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Thredbo Search for a Pink Robin Trip Report

Speckled Warbler by Anne Brophy

A small “exclusive” group of 3 birders, together with Janene driving and me as guide, left the humidity of Sydney bound for the cool, fabulous alpine country. What better way to spend the Australia Day weekend than with birds and wildflowers on the roof of Australia?

First stop for morning tea was Derrick VC rest area, a real gem of a picnic spot beside the highway with a surprising variety of birds. These included a White-faced Heron high in a tree, Crimson Rosellas, Yellow Thornbills, Weebills, close views of Brown-headed Honeyeaters and a pair of Dollarbirds. Best of all was watching a Speckled Warbler collecting larvae from fallen wattle galls until it had several lined up neatly in its bill, before flying off, no doubt to feed young. This was the first of much breeding activity observed over the next few days. Elegant-looking mayflies and a most beautiful Australian Emerald dragonfly were also seen here.

Onward to Namadgi visitors centre where a stroll after lunch produced Reed-Warblers, an immature Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo and a tiny Striated Pardalote spotted by Anne which we saw well enough to determine its subspecies – ornatus.

The journey southward was punctuated with more birds and ever-changing vegetation. Lush grasses told the story of a good season from Namadgi to the Snowies, with fields of bluebells providing colour. Birding highlights through Namadgi included a family of White-browed Woodswallows, Fuscous Honeyeaters, Wedge-tailed Eagles, plenty of Australasian Pipits and a male Scarlet Robin.

Near Adaminaby we noted the rare Weeping Snow Gum (Eucalyptus lacrimans), looking especially beautiful this year, and spotted a pair of Flame Robins by the roadside. Yes, we’d arrived in the high country!

Emu & young by Anne Brophy
It’s always nice having a comfortable base to return to each night but Bimblegumbie is so much more than that. Set amid Manna Gums and Mountain Gums (Eucalyptus viminalis and dalrympleana) with abundant birdlife and views down the Thredbo Valley, each evening we gathered for the birdlist followed by good conversation and another of Pru’s sensational dinners. This is the life.

Day 2, our first pre-breakfast walk around the garden revealed a pair of Satin Flycatchers feeding 3 young in a nest high in a tree. The nestlings were obviously close to fledging and we reckoned they would be gone by the time we left in 3 days time. Meanwhile, the parents chased away a Grey Shrike-thrush and nearby we found White-naped and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, a Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo flew over and a Brush Cuckoo could be heard calling up the hill.

After a terrific breakfast, and while driving along the Alpine Way we spied an Emu with two chicks just old enough to have lost their stripes.

Numerous Little Ravens circled at the Cascades where we started the Thredbo River Walk. Wildflowers were abundant as ever including many in the daisy family: Native Yam, Golden Everlasting, Cassinia, Brachycome, Snow Daisy, Chamomile Sunray, Podolepis and Billy Buttons. Various grasses, including the Snow Grass, were seeding.

Before long we heard an Olive Whistler call and a pair of Gang-gang Cockatoos flew up the valley. White-eared Honeyeater and Brown Thornbill were seen well.

Thredbo River
Anne, Janene and I had delightful views of an Olive Whistler at the usual morning tea site. Janene then headed back up to the bus with Margaret and Rita, while Anne and I continued along the track to Thredbo, the elusive Pink Robin our main quest. Sadly no red or pink robins of any species were seen here but the walk yielded many photographic opportunities and we did find some stunning insects – a Bright-eyed Brown butterfly, Conehead Darner dragonfly, and a large black, winged grasshopper on the track.

After lunch we took the chairlift ride to the top of Mt Crackenback. On the way up (and down again) we heard a Flame Robin calling amongst the Snow Gums but couldn’t work out how to get the chairlift to stop for us!

At the top is another world. Above the treeline, the plants are superbly adapted to the harsh conditions, though on this balmy day it was hard to imagine such conditions. As expected, the only birds this high were Little Ravens, Kestrels, Pipits and Welcome Swallows but the wildflowers were superb. From tiny mat-forming Ewartia to Mountain Celery, Snow Daisies, Leek Orchids, Eyebright and the gorgeous Alpine Gentians. Expanses of Candle Heath had just finished flowering and we imagined how spectacular that must have been.

On returning to Bimblegumbie we discovered why the Yellow-faced Honeyeaters were hanging around so much – they had a nest containing 3 young nestlings, well hidden in a dense shrub right by the front door!

On Day 3, while Margaret and Rita had a well earned sleep-in, Anne and I walked up the hill before breakfast. A massive Eastern Grey Kangaroo was only slightly perturbed by our presence on the track. Rufous Whistler, White-throated Treecreeper and Grey Fantail were seen and we stumbled across another Yellow-faced Honeyeater nest – this one containing 2 eggs.

Crackenback Mountain
This was the day for the big loop drive and we visited many beautiful picnic spots and lookouts along the way. Another Olive Whistler was a great sight near Leatherbarrel Creek. During a short walk amongst the Black Sallees at Tom Groggin we found ourselves in the midst of a mixed flock, including Leaden Flycatcher, Scarlet Robin, Grey Fantail, Noisy Friarbirds, and Yellow-rumped Thornbills unusually hawking and hovering for insects.

