Brisbane Birding Bonanza

The closest I have been to Brisbane was when I drove past it on the way to Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo from the Gold Coast a decade ago. So when I visited the city for work recently, I took a day of annual leave, and booked a day-night tour with one of the region’s best birding guides.

I prepared meticulously in the days prior to the trip, creating a spreadsheet of sites with lifers that were reported on E-Bird in the previous fortnight, as well as a Google Map of the locations to calculate the best route. The Tour Guide (Barry) provided invaluable intel on sites, distances, and hotspots, and an itinerary was borne that was to be followed with military precision to maximise the limited time I had available.

Proposed Brisbane bird watching sites

After an uneventful 2hr flight from Melbourne, Barry picked me up at the airport promptly at 10am, with the first stop a mere 15min drive away: the Kedron Brook Wetlands Reserve. I specifically included this site in the itinerary as one of my target species, Brahminy Kite, was reported a couple days prior. Just like the ‘RFM customer value model’, Recency trumps Frequency as a winning birdwatching strategy.

On exiting the SUV, the heat and humidity hit me like a punch in the face: I left Melbourne mere hours before where it was 10C, and now it was 27C but “felt like 29C”. It was going to be a long day!

Kedron Brook Wetlands Reserve

As we walked along the gravel path, we were taunted by the calls from the adjacent mangroves of Brown Honeyeater and Mangrove Gerygone, and eventually got good views of the two little skulking brown jobs: the first lifers for the day!

The wetlands were alive with bird life, from the White-bellied Sea Eagle, Swamp Harrier, and Whistling Kite swooping in vain to catch lunch, to the Black-winged Stilts and waterfowl wading in the shallow water, to the Golden-headed Cisticola calling loudly from the shoulder-high grasses.

The lifers started to appear in quick succession with a small flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikin flitting through the tall blades of grass along the river, and a lone Common Sandpiper foraging in the mud at the river’s edge.

Chestnut-breasted Mannikin
A heavily cropped photo of a Common Sandpiper
Australasian Darter

When you’re on a tight schedule, time flies: it was already 11am, with just six more hours of daylight left, and we needed to press on to visit the other sites. Imagine how surprised I was to pick up not one, not two, but three lifers on the short walk back to the car!

Barry located a Tawny Grassbird in the thick, tall grasses, which I saw clearly with my binoculars, and while waiting for it to reappear, I casually looked up and saw a pair of raptors circling high in the sky. Success! They were Brahminy Kites! We stood in awe as they drifted effortlessly against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds, first gliding closer to us, then away from us and out of sight.

Heavily cropped photo of a Brahminy Kite

I walked back to the car with a huge smile on my face, as my research was paying off in spades, and just as I was opening the car door to hop in, I noticed a pair of egrets off in the distance: Barry confirmed that they were Intermediate Egrets, and thus I left the wetlands having ticked no less than seven lifers!

The next stop was a 15min drive away for pond birds and woodland birds: Minnippi Parkland. I hadn’t yet alighted the car, when Barry pointed out all the black birds in the carpark as being Torresian Crows – not a lifer, as I had seen them on the Gold Coast, but this was a much closer and rewarding view.

The main pond at Minnippi Parkland

We walked to the main pond and I immediately picked up two lifers: the aptly named Jesus Bird (Comb-crested Jacana) appearing to walk on water (though actually, walking on lily pads with the aid of very long toes to spread its weight), and a small group of Wandering Whistling Ducks poised statue-like at the water’s edge. Other birds of note included Magpie Goose, Australasian Swamphen, Hardhead, Little Black Cormorant, Intermediate Egret, and Dusky Moorhen.

Comb-crested Jacana
Wandering Whistling Ducks and a Little Black Cormorant
Intermediate Egret

Barry knew of a special spot near the powerlines that involved a walk through thick bush – he assured me that there were no snakes, but I still kept a watchful eye. Instead, the secluded spot proved to be a bird oasis, with multiple mixed flocks including Scarlet Honeyeater, Brown Honeyeater, Golden Whistler, and Lewin’s Honeyeater. I spotted the unmistakable silhouette of a Spangled-Drongo with its forked tail, another small flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, and three more lifers:
White-throated Honeyeater, female Red-backed Fairywren, and a Double-barred Finch. We left the parkland with a respectable tally of five lifers, and enjoyed a hearty lunch at a nearby Subway Restaurant.

Spangled Drongo
Double-barred Finch

At 1:30pm we parked at what, according to recent reports on E-Bird, promised to be the most productive site of my trip: Sandy Camp Road Wetlands Reserve. However, with just 30mins allocated to this vast site where an entire day could easily be spent, I was careful not to get my hopes up.

Still from recorded video

However, the best lifers are often the serendipitous, unplanned ones: as soon as we walked through the gate, a medium-sized lizard scurried across the path, through the bushes, dived into the water, and quickly swam away. Barry confirmed that it was an Eastern Water Dragon. The photos below show the wonders of shooting in RAW format and then post-processing.

