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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Disaster Bay and Green Cape

On 21st October Simon and I set off for the final phase of my Australian venture. The objective was Green Cape via Kiama, Bateman's Bay and Eden.

Our first stop en route was at the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve on the Buderoo Plateau inland from Kiama and Jamberoo. Despite its name, the reserve is far from barren as it represents one of the remaining extensive stands of dry mountain heathland in southern Australia and is habitat of the rare and endangered Ground Parrot and Eastern Bristlebird. Not lucky enough to see either on this occasion we nevertheless found a number of interesting species (for example Swamp Harrier and Beautiful Firetail) and many of the spring flowers were in full bloom.
Heath Fuschia in bloom at the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve

Our journey south along the coast of the Tasman Sea was interspersed with camps, always within earshot of the roar of the ocean breakers. Eating was usually a huge steak on the 'barbie' but who could resist the occasional lobster, bag of oysters or prawns, or a fillet of fresh snapper at the seafood takeaways at Ulladulla or Bateman's Bay!

Tasman Sea at from the Meroo National Park near Ulladulla

Campsites often proved good for birding (e.g. we found Dollarbird and Whipbird at a campsite) as well as other wildlife like wallabies, snakes, bats and wombats.

A wombat emerges from the bush at dusk to graze around the camp site

The journey down to Green Cape was punctuated with many birding opportunies in the numerous creeks, estuaries lakes and swampy bits. The southward migration of wading birds from the Arctic to spend the northern winter in warmer climes was already in evidence as groups of Bar-tailed Godwits, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Eastern Curlews (much longer bill than our Eurasian Curlew) were in evidence. Wallagoot lake was memorable for finding the endangered Little Tern whilst having to run the gauntlet with a thunderstorm!
A tornado develops in a storm over Wallagoot Lake
Eventually we made our way to Green Cape which forms the northern arm of Disaster Bay (so called because of numerous shipwrecks before the construction of the Green Cape lighthouse in 1883 - pictures and history here) and set up camp in the Ben Boyd National Park, close to the cape. The outlook onto Disaster Bay is spectacular, revealing golden sand and unbroken forest reaching the shoreline as far as the eye could see. From the ecologist's eye, the succession of vegetation developing inland from the continous generation of sand dunes was fascinating.
Disaster Bay - in my all time 'Top Ten' of breathtaking views!
It was here at the cape that we had some of the most memorable wildlife-watching experiences. Tens of thousands of Short-tailed Shearwaters ("Tasmanian Mutton Birds") were migrating close past the headland, moving south from their wintering areas in the Pacific to breeding grounds on islands in sub-Antarctic waters. Other birds on the move were Crested Terns, Australasian Gannets, Sooty Oystercatchers, two or three Sea Eagles and even an Arctic Skua, already arrived from its northern breeding grounds.

Just offshore a pod of Sealions were lazing in the sea (one came out onto the rocks) and just as we were about to leave, a huge whale breached, cascading a tower of water high into the air, an unforgettable sight!

Green Cape lighthouse - excllent location for watching migration along the Tasman Sea coastline

This is my final blog entry from Australia. Looking back over the last four weeks, it is hard to pinpoint a "best moment", so many come to mind. Emus and Apostlebirds at Wilga; the camp by the billabong on the Paroo River; budgerigars coming to drink at the water holes at Mount Wood National Park; the climb up Mount Wood itself, in the searing heat and unremitting flies; the trip to Cameron Corner at the edge of the endless Strzelecki Desert; Regent Parrots and Yellow Rosellas at the Hattah National Park; an internet cafe at Mildura; waterfowl and the colourful Orange Chat at Copi Hollow in the Kinchega National Park; the desolate 'Wall of China' formations in the dunes at the Mungo National Park; finding the sought-after Rockwarbler at Wheeny Creek in the Blue Mountains.... and so many more.

In any event the dramatic seawatching experience at Green Cape was certainly a fitting climax. The final bird species list total is 205, including 18 species of parrot - far greater than anticipated!

