Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bowra Station - Afternoon Birdwatching - Hall's Babbler

Back at camp and the bird keen caretakers generously offered to help out those of us less well equipped with some 4WD assistance. Aim of the afternoons trip was Hall's Babbler, but as always, when you have a chance of spending some time with experienced birders with local knowledge, you are likely to see much more than you hoped for :-) This lovely afternoon at Bowra I was in excellent company with some lovely people and some seriously good bird eyes!

First rarity of the day was Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush, another bird where my photos unfortunately does not do it justice. These beauties will dart between cover made up of small bushes or grass and it takes a lot of patience to get in close. I saw Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush during my trip to Gundabooka National Park, but it is a bird I will happily spend time chasing down everyday and it was good to at least get a few adjoining pixels for the blog.

Next - and the target of our afternoon excursion - was Hall's Babbler. Once again patience and local knowledge was key and after 20 min of searching through the habitat our efforts where rewarded with a little family of Hall's Babblers jumping around not understanding what the fuss was about.

Great bird! I really enjoy seeing babblers in general, they are exciting opportunistic birds and it seems that there is always something going on around them. The sun moves fast in the outback and it was time to head back to the homestead. Walking back to the cars we noticed a clay nest with at least 3 inhabitants. My guess is that it is an Apostlebird nest.

Back at the homestead it was getting dark, under these difficult conditions I surprisingly managed to get a decent photo of a Diamond Dove. All day I had tried, but despite of having all the light you can possibly hope for, I could not get that red eye sharp ... It is obviously a lens problem ;-)

What a day! Full speed from first light and not a dull moment. I was knackered and hungry and was seriously considering just getting some food in my belly and allow myself a monster sleep .. as soon as the darkness fell, the frogs started their nightly serenade and I knew I had to give the macro lens a little workout before giving myself some rest - but that is another story :-)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bowra Station - Central Bearded and Central Netted Dragons

As it got warmer and the birds disappeared, the dragons came out! Having grown up in the northern end of Europe I am fascinated by reptiles. They are not at all common in Denmark and hence I count them as exotic creatures. My Australian friends usual smile when I am trying to get photos of skinks here in Sydney and I have been told that I will only be proper "integrated" when I start loving cricket and stop taking photos of lizards .. I am working on the cricket bit! :-) This warm October day in the south western end of Queensland I was in for a real cold blooded treat.

I saw the little Central Netted Dragon, Ctenophorus nuchalis while driving slowly along the main dirt track. It is a fairly small dragon probably not even 25 cm from head to tip of tail, but very beautiful! The little feller sports some great colors and an interesting "netted" pattern on its back, hence the name. The tail is very different to the rest of the animal, being less well camouflaged, maybe to diverge the focus of attacking predators away from the dragons main body by exposing a less vital extremity?

At least the Netted Dragon sports a body color that arguably makes them blend into the landscape, the Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps in contrast seems to do everything possible to be noticed!

During the warm afternoon they will climb almost everything to get in a position, where they can expose their impressive beard. Mature males will have midnight black coloration on the upper chest and beard as a little extra eye catching feature, probably designed to attract an extra look or two from those fashion-conscious females that probably are the reason for this dangerous(?) behavior.

Somehow those bearded dragons have managed to establish a very healthy population up around Bowra, so they cannot be as easy picking as I envisioned in the previous paragraph. The spines constituting the "beard" along with a generally rugged and spiky appearance makes them look like a tough meal and they are apparently capable of delivering a good solid bite if needed.

A wet outback delivers all the ingredients needed for the food chain. Plant life easily sustain an army of insects that again becomes a smörgåsbord for our dragon friends - easy living! No doubt that it will be a very different experience to visit Bowra in the end of a dry summer - All those "easy living" species will be gone, and left is only the truly desert loving creatures, that have learned to survive the scorching sun assisted by very little water .. A late summer trip might not be a bad idea :-)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bowra Station - Midday Birding

Bowra was getting warm, but there were still so much to explore :-) I decided to get in the car and try to get an idea of the accessibility of the different habitats and use a bit of time in the areas where some of my targeted species had previous been know to reside.

