27 November 2011

A Devil of a time...TASMANIA (7 Nov)

After finishing the tour on Tasmania (and happily realizing that Susan Myers, myself and the group had cracked over 430 Australian birds in 19 days!), I had 2 days to spare. At the last minute I found out an opening had come up at King's Run in northwestern Tasmania to view Tasmanian Devils that night. The problem was I was in Hobart (southeast Tasmania), and it was already 11am! The temptation of devils, along with the enthusiasm of Joe King, who runs the operation up there, made this an easy decision; I hit the road again! 7 hours later (and more than a few Red Bulls) I arrived to be greeted by Joe, and a very welcome cup of tea. The afternoon was sunny and bright, and the Tasmanian coastline was simply magnificent. This was my first time in this part of Tassie, and it was truly spectacular to see. Joe and I were also joined by Holly Faithful, another fellow English person who had also recently finished touring in Australia. Joe transferred us to his "shack" on the beach, the place where devils roam under the cover of darkness. We took a walk with a group of visiting Canadians along the shore, admiring Red-capped Plovers, hearing tales of aboriginal sites in the area, and watching more than a few Bennett's Wallabies, before we all settled in the shack for a marvelous supper of abalone in Thai sauce, (seriously tasty). After dinner, and with prime devil time approaching, the lights were dimmed, and we moved our chairs close to the large double-glazed window that overlooked a carcass cleared from the road earlier in the day. We were hoping this hapless wallaby carcass (actually a Tasmanian Pademelon) would be too good to resist for the local Tasmanian Devils that scavenge in this area regularly. The peak hours for them are an hour after sunset. This hour approached and then passed with not a sight nor sound of them. Then at 22.55pm a large head appeared suddenly, and nervously in front of the window. I was incredulous, this was my first Tasmanian Devil, and it was close. Very, very close. However, it was looking jumpy and it soon vanished again leaving me with an impressive memory but a lack of photographic evidence. Not to worry though, Joe was calm and explained this was typical when they first venture into the carcass. Within the next ten minutes it reappeared, brought with another individual, and before we knew it they were gorging (rather gruesomely) on the pademelon. Once settled we enjoyed them at length, as they tucked in to the feast and regularly fought with one another, often baring their considerable teeth, and making amusing growling noises in the process. A fantastic animal, within a great setting, and a great, great wildlife experience thanks to Joe King, whose head full of facts, (and considerable culinary talents), made this a very memorable evening indeed. I hope to return soon.

A quick footnote to say that the devils have recently been in a lot of trouble through a facial tumor disease (leading to a 90% decline in some parts of their range), which thankfully, so far. has not reached this population. And long may that continue.

On to Van Diemen´s Land...AUSTRALIA (4-5 Nov)

We flew out of Brisbane, and bid Queensland goodbye. It had been good to us: revealing Golden Bowerbird, Southern Cassowary, Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher, Chowchilla and Yellow-breasted Boatbills in the north, and Koalas and Riflebirds in the south to name but a few from our list.

Next stop was the magical island of Tasmania, a large island off the southeastern tip of Australia, a place that offered endemics aplenty. We spent a day chasing the maximum number of these around Hobart and Bruny Island, which brought many in quick succession, including the rarest of them all, a Forty-spotted Pardalote not far out of Hobart. Other treats were a bounty of robins. OK, they were not all endemics but they were mighty popular. All four came on the scenically stunning island of Bruny, and included the forgettable Dusky Robin, but way more memorable Scarlet, Flame and Pink Robins (the latter was a crowd favorite; it gave us the runaround and then showed beautifully!) On top of that were some approachable Hooded Plovers on a sandy beach filled with weekeneders, and a gorgeous flock of Swift Parrots near Hobart, at a site that also yielded a late afternoon showing of a Beautiful Firetail, that was every bit as beautiful as the name suggests!

There were plenty of other birds that day too from Blue-winged Parrots, to Strong-billed Honeyeaters, and even the odd, and flightless, Tasmanian Native-Hen, but I do not have time for all. Suffice to say we did some running around, and racked up a great day list that included almost all of the endemics on offer! Guides like me love these days. On top of that we enjoyed sandy beaches bathed in warming sunshine, not always expected on Tassie in springtime!

More to come from Tassie, including one of its most iconic mammals...

