Birding on King Island
The Hobcroft Family Diary
4-10 January 2016
The Hobcrofts (Dion, Lise, Grace and Daniel)
Report by Dion Hobcroft
The ultra-rare King Island Brown Thornbill has never been photographed before to my knowledge.
This is only the fourth sighting since 1972. The bird does not have a red eye, combined with the long chisel-like bill it is a very distinctive taxa, quite possibly a species in its own right.
Mon 4/1/16: A 5:15 am taxi is never a good thing but the flight to Melbourne left on time and we squeezed a visit into the QANTAS club, always a highlight for Dan! We checked into REX Airlines in Melbourne and before lunchtime we had landed at Currie, King Island. Gale force easterly winds but quite bright overall. We picked up a Hilux and after stocking up on supplies drove through to Grassy, to our beach shack, called “Bold Views.” On the way we ticked off the Wild Turkey, here at one of its very few tickable populations in Australia. 795, woot-woot!! We were all a bit shell-shocked from our early start and late night. Eventually I got motivated and headed to Naracoopa where some good birds were spotted. This included a White-throated Needletail, a male Satin Flycatcher, Olive Whistler, the endemic Dusky Robin subspecies (quite chocolate) and two Fan-tailed Cuckoos. The island looked very dry overall, a real drought. Dinner at the Grassy Club was tasty with excellent local produce. Bed could not come soon enough.
Another photograph of the King Island Brown Thornbill showing the long crow-bar bill, pale brown eye and strongly marked throat.
Tue 5/1/16: A morning in the Pegarah State Forest was lively. A pool of water for fire-fighting attracted a lot of birds, despite drizzle and then steady rain setting in. Good birds for King Island included Green Rosella, Striated Pardalote, Flame Robin, another Satin Flycatcher (a female this time) and all the Tasmanian endemic honeyeaters. Later in the day we explored north to Cape Wickham. Lake Flannigan held masses of birds including Blue-billed and Musk Duck, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck and quite a few Cape Barren Geese. At the Cape itself we enjoyed a picnic hamper, checked out the tallest lighthouse in Australia and spotted a few Nankeen Kestrels. On the way we found a few flocks of Little Raven and a solitary Galah. A drive along Tin Mine Road failed to produce California Quail but a couple of Brush Bronzewings showed well. Back at Grassy the kids could get back on the devices. I tried a spot down near Grassy Harbour and had success finding a basking Lowland Copperhead, an absolute beauty. I was kicking myself for not taking the camera. The harbour was a good spot and held a pair of Hooded Plovers, Sooty Oystercatchers whilst at night it was alive with Little Penguins and Short-tailed Shearwaters. A single Pallid Cuckoo was also of note between Currie and Pegarah on the return drive from the dinner at the King Island Club. Despite the wet, mild weather it had been a very good day all up.
Wed 6/1/16: An early start to bird from Grassy to Pegarah State Forest. A 20 minute survey at Yarra Creek for Scrubtit in promising looking riparian wet forest with a few tree ferns produced a blank. Managed to see the first Golden Whistlers here and some recently fledged Crescent Honeyeaters were an interesting plumage. In Pegarah SF I continued up Blue Gum Road parking at the junction of Lappa Road. I walked west on Mucronata Road towards Zeta Creek. Initially it was quiet for birds, the usual Grey Fantails, Tasmanian Thornbills and Tasmanian Scrubwrens, all of which were responsive to playback of Brown Thornbill. Then a long-billed thornbill made an appearance high up in the Eucalyptus brookeriana and gave a breezy powerful “breee-ip.” It was joined by a second bird and dropped lower into some manuka where I could get a decent view. The bill looked very good, conspicuously long like a Large-billed Scrubwren, the flanks were rich brown and the undertail coverts were also pale brownish, not fluffy pure white. This was the ultra-rare King Island Brown Thornbill and so I started taking photographs and luckily several worked out as well as could be expected. I think this is the first time this taxa has been photographed. After a few minutes I lost them as they moved through, using their long bills to work strips of bark in the higher reaches of the Eucalyptus trees. This was the major excitement for the trip! Later I picked up a small flock of Shining Bronze-Cuckoos. Returning to Bold Views we headed back to Currie for lunch in the lovely café. Then we drove to Naracoopa spotting a single Dusky Woodswallow on the way. At Naracoopa we had a pair of Fairy Terns, a Pied Oystercatcher, Caspian Terns and a single Black-faced Cormorant. The list was rocketing along. We headed north to Sea Elephant Estuary, jagging a surprise Fallow Deer on the road briefly. Exploring the estuary added Common Greenshank (10), Bar-tailed Godwit (4), another Fairy Tern and a healthy flock of Chestnut Teal. En route to Blowhole Beach we found a single Brown Falcon and then a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo that responded to playback. I returned to near Grassy Harbour to try and photograph the Lowland Copperhead I had seen yesterday. No luck with this individual but found a massive one, about a metre in length disappearing into some old tin nearby so hopefully that will be a stake-out tomorrow.
