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Thredbo & Charlotte Pass Birding with Flowers

Yellow-faced Honeyeater at Tom Groggin - 1
Yellow-faced Honeyeater at Tom Groggin
by Carol Probets
Summer in the Snowies is a time of abundant life. Like spring in warmer areas there’s lots of nesting activity and prolific flowering. There’s also a great diversity of invertebrates with the unusual, the colourful and the eye-catching. Many are unique, cool-climate specialists.

So what better way could there be to spend the Australia Day weekend than a visit to the “roof of Australia”? As the rest of eastern Australia sweltered, we enjoyed beautiful sunny days. A small group of four with diverse interests in addition to birds meant there was always something fascinating to discover and plenty of great questions and discussions along the way.

Starting on a public holiday gave us a good run out of the city and down the motorway, noting flowering Eucalyptus piperita along the way. Our first bird at our first stop, heard as soon as we got out of the bus at Derrick VC rest area, was the Gang-gang Cockatoo – four of them to start the birding off with a bang! Good views were elusive but more opportunities lay ahead.

As roadside rest areas go, Derrick VC is one of the best. Four Dollarbirds sitting high, a Sacred Kingfisher, Leaden Flycatcher, Satin Bowerbird, Yellow Thornbills and Weebills were just some of the species competing for our attention. The silver-foliaged Eucalyptus cinerea or Argyle Apple was especially picturesque.

We continued past Lake George (with water in it) and Canberra, on to the Namadgi visitors centre. During lunch we wondered why a Noisy Miner was spending a long time staring into its nest with no incubation, brooding, feeding and very little building activity observed. Nature is full of such little mysteries.

Male Flame Robin in moult, Charlotte Pass - 1
Male Flame Robin in moult, Charlotte Pass by Carol Probets
Back on the road we wound our way into the higher country of Namadgi National Park, stopping for a gathering of raptors – 2 Wedge-tailed Eagles, a Brown Falcon and Brown Goshawk – with a Scarlet Robin moving rapidly up the hill. A short wander at Brandy Flat gave us close views of a female and juvenile White-throated Treecreeper and the first of many Candlebarks (Eucalyptus rubida), their bark turning red as if sunburnt. These distinctive trees featured every day and we were lucky to be seeing them at their most colourful time of year.

Epicormic growth of bluish juvenile eucalypt foliage was a picture in the burnt areas. This gave way to Black Sallies (E. stellulata) with their oily-green trunks and the first of the Snow Gums (E. pauciflora). Another call of raptors had us stopping to admire four Wedge-tailed Eagles, two performing a territorial “pot-hooking” display, with Goldfinches and a Nankeen Kestrel adding to the list. The rare Weeping Snow Gums (E. lacrimans) near Adaminaby were a most elegant addition to our list of eucalypts.

Pru welcomed us as we arrived at Bimblegumbie, our idyllic home-away-from-home for the next four nights. We were delighted to find a Grey Shrike-thrush nesting on the rafter above the front door. And two Tawny Frogmouths sat on the same branch in the same tree by the verandah where we’ve seen them in previous years. The first day had been mostly travelling but we were off to a good start!

Next morning, our stroll in the garden had Brush and Fan-tailed Cuckoos, Satin Bowerbirds, Grey Fantails, Yellow-faced and White-naped Honeyeaters vying for attention, with Craig’s fascinating garden art adding an element of whimsy. In addition, the garden was full of butterflies, mostly Marbled Xenicas, hilltopping. These were males competing for territory and the chance to attract a female; the behaviour continued for the four days of our stay.

Heading up the Alpine Way after a hearty breakfast, we noticed remnant patches of snow visible on the mountains. In recent summers this has been an all too rare sight. The vegetation everywhere was looking fresh and vigorous after good rainfall in 2016.

