Tasmanian Birding and Mammal Tour

31 January to 6 February 2016

Tasmania was drought affected and swaths of the northwest were on fire. Before we arrived, there was torrential rain in the northeast and down the east coast causing major flooding in some areas. So, with fires and floods raging we set off on yet another Tasmanian birding and mammal tour.


As it turned out, we had a fantastic trip and saw most of the birds and mammals with some memorable highlights. This year we saw our first Tasmanian devil in three years, hopefully a positive sign. We also saw our first swift parrots in three years. On the pelagic off Eaglehawk Neck we had a mega-tick in the form of a Kermadec petrel, only the third record for Tasmania. The water temperature that day was running at 19 degrees, several degrees above the average, so it is little wonder that sub-tropical species were off Tasmania. A week before, another pelagic trip out off Eaglehawk had recorded white-necked petrel, another sub-tropical species from the Lord Howe area. Marlin was also being caught off Eaglehawk that day, another sub-tropical species from the same area. It was also notable that this is the first time in over 20 years of AOS pelagics off Eaglehawk that we have failed to see grey-backed storm-petrel, a typical cold water species. Also out here we had two of the stunning snowy albatross', a recent split from wandering on at least one list.

On Bruny Island, about thirty eastern quolls were spotlighted, an outrageous number. Great numbers of Bennett's wallabies and Tassie pademelons and at least eight wombats were spotlighted out at Derwent Bridge. These numbers were higher than normal and I believe they were being pushed in along the roads by the dry conditions in that area. Eastern quoll numbers are still way down in this area and only two were seen. This was better than the previous year when none were seen in this area but previous tours we always saw about ten in a few hours spotlighting.

Great looks were also had at the same big platypus as seen last year. On the downside we missed emu-wren, the first time we have done so in over twenty years of tours in Tasmania. Extremely dry conditions in both Derwent Bridge and Melaleuca was the reason for this. Birds such as strong-billed and black-headed honeyeaters are much less common, particularly the strong-billed which was only seen at one locality this year. This mirrors the Melithreptus honeyeaters on mainland Australia that have also suffered a big decline. Other species whose numbers were down were beautiful firetail, Tassie scrubwren and crescent honeyeater. Forty-spotted pardalote is now scarce bird on the north end of Bruny, which was formerly its stronghold. The trees they used to inhabit are severely drought stressed and have very little leaf. They are still doing okay on the south end of the island where the rainfall is higher and they have raised quite a few clutches at Inala. Owlet nightjar was also heard calling at Inala.


Orange-bellied parrots continue to struggle. Dry conditions and a heatwave in October frustrated breeding attempts. About a dozen captive bred birds were released this season making a total known breeding population of thirty-four birds. Out of these only nine young have been fledged giving a total known population of forty-three birds. There are still some birds sitting on eggs but it is very late in the season and the chances of success are not great. A very precarious situation indeed for a small parrot that has to cross Bass Strait twice each year!


Cuckoos were again in short supply with no sightings of pallid or fantailed although we did better on bronze-cuckoos with one Horsfields and several shining.


Raptors were also in short supply. In the seven days of the tour we saw eight swamp harriers, two wedge-tailed eagles (on Bruny Island) one brown falcon and Trish saw a white-bellied sea-eagle.


Day 1  Hobart to Bruny Island

We set off for at 7:30 am for Mt Wellington in drizzling rain. A break in the weather allowed a stop in some dry forest in an area near the base of Mt Wellington that is often good for yellow wattlebird. Initially there didn’t seem to be much about and I was just about to drive off when a wattlebird flew in and landed. We scrambled out of the vehicle as more yellow wattlebirds flew in. They kept coming for some time and appeared to be on migration as all were going the same way. There were no eucalypts in flower in the vicinity. Also here we had eastern spinebill, dusky woodswallow, brown thornbill, grey currawong and a lovely pair of satin flycatchers so it turned out to be a good stop. We continued up Mt Wellington in a misty rain. We stopped some way up and I thought we would be lucky to see much although I didn't tell the troops that! We persevered for a while and located our first Tassie thornbills and Tassie scrubwrens although the viewing conditions weren't the best. The bird I really wanted here was scrubtit , which can be hard to see in Tasmania some years. After a short search we came up with two pairs, all adults. They were up close so everyone had great views even though the light wasn't great. I was surprised they did not have any young with them as they normally do at this time of year. We had a quick try for pink robin but nothing doing. A black currawong was also calling higher up the mountain but as the weather was still miserable we retreated down the mountain happy to have seen the scrubtit. Summerleas Road produced our first pair of scarlet robins and of course New Holland honeyeaters. The lunch stop at Margate was also good bird-wise and we added black-headed honeyeater, yellow-rumped thornbill and striated pardalote to the list as well as assorted waterbirds on the adjacent lagoon. Striated pardalote appears to be quite a scarce bird now in Tasmania and we only had one other sighting for the tour, which was on Bruny Island. We headed straight down to Kettering after lunch in what we thought was plenty of time to catch the ferry to Bruny Island. The ferry was pulling away as we approached! The schedule had changed after decades! Still, they are running more often so we did not have long to wait. On Bruny, we tried Missionary Road, which used to be a hot spot for forty-spotted pardalote but not a single pardalote of any species could be found — admittedly, it was mid-afternoon. Further up the road we encountered our first party of dusky robins and a juvenile Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo was seen that must have bred locally. On the way to South Bruny, more scarlet robins were seen. Our first sooty oystercatcher was also seen on the drive south, along with lots of pied.


