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Australia's Unique Wildlife: Birds and Beasts Down-under


janzin
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Prologue

Australia has always been at the top of our birding wish-list, as it opens up an entirely new, very colorful world of families and species. Enthralled by the thought of birds with names like Fairywrens, Honeyeaters, and Bowerbirds, to name just a few, we finally got our act together to book a trip to down-under. Not knowing much about Australia or where to even start in such a large country, I perused birding tours from the big birding companies and consulted with several tour operators, as well as our very own @Treepol, as I'd read some of her Australia birding trip reports here on ST. She was very helpful in helping me narrow down choices!

 

We ended up booking a privately guided trip with Bellbird Tours, an Australian operator who we had met at the American Birding Expo here in the US. From our research--and suggestions from them as well as other operators we consulted--the must-do for a first birding trip to Australia would be Tropical North Queensland and the Northern Territory. Also, given the time of year we wanted to go (our late summer/early fall) these were the best options in terms of weather. The Northern Territory has a fairly short season as after September it gets unbearably hot and humid, and then the rains come.

 

Although we primarily planned a trip around birds, we were just as eager to see the iconic mammals of Australia: Kangaroos, Koalas, Platypus, Dingo, and all the other weird and wonderful creatures of Oz.

 

The trip really can be separated into three different sections, as we had a different private guide for each.

 

Our itinerary was as follows:

 

Sept 2: Overnight flight JFK-LAX-Brisbane
Sept 3-5 Three full days, 2 nights birding Lamington National Park with naturalist guide Ronda Green/Araucaria Tours
Sept 5: Overnight Brisbane at Ibis airport hotel
Sept 6: Fly to Darwin, Northern Territory
Sept 7-11: Darwin and Northern Territory parks with photographer/birding guide Laurie Ross/Tracks Birding and Photography Tours
Sept 12: flight to Cairns
Sept 12-18  Cairns, Tropical North Queensland, Atherton Tablelands with birding guide Steve Potter of Bellbird
Sept 19: Flight back to Brisbane, overnight at Ibis airport hotel
Sept 20: early morning flight home

 

We were especially happy to have Steve Potter as one of our guides, as we'd met him at the American Birding Expo and he seemed like a great guy who we'd get along with (which proved to be 100% true!)  And we were also thrilled to get Laurie Ross, who along with being a top birder, is renowned as a photographer--so this seemed a perfect fit. (This also proved to be 100% true.)  I can't speak highly enough about both of these guides, but will go into more detail as I progress.

 

Too many words, not enough photos, so here are just a couple to whet your appetite, before I get into the good stuff.  

 

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crimson_rosella_JZ8_1547a.jpg

 

gouldian_finch_JZ5_5193a.jpg

Edited by janzin
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My original plan was to go directly to Darwin and start the tour there. (We had to do the Darwin section of the trip prior to the Tropical Queensland section, due to the guides' availability.) However, once we realized that after almost 22 hours of flying, we would arrive in Brisbane at 6:30 a.m. and then the flight to Darwin from Brisbane would be another 4-1/2 hours--with layovers making it a 30+ hour trip--it seemed suicidal! So the decision was made to stick around Brisbane for a few days before flying on to Darwin. A very excellent choice, because there are many bird specialties in southern Queensland that we would not find elsewhere.

 

Also--Koalas! There was zero chance of Koalas further north, but a very good chance around Brisbane...so how could I pass that up?

 

After a very long, but comfortable flight on Qantas--we splurged on Premium Economy--we arrived on time in Brisbane, and were met at the airport by guide Ronda Green and her son, Daryl. We had been warned by Bellbird that Ronda wasn't really a birding guide for "twitchers", but more of a general naturalist. That was fine by us since we knew we'd been jet-lagged and want a bit of a relaxed pace those first couple of days. Ronda and Daryl work as a team, as he does the driving. They were both quite knowledgeable about birds, plants, and general ecology--although they did not identify every LBJ or use tapes to call in birds. 

