27 November 2016

Australia - Part 2 (Cairns)

Oy, I'm back to blog a bit more.  Let's see... I left off last time after we finished in Darwin and were ready to fly to Cairns (pronounced "cans").  Cairns sits on the northeast coast of Australia; see the pin below:
Truth be told, it's extremely hard to summarize all of the things we saw on this part of the tour because there were SO MANY species.  We spent nearly a week in Cairns, on the nearby Atherton Tableland, and inland to Georgetown.... so this post might be pretty photo heavy but what else is new?

I'll start with Centenary Lakes right there in Cairns.  This spot seems to be one of the most well-known birding locales there in the city and, after a visit or two, I can understand why.  The ponds were busy with waterfowl, the trees alive with parrots and honeyeaters, and the waterways were teeming with herons including this sharp STRIATED HERON:
We got to hang out with some spoonbills there too.  Here's a ROYAL SPOONBILL working the edge of a tidal waterway:
The AUSTRALASIAN DARTER was a familiar sight too:
If you think that bird looks like our Anhinga from the US... you'd be right; they're in the same genus (which so happens to be called Anhinga).

One of the many highlights at Centenary Lakes was a new species of frogmouth!  This is a nesting PAPUAN FROGMOUTH that has been reliable there (if you know where to look):
It's easy to see how effective their camouflage is.  The Papuan is the longest species of frogmouth in the world, sometimes nearing 2 feet in length.  They are strictly nocturnal and feed by dropping to the ground to snatch up large insects like beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, snails, and even lizards and rodents.

Not too far from the roosting frogmouth, our group was quite surprised to find this BUSH THICK-KNEE laying out on the ground in front of us!
Turns out, this bird is on a nest and is using its cryptic coloration to hopefully go unnoticed by approaching predators.  We enjoyed our looks at it and moved on, hopefully letting it get back to relaxing.

Centenary Lakes also provided nice looks at some parrots including this DOUBLE-EYED FIG-PARROT.  Although they're bright green with red and blue on their faces, these birds seemingly disappear when they land in green trees.  Thankfully we tracked this one down:
We first stayed at Chambers Rainforest Lodge which is well outside of Cairns to the south.  Stepping off of the bus though, it was like another world.  Odd bubbling wails, screeches, songs, and chirps... all foreign to anyone who grew up birding in North America.  The looming rainforest that surrounded us was daunting but in a beautiful, exciting way.

There on the grounds, flowering bushes were active with honeyeaters we hadn't seen yet on tour.  Here's the unique MACLEAY'S HONEYEATER with the bare skin around its eye:
This species is endemic (meaning "not found anywhere else") to coastal Queensland and this lodge might be one of the best spots in the world to see this species.

The lush grounds also had many LEWIN'S HONEYEATERS, a very vocal and common species there:
Another honeyeater in this part of the world is the BRIDLED HONEYEATER.  This guy is also not found anywhere else in the world outside of tropical Queensland:
One of the targets at Chambers was a glossy black bird in the Birds of Paradise family.  Lucky for us, they were fairly common.  This is a riflebird, a VICTORIA'S RIFLEBIRD to be exact:
This species is pretty special; it's also endemic to a small part of Queensland.  We saw several females too which lack the black breast and head:
Not all of the birds on this part of the trip were gaudy though.  Take for example this somewhat plain little dude:
This is a PALE-YELLOW ROBIN and it's endemic to eastern Australia.  You can see it's doing "the robin thing" where it clings precariously to a vertical trunk.

This strange creature, also at Chambers, is a SPOTTED CATBIRD:
Although these green birds were very vocal (they sound a bit like a wailing baby), they were often hard to see (except when, like above, they come to inspect you at your room door).

One of the more bizarre denizens of the jungle there is the CHOWCHILLA.  This species, also endemic to Queensland, is a ground-loving bird that walks on the forest floor, scratching through leaf litter to find food.  Although it was dark for photography, we were lucky to have this male hop up for a split second:
Another rainforest specialty there, this one also black-and-white, is the PIED MONARCH:
I especially enjoyed watching this species forage.  At first I thought it looked like a typical perching bird... but it's not, it started crawling up and down tree trunks like a nuthatch!  Too cool.

