Thursday, March 28, 2013

Epic Aussie Road Trip: EPIC CONCLUSION!

Well for those of you that think this blog has been slipping in caliber over the last few posts, hopefully this will save your faith! FINALLY, the epic and longest possible conclusion to Jukka, Pertti, and Russell's crazy dash across Australia. What makes this post long? It's about Queensland--Australia's most bird-rich state. We entered it on December 23rd, and left on January 8th. That might not seem like a super-long time. But when you're birding from 6 am to 9 pm every single day--you can pack in a lot of action. To roughly summarize, we started off in the famous Lamington National Park in SW Queensland, then headed due west into SW Queensland, before cutting NE to return to the coast in Townsville, where continued north past Cairns to the Daintree River before heading all the way back down south to Brisbane.

So here we go... 
Usually one of Lamington's most conspicuous residents, it wasn't until our final morning (Christmas morning!) that we spied this brilliant male REGENT BOWERBIRD. Apparently this late in the breeding season, most of the adult males move down-slope away from O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat. [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
Where is O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat you ask? Well it's probably one of the world's most famous bird-lodges, located high up in the boarder ranges of Lammington National Park. This is one of the two road-access points to the park. But as you have probably noticed by now, we're not rich... so we stayed in the adjacent campsite run by the park. There's my tent. Had to hang my stocking on that post. I must admit, it was a little tough to listen to everyone partying and feasting it up at the lodge while we ate tuna at our campsite, but how many people can say they have ALBERT'S LYREBIRD, PARADISE RIFLEBIRD, and MARBLED FROGMOUTH on their Christmas Eve list?
We were quite happy with ourselves.
Lamington is a great place for eastern rainforest mountainy birds... such as this  LOGRUNNER.  Although they occasionally run on logs, they should really be called "side-swipers" after their unique foraging habit of propping themselves up with their stiff tail-feathers then swiping leafs at impressive perpendicular angles, before nabbing whatever bugs they turn-up. Very cool birds. [Photo: JJ]
Playing around with one of Lamington's many Strangler-Figs.
The Regent is not Lamington's only bowerbird. We shouldn't forget to mention the more abundant SATIN BOWERBIRD that collects anything blue (from milk-caps to straws and string), to decorate its bower. A bower is not a nest; it's essentially a stage for the male's noisy but apparently attractive display.

Bad Crimson Rosella! No cookie for you.

