Champions of the Flyway!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Masked Lapwings - Australia, Aug 2011

Thinking of species which happily nest smack bang in the middle of mowed lawn areas in a busy urban park, I can't think of an equivalent anywhere else in the world.... but Masked Lapwings do just that, with enviable success and a unique place in the local (and national) avifauna.

Back at the Botanic Gardens they trot around merrily, effectively ignoring humans (and allowing approach down to almost head-patting distance), with adults keeping a not-so-tight rein on juveniles, and clutches laid in superficially the most vulnerable places imaginable.

But a combination of intriguing adaptation, excellent rangering, a no dogs policy and fiercely protective parenting evidently produces the right results.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Laughing Kookaburras - Australia, August 2011

Laughing Kookaburras are the kind of birds which field guides can't prepare you for, and have to be seen to be believed; like super-sized, super-striking kingfishers and possessing of comical courtship and vocal routines, they were - like so many other species in the Botanical Gardens - wonderfully unflustered by human disturbance.

Australia, August 2011 - day one

Rainbow Lorikeet

So we finally left North America after three memorable months, via the (pleasingly sci-fi) L.A.X, on the afternoon of the 9th; a 15-hour flight and a crossing of the international date line later, and it was shortly after dawn on the 11th in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

Currawong Vs Kookaburra

Heavily jetlagged, through customs and into the cool, antipodean winter air, we cabbed from the airport to our basecamp for the next week - a lovely apartment in the very heart of the city, in the thick of the action by Kings Cross station. All courtesy of good-friend-of-a-good-friend Maxine, who by beautiful co-oincidence happened to be house-sitting in the suburbs for the week, and a set of keys later, there we were....

Common Mynas

Attempts at catching up on sleep failed miserably, and so to our first priority - hunting down an Australian field guide*. Once nailed, a quick lunch back at the homestead and then our first visit to a place we'd fail to tire of over the coming days, The Royal Botanic Gardens.

White-faced Heron

A fifteen minute stroll away, this lush, well-maintained, dog-free, wildlife-friendly park on the harbour front provided plenty of top-class entertainment; so much in fact that the opera house, however impressive in the flesh, was most often ignored and came a poor second to the wildlife....

Silver Gull

....despite occupying the western 'finger' of the park. It also served as a useful distraction for channeling the main flow of tourists away from the area - not that the sometimes ridiculously human-friendly fauna seemed to care anyway.


After registering the often raucous, trash-plundering, ultra-tame birds on the city streets - Australian White Ibises nonchalantly wandering amongst the human and vehicular traffic, and Common Mynas, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Silver Gulls exploiting backpackers and locals alike - the park yielded a stream of exotic and approachable species (all lifers) during our debut wander.

Noisy Miners

Even accounting for inexperience and inevitable misses, the afternoon clocked up twenty new species, including gangs of psychotic Noisy Miners, musical Figbirds, odd corvid-type Pied Currawongs and Australian Magpies, new hirundines Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins, very tame Dusky Moorhens, Pacific Black Ducks and Australian Wood Ducks, a single White-faced Heron,

explosion-in-a-paint-factory Rainbow Lorikeets, flyover Pied Cormorant and White-headed Pigeon, a kingfisher-like Grey Butcherbird, characterful and accommodating Laughing Kookaburras, and the bizarrely inquisitive, ground-breeding Masked Lapwings, most with mobile young, and all as bold as brass on the park's footpaths and grass.

Dusky Moorhen

A perfect way to gain an introduction to the local, essentially alien avifauna; also a chance to enjoy the park's infamous, impressive colony of x-thousand Grey-headed Flying Foxes (megabats, literally), of which, more to follow.

Australian Wood Ducks

*An interesting conundrum of our travels in general has been the issue of field guides - more than essential for enjoying each country's birds, but proportionately heavy and cumbersome for the very limited space within the backpack; not an issue for a several week-long trip to one or two countries, but a real problem for eight months round the world....

flyover White-headed Pigeon

It also depends on which to bring / seek out - Japan, for example, inexplicably lacks an accurate, up-to-date field guide, and the best bet is Mark Brazil's thankfully comprehensive Birds of East Asia, which is the only guide that's travelling with me from start to finish.

Australian White Ibis, a.k.a. bin-bird

For North America, the respective Sibley for East and West were ideal, portable, and have been dispatched back to Blighty after serving their purpose and becoming reassuringly dog-eared in the process.

Pacific Black Duck

For Australia, however, not quite so simple. Staying for just a week (and confined to a corner of New South Wales at that), to have carted around a field guide for the preceding three months would've made no sense, and so improvisation was needed. Ideally, picking one up in L.A. - a major hub and with (presumably) suitably large and/or specialist book stores - with a good week or so in hand to research before hitting Australia would be a realistic proposition....

Not so, and after exhausting all possibilities there, I had to admit defeat. Non-birders reading this are probably thinking, no big deal; international birders, however, will empathise with how impotent and blind it feels to arrive on a new continent armed with sweet F.A. in the regional bible department.

Australian Magpie

And so, as soon after landing as possible, we hit the big bookstores in town, selected the most appropriate (unfortunately Australia has no stand-out, definitive guide, but three or four with their own pros and cons), and from thereon, it's all about trying not to get too overwhelmed too soon, being methodical and enjoying new birds as they come, and accepting the fact that a larger than usual proportion will slip through the net early on.

trouble on the way

Friday, August 19, 2011

Joshua Tree、California - August 2011

After the Grand Canyon & Flagstaff, we greyhounded south to Phoenix, with a single mission to fulfill - to do nothing of consequence or requiring of effort for three days. Once there, a cab to the hotel, lazy luxury and swimming in the 100+ degree heat (we figured we deserved it); if there were other life forms present, we didn't notice.

White-tailed Antelope Squirrels

From Phoenix, back to L.A. (via our last Greyhound of the trip) for ten days in the city with friends, concluding a wonderful three months in North America. But not before one last excursion into the wilds of the south-west, this time an overnighter to Joshua Tree National Park in the Californian desert.

Western Scrub-jay, Black-throated Sparrow

Another place on the wish-list for its unique natural beauty, we saw the national park and its flora and fauna at its mystical and undisturbed best, untainted even by side orders of dehydration and rattlesnakes....

Loggerhead Shrikes

Avian highlights included Black-throated Sparrows, White-throated Swifts, pleasingly widespread Loggerhead Shrikes, Western Scrub-jays, American Kestrels, a Northern Flicker on cactus (and a long, long way from the nearest tree), Say's Phoebes, Cassin's and Western Kingbirds, and numerous, noisy and entertaining Cactus Wrens.

Cactus Wrens

A few other local birding excursions aside (taking the personal-firsts species list beyond 100 for North America), the rest of our time was spent enjoying L.A., a city which was a real blast on many levels, and suffers from an unfairly bad press. From there, a fond farewell, and onto a new continent south of the equator.