Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Part 5 - My 1000th bird.

 I awoke to an empty tent. Peeking my head out of the door I took in the inside of the Abattoir Swamp viewing blind. I noted that the snake that had kept us company the previous evening had departed for greener pastures. It was time for us to do the same. Our next stop was the famous Kingfisher Park which held untold promises of birding glory!

Of course this glory is only rewarded to the folks that rise early with the sun and exhibit an unquenchable determination to overcome any and all obstacles between them and their sought after query. When I went to find Nicole she had already snagged 2 lifers in Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and Blue-winged Kookaburra. Clearly I'd have to pick up my game at this most important of stages.

Rolling along the road with open fields on either side, the forest was not at first obvious tucked back from the road. Upon turning off, the park's welcome sign  and forest rose to greet us. Excitement began to build. As we inched along the dirt road to the park office, we barely had to wait 10 seconds for the first of many amazing and incredible birds to appear from the forest. We didn't need to guess at which species we were looking at; the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher was instantly recognizable with its striking colors, absurd tail feather, and its face on the park's welcome sign!

We make it to the park office despite ourselves, and hopping out, and are promptly greeted by another new bird, the cheery Pale-yellow Robin.

Still not having made it to the front door I look up to behold the exquisite Yellow-breasted Boatbill, a diminutive flycatcher with striking black and yellow plumage. I frantically get Nicole on the bird before it disappears into the canopy.

I will now pause this story to inform you, my dear reader, that the Yellow-breasted Boatbill was my 1000th bird species in life. There exists an adage in the birding community along the lines of : "No one but yourself cares about your bird list, not even your own mother." Perhaps that is entirely true, but seeing as this is my blog, I will bore you with the details and give you permission to take this moment to google the bird in question. Despite this auspicious milestone, I was not immediately aware that I had reached it, only vaguely cognizant that I was hovering around the 1000 marker. Anyway, there you have it folks, I had seen approximately 1/10 of the worlds bird species.

Back to the story. The formalities were taken care of so off we went with one of the owners, who graciously agreed to point out where there was a roosting Papuan Frogmouth. If you think the name sounds strange, wait till you see the bird. Bizarre and otherworldly spring to mind, and all together quite fascinating!

The rest of the day was quite incredible. We stalked the elusive Red-necked Crake, waited patiently for the Macleay's Honeyeater to eat its fruit offerings, and watched the comical Orange-footed Scrubfowl poke around in the leaf litter. I came within a foot of stepping on  Red-bellied Black Snake which bolted away faster then I have ever seen a snake move. Definitely a very shy snake considering its potent venom! We even outdid ourselves by having a proper shower for a change.
*Bird photos are Nicole's.*

Red-browed Crake in the undergrowth
Orange-footed Scrubfowl strutting down the road

Mr. Expert Guide also showed up to have a chat with the park owners. Our favorite Aussie birder even asked us where we had slept the night before. I still don't know why I lied, but I did. I quickly said, oh the park outside Mt. Molloy. In truth, as you well know, we had spent it in the viewing blind. I suspect he knew as well, having mentioned something about seeing our car in the parking lot after dark! Mr. I forget your name, I'm sorry I lied. I guess I felt slightly embarrassed and was caught off guard.

At least that night we had a nice patch of grass at the park to place our tents and rest up for our big day to Mt. Lewis the following morning. It promised to be a doozy. Stay tuned!

The tents!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Part 4: Great Bowerbird and that delicious Raspberry Soda

So it came to pass that on the fifth day... or was it six? seven? fourth?...  we found ourselves in Mt. Molloy.

Despite the completely different setting, this little town seemed entirely familiar. It was like that small town USA that I've stopped in countless times in previous adventures. On the surface seems completely dead, but you know there are a few surprises buried just beneath.

On the hot and dusty day, I was in for a few of those surprises. Stopping at the convenience store, I uncharacteristically purchased a popscicle and a raspberry soda. I have never recalled either tasting as good in all my years! Pleasant surprise number one!

Now one of the great things about small towns is that everyone knows what's happening, and upon seeing our binoculars, the local fellow kindly directed us just a minute down the road to the little town park. Here, he advised we would promptly see Great Bowerbirds and their bowers. Sweet! Pleasant surprise number two!

Having been schooled in bowerology by David Attenborough, and having been lead straight and true by the convenience store clerk, I was all smiles as the birds were found dashing here and there, never straying too far from their lavish bird cribs.

In all of life's myriad experiences, it can sometimes be hard to pin the essence of a trip, an experience, or an event. To realize the moment and accompanying feelings or quick actions that embody a great journey.

That day, having strolled down the sun scorched road with the taste of raspberry lingering on my tongue, I touched on the realization of the present. I was on the opposite side of the world from my home looking at birds that for me, personified the "Down Under". I had found that moment.

Realizations aside, the journey would continue. Sweeping past the sleepy town it was on to Abbatoir Swamp. Despite the name, we witnessed no animal slaughter. To this day, I wonder what great horror occurred there to earn such a black name. The promised Northern Fantail, who's holy light would have broken the evil that the name conjured up, did not materialize. Instead, we were mocked by the calls of the White-browed Crake and the Pale-vented Bush-hen, eternally damned to stalk the grassy marsh unseen.

