Our 2019 Tasmanian tour will be remembered for weather extremes. We arrived to a hot and smoky Hobart with several large uncontrolled bushfires burning in various parts of the island, and one not too far from Hobart. Later in the tour we had big cold fronts passing through, one bringing rain and the other strong winds. The rain dampened the fires down and we had no more trouble with smoke but rain did cause the flight to Melaleuca to be cancelled, the first cancellation for us in over ten years. This cost us at least two bird species. Tasmania was also in extreme drought and the birding was, at times, tough. Masked owl remained elusive this year and southern emu-wren could not be found in the heath near Derwent Bridge where the species was once common. Fan-tailed cuckoos were also scarce this year with not a single bird seen nor heard. Numbers of flame, scarlet and dusky robins were also down although we did quite well with pink robin up Mount Wellington. Despite the challenges, we had some great sightings of both birds and mammals.
While Trisha had collected members of our group at the airport, except for Ros who had come over from the mainland on the Spirit of Tasmania, I didn’t meet the group until breakfast on day one. We had Australians, Christine and Ian, Glenys and Jeff and Ros and some very hardy Brits, Lesley, Dave and Debbie. Lesley, Dave and Debbie had spent the best part of the hottest January ever recorded in the Australian outback.
We piled into a Toyota Coaster and headed up Mount Wellington on our first morning. We had our first stop in some wet eucalypt forest in Waterworks Reserve on our way to Mount Wellington. This locality is often alive with birds but it was quiet on this occasion. Our first brown thornbills were seen and eventually we saw both little and yellow wattlebirds. Brush bronzewings can be notoriously difficult to spot at times as they often call from thick cover. One had been calling incessantly since our arrival and Ian, standing in just the right spot, picked up the lovely male calling from a large horizontal branch allowing us all had great scope views. Our first grey currawongs were also heard here as were yellow-throated honeyeaters but oddly enough, none were seen.
We continued on up Mount Wellington. The weather is often inclement up on the mountain but it wasn’t too bad today. I had high hopes of seeing some of our target birds. We had not ventured far in the wet forest when Lesley spotted some movement low down and our first male pink robin was seen. This was followed soon after by both Tasmanian thornbill and Tasmanian scrubwren. We were trying hard for the dreaded Tasmanian scrubtit but after an hour we had not seen so much as a tail feather. I tried another trail I had never been down before and we had not gone far when a single scrubtit was spotted, and after following it for a while good views were had by all. This was a great relief as good views can often be hard to obtain of this rather cryptic species particularly in drier years. As we continued on, a whistler was spotted by some of the troops that initially was thought to be a golden whistler. However, after some effort we obtained some decent views and it proved to be an olive whistler and eventually both male and female were seen. More pink robins, both male and female, were also encountered. A pair of green rosella, another Tasmanian endemic, was recorded. Black currawongs were heard but were a little far off to be seen. Other species up here included golden whistler, silvereye, grey fantail and forest raven. Well pleased with our mornings efforts we pushed on to our lunch rendezvous with Trisha at Margate. Our first Tasmanian native hens were seen along the way.
The first bird seen at the picnic ground at Dru Point Park was yellow-rumped thornbill. The colouring is a little more subdued on the Tasmanian yellow-rumps than mainland birds. Our first goldfinches were also seen here. After lunch we added common water birds to our list such as chestnut teal, little black and great cormorants, pied oystercatcher, white-faced heron and kelp gull. Our first pair of Pacific gulls were also seen here. We got a wriggle on to catch the Kettering ferry across to Bruny Island.
Around the docking area at Kettering we had nice looks at black-faced cormorant. On the other side of the channel a white-bellied sea-eagle welcomed us to Bruny. It was perched in its favourite tree south of the ferry terminal where I have been seeing it for close to thirty years.
