Monday, 8 January 2018

THE CORAL SEA CONTINUED

While in New Guinea waters, we saw a Beck's Petrel.  This filled us all with enthusiasm.  What wonderful birds there were here!  What great sightings we were going to have!

We left on Wednesday and arrived in Australian waters on Thursday.  On this memorable day we saw four rarities.  As it turned out they were the only rarities of the trip for most of us.  On Saturday, Damien saw a Band-rumped Storm Petrel.  Unfortunately no one else did.  I was standing right beside him and couldn't see the bird.  This is a comment as much about my eyesight as about how difficult it was to see the bird.  Generally, all birds were difficult to see on this trip.

Our four exciting birds were:  a Fiji Petrel, a Heinroth's Shearwater, a Tropical Shearwater and a Pink-footed Shearwater.

This does sound very exciting - and it was - but it didn't last long.  We all went to bed on Wednesday night thinking we'd all come home with extraordinary, incredible birdlists.  Little did we know, that was it.  There would be nothing else to add to our lifelists.  Most of the trip had very, very few birds.  Nothing was attracted to our burleigh.  We did not have good views of most birds.  The Red-footed Boobies that roosted on our mast were one exception, and we saw thousands of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, but most birds were (for me) just dots on the horizon.  But mainly, it was just the horizon.

I did not enjoy the trip.  I was ill.  Richard was ill.  Hedley was ill.  The sea was rough.  We weren't seasick, we had some virus I believe.  At least this meant that, when I wasn't fed, I wasn't so hungry.

I had a cabin to myself.  Down a steep ladder.  On the first night an intruder entered my cabin.  Whoever it was did not answer my questions and did not obey my demand that he or she leave.  Perhaps he or she didn't speak English. My room was a store room full of towels.  This intruder calmly helped itself to an armful of towels, then left in its own good time.  I locked the door thereafter and had no more problems.  But I never felt quite easy after that.  Hedley and Irena had a dodgy door handle, which came off in their hands, leaving them locked inside their room.  Mike and James' room leaked when it rained.  I didn't like the boat at all.

We were buzzed by the Border Force a couple of times and they contacted the ship to check up on us.  They asked the second mate to spell the name of the ship, but he found that spelling the name 'Surveyor' was quite beyond him.  We stifled our laughter.

One interesting phenomenon we came across was a yellow substance in the water.  Glen gathered some in a bucket, but closer examination didn't help to identify it at all.  He suggested it might be coral spawn.

Some fish were caught, but watching them being dispatched was not a vegetarian's delight.

When it was apparent that we could not make the seamounts we were headed for, we turned back, hoping that we'd come across the large flocks of feeding birds we'd seen on the way.  Perhaps with another rarity, or even better views of the same rarities.

It was not to be.  Usually when I return home with a tick or two under my belt, I feel pretty pleased with myself.  Not on this occasion.  This trip was a mistake.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

ALEUTIAN TERNS

On Wednesday, 20 December, 2017, together with Steve Casten, Philip Jackson and James Mustafa, I travelled to Old Bar on the New South Wales coast to twitch the recently reported Aleutian Terns.

A great way to end the year.  Any tick is uplifting, but some are more special than others.  It's nice to cross off a bird from your 'Not Yet Seen' list, but it's even more special to add a bird to your lifelist, which hitherto has not even been on the Australian list.  Very special indeed.

Philip organized our bookings.  We were flying to Newcastle, hiring a car, driving to Old Bar, ticking the terns and returning the same night, arriving back in Melbourne before 9 p.m.  Ha!

As usual, I was totally organized.  Everything ready to go the day before.  Bag packed, clothes out, alarm set.  The plan was:  I was to drive to Philip's, arriving at 4.45 a.m., and James would drive us both to the airport.   I spent a sleepless night, listening to the radio and wishing 4 a.m. would come so I could get up and start the day.  Eventually I hopped out of bed to check the time, to see how much longer I had to lie there waiting.  It was already 5 a.m.!  I was seriously late.  I would have to tell the others to go without me.  I rang James and he told me that he'd pick me up.  I have never dressed so quickly.  I was standing on the footpath outside our house, still buttoning up my shirt, when James and Philip arrived.  Good friends that they are, they didn't curse me.  James drove skillfully and quickly.  We parked close to the terminal and ran to the gate.  Those gates are a long way in T4.  Breathless, we arrived just in time.  Steve was there already, waiting impatiently for the three of us to arrive.

