For the last 18 days, I have been leading a birding tour in north-eastern Queensland, Australia. There were 10 of us in all, all from B.C. except one from Manitoba. Six of the participants had never been to Australia before. The trip started and ended in Cairns; in between we visited coastal rainforests, upland rainforests, the drier forests a little further west, the arid lands even further west, plus an assortment of wetlands.
Before the trip began, I was hoping we would see 250 species. In the end we had a list of 273. I cannot begin to name all the species we saw, but I will outline a few highlights. There were times when the birds I considered to be highlights were not so highly thought of by all participants. This shortlist will include those that the I appreciated plus those the group most enjoyed.
Without doubt, we all agreed that our best sighting was the Southern Cassowary. Not only did we see this prehistoric looking creature, but we spent almost 30 minutes watching two adults and a four-week-old chick bathing and playing in a stream. The adults would completely submerge their entire bodies with just a head above water. The young one tried to submerge once or twice, but just couldn’t quite get the hang of it. They all seemed to enjoy the relief from the heat.
Another highlight was the few hours we spent at Cumberland Dam, well inland from the coast, near Georgetown. This is arid country and available water is a big draw to birds, especially during the period of drought which is currently affecting this part of the country. There are actually two large ponds here and it was sometimes difficult to know which one to watch. We spent a total of five hours watching the ponds at the end of one day and the beginning of the next. In all, 78 species were seen at the ponds. Perhaps 25 of them were water birds, but the rest just came in to drink or bathe. There was an abundance of birdlife present, but clearly the stars of the show on this day were the Budgerigars. While many have seen these little parrots in cages, it’s completely different to see flocks of several hundred wild budgies wheeling around in the sky in tight flocks. They seemed to be quite hesitant to come down, and when a flock did decide to drink, it was indeed a quick sip; touching down for perhaps two seconds before wheeling way again. There were other parrots there, too. Cockatiels, Galahs, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorikeets, and Red-winged Parrots all drank at the ponds.
One of the harder groups of birds to see in arid Australia is the finch family. These small birds disperse over the open arid country during the day in search of seeds. They are almost impossible to find during the day. But at the beginning and end of each day they visit waterholes to drink. Four species came during our time there: Masked Finch, Black-throated Finch, Double-barred Finch and Zebra Finch.
This week I have described our “best bird,” the Cassowary, and our best location, the arid outback town of Georgetown. Next time I’ll introduce you to some of the other tropical delights we encountered during our travels.