 

Our destination for the next two nights/three full days was Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park, in the mountains south of Brisbane. But before we got there, there were several stops to make along the way. I'd expressed to Ronda that I really hoped to see Koala--and she had a few hot spots in mind. Of course, there would be birds too.

 

The day was a bit grey, with rain in the forecast, but we hoped it would hold off until nightfall.

 

Our first stop was Daisy Hill Nature Center. This is a rescue center for Koalas, but there are also wild ones to be found in the woods. We figured worst case, if we didn't see wild ones we could at least see the rescues. Unfortunately, it was so early that they weren't open yet! We could strain our necks and see a few koalas in a habitat enclosure, but this wasn't the look I'd hoped for. :(

 

Still, it wasn't a wasted stop, because behind the buildings in the woods we found our first Wallaby! And, in fact, a Swamp Wallaby--one of the less common species and the only one we'd see on the trip!

 

swamp_wallaby_JZ5_0468a.jpg

 

Ronda told us we'd have a better chance at Koala at another spot, so we headed on to our next destination: Eagleby Wetlands. This is a small group of ponds in suburban Brisbane.  There is a boardwalk that makes a circuit around and through these wetlands, and here we found some of our first Australian lifers. Below are some highlights in and around the wetlands:

 

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 fan_tailed_cuckoo_JZ5_0653a.jpg

 

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There were many more, including our first Fairywren--including the Red-backed Fairywren--and lots of ducks and waterfowl on the ponds...but due to the poor light and distances I did not get any great photos. Still, we were already adding tons to our lifelist!

Edited by janzin
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@janzin I have been looking forward to your TR and already you have seen a couple of species that I haven't - the Fan-tailed Cuckoo and Swamp Wallaby.

 

You are most welcome to the pointers that I gave you and I'm glad to hear they were useful. Laurie Ross is a great guide and a talented photographer, looking forward to your NT sector - well everything actually.

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What a treat, amazing photos! Looking forward for more...we were "almost" ready to book a trip to Australia, but we had to change those plans :(

It would've been a different itinerary, so I'm ready to read about your experience in this part of the country.

 

 

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We made one more stop before heading up the mountain to Binna Burra. Ronda said she knew a great area for Superb Fairywren. To be honest, I have no idea where we were, just some side road on the way. It didn't look like much but within minutes we found our target. In fact, there were several...on both sides of the road! I was thrilled as they were fairly cooperative and allowed some close-ups! One of the most spectacular birds of the trip, IMHO--it deserves its own post :)

 

superb_fairywren_JZ5_0859a.jpg

 

superb_fairywren_JZ5_0910a.jpg

 

 

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6 minutes ago, janzin said:

One of the most spectacular birds of the trip, IMHO--it deserves its own post :)

 

~ @janzin

 

When portraits of that quality are offered, a dedicated post is in order.

 

Lovely photography of the highest quality, both technically and aesthetically.

 

Thank you so much! It's a lovely way to begin the day.

 

Tom K.

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~ @janzin

 

Your Queensland images posted above are of such exceptional quality that I've shown them to several undergraduates this morning.

 

One straightforward student candidly remarked: “Her pictures are much better than yours!

 

Indeed.

 

Ha! So much for that student receiving an extra credit...

 

Tom K.

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@janzin

 

It seems just like yesterday that you were talking about this trip in the planning stages, and yet it turns out you’ve already come and gone!

 

I’m really looking forward to this report, as I haven’t quite figured out how to begin to tackle the vastness of Australia. 

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Ooo, glad you’ve started your report @janzin, I’ve been enjoying the photos you’ve posted on Facebook but looking forward to more of the details!

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1 hour ago, Tom Kellie said:

~ @janzin

 

Your Queensland images posted above are of such exceptional quality that I've shown them to several undergraduates this morning.

 

One straightforward student candidly remarked: “Her pictures are much better than yours!

 

Indeed.

 

Ha! So much for that student receiving an extra credit...

 

Tom K.

 

hahahah @Tom Kellie that's just too funny :) 

 

 

53 minutes ago, Alexander33 said:

@janzin

 

It seems just like yesterday that you were talking about this trip in the planning stages, and yet it turns out you’ve already come and gone!