I calmed down on the plane and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Newcastle.  We picked up our car and drove to Old Bar.  The temperature climbed gradually to an unbearable 43 degrees.  When we parked in the carpark, there were several cars there already, but no indication whether they belonged to birders, surfers or fisher people.

We'd read that it was a kilometre walk along the beach.  It seemed much further to me.  It was already hot.  One interesting phenomenon was a large number of dead and dying cicadas on the beach.  Where did they come from?

Signs informed us of nesting Little Terns, so we carefully avoided this clearly fenced area.  Hard to believe that not all birders would walk around a tern colony.  You can (perhaps) understand nonbirders taking a short cut, but I cannot comprehend anyone who calls himself a birder walking through a colony of nesting birds.  And, before you object, let me tell you that they are all hims!  I've never witness a female doing such a thing.

We arrived at the bar.  There were waders, terns and cormorants.  We made our way to a small group of birders and enquired about the Aleutian Terns.  I think they said a light plane had flown low over the birds and the terns had been spooked.  Aleutian Terns, which had been present earlier that morning, were now nowhere to be seen.  There was nothing for it but to wait for them to return.  Suddenly, it seemed much hotter.

David Stowe was one of the birders present.  He was not prepared to wait patiently like the rest of us, and wandered off looking at birds.  Bless him!  Amongst all the terns and waders, he quickly found an Aleutian Tern!  We all hurried along the beach and all managed to admire the bird through a friendly birder's scope.  Tick!  

Our bird flew to another sandbar, and was soon joined by several other Aleutian Terns.  Notwithstanding the presence of an osprey, the terns remained, giving us all good views and the photographers good photos.  Of course, the photos were never good enough and the photographers had to wade into the water to get closer.  Such is the nature of photography.  There is always a better photo if only you get a little nearer.
Aleutain Terns, photo by Steve Castan

That's the story really.  The drama of Newcastle airport being closed because of lightning strikes, many flights cancelled and expecting to be stranded overnight does not seem quite so important any more.  We were not stranded.  Our flight was delayed.  Then delayed some more, but finally left.  Thanks to James I was home safely at 1 a.m.

Thanks, Philip, for all that organizing.  Thanks, James for your driving.  And thanks Steve for your photos.  A wonderful way to end the year.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

THE CORAL SEA (1)

I had looked forward to my trip to the Coral Sea for years.  As it approached, I felt more and more anxious about it, but at the same time I was still very excited and keen to see what rare seabirds we might encounter.  Few birders visit the Coral Sea and we really didn't know what might be there.  My anxiety was due to the fact that we were leaving from Port Moresby.  We were due to arrive there on 31 October, the very day that the detention centre on Manus Island was scheduled to close.  I thought there might be some anti-Australian feeling overflowing from Manus to Port Moresby.  There was also some doubt about the procedure for obtaining an entry visa.  Different websites had different information.  It was hard to know what to believe.  Recent news reports told of people being refused a visa on arrival, and returned home.

There were twelve of us travelling with Richard Baxter's Birding Tours Australia, including his son Damien.  More than half of us were in the 800 club.  I knew it would be an absolute privilege to spend eleven days with some of Australia's top birders.

Eight of us were from Victoria.  We met at Melbourne airport early in the morning.  We were to fly to Brisbane, then on to Port Moresby.  Our plan was to apply for our visas together, and, if necessary, assist each other through the bureaucracy.

I'm told it is unwise to go grocery shopping when you are hungry.  You buy more food than you need.  I think I should probably not write a posting here when I am feeling particularly pleased with myself, as I am right now.  This morning I saw a Pacific Koel on my morning walk:  a new bird for my annual list.  You could expect that anything I wrote at the moment would be seen through rose-coloured glasses.  Please bear this in mind:  my report is more positive than I felt at the time.  There was nothing positive about my trip to the Coral Sea.

Our flights to Brisbane, then Port Moresby, were uneventful.  Our trepidation about our entry visas proved quite unnecessary.  Our passports were stamped in routine fashion, and together we boarded the courtesy bus to the Ela Beach hotel.  

