Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shoveler ID?

Took this photo of a female-type shoveler at Monger Lake in Perth, WA, Australia today (Oct 23). It was noticeably paler than other female shovelers in the area and the bill was remarkably orange. The lower mandible especially was completely orange (seen from below as the bird preened). Outer rectrices are whitish but seem a bit worn and is probably an unreliable feature in this individual. Pale face seems to contrast with the body plumage, at least more than a typical Australasian Shoveler. Eye is a little paler than usual as well. The bird was not seen in flight. When I first found it, it was alone. A threesome of Aussie Shovelers (2 eclipse males and 1 female) swam past but this bird made no attempt to associate with them. Mostly just poked around the shoreline with some shelducks and didn't seem to like me getting too close.

Obviously Northern Shoveler would be a big deal down in WA, so can someone say this is within range for Australasian? Any opinions or key fieldmarks to look for that I haven't mentioned would be much appreciated.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Western Woodland Adventure

October 12th

Today I bussed/trained over to Midlands Station SE of Perth where I met up with Liz Fox of BirdLife Australia. Despite my evident lack of Australian birding experience, Liz is graciously taking me out into the Mallee bushlands, about 500 km east of Perth, where I’ll be helping with bird surveys  in a small corner of what is known as the “Great Western Woodlands.” This massive area contains some good chunks of untouched eucalypt woodland and Mallee heath, which has essentially been destroyed or fragmented by farming activities in the “Wheat Belt” closer to Perth. This area has apparently never been properly surveyed for birds, so Liz’s aim is to find out what’s there (bird-wise and habitat-wise), and compare this to some of the remnant patches of original ‘bush’ closer to the coast whose bird populations are better known. There is also a hope of creating a natural habitat corridor from the area she’ll be surveying to the good stuff left near the coast. In addition to the surveys, we’ll also be meeting up with a few local naturalists to try and wrestle up some more volunteers for the project.

So basically we’re going camping/birding for a week, out in the bush, and I am about to have what some might call, “a good time.”
Dusky Woody

As we drove east out of the greater Perth area, heading for the mining boom-city of Kalgoorlie, the first trip bird was a lovely NANKEEN KESTREL. A bird I should have had by now, and of course once I had one, they became one of the most common birds along the highway. A mixed flock of woodswallows included my first DUSKY WOODSWALLOW then I spotted a flock of COCKATIELS ripping by as we passed a grain silo. Just east of Southern Cross, a gorgeous REGENT PARROT blitzed across the highway in front of us—a beautiful bird, but the best was yet to come.

Liz spotted a whitish parrot well up the highway and speculated that it might be a corella. But as we drew nearer we both realized what it really was—“MAJOR MITCHELL’S!!!!!” we both shouted. This charismatic cockatoo is probably one of Australia’s most recognizable birds yet few Australians (let alone tourists) see them since they stick to the arid interior and never stray to the coasts. This had been one of my biggest targets for my Aussie trip but I had’t expected to get it this week since we were a fair bit south of their usual range. Oh well… I’ll take it! This was also Liz’s second-ever sighting of a Pinko in the wild 
Taken from the car, Mitchie showin off his crown plumes
(*Pinko is not actually a known colloquial term for Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo but Aussies do like to add O’s to things, plus the species is known to hang out in ‘social’ groups… so here’s hoping it catches on).

We rolled into the outskirts of Kalgoorlie in the early evening and decided to suss out a good camping spot before heading into town for dinner. “Lake Douglas” had an appealing ring to it since there is very little in the way of water in this part of the world, and so birds flock to these watering holes like birds to a watering hole.
And here she is, serene and glorious.
"Lake" Douglas
While technically this is probably more of a glorified puddle, birds were indeed on scene. A pair of PINK-EARED DUCKS came in to spend the night, and a lone HOARY-HEADED GREBE dove for who knows what. The main action was in the adjacent shrubs where Liz called out lifer honeyeaters for me one by one—SPINEY-CHEEKED; WHITE-EARED, YELLOW-PLUMED… oh and there’s an INLAND THORNBILL. Next up was the smallest thornbill of them all—a group of WEEBILLS whistling merrily as they danced through the eucalypts. Somewhere a CRESTED BELLBIRD sang his puzzling whistled/gonging song (at the same time and out of sync), and finally, an elegant WHITE-BACKED SWALLOW was the last addition of the day.
Cropped photo of some cool ducks (Note the pink ears)
As things got dark we headed into Kalgoorlie—perhaps the Australian version of Sudbury, Ontario (sorry Sudbury)—famous for its impressively high “strip-club per capita” ratio, as well as the largest open-pit mine in the world (as I am told... more on that tomorrow). Liz wasn’t too familiar with the cuisine of Kalgoorlie so we stopped in at a place labelled “Food Court” figuring there might be a decent selection. Sure enough, there was a food court inside, but not your typical Subway/Burger King/Greek/Sizzling Rice/ Frozen Yogurt bar-type affair. Inside were six booths, marked by flickering neon signs: “Mexican,” “Italian,” “Asian,” “Greek,” “Fish & Chips,” and one creatively titled, “Desserts.”  Sounds fairly typical, but it appeared that all of these shops were operated by one Singaporese family who didn’t seem overly motivated to bother manning all of the booths, limiting our choices to Italian, Asian, and Greek. I tried first for Greek but was completely ignored by the attendee so I moved on to “Asian”—probably the safest choice anyway.