The Critically Endangered King Island Scrubtit photographed at Nook Swamp in the Lavinia Nature Reserve. This seems to be the only known population currently and the available habitat is tiny after extensive fires.
Thu 7/1/16: A morning in Pegarah State Forest could not locate any new birds although several Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos were seen, previously being heard only. Amazingly Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was still a heard only. A solid session was spent focussing on Pink Robin, Scrubtit, Black Currawong and Bassian Thrush but no success with these. A lot of playback on Brown Thornbill produced another single bird at a different location. It would not really come down low and proved frustrating in the strong winds, its restlessness and abundance of performing Tasmanian Thornbills made it hard to pin down. The bill was the only give away. No photo of this bird. A Potoroo was seen quickly crossing the road at the same spot of the Brown Thornbill. A check of Copperhead central at Grassy Harbour drew repeated blanks through the whole day. With the family in the Hilux we headed to Seal Rocks Lookout. This coastal heath land rock site produced a White’s Skink well spotted by Dan and a pair of Three-lined Skinks. It was a spectacular jagged coastline in a pounding surf and stiff westerly gale. At the nearby Calcified Forest on the 600 metre walk in we jagged a Bassian Thrush for a good view. Interestingly it was in Acacia heath land with dense leaf litter; lots of signs of almost buttonquail activity, now that would be mega but no way to be certain. The Calcified Forest is an interesting fragile site and fortunately well protected, nothing quite like it in my travels. On the return drive we busted a magnificent Tiger Snake cruising across the road near Pearshape. About a metre in length it was right out in the open before it back tracked and then recrossed the road for a great view. With Lise freaking out it did not make for photographs with the kids! Creamy white with steel grey cross bands it was pretty-the endemic subspecies humphreysi. Good birds included a single Pallid Cuckoo, calling Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, several Wood Ducks and singles of both Cape Barren Goose and Nankeen Kestrel. At Pearshape Lagoon there was a good cross-section of ducks including two Hardheads and several Australasian Shovelers, both new for the list. There were also a single Musk Duck and about 20 plus Blue-billed Ducks. The afternoon was uneventful, a drive on Tin Mine Road failed to produce the hoped for California Quail. A feral House Cat was seen hunting out in the fields. Dinner that evening I ate salt and pepper quail.
The endemic subspecies of Black Currawong was also scarce.
Fri 8/1/16: A sleep-in and then a visit to the King Island Dairy where we watched a video and then tasted all the delicious cheeses. Grace even tried a taste of blue cheese that did not go down well, and Dan particularly liked the Furneaux Triple Cream Brie. On the return drive to Currie we found a field with more than ten Banded Lapwings. Lunch at the bakery was good. Then we returned to the north hiking into to the shipwreck of the Shannon at Yellow Rock Beach. Large numbers of waterfowl were concentrated on the river here and included a flock of four Little Black Cormorants. Once we commenced the hike in we heard the clarion call of the Black Currawong and spotted the single bird in flight. This species seems to be rare on the island now; it was the first sighting in several days of intense birding. No white wing flashes, but white tail tips. It perched for a while before disappearing. The endemic subspecies probably should have its conservation status upgraded to “endangered.” The beach was beautiful, isolated and empty of any people. Beyond the wreck we continued south a few hundred metres and here found a flock of more than fifty Sanderlings and a flock of four Ruddy Turnstones. Back at the creek a more careful scan produced a single male Red-capped Plover, two juvenile Black-fronted Dotterels and a trio of Hooded Plovers. What was possibly a juvenile Black Currawong could be heard begging. We detoured into Haddle’s Road to check out Shag Swamp but it was completely dry. Cruising the length of this road for quail came up empty but a single Brown Goshawk was seen in flight. When Dan confiscated my binoculars it was called time out on further birding!
