Sunday, 5 March 2023

Birding Northern Territory ( Uluru)

Uluru, Olgas and the Red Centre

After completing a long drive from Cairns to Brisbane, my partner Sandee and I were excited to visit the iconic desert landscape of Australia's Red Centre. We knew that a trip to Australia wouldn't be complete without visiting Uluru (Ayer's Rock), a World Heritage site and one of the world's largest monoliths.

Crested Pigeons.


Spinifex is a plant that binds the desert together. The clumps of grass provide refuge for small animals including birds, rodents, lizards and snakes. Termites chew on the stems depositing a fine mulch and nutrients underground. When processed, the plant provides a bitumen like glue substance, used by aboriginal people for making and mending tools.

Uluru's rock paintings easily damage as they have no binding agents. The cave paintings depict religious and ceremonial expression, teaching and storytelling. These include geometric symbols such as concentric circles, figures representing animal tracks and the outlines of animals. 

Rock Paintings Uluru.

 Aboriginal people have lived in the area for at least ten to twenty thousand years, perhaps longer. The first white explorers arrived one hundred and twenty years ago. Today the Anangu people are caretakers of the land and share responsibility for the site with the Australian government.

White-browed Babbler.

On the third morning I persuaded Sandee to accompany me on nine km base walk of Uluru. It was an unforgettable experience on so many levels. The sun, the gentle breeze, the light hitting the sandstone rock face. At one stop a steady trickle of water filled a pool shaded by trees. A Willy Wagtail was hawking insects at the waters edge.
While walking, we saw a flock of White-browed Babblers and a Brown Falcon flying overhead. We also encountered several flocks of Zebra Finches, Little Woodswallows, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes and White-plumed Honeyeaters.

 Zebra Finch.

There were many interesting formations where photography was allowed.

 We saw Little Woodswallow nests clinging to steep walls and a Nankeen Kestrel surveyed its domain from a cave. 

Nankeen Kestrel nesting on a cliff face.

Little Woodswallow.

As we walked around Uluru, we discovered many surprising things about the area. The nine-kilometre base walk was open to the public, except for a particular stretch called Tjukatjapi, which is sacred to the Anangu people. Photography was prohibited in this area.

White-plumed Honeyeater.

There were desert oak around the base offering much needed shelter for trekkers and wildlife.

Base Walk scenery.

Yellow-throated Minor

The Olgas.
Desert Oaks dot the landscape.

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to catch the shuttle bus out to either Uluru or the Olgas. One day, I went on a six-hour self-guided tour through the Valley of the Winds. The walk turned-up several lifers, including Diamond Dove, Hooded Robin, Splendid Fairywren, Singing Honeyeater, Australian Pipit, Red-capped Robin, Dusky Grasswren, and Red-backed Kingfisher.

Hooded Robin.

Splendid Fairywren

Finally...but not least

Late afternoons, we would rest before heading out again for the sunset at Uluru. Each sunset was different, but the third night was the most magical. As we drove out to Uluru, menacing rainclouds began to develop, followed by thunder. Without the sun, Uluru had lost its reddish colour and now appeared to be a deep brown. Our bus driver had told us we might be in for a rare light show if the rains stopped. The rain did stop, and a partial rainbow appeared. As the sun set and for the briefest of moments, a shaft of the sunlight lit up Uluru, creating a magic moment that we and all those present will never forget.

Our next stop will be the lush old growth at O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat and Lamington National Park. The contrast wouldn't be greater.

"It's never too late to make a plan"

John Gordon
BC Canada


Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Birding Queensland Part 2

Fall 2022

 Northern Queensland.

Grey-tailed Tatler and Great Knot

 Eight days in New South Wales just flew by. The second portion of our trip was a three hour 2420 km flight to Cairns, Northern Queensland. The warmth and humidity was in stark contrast to what we had experienced in New South Wales. We had planned two days rest in Cairns before picking up our next camper van. First stop after checking into our hotel was the Esplanade, a shore birding hotspot and stop-off for guided tours. Unfortunately it was high tide so no new birds were seen except for the Welcome Swallows nesting under the boardwalk.

Great Knot and Red-necked Stint.

Next morning the tide was a little too high but I did manage an Asian Dowitcher, a rarity for the area. One group of birds included Curlew Sandpipers, one Far Eastern Curlew, a Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tatlers, Common Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, two Red Knots, a dozen Great Knots and a few Bar-tailed Godwits, that was until a selfish dog owner flushed the flock. The remaining birds on the beach had included Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a Wandering Tatler and few Little Terns.

