TR: Southeastern Australia/Tasmania Jan '03 (3)

Subject: TR: Southeastern Australia/Tasmania Jan '03 (3)
Date: Fri, 14 Mar 2003 19:02:54 EST

13 Jan 03
       Today was one of the longest and best days of birding that any of us has ever had.  The day was spent in the vicinity of Deniliquin, with rambles well outside of the town into the surrounding countryside.  Deniliquin itself is a pretty town, open and bright and bustling, straddling the Edward River in south/central NSW.  The river was a ribbon of green in this drought-stricken area, though the irrigation channels also provided a surprising number of wet areas.  Away from water, however, the land was parched.  One of the main crops in this area is rice (!), supported by extensive irrigation.  Why a piece of the dry interior of Australia should have become a big artificially-supported rice-growing region is beyond me, though I am sure there is an explanation.  The irrigation is apparently becoming a serious problem in that it is raising the water table throughout the area which is in turn killing the native vegetation.  The drought lately has actually lowered the water table a fraction and helped to compensate for this temporarily, according to our guide.  Various schemes seem to be in the works to try to manage the long-term health, or sickness, of the land.  This particular year, though, only one or two paddocks were planted with rice, and most of the land was brown and empty.  Dust devils chased around the paddocks, sometimes climbing to many meters in height, the best display of this phenomenon I have ever seen.  The land is flat as a pancake, a former inland sea.
     We started at 6am, when our guide Phil Maher met us in the parking lot of our motel.  We spent the next 7 days with Phil, and as I've already said, he was a terrific guide.  Just on this first day we saw 86 species of birds, and heard an additional two more.  He worked his tail off this entire 18-hour day, and indeed the entire week, to be sure that we all got to see all of the possible birds.  We spent this morning traveling to some areas north of the town, then back to town for lunch and a siesta, then out again south of town in the afternoon/evening.
     Our first stop in the AM was a drive to Gulpa National Forest.  According to Phil, it was drier than he had ever seen it, and he has lived here all his life.  The trees were drought-stressed to the point where they were losing most of their leaves, and looked dead, though they will possibly/probably revive when the rains return.  The trees were a box species, I believe, with an understory of "cherry", which is actually a root parasite that looks like a bright green juniper.  It was in these cherry clumps that we were looking for our first bird--Gilbert's Whistler, a somewhat localized interior endemic.  Unfortunately, while we had one bird briefly answer the tape in the distance, we never saw one, and it became one of our heard-only birds.  It seemed a bit of an inauspicious start--the dry quietness of the forest, with a couple of somewhat discouraging hours spent searching for a bird we couldn't find.  Fortunately, it was not a prelude of things to come, it turned out.
     Phil took us from one site to the next, sometimes on private land--it would be impossible to do such a trip without his expert help.  He had intimate, ongoing knowledge of where to look for the birds in general as well as where they have been hanging out lately, plus he knew the locals and was able to take us anywhere he needed to.  The life birds appeared like clockwork, a new one or two with every brief stop:  BLACK KITES, BROWN TREECREEPER, VARIED SITELLA;  a flock of an estimated 2000 LONG-BILLED CORELLAS along the river;  WHITE-WINGED CHOUGHS and APOSTLEBIRDS;  our first close looks at WEDGE-TAILED EAGLES on the ground at a road kill;  the list goes delightfully on and on.
     Several sightings and birds stick in my memory especially.  A small flock of GREY-CROWNED BABBLERS actively fed, seeming to crawl and inspect and jump over everything in their path.  We flushed the first of quite a few AUSTRALIAN OWLET-NIGHTJARS and got excellent looks at this species perched in the open in good light--a strange and wonderful little bird.   EASTERN GREY KANGAROOS went bounding ahead of us, or sometimes along beside us in the distance--we were in AUSTRALIA!
     In the afternoon, after lunch and a break from the heat, we headed out southward and again took short jaunts from lifer to lifer.  BLUEBONNETS were stunning, long-tailed, subtly painted parrots.  We saw our first PAINTED HONEYEATERS, a species I had hoped for but not dared to expect--very dashing birds.  At one point I heard familiar tiny toots, like tiny Volkswagon horns, and knew before Phil even pointed them out that we were on to our first wild ZEBRA FINCHES.  For the first time, I realized how incredibly rich and detailed and perfect the plumage and coloration of these wild birds really was.  The captive birds in my memory seemed pale and unkempt by comparison, a phenomenon I noticed repeatedly during the trip when I sighted species that had previously been familiar to me only as cage birds.  And the parade of brilliant life birds went on and on.  WHITE-WINGED FAIRY-WRENS were one of the most amazing birds I have ever seen--the males are completely a dark, dazzling electric blue, with snow-white wings. 
     As the evening approached, we stopped at a larger wetland behind a dam, and soon Phil had three species of rail calling for us.  We were able to get wonderful looks at two of them:  SPOTTED (AUSTRALIAN) CRAKE, and BAILLON'S CRAKE.  The third, Spotless Crake, remained an elusive heard-only species--it came within a reed's width of showing itself at times, but just wouldn't come out any further.  Other nice birds at this spot included CLAMOROUS REED-WARBLER and good looks for all at our first SWAMP HARRIER.
     Near sunset, we stopped for a picnic dinner, but not before getting good looks at the TAWNY FROGMOUTH that lived in our picnic spot's clump of trees.  Then, we got in the truck for some riding around looking for the prize goal of the evening.  Before we finally found our elusive target, however, several other lifers made their appearances.  First were INLAND DOTTERELS, difficult birds in themselves, and we were very happy to see them.  A CURL SNAKE, our first venemous elapid, tried to escape our light by putting its head into a hole too small for it, leaving the rest of itself in plain sight.  We got great looks at little FAT-TAILED DUNNARTS, mouse-like carnivorous marsupials.  The most amusing birds of the trip came just about at midnight--perfectly round little tennis balls with rapidly whirring wings, looking a lot like a fat Golden Snitch as they zoomed away in the light beam--STUBBLE QUAIL.  And finally, at 12:22AM, after Phil had ridden us around for more than two hours, driving with one hand and holding the spotlight out the car window with the other hand, doggedly determined, finally we found our goal--an immature PLAINS-WANDERER, that wierdest of shorebirds.  Still Phil kept trying for us, trying to find an adult female, but it was not to be--we were already completely happy, and completely exhausted, and nothing could make us any happier anyway!  We arrived back at the motel at 1:52AM and dropped into bed like rocks.