A pair of Hooded Plovers in the harbour at Grassy.
After an excellent dinner at Wild Harvest where the local octopus was outstanding I went for a spotlight in Pegarah State Forest. A pair of Tasmanian Moreporks quickly proved responsive after dusk and gave several extended views but I could not get the camera to focus while holding the torch by myself. These quite small yellow-eyed owls with white spotted backs are quite distinctive. There was variation in the extent of the white back spotting on this pair, one bird more extensively speckled. Recently found to be a Bass Strait migrant they are an interesting bird that is generally quite elusive in mainland Tasmania. Further spotting turned up two Common Ringtail Possums, two Eastern Banjo Frogs, three Brown Tree Frogs, a tiny frog that was probably Geocrinia laevis based on its ventral pattern and the usual abundance of Common Brushtails, Red-bellied Pademelons and Bennett’s Wallaby. I also saw at least three small micro bats and a big number of giant forest moths attracted to my torch.
One of the only places in Australia you can tick a Wild Turkey is King Island, where they are pretty common in the rough pasture farming country.
Sat 9/1/16: Having gained permission for a day of solitary exploration I left early and headed north to Martha Lavinia Beach. Just beyond the Penny’s Lagoon turnoff I took the 4WD track to the south and headed down 2.2 km to a thicket of dense ti-tree, long unburnt in the Nook Swamp. A short bush bash into the edge of the swamp, a burst of playback and within a minute I had a pair of the critically endangered King Island Scrubtit moving around me, accompanied by Tasmanian Thornbill, Brown Scrubwren, Grey Fantail and a female Flame Robin. The Scrubtits gave excellent views and photographic opportunities. The Scrubtits showed a distinct lemon wash to the belly. Also in the same patch there was a Black Currawong and Satin Flycatcher (both calling only) and a perched White-bellied Sea-Eagle. Backtracking out I walked around Penny’s Lagoon for about a third of its lakeshore to the south. I disturbed a large snake probably a Copperhead, very dark. A flock of Tree Martins were present here some 10 birds all up and they gave good views drinking at the lake. I saw three Black Currawongs between the lake and the beach, this area is clearly a stronghold for this taxa. The next major spot of interest was a Latham’s Snipe flushed at the end of Dicker’s Road, a site for the supposed California Quail, a bird that does not exist! Then I returned to the Sea Elephant estuary and walked for a few kilometres to the north searching for the equally invisible Golden-headed Cisticola. There were quite a few birds including at least fifty Red-necked Stints, three Red-capped Plovers, a pair of Little Terns (one possibly being a hybrid with Fairy Tern) and four plus pairs of nesting Fairy Terns. Caspian Terns had a fledgling and Pied Oystercatchers were in breeding mode. Another Black Currawong was heard. After dinner at the pub (great cooking Steve) we revisited the Little Penguins at Grassy Harbour seeing at least one hundred individuals. A funny thing happened when a Short-tailed Shearwater flew into the car attracted by the torch Lise was holding. It landed on the backseat at Dan’s feet before moving to Gracie who calmly (unlike her mother) liberated the dazed and confused shearwater. I just had to make do with some dazed and confused family members!
Fan-tailed Cuckoo: one of four regular cuckoo species on King Island.