 I thanked the dog owner for her lack of consideration for which I duly received an Aussie finger. That was the end of the shorebirds until the next tide. The sky was heavily overcast and the morning light dismal but a few birds were stirring in the palm trees that lined the Esplanade. Yellow and Varied Honeyeaters and a distant view of a Superb Fruit-Dove rounded out the session. The sun came out.

Varied Honeyeater. 

Superb Fruit-Dove.

 I headed for a coffee. A sliver of rocky foreshore provided glimpses of Pacific Reef Heron and Black-necked Stork. A White-breasted Woodswallow was hawking insects. The life list was growing as was my appetite.

Black-necked Stork.

After breakfast we both headed to the Cairns Botanical Gardens. The gardens were a welcome break from the bustle of the Esplanade. First up was the strange looking Orange-Footed Megapode, numerous Australian Brush Turkeys, Rainbow Bee-eaters and a Varied Triller, After picking up our new camper we headed to the the outskirts of Cairns. The first birds we saw were a pair of Bush Thick-knees in a suburban park, another lifer. They were content to sit still on the ground or just freeze mid-stride like a bittern. 

Bush Thick nee

Soon it was time to leave Cairns but not before noticing a flock of House Sparrows picking bugs off the grill of a 4x4, a behavior. I hadn't seen them do anywhere else on my world travels, be it Churchill Manitoba or Kathmandu. It was time to leave the coast and take the steep and windy road to the cooler climes of the Atherton Tablelands. 

Our first stop was Kuranda for local information. We spent a few hours at the Rainforest Nature Park checking out critters (mostly nocturnal) we might not see in our travels. Around the parking lot I picked-up a Silvereye, Barred Cuckoo-shrike, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Spotted Catbird and a Forest Kingfisher before heading to the Billabong Campground for the night.


After a long day we settled into Billabong Campground for the evening. It was one of the few paid campsites we used but proved to be well worth it. Daybreak couldn't come soon enough. The birds were our alarm clock and at 5 a.m. I was awake, my other half still in dreamland.

 The first lifer of the morning was a Victoria's Riflebird followed by an Olive-sided Sunbird, Leaden Flycatcher, Scarlet and Dusky Myzomela, Black-faced Monarch, Northern Fantail and a great selection of honeyeaters including Macleay's, White-throated, Brown, Cryptic and Brown-backed. 

Macleay's Honeyeater.

What a morning and those were just a few of the birds noted! High above the campground on a rocky outcrop I watched a flock of Scaly-breasted Lorikeets feeding on termites. The sunrise quickly followed.

Scaly-breasted Lorikeets

Soon it was time to leave the rainforest and head into the drier Savannah habitat of the Atherton Tablelands proper. Over the next  two weeks we drove back to Brisbane passing through picturesque villages and towns, met some colourful characters and stayed at some wonderful campsites. I suggest downloading the WikiCamps which outlines all free and paid campsites on your route. We found the free campsites to have better birding as they were often in undeveloped areas while the paid campsites were often a little too groomed. On the flip side the latter had showers and were sometimes the only option to bird certain hotspots like Oreilly's Rainforest Retreat which I will be featured in the last of the Australia blogs.

Spotted Catbird

Red-browed Finch

The AthertonTablelands had it all. Big skies and red dirt farmland dotted with lakes and swamps, some of which were impassable due to flooding. Recently tilled fields provided ample food sources for the large flocks of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and Sarus Cranes. Finches fed on the wild grasses that were lining the ditches.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo

Overhead Whistling, Black and Brahminy Kites rode thermals. Keeping one's eyes on the road was a challenge as the birds swept overhead. We always made a point of stopping for the night well before dusk so as not to encounter kangaroos and wallabies. Lizards sunning on the road were particularly vulnerable.

Brahminy Kite

Whistling Kite

    Hastie's Swamp was quieter than normal, the water much too high but it did produce a few lifers in the form of Dollarbird, Comb-crested Jacana and down the road at Curtain Fig National Park, an Atherton Scrubwren, a real skulker. 


Comb-crested Jacana


We headed south for the coast and Etty Bay where we hoped to spot a Southern Cassowary. On the way we met quite a number of Brits and Canadians, mostly young people who had made the leap across the pond. Australia seems to have it all, especially if you enjoy the outdoors.