Scammel’s Lookout was notable for the Yellow Admiral butterflies and beautiful “lacunosus” clouds moving across the sky.

A visit to the sewage ponds at Khancoban is a must. Here we found many species including White-faced and White-necked Herons, Black-fronted Dotterel, a pair of Whistling Kites, Rainbow Bee-eaters and Goldfinch. As we moved around to the back of the ponds, a Nankeen Night-heron took flight, followed by one, then a second Latham’s Snipe which we watched on the far bank where it landed. Pileus clouds added a dramatic backdrop to the birding action. A chance sighting at a farm dam just outside the town yielded two Australian Shelducks and 4 more White-necked Herons.

We just had time to eat lunch and drink a welcome cup of tea at Clover Flat when the sky turned dark, the thunder rolled and a pair of Gang-gang Cockatoos hurried over, alighting briefly in a tree before continuing on their way. I’m sure they were looking over their shoulder at the approaching storm as they took off.

Talk about timing. No sooner had we packed up lunch and got back into the bus when the downpour began. And we had torrential rain for the remainder of the drive, experiencing yet another mood of the high country. At least we weren’t camping like the many folk we passed at Three Mile Dam. From the bus we noticed the Eucalyptus delegatensis flowering at Cabramurra, and the vivid colours of the wet E. rubida (Candlebark) trunks.

After dinner the rain cleared, perfect for a spotlight walk! The Tawny Frogmouths, which were no longer in the home garden, could be heard calling across the road. Not the usual call but the wheezing call, rhythmically repeated – possibly a young bird. Later, bright eyeshine revealed two small Ringtail Possums along the driveway but we couldn’t locate the Sugar Gliders we’d seen in previous years.

On Day 4, our third pre-breakfast walk gave us gorgeous views of 3 fledgeling White-naped Honeyeaters enjoying the morning sun and being fed by their parents. A Dusky Woodswallow with juvenile added yet another species currently or recently nesting. We also added Olive-backed Oriole and Satin Bowerbird to the trip list.

The Snow Gum walk at Charlotte Pass was our best opportunity to admire the magnificent twisted and thickened trunks of the Eucalyptus niphophila, some 300-years old or more. The cold wind completed our collection of summer weather and hinted at the extreme conditions that have shaped the flora. Mountain Plum Pines hugged the rocks closely. But my favourite of all the plants, the Alpine Mint-bush was flowering. We gently rubbed the foliage to smell its powerful aroma.

The Rennix Track features a 10,000 year old bog, and in the stream we saw native Galaxias fish. A family of Flame Robins was a delight flying between the sparse Snow Gums. It’s encouraging to find them still conspicuous here, despite their troubling decline further north and at lower altitudes. The other notable sighting here was the iridescent Eastern Montane Green Cockroach, seen twice.

In the afternoon we worked our way down the mountain, to sheltered sites and more waterbird viewing, until we arrived back at Bimblegumbie. After a short break, an excited knock on my door was Anne telling me the Satin Flycatcher nestlings were climbing out of the nest! For the next hour we watched them climbing about the branch and exercising their wings. During this time was much calling by the parents and withholding of food, perhaps to encourage them away from the nest. But eventually the chicks climbed back in the nest and went to sleep. Surely tomorrow morning they would fly!

Early morning on Day 5 and sure enough, the nest was empty. The nestlings had flown! What an happy end to the Satin Flycatcher story. (On a quick check of the property I also found a neighbouring pair had a more advanced fledgling.)

Group 2015
After breakfast we reluctantly said goodbye to Bimblegumbie and headed down the Alpine Way. At a pond in a paddock where we’d seen 6 Shovelers the day before, were two White-necked Herons. We watched them in a graceful display of synchronised flying, their wing “headlights” obvious. Breathtaking!

Morning tea at Michelago seemed quiet until, suddenly, 250-300 Straw-necked Ibis appeared in a huge ‘V’ across the sky. We watched them disappear towards the horizon. A huge hairy caterpillar at least 10cm long caught our eye on an elm tree trunk – possibly Anthela sp. (the Woolly Bear Moths, or perhaps a Hairy Mary!).

A pale morph Little Eagle was a good find as we drove past Tuggeranong, then it was on to the Australian National Botanic Gardens for lunch and a walk. The Gippsland Water Dragons looked as nonchalant as ever and Red Wattlebirds were feeding a juvenile. Anne and I went in search of White-winged Choughs, along the way finding a Satin Bowerbird’s bower and its owner. We finally found the choughs squabbling over a large piece of bread, just as a message appeared on my phone. It was Janene, telling us that another group of Choughs had arrived beside the bus!

A Swamp Harrier quartering a paddock near Collector was the final raptor species for the trip. The fine weather dissolved into rain as we approached Sydney but the memory of so many special birds remained fresh. The “search for the Pink Robin” might not have yielded the elusive target but was certainly a good excuse to spend 5 days in one of the most wonderful natural regions of Australia. Thank you Janene, Margaret, Rita, and Anne for your good company and making this such an enjoyable trip.

by Carol Probets ornithologist for FTB

Follow That Bird   Phone: 61 2 9973 1865
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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer