TR: Southeastern Australia/Tasmania Jan '03 (2)

Subject: TR: Southeastern Australia/Tasmania Jan '03 (2)
Date: Wed, 12 Mar 2003 08:06:56 EST

8 Jan 03
     Our trip started in New York/JFK for me and in Philadelphia for the others.  I flew only on Qantas, and the others had US AIR flights to/from Phila/Los Angeles.  I thought the Qantas flights were fine, and I like American Airlines/Qantas because there is usually a little more leg room--I am 6'4" tall--I'm not sure that the others would agree that they liked the airlines so much, since they had tight connections which they almost missed on the way there and did in fact miss on the way home.  The flight to Los Angeles/LAX Airport from the East Coast takes about 5 1/2 or 6 hours, and then a two-hour layover in Los Angeles, then a 13-hour flight to Sydney.  I think many people, at least my non-birding friends, anyway, are intimidated by this flying distance, but the time passes just fine, and the destination is absolutely worth it.
     The time difference was 16 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time in Syndey--or, 8 hours behind, then add a day.  This was pretty good when we got there--it meant that I had a very difficult time staying awake in the evenings, and fell asleep pretty early, but also made it easy to get up for early birding in the AM.  (Coming home was a different story--I had to go back to work almost immediately, and it took me quite a few days to be able to get up easily and function well in the mornings.)  Crossing the International Date Line meant that January 9, 2003, vanished without a trace.

10 Jan 03
     We exchanged money at the airport when we got to Sydney.  It was actually a pretty good deal, being the same fairly nominal charge (I forget exactly how much) for any amount up to $250 USD exchanged, and a percentage thereafter, and the exchange rate was pretty similar to the banks'.  Since we paid for meals mostly as a group with credit cards, and bought gas etc. this way too, I didn't really need so much cash.  I exchanged $250 USD and got a little more than $400 AUD (exchange rate was pretty close to $1AUD/$0.60USD).  Probably didn't end up needing that much cash, and I used a significant percentage of it to buy souvenirs, etc.
    We then picked up at the airport the 4-wheel drive SUV we had reserved from Budget via our travel agent.  We used the vehicle for the first ten days, from Sydney to Melbourne via Deniliquin;  after that we had transportation arranged with our guides and accommodations.  The big vehicle was comfortable, and helped us out a good bit in getting to do the things we wanted when we wanted to (though we didn't use the truck much for the full week we spent with Phil Maher, who had his own vehicle for us).  I was the designated driver when we were on our own and was pretty nervous about it.  We had decided on a larger four-wheel drive vehicle because we weren't sure of the roads we'd be taking.  We did spend time on unsealed roads, it turned out.  Also, we needed room for four people with all of their luggage.  I'd never driven an SUV before--I think their popularity is a selfish and terrible mistake, and am disgusted to be surrounded by them on Long Island, where I think they are almost never necessary--but it was the driving on the "wrong" side of the road, directly from the airport into the heart of Sydney on my maiden voyage, that really had me nervous.  Despite my concerns, though, I found it very do-able--"Drive left, look right"--and we made our way to the hotel.
     We arrived at the All Seasons Premier Menzies Hotel in downtown Sydney around noon, about a 45 minute or so exciting ride from the airport.  Sydney is full of one-way streets, many of them pretty crowded, but it wasn't as bad as the Big Apple, even with the "wrong-side" driving.  Fortunately I could park the vehicle for the day in the parking garage under the hotel and not have to drive again until the next morning.  If we had known we wouldn't be going on the pelagic trip, we probably wouldn't have stayed for this one night in Sydney.  Getting in and out of the city was an unnecessary hassle, given our revised itinerary, but it wasn't so bad--our first adventure!
     We decided to spend the afternoon at the Royal Botanical Gardens, which was about a 1/2 kilometer walk from our hotel.  We wanted to be outdoors in the sun to help our internal clocks adjust, but we were too tired from our 24-hour trip to do anything very strenuous.  It turned out to be a great afternoon.
     We walked up Hunter Street, stopped for sandwiches to take to the park, and then went into the entrance to the Gardens near the Cahill Expressway.  We immediately saw an excellent bird, one that we never saw again during the entire trip--a BUFF-BANDED RAIL that strolled across the open lawn.  We got excellent looks at it, but didn't choose to follow it for any longer study, I think sort of figuring that any bird seen so easily and quickly in downtown Sydney must be pretty common.  Turned out to be our only encounter with this species, and we only saw other rails one other time.
     We ate lunch under the arboretum trellises, accompanied by NOISY MINERS.  The we ambled northward, stopping for a while to gawk at the roosting FLYING FOXES--pretty amazing sight.  We saw some ducks on the small ponds and stream, and some of the abundant, ubiquitous species we would see throughout our tour--AUSTRALASIAN MAGPIE, MAGPIE-LARK, AUSTRALIAN RAVEN, PIED CURRAWONG, CRESTED PIGEON, MASKED LAPWING, LAUGHING KOOKABURRA, AUSTRALIAN IBIS, SILVER GULL, SULPHUR-CRESTED COCKATOOS, and GALAHS.  We also saw two other species, besides the rail, that we saw only here and not for the rest of the trip.  One, the introduced MALLARD, was good for the trip list but otherwise a little ho-hum.  The other species was PIED CORMORANT, seen only in Sydney Harbor.  Very tired, we walked back to the hotel, and had an excellent dinner at Chris' Seafood with my friend Clare, who just happened to be on the Sydney leg of her trip around the world.  Then early to bed.

