Let them eat fish …

A recent post, Game Drive, has been a big winner. With the tags travel and Africa it has attracted a lot of attention. Some posts are like that. This post is about a trip to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, it’s a great destination, it gives you a chance to get at the shore of Lake Victoria, three species of monkey are well represented and there is also a fourth, it’s a great place to find birds in a big city but it really doesn’t lend itself to a sexy title.

And some of its denizens are certainly not sexy …

Marabou Stork

Others are way more attractive …

Black-headed Heron
Great Blue Turaco
Striped Ground Squirrel

The squirrel stays close to its hole in a termite mound.

The three regular monkey species are Blue Monkey, Vervet Monkey and Colobus. There is a solitary Red-tailed Monkey as well, an escapee from the nearby zoo. The Vervets are adorable …

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey

Just ask them.

What on earth does all this have to do with fish? Miracles and fish have a close relationship. It’s a miracle this Pied Kingfisher could catch and then fly with this fish. If you click on the first photo you can step through the process of swallowing it. First turn it around so that it’s head points down your throat …

 

Shoebill …

Many years ago I went to a farewell dinner for a surgeon. Naturally he gave a speech. He was a surgeon who was retiring but he was no retiring surgeon. In the space of a few minutes he had mortally offended every catholic in the place and alienated every woman. Hospital managers, health insurance funds, nursing staff all got a serve. If he ever regretted his retirement there was little chance that he would be welcome back.

But his ultimate scorn was for birdwatchers. You could safely assume he would not be spending the twilight of his days bird watching.

I can understand that. Bird watchers are weird. They are socially awkward and compare sizes … of lists that is. Now, of course, this is a bird watcher’s blog but it’s not a birdwatching blog, if it were it would consist of endless lists and no sane person would read it. You can find such blogs.

Lists, though, are remarkably democratic. A House Sparrow, a feral pigeon and the rarest bird in the world all contribute just one to the list. But are they really all equal? Would a birder ever send a photo of some trash bird to a birding friend and say “Look what I just added to my life list”?

On the other hand if it were rare, limited in range, five feet tall and known to include crocodiles in its diet …

It was about an hour and a half’s drive from Entebbe to the papyrus swamp at Mabamba Bay. We had been advised that our chance of seeing Shoebill was about 70%. To improve our odds we would go twice.

Our transport awaited …

We sent a sharp pair of eyes up into the crow’s nest …

And after a couple of hours we found our quarry …

Balaeniceps rex

King of the whale heads. Just standing there looking down at us. Which is what they do for long periods, waiting for some unsuspecting lung fish or baby crocodile to swim within reach, or even a duck. Then it’s all action, it lunges into the water, engulfs a bill full, ejects everything that it’s not interested in swallowing before decapitating anything that it is interested in swallowing and then swallowing it. Or so they say, just finding one is hard enough, it would be a rare privilege to witness what The Handbook of the Birds of the World calls its “violent method of fishing”.

Where the Shoebill fits in the evolutionary bush is uncertain. It was once lumped with the storks, it shares some characteristics with the herons but it is more likely, though, that its nearest relatives are the pelicans. For the moment it is a single species in a unique genus in its very own family, the Balaenicipitidae.

Heads up, camera ready …

It strides to the water’s edge …

and plunges, eyes protected by a nictitating membrane …

Up it comes, spilling water. Then discards vegetation until after a few minutes working on the contents of its bill it discards everything left in its mouth. It seems to have been unsuccessful and flies off to find a better spot …

I wasted no time sending the photos to my birding friends around the world. They gnashed their teeth and howled in pain.

Daintree River …

One of my favorite memories from previous trips to the wet tropics is birding with Chris Dahlberg. On seeing some interesting bird he would say “Come with me …”, and of course we would, we were after all confined to a small boat. Chris has moved on to another phase of his life but one can still take an early morning cruise on the Daintree River with Sauce Worcester at the helm.

It is essential to book in advance, cruises leave from the jetty right in the Daintree village. In theory cruises last for two hours but Mr Worcester is very generous with his time. He takes you up stream and down and pokes around in the little creeks. Some much sought-after birds like Little Kingfisher, Black Bittern and Great-billed Heron are quite often seen on the cruise and Sauce is pretty good at getting you in the right place for a photo. You will finish the trip with a good list.

Here is a Black Butcherbird, not radiantly attractive to look at and of less than endearing manners, it is an aggressive nest predator, but it does have a lovely voice.

Black Butcherbird

The Azure Kingfisher, on the other hand has better manners and is delightful to look at. Its voice is a rather depressing and monotonous kek …

Azure Kingfisher

And this guy is rarely heard and something of a struggle to see …

 Papuan Frogmouth

It’s in there somewhere. It is a Papuan Frogmouth, they feed at night. Unlike owls their feet are weak, they capture prey ranging from large insects to small mammals by seizing them in their beaks. During the day they do a very good impersonation of a branch. This one is sitting on a nest, a flimsy construction of sticks. It’s the male that sits during the day, the sexes alternate at night.