We left Lamington NP in the afternoon of Christmas Day. We spent the hot afternoon birding west of Warwick somewhere, where the 40+degree heat was very Christmas-y indeed. At least it delivered our first GREY-CROWNED BABBLER and SPECKLED WARBLER of the trip (thank to a tip from Roy Sonnenburg!).  We wanted to have a proper dinner for X-mas (e.g. Not tuna & crackers), so we pulled into the "Roadhaven Cafe" in Goondiwindi just after dark (this was the only place open).
Here we are with a big Christmas dinner! There was even some tinsel around the booth and a small Christmas tree just behind Pertti. Nothing like a truckstop Christmas to give you some perspective. Wish I could have put this photo out closer to the date... but March 28th it is! Merry Christmas everybody!
After our extravagant meal in Goondiwindi, we pressed west to Cunnamulla in SW Queensland. Here we are parked on the side of a road... somewhere west of the little town of Eulo I think? We had a lot of birds to find out here as this would be our last shot at many true outback species. Hall's Babbler is a local specialty, but we were also missing things like "Major Bitchell's"(The stress was really mounting for Jukka since I kept spotted these pink cockies while he was still sleeping or off taking a piss etc etc) and bluebonnet, and Southern Whiteface...and so on.
When Nigel and I originally started planning the outline of this trip, we were supposed to stay at Bowra Station (For the North Americans out there, a 'station' is like a large ranch; usually for sheep), which is known as a great spot for many interior specialties including the babbler and Grey Falcon. But when I called the owner, she said Bowra is closed for the summer. Apparently no one is stupid enough to attempt birding out here at this time of year so everything's shut. We got a similar message out at Lake Bindegolly (pictured)--the interpretive sign said something to the effect of, "Do not attempt walking these trail in summer, and especially not during the middle of the day." Well we didn't have much of a choice. Ya it was 45degrees or whatever but we only have 1.5days out here! We had an coller full of water so we braved the heat at Lake Bindegolly and it was actually quite good. Lifers here included CRIMSON CHAT and BLACK-EARED CUCKOO, but the real highlight was seeing such high numbers of inland billabong species considered rare closer to the coast. Because of the heat, we stayed relatively close to the main road, so these numbers would have been even higher had we gone to the actual Lake Bindegolly to the north. Just by the road we counted ~1000 PINK-EARED DUCKS, 148 FRECKLED DUCKS & ~560 BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HENS!
As we drove back toward our campsite east of Eulo, we stopped several times to try and scratch out a few new birds. Well it worked finally when Jukka spotted this beautiful pair of BLUEBONNETS! Not a rare bird but one I definitely wanted to see before leaving Oz. Later that night we heard several SPOTTED NIGHTJARS displaying around our campsite, then a few BOURKE'S PARROTS called as they flew circled in the dark. This latter species is known for coming in to drink after dark--that's why we camped at the "Eulo Bore" which was mostly dried up, but there were a few puddles of water, as well as a  drinking trough for cattle that the larger parrots seemed to like. [P: JJ]
Ahhhh, finally Jukka could rest easy. This pair of MAJOR MITCHELL'S COCKATOOS came into drink just as we were about to leave the bore. Soon after a singleton joined them. As you can see, GALAHS (top) were also present, along with our first RED-WINGED PARROTS of the trip.
Sheena is a Punk Rocker
Although we had enjoyed a few successes, we were getting frustrated with the heat and the overall lack of "expected" species despite many kilometers of walking through mulga scrub. We considered the possibility of heading straight back to the coast, but decided to stick it out and head north first to Winton before cutting back up to the coast. This would give us at least another day to squeak out a few more interior species.