On Bruny we commenced our birding on the north end of the island. When we first started running our tours to Tasmania over three decades ago, the northern end was alive with birds. Adverse climatic conditions have rendered this end of the island so dry that it is almost devoid of birds. I think this year is probably the worst I have ever seen it. Many of the poor old eucalypts look half-dead. We couldn’t find a single pardalote of any species on North Bruny this year, let alone a forty-spotted! Our only decent sighting on North Bruny was a juvenile pallid cuckoo looking resplendent in its black and white plumage. This was the only pallid cuckoo seen for the tour. Not a single robin was seen on North Bruny where both scarlet and dusky used to be common. I couldn’t leave North Bruny quickly enough and headed for the higher rainfall of South Bruny. Crossing the isthmus we added sooty oystercatcher to the list.
On South Bruny we walked down a road I had not been down for at least ten years. This proved to be a great move as we got many of our target species along this track. Our first good sighting here was a pair of satin flycatchers coming down to bathe at a small dam. This was followed soon after by closeup views of forty-spotted pardalotes that were mucking about in nest holes, so were probably breeding. The endemics just kept coming and we had nice looks at both black-headed and strong-billed honeyeaters, all coming down to bathe. This was followed in quick succession by dusky and flame robins. Immature beautiful firetails were also recorded along here but not a fully coloured adult. Our first common bronzewings were seen along as well as lots of dusky woodswallows. When we were nearly back to the bus an immature shining bronze-cuckoo was observed and as we were driving out an immature male scarlet robin was briefly sighted. Wow, what a success that road proved to be.! It made up for the tough time we had had on North Bruny. We headed for our accommodation as we had seen most of our target birds for the day and we were spotlighting tonight. Oddly enough we had not seen a yellow-throated honeyeater, rather only hearing its call. We had one last stop for the day for Lewin’s rail. The tide was perfect. Once again, luck was with us. We had a brief but good sighting of an adult as it dashed between two beds of rush.
Trisha cooked dinner for the group in the Inala cottage garden and it was a happy well-fed and hydrated group that ventured out spotlighting as darkness fell.
We headed back towards North Bruny. It is usually the best place to see the delightful eastern quolls for which Bruny is now the stronghold. However, we had not gone far before we started seeing our first quolls and some nice looks were eventually had of this extremely cute marsupial. Some paddocks had up to half dozen or so quolls in them and we finished up seeing about twenty for the night. Good numbers of Tasmanian pademelons and red-necked (Bennett’s) wallaby were seen in some of the paddocks. Quite a few of the chubby, dark form of common brushtail possum were also seen, as were three of the hairy subspecies of echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus setosus, that occurs in Tasmania. The night was not completely dominated by mammals and we also managed a tawny frogmouth as well as a half dozen or so each of little penguin and short-tailed shearwater at the breeding rookery. Wow! What a day we’d had.
After yesterday’s long day and late night, we had a bit of a sleep in. Drizzle was the perfect excuse not to rush outdoors so we lingered around the breakfast table at Inala cottage.
When the rain abated, we set off for a stroll around the property. More forty-spots were seen. New Holland honeyeaters were prevalent, and we saw our first striated pardalotes. Tree martins were perched on the fences, mainly immatures. Once upon a time, the tree martins were mostly at the north end of Bruny but they seem to have fled to South Bruny. They have few options left if South Bruny continues to dry out! We had a lovely group of yellow-rumped thornbills and another male scarlet robin was seen on the property. A pair of white-bellied sea-eagles was sitting in the trees looking rather bedraggled from the rain.
I decided to go back and have another go for better looks of Lewin’s rail. After some effort we managed great views of an adult and even photos of this cryptic species. I think probably some of the best views I have had in my life. We realised after a while that there were two adults and two juveniles present in the bed of rush. They had managed to breed even in these dry conditions. With that success under our belts we headed over Mount Mangana to Adventure Bay where Trisha had lunch waiting for us.
After lunch we headed up the beach to where the hooded plovers are usually nesting. They were there and were probably nesting as the female kept running up into the dunes, possibly to check on young. They are very insecure here with people walking too close even though there are signs and bunting up to indicate the hooded plovers were nesting. We had to motion a guy away who was going to hang his towel on the fence put up to protect the nest area!