11 Jan 03
     This was supposed to be the day of our pelagic trip, but instead we had made last-minute plans to meet Chris Ross at Royal National Park, about an hour south of Sydney, at 7AM, and spend the day with him.  Once we got out of Sydney, this turned out to be a wonderful day.  Getting out of Sydney, though, turned out to be a challenge.
     I had parked where I was told, under the hotel.  The parking people parked the behemoth at the farthest end of the lot (I don't blame them), and in order to get out of the lot I had to drive out the one-way exit tunnel, which twisted and turned around under the city and the emptied me out many blocks away from the hotel, sans map or anything else except my wallet, completely disoriented.  It took me more than half an hour to find my way back to the hotel, where the others were waiting and worrying, wondering what had happened to me.  Another adventure!
    We arrived and met Chris at 7am, right on time despite my delay, and started seeing great birds right away.  Our route took us along the Heckling River, and also along   Road later in the day.  We then spent a couple of hours in Helensburgh at the Ross' house, and finished the day at Barren Grounds near Robertson.  The first sighting of the day was a BLACK (SWAMP) WALLABY, our first macropod--great to see, bounding off through the forest.
     One of our main target birds for the day was Origma, and Chris took us to a number of apparently good sites to try for them, but no luck.  This species is limited to the "Sydney" sandstone outcrops south of the city.  We were looking in the right areas, but probably not at the best time of year.  January in Australia seems to be molting time, post-nesting time, when birds are quieter, perhaps even moving around some from their usual haunts.  But no matter--by the end of the day, we ended up with 60 species of birds, most of them lifers.  Three of them we never saw again throughout the rest of trip, only on this one day.  One was RED-WHISKERED BULBUL--like the Mallard, a good bird for the list, but otherwise an exotic that we'd seen before in exotic Florida.  Another was AUSTRALIAN DARTER.  Not everyone saw this bird, I don't think, and we didn't get the greatest looks, but it still went on to the list.  The third species was arguably the best bird of the day--the pesky but spectacular SCARLET HONEYEATER, a lifer for all of us--but the one bird that Chris missed!  truly a shame, since it would have been a life bird for him also.  It was a beautiful male that flew across an open picnic area at Wattamolla, landed briefly in the top of a lone bare-limbed tree for a brief but beautiful view, and then continued on its way.  Wattamolla also provided us with our first WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE, sailing very satisfyingly overhead.  The Royal National Park gift shop also provided me with my first excellent ginger beer--a Bundaberg, I think--one of the best things to drink in Australia, much much better than the tame ginger ale we get here in the States, and with locally-brewed varieties to try in almost every locale.
     Some of the other eastern wet-forest birds were only seen once or twice more, usually on our last few days at O'Reillys.  One beauty was the jewel-like AZURE KINGFISHER.  We also saw our first SATIN BOWERBIRD bower, followed shortly by encounters with the male making his mechanical noises and performing at his bower for a female.  Other examples of these wet-forest birds included GREEN CATBIRD, LARGE-BILLED SCRUBWREN, BROWN GERYGONE, LEADEN FLYCATCHER, LEWIN'S HONEYEATER, and LITTLE WATTLEBIRD.
     As I mentioned previously, Chris took us to his home in Helensburgh for lunch, and his family welcomed us warmly, which touched us very much.  We spent a couple of hours with them, chatting and getting the tour.  The highlight for me was the enormous BLUE-TONGUED SKINK who lived in a hole in the garden.  She popped out several times to be sure I didn't leave without getting her photograph.
     After lunch, we worked our way down the coast toward Barren Grounds.  The southeastern coast of Australia was breathtakingly beautiful, beyond anything I had expected.  More like California than anything else I can think of, it is a land of cliffs and rocks and surf and beaches, and plants and birds adapted to heat and salt and fire.  A truly spectacular place.
     We stopped at our motel in the evening, the Robertson Country Motel--comfortable and convenient--and dropped off our stuff.  It's a good idea not to expect the motel owners to be around at all hours of the night in Australia.  Unlike in the US, they seem to knock off by 6 or 7pm or so, often leaving a contact number or some such way of getting in touch with them after hours--but we tried most nights to check in earlier than that and not take any chances.  We headed to Barren Grounds in the evening light.
     We had a couple of target birds here, and we managed with Chris' help to get great looks at one of them:  EASTERN BRISTLEBIRD, guarding a pool of water and very irritated with a GREY FANTAIL who was trying to get a drink.  The two kept chasing back and forth across the path, and gave us great views--right near the open area in front of the guest bungalow that sits at the start of the trail.  Out on the heathland area itself we got distant but adequate looks at an amazing flock of  YELLOW-TAILED BLACK-COCKATOOS.  They are huge, and seeing a flock of 30 or 40 or more together was very impressive.  Our other "target" bird, Ground Parrot, was a fantasy--we didn't expect to see any, and we didn't.  But, the sunset was beautiful, and also very intrigueing were the little frogs in the rain pools--they had had some showers there at Barren Grounds, so things were a bit greener and much more lush than what we would soon be experiencing in the interior.