 

I’m really looking forward to this report, as I haven’t quite figured out how to begin to tackle the vastness of Australia. 

 

@Alexander33 it seems like ages ago that we were there! But I figured I'd better start--and finish--this report before we go on our safari next month, or it will never get done!  And yes, Australia is a bit daunting to plan. I think the key is to just concentrate on a couple of areas and plan to return--it can't be done in one trip, unless you have three months!

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Actually, I spoke too soon. We weren't heading to Binna Burra quite yet. We still needed to find our Koala! After a quick lunch at a roadside cafe, Ronda told us we'd have a great chance at Koala at our next stop: Coombabah Lakes Conservation Area. This is a park on the Goldcoast, south of Brisbane, which has some preserved habitat for Koalas, and also a very large population of kangaroos.  Koalas are losing habitat fast in Australia, and are getting harder to find. They are also at risk of being hit by cars, and recently, from outbreaks of chlamydia, which can leave them sterile. More about this fascinating animal here: https://www.savethekoala.com/

 

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We hadn't even parked the car when we saw a very large field full of Eastern Grey Kangaroos! Yes we are in Australia! This is just an iPhone photo to give you an idea.

 

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One thing I could never get over in Australia was how common it was to just see kangaroos and wallabies hanging by the side of the roads. Not so much in the Northern Territory, but certainly around southern Queensland, they were abundant.

 

We spent a while with the roos. They seemed very used to people, although we did not approach too closely...they can be aggressive.

 

This was a young one.

 

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A large female.

 

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Note the joey in the pouch! (A joey is a young 'roo.)

 

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This one didn't seem too happy that her joey was in backwards :)  although it was fine, really.

 

eastern_grey_kangaroo_JZ5_1136abw.jpg

 

As we walked further into the park, Ronda and Daryl kept their eyes on the treetops, searching for Koala. Here is an example of what the eucalyptus forest looks like. Not easy to find a Koala high in these trees. They are really tall!

 

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We came to a more open area where there was no boardwalk, so we were able to get into a position where we could spread out and keep an eye on the treetops. 

Sure enough, it wasn't long before Daryl found us one!

 

OMG, they are so cute!

 

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Well now we were well satisfied with the first morning of our tour!

 

A bit later, I found a second Koala very high in a tree--not really photograph-able---but I was pretty psyched because I found it myself  :D

 

We didn't spend much time here looking for birds, as we still had a few hours to drive up into the mountains, and we were trying to beat the rain. There wasn't anything here we wouldn't find elsewhere, but I can't resist posting my first (but not last) Laughing Kookaburra. I'd get better photos later in the trip...but our first look at this iconic Australian bird was a thrill!

 

lauging_kookaburra_JZ5_1239a.jpg.29356654d2e5d6e54e2e989d75919e94.jpg

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that's a stunning fairywren, well deserving too of an equally gorgeous name. 

 

Looking forward to reading more. 

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Beautiful, beautiful birds and mammals you are showing us, @janzin! The flight is long but oh so worthy.

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So finally we start heading up into the mountains. A bit about Lamington National Park. The park has two sections: Binna Burra, and the Green Mountain section.  They are contiguous in terrain but there is no road between them! (You can do an all day hike, but that was definitely not in the cards for us! :lol:  There are basically two lodges where folks stay: Binna Burra Lodge and in the Green Mountain section, O'Reilly's.  In theory both have the same birds, but O'Reilly's have developed a much more commercial property, with canopy tower and walkways, bird feeding, raptor shows, etc. So it is in fact easier to see some of the specialty birds at O'Reilly's. Most of the birding big tour groups stay there. However, Bellbird convinced us to stay at Binna Burra because they felt it was more natural, and less crowded with tourists. It is also less expensive. I was skeptical as honestly, I just wanted to find the birds. But we went along with his suggestion. Ronda assured me that if we wanted, on our 2nd day we could drive over to O'Reilly's...even though it meant going down the mountain and back up the other side.