On the first day, the Cassowary was a no show so we booked a second night and kept hoping. A large track of forest that borders the ocean has been set aside just for the giant birds. Loss of habitat is the main threat to the species, road kill and dogs another. There are no trails in the forest so the only hope is if a bird comes down to the beach to feed.

There were plenty of warning signs. 

Finally on day two we were in luck. Cassowaries are big birds. The height is normally 1.5 to 1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft); females average 58.5 kg (129 lb), while males average 29 to 34 kg (64–75 lb) and when one walked out of the forest and on to the beach everyone had the cameras and phones out to record the sight. I grabbed my camera but with a 500mm lens had trouble fitting the huge bird into the frame so I ended up using a point and shoot with a zoom lens. 

A second bird appeared and wandered into the campground which is where Sandee, my wife, had a close encounter of sorts. Later she told me that while reading her book she felt a puff of wind on her neck, a burp she thought, turning around she was more than surprised to find herself face to face with a Cassowary. Eventually the bird moved on. 

A Southern Cassowary searches for fruits washed onto the beach.

Etty Bay to Gumlu

Dairy Entry;

It's so hot and humid, the ocean was warm, no crocs or stinging jellyfish to contend with but I stupidly got sunburnt. After Etty Bay we drove toward Townsville. stayed in another free campsite, heard the most unusual and loud bird calls, beautiful sunset, rained at night. Some new birds but too tired to check the bird guide. Must get a decent nights sleep for a long drive tomorrow. The side winds off the ocean could easily send the van off course, the sugar cane trucks barrelling past us to keep us on our toes. Sandee doesn't want to drive in case she hits a roo. She becomes designated bird spotter.

Countryside around Gumlu. Cattle, sugarcane and vegetables were the main crops.

At the end of the day we stop in Gumlu, pop 181. We are the only campers. The post office acts as liquor store, bar and restaurant and everything else for the surrounding farming community. Farms hands bring in watermelons and squash and leaves them for anyone who wants them. They leave with 48 packs of beer, thirsty work farming. We ate a delicious meal outdoors, swapped stories with locals and drank beer. Overhead a flock of Cockatiels passed close enough for a positive ID.  They are known locally as Quarrybirds. Suddenly five Whistling Kites appear out of nowhere feasting on a passing swarm of grasshoppers.

The Goanna is one of twenty-five Australian monitor lizard species. Some like this one above can reach 2.5 m or eight feet. 

  A refreshing wind picks up as the sun sets on another day in paradise. I have to pinch myself and wonder how fortunate we are to see all this. Next day in one rest area a Grey Kangaroo and its joey hop off into the undergrowth, I spooked them while stalking a bird.

Grey Kangaroo and her joey.

The trip down to Hervey Bay, pronounced Harvey was a long, hundred mile plus drive. "I used to think ten miles was a long way when I grew up in the UK." We met Andrew and Cliff, who we met through the Ap Birding Pals, who were to be our hosts. I had phoned them on an off chance. I'm glad I did. A couple, they told us about their aboriginal heritage and mixed blood. Eugenics Australia style, they called it. There are always two sides to a story and we were happy to listen. Australia and Canada have much in common when it come to the treatment of Aboriginal and First Nations. We both learnt a lot and have continue to read up on the history of Australia. 

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo comes to the feeder.

Years ago they two bought a property and are letting it return to nature. Their house is surrounded by a small forest. There were feeders everywhere, a resident python hangs around waiting for a hapless parrot or rodent. Eventually as they age, the house will be entwined and return to the earth. It was an honour to spent a brief time with such hospitable people. 

Pale-headed Rosella.

After a quick 'cuppa' we headed for Hervey Bay, our first stop was a nondescript field behind a mall. Amongst the few trees and sparse shrubs was a nesting Grey Butcherbird, although commorn, it was a lifer. The beach was a rare opportunity to see some shorebirds. First up a Striated Heron, Pied Cormorant, Lesser Crested and Common Tern, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-capped, Greater and Lesser Sand-Plovers and a Brown Booby. Across the road from the beach was a Flying Fox colony. 

Black Flying Fox or Black Fruit Bat among the largest bats in the world.
They eat fruits, pollen and nectar.

Back at the house we sat on the veranda and watched the birds. Again my 500mm lens was too long and I wished I had my 200-500. I can't remember how many times I have mentioned that in previous blogs but for travel the zoom is a better bet. A few were lifers including a Pale-faced Rosella, Spangled Drongo and a White-throated Gerygone, pronounced GERIGIONE, most new birders to Australia get it wrong and call it GERRYGONE as in Jerrygone.... It took me a while to get the pronunciation correct.

