Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Outback odyssey

Having had a couple of days in Malaysia, it was time to head to Australia for the next 3 and a half weeks to go on a road trip into the edge of the outback and ending up on the Queensland coast for some whale watching before returning to Sydney. Arriving at Sydney Airport after a very bumpy flight, we made our way up to Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains where Toni’s Dad lives.

After a few days getting over any remaining jetlag, and doing some wildlife watching locally, we loaded the car and set off on the road trip, our first stop being the Pilligas, then Brewarrina and finally after 3 days, our (well, my) main destination, Bowra Wildlife Sanctuary.

The drive wasn’t without its wildlife highlights, the best being a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles feeding on one of the many roadkill Kangaroos that litter the outback roads that flew up as we approached and then circled overhead when we pulled up.

 Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Wedge-tailed Eagle

21st July

Having completely misjudged the distance and the condition of some of the outback roads, plus getting sidetracked by my first Red Kangaroos, a pair of Brolgas, some Australian Bustards and Brown Falcons by the road, we finally got to Cunnamulla just after dark.

Red Kangaroo


Brown Falcon

Australian Bustard

Arriving in Cunnamulla, we were surprised how quiet it was and not much appeared open, even though it was only just after 6pm and having little food with us, wanted to find something to eat, but it was only when we happened upon a cafe that was still open did we realise it was because it was Sunday night that everything else was closed. Thankfully the cafe also sold fish and chips, so with food in hand, we drove the short journey to Bowra, only to be told that we were a day early, I had booked us in for the night of the 22nd! Thankfully they were very understanding and as there was only one other couple in the Shearer’s Quarters, there was plenty of room for us for an extra night stay.

22nd July

Having arrived at Bowra in the dark, we had no idea what habitat we had driven through, and we awoke to a cacophony of noise and ventured out of the quarters. In the early morning light, there were lots of birds around the immediate area, mostly White-browed Woodswallows and Brown Treecreepers feeding on the ground while a nearly pool had 4 White-headed Stilts and a couple of Black-fronted Dotterel.

White-browed Woodswallow

One bird that I really wanted to see on this outback leg of the trip was Splendid Fairywren. I have always had a passion for Fairywrens, and Splendid are probably the best looking of the lot, and thankfully we were told of a nesting pair in a gravel pit. As we drove the tracks around the reserve, there were birds everywhere, mostly Woodswallows but also Crimson Chats, Crested Bellbird, White-winged Trillers and even a couple of Budgerigars!

male Crimson Chat

Once we arrived at the gravel pits, we soon saw the Splendid Fairywrens, the males quite stunning being a dazzling electric blue, but photographing them was remarkably tricky as they moved back and forth to feed young in an out of sight nest, and didn’t always follow a set route to allow for preparation and staking out a particular perch.

male Splendid Fairywren

As we arrived back at the Shearer’s Quarters, 2 Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos were feeding on some fruit, and having only earlier seen them briefly in flight, it was nice to see this local specialty too.

Major Mitchell's Cockatoo

After a lunchtime wander down to Cunnamulla to do some food shopping, I went for a wander round Bowra alone in the evening, which was much quieter, but still produced very photogenic Red-capped Robin and a Banded Lapwing.

Banded Lapwing

Red-capped Robin

23rd July

Awake early again, we had another drive around the reserve, which was much quieter than yesterday but before we left, we paid another visit to the fairywrens. After a fair wait, the male showed much better than yesterday and I was much happier with the photos I managed to get of him.

male Splendid Fairywren

We were told of a pair of White-winged Fairywrens along the entrance track that we had completely failed to find yesterday, but taking our time, we found the rolls of wire we had been told to look out for and sure enough, flicking around on top of it was a stunning male.

male White-winged Fairywren

Having thought Splendid Fairywrens were the best looking, having sat and photographed male White-winged Fairywren, I am now not sure which I prefer, but safe to say, they are both stunning and what a great way to finish a visit to this superb reserve.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Malaysian stop-over

Travelling to Australia is a bloody long way! To break up the journey this time, we did a 2 day stop-over in Malaysia en route rather than do it in one go.

Saturday 12th July

Flying in to Kuala Lumpur Airport takes the best part of 13 hours from Heathrow, thankfully it was a smooth flight and so we got some sleep ahead of our arrival in possibly the most confusing airport I have ever been through. Having battled our way through the airport and picked up our car (despite the lack of obvious signage to the car rental area) we set off towards Bukit Tinggi, according to the maps on my phone, just an hours drive away to the north. Unfortunately my maps decided the best way to go was straight through Kuala Lumpur, which even on a Saturday night was extremely busy with mopeds, motorcycles and cars coming at you from all directions, occasionally they even indicating where they were going, most times you had to be a mind reader. Having failed to stop as instructed at the first petrol station to top up a toll card, we upset the system and although the first time we were fine and were given a card with 10 ringgit of credit on, the second time we got to a toll plaza, we set the alarms off when we swiped our card which had insufficient credit, as we had no idea how much we would needed and had to walk across lanes of traffic to get to a booth who would top it up for us. After 4 hours from landing, we finally reached our destination, the Colmar Tropicale Resort in the Genteng Highlands, a strange French Chateaux themed resort on the hillside. After a quick pizza, we went for a stroll after dark with the torch to stretch the legs and to look for any nocturnal wildlife, plus get our bearings for the next morning's efforts to see the Mountain Peacock-pheasants that the area is renowned for, and came across a Bearded Pig which was an unexpected mammal tick.