I just realized that I am describing supper in great detail—this could make for a long blog post, best to call it a night…

Not so fast!
King Brown Snake: 7th deadliest in the world. This bloke slithered past me as I set up the tent in the dark

October 13th

Aussie Ringneck
First bird of the morning was a calling SPOTTED NIGHTJAR around 4am. As the sun broke over the scenic open-pit mine on the eastern horizon, I took a stroll through the arid woodlands near our camp hoping for some more lifers. Yep, got some! A flock of 15 PURPLE-CROWNED LORIKEETS rocketed past overhead then a pair of BROWN-HEADED HONEYEATERS popped in for a quick view. A family of BLUE-BREASTED FAIRY-WRENS were my first of many on the trip, then I finally got a decent photo of this common parrot—the (Western) AUSTRALIAN RINGNECK—after some careful stalking near the ‘lake.’

At the respectable hour of 8 o’clock we made our rendez-vous with a pleasant group of outdoor enthusiasts who were interested in Liz’s project. The participants ranged from a professional reptile biologist to a twelve-year-old girl with an endearing obsession of quartz. Out of the fifteen or so people, only a few knew some of the local birds, so in addition to explaining the project, Liz and I split up into two teams and headed out into Karlkurla Park (Pronounced, ‘gull-gurl-la’ which is the Aboriginal name for the native ‘silky pear’—this is also where Kalgoorlie derives it’s name) to demonstrate the practise of two-hectare bird surveys.

It was a very hot morning so birds were a little hard to come by, but luckily even the common birds are lifers for me! This YELLOW-THROATED MINER is certainly one of the more conspicuous residents of the inland forests around here, although not much of a yellow throat on this one.

We also had a few non-bird highlights including this CRESTED BICYCLE DRAGON

Around ten we retreated to a small plant nursery where some locals had organized a lovely “morning tea”—something that I had certainly heard about but never observed while living in New Zealand… the more meals the merrier!
Black and red earth, typical of the Kalgoorlie area. Almost looks like asphalt... more on that later
After tea, Liz and I bid our farewells to the group and headed to the main event (wink)—the SUPER PIT!
Looking down into the SUPER PIT. This mine produces 28 tonnes of gold each year, or enough to adorn
20+ circa. '89 hip hop artists, with a little left over

Kids playing in the "Super Bucket" which is designed to handle 60 tonnes of ore. Good ol' Mine Tourism!
Adult Sharpie--Good bird away from the coast
From there we turned south, bound for the coastal city of Esperance. Not too far south from Kalgoorlie we spotted a small alkaline lake that actually had water in it so naturally as any self-respecting Aussie birder should do—we stopped to take a look. On “Silver Lake,” a distant MUSK DUCK was nice then I noticed an adult SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER in close, as well as a small group of WHITE-FRONTED CHATS (Nice to finally get good looks at this cute buzzy bird after so many fly-overs). We also had brief looks at a nervous BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HEN.

Then as we returned to the truck we were accosted by a grumpy local—perhaps for good reason—Somehow in our attempt to reach what we thought was the Silver Lake parking lot, we had inadvertently driven past several barricades and parked smack-dab in the middle of an active driving range (we’re talking golf for the non-sports people out there). We were informed that any damage to the vehicle would be at our own expense, and if we wanted to get out we had to drive around the back of a sand-trap (the whole thing’s a bloody sand-trap) near the adjacent first hole. Luckily for Liz’s rental bond, we made it out unscathed and got back on the road to Esperance.
Here we are parked in the middle of the driving range; I swear the whole forest looks like a parking lot!

As we neared Esperance (after passing “Shark Lake”—not sure if I’ve ever seen those two words together before), we made sure to stop in at the local golf course following a tip from Nigel…
The supposedly endangered Cape Barren Goose. I think we saw 14 browsing  here
If you ever want to whack balls at an endangered goose, here is your chance!
In addition to the geese there were plenty of other waterbirds around including my long-awaited lifer WOOD SANDPIPER. Finally redemption after missing the BC bird in 2010.

Next we pulled into our camp site for the night—a large caravan park, located conveniently right on the beach, in Esperance. Lifers here included COMMON BRONZEWING, WESTERN WATTLEBIRD, and down on the beach was my first PACIFIC GULL for life, although ‘only’ a juvenile.
Juvie Pacific Gull beside (to scale) Norfolk Pine. At 3.5m tall, it's the biggest  seagull of them all
That evening we ate out at the posh and appropriately named “Loose Goose” restaurant—our final supper in civilization since we would be heading into the bush for a stretch of five days, beginning tomorrow.

