PART 2 – THE CARAVAN
CHAPTER 11 – NORTH QUEENSLAND
(Bert) We extended our stay at this campground and moved sites to be closer to where our group will camp in a few days. This site comes with a watchdog. No, I mean a watchbird. Willie leaps from a hidden tree branch and attacks any intruders to our site. I’ve tried to see where Willie perches, but the leaves give him secrecy and he just appears out of nowhere. His mode of attack is to wait until his victim has turned away and then suddenly swoop down and bounce his sharp claws on a bare head and whistle his wings for a telltale notice of disapproval, then circle back to his hidden perch so fast the intruder doesn’t know what hit him. If the intruder does not make a hasty retreat, Willie will attack again, and again, and again. This is great for keeping intruders away, but there is a problem. Willie Wagtail does not know we are the new tenants and he indiscriminately attacks us too. He is especially keen on mussing up Shari’s hair and, while sitting in the driver’s seat, today I witnessed two attacks on her while she was trying to get in the passenger side door. I’m a bit concerned about scratches on my thinning pate and have taken to wearing a cap to blunt the attack.
(Shari) “Gees, what in the world is that?” I think to myself as I feel a thump on my head. It happens again and by the third time I start to run and end up saying a bad word. That Willy Wagtail is attacking me as I walk to the rest room for heavens sake. Yesterday we moved RV campsites to be closer to the group when it arrives and now we apparently are under the nest of Willy and he does not like it. That bird had attacked Bert a few days ago but now it seems to focus on me. Every time I come or go, I am under siege. I start to run as soon as I hit the payment and quickly enter the doors to avoid the bird’s claws. I peer out the windows looking for the kamikaze before exiting. The lady in the office has no sympathy and tells me to wear a hat. Wear a hat indeed! I may just buy a baseball bat.
Marie and Chris have arrived and we meet them at the hotel at 5. It is so good to see a familiar face. Marie has been reading my journals and noticed I miss certain things from home. She brought me a care package containing some packets of catsup, crystal light, instant mashed potatoes and a bar of soap made right in the town where she lives. How sweet! As we walk to the restaurant, we pass hundreds of roosting flying-foxes. Everybody is fascinated with them and we read a sign telling us that this is baby birthing time. I look at a few but see no babies on their backs. We grab a beer and talk with an Aussie who used to live in Cairns. She is a hoot and tells us about her job and where she wants to visit in the U.S. She introduces us to her Mom who has never heard the Aussie slang “bum nuts”. She is fascinated with it when I tell her that we found those words on a menu one morning in the Outback and since it did not seem too appealing we did not order it. Too bad, since “bum nuts” are eggs. When you think about it, the name is apropos. After our beer, we notice the sky full of bats. Hundreds of them are circling the area. These are not the little bats we have at home but big things, with wingspans up to 3 ft., bodies the size of a kitty, and cute little fox-like faces. They are getting ready to travel 30 km or more to the Tablelands to feed on fruit. We go to feed our growling tummies. Bert and I ate at this restaurant the first night out in Cairns in July. We got our $10 coupons from the campground and give two to Marie and Chris. All but Bert orders the ribs with two sides with choices of salad, veggies, fries, mashed or roasted potatoes. Bert has a T-bone steak. On our way back to the hotel where Marie and Chris are staying, we just have to stop at numerous shops. I never get tired of looking at the different things on display. We even get a couple of lessons on didgeridoo, basically a hollow log that when blown makes a very low pitch sound. They range in price from $29 to $750. The price varies according to the amount of art work on the log, its size and the type of wood. Again I think how in the world would I get it home?
(Bert) At 5 PM we head to the Cairns hotel to meet Marie and Chris, as their plane arrived earlier today. Marie says she has already seen a couple dozen birds in a short walk near the hotel and as we walk downtown I identify a few she did not recognize, especially the Imperial-Pigeons which I now know by call. We encounter another flying-fox roost, a few blocks from the one we viewed the other night. We stop for a tall beer at an outside restaurant and are joined by a very friendly mother and daughter from Melbourne. We exchange stories about our two countries. The mother says when she was in school she had to memorize all 50 states of the USA and she doubts Americans know any of Australia’s states. She is probably right about that, but we sure know their states now and have probably visited more of Australia than most Australians. We finish the last few swallows of beer just in time to watch the megabats take to the air. Chris is especially enthralled by the size and number of the megabats and we must spend at least 20 min. watching a constant stream of them leaving their roost. Chris notices they come in two sizes and I notice the smaller ones are grayer or browner, the larger ones very black. Later, while examining my mammal field guide I suspect the larger ones are Spectacled Flying-foxes and the smaller ones are Little Red Flying-foxes. We also saw some micro-bats, tiny by comparison. From the field guide, I think they must be either Large-footed Myotis or Hoary Wattled Bats. I’ll have to bring my binoculars tomorrow to be sure.
(Bert) Curiously, the church service starts at 10:10 10-10-10. After church–a different one again, this time with a sermon on CD from an Australian living in New Zealand but preaching in England, and six singing sisters from Fiji–we check our last preparations for the caravan and in late afternoon go to the hotel. Ralph and Virginia are waiting, a couple we have known for many years and who joined us on an Alaska trip and two Mexico trips previously. They are in a bit of a daze after a day of flying but are perky in anticipation. Marie and Chris soon join us and we head past the megabat colony to the downtown area, pausing a few times under the huge canopy trees for short spurts of light rain to dissipate. Conversation is lively at our outside table and just a minute after we order our dinner Norm and Cindy join us too. They just came from Alice Springs and we compare experiences at Uluru and Kangaroo Island.
(Shari) I found Trinity Lutheran Church by asking May. According to her calculations, it is less than a half mile from our campground. So we set out to walk, giving ourselves 30 min. to get there. Ten minutes later we are there. The church is very big and must hold 300 people when full. At 9:40 there is only a handful in attendance and we are greeted by the pastor who tells us he is leaving to conduct services at a partner church in Atherton. Our service today is to be led by a lay person. Slowly people arrive but all in all only about 50. During introductions, the lay leader says there may be more visitors than members in attendance today. At least half of the faces are black and later we find that most of those belong to one family from New Guinea (Bert thinks it was Fiji). The man’s girls sang a song with guitar near the end of the service. He must have over 10 kids and some must be foster or adopted as the racial mix is different. The message is on CD and is spoken by an Australian man who started a successful church in New Zealand called LIFE. It is not a typically Lutheran sermon, but is biblically based and has some interesting thoughts about our attitude during prayer. Do we pray to God to ask for something for ourselves or pray for honor and thanksgiving? We decline the offer of tea after church and lunch at a park. Even with all the churches I have attended, I am still looking for one I would call home. It just must be that I am plain homesick.
So that makes it all the more special that the caravan is soon to start. We meet Ralph and Virginia and Cindy and Norm tonight. We repeat our walk of last night past the flying-foxes. Tonight they are not chattering as much, maybe because the skies are gray and a light mist is in the air. We enjoy a “jug” of beer before ordering our $10 meal of steak and two sides. During our time at the restaurant, it drizzles and then rains hard then drizzles again and then stops raining altogether. We barely take note of the weather as we get to know one another. We chatter a mile a minute across the picnic table under a canopy, first sipping beer and then eating dinner. We linger some more as if our conversations have not yet finished. Then we walk back to the hotel, stopping a various shops on the way.
(Shari) Nobody wants to touch the canister hanging in the tree, not with its label “WARNING - WASP TRAP”. Bert is the one to find it and we make him climb the tree to take a closer look. Donna and Jim have sent us coordinates of a number of geocaches on our caravan route along with a travel coin that “wants” to see the Sydney Opera House. So here Marie, Chris, Bert and I are tromping through the bush in Cairns looking for a cache. This cache has a number of clues from other people. It talks about small writing on its bottom, it mentions well camouflaged, and it points out the uncertainty of the find. So I tell Bert to open it. I am not the one to get stung though. The insides reveal it certainly is the cache and the travel coin now has a good head start on its way to the Opera House. It will be interesting to follow this particular cache.
(Bert) Normally I would leave geocaching stories for Shari to write, but this
one is different. The story starts with Donna, veteran of our 2008 Alaska
caravan who with Jim got the bug for geocaching and has found 1000+ since then.
They came upon a geocache medallion, a special traveling prize, that is numbered
and catalogued and its journey documented by computer data entries. This
particular one came with a request to get to Sydney, Australia, and since she
knew we were here, she e-mailed Shari with a request. Then Donna mailed the
emblematic metal to Marie and Marie carried it with her to Australia and gave it
to Shari and now four of us are searching for another geocache in Cairns where
we will place the medallion. Once in the country, we expect it will eventually
find its way to the Sydney Opera House. Shari uses May to locate the vicinity of
the geocache and she, with Marie and Chris, start searching. I suspect it is in
a different location and call them over to me and, as it turns out, I am first
to see the insect trap with the warning about wasps, hanging in a tree. I am
hesitant to put my hand around the trap until I read fine print on the label
that Shari says relates to the geocache. Sure enough, when I unscrew the cap the
geocache log and other prizes are inside. This is the most originally designed
geocache I have seen. I wonder how long it will take for the medallion to reach
(Shari) After getting all sweaty during our search, we head to the hotel, check in and take a shower before going downstairs to conduct our orientation meeting next to the pool. Everyone is present and revved up. I ask each couple to give their partner a score on the reason they came to Australia between one and five. A one is purely social, sightsee and shop to a 5 where it is all birds, birds, birds. Of course Bert gives me a 1 and I give him a 5 so we even out at a 2.5. Another couple turns out a 3 and the rest average 4.5. Now I know what mix I have. Another facet to this scoring which no one considered is the number of hours in the day to bird. Here I bet some of those 5s would drop to 4s or even 3s. But if there is even one person that wants to bird 24/7 you all know, Bert is ready.
(Bert) We get to the hotel in plenty of time to check in, relax and then start our caravan orientation around a set of tables beside the pool. I meet the last of our caravaners, Hugh and Mary, just before we start talking about the logistics of our caravan trip, handing out road logs and bird checklists. At the onset we ask each person to introduce themselves and then to rate their partner on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 denoting interests of “social, sightsee, shop” and 5 categorizing the partner’s interest as “bird, bird, bird”. Answers, with amusing commentary, come back as 4, 1, 4-5, 3, 5, 3, 4.5, 3, 4.99999, 3, near 5, 4-5. I guess that tells us what we will concentrate on for the next month in Australia. Our Welcome to Australia dinner follows at a reserved table on a deck overlooking the Esplanade and Coral Sea. A leisurely three-course meal with lots of conversation further adds to the anticipation of a great trip about to commence. We get to bed early for birding in the morning.