Colmar Tropicale Resort, nestled in the Malaysian hills

Sunday 13th July

Next morning, we were awake early and set off just before 6am and walked up the hill in the dark, reaching the Japanese Garden site just as it was getting light, which takes about 60-90 minutes depending how fit you are and certainly a shock to the legs after a 13 hour flight the day before! If you stay at the resort you can drive up the road as the barrier is otherwise closed until 10am, but walking is a nice way to feel like you've earned the tick! As the sun came up, the first birds appeared - 3 flyover Rhinoceros Hornbills briefly followed by singing Stripe-throated Bulbul, then Little Cuckoo Dove, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Grey-rumped Treeswift and Oriental Magpie Robin feeding young while Glossy Swiftlets whizzed overhead.

Stripe-throated Bulbul

Within minutes of arriving at the Peacock-pheasant stakeout spot, the female Mountain Peacock-pheasant appeared, completely unconcerned at the cameras clicking away from behind the thin black netting as she strutted around digging at the ground for food. Apparently we were expected to provide the mealworms for her, but I'm not sure where you can buy mealworms from on a Saturday night in Kuala Lumpur.

Female Mountain Peacock-pheasant

After a while, a male appeared and began displaying to the female, showing off the iridescent green markings in his tail, and when a second male appeared, the original one began chasing and showing off his markings even more. At one point the male chased off his competitor, running within 6 feet of us, I really didn't need to have carried the heavy 200-500mm lens up the hill for these guys!

Male Mountain Peacock-pheasant

An Orange-breasted Trogon that we were told is always there was calling just behind the viewing area, but wasn't visible and a family of Yellow-bellied Warblers kept us entertained while the Peacock-pheasants were out of sight. The walk down was much easier going and a few new birds appeared, including Yellow-eared Spiderhunter, both Blue-winged and Orange-bellied Leafbirds and a Crested Serpent-eagle called as it circled overhead. A party of Dusky Lagurs sat in a tree above us while a couple of Siamangs, which are huge black gibbons with a young one, moved through the treetops.

Dusky Langur

 Orange-bellied Leafbird

Crested Serpent Eagle

After a well-earned and hearty breakfast, we made our way to Frasers Hill, another well known birding area. The drive up to Frasers Hill seems to take an age, twisting and turning and then you reach the gatehouse to the village. Being a Sunday, the village was very busy, not the quiet quaint little village I had envisaged and once we had checked in at our apartment in the Silverwood resort, where a family of Long-tailed Sibia and a Streaked Spiderhunter fed in the trees by the balcony, we went for an afternoon look around. Birdlife was fairly thin on the ground around Jeriau, with a few Yellow-vented and a Black-crested Bulbul of any note, and also a family of White-thighed Leaf Monkeys in the trees just before the heavens opened and we made a hasty retreat to the car.

Long-tailed Sibia

White-thighed Leaf Monkey

Monday 14th July

Monday morning, Frasers Hill was very quiet, much more suitable for wandering around. Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes and Fire-tufted Barbets joined the Sibias by our balcony as we had breakfast. We went back toward the gatehouse first thing to look for the Malaysian Whistling-Thrush but were probably a bit too late and by the time we got to the nearby Richmond Cottage, there was also no sign of any Hill Partridges.

Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush

By the time we finished looking for Partridges, it was getting a bit later than hoped, and the Telekom Trail (off the Girdle Road) was also fairly quiet though still produced some stunning Red-headed Trogons, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and Blue-eared Barbet.

 Red-headed Trogon

Rufous-browed Flycatcher

Once we had checked out of the apartment, we headed back towards Jeriau where at the old delapidated hotel, photographers have been putting fruit out by some perches which attracts a variety of very tame species. As we arrived, there was already a couple of photographers there and even though there wasn't any fruit available, Long-tailed Sibia and a Silver-eared Mesia appeared. Once the photographers had gone, muttering about the barbets not coming down, I put some sliced apple down and stood back. Within seconds the first Chestnut-capped Laughing Thrushes and Long-tailed Sibias were tucking in, then a Fire-tufted Barbet (obviously the previous photographers hadn't provided the correct fruit!) and finally a flock of 10 Silver-eared Mesias, looking quite stunning entertained us. What fruit the birds missed, a Common Tree Shrew and a Squirrel sp would appear occasionally to eat.

Silver-eared Mesia

 Fire-tufted Barbet

Common Tree Shrew

Afterwards we walked down towards the nearby Jeriau Waterfall where Slaty-backed Forktail fed on the stream and a Green-billed Malkoha moved among the tree tops.

Slaty-backed Forktail

We received a tip-off about a spot where a Pygmy Cupwing comes down and performs on a set up perch, almost like a stage, apparently you provide some mealworms and whistle and the bird will appear.

The "stage", sadly minus the Cupwing

Sadly it didn't appear for us, possibly being too late in the day by this point, the mealworms a fellow photographer provided were quickly hoovered up by the laughingthrushes and a party of Grey-throated Babblers, while a Shrew-Mouse would appear for a few leftovers.

Grey-throated Babbler


Nearby another setup perch where photographers put mealworms down attracted a family of Large Niltava and a Rufous-browed Flycatcher, despite some of the photographers standing a few feet away talking incredibly loudly!

Large Niltava

By mid-afternoon, it was time to head back to the airport for our midnight flight to Sydney, which was a much smoother drive as we were able to avoid going through Kuala Lumpur, instead skirting down the west side. With a bit of time to kill before flying and some light still available, we stopped at a small nature reserve a few minutes from the airport called Payah Indah Wetlands, which unfortunately had closed by the time we got there just after 6pm, but parked by the entrance we still saw a singing Paddyfield Pipit, flyover Blue-throated Bee-eater and best of all, 3 Savannah Nightjars which gave superb close views in the failing light.

Paddyfield Pipit

In just over 2 days we saw, well identified 48 species of bird and a few new mammals. It's a lovely country, one I'd love to go back to for a much longer visit, but for a quick taster, it was just about right. Now onto the Australia leg of the trip for the next 3 weeks....