White-throated Gerygone

The next few days we reached the coast and enjoyed a break from the driving. We stopped at Moomola National Park, another free campsite and I had a few more lifers including Rufous Fantail, and White-throated Treecreeper. It was beginning to feel like birding at home, same basic skillset. 
The last night before hitting Brisbane and our next leg to Uluru was Bridle Island. There I had a Caspian Tern and Pied Oystercatcher. Finally it was time to say goodbye Hiatchi Van and a real bed for the next three days.

The Glass House Mountains just north of Brisbane attain a height of 490 m or 1600 ft.

 As we approached Brisbane the spectacular Glass House Mountains greeted us and offered us the opportunity to contemplate the past 17 days and how much we had seen and done. 

Common Grass Yellow.

Finally, when I saw the address we were going to stay at in Brisbane I knew our trip was meant to be. The address was #1 Birdie Place with cross street of Albatross Crescent, perfect but being bird brained it never occurred to me that we were staying next to a golf course. Finally it twigged, those are golf terms and have nothing to do with birds at all!

A pair of Galah

                                   In the next and final Australia blog we fly to Uluru, formally know as Ayer's Rock,


"It's never too late, MATE"

John Gordon
BC Canada

Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Birding New South Wales Part 1

New South Wales 

Flooded farmland, bridges washed away and roads closed, not the Australia Sandee and I had read about or expected. Rural areas had been hardest hit, including major population centres including Sydney. Historically Australia has always had bouts of drought, wildfires and floods. Following the devastating wildfires of 2019 the country was now in the third year of the La Nina phenomenon, leaving many parts of the country wetter than normal.

La Nina (shown in red) enveloping Australia while New Zealand surrounded is mostly spared.
                                                                                                                  (National Geographic)

Straw-necked Ibis and Little Ravens scavenge along a flooded roadside. Birds that would normally congregate around waterholes were scattered everywhere making birding more challenging.

Day 1-3 Sydney NSW

Cumberland State Forest, Marayla, Bushel's Lagoon, Boongala Gardens and Windsor area.

Our Australian trip began with three days of orientation in Sydney. Sandee and I took a tour of the city. At a windy Bondi Beach a large flock of shearwaters battled the way to an offshore island. They were too far away to tell the exact species.

Magpie Larks are common across the continent.

 A short walk from the hotel an Australian White Ibis bathed in an ornamental fountain. They are known as 'bin chickens' or 'tip turkeys' due to their scavenging habits.

Australian White Ibis or 'Bin Chicken'.

 I thought the background of multiple spray nozzles made for an interesting juxtaposition. I used my iPhone 8 to capture the fleeting moment, Bin Chicken or not, the bird was the first lifer of the trip. Downtown offered a chance to bird the Sydney Botanical Garden where I picked up a dozen new species. A great way to shrug off jet lag. Most large centres had botanical gardens, Rockhampton and Coff's Harbour were some of the best.

Pacific Black Ducks are found throughout Australia.

The Sydney Natural History Museum (free admission) was the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon, one hall was devoted to Australia birds, another to aboriginal history and culture. Both good primers for our upcoming adventure.
On Day 3, while Sandee indulged in retail therapy I met up with Birding Pal Barry Lancaster who took myself and another birder out to Cumberland State Forest on the outskirts of Sydney.
 An early start made sure we had time to see parrots and cockatoos before they left their forest roosts to search for food in the surrounding orchards and farmland. The forest was full of birdsong and the ultimate skulker and vocalist, the Eastern Whipbird. 

Eastern Whipbird.

 A colourful flock of Red-rumped Parrots feeding on a suburban lawn was another highlight. A ground feeder, small flocks are confined to south-eastern Australia.
By the end of the day and with Barry's expert knowledge I had added sixty-six more lifers to my Aussie list. An introduced Eurasian Blackbird, House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon and Common Starling were Australian ticks. I couldn't have asked for a better start. 

A Red-rumped Parrot on a garden fence.

White-faced Heron
 Sydney Olympic Park.

Sept 26-Oct 3 2022

Day 4 we picked up our camper and headed south toward Goulburn and inland to Jugiong. There we met Lyn Burden, another Birding Pal I had been corresponding with for months. Lyn had taken the trouble to make up a five day itinerary for us but due to inclement weather had decided to reverse the tour to avoid the rains. Our destination, Lake Cargelligo was five hundred kms inland. We stayed at a combination of free and paid campsites. 