Our time on Bruny was coming to an end. En route to the ferry we encountered a small flock of yellow-tailed black-cockatoos feeding in introduced pines. We pulled over and some excellent views were had of this spectacular bird. Our first brown falcons were also seen on Bruny. We made the ferry in good time — you do not have to wait long now with ferries running every half hour (for the most part in summer). We headed back through Hobart and out along the Derwent River on our way to Fentonbury. At this time of year, flocks of blue-winged parrots like to feed beside the Derwent (mainly on weeds I think) and sure enough, there they were although perhaps only a dozen or so this year. They seemed to be mostly sub-adults or females and only one or two adult males were seen. Our only greenfinches for the tour were recorded here. We scanned the opposite bank of the river for Australasian bittern but none were spotted. We arrived at our accommodation in Fentonbury in time to have a break before dinner.
Giving Trisha a welcome break, Jenifa, at Hamlet Downs B & B cooked up a great meal for us in her outdoor kitchen and afterwards we headed out for more spotlighting. Our main targets tonight were Tasmanian devil and masked owl. We have occasionally seen Tasmanian bettong along this road but not for some years.
The usual hopping creatures were seen: red-necked wallaby and Tasmanian pademelon, as well as common brushtail possum. A good view was also had of common wombat along here, much to our English visitors’ delight. We tried hard for masked owl but it was not to be on this occasion. However we did manage good views of a pair of Tasmanian moreporks at a locality where we had previously had masked owl. On the way back two Tasmanian devils were seen. One was quite large but disappeared off the road quite a distance in front of us and was not seen again. The second one was a younger animal and we drove right up alongside it but the road verge was thick and the devil disappeared fairly quickly. It would appear though that they are coming back from the Deadly Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) that almost wiped them out. We headed back to Hamlet Downs reasonably pleased with our night out although disappointed not to get a masked owl this year.
After a latish breakfast we headed down the lane beyond Hamlet Downs that is often good for a few birds. We pulled up near a dam in a creek line with some cumbungii in it. Soon after a platypus was spotted in the dam but it quickly disappeared into the cumbungii, never to be seen again. We continued our walk down the road and finally had good looks at yellow-throated honeyeater. I couldn’t believe it had taken three days to see this species. They were quite plentiful at this locality and more black-headed and strong-billed honeyeaters were seen here as well. We had our first spotted pardalotes here and saw our first grey shrike-thrush (only heard previously). Silvereyes were everywhere and better views were had of brown thornbills. More satin flycatchers were seen here and another scarlet robin. I think our best sighting for the morning though was in the last dam on the creek where we had great views of a platypus swimming and diving. Our last sighting for the morning was a wedge-tailed eagle flying over the valley, one of only two seen on the tour.
We made haste for Derwent Bridge as the morning had been so birdy we were running behind schedule! (Yes, it’s true!). At Derwent Bridge Trisha had lunch waiting for us. After a short break in our rooms at the Derwent Bridge Chalets we headed out west of Derwent Bridge to the button grass plains where I sometimes see ground parrot. The weather had deteriorated with a little rain but with strong, cold winds; never good for birding. The troops put in a sterling effort staggering across the button grass trying to flush a ground parrot and will certainly be mentioned in dispatches. However, it was all for nought. A striated fieldwren was sighted but in the heavy winds it was hard to get a good look. We called it a day and headed back to the pub. David and Carol at the Derwent Bridge Wilderness Hotel have been there about as long as Trisha and I have been running tours in Tasmania. It will be interesting to see who retires first — them or us!
We caught up with our first black currawongs out the back window of the pub as the group kicked back with a pre-dinner drink. We’d heard currawongs but this was our first actual sighting. They seemed to be scarcer than usual this year.