First stop, slim chance of: Grey Falcon and Slaty-backed Thornbill - who would not stop! :-) Actually there was no chance of a GF sighting, I had already had a little chat to the caretakers and rain in the desert west of Bowra meant that those areas were still wet enough to sustain a good mouse population, hence the GF would not yet need to move east into Bowra range.
So no Grey Falcon, but I ended up being pretty happy with my stop anyway! While trying to photograph a good mix of LBBs (Little Brown Bird) darting around in the bushes a lovely red-brown shadow suddenly appeared few meters above the scrubby trees, leisurely circling above me was the least worried Square-tailed Kite I have ever encountered.

The hovering Square-tailed Kite gave me some of the best bird-in-flight photos I have ever managed to take. I do not know if it was because of the lack of a morning coffee or that holding onto something solid like the Magna's steering wheel for a day made my hands steadier than usual, but the ca. 50 Square-tailed Kite photos are exceptional sharp - much better than what I managed to do the day after in a similar situation with a Whistling Kite .. Hm, there is a slim chance that my lens alters between having good and bad days, but reality is probably that the bad days originate approximately 15 cm behind the lens mount :-)

Most of the LBBs were probably Chestnut-rumped Thornbill - at least it seems that both of the photos here (above and below) are of the Chestnut-rumped variety. Graeme Chapman's site has some excellent photos and a description of what to look for, and verdict must be that the Magna will have to head west again later in the year to sort out the SbT - not bad at all :-)

Roads around Bowra Stations are fairly good and I could get anywhere in a low 2WD, except for the last part of the road up onto the escarpment where you have to go to see Hall's Babbler. From where the Magna would have to give up it would probably result in a 30 min walk to the babbler territory and an equal 30 min back. Luckily I had sorted a lift later during the day, so I could concentrate on the other areas, next stop was "(cloud) cuckoo land" where I was promised Pallid Cuckoo, had a chance on Black-eared Cuckoo and against the odds, but still possible, was the chance of bagging a Redthroat.

I parked at the main road and decided to shake off some of the driving laziness from the day before by walking up the hill. I had great views of the most fantastically bright red and velvety black male Mistletoebird - unfortunately my lens had decided to start taking shaky pictures ;-) .. or the energy from my breakfast was running out. Up the hill and as promised I got my Pallid Cuckoo. I followed two cuckoos having an argument for nearly 30 min, often they were so concentrated on establishing their territories, that I could move in close and get some decent photos. It would have been lovely if it had actually been between a Black-eared and a Pallid, but both vere of the latter origin and I had to settle with a single tick for the hill. :-)

It was now just after midday and Bowra Station was getting truly hot. The bird action began to take off and I started focusing my intention on some of the other wildlife around. To be continued.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bowra Station - Morning Bird Walk

What a great morning! :-) The nightly chorus of the frogs had ceased and instead replaced with an equally impressive mix of weird and wonderful bird calls. In the hot parts of Australia mornings are by far the best time of the day to spot those feathered noise makers and I was out of bed in a flash ready to start exploring.

The south-western end of Queensland is far enough away from the usual habitats around Sydney to give you that feeling of everything being different. Of course there are birds and plants that you can also find around Sydney, but when the doves are diamond, the friarbirds are little and the bellbirds are crested, you know that you are away from home.

During dinner the night before a couple of the caretakers at Bowra had promised to take the newly arrived for a morning walk along the bore drain, a White-winged Fairy-wren had been spotted in a particular bush a little walk away from the homestead, and considering the size of Bowra - and the amount of bushes! - it was an offer too good to refuse to be guided to the right bush :-)

The birding was absolutely fantastic and in the first 500 meters of walking I managed to see four(!) new birds plus I got photos of a few species that I have not managed to digitize before. The early new ones were White-necked Heron, which I for some reason have managed to avoid seeing even though it should be possible to pick it up much closer to Sydney. As hinted earlier, I also managed an encounter with a few Diamond Doves pottering around outside the homestead. Another bird that I had not seen before and that seemed to be attracted to the presence of humans at the homestead was Spotted Bowerbird and finally we got good views of the promised White-winged Fairy-wren, what a great little bird - sadly my photo does not do it justice.

