wheel of reflective hues perched atop dead snags trying to outdo the Rosellas in the flare department. Not all the birds were brightly coloured, with several perched-up Black-faced Cuckooshrikes, a young Gray Butcherbird and a female Australian Golden Whistler popping into view to provide a bit of grounding to the colourscape. Mobs of Eastern Grey Kangaroos loped along in the understory, watching our progress with interest, and occasionally bounding away as we approached. We opened up our account of honeyeaters with numbers of garrulous Red Wattlebirds, a few perky White-plumed and a single responsive Brown-headed all showing well. The afternoon waned on us fairly quickly, with the heavy skies bringing the day to a close a tad earlier than we had expected. We headed back to the hotel, watching little flocks of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, and the odd Australian Magpie or Willie Wagtail along the road edge – we had arrived in Australia indeed!

For our first full day of the trip, we elected to head south of Melbourne. Our first stop was at the headlands at Point Addis; a coastal bluff near the beginning of the world-famous Great Ocean Rd. We arrived to bright blue sky and sparkling sea, with mild spring temperatures and a few intrepid surfers coasting the swells below the point, a stark contrast to the previous afternoon! There was a steady offshore wind though, which was strong enough to keep bush-bird activity down a bit and any passing seabirds pretty far out to the horizon. A few Australasian Gannets and Great Cormorants and one distant Black-browed Albatross were spotted in the scopes, but we soon turned our attentions towards the trails that wind through the dense coastal heathland that covers most of the point. Sprightly little Superb Fairywrens and our first Welcome Swallows and White-browed Scrubwrens were around the carpark as we set off down the trail. Our main target for the area was Rufous Bristlebird. The Bristlebirds resemble an odd cross of a Laughingthrush and a Thrasher, and are one of the several ancient endemic passerine families that form the basal clade of the passerines. The three extant species are all range-restricted in scattered coastal heathlands around South and East Australia and are generally hard to see well. We heard several birds sounding off from the depths of the nearly impenetrable heath, and had two birds cross the trail or road but unfortunately were not able to study either of them at length. Since the species occurs in a few other spots on our itinerary we decided to cede the day, enjoying a couple of pairs of Brown Thornbills, several more chattering White-browed Scrubwrens and our first dazzling Crimson Rosellas before heading inland to a more upland patch of heath. We found a somewhat sheltered track leading down from the road into a nice patch of heathland with a short treed overstory and scattered grass trees. Here we again found the bird life subdued, although a pair of attractive White-eared Honeyeaters showed very well along the path. Our hoped-for Southern Emu-Wrens also performed well, with a pair of birds bouncing back and forth in the scrub not too far off the trail. These charismatic little birds can be a real devil to see, but our views were good, with the male repeatedly crossing a small open section of heath, and occasionally clambering up to near eye level, showing off its blue throat and long filamentous tail. As we walked back up to the van, we stopped to admire our first Wedge-tailed Eagle as it soared on uplifted wings along the forested ridge above us. A furtive pair of Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens shot across the trail but refused to pop up for us, not at all an uncommon occurrence for this skulky species. Just as we reached the van a Nankeen Kestrel floated overhead. The first part of this birds’ common name refers to the yellowish-brown colour of its back, harkening back to the coloration of the cotton workclothes worn by (mostly) Chinese railroad workers during the construction of the countries trans-continental railroad.

We took lunch at a local bakery along the coastal road, which provided a good introduction to the world of Australian meat pies and the intricacies of ordering Australian coffee. As we loaded back up into the car the rains started in earnest, and rather than deal with poor weather conditions around Werribee we decided to spend the afternoon checking some small wetlands around the city of Geelong. At a site in Ocean Grove we walked around a pretty lake surrounded by some quite opulent houses. The area proved an excellent introduction to some of the regions more common waterbirds. Some floating structures out in the middle of the lake were hosting Little Black, Little Pied and Great Cormorants, as well as hulking Australian Pelicans and the odd Dusky Moorhen or Eurasian Coot. The pond margins held a few Australasian Grebes, little family groups of Maned Duck and Black Swan, and a few ducks including Pacific Black, and both Grey and Chestnut Teal. The surrounding trees and lawns held Noisy Miners (living up to their name), as well as our first Spotted Doves, Masked Lapwing and nesting Galahs. Perhaps the most memorable sighting here though was the loafing flock of Royal Spoonbills that allowed quite close approach, showing off their shaggy crests, yellow lore spot and glossy black heads and bills to excellent effect. We finished the day with a short stroll (just as the rain tapered off) through the Balyang Sanctuary, which sits along the forested banks of the Borwon River. Although the area is surrounded by the Geelong suburbs it is quite a birdy spot, with a nesting colony of Little Pied Cormorants in the central ponds. On our walk we found an Australian Reed Warbler clambering around in some emergent grasses, watched a White-faced Heron that was hunting from a low bridge, ogled some very obliging Rainbow Lorikeets that were sitting on some low fenceposts along the roadside and our first Australian Darter, Crested Pigeon and Eurasian Blackbird. It was a nice way to wrap up our first day, which despite the windy and sometimes rainy conditions still produced sixty species of birds and some stupendous coastal scenery.

The following day dawned overcast and quite windy, again not the ideal conditions for birding. We dedicated the entire morning to exploring the sprawling open fields, marshes and shorelines that are contained in the magnificent Western Treatment Plant. This site is generally known to the birding world as the Werribee ponds, and is arguably the single best location in all of Victoria for overall bird diversity and abundance. At times, especially when much of the continent is in drought, the wetlands can support mind-numbing numbers of waterbirds, all waiting for the rains to return which will prompt them to flood away from the coast and into the seasonally wet interior. As the winter of 2022 was (and was continuing) to be a cool and quite wet winter we found the area to be devoid of throngs of near countless waterfowl and waders, but there was still an amazing array of birdlife to be seen. Before arriving at the beginning of the ponds we stopped to admire several Banded Lapwings in a short grass paddock near the entrance. This attractive white, black, red and yellow plover is a nomadic species that is scarce throughout its range and one that occurs only sporadically around Melbourne. Once we reached the first pond, we had a rapid introduction to the varied waterfowl of Australia. Pairs of stately Black Swans made a great example of how things in the land down under feel at once instantly familiar but at the same time simply bizarre. All black swans with candy apple red bills and bright white wings? Flocks of Chestnut Teal and a few Australian Shoveler dotted the shoreline that was also attracting herds of bright purple Australasian Swamphens. As we scanned the area with a more discerning eye we picked out a group of four silvery-grey Cape Barren Geese that were feeding out in the grassy meadow near the back of the pond. These odd geese are of an uncertain taxonomic placement, but are likely most closely related to the extinct geese of New Zealand or perhaps the shelducks. The have the somewhat unique capacity to drink salt or brackish water, which permits them to survive on small islands around the Bass Straight that have no freshwater sources where most of the species breeds. In recent years pairs have begun to use more inland locations with suitable short grasses, and their population appears to be on the increase. In the marshier section just along the road we admired Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills foraging in the shallower water, and a couple of perky Golden-headed Cisticolas that would occasionally perch along the roadside fences. Despite the buffeting winds nearly a dozen Eurasian Skylarks were floating around above us, providing an exuberant aural backdrop to the visual birding bonanza. The dry paddock on the opposite side of the road was hosting a cooperative pair of Nankeen Kestrels, and in the distance a pair of stately Brolgas that we were able to get quite close to before they moved further off from the road.

We made our way further into the complex, birding a section of impoundments known as the T-Section ponds. Here we found excellent comparison views of Australasian and Hoary-headed Grebes, a few bulky Musk Ducks, a loggerheaded duck with a stiff tail, heavy black body and dangling black wattle that is surely one of the oddest species of waterfowl on the planet. One of the ponds was hosting about a dozen breeding plumaged Whiskered Terns hunting low over the water; their dark bellies contrasting greatly with their pale white wings. All along the dike roads we encountered wheeling flocks of hungry swallows that were largely grounded in the unseasonable weather. Most were Welcome Swallows, but there were also good numbers of Fairy Martins, a sharply patterned small swallow with a distinctive reddish crown and bright white rump. In one of the pond basins we found some loafing migrant shorebirds, including numbers of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a few Curlew Sandpipers (with one still largely in its sharp breeding plumage), a couple of Common Greenshank and one or two Red-necked Stints. The marsh edges were patrolled by the occasional Swamp Harrier, or Black-shouldered, Whistling or Black Kite and the dike road hosted a few Australian Pipits and a seemingly endless supply of Australian Magpies, Little Ravens and Magpie-Larks. Eventually we moved over to a different section of the wetlands, where we quickly connected with a cooperative (amazingly so given the winds, which by this point in the morning were strong enough to make opening the car doors difficult) pair of Striated Fieldwren. These streaky and largely terrestrial thornbill-relatives can be difficult to pin down even in perfect weather, so to have a pair perching up on grass tussocks just off the road in howling winds was a real treat. Along the coast we found our first Pied Cormorants (our fourth species of cormorant for the day), a few Pied Oystercatchers, passing flocks of Silver Gulls as well as pair of frustratingly distant small terns, one of which was an Australian Fairy Tern and the other likely a Little, but both were simply too far away to firmly identify.

After lunch just a few miles west of the ponds (complete with ridiculously large but tasty portions) we headed a bit to the south to visit the coast and salt ponds near Avalon beach. If anything, the conditions were even windier, but we still managed to drum up some good birds. Out in the shallow evaporation basins we found impressive numbers of waders, with some flocks numbering in the hundreds wheeling around in the distance before settling down in the sheltered side of the dikes. Among the hordes of Curlew and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers we found dozens of smartly marked Pied Stilts and a flock of over 150 Red-necked Avocets. Closer to the road we picked out three Red-capped Plovers and a single Ruddy Turnstone and along the shoreline we spotted a passing Caspian Tern and some distant Australasian Gannets. The rain started to fall in earnest, so we took our cue and started the drive back up to Melbourne, where we dropped off Susan and then continued a further East through the vineyard filled Yarra valley and on up towards the well-forested Yarra Ranges and our base for the next two nights in Healesville.

The unsettled weather continued the next day, with every hour seeming to bring new conditions, rain, drizzle, sunshine, wind, and even briefly hail made for quite a dynamic day! We began with a pre-breakfast visit to the nearby Badger Weir Picnic Area, surrounded by light fog that was swirling around the towering Mountain Ash trees, a rushing creek, tree ferns, Nothofagus Beech Trees and a multitude of other Eucalypt species. In the car park we stopped to admire our first species of Australian Robin, with a cooperative pair of Eastern Yellow Robin perched along the roadside for us. Although they were a bit damp and bedraggled looking we could still make out their bright yellow underparts and perky demeanor. Little and Long-billed Corellas and several pairs of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were making their presence known in the canopy, with pairs of each spotted investigating potential nesting cavities in the larger broken trees. A cyclone hit the area back in 2016, resulting in quite a bit of damage to the forest around the basin. The storm knocked down trees and snapped off lots of upper branches, creating lots of nesting hollows for parrots. We found the understory to be rather quiet, but with some patience we teased out good views of lots of Gray Fantail, Striated and Brown Thornbill, White-browed Scrubwren and a male Rose Robin that stayed stubbornly above eye-level and backlit, preventing us from really admiring its rosy-pink breast. As we returned to the car we were treated to eye-level views of a pair of Spotted Pardalotes, a jewel-like little sprite of a bird with entirely too much pattern and colour packed into its diminutive plumage. A perched and (for a spinebill) motionless Eastern Spinebill put in a good appearance as well. This is a particularly flashy honeyeater, small and hyperactive, and coloured in a complicated array of black, bronze, buff and white feathers.