On my the way to the Explorer cabins to pick up the group for dinner (Trish was cooking at Nairana Cottage at Inala) there was a brush bronzewing feeding beside the road, however it was not there when I returned with the group. It transpired that some of the troops at least had seen brush bronzewing behind their cabins. There were also a couple of males calling at Inala. At dusk, we ventured out spotlighting. As we neared The Neck we started seeing our first quolls and in the next couple of hours at least thirty were seen, mainly on North Bruny. Some of the paddocks had up to half a dozen quolls feeding in them. It seems the black form predominates on Bruny now when previously it was more half and half. Many of the quolls were feeding on the road so we had some great views up close. Good numbers of Bennett's wallabies, Tasmanian pademelons and common brushtails and the odd echidna were also seen. Pademelons are still in big numbers but the wallabies and possums are not as thick as they once were. As we passed The Neck just after dusk, scores of short-tailed shearwaters were circling their rookery, which was quite a sight. We called in there on our way back from spotlighting after the crowds had dispersed and saw half a dozen fairy penguins about their burrows. I also looked for long-nosed potoroo up the north end of Bruny but none were seen. After I dropped the troops off at their cabins and was driving back to Inala I spotlighted a tawny frogmouth along the road which proved to be the only one seen for the tour. Sorry folks. The species is really quite uncommon, at least in southern Tasmania. Back at Nairana Cottage an owlet nightjar was calling; only about the third I have heard in Tasmania. A delightful banjo type frog was calling in a pond Tonia had constructed beside the cottage. It had been a long day but we had seen some magic stuff.


Day 2
Bruny Island to Fentonbury

We didn't rise too early after spotlighting, instead having a leisurely 7:30 am breakfast on Nairana’s verandah. Again, there was a fine, misty rain falling as we headed down for the forty-spotted pardalotes, seeing en route our first flame robins and more scarlets and duskys as we walked down the hill. Sheltering under Tonia's pardalote-viewing tower we waited for the rain to stop. A couple of forty-spots were glimpsed in bad light but after awhile the rain stopped and the sun came out and we saw quite a few feeding up close in the eucalypt leaves from the tower. A few black-headed honeyeaters and one striated pardalote were also seen about the tower. We checked out Tonia's Gondwana Garden, all coming along nicely. A single Latham’s snipe was flushed near the garden and we had both adult and juvenile shining bronze-cuckoo along the creek. We headed across Mt Mangana to Adventure Bay for lunch. Not long after leaving Inala we scored our one and only pair of wedge-tailed eagles for the tour. We pulled up at some wet forest near Mt Mangana and on our first attempt had an uncoloured male pink robin. Our next attempt had a beautiful fully coloured male pink robin. Quite content with our morning’s haul we headed over to Adventure Bay were Trisha had lunch on the table. A stunning hooded plover and our first Pacific gull was viewed before heading for the ferry, with new timetable in hand.


On route to Fentonbury we stopped at a large dam near Gretna and had a single Cape Barron goose, unusual for this area. Also here we added shoveler, shelduck, swamp harrier and black-fronted dotterel. We took it easy for a while after arriving at our accommodation, a Fentonbury B & B. Trisha cooked dinner at the B & B after which we headed out spotlighting. Our target tonight was masked owl and not long after dusk we heard two call and saw one fly off in the half light. One just hung back, calling at us but refusing to come in. We eventually admitted defeat and went for a spotlight along the road. All the regulars were seen: brushtails, wallabies and pademelons, however on the way back some bright eyeshine was seen up ahead and as we got closer I realised we had a devil. It allowed a close approach so everyone had a great view. It was about three-quarters grown and appeared healthy so here’s hoping they might be starting to build up immunity to the facial cancer. So while we missed the masked owl the Tasmanian devil was a worthy consolation prize.


