Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Part 2 - The Tablelands Begin

We arrived at Crater National Park at dusk. My bird finding guide to Australia promised Grey-headed Robin and Bridled Honeyeater in the car park (parking lot for us foreigners). Through the gloom we could make out a few birds, but morning would come soon enough, and with it, better light.

The Cows in this part of Oz are tough!

 That night began the "camping". I use quotation marks because, while we were certainly camping, invariably it occurred in spots where camping was, shall we say, not an official use of the area. That particular evening, we raised out tents in the car park.

The sun rose, but the forest remained dark. True to the book's word, the robin and honeyeater where easily found poking around just outside of our tents. With those two in the bag, the birding would get tough as we set out to try and find a Victoria's Riflebird. Foreign bird sounds reached my ears, and the novelty of a wholly new ecosystem stimulated and confused my senses. Peering into the dark canopy I searched in vain. Thankfully I had companions, and Nicole, in top form, had spotted one for me. My first bird of paradise! Like so many times in my life, that unbridled boyish joy could not be contained. A moment to savor in what I hope is the first of many as I journey through life. As is the case with most of the wonderful birds and places I dream of, my hope is that I reach them before the proverbial "progress of man" does. Better yet, I hope that from their shaded rainforest homes, the birds sing out to remind us of the world's endless forms most beautiful, lest we fire up the chainsaws and make our planet a much lonelier and poorer place.

 Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, my hunger for new birds enveloped me as I eased into my element. Through the park we went, binoculars poised and ears tuned to even the faintest rustle of leaves. However, the tropics can deny even the most ardent pursuer their catch. The Golden Bowerbird and the Fernwren would not yield from the gloomy forest regardless of my internal yearnings. 

Nicole taking a break from birding

 With only 12 days and lots of ground to cover, it was time to move on. As we began the slow drive out, not one, but four Southern Cassowary wattle on to the forest road. Two adults and two young, we couldn't' have been any luckier. Ignoring us, they worked the road and then as quickly as they came, melted back into the forest. These birds, with insanely powerful legs and a don't mess with me attitude, are the guardians of the forest. They eat up to 50 different kinds of fruit and maintain its diversity and health by propagating seeds throughout the forest.

Slipping by.
 This trip is going to be one hell of a ride!

Part 1 - Etty Bay and Australia Day

It was to the promise of spectacular endemic birds, saltwater crocodiles and ancient rainforest that me, Nicole, and her friend Ali undertook an ill-planned adventure. Now perhaps ill-planned is not the right term. You see, when your objective is birds, and the location happens to be in the tropics, no amount of planing will save you. You have to go with the flow, make on-the-spot decisions and live with the results. Its a thinkers game. Maximize the number of endemic birds with the limited amount of time and money that you have and hope you make the right choices! And in an expensive place like Australia, limited funds do become a problem if you're not frugal!

Rental Car = $600
Binoculars = $400
Bird finding guide = $40
Swimming Trunks = $5
Ball cap = $7

Birding roadtrip in Australia = Priceless!!

So off we went. Roundabouts, Macas, wallabies and the prospects of new and exciting birds blurred together as I took to the road on the left for the first time! The great-barrier reef and greyhound hopping were done (tales for another post) and it was time to head out of Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands, Marreeba, Mt Lewis and the Daintree Rainforests.

This is great! With a vehicle, the birds will fall like republican presidential candidates, hard, fast and in quick succession.

Out of the city and at the first birding stop we get......................................nothing. No Pratincoles or Little Curlews to delight us, only empty sod farms and one freshly road-killed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Ironically, I was incapable of finding an alive Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Australia or New Zealand despite concentrated efforts. Naturally, this bird now ranks very highly on my nemesis list which I keep in my head. For the record, this list also includes other great luminaries such as the Audubon's Oriole, the Manx Shearwater and the Sabine's Gull.

Contemplating the lack of birds (the sod farms were behind me)!

With this scintillating start we made another important choice. Our original destination was Crater National Park in the Atherton Tablelands and while Southern Cassowary range throughout the area they weren't a guaranteed thing. Consequently, having received some intel on a can't miss spot for this species we adjusted our plan. The thing is, it was quite out of the way, but with a bird like the Southern Cassowary, it's one you just can't miss.

With figurative dollar bills flying out the end of the tailpipe, we arrive at Etty Bay. This should be a cinch. Oh right, it's Australia Day and the place looks like Miami Beach during Spring Break...... just our luck. With a sheepish air, we take to the water for a swim thinking the birding gods would not be favoring us today!

Lost in thought, Nicole suddenly loses her mind and starts yapping hysterically. Sure as hell, a Cassowary is strutting down the lane toward the beach oblivious to the drunk revelers. Looks like our luck had turned. We spend the next 20 minutes or so following the bird around as it searches for fruit amongst the people and cars. We even posed for a few pics before finally making our exit and hitting the road.

Working the beach away from the party-goers.

Posing in front of the star attraction.