 

Going up and down the mountain was even more time consuming than usual, as there was lots of road work being done to this narrow, no-shoulder winding road. Lots of those red-light cars only going in one-direction (or no direction!) type stops when they are working.

 

So by the time we got to Binna Burra, there was only time to check-in and get settled. No birding there that day. But we did arrive to see a spectacular sunset over the range. Remarkably, the predicted rain had held off the entire day!

 

binna_burra_sunset_FUJI1051a.jpg

 

 

The lodge itself was rustic but quite comfortable. Reminded me of some of our National Park Lodges here in the USA (if anyone has been to the Skyland lodge at Shenandoah National Park, for some reason it reminded me of that--at least as it was about 20 years ago!) During sunset time, they had a nice set-up with cheese, wine and crackers out on the patio. So we had our first sundowners in Australia!

 

After they closed down we hung around a bit because Daryl said that sometimes a Bandicoot comes out looking for scraps. Sure enough, one came out of the bush--but out and back so fast I couldn't get a photo--and it was dark by then anyway. Luckily we'd find more later in the trip.

 

Anyway, after an ample and quite good buffet dinner, we ventured out for a bit of a night walk.

 

Almost immediately we came upon this cute Red-necked Pademelon having dinner in the gardens. (A Pademelon is a small Wallaby. In this area, there are Red-necked and Red-thighed. )

 

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And right behind our rooms, we found our first possum!

 

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Unfortunately, no owls were heard or seen, but we didn't venture far from the lodge. It was cold up here in the mountains and we were pretty exhausted--remember, we are still on our first day without sleep since we arrived! So we settled in for our first sleep in Australia, looking forward to our first serious birding the following day.

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After a good night's rest, we started out early the next morning, before breakfast. I won't go into minute by minute details (mainly as I don't remember them ;)  ) but just post some of the birds and animals we saw during the day. The weather remained cool and cloudy with a threat of rain.  The trails around Binna Burra are mostly well-marked and maintained, but there aren't that many that are easy-moderate; many of the trails are quite difficult. We avoided those, so we were a bit limited. 

 

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And for a bit more color :)

 

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And some Pademelons in the daytime...

 

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We saw many other birds but photography was difficult in the dark forest. It was here that birding the deep forest trails revealed some of the down-sides of our guides--they weren't 100% familiar with all the calls, and they did not use recordings. In fact, they didn't even use binoculars, but relied on super-zoom bridge cameras for distant bird ID's. This was less than desirable and we missed some birds, I'm sure. Still, we saw quite a bit, and since everything was a life-bird...we were still happy.

 

The rains finally arrived late afternoon, and came down with a vengeance, so we headed back to our rooms a bit early. Due to heavy rain there was no night-walk tonight--and this was our last night at Binna Burra!

 

But we weren't done with Lamington Nat. Park yet. As we still had the whole next day with Ronda and Daryl, the plan was to head to the O'Reilly's side to get some of the major birds we missed at Binna Burra. We still needed many of the specialty birds of the area, such as Regent Bowerbird, King Parrot, Green Catbird...to name but a few. Would O'Reilly's prove more productive? And would the rain end??

 

 

 

 

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~ @janzin

 

“Pademelons”.

 

Chalk that up as a new species for me.

 

It's the first time I've ever encountered that name.

 

I'd best not admit that to undergraduates here.

 

One could imagine the response: “You didn’t know that?!”

 

As ever, such lovely photography.

 

Tom K.

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Stunning. No other word comes to mind.

 

I now have a strong reason to visit family in Australia. :D

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Beautiful photos, beautiful birds!

It sounds like a fascinating trip and I look forward to following your progress 

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Fantastic start! Loving all the birds and mammals :)

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1 hour ago, Tom Kellie said:

~ @janzin

 

“Pademelons”.

 

Chalk that up as a new species for me.

 

It's the first time I've ever encountered that name.

 

I'd best not admit that to undergraduates here.

 

One could imagine the response: “You didn’t know that?!”

 

As ever, such lovely photography.

 

Tom K.

 

Dont feel too bad @Tom Kellie, I certainly never heard of them either, before this trip!