October 14th

The morning was a breezy but sunny affair this morning. Esperance is truly a beautiful seashore town, with white sand beaches, picturesque rocky islets, and azure-blue water. In some ways the town reminds me of a bigger wide-open version of Kaikoura in New Zealand. I had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with the local Esperance birding group for an outing nearby, so I walked out on the old tanker jetty near the caravan park. A couple more juvenile PACIFIC GULLS cruised past, while WILLIE WAGTAILS strutted their stuff along the beach and NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS fed fledglings in the bushes near the base of the jetty.  Once I got out to the tip, I scanned a small offshore wharf (that used to be connected to the jetty back in the day before it fell apart) and noted PIED, LITTLE PIED, and my first BLACK-FACED CORMORANTS. Well offshore I could see some dark shearwaters arcing on the wind, but they were too far off to say for sure.
When I returned to the beachfront I met up with Liz and we drove out to a headland north of town which provides a good view of the Cape Barren Geese breeding islands, and there’s a nice little trail one can do to view the coast to the northwest while picking up a few bush birds like (western) WHITE-BROWED SCRUBWREN, SHINING BRONZE-CUCKOO, and high numbers of SILVEREYE and NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS. Down on the shoreline Liz spotted a SOOTY OYSTERCATCHER, and I noted some decidedly distant adult PACIFIC GULLS… need that bird mate!

We still had about half an hour before our meeting time with the birders so Liz and I headed  to a small harbour on the other side of town. Not much around but that didn’t matter since a local fisherman had attracted a small gang of SILVER GULLS, and one lone big ol’ pristinely adult PACIFIC GULL!
As Christopher Stephens put it, these gulls are truly "Bad to the Bill"
With that, we headed back to the caravan park where we met up with Mike and Ellen Gibbs who took us out to a lovely area called Niranda Springs. Here we met up with the rest of the local birding club who were on their monthly bird outing. This was fortunate timing for Liz, since this was a convenient and well-timed way to promote the volunteer woodland surveys and for me tool since we were birding a great area of mixed habitats with a free sausage cook-up at the end!

Although it was turning out to be a rather blustery day, it didn’t take long for my first trip bird. And these were big ones—two nervous-looking EMUS foraging in a sheep paddock as we approached the local property owner who had graciously offered up his slice of paradise for the bird outing. Once the group was assembled and introductions had taken place, we loaded into the four-wheel drives and headed down through another paddock to a largish shallow lake. Here we scoped hundreds of GREY and CHESTNUT TEAL, as well as many BLACK SWANS and PACIFIC BLACKDUCKS. For me the highlight was seeing several (albeit distant) roosting RED-NECKED AVOCETS in amongst some BLACK-WINGED STILTS. 

After morning tea, we checked another corner of the lake where we had close looks at a few more shorebirds including RED-NECKED STINTS, SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPERS, and another much anticipated Eurasian wader—3 COMMON GREENSHANKS.

Next up was lunch—a fantastic home-made sausage cook-off in a nice little glen on the other side of the property. On the drive there we stopped at a small dam that had three YELLOW-BILLED SPOONBILLS as well as a variety of other common stuff. Once in the more treed and wind-protected (great feature on a day like today) lunch-spot, we were finally able to pad our passerine day list which included my lifer RESTLESS FLYCATCHER, a few WHITE-FRONTED, and (Western) WHITE-NAPED HONEYEATERS, as well as a WILLIE WAGTAIL pair who were building a nest right beside the road.

After savouring a wonderful potluck lunch provided by the members of the club, Liz and I had to bid our farewells as we needed to get up into the Great Western Woodlands to set up camp before dark. Mike and Ellen drove us back into Esperance and we were once again on the road.

3 of the cups
After testing out a few dead-end tracks we finally found our way into a slightly remote and very cool little camping spot known as “The Cups”—named for the natural water-pools found in this clearing, surrounded by thick Mallee scrub. This water-source proved to be an effective attracted to local birds, so we sat down nearby to watch the show prior to setting up our tents. BROWN-HEADED and PURPLE-GAPED HONEYEATERS seemed the most common, but I also scored my first RED-CAPPED ROBIN (a brilliant male) and TAWNY-CROWNED HONEYEATER of the trip.

Male Red-capped Robin

Nice comparison of the two bronzewing species
Later in the evening, three bronzewings came in to drink and they turned out to be male and female COMMON BRONZEWINGS with a lone BRUSH BRONZEWING. I went for a short walk as daylight faded, and managed my lifer WESTERN YELLOW ROBIN, then much later while watering a tree in the wee hours I heard the whiney calls of an AUSTRALIAN OWLET-NIGHTJAR.

But I shouldn’t forget this cool amphibian…
One of many Spotted-thighed Frogs found at the Cups. Imagine the distant sound of a dirt-biker changing gears, followed by a loud satisfting "WOBBIT"

