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.