Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Townsville and the BIG WET

Some plans look really good when you are sitting at home with a cup of tea and a field guide. Our flights for Norfolk Island had been changed and we had to fly back through Brisbane. Now, everyone knows that Townsville is right next door to Brisbane, right? well nearly, just a few thousand ks away. So, if I had to come back to Melbourne via Brisbane I might as well do a short detour to Townsville and tick off a couple of easy birds.

I needed a zitting cisticola, a rufous owl and a pale-vented bush-hen. Simple. I would allow myself a day and a half each for the cisticola and bush-hen and 3 nights for the owl. Easy. I booked my flights and relaxed.

On Saturday afternoon we arrived back in Brisbane and my friend Ian and I boarded the plane for Townsville. Ian lives just north of Townsville and had been very polite about my chances of seeing the 3 birds in 3 days. He didn’t even laugh. I am a born optimist so I was still confident, but the weather forecast said it was raining in Townsville. We got off the plane and there was no rain, just a few puddles. We drove to Ian’s and later, as I lay in bed, the heavens opened.
iPod photo of the rain from Ian's veranda
On Sunday morning it was raining hard so I thought I would just check out a few places and come home. I went to the Town Common and drove in. About 500 metres in the road was covered in water and the radio was telling me 200 mm of rain had fallen since Saturday morning. Not a problem, I will come back tomorrow when the water level drops, I thought.
Bush Stone-curlew sheltering on the flooded golf course
Next stop was the Palmetum to check the owl roost. The owl was not in the roost tree and it was raining again. Hard. Very hard. Ah well, I thought, I might as well stay in the car and go to Giru for the cisticola. The man on the local ABC radio was now telling me about flooded roads.
Flooded bunker at the 18th and fairways turned to lakes
At Giru I turned onto Hodel Rd and headed for the cisticola site, down near the boat ramp. The rain was still bucketing down and at one point there was 25mm or so of water over the bitumen. I remembered the ads I had seen on TV. Don’t drive through floodwater, but I could still see the white lines, and it wasn’t flowing, just a big long puddle, I would take a chance. The road turned to gravel with potholes filled with water. I passed a windmill on a rise and ahead the road disappeared into brown water. This time I listened to the ads and turned my diminutive hire car around.
Masked Lapwing race miles in a flooded turf farm
Back down the road there was a sign that read “Carrick Plains Wildlife Refuge” and in the grassland on either side of the road both the zitting and golden-headed cisticolas were calling loudly. After an hour of listening and looking but seeing nothing except golden-headeds, at 1500 a few zitting cisticola finally decided to do some display flights for me. Without warning a bird would be high in the sky doing short zit calls and hovering on a blur of brown wings before plummeting back down to earth. Photos eluded me as drab brown birds against a grey, stormy sky in the rain are very hard to focus a camera on. And anyway, if I had pointed the camera toward the sky the lens would have turned into a swimming pool in seconds. Still, one bird down, two to go.
iPod photo of Carrick Wildlife Refuge Zitting Cisticola habitat

Zitting Cisticola habitat above which they were displaying

On Monday morning at 0630 I left the house and headed for the Town Common. The ABC radioman told me that 200mm of rain had fallen on Saturday and 237 more on Sunday. This was late March, this was not meant to be happening. At the Town Common the road was still under water and the bush-hens were hiding under a leaf somewhere. At 0800 the ranger closed the gate to the common. What next? The radioman said the Ross River dam was flooding over the spillway. Time for a look. I drove out to the dam but all the roads were torn up for repairs and the rain was bucketing. I decided to try the Palmetum again but still no owls, so I went home. Bother. Just one day left and I still need 2 birds.
Male Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo race banksii  
Tuesday was worse. The power in the house was off. A mini-tornado had torn up a suburb in Townsville and it was still raining really, really hard. Giru school was closed and the town was cut off. One location had had 375 mm. The Town Common was still closed. The Palmetum was now closed too. The Bruce Highway was cut on both sides of town.
Female Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo race banksii 
There was only one thing for it. I called past the local supermarket and bought two big tubs of premium grade ice cream, one caramel and macadamia and one chocolate cookie, and went home. Ian brewed us some really beautiful coffee. Sigh. There is nothing like comfort food to compensate for bad birding weather. Another 200mm of rain had fallen in Townsville. That made over 800mm in four days. Nearly a metre of rain in just four days. Unbelievable. Spectacular.
A wet Blue-winged Kookaburra taken from the veranda
By the time I left on Wednesday morning I had seen 52 species of birds. I had watched roads go under water. I had seen a zitting cisticola, which was a tick. I had experienced a massive wet season storm so that was another tick. I had had three days of extreme birding. I scored the visit as a big success. 