October 15th
Peak Charles--somewhere up there is a Wedge-tailed Eagle
Today was our first full-on day of point count surveys in the bush, and Peak Charles National Park is roughly where we were. The actual ‘Peak Charles’ from which the park gets its name, is an ancient outcropping of granite about 650m tall, which in this country is massive. We could easily see Charlie for about 100 km in any direction.
Typical-looking track that we surveyed along. This is Mallee Heathland folks---
--Home of 1 billion+ White-fronted Honeyeaters
We hadn’t even made it to the park boundary however, when one of the most exciting birds an Aussie can hope to whiff decided to put in a brief but hugely appreciated appearance. We were driving along a well maintained gravel road (quite a luxury in this corner of the state), when a Neophema parrot ripped across about ten meters in front of us. The combination of bright yellow underparts, blue face, lime-green back and tail, and electric-blue outer flight feathers pointed to one bird. “SCARLET-CHESTED PARROT!?!?!?!” Liz exclaimed, as we screeched to a halt. I thought it might have gone down into some thick Mallee scrub so we searched the area but couldn't re-find it. Although I was vaguely aware that this is very much on the “Wanted List” when it comes to Australian avifauna, it wasn’t until I cracked some fieldguides and chatted with Nigel, that we were extremely fortunate even to get this brief glimpse. Scarlet-chests are a little-known nomadic-type that seems to like outback country hundreds of miles from civilization. There are a few “regular” spots to check for them in Western Australia, but to put it in a western Canada context—if you lived in Vancouver (i.e. Perth; the SW is where practically everyone lives in the state anyway), you would need to drive out to Medicine Hat, except that half the trip would be on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere and it’s 40 degrees Celsius outside. And now that I’ve provided you with some very detailed and extremely accurate and enlightening natural history on the species… we can move on.

The Scarlet-chest was great, but then again everything is great for me at the moment. It wasn’t too long before my first SOUTHERN SCRUB-ROBIN hopped into view; then I was chasing a couple singing (Western) RUFOUS FIELDWRENS around over morning tea.
Southern Scrub-Robin (15 seconds earlier there was a pair of Shy Heathwrens on this stump!)
Okay maybe not EVERYTHING was great. There was ONE THING that was decidedly NOT great. A very small thing—yes—but there are a lot of them out here! I am speaking of course of the Australian Fly.

“Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles upon. It isn’t simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.

And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner—it is called the bush salute—blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek and forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse…”  

----Bill Bryson from “In a Sunburned Country”

And so as we proceeded into Peak Charles National Park, it began to dawn on me that this would be my life for the next few days—from 9 o’clock in the morning to 6 o’clock in the evening. From working in the Canadian wilderness, I’m fairly used to having lots of bugs around, but it’s hard to deal with creatures that are actually TRYING to get into your eyes and mouth… it made eating a sandwich a very maddening activity. It also seemed that I was about ten times more attractive to flies than Liz. Every time I looked over it seemed like she only had two or three around her.

Anyway, luckily I had a few things to distract me. And so I think to summarize the four days, I’ll just let the photos do the talking (I'm well over 3,000 words for this post... I think that's enough!).
Here's a 1.5m Western Brown Snake. Yet another one that'll drop you quicker than you can read "Goodnight Moon"
Gould's Goanna
Another big boi, this is the Heath Goanna
Had quite a time trying to see these guys up in the tall eucalypts on the east coast. Luckily here in the Malle, the canopy is at eye-level. Bastard still managed to get a leave in the way! (male Spotted Pardalote)
"Bobtail"--this foot-long nugget of lizard meat looks yummy
but Abel Tasman said it's the worst thing he had ever tasted
Some kind of Bull Ant? anyway, at over an inch long, this is one of those insect that just scream "Don't Touch"
Beauty male Brown Falcon--a common site out here in the bush
Spotted Military Dragon... slightly peeved because I stole his basking perch
First legless lizard of the trip: the Common Scaly-foot
Where we spent our final night. This abandoned water-tank with its lovely decorum was the closest we got to civilization. Roasted marshmallows and looked at an upside-down Orion. Life was good!
Highlight of the trip for me. This is a Thorny Devil (not "that's a horny thing!!!" as I shouted giddily after we drove past it on the roadside. I suppose there isn't much that would try and eat this girl so she was surprisingly easy to (gingerly) catch. My new favourite animal for sure!

Of course many birds escaped my camera. Some highlights include seeing the xanthogenys subspecies of the WESTERN ROSELLA (an uncommon and little known form, local to this region), hearing and/or seeing over ten SHY HEATHWRENS, and getting brief looks at a couple CHESTNUT QUAIL-THRUSH. Other lifers from the trip: SQUARE-TAILED KITE, GILBERT’S WHISTLER, WHITE-CHEEKED HONEYEATER, REDTHROAT, CHESTNUT-RUMPED THORNBILL, and yes BUDGIRIGAR (AKA “the Budgie”).

Yet another fantastic week, and once again I owe a lot to a few awesome people, especially Liz Fox this time around. Can’t wait ‘til next week’s Western Ground Parrot surveys near Esperance! Until then I’ll just be relaxing, drinking out of Steins, dabbling in the Indian Ocean, gawking at Terek Sandpipers, and trying to find a “Turtle Frog.” If you don’t know what that is—GOOGLE IT NOOOOWWWW!!!

Until next time,

Russell C.H. Cannings

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Intro to Perth

October 9th

Landed in the coastal city Perth this morning, the capital of Western Australia, where I’ll be roughly based for at least the next two months. Nigel Jackett picked me up… and what did we do? We went birding. Here are a couple photo highlights of our afternoon walk around Herdsmen Lake in Perth. 

Possibly the first photograph of a *swimming* Black-tailed Native-hen???
Ahh that's more like it. These dryland cousins of swamphens, moorhens, and coots (which  there were plenty of here), typically stick to the interior, but lately there have been four hanging aroun this small lake in Perth. 

My first Yellow-billed Spoonbill of the trip!

