Trip Report: Southeast Australia, November 1994 - Austral Spring

Robert Weissler, Los Angeles, California, USA;

Here is an account I wrote of a trip my wife and I made to southeastern Australia last November [1994]. It is from the perspective of a first-time visitor from North America, so keep that in mind. I would appreciate any comments or corrections from natives of Oz as the account is partly from memory after returning from the trip. Sorry, I didn't bother to provide a summary list of all birds seen, but trust me, it's simply too long :-) Actually, since my world list is in Excel, I can generate a trip list from it, if desired.

I hope you enjoy the report and find it useful.

November has become a regular time for overseas birding for my wife Liza and me. This year we took the opportunity to visit the "land down under" in order to get a breath of Spring in the middle of our Autumn. We put together an itinerary ourselves assuming that Australia would be relatively easy to travel through and we were correct. Our 16-night trip covered southeastern New South Wales, Canberra (Australian Capital Territory), and eastern Victoria. We planned a driving loop that took us from Sydney to Melbourne via the west side of the Great Dividing Range and Canberra, then returned to Sydney via the coast and the Gippsland Lakes region with a detour back into the Snowy Mountains along the way. We planned this trip as an introduction to Australian birds as neither of us had been south of the equator before this trip.

The first portion of the trip was spent in Sydney and nearby in the Blue Mountains. After a hair-raising adventure trying to navigate from the Airport to Potts Point and scrambled to find parking, we settled into the Victoria Court hotel, a charming bed and breakfast, for the evening.

On our first full day, we headed out on foot for the Royal Botanic Garden, picking up Red-whiskered Bulbul along the way. The gardens were full of flowers that attracted Noisy Miners. Common Mynas were numerous as well. What was truly exciting for us as first-timers was the sight of many Sulphur-crested Cockatoos feeding on the lawn and Rainbow Lorikeets in the trees above. We would soon see a flock of Silver Gulls and numerous Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants. A Crested Pigeon ambled along a trail nearby. An Australian White (Sacred) Ibis on the lawn seemed altogether too tame, but we would see many of them even near downtown. As we walked along the harbor side, we picked up our first exquisite Superb Blue Wren. What a gem! A Willie Wagtail tried to get our attention. For a couple of Californians, the Willie Wagtail seemed very reminiscent, if superficially in looks and behavior only, of the Black Phoebe. Our walk brought us to the famous Opera House and to Circular Quay. From the quay, a ferry took us across Port Jackson Harbor to the Taronga Zoo, a wonderful introduction to the diverse birds, marsupials and other wildlife of Australia. The view from the ferry provided the most inspiring view of Sydney and gave us a chance to rest our weary legs.

The next day we ventured north to Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park for the day. This park along with Royal National Park to the south was charred by fires the prior austral summer. Nevertheless, we found many birds in the area, particularly on the short trail by the Visitor's Center, including Pied Butcherbird, Australian (Black-backed) Magpies, fleeting glimpses of Crimson and Eastern Rosellas, (Maned) Wood Ducks, a Superb Lyrebird, and Emus (although the Emus were fenced in, so not wild). Laughing Kookaburras were common around the harbors and incredible to listen to (that who-o-o-o ah-a-a-a-a-a call is really wild, almost humorous).

We departed greater Sydney for the dry sclerophyll forests and fern gullies of the Blue Mountains. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall park where we found Galah, Black- faced Cuckoo Shrike, Eastern Spinebill, and New Holland Honeyeater. The Visitor's Center at Echo Point with its huge picture windows afforded views of both the Three Sisters rock formation and Gang Gang Cockatoos, King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas coming to the feeders there. The hazy blue vista included glimpses of Nankeen Kestrel and perhaps White Goshawk.

Our cozy, rustic tree-house cabin at the Jemby Rinjah Lodge was no less exciting. Blessed with large picture windows and solitude, the only visitors we had to fend off were the Pied Currawongs, Australian Ravens, Magpies, and even Satin Bowerbirds that came looking for a cracker or two. The regular feeding no doubt accounts for the extraordinary tame birds, but we found many colorful parrots and other birds right in towns and even the metropolis of Sydney itself. There were also White-browed Scrubwren, White-throated Treecreeper, and Brush Bronzewing. Do most Australians realize what a treasure they have? -- well, they have to the extent that it is illegal to capture wild birds for the pet trade.