One often sees some very impressive crocodiles on the cruise but November is not a good time for them. It is mating season, none are sitting out lazing the day away, the large males are patrolling their territories and everything else is hiding from them.

Atherton Tableland …

An early start from Etty Beach and we were soon on our way up onto the tableland. This is the premier bird watching destination in Australia but one the party had visited quite a few times before. We had allowed ourselves two days here and we intended to wring the absolute maximum out of our stay.

We drove up via South Johnstone and Millaa Millaa and made our first birding stop at Hypipamee National Park. We were quickly rewarded with Fernwren and Mountain Thornbill but after that birds were fairly slow to surrender and some of the regular suspects didn’t turn up at all. But if we were surprised at that we were even more surprised by Mark’s discovery of a Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo wide awake in the mid morning …

 

L T K

Our destination for the night was Malanda, specifically chosen so that we could spotlight for this extraordinary creature, the best way to find this always elusive animal. They feed on leaves of rainforest trees in which they are agile and competent climbers aided by impressive claws and the ability to use their hind legs independently. When they come to the ground they bound along in the same fashion as other kangaroos. Generally they spend the daylight hours curled up in dense foliage sound asleep.

Hypipamee is also called The Crater in honour of its striking geological feature, a diatreme created, so they say, when gas exploded beneath a granite surface layer blasting a pipe to the surface. The pipe is 70 metres in diameter and contains a lake. It is 58 metres from rim to the water level and the water is another 70 metres deep. It would appear from the viewing platform that visitors have made a significant effort to fill it in with thrown objects. If it weren’t for the 400 metre walk from the carpark it would now be full of fridges, TVs and old mattresses. The walls are shear but somehow a population of Saw-shell Turtles has made its home there. I suspect though that their descendants will not be making any contribution to the wider gene pool.

From there we made our way up Highway 1 towards Atherton. The next stop was the Wongabel Forest walk. Much of the tableland would have been forest but most has been cleared for agriculture. For some inexplicable reason the patch that the walk is in was reforested. It must have seemed a quite revolutionary idea at the time. Many of the trees are labelled, it makes for a very pleasant and informative walk.

A complete contrast awaited us at Hastie’s Swamp where we quickly notched up a list of water birds along with a few migratory waders. We had lunch there. A majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle also dropped by for lunch causing considerable unrest among the residents. From there to Malanda we looked out for Brolga and Sarus Cranes, there are often quite large flocks to be seen in the surrounding fields but on that occasion we were not successful.

For a commercial caravan site Malanda is a very pleasant place to camp. There is plenty of room and easy walking access to the Johnstone River and the Malanda Falls Conservation Park. There is a new and rather splendid visitor centre in the conservation park. We took tea in the company of Red-legged Pademelons and two of Australia’s Megapodes, the Brush Turkey and the Orange-footed Scrubfowl. These are mound building birds. They lay their eggs in their mound where the vegetable matter they have incorporated composts providing all the necessary heat for incubation. The youngsters hatch, dig their way out and are immediately able to fend for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eungella …

It’s nice, from time to time, to come across a bird that you haven’t seen before. When you first start birdwatching that is a frequent occurrence, even at the local park. As your list grows you eventually reach a stage where you can pick a few target species and join the dots to draw up an itinerary. This particular trip had just two avian dots. The first was the Eungella Honeyeater. It was once lumped with the Bridled Honeyeater but is isolated from it geographically and sufficiently different to earn a promotion. It is found only in the hills inland of MacKay in Queensland. Part of its range is protected in the Eungella National Park (which the locals pronounce Young-gella).

From Gundabooka to Eungella is a mere 1400 km, we broke the drive at Tambo, spending the night at Stubby Bend, no charge, no need to book, no facilities whatever. An acceptable bush campsite overlooking a billabong.

In Eungella we stayed at the Broken River camp site which needs to be booked online in advance. I suspect that school holidays would be best avoided.  It is a very pleasant spot and a rather more luxurious camp site than I’m used to. The creek is one of the most reliable places for Platypus I have ever visited. We stayed three nights and saw a few every morning and evening.

Platpus

Over the eons Australia’s climate has changed, rainforest has expanded and contracted. There are three quite distinct refugia which have given rise to three distinct groups of rainforest birds. The most southerly straddles the NSW Queensland border and among other things is home to the Paradise Riflebird. Moving north one finds the Atherton Tablelands, inland of Cairns, home of Victoria’s Riflebird and at the tip of the country on Cape York you can find the Magnificent Riflebird. Eungella is a less famous fourth. Whilst it can only claim the Honeyeater in the way of endemic birds the level of endemicity is far higher in its flora.

