Saturday 22 August 1998

NEW CALEDONIA 1998 (15-22 August)

The following is the last of four blogs covering a trip John Cooper, Gary Edwards and I made to Australia and New Caledonia in July and August 1998.  It is illustrated with prints I took with an old Pentax camera and subsequently digitised.  Another account of the trip, including John and Gary's time around Darwin after I had come home, was published in two parts by John Cooper last year (see  This blog covers New Caledonia and my final visit to Barren Grounds.

Saturday 15th August (continued).  We landed at Tontouta International Airport, 45 kms N of Noumea at 23.00 where a pleasant lady was waiting for us with our hire car.  We drove to Riviere Bleu (c80 kms) and camped at the park entrance.  This was not quite as easy as it sounds as there are very few road signs on New Caledonia.  Fortunately there were not many roads either so we had few opportunities to go wrong.  I did not sleep well with the hope of seeing Kagu playing heavily on my mind. We had faxed Yves Letocart, the park superintendent and very knowledgeable about all things Kagu to inform him of our visit in the hope he would be able to help us.

Sunday 16th August.  We were up at dawn, packed away the tent and into the park at 07:00 when it opened.  It soon became clear that Yves Letocart was not expecting us, or if he was he had not left word at the entrance gate.  Second blow was that the reserve closed at 17:00 and was not open on Mondays so we would not be able to camp there. We were given directions to Yves’s house, although as we were not sure if he had received our fax to him we decided a visit early on Sunday morning might not be appropriate.  Seeing Red-throated Parrotfinch beside the road a couple of kms into the park was a very encouraging start.  We continued to drive through very degraded habitat around a large artificial lake (the result of a large dam downstream) before finally entering superb forest.  We concentrated on the excellent trail by the Grand Kaori tree (which in itself was most impressive), finding a good selection of the New Caledonian endemics including Notu Pigeon, Southern Shrikebill and Horned Parakeet, but no Kagu.  We decided to visit Yves early afternoon to find out where the best place to see Kagu was, but after negotiating a very rough and in places muddy track arrived at his house to find nobody in.  We left a note and very reluctantly drove out of the park before it closed – it felt like a very bad dip.  We arrived at Mont Koghi just as it was getting dark and camped by the car park.
inside the reserve Riviere Bleu was more like a lake although we had to cross the river to reach decent habitat
the bridge into the reserve proper, it was later damaged by floods but there were no problems driving across in 1998
improving habitat
Monday 17th August.  We were up at dawn and once the tent was packed away spent most of the morning on the main trail up towards the summit of Mont Koghi.  Few birds were evident, not helped by a quite strong wind.  Nothing was seen or heard in the ‘ferny’ sections where we’d hoped we might encounter the New Caledonian Grass Warbler.  Returning to the car park we spent the afternoon scanning the adjacent forested slopes eventually finding two distant Cloven-feathered Doves.  A short walk part way along the trail towards the waterfall gave much better views of the Doves (a very smart bird) and an amazing view of a parrotfinch feeding on berries growing directly out of the trunk of a tree.  We left Mont Koghi just before dusk to return to Riviere Bleu, stopping on the way at a supermarket to buy bread and fruit to last us three days.  We again camped at entrance to Riviere Bleu and if possible I was even more tense.
Mont Koghi
looking down towards Noumea
Tuesday 18th August.  We entered the park when it opened at 07:00 and obtained a permit to camp for 2 nights.  We were told that Yves would be waiting for us on the road to the Grand Kaori tree and with a growing sense of anticipation we set off to meet him.  Our desire to see Kagu must have been evident to Yves right from the outset and without further ado he took us to an area nearby where he had heard Kagu earlier that morning.  Within a couple of minutes of him playing a tape recording, two Kagus ran in, circled us curiously for some time before eventually wandering off.  A dream realised!  Yves took us to another patch of roadside forest where a strange Crow Honeyeater immediately flew in to investigate the tape recording of its song.  We were very fortunate to see one so easily, and it turned out this was our only definite sighting of the species.  After an hour or so Yves left us to continue with his work (as the Park superintendent), having first imparted much helpful information.  We spent the rest of the day on the Grand Kaori trail and walking along the road between there and Pont Germain where we set up camp at the picnic area.  There was a good supply of drinking water and a basic toilet at the camp site but no food is available in the park.  One of a pair of New Caledonian Crows near the camp site was fascinating, carrying a long stick in its bill (something noted of two others seen subsequently too).  Returning for a meal (of bread and tuna) before it got dark we were delighted to have two Kagus feeding around the tents in a plover like fashion (running then stopping and listening) for nearly half an hour before dusk.  When disturbed, or on a couple of occasions clumsily bumped into each other, they would display to each other for a minute or two.  This consisted of standing bolt upright in very close proximity to each other with belly stuck out, crest raised and wings partially opened and inverted - a ridiculous posture!  The less dominant of these two had yellow rings on each leg.  A truly magical place and Kagu immediately joined Giant Pitta and Wilson’s Bird of Paradise as my best birds ever.
Riviere Bleu, a magical place