The gorge of the "Grand Canyon" was rugged, moist and dramatic... and full of birds, including our first Pilot Bird, Rufous Fantail, and Golden Whistler. The view that greeted us when we emerged from the steep canyon was haunting. The blue haze from the eucalyptus trees of this area give the mountains their name. The horizon appeared as if painted by Leonardo DaVinci. Thereafter, we visited a nature trail and park along the road to the Megalong Valley. We spied Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Crested Shrike-tit, Eastern Yellow Robin, and Gray Fantail. Back at the lodge, we happened to come upon four, huge Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos.

Our journey southwest on the Hume Highway toward Melbourne took us first to Canberra, the capital of Australia. We had heard that Canberra, the planned capital city of Australia, was somewhat stark and lacking in bustle. In some ways, it reminded us of the wide, empty avenues and overwhelmingly large monuments of East Berlin. But that first impression was replaced by a couple days packed full of interesting activities.

The War Memorial was fascinating, giving us an Australian perspective on the world wars and Vietnam that we had known only from a North American point of view. Moreover, having seen the movies Gallipoli and Breaker Morant, we were terribly interested to find out why Australians would fight so far from home; and it appears that after the birth of the new nation at the turn of the century, Australians were keen to be seen as loyal members of the British empire.

Just behind the War Memorial, a nature park gave us our first look at Gray Kangaroo, not to mention White-eared Honeyeater, Satin Flycatcher, White-winged Chough along with the ubiquitous Pied Currawong. Even the War Memorial itself was home to Eastern Rosellas nesting in crevices of the building. The Jerrabomberra wetland nearby presented many opportunities for viewing waterfowl and shorebirds, including the Australian Pelican, Black- fronted and Red-kneed Dotterel, Purple Swamphen and Gray Teal. Superb Blue Wrens were very common along the walking track. Our first harrier of the trip was spotted in the distance, probably a Swamp Harrier.

Our final stop in Canberra was a visit to the National Botanic Garden. This garden was fantastic for overseas visitors because it specialized in native plants and trees, a boon for native birds too. The most unexpected bird of the trip was the Tawny Frogmouth nesting just beyond the acacia section. We were given a helpful tip by one of the employees of the garden. Otherwise, we would have very little chance of seeing this bird. It was hard enough seeing them against the branches of the tree into which their natural camouflage blended so well.

The next destination on the Hume Highway was the old gold mining district around Beechworth. This charming town was blessed with Crimson Rosellas and King Parrots right in town. But beyond the birds themselves, Beechworth offered plenty of shopping for crafts, clothing and foods, generous meals at restaurants, and numerous wineries in the surrounding area. Our plan was to use the Rose Cottage Bed and Breakfast as a jumping off point for Mount Buffalo National Park, but Beechworth and its surroundings had plenty of interesting birds in store for us. The country roads here had light traffic and provided ample opportunities to pull over when good birds appeared.

First, we drove through the historical park right in Beechworth on a rainy morning where we encountered Scarlet Robin, Red-browed Firetail and Fan-tailed Cuckoo along with the ubiquitous Laughing Kookaburra. Thereafter, we headed south from Beechworth to Mount Buffalo National Park. After a short walk on the Eurobin trail to the lower falls, we headed on up to the Chalet. After taking in the spectacular view, we found a Striated Pardalote on a short walk along the gorge trail. Driving further beyond the lake, we encountered a Flame Robin by the side of the road. But the best was yet to come. On our way down the mountain, we got good looks at Little Eagle and on the road nearer to Beechworth, we spied Wedge-tailed Eagles in the sky. A little further along, we stopped when we saw a Sacred Kingfisher on a utility line and nearby a Leaden Flycatcher.

On our way out of Beechworth before heading to Melbourne, we drove along the lake in town to find Australian Darter, Yellow-throated Thornbill, Hardhead and White-faced Heron. Along the country road, we picked up Restless Flycatcher flitting excitedly near a fence and a pair of Rainbow Bee-eaters caught our eyes with their grace and color. There was certainly more here than we expected based on guide books in this area south of the Murray River. We topped our day with a stop at a winery that offered a delicious floral and sweet Traminer/Riesling.

Our arrival in Melbourne was a bit of a letdown as the weather had turned worse and the traffic and parking inconvenience of the big city was annoying. Nevertheless, we managed to pick up a new bird at the Magnolia Court hotel in East Melbourne, namely a White-plumed Honeyeater. We also managed to find a wide variety of restaurants along Brunswick Street, including one specializing in Malaysian fare, an interesting mix of recipes often associated with Thai, Chinese and Indian cuisine.