After breakfast we spent a bit of time birding around the margins of the resort clearing, finding a very cooperative White-throated Treecreeper that remained frozen on a low trunk for several minutes, a calling Australian Raven and a small and busy flock of very vocal White-naped Honeyeaters before we set off again up in the more montane forests around Mount Leonard and the Toolangi State Forest. Our visit was complicated by a rally car race that was rather annoyingly occurring on the main track through the forest, with the small but powerful cars and their entourages making the forest quite a bit less peaceful than usual. Nevertheless, we had some excellent bird sightings through the rest of the morning, with some of the highlights including a couple of pairs of Flame Robins; a beautiful species with an orangey-red underside and throat, slate gray back and white striped wings which really make them stand out like beacons against the dense green forest background. A few more Eastern Yellow Robins and a much more cooperative pair of Rose Robins completed quite a colourful and charismatic trio of Robin species. We also managed quick but good views of a pair of calling Eastern Whipbirds that were lurking in the wet understory, found a brilliantly yellow, black and white male Australian Golden Whistler that was perched up in the mid story, and a very cooperative “Eastern” Crested Shriketit that lingered above us for quite some time. These uncommon birds can easily be missed on tours, as the birds tend not to vocalize much and are somewhat lethargic as they feed by stripping bark strips from the canopy looking for insects underneath. Neither a shrike nor a tit, their bushy crests and bold black and white face pattern vaguely resemble an oversized chickadee, and their huge bill (more akin to a Cardinal’s than a Shrike’s) is hooked on the end like a shrike.

We took a latish lunch at a bakery back in Healesville, happy to see that the weather was finally improving. It’s amazing how different the landscape can look under full sun after two straight days of heavy skies. We took advantage of the weather to head over to the small park that lies below the huge Maroondah Reservoir. Here the birds are extremely habituated to people and we spent the first fifteen minutes just a few feet from the van, watching a busy mass of Sulphur-crested Cocaktoos, Little and Long-billed Corellas, Noisy Miners, Eastern and Crimson Rosellas and a single Common Bronzewings parading around on the lawns and sitting within arm’s reach. A saunter around the perimeter of the park revealed our main quarry for the afternoon as we found an active Satin Bowerbird bower tucked up in one of the small patches of brush. Generally, when birders think of bowerbirds or birds of paradise they think of New Guinea, but both bird families are represented in Australia as well. Rather than advertising their fitness through intricate song or flashy plumage (though the purplish-black males with their impossibly violet eyes have flashy plumage in spades) male Bowerbirds are the architects of the avian world. Carefully constructing a short runway bordered by walls of small sticks and ending in a wide flat mat lined with dried grass and straw these portly birds then decorate the mat with all manner of blue objects. Naturally a rare colour, blue used to be restricted to certain fruits or ephemeral flowers, and amassing and curating those hard to find objects would have made a Satin Bowerbirds job as an interior decorator difficult. These days however people have introduced all sorts of perennially blue objects that the male birds can collect to set their potential mates hearts aflutter. Bottle tops, drinking straws, bits of plastic bags and the odd bright blue zip were carefully festooned around this bower. When we found the bower, the male was redecorating the area, but frustratingly he soon hopped off into the brush. A bit later he popped up briefly on a midstory branch, but it wasn’t until our second pass of the area that we had lengthy views of a bird; this time a green plumaged female or immature male. In some ways this is the more attractive plumage, as the lilac-coloured iris stands in good contrast to the neutral green and brown tones of the body. The adult male is truly snazzy in good light, but often looks just black from many angles. The park held good comparisons between Pied and Grey Currawongs, several haughty Laughing Kookaburras and a good number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos as well. At one point a large mob of several dozen ‘Roos came jumping towards us at a good clip, veering off and continuing past us in a quintessentially Australian scene. One large male lingered after the rest had disappeared, seemingly interested in our presence and trying to ascertain whether any of us wanted to challenge his authority. We didn’t. He soon hopped off in a flurry of burly and sinewy muscle, covering 10+ feet with each leaping bound. The skies began to rapidly darken and peals of thunder were audible in the distance, so after a bit more time ogling the tame parrots around the carpark we headed out, bound once again for the forests around the Badger Weir Picnic Area.

On this occasion we drove slowly in, stopping near the end of the road in a very light drizzle (remarkably light given the intense rain and hail that had poured out of the dark clouds as we left the Reservoir. The break in the rain seemed to lighten the mood of the local parrots, who were quite vocal and evident around the clearing. After a minute or two watching the many white Cockatoos that were screeching about we heard the odd creaky door like flight calls of a pair of Gang-gangs. Thankfully the birds came right in, perching in one of the central trees in the clearing, and remaining for twenty minutes or so. The cherry-red headed male and curl crested female both put on a good show for us as they foraged in a budding tree and investigated a tree cavity in a nearby snapped off ash tree. This is arguably the most attractive of the many gaudy Cockatoos of Australia, and tends to be much less obvious than the more outgoing white species, and preferring dense and wet montane forests. As we were congratulating ourselves on a most excellent find (and our 5th species of Cockatoo for the day) we heard the gull-like haunting cries of a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo coming from upslope. Amazingly three of these huge, long tailed birds came floating through the clearing overhead, and proceeded to perch a few times along the edge of the woods. We decided that two stunning species of parrots showing off for us was a fantastic way to cap the day, so after the Yellow-taileds flew off we headed back to the lodge for a short break before dinner in town. We had hoped to get some owling in after dinner, but the rains returned and were strong and steady enough to preclude any real hope at seeing any active or vocal owls. We tried a few spots though, and even with the poor weather did find a single black and white Greater Glider clambering around in a tall mountain ash.

The next morning, we made a short pre-breakfast return to the park below Maroondah Reservoir. This allowed us a second visit to the active Satin Bowerbird bower, this time under much sunnier conditions. When we arrived, the male was perched up in a nearby tree, but soon he dropped down to the display area to sort out the perfect position for his various treasures. Nearby some young male Eastern Grey Kangaroos were busily practicing their boxing skills; sparring with each other in a casual way, and occasionally rearing up on their tails to kick out at their rivals. While we photographed the mammal show a few participants lingered by the bower and were treated to a full-on display from the male bowerbird when a female dropped in for a visit. The recent rains had filled the reservoir to capacity, and the resultant outflow had turned into quite a loud and impressive waterfall that was cascading off the lip of the dam in a rushing torrent.

We headed back to the hotel to pack up and have breakfast, and then, bidding our host farewell, drove back up towards Mount Leonard for another visit to the Toolangi State Forest. This time we were blessed with some sunshine, and with a decided lack of rally cars. We found the area much richer for birds as well, with roadside flocks including White-throated Treecreeper, Eastern Yellow Robin, White-browed Scrubwren and Australian Golden Whistler. We took a short walk down a side-road that leads to a large clearing in the woods. Here we soon heard the unmistakable song of a displaying Superb Lyrebird that was calling a bit downslope from the clearing. We found a decent overlook spot and after a bit of waiting were treated to quick views of the bird scampering through the thick undergrowth. For such a large bird (ostensibly the largest species of passerine in the world) it moved at a surprising pace! Here too we spent a bit of time attempting to track down a calling Pilotbird, a large thornbill relative that frequents the dense understory of these wet forests. Although we did find one close to a road the impenetrable tree ferns and shrubs largely blocked our view (though a few participants did see motion, and two or three saw the whole bird briefly behind the greenery). After the clearing we went for a very pleasant walk along one of the rainforest discovery trails. Over the roughly kilometer long stretch of trail, which bordered a rushing forest stream lined with tree ferns, fallen logs and large patches of club mosses we picked up our first Large-billed Scrubwrens and a surprise Olive Whistler (a species which breeds in the area but that is generally quite unobtrusive in the understory) as well as a couple of very showy Golden Whistlers and a nice male Rose Robin. As by now the morning hours were waning, we headed back down to the main road. We were almost off the mountain when we spotted a male Superb Lyrebird quietly foraging on the grassy verge. It walked up the bank as another car passed and soon evaporated back in the understory, but our views were certainly an improvement on the earlier individual!

As we drove north, we crossed the foothills of the Great Dividing Range and entered an extensive swath of rolling cleared hills, with sheep and cattle farms, and small towns with names like Yea, Strathboogie, and Yarck that several participants remarked looked very much like parts of the eastern US or southern England; if not for the occasional road kill Kangaroo or field full of Cockatoos. After lunch in Yea, we took a small detour to look at a Bell Miner colony along a forested creek. 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 honeyeater that specializes on feeding on Lerps, which are the excretions of psyllid insects. Bell Miners aggressively chase away other competitive bird species, excluding them out of their large colony sites. This makes them effective farmers of the lerps, a unique arrangement in the bird world. We spent a bit of time watching the miners as they busily moved among their trees, occasionally dropping low enough for some photographic opportunities.

In the late afternoon we diverted a bit from our normal plan to check out a neighborhood near the small town of Glenrowan, where a few weeks prior to our tour a resident birder had found and documented an adult Regent Honeyeater in a small park. Regents are a critically endangered and stunning species, with an estimated population well below 1000 birds. Despite captive breeding and reintroduction efforts their prospects seem dim, as they are adapted to forage over hundreds of square mile during the course of a year, following the flowering cycles of local box ironwood trees. The once extensive box forests supported the population well, but with over 90% of the historic forest now cleared for agriculture and the remaining forest occurring in widely scattered small blocks the bird are unable to find consistent productive food sources. Several reports after the initial sighting had come back negative for the bird (and we didn’t find it either), but the visit was quite productive. Around the rather pretty neighborhood we found our first White-browed Babblers, Red-rumped Parrot, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Dusky Woodswallow and Scarlet Robins, as well as some cooperative Red-browed Firetails and a couple of pairs of largely yellow Crimson Rosellas. It was early evening by the time we pulled into our small hotel in the hamlet of Chiltern, so we took a bit of time to organize and then met up to head to dinner in the next town to the north (this being a Monday the only Chiltern restaurant was closed for the day). Over dinner we kept an eye on the overhead TV which was airing the Queen of Englands funeral; a memorable place to be watching such a momentous occasion from!