Wednesday 19th August.  We spent all day at Riviere Bleu walking the road from the camp site to the Grand Kaori tree and beyond.  A good days birding with most of the New Caledonian specialities seen, my first White-bellied Sparrowhawk, although only in flight, and several Kagu sightings.  I saw two about 1km from the camp site, one chasing the other off across the road.  Near the Grand Kaori tree a ringed individual (pale green & yellow) did three running passes in response to a brief play of the tape before crossing the road where it started calling very loudly.  It was soon joined by a second (unringed bird) and a duet, if two barking calls can be described as such, ensued for several minutes while the birds were in full view less than 10m from us.  They eventually wandered off into the forest and almost immediately after three were seen on the road 100m away by John & Gary.  Two had gone by the time I’d caught up with them although they may have been the noisy pair which had been going in that direction.  The third bird had a pale green ring on one leg.  Later, at the camp site before dusk, the two birds that had been seen previously appeared again, but only for 5 minutes this time. 
me at Le Grand Kauri
very impressive 
the incomparable Kagu

one of the world's most amazing birds
Thursday 20th August.  We spent the morning at Riviere Bleu walking the road to the Grand Kaori tree.  An unringed Kagu was seen in the forest by a small picnic table about 0.5 km from campsite then, when walking down the road before the Kaori tree, a pair started hissing at me.  I hissed back and one approached to within 4m.  I took a photo of it with my pocket camera and promptly ran out of film.  Both birds, which were unringed, wandered off but further hissing when I’d changed the film enticed them back, one to nearly as close as before enabling a few more photos to be taken.  Somewhat surprisingly the photos came out very well!  Kagu has got to be one of the best birds ever.  Further down the track I saw a calling New Caledonian Sparrowhawk perched on an exposed tree top branch, a much better view.  We reluctantly returned to the camp site, packed up and left Riviere Bleu.  It had been an immensely enjoyable visit. Somewhat spoiled by Nick not having been able to come.  We drove to the west coast near Yate seeing 12 summer plumaged Wandering Tattlers on the shore.  We continued parallel to the coast to Goro but few places seemed to allow access to the beach, although we all saw a sparrowhawk in patchy forest beside the road.  We drove back to Noumea Airport in fading light, seeing a superb sunset on the way, and camped in the back of the car park ready for an early check-in.
leaving Riviere Bleu with sadness, it had done us really proud
the coast near Yate
New Caledonia sunset
Friday 21st August.  We returned hire car to a different and much less pleasant lady at 06:00.  She insisted the voucher we’d presented was not valid as it was in Nick’s name and wanted payment again.  We refused and eventually, and with very bad grace, a written statement to the effect that we’d had the car booked and paid for by Nick in England seemed to satisfy.  We flew with Aircalin to Sydney arriving just after 10.30.  John and Gary departed for a harbour tour ahead of a flight to Darwin (for a further 6 days).  I hired a car and drove straight to Barren Grounds were I walked the ‘ground parrot’ trail with increasing frustration for over four hours. Superb weather, 3 Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos and an Eastern Bristlebird provided little consolation!  I decided to try nearby Budderoo, as much for a change of scenery as with any great expectations, but amazingly flushed a Ground Parrot and a Lewin’s Rail within five minutes of getting there!  It clouded over at dusk and I drove back to Royal National Park, sleeping in the car at Bonnievale.
departing Noumea airport
Saturday 22nd August.  I was up at dawn and spent an hour at Bonnievale seeing little, followed by a brief walk on Curra Moors, which was exceptionally wet.  I returned to Sydney Airport, dropped off the car and departed at 13:00. 