The two full days we set aside for trips out of Melbourne were beset by some of the strangest weather we ever experienced, including high winds, showers and hail. We had heard that Melbourne had a fickle climate with much of the weather coming off the Southern Ocean. Nevertheless, we managed to see some beautiful scenery and interesting wildlife. We knew each day would be a challenge with lots of driving.

On the first day, we headed southwest bypassing some potential shorebird spots because of the bad weather and reaching the You Yangs, low mountains set on the otherwise flat plain extending out from Melbourne. Before getting to the park, we took an unintended detour that brought us Brown Falcon, the White-backed race of Australian Magpie, and a Pacific Heron. In the park, we managed to find a Yellow-billed Spoonbill all by itself on a small pond. More Scarlet Robins, White- winged Chough, Superb Blue Wrens and Yellow-throated Thornbills turned up too. On our way to the coast, we popped into a McDonalds just as a hailstorm passed overhead.

Our progress along the Great Ocean Road was slow enough that we couldn't get all the way to the Twelve Apostles, but the coast was wild and beautiful nonetheless with crashing surf past Torquay (but no foolhardy surfers). We did find our first Crested Terns along the way. We also experienced the raw, unbridled lust of Gray Fantails by the side of the highway. These birds were so intent on what appeared to be their mating display that they were totally oblivious to the traffic. They would fan their tails and turn to and fro with excitement as if to say, "Here! Look at me!! Look at my beautiful fantail!!!" The only problem was that many of them insisted on jumping onto the pavement directly in front of oncoming cars. This fascinating display was turning into a mini-carnage of feathers. "Here, look at me!" Squash! "Look at my fantail!" Squash! The highway was littered with them. Well, on the positive side, the Gray Fantail is one of the most numerous birds we encountered on our trip, along with the Brown Thornbill, the colorful parrots, and the bold corvids.

After we turned inland to head back, we happened upon quite a few birds along the country roads leading back to the Princes Highway. We found a wallaby in a meadow. Passing an inundated field and wetland, we found Tree Martins. Australian Shelducks, Maned (Wood) Ducks and Black Swans turned up in agricultural areas. A Whiskered Tern flew by near the Princes Highway. After crossing the bridge to enter Melbourne proper, we discovered a new wetland park called Westgate Park. Here, we picked up Black-winged Stilt, Red-necked Avocet, White-winged Triller, Clamorous Reed Warbler, White-fronted Chat, Hoary-headed Grebe along with numerous Australian White Ibis, coots and other water birds.

The next morning we headed to the parks of the Dandenong Range and planned to end the day by visiting the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island. The rain came down much of the day, but we still managed to get Eastern Whipbird after patiently tracking it through the forest. It rarely popped up from the undergrowth, but we both managed good looks of it perched momentarily on a log. The whip-cracking whistle it issues became noticeable elsewhere on the trip thereafter. Along a country road, we passed a tree absolutely full of honeyeaters. Most were Yellow-faced, but there was one White-naped in the lot. We missed one sought-after rare bird, the Helmeted Honeyeater, a close relation to the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater. However, there were a few promising birds high in the canopy over the road at a stream crossing -- they simply never came into view before flying off. The overcast sky made identification problematical.

So on we headed out to see Little (Fairy) Penguins on Phillip Island. The visitors center was full of interesting exhibits, plus a few penguin burrows visible through portals under the building. Apparently, all the human commotion doesn't disturb them, because they nest next to the boardwalk as well, despite the throng of tourists. This is certainly the easiest way to see wild penguins, well, except for the weather which insisted on not cooperating.

In spite of the driving rain, we waited for dusk and the arrival of the penguins from a day of feeding at sea. They wait until dark before they emerge from the water. Small groups would venture out with obvious trepidation, making headway waddling along the sand, until one reluctant penguin in the rear would lose nerve and plunge back into the water. Soon the organization and resolve of the group as a whole broke down and they were all heading back for the safety of the surf. Eventually, it became dark enough to suit them and they made their way back under the boardwalk to their burrows on the other side. Talk about cute! We were mildly disappointed not to see any Short-tailed Shearwaters, but we eventually saw a few of them -- once we were in the parking lot heading to our car, we could see the silhouettes of a few birds flying in the misty dusk that remained of sunset.

