Friday, April 30, 2010

Carins Esplanade - A Wader-watching Paradise

We did not have optimal weather! The panorama above should be proof of that, however, it did not matter much, since I cannot imagine it harmed the number of waders along the Cairns Esplanade. As usual the best way to see new birds is to change habitat! .. and since I have not done much around tropical mudflats in the past it proved very rewarding taking a stroll down the boardwalk in center of Cairns.

I wrote in the previous post that the boardwalk was very cleverly designed and I really mean that. It allows the visitor to get incredibly close without interfering with the action below. You cannot get onto the mudflats (and I cannot imagine why you should want to) and the birds have realized this, so they have developed a no-interest-attitude to what is going on up above on the boardwalk. This might also be partly due to the fact that the track is lifted up to a few meters above where the birds wandering around are searching for food.

Before we could even see water, we started seeing exciting birds. The trees were humming with Metallic Starlings and Varied Honeyeaters (both new to me) and you had to be careful not to step on one of the peaceful doves running around between your legs.

The southern end of the Esplanade gave excellent views of a good collection of egrets and herons. Photographically it was a bit of a challenge, an ever changing combination of rain, clouds, shadow and light made it hard, throw in the fact that we had arrived at absolute lowest tide, allowing the birds to stand furthest away from the boardwalk and you have yourself a challenge.

One of the reasons these Cairns posts have been so badly delayed is the time it has taken to actually identify what we managed to see :-D Waders are hard! - notice that I am not saying that they are harder than small birds in the deep dark Daintree rain forest - but boy is it hard when they are changing between breeding and non-breeding plumage, throw in the sexual dimorphism and I will have to admit that my Simpson & Day was just not sufficient to ID everything we saw. The Michael Morcombe book is better for waders, but there are still pictures of birds that I am not sure about so if any of you readers out there want to chip in, I can assure you that you are very welcome.

Most of the pictures in this post should however be sorted. It took a while to recognize the two Great Knots in the picture after the Terek Sandpiper down below. Also, not being super sharp with my waders, I was quite intrigued by the little colorful bird above the whimbrel, but trawling through the pictures it looks like a Red-necked Stint with a plumage somewhere between breeding and non-breeding .. I should probably have realized that much faster, since that is a frequent guest around Sydney.

The Grey-tailed Tattler was a bit of a headache as well, until I got hold of Michael Morcombe's field guide. My own book gave very few hints to how to distinguish the grey-tailed from the wandering only providing pictures of them in non-breeding coloration. Lesser Sand Plover below was much easier - a great little bird! All in all we spend a very rewarding hour or so wandering up and down the Esplanade before we started getting nervous about where we would be sleeping for the night.

Our plan had been to cover as much of Tropical North Queensland as possible and camp as we moved around, for the first day we had planned on making our way north to the Daintree river. Considering the weather we decided against the camping, it would simply be impossible to keep things dry - or to dry wet gear - in a wet tent, however, we still liked the idea of getting to Daintree River. That unfortunately also meant that we had to plan a bit ahead and sort out accommodation for the night. So despite of having super duper birding at the Cairns Esplanade we decided to fire up the rented car and push north .. weather would probably also be better up there!..???

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cairns - Easter Escape

Cairns for Easter, how good was that! :-) Easter had proven a bit of a challenge to arrange this year, I truly enjoy the road trip-camping combination type of holidaying, but at the same time there are a few hot spot locations in Australia that are not easily reached by land-based transport out of Sydney if you are restricted by the time frame of a long weekend - even taking into account the long-distance-superiority of the Magna. Cairns is one of those places - others are; Broome, Alice Springs and Tasmania, hopefully I will be able to report from a few of these places later during the year, but for now it will be about Cairns for a while.

Being a bit creative with the use of extra holidays we managed to get the needed flight tickets without having to donate blood or organs - just! Boy is Easter expensive(?). The result being that we managed to get 5 days in the Tropical North Queensland at the cost of only one additional holiday and a few dollars. In the wisdom of hindsight it could be argued that pushing that far north early April is like playing with water .. and it was, we probably had 4.5 days of good quality rain that would make any outback farmer dance around in happiness. We did not dance, but realized that with a few changes to the plan we could easily deal with it; no camping - the tent would never dry again, and be careful with your electronic gear, including camera and lenses. I was seriously afraid of how the camera would deal with such conditions, but at the same time it is just a tool and it only has value when being used. I can now happily state that it is still alive and that modern cameras can take much(!) much(!) more water than I would ever had expected before this trip! :-D Our only casualty was a mobile phone that did not like the continuous exposure to 100% humidity. The rain may have hurt us slightly when it comes to the amount of wildlife we saw, particular bird count. However, looking at the outcome of the trip it is probably to our benefit that we were slowed down slightly, otherwise it would have been seriously stressful having to tick all those species :-D Otherwise the rain was no problem, because as they say up there "it is warm rain" and in a weird way quite pleasant.