(Shari) After two hours of meeting, we move to the restaurant balcony where we have a reserved table for dinner already set for our group. Nestled next to the swimming pool and across from the ocean, we take our seats, couples across from each other. No one likes the ends of the table so 8 out of 10 times that is where we sit, as we do tonight. I have given each couple a welcome gift of a refrigerator magnet in the shape of Australia painted with dots like the aborigines do and a koala key chain. Our dinner is long and leisurely as we make our way through three courses. First comes the appetizer plate with roasted pork with watermelon dip, Thai fish cake with dipping sauce, tempura prawn with sweet chili aioli, all artfully arranged on a small plate. Then comes the main course of baked salmon on green tea noodles with cucumber spaghetti wakame and an Asian sauce or grain-fed sirloin with Daphnis potato, baby spinach and madeira jus. And finally crowned with a choice of desserts: tropical fruit pavlova with passion fruit coulis or nut tart with vanilla ice cream. I am so full by the time I finished that I do believe I will not be able to eat for a week. It is a wonderful dinner complete with tropical ambience with candles and sea breezes. What a start for a caravan! Wow!
(Bert) Jim, Ralph and Virginia are already on the Esplanade when I arrive at 6:20 and by the designated starting time of 7 AM all, except Shari, are pointing out birds on the vast mudflats between the seawall and the Coral Sea. At first most of the birds are in the trees along the promenade (Singing Honeyeater, Rainbow Lorikeet, Eastern Great Egret) or in the air above us (Australian Swiftlet, White-breasted Woodswallow, Welcome Swallow). Then we start scanning the mudflats and often have three discussions going simultaneously as each is focusing on a different bird and I am jumping from one discussion to another answering identification questions. The one with the upturned bill is the Terek Sandpiper, the oversized shorebird with the enormous sickle-shaped bill is the Eastern Curlew, the thick-penciled dull-colored bird is Gray-tailed Tattler. Jim finds a very distant Red-capped Plover in his scope and I am focused on a Greater Sand Plover in mine. At one point when everyone has eyes directed to the sea, I turn and find an Olive-backed Sunbird feeding in the tree behind us. And so it continues until breakfast beckons and an hour later we are waiting for the bus to take us to get our RVs. After a detailed orientation on the features of our RV’s, we head off to load up on groceries and then drive the short distance to our Cairns campground.
(Shari) At 7 Bert is out on the Esplanade birding with the group and I pay the hotel and dinner bill and walk to a restaurant for my treat of mocha coffee. Soon a few of the others join me and we have breakfast before going back to the hotel to await our van pickup. The driver jokes about telling everyone to stay away from rental vehicles for the next few weeks as they may be driving on the wrong side of the road. Bert and I leave the group in the van (I playfully put Ralph in charge) and meet them at the RV rental dealer. During the next two hours they learn all about the vehicle that they will call home for the next three weeks or so. The company could not be any more professional than they are and I only have praises to sing for them. It all does take longer than I thought it would so I am glad I talked Bert into not scheduling much for today. We drive in convoy to the grocery store and Ermine said I should have taken bets on who would choke out the engine. Good idea but everybody would loose because I think that is a given. Jim thinks the problem occurs because you have to shift with your left hand. You readers know why I think it happens: THERE ARE TOO MANY GEARS. Well, we all get parked in the mall lot and walk for groceries at one of the two big grocery chains in Australia, Coles. About 90 min. later we convoy to our campground. Here all works very smoothly as I wave each rig one at a time and tell them their site number while Bert stands in the road where they are to make their turn. All are pull-in sites, mostly under trees for shade. Now it is time for naps, relaxing and getting to know our rigs before our 5 PM bird count, travel meeting and wine and cheese party. As Bert conducts the bird count off, birds are added to the list as he speaks. Flying in by the dozens to roost for the night we certainly have a show right from our lawn chairs. As I enter our rig after the festivities I tell Bert, “I sure do love doing caravans.” He says, “I know you do”.
(Bert) At 5 PM we gather for a Wine and Cheese party spread outside on the lawn. I conduct a bird check off and Shari handles a travel meeting about tomorrow, but both of us are pleasantly interrupted by the parade of birds in the mimosa tree above us. Some are common, though new to the group, such as the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Rainbow Lorikeets, but others are less common finds such as the three Scaly-breasted Lorikeets and I even get a life bird, Metallic Starling.
(Shari) My goodness, everybody has beaten me to the street. I guess all can hardly wait to swim and snorkel the reef and bird in between. I later learn the group serenaded our neighboring camper after seeing a kookaburra. “Kookabuura sits in the old gum tree” is sung in parts no less. I wish I could have heard it. We pile into the van that picks us up for our ride to our 35-passenger catamaran. This company is the one birders use as it is smaller than the big tour boats and the captain understands birders. We are given an orientation talk by an oriental person. Speaking broken Aussie English with an Asian accent, he is very hard to understand and I know I miss a lot of what he says. Our first stop, about an hour after taking off, is Michealmas Cay, a very small island on the second tier of the Great Barrier Reef. Those that snorkel or dive put on their stinger suits, a protection from the painful sting of varying jellyfish. When dressed up all look like assorted sizes of Telie Tubbies, in shades of blue. The lycra suit looks like a newborn’s pajamas with mitt cuffs over the hands and hoods over the heads. Apparently today is the start of stinger season and yesterday was not. I, along with two other women and one man, choose not to snorkel and are taken by inflatable dinghy to the sand-covered island. Here we see thousands of birds ready to nest. It reminds me of gannets on Bonaventure Island, complete with smell. I walk up to the rope and am within one foot of the nesting birds. Here I learn are Brown Boobies, two types of Crested Terns, and Common Noddies. Such a mess of birds! Bert and others cut their snorkeling short to check on the birds. One even poops on Jim’s shoes. I told him, he was lucky he did not have his mouth open.
(Bert) There is something especially enticing about the blue-green color of shallow tropical seas, especially when combined with a broad coastal plain of mangroves and palms, with a backdrop of rainforest-covered mountains below clear blue skies. As we speed across the tranquil waters of the Coral Sea heading toward the Great Barrier Reef, the engines between catamaran hulls spout up a tall frothy white spray of seawater. Nearing Michaelmas Caye, blue-green water pales above white sand bottom. We don stinger suits, very thin nylon-like wetsuits, masks and fins that cover every inch of our bodies and provide protection from jellyfish, although the likelihood of us encountering any today is slim. Then a rubber boat takes us to shore where we can start our snorkeling. Beneath the surface I see colorful fish with names that don’t stick in my brain like bird names. I also see a small White-tipped Reef Shark and a Giant Clam. I would snorkel longer but I see Jim and a few others are on the island watching the huge bird colony and I’m anxious to join them. Upwards of 15,000 seabirds cluster densely on the small sand island. Most are Sooty Terns with third-size spotted young still unable to fly. The Sooty Terns look almost identical to Bridled Terns, so I’m not sure if we have any of those in the mix. Also numerous are the Common Noddies and we see a few Black Noddies as well, engaged in courtship dances. The odd one out, a ratty-looking white form of Eastern Reef-Egret stands amongst the terns and noddies. On the sandy shore flocks of Crested Terns mix with Lesser Crested Terns, most easily differentiated by different bill colors. Most everyone has now returned to the boat or are in the water near the boat when Cindy arranges an around-the-island tour on the rubber skiff. On the other side we find many more Brown Boobies, several Great Frigatebirds and a small flock of Black-naped Terns. We return to the big boat and are soon on our way to Hastings Reef.
No island this time, but rather a coral reef submerged not far from the surface, here the snorkeling is spectacular, with myriad colorful fish actively swimming above an amazing garden of vibrant corals in shapes that prompt names like brain coral, table coral, staghorn coral, etc. Schools of tiny Blue-green Chromis are fascinating and when I dive down to reach for them they simultaneously change from blue to green. I find another White-tipped Reef Shark and a few minutes after a Black-tipped Reef Shark. Probably the most impressive animal I see is the many Giant Clams with scalloped shells and fantastically colored internal fleshy parts. A Maori Wrasse is enormous, maybe a couple of feet long, and so much bigger than I thought wrasses grow. We see the clown fish Nemo, Squirrelfish, Parrotfish and many more I cannot name. Later Ermine tells me she saw an Eagle Ray, Green Turtles and a Rock Cod. Others tell me about the Sea Cucumber they saw with spines. I’m among the last to climb out of the water. I would have stayed longer.
(Shari) After 2-1/2 hr. of water fun and island viewing, we are served a plentiful lunch of salads, prawns, chicken wings, bread, lunch meat for sandwiches and fruit before making the 20 min. ride to Hastings Reef on the outer tier of the reef. Here again the snorkelers or divers jump into the water and the rest of us tour the reef viewing it from a glass-bottomed boat. To me, it is a shame that I do not snorkel but I have just battled an infection and do not dare risk a reoccurrence. What I did do, I enjoy. But I am very very very sleepy from the seasick pill I took. I am not this relaxed and sleepy before I go to sleep at night. We are so fortunate as the day is perfect. It only rains once while motoring from one place to another. Marie and Chris did get wet though when the boat took off and the crew did not alert them to the fact that water was going to splash over the bow. Not nice of the crew for sure. Thoroughly tired but happy for the beautiful day, we are dropped off at camp and I meet a lot of our group heading to the showers.
(Bert) Rain in the evening seemed almost to have stopped by morning, although when we start our walk at 6 AM a light mist is in the air. Even when we reach Centenary Lakes, the lightened sky on the horizon lends hope that it will clear. We meet John, our guide this morning, and begin birding. At Freshwater Lake we find Magpie Geese, Pacific Black Ducks and Radjah Shelducks, Brown-backed Honeyeaters attending their stringy nest and a Striated Heron keeping its distance from us. John points our a large mound of dirt, leaves and grass and eventually we find Australian Brush-turkey and Orange-footed Scrubfowl, the megapodes responsible for the mound where their eggs will be deposited a meter inside a few months from now.
Rains intensify to the annoying stage and we seek temporary shelter under the eaves of the toilet building. When it halts again, we continue birding, but don’t even get as far as the footbridge separating the two small lakes before the rains resume. We stop to see the Gerygone nest, but no one is resident and now the rain is starting to run off our raincoats and umbrellas and soak our shorts or pants. We find minimal shelter under the awning of a park billboard.
John talks about a frogmouth nest that has been found by another birder and even though it is still raining he and I decide to hike to the somewhat distant location since we are already wet. Our group trudges behind. A short respite gives us a chance to see a Collared Kingfisher perched on a branch over Saltwater Creek, to watch busy bee-eaters and radiant sunbirds, and to hear a Little Bronze-cuckoo By the time we near the nest location the downpour has drained down my legs, soaked my socks and my waterproof hiking shoes are going squish, squish, squish. On a fork of a stout branch, about 20 ft. above us, rests the adult Papuan Frogmouth with its small chick nestled in its breast feathers. The nest is a few sticks that barely cover the fork, hardly a nest at all. I’d love to take a photo, but don’t dare withdraw my camera from its waterproof bag in this rain. In spite of the downpour, everyone agrees that the frogmouth family was worth the hike.
We return in the heavy rain and when we reach another bridge over Saltwater Creek we see an Asiatic Whimbrel on the wet gravel road running the edge of the creek, certainly out of habitat, though all this rain may have blurred the distinction between ocean beach and inland riverside. By the time I get back to the RV and shed my clothes and gear, I find there is not a dry spot left on my body. My socks are wet enough for me to wring out a cup of water and the T-shirt I wore under my waterproof raincoat is so soaked it is hard to peel from my back. I stretch my camera gear and binoculars across the bed to air dry. I don’t recall ever being this thoroughly wet after birding.
