Australia Birding Adventures, Part 3

On the morning of July 15th, my day was already a huge success before most Australians had gotten their first cup of coffee. It was difficult to leave the scenic shoreline and cooperative cassowaries of Etty Bay behind me, but I knew there was more excitement awaiting me to the north. With a motel booked for the next two nights in Cairns and my flight to Brisbane fast approaching, my focus shifted to the making most of my remaining time in northern Queensland. There was still no shortage of places, activities, and species that I wanted to fit in before the second leg of the vacation began!

Working the Wetlands

My first stop on the road back from the Cassowary Coast was Eubenangee Swamp National Park. The main trailhead picked up from a roadside car park and passed through some riverside woodland filled with the songs of Green Orioles, Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters, and Rufous Fantails. After reaching a more open clearing beyond the forest, the track ascended a hill overlooking expansive wetlands. Despite the marshes being full of water, I was surprised to find that the overall numbers of aquatic species were fairly low. I did manage to find my first Pacific Heron and a pair of Green Pygmy-Geese, and there were a few jacanas and egrets stalking through the grassy pools. Flocks of Australian Swiftlets and Chestnut-breasted Munias wheeled about over the fields as I continued along the trail back to my car.

I reached Cattana Wetlands, a conservation park on the outskirts of Cairns, late in the morning. I spent a few hours exploring every available trail, wandering along rainforest boardwalks, lakeside paved tracks, and dirt footpaths through grassy marshes. One of my main targets at this site was Lovely Fairywren, and I eventually came across a flock working their way through the tangled vegetation by a small stream. A pair of Brown-backed Honeyeaters were busying themselves gathering nesting material, and I also found a female Olive-backed Sunbird in the process of constructing her pendulous nest. Little Kingfisher, Leaden Flycatcher, Bar-shouldered Dove, and Rainbow Bee-eater were among the other species observed before my early afternoon departure. I even spotted my first Black-necked Stork flying by in the distance back at the parking lot. 

Back to Cairns

Once I’d checked into my motel, I headed out to the world-famous Cairns Esplanade to search for coastal birds. The expansive mudflats along the city’s coast are a hotspot for wintering shorebirds that migrate to Australia from as far away as the Arctic. My mid-July trip was outside the peak season for this fantastic birding site, but there were still good numbers of local species and a few early arrivals to be found. I initially reached the beach at dead low tide, which exposed lots of mud for foraging birds but meant that most of the views were pretty distant. Flocks of Masked Lapwings were accompanied by Pied Stilts, and I spotted a pair of Pied Oystercatchers probing at the far edge of the flats. A Beach Thick-knee put on a quite a show as it chased off hungry Silver Gulls who were hoping to steal its catch of crab. Migrant shorebirds observed on my first afternoon included Whimbrels, Far Eastern Curlews, and Bar-tailed Godwits. The biggest surprise of the day was a Kelp Gull, a resident of Australia’s southern coasts that is rarely observed in Queensland, let alone as far north as Cairns.

The parks and vegetated areas adjacent to the beach were likewise lively with avian activity. My first Varied Honeyeaters were seen in the trees along the walkway, while Willie-wagtails and Magpie-larks roved about on the lawns. I bumped into some local birders while checking out the mangroves at the north end of the Esplanade. They informed me that the Mangrove Robins, a habitat-specific specialty, are most readily found when high tide pushes them closer to the shoreline. I made plans to return at first light the following morning, and began my walk back towards the motel. A flyby Brown Goshawk mobbed by Common Mynas rounded out my list of lifers for the day. When the sun set, Spectacled Flying Foxes emerged from their camps throughout the city and converged on the Esplanade’s fruiting trees. I saw dozens of the massive fruit bats as I strolled down the shore in search of my own dinner!