Although it doesn't look very similar, the below bird is also a monarch (it's true, they're in the same family).  This is a SPECTACLED MONARCH I photographed from my room patio:
One of the nights we took a post-dinner trip to do some spotlighting for mammals.  We went to the world-famous Curtain Fig Tree and I have to say, walking up to this enormous strangler fig tree at night was one of the strangest experiences in my life.  Take a look:
This tree is one of the largest in north Queensland, it's more than 500 years old, and the curtain of aerial roots drop to the ground from 50 feet up.  With the eerie light from our flashlights, it looked like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.  However, I never saw a "Welcome to Lothlorien" sign.

But anyway, I can't say I was expecting to see much there, in the dark with my headlamp... but it didn't take long before people were seeing eyeshine, movement, and critters scrambling about.  One of my favorites was this GREEN RINGTAIL POSSUM that we found:
Another amazing nocturnal creature in the rainforests there is this SUGAR GLIDER we saw back at the lodge:
Like a flying squirrel, this marsupial is able to glide from tree to tree.  This particular one comes to a feeding station after dark to feed on a sweet, sticky substance that is put on the tree.

Hmm, it's a bit of a disconnect from the jungle species mentioned above but we found a nearby, open field just teeming with hundreds of PLUMED WHISTLING-DUCKS:
Why are they called "plumed"?  Take a look at the long, pale feathers sticking out of their flanks!

I'm not sure any blog post from this part of the world would be complete without a bowerbird photo or two.  Bowerbirds are in their own family, Ptilonorhynchidae, and are known for their odd courtship displays.  The male will build a structure (called a bower) and then decorate it with sticks and brightly-colored objects in hopes of attracting a mate.  Below, standing in the middle of his bower, is a GREAT BOWERBIRD.  This species carefully places green and white objects (sometimes plastic, trash, whatever) on the doorstep.  You can see the bird below with the white shells in front:
Other species of bowerbirds decorate with other colors of objects and my next post will mention one of those.  Our group, pictured below, especially enjoyed watching this male tend to his bower.
We spent part of our week in the Cairns area out west in the Outback.  Our goal was to reach Georgetown, a small town many hours away by car.  You might be envisioning a rich, tropical paradise... but we left all of that on the coast.  No, Georgetown is a very hot, dry, open area:
However, one benefit of driving through this seemingly endless sea of dry grass... is that this is where the Emu can be found.  Although we were cruising down the road at quite a good clip, thankfully for all of us, Tracy started hollering; she had just spotted some EMUS!  We backed up and had a good look:
Shoot, where to start with the Emu??  Let's see... for starters, it's the second tallest bird in the world!  They can be as tall as 6'3" (which so happens to be my height).  They're flightless but fast runners (at a full gallop, they have a 9' stride).  They're also endemic to Australia.  We were all SUPER happy to have seen this emblematic species.  Here's another photo of one:
Closer to Georgetown, it just got drier and drier.  And although it's almost desert-like, that's part of the reason we birded this area.  You see, there are a couple of dams/ponds that act as oases for wildlife and the birding at these waterholes can be exciting.  Finches, especially, can be prevalent and we ended up seeing BLACK-THROATED, ZEBRA, MASKED, and DOUBLE-BARRED FINCHES.  Here's the latter with its sharp black-and-white bars:
I suppose you could argue that this area was an oasis for other critters too, like these flies that were exceptionally friendly:
But with flies aside, the birding was a lot of fun.  For example, the most abundant parrot/cockatoo was the GALAH (pronounced "guh-LAH"):
These pink birds are actually in the cockatoo family, not the parrot family.  Either way, they were abundant near the waterholes and we saw hundreds of these.