Day 3 
Fentonbury to Derwent Bridge

After a leisurely breakfast we birded up a back road near our accommodation that was quite productive. It was a rather scrappy looking bit of dry forest along a creek line but produced dusky, flame and scarlet robins, plenty of yellow-throated honeyeaters, brown and Tasmanian thornbills, more satin flycatchers and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos. Having largely exhausted the possibilities we headed for Derwent Bridge. En route we had musk duck on a lake and assorted waterbirds. Several echidnas were seen on the drive up the mountains. On the Central Plateau we had a stop at a patch of prickly hakea where striated fieldwren is often seen. Today, although they called back briefly, they refused to be seen so we gave it away, having other opportunities. We continued up a side road to a locality where I have previously seen blue-winged parrot and no sooner had I mentioned it to the troops than three blue-wings flew up from the roadside. However getting a decent view proved to be somewhat of a challenge but we persevered and eventually had great views. These were the only blue-wings seen on the tour. We continued on to Derwent Bridge where lunch awaited us at Derwent Bridge's brand new picnic area, across from the pub. After lunch we headed out west of Derwent Bridge into the southwest wilderness area. We saw the beautiful leatherwood trees in bloom and many beehives after the distinctive honey. We continued on to the Franklin River where we had a walk in the ancient beech forest. There was never many birds in this forest type even when Tasmania received its proper rainfall but after years of drought there is even less. We had almost completed the walk before we saw our first bird, a Tassmanian thornbill, thereafter we had scrubwren, followed by scrubtit which is about all that occurs in this forest type. So most of the birds are still present, albeit in very low numbers. We headed back east to the button grass plains where I was hoping for ground parrot. We put in considerable effort and eventually one flew up but everyone apart from Eric was looking in the opposite direction! We were unable to relocate it so we headed back to the Derwent Bridge pub for an early dinner, with more spotlighting on tonight's agenda.


After dinner we headed over to the river and had a quick look for platypus but no joy. Huge numbers of wallabies, pademelons and brushtails were seen on our night drive and we had not gone far when an owl was spotted in a tree by the road. I went back unsure if it was the so-called Tasmanian morepork (a New Zealand name) or frogmouth. It turned out to be the former. It allowed a close approach so we all had great views. We also noted the different eye colour (from boobook) that my old mate Kevin Bartram had recently alerted me to, having noted it on the migrating birds seen recently at Cape Liptrap in Victoria. Beside the eye colour the Tassie morepork are much smaller and darker with less streaking than boobook. We continued on spotlighting and eventually saw our first wombat, followed by many others. By the end of the night at least eight were seen. A couple of eastern quolls were seen, well down on the dozen or so we’ve seen in previous years. No devils were seen here,  making it three consecutive years that we have missed them here. This area was previously a stronghold for this species and we rarely missed them. Still we had a great night's spotting with the morepork and the wombats and the good numbers of other creatures.


Day 4

Derwent Bridge to Hobart

Trisha made breakfast in the great picnic facilities across the road from the pub. After breakfast we headed down towards Lake St Clair to an area of dry eucalypt forest with an understory of Banksia marginata and other shrubs. I have been going to this spot for over 20 years and it has been great for a whole suite of Tassie birds. It has been a reliable spot at this time of year for swift parrot but I had missed them on the tour over the last two years. Normally there is a large eucalypt flowering around Derwent Bridge at this time of year but it has not been flowering for the last two years and again was not flowering this year. With no flowering on this visit I thought our chances of seeing swift parrot were not great. Not long after we alighted the vehicle swift parrots flew over. Over the next hour more came over and some landed up high in the eucalypts. We managed to get some in the telescope after they settled down. In total I believe we saw about twenty birds and some at least were juveniles. We never saw them feed so I don't know what the attraction was as there were no eucalypts in flower. Perhaps they were feeding on lerp.


It was rather quiet when we first arrived but as it warmed up the crescent honeyeaters started calling and feeding in the banksias. We worked on this furtive species for quite a while before everyone managed to get satisfactory views. Also about were our first strong-billed as well as black-headed honeyeaters. Strangely enough, both these primarily insectivorous species were feeding on banksia flowers. The only explanation I could come up with was that it was rather cold and drizzly and maybe they needed a sugar fix; also the area was in drought and insects may have been in short supply. We also had to work on the strong-bills for some time but eventually had nice looks. Some of the black-headed honeyeaters were juveniles.