I had little time to spare before my boat tour on July 16th, so I made a quick jaunt back to the Esplanade’s northern terminus at dawn. As I hurried along the walkway, I watched flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets and Metallic Starlings take off from the trees with the first light of day. Radjah Shelduck and Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove made for solid surprise lifers, and the sunrise was pretty impressive, too. The tide was rising, but not quite at maximum when I arrived at my destination, and there was no sign of the hoped-for robins. Without any cell reception, I didn’t even have access to audio recordings for playback. On a whim, I tried my hand at whistling their plaintive song from memory. Apparently, I nailed it, because I immediately received a response from the labyrinthine network of roots. Two Mangrove Robins began vocalizing as they gradually moved closer to my position, and I briefly glimpsed one of them moving through the branches. Pleased with my successful hunt, I double-timed it down the full length of the Esplanade to the docks at the southern end.

A Day on the Reef

Seeing the Great Barrier Reef was an absolute must for me when I first planned this trip. I quickly found out that guided trips to the outer reef, where coral conditions are less heavily impacted by human activity, are rather expensive and fill up quite quickly. By the time I figured out which day I was free to get out on a boat, my options were decidedly limited. Fortunately, I was able to book an affordable tour to Green Island National Park, one of the closest sites for reef exploration off the coast of Cairns. I made it to the Reef Fleet Terminal early enough grab a quick breakfast before boarding the vessel and shipping off. After an easy 45 minute voyage, we arrived at the docks of Green Island. 

After disembarking from the vessel, I set out to explore the boardwalk that winds its way through the rainforest. It didn’t take me long to find the island’s most abundant inhabitants: Buff-banded Rails. Even though this terrestrial species is generally shy and secretive on the mainland, the population that colonized Green Island has grown accustomed to the constant human presence at this popular tourist attraction. I saw dozens of the rails scurrying all over the island, looking just as comfortable picking food from the pavement outside a gift shop as they did foraging among the leaf litter in the woods. Some of the birds were accompanied by downy young, and one individual evidently shared my taste in sunbathing spots, plopping down right next to my seat along the beach. 

There were plenty of other birds to be found around Green Island. Brown Boobies and Great Crested Terns patrolled the perimeter coast in search of fish, and I came across a Pacific Reef-Heron relaxing on the far shore where fewer pedestrians tread. A pair of Osprey nesting on a nearby buoy also made regular hunting flights around the docks. I’d received a tip from some friendly locals that the snorkeling site at Green Island is a bit sub-par, degraded by overuse over the years, so I elected to take a glass-bottom boat tour instead when presented with a choice between the two activities. A fish-feeding session allowed for close views of Orbicular Batfish and Giant Trevally, and we also got up close and personal with some proper coral reef habitat where I observed giant clams, sea cucumbers, and a variety of smaller reef fish. All in all, my visit to Green Island served as an awesome introduction to the Great Barrier Reef!

Back at port in Cairns, I spent the majority of the day wandering the Esplanade. The vagrant Kelp Gull was still hanging around, and I managed to pick out my lifer Red-capped Plovers far out on the mudflats. Great, Intermediate, and Little Egrets were all observed foraging along the shoreline, and I was treated to more good looks at Australian Pelicans, Beach Thick-knees, and Gull-billed Terns. As the sun sank lower in the sky, I tucked away my optics and bid my farewells to the birds of Cairns. The remainder of the evening saw me relaxing and enjoying a night out on the town. It was, after all, my last evening in northern Queensland, and I had plenty of awesome experiences to celebrate!

Phase Two: Begin!

Most of the 17th was spent managing the details of getting from Cairns to Brisbane, even though the journey itself was rather short. I had to fill up my hire car’s gas tank and return it to the rental lot early in the morning, and I spent several hours waiting in the airport lobby due to a minor delay. The highlight of the flight down the coast was the incredible view of the Great Barrier Reef I had out my window. The sense of scale provided by the prolonged aerial tour of the countless communities of coral really drove home the scope and importance of this natural marvel. 

Once I arrived in Brisbane, I had to go through the rental car pickup process yet again. The folks at the front desk offered me a complementary upgrade since they didn’t have any economy cars prepared, and I wound up driving off the lot in a large, four-wheel drive SUV. It was definitely a step up from the more basic vehicle I’d been piloting around the Wet Tropics, but that suited me just fine considering I had a lot more ground to cover during this portion of the trip.

