17 December 2016

Australia - Part 4 (Tasmania)

By now you're probably well aware of the drill.  I recently returned from Australia yada yada yada.  We can just fast forward to this post, Part 4, my final post from the land down under.

The main Part 2 portion of tour had ended and we bid farewell to half of our group in Brisbane.  The remaining half joined us on a search for endemics, interesting mammals, and much more on Australia's island state, Tasmania.
Because this island sits 150 miles south of mainland Australia, many of the species there are found nowhere else on earth.  Endemics.  They can be quite a draw.  I, for one, had long wanted to bird Tassie and 2016 turned out to be my year.

Tasmania hosts 12 endemic bird species and I'm happy to say that our tour connected with all of them.  Here's the breakdown of these endemics from our trip:

1)  Tasmanian Native-Hen (Tribonyx mortierii)

This odd, flightless rail was actually fairly common throughout Tasmania.  No, they weren't limited to wet areas either... we would see them galloping through pastures as we drove by!  Here is one (with some Cape Barren Geese in the background):
Although flightless birds have had a hard time surviving on this planet alongside humans (we have a knack for rendering them extinct), this one has done alright.  Why?  I was told that if you cooked one of these with a rock, the rock would end up better eating.  I'll take their word for it.

2)  Dusky Robin (Melanodryas vittata)

Maybe not the brightest and flashiest of the endemics, this plain-colored robin used to be known as "stump robin" for its tendency to perch on stumps.  And check it out... I'd say it's a pretty fitting name:
We saw Dusky Robins just once or twice on our 5-day trip through the island.

3)  Tasmanian Thornbill (Acanthiza ewingii)

We had seen several other species of thornbills on tour but this particular one is limited to Tassie:
Although similar to the Brown Thornbill, this species has rufous edging to the wings.  We saw these thornbills a few times, often in rainforest and other wet forests/scrublands.

4)  Scrubtit (Acanthornis magna)

Besides this tiny dude being the sole member of its genus, it's a pretty shy endemic that can be tricky to find.  However, we didn't have any problems locating a couple.
I think it's fascinating to think about how few people actually have seen this species.  Being tricky to see (even if you know it's there and what you're looking for) and its limited range, there probably aren't THAT many people that have gotten to enjoy this little gem.   Hundreds of birders?  Maybe thousands... but in a world with 7,500,000,000 people.  Shoot.

5)  Forty-spotted Pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintus)

This endangered species was a real treat to see and was one of the most sought-after endemics.  Although, as you can see, it isn't going to make the top of the flashy list:
Truth is, though, that this is one of Australia's rarest birds.  Not only is it limited to Tasmania, it's only found in a small portion of it, the southeast corner.  We caught up to several on Bruny Island, a stronghold for this rarest pardalote.

6)  Tasmanian Scrubwren (Sericornis humilis)

Here's another endemic in the Acanthizidae family.  This particular bird was pretty easy to recognize given that it's the only scrubwren present on Tasmania (the similar White-browed and Yellow-throated scrubwren, also in the Sericornis genus, do not make the jump south to Tas):
I was happy with the above photo given that they're usually on or near the ground and tend to stay hidden.  Our group ended with great looks at this specialty.

7)  Strong-billed Honeyeater (Melithreptus validirostris)

Given the abundance of honeyeaters in this part of the world, it kind of makes sense that Tasmania would host a few that are found no where else.  One such honeyeater is the Strong-billed and we connected with these at the Mountain Valley Lodge:

8)  Black-headed Honeyeater (Melithreptus affinis)

Our 8th endemic was another honeyeater and one that's in the same family and genus as the above species.  In looking back, I didn't manage very many decent photos of this speciality:
But this was another species we saw near the Mountain Valley Lodge and Gowrie Park.  I should mention that although a honeyeater, it eats mostly insects.

9)  Yellow-throated Honeyeater (Nesoptilotis flavicollis)

Our last endemic honeyeater is the Yellow-throated, an attractive species that ended up being fairly common:
This species shares the Nesoptilotis genus with just one other species, the White-eared Honeyeater which is present back on mainland Australia (a species our tour didn't see).