The next day dawned warm and sunny, and we soon set off for the nearby Bartley’s Paddock, a small clearing that is a locally famous birding patch filled with short golden wattle trees and ringed with tall Eucalypts laden with mistletoe. Upon exiting the car, we were surrounded by the raucous calls of dozens of Red Wattlebirds and Noisy Friarbirds that were busy up in the canopy. Seemingly never silent, and never still these two large honeyeaters became somewhat of a distraction to us given their abundance! Along the southern edge of the clearing, we encountered a heady mix of small birds that were busily foraging. Thornbills were particularly well represented, with Yellow, Striated, Brown and Buff-rumped all present and often in close proximity which allowed us to tease apart these similar birds. Gray Fantails were common here too, and we certainly enjoyed excellent views of our first Rufous Whistlers and a stunning male Mistletoebird that were sitting up in a bare tree overhead. Also eliciting enthusiastic approval was the large group of Silvereye that flew in to us at eye level, fairly shining in their buffy, yellow and moss green hues. Here too we tracked down some singing Western Gerygones as well, a species whose bouncy flute-like calls definitely outshine their very somber gray and brown plumage. The walk around the back of the paddock produced close views of Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze-Cuckoos, a few Fuscous and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and a couple of little groups of Weebill, Australia’s smallest bird species. Perhaps our most interesting sighting was that of our first flock of White-winged Choughs. 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 (in a more skilled fashion than I could manage with opposable thumbs), and the flocks forage together with near constant chatter between individuals.

After this whirlwind of new species, we stopped in back at the hotel to check out and then went a bit south of the motorway to bird a different section of the park. We made a short loop drive out to the rather off-puttingly named Cyanide Dam (the area was settled by gold miners and the processing of rock to extract the gold results in waste cyanide). The trees were largely not in blossom, but here and there we found the odd tree with some flower, and at each of these spots were a few hungry birds. We drove slowly with the windows down, listening for activity and scanning the understory. This proved a successful strategy, as just a few hundred meters into the drive we found a couple of cooperative Brown Treecreepers and two more Shining Bronze-Cuckoos that were intently hunting on the ground and seemingly oblivious to our presence. While watching the Treecreepers we detected the high buzzy callnotes of a Turquoise Parrot, and happily for us were able to follow them to a bare tree where they sat up nicely for us in the scope. These stunning little parrots are a rainbow of primary colours, with an especially bright blue reflective face and lovely reddish wing patch. They are small, and generally unobtrusive, preferring to feed quietly on the ground near the edges of inland forests between NE Victoria and the Queensland border. The Chiltern area serves as a bit of a stronghold for the species, but even here sightings cannot be guaranteed. The drive also produced excellent views of the rather staid Fuscous Honeyeater, the very flashy Yellow-Tufted Honeyeater and a small group of response Black-chinned Honeyeater. The floral show here was also interesting, with several species of small native orchids along the trail. After lunch at the Chiltern Bakery, we made a return visit to Bartey’s Paddock where we spotted a pair of high-flying White-browed Woodswallows soaring over the road. This is a generally nomadic species that occurs irregularly around the Chiltern area, and one that in any given year might be largely absent from the entirety of our tour itinerary. We were also soon successful in tracking down our hoped-for Speckled Warblers. This elegantly dressed thornbill relative is much brighter than the field guides suggest, and is yet another local specialty of the Chiltern area.

During the afternoon we made the drive north and west, crossing over the Murray River and into New South Wales and arriving in the small city of Deniliquin in the late afternoon. Over the two-hour drive we were sidetracked a few times, stopping to admire our first Apostlebirds, a portly relative of the White-winged Chough that are scarce in the area. With their seemingly overstuffed bodies and sweeping wide tail movements they somehow remind me of portly old country gentlemen lounging on a chaise; they are just missing their petty waistcoats and monocles. A bit further on we stopped to look at a perched roadside Australian Hobby that uncharacteristically did not flush off when we backed up. A few other short stops revealed pairs of Red-rumped Parrots and Galahs foraging in patches of roadside flowers, a few more White-winged Choughs that were attacking a compost pile with evident determination and our first close-up views of Australian Ravens. With all the stops we pulled into Deniliquin a bit late. Due to the forecasted heavy rains for the next day (which would have made it impossible to access the correct fields) we opted to head out in the early evening for our nocturnal expedition north of town for Plains Wanderer. We met up with Phil Maher, who is the world authority on this enigmatic species and who has been monitoring a small population of this cryptic and nocturnal bird out on the plains west of Deniliquin and showing them to grateful birders for decades. We drove out to the northwest of Deniliquin, quickly losing the riverine forests of the Edwards River and then soon after entering the open saltbush plains of the Hay Plain. Flocks of bright pink Galahs jumped off the road edge at our approach, and raptors including Australian Kestrel, Brown Falcon and Black and Black-shouldered Kites patrolled the road. A few Laughing Kookaburras and Pied Butcherbirds were perched on roadside wires, and little groups of Straw-necked Ibis dotted the occasionally flooded field.

As we drove onto the sheep station roads off the Cobb Highway we were thrilled to spot our first Emus dashing across the fields with their odd feathered skirts flouncing as they ran. The first group stopped when we did, and then proceeded to walk back towards us, apparently not knowing what to make of the vehicles. When we started the engines up again discretion got the better of them and they turned and ran. A bit further along we spotted an adult with four stripey chicks, indicating that the recent rains were proving a boon. In the late afternoon we found that Kangaroos were quite active, and we spent a bit of time looking at several Red Kangaroos, including many young Joeys and a couple of teenage males, as well as some distant Eastern Greys as they hopped (occasionally at an impressive speed) away at our approach.

Once at the appropriate field we wondered what about this patch of plains made the area special. Phil informed us that the birds prefer a certain mixed structure of grass, with the appropriate amount of open ground and native forb growth. We enjoyed a picnic dinner as the light faded from the overcast skies and then set off into the paddock on foot armed with cameras, flashlights and (in Phil’s case) a shiny new night vision monocular. The ground was level and firm, with a good amount of new plant growth. We would walk a hundred or so meters and then stop, allowing Phil to scan with his handy device that makes the body heat of hidden mammals and birds easy to spot against the cooler background. We walked for about an hour and a half, covering roughly a mile of ground and stopping to look at a couple of Fat-tailed Dunnart, a House Mouse, a few Australian Pipits and a pair of Stubble Quail along the way. The Dunnarts were particularly cute, as they remained frozen on the ground and allowed us excellent views. They are very small, pointy nosed marsupial carnivores that are likely quite common during boom conditions out on the plains, but without the aid of a night vision scope are very difficult to spot. As we neared the end of our loop walk back to the parked cars we struck gold, when Phil spotted a pair of Plains Wanderers that were hunkered down in a slightly taller patch of grasses. This is an oddly shaped bird, vaguely resembling a long-legged and necked buttonquail with a bill that resembles that of a young upland sandpiper and virtually no tail. On the female, a bright rufous/chestnut breast band and black and white speckled ascot add to its panache. We were able to approach to within just a few meters of the birds, who soon crouched down watching us without any obvious discomfort. Plains-wanderers have a “reversed” sex role, where the females call and display and the males incubate the eggs and look after the precocial young. This may be an adaptation that benefits the species as the females can produce a large number of eggs in a short time frame, thus rapidly increasing the overall population in times of plenty. The global population is hard to elucidate, given the difficulty of adequately surveying all the available habitat and of just detecting the birds. Without a doubt though their range has shrunk to a tiny fraction of its historical size, with overgrazing, invasive grasses, drought and habitat fragmentation all playing a role in their decline. Hopefully the rains of 2020, 2021 and 2022 after nearly two decades of sustained drought will help the local population bounce back. We watched the birds for a half-hour or so, and were thrilled to see the female do a dropped wing display (something that Phil had not witnessed before) and then headed back to the waiting cars. As the hour was decidedly late, we set off back to Deniliquin where we sank into a fully justified slumber after a full but terrific day.

The forecasted rains indeed did arrive overnight, so we opted for a later start to the following morning, giving folks a bit of a lie-in or chance to catch up on emails or laundry while we waited for the rain to taper off. It seemed an excellent plan as we awoke to quite hard and persistent rain. In the mid-morning we met, and although it was still lightly raining, we decided to go out to the south of town to spend a bit of time birding around the Red Gum and Black Box forests that are adjacent to the Edwards River. In contrast to much of the surrounding landscape the riverine forests are tall, with a largely closed canopy and open understory. These huge trees are impressive and very slow growing, with the largest individuals perhaps topping 1000 years old. Our principal (and very successful) goal of the morning was to obtain good views of some of the Superb Parrots that frequent the area. These endangered birds are sleek and electric green, with a brilliant yellow and red face and throat and very long graduated tail. Superb Parrots are largely confined to the Eastern and Central reaches of the Murray River and its tributaries as they nest in the large Red River Gums that line the riparian corridors. Even given the poor lighting under heavy overcast skies and light drizzle the views in the scope convinced us that this bird was well named. We also took a bit of time slowly birding down a dirt track that led out into some agricultural fields with copses of trees. Here we found several pairs of glowing Eastern Rosellas, our first Singing Honeyeater and Pied Butcherbirds of the trip, several large flocks of Long-billed Corella, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Galah, hunting Australian Kestrels and a perched Brown Falcon. With the rains persisting but forecast to finally cease in the early afternoon we headed back to Deniliquin for lunch and a short afternoon rest.

Meeting Phil again in the early afternoon we set off west into the beginning of the plains country, where shrubs and saltbushes begin to replace the larger trees that are closer to watercourses. At one point before we left the woods Phil noticed a roadside flash of gray, and when we turned around to investigate, we were happy to find a very vocal and cooperative pair of Jacky Winter (a small and largely grey robin with a smart-looking black and white tail) foraging along the edge of the trees. Here too were a few White-plumed Honeyeaters and some very active Brown Treecreepers. Our next stop was a quiet side road not too far from the town (really just a road junction) of Pretty Pine. By this point the rains had stopped, and bird activity had really begun to pick up as hungry birds emerged from their soggy refuges to start feeding. Near the beginning of the road, we stopped when we heard chattering fairywrens out in the bush. They proved to be a family group of White-winged Fairywrens, which included one dazzlingly beautiful male replete in its snow-white wings and electric blue body. They moved away from the road before everyone was able to see them at close enough range to truly enjoy the male’s colour, but his white wings shone out from the shrubs like a beacon. A bit further down the road we found Greater Bluebonnets to be quite common, with pairs sitting up on roadside wires or trees and several small groups foraging out in the adjacent fields. Although this species is not as gaudy as many Australian parrots its olive brown, blue, yellow and red tones are still beautiful. Close to the parrots we also picked out a somewhat bedraggled looking Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater sitting quietly in a small bush. This is a large and attractive species, with an apricot-coloured chest, baby-blue eyes, a pink bill and a nice array of black streaks across its chest and face. Here too we found a responsive Striped Honeyeater that was occasionally flying up and giving its rollicking whistled song.

We finished the afternoon birding a small patch of native scrub that Phil and others have painstakingly been revegetating for the past 20 years. In stark contrast to the conditions in 2018 during our last visit, where many of the plants looked half-dead and the ground mostly bare, we found the area incredibly lush, with a rich ground cover of mosses, mushrooms, grasses and flowers and lots of happy looking leafed out shrubs and small trees. The ground was quite soggy, and the grasses wet, but we picked our way around the area remarking how lucky we were that the previous night had been dry. As we meandered around, we picked up better views of Singing and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, some flyover Plumed Whistling-Ducks, a few wintering Gray Fantail, some Yellow Thornbills and a very vocal and showy Rufous Songlark that was occasionally launching into its aerial display. This species and the related Brown Songlark are supposed to fit into the old-world Locustella warbler clade, which includes a lot of very secretive species, which seems to be an odd fit when one sees such large birds preforming song flights and perching out on prominent perches.

