We rarely stray far from Melbourne, but in the last quarter of 2016, we were determined to do a ‘big birding day out’ slightly further afield. We wanted to take an early morning flight, be guided by a professional bird/tour guide, see at least 10 species that weren’t found in Melbourne/Victoria, and be back home before midnight! Although we set the bar quite high, one region actually met those criteria: the Gold Coast.
Located on the south-eastern Queensland-New South Wales border, the Gold Coast is 1,700km from Melbourne: an 18-hr drive, but just a 2-hr flight away. To maximise our time on the Gold Coast, we were up at 2:30am, out the door at 4:30am, at the airport at 5:00am, all checked-in and eating breakfast by 5:30am, and taxiing down the runway right on schedule at 6:25am just on sunrise. The flight was uneventful, and we touched down two hours later in a dark and overcast Gold Coast; the bird guide was punctual, and greeted us in Broadwater promptly at 8am (they’re one hour behind Melbourne).
In the weeks prior to our trip, I exchanged many emails and phone calls with the guide to discuss the best route given our limited time in Queensland. We agreed to visit three locations, with very regimented time schedules to ensure we didn’t miss our return flight:
- The Broadwater shoreline (for shorebirds)
- O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat (for forest birds)
- Coombabah Lakelands (for bush and mangrove birds)
On the short drive to an excellent vantage point at Broadwater, we picked up our first lifer for the day: Torresian Crow. It looked (to me at least!) indistinguishable from the Little Ravens of Melbourne, and seemed to be just as common, but a lifer is a lifer if the guide book says it’s so!
As expected, it was a rising tide, and the birds at Broadwater were on an exposed sandbank a couple hundred metres out. However, with the aid of the 600mm telephoto lens (and despite the ever-present jet skis!) we were able to spot Australian Pelican, Crested Tern, Eastern Curlew (lifer), Silver Gull, Sooty Oystercatcher, and Whimbrel (lifer). We had three lifers, and it wasn’t even 9am yet!
Next we were off to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat on a long, twisting, 1.5hr drive. Determined to make the most of the trip, we kept our eyes peeled, and were rewarded along the way with glimpses of kingfishers that may very well have been Forest Kingfishers.
At our first (and only) pitstop at a playground (in Canungra, I think) with a public toilet block, I heard the unfamiliar call of a bird high in the trees, and was extremely pleased to learn that it was an Australasian Figbird (lifer), fervently eating nectar from flowers. We needed to stick to the schedule, so 5mins (and a few dozen photos) later, we were ‘on the road again’.
As we followed the winding road higher and higher into the mountains, our guide suddenly called out to the driver “STOP!”. We quickly pulled over to a clearing overlooking a valley, and she said “Pheasant Coucal! Look there”, pointing to a tree not 4m away from the bus. I had never heard of this bird before and had no idea what to look for. Was it a cuckoo of sorts, or perhaps it was a type of pheasant, I wondered silently. Was it as big as a Wedge-tailed Eagle, or was it as small as a thornbill? Suddenly, a huge, prehistoric, brown and black bird, slightly larger than a Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, materialised in front of us – another lifer! As is often the case with species that weren’t on your target list or that you had no idea of its existence, this bird was undoubtedly the highlight of our trip! We spent at least 10mins with the bird, getting excellent views while still seated in the bus, before heading off again, higher into the mountains.
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat is world-famous for the ease in which many subtropical, wet forest birds can be seen. I knew that we were nearing Oreilly’s because the road became steeper and narrower, and many small birds constantly darted in front of the vehicle. Whilst I would like to believe that they were Pale-yellow Robins, they were most probably Eastern-yellow Robins. On the outskirts of the retreat, we veered off towards a camp ground and spotted a couple Red-necked Pademelons (lifer) hopping around the dense foliage – our first of two mammalian ticks for the trip.
