Thursday, 24 November 2011

Tasmania: the Tasman Peninsula

Tasmania dawned bright and cheery, with a stiff south-east breeze (brr!) and glaring southern sunshine (mmm!). The roads were pretty quiet, so we headed off towards the Tasman Peninsula with light hearts. The countryside reminded us of parts of Scotland and south-west England, with rolling hills, open pasture and rugged rocky coasts; though the patches of Eucalypt woodland aren't so familiar-feeling.

The Tasman Peninsula from the Devil's Kitchen

The drive to the Tasman Peninsula was pretty uneventful, and in due course we arrived at the beautifully-named (and beautiful) Eaglehawk Neck in time for a restorative ice-cream. The view from the lookout near the carpark treated us to our first Black-faced Cormorants, a couple of Kelp Gulls and a flock of shearwaters offshore which proved on closer inspection to be mainly Short-tailed, with a handful of Sooty and Flesh-footeds mixed in. The telescope revealed that rather than the apparent couple of thousand birds milling around, there was a constant mass of birds as far as the eye could see - easily tens of thousands, constantly wheeling up and down the face of the waves; all apparently just killing time before heading in to their next burrows after dark.

Dry sclerophyll forest

A walk in the woods was clearly in order, so we set off south. Passing the spectacular crevice of the Devil's Kitchen, we headed along the track towards Waterfall Bay. Coastal heath, not unlike that in Queensland, dominated at first. The air was occasionally pierced by the shrill squeaks of Brown and Tasmanian Thornbills, Tasmanian Scrubwrens and Eastern Spinebills - a honeyeater which looks and behaves somewhat like a hummingbird. Gradually the woods closed in. The occasional pair of Green Rosellas bounded past to sit high in the treetops and regard us suspiciously. Black Currawongs carolled and warbled in the trees above us and a variety of lizards waddled or scurried away through the dead leaves, depending on their relative size.

Pygmy Sundew (Drosera pygmaea)

Again, almost no-one around to share this walk with us; it was half shocking and half pleasant: here in Britain the track would have been heaving with people, but then again, there would probably have been less wildlife to see too. We finally reached a stream and campsite where the track led off to the lookout over the bay. Just as we rounded the corner, we almost fell over a small ball of woolly-looking fur and spines, huddled against a treestump. Clearly it was an echidna, but it wasn't going to show us any glimpse of it's face. We left it in peace and walked to the viewpoint, settled down for a bite to eat and enjoyed a fine view - complete once again with Humpback Whales breaching.


Heading back up the track, the echidna had emerged from it's stump and was bumbling around the forest floor near another rotting treestump. This time we were able to stand and watch it as it stomped around, pausing periodically to shove its beak deep into the soil; presumably sniffing for or licking up ants. Every so often an exploratory sniff must have yielded something worth pursuing, as the front feet were used with formidable force for such a relatively small creature to rip out a hollow about 10cm deep. Eventually it swaggered off around the stump and we regretfully picked up our bags and continued on our way.

Echidna, emerging

We stayed at the Norfolk Bay Convict Station, a friendly and characterful bed and breakfast with enthusiastic and knowledgeable owners.

Norfolk Bay Convict Station: now a pleasant B&B

The next day saw us head out along the Mount Raoul peninsula, in order for a proper walk to do. A drive out to the end of the road took us through increasingly Dartmoor-esque countryside, complete with clumps of Juncus, conifer plantations, rough grazing - and European Gorse. Although adding a touch of homeliness for the European traveller, this is - in this part of the world - a hideously invasive species. By the time we arrived at the end of the road, it seemed so much like Britain that the sight of a pair of Chestnut Teal on the nearby pond threw me completely for a moment. Fortunately a kookaburra began laughing and put me back in my senses.

Wet sclerophyll forest

The walk proved to be through more mature forest than the previous day. Dry sclerophyll gave way to wet sclerophyll, and in both the range of flora was superb. Perhaps a highlight of the walk out to the cape was the sight of a large Black Tiger Snake, which uncoiled from it's basking spot and slid smoothly and calmly away across the path in front of us. As we dropped over the side of Mount Raoul, the vegetation suddenly changed to a mixture of head-high heath and whispering groves of sheoaks. Like the conifer plantations here that they resemble so well, there was little wildlife within these groves, although a Tasmanian Pademelon startled us both by bounding away from the edge of the path suddenly.

