Sunday, 8 November 2015

Australia Round-up - 2015 holiday

On 11th October 2015 we arrived in Sydney at the start of a 3 week holiday to Australia, my first ever visit to country, in fact my first visit to the southern hemisphere. It wasn't purely a birding holiday, it was as much about general sightseeing, and the first seven days were to be spent in or around Sydney. We did the usual, went to the Opera House, walked across the bridge, went to the Rocks, sunbathed on Bondi beach, did some shopping etc., but we also spent time in the Botanical Gardens and took the ferries to Watsons Bay and Manly, and ventured off the main tourist route a little when we visited Centennial Park on a couple of occasions and took the coastal footpath from Bondi beach to Coogee, and even spent half day whale watching. So plenty of opportunities to see lots of Australian wildlife and in fact it proved to be a nice gentle way of starting the holiday from a birding point of view.

After Sydney we headed north, flying to Cairns and then we caught the bus to Port Douglas, where we stayed for nine days. We hired a car and visited Mossman Gorge and Daintree Rainforest, but also spent plenty of time around Port Douglas, in the bars and cafes and on the beach. I found a nice little spot at the southern end of Four Mile Beach which proved rewarding for birds.

Halfway through our stay in Port Douglas we booked a couple of nights in Cairns. This was because I wanted to specifically go with Seastar Cruises to the Great Barrier Reef, because they are one of the very few tour operators who can land on Michaelmas Cay. It would also give me the chance to spend some time birding on the famous Cairns Esplanade and it was a little closer to the Atherton Tablelands which we also wanted to  visit.

The day trip to the Great Barrier Reef was one of the highlights of the holiday. It included a morning on Michaelmas Cay with its seabird colony, and then an afternoon snorkeling at Hastings Reef. I'd never snorkeled before, but was determined to have a go in the coral sea which after all is an integral part of the wildlife of Australia.

The following day we headed back to Port Douglas via the Atherton Tablelands and Yungaburra. Looking back on it now, I would say that Yungaburra with its duck-billed platypus, folk festival and XXXX Gold was probably my favourite destination of the holiday. Everything really came together at Yungaburra.

After Port Douglas and Cairns we flew back to Sydney and then caught the train to  Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. This was a completely different Australia to that in the north. On the day we left Port Douglas the temperature was 33'C with high humidity, but by the time we reached Katoomba 12 hours later it was 6'C.

We stayed in Katoomba for three nights and saw a completely different set of wildlife, before heading back to Sydney for one further night in preperation for our flight home.

Click here for a full list of species seen on the holiday.

Here are some of the highlights of the holiday in no particular order.

Laughing kookaburra. This was by far the commoner of the two species of kookaburra, and was seen in small numbers from Sydney Botanic Gardens to Port Douglas in the tropical north. They had the strange ability to silently appear from nowhere. I'd suddenly just become aware that there was a huge kookaburra on the lamppost or tree above me! In Centennial Park, Sydney I watched a pair raid a Willie wagtail nest and watched the male feed a chick to the female whilst one of the Willie wagtails landed on the birds back and tried to fight it off. Quite an exciting if slightly gruesome moment.

Blue-winged kookaburra. This was at Mateeba Wetlands on the Atherton Tablelands and was the only one I saw. Both species have blue in the wing, but this has more, and notice that it has no eye stripe.

In the weeks before we visited Australia I regularly looked through my identification guides to try to give myself a chance when we got there and every time I did, one bird jumped out at me, and this is it! Beach thick-knee is like a huge deformed stone-curlew, with a massive bill. I dreamed of seeing one on a tropical beach fringed by palm trees, but in the end was forced to "twitch" two on an industrial estate in Cairns.

Fantastic birds, every bit as good as anticipated, they retreated from me when I got too close, but if I drew back they would run towards me and come even closer. In the end I worked out that the best way to get close was to move away from them! Briefly I even saw them standing next to two bush thick-knees for comparison.