10)  Black Currawong (Strepera fuliginosa)

Oh currawongs.  Quite bizarre birds to someone like me who hadn't spent much time around them before.  Although we had seen Pied on the mainland and Gray elsewhere on Tasmania, the Black is found no where else on earth:
These are large, crow-sized birds that ended up being quite common in the highland areas of Tasmania (they're not very common at elevations less than 600 feet).  Check out what Wikipedia said about them: 
"They are distinguishable from magpies and crows by their comical flight style in amongst foliage, appearing to almost fall about from branch to branch as if they were inept flyers."

11)  Green Rosella (Platycercus caledonicus)

There are 6 species of rosellas on earth and all are found in Australia.  In fact, our tour saw all 5 of the possible options.  This one though, the Green Rosella, is the largest of the six and is only found in Tasmania:
Truth be told, these were pretty common and easy to see on our tour.  I don't think it took us more than an hour from landing before we saw our first ones.

I was curious about the name "rosella" though and went looking for more info.  The main story I found was that early settlers found one of these parrots at Rose Hill, New South Wales and so they called it a "Rosehill Parakeet" which later became "rosehiller", and eventually "rosella".

12)  Yellow Wattlebird

Hmm, it was only after I returned to the states and was sorting through my photos that I realized that I DIDN'T take a single picture of a Yellow Wattlebird!  Oh the pain.  So wattlebirds are actually honeyeaters which makes this species is the largest honeyeater in the world.  Anyway, these were fairly common and funny birds to hang out with, mostly because they sounded like they were hacking up something vicious every time we heard them:

So that's that... all twelve endemics.  But some of you might be thinking "Wait, what about Orange-bellied Parrots... and Swift Parrots... and Morepork... aren't those endemic too?  Well, not strictly-speaking, no.  The Orange-bellied Parrots do breed in Tasmania but winter on mainland Australia... as do Swift Parrots.  The Morepork is thought by some to just be a subspecies of Southern Boobook.  Plus, they're also found in New Zealand.

However, we DID see the critically endangered SWIFT PARROTS on Bruny Island.  Sadly, it's estimated that there are only 1000 pairs left in the wild and that this species could go extinct in the next 15 years due to predation and habitat loss.

Ok, moving right along... yes, there is MUCH more than just endemic birds to look at in Tasmania.  Here are a few more photos of some species we crossed paths with.  For example, the BEAUTIFUL FIRETAIL:
This snazzy species is limited to SE Australia, can sometimes be tricky to find, and I know some tours have missed it.  However, we saw this species well at the Mountain Valley Lodge (feeding on the driveway, in fact).

We spotted a few of the softly-colored DUSKY WOODSWALLOWS as well:
The pardalotes were always enjoyable to watch in Australia and this pair of STRIATED PARDALOTES were especially friendly.:
Not all of the species we were after were so obliging though.  Take the STRIATED FIELDWREN for example; even with one smack-dab in the middle of this photo... it's not super easy to see, huh?
What I didn't realize at the time was that this species also falls in the Acanthizidae family; the same as Scrubtit, scrubwrens, thornbills, and gerygones.

Australia has a knack for producing some weird species... and I'm not sure there are many weirder than the MUSK DUCK.  Check this thing out, paying special attention to the leathery lobe hanging from under his bill:
The Musk Duck is by itself in the Biziura genus (there was another duck in this genus found in New Zealand but it has gone extinct).  You might not have known that Musk Duck is the 2nd-heaviest species of diving duck in the world.  Any guesses on the heaviest?  Common Eider.

On Bruny Island, off the south side of Tasmania, we encountered quite a few nice additions to the trip list.  Included was this BLACK-FACED CORMORANT, a species limited to the southern edge of Australia:
Bruny Island also provided us with spectacular views of YELLOW-TAILED BLACK-COCKATOOS, like this one foraging alongside a road:
I have to imagine that the bill of the PACIFIC GULL is as beefy as they come.  Here's one of these large gulls from Bruny Island:
The Pacific Gull wasn't the only large gull on Bruny Island though; we saw many KELP GULLS as well.  Here's one of these dark-mantled birds alongside a very special shorebird:
The little shorebird is a HOODED PLOVER, an endangered species with only 5000-7000 individuals left in the world.  They are endangered because of habitat loss; the sandy beaches that this plover prefers are also preferred by people (and people historically don't give a crap about protecting wildlife that they don't deem important).

Another shorebird on Bruny Island were these SOOTY OYSTERCATCHERS that I caught napping:
What I found interesting about these oystercatchers is that there is a marked difference between what males and females eat (apparently only a 36% overlap of prey items); the females eat soft-bodied prey and the males eat hard-shelled prey.