(Shari) I put on the TV and the weather report tells me it is raining in Cairns. I know that as I can hear it pounding on the roof. Bert and the group are out birding. I don’t know how they can focus on a bird through binoculars without getting them wet, but I sure am glad I am all warm and cozy inside because it is really raining hard. I accomplish all the paperwork I have put off for the last four days before I see a bunch of soggy-looking birdwatchers slog past my window. Bert comes back as well, wetter than I have ever seen him. The rain continues hard, pouring in sheets all day long but clears for our travel meeting. Because of the rain today, we change our schedule for tomorrow morning. This means I have to get up at 5:30. Okay, but just don’t talk to me.
(Bert) The tide is out enough for shorebirds to spread across the mudflats. All three sizes of the white egrets are lined up near water’s edge–Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets–as well as Striated Heron, Australian Pelicans, Pied Oystercatchers and Royal Spoonbills. It is the smaller peeps and plovers that give us an identification challenge. Sorting out the ones we already know–Bar-tailed Godwit, Terek Sandpiper, Gray-tailed Tattler–we are left with a few new ones: Greater Sand Plover, Great Knot and one I eventually deduce is Curlew Sandpiper.
Because of yesterday’s rain we missed seeing the Cairns Botanic Gardens, so that is where we head next. Around the colorful and varied flowers the Olive-backed Sunbirds and Rainbow Bee-eaters steel the show with fast movements and flashes of brilliance. The highlight for me is visiting the Pacific Baza nest I saw a couple of weeks ago and this time it is occupied. On one end of the nest, buried in the foliage of a tall and broad tree, I can see its banded tail and on other end I can see its white head with the pointed crest and glaring yellow eye. I don’t know where Pacific Baza gets its strange name, but in the book it falls between kites and goshawks.
(Shari) I sneak past Hugh sitting outside having a morning cup of coffee and tell him that he does not see me. Funny guy that he is, he tells me that he has snapped a picture with the cell phone he has in his hand. At the botanic gardens, Ermine and I separate from the group and look at “The Tanks”. Old cement cylindrical tanks used for oil storage during WWII, they are now cleaned out and housing the art center that has ever changing art displays and musical programs. Then we make our way to the café and share breakfast before touring the orchid house and fern house. I have to use the bathrooms and must take so long that Ermine thinks I left her. I look and wait for 20 min., finally telling the waitress that if my friend shows up to tell her to wait and that I was going to send her husband back for her. I call on the radio and learn that Ermine has found her way back. Relieved, I too get back 10 min. later.
(Bert) We convoy to the Tjapikai center and start the activities with a young aboriginal speaker talking about the history of his people as hunter gatherers and the loss of their traditional lands when Europeans forcefully took them. With our Australian travel experiences, I’ve now heard much of this before, but one aspect had not registered before. The aboriginal concept of home was not a house or dwelling or a small plot of land. Home was the nomadic area in which they roamed in their search for food. It was a well-defined area and each of the 500+ tribes had an area they protected and very clearly knew where its perimeter touched another tribe’s area, as they could be killed if they crossed into another’s territory without permission. Within their restricted land they knew how to hunt the animals, which fruits and plants were safe to eat, how to use the resources for making tools, where dangers existed and how to avoid them. They knew nothing about the surrounding lands, as it was not their home and they did not go there. Thus when Europeans confiscated their land, their home, they had no where to live and no where to go. Not only did they have no where else to live, they had no way to support themselves without hunting and gathering. Though they had an immense repertoire of survival skills, they had none of the skills recognized by Europeans. They had no written language, no numerology beyond the number of digits in a hand, no agricultural skills. They were treated as animals and at one point there even was a bounty on their heads, just as there were for certain dangerous wild beasts.
(Shari) We now head off to our daytime program at the aboriginal cultural center. While we wait for our guide and lecturer, many of us are initiated into the tribe by having our faces painted. Each face is different and really changes how we look. Later in the bathroom, I do not recognize myself in the mirror. We hear the story of this one tribe but the story is basically universal throughout Australia. We learn how badly the native people were treated and how they have coped. We are shown a program in dance and later in music that depicts a little of the culture. We learn how to throw a spear and a boomerang. We learn about the didgeridoo and many of the local bush foods.
Now it is time to make our way to our next campground. Each rig can leave and/or arrive at the campground whenever they want but before dark and hopefully before that. Jim teases that he is going to make me worry and arrive late. Little did he know how prophetic that is as he and Ermine misunderstand the road log and get a bit lost. I will have to reword that section I guess. We have another travel meeting and bird count but retire early, as tomorrow I have to get up again at 5:30. Ugh! Don’t talk to me!
(Bert) By 6:30 AM we are on the Daintree River, all twelve us sitting on bench seats facing forward on a flat-bottomed boat, with Chris at the helm, controlling a small outboard motor. The river is silk smooth, rimmed by grassy cow pastures or dense stands of trees with suspended vines, especially at narrow tributaries where we might expect to find crocodiles, but find none. One of the first birds we study is an Azure Kingfisher which thrills us like a displaying tiny peacock with its striking blue and burnt orange feathering. Chris points out the nest of a Shining Flycatcher, well hidden in the overhanging branches and vines and with patience we eventually see the shiny black male and the much more colorful blue-black, chestnut and white female.
As we pick up speed and motor downstream, Chris relates the original discovery of Great-billed Heron, the long delay in recognition of its call and even longer delay in sighting a nest, stretching over a century. Today we might see one, hear it or find a nest, but it is so rare he can only guarantee one of these, showing us its abandoned nest at our next stop. Chris gets excited when he finds a locally rare Satin Flycatcher and he zeroes in the boat until we all see it too. I’ve seen if before, so I’m more excited when he hears a Cicadabird and eventually locates in a high tree. I take a few quick photos, not sure if it’s the bird or leaves that are in the frame and then get a better view as it flies off.
I’ve seen Pheasant Coucal daily in the past week, though always as it flies away in a cane field or from the roadside. Now we see one high on a riverside tree and I can focus my binoculars on one for the first time. Even better is an Asian Koel, a species on my Bucket List of Australian birds I most want to see. It’s a large iridescent black cuckoo with long tail, red eye and yellow bill and derives its name from its call, a ringing loud “quow-eel, quow-eel, quowee, quowee”. Although it used to be called Common Koel, it is by no means common, so we are lucky to see one.
Marie diverts attention when she points out a heron crossing the river low on the water and far downstream. Chris jumps to attention, excitedly announces Great-billed Heron and runs the engine at top speed in its direction, slowing when we approach the place where we saw it duck into the heavily vegetated riverside. After a couple of long minutes we sight the heron posing quietly in open view. Jim and I snap a dozen shots each and I hear other shutters click also. Chris says the Great-billed Heron could be the rarest of herons and even though it is resident on the Daintree, it is rarely seen. We are fortunate indeed!
A few other highlights remain. We get an excellent photographic view of a Water Dragon, a large water-dwelling lizard, I’d not seen before. Also new to me is sighting a Wompoo Fruit-Dove whose first name is the sound it makes.
(Shari) The birds are coming faster than my bird watching brain can handle them. Apparently for Bert too. You see, I do keep a bird list. For years it only had one bird on it, the Vermiculated Screech-owl. For at time it had other birds too, but I’ve crossed them out. Now it has two. I just added the Black Bittern. This special list of mine is a list of birds, that I have seen and Bert has not. How sad! Too bad! The guide points out a flash of black as the flash dives into the reeds. Then again as it dives farther back into the reeds. I see the streak both times but Bert does not. I must admit, it is not a satisfying look at the bird as I have to see a picture of it before I know what I saw. All I saw was a streak. But hey, I got one up on Bert.
To me, however, that is not even the best bird. The best one is the Papuan Frogmouth on a nest. The guide wants us to look at other birds as the Frogmouth is not going to flitter away. But I am fascinated with the bird whose head looks like a frog camouflaged to blend in with the bark of the tree. Our guide gets so excited and when he sees a bird he sounds like one of those sports commentators announcing the catch of a football and the resultant 40-yard dash for a touchdown for the home team. He tells us when we are seeing a rare bird as we sure don’t know. Well, maybe Bert does. I guess we get a good look at a very rare bird, the big beak heron. The heron looks just like a Great Blue Heron, a bird I have seen hundreds of times. I like the Frogmouth better as it is truly unique. Our morning on the river is nice and in hindsight even nicer since after our birding is done and when we make our way to the tablelands, it starts to rain. It pours for the next few hours letting up about 5 PM for a quick bird and platypus walk at the campground.
(Bert) After the river cruise and breakfast at a local restaurant, we bird a rural road and than a coastal beach. I’ve been searching for Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, the smallest Australian parrot at only five and half inches in length. I’ve heard about its bullet-like flight above the canopy and its penetrating in-flight call and quick disappearance act in the canopy where it feeds. When I see one displaying all of the above, I know I’ve got the bird. We hustle in the direction of flight, but do not get a repeat performance.
We reach our campground and soon are out birding again. I point out many new species to the partial group that follows. The highlight for me is a dove that Jim spots. Perched at the outside of a tall tree is a Brown Cuckoo Dove which I haven’t seen since June. By about 5 PM we reach the creek where platypuses occur. I’d searched for them on the creek the other two times Shari and I camped here, but found none. So is the case now. I think it is too early and we return to the creek again at a few minutes before 6 PM in dimmer light. Three other campers tell us one appeared only two minutes before. We begin our vigil, divert for sightings of Large-billed Gerygone, and at about 6:10 Virginia is the first to spot the platypus paddling just below where we stand and slowly making its way upstream. Mary is ecstatic and I high-five Hugh. Our success encourages others to leave their RV’s and find another platypus in the darkness, but they return without success. Maybe tomorrow.
(Bert) A full day of birding ahead of us, we cross into the dry rainforest near Mt. Carbine with Murray as our guide. He scouted the area yesterday and especially took note of nesting birds that are likely to be there today too. One of our first great birds is Australian Bustard. I’ve seen these a couple of times before, but now it is mating time and the male is all puffed up, prancing around with inflated breast, expanded feathers and cocked tail. We see two more Bustards in the opposite paddock where several Agile Wallabies are feeding. Two of the young wallabies are play acting aggressive behavior. They stand erect on their megapod hind feet and look like they are boxing with their much smaller front feet. They get into a tight clutch, struggle, totter and perform for us. We descend to a wooded creek bed and Murray hears Scarlet Honeyeaters in the canopy. For a half hour we search for the birds, with interludes for watching White-throated Honeyeater, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Bridled Honeyeater, but cannot see the prize red ones. As a last resort before leaving the area, Murray plays a recording of the bird and immediately we see a bird fly closer to us and in a minute or two we see the Scarlet Honeyeater in the canopy above us. Success!