My room overlooked a building site.  We were informed that this was our taxes at work.  A future APEC meeting in Port Moresby required that Australia construct a venue.  Naturally.  Where else but Ela Beach?

That afternoon we visited the local supermarket to purchase alcohol and snacks for the trip.  Richard had ordered taxis.  When they didn't arrive, we took the hotel's courtesy bus.  I didn't take any local currency, but I had no trouble buying alcohol with my credit card.  In my ignorance, I thought I would not need any snacks.

The boat we were to sail on had been changed four times.  It didn't make much difference to us.  We hadn't seen any of these proposed vessels.  In the end we sailed on M. V. Surveyor.  Remarkably, the next morning, we boarded on time, and sailed at 7 a.m.  

When we arrived at the dock, the first issue that confronted me was how to board the vessel.  I always have trouble getting on and off boats.  Usually I rely on help from strong men.  On this occasion I was horrified to see the shaky gangplank with no handrails.  I might have met my match.  Others skipped across the gangplank quite happily.  Clearly, any trepidation was my fault.  I soon figured that the only way to board the boat was to hang on to Damien and not look down.  I let Irena go first.  That's me, standing in front of the bus, looking anxious and wondering whether I was capable of getting onto the boat.

 
Boarding M.V. Surveyor, photo by Jenny Spry

Of course I did manage to get onto the boat.  Thanks to Damien.  I don't think I could have done it without him.

The boat was not comfortable.  Accommodation was not great.  We sat on plastic chairs, which walked across the deck as the boat moved.  Between us, we managed to ruin at least three during the trip.  There were 13 of us.  Even before we'd broken any, there were not 13 chairs.  The upper deck gave great views, but was far too mobile for me.  And there was nothing to hang on to.  I spent most time on the main deck, where there was some shade, at some hours of the day.

And I should mention the food.  The boat had been informed (twice) that I was vegetarian.  Instead of saying that they could not cater for vegetarians, they simply ignored this advice.  For meat eaters, I don't suppose the food was all that bad.  True, there was no orange juice for breakfast and the only coffee looked like International Roast.  The only fruit was one pineapple we were given for breakfast on about day seven.  Three times we were not fed lunch.  Once, the cook was seasick.  The other times he simply couldn't be bothered.  The crew (eight of them, no less!) were fed out the back, while we went hungry.  For me, the lowlight was being given a toasted beetroot and lettuce sandwich for lunch.  This happened twice.

As I say, we left at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.  We arrived in Australian waters at 6.39 a.m. on Thursday.  We saw our first Australian bird at 9.45 a.m.  Appropriately, it was a Wedge-tailed Shearwater.

This is the route we took.

Thanks to Graham Barwell for this image.
TO BE CONTINUED

Sunday, 20 August 2017

CHILTERN

Sherry was running low, so it was time for a trip to Rutherglen, my third this year.  Of course that meant I'd have a day birding around Chiltern - always a thrill.  A friend says 'there's no such thing as a bad day at Werribee.'  He's right of course, but I'd like to add that there's no such thing as a bad day at Chiltern either.

Because my annual total is quite good this year (452) there weren't many new birds I could realistically hope to add in Chiltern.  I compiled a list nevertheless (naturally) and we started the day on McGuiness Road in the Mt Pilot section of the national park, hoping for a Spotted Quail-thrush.  The rain was intermittent but the cold was constant, as was the unfriendly grey sky.  Birds were few, but I managed to see both Brown and White-throated Treecreepers and both Brown and Buff-rumped Thornbills.  I walked along the road until the rain drove me back to the car.  I removed a couple of saplings that had fallen across the road and wondered how often rangers visited the park.  When we encountered an enormous tree across the road, we were forced back.  Rog did a fair bit of reversing before we found a suitable spot to turn around.  My list was destined to remain quail-thrush free.
Yellow-footed Antechinus, an old photo from my archive

We drove to Cyanide dam in Honeyeater Picnic Area.  I walked around the dam.  It only takes ten minutes, so I reckoned I could fit it in between showers.  The resident Australasian Grebe was in superb breeding plumage, but I could find neither his mate nor his nest.  The best thing I saw on my walk wasn't a bird at all.  It was a Yellow-footed Antechinus.  She was lining her nest in a hollow in a gum tree.  She paused and looked at me.  I stood statue still.  She really was the cutest thing.  Eventually she decided I was no threat and continued to take gum leaves into her nest hole.  Reluctantly, I left her to her duties.

