We’ve driven from our hotel near Columbo airport a few hours north-east to Sigiriya – an important wildlife sanctuary and world heritage site. We made brief stops on route to stretch our legs and do a spot of birding. This afternoon we birded around the hotel, the highlight being stunning close-up views of Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher – albeit in a very shaded spot, making photos difficult. This evening we had our first expedition for night time species. We were just getting off the bus when a car with a family in it backed slowly towards us – ‘would we like to see a Brown Fish-owl?’ said the occupants. You betcha! Just along the road, sat a few feet above the ground, was this beauty!
We arrived in Sri Lanka late last night, after a ten hour flight from Melbourne, via Singapore. We’re staying at the Tamarind Tree Hotel prior to the start of our birding tour. As I write, most of the party have assembled – including ‘Gresham Phil’! We’ve spent the day birding the extensive grounds of the hotel, swimming in the pool and generally relaxing. It’s been a great opportunity to begin to get to know each other and get our ‘eye in’ on some of the commoner birds. Not sure just how many species we’ve seen – log-call isn’t until later this evening – but we have had a couple of endemics already and great views of Paradise Flycatcher. I missed the Mongoose whilst I was taking a shower! Not sure how we’ll get on for WiFi for the next two weeks but I’ll blog when I can.
The highlight of our trip to the Western Treatment Plant yesterday was the close encounters with Brolga. We’ve seen these magnificent cranes at WTP before, on a couple of occasions, but never at such close-quarters. We first came across four adults on a narrow pond between two tracks – affording great views. Later we saw them fly off inland. On our final drive around ‘T-section’ an adult stepped out from the tall grass right in front of the car, quickly followed by another and then.. a youngster! Presumably a locally bred bird.
On our walk this morning a late addition to the trip list, a Goldfinch!
The Western Treatment Plant, WTP – Melbourne’s main sewage works – is a great place to bird, but with around 100 settling ponds to check, spread over a vast area, with no shade – yesterday’s temperatures reached 36 deg. – it can be a little overwhelming at times. We collected our key from Werribee Zoo at nine thirty and didn’t leave till around three in the afternoon. Much of the eastern section was closed off, which did narrow the search area somewhat. There were thousands of ducks – mostly Australian Shelduck – but we did manage to find a few other species including Australian Shoveler, a target bird. The morning coffee-stop provided great views of Australian Spotted Crake and by lunch we’d managed to add a few more wader species: Greenshank, Marsh & Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Red-capped Plover to the trip list. There were several tern species, including Whiskered – another trip tick. Given the current conditions, and general lack of shorebirds, we were very satisfied with our efforts. However, the indisputable highlight of our visit were the Brolga – subject of a separate blog.
We leave Australia this afternoon, bound for Sri Lanka. It’s been a fabulous trip so far, seeing & sharing with family again, enjoying the weather, re-visiting old haunts and adding to my Australia and Hunter bird lists. Our total for this trip is 237 – well down on previous visits – but understandable in the current circumstances. At times the whole covid thing has felt like playing Russian roulette and the added burden of testing and documentation has been daunting, but was it worth it? – you bet!
We drove back to Melbourne yesterday, ready for our Sri Lanka pre-flight PCR test this morning – fingers crossed! This provided us with the opportunity to call in at the local park to do a bit more birding. With temperatures in the low 30’s most of the bush birds were well hidden but there were a few waterbirds out and about. We managed to increase our trip list by three: the aptly named Blue-billed Duck – the region’s only ‘stiff-tail’, Pink-eared Duck and Hoary-headed Grebe. A walk along Squeaky Beach on the Prom, prior to our departure yesterday, failed to produce the hoped-for Hooded Plover. We did however add Sooty Oystercatcher to our meagre trip list of waders. On the way to the beach a low-flying group of ‘needle-tails’ provided a rare Australian tick – Pacific Swift. Unfortunately we were on a ‘no stopping’ section of the highway. By the time we got back to the spot the bird had gone. Tomorrow, in a last-ditch attempt to find some shorebirds, we’ve planned a visit to Australia’s largest sewage works – the legendary Western treatment works at Werribee – nice!
