Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Orbost and Cape Conran National Park

In Victoria the Labour Day long weekend in March is the accepted end of the summer holiday period. People pack their cars and caravans and head for the coast for one final fling in the surf and lakes, and this year we joined in and headed for the Cape Conran National Park, a large coastal park in East Gippsland. For many years now we have done this trip on a long weekend in January but this year in January the Princes Highway was closed by bushfires.
Cape Conran area. Yeerung River is the small river to the right of the cape.

As usual we booked into the Countryman Motel in Orbost from where we have easy access to many great birding places, as well as a selection of cafes and hotels for food. We have been doing this trip for so long now we don't even have to do much planning, we now know where the best birding spots are and what time of day we should be there.
Early morning over the Snowy River plains, south of Orbost

Morning mist over the Orbost sale yards

This year was a bit different though, a Beach Stone-curlew had been seen at Marlo, near the mouth of the Snowy River. This is a notable bird in Vic because they normally don't come south of the north coast of New South Wales. There are a few historic reports of birds on the NSW south coast and even a few on the coast of far-east Vic. However, for some reason known only to Beach Stone-curlews this year there are two in Vic; one on Cape Otway to the south-west of Melbourne and the one at Marlo, south of Orbost. They are a very striking bird and I have heard them described as something Walt Disney could have designed.
Beach Stone-curlew. When we first saw it it was sitting behind the log

A friend in Marlo had given us good directions so as soon as we arrived on Saturday it was "off to the beach", not with bathers and towels but with binoculars and cameras. I am not fond of the beach because beaches have too much sand and it gets in your bathers, and it sticks to your feet and makes walking uncomfortable. This was an important bird though and I had to make an exception, so I ignored the sand in my shoes as we crossed the beach and willingly waded out into the calf-deep water to cross the lagoon to where the stone-curlew had been seen. It was not easy to find because, despite being a large bird, it liked to rest in the tangle of driftwood and until one got quite close it just sat hidden. We did find it and I quickly forgot the discomfort of wet, sandy feet.
Beach Stone-curlew

Mouth of the Snowy River

Once the stone-curlew was safely ticked off we settled into our normal routine. The East Cape boat launching ramp is the place to go for Pilotbirds. All you have to do is walk around the carpark and they dance all over your toes (if you are lucky, smile). It is also good for Eastern Whipbirds and sea birds. Get there early though because the car park fills quickly with cars and boat trailers and people.
Pilotbird displaying

Pilotbird displaying

Pilotbird in full song

A bit further up the road is the Yeerung River and the little bridge that crosses it. Here we know we can always find Southern Emu-wrens and Beautiful Firetails. Just over the bridge is a track that follows the river down to the ocean and it is a good walk for Crescent Honeyeaters, Bassian Thrush and "little brown birds".
Beautiful Firetail

This year we came around a corner and found a Tree Goanna (Varanus varius) sunning against a tree trunk. They are also called Lace Monitors which I think is a much nicer name but then lace is a delicate fabric and these guys are certainly not delicate. We often see them on this track but this one was a monster! By doing a bit of rough measuring and estimating this particular monitor, from the tip of its very big nose to the tip of its tail was over 2 metres (6 foot 6 inches) long. Yep, its the size of a small tree, so maybe Tree Goanna is right after all.
Tree Goanna on a dead banksia trunk


Heathland at Yeerung River where Beautiful Firetails and Southern Emu-wrens can be found

On the banks of the Snowy River back up in Orbost we found a smaller, but still large, Eastern Water Dragon (Intellagama lesueurii). The field guide says they grow to 25 cm (10 inches) not counting the tail but one we saw looked much longer than that, maybe just because the tail is so long and thick.
Young Eastern Water Dragon