Another parrot roaming these parts was actually mostly blue.  These beauts are PALE-HEADED ROSELLAS and we saw many of these coming to drink from the ponds:
The main bird of prey in this area was the ubiquitous BLACK KITE.  I'll never forget watching this particular kite swooping down to grab a Cane Toad and then flying right over our heads while carrying it.  Check out its meal being grasped in its talons:
The below bird is quite a looker... it's a RAINBOW BEE-EATER.  A mostly green bird but with black, turquoise, and yellow with a nice long black bill... they're gorgeous creatures.  Here's one that had flown to the ground in front of us:
Roaming the open woodlands in groups, another interesting bird out in these areas was the APOSTLEBIRD.  So named because they're always in groups of 12 (or so someone thought.  Of course, that's not always true).  However, these birds DO tend to stay in big family groups and hoards of these will roam through the countryside until they spot something out of the ordinary.  This time, they had found US!  These foot-long birds clambered up the trees surrounding us and raucously called out the alarm:
The dry, open country is also home to a bird I very much wanted to see, the AUSTRALIAN BUSTARD.  I'm glad to say that we were successful in finding these large, terrestrial creatures:
Bustards are pretty cool though despite a name that rhymes with custard.  They're large (males up to a 7-8 foot wingspan) and they aren't light either; a male was recorded weighing more than 30 pounds.

Although most people associate pigeons with the flocking bird of cities, the native doves and pigeons were actually of interest in the Outback.  There, even the pigeons have big crests.  This is a CRESTED PIGEON:
Way smaller (and without a crest), PEACEFUL DOVES were quite common in Queensland as well:
You may think the name as unfortunate... but we saw lots of SQUATTER PIGEONS too.  These dudes were a) always on the ground, b) rather intricately patterned on the face, and c) quite photogenic:
In the town of Georgetown, there is a spot we had for finding more frogmouths.  We found them within a minute or two; another nest of TAWNY FROGMOUTHS:
All in all, the outback was very kind to us.  We enjoyed the unique birds and some gorgeous evening scenes over the waterholes:
Back in Cairns, we spent some time downtown.  Our hotel was right across the street from the esplanade along the coast where dozens of people enjoyed walks, a jog, or whatever else.  What a beautiful spot:
More importantly, there were even more birds than people there.  The tidal mudflats were teeming with shorebirds including this most-impressive BEACH THICK-KNEE:
Although we had seen Bush Thick-knee around regularly, these Beach Thick-knees are much rarer and it was wonderful to see this species with such nice light on it.

This BAR-TAILED GODWIT wasn't that small either!
By this point we had only a day or two left in the Cairns area.  One of the birds we REALLY wanted to track down (and by "really" I mean "REEALLLLY") was the one-of-a-kind SOUTHERN CASSOWARY.  Thankfully, we arrived at the Cassowary House (a lodge) right when one was being seen out back.  Our group scurried to the back of the lodge and then all of a sudden we were face-to-face with this huge cassowary!
We all gawked as it rummaged around, took a few drinks, and wandered down the trail.  Wow!  This is another tall, flightless bird.  In fact, this is listed as the third tallest bird in the world.

Another bonus bird we tracked down in the Cairns area ranked as one of my favorite sightings.  We went to lovely creekside in the Davies Creek State Forest to try to see the WHITE-BROWED ROBIN.  Lucky for us, we managed to find two right away.  What a sharp robin!
I should add that the Atherton Tableland had some other intriguing creatures as well.  We visited the Granite Gorge Nature Park which is the go-to spot to see this very range-restricted marsupial, the MAREEBA ROCK-WALLABY.  They were NOT hard to find (in fact, they're rather tame):
Ooh, another major highlight for me was seeing this floating log:
You may or may not recognize that as a PLATYPUS!  We ended up seeing a couple of these weirdly-fascinating marsupials on this tour.  Yes, they lay eggs.  Yes, it IS a mammal.  Yes, they have a bill like a duck.  And yes, they're actually venomous.  Whhhaaaaat?

We saw plenty of lizards too!  Here is the famous FRILL-NECKED LIZARD that is using exceptional camouflage as it sits motionless on the left side of this tree:
Oh man, I almost forgot about the flying foxes!  We came face-to-face with dozens (hundreds?) of these SPECTACLED FLYING FOXES roosting during the day in Cairns:
Flying foxes, despite the name, are actually bats.  They eat fruit and, oh, are HUGE!  The wingspan can top 3 feet, larger than some hawks!   Don't be alarmed when you're visiting Australia and see a swarm of gigantic bats streaming overhead at dusk; they're just headed out to find some good fruit.  :-)

After our time in Cairns, we all hopped on a plane and headed to Brisbane!  More from that part of the tour a bit later on...

