Monday, 17 March 1986

AUSTRALIA March/April 1986: Arrival & Darwin

Part I.  Arrival and Darwin

At Easter 1986 I went to Australia for a five week birding.  None of my friends were able to go for that long or at that time of year (their autumn and not ideal) so I went on my own.  To avoid prolonged periods of expensive car hire and too much travelling I decided to base the trip around visiting Darwin, Brisbane and Cairns.  I was hoping to see a few particular species (pittas, cassowary, riflebirds & lyrebird) and as much else as possible.  I got a cheap return flight to Darwin with Garuda Indonesia which included an overnight stop in Bali on the way out and allowed a longer stop-over on the return.  It also left from Gatwick which is always a bonus.  This blog recounts that trip, illustrated with digitised images taken at the time.  They were of indifferent quality to start with and have degraded over the years.  The text is based on rudimentary notebook entries and memories of varying degrees of vagueness. 

I flew out on 12 March, stopping at Rome (10 Hooded Crows) and Bangkok (10 Black Drongos and 3 Pond Herons) and changing planes in Jakarta (3 White-bellied Swiftlets) before arriving at Bali at dusk on 13th.  Those of us going to Darwin were taken to the nearby Sanur Beach Hotel, arriving after dark.  I must have slept quite well but I was up at dawn on 14 March and birded around the hotel for an hour before the bus took us back to the airport.  My first new birds of the trip were single Bar-winged Prinias and Javan Munias, neither that exciting, while 2 Javan Plovers and 22 Sanderling were seen on the beach near the airport. 

somewhere over the Lesser Sundas
I arrived in Darwin at mid-day.  The airport was very provincial but I was able to change some money and hire a small car for three days which was all I needed to do.  I’d contact details for John MacKean, one of the top Australian listers and a good friend of Tony Clarke, but having got the car and details of a couple of nearby sites I headed straight to Howard Springs.  I’d try John on my way back when I had longer and could be more specific as to what I wanted to see – I did not then appreciate how accommodating Australian birders could be and when I did see John at the end of my trip he was a bit surprised I’d not called in at the start (reserved Brits).  The drive was slow as I was constantly being distracted by birds along the way – virtually all were new and many were very colourful – but I eventually made it to Howard Springs where I spent the rest of the day birding and then camped in the car park.  24 of the 28 species I’d seen were new and included Red-collared Lorikeet, Red-winged Parrot, Northern Rosella, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Blue-winged Kokaburra, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Double-barred Finch.  It was like being in a very hot free-flying pet-shop aviary, I was heavily jet-lagged and I’d not found Rainbow Pitta – my ‘must see’ bird for Darwin.  Anxiety and jet-lag are not good bedfellows and I did not sleep well.

On 15 March I spent the morning at Howard Springs getting increasingly anxious in my pitta hunt.  I had seen Azure Kingfisher, Banded Honeyeater, Shining Flycatcher, Figbird and Crimson Finch as I expanded my search area but the springs area looked the best habitat and another search paid off when I had good views of a Rainbow Pitta by the path.  It was in heavy moult which took the edge of it a little bit but I was happy and decided to press on to Fogg Dam.  Here wetland birds abounded and highlights were immaculate Pied Herons, Lotusbirds, Australian Pratincole, Torres Strait Pigeon, Red-crowned Fruit-Dove, Rainbow Bee-eater, Black-faced Wood-Swallow and Long-tailed Finch.  It was too hot to sleep in my tent but there were too many mosquitoes to sleep out.  I eventually rigged a mosquito net to cover me but being done in the dark it wasn’t perfect and it only needed one to get through to keep me awake.  Add jet-lag and a jeep full of Ozzies arriving after dark for a Barbie and another bad night beckoned.  My noisy neighbours did point out Halley’s Comet but at the time it didn’t seem much compensation for a disturbed night.

Fogg Dam
Pied Heron
I was quite taken by this species, a view I was to discover that was not shared by top local birder John McKean who told me that hundred hung out at the smelliest part of the local sewage farm
immature Black-neced Stork
Royal Spoonbill, appearing more alert than most ...
Pied Goose
White-headed Shelduck
Masked Plover
Rainbow Bee-eater
Blue-winged Kookaburra
Black-faced Wood-Swallow
Willie Wagtail
Double-banded Finch
Long-tailed Finches
sunset at Fogg Dam
I awoke at dawn on 16 March and packing up my stuff found quite a few mosquitos in my net.  I must have slept better than I’d thought as I didn’t think I’d been troubled by so many.  I took the net down to the water’s edge and attempted to drown them although only succeeded in soaking the net.  I birded at Fogg Dam until mid-day and then drove back to Howard Springs via Humpy Doo.  I saw my first Green Pigmy Goose, Brown Falcons, Galahs, Little Corellas and Varied Lorikeets.  More pet shop birds!  The Rainbow Pitta was in the same area as the previous day and I camped in the car park again.  On 17 March I returned to Darwin via Holmes Jungle Swamp seeing Bush Stone Curlew, Red-backed Kingfisher and Striated Pardalote.  Along the rocky coast at Cassuarina it was high tide and a good selection of waders were present including my first Grey-tailed Tattlers.  I dropped the car off at the airport and caught the afternoon flight to Brisbane.  Looking down there appeared to be miles of emptiness all the way to Mt Isa and then again until it got dark. 

Pacific Golden Plover with Turnstone, Grey-tailed Tattlers and Greater Sandplovers in the background
Greater Sandplovers, Terek Sandpiper and Turnstones
Grey-tailed Tattlers
Grey-tailed Tattlers, Turnstone and Greater Sand Plover
Pacific Golden Plover, Turnstone, Greater Sandplover and Whimbrel (just)
Bar-tailed Godwits and Great Knot

Pacific Reef Heron

Brahminy Kite

somewhere near Mount Isa

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