12 Jan 03
     We got up early, and left around dawn, which meant approximately 5:30am.  We had paid for everything the evening before, so we were able to get an early start.  We went back to Barren Grounds, although the pressure was definitely off, since we had seen the Bristlebird the evening before.  Turns out we saw another FIVE of them! with great close-up looks along the paths.  Many more encounters with this skulker than we expected, which made us very happy.  Other good new birds, identified on our own for once, included WHITE-THROATED TREECREEPER, RUFOUS WHISTLER, SPOTTED PARDALOTE, OLIVE-TAILED (BASSIAN) THRUSH, and GREY SHRIKE-THRUSH.  We also got brief but very good looks at a little flock of SUPERB LYREBIRDS along the road and scrambling up the bank as we left Barren Grounds early the morning of the 12th--the only ones we saw on the whole trip.  Finally, the Robertson Pie Shop was one of the highlights of the morning.  This being Sunday morning, they were already doing a brisk business when we arrived about 8am or so.  I had my first taste of a Lamington with cream--yummy.
     We spent most of the rest of the day driving to Deniliquin.  The motto in Australia is "Rest--Revive--Survive", and a rest stop every two hours while driving was encouraged.  When in, we stopped at least every two hours, and tried to make it in as birdy a spot as we could each time.  Roadside birds included our first STRAW-NECKED IBIS and NANKEEN (AUSTRALIAN) KESTREL, as well as drive-by looks at BLACK-FACED CUCKOO-SHRIKE and DOLLARBIRD.  EURASIAN BLACKBIRD and EURASIAN GOLDFINCH were at one very suburban rest stop.  In the afternoon, closer to Deniliquin, we stopped at Colombo Creek and saw WHITE-PLUMED HONEYEATER and good looks at a very satisfying and pretty SACRED KINGFISHER.  Our last roadside lifer, on the outskirts of Deniliquin, was a group of three EMU--very exciting for these North American birders.
     We arrived at our home-away-from-home, the Peppin Motor Inn, about 6pm, and checked in.  There was a small pond right behind the motel, which, thanks to the drought, had a few nice things.  The best bird was probably the lone ROYAL SPOONBILL.  Dinner was at the Deniliquin Bowling Club, pretty good Thai food.  We found the dining situation in the towns in Australia interesting.  Many times (as in Robertson the night before, for example) the only restaurant(s) were at the local bowling or other sports club.  These seemed to be run by Asian chefs, in many cases, so that the menu was a combination of fish-and-chips-type pub fare and Chinese.  After dinner this night in Deniliquin, we watched a flock of RED-RUMPED PARROTS come in to the wires behind the bowling club in the sunset light.  A great end to a great day.

Bill Benner
Old Brookville, NY
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