We move on to Mt. Carbine and here we find an amazing number of nesting birds, seeing the nests and birds either adding to the construction or sitting on eggs, including Australian Figbird, Little Friarbird, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Australian Magpie and Great Bowerbird. We see the magpie pair gathering materials and notice that the nest includes a collection of different shaped and colored metal wire. We find several bowers in various stages of construction including one decorated in white, green, red and purple objects such as milk jug rings and caps, washers, mechanical parts, green berries, wire, reflectors, aluminum flip-tops. An active male Great Bowerbird constantly attends to rearranging objects in another bower.
Murray shows us a many-branched tree in which a Tawny Frogmouth sleeps, but doesn’t point to it. Instead, we are to find it ourselves. Since frogmouths look like tree branches, this is not a quick task. I find it, but don’t reveal where. A few others find it, others need a hint. Then someone finds a second frogmouth in the same tree. Since they are low on the tree, they are easy to photograph and even then they just seem to dissolve into the woodwork.
We move locations several times and keep adding to the day list of birds and a few animals. The four-foot goanna certainly gets our attention when it lies in a narrow gravel road deep in the rainforest. I take photos just as it comes to life and quickly moves to a tree and climbs to 10 ft. I’ve heard that if they are frightened, a leg will climbed as quickly as a tree trunk. One of our last birds is a very vocal Noisy Pitta that eventually gets close enough for me and a few others to see before it goes deep into the forest again. Our day list ends with an impressive 73 species, not counting others we found back at our campground in the evening spotlighting walk. Nocturnal highlights for me are the Eastern Barn Owl pair as they evacuate their daytime roost hole, the Northern Brown Bandicoots prowling for food and the Boyd’s Forest Dragon clinging to a tree trunk, the later being a new animal for me.
(Shari) Before I went to the Coffee Works museum in Mareeba in July, I never knew just how important coffee was to the world. I was fascinated with the museum and I thought this would be a place to take Ermine when she did not want to go birding. At 9:30 we depart with me, myself and I behind the wheel, my first sans Bert run in the RV. First we stop at the barramundi farm and I purchase some shrimp and fish for later dinners. Then we make the 30 mi. trip to Mareeba. I think this drive is the smoothest one I have ever done, not once choking the engine and only missing a gear one time. We park the rig and walk into the museum. The clerk asks where we are from and if we hand out brochures. I tell her yes. Before I know it, both Ermine and I get our $19 entrance waived. We pick up the handheld cassettes for our self-guided tour and start learning about coffee. Even though previously I have spent two hours in this museum, I learn still more about coffee. One of the theories concerning the beginnings of coffee centers on a sheepherder who recognized that his sheep got frisky after chewing the beans. Later the beans accidently fell into the fire and got roasted and we have the beginning of a worldwide phenomena. Coffee was originally drunk by the elite of the Eastern world and they tried to keep it from the working classes. But it became too popular and people demanded their coffee. Before coffee, Europe was in an alcoholic haze as the English drank mead, the French wine and the Germans beer. I read that all Germans including children drank over 3 liters of beer per day. That is a lot of beer, let me tell you. With the advent of coffee, so come the methods of preparation, each method trying to capture the smell into the taste. The museum has thousands of coffee-making apparatus collected over time. A whole room is dedicated to the American percolator. After two hours in the museum, I am ready to sample. We taste many coffees, teas and liquors and eat at least $9 worth of the expensive chocolates on the sampling table. We eat lunch at the café and then do a little shopping in the gift store before returning home. All told, we were gone 6 hr. that seemed like only two. Had I been birding, I doubt time would have flown by so quickly.
(Bert) We do not plan on leaving our current campground until after lunch, so we have plenty of time to explore this excellent birding site. I get a good look and also hear a pair of Dollarbirds, a species I only glimpsed in the darkness last night. Dollarbird, a neat, easy-to-remember name for this colorful bird with silver dollars showing in its dark wings, is now called the clumsy mouthful “Eastern Broad-billed Roller”.
The best bird of the morning unquestionably is the Australian Owlet-Nightjar. Many Australian birds derived their names from arriving Europeans that tried to classify strange birds into names they knew from home. This bird looks like a little owl, hence owlet, yet is really a nightjar, so they used both names, adding a hyphen. Dozens of similar examples confound bird terminology and thus we are stuck with pygmy-goose which is really a duck, cuckoo-dove which is a pigeon, plus cuckoo-shrikes, shrike-thrushes and other awkward diphasic nouns. Getting back to the owlet-nightjar, we learned last evening where the bird roosted in the daytime and a few of us walk to the edge of the forest and check the tall tree trunk missing its crown. I see a soft green object poking out the bottom of a large tree cavity and use my camera to photograph and enlarge the distant image. We can make out eyes and bill and Jim returns to camp for his scope so we can get a better look. Meanwhile the nightjar stands taller in the hole and then with the scope we see its color is really grayish and brownish. The cute owl-like nocturnal bird is only 9 in. long and much of that is its tail. What a great find!
(Shari) Chook arrives in a serious 4-wheel-drive touring van to pick us up
for our activity on the wetlands. He is true outback Aussie complete with hat,
short shorts, serious boots, an abrupt personality and a thick accent that
reduces his odd name to a half-syllable word. He takes us to a number of spots
to see birds of course. We drive for what seems like hours on a narrow track
through the bush, into and over creeks with running water, until we reach a
remote lagoon. The scene is quite idyllic with kangaroos grazing in the distance
and Black Swans and other large birds floating on the lagoon or prowling the mud
flats. We have come to see the cranes fly in and we are not disappointed as they
come in to the tune of around 200 in flocks of 25 to 35 each. I love to see
their sleek profile as they start to land and then almost float down to the
ground like a parachute. After we get our fill of cranes, Chook takes us to the
wetland center for some wine and cheese. This trip turns out not exactly as we
had planned and confirmed with the center and had we known we were to spend so
much time at the lagoon, we would have told people to bring their scopes. As we
mentioned to the center’s manager, tour guides do not like to be surprised.
Luckily we have a wonderful understanding group with no complainers. They are so
flexible that they all agree to stay at the gas station parking area where we
left our rigs during the tour rather than drive to the campground in the dark. I
had no idea it could get so dark in Australia. Wow, if I was not so tired, I
would look for stars. The Milky Way here is fantastic.
(Bert) We move on to the Mareeba Wetlands, an arid area populated by mound-building termites, but flat enough to have a half dozen swallow lagoons. We ride in an all-terrain vehicle the size of a bus, but with high clearance and large tires, allowing it to forge small creeks, deep gullies and trails that really do not qualify as roads. After a half-hour ride through the bush we reach Pandanus Lagoon and scan the flat plain and wetlands with binoculars and scopes, seeing Black-necked Storks, often called Jabiru, Glossy Ibises, Black Swans and Green Pygmy-Geese. Through scopes we study a few small shorebirds and identify Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Red-necked Stints. The best event occurs just as dusk sets in. Flocks of Brolga and Sarus Cranes come from the west and settle in at the edge of the lagoon. Wave after wave arrives, totaling at least 200 cranes. Finally when it is too dark to identify birds, we ride back in the dark in the all-terrain vehicle, arriving at another lagoon where a comfortable lodge overlooks the marsh and a table of local cheeses and glasses of wine await us.
(Shari) Offering to pay for our unscheduled stay at the gas station, Sharon, the owner, says “Not to worry”, a favorite Australian phrase. I think we all slept well and the area was very safe and quiet except for two trains. Sharon makes out pretty well as most of us buy coffee and/or meat pies and bread. The group splits up, some departing before us and some after. Each has different agendas. We need fuel, peanuts and fruit. Others need groceries as well but we all find each other again at Lake Eacham. This lake is a small body of water formed by a volcano crater and its circumference is only 3 km. Ermine and I walked the whole distance around. The birders go too slow and would not have come around until 6 PM at the rate they walk. They spend 10 to 20 min. at a stop, just looking at the birds, then move a hundred yards and stop again. I find a pretty good one for them when I hear and then spot a bowerbird. I do not know what it is until looking in the book, but put my finger on it immediately. By the time all in the group comes up to me, the bird is gone. Ermine and I continue hiking but I guess the bird came back for everyone to get a good look. We eat lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the lake. We turn off to see the famous fig tree before arriving into camp. Everyone else is doing their own thing. It turns out to be like a free day and Ermine buys an opal, Hugh and Mary try out a restaurant for lunch, Cindy and Norm stop at a woodworking shop, and others shop in the cute town of Yungaburra. We meet in the covered camp kitchen of the campground and have a travel meeting, social and bird count off.
(Bert) Although we plan on meeting up at Lake Eacham, everyone leaves at different times and makes a variety of stops before we get there. While Shari is shopping for fruits and vegetables near Tolga I wander across the highway to a dry riverbed closed from the sky by a forest arching overhead. The noise of Little Red Flying-foxes is what attracts me and I discover a colony of hundreds or probably thousands. These are smaller than the Spectacled Flying-foxes I’ve photographed elsewhere and they cluster more tightly together, so that a close-up of just one fork in a branch displays a dozen furry megabats, all awake and staring at the camera lens with soft red eyes and cuddly faces. Always restless, some squirm, others shift positions, climbing over one another, stretching their webbed wings or taking flight to reach another tree. One climbs a limb like a logger with spiked boots ascending a tree trunk and moving like a four-footed beast. Using clawed feet that can circle a branch like a vice-grip and aided by hooked thumbs protruding from their wings, the flying-foxes are extremely agile.
We reach Lake Eacham and find Hugh and Mary already there, soon followed by Ralph and Virginia. At a delightful picnic spot overlooking the forest-encircled, deep crater lake we scan the water, sky and trees for birds. A few dozen Great Crested Grebes float listlessly near the center of the small lake, a Topknot Pigeon perches on a distant bare treetop and just above us we watch a couple of Barred Cuckoo-Shrikes glean red berries from the fruiting trees. We walk on a shoreline path, seeing a variety of fish in the clear water and Saw-shelled Turtles submerged at the bottom. A sign describes the turtles, stating that they can remain underwater for very long time periods. A water dragon rests on a rotting log, its long tail trailing into the water and its reptilian head and sharp claws poised for attack, suggesting a miniature dinosaur or a least a model for a Jurassic period Hollywood movie. Above us we hear the pleasant sounds of a whistling bird but cannot see it. So I record its song and play it back through my camera. It approaches and we see the Golden Whistler, a bird as pretty as its song is beautiful.
Doubling back on the trail and then continuing part way around the lake in the opposite direction, we are soon joined by Jim and Ermine. They have been opal shopping and Ermine shows us her necklace with a fiery black opal stone that radiates a rainbow of sparkling colors, especially when hit by a sunbeam. Jim comments that his back pocket is lighter now and issues one of many witticisms, saying “My father always said he never saw an armored car following a hearse”. Shari and Ermine hike past us, not content to move at the slow pace of birders. Soon, though, Ermine returns and says Shari has found a large bird perched on a close branch and calling loudly. I hustle to the spot, followed by the others, and we see a plump brownish bird perched just a dozen feet beside us. It’s a Tooth-billed Bower and it leaves just as I am about to photograph it. Peering into the dark woods, Cindy notices the forest floor about 20 ft. from the path is carefully littered with large heart-shaped leaves, all turned bottom side up so that the 20 sq. ft. patch looks lighter than its surroundings. We check a field guide and conclude that we observing the bowerbird’s bower. While we are studying the leafy pattern the Tooth-billed returns and perches on a horizontal branch about 5 ft. above the bower. It broadcasts its hoarse loud song and repeats it nearly constantly. I photograph it, finding it difficult to get a clear shot through the leaves and in the darkness. Then I resort to videoing the bowerbird so I can capture its silhouette as it calls above the bower.