Arriving in Cairns little G. immediately fell in love with the most exciting fruit and vege market I have ever seen. Initially I desperately tried to argue the case of how much more "fruitful" it would be to spend more time at the Cairns Esplanade 200 meters further down the road, but in the end I had to give in and agree that they have some seriously fantastic fruits, which gave us lots of tasty treats throughout our little holiday.

Finally we made our way down to the Cairns Esplanade! Weather was not great, but who cares when you are at this very cleverly designed boardwalk, which allow you to wander along the water having scenic views of Cairns and the mountains and rain forest surrounding it, without disturbing the life of the mudflats happening a couple of meters below.

As you might already have guessed, we concentrated more on the mudflats down below than the scenic vistas :-D It was absolutely crawling with life. The mudskippers were doing fantastic acrobatic moves to attract the opposite sex .. and to fend of rivals. Best guess is that this species is part of the Periophthalmus family. I remember reading about mudskippers many years ago when I first started being interested in aquarium fish, fantastic animals that are truly amphibious, as long as they are wet they can breath through their skin(!) allowing them to access food sources unreachable to other fish. Arriving at the Esplanade at low tide also allowed us to see armies of mud crabs roaming around feeding on the dirt, but we were probably more impressed by the Fiddler crabs sitting slightly closer to the boardwalk displaying its enormous colorful claw.

As you might have noticed, I have not included a single bird picture. I will make up for that shortly by a full blog post dedicated to the feathered wildlife of the Cairns Esplanade - see you soon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Surfs Up in Bondi - A Good Excuse For a Photowalk

Once again I teamed up with Yiing for a photowalk around Coogee. We had not really planned where to go, but with the sun shining and a generally quite fantastic day the vote took us north along the coast .. and there was something about a surf competition at Bondi.

As we got closer to Bondi we realized that the surf competition was indeed well and truly on and a few celebrity surfers had made their way to Bondi - including Kelly Slater.

Taking surf pictures is soooo rewarding and dare I say easy(?), at least compared to the struggle I normally have when trying to frame those birds - the surfers are where the waves are - simple as that! :-D Despite arriving late we probably ended up in a near perfect position up on the wall just south of the beach, where we had great views to the action on the water and the shenanigan on the beach.

Fantastic stuff! Great seeing an event like that and fun trying to shoot a very different type of pictures. However, it had taken us close to 2 hours walking to Bondi and "yes" we could probably do the return journey faster, but still it would take a while making it back to Coogee, so we decided to leave before the price ceremony.

On our way to Bondi, we had actually "practiced" taking surf pictures of a couple of surfers at Tamarama. I have included some of the pictures here, this particular day I guess the organizers would have been better off relocating the competition a beach further south, Tamarama was sporting some super good waves and the closeness of the break made it a pure joy to take pictures there.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Barren Grounds Nature Reserve

Jarrod convinced me that we needed to go to Barren Grounds Nature Reserve for a bit of bushwalking. I was easily convinced since BGNR is a great place to walk, but more importantly it sports a unique type of habitat, hanging swamp plateau, that is home to a great selection of wildlife that is otherwise very hard to find. Some celebrity inhabitants are Ground Parrot, Eastern Bristlebird and Southern Emu-wren - I needed the GP and Jarrod, who more or less has to hold a bird in the hand before he is convinced that he actually has truly seen it, have so far managed to avoid eye contact with the SEW.

Weather was not on our side - at all! Wet and windy and a annoying fog hanging low above the scrub made it nearly impossible to spot anything further away than arms reach, however, as always there is something going on when you get you lazy arse off the couch and the humid air had the advantage that it was much easier than normal to spot the various spider webs along the path, which resulted in an encounter with what might just be the prettiest spider I have ever seen: Gasteracantha minax or Jewel Spider between friends :-)

I am terribly sorry about the poor quality of the pictures, having expected a sunny day on the highland heath I had not brought the macro lens and even if I had I would probably not have been super happy changing lenses in the middle of all the wind and wetness. So you will have to do with high ISO and pseudo macro capability in combo with the spider sitting on a very bouncy branch.

Having seen next to no birds the entire day, it was quite a bit of a surprise when the Bassian Thrush in the picture above suddenly appeared on the path in front of us. Those of you who follow the blog regularly will know that it was the only new bird I managed to (nearly) see down in Wilson's Promontory so quite nice getting another (less than medium good) look at it.

