Australia Birding Adventures, Part 4

As I worked my way down the slopes from O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, I made a few stops to bird some different habitats. At Duck Creek Road, I connected with another visiting birder who I’d seen up around the resort over the past 24 hours. I spent some time chatting with him as as we explored the woodland edges and open pastures along the road, where we watched Superb Fairywrens forage alongside Red-browed Firetails and tried unsuccessfully to get a visual on a Paradise Riflebird calling in the treetops. We swapped notes on our recent adventures and compared our upcoming plans; he was apparently headed to Papua New Guinea for an extended birds-of-paradise tour. I explained to him that I was headed inland, and I still had some miles to travel before I reached my bed for the night. We wished one another luck and went our separate ways, both eager to see what surprises lay in store on our respective journeys. 

West to the Interior

The twanging calls of Bell Miners rang out in the eucalyptus forests as I gradually descended the mountain. A short lunch break in Canungra added Dusky Woodswallow to my life list, and after refueling I was back on the road headed west. Habitat transitions in Australia are often abrupt and dramatic, and once I left Lamington I quickly found myself in an entirely new type of ecosystem. For most of my 3-hour drive to Karara, I was surrounded by arid, brushy landscape interspersed with pockets of dry woodland. I saw a lot of kangaroos and wallabies along the highway in this area, but unfortunately a large proportion of them were casualties of the heavy trucking traffic on this route. The abundance of roadkill proved quite attractive to birds, with large numbers of Torresian Crows and Australian Magpies scavenging the carcasses. I also found my first flocks of Apostlebirds and White-winged Choughs on this stretch of road.

I finally arrived at the Karara Tavern and Motel just as the sun was setting. The increasing activity of the local Eastern Gray Kangaroos had me relieved to be off the road before nightfall. Once I checked in, I settled down at the bar to have some dinner. The tavern turned out to be a lively hotspot for locals, and I soon had plenty of company. The conversation and drinks flowed freely throughout the remainder of the night, one of the most fun and relaxing evenings I enjoyed during the entirety of the trip. Everyone I talked to was exceedingly friendly, and I was glad that I stumbled upon this little diamond in the rough establishment. 

Around the Watering Hole

I departed from Karara under cover of darkness on July 20th, keeping a weather eye out for wildlife on the road as I continued west. Sunrise found me at Mosquito Creek Road, a quiet dirt path that leads through some open pasturelands and dry eucalypt forest. I eventually came across a huge roving mob of kangaroos, kicking up clouds of dust with their powerful hind legs as they bounded over the countryside. It was an absolute spectacle, and a uniquely Australian scene that I was thrilled to witness. My journey along the road introduced me to quite a few new bird species, including Speckled Warbler, Weebill, Inland Thornbill, and Striped Honeyeater. I also heard the wailing cries of a distant Australian Raven alongside the dawn chorus in the woodlands. On the way back to the main highway, I discovered a watering hole that I had somehow missed on the drive in. This proved to be a major hotbed for activity, with large flocks of Galahs and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos staging up in the branches overhead. I spotted my first Red-rumped Parrots and Yellow-throated Miners coming in to drink, and a pair of passing birders pointed me towards a Jacky-winter and a band of Yellow-rumped Thornbills.

My next step was Lake Coolmunda, another crucial source of water in this parched landscape. Although the overall water level is comparatively low this dry season, I found that it still supported high concentrations of bird life at the time of my visit. Gangs of Apostlebirds and Noisy Miners were seen at regular intervals along the road, and I also saw good numbers of Crested Pigeons and Magpie-larks. As I drove past an open field, I heard a familiar, piercing whistle that immediately tugged at my heartstrings. Cockatiels! I looked up to see a small flock winging their way overhead, joining up with a larger congregation in a distant dead tree. I had a pet Cockatiel named Zuzu for 19 wonderful years, so seeing this species in the wild at last was a beautifully bittersweet experience.

I added White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Little Corella, White-plumed Honeyeater, Plum-headed Finch, and Gray-crowned Babbler to my life list on the dusty side roads surrounding Coolmunda. When I reached the now-dry boat launch, I also picked up Black Swan, Australian Shoveler, Red-necked Avocet, Whiskered Tern, and Pink-eared Duck on the distant remnants of the lake. A brief chat with a passing family on holiday provided an invaluable tip, and after a quick detour towards Inglewood I wound up connecting with a quartet of wild Emus, Australia’s national bird and a highly desired resident of the interior that I feared I might miss altogether! I was quite relieved to finally find them, and I watched them strut proudly through the bush from afar until they disappeared from sight.

Most of the afternoon was spent exploring Durikai State Forest, a large tract of dry woodland back east of Karara. In the heat of the day, I found that most of the area was pretty quiet, with only scattered pockets of activity here and there. I did manage to track down some Rose Robins and Yellow Thornbills, but there wasn’t much else going on. Eventually, I discovered a grassy waterhole along one of the dirt paths. It was almost entirely dry, but still contained enough liquid to be irresistible to the local songbirds. Fuscous, White-eared, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters fluttered about the area as they repeatedly dropped into the hidden pool to bathe and drink. With no reservations locked in for the night, I knew I’d probably have to do some hunting in order to find lodgings. I gradually made my way eastward, settling in to sleep in Gatton on the edge of the Lockyer Valley.