Fledgling Grey Shrike-thrush at Bimblegumbie - 1
Fledgling Grey Shrike-thrush at Bimblegumbie
by Carol Probets
The Thredbo River Walk is always a highlight and this year was no exception. As soon as we alighted from the bus, an Olive Whistler called, moving down towards the river where we were about to walk. Sadly our attempts to find it again were unsuccessful, but there were plenty of consolation prizes around every corner, with one real cracker to come. More on that soon.

Flocks of Little Ravens gathered – the only corvid in the highest areas. Brown Thornbills and Grey Fantails were common and we kept an eye out for a Flame Robin glimpsed earlier from the road. Plenty of botanical beauty kept our interest along the way, including Cascade Everlasting, Native Caraway, the dandelion-like Native Yam, Prickly Starwort, showy Orange Everlastings, Waxy Bluebells, Silver Snow Daisy (Celmisia sp.) including a beautiful mauve form, Trigger Plants, cream-flowered Alpine Bottlebrush, Alpine Groundsell, Brachycome daisies, Billy Buttons, Gunn’s Willow-herb, Bidgee-widgee, Mountain Pepper, Mountain Lettuce, Chamomile Sunray, Mountain Plum Pine, Ivy-leaf Goodenia, and various yellow pea flowers.

Two Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos floated above the valley and a White-eared Honeyeater made sure it was added to the list with a great view.

Soft Snow Grass under shady Snow Gums was our morning tea spot where we tried for the Olive Whistler seen in previous years. Seems it had been sacked and replaced by a Crescent Honeyeater, which wasn’t a bad substitute.

Janene went back to take the bus to Thredbo while the rest of us continued along the track. It wasn’t long before a loud burst of song announced a very close Pilotbird. Soon this normally shy bird sat in full view for everyone to see. We were thrilled, but even that wasn’t the day’s highlight.

Alpine Mint-bush flowers, Prostanthera cuneata, with pollinators - 1
Alpine Mint-bush flowers, Prostanthera cuneata, with pollinators
by Carol Probets
Every Alpine trip we search for the Pink Robin despite its non-appearance since 2006. It’s considered a rare species in NSW but birders are hopeful creatures, ruled by habit. We stopped in a promising gully and to our utter delight our hopes were answered by a distinctive little trill through the treetops. There it was! A male Pink Robin sitting high for all to see. Without doubt the bird of the trip!

As the morning wore on the butterflies came out, with Bright-eyed Brown and Striped Xenica just two of many present. The alpine areas in summer become a flurry of invertebrate activity with the dragonflies, grasshoppers, beetles and sawfly larvae as fascinating as the many Lepidoptera. You could spend days on this short section of walk if you had the time. The colourful insects in a Pimelea ligustrina shrub were Stink Bug nymphs. Closer to Thredbo, Brown-headed Honeyeaters put in an appearance.

After lunch, the perfect weather continued for our ride up the chairlift as jackets and scarves stayed in our packs, even at the top. Birds above the treeline were just four predictable species: Welcome Swallow, Australian Pipit, Little Raven and Nankeen Kestrel. But it was far from desolate. Spotted Alpine Xenica butterflies fluttered across the heath, landing on Silver Snow Daisies to drink nectar, their underwing patterns as striking as an Aztec rug. We admired Hoary Sunrays, Mountain Celery, Alpine Leek Orchids and the tiny mat-forming Silver Ewartia. Fens and bogs supported water-loving vegetation.

Arriving back at Bimblegumbie, an unusual sharp call near the front door grabbed our attention. There, hiding in the bushes, was one of the Grey Shrike-thrush chicks just fledged – its sibling still calling from the nest above the door. It became a familiar character during the next three days, at times sitting on the porch railing right beside a cat statue. In the very next tree, a much warier Eastern Yellow Robin incubated eggs in its exquisite nest.

Day 3 was the big loop drive taking in a fantastic variety of scenery and habitats. We snaked around hillsides clothed in silver Snow Gum skeletons slowly regenerating from the base after the 2003 fires – recovery doesn’t happen quickly in the highest part of Australia.