Finally two days later I found my own beach thick-knee and the dream came true, two birds on the tide line  at the southern end of Four Mile Beach, on the edge of the mangrove swamp. A breathtaking tropical scene that will live with me forever. Bird of the holiday!

Bush thick-knee, seen in several places, including this one at Port Douglas. As with many species we came across, a very tame bird, I only noticed this bird when I was standing about 3m from it. There were two of them, and they appeared shorter legged than I expected. However, as went to get my camera out, I realised that they were actually kneeling down! When they stood up they were like stone-curlews on stilts!

It's sometimes said that duck-billed platypus is common in Australia, but that only tells half a story. First of all, look at the distribution map for the species and you can see that it only occurs in a thin band down the east coast, say in about 5% of the country, so you're not going to see one in Perth or even many places west of Melbourne. In the areas where it does occur it is apparently quite common, but is that common in the same way that otter is quite common in some areas of Britain? It took me 30 years to see my first otter at Leighton Moss. Add to that the fact that it's a nocturnal feeder and you can understand that common or not, seeing a platypus can be a bit of a challenge on a short holiday to Australia when you're only within its range for a day or two.

The wonderful village of Yungaburra, was by chance in the middle of the Tablelands folk festival when we arrived at nearby Peterson Creek, and we could hear distant singing and playing as a musical backdrop for our entire visit. We knew that there were platypus in the creek because there was a viewing area right by where we parked the car, but given the challenges outlined above, we were very sceptical about our chances of finding one. Still it seemed worth a walk, and so it proved, with a decent selection of birds many of which were new for the holiday.

However, about half way along the creek I dropped down to the waters edge and almost immediately spotted the unmistakable shape in the water of a duck-billed platypus. I could hardly believe my eyes to be honest, this was a near mythical species which I'd first been aware of as a young child but one which you never expect to see. A venomous, egg laying mammal with a ducks bill are just a few of the unusual features of this creature, others include sensing its prey by electolocation and a unique way of swimming amongst mammals. An incredible creature.

It didn't seem too wary of us, and allowed me to call Elaine over and it swam near us, as close as perhaps 3m away for a minute or two. Finally it went into the vegetation on the bank where we could see the grass moving, but the platypus was largely out of view.

After that it seemed that a visit to the Yungaburra Hotel was in order for a for a refreshing schooner of XXXX Gold and some time listening to the music.

Rainbow lorikeet, a stunning bird but quite difficult to get a decent view of, this photo had to wait until he very last day of our holiday. Calling everywhere and often seen briefly flying overhead, but more often than not disappearing into deep canopy. This photo was taken from the start of the walk across Sydney Harbour bridge, which in effect elevated me up into the canopy  to where a small group of these birds were feeding.

Crimson rosella. Before we arived in Australia I imagined parrots to be everywhere, and in some ways they were, but they were always rainbow lorikeets, which were often difficult to see, or sulphur-crested cockatoos. Apart from a single sighting of a few yellow-tailed black-cockatoos on the day we arrived, by the time we reached the Blue Mountains we had been in Australia for two and a half weeks and not seen many parrots at all. So it was a very exciting moment to pick up this first crimson rosella in Katoomba.

Yellow-tailed black-cockatoo. This was one of several birds I saw at Manly, near Sydney on day one of the holiday. This was the only place I saw them during the whole holiday.

Black-browed albatross. It was a huge ambition to see a "mollyhawk" in the southern oceans so I was thrilled to see this bird from a whale watching cruise out of Sydney. It was quite funny, I was looking out to sea trying to spot a blow from a humpback whale, when I overheard a crew member behind me say to a mate "I think I may have seen a blow just right of that albatross".  I spun round and there it was, a bloody great albatross right next to the boat! All thoughts of whale blows were gone, I wanted us to stay with the bird. Certainly one of the highlights of the holiday for me. There were also plenty of shearwaters seen from the boat, with wedge-tailed, short-tailed and fluttering all prolific, and a couple of unexpected Australian gannets.