I looked for Diamond Firetails at No 1 dam and dreamt of Grey-headed Lapwings at No 2. Of course I saw neither.

In Rutherflen I looked for crakes at the ephemeral water near the tip.  There were dotterels and darters, cormorants and stilts and one splendid male Flame Robin, but there were no crakes.

We drove to Black Swamp where there was lots of water but few birds.  I was pleased to see a significant roadside area sign alerting me to the presence of Grey-crowned Babblers.  Unfortunately the only babbler I saw was the one on the sign.  

We stopped briefly at the entrance to Lake Moodemere.  I've seen Diamond Firetails here in the past.  But not today.  Today I saw Jacky Winters, Grey Fantails and Little and Yellow-rumped Thornbills. (The roads were so wet and slippery I was not inclined to ask Rog to take me to the river, where I often see White-backed Swallows.)

I ended up with a birdlist of 62 for the day, which, given the awful conditions wasn't too bad.  Sadly there was nothing new for the year.  But I can confirm:  there's no such thing as a bad day at Chiltern.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

IRON RANGE

Of course I was delighted to see a Red Boobook, but that was only a potential future armchair tick.  As we moved on to Iron Range, I was expecting two lifers:  a Spotted Whistling Duck and a Black-eared Catbird.  The whistling ducks were at Archer River and the catbirds were in Iron Range.
Sign at Musgrave Roadhouse

The day we drove from Kingfisher Park to Musgrave Roadhouse, without doubt the highlight was the black form of Brown Treecreeper (race melanotus).  It was darker, but the most noticeable feature was the distinct cream coloured eyebrow.

The next day we met Sue Shepherd and admired Golden-shouldered Parrots.  Phil pulled his car off the road and parked under a gum tree which was full of parrots, including at least two striking males.  Later we saw Little Woodswallows on our way to the Red Goshawk's nest.  We could see the goshawk on the nest, tail poking out one end, head the other.

On Tuesday, we visited a place called Water Tanks, with large native palms, pretty water lilies and lots of Star Finches.  We drove through Coen, with its Sexchange Hotel, and on along dreadful roads to Archer River.  It was dark when we arrived and I couldn't see my long awaited whistling ducks.  The next morning, I was up before dawn, eager to get a look at my 803rd Australian bird.
Me looking at Spotted Whistling Ducks, photo by David Landon

On Wednesday we drove to Lockhart River.  We saw our first Palm Cockatoos for the trip, as well as White-streaked Honeyeaters, Grey Whistlers, White-faced Robins and Eclectus Parrots.  Birds were wonderful, but I was still missing catbirds from my list.

We went spotlighting several times and saw Large-tailed Nightjars, Marbled, Papuan and Tawny Frogmouths, a Barking Owl and a Barn Owl.  We also saw a Striped Possum and a Southern Common Cuscus.  We saw a Grassland Melomys with two babies and a Common Spotted Cucus in daylight.  We also saw several Bare-backed Fruit Bats during the day - they were huge.

On Thursday we had great views of Green-backed Honeyeaters, Yellow-billed Kingfishers and Magnificent Riflebirds.  On Friday morning, when at last I thought we might look for catbirds, five Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds turned up on our lawn and demanded our attention.  Then we were entertained by a hobby attacking a pair of Grey Goshawks.  The rainforest echoed with the rich, fluty call of Green Orioles and the attention-grabbing whistle of Magnificent Riflebirds.  Sadly, there was no mewing of catbirds.  We saw Frilled Monarchs and Wompoo Fruit-Doves and breathtaking views of Chestnut-breasted Cuckoos.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