We set about searching the dry teatree swamp for emu-wrens but none were seen or heard. When we first came here over twenty years ago, the swamp was full of emu-wrens but as it has dried out over last fifteen years the emu-wren numbers have been dropping. This is the first time we have failed to find them here. We headed back to the forest and enjoyed the honeyeaters some more and also had another pair of satin flycatchers which also had recently fledged young. We were pleased with our morning so headed back to Derwent Bridge for lunch. We made our way back to Mt Field where the gigantic, old growth swamp gum forest yielded up first a juvenile pink robin, then the real deal, a superb adult male. After this success, we called it a day and headed for Hobart.


Day 5.  

Hobart to Melaleuca

We took a chartered flight down to Melaleuca, primary for the orange-bellied parrot, a species teetering on extinction.


The flight down and back is quite spectacular. (We flew over the mountains on the way down and around the coast on the way back). There are many other good birds to be had there. While taxiing down the runway we saw our first red-capped plovers for the tour and shelduck as we took off. The weather was a bit cloudy through the mountains but still we had good views of fantastic mountain scenery. We met the volunteer wardens looking after the orange-bellied parrots on our arrival at Melaleuca. They showed us first some juveniles at one feeder, then some adults and juveniles at two other feeders near the Wilson's tin mine. We had great looks at beautiful firetails of which there were many about the feeders. All up, we probably saw about a dozen orange-bellied parrots, about a quarter of the known population. After enjoying some nice looks at this highly threatened species we walked back towards the airfield and came upon a lovely pair of striated fieldwren, which sat jauntily on top of the bushes; the male singing for us.


We then made a determined attempt to see a ground parrot and after some effort we all had several good looks of one in flight. They were not about like they had been the previous year when we saw six and had a couple up close on the ground. It was a lot drier at Melaleuca this year than the previous one. We had a try for Lewin’s rail with no success and spent the rest of our time searching diligently for southern emuwren but again with no success, the first time I have missed this species on this tour. The weather was clear on the way back and the scenery spectacular along the coast. Trisha had lunch waiting for us at Sorell on our return. We spent most of the afternoon checking out the waders and waterbirds about Sorell and Mid-Way Point. We added bar-tail godwit (about 20) and Pacific golden plover (about 80) and more red-capped plovers. At Oriental Lagoon there was hundreds of kelp gulls with a few nesting. In a nearby paddock we had a single skylark. On the drive back to Hobart some flowering eucalypts produced musk lorikeet and little wattlebird. Our last stop in Queens Domain we added a stunning male eastern rosella to the list. Tasmanian eastern rosella have a very different call from mainland birds, so much so as to be almost unrecognizable. Eastern rosella was a nice bird to finish on.


Day 6 

Hobart to Eaglehawk Neck

Our first stop this morning was Gould's Lagoon to the north of Hobart. Here we added freckled duck to the list. There has been a group here since the great eruption from inland Australia after the floods in 2010-11. The males are in partial breeding plumage and looked smart with the red bases to their bills. We saw seven in total but I believe there has been a dozen or more at times. Presumably, they will return to inland Australia if it ever floods again. I doubt they would breed in Tasmania although it is interesting that the base of their bills has coloured up two years in a row now. They must be keen to nest. At least four Latham’s snipe were seen here and we managed to get one in the scope for a great view. This is a reliable site for spotted crake and this year was no exception with good looks at two birds out feeding. We also had our one and only great egret at this locality and good looks were had at shoveler here. Musk lorikeets, little wattlebird, grey butcherbird and eastern rosella were also seen about the lagoon. Having cleaned up here, we headed across to Orford via a northerly route. I wanted to check out a dam we had found last year that had a platypus feeding in the middle of the day. We found the dam, which has some nice beds of cumbungii at the ends. Sure enough, our old mate was out feeding again in broad daylight! It is a very large platypus so I suppose it’s a male. We watched it diving for food and coming up and munching whatever it caught, presumably crustaceans. What an animal! We also had our one and only reed warbler in the bed of cumbungii. Further along the road we had a big tip truck with a trailer on come around a corner towards us and swerve across to our side of the road. I thought for a minute he was trying to take us out until I looked back and saw an echidna on the side of the road. I admire a guy who is prepared to take out a bunch of tourists to save an echidna! We called at a lovely native display garden of dry-county species between Buckland and Orford. A great job has been done by volunteers. Not so many birds but the spinebills were loving it — we saw about six as well as yellow-throated honeyeater, grey fantail, spotted pardalote and Tassie thornbills. We continued on to Orford where another of Trisha's lunches awaited us.