We tried in vain, one last time, for Hall's Babbler... then hit the road for Winton. It's a 10-hour drive to Winton from Eulo, so we weren't going to get in until well after dark. Most of our birding was from the car but we got out from time to time when things like our lifer AUSTRALIAN PRATINCOLE popped into view. Since I'm writing this from memory, I may be missing some highlights, but my principle impression from that drive was how many BLACK KITES were there. In that one day, we must have seen between 5,000 and 10,000 kites... I'm not joking. The entire countryside was covered in them. There were 10-30 on every roadkill, kettles of 50-200 soaring in the distance at all times, and every garbage dump (aka "tip") had several hundred in full-scavenge mode.
There were other grassland birds out there as well, like this AUSTRALASIAN BUSTARD
[Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
As we pressed toward Winton after dark, we nearly hit a Tyto sp. that was sitting on the road. At first we assumed they were all Barn Owls in this area but after consulting the fieldguide we realized we were in the middle of a large Grass Owl area. Considering that there wasn't a tree or building for hundreds of miles in any direction (where we saw the owl), good chance it was a Grass... but by the time we realized this we were well beyond the owl. Damn... Once we got to Winton, we turned south for Bladensberg National Park. We didn't know anything about it other than it was a park on our road atlas so we figured it might have some birds. Like Eulo, native-hens were everywhere, skittering across the road in the darkness. Then a large white owl flashed in front of us--a grass owl? It landed on a snag and we were able to get the bins up... nope, a BARN OWL. Oh well, that was a trip bird! But then it started to rain, and by the sound of the thunder, this was going to be an intense shower. We weren't about to test our passenger-rated tires on wet Aussie clay, so we retreated to the truck-shelter in Winton for the night.
This is 'Banjo' Peterson--the man who wrote the famous Aussie ballad, "Waltzing Matilda." Well apparently Banjo wrote the song while working on a nearby station, and it was first performed publicly at the North Gregory Hotel here in Winton. For those not familiar with Waltzing Matilda, it's probably the most famous song in Australia, sung drunkenly in pubs, soberly in choirs, and passionately at rugby tests.
After the rain cleared, we headed back toward Bladensberg but stuck to the paved roads. The above photo is evidence that our decision to stick inland payed off! In addition to a massive flock of COCKATIELS, I was over the moon to find several groups of SPINIFEX PIGEONS!!! These cute little wind-up toy birds are locally common in spinifex hill-country but I thought we were too far west. I'll take it though! Check out that crest. [Photo: JJ]
Skipping ahead a little here... from Winton we B-lined it for Townsville on the mid-Queensland coast. On our first full day on the coast, we made Southern Cassowary a priority. Despite seeing lots of signs, we did not see any cassowaries. The one pictures is fairly practical, but all the ones asking, "Are you watching for cassowaries?" were just cruel.
Wouldn't be a hardcore birding trip without a quick visit to a peat-farm.
Here in Edmonton, Queensland, we found a lone LITTLE CURLEW--lifer!
I think I'm going in chronological order... anyway. So after arriving in Cairns, we hopped on the "Seastar" and cruised out to the Great Barrier Reef for a day. I don't look too happy for some reason; maybe it was the $10 fuel surcharge?
The first stop was Michaelmas Cay: A large seabird colony (mostly Common Noddies and Sooty Terns, but there were several Black Noddies mixed in along with Black-naped Terns, Lesser Crested Terns, plus a few common odds n ends. As you can see from the photo, a few BROWN BOOBIES were present (top), and we also had good looks at several GREAT FRIGATEBIRDS. This is a photo of Pertti (far left), and I (3rd from right) heading off for some Live Action snorkeling! Had a fantastic time despite some mild nipple irritation from the jellyfish suites (a sting from a box-jellyfish can lead to the most painful death known to man). Some great looks at sea-turtles, as well as many other colourful fishies and whatnot. It was great to have a day where birding was secondary... well after we scoped through the roosting booby flocks of course.
Further out near Hasting Reef, we looked-on as two people were air-lifted from another dive-boat. Not sure what happened... maybe someone stepped on a stone-fish? Shark? Box-jelly? Ah well, I payed over $100 for this, I'm jumping back in.
Back to the mainland, Pertti points out one of the notorious inhabitants of the Daintree River: The Saltwater Crocodile.  And yes it was raining. According to the locals, it had been the longest, driest, coldest winter ever (I thought it was suppose to be summer?). Anyway, just our luck that our first day in the region and the WET SEASON starts. Good for the birds, tough for the birders.
Would these be our closest encounter with a cassowary? Luckily the railing is blocking our view of Jukka playing with the cassowaries dangly-bobs.
Here is a building! It's the HQ of the Atherton Tablelands' most popular birding lodge--Kingfisher Park!
And this is where it gets its name. There are at least 7 pairs of this atrociously good-looking bird (the BUFF-BREASTED PARADISE-KINGFISHER) on the ground of the lodge. We camped here for several nights and scored some great views. This is where we spent a rainy but birdy New Years, picking up such lifers as BLUE-WINGED KOOKABURRA, FAIRY GERYGONE, and other boring common stuff.  On the night of New Years Eve ( as the rain poured down), we were treated to a pair of RED-NECKED CRAKES running around in the open including one that sat on the doormat to the lodge office. [Photo: Jukka Jantunen]
A sharp-looking RED-BACKED FAIRYWREN near Lake Mitchell. Lots of other goodies nearby (Mt Molloy area) like NORTHERN FANTAIL, COTTON PYGMY-GOOSE, and WHITE-BROWED ROBIN.
[Photo: JJ]
Major-cool! This was my first mammal/monotreme of 2013, and a lifer at that. There were in fact two PLATYPUS at this waterhole (Kingfisher Park). Just great. New Years morning!
[Photo: JJ]
While staying at K-Park, we made several trip up the nearby Mt Lewis for some Atherton specialties and were finally able to find all of them save for the Golden Bowerbird. But considering the K-Park staff's comments (below) we were happy to get what we got. This is a BLUE-FACED PARROTFINCH.