Adult Eastern Water Dragon

Another favourite spot is the Cabbage Tree Palms Reserve, just north of Cape Conran. It is not large but it is a relatively undisturbed area of coastal rain forest with a creek running through it. Platypus live in the creek and Azure Kingfishers are sometimes seen on the overhanging branches. I find these diminutive birds a very pleasurable challenge because they can be very hard to see, despite their bright colouring, and will usually flash away as soon as I get my binoculars on them. We actually found them at three spots this trip, once in a pond where the Marlo Rd goes under the highway, once on the Yeerung River and once at Cabbage Tree Palms Reserve.
Azure Kingfisher at Cabbage Tree Palms reserve

Azure Kingfisher. On of the smallest Kingfishers at 16 - 19 cm

The other end of the Kingfisher scale. Laughing Kookaburra at 40 - 48 cm

Lyrebirds are a regular at the reserve as well as Large-billed Scrub-wrens, Brown Gerygone, Rufous Fantails, Eastern Whipbird and so many more. The mosquitoes, bush-ticks and leeches also love his area so if you are tempted to squat or lie down for a better look at a bird do make sure you check yourself over for unwanted passengers. The leeches make themselves known fairly quickly, and sometimes messily, but the ticks can be smaller than a pin head so make sure you check carefully as you put your pyjamas on. This is a good spot for lunch in summer as you can get some shade and the sun penetrates through the rain forest and makes the smaller birds easier to see. There are no toilets but the tables in the clearing are a great spot to sit and look for birds in the tree tops, like Topknot Pigeons and King Parrots.
Male Superb Lyrebirds crossing the path at Cabbage Tree Palms Reserve

The lighting was not good but this shows the length of the tail and the two feathers that make the outer edge of the lyre when in display. The bird in the foreground has them crossed, perhaps to protest them as he moves through thick under-growth.

Large-billed Scrub-wren

The Cape Conran area is also a wonderful place for night birds and White-throated Nightjar can sometimes be found along the Cape Conran Rd., but not on this trip unfortunately. By driving the Conran to Cabbage Tree Rd, the Old Coast Road and the Cabbage Tree Road while looking for eye-shine we did, however, find three species of forest loving owls; Sooty, Powerful and Masked.
Male Gang Gang Cockatoo

Female Gang Gang Cockatoo

After 3 days of birding I found 102 species, all within this one reasonably small area.
Reflections in the Yeerung River

Echidna crossing the road at East Cape

A side note to the weekend was the bushfires that started north of the Princes Highway in mid January. Fires are not uncommon in this area but this year's fires are bigger and in more inaccessible areas than normal and, after more than 2 months, they are still burning in some of the out of the way valleys east of the snowy river. They are not getting coverage in the Melbourne press anymore, possibly because "no lives or property are at risk", but the damage to wildlife and forests will be devastating. More than 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres) of forest have been burnt out and the largest area of burnt forest has a perimeter of over 840 kms.
Map showing areas burnt out in the 2014 fires

Volunteer firefighter's Base Camp at Newmerella on the Princes Highway, just west of Orbost

Tent accommodation at the Base Camp for the firefighters

Smoke haze hanging over Orbost and the hills of the Great Dividing Range

Young Australasian Darters at the nest, Orbost. The photo was taken in the morning and by the afternoon they had left the nest.

Male Australasian Darter

Gang Gang Cockatoos

Male Mistletoebird

White-throated Needletail over Cape Conran

Pair of White-throated Needletail in courtship flight. 

Pied Oyster-catchers. As they flew over the shallow water small fish were jumping in fear at the passing shadows on the water.

Fire damaged eucalypts regenerate by growing leaves and small branches from the trunk and main limbs. This and the next photo show regeneration of growth from fires in January 2011.

Fire damaged trees.

All images & text © Jenny Spry 


  1. Hi Jen, great trip report as usual, I thought you might like to know you entered Western Gerygone for the Cabbage Palms section instead of presumably Brown Gerygone? Cheers, Steve Davidson

  2. Jenny please have a look at my blog @ www.biophiliarts.com entitled Sanctuary East Gippsland. I have reproduced a photo of yours and kindly request permission to use same. I have included a link to your blogspot and fully acknowledged the source. Let me know if there is a problem and I shall remove it. Kind Regards, Jo Moulton