Ten years ago, when we were over here, we stopped off at Sale Common on our way back home from Hundred Mile Beach. I remember the boardwalk around the wetlands as being full of interesting wildlife – including plenty of waterbirds and a Red-bellied Black snake which refused to shift off the path and we had to go the long way round to avoid annoying it! Yesterday we indulged in a bit of nostalgia and made a return visit. Unfortunately, after the floods of last summer and the ensuing damage, the whole reserved had been closed – it was still closed! There were very few birds visible around the margins of this large wetland, between the banks of the Thomson and La Trobe rivers – most interesting was a small group of Yellow-billed Spoonbill. Meanwhile, back on the Prom, we’ve been entertained by the birds visible from the property – mostly raptors, including: Wedge-tails and White-bellied Sea-eagles, Swamp Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite and Brown Falcon. On a walk around Duck Point a couple of extra trip ticks – Caspian Tern and, ‘yes’ four waders in the form of Red-necked Stint!
The absence of waders remains a feature of our current trip to Australia. On Sunday we paid our respects to the Edithvale wetlands – the first time the hide had been open in six months, due to flooding and covid. Apart from a few stilts there were no shorebirds. We’re now at Wilson’s Prom, staying in Rob & Gi’s fabulous weekender. Walks to the familiar spots of Duck Point and Shallow Inlet yesterday did produce a few trip ticks: Cape Barren Goose, Aussie Shelduck, Skylark etc but, again, no waders.
We’re now down in Melbourne with Rob & Gi enjoying a week of catching-up, seeing family and friends, doing a bit of sightseeing and, of course, some birding. One species which is omnipresent, along the east coast, is the spectacular but under-appreciated Rainbow Lorikeet. The dazzling combination of emerald green, yellow, orange and blue, which gives it its name, and screeching call immediately attract attention to this common and obvious species. I guess its the equivalent in the UK of say Goldfinch – found everywhere but not really noticed by birders. We saw plenty in NSW and, on a walk through a local park here in Victoria, plenty more. Whilst looking through my photos of previous trips, for a suitable image to include in this blog, I spotted a good shot taken in Darwin in 2012, on our world trip. Only when I came to examine it more closely did I realise my schoolboy error – the bird was of course the range-restricted ‘top end’ version – Red-collared Lorikeet. A nice Australian armchair tick! We’ve added a couple of trip ticks so far with more to come we hope.
One of the few night birds which can be seen in the day is the weird and wonderful Tawny Frogmouth. Despite their large size (wingspan of <30cm) and relatively common status – even in urban settings – their cryptic plumage makes them difficult to find. Yesterday we did another trip round Newcastle, trying unsuccessfully to fill more holes in my Hunter List. At one site, whilst looking for something else, Dan said casually ‘there’s a Tawny Frogmouth up there’! When we looked there were actually three – possibly an adult with young.
We’re now at the end of our stay in NSW and today we fly down to Melbourne to stay with my brother Rob and Gi. It’s been great spending time with Dan and his family, catching up with friends, visiting old and new places and, of course, doing some NSW birding. During our time here we’ve managed to see (or hear) 215 species and moved my Hunter list on with a dozen or so ticks. My all-time Hunter total now stands at 338 – not bad for an occasional tourist! See you in Victoria.
I’ve said it before, night birds in Australia are a nightmare. They rarely emerge until it is proper dark and the forest species often remain hidden deep in cover – their calls being the only evidence of their presence. Every trip to Australia we have undertaken at least one night-time manoeuvre, attempting to see owl or nightjar species – nine times out of ten we fail. Yesterday evening we returned to the Watagans National Park for our third visit this trip, in the hope of connecting with some rainforest species prior to a spot of owl-dipping! We tried several locations for Rose Robin to no avail before pulling up at a promising piece of habitat in the failing light. Dan heard a treecreeper and I saw a bird fly and land tight to the trunk of a near-by gum tree. Assuming it was the bird I lifted my bins only to see our target bird – Rose Robin! Two silent birds flitted through the canopy, giving reasonable views. My first for the Hunter. An hour later it was dark and despite playing a multitude of different calls we only had brief and distant responses from a Masked Owl and Boobook. Returning home along a forest track a bird flushed in front of us – in the headlights it looked like Owlet-nightjar. A response to play-back and a couple more over-head passes confirming the identification. Another Hunter tick – my last previous sighting being in 2014.