Sun 10/1/16: A 5am departure to burn around Tin Mine and Dicker’s Road for the dreaded quail came up empty. Of note were a single Brown Goshawk, a pair of Dusky Woodswallows and a few heard Pallid Cuckoos. The main highlight was stopping in an extensive patch of Typha growing by the main road about 2km N of Loorana. As soon as stepping out the nasal “mweer-lik-lik” of a Golden-headed Cisticola was heard, and the glowing male was quickly spotted on some powerlines. Tas tick 210. We departed from Bold Views and drove to Currie for a final bakery lunch. Then we checked out the local museum which was well worth it to see such oddities as Diprotodon and quoll skulls, photographs of the extinct King Island Emu and an excellent shell collection. At the Currie Lighthouse we photographed some presumed Tree Skinks around the graphics. Then it was off to the Airport where we had a last hurrah, spotting a single Australian Hobby having a stoush with a Swamp Harrier and Forest Raven. That finished our King Island holiday-it had been a fun trip.
A rare bird on King Island, a single Galah was seen on 5 Jan 16 near Reekara.
KING ISLAND BIRDS
Cape Barren Goose
Australian Wood Duck
Pacific Black Duck
Cape Barren Geese were more common the further north on the island you went.
Little Black Cormorant
Little Pied Cormorant
Pacific Gull was common on King Island.
Brush Bronzewing was fairly frequently encountered often taking gravel from the roadsides early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo
Fairy Terns were seen in small numbers along the east coast where a small nesting colony was seen at the Sea Elephant estuary. This bird was photographed at Naracoopa.
New Holland Honeyeater
Dusky Robin was widely distributed in most remaining woodland thickets throughout the island. It appeared smaller and warmer brown than the mainland Tasmanian population.
Tasmanian Thornbill was abundant in just about any patch of native vegetation.
Grey Fantail: very common on King Island.
*Eurasian Sky Lark
Sanderlings at Yellow Rock Beach, part of a flock of fifty.
Microbat: Gould’s Wattled Bat?
A Three-lined Skink at Seal Rock Lookout.
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS
King Island Tiger Snake
Blotched Bluetongue: road-killed
Eastern Banjo Frog
Brown-striped Marsh Frog: heard only
Brown Tree Frog
Little Penguins at Grassy Harbour.
A Short-tailed Shearwater that later flew into the car causing some consternation.
A male Golden-headed Cisticola advertises from a power line above a Typha swamp near Loorana.
The King Island Brown Thornbill.
10/1/16: Arrived into Melbourne, checked into Park Royal. We had some fun at dinner with Ahmed, the Moroccan waiter who remembered me after those final Grand Australia dinners. He dished up the kids some ice cream to remember.
11/1/16: Sleep in to start the day then collected hire car, a Silver RAV and drove into downtown Melbourne to St. Kilda Road. Went to the Victorian Art Gallery and had fun at the Andy Warhol/Ai Wei Wei exhibition. After taking this all in we headed out of the city to Marysville winding up into the hills via Healesville into the Mountain Ash forests with a large thunderstorm following us. The cabin was great at Amelina. After dinner I headed up on the road to Cambarville-Lake Mountain for about 26km getting on the dirt road to Woods Point. Dr. Rohan Clarke had kindly given me some coordinates for three locations he had seen Leadbeater’s Possum in May 2015. It was a balmy humid evening with a few light showers. I gave it a solid effort and had a possible possum sighting on the ground at the base of a Mountain Ash. I heard some scurrying, gave a squeak and picked up some dull eyeshine on a small grey mammal that disappeared very quickly from view into the hollow base of the tree! Not certain though, quite certain it was not a Bush Rat or Long-nosed Bandicoot. Spotlighting produced Greater Glider, Mountain Brushtail, and Swamp Wallaby and on the return drive downhill a single female Sambar.
A male Gang Gang Cockatoo a looong way up in a Mountain Ash tree feeding on the seed capsules at Marysville.