Me: "Any tips on finding parrotfinches up the mountain?"
Kingfisher Park: "No, really scarce this year. Terrible seed crop."
Me: "What about Papuan Frogmouth?"
KP: "No we used to have a pair on the property but a Rufous Owl ate them"
Me: "So there are Rufous Owl?"
KP: "No, haven't been around in a few years"
Me: "My guide book says this is a good area for grass owl"
KP:"No I haven't seen one of those since 2007 Really scarce"

You get the idea. We also managed to get great looks at VICTORIA'S RIFLEBIRD, TOOTH-BILLED BOWERBIRD, SPOTTED CATBIRD, and CHOWCHILLA (cousin of the logrunner) up Mt Lewis, then later at night we scored LESSER SOOTY OWL and a heard-only PAPUAN FROGMOUTH.
Most burger-joints over-do the whole advertising thing, but in Mt Molloy, this spectacular establishment has a rather inconspicuous sign.
But boy do they deliver--this was a serious burger with some serious fried-egg content!
Me and my first AMETHYSTINE PYTHON (somewhere in the cane-fields near Mossman). I'm not used to seeing 3-m snakes, but I think these blokes can get a lot longer and fatter.
Before moving it off the road, I thought I'd strum a few LIVE ACTION C-chords
He had his reservations, but eventually Pertti got into the whole snake-thing.
Another roadside snake. This is a Whipsnake sp. (Left my book at home). Somewhat poisonous. There were also Cane Toads everywhere in this area. We probably "accidentally" killed 100+
Okay it's daytime again, and here we are back in Daintree with our top-notch boat-guide: Ian "Suace" Worcester.  In addition to the great name, Sauce knows the Daintree like the back of something that is familiar to him, so we had a great time cruising up and down the river for a couple hours--joined by a nice birding family from Brisbane.
Jungle-fringes to the Daintree. This is Croc country
Although we missed two targets: Little Kingfisher & Great-billed Heron, this was almost negated by the fact that we had great looks at 11(+) BLACK BITTERNS, including a pair just starting a nest. [Photo: JJ]
Another big highlight: Seeing this 4-meter crocodile stalking a calf drinking at the waters' edge. Unfortunately for us, he was scared off by the sound of our engine (like our boat could scare this beast!), so no live action. Apparently all the "Croc-Boats" that went out later that day missed him. Early birds baby!
Thanks to a tip from Sauce, we were alerted to this PAPUAN FROGMOUTH nesting right beside the main-road near some road-construction.
Sauce came through once again by calling up his son who took us out to find a GREAT-BILLED HERON nest he had found a little while earlier. At first we couldn't find any sign of the chick up in the dense mangrove forest, but then I realized it was standing right beside us! The nest had blown down in the storm and juvie GB was in full cryptic posture only 3 meters from where we were standing. Of course, the only camera we had was Jukka's 500mm, but he couldn't get far enough away to fit the whole bird in the frame (wading too far into the wet mangroves is just asking for crocodiles), so this is a "panoramic" shot of the bird (4 photos combined). Well done Jukka.
Well before heading SW into Atherton proper, we made one last stop in Cairns to check the Esplanade for new shorebirds. This is about as cruisey as shorebirding gets, with 10+ wader species easily visible each evening from the comfort of a bench, not far from the fish n' chips stand. I was hoping for my lifer Broad-billed Sandpiper, but that was not to be. A good mix though, including our first LESSER SAND-PLOVERS (AKA Mongolian) of the trip.
For the North American Wader-phyles out there, here's a GREY-TAILED TATTLER. Age and sex it yo.
After the thrill of grasswrening and quail-thrushing, Jukka and I were now obsessed with "beach stone-curlewing & cassowarying"
Back on the Atherton Plateau (or whatever it's called), we started scorching the earth for Black-throated Finches and Squatter Pigeons. No luck with the finch but we eventually ran into the partridge-like SQUATTER PIGEONS somewhere near this termite mound (Pertti in typical attire). We also were pleasantly surprised to flush a pair of SARUS CRANES, which are mostly on the north coast at this time of year.