The next morning felt like we had entered a new world, with much warmer temperatures and blue sky. Our spirits buoyed, we started the day birding along the Edwards River in town, on a small trail behind the local golf course. Here among the largely flooded riverine Red Gum forest we were treated to our best dawn chorus of the trip to date. The local forests have certainly been suffering during the protracted drought, and this flooding event should help a lot of the older stressed trees soak up enough moisture to get back on track. We started our walk along the edge of the driving range, where the rather remarkable crop of golf balls was almost a walking hazard! Noisy Laughing Kookaburras tried to drown out the general chorus, and occasionally groups of screeching Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Galahs and Corellas won out but it was the smaller species that were really singing well. One of the more vocal species was Little Friarbird, yet another new species of honeyeater for us. Blue-faced and White-plumed Honeyeaters put on good appearances as well as they chased each other around in the canopy. Little groups of White-winged Choughs were ambling around along the path, and we found several cooperative Brown and one White-throated Treecreeper plying the dead trunks. Red-rumped Parrots and a few Yellow (Crimson) Rosellas were scouting the areas many tree cavities for potential nest sights, and along the path we picked out a few Red-browed Firetails and several perky groups of Superb Fairywrens and Weebill. Our hoped for Varied Sitellas did not appear, but we found the area well worth a visit, and enjoyed excellent views of our first Peaceful Doves, and a quick flyover from a Sacred Kingfisher. Just as we were leaving Phil decided to phone a friend and we were soon on our way down another side road where we quickly located a handsome Tawny Frogmouth sitting in a nest in a tree that angled over the road. These hulking and shaggy plumaged birds with their oversized heads and thick bills resemble some kind of odd and armless Muppet with a bristly moustache and oversized eyes; they exude a sense of zen that would make even Eeyore jealous.

From town, we set off back out to the northwest, this time bound for the larger block of revegetated land that Phil and others have been painstakingly working on for neigh on twenty years. Starting with a simple bare sandhill near an established large wetland Phil and friends have planted around 30000 trees and shrubs by hand. Their efforts have paid off in spades, as the area is now lush and the hillock covered in short forest, open scrub and meadows, supporting a wealth of species that were not present before the revegetation. We started off near the wetland itself, finding a couple of Zebra Finches and Southern Whiteface (a terrestrial thornbill relative) out in the saltbush flats. Seeing Zebra Finches in the wild, surrounded by the vastness of the surrounding landscape gives the tiny birds an entirely different persona to the caged bird familiar around the world. A pair of Brown Falcons put on an excellent display for us here too, with the birds calling loudly as they circled overhead and even locked talons a couple of times in an obvious pairing-up display.

We soon moved over to the revegetation block and were instantly impressed by the change in habitat and obvious herculean efforts that have been undertaken here. We walked around the block of habitat for an hour or so, surrounded by the sounds of Spiny-cheeked and Singing Honeyeaters, wintering Gray Fantails, little pairs of Yellow Thornbill and a few Gray Shrike-Thrushes, all of which were present solely due to the decades of revegetation work. We also found direct proof of the old saying “if you build it they will come” soon came to our attention as well during the walk. Phil had dug out a small embankment in the center of the reserve and drilled some makeshift holes in the bank. Less than two months later a pair of White-backed Swallows moved in. Black, with a white head, back and throat these elegant swallows are scarce throughout the interior of the country, needing vertical relief and old kingfisher or bee-eater holes to nest in. Prior to Phil creating this embankment there had not been any birds locally nesting! Near the back of the block, we heard a calling Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, which happily was sitting atop a prominent tree and allowed for lengthy scope views. After admiring the cuckoo, and having a somewhat close for comfort visit from an Eastern Brown Snake (which quickly vanished down a hole) we checked the sagebrush flats just behind the fenceline and were soon successful at locating male White-winged and Purple-backed Fairywrens perched atop some of the shrubs. As we walked back to the parked vehicles the area had one further surprise for us when a pair of Double-barred Finches popped into view just a little off the path. This attractive little black and white finch is not an expected species this far south in New South Wales, and was a write-in species for the tour.

After lunch back in Deniliquin we drove back into Victoria and spent the afternoon exploring some of the many wetlands that make up the region known as the Kerang Lakes. When conditions are good the area can support well over a million breeding waterbirds, with ibis rookeries numbering in the tens of thousands. At Reedy Lake we found the actual lake relatively devoid of birds, save a few distant Australian Pelicans. The reedbeds though held a very responsive Little Grassbird and a pair of Peron’s Treefrogs that were perched up in an emergent tree. At Middle Lake, where there is a traditional ibis rookery that numbers in the tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of birds we found large numbers of (mostly) Straw-necked Ibis overhead and loafing out in the marsh. From the vantage of in front of the provided two-story bird hide (which did not actually provide good views, and was hosting too many honeybees for comfort) we obtained close views of perched Straw-neckeds and were able to see the purples and greens in the reflective wing feathers as well as the golden plumes around the neck that give the bird its common name. Here too we woke up a snoozing Common Brushtail Possum that promptly crawled into the wall of the blind with a reproachful backwards look at us as it disappeared into a crack. Around the carpark we found a very cooperative pair of Grey-crowned Babblers, and admired several tame Superb Fairywrens and a nesting pair of Whistling Kites.

Our main stop for the afternoon though was to Lake Tutchewop, a bit further to the north. This large, sand-ringed lake is often a magnet for waders and has attracted its fair share of interesting birds, such as the continent’s first Long-billed Dowitcher. The main road around the lake was too wet to drive on, with the ground quickly turning into a quagmire with the rains. As a consequence, we had walk a bit over a kilometer in through the saltbush flats to get close enough to the water to scan. The walk proved easy enough though, although there were a few mosquitos and our boots needed a bit of a cleaning afterwards. As we walked out, we saw a couple of Brown Songlarks displaying over the meadow, parachuting down to the ground with their bubbling songs. Some White-winged Fairywrens danced around in the shrubs as well, though we didn’t spot any electric blue males. Once at the lakeshore, we were thrilled to find a large flock of Banded Stilt and Red-necked Avocets just out in front of us. The Banded Stilts in particular were well appreciated. In a monotypic genus, and falling somewhere between the “normal” Stilts and the Avocets these white-headed birds with their odd vest-like burgundy breast band are highly nomadic, often breeding in the heart of the desert in ephemeral saline lakes. With the general lack of any reports around Victoria I had doubted that we would cross paths with one, let alone the hundreds that were arrayed in front of us. The lake also held a dozen or so Australian Shelducks, loafing Caspian and Whiskered Terns, a few migrating Red-necked Stints and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, several dozen Red-capped Plovers, and a nice array of waterfowl including a few Australasian Shoveler. The walk back to the car seemed to take no time at all, and we then finished the drive up to Swan Hill, in time for a bit of a rest before dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Our excellent hotel grounds became the final birding destination of the day, as while we were unpacking the car and checking into the rooms, we noticed several pairs of Musk Lorikeets passing right over (or through) the hotel car park. Smaller and shorter-tailed than the by now familiar Rainbow Lorikeets (which were also present) these bright green birds sport a fabulous crimson eye stripe, which is large and contrasty enough that we could make it out easily as the birds zipped past.

After a cooked breakfast the following morning, we made a quick trip to the small park in town that lines the banks of the Murray River. A few participants had opted to do a bit of exploring before breakfast, and their scouting paid off for us when we pulled up to a flowering tree that was hosting several pairs of Musk Lorikeets. Although the birds had a tendency to disappear into the dense leafy canopies we managed a few views of them sitting, and excellent flight views as they milled around the park. Leaving Swan Hill behind we then travelled a bit to the south to look over the assembled waterbirds on the small but often very productive Round Lake. The back roads to the lake revealed sitting Greater Bluebonnet, Eastern Rosella and Red-rumped Parrots, foraging White-winged Chough, singing Rufous Songlarks and some cooperative Singing Honeyeaters. Once at the lake we found the waters to be strangely quiet, although there were a few Hoary-headed Grebes out in the lake, single Common Greenshank and Red-necked Avocets along the edge, and a few close Red-capped Plovers. It would seem that with the massive amount of water that is covering much of eastern Australia the waterbirds have really thinned out across the landscape.

We continued on to bird in a small bushland reserve near the now defunct town of Goschen. Despite the reserves small size, it has hosted an array of interesting species that are attracted to the many flowering plants and dense stands of mallee on the property. We spent about two hours wandering around the park, taking in a nice selection of bush birds. Within just a few minutes of walking through the incredibly lush ground cover we picked up our first pair of dapper Hooded Robins, a large Australian robin that prefers mature mallee forests. Nearby we located a perched Blue-winged Parrot, a tiny species that is closely related to the Turquoise Parrot and which is clad in a most pleasing array of yellow-green and royal blue. Nearly everywhere we went in the park we encountered Brown Treecreepers, Black-faced Cuckooshrikes, Rufous Songlark, Singing and White-plumed Honeyeaters and (oddly for such a normally dry environment) mosquitoes. We made a quick trip back to get some bug spray from the car, admiring a pair of Pied Butcherbirds that were uttering their beautiful flute-like whistled calls from a trailside tree and then continued on along the back of the property. Here we found our first Yellow-rumped Miners, a species that replaces their more aggressive Noisy cousins through much of the mallee country. Although quite similar to Noisy Mineer these Yellow-throateds can be identified by their distinctly pale rump and the scattered yellow feathers in their chests and throats. In with one of the groups of Cuckooshrikes we found a slightly out-of-range Olive-backed Oriole, a species that is more common to the east in Victoria. A little mob of irate honeyeaters led us to a hunting Eastern Brown Snake that was quietly checking out all of the crevices in a large fallen log. Just as the one the previous day had, the snake soon vanished as we approached. The reserve held a few other treats for us too, with a perched up Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, a soaring Brown Goshawk (oddly our first recorded Accipiter for the trip), a small tree festooned with brightly coloured Blue-winged Parrots and a chuckling pair of White-browed Babblers.

Eventually we pulled ourselves away from Goschen, to head further out to the west and the small campground around Green Lake. We found the park to be quite busy (it was a Friday during a four-day long weekend after all), but despite the boat traffic and many campers and fishermen we still drummed up a pair of vocal Sacred Kingfishers that were sitting up in the woods that ring the lake. Generally, by late September Sacred Kingfishers have returned to the southern coast, and we see them throughout the tour. This year the birds were lingering in the north, and seemed to be scarce to absent throughout Victoria during our visit. It’s a handsome Kingfisher, clad in buff and teal and sporting a business-like dirk for a bill. A high-flying raptor revealed itself to be a circling Spotted Harrier with its characteristic long wings and tail, splayed fingers and sleek profile. The lake had a smattering of cormorants and waterfowl, but not really enough to hold our interest for long, so we headed to the nearby town of Sea Lake for lunch.