We added a bonus species during our time on Bruny Island, LITTLE GRASSBIRD.  Although uncommon and often not seen on this tour, we found 3 different ones including this one doing the splits in a marsh:
I wasn't aware at the time that this species belongs to the Locustellidae family (Old World Warblers and such).

The PALLID CUCKOO was fairly common in Tasmania and these were the first for our tour:
Did you know that the word "pallid" means "pale, typically because of poor health"?  Well shoot, that gives this healthy species a bad rap!

In terms of flashy birds, the FLAME ROBIN was one of the brightest.  Here's a male we photographed along a roadside:


I mean it when I say that the mammals we saw on Tasmania may have been more mind-blowing than the birds.  I had never seen so many fascinating mammals in such a short time.  

For example, we were just cruising down the road when we spotted THIS!

This walking pin-cushion is a SHORT-BEAKED ECHIDNA.  For starters, it's a monotreme (a mammal that lays eggs).  The spines you see are used for defense; if threatened, they curl up in a ball exposing nothing but spines.

We were at the Mountain Valley Lodge when we saw our first COMMON WOMBAT:
These marsupials are pretty solid too; they average 3 feet long and weigh 60 lbs.  Here's another of these whacky vegetarians we saw at Cradle Mountain:
However, I think the highlight of the mammal-watching came at Mountain Valley Lodge.  You see, this lodge is known worldwide for one thing in particular... devils.  Who in their right mind wants to be visited by a devil, anyway?  Well... some more info....

The largest carnivorous marsupial in the world (now that the Thylacine is extinct) is a ferocious, dog-sized creature known as the TASMANIAN DEVIL.  This emblematic species is now endangered due to facial tumors that reduced the population by upwards of 50%.

One of your best chances of seeing this rare and secretive species is at the Mountain Valley Lodge where these devils will come in to eat meat.  Although I didn't manage much in the way of a pretty photo, here is proof that our particular patio was visited by one:


I don't usually have a separate part of the post devoted to this but... why not?  Tasmania had some beautiful countryside.  You see, an impressive 45% of the entire island is set aside for reserves, national parks, and World Heritage Sites.  The population of Tasmania is only 500,000 and 40% of that is the city of Hobart.  That translates to a LOT of beautiful country without the human mess.

Here's Cradle Mountain, a peak of over 5,000 feet high:
You'll see a scattering of snow.  Yes indeed, we even drove through blizzard-like conditions during our visit to Tasmania!

The countryside was a lush scene with plenty of grazing goats and what not.  I, for one, particularly like the feel.
The ancient forests were beautiful; laden with mosses and ferns:
On Bruny Island, we climbed the steps at "The Neck"; here's a photo showing the narrow stretch of land that connects the two parts of the island:
Even the ferry over to Bruny Island provided some nice landscapes.  Here's a calm and cloudy morning on the water:
The clouds broke a bit later on and the beach scene was a picturesque one:
Anyway, the last photo I'll share from my Australian travels was one of the last things I saw... the city of Sydney as we flew out:
From there, it was a simple 14 hour flight back to the US!  

In the end, it was a super fun experience getting to see and bird Australia and I hope these posts have shown you a little bit of what it was like.  I ended with nearly 370 species for the 3 weeks of birding which seems just fine to me.  :-)


15 December 2016

Australia - Part 3 (Brisbane)

Although I've now been back in the Northern Hemisphere for more than a month, I've been admittedly slow in getting these blogs posted.  However, I know at least a few of you have been waiting patiently for the next post regarding my travels there and it would appear that today is your lucky day.

I left off last time after covering the birding in the Cairns area.  By this point in the trip, we had already seen more than 200 species including a wide range of specialties and endemics.... but it was about to get even better.  We hopped on our flight which flew us south to Brisbane (see below) in the southeast of Queensland:
From the airport, we hopped on our full-size bus (complete with bathroom) and headed for O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat in Lamington National Park.  Although we didn't arrive at O'Reilly's until after dark (we had battled some delays in Cairns), the 2 hour drive south to the retreat was still somewhat entertaining.  The road snaked through the rainforest, often a one-lane road, and before long it was hard to imagine that there was a lodge waiting for us at all!