Pied stilt. Only a race of black-winged stilt, but a smart looking bird, this one was at St Crispin's, near Port Douglas, in fact all of our pied stilts were at Port Douglas.

Brahminy Kite. This bird flew over the swimming pool at our apartment and was briefly mobbed by a fruit bat! The only other place we saw the species was at Four Mile Beach.

Bridled Terns. I'm not sure if this species breeds at Michaelmas Cay, but I didn't see any landed on the Cay itself. There were plenty just offshore though, either flying or landed on buoys or boats.

Sharp-tailed and broad-billed sandpiper, two rarities here in the UK but relatively common on passage in Australia. I expected to see these at Cairns Esplanade, but for whatever reason that place proved very disappointing and in the end I found them at St. Crispins near Port Douglas. Great to see two potential vagrants to the UK so well.

Brown boobies and bridled terns at Michaelmas Cay. Brown boobies are strange looking gannet like birds. Some of them have quite blue faces, but I managed to avoid photographing any of those, or at least I only have blurry photos of blue faced birds. I had hoped to to find red-footed booby on the Cay but they are apparently quite scarce in the area.

Australian brush-turkey, Karunda near Cairns. This species holds its tail in a very odd way, flat and vertical rather than horizontal like most birds. Quite common and tame, but we only saw them in the north.

Comb-crested jacana. This particular bird was on a small saltwater "lake" on the outskirts of Port Douglas. It was showing quite well and I probably could have got closer, but as with many coastal water features in the north, I didn't want to get too close to the edge due to the signs warning me about the presence of crocodiles!

Common noddy breeds on Michaelmas Cay in large numbers, up to 20,000 pairs. Before we visited I knew that access on the Cay was limited and that you had to stay behind a rope, but I imagined it to be like the Farnes where you can follow a roped off board walk across the middle of the island. However in reality it was just a small section of the beach where you are allowed access, so you can't really walk anywhere. Even so, well worth the visit and the only way (or at least by far the easiest way) to see the noddies, boobies and frigatebirds. It tells you something when 12 of the people on the boat were part of a birding tour around Eastern Australia which was due to travel all the way south to Tasmania.The only way they could get to see these birds was to book onto a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, even though the majority of them had no intention of snorkeling and were forced to spend the second half of the trip sat in the boat whilst the rest of us snorkeled in the open sea over the outer reef.

Cays such as Michaelmas Cay are coral sea islands. They are created largely by the actions of parrotfish, which eat the algae off corals by scraping it off with their teeth and then excreting the inedible bits to produce sand which in some cases forms into a cay or sandy beaches. Apparently the majority of sandy beaches and cays in the tropics are the result of parrotfish poo!

Crested pigeon. This was a common bird around Sydney.

Crested tern at Palm Cove, just north of Cairns. Apart from on Michaelmas Cay they were usually difficult to photograph, but this bird landed on a post on the jetty and allowed me to approach quite close. What a bill!

Eastern reef heron at Port Douglas. This was the only one we saw and I'm glad it was a dark phase bird, it makes it look just that bit more special than the more typical white phase bird which is basically just another white egret, of which there are plenty in Australia.

Emu at Mateeba Wetlands in the north Atherton Tablelands. This was a bit of a bizzare sighting to be honest, Elaine spotted it first when she was standing about 3m from it! I hadn't even considered emu when we were planning the  holiday. Although they are shown on distribution maps as being in Queensland, they are quite scarce and most of the habitats we were likely to visit didn't look promising for emu (e.g. rainforest, coastal areas etc.). The Tablelands are probably a bit more like the kind of places you would expect to find emu (e.g. we saw our only kangaroos of the holiday in the same area), but even so I was a bit sceptical when I saw this male with chicks. It was hanging around the reception area at Mateeba Wetlands and the staff were a bit evasive when I asked them about it.