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Fortunately we woke up to clearing skies. Here is the beautiful morning view from Binna Burra Lodge. (Click for full size and best effect!)

 

binna_burra_IMG_4497.jpg

 

Packed up, we headed down the mountain before breakfast so as to get to O'Reilly's as early as possible. The plan was to stop for breakfast at a roadside cafe in the town of Canungra, where the mountain road going down meets the one going up. On our way, we made one quick stop at a hotspot Ronda and Daryl knew for a special bird: the Bell Miner. Its a small green bird but the call is amazing...it sounds like the tinkling of bells. We could barely see them, and we were standing by the side of the road with cars whizzing by, but the sound surrounded us. So lovely! You can hear it here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Manorina-melanophrys

 

We stopped for breakfast in Canungra at the Outpost Cafe.  Apparently (as we were told) its the home of the best "pies" in Queensland! Maybe in all of Australia! Well, what did I know about Australian "pies."  I picked one out that said " bacon and cheese" but I was taken aback to find it was full of steak :lol:! Not at all what I wanted at 7 a.m.!  Well that got a laugh from the Aussies. Luckily they were kind enough to exchange it for a quiche (I really, really wasn't up for steak pie at that hour.)

 

On the way up the mountain--again with much road construction--we were delighted to find yet another species of Wallaby just hanging by the side of the road. This one, I think, is my favorite. Its officially called the Whiptail Wallaby but its alternate name is Pretty-faced Wallaby. You can see why! How cute is that, with the joey! I'm loving Australia!

 

whiptail_wallaby_JZ8_1336a.jpg

 

Anyway, eventually we made it up to O'Reilly's and as soon as we pulled up I knew we were in the right place! This is what greeted us right on the lawn in front of the main building!

 

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King Parrot, wow what a bird. What a bird! And not just one, but several. (As you can see it was drizzling a bit and he's wet, but it stopped very shortly thereafter.)

 

Oh and these too...

 

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This is the female King Parrot...not as flashy but still gorgeous.

 

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Now, it was a LITTLE difficult to get these shots because....

 

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Those darn parrots kept getting in my way! (Photos taken by Ronda with her phone.)

 

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That's Daryl in the back watching, and our van in the back.

 

One more bird that was hanging around this spot, the beautiful Red-browed Finch. You can also see a Brush Turkey in the background of the first photo. Obviously, this is where they do the bird feeding early in the morning :D

 

red_browed_finch_JZ8_1418a.jpg

 

Yeah, I could see that we came to the right place. And why all the bird tours stay here! And we hadn't even gone on the trails yet...

Edited by janzin
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We headed out on the trails, which were more groomed than those in the Binna Burra area. Some trails are partially or completely on boardwalks. So while its true that O'Reilly's is not as rustic, or as natural, the birds were there, and much easier to see--although not necessarily easier to photograph.

 

We easily heard and saw some of the specialties we'd hoped to find. One of my favorites was the Whipbird. A common forest bird with an incredible call.  I'd like to make it my ringtone! Hear it here:

https://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Psophodes-olivaceus

 

eastern_whipbird_JZ8_1583a.jpg

 

 

The Satin Bowerbird had a bower and while we'd seen this bird at Binna Burra as well, I didn't get any sort of photo there. This is a terrible photo, but its a special bird, so I'll include it.

 

 JZ8_1493.jpg.2f562acbe6a8feceea2b81fdc660c644.jpg

 

 The Satin Bowerbird decorates his bower with mostly blue objects. They will pick up all sorts of blue things, including bottle caps and clothespins, as you can see here. Other Bowerbirds choose different color decorations--you'll see later that the Great Bowerbird chooses white.

 

FUJI1057-1.jpg.25e5cc5b61a8f29112f3d212b2f2ddf9.jpg

 

Now, this next bird is a bit of a conundrum. It might be a Russet-tailed Thrush, but that is almost indistinguishable from the Bassian Thrush, which also occurs here. So I'm not 100% sure. The song is the best way to tell them apart, but unfortunately at the time we didn't hear it call.