Australian Pipit after bathing, Kiandra - 1
Australian Pipit after bathing, Kiandra by Carol Probets
It wasn’t long before Janene found the day’s first Flame Robins, a pair by the roadside. At Leatherbarrel Creek several Eastern Spinebills were a lively addition to the birdlist. A Noisy Friarbird at Tom Groggin and – no surprise – the ubiquitous Yellow-faced Honeyeater, present at virtually every site. Scammels Lookout provided spectacular views of the Main Range and a display of deep blue Dianella tasmanica fruit.

No visit to Khancoban is complete without a trip to the sewage ponds. This gave us 24 bird species including Chestnut and Grey Teal, Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes, Black-fronted Dotterel, White-faced Heron, Whistling Kite, and 2 Latham’s Snipe. In the waterside trees were Restless Flycatcher, Sacred Kingfisher, Silvereye and Superb Fairy-wrens. The ethereal notes of a White-throated Gerygone drifted across from the far trees.

On the outskirts of town a party of White-winged Choughs had us stopping one more time before heading up into the forests toward lunch at Clover Flat among vociferous King-Parrots. Later, a random roadside stop to photograph the eerie beauty of the tree skeletons provided a cornucopia of wildflowers, with native buttercups gleaming in the sun and carpets of woodruff bearing tiny white flowers.

On a birding trip, “stop the bus!” usually means something good and this time it was 8 Gang-gang Cockatoos, calling to each other and moving closer through the forest. This spot near Cabramurra was exactly where we saw a flock of 40-50 in 2012. The Alpine Ash (E. delegatensis) seeds are evidently a favourite treat here.

During a short walk on the Gold Seekers Track at Kiandra we found a whole family of Flame Robins with mum, dad and two kids. An Australian Pipit flew up from a fen where it had been bathing, sat on a rock and shook its feathers dry.

Spotted Alpine Xenica on Silver Snow Daisy - 1
Spotted Alpine Xenica on Silver Snow Daisy by Carol Probets
Back at the retreat after another of Pru’s unfailingly delicious dinners, half the group ventured out for a spotlighting walk as a largish bird flew across the carpark – most likely one of the Tawny Frogmouths heading out to begin its night’s foraging. Other nightlife included a Brushtail and a Ringtail Possum, several microbats hunting moths in the spotlight, and crickets softly peeping in the still air.

On the morning of day 4 we explored “Millie’s Run” across the lower paddock, where unexpected artworks provided as much fascination as the plentiful birdlife. The “nuns” in the grass and the stack of shovels were favourites.

After breakfast a fellow guest pointed out a beautiful snake sunning itself in the rockery: a Highland Copperhead. After being admired and photographed it politely retreated into the undergrowth, no doubt to find a more peaceful spot. Our departure was further delayed by an enormous green caterpillar ambling across the path, prompting more oohing and aahing and clicking of cameras. I’ve since identified it as a late instar larva of a Helena Gum Moth, Opodiphthera helena. The adult moth has a wingspan of 13-17 cms.

Meanwhile, the Snow Gums were beckoning. Along the way we picked up Silver Gulls at Lake Jindabyne and possibly Australia’s highest Great Cormorants on their usual rocks in Spencers Creek.

In perfect weather at Charlotte Pass we admired the gnarled and wrinkled forms of the Alpine Snow Gums (E. niphophila). Brown Thornbills and White-browed Scrubwrens were common here, and a male Flame Robin repeatedly carried insect prey into the undergrowth, stopping high on a dead limb on each approach. Its plumage was noticeably scruffy and matted, prompting Christine’s dry remark: “It’s probably about to die.” Well that sure induced a reaction!

Mountain Celery, Aciphylla glacialis - 1
Mountain Celery, Aciphylla glacialis by Carol Probets
Seriously though, the robin was moulting and in a month or two it should look immaculate!