And missing the owl and bush-hen just means that I have a good reason to go back, I am sure that in fine weather they will be just too easy.

Female Pheasant Coucal - in the rain
Male Pheasant Coucal - in the rain
Female Eastern Koel - in the rain
The pair of Brolga at Giru were very wet so ...
this stick throwing display may have just been frustration
Helmetted (Hornbilled) Friarbird. Out of focus but beautiful back markings - in the rain

Contorting to feed and green wing marking not shown in some guides - in the rain

Rainbow Lorikeet - in the rain
Photos all © Jen Spry and not to be re-used without permission

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Norfolk Island 10th to 17th March

Way back in 2002 four of us started doing an extended birding trip each year. This not only allowed us to see new birds but also took us to all the wild and wonderful places in Australia that we would be unlikely to get to alone. The first trip was to Broome then, over the years, we have done a grasswren trip, an east coast trip, been to Iron Range, Christmas Island, and Macquarie Island and many other places in between. For this year’s trip we went to Norfolk Island.

We chose Norfolk Island for our 2012 trip because reports have been appearing that the endemic parrot, the Norfolk parakeet [red-crowned parakeet in some publications], is coming close to extinction. As the Norfolk Island white-fronted white-eye has probably already become extinct, with the last accepted sighting being in about 2006, we felt we should get to the island as soon as possible.

So, back in late 2011 dates were checked and bookings made. In high spirits we checked the B-A archive, made lists and and did our homework. Then our easy flight to Norfolk, direct from Melbourne, was cancelled due to Norfolk Air dropping out of the game. Air New Zealand took over but to keep with our chosen dates we now had to fly through Brisbane. Bother!

At 0600 four us converged on Melbourne Airport. A two hour plus flight to Brisbane – a wait and a hook-up with the fifth member of our group – and another two hour plus flight saw us landing on Norfolk Island. The terminal at Norfolk is refreshingly small and informal and apart from some stranger trying to wander off with one of our bags all went well, but what with getting up at 0400 it had been a long day.
Arriving with the airstrip in the foreground. The island is about 5kms by 7kms
As we were wandering dazedly out into the car park we were met by the unexpected sight of our friend Dougald, who had been on the island for about a week. It was an electrifying meeting because he had news of a twitch, a ringed plover at Slaughter Bay. All thoughts of a restful hour or so to recuperate vanished as we rushed for the hire cars. We found the cars and the wonderful owner of our accommodation and proceeded to get the full welcome, which under normal circumstances would have been a delight, but there was a bird, a rare bird at that, and the tide was coming in, the rocks would soon be covered. As soon as politely possible we were out the door and on our way.
Phillip Is foreground and Nepean Is centre. Norfolk Is and Cemetery Bay in the background
Norfolk Island is small. Very small. The drive to the Jetty at Kingston took about 5 minutes and there, on the rocks, right where it should be, was the ringed plover. With the bird safely found, photographed and oohed and aahed over we slipped back into our pre-programmed plans for chasing down the island endemics. Our normal trip technique is to quickly reconnoitre sites as soon as we can, to learn the terrain, and then come back for a proper look later. So that was what we did on Saturday afternoon; we found Slaughter Bay and the wetlands at Kingston, the supermarket, likely dinner spots, the airport runways and Palm Glen. We were all set for Sunday, our first full day.
Ringed Plover on the reef in Slaughter Bay

With a late start and a tourist map all scribbled on with notes from my pre-trip research we headed for Rocky Point Reserve and Hundred Acre [the only place we found the emerald dove, just as we walked in, and an excellent spot for the slender-billed white-eye], then Puppy’s Point [excellent for black noddy, white tern and sea watching], then Captain Cook Monument [more sea watching, grey ternlet, black-winged petrel, white tern, masked booby and great frigatebird] and back past the airport runways. The day finished with a supermarket visit to stock our kitchen with breakfast and lunch food. Fresh items such as milk depend on what the plane brought in each day.
White Tern. How do they catch and hold 4 fish at once?