This trip could not have been possible, let alone enjoyable, without the kind hospitality of the Cotter family who made me feel so welcome and at home in the Blue Mountains. My grateful thanks indeed go to them all.

The Cotter family, clockwise: David, Tom, Rosalie, Susanna, Bonny, Simon and me.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A tourist in Sydney

Today (20 October) was set aside for doing the tourist trail in Sydney, mainly to get pictures of the iconic structures to prove I was actually in Australia. The three items on the agenda were (i) the Harbour Bridge; (ii) the Opera House; (iii) the Botanical Gardens. Memorials to Captain Cook, fallen convicts, or former governers were not in the frame. Even now there was a hidden agenda (or is it sub-text?) as the Botanical Gardens are a location for Rainbow Lorikeet, a sighting of which would bring my Australian parrot list to 18.
Simon and Jim pose by the Sydney Harbour Bridge
The bridge ticked off, it was a walk round Circular Quay and into the Botanical Gardens, from which the Opera House was also ticked off.
Sydney Opera House form the Botanical Gardens
Not particularly interested in botany, we relished close views of wild, but habituated, bird species such as Sacred Ibis, Soldier Bird, Australian Magpie and Wood Duck. Almost more notable than the birds was a flock of Fruit bats ('flying foxes') hanging from the trees like fruit.

Group of fruit bats in Sydney Botanical Gardens

Fruit bats are semi- diurnal, feeding on fruit rather than insects.

There remained the challenge of the Rainbow Lorikeet. Some parrot-like calls were heard issuing from the dense foliage of fig trees, but the birds seemed impossible to locate until Simon spotted a pair feeding high in the canopy. Once again, it was mission accomplshed.

A final walk back along Circular Quay past tourist attractions, a stop at a souvenir shop, then to the Hero of Waterloo pub for a couple of schooners of Victoria Bitter and fish and chips for lunch.

Buskers' Paradise?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rockwarbler Special!

There is a species of Australian bird, the Rockwarbler, whose range is restricted to eroded sandstone and limestone outcrops of the Blue Mountains. It is the only Australian bird species that is confined to New South Wales. It is a small dark brownish-grey bird with a cinnamon-tinged face and forehead, a dull white throat speckled black, reddish-brown underparts, and a black tail, which is often flicked sideways.

Rockwarbler Image linked to Charlie's Bird Blog

They appear to occupy a similar ecological niche to the European Wallcreeper, as they flit around rock faces, entering caves and crevices as they search for insect food. Being a fairly secretive species, they are not easy to find. During my visit to New South Wales in January 2002 I spent several hours in suitable habitat with the company of local birdwatchers, and failed to see one.

On 15 October this year Simon, David and I visited the popular beauty spot at Wheeny Creek in the Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains and, after a little searching, found one and had good clear sustained views. As this was my main "target species" for this visit to Australia, it is another "mission accomplished".
Also on this trip we had excellent views of Superb Lyrebird, Gangang Cockatoos, Superb Fairy Wren and Grey Fantail bringing the trip species list to exactly 150.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Outback Australia

I touched down in Sydney on 29 September, met by Simon and his son David. After a day or two acclimatising with Simon's family in the Blue Mountains, Simon was ready to guide me into the Outback in his beloved Toyota Trakker Troop Carrier (with Trakka Conversion, I am informed) fully kitted out with all accessories and spares for camping.