(Bert) Jonathan picks us up in a 21-passenger bus, big enough for everyone to get a window seat, and we head off to one of the creeks he knows are populated with platypuses. The meandering stream twists gently through a narrow forest surrounded by farmlands and we stop at sundry places, peering at the water’s surface for evidence of a platypus. We get a brief look at a Buff-banded Rail and I wish for a longer study. A platypus is spotted upstream and emerges just in front of me. I capture a photographic image just as it dives. While others search for more platypuses a few of us move to the forest edge and scan the grassy field for birdlife. We succeed in getting a good look at a Golden-headed Cisticola which I’ve seen a couple of times before but find it difficult for a sustained view such as this. A small flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins entertain us in the same field. The platypus seekers join us and we continue walking along the creek, finding one species after another and far too many to write about. Some of the best are a flock of Varied Sittellas–tiny nuthatch-type birds busily feeding in the sub-canopy–and an attractive gray and rufous Black-faced Monarch.
Besides birds, we see many other animals with curious features. A yellow-striped Nephila spider stretches across its web as widely as my expanded hand. Striped Marsh Frogs sound off in the wettest spots, creating a chorus that sounds like popping popcorn. Eastern Long-eared Bats roost tightly under the eaves of a shelter, their ears as big as their heads. A Brown Snake slides beneath a rock and only its petite head can be seen; that’s enough since this one is poisonous. Best of all, though, is the Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo. A very large marsupial, this kangaroo has evolved from ground-dwelling to tree-dwelling and we watch this pear-shaped kangaroo stare at us from a perch across the stream and up about 40 ft. Although nocturnal, they linger in the trees in early morning and then climb part way down to hide in a cluster of branches near the base. As good as our luck is to see this one, an hour later Jonathan takes us to another spot, a small oasis of trees surrounded by miles of farmlands, and here we have the good fortune of seeing another Tree-kangaroo. As we watch it with binoculars we see a small arm protrude from its pouch. It is carrying a young one that doesn’t want to come out into the sunlight.
We hike into a dense forest through an unobtrusive gap between the trees, an entry Jonathan keeps covered with leaves and branches. Following a trail that is barely discernible from the rest of the forest floor we move in about 75 yd. to a chest-high upright stack of twigs and grass. This is the bower of the Golden Bowerbird. After examining the bower, we stand aside and wait to see the bird show up. Jonathan spots it perched at head height about 15 yd. away, but only dimly visible through the many intervening leaves. It flies away when we approach closer, so we wait again. After 10 min. we are about to give up when Jonathan notices it is above our heads and a bit to the side and has probably been watching us for some time. Now we have a clear view of the brightly yellow bird and can see it is carrying a flower in its bill that it intends to add to the bower for decoration. This is one of the scarcest and most sought after treats of visiting Australia. Story after story could be added to this day’s entry, but I’ll stop here. We end the day with an amazing 99 species.
(Shari) Boy, what a nice day to have to myself. I get to sleep in as the birders meet their bus at 6 AM. The weather is perfect and I leisurely have my morning tea while composing 15 E-mails to confirm our next few weeks of activities. I call New Zealand to pay for our ferry passage between the north and the south islands. An hour later, I get an E-mail alerting me to the fact that I will owe another $35 per unit as the length of each rig is longer than what was booked. I remember that I had different units from another company at the time of booking than we have now. But why can’t they use the same credit card I used an hour ago for the difference in price? Now I have to call again and hang on the line for another 15 min. I try my debit card to pay the campground and, to my surprise, it works! Wow! The secret is to say the debit card is a credit card. How convoluted is that? I write journals and since it is my day to wash, I do that too. By noon, I only have to update road logs and record expenses. It seems to be getting a bit cloudy but the temperatures are just so perfect. By 3 I finish all the tasks I have been putting off and decide to eat a piece of licorice. As I bite down on the candy, I feel something hard. That is strange. I take it out of my mouth and realize that about 1/3 of my first molar is sitting in my hand. I do not feel any discomfort and think that maybe I can make it back to Texas to get it fixed but tonight by the end of dinner my tongue is worn raw. It hurts so much I go to bed with a piece of bread wrapped around the tooth to protect my tongue.
(Shari) First order of business is to get a dentist. I call all four of them in Atherton and take the first available appointment, 11:20. Ermine and Mary go with me for moral support. The dentist looks at the tooth and gives me two options. He can file it down for $95 or rebuild and fill it for $270. I choose the latter and after 35 min. of drilling, I am out of there with what looks like a new tooth. Everyone in the office is friendly and cheerful. The dental assistant, Sarah, is especially good at what she does and seems to know what instrument the dentist wants even before he does. When I am finished, Mary and Ermine have gotten me a treat, a gooey delicious caramel pudding layer cake.
(Bert) This is likely to be a very long journal as we have so much packed into our agenda. I look forward to a very long day of birding, starting at 6:30 AM when, at the campground in light rain, we find a Gray Shrike-Thrush and a small flock of Australian King-Parrots attending a bird feeder. We are heading to higher elevation in the direction of Herberton. At a stream at the edge of town, we bird with umbrellas and raincoats, seeing mostly common birds such as Helmeted Friarbirds, Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Pale-headed Rosellas, and the noisy birds: Noisy Miner and Noisy Friarbird. At another stop we get a few new species: Yellow-faced Honeyeater, both male and female Rufous Whistlers and hear a White-throated Gerygone. In spite of the light rain, we keep adding species such as White-throated Treecreeper.
Taking rural roads including many gravel farm roads, in the fields we often see scattered flocks of Brolga and Sarus Cranes. In an expired cornfield, a few of the Sarus Cranes dance, leaping into the air, spreading wings, dragging feet low and then snapping them up toward their bodies at sprung safety-pin angles, calling boisterously, pirouetting, and repeating the dance for many minutes. A small farm pond gives us Plumed Whistling-Ducks mixed with Wandering Whistling-Ducks. I get another chance to photograph a Golden-headed Cisticola, a hard-to-see sparrow-type that resists rising to the tops of grass stems.
Eastern Gray Kangaroos are common today, often in groups of 2-5, but once a mob of 17 inspecting a plowed field. From the same shaded country road we get a better look at Red-backed Fairywrens. We have found these quite a few times now, but they always hide in brushy edges, giving us just glimpses. We really want to see the bright red male, the only one in a flock. All others are females or young males that look identical. When the alpha male dies or is too weak, one of the non-descript males turns bright red within days and assumes the leadership role. Perched on barbed wire just above the fairywrens is a Jacky Winter. A rather plain gray bird, I have been searching for this bird now for months, not so much because it is pretty but because of its unusual name.
We stop at Ravenshoe and see a flock of Pied Currawongs. A tall pole marks the height of annual rainfall at various Australian towns, with arrows pointing in their direction and stenciling marking the kilometers away. Coober Pedy is near the bottom of the pole and I recall how dry it was there. At the top of the pole is Topaz, just 31 km from here. A Noisy Miner perches on Cooktown 238 km, facing in the direction of the pointed name board. We continue on to Jonathan’s property, one of the rainiest spots in the Atherton Tablelands. Here the elevation rises to 3600 ft. and the wet rainforest is at its wettest. Jonathan tells us about his wettest day, February 2009, when 10 in. of rain fell in 1 hr. 15 min. and the flooding boxed him in and it took a few days before he could get out. As we expected from the dark clouds, rain is falling when we arrive. Jonathan parks the bus at the gate because he doesn’t want to get stuck along the grassy entrance road leading to his barn. We elevate our umbrellas and walk along the entrance road edged by forest on both sides. Just a few feet from the road he stops to show us the bower of a Satin Bowerbird. By the time we reach the barn, the sky is shedding rain rapidly, precluding seeing much in the way of wildlife. From the high ground of the barn Jonathan points out a distant tree that dominates the horizon and then leads us along a forest path that meanders in that direction. Along the way we find some new birds: Mountain Thornbill, a local endemic, and Bower’s Shrike-Thrush. Now, again in the rain, we come to the giant 2000-year-old Yungaburra Satiny Ash. He says the old tree is sacred to local aborigines, but they have refused to tell him why it is. He has learned that their ancestors stored weapons in the tree when they attended large gatherings with neighboring tribes. By the time we return on the forest path most of the women and a few of the men have found leeches attached to their skin or clothes. Jonathan starts a long monologue about leeches and their medicinal value. The Common Leeches look a lot like our Inch Worms and when they fill with blood they loosen their grasp and fall off. While his many stories are interesting, it does not appease the women who are extracting the bodies. We escape the worst of the rain while we eat lunch outdoors at an Atherton restaurant.
(Shari) We go to the pharmacy to pick up an antibiotic before heading to Gallo Dairyland for lunch. Ermine and Mary ate there yesterday and do not mind going again. A working dairy farm, cheese factory, store and café, it is located on a hillside out in the country. I buy some cheese to take home and have a delicious slice of homemade meat pie, fries and iced coffee for lunch. The Australian idea of iced coffee is something like a root beer float made with coffee instead of root beer. Yum! The ladies want to visit the historical village in Herberton, but upon arriving we experience sticker shock. The price of admission is $24 each. Even with a 10% senior discount, it is too expensive. Because of my travel agent card, I can get in free and walk around a bit for future caravan reference. But I honestly cannot recommend the place based on price. It is well laid out, though similar places in the U.S. would only cost a $5 to $10 donation. Also, I find it sad when items on display deemed to be “old” are remembered from my childhood. I am not that old. We return home in the drizzle. I do not expect Bert back until 8:30 so only have a toasted cheese sandwich for dinner. But at 8:30 I am worried and am planning yet another of his funerals, in more ways than one. I even call the guide’s cell phone number which does not pick up. I leave a message and worry even more. Finally about 9:20 he comes strolling in. “Where have you been?” comes out of my mouth. He answers “You know we were going to be late”. Yes, but not this late. Seems I have had this conversation with him before and he would learn. Maybe it is I that has to learn. NOT!
(Bert) To escape the rain, we head westerly to lower elevation and drier
rainforest, to an area where we hope to find Squatter Pigeon and Cotton
Pygmy-Goose. When we arrive, dirt bikes are billowing dust over the pigeon
territory and frighten out a covey of buttonquail. The pigeons must have moved
to a quieter area. The pygmy-geese are no longer on the pond where Jonathan saw
them a few days ago, perhaps disrupted by graters that widened the dirt road
separating two ponds. We scan the densely vegetated second pond, thinking they
may have sought shelter there and, in fact, we see two among the reeds. When we
approach, the ducks fly back to the larger pond. Although called pygmy-goose, it
is really a duck with a cottony white head and it is becoming rare, not showing
up at prior sites and we are lucky to see these.