My question was "Is it a wild bird?", to which various answers came back such as "we don't encourage it or feed it" and "it was quite aggressive when the chicks were first born", the kind of answers which make you wonder if they don't want to give a straight answer for fear of dis-ing one of the star attractions! So I don't know, I've given it the benefit of the doubt for now and it's on my list until proven guilty. It is known that emus can become quite tame around human habitation if there is a good food supply so the fact it's hanging around the reserve center doesn't in itself cast doubt on its credentials. A great bird whatever.

This is a male because once she has laid the eggs, the female emu plays no part in the hatching or rearing of the offspring. It is completely down to the male.

Fan-tailed cuckoo. I don't know, I just love these Australian cuckoos, this one was at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.

Far eastern curlew on Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas. What a ridiculous bill, which looked even more daft when the bird flew. I saw this individual in the same place on several occasions, but this was the only one we saw during the entire holiday.

Four Mile Beach is most scenic and most impressive at its southern end where the beach ends and the mangroves begin. The beach opens out here at low tide and is quite large, there's large areas of mud and even some exposed coral, making it quite an interesting place.  It's also the furthest part of the beach from the center of Port Douglas so there are less people and more wildlife.

Oddly, it never occured to me before I saw it that coral could be exposed at low tide. I suppose I just didn't think it would survive. Anyway, here is some exposed coral on a spring low tide at Four Mile Beach.

Mangroves at the southern end of Four Mile Beach. Amazing trees!

Red-capped plover at Port Douglas. Very similar to Kentish plover there were about 30 of these little birds running around like clockwork toys across the sand near the mangroves at the southern end of Four Mile Beach.

The Angel of Death! A great frigatebird on Michaelmas Cay. There are two species on the Cay, great and lesser, though I'm not sure if either breed. There were certainly always a few circling around the island in a menacing kind of way.

Grey butcherbird. We saw this on our first day in Sydney Botanic Gardens, but this was the only one that we saw in the entire holiday.  Not particularly easy to see in this photo, but notice the strange hook on the bill.

Grey-headed fruit bats. I was expecting to see flying foxes in the Botanic Gardens at Sydney, but apparently the entire colony has been "moved on" so we didn't see any there. However, we needn't have worried, there were plenty in other places. Around Sydney, there is a large colony in Centennial Park which is where this photo was taken, and I was surprised to see so many flying around in daylight. This bat has a youngster clinging to its body, as did many others. There were huge numbers of these in the north, at both Port Douglas and Cairns. From our apartment in the evening we could watch them leaving their roost and there must have been many thousands, 10,000 at least, over the apartment every evening. When you consider that they have a 1m wingspan, that's a pretty impressive sight!

Grey-tailed tattler. Another species I expected to see at Cairns but ended up seeing only at Port Douglas. There were about three of these on the beach at the southern end of Four Mile Beach, at the point where the mangrove swamp begins. I'm pretty sure it's grey-tailed and not wandering, though they are very similar.

Horsfield's bronze-cuckoo on the Daintree river. This cracker of a bird was mis-identified as a brush cuckoo by our guide, but it's clearly one of the bronze-cuckoos. What you can't see from this photo is that it had heavily barred underparts when it flew overhead a few minutes after I took this photo and I'm fairly sure from what I saw that it is Horsfield's, which I think is also about the commonest. A cracking bird, even at this long range it's a nice photo and you can see the bronze / green colouration. It was in the same tree as a dollarbird which really is what most of our groups attention was on and hence the mis-identification, but I think that this is a much nicer bird than the dollarbird and it would have been a shame to consign it to a mis-id'd brush cuckoo.

You're never quite sure what you're going to see when you go on a whale / dolphin watching trip, and to be honest in my experience you don't usually see much. However I was keen to go on this trip from Sydney as much for the possibilities of seeing albatross as whales. Initially we saw a few humpback whales blowing and then breaking the surface, but then we came across two which were tail slapping which was awesome enough, but when this one jumped out of the water it was one of the experiences of a lifetime! Fortunately I was ready for it and managed to get a reasonable photo.On the way back we saw a few dolphins which the crew called Pacific dolphins, but I can't find that species and assume they were actually Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.