Damn invasives... this Rainbow Lorikeet, a common garden bird throughout eastern Australia, is now an established introduction to the Perth area... Well--better than house sparrows or starlings, which believe it or not--
there are NONE of in Perth!

October 10th--Hello Indian Ocean

Spent most of today picking up gear I'll be needing for some upcoming bird surveys I'll be doing in the native woodlands around Kalgoorlie and Esperance.

Later on in the afternoon, Nigel and I headed to the beach where I copped my first peek at the Indian Ocean, as well as this Crested Tern.
Add caption
Heading out into the bush for a week, so I'll talk to you all after that. I'm sure I'll have a few tales to tell.

Until next time!


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Australia Part 1: A week in Bellawongarah

So it's October now, and for the first time in 4 years I'm not in British Columbia doing silly things like chasing vagrant birds on Vancouver Island, shovelling turkey into my mouth, and thinking about what tall historical/fantastical characters I could dress up as for Halloween. Instead, I am in Australia. Why not right? With no major plans for the winter and a teensy bit of money saved after the field-season, I figured this could be a fun way to spend six months (finances depending of course).

Another big reason for heading down to Australia specifically, would have to be Nigel Jackett. Some of you may know him and Jaime Hall, who cycled across Canada together in 2011, tallying 333 bird species and raising around $4,500 for the Ancient Forest Alliance (based in British Columbia). I had the pleasure of meeting up with Nigel and Jaime in Victoria as they completed their long journey. While out birding, Nigel mentioned that if I ever wanted to come down to Australia (Nigel and Jaime live in Perth), I would be welcome to crash for a bit at their place, and there might even be the possibility of field-work. Well hopefully he wasn't just trying to be polite because that's what about to happen! ;)
Superb Fairy-wren... an ugly denizen of parks and gardens

I flew out of Vancouver on the afternoon of October 1st headed for Shanghai on China Eastern Airlines. Wasn't sure what to expect from this little-known of the big carriers, but it was cheap! Landed in Shanghai around sunset; didn't have a window-seat so no birds to report. Spent a few hours stretching out the legs around the Pu Dong airport, then boarded the next flight (overnight) to Sydney. This time around I didn't have the luxury of an emergency exit seat, so it was a decidedly uncomfortable attempt at sleeping for these long legs-o-mine.

When I got off the plane in Sydney it was 9am local-time, and despite my one or two hours of sleep I felt surprisingly alert and excited now that I was Down Unda. After gathering up my stuff I boarded a train for Central Station where I transferred to the South Line and headed to the small town of Berry, south of the coastal city of Wollongong. Here I was met by Carla Jackett, Nigel's mother. Following Nigel's recommendation, I would be spending the next few days "getting over jetlag" with Carla and his dad (Jacko) at their lovely place up on Berry Mountain. I wasn't actually jetlagged at all, and since Carla is a birder, it turned out to be a glorious way to get my feet wet in the Aussie lifestyle (with an emphasis on feathered objects).

Warning: The following blog entry contains scenes of graphic birding and partial nerdity. Reader discretion is advised.


As I stepped into Carla's car, she asked if I wanted to sleep or go birding. The answer was easy.

On the train-ride in I had picked up a couple nice birds like WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE, STRAW-NECKED IBIS, SULPHUR-CRESTED COCKATOO, WHITE-FACED HERON, and NOISY MINER. Once in Berry with Carla, the fun continued as LITTLE and RED WATTLEBIRDS chattered in some local gardens, MAGPIE-LARKS patrolled a nearby roadside ditch, and a gang of RAINBOW LORIKEETS screeched as they hurtled past. All around me were unfamiliar calls and sounds, and birds I only vaguely recognized from a family holiday to Australia back when I was 14. It was a strange feeling, after many years of getting to know North America's birds, not having a clue what some things were even when they were perched right in front of me!

Carla took me to a place called Shoalhaven Heads (via the meat-pie shop of course)--the local river estuary hotspot that also boasts a beautiful beach on the mighty Pacific Ocean as well as  a mixture of brushy habitats. New trip birds were being added at a ridiculous pace, as CHESTNUT TEAL, MANED DUCK, and AUSTRALIAN PELICAN were tallied before even getting out of the car.
Australian Pelican against the Aussie hills

Once out on two feet, the hits just kept on coming. NEW HOLLAND and LEWIN'S HONEYEATERS filled nearby trees with their sharp contact calls, while low in the scrub BROWN THORNBILLS, GREY FANTAILS, and SUPERB FAIRY-WRENS buzzed and trilled.

As we rounded a bay, we came upon a nice selection of shorebirds feeding on the tidal flats. These included a good number of PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVERS, RED-NECKED STINTS, and RED KNOTS, along with a few PIED OYSTERCATCHERS, and single SHARP-TAILED SANDPIPER and RED-CAPPED PLOVER.

Each week Carla helps with a volunteer effort to monitor the nesting oystercatchers in the area, so next we headed over to the dunes where some electric fences have been erected to keep people and dogs out of the nesting zone. As we approached one nest however, an AUSTRALIAN RAVEN hovered over the unguarded nest, then nabbed an egg! As the raven flew low over the beach Carla chased after it as it disappeared behind a dune. As she did so, a group of 9 WHITE-FRONTED CHATS flushed off the open ground--a nice species to pick up for the area. As we got closer, the raven flew off without an egg, but Carla found his tracks and after a bit of searching I found the egg, completely intact, cached under a pile of dried seaweed!
Carlo with "POC" egg
These are not raven tracks... can you guess who they belong to?