On arrival at O’Reilly’s, we parked the bus, and as soon as we hopped out, we were buzzed by a yellow and black bird. We were elated that one of our target species was ticked so quickly: Regent Bowerbird (lifer). Our tour included afternoon tea, but it was the furthest thing on our minds, as all around us were lifers and some old friends, and we were determined to get as many photos as possible and enjoy the experience. Birds seen in the parking lot and near the entrance to the main building include both male and female Regent Bowerbird, Satin Bowerbird (lifer for Imka), Red-browed Finch, King Parrot, Crimson Rosella, Lewin’s Honeyeater, and Brush Turkey (lifer). Many visitors were hand feeding the birds, so all of the aforementioned species were quite relaxed around people, affording some excellent photo opportunities. Indeed, I was very fortunate (and startled, since I didn’t have any food on my person), when a male Regent Bowerbird landed for a split second on my arm!
Whilst we were snapping photos of the myriad of birds around us, our guide was chatting quietly to an O’Reilly employee. She came over and said to us, “a lyrebird was just spotted out back – follow me”. As we walked carefully through dense underbrush, she stopped suddenly, pointed off to the right, and whispered, “Wonga Pigeon“. There, just 5m away, was another lifer, foraging on the forest floor.
We continued walking for another five minutes, through thick, dark vegetation, and it struck me how cold it was compared to the coast. This made perfect sense of course, because O’Reilly’s was 800m above sea level. A quiet shout (is that an oxymoron?) of “Lyrebird!” interrupted my thoughts, and we rushed over to the guide to find an Albert’s Lyrebird (lifer) perching on a low branch. Although rust brown in colour, it is such a majestic bird with its long, ornate tail feathers. We only managed a few poor photos before it ran off into the distance and disappeared from sight.
We continued our walk through the dark, wet forest, and picked up many more species, including: Eastern-yellow Robin, White-browed Scrubwren, Eastern Spinebill, Large-billed Scrubwren (lifer, no photos), cracking (no pun intended!) views of an Eastern Whipbird foraging on the forest floor, Yellow-throated Scrubwren (lifer), and after considerable effort following the call through the forest, Australian Logrunner (lifer, but no photos). Despite hearing the distinctive calls of Green Catbird and Noisy Pitta in close proximity to the treetop boardwalk, we weren’t able to locate them in the dense forest. Nonetheless, we were quite contented with our haul of lifers, and merrily made our way back to the restaurant for a hearty lunch.
With full tummies, and still on schedule, we began our journey back down the mountain to our final stop of Coombabah Lakelands. I had requested that we visit this spot because my research suggested that one of our target species (Red-backed Fairywren), was regularly seen here – on 81% of visits, to be exact.
I had only allocated 30mins for this location, so not surprisingly, our visit was in the statistical 19% that didn’t see it. Swatting wasp-sized mosquitoes away (it was a mangrove, after all), we walked briskly from the bus through the parklands, across a boardwalk terminating in a bird hide, all without seeing or hearing a single bird!
We were disappointed, but since we had such a fantastic day, we decided to be thankful for our successes, and just enjoy the moment. As many birders would agree, sometimes when you just let go and have zero expectations, birds materialise out of the ether. As expected, we started hearing bird calls from the trees. First, Peaceful Dove (which we didn’t see), then Rufous Whistler.
On the walk back to the bus, my heart skipped a beat when I saw a fairywren fly across the path. Although we were now on borrowed time, we followed the bird through the bushes and discovered that it was a Variegated Fairywren. We only had a fleeting glimpse of them in Kamarooka, so we were quite elated that this bird posed for us out in the open.
As we drove towards Broadwater, we stopped at a traffic light and spotted our second mammalian tick for the day: dozens of roosting Black Flying Foxes (lifer) in a stand of trees adjacent to the highway. Our final bird for the day was a massive flock of Magpie Geese in a paddock, bringing our Gold Coast tally to 48 birds (12 lifers) and two mammals (both lifers).
After a quick shower and wardrobe change at a hotel in Broadwater, I took a cab to the airport, had a light dinner, was climbing through the clouds on schedule by 7:45pm, and was back at home in Melbourne sifting through hundreds of photos by 11:30pm. It was a fantastic, daring day-trip, but with so many lifers and memorable experiences, it was worth the exhaustion and cost. The only logical question now is, where to next for a day trip? 🙂 Alice Springs? Tasmania? New Zealand? Leave your suggestions in the comments. Thanks for reading!