Double-barred Finch.

We made numerous stops including Pioneer Park in Jugiong where Lyn found me a speckled Warbler. 

Speckled Warbler.

Other stops included, Campbell's Swamp, Fivebough Wetlands, Hooey Road Lookout and Lake Wyanger where we picked-up White-winged Chough, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Nankeen Kestrel and Sacred Kingfisher. 

Eastern Yellow Robin

The rains had made the roads treacherous with potholes everywhere, one of our planned campsites was even under water. Overall the free campsites offered the best birding opportunities

Black Swans take advantage of the recent rains

At least we didn't have to deal with dusty roads which meant the camera was always out and ready to go. Later in the trip we had to drive through 14 kilometres of flooded roads to make our way back via the Blue Mountains to Sydney 600 kms to the East.

White-breasted Woodswallow.

The wetlands, of which there were more than usual provided some good birds including Blue-billed Duck and Whiskered Tern. Soon I had photographed one hundred new species, way too many to list here. The scenery was spectacular, the rolling hills and thousands of sheep reminded us of Scotland and Wales. The economy and surrounding towns were all built around sheep and grain exports. We even had time to visit a shrine in honour of Don Bradman, the greatest cricketer of all time. That was a real treat.

A Grey Kangaroo bounds across a watery landscape.

Birding can be dangerous as well as exhilarating. At one point while crossing a flooded roadway we felt our camper slide sideways and slip down stream before gripping the road and pulling us to safety. The whole incident still gives us goose bumps, something neither of us will ever forget. Something I would do differently should we return would be to hire a 4x4 Utility or UTE with tent on top rather than a camper van. A number of National Parks were totally unsuitable for our vehicle.

Crimson Rosella.

Lake Cargelligo

"You missed the Major Mitchell's Cockatoo" Sandee announces as I returned from an afternoon birding session. Sandee loves to tag along on trips and seems happy to take in the sights and sounds. She potters around doing whatever non-birders do. Wildlife feels comfortable around her, probably oblivious to her presence. Later over supper she describes the many 'red, white and yellow' birds that visited the campsite during my absence, from her descriptions probably Noisy Miners, Peaceful Doves, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, Galahs and Australian Magpies, all birds comfortable around humans. There were others I could never quite figure out. They would come within inches of her, looking for handouts or perhaps just curious. On one occasion, so deep into her novel that an Australian Brush Turkey crept up and scratched her toe, drawing blood. 

Australian Brush Turkey.

Then there were the lizards and giant centipedes, favourite prey for the Laughing Kookaburra. Fortunately we did not encounter any nasty spiders, scorpions and only one snake, a large Python that had wrapped itself around a tree at the base of the verandas few feet from our camper. It waited patiently to pounce on a  hapless rodent or bird. It posed no risk to us, but at six feet long it was an imposing sight, especially in the dark and on our way to use the facilities. Creepy to say the least.

Wear sturdy boots, stay out of long grass and keep to trails was good advice.

 Thanks to Lyn's keen eye and knowledge of birdsong every day provided a new set of birds. Equally interesting were encounters with kangaroo and lizards. The red earth that held the recent rains was especially vibrant, wildflowers covered the landscape, and the smell of the eucalypts was something else

Painted Button Quail in Nangar National Park.

Finally this was the Australia we had read about, far from the city and quite stunning. During one of our excursions Lyn spotted a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagle feeding on carrion, a few metres further on an Emu was browsing and a flock parrots flew overhead. Birdsong filled the air.

Wedge-tailed Eagle.
Australia's largest bird of prey.

 After negotiating flooded roads we made our way back to Orange some five-hundred kms east of Sydney. At the botanical gardens in Orange I ran into a local birding group on their Sunday morning walk. They helped me pick-up two lifers, an Eastern Spinebill and a Spotted Pardalote.

Golden Whistler.

 Time was running out for the first leg of our trip. A few days later we were in the famed Blue Mountains where we viewed a Wollemi Pine at the Blue Mountains Botanical Gardens. The Wollemi Pine is one of the world's oldest and rarest plants dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. With less than 100 adult trees known to exist in the wild, the Wollemi Pine is now the focus of extensive research to safeguard its survival. 

Eastern Rosella.

Part two will cover our trip from Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands and the seventeen hundred km drive south to Brisbane.
 Part three will cover the Ulur or Ayer's Rock portion including the return journey from Brisbane back to Sydney.
 Stay posted.

"It's never ever too late to say G'day"

John Gordon
BC Canada