Preening those gorgeous flight feathers

While speaking of food I will quickly mention dinner options. There are 30+ eating places on the island, we were told, but because we didn’t want to dress up we were limited to a few places in town. The prices compare to mainland prices and the Italian restaurant was excellent. We were going to try the Chinese restaurant but the first night we chose it was closed and the second night it was only serving take-away. The Bowls Club had basic food that was edible and very friendly staff. In fact everyone on the island was friendly. Nice. The Leagues Club, I thought, had better food but it was very popular with the rugby-watching crowd.
California Quail are everywhere

Back with the birding, Palm Glen was the place to go, with the Norfolk parakeets turning up most evenings at about 1830 to feed on the fruiting trees. These trees are a type of guava evidently and we ended up enjoying the fruit as much as the parrots seemed to. According to the rangers, there are meant to be some 200 + parakeets on the island and this is quite possible, but recent reported counts from B-A visitors have been in the range of 2 to 20 birds sighted per trip. Our high count, seen at one time, was 8 birds at Palm Glen.
The favoured perch for the parakeets when they first arrive at Palm Glen

In the guava tree
Palm Glen is also a comfortable and reliable spot for all the other endemics and they can easily be ticked off in few hours. It even has a toilet block and picnic tables. The morepork was heard there one evening but as it blew and rained for most of our stay we could never track one down. The feral species are everywhere and don’t need to be chased, we tripped over them everywhere.
Slender-billed White-eye
Pacific Robin
Pacific Robin
Norfolk Island Gerygone
On Monday we did a morning tour with Margaret Christian and, as everyone says, it is well worth doing. She drove us all over the island and we heard about some of the history, and a bit of the island news. We finished the trip at her place out on Point Howe. She and a few neighbours have worked on eradicating cats and rats so the Black-winged Petrels were nesting around and under her house and boobys were nesting along the cliff edge. Magic.
Black-winged Petrel at nest site
More magic came that afternoon when we stopped on Captain Quintal Drive and peered over the airport’s waist-high, barbed wire and mesh farm fence-like security fence. Helen had her scope up and said, “What’s that?” First thought was a pratincole but the head shape and chest colour were wrong. It was an oriental plover. While we were watching we attracted the attention of the airport staff and the person designated to keep birds off the runway when planes were coming in came over in his ute for a chat. He got out with a large manila-coloured book and our first thought was, “now what, are we going to be chased off?” But no, he was absolutely lovely and the book was an early edition of the Readers Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. The page with the oriental plover was marked so maybe our bird was not the first to be seen on the Island, but it seems it is the first to be reported.
Oriental Plover
On Tuesday the weather was deemed good enough to go to Phillip Island [named after Governor Arthur Phillip of Sydney, Norfolk being first settled the same year that Sydney was] and, after a very bumpy and wet ride over, we pulled into the small sheltered cove. The climb up the cliffs using ropes and foot holes was not easy but the views and bird life were spectacular with Black-winged Petrels and Sooty Terns power-flying all around us. We had to have a local guide with us and she did a brilliant job of showing us all the plants and the endemic skink as well as the birds. The birds seem almost segregated by altitude with the terns and boobys nesting around the cliffs, the noddys, kermadec petrels and wedge-tailed shearwaters using the upper slopes in the protection of the trees and then the white-necked petrels further up the slope again. The couple of hours we had on the island were not long enough but the boat owner said he would consider longer trips if the weather permitted and people asked.