Heading off at dawn over Bell's Line of Road accross the Great Australian Divide into the Western Plains (stopping at suitable places for birding opportunities) we hit the outback somewhere after Wilcannia and spent the first night camping on the bank of the Darling River at Wilga in the Paroo National Park (information about all the National Parks mention in this Blog can be found here). We were now encountering some of the first outback species like Emus, Apostle Birds and a number of parrot species.
Camp by the billabong with Simon's Toyota Troop Carrier
We continued the next day along the Paroo River to the outback station at Tilpa (just a pub and a shop, really) and headed up to the Nocoleche Nature Reserve where we found a great spot to camp by the eponymous billabong (under the shade of a Coolabah tree, of course).
Apostlebird with fledgeling. They normally associate in groups of about 12.
An early start the next morning for a 200 mile drive on a dust track without seeing a single other car, we made it to the town of Tibooburrra and confirmed our reservation at the Sturt National Park centre at Mount Wood, in the heart of the Sturt Stony Desert. Whilst the accommodation verged on the luxurious (for campers) the surrounds were as harsh an environment as I could imagine. A 2.4 km walk to the highest point of Mount Wood revealed horizon to horizon near-barren searing stoney landscape. There was some vegetation (gidgee trees) clinging to existance in the dried up creeks and interesting desert-adapted species like Cinnamon Quail Thrush, White-winged Fairy Wren, Australian Pratincole and Red-backed Kingfisher were to be found.
View of Sturt Stoney Desert from the summit of Mount Wood
Overhead the occasional Wedge-tailed Eagled soared in a thermal to locate a vulnerable rabbit or joey. We spent three days at this centre, during one of which we set out for Cameron's Corner Post, the marker for the intersection of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. We ventured a few miles beyond the Corner Post to savour the endless parallel red sand dunes of the forbidding Strzelecki Desert, not to be forgotton. And certainly not to get lost in.

Mirage in the Strzelecki Desert

One of the features of the the Mount Wood Centre was a supply of water pumped into small reservoirs ("ground tanks") where a myriad of bird species and kangaroos would come to drink at dawn and dusk. These provided us with some of the best birding moments with emus and several parrot species, and a rare Grey Falcon playing havoc with flocks of Budgerigahs and Cockatiels.

Emu with chicks (the male cares for the chicks safter hatching)

Leaving Mount Wood, we headed for the outback copper mining town of Broken Hill, comparative civilisation where a lunchtime large Porterhouse Steak in the Theatre Royal Restaurant was enjoyed. The quality (and size!) of the steak was certainly well up to memories from 2004!

From Broken Hill to Menindee and then to the Kinchega National Park on the Darling River we stayed in the shearer's quarters of a former sheep station on the Darling River. The best birding location in the Minindee Lakes district was undoubtedly Copi Hollow where a good range of wetland species, including the amazing Darter (Snake Bird), ducks, pelicans, Black Swans and waders were observed at close quarters.
Australian Pelicans on the Darling River at the Kinchega National Park
Two nights at Menindee were followed by a drive down to the more gentle environment of the Murray River catchment in Victoria. Our two-night camp in the Hattah-Kulkyne National Park was rewarded by seeing the lakes filling up by pumping from the Murry River. The water's edge of Lake Maunpall was visibly encroaching by about 25 metres overnight, much to the interest of Glossy Ibises, Spur-winged Plovers, White-necked & White-faced Herons and Butcher Birds which were gorging on the invertebrates (notably centepedes) as they attempted to escape the advancing water. This location presented us with two splendid parrot species, Yellow Rosella and the endangered and striking black and gold Regent Parrot. This National Park is dominated by extensive Mallee Scrub, habitat of the famous Mallee Fowl, though we were not fortunate enough to spot this species.
Leisurely birdwatching under the shade of a Coolabah tree. Simon looks unhappy as his beer has warmed up!
Heading into New South wales, the next stop was back into the desert of the Mungo National Park, a World Heritage Site on account of the presence of human artefacts revealing the site to be the oldest known for human settlements outside Africa.
Erosion of silcrete formations in the Mungo Desert, the location of many ancient Aboriginal artefacts
Our final overnight stop was at the riverside camp at Nyngan, where a few more bird species (including Spotted Crake, Spotted Bowerbird and Hardhead Duck) brought the trip's bird list to 144 species, before arriving at the comparative haven of the Cotter residence in the Blue Mountains.

Our next excursion is expected to be in cooler climes on the shores of the Pacific Ocean!