Aleutian is no illusion

Aleutian Tern – undisputed high-light of this 2019/2020 Australia trip

For the final birding excursion of our current Australia trip we decided to head back to the tern roost near Old Bar, two hours north of Newcastle. Missing the Roseate Tern on our previous visit was disappointing – it would have provided a good Hunter ‘tick’ – although I have seen them in Australia before. But the really crushing blow was to miss-out on seeing the small group of wintering Aleutian Tern – only discovered here in 2017. These highly pelagic birds, more closely related to Bridled & Sooty Tern than to the nearest confusable species Common Tern (Australian race), breed in colonies on coasts and islands in Alaska and easternmost Siberian, including the Aleutian Islands. They are long-distant migrants, wintering in Australasia and Oceania. Incredibly one wandering bird was seen on the Farne Islands in 1979 – the only Western Palearctic record.

It was 37 degrees as we headed up the beach towards the roost. The tide was low and there were perhaps a hundred mixed terns on the sand-bar when we arrived. The only other observer had been there for a couple of hours but seen nothing of particular interest. Soon after we’d started scanning we picked up an unusual looking bird bathing and preening. It seemed to have some of the characteristics we were looking for but it wasn’t ‘a classic’ and it soon departed – we let it go. After another hour a bird flew in to join the couple of Common Tern that were already present – this bird looked very promising. A careful check of the id features (white of the fore-head reaching behind the eye, brownish cap, dark trailing edge to the inner under-wing, dagger-like bill profile, pale fringes to the tertials, etc) confirmed that it was indeed an Aleutian Tern! Photos of the original bird seem to confirm its identity as well. Numbers at this site have dropped significantly this year (down from nearly twenty in 2018/19), so I count myself doubly fortune to have seen them at all – who knows how long these ocean wanderers will continue to vacation along this stretch of the NSW coast?

Another shot showing crucial under-wing pattern


Mt Lewis and the Atherton Tablelands

Record shot of Blue-faced Parrot-finch – the ‘must see’ species on Mt Lewis

Taking a break from the pool, crazy golf, pedal-cars etc we did manage a days birding during our recent family holiday in Cairns. We were up before 4.00am to drive the two hours inland to arrive at Mt Lewis for dawn. As anyone will know, it’s the first hour or so after day-break when birding in tropical rainforests is at it’s best. We drove the 10k track to the top of the mountain in the gloom, with tantalising glimpses of bird silhouettes all along the road and snatches of bird-song coming through the open windows. As dawn broke we stood in a forest clearing, taking in the atmosphere and the birds. Amazingly, our most sort-after species was amongst the first we saw – a single Blue-faced Parrot-finch, was quietly feeding in the seeding grasses right in front of us. It disappeared as quickly as it arrived and it was another hour and a half before we got a second view. Other rain-forest specialities were collected along the track, including noisy Chowchilla, Mountain Thornbill, Atherton Scrubwren, Fern Wren & Bower’s Shrike-thrush. Photography in these circumstances proving challenging, to say the least. We descended the mountain – ‘ticking up’ Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher on the way – to bird the Tablelands. By mid-morning the temperature was in the mid-thirties and birding became increasingly difficult. We failed on Squatter Pigeon but did eventually get good views of several Australian Bustard. The remains of the day were spent at various coastal locations, finishing at the mouth of the Barron River with that Lesser Crested Tern.

A few more photos from Mt Lewis – record shot of lekking Chowchilla to start

Mountain Thornbill – restricted to upland tropical rainforest

Another range-restricted species – Atherton Scrubwren

Bower’s Shrike-thrush

One of several Australian Bustard seen

Dusk at the mouth of the River Barron, after 12 hours birding the Tablelands

Cassowary Country


Southern Cassowary – one of five seen at Etty Bay

I don’t recall looking for Cassowary on our first visit to Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands – we certainly didn’t see one. On our last visit, in 2017, we spent two days missing them around Mission Beach, before finally tracking one down in the carpark of Jindalbah, north of the Daintree River. This trip, with three expectant grand-kids in tow, the pressure was on to find them. Two visits to the current hotspot around Cassowary House, Kuranda, and a return visit to Jindalbah had failed to produce the goods, so yesterday we made a last-ditch attempt to find this magnificent but surprisingly elusive species. This time the chosen location was Etty Bay, another hotspot, an hours drive south of Cairns. To be perfectly honest I thought our chances were slim but we’d hardly passed the ‘Caution Cassowary Crossing’ signs when we encountered our first, wandering nonchalantly along the road. In total, we saw five individuals in the space of half an hour. Even at this prized location we know of some birders who have spent all day looking, without success. How can such a large and, in parts, brightly coloured bird, prove so tricky to find?

One good tern deserves another

Lesser Crested Tern – at last. A world tick

I interrupt our family holiday at Coconut Resort, Cairns, to bring you a report of yet another tern addition to my Aussie list. We spent the day birding Mt Lewis and the Atherton Tablelands (separate report to follow), finishing at the mouth of the Barron River. There was a reasonable selection of waders, Eastern Reef Heron and a few terns blogging off-shore. Most were Little, with a couple of Caspian, but one stood out as being different from the main species present – Crested Tern. Slightly smaller, slimmer and paler, with a tangerine-coloured bill – Lesser Crested Tern. A trip, Aussie and world ‘tick’.