Before we leave the area we see a Bustard in a farm field, watch a Brown Goshawk in flight and then come on to four Emus that run across the road, stopping short at the edge of a cornfield. We continue on a private road stretching for many miles through semi-wooded rangeland supporting a few cattle. Highlights are a Pacific Baza perched above a river and then taking flight overhead, close enough for a few photos, several Wedge-tailed Eagles, including four together and one perched on a round hay bale, making it an easy photo op. Then a small flock of Common Bronzewings which often fly away when discovered, this time stay frozen for photos. This is megapod territory and we get repeated views of Eastern Gray Kangaroos, 2+9+4+2, find one then two Common Wallaroos, a pair of Pretty-face (or Whiptail) Wallabies and then another pair.
After dinner at a hotel restaurant we drive back to Jonathan’s property. We
are back in rain country again. On a different entrance to his 300 acres of
rainforest, Jonathan parks the bus and we don our rain clothes and uplift
umbrellas. Although I very much want to take along my camera, I dare not with
this rain. I wonder if we will find anything in rain and worse yet, the wind
billowing leaves and giggling branches in the canopy. In our hour walk through
blackness only pierced by Jonathan’s torches (Australian for flashlight)
attached to hefty batteries strapped to his workman’s leather belt, we come upon
many possums prowling the dark canopy. By my count, we see four Lemuroid
Ring-tailed Possums, one Herbert River Ring-tailed Possum and six Coppery
Brush-tailed Possums, as well as a Northern Leaf-tailed Gecko. Jonathan says
these Ring-tailed Possums are quite rare and endangered and are considered relic
mammals because fossil records show the species has survived for many millions
of years, beyond the normal cycle of mammalian succession. We return to the bus
and then travel dark country roads, stopping once when Jonathan spots a flying
Masked Owl. We walk along the road to the spot, but only see spooky silhouettes
of large flying-foxes low overhead. I suspect many of us nod asleep during the
rest of the trip back to camp and it isn’t until 9:30 PM that we conclude our
long day of birding.
(Bert) Ever since I read about the Rock Wallabies at Granite Gorge, I’ve wanted to visit the site, so that is our first stop today. I’ve seen Rock Wallabies near Alice Springs, but here in the Tablelands this is a different species, called Mareeba Rock Wallaby. We are barely out of the bus when we encounter several bounding up to us, hoping for a handout. Walking to the huge boulders we see dozens of wallabies, hunched over on rocks, inspecting the surfaces, watching us and coming up close. They are cute and cuddly enough to perk pet interest, although I doubt they would enjoy confinement.
After unsuccessfully searching in many places for Squatter Pigeons, here we find them in abundance. They resist leaving the dusty ground and short grass, preferring to walk away, yet easy to approach within a few feet. Although dull brown bodies, the pigeons display attractive black-and-white harlequin faces with orange mascara around the eyes and a blue eye orbital. A pair of Little Bronze Cuckoos perch in bare branches. I keep moving around the tree until I get the right lighting to capture green wings, barred breast and orange eye of this petite cuckoo. On a low hanging branch we see a Tawny Frogmouth sitting on a nest. Frogmouths crane their necks upward, giving a vertical tilt to their heads and further increasing their resemblance to tree trunks.
On our exit from Granite Gorge, Jonathan stops in the road when he sees a Frilled Lizard on the gravel. It takes note of our vehicle and runs to the roadside, bounding with head held high, running on only its long rear legs, keeping its short front legs hanging limply. Its tail drags behind, stretching longer than its body. The quick animal must have been a model for the vicious dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movie. We follow it to the tree it climbed to about eye level and take lots of photos, though it always attempts to move to the trunk side that is hidden to us.
From here we make a long trek on a gravel road through countryside until we reach a creek that is overflowing from recent rains. We search for a way to jump the creek and find ourselves in a pretty forest setting. Jonathan hears a White-browed Robin and with a bit of squeaking it comes into view. He says this is one of the hardest birds to find in the Atherton Tablelands and comes to this spot because a single pair is resident in a small patch between creeks.
After lunch back at the campground we are about to head out again for some afternoon birding when we see a Buff-banded Rail inside the fenced swimming pool area. It may have taken a bath in the waterfall and is now preening its rufous and black banded wings. I find rails particularly hard to come by, so seeing one at a swimming pool where dozens of campers are nearby is an odd anomaly.
We stop at Lake Eacham and then Lake Barrine, most notably seeing Double-eyed Fig-Parrots flying overhead, yet we still haven’t been able to see them land. Thus is the case for many of the birds we see–Victoria’s Riflebird, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Large-billed Scrubwren, Brown Gerygone, Mountain Thornbill–too fast or too hidden for a good view. We will come back tomorrow for a second chance. It has been another good birding day and this time we quite earlier, arriving back in camp by 3 PM.
(Shari) With only Marie, Hugh and me in camp, it is quiet throughout this drizzly day. I do not have much work to do and spend my time reading and composing a slideshow of the trip to date. When trying to get Bert’s pictures, I realize he has not even downloaded the pictures from his camera since the wetlands. My goodness, what has he been doing? Don’t ask, you all know.
(Shari) If I had been driving, I would not have been able to hold the steering wheel. It would have turned into the parking lot of the Yungaburra market as soon as it saw the driveway. Alas, we pass it up at 7:15 this morning on our way to a birding site. After the group takes off down the path around the lake, Ermine and I drive to the market and have a delightful 2 hr. there. The time just flies by and I do miss a whole section of vendor stalls. I would like to buy more things but if I can’t eat it or wear it, I have to pass it up. Both Ermine and I get a lot of produce.
(Bert) We have checked off most of the birds on the list for the Atherton Tablelands, so now we are after specific targets. At Lake Barrine again, our first is a White-eared Monarch we hear calling, a high-pitched descending whistle. Jonathan does a good imitation and the bird moves above our heads, but so high above the canopy that we can only follow his singing and never catch even a glimpse of the bird. We have better luck with a Pied Monarch. This one has a very fast staccato whistle and we see the black-and-white bird high above us and I even get a poor photo of its rear end, the quality made worse because I forgot to put the image stabilizer switch back to the on position. Jonathan has the same 100-400 mm Canon lens and read in the manual that we should disable the stabilizer while traveling. Just as he said that, I flipped the switch but later forgot to enable it. Now all of today’s photos are blurred.
We again see Double-eyed Fig-Parrots fly overhead. This is the sixth or seventh time I’ve watched them in flight and yet have not seen them at rest. After hearing them and seeing them zoom above the canopy, this time I find one feeding just a dozen feet above my head. An extremely small parrot, the size of a large sparrow, it is short-tailed and almost all green except for its red face. As you might guess, its favorite food is figs, though it will also seek fruits and nectar. I get a blurred photo that is only recognizable as a small green bird. While we are waiting for a Victoria’s Riflebird to come to a favorite display post–it never comes, although I see one briefly nearby–we see a pair of sprightly Yellow-breasted Boatbills. Zipping through the subcanopy all I see is a blur of feathers until finally it rests long enough for me to see its banana yellow and dark black coloring and its oversized broad bill.
For days now we have been hearing the easy-to-recognize far-traveling call of the Eastern Whipbird, but until this morning we have not seen one. We see it now, a black and white bird with a crest like a cardinal. It scampers through thick understory, so our views are brief, but at least the group has seen it now. While I’m tracking down one of those little brown jobs jittering through the subcanopy, I miss the covey of Chowchillas crossing the path. I catch up with the group in time to see them scuttle through the intertwining stems and branches of the forest floor, looking like oversized beetles on the run. We double back on the trail and just as we are about to exit the forest, Jonathan sees a Boyd’s Forest Dragon clinging to a thin sapling. An attractive 16-in. lizard, it is olive and brown with a triple-spiked crown and a saw-toothed spine, short legs with long claws for an easy grasp of the vertical trunk.
While we are waiting for my Aussie Big Breakfast at the restaurant deck overlooking the crater lake, a family of sunbirds lights up the floral bushes. My close vantage point makes an excellent hide for photographing the juvenile begging for food. Yellow with black wings, every time it opens its bill to emit a begging call, I can see its pink throat. After a very leisurely breakfast, Shari and I leave for the coast, the others traveling independently. This next campground is a good place to see Southern Cassowary and we saw one there in July. I am a bit concerned that the group might miss it, though, because they are more reclusive during breeding season. Not to worry! A cassowary greets us at the side of the road and sits in the grass while I take photographs through the open window. Later, it wanders through the campground, passing among us as if it were a tame chicken in a farmyard.
(Shari) We return to the tea house where the group is just about finished with their breakfast. Bert, Jim, Ermine and I then eat our breakfast on the porch overlooking the beautiful lake. Everyone has left and gone their separate ways to meet up later at the campground. As we are descending down to the beach, a cassowary decides to sit down on the ground right on the shoulder of the road. My, it is a big bird with feet the size of my hands. We are treated to many looks at this strange bird as it walks through the campground many times and strolls around our lawn chairs as we sit on the beach. As Bert conducts a bird count, I grill sausages on two grills. Jim has given me one of those throwaway grills that hold half of the sausages and the second grill is supplied by the township. I am amazed that it is kept full of propane and free of grease and grime. The grill is the kind that you find all over Australia. Really not a grill at all, but rather it is a big metal sheet over a gas flame. It is like cooking on a griddle and it is a bear to clean. Luckily for me, Bert does that task. Everyone has brought a dish to share and we have a good time eating and talking. Many of us take pictures of the moon as it casts reflections across the Coral Sea. Reluctantly, the mosquitoes finally get us to go inside.
(Bert) I went swimming in the Coral Sea yesterday afternoon and it looks just as inviting this morning as the sun rises above the ocean. A man stands on a surfboard with a single long-handled paddle and rides the waves as they come to shore. The resident cassowary is already roaming the campground, hoping to find scraps from last night’s barbequed sausage dinner.
Jonathan stayed overnight in one of the rental cabins at the campground, so he is already out birding when the group gathers around 7 AM. He points out the Golden Orchids growing above the canopy on a tree that has been trimmed back to the trunk. The orchids start with a boxing-glove size root ball and 3-ft. stems with alternating leaves, culminating in a golden bloom that must be at least a foot in length. Ralph and I photograph a Helmeted Friarbird that looks like it is eating a large worm. However, when Ralph examines his photos the creature looks like a pinkish frog. I then look at my photos and blow them up in the viewer to reveal it had been eating a flesh-colored gecko. I even have one photo where the friarbird tosses the gecko into the air to rotate its disposition for easier swallowing.
(Shari) I have a fitful night and get up to shower at 6 AM. It is a beautiful morning and I take my coffee to the tables on the beach and watch the waves roll in. Others join me until it is time for their bird walk. Even the cassowary is up and about this morning, wondering if anything was left over from last night’s party. We depart the campground and the group birds the morning away while I read “Never Let Me Go”. I can’t keep my nose out of the book and finish it by 5 PM.