Walking in Australia is often limited by how much water you can carry, not having that problem this particular day, we decided to get some kilometers in the boots and managed to clock up 20km before we were back at the Magna - not bad going for a lazy Saturday :-)

All good, great walking and a beautiful drive down south. My trusted co-pilot had once again(?) managed to get us (more or less!) straight to our target location - with a little telephonic help from his better half at home :-D On our way home the only unforeseen happening was the timing of a few hundred cows deciding that the grass was greener on the other side - but I blame no one for that ;-)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Wilson's Promontory - Getting Out and Getting Home

I managed to bank an enormous sleep and still get up before sunrise - beautiful stuff! After a quick breakfast I packed my gear and started walking. The night before I had chatted to some fellow campers that had informed me that I had been lucky arriving at the Sealers Cove campsite at low tide and that my early start meant that I would have to negotiate much more water when crossing the river that isolate the campsite from the main part of the beach - they were right :-D

It had actually worried me a bit; not that I was afraid of crossing the water, but saltwater can have a nasty effect on how your skin deals with long walks .. I decided to take full advantage of my early start - no one else awake and I could safely pull a Full Monty securing that not a single piece of cloth would be wet .. Managed to get backpack and camera gear safely across in two goes with water reaching my waist - nice cold morning :-)

Even the seabirds were a still struggling to wake up so I managed to get closer than I had been at any point during the weekend. After using a bit of precious freshwater cleaning the most saltwater sensitive areas, I got back in my outfit and hit the track.

Best guess is that I had managed to start walking around 6am, which gave me plenty of time to enjoy the walk and still make it to Tidal River in good time. It was very pleasant walking indeed, away was the heat and humidity that had made it a struggle the day before and I truly enjoyed the climb and the views.

The shuttle bus running between Mount Oberon car park and Tidal River would begin its route 8am. I was not going to make the first trip, but I had calculated that I was likely to see the first lot of early morning bushwalkers on their way east towards Sealers Cove and beyond around Windy Saddle. Like clockwork I ran into three small groups of walkers, last set having a little break at WS adjusting an annoying socks and very keen to hear a bit about what they had actually begun .. after 2.5 hours of lonesome wander I was happy to tell about the rain forest, the river crossing and the tiger snake - do not know if that was actually what they wanted to hear :-D
I was happy to see them, since it meant the bus was running and I would be able to get back to Tidal River and the Ford Falcon easily meeting my deadlines.

Great guns! Finally leaving Wilson's Promontory I even had time to stop at some of the lookouts along the road. No doubt it would have been fantastic having a day or two more, I could easily have used more time walking and exploring other parts of the park - even tried to see a few of the rare birds that supposedly live in the park(?) But considering the situation I felt that I had taken full advantage of the opportunity given and made a normal weekend into something quite special. One day I will be down there again for a bit of bushwalking - probably not during high season ;-)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wilson's Promontory - Sealers Cove Wildlife

It took a while to find the campsite - it was located just south of the beach on the other side of a little creek, that at low tide could easily be crossed with water levels not much above knee height. After my camping experience the previous night I was very keen on getting my tent up in a "private" area :-) I did not need to worry, the campsite was absolutely fantastic with small isolated areas where you could truly feel happily isolated.

Tent up and ready for a bit of adventure, I started walking south and had probably done less than 200m before I encountered the good sized and very photogenic Tiger Snake above. Snakes in general are very secretive and hard to spot, they know you are coming long before you have a chance to get a look at them and they nearly always choose to disappear without sound or trace. I would love to claim that my luck with the sweetheart above was due to my bush-ninja skills, which allows me to float through the bush without impacting the ground, however, reality was that I had been standing still like stone for quite a few minuets trying to get pictures of a bird, when the tiger snake crawled onto the path few meters in front of me - how lucky can you be? :-D I probably had more than 2 minuets in company with the TS before it disappeared into the scrub on the other side of the path and was gone .. needless to say that I now how quite a few Mb of TS pictures.

The bird above - behind the bush :-) - was not the one I was stalking before the snake incident, but probably the most exciting bird I saw during my Prom excursion. Judged on the pattern on the chest I guess there is a good chance of it being a Bassian Thrush. I managed to get better view when it flew, but no pictures.

Good walking! It was great not having to carry the backpack along and I managed to cover quite a bit of ground. The bird count being low was easily forgotten with a great selection of lizards around included a few that I do not recall having seen before.

The one above looks like an indigenous painting with stripes, dots and great colors. As the sun disappeared I returned to camp, once again planning an early night. I was supposed to return the car before 4pm Sunday, I wanted good time for the drive so I was aiming at leaving the prom before 12pm .. before I could leave I would have to make the walk back to the car park at Mount Oberon, catch a bus to the campsite and also I was expecting that a shower would be high on the "things I would like to have time for"-list :-D .. so I was planning to leave the campsite not later than 7am.

I had to find a better home for the little spider above before I could start cooking and while choosing my campsite I had been very happy with the presence of a good solid log, which looked like it would do the job of a comfy sofa .. as I started cooking the little fellow below popped its head out of my planned resting place and after some careful consideration I decided that the log was not to be used by me that evening .. I guess the combination of a tiger snake sighting and the fact that the potential sofa in question had many holes of various sizes made it an easy choice to stand up while eating. :-D