Thursday, 8 August 2019

Homeward bound

Leaving the rainforest and heading back down the hill, we started our journey back south to the Blue Mountains where the roadtrip had begun over 3 weeks ago, and ultimately back to Sydney Airport and the long, long flight home.

4th August

After a slight detour to revisit Toni's daughter in Toowoomba, we set off south down the New England Highway. As we came into the town of Warwick, as we passed a picnic site at Rotary Park, Toni realised she had been there before when she was here earlier in the year and that it was good for parrots, and so we pulled in. She certainly wasn't wrong, as a group of very noisy Musk Lorikeets fed in the trees above our heads and Toni caught a quick glimpse of a Platypus in the nearby river.

Musk Lorikeet

A bird I had hoped to see while we were in the outback was Zebra Finch, a bird I used to keep as pets when I was young. As they are very nomadic, they can be difficult to pin down and we hadn't come across any so far, but eBird again came to the rescue (sorry BirdTrack!!) and recent sightings just outside Warwick gave me hope. The site was by a lake on the back of a housing estate, not a habitat I had expected to be going to look for them, and although the lake had an abundance of Pelicans and a few White-headed Stilts there was no obvious habitat for finches. As we gave up and drove back out of the housing estate, 3 Zebra Finches flew up by the roadside - success! As I got out of the car and walked back to where they were, about 35 finches flew up, I have no idea how we had missed them as we drove in and although very flighty, some sat nicely in some trees along with a pair of Striated Pardalotes.

male Zebra Finch

Striated Pardalote

The rest of the day was spent driving down to Bellingen, along some back roads with their abundant kangaroos.

5th August

A pleasant night in a Youth Hostel in Bellingen put us in a good location for Dorrigo National Park. I visited Dorrigo when I was last in Australia 6 years ago, and the weather was poor and so we couldn't walk the trails which Toni said are worthwhile. This time the weather was glorious, and the trails were devoid of people and many of the usual rainforest birds like Whipbirds and Catbirds called loudly and a couple of Topknot Pigeons showed surprisingly well, while a female Superb Lyrebird was less showy in the undergrowth.

Topknot Pigeon

After a mid-morning cream tea, we headed back down the trail to the car, the female Superb Lyrebird had moved across to the opposite side of the path from where I had seen it on the way up. As we watched it along with a young bird, we could hear an array of bird calls including kookaburra and whipbird close by and realised it was actually a male Superb Lyrebird singing a few feet away mimicking them perfectly! After it stopped singing, it moved towards the female and young bird and then met another male and a face off ensued, their extravagant tail feathers fluffed up as they called angrily at each other before one of the males ran off.

Superb Lyrebirds

Heading toward the coast for a spot of lunch, we grabbed some fish and chips and went and sat up on the clifftop at Nambucca Heads. From here, we could see at least 6 Humpback Whales offshore, many of them constantly breaching but always very distant. Much better were a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles that coasted low overhead, hanging on the wind just off the clifftop.

White-bellied Sea Eagle

We finished off driving down the coast to Myall Lakes Holiday Park for a couple of nights, arriving after dark and after the reception had closed. Thankfully they had left an envelope with the key and gate code for us and so we were able to get to our accommodation, complete with a couple of tame Grey Kangaroos and a screeching Barn Owl.

6th August

After all the driving of the last few weeks, today we had a nice relaxing day around the Myall Lakes area. The hoped for surfing dolphins off the Hole in the Wall car park that Toni had seen earlier in the year failed to materialise and we carried on south to Jimmy's Beach. Twelve years ago when Toni visited Australia for the first time, having failed to find a Dingo in Queensland, she randomly came across one somewhere near Jimmy's Beach and so was intent on finding the same spot. We parked up at a random car park near a creek and as we stood looking across, a Great White Egret suddenly flew up and moments later, a Dingo walked through the mangrove and stood on the opposite side of the creek looking at us!! Typically neither of us had a camera to hand as we hadn't expected to see anything, so we ran back to the car, grabbed the camera gear and walked back and the Dingo was still there watching our antics and after a few minutes walked across, paused again and then disappeared back into the mangrove scrub.


The rest of the afternoon was spent on the Tea Gardens to Port Stephen Ferry, where a couple of Bottlenose Dolphins entertained the passengers as they bow-rided just underneath the boat for several minutes.

7th August

It was time to head back to Katoomba, and we left Myall Lakes behind and rather than just whiz down the highway to Sydney, we instead set off west towards the Hunter Valley. We first headed up the Monkerai Valley toward Barrington Tops until the road we thought we could carry on over became impassable, but not before we had seen photogenic Australian Kestrel, Wonga Pigeon and Fan-tailed Cuckoo.

Australian Kestrel 

 Wonga Pigeon

Fan-tailed Cuckoo

We finally arrived back in Katoomba after dark, following a slight delay as Toni helped round up a horse that had got loose and ran down a road toward us.

8th August

A morning walk looking for reporting Gang-Gang Cockatoos at Blackheath drew a blank, but a stunning male Scarlet Robin more than made up for it, a quite fitting looking bird to end the trip.

