Many thanks to Jan and Nerine Erasmus for hosting and making my trip so enjoyable (it was great seeing you both!), and the members of CEED for making me feel welcome at their awesome conference.
Despite the rivalry between Australia and South Africa’s rugby and cricket teams, Australia has always fascinated me. Much of this fascination stems from my interest in weird and wonderful wildlife. After all, which naturalist would not be flummoxed by a mammal with a duck bill and that lays eggs? Or a hedgehog that lays eggs? Or boxing kangaroos? Not to mention the real home of the cockatoos, lorikeets, budgies, and cockatiels that we keep as pets. My fascination with Australia grew stronger during my early graduate years, when papers such as Margules & Pressey’s “Systematic Conservation Biology” made a lasting impression during my formative years as conservation ecologist. Yet, in choosing a PhD destination, I resisted going to Australia because so many South Africans have/are currently immigrating to the continent, and I didn’t want to be simply part of a trend. But, as I continued working on my PhD in the USA, it became clear that Australia’s academics have become leaders in the conservation planning business. With strong personal and even stronger professional interests, I decided that it was time to pay the continent a visit. The main catalyst was a Society for Conservation Biology conference in New Zealand, with an invitation to the inaugural CEED conference combined with a visit to my dear undergraduate friends Jan and Nerine Erasmus sealing the deal. While birding was limited (and preparation even more so), I still managed to see 68 species during a very non-birdy four days in and around Melbourne, the capital of Victoria. Here I share some of the highlights of my trip.
Geographically the smallest and southern-most mainland state in Australia, Victoria is also Australia’s most densely-populated state, with 75% of the population living in Melbourne, the capital. The state is topographically, geologically and climatically diverse, featuring habitats such as an extensive coastline, temperate oldgrowth rainforest and dry Eucalyptus forest, an extensive network of rivers and wetlands, the snow-covered Australian Alps in the east, and semi-arid plains in the west. The state contains a commendable 2850 separate protected areas covering 17.26% of the state’s area; the state’s 41 National Parks cover 11.32% of the state.
The variety of habitats within Victoria allows for great diversity of wildlife. The state is home to 139 species of mammal, more than 450 birds, 201 reptiles, and a variety of amphibians. Sadly, the state also has its fair share of species facing extinction, with now fewer than 6 mammals, 9 birds, 9 reptiles, six amphibians, 7 fishes, and a range of invertebrates and plants classified as critically endangered (and 15 taxa already regionally extinct). Among the more prominent residents of Victoria count Lyrebird, Kookaburras, Fairy Penguins, Koalas, Kangaroos, Platypus and Echidnas.
During the trip I spent all my time in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne, but with a day-trip out on the Great Ocean Road. This 243 km stretch of road, tracing much of the shoreline of Victoria, is the world’s largest war memorial. Dedicated to casualties of World War I, the road was built between 1919-1932 by returned soldiers, and provides access to several prominent landmarks, notably the Twelve Apostles limestone stack formations.
- Simpson, K., & Day, N. 2010. Birds of Australia. Eighth edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- For bird calls and an additional ‘pocket-sized’ reference, I used the iphone app “The Michael Morcombe eGuide to the Birds of Australia”
- Although I never got further than ‘favoriting’ a few useful websites, Australia and specifically Victoria seem to have quite a few useful online resources for birders and naturalists. The Atlas of Living Australia seemed a tremendously good database, while birders might also find good use from Birdline Victoria‘s unusual sightings page and Birdwatch Australia’s Victoria pages.
- I didn’t have time to look at these websites, but some resources specific to Victoria that caught my eye included the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and Victorian Ornithological Research Group, while Melbournebirder and Melbournebirding provided resourced and a number of linked trip reports much focussed on the Melbourne area.
Visas, transport and accommodation
Many countries need a visa to enter Australia, which you might need to get well before boarding the plane. I found the process however remarkably efficient and, dare I say pleasant?? (YES, if you compare it to the UK visa circus where you never know what to expect). While I think their website says visa processing takes around a month, I think I got my visa within a week. I made a phone call to the Washington DC Consular with some enquiries about my application, and found the staff incredibly helpful. THANK YOU to the Australia Consular Services for making this process not as stressful as USA visa applications, or as infuriating as the UK service. Even the border patrol, who takes environmental issues as serious as safety, made my entry to Australia pleasant, with one agent cracking jokes about wanting to know how a South African like me were not trying to smuggle biltong
During the entire trip I stayed with my friends Jan and Nerine Erasmus. To commune into Melbourne from St. Kilda I used Melbourne’s Metro Train Service, while we used Jan’s car for our day-trip on the Great Ocean Road
Day 1-4: Nov 28-Dec 1, 2011
Apart from the drive to St. Kilda after Jan picking me up at the airport (opening my Australian account amazingly NOT with Common Starling or House Sparrow, but Silver Gull!!) and my daily commute from the St. Kilda neighborhood into downtown Melbourne, I spent my first four days at Melbourne University. While the birding scene was a bit quiet here, walking the grounds during mornings and lunches offered some value experiences familiarizing myself with the more common birds of the Melbourne environs. My favorite was undoubtedly Rainbow Lorikeets preening and playing in larger trees, while other Australian endemics seen in Melbourne included Red Wattlebird, Magpie-lark, Australian Magpie, and Little Raven. As always, there was also a range of common introduced species, of which I saw Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Blackbird, Spotted Dove, Common Mynah, Common Starling, and House Sparrow.