Coastal heath flowers

More unidentified flowers...

Pink powder-puff-type flower

Tasmanian Pademelon

We finally reached the end of the path at Cape Raoul, where we settled don for lunch, admiring a young White-bellied Sea-eagle, the Pig-face flowers at our feet and the abundance of Brown Cutworm moths littering the ground; not to mention the spectacular columnar cliffs.

Cape Raoul

Coastal heath on Cape Raoul

Brown Cut-worm

Native Pig-face (Carpobrotus sp)
White-bellied Sea-eagle
When we rose to go, we realised we weren't alone: another family had joined us and were busily exploring the small pond for frogs - the children informed us with some importance thet there was a little echidna around that bush, which we might see if we were lucky. We wandered around that bush, and there it was, head-down in the scrub.

I wandered in to try for a couple of close-ups, but there was too much vegetation in the way - and then it decided that it was coming out, so I moved off to give it space to go where it would, and in the hope of a picture uncluttered by twigs. Crouching back on my heels, I was surprised when it headed towards me - and more surprised still when it walked straight up to me and dug its beak into the ground under my instep! As is of course the rule, Na's camera was in the bag on my back. It then moved over to investigate the ground under my other foot - and then seemed to settle down to sleep, tucked in close between my ankles.

Eventually I could see myself being there all day, so I levered myself carefully up and stepped back, at which point it looked up at me, perhaps in some bemusement, and decided to wander off in the opposite direction. Strangely, the walk back to the car was rather uneventful in comparison.

Echidna, en route to my ankles

Echidna, shortly after vacating the space between my ankles

The lone echidna, wandering off across the heath

Our final day on the Tasman Peninsula was taken up with a trip around the peninsula on a Tasman Eco-tours boat, steered by the chirpy and chatty duo of Damo and Damo. A brisk southwest breeze had built up a decent swell for the first part of the trip, so the initial 40 minutes were a rather rollercoaster-like series of runs across the Tasman Sea. An inshore fare of Black-faced Cormorants and Kelp Gulls was rudely interrupted when a Shy Albatross glided impassively past, in true clich├ęd fashion, not beating a wing as it slid effortlessly over the waves.

Black-faced Cormorant
Soon we were rounding Tasman Island, where a small hangout of young male Brown Fur-seals (a.k.a. Australian Fur-seal) took great exception to the boat-load of tourists pointing cameras at them, and flopped
inelegantly into the water to escape.

Brown Fur-seal
We then turned our attention to the open waters, partly to look for Humpback Whales, and partly to enjoy
what was becoming an awe-inspiring flock of shearwaters. In all, there must have been close to half a million birds in the general area. Mainly Short-tailed Shearwaters, but with a smattering of Sooty Shearwaters and the occasional Shy Albatross to dwarf them both, the whole sea seemed to be in constant flux, as parties of birds took off, wheeled away and settled again nearby. As far as the eye could see, there were shearwaters. Had this been a fishing trip or a bird trip, we could happily have stayed out there for hours, searching for a little more variety in the flock, enjoying the sheer mass of birds present in the area; but unfortunately we were on a scheduled tourist trip, so carried along steadily until we came close enough to shore for the birds to peter out. A final wildlife-moment, as we stopped off to admire some New Zealand Fur-seals - the polar opposite of their Brown cousins in their laid-back attitude, and we were soon bumping gently at the jetty at Eaglehawk Neck...

New Zealand Fur-seal

Short-tailed Shearwaters.

Short-tailed Shearwaters

Crested Tern at Eaglehawk Neck

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A farewell to palms.

Eastern Grey Kangaroo. Not tied down.