Answer: Red-capped Plover! [Essentially a sexier version of our Snowy Plover]
And yes, out on the proper beach there were a handful of plovers, and while we checked the other Pied Oystercatcher nest (which fledged successfully by the way), we also noted fly-by WHISTLING KITE, BROWN GOSHAWK, WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE, and not to be out winged by the big boys--a single BAR-SHOULDERED DOVE.  Offshore I scoped a fishingboat which was getting a lot of attention from a flock of SILVER GULLS. A small, white-headed albatross was circling the boat which I concluded was a SHY ALBATROSS based on the underwing pattern. Several probable SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERS were also too far out to see well, and my first EASTERN WHIPBIRDS of the trip gave their totally awesome-cool songs from the coastal scrub.
White-bellied Sea Eagle
It was getting close to supper-time so we headed back to Berry and up into the hills where Carla and Jacko live. Some people have nice birdy yards... but this was something else! 150 acres of Eucalyptus woodland and temperate rainforest, criss-crossed by convenient walking tracks and trickling brooks? I could get used to this.

As we neared the house, a WOMBAT scooted across the road--what a burly ball of intriguing cuteness! Yes they're cute okay? But also funny-lookin. Anyway--also passed a couple SWAMP WALLABIES along the way. Decent start to the marsupial list. It was too dark to see birds when we pulled into the driveway, but LAUGHING KOOKABURRAS and LOGRUNNERS (endemic to a thin strip of mountains in New South Wales and southern Queensland---those are Australian states if you just came out of a cave) were still actively calling. Later on in the evening a pair of SOUTHERN BOOBOOK (owls) started calling.
Bassian Thrush; nice to catch one out in the open
What a place-- I couldn't wait for the morning, but sleep seemed like a good idea.


I woke up at 5:30am. Not much choice when a family of LAUGHING KOOKABURRAS live outside your window. As the eastern skies brightened, an incredible cacophony of incredible birdsong filled the air. The distinctive song of the EASTERN WHIPBIRD was about the only thing I could identify, save for one obvious exception: the SUPERB LYREBIRD. If you haven't seen the BBC segment on this bird, you need to check it out (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjE0Kdfos4Y). A bird that looks this cool and sounds that cool, has no business being "fairly common" in someone's backyard. But that's the way it is here at Carla and Jacko's place (known as "Bellawongarah"--or "the place of many Wonga Pigeons"). As I sat at the breakfast table, I could hear at least 3 or 4 different lyrebirds sounding off, along with a host of mysterious sounds that I was dying to try and track down. 

Male (left) and female Gang-gang Cockatoos
So off we went, first along a trail that leads into the rainforest habitat--birds were everywhere. Carla pointed out WHITE-BROWED and YELLOW-THROATED SCRUBWRENS, then I spotted a single LARGE-BILLED SCRUBWREN. Songsters higher up in the canopy included GOLDEN and RUFOUS WHISTLERS, BLACK-FACED MONARCHS, SPOTTED PARDALOTES, BROWN GARYGONES, and GREY SHRIKE-THRUSHES. As we climbed the trail up to the top of a nearby hill, we caught a glimpse of a female lyrebird dashing up the path in front of us. Further up, the forest opened into a drier eucalyptus woodland. Here, eye-popping CRIMSON ROSELLAS rocketed past, while WHITE-THROATED TREECREEPERS worked the trunks of nearby trees. Probably the neatest discovery of the morning, was a pair of GANG-GANG COCKATOOS that were apparently excavating a nest!

Next we headed down a lower track to an area where Carla has been monitoring a small population Eastern Bristlebirds (once common in south-eastern Oz, now rapidly declining). No luck with those secretive brown-jobs but a few new birds were coming in to a small pond. Here we picked up ROSE ROBIN, EASTERN YELLOW ROBIN, YELLOW-FACED HONEYEATER, and a showy male RUFOUS WHISTLER.

From here we headed back to the house for a nice lunch of egg sandies... nabbed a pair of AUSTRALIAN KING PARROTS on the walk.

After lunch, Carla drove me down to Bomaderry where there's a beautiful little sandstone canyon. This is a known site for the highly localized endemic--the Rock Warbler--essentially the Aussie version of a Canyon Wren (in terms of ecological niche). It was a warm afternoon, so bird activity was somewhat reduced, but since this was my first full day in the country there were still great things to see! YELLOW-FACED HONEYEATERS were common, and I nabbed my lifer YELLOW THORNBILL. Then once we got down into the cool shade of the canyon we were treated to great looks at a BROWN CUCKOO-DOVE. Soon after this I spotted a WHITE-THROATED TREECREEPER feeding two young at a nest!
Juvie White-throated Treecreeper peeking out of the nest cavity
 And just as I pointed that out, Carla noticed a RING-TAILED POSSUM snoozing right out in the open!
Apparently tourists aren't supposed to get this lucky
In the evening, Carla and I took a short nightwalk. Couldn't find any owls but we got decent looks at a GREATER GLIDER-- a very cool marsupial. We also had brief glimpses of a foraging ECHIDNA but hopefully I'll see more.