Day 6: Dec 2, 2011
Even though my last day in Australia fell on a Friday, Jan was very kind and took the day off at work to show me a little bit more than just Melbourne. The choices fell between Phillip Island (Cape Barrens Goose etc.) to the east, or the Great Ocean Road to the west. While Phillip Island was possibly better for range-restricted birds, especially for someone as unprepared as I was, we decided to hit the Great Ocean Road since it offered a greater variety of scenery and better chances for marsupials. Despite putting the birds a bit on the back-burner for the day, we still had an incredible time checking off 63 birds on the day.
Birding was productive even before we managed to get to the Great Ocean Road. Between Melbourne and Geelong, we managed to see a Australian Raven, Australian White Ibis, and Black-shouldered Kite, while the road between Geelong to Torquay produced notably a flock of Straw-necked Ibis and a pale-phase Grey Goshawk. My Australian parrot list was finally opened in Torquay with a few Galahs foraging on a lawn in front of a shopping complex.
The birding really picked up when we got onto the Great Ocean Road. A quick stop at a Landing on the Anglesea River produced White-faced Heron, Silver Gull, Welcome Swallow, Masked Lapwing, Black-fronted Dotterel, Australian Wood Ducks and Pacific Black Ducks, while a scenic overlook between Anglesea and Aireys Inlet offered Nankeen Kestrel, Australian Shelduck, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.
We spent a little more time at a small marsh with a boardwalk in Aireys Inlet. Despite its size, the marsh was surprisingly productive for waterbirds, and we noted more Australian Wood Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, Black Swan, Dusky Moorhen, Purple Swamphen, Little Pied Cormorant, Chestnut Teal, and an Eastern Great Egret. Among the bigger surprises, for the time of the day, was a Buff-banded Rail that foraged fairly open among reeds, while it was also special to see interaction between three generations of Eurasian Coots. The shrub around the marsh was also alive with passerines, notably New Holland Honeyeater, Brown Thornbill, Superb Fairy-wren, Little Wattlebird, and Red-browed Finch. Though famously invasive, I also ticked my first Australian mammal at the marsh in the form of an European Rabbit.
Roadside birding remained productive from Aireys Inlet to Lorne. A quick stop at another scenic overlook produced a Willie Wagtail foraging in the small car park, while a Grey Fantail, Silvereye, and White-browed Scrub-wren also showed themselves. More of these birds were present at the Great Ocean Road Memorial Arch, in addition to Crimson Rosella, Singing Honeyeater, and White-naped Honeyeater, while a scan over the Indian Ocean yielded a few Crested Terns and Great Cormorants. We stopped briefly in Lorne for lunch, picking up a few more Galahs and Sulpher-crested Cockatoos, Masked Lapwings, Crested Terns, and our first Little Black Cormorant.
After lunch we headed over to the Erskine Falls a few kilometers northwest of Lorne. Notable species on the drive to the Falls included Australian Ravens, Brown Thornbills, White-browed Scrub-wrens, a single Laughing Kookaburra sitting on a power-line, and our first and only Grey Shrike-thrush of the day. The smaller passerines were also in evidence at the Falls.
A small parking lot at the mouth of the Wye River was perhaps out most productive stop of the day. The river itself seemed to attract quite a large number of waterbirds, with White-faced Heron, Silver Gull, Australian Wood Duck, Pacific Black Duck, Eastern Great Egret, Little Pied Cormorant, and Little Black Cormorant, as well as our first Pacific Gulls and Pied Cormorants of the trip. In addition, Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins were foraging over the river, while the shrub surrounding the river produced Brown Thornbill, White-browed Scrub-wren, Silvereye, and our first Yellow-faced Honeycreeper of the day. The major surprise however came in the form of a pair of Satin Bowerbirds (I didn’t expect them to be that big!) that foraged near an Australian Magpie and Willie Wagtail on the lawn underneath some trees a little further up from the river mouth.
The marsupial community finally started showing itself when we left Wye River en route to Apollo Bay. First up was a hopelessly lost Koala that seemed stuck on the highway between road barriers. I wanted to help this clearly agitated and confused Koala in a very dangerous situation, who just needed to get off the road, contemplating maybe to grab the animal on its scruff to help it over the barrier blocking its way into the woods next to the road. Such a task was however complicated by me not having any knowledge of legal repercussions doing that, and the growing number of people that started to congregate around the ever-increasing freaked-out animal. I eventually made the call to just leave the animal rather than making a bad situation worse, as this could not be the first time this has happened, cars seemed to slow down at the sight of the growing crowd, and seeing people on cellphones hopefully calling people who actually knows what they’re doing. With that little bit of excitement we were off heading further west, through Apollo Bay where we saw more of the common birds already saw during the day, including another Laughing Kookabura, Red Wattlebird, and Crimson Rosellas.