In the afternoon we spent much of our time around the south coast of Tyrrell; a huge evaporative basin in the state of Victoria that serves as a source for granular salt. Fully three quarters of the over 20000-hectare lakebed is reserved as a wildlife refuge. The lake margins are lined with a low ground cover of Bluebush and Glassworts, a dense habitat that is preferred by our two main targets of the area; Rufous Fieldwren and the bright Orange Chat. The area was much changed from its pre-covid era times, with a new visitors center, public toilets, some raised berms along the lake for better viewing, a new access road and a huge sign of towering letters spelling out Lake Tyrrell along the shore. The “improvements” were having the desired effect, with dozens of cars lining the new car parks and lots of folk strolling along the waters edge and taking selfies. Happily for us though most were completely ignoring the somewhat uninspiring looking habitat ringing the sandy shoreline. Here we had excellent success with the first of the two targets, with a cooperative bird perched up atop taller bush for several minutes. The chats proved to be living up to their billing as nomads, for not only did we fail to find any, but there had not been sightings in the region for several months prior to our visit. Some handsome White-fronted Chats provided some consolation though, as did a flyby Australian Hobby, some closely perched Greater Bluebonnets that were showing off their splashes of colour in the afternoon sun. A displaying Brown Songlark put on a good show here too, parachuting down in a torrent of song with its legs dangling down and wings outspread. We reached our hotel in the small town of Ouyen by the early evening, with a bit of time off before we took dinner at the local Victoria Hotel, one of the original buildings in the town, constructed soon after the rail line was installed back in 1909. Doubtless due to the holiday long weekend we found the restaurant packed, with locals and a huge gang of rodeo folk who had just wrapped up a local tourney. We didn’t exactly blend in, but it was a great introduction to rural life in this corner of the country.

Our full day in Hattah-Kulkyne National Park was warm and sunny and with virtually all of our hoped-for target birds in the Mallee cooperating amazingly well it was a particularly fun day in the field. We started early, arriving in the park just a little after seven in the morning, as the sun was starting to hit the tops of the trees. This large park protects a vast swath of mallee habitat as well as a series of lakes, stands of Red Gums and some rolling sandy soiled hills covered in low cypress pines. We were particularly interested in the mallee section of the park, a habitat filled with short multi-trunked Eucalypt trees and an understory of spinifex grasses. Spinifex looks somewhat innocuous, but its razor-sharp stalks pierce through jeans with ease, and are the bane of traveling naturalists intent upon finding some of the more elusive species in the park. Unlike our visit in 2016 when a significant portion of the tracks were closed due to high water this year we found them all open generally dry. We started birding on the western side of the park where the bulk of the older-growth (ie not recently burned) stands of mallee lie.

We drove up one of the small roads and met up with Susan Myers, who had decided to come up from Melbourne to join us for a few days around the mallee. She had arrived a bit earlier than us and shared that she had seen a quailthrush not too far off the road. It didn’t take us too long to hear the high-pitched ringing song of a Chestnut Quail-Thrush emanating from deeper in the forest. We walked in as quietly as we could, and were able to track the bird down as it sang from atop a bare tree. This is a truly a colourful bird, with a very complex pattern of bright blocks of rust, grey, white and black, as well as bold spots on the flanks and bright eye and malar stripes. It stayed for quite some time, seemingly ignoring us and our many clicking cameras. Quail-Thrush are generally quiet and wary, quietly walking away from observers when detected and not particularly responsive to playback. Although not rare in the park they are infrequently encountered, so this sighting was a fantastic way to start off our remarkable day in the field. After admiring this handsome bird for several minutes we continued walking further off track through the spinifex, listening carefully for the two elusive denizens of this spiky habitat. As we walked into the woods, we were soon surrounded by our first Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters, a common species in the mallee here. Up a small rise and in an area with extensive spinifex we heard the telltale scratchy calls of a Striated Grasswren emanating in the thicker mallee. Uncharacteristically for a Grasswren the male actually perched up on a well-lit branch about five feet off the ground, and then remained perched for a minute before bounding around us and perching up a few more times! Grasswrens are not be as brightly coloured as some of the more obvious members of Australia’s avifauna but their hyper alert and very interactive manner makes them very charistmatic. Many an Australian birder holds their Grasswren tally in high esteem, as most species live in very remote and often difficult to access areas. Just a bit further up the ridge we located a pair of Mallee Emu-Wrens, an endangered species that is perhaps best seen in this national park, and one that, happily, has undergone a recent resurgence in numbers. Very similar to the Southern Emu-Wrens that we saw on the first day these birds have paler blue throats and more richly coloured crowns. This particular pair showed incredibly well, perhaps due to the calm and warm conditions. The male perched up fully out of the spinifex multiple times, flashing his brilliant throat around in the early morning sun. This short and incredibly productive walk held one more surprise for us, as when we started to walk back towards the the car we heard and then found a Crested Bellbird sitting in the midstory of a mostly bare tree. This is an odd species, recently elevated (along with two equally dissimilar birds from Papua New Guinea) to a newly created family. Although widespread in the mallee forests across southern and central Australia they can be devilishly hard to track down in the dense habitats that they prefer. Sporting a short black crest, bright orange eye, white throat and lores and a black bib they are distinctive birds, and for a bird tour leader always a bit of a coup to see well. Elated with our success we celebrated with some chocolate and granola bars before heading to the nearby nature trail. We only made it part way around this well graded trail through another, more open, section of mallee forest as once again all of our hoped-for species volunteered themselves to us. A little mixed flock led by vocal Weebills contained several Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, a single Inland Thornbill, and a pair of Spotted Pardalotes, here of the yellow-rumped mallee subspecies. Soon after leaving the flock behind, we successfully coaxed up a very responsive Shy Heathwren that showed remarkably well for a bird with shy in its name. We walked on, finding a female Red-capped Robin sitting on a nest right along the trail. Happily for us the male came in with food for his partner, and then sat out on some open branches for a brief photo session. This is a particularly beautiful robin, with a stunning scarlet chest and cap offsetting a smart looking black and white body. As if that wasn’t enough just a bit further down the trail we found our first pairs of Splendid Fairy-Wrens glowing in the morning sun, and happily sitting up in the open for us to enjoy. A Fairy-Wren beauty pageant would be an impossible competition to judge, but the male Splendid simply redefines the colour blue. Fully covered in at least 5 different shades of incandescent feathers these little sprites seem to burn with an inner blue flame.

After the nature trail, we stopped in at the park headquarters for a comfort break, which turned into a bit of a birding stop as well, with Apostlebirds scratching around in the carpark, a pair of White-browed Babblers constructing a nest near the toilet block and a sunning Central Bearded Dragon sitting on a large downed tree stump. We stopped a few times along the main park road, where we found our first Australian Ringnecks, two groups of fast-moving Chestnut-crowned Babblers and, eventually, some closely perched Regent Parrots. These sleek parrots glow with a bright chartreuse, black and coral-red plumage; and are surely one of the most handsome of the worlds parrots. We saw several over the course of an hour or so, with the first few busily devouring small berries on some roadside saltbushes, only to fly off at our approach. Eventually though we located several birds feeding calmly on the ground or perching in distant trees and posing for the scopes. By this point it definitely felt like lunchtime so we headed out of the park for a very conveniently placed new roadhouse just a few kilometers away.

After lunch we went to the far east edge of the park, exploring a little visited section that lies along the Murray River. Here we found parrot numbers to be excellent, with lots of Australian Ringnecks, Yellow Rosellas, Red-rumped Parrots, Little Corellas, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and a few more Regent Parrots showing well along the road. The Murray was out of its banks, with lots of flooded forest visible a little ways off the road, and a veritable chorus of frogs audible at every stop. At a small campground we stopped for a bit of a walk and found a very photogenic male Splendid Fairywren, and our first striking Restless Flycatcher (a large black and white monarch that is a summer visitor to Victoria). We then returned to the main park road in the late afternoon, driving along and watching out for our last main target for the area, the beautiful Major Mitchell’s (Pink) Cockatoo. It took a bit of searching but when we finally found a group tucked into a patch of red gums our views were simply sensational. Delicately salmon-pink, with a gleaming white back and upperwing, intensely rose-red underwings and gaudy tricoloured pink, yellow and white crest this is a bird that packs a visual punch. We were able to watch a half-dozen birds at length as they foraged on the ground and in the trees, often lifting their wings and crests up as they interacted with eachother. At one point one of the birds was perfectly lit from the side, and the translucent tones of white and pink as the sun hit just right made the whole bird appear somehow ethereal. It was a sight that will long live in our memories, and surely one of the highlights of the tour. Given our smashing success we headed back to Ouyen, feeling a bit like the Geelong AFL team that had just won the grand final match in an overwhelming victory. We had dinner at the local RSL Club, toasting Duane’s birthday, and our bird day with a glass of sparkling.

The next morning, we left Ouyen behind and started to drive south towards our base for the next two nights near Little Desert National Park. Our birding destination for the day was the vast Wyperfeld National Park, the oldest of Victorias four large mallee reserves, and at 350,000 hectares a very important refuge for a lot of wildlife and flora surrounded by large scale agriculture. Before we reached the park boundary, we screeched to a halt to admire some roadside Pink Cockatoos that were not quite as active or showy as the previous afternoons’ birds, but were closer and in really nice early morning light. A bit of discussion surrounding the common name of the species had us arrive at a better option than the generic Pink, if we were in charge the species would be henceforth as the Blushing Cockatoo. We entered the park from the northeast end, bound for a small road that skirts the edge of a vast evaporative basin (a largely treeless sandy plain that fills with water after heavy rains). Here we found lush ground cover, with pipits and Brown Songlarks abundant along the dirt road edge, lots of parrots atop bare snags and raptors hunting over the grasslands. Small sand dunes rose up off the road, covered in dense shrubs and groves of eucalypts popped up occasionally in the grassy fields. It was a pretty spot, made even better with several perched up Pallid Cuckoos, a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles that looked even larger than normal given how small the tree was and a hunting Spotted Harrier that was cruising low over the grass. Our hoped-for family of Ground Cuckooshrikes were sadly not present, but given their proclivity to wander widely and the vastness of the available habitat it would have been a real stroke of luck to encounter them from the road.

We then moved a bit to the south to the Casaurina campground area, where we found a very open forest with scattered pine-like trees and low bushes over very sandy soil is a bit reminiscent of the pine barrens in New Jersey. Only this patch is full of parrots. Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Little Corella, Australian Ringnecks, and Greater Bluebonnets were all present in decent numbers. Around the campground facilities we picked up a little flock of bushbirds that contained Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-rumped Thornbills, and an almost tame Southern Whiteface. We pressed on a bit further south, stopping in a wide swale between the rolling dunes that was covered in thick grass growth and an open forest of Bulloake. A short walk out into the woods revealed a pair of Splendid Fairywrens dancing around in a wattle thicket, and while we watched for the male to pop up, we heard the distinctive trill of our main target bird for the northern section of the park; the White-browed Treecreeper. This attractive species is superficially similar to the widespread Brown Treecreeper but is more strongly marked, with a blacker flank and black-streaked auriculars offsetting the bright white brow. It’s a very localized bird in Victoria, generally occurring in the more arid interior of the country. Just a few meters away from the treecreeper we found a teed up and singing Gilbert’s Whistler. This modestly coloured whistler is a mallee specialist, and has a knack for avoiding visiting birders by melting away into the woods and generally being uncooperative. This one showed off remarkably well, with his orange throat quite apparent as he sat up on a bare limb. With our target species appearing on queue, we drove out of the park. Although the southern access point into the park around the Wonga Campground is a mere 25 miles from our morning birding location there is no connecting road save a very sandy 4X4 track, so we were forced to make the large circle around the East end, stopping in the hamlet of Hopetoun for lunch at a café that had surprisingly excellent Indian food as well as more western fare. The small lake on the south side of town held a smattering of common waterbirds, including a family of Maned Duck with little puffball chicks and a quite approachable Australasian Grebe.

