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.

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A male Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher.

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A Common Sunbird-Asity.

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Madagascar Scops Owl.

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

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CrestedCoua.

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Blue Coua.

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Sickle-billed Vanga.

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Madagascar Kingfisher.

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Madagascar Fish Eagle.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Birding …

Got back late last night from a quick jaunt to north central Victoria.

First stop was the Warby Ranges. I camped at Wenhams, which has had a bit of a face lift since I was last there, new toilets and some level camp sites. Some space has been lost in the process but level is good … I can only imagine the thought processes of the person who laid out the prior version.

The weather was kind and the birding magnificent. The Warby Range is a granite outcrop on the inland side of the divide, which gives it a lot in common with the inland slopes of New South Wales. Spurwing Wattle and some orchids are found in NSW and Warby but nowhere else in Victoria. Some of the birds too, are hard to find elsewhere in Victoria, Warby is a reliable place for Speckled Warbler. It is also the Victorian stronghold of the Turquoise Parrot. This is an absolutely gorgeous parrot, bright yellow breast, bright blue in the wings. It seemed destined for extinction between 1880 and 1920, perhaps due to competition with introduced stock in times of drought. It may have been introduced weeds that enabled it to recover.

The next day I headed about 30 km north to have lunch in the Lower Ovens Regional Park. This adds a few water birds to the list and it’s a spot that I particularly associate with Dollarbird. No Dollarbirds this trip, they are summer migrants, the adults leave as soon as the young are fledged, the youngsters follow when they can. It’s too late in the year this far south. The Ovens river floods here, the banks are forested with River Red Gums on black soil, best avoided in wet weather.

After lunch another 40 km and you’re in the Chiltern forest. Ironbark country with lots of Red Box and Red Stringybark thrown in. In spring this is the place to find the endangered Regent Honeyeater, not this week though. But plenty of Noisy Frairbirds, Little Lorikeets, White-throated Treecreepers and half a dozen honeyeaters.

Not only the common ones, at Cyanide dam I came across a flock of Black Honeyeaters. This is a bird that seems to be sparsely distributed throughout the arid region and irruptive into adjacent areas at the fringes. Your chances of finding it where it’s supposed to be are never high but if you’re in the right place at the right time you can’t avoid it in places where it may not be seen again for years. Cute bird.

And it’s not all about the rare ones, nice as it was to add Black Honeyeater to my Vic list (now 381) it’s always a pleasure to see old friends …

Red-rumped Parrot

Red-rumped Parrot

Silvereye

Silvereye

Grey Fantail

Grey Fantail