We headed out spotlighting after dinner. All the usual suspects were spotlighted, red-necked wallaby, pademelon and brush-tailed possum. We did manage to spotlight another wombat but the highlight of the night was probably two eastern quolls (a light and a dark phase) that ran right across the road in front of us and put on a show. Their numbers are also well down on what they were ten or so years ago. No devils were seen. Derwent Bridge used to be a hot spot for devils but the population has crashed in recent years because of DFTD. It will probably take longer for them to recover as the DFTD started in the east and spread west (that is assuming there is a recovery). At least that’s what I’m hoping at any rate! DFTD didn't arrive in Derwent Bridge until a couple of years after it hit nearer to Hobart.
6 February 2019.
Up a little earlier this morning as we were not out quite as late last night. Also, I was a little anxious about the swift parrots. If we didn’t see them this morning it was unlikely we would see them anywhere else. They were once 100% reliable here but there are no certainties anymore. The big eucalypts that the swift parrots feed in and which used to regularly flower at this time of year, no longer reliably do so. This proved to be the case again this year but miraculously the swift parrots were still present. Good scope views were had of about twenty birds, both adult and juveniles. We only ever saw them sitting around in the eucalypts and never saw them actually feeding so what they were eating is a mystery.
The Banksia marginata was flowering as normal and after considerable effort everyone managed to have good views of one of that most timid of honeyeaters, the crescent honeyeater. All the other regulars were here, i.e., yellow wattlebird, yellow-throated, black-headed and strong-billed honeyeaters, eastern spinebill and dusky and flame robins. We even had good views of a male olive whistler here.
Disappointment was around the corner though. My beautiful southern emu-wrens proved impossible to locate. Their numbers have been dropping in unison with the rainfall. I guess they are probably still hanging on but proved impossible to find on this occasion. Not even a call was heard. Other species that have gone from here in the past ten to fifteen years include beautiful firetail, striated fieldwren and more recently Latham’s snipe. Tiger snakes have not been seen here for many years. All the same, we had had a great morning and as I had just received a text from Trisha to say that lunch was ready, we headed back to Derwent Bridge where we were greeted by more black currawongs.
We started the journey back to Hobart and had only gone a few kilometres when an echidna was spotted on the roadside. A little further along we had a stop near a large patch of prickly hakea and soon located several pairs of striated fieldwren. This time, without the strong winds, good views were obtained.
Just east of Ouse I glimpsed some lapwings in flight that I thought were not masked so we pulled over and discovered a partly irrigated paddock that had about eighty banded lapwing in it, undoubtedly the largest number I’ve ever encountered in Tasmania.
We had another stop at a big dam further along, near Rosegarland and added a single Cape Barren goose to the list. Other species added included Australasian shoveler, Australian shelduck, hardhead, musk duck and black-fronted dotterel.
Along the Derwent River, on the drive back to Hobart, several swamp harriers were seen as well as hundreds of coots and possibly thousands of black swans. This may have been the largest concentration of black swans I have ever seen on the Derwent. This was our last stop for the day and we continued on into Hobart. Trish had news on our arrival that our plane ride tomorrow to Melaleuca was in doubt due to rain and cloud.
7 February 2019.
We woke to heavy rain. Just after we had piled into the bus to head out to Cambridge for our flight to Melaleuca, Trisha got the call from Par Avion advising that our charter flight was cancelled. Although this was disappointing it reminded me of something one of the pilots had said to me once: “It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.” This was the first time we have missed out on the flight to Melaleuca in over ten years although for three consecutive years before that flights were cancelled.
The weather was still inclement about Hobart so we birded between showers. We tried an area where we had seen owlet nightjar last year but there was no sign of it today. We did have our best views yet of grey butcherbird here though. We moved on to Gould’s Lagoon and had better luck, having great views of Latham’s snipe, swamphen, black-fronted dotterel, freckled duck and great egret. In the trees about the lagoon we had musk lorikeets and the Tasmanian subspecies of eastern rosella Platycercus eximius diemenensis, which is a bit different from its mainland counterpart.