Tale of a lesser Tern

Gull-billed Tern (Asian), affinis – amongst macrotarsa (Australian). Now a full split

Just before we depart north for a family holiday in Queensland I thought I’d recount the story of our quest to add another tern species to my Hunter Bird Observers Club (HBOC) list. I have nothing but admiration for the members of this group who run an excellent bird club, covering the catchment area of the Hunter river, north of Sydney. Compared to my own North East Norfolk Bird Club recording area HBOC is huge – probably bigger than the size of the combined counties of East Anglia. So creating, maintaining or increasing a HBOC list is no mean feat. Last time I was out here I achieved the minor milestone of ‘300 in the Hunter’ – the ‘big guns’ here all have lists of well over 400! So, on our second day in NSW, we headed a couple of hours north up the coast to visit a known tern roost where, amongst the regulars, a recently discovered Roseate Tern has been roosting for over a week. However, on the day of our visit, the tern decided to roost elsewhere – apparently the first time it had done so during its stay! As luck would have it though, much closer to home at Stockton sand-spit, another less-rare tern was hanging about. Yesterday, on our second attempt, we nailed it. This was an Asian Gull-billed Tern – a recent split from the endemic Australian Gull-billed Tern – which is seen in the Hunter area on a near annual basis. It really is distinctive though, being smaller than its Aussie counter-part, a shade darker, with a slightly different head profile and, conveniently for us, in contrasting winter plumage. A lesser Tern, but a good looking bird and a ‘Hunter tick’ for me!

A new decade and another world trip

Hooded Plover – always good to catch up with this scarce Southern Hemisphere wader

We’re just reaching the end of of the first stage of our current world trip – visiting family and friends in Australia and South America. We’ve been in Victoria for nearly ten days, staying with my brother in Edithvale, on the edge of Melbourne Bay, and at Wilson’s Promontory. I’ve been struck-down with a bad dose of ‘airline lung’ ever since we got here and the weather has been even more unpredictable than is usual for Melbourne, with highs over 40 degrees and overnight lows down to just five at Wilson’s Prom. The current devastating bush fires across Victoria and New South Wales have also impacted, with thick smog here, even in the city. Nonetheless we have been able to get out and do some birding – racking up over 130 species so far. A couple of trips to Werribee – ‘the most impressive sewage works in the Southern Hemisphere!’ – and some wader spots around the Prom have helped boost the wader and wildfowl list but, unfortunately, on our only trip to the ‘highlands’ – to look for forest species – the entire area was closed due to a total fire ban. It always takes me time to get my eye (and ear) in over here so most of the stuff has been at the ‘regular’ end of the scale, but highlights have included: Brolga, Hooded Plover, Freckled Duck and that ‘odd looking’ shelduck, which has been creating a bit of a stir locally, at Werribee. We’re off to Newcastle this morning to see Dan, Morgan and the kids and probably do a bit more intensive birding – I know there are a couple of  Hunter Valley ticks waiting for me up there. We then move on to Queensland for a family holiday, where I expect my next post to come from (but we’ll see!)

Brolga – only the second time I’ve seen these magnificent cranes – both times at Werribee

A bit of a random selection of other stuff, starting with Sacred Kingfisher – the default species for Victoria

A rainforest speciality – Flame Robin – seen feeding young at the nest

Both species of spoonbill – Royal & Yellow-billed – together at Werribee

One of several hirundine species – Fairy Martin

Sharpie – the default wader for these parts – Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

And to close, that odd-looking shelduck (possible Cape or Paradise?) at Werribee

Autumn in Andalucia

The iconic Andalucian species – White-headed Duck

We’ve just returned from one of our regular early autumn birding trips to Andalucia. We flew on this occasion with Jet2 from Stansted to Malaga – very impressed with their service, hired a car from OK Rental and stayed in Antequera, Vejer de la Frontera and, for the last three nights, at Las Margaritas in Tarifa. We were joined by Neil, my long-standing birding friend, and his partner Nicola. The weather was warm (up to 42 degrees on occasions) with a moderate easterly wind and good visibility throughout, which meant that is was far from ideal conditions for observing raptor migration. With the relative dry conditions and a lack of any open water on La Handa the birding was harder than usual, but we did manage to clock up 163 species in the week nonetheless, including all five breeding species of swift – the undoubted highlight of this years trip! The supporting cast included: White-headed Duck (over 70 on Laguna Medina), Marbled Teal, Ferruginous Duck, Black Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, Bonelli’s Eagle, 22 species of wader, Slender-billed & Audouin’s Gull, Red-necked Nightjar, Azure-winged Magpie, Calandra & Thekla Lark, Bonelli’s, Olivaceous, Sub-alpine and Orphan Warbler, Spotless Starling, Rock Sparrow, Tawny Pipit, Hawfinch and Crossbill. With several interesting butterfly and dragonfly sp added to the mix, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable and relatively relaxing holiday – although it’s true we were out of our hotel from 07.00 to 23.00 on one occasion!

Amongst the 22 wader species seen were plenty of Curlew Sandpiper 

Slender-billed Gull were plentiful at the Bonanza salt-pans and Los Lanches

Also along the beach at Los Lanches – Cory’s Shearwater came close to the shore

Passerine interest was many and varied – with Zitting Cisticola

Rock Bunting


Greater Short-toed Lark

and Olivaceous Warbler

Hoopoe added a splash of colour

But it’s really the raptors which provide the interest and challenge to an Andalucian autumn

Here is a juvenile (pale form) Short-toed Eagle

A scarce Bonelli’s Eagle

and best of all on this trip – melanistic form of Montagu’s Harrier

If the raptors aren’t obliging then usually the storks are

With careful observation the much scarcer Black Stork can be found

But the real highlight of this years trip were the swifts. Along with the more regularly encountered Alpine, Common and Pallid, we found several late breeding Little Swift (record shot)

Here’s one leaving it’s nest

and, for the first time in probably the last half-dozen visits – White-rumped 

This part of Spain is also home to a number of self-sustaining populations of imported species, including Common Waxbill

With dragonflies and butterflies providing additional interest – here Violet Dropwing in the foreground

Another good trip to Spain, with great scenery, food and birds.. we’ll be back before long!