One of the more extravagant one-lane bridges I've seen (Kangaroo Valley)
Today Carla was heading into the picturesque country town of Kangaroo Valley for a yoga class, and so I came along and went for a walk along the nearby Kangaroo River. It was a hot day, but there were so many birds around I barely noticed. Showy EASTERN SPINEBILLS darted from flower to flower, while a NOISY FRIARBIRD and SACRED KINGFISHER both called loudly from atop a tall Eucalyptus. As I rounded a corner in the trail, I spooked a large group of EASTERN GREY KANGAROOS--my first true kangas of the trip! More new trip birds/lifers popped up as I trekked further up the sandstone canyon. An OLIVE-BACKED ORIOLE was a nice one, but a calling male LEADEN FLYCATCHER was possibly even cooler. A black speck in the sky caught my eye and I got it in the bins just in time before it flew out of view---adult WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE! Final new bird of the walk was a trilling FAN-TAILED CUCKOO which took me quite a while to pinpoint as it hopped around in a thick patch of trees.
Yawning White-naped Honeyeater--quite numerous along the trail
Headed back to the Jackett homestead for another relaxing afternoon. On the way we stopped off at a scenic lookout but unfortunately the sky was a bit hazy. High overhead we heard and saw a small group of woodswallows--a good find for the area, but they were just too high and back-lit to 100% ID them--most likely Masked but possibly White-browed... more on that later.

Oh yes--and later that evening, as the sun was going down, we finally scored an EASTERN BRISTLEBIRD! Clara pointed out the sharp call, then after some patience we caught a glimpse of it dashing across the road.

And today my ECHIDA prayers were answered!


Today was Carla and my 'big' birding day (if we weren't birding enough already). The plan was to meet a group of Wollongong and Sydney birders out at Barren Grounds Nature Reserve-- a place where the scarce and declining Eastern Ground Parrot can be found, among other goodies.

Only problem was... the weather had changed from hot and sunny to foggy, rainy, and cold.
Eastern Ground Parrot habitat; this is probably a very pretty meadow on a sunny day
Since the main group wasn't meeting until 9am, we arrived at 7 to get an earlier start in case any ground parrots were on the track. The rain wasn't letting up and the fog made visibility challenging but at least there were still lots of birds around. Seems to be a theme in this area!
Hoping for handouts at the picnic shelter. This wet Pied Currawong is a little bit more intimidating than a Gray Jay!
A singing HORSFIELD'S BRONZE CUCKOO was the first new bird, then around the first bend we ran into the first pair of EASTERN BRISTLEBIRDS (we ended up with around 8!). Apparently rainy days are good for seeing these guys out on the track.
Tough to get good photographs when it's pouring rain and windy!

Another nice advent of this cruddy weather was that had pushed in large numbers of woodswallows. At first it was a bit frustrating because we could hear them calling off in the fog but couldn’t see any. Masked and White-browed Woodswallows have similar calls and often travel in mixed flocks, but we couldn’t be sure until we actually saw them well. Every once in a while a bird would fly past close enough to see, but it was only a silhouette. Finally our prayers were answered and we came upon a tree where close to ten woodswallows were resting. Here we had fantastic looks at WHITE-BROWED WOODWALLOWS and at least one MASKED WOODSWALLOW. Apparently White-browed are fairly unusual this close to the east coast, but being nomadic, they can sometimes turn up in large numbers and I reckon there were probably around one hundred of them in this small area today.
Finally! A woodswallow that we can ID--this one of the "Masked" variety... looks cold
But there were plenty of other great birds to see along the walk. A pair of BEAUTIFUL FIRETAILS (cute little finches) popped up for a quick look, then I finally got a decent look at a FAN-TAILED CUCKOO after hearing many over the last couple days. Around the next bend, we had possibly our most significant sighting—not a bird but a LONG-NOSED POTOROO. Apparently a threatened species and something that few Aussies are lucky enough to see.
Mr. Potoroo--possibly the best find of the trip thus far
As we descended a small hill down to a creek crossing where a natural the sandstone forms a natural bridge across the water, we were on high alert for a very special endemic known as the Pilotbird. This species is only found in the SE corner of Australia and is often difficult to see, even in known territories. Apparently the name derives from their alleged penchant for following lyrebirds around the forest in order to snag a few bugs or worms that the larger bird rakes up (e.g. like a ‘pilot-fish’ with a shark). Apparently there is much contention about the validity of this behaviour however—but frankly I would be happy to just to see one! We listened hard for their Fox Sparrow-like song, but all we could hear really were bag-loads of NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS, mixed groups of BROWN THORNBILLS and WHITE-BROWED SCRUBWRENS, plus the omnipresent gangs of CRIMSON ROSELLAS (not complaining!).
At this point we were getting pretty wet despite the rain gear, so we started heading back, then this guy popped onto the trail! As we stood and watched in silence, this PILOTBIRD actually moved closer toward us before moving off into the scrub.
Foggy/rainy picture of a Pilotbird. Note the white patch on the neck--minor pigment defect?
But the Barren Grounds still had one more gift for us. As we neared the car-park, Carla remarked that we still hadn’t seen or heard an emu-wren. I asked her to play the call to refresh my memory on what they sounded like, and instantly a pair of SOUTHERN EMU-WRENS started calling from the scrub right beside us and I enjoyed brief but fantastic views of both male and female. Their high-pitched squeaks are somewhat reminiscent of golden-crowned kinglets, but they’re a lot hard to see since they favour the thick bush and aren’t as keen to pop out into the open like fairy-wrens will.
Yep, it was wet.
Despite missing the ground parrots, I was thoroughly happy with the morning’s walk, and so we headed down the hill to the town of Robertson so we celebrated (and dried off) with a couple of meat-pies at the local bakery.