Scarlet Robin

A quick tot up of the miles that Google suggests we covered meant it was just over a 4,500km round trip (probably nearer 5,000km by the time you add the odd diversion and driving around areas), which Toni's Subaru Outback did admirably!! It was interesting to see Malaysia followed by Australia and the outback (well apart from the flies), see the whales and then do some rainforest birding, so a bit of everything really! We managed to amass a species list of about 240 birds and over 26 mammals and had fantastic weather (if rather cold at night) throughout so can't complain one bit. Now just the excruciating flight back to the UK to look forward to tomorrow....

An Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain

Leaving the whales in Hervey Bay behind, we weren't completely finished with cetaceans just yet, a short drive down to nearby Tin Can Bay before driving down to Lamington National Park for some rainforest birding.

1st August

An overnight stay in Tin Can Bay meant we were only minutes away from Barnacles Dolphin Centre where each morning several Australian Humpback Dolphins come in to be fed by the public. Admittedly it is a bit of a circus that I would normally shy away from, but it was a mammal tick, and wasn't quite as bad as I thought, plus the breakfast at Barnacles was very nice indeed under the very watchful gaze of some Australian Magpies and Blue-faced Honeyeaters! When we got there, two dolphins were already there waiting for their breakfast, while the two women stood in the water and explained the rules and history of the dolphin feeding at Tin Can Bay to the gathered crowd, and were joined by a mother and young calf too.

Dolphin feeding at Tin Can Bay

Blue-faced Honeyeater 

Australian Magpie

After breakfast, we headed south towards the famous O'Reilly's Guesthouse in Lamington National Park, via a stop at the equally famous Yatala Pie Shop on the outskirts of Brisbane for a spot of lunch. Arriving in Canungra, the sat nav was still saying we were nearly an hour away from O'Reilly's, even though it was only 30km away, and as we started to ascend the hill, which turned into a mountain, we could soon see why as we twisted and turned up the hill, avoiding the Whiptail and Red-necked Wallabys by the roadside.

Whiptail Wallaby

After what seemed an age after a days driving, slowly driving up the mountainside, we arrived at O'Reilly's, which was much bigger than I had expected, not the simple guesthouse I had envisaged, but a resort with restaurant and cafe, gift shops and a swanky reception. Thankfully, being midweek and winter, it was quiet of people, I dread to think what it would be like in the height of summer!

2nd August

I was up and out early walking the boardwalk and some of the trails, hoping to see Albert's Lyrebird and any other local specialities. I had been warned that diversity of species may not be high, and that proved to be the case, but although I couldn't find any Lyrebirds, it was nice to get excellent views of Logrunners as they busily fed in the undergrowth, always accompanied by a scrubwren or robin after a treat they had unearthed. Other good birds on the rainforest trails included Bassian Thrush, Wonga Pigeon, a couple of confiding Green Catbirds, and several Eastern Whipbirds, which are one of the most distinctive and iconic sounds in the rainforests.

Australian Logrunner (don't ask me why they are called that!) 

Eastern Whipbird 

Green Catbird

Around the main resort area, the birds are very accustomed to people, especially those carrying trays of seed. King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas will happily sit on your head if you offer out food, while Satin Bowerbirds would come to within inches of you for anything dropped, not a species I was expecting to behave in such a manner. Smaller birds would mop up any dropped seed, mostly White-browed Scrubwrens, but also a group of a dozen Red-browed Finches, Superb Fairywrens and Lwin's Honeyeaters were equally confiding.

Needing a closer look at a Crimson Rosella

Australian King Parrot 

Lewin's Honeyeater 

Red-browed Finch 

Superb Fairywren

Satin Bowerbirds (male top, female below)

3rd August

After a very comfortable night's sleep (Toni was most impressed with how comfy the mattress was, something she often complains about on our trips, even if the birding wasn't quite to her taste), we were out first thing again having read in the sightings book of Lyrebirds being seen on the Centenary Trail. Within minutes of walking down this trail, we came across an Albert's Lyrebird which was busily scraping around and although a bit skittish if you moved too quickly, was also very confiding.

Albert's Lyrebird

On the adjacent campsite, a mother and joey Red-necked Pademelon were equally confiding, we had seen them at dusk yesterday but the light was too poor for photos and so it was nice to see them both again and in better light.

Red-necked Pademelon (mum above, joey below)

Also on this trail aside from the usual suspects of Eastern Yellow Robins and White-browed Scrubwrens following the lyrebird and Brushturkeys around was a superb looking Crested Shrike-tit, looking something like a Great Tit with the beak of a Shrike, and I thought Blue and Great Tits back home are painful to hold when ringing them, not sure I'd like to handle one of these guys!

Crested Shrike-tit

With the Saturday crowds staring to appear and more noisy groups on the trails, we were more than happy to pack our stuff and head back down the hill. I'm not sure if it was just the time of year, but the forest was quiet and species like Regent Bowerbird and Paradise Riflebird which I was expecting to see quite easily were both absent, but it was still a very enjoyable and relaxing couple of days

Friday, 2 August 2019

A whale of a time

Having had a few excellent days in the Outback and got extremely annoyed with the flies that, while they don't actually bite, just pester you constantly to the point where a mosquito head net is called for to keep them out of your face, we headed east to the coast to Hervey Bay for a few days of Whale watching.