I love this photo! Crested terns on Michaelmas Cay. This squabbling group of spiky haired birds was flying around for a few minutes obviously having a disagreement about something. There's a young crested tern in the middle of the photo partially obscured by an adult, but what's going on with the small chick in the foreground?  He seems to be joining in as well, but clearly he can't fly and I think actually it was a common noddy or sooty tern chick. The noddy / sooty tern colony was only a few feet to the left of this photo and chicks kept wandering in and out of the colony.

Giant mudskipper Periophthalmodon freycineti. Mudskippers probably fall into the same category as duck-billed platypus, in other words weird animals which I never thought I'd see. Ok perhaps not quite as cute and cuddly as the venomous duck-billed platypus and a bit commoner too, but here we have a fish which happily walks out of the water whenever the opportunity arises. What could possibly be odd about that? This beauty which was photographed on the river at Port Douglas and was about 8" (20cm) long! I also found a second species of mudskipper in the harbour at Port Douglas, which I believe to be Periophthalmus argentilineatus or silver-lined mudskipper. This was a much smaller fish, the largest I saw was no more than 3" (7.5cm). Click here for more information and photos on these fascinating animals.

Peaceful dove. These were all in Port Douglas and what a beautiful little dove it is, barely the size of a blackbird. One of my favourite birds of the holiday.

"That's not a bill, this is a bill". Royal spoonbill being outgunned by an Australian pelican at Cairns Esplanade. Royal spoonbill, great knot and black-banded plover were the best I managed at the esplanade in what turned out to be the second biggest anti-climax of the holiday (tropical rainforest being the biggest). We were at the esplanade from three hours before high tide and saw just a handful of waders, albeit at close range, but nothing like the amount or variety of birds I expected from other reports I had read. Maybe I misjudged the tide, perhaps my expectations were too high or maybe it was the actions of the local council who apparently have been dumping sand and thereby removing much of the good feeding areas for waders. Whatever the answer, Cairns Esplanade was poor during my two visits. Fortunately I picked up most of the birds I had expected at Cairns on Four Mile Beach at Port Douglas.

During our day out to the Atherton Tablelands and before we arrived at Peterson Creek, we stopped several times at likely looking creeks to see if we could find duck-billed platypus. At one such stop I spotted two raptors flying together. The first turned away long before it reached us and was a little eagle, but the second, this fantastic spotted harrier flew right overhead. This was a target species before the holiday because I like harriers and this one looked interesting with its spotted plumage. A great bird.

Straw-necked ibis in Port Douglas. I saw up to 10 of these birds on our journeys to and from Cairns but often in the central reservation from a moving vehicle so no chance of getting a photo. However this bird was about 100m from the entrance to our accommodation and allowed me to pull up the car at close range to get this photo.

Olive-backed sunbird. This was a common bird across the tropical north, I saw at least two or three everyday and even found a couple of nests. Both nests were attached to chains which were hanging from ceilings or roofs, and they seem to have been almost put there for the purpose. I couldn't see many other reasons for the chains hanging down. The first was outside a cafe with lots of people passing by immediately beneath it, but the birds didn't seem in the least bothered. The female worked tirelessly to feed the young, coming back and forth to the nest every minute or so, but the male took on the important task of defending his family against his own reflection. Many times he hovered close to the cafe window and threw himself into the attack, but his reflection fought back valiantly and it was nip and tuck. In the end I think they called it a draw and honour was satisfied. Meanwhile the female just kept coming back with food, apparently unaware or maybe even unappreciative of the efforts of the male on her behalf......

As soon as we left Cairns and headed north towards Port Douglas we kept seeing these termite mounds in the woods. Often huge structures each built by millions of termites, though I didn't see a single one, they were hard as rock and could have been made from cement. I've no idea how old a mound as big as this might be, but there were mounds of all sizes starting at about 6 inches to the size you can see here. Does a small mound mean less termites or just a new colony? Perhaps it's the same thing. Is each mound a seperate colony, or can colonies have more than one mound?