We spent the next two days birding O'Reilly's and Lamington National Park which was VERY birdy.  With so many new species dripping from the trees, it was like a playground for bird-loving adults.  Add to that playground theme... a canopy walkway!  Here is our group suspended probably 50+ feet off the ground:
That canopy walkway was super nice for seeing birds at eye-level... birds that are usually 50 feet up off the ground!  That was the case for this RUFOUS FANTAIL:
Speaking of fantails, here's another species we saw there... the GRAY FANTAIL.  Clearly it's assessing if I'm too large to eat:
We saw a few new robins for the triplist too including ROSE ROBIN and this EASTERN YELLOW ROBIN:
The bowerbirds at O'Reilly's were completely different from the ones we had seen in Cairns (but equally as bizarre and stunning).  Now we were spotting SATIN BOWERBIRDS sitting in the nearby shadows:
Unlike the bowerbirds I discussed in my previous post, this dark and glossy species decorates its bower with blue bits of plastic as you can see here:
Nearby, there was another kind of bowerbird and this one was vivid.  The boldly marked (and somewhat tame) REGENT BOWERBIRD.  The combo of black and yellow was purely electric!
The lodge at O'Reilly's is actually very well known for the bright and colorful (and tame!) birds.  That was evident right away when various species flew in and actually landed on us.  Here's an AUSTRALIAN KING-PARROT that was right at home on a hand:
When the various seeds would get scattered by a) the birds or b) the scared people not wanting birds to land on them... other critters were waiting to clean up.  Here's a RED-BROWED FIRETAIL on the patio:
Nearby this GRAY SHRIKETHRUSH was hopping around too.  So much for secretive shrikethrushes!
The large PIED CURRAWONGS were pretty friendly too; these "lunch partners" would sit nearby and swoop down for any scraps of food left unattended:
Providing another blast of color, the SUPERB FAIRYWRENS would hop around at arms length sometimes.  The combo of blue and black was gorgeous.  I think this is in contention for one of my favorite photos of the trip:
Overhead at the lodge, we were treated to this PACIFIC SWIFT one of the mornings.  These are pretty uncommon/rare there so we were happy to see this fast-flyer:
Another species we saw near the lodge was this EASTERN SPINEBILL which is actually a type of honeyeater.  As you can see, the name "spinebill" is pretty accurate:
Out on the trails, we had a whole new suite of things to learn.  For example, these YELLOW-THROATED SCRUBWRENS, which almost look related to our Common Yellowthroats, were both abundant and friendly:
Much less easy to see were the RUSSET-TAILED THRUSHES skulking in the undergrowth.  Finally, one came out briefly for a quick pose (note how camouflaged it is):
Another forest skulker was the AUSTRALIAN LOGRUNNER, a relative of the Chowchilla I mentioned before.  But with a name like "logrunner", how can it not be cool?  Here's a photo showing a pair; see if you can find them:
For being as loud and common as they are, EASTERN WHIPBIRDS were not very easy to see most of the time.  It was at O'Reilly's that we finally saw this species well including this male in the shadows:
We ventured away from the lodge a couple of times to bird other spots in Lamington National Park including Duck Creek Road.  One of the highlights was seeing this lump sitting in a tree cavity.  If you look carefully, you'll see a roosting owl!  This little species is called the SOUTHERN BOOBOOK:
If you're wondering, it's named "boobook" because of what it sounds like.  Take a listen to this recording taken near O'Reilly's:

Down the road we stopped at a spot specifically for the uncommon BELL MINER.  We found these without much problem: 
But the biggest reward here was seeing this wild KOALA!
This is an arboreal herbiverous marsupial that is found only in Australia.  This would end up being a major highlight for several people and who can blame them?  Too cool.

We spent one of our evenings taking a nocturnal exploration around the grounds at O'Reilly's.  Decked out with flashlights and headlamps, we poked our way through the dense and pitch black rainforest.  Although we didn't spot any birds on our short outing, we did HEAR a couple of SOUTHERN BOOBOOKS and spotted this COMMON RINGTAIL POSSUM:
After a few days, our visit to the Brisbane area had come to an end.  HOWEVER, why not make one more stop for a couple of missing targets?  We stopped at a boardwalk/mangrove area near the city where we connected with MANGROVE GERYGONE and this BRUSH CUCKOO:
It was at this point that our main Australia tour had come to its end... kind of.  Hint... there was a Tasmania extension to this tour!  Stay tuned.