16 November 2016

Australia - Part 1 (Darwin)

Yes indeed, here's a proper blog update from a 3-week Field Guides tour I recently co-lead.  Australia!  Although I'm STILL sorting through and editing the thousands of photos I took, I figured it was time to share some of them here on See You at Sunrise.

In short, I'll probably have to split this tour into 3-4 different posts, one for each of the regions.  This post will focus on where we started this tour, the city of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory.

But first, I was in St. Louis and had to GET to Australia.  Hmm... time to fly to Los Angeles and then board this Boeing 747-400 towards Brisbane:
When your flight is about 14 hours long, you have a LOT of time to look out the window:
Yes indeed, it was a long flight complete with multiple meals, lots of movies to watch, naps to *try* to take, etc.  Of course, things took a strange turn when we flew over the date line.  Why?  The 16th of October did NOT exist for me; we left Los Angeles on the 15th, arrived in Brisbane on the 17th.  Whhhaaaaa?

Not to get too comfortable in Brisbane though, Chris and I continued our trip and flew to Darwin a couple of hours later (getting BACK on a plane after that 14 hour flight felt silly).  Darwin, if you're unfamiliar with it, sits on the north coast of Australia:
Once we landed, we first headed to the hotel to drop our gear and take a breather.  The view from our hotel room in Darwin wasn't too bad either:
We wasted little time in getting out and getting some scouting under our belts.  We had arrived a few days earlier than the participants in order to adjust our sleep schedules, nail down a few target birds ahead of time, etc.

The Darwin Botanical Gardens was a fun place to start.  Shortly after getting out of the car, my attention was drawn to this kingfisher up in a tree.... with no water in sight.  It's a FOREST KINGFISHER, and no, they aren't limited to areas with water (like we're used to here in the US).  These little guys grab lizards, insects, and other small prey just about anywhere (these were one of the most common kingfishers we saw on tour):
Here's another look at this species; the males have a complete white collar and the females have only a partial white collar.  Here's the male on the bottom and the female perched up top:
One attraction at the botanical gardens though were the owls.  We managed to stake out the large and impressive RUFOUS OWL as well as a couple of BARKING OWLS.  The latter performed quite well with the group!
Because I mentioned owls just now, it feels fitting to share this photo of some other nocturnal skulkers.  Look carefully... that isn't a broken-off stump... that's a TAWNY FROGMOUTH asleep on its dayroost!
Thankfully, these nightjars were still present a few days later when we returned with the group.  Why so reliable?  Well, they were nesting there!  We got to see a miniature frogmouth peeking out from underneath a parent.  I felt truly lucky to see such awesome creatures.

Chris and I were quite pleased to track down a pair of BUFF-SIDED ROBINS too, a species that is found only in northern Australia.  Here's a quick shot of this uncommon but attractive robin:
Another surprise grab was this BLACK-TAILED TREECREEPER!
Turns out, we'd find this uncommon species a couple of times including a few days later with the group.  However, treecreepers are quite unlike woodpeckers and woodcreepers.  In fact, they're in their own family and are endemic to Australia & New Guinea.

I should mention the warmth.  Darwin was very... how-should-I-say-it... hellishly warm!  The temp would soar to 100 degrees and with humidity in the 90% range... it was something else.  So when I look back and see this photo of our rental Mitsubishi in the hot and humid monsoon forest... I automatically crave air conditioning.
It didn't take long to familiarize myself with the WILLIE WAGTAIL, an abundant and widely-known Australian bird.  Of course, it's actually a fantail (not a wagtail) BUT, in its defense, it does wag its tail:
A reoccurring theme throughout these Australia posts will be the honeyeaters... a large and diverse family present in that part of the world.  We have dozens of warblers here in the US... they have dozens of honeyeaters.  The Darwin area provided some good honeyeating though and we crossed paths with species like this BAR-BREASTED HONEYEATER:
Although the photo isn't great, the following species is actually quite distinctive; the black-and-white BANDED HONEYEATER:
A species in the "bland book", so to speak, was the BROWN HONEYEATER:
Continuing with the honeyeater thread, this following species looks pretty plain until you see the big white spot on its gape.  This is the WHITE-GAPED HONEYEATER:
This following honeyeater might not look like much... but that's just how it goes.  It's a DUSKY MYZOMELA:
The RED-HEADED MYZOMELA is a bit of a mangrove specialist and we saw a few of these in the appropriate habitat:
Leaving the honeyeaters for now (but staying with the mangrove specialists), we tracked down a few AUSTRALIAN YELLOW WHITE-EYES in the mangroves near Darwin, the only place on tour we saw this species:
Later on, we'd see lots and lots of SILVER-EYES, a close relative of the above species.