 

 JZ8_1503.jpg.8457c79f95e9ea357a03823d33811d84.jpg

 

The Green Catbird is considered a species of Bowerbird as well, although they don't build a bower. In the northern part of Queensland its replaced by the Spotted Catbird, which you'll see later (if you stick with this report!)

 

green_catbird_JZ8_1562a.jpg

 

We really enjoyed the canopy walkway, which gives a wonderful vantage over the forest. Alan is probably studying an orchid or bromeliad here. Tons of both, although sadly the orchids were not in bloom at this time. 

 

 IMG_4499-1.jpg.2e2df97df7689feb7444a709c1c06bb6.jpg

 

This Crimson Rosella posed next to the walkway. It was cool to actually see one in the forest as we'd only seen them pretty much out in the open previously. Can't get enough of this bird! But you won't see it further north.

 

 crimson_rosella_JZ8_1547a.jpg

 

We also had a great view of a singing Golden Whistler, a beautiful bird, but unfortunately couldn't get a photo.

 

There's a small botanic garden--planted right in the middle of the forest--with some non-native as well as native plants. Right outside the garden we found another one of our target birds foraging--the Albert's Lyrebird! It seemed totally nonchalant and allowed us close approach. Wow, we really hadn't hoped to see that and Daryl told us its not all that common to see. It is endemic to just this small area and there are only two species of Lyrebird in Australia. We watched it for quite awhile, even took some video.

 

alberts_lyrebird_JZ8_1687a.jpg

 

Heading back to the main lodge, we had a nice lunch in their cafe, sitting out with parrots and Currawongs coming to beg for a bite. They had a great gift shop too, and I was sorry later that I hadn't bought a few things there.

 

pied_currawong_JZ8_1623a.jpg

 

This Lewin's Honeyeater posed right below the deck of the cafe.

 

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After lunch we asked if we had time to go around the canopy walkway trail once more, as we'd enjoyed it so much. This time, there was a small group of 20-somethings taking selfies and being a bit loud, but we didn't even care. It was just so beautiful. For the most part, we hardly saw anyone on the trails. Why did Bellbird tell us it was overrun with tourists? Maybe on the weekend...but not today.

 

It was now just about time to leave, but there was still one target bird we'd missed--Regent Bowerbird.  Some folks told us that they'd seen some earlier in the morning, near the feeding station, but they'd disappeared. We'd been searching since we got there, as this endemic we'd find nowhere else. Oh well, you can't get them all...   but wait! Just as we were about to get into the van to head back to Brisbane...a flash of black and orange over our heads!

 

There it was, and it landed right in front of the main lodge building. Regent Bowerbird!

 

 regent_bowerbird_JZ8_1854a.jpg

 

regent_bowerbird_JZ8_2141a.jpg

 

Wow! We spent at least another 1/2 hour photographing this beauty. What luck that it came in just as we were leaving!

 

Clearly we were not at all sorry that we spent this last day at O'Reillys. We added many special endemic birds to our list and got some great photos---and had a ton of fun. We were really appreciative that Ronda and Daryl made the effort to drive us there from Binna Burra, as it was not in the original plan. In some ways I wish we'd stayed there, instead of Binna Burra, but I am also glad we got to see both sides of the park and experience two very different areas. 

 

Now we are coming to the end of our time around Brisbane. Ronda and Daryl got us to our Brisbane airport hotel just around dinnertime.  We'll be back in Queensland in a week or so, but tomorrow morning we fly off to completely different birds in Darwin and the Northern Territory!

 

 

Edited by janzin
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Wow! Some fantastic birds there! 

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1 hour ago, kittykat23uk said:

Wow! Some fantastic birds there! 

 

Thanks! But you ain't seen nothin' yet :)  Much more to come...!

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~ @janzin

 

It's exceptional when the subjects decide to become photographer's assistants.

 

Those King Parrots pitched right in to perform on both sides of the lens.

 

I laughed to see that. Better them doing so than a cassowary or an emu.

 

Thank you for continuing to post a master class in bird photography.

 

Tom K.

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