Through the Valley

The morning of the 21st saw me connecting the dots between a series of lakes in the Lockyer Valleys’s fertile farmlands. I stopped first at Lake Apex Park, just down the street from the hotel where I stayed in Gatton. The water feature here was mostly dried up, and there wasn’t too much activity out on the exposed mud. Large roosting flocks of Little Corellas and a handful of water’s edge species like swamphen, ibis, and moorhen were the most notable sightings. Lake Galletly on the University of Queensland campus proved to be much more productive. Good numbers of Pink-eared Ducks, Straw-necked Ibis, Magpie Geese, and Plumed Whistling-Ducks made for quite a show, and I also found my first Black-fronted Dotterels picking the shores of the pools. A flyover Black Falcon was a welcome surprise, startling up mynas and pigeons as it rocketed past just above the parking lot.

I spotted a Brown Songlark perched on a speed limit sign while in the fields around Lake Clarendon. The next destination, Atkinsons Dam, featured some good diversity despite the low water levels. A nesting pair of Whistling Kites was on high alert, harassing White-bellied Sea-Eagles whenever they flew by and in turn drawing the ire of the local Black-shouldered Kites. A Spotted Harrier coursing low over the dense shoreline vegetation scared up a small, dark bird of interest: likely a quail or buttonquail, but far too distant and briefly seen to identify. Yellow-billed Spoonbill was the only new waterbird present, though there were plenty of Pied Stilts and Australasian Grebes foraging on the lake. Red-backed Fairywrens and Golden-headed Cisticolas popped out of the tall grass periodically as I walked along, watching me curiously before ducking back into cover.

When I reached the eastern border of the valley, I began the slow climb up the ranges towards D’Aguilar National Park. A brief pause at Branch Creek added a large flock of Eurasian Coots and a flyover Wedge-tailed Eagle to the day list. After following the winding road up the slope through the woodlands, I finally arrived at the summit of Mount Glorious.

Crowning Glorious

The rainforest-cloaked peak of Mount Glorious is the premier birding site in D’Aguilar National Park, located just west of Brisbane. After enjoying a late breakfast at a comfortable cafe, I made my way over to the Maiala picnic area. On this bright, beautiful Sunday, the park was full of visitors from the city. I went for a walk on the Rainforest Circuit boardwalk, keeping my eyes peeled and my ears pricked for signs of wildlife activity. Wompoo Fruit-Doves gorged themselves on berries high up in the trees, while the distinctive songs of Lewin’s Honeyeaters and Eastern Whipbirds echoed through the woods.

Further down the eastern slope of the mountain, I paused at the Westridge Overlook. The forest at this lower elevation was drier and more open, filled with a variety of eucalypts. Bell Miners were ubiquitous throughout the area, creating a constant symphony of clear, ringing notes. From my perch at the scenic overlook, I got my first views of some adorable Spotted Pardalotes and a handsome Eastern Spinebill. Near the base of the road, I explored the Bellbird Grove of Brisbane Forest Park, where Scarlet Myzomelas and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters were the dominant songbirds. As the afternoon shadows grew longer, I turned around and headed back up towards the summit.

I returned to Maiala just before sunset, positioning myself on the grassy hillside to watch for flyover pigeons and raptors heading to roost. Laughing Kookaburras and Torresian Crows stalked the now abandoned picnic grounds, searching for scraps of discarded food, and I briefly glimpsed a female Regent Bowerbird in the highest boughs of a towering Hoop Pine. I didn’t see many birds en route to their beds apart from a few rosellas and lorikeets, but I did find a fellow birder. He gave me some great recommendations about sites to check out in Brisbane, providing wonderful advice to help me plan my last full day in Australia.

When dusk finally settled over the mountain, I drove over to Browns Road, a well-known nightbirding location. I immediately heard the shrill scream of a Sooty Owl, which continued calling insistently for the entirety of my half-hour observation period. A mysterious, gravelly hooting noise, heard twice and recorded incidentally, initially went unidentified until someone on xeno-canto recognized it as a vocalization of Southern Boobook. After driving slowly down the wooded slopes, I checked in at a motel in Mitchelton for my final two nights Down Under, but the nocturnal excitement wasn’t over. While listening to the wailing cries of Bush Thick-knees through my window after dinner, a series of squealing barks and sharp shrieks betrayed the presence of an Australian Owlet-nightjar, one of my personal most-wanted targets for the trip. 

Birding Brisbane

July 22nd was my final day of adventures before the journey home. I knew that I had to make it count, so I plotted a course to hit as many greater Brisbane area hotspots as possible. I began my route at the Brisbane Koala Bushland, where I spent the first hour or so of daylight wandering the trails through the eucalypt forest. I couldn’t find any wild Koalas, sadly, but a small band of wallabies I encountered had one individual with a tiny joey peering out of its pouch. I also heard Fan-tailed Cuckoo, saw a flock of Brown Quails, and found a Common Bronzewing, which surprised me with its impressively low-frequency calls. 