14 Jan 03
     We agreed to a later (8AM) start this morning, which still meant that we were a little groggy, but very well-satisfied, group.  Today we headed east, first stopping at a water trough near a line of trees heading off across the flat plain.  Shortly after our arrival, we were rewarded with the appearance of a female SUPERB PARROT, but still not a male--Phil took us here repeatedly, even after we had seen the species, hoping for us to get a good luck at an adult male--he really worked very, very hard for us.  We stopped at an area known as Moonee (sp?) Swamp, and the life birds continued, like yesterday, one after another--RED-NECKED AVOCETS, PINK-EARED DUCKS, HARDHEADS, YELLOW-BILLED SPOONBILL, and another look at BAILLON'S CRAKE for all of us.  We all got very good looks at BROWN-HEADED HONEYEATER and WHITE-FRONTED HONEYEATER and saw our first RED-KNEED DOTTERELS and MARSH SANDPIPER.  A small band of calling BUDGERIGARS gave us good looks--great to see this species in the wild!  At one stop in the afternoon, in a grove of trees filled with beautiful red-blooming mistletoe, we were startled to see a small bat fly out of a nearby tree stump, followed quickly by another, and then in a minute or so, another.  Closer investigation revealed a 4-foot GOANNA (or Lace Monitor) working its way into the tree stump, probably after the bats;  it wasn't very happy to see us.
     We followed yesterday's routine of an afternoon post-prandial break, then another late afternoon/evening outing.  First a quick look at a large flock of BLACK-TAILED NATIVE-HENS, a comical troupe.  Then we went to the sewage treatment works, always a must-stop on any good birding trip!  This was an excellent site, the highlight of which was undoubtedly the group of nearly two dozen FRECKLED DUCKS, more than Phil had seen here before, for many years if not ever.  MUSK DUCK was another outstanding bird.  Other lifers included CHESTNUT TEAL, HOARY-HEADED GREBE, AUSTRALIAN SHELDUCK.  This was another day full of an overwhelming number of new birds--97 total species for the day, 29 of them lifers for me.

Bill Benner
Old Brookville, NY

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