A common theme I was noticing as we birded the Darwin area were these LEMON-BELLIED FLYCATCHERS that kept on turning up.  Turns out, they're very common and learning their song was helpful.  And yep, they're quite lemon-bellied:
Another "flycatcher", but from a very different family, is the BROAD-BILLED FLYCATCHER.  They were somewhat common, full of character, and sometimes easy to spot:
The birds of prey were fairly straightforward in Darwin.  The giant beast on the left is the impressive WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE and the smaller hawk on the right is a WHISTLING KITE:
However, more common than both the above species were the BLACK KITES.  We'd see those over the city, over shopping malls, over just about anywhere.  I enjoyed them though; my first kites from the Milvus genus.

You'll probably remember the first time you see this giant, 2-foot long cuckoo!  This is the PHEASANT COUCAL:
However, moving from one of the biggest cuckoos to the smallest cuckoo in the world, we saw several LITTLE BRONZE-CUCKOOS complete with that distinctive red eye-ring:
Switching gears, Australia is home to a few species of cranes which, thankfully, are pretty similar to our cranes (whew, a family I actually knew!).  This one is the BROLGA:
The dove and pigeon show was surprisingly fun in Darwin.  Instead of Rock Pigeons, the city was home to hundreds of the spectacular TORRESIAN IMPERIAL-PIGEONS that favored the large trees in town.  Smaller, but still medium-sized, were the BAR-SHOULDERED DOVES that were abundant as well.  The smallest were the diminutive PEACEFUL DOVES, like an Australian version of Inca Dove:
Figbirds.  Relatives of the Old World Orioles.  If you visit Australia, do yourself a favor and learn this one.  They were abundant in suburbs, inner city, coastlines, parks... and, well, everywhere.  Here's the easily-recognized male with the red facial skin:
The following bird means business!  This is a SILVER-BACKED BUTCHERBIRD (which some consider a subspecies of GRAY BUTCHERBIRD):
This family of birds snatch mice, insects, lizards, and even small birds and then skewer them on thorns and such (behavior similar to shrikes).  The above species is endemic to northern Australia.

The RAINBOW LORIKEETS in Darwin are the "Red-collared" variety which some sources treat as a different species.  Either way, they're abundant, beautiful, and were a favorite to snap photos of:
Moving from one "rainbow" bird to another.  This time, we're looking at a RAINBOW BEE-EATER on the shorelines of the Timor Sea:
Mentioning the beach in the above photograph reminded me that, yes, there was some good shorebirding to be had in Darwin!  However, you don't have to be on a shore to see the following species; the MASKED LAPWINGS were one of the most abundant birds... period.  Pretty striking though:
It was in Darwin that we connected with one of the largest shorebird species in the world, the monstrous BEACH THICK-KNEE.  Unlike the Bush Thick-knee which can be found in a variety of habitats, these guys are truly a species of beaches, reefs, and tidal areas.  Can you spot it mixed in with the driftwood?
If you think this following sandpiper looks like a Spotted Sandpiper, you're close.  This is the COMMON SANDPIPER:
Put yourself near the ocean in Darwin and you'd probably see SILVER GULLS, the most widespread species of gull down under:
... and although we saw a variety of herons and egrets near the coasts in Darwin, the PACIFIC REEF-HERON was a bit of a habitat specialist.  They really do favor coastal areas, especially exposed reefs/rocks:
Lastly, Chris and I scored this mammal on the far side of Knuckey Lagoon.  Dog, right?  Well, except it's a DINGO:
(You can also see some PIED HERONS and a PIED STILT in the foreground)

ANYWAY... before long, we had spent our 3 days of tour in Darwin and were ready for our flight east to Cairns.  And THAT is where we'll pick up for Part II on a later date.  Cheers.