The sun was already getting low by the time I departed from the airport. Not wanting to let the day end without a proper birding session, I made my way to the J.C. Slaughter Falls area of the Mount Coot-tha Reserve in the Brisbane suburbs. This hotspot is well-known as a breeding site for Powerful Owl, an aptly-named species that I strongly desired to see. To my chagrin, I found that the trails leading up the creek bed where the raptors nest were closed for renovations. I elected to hang around the upper car park and do some casual birding in the rapidly fading light, just in case the owls decided to cooperate at sunset. There were large flocks of Noisy Miners foraging in the surrounding trees, and I also managed to pick up Olive-backed Oriole and Gray Butcherbird. Once dusk finally settled over the forest, I heard the booming hoots of a Powerful Owl coming from the direction of the inaccessible walking tracks. A large shadow flew in to perch on a dead snag just up the hill, giving brief but unobstructed views in the dim glow of twilight. A Southern Boobook also joined in the chorus with the larger owl, making for a wonderful ending to a solid first outing in southern Queensland.

Roos and Regents

After spending the night at a motel in Annerly, I started July 18th at the Pooh Corner Bushland Reserve in Wacol. This site was described as one of the best spots in the greater Brisbane area for finding Eastern Gray Kangaroos. Even though I’d already encountered rat-kangaroos, tree-kangaroos, pademelons, and wallabies on this trip, I had yet to see the most iconic variety of macropod in the wild. Finding roos in their natural habitat was a top priority for me, and Pooh Corner was right on my planned route anyway, so I figured it was worth a quick stop. I discovered my first Rufous Whistler and Little Lorikeets in the open, brushy forest, and I eventually managed to track down several kangaroos and a bonus Red-necked Wallaby! Overall, it was a productive first stop for the day.

I continued on to Springfield Lakes, an unexpected addition to my itinerary thanks to a remarkable discovery made by Australian birders a few weeks prior. A pair of Regent Honeyeaters had set up shop in the general vicinity of Moselle’s Cafe, showing regularly in the vegetation around the lakeside car park. This critically endangered species is a habitat specialist, normally found in open eucalypt woodlands further south and inland from Brisbane. The birds are typically nomadic, roaming about in search of areas where blossoming trees provide ample nectar. Evidently the trees around Moselle’s were in full bloom, and the honeyeaters had taken notice. Countless birders had made the journey to see these striking rarities, and I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity for a twitch of this caliber. 

The birds weren’t visible when I first arrived at the parking lot, so I decided to grab some breakfast at the cafe itself. The staff were well aware of their high-profile feathered visitors, and seemed rather proud that their establishment was the center of so much attention. I watched the waterfowl on the lake and kept periodically scanning the trees as I munched on my breakfast outside the restaurant. Other birders gradually arrived on the scene, and word went up that the honeyeaters had just been spotted at the opposite end of the lot. They’d disappeared yet again by the time I made it over there, but I was content to pass the time admiring the other nearby birds and chatting with my fellow naturalists. I learned a great deal about the ecology of the region through my conversations with the other birders. One of them pointed out the distinct call notes of Musk Lorikeets amidst the background chatter of their Rainbow and Scaly-breasted cousins, and another group got me onto a Striated Pardalote. Eventually, the Regent Honeyeaters reappeared. Their stunning black-and-yellow plumage was a spectacle to behold, and I enjoyed brilliant views as they clambered among the branches. My attempts at photos hardly do these beautiful birds any justice, but the encounter was certainly a memorable experience!

eBird research had revealed some other species of interest in the immediate vicinity, so I followed up my honeyeater stakeout with a quick visit to Discovery Lake. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was introduced to my first ever Superb Fairywren. Maned Ducks and Little Pied Cormorants were loafing photogenically around on the near shore, and I spied Royal Spoonbill and a pair of Cotton Pygmy-Geese foraging on the far side. A brief sighting of a Brush Cuckoo rounded out my checklist at this location, and soon I was on my way yet again.