We headed for the bakery at Sorell as heavy rain had been forecast for about midday (no outdoor picnic today). The forecast was spot on as it was bucketing down when we arrived in Sorell. The scallop pies were okay but the vanilla slice was nowhere near Pinnaroo (SA) standard. After lunch we headed for Oriental Lagoon to check out the waders. We had quite a long walk here and had to be careful as the black clay was slippery after the heavy rain. It was worth it though as we had some great sightings on the mudflats. Here we added red-capped plover, red-necked stint, sharp-tailed sandpiper, Pacific golden plover, greenshank, eastern curlew, Caspian tern, little egret and bar-tailed godwit. Out on the water both musk duck and great-crested grebe were seen. A red knot was observed with the greenshanks and the bar-tailed godwits, and a single Hudsonian godwit was recorded. We had to wait for a while to confirm the identification of the godwit but eventually everyone saw the underwing pattern when the bird lifted its wings. This was only my second ever sighting of this species, so I was chuffed. Also, about the mudflats we had a family of white-fronted chats, a single skylark was seen and an immature perigrine falcon was doing sorties and terrorising the birds. So despite the cancelled plane flight and inclement weather we had still managed to have a productive and enjoyable day.
I decided to have another try for masked owl out at Waterworks Reserve and I thought maybe we might score a barred bandicoot. I was wrong on both counts and should have had the night off! The only thing of note was hearing a Tasmanian morepork calling. We found out the next morning the probable reason why no barred bandicoots were seen, the reserve is overrun with semi feral cats. No less than four cats were seen wandering around the reserve the next morning. Lift your game, Hobart Council!
We headed back out to Waterworks Reserve next morning hoping to get looks at grey currawong which, until today, we were still missing. This was a species once known as ‘clinking currawong’. It has a very different call from mainland the grey currawong. It is also much darker than all the mainland grey currawongs apart from the black-winged mallee form. Good looks too were had of a couple more black currawongs. Our English participants hoped for better views of yellow wattlebird in order see the big yellow ear rings. Mission accomplished with some great views of this outrageous bird. Better views were had of male golden whistler and both striated and spotted pardalotes were noted. Yellow-throated honeyeaters were plentiful and more eastern spinebills were seen. Tasmanian thornbills also obliged.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo put on a great display for us, hanging upside down in the eucalyptus leaves, wings outstretched. We had done well at Waterworks Reserve and it was time to head for Orford.
The journey to Orford was largely uneventful. We had our best sighting when we pulled over to let vehicles overtake us and a wedge-tailed eagle was spotted, our second for the tour. We checked out the mouth of the Prosser River while waiting for Trisha (who for the first time ever was late to the lunch spot) and were pleased to find a small party of fairy terns working the estuary and carrying food back to feed young out on the island. This was great news as the species has had trouble breeding at this locality in recent times. More hooded plovers were seen including two different age groups of immature birds. This must be one of the more successful localities in Tasmania where this species can still breed as we see juveniles here most years. More of the splendid pied oystercatchers were seen here as well as a sooty and more Pacific gulls and Caspian terns. We received word that lunch was ready. It is often windy at this lunch spot and today was no exception.
After what was our last picnic lunch (tomorrow we would be on the ocean) we headed up beyond Triabunna to check out another wetland. There were quite a few waterfowl on the wetland consisting mainly of Australian shelduck with lesser numbers of chestnut and grey teals, shoveler, black duck, hardhead and musk duck. With all these ducks present it was difficult to pick out the one species we were looking for, i.e., blue-billed duck. They were all across the other side of the wetland which didn’t help. Eventually one or two male blue-bills were located with the scopes although they were a little distant and the views were not fantastic.
We headed north for the Tasman Peninsula with our next stop Marion Bay. More white-fronted chats were seen in the samphire near Marion Bay; the males looking lovely in their black and white plumage. A single bar-tailed godwit was also seen here. I was surprised to see two great egret here in full breeding plumage and wondered if they might have been breeding closeby somewhere. As far as I know this species has never bred in Tasmania but it seems unlikely they would be in full breeding plumage unless breeding was being attempted. This would not surprise me. With the deficit in rainfall in SE Australia over the past twenty years, the species seldom breeds, and when it does, it’s in greatly reduced numbers. We continued on our way north to our accommodation at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula. Accompanied by a good deal of glass clinking, we had a great dinner tonight at Gabriel’s on the Bay.