ATHERTON TABLELANDS CONTINUED

We did a walk in Lake Eacham National Park where we saw a Wompoo Fruit-Dove on its nest and a Victoria's Riflebird displaying to a female, who, unimpressed, rejected him.  A Pied Monarch displayed his spectacular frill and a very angry Northern Dwarf Crowned Snake threatened us.  It was only about 40 centimetres long, but half of this was reared up, perpendicular to the ground, quite intimidating enough for me.  Had he been a little larger, he would have been truly terrifying.  In the afternoon we drove to Lake Barrine, where we saw a beautiful Shining Bronze-Cuckoo and a magnificent male Superb Fruit-Dove.  After tea we went spotlighting and saw nothing but a bandicoot and brush-turkeys roosting absurdly high in the canopy.  We heard Lesser Sooty Owls and Southern Boobooks, but, most frustratingly, they refused to show themselves.  Back at Chambers, we saw Sugar Gliders and a pretty Striped Possum.

The next morning, at a small park outside Malanda, we saw a Tooth-billed Bowerbird.  We paused at Bromfield Swamp on our way to Mt Hypipamee.  Here we admired the Golden Bowerbird's bower, then saw the bird as well as Mountain Thornbill.  We had great views of a bird I'd once thought I'd never see, and have now seen really well on three separate occasions - the Fernwren.
Common Brushtail Possum

The next day in Dinden National Park we saw White-browed Robins and Northern Fantails, and, most excitingly, a Red Boobook!  Robert Nevinson, our other guide, rubbed a stick against the trunk of a likely tree, and, to our delight, the boobook flew out.  It sat glaring at us, demanding to know why we'd disturbed its rest.
Looking at a Red Boobook, the northern race of the Southern Boobook

We had lunch in Kuranda where we saw the second thrilling snake of the trip - a Green Tree Snake.  It wasn't green and it wasn't in a tree.  It was beside the track, black with a yellow belly, with white flecks on its back.  It was thin and about a metre long.  It slithered away and suddenly all the white flecks disappeared and its back became a uniform dark colour.

Spotlighting that night gave us one Green Ringtail Possum and one Barn Owl.  My bird count was 178.  We then moved on to part two of the tour:  Iron Range.

ATHERTON TABLELANDS

In July 2017, I saw more species of birds than I have in any other July since I've been keeping records:  323.  That's because, as well as crossing the Nullarbor in search of Naretha Bluebonnets, I travelled to Cape York with Philip Maher. The tour was in two parts: Atherton Tablelands and Iron Range. For the first part of the tour, we started in Cairns, then went on to Lake Eacham and Kingfisher Lodge.
We started with an early morning wander along Cairns Esplanade, giving my birdlist a healthy kick-start with 30 species.  Highlights were a Great-billed Heron and a Beach Stone-Curlew.  Also worthy of mention were the Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, the Torresian Kingfisher and a most obliging Mangrove Robin that allowed us to admire it without actually going into the mangroves and exposing ourselves to Cairns' veracious sandflies.  We saw the only Tree Martins for the trip and the only Scaly-breasted Munias, about fifty of them.  Then we paid our compliments to a sleepy Rufous Owl roosting in a huge fig tree at Les Davie Park, before visiting Machons Beach at Redden Island, near the mouth of the Barron River.  Here we added 14 species to our list, most notably Black-necked Stork, Lovely Fairywren and both Black-faced and White-eared Monarchs.  We had lunch at Centenary Lakes, where we added Black Butcherbird, Papuan Frogmouth and a stunning Little Kingfisher.  There was also the only Striated Heron of the trip.

Magpie Geese at Centenary Park

Birding with Phil is always hard work.  Participants are simply expected to keep up, whether it's bush-bashing through impenetrable rainforest, climbing through vicious barbed wire fences or crossing preposterous creeks wider than my largest practicable long-jump.  The upside is, that when you go birding with Phil, not only do you see great birds, you also enjoy Trisha's unsurpassed cuisine.  Every meal was a delight.  Thank you, Trish!

We spent the night at Chambers Rainforest Lodge, where Spotted Catbirds and Victoria's Riflebirds came delightfully close to eat fruit strategically placed to entice them in.  Here, while we were admiring Double-eyed Fig-Parrots (race macleayana), Topknot Pigeons flew over, and I didn't know where to look.  To feast on the fig-parrots or forego them for the pigeons?
Track at Lake Eacham

ng.  In the afternoon we drove to Lake Barrine, where we saw a beautiful