One bonus from hanging out with a bunch of bird-banders is that they know the best places to look for waders, and they tend to have a tide-table conveniently to hand (thanks Brenda!) - so Monday saw us heading back south towards Brisbane, to the pleasantly anonymous town of Toorbul, at the civilized hour of 9 in the morning. Unfortunately the weather wasn't going to let us have it all our own way: a stiff southerly breeze was bringing cool air into the state, with scudding clouds and the occasional burst of rain to remind us what we were missing at home in England.

Toorbul is the sort of place you'd probably never think of going unless you had to. Nice enough, but nothing particularly special - apart from hordes of kangaroos feeding along the roadside. We followed the road to the very end of town, south until we had a nice view of Bribie Island, then parked up by a little grassy bund, beyond which was a small sandy beach. Even as we parked, the first birds were pushing in on the rising tide, looking for a safe spot to hunker down until the mud was exposed again. Larger migrant species; Bar-tailed Godwits and Whimbrel, made up the bulk of the flock - only about 150 birds at first - with a handful of resident White-headed Stilts, Pied Oystercatchers and a couple of disconsolate-looking Gull-billed Terns.


Wader palindrome: Bar-tailed Godwit. Grey-tailed Tattler. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Grey-tailed Tattler. Bar-tailed Godwit.

Small flocks of waders soon started to appear, heading down into the wind in straggling lines: mainly godwits, but an increasing number of smaller migrants as well: Grey-tailed Tattlers, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Great Knot, Red-necked Stints... A line of Black Swans stood offshore on a small sand-bar, black curlicues against the green-grey waves. The roost built up steadily to around 1,500 birds, then the parties of waders pretty much stopped coming - those that had been displaced by the tide all arrived at their respective hangouts. Caspian Terns joined the party, and with the birds a little more settled, we began to pick out a few other species: a small group of Greenshank, a Black-tailed Godwit or two; best of all a smart Terek Sandpiper, with yellow ochre legs and a perpetually smiling expression.

Snooze-time on the sand. The bulk are Bar-tailed Godwit, with a smattering of Great Knot (smaller, slightly curved bill, dark chevrons on the flanks). A single tattler on the left with a plain grey back and an out-of-focus Curlew Sandpiper at the front left, disappearing out of shot.

The birds may have been settled, but they were far from still: the larger birds tried to sleep, heads turned round and bills under wings, whilst the sandpipers trotted rapidly around below them, tucking in to the unfortunate invertebrates in the sand. Every so often one of the Pied Oystercatchers would take great exception to all these interlopers and take a run at the roosting birds, sending them running - or flying - out of its way.

Eventually the tide turned, the birds began to think about moving off to the mud again, and we headed back towards Palmwoods for our last evening, before heading south, to Tasmania and a whole new week.

Ichneumonoptera chrysophanes (a.k.a. Carmentera chrysophanes), a clearwing moth, bids us goodbye from Queensland, leaving a parting kiss on my jacket.

Green Tree-frog on pot.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Nudgee Nudgee, wink wink, say no more...

Our first full weekend in Aus. We headed off south to meet a bunch of bird-banders - for so 'tis termed outside of Britain - at the Border Ranges National Park, just over the New South Wales border. En route, we thought we'd pay a visit to what looked like a bit of tidal estuary; break the journey at least. We arrived at Nudgee Beach to the sight of water lapping the carpark fringes. Clearly, the tide was going to have the last word over any plans to see mud-loving birds! Undaunted, we set off around the short boardwalk to the one and only hide that we encountered on our travels. The path leads through some rather nice Grey Mangrove woodland, which is always a treat for the mangrove-less European. A forest of aerial roots, light beaming through the canopy and the salt-laden scent of the mud make it a wholly satisfying experience. The birds were there, though thin on the ground - it was getting hot by this stage - Mangrove Gerygones flitted through the canopy doing a good impression of Chiffchaffs, an Australian Spotted Crake trotted quietly through the roots and a rather bored-looking Osprey sat on an exposed branch by the hide. Rainbow Bee-eaters and soaring Brahminy, Whistling and Black Kites were a good supporting cast, with Collared Kingfishers prowling for the abundant small fish in the myriad of pools.