The water at Bowra is artesian water and originates from the Great Artesian Basin an enourmous water source underlying 23% of Australia. It is the largest and deepest known source of artesian water in the world, and absolutely crucial for the sustainability of life in some of the driest parts of outback Australia. All that water had attracted a few birds that I had not expected to see that far outback - Black-winged Stilt, and what about a Nankeen Night Heron in the desert?

Bowra used to be a cattle station, and to maximize the possibility for the cattle to get to water a many kilometer long drainage ditch brings life giving water out onto the property. Birds as well as cattle needs to drink once and a while making the bore drain walk some of the best birding anyone can imagine.

We had a fantastic one and a half hours stroll that morning. Super company and some very special nature - what more can you hope for.?..! As we passed the campsite where I would later pitch my tent, we encountered a family of Chestnut-crowned Babbler. Babblers are great opportunistic birds and have some of the most interesting social behavior I have seen for any bird. The Chestnut-crowned Babbler is a great find, but I had seen it before and it was not the babbler I was after. The bird that has arguably added the most to the fame of Bowra is a constant presence of the rarest Babbler of them all: Hall's Babbler - A bird I would be targeting later that day :-)

A last surprise from our morning walk was a Buff-banded Rail walking around in the tall grass next to the little lake. This bird have never been seen at Bowra Station before and I guess we were all quite proud of having helped making a stunningly impressive bird list swell even a little more :-)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Bowra Station – Prologue – A Rough Beginning!

Finally I am ready to start posting some of the photos and stories from my Bowra Station trip. This first prologue will deal with the hardship I had to endure making my way to the south western end of Queensland. Being alone in the car, I took very few photos during the trip, instead I will spice up the story with a few of the photos I managed to take after arriving at Bowra Station late evening after a long day behind the wheel.

My trip had a very chaotic beginning, but thanks to some fantastic people at Bowra and the quality of the place itself, it ended up being some of the best days I have spent in Australia – Bowra is a wildlife and photography heaven.

Australian Green Tree Frog Litoria caerulea

My initial plan was to leave Sydney Thursday night after work, make it to Capertee Valley and sleep there, allowing for an early Friday morning start heading up towards Bourke, where I planned to use Friday evening and a bit of Saturday morning in Gundabooka National Park before pushing into Queensland for the main attraction of the trip: Bowra Station.

Some type of Emperor Moth(?), Saturniidae.

I got to Capertee and had a great sleep, but Friday morning before leaving, I wanted a quick photo of the campsite and realized that my camera battery had been drained from being stored upside down in my backpack – My guess is that trying to squeeze as much camera gear into the pack as possible I had placed the camera so that one of the buttons on the back, probably the live-view button, had been continuously activated causing severe battery drain. What to do? I could take a chance and drive further outback and hope to buy a (charged?) battery in a camera store on the way or, since I had managed to get road ready at an impressive 5.15am, I could drive straight back to work, do a full day in the laboratory, head home, charge the battery, pack the charger(!) and start the drive west again early Saturday morning. I choose the latter. Luckily work was very understanding and I could move my day off from Friday to Tuesday, the entire shenanigans only costing me a drive to Capertee Valley and a bit of packing pride :-)

Tiger Moth, Arctiidae, Amata sp.

One of the reasons for including Gundabooka National Park on the agenda was that the place had received a good lot of rain recently, which had brought along the chance of seeing a rare and spectacular display of outback wildflowers, plus the wildlife that comes along. Once again my plans were not to be! I had a great early escape from Sydney Saturday morning and was covering good ground. Next to no traffic and the Magna was firing on all cylinders, I got to Nyngan and had still plenty of photography related podcasts to listen to – great drive! As I approached Cobar I realized that I was in trouble – the skies were dark and the land was wetter than I have ever seen the outback. My fears were confirmed at the petrol station in Cobar, the weather forecast predicted lots of rain over the next few days and the police had put out a warning urging people to stay on the bitumen and avoid dirt roads. I decided to drive north towards Bourke – I would be passing the Gundabooka National Park entrance and could take a look and see how bad it looked. As I left Cobar the rain started bucketing down.