Our second last length stop of the day was a short hike on the Mait’s Rest Rainforest Trail. Among the greater excitements here was some rodent-looking marsupial foraging in the undergrowth (there’s a number of similar-looking species, I’ll post the name once I figured it out), while we also managed to spot the day’s first Eastern Spinebill, Rufous Fantail, Buff-rumped Thornbill, and Eastern Yellow Robin, as well as a few more Brown Thornbills and White-browed Scrub-wrens.
Jan left the best for last, as the drive through the Eucalypt Forest the Great Otway National Park proper was simply amazing. Sadly, as we entered the Park we came across a fresh Short-beaked Echidna roadkill, which allowed me to get up close and personal with this weird creature, even though I would’ve much preferred to see it alive. Birding was a little quiet, maybe because it was getting late in the day. But almost all the birds we saw at Great Otway was new and spectacular, with Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo in the Eucalypt forest, and a massive mix flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Little Corella, and Long-billed Corella foraging in farmland, with a small flock of Blue-winged Parrots keeping their distance from their bigger cousins. More importantly, as Jan predicted when we chose the route the previous night, Great Otway seemed to be haven for marsupials. Koalas might have been the most common animal we saw during our drive through Otway, while we also saw a handful of Eastern Grey Kangaroo and a single, rather shy Swamp Wallaby in dense scrub on the roadside.
As it was getting dark ratherquickly, and we wanted to get to Jan’s house at a decent hour, the drive back to Melbourne was rather uneventful, apart from a few Australian King-parrots foraging in the road outside Apollo Bay, and a single endangered Hooded Plover we picked at a demarcated breeding site at Marengo.
To quote a Californian ecologist I met in Melbourne: “at first I resisted, but the coffee in Australia is just better than anywhere else”. What you want to order is a Flat White, which looks nothing more than a cappuccino, but WOW, what an amazing flavor. While coffee in South Africa is often a miss, and in Europe and America sometimes I miss, I have yet to find a bad coffee in Australia. Apparently the secret to Australia’s coffee is the way the foam is prepared, but I also need to find out where they source their beans!
Marsupials and Monotremes
Australia is well known for their weird and wacky animals. Seeing these animals is a must; no visitor and especially a naturalist should even mention they visited Australia if they’ve not had brief glimpses of Australia’s marsupials.
If you’ve read the piece above, you’ll already know that I’m happy to announce that I have definitely seen (and photographed) a number of marsupials on my day along the Great Ocean Road. Koalas were one of the most common furies, while I also saw a number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos and Common Brushtail Possum, as well as one Swamp Wallaby and a rodent-looking marsupial (whose identity I’m still working on). Monotremes were a bit elusive, apart from a single Short-beaked Echidna, sadly killed by a car, that we picked up along the road early into the Great Otway National Park.
Confusing bird names
My first introduction to birds of Australia reminded me a little of my first introduction to birds of North America. While I agree that the New World Vultures is a bit confusing, I’ve always been rather confused why buntings are called sparrows, moorhens are called gallinules, and the name oriole has taken on a new meaning, even though it taxonomically fits in with Blackbirds. These confusing names of course can pose some identification challenges for the naïve observer with preconceived ideas on the size and shape of some genera.
Two bird names in particular surprised a little in Australia. One of the first birds I saw at Melbourne University was these big black and white passerines foraging rather boldly on the lawn. At that stage I’ve just briefly glossed through my Australian bird guide (showed you how little prep I did for this trip!), so I naïvely called them Australian Magpies. It’s only that night when I mentioned to Jan which birds I saw during the day that he corrected me that those birds were actually Magpie-larks! It wasn’t until the next day, when I had a better look that I started believing him that this bold and strikingly colored bird (unlike any lark I’ve ever seen) is actually a lark.
While it’s somewhat acceptable that lark has taken on a new meaning in Australia (after all, the bird seem to have no close relatives), I still can’t understand how the Willie Wagtail can be called a Wagtail when I would say it rather resembles a Fantail or Robin. If Jan did not know the name if this bird the first time we saw it, I would probably still be flipping through my bird-guide struggling to put a name to the species, completely ignoring Willie Wagtail that I expected to be much smaller and daintier than it actually is.
ANNOTATED BIRD LIST
Apart from exotics and the most common species, I mentioned virtually all the birds I saw, at each location, in the write-up above.
BIRDS I MISSED
Well, it would have been nice to see all the rare, strange, and endemic birds that occurs in the Melbourne area. But I didn’t do much effort preparing for birding on this trip so I’m certainly not going to torture myself by going to look, after the act, which key species I missed. Hopefully I’ll see them all one day when I visit Victoria again.
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