Birding O’Reilly’s

My journey south from Springfield Lakes was largely uneventful, highlighted by drive-by lifer sightings of Australasian Pipit in Biddaddaba and Gray Goshawk in Canungra. The long and winding route up the mountains of Lamington National Park eventually led me to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. O’Reilly’s is an ecolodge of international renown, and I’d managed to score a super reasonable deal on a room that was competitive with the closest available motels, all of which were over an hour away down a twisting, steep road. Once I finished checking in at the front desk and moving my gear to my fancy new lodgings, I headed over to the bird feeding station. Hordes of Crimson Rosellas and Australian King-Parrots swarmed me as soon as I arrived, eagerly anticipating an offering of seed. It’s pretty cool when your first encounter with a new species features them landing on your body.

An afternoon orientation, complete with tea and champagne, was a delightful excuse to relax while listening to the history of the property. The staff also shared some helpful hints about where to search for some of O’Reilly’s specialty species, and they reminded me that as a guest I was welcome to join the guided bird walk the following morning free of charge. Thanking them for the information, I decided to take a stroll around the property before dinnertime. Family groups of Superb Fairywrens were bouncing around on the main lawn, showing off beautifully in the late afternoon light.

One of the areas recommended during tea time was the track leading to the villas and spa. An Australian Logrunner side-scratching in the leaf litter was a welcome find, and I heard my first Albert’s Lyrebird singing somewhere in the woods. Yellow-throated and White-browed Scrubwrens bounced along the ground, while the harsh meows of Green Catbirds betrayed their presence in the dense cover of the canopy. By the time I made it back to the trailhead, daylight was beginning to dwindle. A Barking Owl was calling from the area behind the gift shop, an auspicious start to the evening. After wolfing down dinner, I emerged from the bar to hear a Sooty Owl and a Southern Boobook calling from the darkened trees. I made a short trek down the start of the Border Track into the national park, where I heard another Sooty Owl and a short series of rising, howling calls from a Marbled Frogmouth. A Common Ringtail Possum showed nicely right alongside the path. I later found the Barking Owl actively hunting by the bird feeding area, likely searching for mammals attracted by the fallen seed. Staying at O’Reilly’s definitely helped with the ease and success of my nightbirding efforts!

Lamington Life

As usual, the 19th found me up before dawn. I briefly checked out the villa track again, where I heard a Paradise Riflebird and got fleeting looks at Satin Bowerbirds, before joining the growing crowd outside the main building for the morning bird walk. The staff member leading the expedition brought some snacks with her, which quickly attracted the attention of the rosellas, the king-parrots, and several staggeringly handsome Regent Bowerbirds, the official mascot of O’Reilly’s. Seeing these gorgeous birds up close was a wonderful treated, and the fun didn’t stop there. We also met up with Eastern Whipbirds, Lewin’s Honeyeaters, Eastern Yellow Robins, Gray Shrikethrushes, and Wonga Pigeons. 

Our guide led us to an array of bright blue items strewn about the forest floor in front of a pair of twiggy pillars. This was an active display site meticulously maintained by a male Satin Bowerbird, who was standing by to keep a watchful eye on his precious collection of treasures. Bower-building is obviously an iconic behavior in the bowerbird family, and this species is perhaps the most well-known member of the tribe. Seeing his carefully curated hoard of sweet, sweet blue with my own eyes was an awesome experience.

Once the guided walk wrapped up, I revisited the villa track and finally got a good look at an Albert’s Lyrebird strutting through the understory. From there, I headed over to the Border Track so I could explore Lamington National Park in the daylight. I scored some mammal lifers with a Red-legged Pademelon grazing by the trailhead and a Brown Antechinus doing its best to hide in the thick ground cover. Pairs of Australian Logrunners scuttled around in the fallen leaves together, squeaking excitedly and sticking close to one another as they foraged. I also found a few Brown Thornbills and spotted a Russet-tailed Thrush, taking great care to examine its field marks and separate it from the similar Bassian Thrush. When I realized that check-out time was fast approaching, I made my way back up the trail and out of the forest.

After squaring everything away at the front desk and removing my effects from my room, I started the slow drive back down the mountain. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at O’Reilly’s, and I would’ve loved to explore further along the trails of Lamington, but I couldn’t stick around all day. There was a lot of ground to cover before the day was done, and I had plenty of birding pit stops planned along the way!