12/1/16: Awoke in the morning to the sound of Gang-Gang Cockatoos and tried to get some photos of them feeding on Ash seed capsules about 60 metres up! I also heard a Cicadabird and a few other bits and pieces. We had a lazy day exploring the village. We discovered I had lost Gracie’s laptop at the car hire car park. She was good about this, amazingly so. Even more amazing we got it back on returning to the airport. They looked up her identity: Blobfish UFO!! At 7:45 met up with Lachie and David at Yarra Junction, ecologists from ANU who were conducting a voluntary stagwatch in some old growth Ash forest. At the site we were assigned a tree to watch, mine about a 100 metres steeply downhill, an interesting exercise to reach. No luck with any Leadbeater’s for anyone. I heard Mountain Brushtail and Southern Boobook during my session. Grey Currawong, Superb Lyrebird and Brush Cuckoo were also heard and I saw Yellow-tailed Black and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Spotlighting at the site produced a cute fledgling Southern Boobook and I was lucky enough to spot an Agile Antechinus adjacent to an embankment on the forestry road and amazingly it froze in my torch light and everyone saw it! On the return drive to Marysville I spotted a Common Ringtail crossing the road near Healesville. Back up in the mountains behind Marysville where I had been last night I went back to searching for Leadbeater’s. At about 2am at a trailhead called “Paltry Metal” about 23km uphill from Marysville I was squeaking and hissing. I heard some movement and placed the torch light straight on a small, grey, highly mobile Leadbeater’s Possum on a Wattle branch that promptly completely disappeared at lightning speed. It was small and fast but definitely the beast. Despite searching through until dawn this was my only sighting. I think I heard at least two others calling, giving a bird like chirr twitter but not certain. At 330am about a kilometre up from Paltry Metal a Sooty Owl started to vocalise and with a few whistles on my behalf got quite animated. I had to walk in about 30 metres and found it perched in a giant Ash and had a quite decent view considering my torch and the height of the perched owl. Also seen were at least three Greater Gliders, three Mountain Brushtails, several Swamp Wallabies and a Sugar Glider was heard. At 6am I was back at the cottage where a text message roused Lise to let me in.
13/1/16: A scorcher, 41 degrees C in Melbourne so we spent the extra night at the cottage in Marysville to avoid the city and the hassle of moving. We did very little during the day. At 8:30pm I met up with well known wildlife expert Dr. Rohan Clarke of Monash University at Powellstown. We jumped in his Hilux and headed into the state forest to Starling Gap Rd. Up this road we made about 6 stops in the wet eucalypt Mountain Ash forest with dense Acacia understorey dominated by species like Hickory Wattle. Shortly after dark at the first stop we walked about 80 metres and Rohan started hissing this sibilant “siiiip-siiip-siip” constantly and within a minute a Leadbeater’s Possum materialised at eye level and completely still for an outrageously good view. It was to be the first of 10 individuals seen over the next three hours including one party of four that came right down onto the forest floor almost onto the road in response to the hissing. It was outrageous especially after all my hours of searching on this my third attempt to see this enigmatic rare endemic. The hissing worked like a dream, in fact we only missed them at one stop which happened to be where a pair of Department of Environment researchers were trying to verify a Leadbeater’s sighting by one of Rohan’s colleagues. The dense Acacia understorey is post 1939 wildfires and the species has a remarkably high density here. We found them right on the edge of logging coupes. A lot of the forest was logged but with remaining dead stags and thick understorey the habitat is prime. Some individuals were timid, others more brazen, several gave photographic opportunities and I managed a couple of half decent record shots. Rohan with his camera set up shot some fantastic sharp images. Using a 30 watt yellow beam spotlight and dull Petzl light seemed to work best, the brighter torches keeping the species more timid. Also while out and about here we picked up Mountain Brushtail, Common Ringtail, a single Common Wombat, a feral House Cat and a roosting Superb Lyrebird. Southern Boobook and Geocrinia victoriana were heard and there were several Litoria ewingi at a water point. It was a balmy night with some rain from thunderstorms. On the drive out of Marysville a strong wind ahead of the front saw branches and bark flying onto the road. The return drive was also pretty lively seeing a further two Common Wombats, two Sambar, three Fallow Deer, several Swamp Wallabies and two Red Foxes. Back home by 2am. Many thanks to Rohan for his invaluable help, it was a fantastic conclusion to an excellent family holiday.
Leadbeater’s Possums photographed near Powelltown, Victoria on 13/1/16.