We were also slightly mystified by the number of single men wandering around the boardwalk, particularly as some of them looked fairly blatantly as if they batted for the other side, so to speak (we were later told that the site has a bit of a reputation as a meeting ground for gay men, which explained that, though why in a mangrove swamp? The mosquitoes must be a bit of a passion-killer).

After a brief tussle with the Brisbane traffic, we were suddenly out on the road to Tamborine, winding through gently agricultural country, interspersed with Eucalypt woodland and homesteads. The countryside then changed around Beaudesert, becoming more determinedly agricultural with - frustratingly - a lot of shallow wetlands alongside the road, often chock-full of birds, but nowhere safe to stop and look. We finally left the Mt Lindsey Highway at Innisplain and wound our way into the mountains along an increasingly wriggly and potholed track which eventually gave up all pretence of being a tarmac surface and settled dolefully into a corrugated dirt track.

The Pinnacle (that lump on the right) and the view into New South Wales.

We stopped for lunch at a lookout, surrounded by the chiming calls of Bell Miners and the weirdly melodic wails of Pied Currawongs (try this link for an idea of their call). Finally we returned to the car and headed into the National Park proper. The weather began to close in a little, with swirling cloud dropping down, so we were slightly apprehensive that the journey would be in vain, but after a four hour drive (for a single weekend's banding! Youch!) we were keen to get out of the car and move around again. After encountering several groups of Brown Cuckoo-doves and the odd Crimson Rosella on the road, we finally arrived to find the early-birds putting up nets. A quick intro to Graham (or maybe Graeme), Brenda and Stephen and we dived in to help learn the net positions and some of the birds we'd be handling. Immediately there were some new species: Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Large-billed Scrubwren, Grey Fantail, Brown Gerygone in the nets, whilst Green Catbirds and Noisy Pittas called unseen from the surrounding forest. The cloud, and the temperature, continued to fall, so the nets were furled for the day, tents erected and we sat around and waited patiently for Jon - leader of the pack - to arrive. In the gathering gloom, a Satin Bowerbird paid us a fleeting visit, before deciding that we were not going to be any use to him (not quite blue enough with cold, I suspect).

Grey Fantail. One of the more abundant species in this part of the forest, where they inhabit the canopy and edge habitats, frequently flitting out into the open to snatch insects, with tail fanned behind.

The more colourful relative: Rufous Fantail. Behaves in a similar fashion to Grey Fantail, but seemed to inhabit the understorey rather than the canopy.

Jon arrived and we were all informed about what we'd be doing the next morning, whilst a Fawn-footed Melamys, one of Australia's few native rodent species, scurried around behind the boxes of food, trying to get a snack.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the rain finally arrived. A blaring alarm at about three a.m. signalled that someone hadn't quite worked out their new car's safety features. The rain then came a little more persistently, and by 4.30, the designated getting-up-and-getting-out time, we knew we weren't going to be banding any time soon. Bravely - or was it foolishly? - I left Na curled up in the warm and got up to see what everyone else was doing, to discover that the rain was expected to be short-lived and that with any luck we might get going at about 7.30. I returned to my bedclothes, where, to my horror, I discovered that the water level was rising. Inside the tent. It's amazing how fast you can move when you have to. The bedclothes and all our belongings were rapidly thrown into the car to prevent them getting any wetter, and we slunk over to the barbeque shelter, feeling a little sorry for ourselves, to have breakfast.

Antarctic Beeches; Nothofagus antarctica. Truly magnificent trees, which my photo does no justice to at all.

True to the forecast, by 7.30 the rain had eased enough to get out and get on. The two of us piled into Jon's car and headed off to the 'Antarctic Beeches' lookout, where we were to put in our effort. The skies cleared in that tropical manner - one moment thick cold cloud, the next a clear blue with added steam - and we banded. There's a lot of effort involved in setting nets for relatively few birds, when compared with our own sites here, but when the background chorus is Rufous Scrub-birds and Albert's Lyrebirds, with Paradise Riflebirds (one of Australia's four Bird-of-Paradise species) and Rose Robins backing them up, you don't really care. Besides, the species being banded were all fairly new to us, so there was a lot to learn about deciding on their age and sex.