26th July

After a few days travelling east, with short stops at in the Bunya Mountains National Park and then Toowoomba to pick up Toni's granddaughter, Elsie, we arrived at the Sanctuary Lakes Fauna Retreat in Hervey Bay where we were met by an assortment of Australian Swamphens, Dusky Moorhens and Pacific Black Ducks that are obviously regularly fed by guests.

27th July

Up early, we were booked onto a whale watching boat out of Hervey Bay at 8.30am with the Boat Club's Amaroo. With Phil at the helm, we headed out into Platypus Bay where the Humpback Whales come to spend the season and before we had left the harbour, a Brown Booby flew over the boat, hopefully a good sign. With several other whale watching boats out already that morning, all of whom are in communication with one another, we received word from Pete on the Blue Dolphin of a whale breaching. As we approached we could see the whale breaching in the distance and thankfully as we steadily got closer, the whale continued to breach, hurling itself clear of the water on several occasions. Trying to photograph breaching whales is tricky since it's not always obvious where they will appear from next, but with luck you can get the shot, though this particular whale had the slightly annoying habit of always appearing in the sun's glare.

breaching Humpback Whale

The other 3 whales we saw were much less active, just their back and fins visible but a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which came in to bow-ride alongside the boat entertained the passengers, both young and old.

Bottlenose Dolphin bow-riding

As we headed back into the harbour, a Brown Booby and an Australasian Gannet were seen sat on the sea, while a group of Australian Pelicans met us in the harbour itself.

 Australasian Gannet

Brown Booby

29th July

Having lost yesterday to returning Elsie to her parents, after recovering from the experience of looking after a 5 year old for a couple of days, we decided the best cure was to head back out for an afternoon whale watch, again on the Amaroo. This time, Daimo was at the helm, but unlike Phil, Daimo liked to motor about the bay in search of whales, with much less stealth. This was most apparent as we headed towards a whale breaching in the distance and rather than slow down and slowly approach to let the whale become accustomed to our presence, we raced to the immediate area, and disappointingly, though not totally surprising, the very actively breaching whale became much less active, engaging more in a spot of tail waving.

Occasionally Humpbacks can be very curious, and the next whales we saw were just that. As soon as we approached them, the whales began to come closer and the engines were cut while the two whales spent the next 20 minutes virtually within touching distance as they swam underneath the boat and spyhopped with just their head out of the water looking at us.

As we raced back to the harbour, another breaching whale appeared on the horizon, and again only breach a couple of times when we were nearby, and again as we left, with Daimo clearly more interested in getting people back to harbour on time rather than staying with active whales. Thankfully I did manage to get a good sequence of a breach before we set off again.

After Saturday's experience with Phil, this trip was much less pleasing despite the amazing sightings, but it just shows how different it can be with different captains.

30th July

After a couple of days watching whales, I was keen to get back to some birding, and as Toni had been offered a day on the Blue Dolphin boat, having been more preoccupied trying to look after Elsie than take photos on Saturday, we went our separate ways.

Having looked on eBird (sorry BTO!!!) for locations of recent Beach Stone Curlews, a bird I wanted to, but failed to see on my previous visit to Australia 6 years ago, I headed to Gataker's Bay at nearby Point Vernon. I had only been walking along the shoreline a few minutes after watching a group of Pacific Golden Plovers roosting with a couple of Australian Terns and a Caspian Tern when I saw the unmistakable silhouette of a Beach Stone Curlew a bit further down the beach. As I approached, trying to work around it to get the light better on it, it was always a bit wary of a direct approach, but by sitting down I found it would actually come to see me and I was able to get the shots I wanted.

Beach Stone Curlew

Along the shoreline was a bit of mangrove and scrub, which held quite a few birds, including a couple of pairs of Red-backed Fairywrens, the 5th species of Fairywren I have sen on this trip, the males absolutely stunning, but quite difficult to photograph from the beach below the scrub meaning I was always looking up at them.

male Red-backed Fairywren

Walking back to the car, a Sacred Kingfisher and several Rainbow Bee-eaters virtually posed for photographs in the lovely morning light.

Sacred Kingfisher 

Rainbow Bee-eater

On my last visit to Australia, we had stayed in Point Vernon while Tropical Hurricane Oswald hit, but thankfully the weather was much better this time, or I'm pretty certain I would never be allowed to set foot in the place ever again! While there for several days, I would visit an active Eastern Osprey nest and as I was in the area, went past to see one bird sat on the nest and then found its mate on a post along the water's edge, that was remarkably approachable.

Eastern Osprey

Thankfully, Toni had a good day out on the Blue Dolphin and got some good photos of Humpbacks, and so I didn't feel quite as guilty about dragging her away and down to Lamington National Park for the next stop and some rainforest birding!