(Bert) We convoy in the direction of our next campground, stopping many times at various birding sites. At our first stop we see a bright red dragonfly and it is the first time I hear Jonathan saw he does not know the name of something. He has given English and Latin names to countless trees, flowers, mammals, lizards, butterflies, bugs–a Christmas Beetle this morning–along with natural histories, but he says he has not seen this dragonfly before. I photograph it and will e-mail the picture so he can fill this gap in his knowledgebase.
At another site where we expected to see terns and gulls, we see none. We do add Nutmeg Mannikin to the list and just as I am writing the name in my notebook, Cindy says she now recognizes it as the bird she saw behind the grocery store in Atherton. At the next site Jonathan hears a Gray Whistler and he responds with a similar whistle. The bird repeats the song, but then adds a flurry of musical notes as if challenging Jonathan, “Beat that, buddy!”
Our final birding stop is a sandy beach south of Mission Beach. Falling gracefully from the sky are skydivers suspended from elongated parachutes, each one with a pair of jumpers, one experienced and one paying for the experience. One by one they land ever so gently on the sand. We walk south through the sand, trying to escape the beachgoers that probably have pushed the Beach Stone-Curlews into quieter shorelines. We have now seen Bush Stone-Curlews many times, but the beach species has eluded us. Not surprising, though, as it is an endangered species owing to loss of habitat and destructive dogs. The beach walk is much longer than I anticipated and our birders are tired. One by one they drop off and head back. Cindy manages the first kilometer or so and I see her no more. Ralph stays within sight for another stretch but when he drops out I say to Jonathan, “We have lost our audience”. He says the habitat is changing just beyond and that could be where they are at. I am anxious to get this species, and this is probably our last chance as they do not range much farther south, so I continue. We reach the wilder beach habitat and see none. I am about to turn around when Jonathan finds numerous Beach Stone-Curlew tracks in the dry sand. So we follow the tracks farther south. Still no stone-curlew! Jonathan gets ahead of me and after he is 100 yards beyond I yell to him and wave my arms for him to return. Reluctantly he scans a semicircle of beach, then comes back to me. By the time the two of us get back to our RV, only Shari awaits us. We have finally worn out the group after five straight days of birding with Jonathan. But, we saw a lot of birds! In fact, I tally our trip-to-date list for the past 13 days and it comes to 220 species.
(Shari) The group stops at four places, birding at each and then after lunch we head to our next campground. We are almost last to arrive as Bert and the guide just have to look for one last bird. It is so hot that the rest have departed the scene. I guess my husband is the only true “5” in the lot. He would have gone looking more I think if the group had kept up. Enough is enough! Many of us sit outside as the breeze is so nice at this tropical campground. Norm and I trade two bottles of beer: my Boag’s Draught from Tasmania, which I find yucky, and his wonderful Coopers from South Australia. I got the better deal, but he does not know that yet as he has not tasted the beer. I take Mary to visit one of our ladies who does not feel well. Mary tells her to add some sugar and salt to plain juice so as not to dehydrate. We hope she feels better tomorrow.
(Bert) Agile Wallabies are everywhere! On the grassland, in the swamp, hiding in 6-ft. high grasses, under trees, resting, nibbling, leaping and staring, at every turn. We see a Pheasant Coucal, then hear them regularly throughout the early morning. A large swift flies over the clipped grass, much larger than the Australian Swiftlets we see almost daily. Later, perusing the field guide, I deduce they are my first sighting of Fork-tailed Swift. A Brahminy Kite flies over the same field. The bird of the day is Crimson Finch, an incredibly dark red bird, so intensely crimson you wonder if instead it is a red danger flag fluttering through the grasslands. We see them throughout the morning, never tiring of another priceless view. About the same size and sharing the same grasses and similar coloring are Red-backed Fairy-wrens and Red-browed Firetails. We get repeated looks and a few photos of another favorite, Golden-headed Cisticola, and even find a nest propped atop a stout reed. Mary sees a bird on a nest on a low-hanging branch. I see the yellow bill and know it is an oriole. It takes flight to a nearby snag and I identify it as Olive-backed Oriole, a species almost none in the group have seen before. By the way, Australian orioles are not related to North American orioles, being a different genus and a different family.
I’ve seen Green Pygmy-Geese quite a few times now, but always at a distance. Now I photograph a closer pair and have the good fortune of freezing them in mid-air as they take flight. Jim spots an unknown bird on a low branch ahead of us on the trail. I say it is a cuckoo, but don’t know which one. While Jim and I are photographing the bird for detailed documentation, others are chiming in with field marks seen through binoculars and two field guides are opened for research. Our detective work culminates in everyone agreeing the bird is a juvenile Fan-tailed Cuckoo. By 9:30 we finish the circuit of the wetland lakes and the heat and humidity of the day makes us glad we started at 6 AM this morning. A few in our group go to a coffee shop overlooking the wetlands while I take Jim back to camp for Ermine who slept in this morning. I return on the catwalk toward the restaurant I see a Black-fronted Dotterel. I wish the group was with me to see this neatly attired plover. Many of them have headed to McDonald’s for lunch and free Internet.
(Shari) Last night Norm suggested that we levy fines for anyone that talks about birds during a social. Boy, what a good idea! I decide to start that this morning while we stop for iced coffee after birding for 3 hr. at the wetland center. In 30 sec. Ralph owes me 25 cents. Virginia chimes in when she raises her binoculars to look at a bird while at the dining tables and when Cindy arrives we can collect more money. But when Bert shows up, we have a lost cause. All the birders decide to save money and leave Norm and me alone at the tables. When I try to pay for my coffee, Ralph had already done so, calling it an insurance policy so that now he can talk birds all he wants. We have our lunch at McDonalds to use their free Internet before heading south to our next campground. Arriving early afternoon, I take a nap as I cannot keep going all day long when I have to get up at 5. After our travel meeting and bird count, I get up to look at the bower of a resident bowerbird. Now even I owe 25 cents to the kitty.
(Bert) We carpool up the narrow winding mountain road, not wanting to take more vehicles than necessary and also starting at 6:30 so that we do not encounter descending vehicles since the road is not wide enough for two to cross unless one stops. By 7:15 we reach the mountain top and park our RV’s in the small village. Our first bird is across the street, sitting quietly on a top branch. Other times the Topknot Pigeon has been distant, so now is the first time we have seen its hot pink bill and the tuft of feathers on its crown.
The black darkness of the rainforest closes in on us like nightfall and our
eyes adjust. So do our ears as we hear jungle noises. Our main target is
Victoria’s Riflebird, so when we hear an oft-repeated harsh call coming from the
same spot we think we might have it. I gingerly creep forward with the others
following behind like ten little Indians. It must be near the trail, though
hidden in the dense understory. Cindy spots the bird a bit above high level and
uses my laser pointer so the rest of us can see it too. It is not what I
expected and at first looks like a Spotted Catbird, though not green, so it must
be a bowerbird. A quick look in the book nails it as Tooth-billed Bowerbird. As
we have seen this once before, we immediately look for the upturned pattern of
leaves on the forest floor and indeed see it just below the bowerbird’s perch.
Twice more during the next couple of hours we hear and see Tooth-billed
Bowerbirds. One of these times we think we have something different as the call
starts the same and then progresses to rapid Gatling gun firing. Still, it is
the Tooth-billed. I record other songs, including a very long sequence of bings,
bangs and bongs that sounds like an electronic pinball machine hitting its
targets in rapid succession. We never do find the source, though on reflection I
think it is the Tooth-billed show-off again.
Similar in first name only, we get a good look–and photograph–a Bower’s Shrike-Thrush. Although we have seen it before, this is a much better view. So it is with other birds we’ve only caught glimpses of before. We watch Chowchillas scurry through underbrush, see and hear Spotted Catbirds, find and identify the non-descript Brown Gerygone without Jonathan’s help and study several Gray-headed Robins.
(Shari) It is amazing that we get all the way up the mountain without meeting a single car. But then again it is only 7 and we left at 6:30. The birders go off to do their thing and later Ermine and I take the Sensory Walk. Supposedly, you are to walk with one person blindfolded following a rope strung along the forest path at waist height. Neither Ermine nor I want to walk blind. No telling what kind of critter could be around. When we get back to our RV, I feel something crawl on my hand. I had heard of leeches in the rainforest and immediately shriek. I shout to no one in particular, “Get it off, get it off!” I take one of my seashells and scrap it off into the sink where it immediately turns from a 1 in. string to a 2 in. needle. It twirls around suspended on its back looking in a 360º circle. Meanwhile we two women are really shrieking. It drops down and inches its way lickety-spilt across the sink. We HAVE to get this thing out of here. I scoop it up on the shell and take it outside. Yuck, yuck, yuck and more yuck!
After our hearts stop pounding I commence teaching Ermine the card game Check that Mary taught me a few days ago. As we start to play, I think to myself that this is going to be like taking candy from a baby. I win the first two hands, easily. Then Ermine gets it and she really tromps me good. The birders come back and I make sandwiches that we eat outside. Virginia decides not to bird after lunch and I teach her how to play Check. She I beat. Later before dinner, Mary, Norm, Cindy and I play Check again. I loose that game handily. So out of a total of 6 games played, I loose 4 of them. I am not sure I like this game.
(Bert) After lunch, Ralph and I head to the toilets in the park and when I come out I see him with binoculars watching a brightly colored bird on the lawn. He asks me what it is and I excitedly announce, “Noisy Pitta, I’ll go get the others”. I race off to the parked RV’s and come back with Virginia and Cindy. The rotund five-color bird bounces along the grass at the edge of the forest and we can see it has a long worm hanging limply from its bill.
We still have not gotten a good look at a Victoria’s Riflebird. The teacher at the environmental school here is leading a class of fifth graders from Townsville and she says the riflebird comes for bananas where the kids gather for lunch. We walk to the spot and find a caretaker building a frog pond. The riflebird is not present and he says the bird listens for the chatter and laughter of the children and then flies in for bananas. We bird elsewhere until we see the kids again. I get a banana from our refrigerator but seeing they already have one on the feeder tray I put it on a fence railing at the edge of the forest. While the kids eat lunch, a banana tempts the riflebird. It only calls from somewhere in the forest and will not come to the feeder. Cindy walks into the forest and finds the bird. Jim and Ralph and I try to find a position with a clear shot at the riflebird high in the canopy. We get a few good shots when it takes flight. We suspect it is at the feeder now and walk out of the forest. As we pass the spot where I put my banana, I see the riflebird attacking it with its beak. After a few photos it takes off and a Macleay’s Honeyeater starts dining. We check the feeder again and this time a Spotted Catbird is gulping down banana chunks for another good photo op.