For the rest of the afternoon, we concentrated on the southern access point into Wyperfeld, mainly along the Discovery Walking Trail. On the way into the park we stopped to admire a pair of Shingleback Skinks that were sunning out on the road. This sandy walk passes through a section of open gum forest in a dry arroyo and then passes over some short rolling dunes covered in dense Tea Tree shrubs. It was this rolling heath-like country that we wanted to explore, and once we reached a likely looking patch of habitat, we managed to quickly track down a pair of very vocal Southern Scrub-Robins. These large robins look quite different from the other mostly rotund and brightly coloured Australian robins. Much larger, and with a long and rounded tail, the Southern Scrub lives up to its name by generally inhabiting thick mallee or heath understories. Happily for us though, in the spring, males often perch up on somewhat obvious perches while singing, and we were able to watch this one at some length. A singing Redthroat was much more reticent, although he did perch up on various bare branches or the canopy of a few particularly leafy shrubs. This marked the first actual sighting of this often elusive arid-land thornbill relative for the trip. We spent a bit of time trying to improve on our views, but eventually ceded the field and, pausing to take a few photographs of some stunning Little Spider Orchids that were tucked into the dunes headed back towards the car.

We then made the hour and a half journey south to our base for the next two nights around NHill. We took back roads (most roads to Nhill are back roads to be fair), passing huge family farms, remnant patches of forest and the a few little towns with names like Yareep, Rainbow and Gerang Gerung. The grounds of this lovely lodge are surrounded by a 4km long electrified predator-proof fence, and the lodge staff is heavily involved in an impending breeding and reintroduction program for several species of endangered mammals that used to inhabit the adjacent Little Desert National Park. Partially due to the COVID pandemic the managers of the property closed the facility in May of 2022, and the lodge site was soon sold to new owners who as of our tour date had not yet taken over. Thankfully, the couple who have been helping out for many years took pity on us, and reopened the site just for our visit. We had to turn on a few utilities and get some logistics sorted out when we arrived, but it was wonderful to be able to be back on the property, and over our take-away dinner (our hosts were due to come in the following day) we chatted a bit about the property and were very much looking forward to seeing what the morning would bring.

After breakfast we started a very pleasant, and remarkably productive walk around the lodge and adjacent bushland. Our first bird was the local pet emu, named George, a plucky bird with dashing eyelashes that seemed quite at home around the lodge buildings, and quite happy to have some human visitors for a change. Once he realized that we were not about to share our snacks he wandered off to poke his head hopefully into some flowering shrubs, leaving us to investigate the lawns of the lodge. Just outside our dining area we found a little group of five adult Diamond Firetails. These incredibly attractive waxbills are sharply patterned in white, black and crimson. Due to the recent many years of drought their population has dropped and they are now generally scarce throughout their range, although hopefully with the recent wetter conditions their numbers will start to increase. As we walked towards the trail system we stopped to admire perched Shining and Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoos, a family of White-winged Choughs and a single, and quite vocal Peaceful Dove. Our hosts had thoughtfully left the gates unlocked, enabling us to access the gated trail system that winds to the south of the lodge grounds, through some excellent mallee and heath forest. Once in the woods we started picking up little flocks of bushbirds, including Scarlet and Red-capped Robins, Brown-headed, New Holland, White-eared and White-plumed Honeyeaters, Buff-rumped Thornbill and Grey Fantail. In the scrubbier acacia dominated heath block we found a furtive Gilbert’s Whistler and a vocal pair of Southern Scrub-Robins, as well as a few more Diamond Firetails and some chuckling White-browed Babblers. We walked on, coming to a more open heath but after admiring a family group of Western Grey Kangaroos that seemed quite nonplussed at our sudden arrival into their morning reverie we decided to make a second pass down one of the sandy firebreak trails that borders the thick acacia scrub. This plan proved an excellent one, as we soon spotted a Malleefowl that was quietly feeding along the edge of a small open patch in the acacia. This bird showed very well for several minutes before it walked off into the denser brush. Once we caught our breaths, we spent a bit of time discussing the peculiarities of the species and its habits. These large chachalaca-like bird are the only temperate Megapode in the world, and unlike their more tropical cousins in Australia are scarce, shy, and unpredictable in their habits. Although late September is traditionally a good time for the species to begin tending their giant mound nests individual birds respond to local weather conditions and do not begin daily visits until the temperature regime is to their liking. The mounds that Malleefowl construct are huge; often more than 3.5 feet high and easily 10 feet in diameter, and comprised of a substantial amount of decaying vegetation topped with a conical cap of dirt. The males work hard to maintain a constant temperature of 33 degrees C while incubating the eggs. Truly an engineering feat that surpasses the ability of most humans! With our marquee bird of the day in hand we elected to start walking back to the lodge, with the idea of a mid-morning coffee break. The birds conspired a bit to delay us though, when a large number of birds started giving frantic alarm calls from a nearby dense tree. Sure enough, the flock had located a roosting owl, and we were treated to excellent flight views (twice) of a Southern Boobook that was determined to find a better hiding place. An owl, a gorgeous finch, and a megapode all in one morning!

Refreshed with coffee or tea we then set off a bit to the south of the lodge to spend a bit of time in the dense heathland habitat of the Coynallen Bushland Reserve. We found much of the ground cover here to be remarkably dry, and (sadly) not much in flower but by walking out on one of the sandy firebreak roads we soon picked up our first Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters, an extremely vocal and showy Rufous Fieldwren (a new location for this species on our tour) and a few Brown Thornbill and Superb Fairywren. It took quite some time to track down our main bird for the area, and when we finally did get onto a pair of Slender-billed Thornbills they stayed remarkably hyperactive and furtive. We vowed to try again the following day, as only a few participants were able to discern the dull yellow tones, and yellowish rump of the birds as they flashed through the dense undergrowth. As we walked back to the car Susan turned over a bit of old metal and was happy to find a small snake coiled underneath it. It proved to be a mature Mallee Black-headed Snake, a (probably) mildly venomous elapid that spends much of its time tucked underneath logs or bits of debris, where it seeks out small lizards, snakes and geckos to eat.

Leaving the snake behind we set out north to find something for ourselves to eat, and I think everyone quite enjoyed our stop at Mr. Lees, where one could order anything from a Bao Sandwich to Thai Soup or a grilled cheese sandwich. Around the town of Nhill we detected a few Musk Lorikeets, so after lunch we set up at a particularly good flowering tree (conveniently located in the median of the main highway through tow) and were soon able to spot a few Lorikeets as they fed among the yellow-cream blossoms. Most of the birds were Musk Lorikeets, a species that we saw in flight early on the trip. This time though we were able to get several individuals in the scope as they bustled around the large inflorescences. Musks are a brilliant emerald green with intense and bold scarlet markings on their heads. While watching the Musk Lorikeets it became evident that somewhere in the tree were lurking some Purple-crowned Lorikeets as well. It took a bit more time before one popped out into view, but eventually we were able to study this fine species in the scope as well. Purple-crowned Lorikeets are more subtly coloured than the Musks, but their pale blue chests, golden ear patches and dark purple forecrowns make for an equally stunning bird.

Since the weather to the south was starting to look a little grim and we had already seen most of the local target species well we opted to do a bit of exploring in the late afternoon, heading north about 25 miles to the southern edge of the vast Big Desert Wilderness Area. Just a few miles north of town we stopped to rescue an adult Eastern Long-necked Turtle that was sitting out on the road. We were able to take a good look at him before releasing him to the relative safety of the nearby farm fields, and marveled at how the animal managed to get its nearly 8-inch-long neck folded in underneath its carapace. Good deed for the day accomplished, we carried on to the border of the park and went for a walk along the edge of the mallee, and another one up into the forest along a remarkably well signposted nature trail. Neither walk proved particularly good for birds, although we did find a couple of male Purple-crowned Fairywrens in some low heath, a remarkable number of Black-faced Cuckooshrikes in a recently burned strip of small forest and some perky little Yellow Thornbills. As we came back south towards the lodge it started to pour, making our decision to head north look like the correct call, even if the birding there was a bit slow. When we arrived, we were met by our gracious hosts, who had arrived from their house (almost 3 hours away) in the mid-afternoon. They cooked us an excellent dinner in the main dining area with chickens of such an unusually large size that bards will sing of them in decades to come.

The next morning we enjoyed a full Aussie fry-up breakfast, with free range eggs (from our hosts farm) and then began to ready ourselves to leave. While talking to our hosts it became apparent that the new owners are cut from a different cloth, with plans to turn at least part of the facility into a disadvantaged youth camp. It’s such a wonderful facility, perfectly geared to nature enthusiasts, conservation and education and it would be a shame if this was the last time we were able to visit. The fate of George too was a topic of great concern; with the new owners apparently not keen on his presence. Hopefully he can either win them over with his emu charm, but failing that we all hoped that our hosts could spirit him away to their farm. Our departure was delayed a bit by the arrival of the little flock of Diamond Firetails on the lawn, but eventually we thanked our hosts for their amazing dedication and efforts and left the lodge behind. We started with a return visit to the heathland south of the park, where this time we found the Slender-billed Thornbills to be much more cooperative, perching up in some taller bushes and chattering at us; a much better experience than the ninja like stealthy waifs that taunted us the previous day.

We bade farewell to Susan and began the roughly two-hour drive down to the coast, using back country roads so that we could gain an appreciation for the more settled rural countryside of southern Victoria. In the small hamlet of Harrow we stopped for a comfort break and teased up a couple of Australian Reed Warblers from the cane grasses along the Glenreg River. Throughout the drive we were periodically inundated with rain showers, and out in the fields it was readily apparent that the area had been experiencing more rain than usual. Small ponds or even lakes filled much of the lower lying fields, and the rivers were all out of their banks. It was good weather for waterfowl, with many species happily breeding in the ephemeral waters, but the conditions made for difficult farming.

We reached the coastline of the Southern Ocean in the late morning, with our first stop being the peninsula that juts out south of the town of Portland. At the Cape Nelson lighthouse we enjoyed an excellent lunch, and while waiting for our food most participants were treated to views of several Rufous Bristlebirds darting along the edge of the heath – a life bird from inside the comforts of a café! While waiting for food we also walked the short distance out to the top of the cliffs, where we scanned the frothy waters below. Among the many Australasian Gannets that soared past we picked out a couple of passing White-capped Albatross wheeling around with their characteristic languid grace despite the stiff winds. A few Short-tailed Shearwaters and Great Crested Terns were about as well, and a few participants even picked out an adult Parasitic Jaegar (rare for the south coast in spring) that came by at fairly close range.

On the way over to the nearby Point Danger we took a small scenic backroad along the coast and were thrilled to spot a live Echidna waddling along the edge of the road. After finding a couple of dead ones earlier in the trip it was great to find one still in motion. These spiky little mammals are monotremes, holdovers from a bygone pre placental era of mammals. Little changed from their fossil record remains Echidnas are very adaptable animals, that can be found from the most arid environments of the interior to the moist coastal forests and even up in the alpine zones. They can’t however, adapt well to living near fast-moving traffic, and road kills are a substantial threat to the species in some parts of the country. This little guy snuffled away into the heath, so we continued on to the Gannet colony at the tip of the point.