18 November 2011

The Prettiest of them all...AUSTRALIA (2 Nov)

I forgot to pots this from our journey into O Reilly's on the 2nd, sorry, need to rectify that. I had told the group to be on the lookout for wallabies in the sclerophyl woods (open eucalypt woods with a grassy understorey), on the way up before we hit the rainforest on the top, as the wallaby in these parts may just be the fairest of them all. As I was driving up my mind wandered for a moment and I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye, but as it was so close it could not possibly be...screech. I stopped abruptly when I realized that it was indeed a Whiptail Wallaby feeding calmly by the roadside. As we stopped and Susan and her bus pulled up alongside I warned everyone not to get out as it will probably bolt. As if to prove this another four animals, that I admit I had failed to notice, bounded off the far side of the road. And I thought it was just a matter of time before this handsome individual would do the same. To my horror I saw some of the group in the other bus climbing out, and waited for the animal to react...well suffice to say this was one very tame Whiptail that showed us all how pretty it is, supporting its other, more favored name, the Pretty-face Wallaby.

More on the way from Down Under soon...

Things that go knock in the night...AUSTRALIA

OK so after our action-packed day hand-feeding rosellas and king-parrots, shoving Currawongs away from our lunch table, and taking in all those cool rainforest birds and Koala of course we deserved a rest-no chance. After a luxurious dinner at O Reilly's, where a Mountain Brushtail Possum amused us from the dinner table, wolfing down fruits from the feeder by the dining table window, we decided to go in pursuit of an elusive quarry that evaded us the night before. I must admit in my laziness the night before I had tried to get it from the road, and failed. I was not going to make that mistake again. This time we made our way into a rainforest gully, and before we had even reached our strategic position, the bird gave a loud knocking call from where we were headed. We shuffled up together, turned off our flashlights, and waited for a short time. Adrenalin was in the air and I nervously put my I-pod into action. Just a short burst of its song, then I waited. The bird called beside us and I quickly swept the open rainforest bows for this hulking nightbird, only to find branches and nothing else. I reluctantly switched off the lights, and tried one more time. Angrily the bird called back just up the trail. Fearing empty branches again but knowing I simply had to try I turned on the light...and there sitting in the spotlight was a marvelous Marbled Frogmouth. It had taken two nights, but I think it was well, well, worth it!

Lots more to come so stayed tuned...Although I have a bit of a tour coming up, so be patient. There is much, much more to come!

An Australian Icon...AUSTRALIA (3 Nov)

Australia is often under-appreciated as a mammal venue. Perhaps because the bunch of Antipodean mammals there are so bizarre - and we'd seen some of those earlier on the tour, like Platypus in Queensland. When most people think of Australia they think of the iconic images of Koalas quietly munching Eucalyptus leaves. And so it was for much of my group. Indeed the day before we had tried for Koalas near Brisbane but left empty-handed. And so when we arrived at the luxurious and legendary O' Reilly's Rainforest Retreat, I was quick to "grill" one of their naturalist guides as to whether any of these strange Aussie mammals were around. Luckily there was a female with a large youngster in tow around. However, first we concentrated on the birds, and what birds we had. From Wonga Pigeons walking casually along the road, to Green Catbirds meowing in the trees, the Rose Robins bringing a splash of color to the rainforest canopy there was never a dull moment. And I almost forgot the glistening green, scarlet, and blue Noisy Pitta which was, well, pretty noisy that morning and thankfully conspicuous as it sang from an open log.

That was all in the rainforest. So later in the morning we dropped into the wet sclerophyl forest just below the rainforested plateau for one special target. Not long later Susan (my sharp-eyed, Aussie, co-guide) picked up a
Red-browed Treecreeper creeping along a dead branch, and a stunning Spotted Pardalote perched at eye level. Nice one.

Then we headed off with a map in hand to a private area of O Reilly's where the map indicated the exact tree where the Koalas had been the day before. And there they were, proving how slow moving they can be, by being in exactly the same tree, making finding them a synch! Thanks again Matt! A very fortunate Spotted Quail-Thrush at the same bluff was a shock find, as they appear to be rapidly declining in the area, with no apparent cause.

More from O Reilly's to come that NIGHT...