(Bert) It only takes seconds to find the Black-winged Stilts feeding in the shallow water of the billabong, a quickly added species to our trip list. Next to them are Australian Pelicans, including one so young it is only quarter size. How cute! None of us can recall ever seeing a pelican this small. We set up the spotting scopes to check out the smaller peeps. Jim zeros in on the smallest, though many, and we decide they are Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. We saw them once before in poor lighting at dusk. Now with bright morning sunshine I digiscope them at 60X and get a recognizable photo. I see a larger bird that resembles Greater Yellowlegs, which does not occur here, and deduce it is a Common Greenshanks. Someone asks about a small plover and I focus my scope in that direction. It’s a Black-fronted Dotterel and now everyone can add it to their list. Virginia finds a pair of White-bellied Sea-Eagles on a small tree overlooking the billabong. Then she scopes the edge of the marsh and finds a snipe. Knowing we haven’t found any snipes so far, nor have I found one in our earlier travels, I quickly align on the bird across the marsh. It looks a lot like our Wilson’s Snipe, the most obvious difference being the rufous tail that projects beyond the folded wings. By geography this is a Latham’s Snipe.
We move on down the road and then walk a bit beyond our vehicles. Suspended
from a tree hanging over the road are tangled wisps of grass and leaves. A
Yellow-bellied Sunbird ignites a flash of yellow light when it adds a fragment
to its collection. We stand quietly beneath the nest and watch the female bird
return repeatedly. I take photos each time and I start to see the nest take
shape. Toward the top, the sunbird hollows a hole in the bulge and a few times
even dips three-fourths of her body into the hole.
At another billabong, we see the big 3: Black-necked Stork, Brolga and Sarus Crane. On the entrance path to one of the bird hides we can make out the trail of a snake in the sand, with a slightly higher bank where it pushes off for forward movement. We had seen another trail where we parked the RV’s, so they must be present in the area, although we see none. Agile Wallabies are more obvious and one pair remains in the same shady spot where we pass them twice on the trail. By 10 AM the hot weather reminds me of birding Texas in summer and our participants are moving to their air-conditioned vehicles. I stop long enough to photograph a Varied Triller on a well-hidden nest.
We go into Townsville for grocery shopping and then to the campground across from the sandy beach. While eating lunch I see a huge lizard outside. I set down my sandwich, grab my camera and exit the RV. I am pretty sure it is called a Lace Monitor. It reminds me of a small crocodile, with a similar striped elongated tail and short clawed legs. The gray body is fat and long, with stippling on the underside half. That pattern extends to the long lizard-like neck and to the head which looks very snake-like, especially when it sticks out its 5-in. tongue. Altogether, this creature is much longer than my outstretched arms.
About 4 PM I walk to the beach and around the RV park, finding lots of good birds, including a juvenile White-breasted Woodswallow begging for food from an adjacent adult on a utility wire, a Mistletoebird whose bright red feathers catch the elongated rays of a sun heading to the horizon and a honeyeater I quickly photograph and only later discover to be a White-gapped Honeyeater. I’ve seen this one before in the Outback, but it is sparse in Queensland.
(Shari) Another early morning gets us on the highway by 6:15. Bert wants to be able to bird while it is still cool but by 7:10 when we arrive, it already feels hot. While the group looks at every feather across the lagoon through scopes, I make some phone calls, confirming our next week’s activities. By 11 all the birders are hot too, and we head to the grocery store and then to camp. Today is wash day and with only two washing machines and one dryer, my three loads occupy the whole afternoon. We have a travel/bird count/social under the trees catching the tropical breezes. Cindy brings out some melted brie and crackers and only when a pair of Germans comes to claim their camping spot of cement do we move.
(Bert) You snooze, you lose! Last night I said we could bird the same park again, but only Ralph and Virginia raised their hands when I asked who wanted to go at 6 AM. Most of the others wanted to sleep in late, although Jim had in mind to bird the seashore across the street from us.
Birding this morning is so much better than yesterday because of our earlier start. The coolness keeps the birds active and we are constantly entertained. Within the first 50 ft. of walking we add two species, White-faced Heron and White-gaped Honeyeater, the latter being the same species I saw last night, but this time I have an audience. I take a photo of it inside its nest, with just half its head projecting. Virginia and I comment on the large number of birds we have found constructing nests, sitting on eggs in a nest, or feeding young in a nest. I’ve probably seen more active bird nests in the past four months than I have seen in the past ten years.
We drive just a bit farther on the park road when I see a covey of Brown Quail scurry across the road, another new species for the list. We continue to the billabong and this time I move closer to the birds for photographs, getting good shots of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Latham’s Snipe, Black-fronted Dotterel and the Black-winged Stilts. On our return we stop at an observation tower, but before we walk the short distance I see a Pheasant Coucal. Although we have seen or heard these almost daily–including at least four today–I’ve not been able to get close enough for good photos. Now, this one acts oblivious to us and we creep closer and closer, photographing from each vantage point. Probably called “pheasant” because of its long brown pheasant-like tail, it is really a ground-cuckoo, related to some of those we have found in Mexico, as well as our roadrunner. It has a black head and breast and a red eye. This one must find something interesting on a tree trunk, because it keeps jumping up from the ground and pecking at the bark about 5 ft. up. I’ve probably taken 50 photos, many of them action shots and at close range. When we climb the observation tower, the showoff even flies to an adjoining branch so we can see it at eye level.
You snooze, you lose! Fifty-two species between 6 and 9 AM, including three additions to the list!
(Shari) I wonder if Cindy will do it, thinking to myself, as I watch her frowning face. Earlier, Virginia did a good job getting herself, Ralph and Bert back from early morning birding. I wanted to depart by 9:30 for our trip to the sanctuary and we make that deadline easily. Now we are learning about all the different animals of Australia. First we heard about the threatened koalas and wombats. Now as I watch Norm smile with eyes riveted in attention, I see Cindy frown and grimace with eyes full of trepidation as the ranger moves from three snakes to two lizards and finally to the alligator. You see, Cindy wants her picture taken with the koala and the wombat and Norm said he would not buy the package unless she held a reptile too. So here she is wondering what she had gotten herself into. She ends up holding the lizard and a baby alligator and the picture is really cute. Marie and Chris’s picture with the koala is darling and so are Hugh and Mary’s. We follow the ranger from station to station, watching and listening in rapt attention for two hours. We feed turtles and see an eel. We watch as two crocodiles jump high out of the water to snap at some meat hanging on a stick. Never knew they could jump that high! Bert and I are the first to leave as we have been here previously but the rest are free to roam the park and visit all the other Australian animals: birds, water buffalo, kangaroos and pademelons, cassowaries. So many animals that six months ago were strange to me are now common. Our next campground is not far and we arrive in time for a late lunch and a nap before our meeting and late afternoon birding.
(Bert, from a note sent to him by Ted)
“Hey, Tucker! Tucker! Tucker Turtle, do you hear me?”
“Yea, I hear you, Ted. What are you so excited about?”
“I just won the Great Turtle Race”, exclaimed Ted. You know what they named me, Tucker? They named me Secretariat.”
“Never heard a name like that! What does it mean?”
“Well, Tucker, there was this pretty lady and she gave me the name. The Aussies didn’t know what it meant and they thought she said ‘Secretary’”. She said the name comes from a famous racer who won the Kentucky Derby. Tucker, that must be the biggest, most grandest turtle race in the whole world.”
“Who did you race against, Ted?”
“Well, you know we turtles all started gathering at the edge of the billabong just when they were finishing up the snake and lizard show. By the way, that Shingle-backed Lizard sure is a weird beast, with a head at both ends. This man, I think his name was Bert, he held the beast up in his hands and his wife took his picture. She says she is going to send it to the grandkids. Bert said he saw this beast a couple of times crossing the road when he was driving in the Outback. I wonder how he could tell which direction it was going, with two heads and all.”
“Ted, get to the point”, said Tucker, a bit frustrated with his rambling friend.
“Oh, sorry about that. I was saying, we were lumbering out of the billabong, about fifty of us I’d guess, and the people stuck out their fingers with fish parts and we gulped them down like we always do. A man named Chris, he just kept getting more fish and kept sticking those good smells right in front of our outstretched necks.”
“Ted, who did you race against”, Tucker repeated impatiently.
“Okay, I raced against Clark. Only they didn’t name him Clark today. A little boy called him Sue. Imagine a man named Sue! Well, all of the people cheering for Clark Turtle, I mean Sue, lined up on one side and all of my cheering team lined up on the other side, including the nice lady Ermine, who gave me my running name. I thought Ermine was a weasel, but she sure didn’t look like one. She was pretty. I wonder if I could take her home as a pet.”
“Anyway, on the third side were our two jockeys and they held us in the air with both hands and kept getting the crowd all excited about the race. Sue and I were raring to go and we kept moving our legs and twisting our necks, getting our muscles warmed up. Finally, our jockeys put us on the ground and you should have heard the crowd roar, Tucker. I was so excited I hit the ground running. Sue did too, but he crashed into a rock that nearly flipped him topsy-turvy. Then he crashed and burned on another raceway obstacle. I just kept running as fast as my short legs could go. I think I could even have beaten that silly rabbit today. I came in first by a waterslide and splashed in the billabong way ahead of Sue. What a day!
Just then Tipsy Turtle joined Tucker and Ted on the half submerged log in the billabong. Tipsy slipped off and then climbed on again, while Tucker and Ted rolled there eyes at each other. Finally, lined up next to them, Tipsy said, “I saw you Ted, quite a race. Congratulations. Hey, did you catch the crocodile act today?”
“No, Tipsy”, the other two answered in unison.
“Well, Croc really hit a high point today. He must have cleared four meters. He had all four feet out and a third of his tail and of course his jaws were wide open trying to get that darn cow meat hanging by a string. They sure give him a hard time, keeping the temptation in front of his eyes. It’s enough to bring tears to his eyes.”
Ted replied, “Well, maybe. At least he doesn’t have to hunt for it and they keep him away from taking a nip out of us. This a pretty comfortable place to live, you know.”
Tucker agreed, “Yea, I kind of like having all our buddies here. You know, the koalas and wombats and Cassie Cassowary and all. I even get to see the owls: Barking Owl, Masked Owl – he sure looks like a Barn Owl – and the Boobook. They have moved in now next to the Red-legged Pademelons.”
Tipsy added, “I crawled up to a new enclosure today. The sign said it was a Lace Monitor. Gee, that guy is big. There are all sorts of warnings about leaning too far over the edge. I’ll bet he could take a chunk out of my nose. But you know the silly thing? That monitor is in a cage with warnings, but our friend Lacey runs freely around the park. Ralph told me he saw one today, just as big, and he even showed me a picture of it in a little box. He called it a camera, but it looked like a TV in a box. I wonder if we could watch The Muppet Show on that camera!”
(Shari) We depart earlier than planned as the birding gets too hot. It is the longest day of driving so far on the trip and it takes us five hours, stopping only for fuel. The wooded campground is right up against a broad sandy beach. Set on a private bay in a national park with manicured landscaped sites, it is one that beckons longer stays. Bert and I take our RV out for a bit in the afternoon to check out two birding spots. Later as Ermine and I start on a walk to the beach, we are detoured by a kangaroo nibbling grass next to Norm. I snap pictures of the animal with Norm in the background. I actually have to put a jacket on as the sea breeze is too cool without it. I have to give Mary and Hugh a hug as they offer to drive their rigs tomorrow departing at 5:30. I can sleep in!
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