Yellow-throated Scrubwren - a male (black lores), and apparently an adult (crisp black centres to the median and greater coverts [the small feathers on the wing, just above my index finger], with broad olive fringes)

The same male, demonstrating exactly why he's called a Yellow-throated Scrubwren

A succession of scrubwrens, thornbills and fantails was enlivened by a very smart Bassian Thrush - somewhat like a large and scaly Mistle Thrush (or a White's Thrush if you're of the birdy persuasion) - and a couple of Yellow Robins; I was then handed a suspiciously large and lively bird-bag and instructed not to look in closely before opening it. I carefully slid my hand around to get the bird inside into a safe grip through the bag (a useful trick at times), then carefully opened the drawstring to be met with a rather long, hook-tipped bill and a baleful beady yellow eye at the bottom of the bag. A Pied Currawong. It was eventually ringed with minimal blood loss (on my part - none on it's part), measured, photographed and released with some alacrity.

Jon and Naomi deal with a Bassian Thrush

I take instruction from Jon on the most appropriate way to handle a currawong ('I'm not touching that; you can have it', was, I think, what Jon actually said). Photo courtesy Naomi Barker

That's why it's called a Pied Currawong. Photo courtesy Naomi Barker

Ready to fire. Note the careful distance maintained between bird and anything remotely sensitive on the body. Photo courtesy Naomi Barker

We eventually tidied up and headed back to base to help finish off their day. A similar mix of species had been caught near the campsite, rounded off with a fine Rufous Fantail. As the day drew to a close, the weather began to close in again. Na pottered off to nap in the relocated tent - now on higher ground - whilst I sat out and did a spot of birding. The rainfall radar suggested some heavy rain to come, and the cloud thickened perceptibly. Suddenly the sky grew blacker and blacker. And blacker. Within about 10 minutes, the wind picked up and within another five the trees were lashing like the masts of a yacht on a lively sea. There were a couple of rumbles of thunder - the equivalent of the cloud clearing it's throat for the main event - and then the rain hit. Like some over-the-top scene in a film, water poured out of the sky, and Na emerged from the tent and joined us in the barbeque shelter at a pace that would have stunned Usain Bolt. After 10 or 15 minutes the rain and wind settled into a 'normal' thunderstorm mode, and we all gradually relaxed again, to the background rumble of the occasional tree falling in the forest around us.

A surprisingly uneventful night passed, and we set up for the final morning, all together at a third site just down the road. The whole forest still seemed to be saturated with rainwater, so as the rising sun lifted the temperature, everything steamed. Aside from the steam, the rain had brought out a sever attack of the leeches. These seem to have a bit of an action-hero complex, as not only do they attack from the ground, they drop from the trees and attach to your neck, ear or even eye (for one unfortunate person we met, in any case)! This final ringing session produced such delights as a Pale-yellow Robin, a couple of Golden Whistlers, Russet-tailed Thrush and, best of all, an Azure Kingfisher. A final tally of some 130 birds over the weekend seemed to be a very good return, judging by the happiness shown by Jon, and we headed back to take lunch, pack up and enjoy a final walk from the campsite before tackling the road back to Palmwoods.

A rather beautiful skink, living in a rotten log along the path near base camp...

...and this is the neighbour: a Black-bellied Swamp Snake. Rather small and very elegant, this is a venomous but not particularly dangerous species - chief food items frogs and skinks. Living about a metre from each other, we wondered whether snake viewed skink as a larder, of skink thought it better to keep your enemy in plain view.

Brindle Creek steaming in the morning sun. You can't make out the leeches from this distance.

Grey Shrike Thrush.

The Greater Peeved, or White-browed, Scrubwren. A bird which has evolved a perpetually grumpy expression.

Female Golden Whistler. Pretty...

...but not as spectacular as a male. Not the best photo out there, but a stunningly-bright yellow. Fine, fine birds.

Azure Kingfisher. The camera didn't pick this up, but under the wings, along the flanks, the bird has the most stunning lilac wash I have ever seen.

Azure (you don't say!) Kingfisher.