Alpine Mint-bush (Prostanthera cuneata) was festooned in snowy-white flowers with colourful spots in their throats, an invitation and guide for pollinating insects. And there were plenty of those about, including colourful flies, day-flying moths and little Orange Alpine Xenicas. We also saw the flightless Spotted Mountain Grasshopper or Southern Pyrgomorph (Monistria concinna), its bold spots a signal of its toxicity to predators.

We lunched at a five-star picnic spot under a shady Snow Gum, followed by a walk on the Rennix Track where mayflies, Metallic Ringtail damselflies and Galaxias fish inhabited the creek. Five Red-necked Wallabies grazing under a Snow Gum looked up nonchalantly as we walked past. Drab-looking moths were flying about but when one landed we noticed the funkiest pattern of stripes on its wings! It was identified later as Amelora leucaniata or Striped Cape-moth. Round depressions where pools sometimes lie were carpeted in Mud Pratia, a little plant with starry white flowers and leaves pressed flat against the dried mud. More Australian Pipits and Flame Robins were seen.

Down in Jindabyne we wondered where all the lizards at the Big Burp had gone. In lieu we admired a blushing red Candlebark against the Delft blue of the lake. The afternoon was hot, providing a good excuse to visit the National Parks shop for book browsing and souvenir shopping.

Finally it was off to check the wetland behind the Wildbrumby distillery. Coots with juveniles, Grey Teal, Pacific Black Ducks and a White-faced Heron but unfortunately no crakes this time. The front ponds had more ducks including an Australasian Shoveler, though it only appeared briefly. We seized the opportunity to buy schnapps and returned to Bimblegumbie for a chance to relax in the garden before dinner.

Cherry surprised everyone by crafting perfect white roses out of improvised materials and a fun botanical name tag for each person. How creative and thoughtful; a lovely memory to cherish!

Highland Copperhead, Austrelaps ramsayi, Bimblegumbie - 1
Highland Copperhead, Austrelaps ramsayi, Bimblegumbie
by Carol Probets
And what a privilege it was to look forward to Pru’s sensational dinners each night. Craig’s bonsai and the moss-and-eggshell accent were delightful touches. How spoilt were we!

After breakfast on Day 5 we reluctantly said goodbye to our hosts and were on the road, homeward bound. A rest stop and morning tea at Michelago yielded Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Eastern Rosella, Striated Pardalote and a very noisy juvenile Galah flanked by its parents in a shady tree. The temperature soared so it was a good day to be travelling. Jill read from “A Ballad of Ducks” by Banjo Patterson, which tells an entertaining story about a grasshopper plague.

We all agreed eating lunch in the coolness of the Arboretum cafe was an excellent idea, as we took in the panoramic view over Canberra. We also enjoyed exploring the bonsai exhibit. Considering the stunted forms and gnarly shapes we often see in nature, it came as no real surprise how suitable Aussie trees can be as bonsai subjects.

Our planned walk in the botanic gardens rainforest gully was curtailed as all the tracks were closed due to the heat. Around the carpark and cafe area were juvenile Red Wattlebirds, Crimson Rosellas and a very obliging Eastern Spinebill. The moss and liverwort display in the Visitors Centre was worth seeing. Lastly, under a shady bush we found a large male Gippsland Water Dragon with a lovely green flush and orange throat.

Every trip is different. This year, puzzlingly, we had missed the Olive Whistler and Satin Flycatcher, but the Pilotbird and Pink Robin were ample compensation. We recorded about 100 bird species. The countryside was looking green and we enjoyed the best weather we’ve ever had on this itinerary.

Thanks to Cherry, Christine, Diane and Jill for your enthusiasm and great company; Pru, Simi and Craig at Bimblegumbie for the hospitality and fantastic meals and of course Janene for so much good planning, organising and driving.

By Carol Probets ornithologist and naturalist for FTB

Follow That Bird   Phone: 61 2 9973 1865
Fax: 61 2 9973 1875
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Avalon NSW 2107
Sydney Australia
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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer