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 ( 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! 

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