Me going for a dip in Mt Hypipamee National Park, where we tried in vain to nab a Golden Bowerbird. Nice looks at a male Victoria's Riflebird though!
Welcomed dusk in downtown Mareeba. We were following up on a hot-tip for White-browed Crake (which we failed to see), but one never gets tired of watching massive exoduses of flying-foxes!
Following up on another tip, we tried for Rufous Owl at night at the "Cathedral Fig" (one of the most impressive stranglers you'll ever see). Cool tree, but no owl (well, we heard several boobooks).
Jukka and I making out "Last Stand" for cassowary. Here I think we're trying to relocate a tattler that seemed suspiciously Wandering-like. Could not refind the bugger though, but we did flush our lifer BARRED CUCKOO-SHRIKES (at long last).
Also went swimming here, but in the safe fenced-off area. Things are always trying to kill you in Australia
YABBA DABBA DOOO!!!! Finally! I spotted it in the distance walking down the road toward us (near Etty Bay)... and it just kept coming. Walked right past me, and straight toward the frightened Finnish boys (this is probably the most dangerous bird alive... but like Grizzly Bears, if you stay out of their way, they should be cool)
How is that NOT a dinosaur!!?!?!?
[This is apparently a female named Marilyn. Fun fact: It's the males that do the child-rearing]
We're kinda skipping over a few days here, but all you missed was us dipping over-and-over-again on White-eared Monarch, and Jukka coughing up blood a fair bit--I guess a month of hardcore birding can take it's toll... Here we are at Inskip Pt just north of Brisbane, where you can tell by this photo that we got great looks at BLACK-BREASTED BUTTONQUAIL (2 pairs). We also finally bagged a BEACH STONE-CURLEW.
We rolled into Brisbane with one last full day of birding to go. I think we were 3 short of 500 at this point, so we enlisted the expert help of our Brisbane host and long-time family-friend Roy Sonnenburg. We formed a battle-plan, and hit the ground running on January 7th. Unfortunately for me, we missed the Asiatic Dowitcher that Jukka and Roy had found a just over a month earlier, but a couple mangrove specialists--MANGROVE HONEYEATER, MANGROVE GERYGONE, and COLLARED KINGFISHER were tallied in short order, then great views of 3 AUSSIE LITTLE BITTERNS got us comfortably over 500. But it was still morning, so we headed inland to the Lockyer Valley, where after some intensive searching, I finally scoped a lone AUSSIE PAINTED-SNIPE through the heat-haze on the far side of a lake. Jukka did one better by spotted these two out in the open as we drove by a small farm [This is his photo]. Still a few more to add though, as we managed to fluke a RED-BROWED TREECREEPER on Mount Glorious, along with our first CICADABIRD of the trip (Yes I know--that's bad!). At the Samsonvale Cemetary we had great luck flushing both KING QUAIL and RED-CHESTED BUTTONQUAIL (and hearing more cicadabirds of course). We tried and tried for Ground Cuckoo-Shrikes but no dice. We finished off the day in style, near the Brisbane airport, where with a little bit of patience, we finally had great looks at 2 GRASS OWLS!!! Awesome way to finish the trip and ended up with 509 (IOC) in 35 days!
Last morning in Brisbane with Jukka, Roy, and his wife Helen. Thanks so much for the final crusade and lovely lodging with calling PALE-VENTED BUSH-HENS!
Ended up with 359 species in Queensland for the trip, and yes--509 for the whole shebang! It was an exhausting effort but with so many great experiences, scenery, tuna flavours, birds, and other critters n' plants---so worth it! By the way--we drove over 15,000km.  If any one out there has attempted a similar journey around this country--please get in touch! Would love to hear about the experience. Sorry again for taking so long to get this out. After this photo was taken, J+P flew back to Finland and I headed to New Zealand. Will probably make a short posting on that soon. After NZ, I headed to Borneo for 1.5 months. Will definitely post on that!  So I've been distracted ok?

Hasta luego amigos!

Russ Cannings
March 29th, 2013
Perth, WA, Australia