A 3-day blitz with Simon Starr leading
We starting our bird tour of beautiful Victoria Australia in the spectacular primeval woodlands in Toolangi State Forest.
I landed in Melbourne, Australia mid-morning on January 1 having lost a New Years. The date flipped from 2017 to 2018 in the middle of the long-haul sleep period, somewhere over the Pacific. By the time we landed, the fireworks were long over and cleanup was underway. I’ll get a day back when I return home, but it will be just any ordinary Tuesday, not a fair trade for New Years Eve.
My arrival in Melbourne marked the start of my 4-month sabbatical to be part of Damian Dowling’s lab at Monash University. My research focus during this sabbatical is not birds, but my heart is never far from the next birding trip. I knew that I’d be chomping at the bit to see the birds in Victoria, the state that contains Melbourne. So, I hired Simon Starr as a guide to take me around and introduce me to Victoria birds a couple of days after I arrived. Coincidentally, my former student and fellow American birder, Becca Adrian, was also in Melbourne and she wanted to go on the trip too.
Early on January 6, Simon picked us up at Becca’s house in the eastern Melbourne suburbs. The plan was to start off in wet forest in the hills NE of Melbourne and then to work our way west across the top of the state moving into drier country. We’d end our 3-day birdathon on the coast on the west side of Melbourne and at the Western Treatment Plant, one of the great waterbird locations on the continent.
We arrived at our high-elevation site in Toolangi State Forest just before 10am having seen a Lyrebird on the road on the way up. It was a spectacular morning. Mist was rising through the cathedral of huge trees as shafts of light found gaps in the clouds. And the chorus of birds was impressive. As soon as I stepped from the car I heart the snap of Eastern Whipbirds. I had not heard that species in 8 years, since my last trip to Australia, but the sound is unforgettable and unmistakable. Other bird sounds were apparently not so unforgettable because I heard nothing else familiar.
A Flame Robin waited for us on a fence post as we arrived at Toolangi State Forest.
Almost immediately, Simon found a Flame Robin, one of the four target robin species (three red and a yellow) for the stop, sitting on a fence. A King Parrot flew past and Crimson Rosellas called from the trees. Parrots are always a part of a bird morning in Australia. Moving downslope on a trail through the woods, Simon had us stop and watch a little trickle of water that flowed across the trail. It was a magnet for birds. As we first watched the spring, a Crested Shrike-tit came down to drink, followed by a Striated Pardalote, which was almost immediately joined by Spotted Pardalote. Pardolotes are small forest birds and can be hard to get a look at, so having both species side by side for clear views was a great treat.
Striated Pardalote was part of a parade of birds that came to drink at a spring .
The primary target was Pilotbird, a ground-dwelling skulker that can be very hard to see. But the water trickle was in perfect habitat and we watched and waited. Sure enough, in less than 10 min a Pilotbird appeared and then proceeded to give us great views as it drank and darted back into the understory only to reappear and drink again.
Pilotbird is a southern Australia endemic that we found in Toolangi State Forest.
After adding our fourth robin of the morning, a Pink Robin to go with Flame, Rose, and Eastern Yellow, as well as the scarce and hard to see Gang-Gang Cuckatoo, we drove out of the hills to the north into much drier country.
We made a quick stop at the outskirts of the village of Yea to see but mostly hear a colony of Bell Miners. These odd birds occur only in sporadic colonies of about 20 individuals. They seem to spend all day making sounds like a ringing bell. Simon said these would be the only Bell Miners of the trip, and he was right.
I saw my first Superb Fairwren at Cummins Reserve near Yea.
In the Cummins Reserve near Yea, we added Weebill, Leaden Flycatcher, Sacred Kingfisher, and I got my first look at Superb Fairywren. Superb Fairywrens are a common species that occur everywhere in Victoria, but it is a fantastic bird not made less impressive by its commonness. An Azure Kingfisher flashed past but only Simon and Becca caught a glimpse of it. That was one of the very few birds of the whole trip that were detected but that Simon couldn't put both Becca and me on.
We found wild Emus on Defense Department land NW of Yea.
From Yea we drove NW into drier and more open country and as we drove along the edge of a fenced military training area, Simon pull over and with a sly smile asked, "Want to see an Emu?". Sure enough in the open forest across the street, three Emu were strutting around. That is the fourth species of ratite that I've seen in the wild, adding to my sightings of Common Ostrich, Darwin's Rhea, and North Island Brown Kiwi.
Our next stop was the very dry forests of Tooborac State Forest where we got no significant new species (we saw Fuscous Honeyeaters for the first time but they became easy for the next 24 hours of birding). The stop was not completely uneventful, though, because we manage to force a branch through one of Simon's tires. It was a fluke accent to have a stick puncture a tire. Simon had a spare but it was a low speed, temporary tire, and we would have to spend some valuable morning birding time the next day getting a replacement. (The stick had unfortunately gone through the sidewall of Simon's tire, ruining it.)
Sulfur-crested Cockatoos on the ground with a flock of sheep. This was near where we found the rare Square-tailed Kite.
But we still had a few minutes of daylight left so we birded the open country around Tooborac. I was amazed at a huge flock of corellas, cockatoos, and gallahs feeding in a pasture when suddenly the whole flock went up. Simon said "look for a raptor" and almost immediately I spotted a bird that had the giz of a turkey vulture to this American birder. I called out "raptor with wings held in a V" and Simon instantly yelled, "that could be Square-tailed Kite". And indeed it was. We didn't get tremendous views but we watched it flap away, no parrot in its talons.
Soon after the lucky sighting of the Square-tailed Kite Simon started picking out swifts zipping around high in the afternoon sky. We got a nice clear look at one and it was a White-throated Needletail with a distinct white belly and undertail (the white throat was not very distinct to me). These graceful fliers winter in Australia after breeding in northern Asia. They are widespread but scarce throughout eastern Australia and we were happy to have a chance to see them.
We ended the birding day looking at open-country birds along the drive to the country cottage where Simon had booked us to spend the night. It was a fantastic place for a group of birders to stay. Along the drive up to the cottage, through knee-high grassland, birds seemed to be everywhere. As we were admiring a flock of Yellow-rumped Thornbills, which were acting exactly like a flock of Palm Warblers in the winter in Alabama, and watching two Rainbow Bee-eaters sallying out to catch dragonflies, an Australian Hobby flew past. It was a fun way to end a great day of birding.
Over dinner at a great little bar in Heathcote, we tallied our bird lists. We saw over 90 species on the day, without making any effort to go after easy and common birds, and 37 were life birds for me. On the day, we birded wet forest with towering trees, dry forest with small trees but many endemic birds, and beautiful rolling grasslands. And Simon said that we were just getting started.