White-faced heron, Darling harbour, Sydney. This was seen whilst we were on a bike tour around the city  and I had to stop and delay the tour in order to take the photo. Good job I did because I only saw one other white-faced heron during the whole holiday, and that was a completely unapproachable bird in Centennial Park on our last day. I did alright for herons and egrets, I saw just about everything I might have expected to see. Great, intermediate, little and cattle egrets all common, great-billed, white-necked, white-faced, pied, eastern reef, striated (mangrove) and rufous night herons all in small numbers and even a single black bittern.

Australian white (sacred) ibis. One of the commonest birds of the holiday, though much more scarce in  the north. Sydney is overrun by them and they are considered pests by some. I believe they have even been culled in some places, for what use that will be. They breed in big numbers in the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Park and we could easily see 50 birds in a day, probably more like twice that number. Very tame and approachable, there are even stories of them stealing from picnics. This is a native species to Australia, but apparently it has undergone a dramatic change in status in recent years, where once it was unheard of in suburban areas, now it's almost at pest status. Meanwhile, some of its more traditional wetland breeding areas have been abandoned.

New Holland honeyeater was one of the commonest honeyeaters we saw, especially around Sydney. They were usually at coastal locations, places like Watsons Bay, Manly and Bondi Beach. It was also probably the best looking honeyeater, a cracking bird.

Every creek and bay had a warning about salties, but two from the river boat cruise at Port Douglas on the last day in Queensland were the only saltwater crocodiles that I saw, though Elaine did see a couple from bridges as we were driving (allegedly! :-)).

Now this is a bird! It was rapidly attaining mythical status for me. Every now and again towards the end of the holiday I would see one flying and just couldn't work out what it was because I never got a good enough view, but I saw enough to know that I'd never seen anything like it before. The first was at Watsons Bay, Sydney. I was on the beach and I noticed a bird flying over the bay towards the jetty. I didn't even raise my bins at first, thinking it was just a crow, but when I did look I got the shock of my life to see what looked like a flying cross. It just looked wrong, I don't know how it could fly. In the field the front bit looked as long as the tail, but the front bit was thick and bulky, whilst the tail looked ridiculously long and thin in comparison. The wings looked to be too far down the body and its center of gravity didn't look right. Then it was gone and I had no idea what it was, and no chance to get a photo.

The next was in Centennial Park, we were sitting having a coffee when suddenly another flying cross flew into view chased by a pied currawong. Again a very brief view but very distinctive. By now I was starting to form an idea which quickly led me to the solution. I guessed it was some kind of cuckoo and a quick flick through the book led me to channel-billed cuckoo. Even now I wasn't completely convinced, but as soon as I googled it I came across a series of photos including this one, which showed the jizz of the bird perfectly. It's a channel-billed cuckoo, which incidentally is parasitic on pied currawongs in particular. 

Unfortunately this is not my photograph. It was taken by Deane Lewis and is on the Australian Nature Photography page here.

When you plan to go to Australia, one of the first animals you think you might see is kangaroo. You kind of expect them to be everywhere, I almost expected to be swerving to avoid them on most roads according to the legends I had heard. How wrong I was! It took me two weeks to see my first kangaroo at Mateeba Wetlands, but this did at least have the decency to bound across the track in front of the car making me at least a little cautious for a while. After that we saw a few others including this party of females with young. The animal on the right appears to have a joey in her pouch.

Shortly after seeing these, we came across a huge male at the side of the road. This was like the killeroo in the Mighty Boosh, 2m tall and built like a brick whatsit with muscles all over its body. I was not going to argue with that, but unfortunately despite its intimidating appearance, it was quite timid and bashful and it hoped away into the bush the moment I stopped the car and put the window down for a photo.

These are eastern grey kangaroos by the way, and to be honest Queensland is not a great place to see them since large parts of the state are tropical rainforest. However the Atherton Tablelands are a good place. We also saw a few agile wallabies, though again, not as many as expected.

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