What seemed like several days later I finally arrived home.  I had seen 122 new birds (98 in Australia and 24 in New Caledonia) and almost 300 species.  It had been a very enjoyable trip and John Cooper and Gary Edwards excellent companions, although Nick Preston having had to pull out at the last minute rather left a gap and he wasn’t far from my thoughts.  We were privileged to spend time in the field with Margaret Cameron, Mike Carter, Yves Letocart, Phil Maher, Gordon McCarthy, Dr P Milburn, Des Quinn and Lindsey Smith.  Tony Palliser offered much advice on all aspects of the trip and Murray Lord provided helpful information regarding sites around Sydney, we regretted not being able to meet up with either of them.  Richard Thomas’s The complete Guide to finding the Birds of Australia was invaluable as was his unpublished New Caledonia Trip Report and various advice and information he provided.  Dave Cooper loaned us several bird tapes, some of which proved to be very useful.  Other useful information, without which we would have struggled to find several species, was received from Lawrie Conole, Stuart Dashper, Terry Gould, Roger Hicks, Jack Krohn, Peter Menkhorst, Michael Norris, Dick Norton, Don Roberson & Trevor Quested.  Thanks to all.

[blogged January 2016]

Saturday 15 August 1998

AUSTRALIA 1998: South Australia (7-15 August)

The following is the third of four blogs covering a trip John Cooper, Gary Edwards and I made to Australia and New Caledonia in July and August 1998.  It is illustrated with prints I took with an old Pentax camera and subsequently digitised.  Another account of the trip, including John and Gary's time around Darwin after I had come home, was published in two parts by John Cooper last year (see  This blog covers South Australia and our return to Melbourne.

Friday 7th August (continued).  We entered South Australia declaring two bananas and a carrot, which were then hastily eaten, at a fruit check-point and after a brief stop by the Murray River hit the coast north of Adelaide at Port Gawler.  This was generally disappointing, although it did produce Slender-billed Thornbill and a few distant waders.  A look on the salt pools and coast along the St. Kilda road was, if anything, worse.  We camped on a site in West Beach.
Murray River, presumably not always this high?
Quorn, not quite Australia's wild west
Saturday 8th August.  We arrived at Adelaide Airport at 07.30 to collect a pre-booked 4WD from Hertz but one was not available – ‘our’ having been given to a film crew who had totalled theirs.  So much for having made a booking several months in advance.  Following some misinformation about the roads we eventually started the tedious journey north mid-morning in the car we’d arrived in.  A 17 km diversion along a muddy track due to the main road being closed north of Hawker for filming (of Holy Smoke) was made worse when we realised the film crew had probably been given ‘our’ 4WD along with many others!  It eventually proved to be worthwhile, however, with Chirruping Wedgebill and White-winged Fairywrens beside the track and a flock of Elegant Parrots by the road a few kms past the diversion.  We drove on to the company mining town of Leigh Creek arriving just after dark.  A strangely impersonal place but the main bar served excellent food.  We camped by the road a few kms further north.
South Flinders Range

Sunday 9th August.  We were up at dawn and after a brief look around continued north towards Lyndhurst, stopping 7 kms short where 2 rather distant Thick-billed Grasswrens and a pair of Elegant Parrots were seen.  We continued on to Lyndhurst and down the first part of the Strzelecki Track to the Chestnut-breasted Whiteface sites at km 26 and 27.  2-3 hours at the first site produced very little, a shy Rufous Calamanthus being the best.  A similar time at the ‘old mine site’ looked like ending up the same way until a funny little song drew my attention to a pair of Whitefaces.  We had excellent views of them for about 15 minutes, during which time the male appeared to be nest building, superb.  They eventually flew off several hundred metres away.  We returned to Lyndhurst and continued towards Marree, seeing a pair of Banded Lapwings by the road in fading light.  We camped beside the road just short of Marree.
Strzelecki track