15 November 2011

O Reilly's..say no more! AUSTRALIA (Oct)

After a late flurry of new birds at the end of our New South Wales leg in the Capertee Valley (Crested Shrike-Tit, Little Lorikeet and more), and Royal National Park (male of the master-mimic, Superb Lyrebird), we returned to Queensland for another spell. This time though not to the Wet Tropics of the north that we had visited earlier out of Cairns, but this time to southern Queensland, and the legendary O Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park. Why legendary? Well this stunner jumped onto people's food-filled hands on arrival (Regent Bowerbird), and even climbed on to someone's back, while the usual siege of Crimson Rosellas and Australian King-Parrots also came in for the feast, while I checked us in. Now that is a true royal welcome!

More from O Reilly's to come, including one of Australia's most iconic mammals...

14 November 2011

YET more shorebirds...AUSTRALIA (30 Oct)

After our night safari on the Hay Plains, and, ahem, a 1am finish, we decided on a lie in (yes I can do this sometimes!), and a fried "brekky" (breakfast in Australian!) The late start though did not cost us birds as our journey towards Lake Cargelligo was punctuated with a top draw raptor: a Black Falcon circling low overhead. Only my 2nd sighting ever. Further disruption to our journey was provided by a group of White-fronted Chats and a gorgeous, gorgeous male White-winged Fairywren.

In the afternoon we took a stroll to the local sewage works (way, way better than it sounds), which was packed with shorebirds and other waterbirds. This included a healthy batch of Red-kneed Dotterels to entertain us in the gorgeous glow of the later afternoon sun. Red-necked Avocets and a triumvirate of crakes made for a very, very enjoyable evening (Spotted, Spotless, and Baillon's Crakes). On top of that an Orange Chat popped up in the scrubby edges of the marsh, and an Australian Hobby cruised over the marsh too. Great finish to our day.

Don't worry, lot, lots more to come from Australia...

Shorebirder´s Delight...AUSTRALIA (29 Oct)

Expansive plains of flat, endless grasslands, a long, long way inland from the coast are certainly not where you would ordinarily expect to see shorebirds. But this is Australia, where there is a bunch of specialist inland species that you will almost never find anywhere else. And so during the afternoon and evening on our "Aussie safari", we ran in to some very special shorebirds indeed. A hidden pool (that due to the flat terrain would have been hard to find without the help of Phil and his pinpoint local knowledge of course), held a healthy number of Red-kneed Dotterels that called frequently, showed often, and looked good in the late afternoon sun. It was only when the sun began to dip below the low horizon that another star shorebird made a memorable appearance: Australian Painted-Snipe. In some years this striking shorebird can be extremely hard to find, but in this balmy year our local man Phil was quietly confident. As the sun continued to dip the painted-snipe became bolder, striding out from the scrubby edges to feed out in the open, revealing their unmistakable, and striking plumage as they did so. Believe it or not though we would have to wait until long after dark for our final two shorebird species of the day. As we went on the prowl for Plains-wanderer, and buttonquail on the plains we also came across a band of Banded Lapwing, and better still (I have a real soft spot for this species), a small party of Inland Dotterels huddled in the car headlights...

More to come from another hidden pool, and another hidden gem, in Australia...

13 November 2011

Plains-Lifer...AUSTRALIA (29 Oct)

And NO it was not the Plains-wanderer! Our "game drive" was awesome on the Hay Plains, thanks in no small part to the work of Phil Maher and his super hot bird-finding team. A low mumble about a mystery buttonquail had me desperate to hear more from the radios. Before you know though the cars were ringed in a circle with the headlights focused on this Red-chested Buttonquail. Like all buttonquail in Australia tricky to find, although this is arguably considerably tricker than most. It turned out to be an excellent tour for buttonquails with Painted Buttonquails watched making platelets in Royal National Park (New South Wales) and both Little and this buttonquail seen on this memorable tour of the flat plains. Like everything on these amazing night drives it was seen "rather" well!

STILL more to come from this night drive (I guess it was just one of those nights!)...

09 November 2011

Night Drive..Aussie style (29 Oct)

Well we took a night drive on to the Hay Plains with the "Plains-wanderer specialist", Phil Maher. And what an afternoon and night we had. Lots of birds, and even two lifers for me in there... The night drive started with this Little Buttonquail, just recently arrived back on to the plains...

Not long after, the star of the show turned up, Plains-Wanderer, and you could almost hear the sighs of relief all round! This was a young female, displaying the chestnut band that the male lacks.

Plenty more from the Hay Plains to come...