Up early this morning to be down at the wharf at Eaglehawk Neck for our pelagic trip out on the Tasman Sea. We left the wharf a bit after 7 am with our captain John Males at the helm and ably assisted by his deck hand Craig. It was relatively calm when we left but the wind was forecast to pick up to 40 knots later in the day. The forecast had changed a number of times so there was some confusion as to what time the front would come through and how strong it would be. We took our usual route heading down south and out past the Hippolyte Rocks. It was unusually quiet inshore with just a few shy albatross seen north of the Hippolytes. Around the Hippolytes we had the usual Australasian gannets (a small colony is now breeding on the big rock) and hundreds of black-faced cormorants also breeding. Kelp and silver gulls, crested terns and a few Pacific gulls were present and a magnificent white-bellied sea-eagle was eating a kill atop the smaller rock. A small colony of Australian fur seals was also loafing about on the rocks. Leaving Hippolytes behind we headed east towards the open sea. Hundreds of short-tailed shearwaters were being seen as we headed east. We also picked up a couple of fluttering shearwater and had some excellent views on the water which was nice as this species is often hard to get a good look at. Another darker bird was seen and a photo suggested it was probably a Hutton’s shearwater. As we neared the continental shelf our first white-chinned petrel was recorded. Not far over the shelf there were a few birds about so we decided to pull up and start putting out some burley. We stayed here in this one spot for the rest of our time beyond the shelf.
It was surprising how many non-pelagic species were feeding out beyond the shelf, which I had not noted on my many previous trips. At times we had quite a few silver and kelp gulls and crested terns about the boat and we had a single parasitic (Arctic) jaeger come around the boat; another species that is probably more likely to be seen in inshore waters.
In this one locality the following pelagic species were see (with estimates of numbers): Wilson’s storm petrel (1), grey-backed storm petrel (15), white-faced storm petrel (15), Antipodean (NZ wandering) albatross (4), southern royal albatross (1), black-browed albatross (1), shy albatross (50 for the day),Buller’s albatross (6 for the day), fairy prion (3 plus one dead on the water that was very thin), white-chinned petrel (6), short-tailed shearwater (1000s for the day), common diving petrel (1).
After about three hours in this locality, the wind was starting to pick up so John thought it wise to start heading back in. We had not gone far (still well over the shelf) when a petrel was spotted that turned out to be a soft-plumaged petrel. When we pulled up for it, a grey-faced petrel flew around the boat, both new birds for today's pelagic.
Later another one or two distant petrels were seen that may also have been soft-plumaged.
One of the Antipodean albatross had a very worn band on its leg that had obviously been there for a long time. We couldn’t read the number. To add to our delight on the way back in, a couple of pods of common dolphin were seen.
We were well pleased with the day, it had not been too rough and the birding had been pretty good although we hadn’t been lucky enough to pick up any mega rarities.
All in all, it had been a great tour despite the drought, fires and highly variable weather. The best part for Trisha and me were our lovely group, Christine, Ian, Glenys, Jeff, Ros, Debbie, Lesley and Dave.
10, 11 & 12 February 2019
Trisha and my time in Tasmania was not yet over. We had three days with Ted and Heidi from New Jersey. Trisha finally had someone to whom she could enthuse about her recent holiday in New York and talk US politics.
Ted had come out on the pelagic with my Tasmanian group so he wasn’t entirely new to me. We had a day around Hobart and two on Bruny Island. The highlight for me of our three days, apart from Heidi and Ted being great company, was having a great view of a big male Tasmanian devil, along a creek, during the day, near Oyster Cove. It appeared to be perfectly healthy with no sign of any DFTD. This is only the second devil I have ever seen during the day.