I did not even consider driving into Gundabooka! Between Cobar and Bourke I was literally driving through the rain on a piece of tarmac just slightly raised above the two rivers flowing in the trenches next to the road. There was no way I was taking the Magna off-road! Last time I had been in Gundabooka it had been one of the driest places I have ever visited, this time it was turning into an ocean in front of my eyes.
[Notice that the events I am writing about took place in early October, the rains I am talking about have nothing to do with the present flooding in Queensland.]
Where to sleep? I decided to use a bit of logic! :-) Bowra Station is famous for being incredibly dry – it (nearly) never rains and life is only sustained because of spring water on the property, hence creating the unique habitat attracting the rare wildlife I wanted to see. Here I was ca. 400km south nearly drowning in rain .. I decided to continue north!

Finally I had a bit of luck! As I made my way further north the rain became patchy and after entering Queensland I even had glimpses of a setting sun. Arriving at Cunnamulla it was quickly getting dark, those outback towns look significantly more welcoming during the daytime and after that many kilometers behind the wheel it seemed natural to give the last 16km of dirt road a go. I had an excellent description of the way in and I promised myself to turn around if the road was too wet.

It had hardly rained at Bowra and after 20 min on a dirt road as good as some of the bitumen the Magna had been negotiating earlier during the day I was finally there. After nearly 13 hours of solitude in the Magna I was taken aback by the warmest most fantastic welcome I have even been given during any of my endeavors. Before I knew what was happening, the Bowra Station caretakers had managed to sort me a full plate of dinner, a glass of wine and some fantastic company :-)

As mentioned above, I managed to squeeze in 30 min of photography before going to sleep. I was absolutely hammered, but the sounds of a trillion frogs outside the homestead was simply too tempting and I went for a little walk with the Sigma 150mm macro attached, all of the pictures in this blog post are from that first night at Bowra.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Shane's Park - Birding Western Sydney

Eremaea had been full of reports about some good birding happening out in Shane's Park - a Western Sydney suburb - A piece of Air Services Land off Captain Cook Drive had delivered rarities good enough to fire up the rest of the birding gang and an early Sunday morning the Magna was heading west for a bit of close-to-home weekend excitement.

It nearly seemed the birds knew that it was going to be a warm day. They were all over the place trying to do all their birdy things in the first few hours of the day, so we benefited well and truly from having an early start to the day. In less than 500m of walking we saw Fan-tailed and Shining Bronze-Cuckoo, the latter being new to me.

Shane's Park might not be the most picturesque part of Australia, but the wildlife was excellent and we had heaps of photo opportunities. The army of caterpillars above was a great sight. When approach they simultaneously started to shake enhancing the illusion of them being one large entity.

Sighting of the day - apart from the Shining Bronze-Cuckoo - was a close encounter with the Eastern Brown Snake above and below. What fantastic creatures snakes are! The very large Brown Snake was lying sunning itself next to a small creek when we spotted it. As if it knew it had been sighted it slowly started moving. As we started jumping around trying to get the best possible photos, the snake decided to quickly get away from all the shenanigans and gave a fantastic display of its swimming credentials speeding across the creek and into the scrub in a matter a seconds. Good stuff!

As the day progressed and it got warmer the heat brought out all kinds of exciting stuff including spiders, skinks and weirdly shaped insects. We still saw birds, including the Eastern Shrike-tit below and a possible White-throated Gerygone which we stalked for nearly half and hour without getting sufficiently good views. But it was as if the birds slowly disappeared possibly the heat played a factor, but also the extensive use of petrol propelled 2 and 4 wheelers on the bush tracks made the place a less relaxing hangout for birds and birders.

All in all a great day in Shane's park! We dipped on a number of the reported species, but good to save a few species for another day :-) If you are considering visiting the area, my best advice is to go early! The midday use of the area as a race track is quite disturbing. Second best advice is to keep an eye on the track in front of you - who knows what will be lurking ;-)