We had a little flock of yellow-tailed black-cockatoos near the lunch stop. We went over to the sandbar at the mouth of the Prosser River. Here we had hooded plover and joy oh joy a pair of fairy terns was feeding young up on the sandbar. This is the first I have seen them breed here for at least ten years. Pacific gull, pied oystercatcher and our first red-necked stints were also seen here. After our success here we headed back to Buckland and cut south towards Eaglehawk Neck. We called in at Marion Bay and in the samphire flats we had a couple of pairs of stunning white-fronted chats. On the nearby mudflats there was a flock of about a hundred red-necked stints. Along Blackman’s Bay there were large numbers of pied oystercatchers and quite a few sooties. After arriving at our accommodation at Turanna we headed down to Port Arthur for a meal. On the drive a couple of pairs of Cape Barron geese were grazing in the paddocks. We had an early night as we had a big day out on the ocean in the morning.


Day 7 Eaglehawk Neck pelagic

The weather was looking good for us as we sailed out of Pirates’ Bay on the Pauletta, captained by John Males. We had a full load with fourteen passengers. Winds were up to 15 km/h with a one to two metre swell and a bit choppy on top. Just enough wind to keep the birds in the air. On the way out to the shelf  past the Hippolyte Rocks I was starting to get a bit worried as there was very few albatross about. There was reasonable numbers of short-tailed shearwaters and we did see quite a few fluttering shearwaters and one Hutton's shearwater on the way out to the Rocks. All the regulars were at the Rocks: black-faced shags, Australian gannets and Australian fur seals. Albatross were scarce though with only a couple of lonely shy albatross following us out to the shelf. We were just over the shelf in about 400 metres of water when we pulled up to put out some berley and things started to improve. At this spot we had fifty or more shy albatross about the boat, a couple of black-browed, half dozen or so Bullers albatross and a single wandering albatross. White-faced storm petrels came in on the berley trail and there must have been at least twenty at one stage. Later, a single Wilsons storm-petrel appeared with the white-faced.  Our first white-chinned petrels came in and the odd fairy prion was about, and of course undulations of short-tailed shearwaters in their hundreds were coming past. All hell broke loose when what we thought was a soft-plumaged petrel came in. I did think at the time there was something a little odd about it with white flashes in the wings but thought maybe it was in moult. I did not give it much thought that day, too busy looking for more birds, however when Els Wakefield sent me the photos and suggested it might be an intermediate form of Kermadec petrel, it was obvious that was the case. I had only seen the species once before off Balls Pyramid over twenty years ago so it was not really on my radar. This is a sub-tropical species and it is only the third record for Tasmania, so very exciting. Next to come in was grey-faced petrel (formerly lumped with great-winged) but like the Kemadec did not stay long. Not long after another petrel came through which initially I thought was another grey-faced but as it came past I could see white flashes in the underwings. I am fairly certain it was a providence petrel. I was hoping it would come past again but of course it didn't and neither did the Kermadec. With seabirds you often only get one bite at the cherry! No one got photos of the bird I believe was a providence and I think I was the only one to get a decent view of it. Northern giant petrel was also seen at our first stop. Eventually the birds eased off so we went further out in some deeper water. After putting out some berley a few birds started to appear and eventually we had quite a few albatross about us. A couple of the beautiful snowy albatross came in, very much like a southern royal without the black line on the bill. Another giant albatross was seen well off which with the aid of Els' photos proved to be a northern royal but it did not approach the boat and few people saw it.  It had been wonderful day out on the ocean; we’d seen some great birds including a mega rarity, the weather had been kind to us and nobody had been sick. We arrived back at the wharf at about 3:30 pm, a tired but happy bunch.


We dropped our tour participants off at their various localities in Hobart and Trisha, Eric and Margaret and I headed for the airport. It had been a lovely group and it had been a pleasure to show them a good selection of Tasmania's wildlife. Tour participants were Cynthia Pyle, Eric and Margaret Wheeler, Robyn and Chris Wood. AOS pelagic participants were the above tour participants,and Susanna Van Essen, Karan Dick, Els Wakefield, Phil Stevens (UK), Doug and Pam Cameron, Brian and Sandra Goyen.


Tour leader: Philip Maher

Tour organiser: Patricia Maher

Next Tasmanian tour: 28 January to 4 Februay 2017



The serious business of the daily species checklist, Mures Upper Deck, Hobart.