This site is the only mainland rookery for Australasian Gannets in the country. The tip of the peninsula is fenced off with predator proof fencing and regularly baited with 1080, allowing the several hundred pairs of Gannets to breed unmolested by feral cats and foxes. Most of the birds were huddled down in the wind, but a few were flying around the coast, bringing in balls of nesting material or courting around the periphery of the colony. The sight of so many birds is always heartening, and being able to share in a small slice of the lives of a seabird isn’t something that happens every day. While watching the assembled gannets we were able to pick out one bird near the front of the colony that showed a very long black throat stripe and bold baby-blue eyerings; a Cape Gannet! Native to South Africa a few of these birds have been found intermixed with colonies of Australasian Gannets throughout southern Australia. This individual has been reported off and on for many years, but we were fortunate indeed to find it.

A late afternoon leisurely stop at Killarney Beach was very productive as we managed to arrive at high tide and at a period where a lot of decaying kelp was lying on the beach. Killarney is a stunningly attractive beach that is protected from the impressive surf by a series of black volcanic fringing islands and reefs. Apart from a couple of hydrofoil windsurfers were out in the comparatively sheltered waters inside the fringing waves and a dog walker who annoyingly was allowing his two dogs the run of the beach we had the area all to ourselves. We walked along the hard-packed sand, stopping to look at Red-capped Plovers and passing Ruddy Turnstone, Silver and Kelp Gulls and a few Great Crested Terns. At one of the rockier headlands we found a few White-fronted Chats foraging in the drying kelp, and a pair of Sooty Oystercatchers tucked into the rocks. Just a few rocks over from them we found the real prize, with three elegant Hooded Plovers also tucked into the rockline. These are perhaps the most attractive of the Australian plovers, with a solid black head and red eye ring and bill. Much like other beach-breeding plovers in the United States and elsewhere these birds are heavily impacted by beach disturbance, and are a species of great conservation concern. They breed along the south coast of the country, as scattered pairs on isolated beaches, and are listed as globally endangered. As we headed back to the car we picked out a single Sanderling strutting about along the waveline and a Swamp Harrier patrolling the top of the dunes. Just before arriving in Warrnambool, we made a tiny detour around the beautiful Tower Hill Nature Reserve, a protected caldera that has some extensive patches of old-growth forest and a large well-vegetated lake. Here we found our hoped-for Blue-billed Ducks, as well as a couple of close Musk Ducks, a surprisingly large number of Hoary-headed Grebes and some very cooperative Superb Fairywrens. Our hotel in town was comfortable, and the manager was thrilled to see us again after a four-year absence.

We spent the majority of the morning on the next day exploring the world-famous Great Ocean Road. This coastal highway allows access to one of the most picturesque vistas in the county. Huge volcanic cliffs eroding away into the sea create towering rock stacks, small islets, arches and blowholes and attract millions of visitors annually. Although still windy and unseasonably cold our time there, visiting the Bay of Islands with its attendant breeding colony of Silver Gulls and cliff nesting Long-billed Corellas, and the 12 Apostles (a series of rock stacks that liberally adorn tourist brochures for Australia) was a nice way to see a bit of the more traveled part of the country. It was a good area for birds too, as around the Bay of Islands we also spotted a perched Peregrine Falcon atop one of the coastal cliffs, several pairs of Australian Shelduck that seemed to be breeding around the vegetated cliffs and a few perched Black-faced Cormorants including several dusky young birds. This was our 5th and final species of cormorant for the trip, and one that is largely restricted to the Bass Straight coastlines of Tasmania and Victoria. A quick stop around the Peterborough Estuary gave us views of a wide sandy beach covered in rolling balls of sea spume, as well as our a pair of Little Wattlebirds that were bouncing between a patch of flowering heath and a backyard hedge and some European Greenfinches sitting up on a roadside wire and uttering their odd little wheezy calls.

We left the coast (and the crowds) behind and turned inland to spend the rest of the day checking some wetlands and fields for a few species that we were still missing. Our first stop was Lake Elingamite, a medium-sized lake ringed with small patches of reeds and lots of semi-submerged grasses due to the high water. Here we found Reed Warblers to be quite common, with one or two birds coming right in to check us out as we surveyed the reedbeds. Out on the lake we found a flock of Hardhead, a common duck species that seemed remarkably uncommon throughout Victoria this year, some distant Blue-billed Ducks and about a dozen Musk Ducks. A very approachable pair of Superb Fairywrens showed well here also as they bounced around the edge of the carpark. In the nearby town of Colac, we had a quick lunch and then visited the huge Colac Lake, where we (again) failed to connect with reported Freckled Ducks, although this particular trail was weeks old. The lakeshore was birdy though, with some displaying Great Crested Grebes, foraging Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants and a pair of Gray Fantails that came right up to us, perching just a few feet from our camera lenses.

From Colac we headed northwards through some small backcountry roads that passed through fields of growing fava beans, canola and grain and pastures with grazing cows or sheep. Along one road we stopped and located a singing Australian Bushlark that briefly perched up for us, as well as a quite cooperative Striated Fieldwren, several Eurasian Skylarks in full flight display mode and a Brown Falcon that was being harassed by some quite persistent Australian Magpies. At a small and seemingly unremarkable slough that birders had been recently reporting a few lurking Latham’s Snipe we enjoyed close views of a pair of Pacific (White-necked) Herons, chattering Rainbow Lorikeets and a remarkable choir of frogs. With the afternoon waning we made a trip out to the shoreline of Port Phillips Bay south of Melbourne. At the Avalon Saltworks Ponds we were surprised by the sudden stiff winds; we were beginning to wonder if Melbourne ever has nice weather. Hundreds of shorebirds were huddled in the lee of the small houses along the coast. Most were Red-necked Avocets and a mix of Curlew Sandpiper and Red-necked Stints, but we found a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-capped Plover as well. At one point a passing helicopter startled the flock, and several hundred birds popped up and repeatedly circled the pond. The birds initially balled up in a tight pack, but soon spread out into a couple of interconnected ribbons. As they twisted and changed direction the flock seemed to ripple from white to dark in mesmerizing waves. We tried another spot a bit further up the coast as well, but by the time we arrived the wind was howling to such an extent that any legitimate chance at finding our hoped-for Australian Fairy Terns seemed vanishingly small. We ogled a couple of loafing Royal Spoonbills and then tangled with the Melbourne traffic (suddenly glad that our tour mostly took place out in the countryside), arriving in the early evening for dinner and preparation for our flight to Hobart the next morning.

Our final leg of the trip involves a three-day, two-night visit to Tasmania, the smallest and most wild (and some would claim most scenic) state in the country. We boarded our flight in the morning and a short hour and a half later landed in an overcast but richly green Hobart. We picked up the luggage and met up with our local guide and driver, Andrew Hingston, a long-time Tasmania based bird guide and then headed just a few kilometers up the road to make several stops around the RAMSAR designated Orielton Lagoon, perhaps the best area for wintering migratory waders in all of Tasmania. At our first stop we enjoyed a nice selection of waterbirds including all four Tasmanian cormorant species in one field of view, lots of Masked Lapwings, here of the Tasmanian subspecies, a few Australian Pelican and Royal Spoonbills, loafing Chestnut Teal and a single Musk Duck, and some locally scarce Little Egrets and Great Crested Grebes. At one point we also witnessed our first full Tasmanian endemic species, when a Tasmanian Native Hen ran along the edge of the marsh, looking like some sort of oversized hen chicken with a flashing ruby eye and bright yellow legs. In the neighborhood around the lagoon we found a flowering tree with foraging Musk Lorikeets, a single Little Wattlebird and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Starlings and Eurasian Blackbirds. We then drove around to another vantage point, where (as a light rain began to fall) we located a stunning adult Black-fronted Dotterel. This attractive plover was strangely absent around Victoria, so it was especially nice to finally cross paths with one. Here too were a few additional shorebirds, with many Pied Oystercatchers, a few Red-capped Plover, one Red-necked Stint and a distant flock of Bar-tailed Godwits. Since the weather seemed a bit unsettled, we drove back west and then through the small but delightful downtown of Hobart, a beautiful city with a lot of quite old colonial buildings and a vibrant downtown core to our next birding destination near the tiny town of Margate. We picked up lunch at the bakery and then took it down to the nearby Dru Point Park where our attentions quickly became split between sandwiches, coffee and life birds. Around the picnic area we picked up three more Tasmanian endemics, with a single Black-headed Honeyeater perched in the canopy above our picnic tables, a pair of Green Rosellas (which are not particularly green and whose beauty seems to be poorly represented in the field guides) that were arguing with some Galahs about potential nest sites, and several several massive (it’s the largest species of honeyeater) Yellow Wattlebirds. The park held a few other species of interest for us, with our first Crescent Honeyeater, a handsome gray, black, white and yellow species with a cheerful popping call showing well. Many participants also watched a Gray Currawong, here of the local and highly distinctive Tasmanian race that is an excellent candidate for full species status under the name Clinking Currawong, as it foraged around some trunks near the edge of the park. Out on the adjacent lagoon we found hundreds of loafing Kelp and Silver Gulls, some White-faced Herons and Black Swans and nice comparison view of Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers.

A bit further to the south we boarded the short car ferry over to Bruny Island, our home for the next two nights and headed south passing through the comparatively drier forests of north Bruny, crossing the narrow isthmus and entering the more humid and mountainous South Bruny. We made a brief stop to pick up some hotel keys and put in our dinner order at the local pub permitted us to study some loafing Pacific Gulls along the road. These large headed and massive billed birds look like they would have no problem digging into an unopened can of Campbell’s Soup with their hatchet-like bills. Saddled with a poor choice of common name as the species largely occurs in the Southern Ocean rather than the Pacific these birds are local and never numerous, and are possibly in decline due to the recent arrival and massive population boom of Kelp Gulls to the region. As we neared our accommodations Andrew suggested that we stop to check out a roadside bank of flowering Black Box trees. His suggestion bore nearly immediate fruit as we found first one, and then nearly a dozen Swift Parrots clambering around in the blossoming canopies.