Monday 10th August.  Concerned about taking an uninsured hire car further along a damp Birdsville Track than was absolutely necessary we decided to go as far as we could in a day or as far as it took to see Inland Dotterel, whichever was the sooner.  Three brilliant Cinnamon Quail-Thrushes beside the road just before Marree were an excellent start, with another 2 and then 7 a few kms down the Birdsville Track.  A Gibber Chat was seen while watching the last ones (14 kms out of Marree) and stopping a km further on for another Gibber Chat revealed 3 Inland Dotterel walking around behind it.  A further 5 Inland Dotterel and 4 Australian Pratincoles on the other side of the road capped a brilliant morning.  After watching them for some time we decided to quit while we were ahead and rather reluctantly turned back.  We drove back to the Port Augusta salt pans, stopping for another good meal in Leigh Creek and spent the last hour of light in scrub 9 kms to NW hoping for, but not seeing, Redthroat.  After dark we drove south to Port Lincoln, camping in Lincoln National Park.
Birdsville Track

return to Marree
back on tarmac and heading for Leigh Creek
Tuesday 11th August.  A disappointing morning at Lincoln National Park in rather indifferent weather.  No whipbirds were heard and only Gary managed to find a Blue-breasted Fairywren, which then immediately vanished.  Superb Fairywrens were much in evidence including four males chasing a female.  We moved on to the much more spectacular Coffin Point National Park where 3 Rock Parrots were found in the low coastal scrub, although a very pleasant walk along the beach produced Pied and Sooty Oystercatchers but little esle.  We left and started to drive north late in the afternoon, stopping for a flock of Cape Barren Geese in a field near Port Lincoln prison.  At Big Swamp, a few kms further north, we saw 20 Chestnut Teal and 6 Musk Duck as the light was going.  We continued on to Lake Gilles Conservation Park where we camped along the entrance track.
Coffin Point National Park
superb beach
all to ourselves

Wednesday 12th August.  Little was seen in rather poor habitat along the Lake Gilles entrance road although we did see for 5 Port Lincoln Ringnecks.  We continued towards Port Augusta stopping in much better habitat 54 kms short of Iron Knob.  Here we were very pleasantly surprised to find Rufous Treecreeper, while a broken wing display from a Western Yellow Robin was unexpected.  We continued to Iron Knob, turning south-east towards Whyalla and stopping after 10 kms where 2 Redthroats were seen (the first one flying in in response to tape).  Another brief stop at Port Augusta salt pans gave even better views of Banded Stilts (in better light) and we continued south to Port Prime arriving with just over an hour before dusk.  Two Stubble Quail and 3 Bluebonnets were seen on the approach road while 40 Fairy Terns were the pick of the birds seen on the shore.  Walking out on the mudflats (and rapidly returning ahead of the incoming tide) was tremendously atmospheric, with a superb light where we were, but very dark storm clouds seemingly passing all around us.  We drove back to Adelaide and camped again at West Beach.
Gary at Port Prime
very atmospheric
Thursday 13th August.  We returned to Adelaide Airport to change the Station Wagon for a saloon car that needed to be returned to Melbourne.  After stopping for 3 Musk Lorikeets in flowering trees in the parking lot we drove to Bool Lagoon by way of the Coorong.  We arrived early in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day walking the various trails and dodging showers.  We saw lots of water birds of which 200+ Pied Geese were unexpected if not overly attractive.  The same could not be said of 20 superb Pink-headed Ducks. Three Australian Bitterns were seen and 13 Blue-winged Parrots roosted in one of the drier reed beds.  We drove on to Loch Ard Gorge on the Great Ocean Road, camping nearby.  John was breathalysed twice within half an hour at different local police road blocks!  A new experience for him.
Bool Lagoon

Friday 14th August.  We were up at dawn enjoying Loch Ard Gorge before any other tourists arrived.  Surprisingly no Blue-winged Parrots could be found although an Olive Whistler was new and several Rufous Bristlebirds were seen well.  It was nice to see the coast in better weather and we also returned to the Bay of Islands but only saw a Peregrine there.  We headed inland to Lake Martin, near Cressy, where we saw 16 Cape Barren Geese, 150 Straw-necked Ibis and 10 Yellow-billed Spoonbills.  We continued on to Long Forest for the last part of the day, although it was rather cold and small birds were not much in evidence, possibly not helped by the presence of a Collared Sparrowhawk.  After dark drove round the outskirts of Melbourne to Toolangi where we camped behind the forest centre.

Bay of Islands

not a very hospitable coast

west of Warrnambool
Saturday 15th August.  Three hours in the tall forest at Toolangi proved to be even less productive than our earlier visit and we left mid-morning to return to Melbourne International Airport at Tullamarine, having earlier stopped in a supermarket to buy supplies for New Caledonia (mainly tinned fish and biscuits).  We returned our hire car, showered in the airport and repacked before checking in for our early evening Aircalin flight to Noumea.
me at Toolangi
[blogged December 2015]