We arrived in the evening and made do with Platypus watching the first day. The morning couldn’t come soon enough. We were armed with some information to help us in our search. In the wet season, and November qualifies as being wet enough, the Honeyeater is a denizen of the rain forest, and is associated especially with climbing pandanus. In the dry it moves into drier forest and is more difficult to find.

Freycinetta excelsa

The first spot we tried had changed beyond recognition from the description we had. At the second we were soon successful. So here is the good oil …

From the little township of Eungella take Dalrymple Road, follow it to the very end. The last road you pass will be Fredericksons Road. For most of the way you will have rainforest on one side and dairy farms on the other. Soon after Fredericksons road you will have rainforest on both sides of the road. Look for the pandanus and listen out for the very distinctive scratchy call. They are easy enough to find but they don’t stay still to have their photo taken.

Another spot said to be successful is a little way up Diggings Road which is between Eungella township and Broken River camp site. The habitat looks good but we didn’t find the Honeyeater here. We had to make do with a Noisy Pitta as consolation.

We celebrated in style with a pleasant evening meal at the Broken River Mountain Resort. They feed the possums from the balcony and offer a spotlighting walk on Tuesday and Thursday evening. So we capped off the day with a good look at Long-nosed Bandicoot and Feather-tailed Glider. Who could ask for anything more?

There are many other great birds to find in the national park and not too far away there is Finch Hatton Gorge, excellent for a morning walk, and Eungella Dam, great for waterbirds even in the heat of the day. A top destination.

Birds of Madagascar …

Travel without a purpose entails all the hassle, expense, risk and inconvenience as travel directed at some specific end. The results though are a matter of chance. Here, on my country estate in the goldfields region of Victoria, Australia, the nearest neighbours to my south have just returned from a tour of British farms. They found the chance to compare their own farming with agriculture in a place where it rains fascinating. We had a chat about it all yesterday and they were radiant in the telling of their story.

My principal reason for travel is birdwatching. Trip accounts from birdwatchers can easily turn into a series of lists. I try to avoid that, although if I’d had succumbed to that on this trip the lists would have been mercifully brief. Seventeen days in Madagascar produced a list of just 85 species, the busiest day was 31 species, most days were less than 20. A single day out in Victoria would turn up more than the entire trip.

The paucity versus other tropical sites is worth some thought. The way to ratchet up the numbers is to visit as many habitats as you can. We did that. Forests of various types, mangroves, agricultural areas, wetlands, seashore, higher altitude, mid-altitude and sea-level. Madagascar’s long isolation will have played a role. Islands tend to have a subset of the birds of the nearest continent. Africa is extremely rich but its contribution to Madagascar is quite small (the prevailing wind is from the east). The total list for Madagascar is not much more than 250 species, some 115 are endemic. Five bird families are found nowhere else.

Nor was it a case of beating a handful of common species off with a stick. The population density was low. For a tropical destination birds were surprisingly scarce.

My best guess is that this is due to competition from those pesky mammals. The lemurs can reach every inch of the trees all the way to the outermost leaves and they work in shifts 24 hours of the day. They must take a good part of the available resource.

Here are a few examples of what is on offer.

A male Madagascar Magpie-robin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A male Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Common Sunbird-Asity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Madagascar Scops Owl.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dimorphic Egret, the grey form is more common at the coast, the white form more common inland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

CrestedCoua.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Blue Coua.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sickle-billed Vanga.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Madagascar Kingfisher.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Madagascar Fish Eagle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Parc de Tsarasaotra …

Into the bus and back to Antananarivo. Before checking in to the Hotel Colbert we dropped in on Tsarasaotra. This is a privately owned estate surrounded by the city. It dates back to 1890 when Queen Ranavalona lll, the last monarch to rule Madagascar, and her husband Prime Minister Rainilaiarivony, built themselves a fine home here. By 1895 the French had taken over, Rainilaiarivony was exiled to Algiers. Ranavalona was exiled not long after to Réunion.

The estate is now a Ramsar site, it covers 27 ha (67 acres) and has a couple of fine lakes and a good bird list.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Red-billed Teal and White-faced Whistling Ducks can be seen above, Knob-billed Duck and Meller’s Duck were also present. A cooperative Black-crowned Night Heron was sitting near the main entrance.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can get a good view of both lakes by walking around the one nearest the entrance.

UPDATE …

Tickets to the park can only be purchased at BOOGIE PILGRIM: 1st floor Trio Property building, Tana Water Front, in Ambodivona. Their office is open Monday to Friday. So if you wish to visit the park at the weekend you will need to plan ahead.

Price: 12 000 Ariary/person (Mon-Fri)
14 000 Ariary/person (Week-end)