As we left Robertson, the rain had abated, which made the rest of the afternoon that much more enjoyable. We stopped off first at a pond (or “dam” as Kiwis and Aussies say) in Moss Vale where new trips birds were everywhere. A pair of introduced (European) GOLD FINCHES flew across the road, then Carla spotted two AUSTRALIAN SHELDUCKS in a nearby paddock. EURASIAN SKY LARKS were singing overhead and we eventually had looks at one of them. Then a native RUFOUS SONGLARK showed us what he could do, just as several WHITE-WINGED WHISTLERS flew by! As I hastily absorbed all these new things, we finally turned our attention to the pond itself where there were plenty of waterbirds including AUSTRALASIAN SHOVELER, HARDHEAD, HOARY-HEADED and AUSTRALASIAN GREBES, and a single BLACK-FRONTED DOTTEREL. Unfortunately, some hoped-for freckled ducks were not seen, but no worries. A flock of EASTERN ROSELLAS, plus a pair of smart-looking RED-RUMPED PARROTS made for an easy distraction.
Pair of Galahs (cockatoos) lookin' gooood. "Common as muck"
Our final birding stop of the day was a large reservoir near Fitzroy Falls. It was getting pretty windy but we soon found a couple of the expected GREAT CRESTED GREBES, along with a couple AUSTRALASIAN and HOARY-HEADEDS. Then we quickly stopped in to a spot on the east side of the reservoir, and I was about to ask if people ever see terns in the area, just as a medium-sized tern landed on a piece of wood about 150m away! It was an adult in pre-basic moult and puzzled us for a fair-while. By far the most likely red-billed/red-legged tern species in this part of the world is WHISKERED TERN, and after much humming and hawing I finally decided that it must be so. Good old distant terns right!
Back to Bellawongarah for some tea and a hot-shower!
Me wearing a toque: Proof that it's not always smoking hot down here

Today I took it easy and lounged around the Jacketts’s place a bit. Some new birds this morning included a pair of ver cool-looking CRESTED SHRIKE-TITS, a single BLACK-FACED CUCKOO-SHRIKE, and brief views of a GREEN CATBIRD (which we later heard giving their fantastic cat/baby-like wails in the afternoon).

Not sure if it was this day or another day, but Carla and I discovered that a SATIN BOWERBIRD had constructed his bower just meters from the edge of their yard! These bowers are not for nesting. Essentially they are a catwalk for the male to strut his stuff and impress females. This particular species clears a small patch of ground in the forest, makes a soft carpet of grasses, then builds a little archway which I suppose he walk through during the display. The finishing touch is a collection of blue things that the male collects from his surrounding territory. Traditionally these would mostly be flowers, but ‘modern’ Satin Bowerbirds often use a wide range of man-made objects such as bottle-caps, string, flagging-tape, or even someone’s business card. As long as it’s blue!
Apparently it takes the male Satin Bowerbird SEVEN years to look this good!

Today I bid farewell to Bellawongarah and headed north on the train to Sydney. I can’t thank Carla and Jacko enough for the wonderful hospitality, and especially Carla for taking so much time to show me around, rain or shine!
And I shouldn't neglect to mention these new friends> Wheat-Bix (top) and his sister Roma--
the  "Serial Lickers of Bellawongarah"

"Slightly out-of-focus, through some branches" shot of
a Red-rumped Parrot...just so you know it's mine
I got off the train in Campbelltown, a SE suburb of Sydney, where a longtime friend from the high-school days—Jenny Kenyon—is living while completing vet school. After relaxing and catching up at her place for a while, we took a walk through a nearby park to grab some lunch. Despite being in a distinctly urban setting, there were plenty of birds around and I couldn’t help but nerd it up for a while. A good mix of ducks and grebes were present but nothing new. The new things came in the form of FAIRY MARTINS whizzing around overhead, a few groups of WHITE-PLUMED HONEYEATERS calling from the trees, while AUSTRALIAN REED-WARBLERS chattered from… yes… the reeds! We also got great views of RED-RUMPED PARROTS. Hard to concentrate on ‘normal’ things when these dang birds are everywhere.

Tonight we took it easy since Jenny was still recovering from a lovely bout of tonsillitis and I needed to catch a train to the airport at 5am. Had some pretty tasty Thai curry though… Flying to Perth tomorrow!
Jenny in front of the mighty Harrington Park water feature! 
Massive thank you to Jenny K for the warm welcome—I’ll see ya again in a couple months!