We left Melbourne for the Gippsland Lakes region of Victoria. After arriving at the Riversleigh Bed and Breakfast, we took a walk along the Mitchell River and encountered a number of birds, including Rufous Fantail, Sacred Kingfisher, Rufous Whistler, and Yellow Thornbill. At Eagle Point, the reserve turned up many of the same birds plus a Crested Shrike-tit, quite a few Grey Kangaroos and an Echidna. Australian Pelicans and Black- necked Swans graced the lake.

We spent a long full day in the Gippsland Lakes, starting with the Mitchell River National Park, then stopping in Sale for lunch before heading on to the Lakes National Park. Although Lakes National Park is close to Bairnsdale as the currawong flies, the drive is all the way around the lakes to the peninsula and turned out to be a tiring day. Beyond Sale, the road passes between lakes that hosted Glossy, Straw-necked and Sacred Ibis, Royal Spoonbill, a variety of common ducks and a few waders. The roads through Lakes National Park itself were unsealed and some were in poor condition owing to the inclement weather over the prior week. Nevertheless, we made our way to the tip of the peninsula where we found tame kangaroos, plenty of honeyeaters (mainly, New Holland and Yellow-faced) around the restrooms, and Caspian, Crested and Little Terns and a variety of cormorants by the lakeside. On our return trip through the park, we noticed that the birds darting across the road in front of the car were Brush Bronzewings.

The morning we left Bairnsdale, we made one of our best excursions, stopping at Toorloo Arm of Lake Tyers Forest Park. Here we had one of those magical experiences in which birds seem to be everywhere, calling, sailing past, flying overhead, buzzing around in bushes. Some great birds were here, including gems like the Scarlet Honeyeaster, the Azure Kingfisher, the haunting silhouette of White-bellied Sea Eagle soaring above, the ringing chorus of Bell Miners, a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, and Musk Lorikeets high in the gum trees. But there was more in store for us that day.

We continued on our way to the Lake Crackenback Resort in the Snowy Mountains. Along the Cann River Highway near a pass where the road was unsealed (i.e., unpaved), there was carcass after carcass of kangaroos, some having been there quite a long time with decay being obvious. It seems that these unfortunate road kills are not cleared from the highway and there do not appear to be scavengers taking advantage of the opportunity. It was curious why that particular area should have such a high incidence of road kills. Further along, we headed west off that highway onto a partly unsealed road leading to Jindabyne. At a patch of forest in the midst of the heath and farmland, there were woodswallows, the first of the trip. In fact, there were both Dusky and White-browed Woodswallows in good numbers. In addition, we also found a Fuscous Honeyeater and a Rufous Songlark. This isolated patch of dry sclerophyll forest and the gentle slope of the terrain reminded me of the Kipukas on the Big Island of Hawaii. Skylarks and a Brown Falcon were further along the road. To top off the day, we found the beauty of alpine Snow Gums adding its unique texture to the Snowy Mountain scenery and just across the road from our cabin, an Australian Hobby sat atop a light standard. Dinner at the restaurant perched over the lake included kangaroo (no, it doesn't taste like chicken, but somewhat like beef) plus a fine Tooheys Old, a smooth, dark ale that turned out to be our favorite beer of the trip. Yes, I had some apprehension choosing that dish given how enchanting we found kangaroos.

It was hard to leave Lake Crackenback after so short a stopover, but we had a long drive ahead of us back to Sydney. Our drive proceeded smoothly along the main highway, back through the ACT and then branching off toward the coast to rejoin the Princes Highway south of Wollongong. One surprise along the way was the steep decent from Macquarrie Pass. It is no wonder that it is a national park with the combination of sharp cliff walls, rainforest and views over the Pacific Ocean. Before reaching our final destination of Cronulla Beach, just south of Botany Bay and the airport, we passed the burn area of Royal National Park. Much of it was still closed because of the potential for falling trees, so instead we visited Captain Cook's memorial on Botany Bay and visited a wildlife area with more of the common shorebirds and waterfowl we have seen frequently on the trip. Our final stab at finding shorebirds the morning of our flight out was fruitful with Bar-tailed Godwit, Australasian (Pied) Oystercatcher, Red-capped Plover, and Rufous-necked Stint along the beach at Foreshore Road near the runway. What better way to end a trip?! Or is it just the beginning...? Our thoughts are already focused on a return trip to Australia, the next time to Queensland and the Northern Territory.

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This page served by Urs Geiser;; February 26, 1997