The peaceful edge of Abattoir Swamp

A lone figure, clothed in white and after the fashion of Steve Erwin appeared in our midst. Who could this character be, we wondered. We quickly quickly realized he was a birder. Would he bring us birding salvation? For not only was this the first  Aussie birder encountered in our travels, but he was also a local guide and self -professed expert on birds of the region.

With the usual pleasantries exchanged, I let forth the questions that my heart so desired to have answered. Questions that all birders in foreign lands must have; where can the birds be found? Do they really exist or are the books just a cruel joke depicting forms that never evolved to grace this world with their beauty?

Expecting satisfaction, I was left with disappointment. He was not very forthcoming despite sitting on a vast wealth of bird knowledge. Even with a little coaxing, he manged but a few spots for us to explore, and with it, came a slightly grating personal reflection. He could not tell us where to find everything or he would not have any business.

I will only briefly reveal the holes in this logic. First, I will remind you in case you have forgotten, that we were three 24 year old boderline-broke Canadians. We hadn't showered in what felt like an eternity - minus the wash at the White-browed Robin spot -, we were living out of a dinky hyundai camping every night, and seemed to be subsiding on only canned tuna and beans! The potential for one of this fella's future clients to choose this type of "adventure" upon hearing from one of us that indeed species X  can be seen in location Y, is approximately zero. People that pay for guides are of a different spirit then the ones that return to Abattoir Swamp at night to sleep in the shelter of the viewing blind!

Despite the paucity of new information we did have one new spot to check; the local elementary school usually holds Squatter Pigeons (we thought we had missed our chance) and maybe a Red-crowned Parrot or two.

Normally, adult strangers strolling onto school grounds, binoculars ablaze, might raise a few eyebrows, especially in the good old United States of America where the media would have us believe that child abductors are waiting around every bend. However, in this delightful corner of the world, for our troubles we were rewarded with great looks at Red-crowned Parrots, and a kindly word from one of the teachers telling us that unfortunately, the Pigeons hadn't been around for the past few weeks and she was sorry we missed them. Now that's an attitude that I can get used to!

Part 3: No Squatter Pigeons here

The exact sequence of events escapes me. What I remember between Crater National Park and Mt. Molloy is a jumble of birds, torrential downpours, checking my email in the MacDonald's, searing heat and one extremely satisfying raspberry soda! So, in the vein of many travel writers, timeline be damned! Disjunct spots will hopefully coalesce into a broader picture as we made our meandering way North. This part of the trek past through drier country before coming back to the sub-topical feel at Mt. Lewis and to the tropical Daintree beyond.

The birds could not be found. The termite-mound dotted landscape whizzed by as I steadfastly took us forward. "There's another spot for them over here" became the line to spur on the troops. The "them" in question were Black-throated Finch, Squatter Pigeon and Black Bittern. Upon reflection, the season was wrong. Not that "they are not found here" wrong, but rather "won't be concentrated here" wrong. Termite mound after termite mound past with nary a living creature about. A country road on which our little Hyundai should not have traveled was our second to last spot for redemption. Some finches shifting through the dry grass got my attention. Not the ones we were looking for but instead the common Double-barred Finch. Using the moniker common may sound like I think less of this species than the aforementioned Black-throats, but such is not the case! These delightful birds would have girls worldwide swooning at their cuteness.

At Tinaroo Creek, down the aptly named Tinaroo Creek Rd, the Black Bittern could not be found. Clearly the finches' charm did not rub off on us. The well used verse, "I'll just have to come back another time", was uttered.

Coming back would of course require getting out. As I was heading down toward the creek, I felt us pass the point of no return in a soft muddy road. I knew that if I could not make it up the other side of the creek there would be no going back the way we came. I conveniently kept this information from my travel companions. *NOTE* (If the rental car agency is reading, I categorically deny going on any unpaved roads and thus breaking our rental agreement). Thankfully, we didn't have to charm any non-existent passerbys in the deserted countryside as I made it up the other side without issue.

So onward we went. Squatter Pigeon corner was noticeably void of any squatters; pigeon or other, and we would leave without seeing any of the species promised in our guide. C'est la Vie.

Willie Wagtail (One of the birds we did see!)

All was not amiss though. At some point in this jumble of a couple of days, the decision was made to drive "out of our way" so we could camp at an actual park. This proved to be a wise decision. The White-browed Robin, a specialty of the region happened to be nesting right at our camp site. Splashing around in the stream as it tumbled across the rocky substrate and around small tree islands, we listened and watched the bird flit from island to island. We even chanced a brief soak in the cool water to wash the road filth from our bodies.

And so it went. A stop here for Cotton Pygmy-Goose, and stop there for Green Pygmy-Goose. A black Kite here, a Brahimy Kite there. The list grew slowly. A distant Australasian Pelican would strangely enough, be the only one of the whole trip for me despite its professed common status. A few would not make it all; Saurus Crane and Apostlebird come to mind.

Neverless we kept on, with the occasional downpour sending us running back to the car to pursue Black-necked Storks another day!

We were careful not to hit any Kangaroos ;)