These endangered birds are an endemic breeder in Tasmania, but cross the Bass Straight to winter around the eastern mainland of Australia. With the introduction of Sugar Gliders, likely escaped pets, around Tasmania the birds are in steep decline as they evolved with the absence of a mammalian nest predator. The breeding birds move around from year to year, and on the years that the population settles on Bruny or nearby Mariah Island they produce good numbers of young. On years where their preferred foraging tree, Tasmanian Blue Gum isn’t in good flower around Bruny and Mariah they breed on the main island of Tasmania where the females and chicks get hammered by the predatory glider. A nest box program and a slowing of commercial logging are helping to a degree, but unless strict conservation measures, heavy planting of asynchronous flowering trees, predator control and some means of correcting the sex imbalance in the population (the gliders take females from the nest sites, resulting in a male skewed population) all occur within the next few years the species outlook looks grim. We lingered for quite some time with the birds, listening to their bubbly calls and watching them hurtle through the trees on their narrow and streamlined wings. Several birds were occasionally sitting out in full sun above us, in a gleaming show of emerald and crimson. We wished them well, and headed off to find our cabins and get settled in. An early dinner at the pub allowed us to get out a bit on a cold evening and try for Little Penguins along their breeding colony on the isthmus. We didn’t locate any penguins (but vowed to try again the following day), but the breathtakingly dark skies filled with constellations and a visible milky way made up for it to a large degree. Several Common Brushtail Possums, a few Tasmanian Pademelons (a very small wallaby-like creature), a brief look at an Eastern Quoll and one or two Bennet’s Wallabies on the drive back were certainly appreciated as well.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast in “the shed” up at Inala. This large property (about 1500 ha) regularly hosts all 13 Tasmanian endemics. The conservation group is led by Toni Cochran, whose almost herculean efforts in local conservation, especially her work with Swift Parrots and Forty-spotted Pardalotes have gained her national and international attention. After breakfast we briefly toured the small but wonderfully labelled and laid out botanic garden that features largely Gondwanaland plants, stopping to admire our first Tasmanian Scrubwrens that were foraging on the lawns but tucked behind a large metal stegosaurus sculpture. Here too were some very showy Superb Fairywrens, our first Dusky Robins and lots of low-flying Tree Martins. We made our way past the cabins, pausing to admire a pair of very cooperative Green Rosellas that were feeding in flowering shrubs along the fenceline, and also a handsome male Flame Robin that was perched up atop one of the cabin roofs. Eventually we reached the back of the property, where we climbed up into the specially constructed Pardalote viewing tower allowing us to have nearly eye-level views of the resident Forty-spotted Pardalotes. Although perhaps not as colorful as the other species of Pardalotes these guys with their bright yellow faces and rows of small white spots on their otherwise black wings are still sharply marked. With an estimated global population of only 1500 birds, of which half live on Bruny Island and over 100 live on the Inala property it is a species of great conservation concern. The species is to be a specialist on White Manna Gum Eucalyptus, foraging on a sugary secretion that the tree makes in response to the pardalotes biting into the meristems of the leaves. Without stands of mature White Gums the Pardalotes do not thrive, and these groves are irregularly scattered (and being cleared) throughout the bird’s tiny range. As they are poor dispersers each lost patch of trees cuts off disparate populations that can no longer connect. Andrew has been helping out the Inala pardalote project for many years and was exceedingly generous with his in-depth knowledge of the species. From the vantage point on the platform we also enjoyed views of a pair of Black-headed Honeyeaters that were busily nest building in the canopy of a nearby tree, and spotted Flame and Scarlet Robins around the edge of the clearing. After our fill of pardalotes, we walked back into the more forested section of the property where we soon located a Bassian Thrush hopping along the edge of the road. These handsome and large thrushes spend most of their time in the dense understory of wetter forests, and can be a devil of a bird to track down on command. It soon jumped off the road edge and dashed down a large tunnel in the grasses made by pademelons as they do their daily commute out to the pastures to graze. We entered the forest on one of the many alliteratively named property trails that wind up along the ridgeline behind the property and spent an hour and a half or so slowly walking around in the second growth forest, eventually reaching primary forest up along the ridgeline. On this walk we encountered several Tasmanian Thornbills that flashed their puffy white pantaloons at us as they repeatedly crossed the track in front of us, a few Crescent Honeyeaters clambering around in some flowering shrubs, Forest Ravens croaking away from the open paddocks, a glowing male Pink Robin tucked into the shade of a more humid gully, a soaring Gray Goshawk (here of the almost ethereal white morph) and two pairs of squabbling Green Rosellas that seemed to be having an argument about the nesting arrangements for the year. As we walked back down the trail, we also found our first Strong-billed Honeyeater, uncharacteristically alone, that chased off a Gray Shrikethrush and then sat motionless along the edge of the woods for several minutes, showing off its smart black and white head markings and little black chin to excellent effect. As we reached the lodge grounds again we spotted a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles soaring along the ridge, and stopped to briefly look at some foraging Yellow-rumped Thornbills on the lawn. After a bit of tea and coffee (and some biscuits for some) we left the Inala property behind to explore a bit more of South Bruny. We didn’t get very far though when a flash of crimson along the side of the road alerted us to the presence of a Beautiful Firetail. We parked and walked back to the area, and were soon looking at this well-named little finch in the scope. This is another stunningly attractive Australian waxbill, with a pale blue eyering, bright red bill and rump and a brown body liberally banded with white and black stripes. As we watched the finch we noticed a lot of activity in the trees over the road, with Crescent, Black-headed, Strong-billed and New Holland Honeyeaters, Silvereye and Yellow Wattlebirds all foraging in the canopy. Here too we scoped a pair of distant Black Currawongs that were perched on the crown of a particularly large tree. When a Brown Goshawk flew over the Currawongs scattered, uttering their peculiar ringing calls as they headed deeper into the woods.

We picked up our picnic lunches at the pub, stopping a bit to look at some nicely perched Black-faced Cormorants and our first Great Crested Tern for Tasmania and then continued on up to the NE side of South Bruny. On the picturesque shores of Adventure Bay, where none other than Captain Cook landed many years before we found some handy picnic tables, and some quite approachable Hooded Plovers, a species that makes a most excellent picnic companion. At the nearby town park where we stopped for a comfort break, we found several more flowering Blue Gums, and again were able to track down a few photogenic Swift Parrots, which seemed to be around South Bruny in numbers this year. We headed uphill and into the wetter montane forest that is characterized by its impressively dense understory filled with twisted branches, thick stands of moss, lichen and fern and lots of tall tree ferns. We went for what turned out to be a relatively short walk into the forest paralleling a small but pretty rocky stream. Our main target for the walk was to be the often difficult and skulky Scrubtit. Though clad in a pallet of somewhat subdued colours this thornbill-relative is actually quite attractive, and this year we lucked into a pair that showed incredibly well just a few hundred meters down the trail. Many participants even managed clear and in-focus photos, a feat that is certainly only rarely possible with this usually more reticent species. Here too were several more Tasmanian Thornbill and a pair of chattering Tasmanian Scrubwrens, making for an excellent grouping of three endemics.

With virtually all of our target birds showing well for us we opted to spend the late afternoon making the trip down to the southern tip of the island for a visit to heath covered bluff and coastal cliffs of Cape Bruny. It’s an incredibly scenic spot, especially on a sunny day, and we spent a bit of time walking up to the base of the lighthouse and surveying the sparkling waters of the Southern Ocean. With surf crashing at the base of cliffs made of columnar dolorite, white sand beaches and albatrosses and gannets wheeling by in the distance it was quite a nice place to be. On the walk we picked up a few birds as well, with nice views of perched Dusky Woodswallow, Scarlet and Flame Robins, a Peregrine Falcon sitting on one of the islands just offshore and a particularly photogenic Tasmanian Native-Hen that was foraging on the lawns. Leaving the point behind we had a bit of down time before dinner back at the local pub.

After dinner and despite the rather long day the group was eager for more. We geared up and headed back north for a second attempt at finding Little Penguins around the small rookery along the neck. This time we were successful finding a Little Penguins tucked in the dunes next to its burrow. In the red torchlight we watched the as the bird waddled around the burrow, occasionally clacking its beak together or flipping its stubby wings around. This small colony site is very conveniently located and lacks the massive tourist crowds that regularly flock to better known rookeries like Phillip’s Bay in coastal Victoria, but sadly numbers seem to be steadily declining despite the efforts of the local authorities at predator (feral cat) control and the construction of the viewing boardwalk that serves to keep people from wandering among the dunes. We then drove further north onto North Bruny Island which has a bit more extensive dry forest than the wetter forests in South Bruny. We stopped several times to watch Red-bellied Pademelons (a very small wallaby-like creature) hopping away from the van and also enjoyed views of several more Common Brushtail Possums. One of the Brushtails was a very rare “Golden” colour morph, a buffy-beige toned animal that is not encountered on mainland Australia and very rare even on Bruny where the general lack of predators and high incidence of inbreeding make the survival and creation of hypomelanistic or albino animals more likely. It took us some time however to find our real quarry for the evening. We eventually did find three Eastern Quolls, a delightful small carnivorous marsupial that occurs in several color varieties and is covered with small white dots. Our first was a beautiful young black specimen that lingered for quite some time in the light of our torches. Quolls are in trouble across their range in Australia, with many species reduced to off-islands or tiny reserves. Once occurring through much of SE Australia the Eastern Quoll is now effectively a Tasmanian endemic. The population on Bruny is quite healthy, perhaps due to the lack of Foxes and plentiful small mammal and insect prey populations. A perched Tawny Frogmouth provided a bit of avian excitement and one the way back down to our lodging we found several more Possums, and a remarkably small tan coloured Eastern Quoll which couldn’t have been more than a few months old.

Our last full day of the tour we met for breakfast at the Inala shed and then again went for a relaxing walk on the grounds. With all of the endemics bar Yellow-throated Honeyeater seen we just enjoyed our time with this selection of special Tasmanian birds. Having a chance to look at Tasmanian Scrubwren and Thornbill, Green Rosella, Forty-spotted Pardalote and Black-headed and Strong-billed Honeyeaters a second or third time is something no one should pass up! We also located a bright male Australian Golden Whistler that was perched up in the midstory and several little flocks of Silvereyes, here of the brightly buff flanked Tasmanian subspecies. Up near the top cabin we also tracked down a Crescent Honeyeater, that frustratingly showed well for everyone except the one unlucky participant that had missed them several times the previous day. Raptors were about over the lodge clearing, with a few close passes by a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles, a soaring Brown Goshawk and a brief flyby from a hunting (white) Gray Goshawk. After gathering up our bags and taking some more photos of the incredibly tame glistening Superb Fairywrens that were bouncing around the carpark we started our drive northwards. We drove up to the local pub to drop off some keys and then went for a pleasant and easy walk along the shoreline a bit to the north of town. Here we soon found our target species, and the last of the Tasmanian endemics; the pretty and well-named Yellow-throated Honeyeater. A territorial male was perched up high in an open tree, with his bright throat shining in the sun. Occasionally he uttered his loud gulping call or flew off to chase some interloping bird (of virtually any species) that entered the area. As we walked back to the car some alarm calls alerted us to the presence of a passing White-bellied Sea-Eagle that ripped right overhead, quickly disappearing behind a strip of coastal trees. The eagle startled a pair of previously quiet Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos which burst into the air and flapped away in a whirl of wings and creaky calls; what a final birding moment for the island! Bruny had one more treat in store for us though, as while we were making the short crossing back to the mainland, we spotted two Humpback Whales slowly cruising northwards through the straight. A picnic lunch back at Dru Park allowed us to bid farewell to endemics such as Yellow Wattlebirds, Black-headed Honeyeaters and stunners like Superb Fairywren.

Our flight back to Melbourne was in the early afternoon, and we arrived back at our hotel with bit of time to spare before dinner, where we had a good time reminiscing about our 2.5-week tour that covered 3500KM around Victoria and Tasmania and a wide array of habitats and birds. Looking over the country map of Australia it was a bit sobering to see how little of the continent we actually covered and left many participants dreaming of returning to this truly special country.


-Gavin Bieber


Created: 29 October 2022