Wednesday, 20 December 2017


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


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.