Original photo
Eastern Water Dragon after post processing

I was very pleased to see one of my favourite birds, the migratory Rainbow Bee-eater, just metres above my head, and mused that perhaps I saw this very bird months earlier during summer in Victoria. Whilst I did see a Mistletoebird, the wetlands’ highlight was the species that I didn’t see: according to Barry, who was walking a few metres ahead of me, he flushed a Green Tree Snake! The distant calls of Striped Honeyeaters taunted us on our walk back to the car, an Eastern Osprey soared high in the sky above its purpose-built nesting tower, and a small flock of Noisy Friarbirds lived up to their names and bid us farewell.

Brown Honeyeater
Rainbow Bee-eater

It was getting late, and we both knew it. Darkness would fall in three hours, and it would take more than an hour to drive to our final stop. I was faced with a dilemma: stick to the schedule and drive to Banks Street Reserve to try to find one single bird sighted a few days before in amongst 34 hectares of dense bushland, or, drive directly to Mount Glorious whilst there was still some light in the rainforest. As the British SAS motto states “Who Dares, Wins”, so I rolled the dice.

Map of reserve
Barry and his trusted spotting scope

I immediately regretted my choice once we started walking into the Reserve: 34ha of tall trees with hardly any clear views of the sky would make it near impossible to find a lone Pacific Baza. A needle in a haystack would be far easier. Still, we pressed on, took a wrong turn on to a game trail or cycling track, got disoriented, wasted 15mins, and had to backtrack along our original route. The chances of spotting the bird were now nil because we hadn’t covered much ground and were retracing our steps along a route where the bird wasn’t seen just minutes before.

As we approached the car park along a steeply inclined track. I looked up at the tallest tree ahead at the edge of a small clearing in the forest, and there, bathed in glorious, golden afternoon light, was the Pacific Baza! I could have cried in elation, having gone in a split second from dejection to unbridled joy. Barry set up his spotting scope, and using my mobile phone over the eye-piece, I was able to record cracking photos and video. A minute later, it was over, as a Magpie chased it out of sight, and five minutes later, we were driving towards our final destination as I reflected on how every wrong-turn and dawdle culminated in us being under that specific tree at that specific moment. Who dares, wins!

Pacific Baza (iPhone photo taken over spotting scope eye-piece)
Cropped Pacific Baza

The winding road to Mount Glorious was dotted with picturesque villages and many signs warning motorcyclists to drive carefully. As the sun dipped ever lower in the western sky, the trees grew denser and taller, and the air grew colder and crisper – a welcomed relief to the heat and humidity near the coast.

Our first stop was along Browns Road, where we did a quick loop through the cool, wet, temperate forest. Red-legged Pademelons hopped through the underbrush, Yellow-throated Scrubwrens hopped along the soggy gravel path, and both Paradise Riflebird and Green Catbird called tantalisingly close in the dense forest. With the light fading quickly, we doggedly followed the calls through the undergrowth with some success: both species were (unfulfillingly) sighted before they melted back into the dark, dense forest, with a White-headed Pigeon (lifer) and a male Satin Bowerbird as added bonuses. Better views of some species were had the next day at the Brisbane Museum.

Red-legged Pademelon
Still from video of Green Catbird
Green Catbird at Brisbane Museum
Paradise Riflebird at the Brisbane Museum
Brisbane Museum raptors
More Brisbane Museum raptors
Brisbane Museum birds

We backtracked to the Maiala Picnic Ground for a light dinner and waited for darkness to fall in earnest, for it was spotlighting time! We walked from the carpark the long way up to Browns Road, with very limited nocturnal activity observed: a Short-eared Possum, a native Bush Rat, and a Great Barred Frog (all lifers).

Great Barred Frog

Then we heard it. A loud, incessant, high-pitched shriek pierced through the forest that sounded like an animal being tortured. Barry identified it as a Sooty Owl: a bird I dreamed of seeing but never thought I would due to its relative rarity in Victoria. We were determined to find it.

We walked quickly towards the screeching along the wet, slippery track, illuminated only by the light from our torches, and stumbled back on to Browns Road near the Mount Glorious Getaways rainforest retreat. The bird was quite close, but high above our heads in a giant, leafy eucalyptus tree. Necks craned skyward, we spent 20 frustrating minutes scanning the canopy for the bird, until it finally emerged in the open on to a high branch. For two glorious minutes, we stood transfixed as a juvenile Greater Sooty Owl stared down at us and screeched repeatedly in vain for its mother (who may very well have been observing us from nearby) to return with food. It was the perfect end to a satisfying, fast-paced day of birdwatching across Brisbane’s diverse habitats, led by a fantastic Tour Guide (Barry Davies from Gondwana Guides) who helped me to find 18 lifers. I can’t wait to visit again!

Greater Sooty Owl
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