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Wildflowers & Birds in the Alps Tour Report

Fantailed Cuckoo (juvenile) by Carol Probets
* Flock of 40-50 Gang-gang Cockatoos seen near Cabramurra.
* Good numbers of Flame Robins in the sub-alpine woodlands.
* Satin Flycatchers encountered often in the forest areas, including the gardens of Bimblegumbie lodge. In the same areas were exceptional numbers of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters which appeared to be having a particularly good breeding season.
* An Olive Whistler watched for several minutes near Thredbo.
* Australian Spotted and Baillon’s Crakes in a wetland at the Wild Brumby Distillery.

The word on the grapevine was that the wildflowers in the Alpine areas were putting on a fantastic display this year. So it was with happy anticipation that our small group (4 birders plus Janene as driver and myself) set off on a grey Sydney morning headed for the high country.

First stop was the Thomas Derrick VC rest area for morning tea and a stretch of legs, and what a brilliant stop this turned out to be. A mixed flock of 14 bird species held our attention for a good half hour, the highlight a pair of Speckled Warblers. White-eared Honeyeaters, a recently fledged Grey Fantail, and Red-browed Finches nest-building were some of the other notables. Off to a great start!

Lunch south of Canberra saw us caught in a sudden downpour, but not before a walk around the wetland for two and hearty sandwiches for everyone. As it turned out, this was the only time we got wet – for the rest of the week the Snowy Mountains turned on its best warm, sunny weather. And seemingly it was the only sunny weather in eastern Australia!

Later we had the first Satin Flycatcher for the trip (a beautiful iridescent male), the only Fuscous Honeyeaters, and the most glorious Black Sallee (Eucalyptus stellulata) with peeling bark revealing a rainbow in olive and cream. Further along the road we found Red-browed Treecreepers, White-naped Honeyeaters and a proliferation of Fan-tailed Cuckoos. Everywhere, thick, lush grass told the story of a good season.

Bimblegumbie was our home for the next 4 nights, with its amazing garden, views, unique sculptures and the sensational meals which framed each day perfectly. Our three morning walks and one afternoon walk around the property always delivered good birding. A Yellow-faced Honeyeater nest near the house contained three healthy chicks, the Satin Flycatcher pair were accompanied by a juvenile, Brush Cuckoos were often calling and we managed to get excellent views of them, and a spunky Crested Shrike-tit was seen fighting its reflection in the chrome trim on a glass display cabinet. Other species in the garden included Dusky Woodswallows, Satin Bowerbirds, White-naped and Brown-headed Honeyeaters, Varied Sittellas, Sacred Kingfishers, Superb Fairy-wrens and those charismatic Tawny Frogmouths roosting in the tree beside the terrace.

Day 2, we walked part of the River Walk from Dead Horse Gap through a multitude of wildflowers, many, like the Native Yam, Orange Everlasting and Chamomile Sunray, in the daisy family. A male Flame Robin carried food to young in an unseen nest. A Crescent Honeyeater was heard, followed by an Olive Whistler, but it wasn’t until we sat in the shade of the Snow Gums for morning tea that the Olive Whistler became visible, keeping the whole group spellbound as it quietly went about catching insects in the undergrowth.

Orange Alpine Xenica & Spotted Mountain
Grasshopper by Carol Probets
After lunch with the Little Ravens at Thredbo, it was up the chairlift to Mt Crackenback and a walk in the Alpine habitat. Above the treeline the birdlife consisted of Australasian Pipits and Little Ravens. The flora was ever fascinating with drifts of Snow Daisies (Celmisia sp.) most obvious, Mountain Celery, an Eyebright and Leek-Orchids. Many Spotted Alpine Xenica butterflies were flying around our feet and feeding at Billy Buttons.

Before returning to Bimblegumbie, we opted for a quick detour to the schnapps distillery, but most of the group never made it into the building. Instead, we were scoping the 7 Spotted and 3-4 Baillons Crakes feeding in the open at the wetland across the laneway. Australasian Grebes, a White-necked Heron, Goldfinches and a Skylark completed the picture.

Day 3 was spent driving the big loop. It was heartening to see the regeneration in progress after the massive 2003 fires. Everywhere the silver-grey skeletons of the Snow Gums formed intricate patterns across the mountainsides. Amongst the day’s many highlights were Leaden Flycatchers giving a currawong a hard time at Tom Groggin, a Pilotbird heard at Scammels Lookout, and Latham’s Snipe, Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels at Khancoban sewage ponds. It was also there that we watched an immature White-bellied Sea-Eagle in a prolonged chase of 2 Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos. Heart-stopping action as the cockatoo left it until the last moment to swing around in a sudden change of direction and escape to join its mate across the sky.

But none of these highlights compared to the surprise and elation of seeing 40-50 Gang-gang Cockatoos in unburnt Alpine Ash forest near Cabramurra. This was the largest flock any of us had seen of this now threatened species.

After dinner, half the group opted for a short spotlighting walk and were rewarded with views of a Sugar Glider, gliding from one tree to another at twilight.

White-winged Chough by Carol Probets
On Day 4 at Charlotte Pass where 300-year-old Snow Gums (E. niphophila) show off their twisted forms, the cameras came out and everyone became immersed in some facet of the landscape. A number of skinks were seen along the Snow Gum boardwalk. One in particular, covered in white spots, caused some puzzlement but has since been identified as the Snowy Mountains Rock Skink Egernia guthega, a recently described species. Orange Alpine Xenica butterflies were in profusion, a Spotted Mountain Grasshopper was observed, and in the sub-alpine woodland every patch of Snow Gums seemed to be inhabited by a pair of Flame Robins.

The Jindabyne Surge Pipe, or “Big Burp”, provided more lizard viewing with Cunningham’s Skinks and Jacky Lizards soaking up the warmth on the rocks.

Day 5 and our final day of the trip. We reluctantly left Bimblegumbie and by lunchtime were in Canberra’s National Botanic Gardens where we enjoyed a walk in the cool of the rainforest gully. At the picnic area we were charmed by the confiding White-winged Choughs and the cheeky Water Dragons (Gippsland subspecies with their striking blue-green colouration).

Our final stop before the drive into Sydney was at Mittagong, where a short jaunt on the Boxvale Walking Track gave us an excellent mixed species flock. The birds here included a juvenile Golden Whistler (still with rufous patches on its wings and head), Yellow Thornbills, Red-browed Treecreeper, an Azure Kingfisher seen by Carol, and the glorious song of a White-throated Gerygone.

Altogether we recorded 120 bird species, 9 butterflies, 6 reptiles and 3 native mammals. Thanks to Margaret, Wendy, Joan and Brian for being such great company, and Janene of course for the organisation and driving.

by Carol Probets ornithologist for FTB

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