Up the first rope ...
... then across the second one
and the view back down from the very top
The weather is all important. There is no harbour on Norfolk Island and the boats are lowered off the wharf using a crane, the hoisting and lowering being powered by a truck hooked to the long hoist-cable. Getting the boats in and out of the water is a work of art and the owners handle it masterfully, especially as the swell lifts and lowers the tethered boat from below as the truck pulls from above. On Phillip Island one gets off onto a wave-washed rock shelf and makes for higher ground as fast and carefully as possible.
Boat launching from Kingston Jetty
On Wednesday, the weather packed it in with rain and strong south-east winds. Luckily there is plenty of shelter on the islands and we enjoyed lots of birding in the sheltered valleys. The Bridle Path walk and extension out to Bird Rocks is well worth doing. Make sure you start from the east end, at Red Road, though because the Bird Rock track is nearly vertical and walking up it would be very painful.
Moss on the Norfolk Pines
All the other roads on the island are worth exploring but some are very steep and our little hire car with four people on board really struggled. We did not do the track/road to Point Ross and Bumbora Reserve because we were told our car would not get out again. If you want to get to these places and there are four of you think about something other than the bottom end car rental.
Pacific Golden Plover with Phillip Is. in the background
Turnstone and plover in flight over the grass lands at Kingston
After Wednesday we decided that if all you wanted on Norfolk were the endemics, and you could get out to Phillip Island early on, then three full days would be plenty. HOWEVER, there are lots of other things to see and do and there are migrants and vagrants to chase. The full week is easily filled and as we left I was feeling I would have liked just one more day.
Whimbrel in a paddock beside Rooty Hill Rd
Ruddy Turnstone at Kingston
The airport runways at high tide are well worth cruising and if you get out and walk to the fence there are not many bits of it that can’t be seen. We had 137 Pacific golden plover [many in near-full breeding plumage] at one visit, and amongst them were some double-banded plover, and of course the oriental and ringed plover. The paddocks need to be checked too, especially those along Middlegate Road and Rooty Hill Road above Cemetery Bay. We found a whimbrel, and other grass-loving vagrants and migrants are possible. Even bristle-thighed curlew has evidently been reported from the island; well, yes, rarely, but they are on the list.
Pacific Golden Plover alongside the runway ...

coming into breeding plumage
If the feral ducks and geese are included we ended up with 48 species for the week. We stayed at Poinciana Cottages, which are right across from the airport gate and within walking distance to town so it was perfect for our needs. The owners were particularly nice and could not have been more helpful. There is no ocean view but who is in the house during daylight anyway? Duty free prices are advertised on the island but everything I looked at cost more than back home. Petrol when we were there was $2.70 a litre and we used more than one tank full. Food is not cheap but if you allow for a bit extra in your travel budget and sacrificed some birding time I think there would be some excellent meals on the island.
Feral Geese ... and we were told the locals don't eat them
All in all our stay was as expected because we had read lots of the B-A reports before our visit. A few surprises though were: 1) The locals think that the endemic grey-headed blackbird has crossed with the introduced common blackbird and finally became extinct. The young blackbirds on the island certainly retain a brown (grey?) head as they moult into adult plumage but many blackbirds on the island also have bald heads, so maybe there is a deficiency in their food. 2) The white-faced herons have a lot of white down the neck. 3) There is a small (20 +/-) but growing population of swamphens on Phillip Island. They are feeding on petrel chicks and the endangered skinks but it seems that the birds are deemed “pretty” and a tourist attraction on the main island so no one is rushing to exterminate them on Phillip Island.
Purple Swamphen
White-faced Heron
In the B-A reports there are lots of comments as to the best time to visit Norfolk. This middle to late week in March was certainly good for the migrating waders and we saw most of the resident seabirds, even if the Kermadec and white-necked petrels were only chicks in the nest.
Kermadec Petrel chick
Finally, there is an oft-repeated saying on the island that all the visitors are either “newly wed or nearly dead”. Apart from the birdwatchers we met this saying is eerily, scarily, accurate.   

Resting on the way to the top of Phillip Island
The eroded slopes on the top of Phillip Island
View over the ranger's accommodation to Norfolk Island
View back to Norfolk Island
Wandering Tattler with crab

Wandering Tattler showing breeding plumage

Masked Booby

Black-winged Petrel

Black-winged Petrel over Duncombe Bay

Black Noddy with chick
Black Noddy pair at nest on Phillip Island
Two fish found under the Black Noddy Nests at Rocky Point

Sooty Tern and chick
Black-winged Petrel on Phillip Island

Masked Booby

Masked Booby holding small pebble

Common Noddy on Phillip Island
Common Noddy chick
Red-tailed Tropic-bird and chick ...
but how does all that bill go down so deep?

Some birds show a pink tinge to the feathers
Flying across the cliff faces at Rocky Point. A stunning bird
Showing the dark shafts to the primaries
Grey Ternlet on the Phillip Island cliff face
The feral chooks do not show all the field marks of the Red Junglefowl
Sacred Kingfishers are very common and nest in the road cuttings
Golden Whistler
Golden Whistler

Slender-billed White-eye at Hundred Acre
Juvenile Norfolk Island Gerygone with greenish breast
Female Pacific Robin
Grey Fantail
Crab in the rock pools below the Kingston jetty
Feral Duck ... and the locals say they don't eat these either
Pectoral Sandpiper

Accommodation for non-military residents of the penal colony

Penal colony buildings 
All images are copyright © to Jen Spry and are not to be re-used without permission.