I continued on to Nudgee Beach, where I explored the mangrove walking track. Mangrove Gerygones were unsurprisingly abundant, and I heard a single Mangrove Honeyeater as well. A pair of Chestnut Teal floating in a channel were new for the life list, too. There was plenty of activity even back in the parking lot, where Noisy Miners and Crested Pigeons prowled the perimeter. When I took a moment to chow down on some complementary motel cereal, a dropped morsel was immediately snatched up by a fearless Gray Butcherbird. It made quite a production out of its breakfast, beating its prize against its perch and tearing off fragments with its fiercely hooked bill.

The next stop was Dowse Lagoon in Sandgate. The only new species I discovered at this location was a group of Wandering Whistling-Ducks, but my stroll around the lake was a delightful experience all the same. The lagoon itself was full of water and thus full of waterbirds, including Australian Pelican, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, and Australasian Swamphen. I also had a great opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the common Australian birds that I knew I was seeing for the last time, at least for the foreseeable future. Lorikeets, miners, honeyeaters, and magpies all showed beautifully and even posed for photos; apparently the heavy foot traffic at this site has made the resident birds quite comfortable with human presence. 

Following up on a tip from the birder I met the previous evening, I dropped by Kumbartcho Sanctuary around noon. The staff at the main building gave me some more specific pointers about where to search for my quarry, and I eventually managed to locate the roost hole of an Australian Owlet-nightjar. I’m a big fan of all nocturnal birds, and this impossibly cute puffball represented a brand new, distinctly unique family for me. Hearing this species the previous evening was nice enough, but I was grateful for the chance to admire all of its fluffy glory in the light of day. I then checked out the streamside path on the border of the property, where I was treated to a sighting of Variegated Fairywrens foraging on the opposite bank.

A quick afternoon visit to 7th Brigade Park didn’t add anything to my life list, but I did enjoy close observations of Gray Fantail, Australian Ibis, and Spangled Drongo. I also spotted a Striated Pardalote visiting its riverbank nest, and a pair of Laughing Kookaburras was nice enough to stick around for an extended photo op. Dusk brought me to the Kedron Brook Wetlands Reserve, an expansive sanctuary adjacent to the Brisbane Airport. It was here that I met my first Tawny Grassbirds, though they weren’t nearly as cooperative as the friendly family groups of Superb Fairywrens.

I stood watch at the edge of the wetlands as the sun dipped below the horizon. Kedron Brook is one of the primary haunts of Australasian Grass-Owl in the Brisbane region, and I was hoping I might get lucky with a twilight sighting. Hundreds of Magpie Geese converged on the reserve and settled in for the night, and a small flock of Rainbow Bee-eaters roosting in a nearby tree brought a smile to my face. Flying foxes began to appear as the light continued to fade, departing from their communal camps and fanning out over the city to search for fruit. I didn’t start to backtrack towards the parking lot until after sunset, and my persistence was rewarded with a shadowy grass-owl flyby. My incredible good luck on this trip briefly wavered on my drive back to Mitchelton, and I found myself in a minor fender bender. Fortunately, no one was injured, and the rental representatives reassured me over the phone that all I needed to do was fill out some paperwork. Paying for collision coverage is always worthwhile, just in case!

That’s All, Folks!

When the morning of the 23rd finally arrived, I gathered up my gear and headed back to the Brisbane airport for the last time. Once I returned the rental and squared away all the details with the hire car company, I made myself comfortable at the airport bar with a spicy Bloody Mary. Through the towering glass windows, I had a clear view of the wetlands beyond the tarmac, but I still didn’t expect to see much of anything during my final hours of vacation time. Australia had other plans, however, and saw fit to give me two final parting gifts: a trio of Topknot Pigeons in transit flight high above the runway and a soaring Little Eagle tracing circles in the sky. Sometimes airport birding pays off!

It took another full 22 hours of flights to make it back to New York, though crossing the International Date Line meant that I technically arrived the same day I took off. On the way back home, I curated my photos and counted up the sightings from my fortnight of adventures. In the end, I observed 263 species of birds over the course of 14 days, of which 244 were lifers, bringing my lifelong total to 1,220. Many of those birds were unrelated to anything else I’d seen previously, adding 35 new taxonomic families to my career tally. I also picked up at least 17 new mammals, including my first wild monotreme and a wide array of marsupials. As I mentioned previously, the Platypus and the Southern Cassowary were both bucket-list beasties of the highest order, creatures I’ve longed to see for years. Those encounters proved to be well worth the wait, but there were so many other incredible experiences to be had over the course of my journey! My visit to Australia was quite literally the biggest trip of my life so far, a roaring success despite the last-minute booking and limited planning time. I’m thrilled that I got to make this childhood dream a reality, and I only hope that I’ll find my way back to this magical land again someday!