Cairns, Darwin and Sydney, Australia
8 - 31 Dec, 1995

Queensland coast near Cairns After my wonderful experience in New Zealand  the previous year, I decided to go to Australia during the final three weeks of December.  Looking at the map, though, it seemed that Australia was so enormous, I should pick two or three places to concentrate on.  This time I was a little wiser, and I bought a complete field guide of Australian birds in advance.  Studying that, I decided that I would get the most number of species between Cairns, Darwin and Sydney.

I went to the same travel agent as before, only this time, I told them that I wanted to take tours that were not of the self-guided variety.  They suggested two wildlife-related tours: one in the jungles around Cairns, and one in the outback that included Kakadu National Park.  In Sydney, I could more-or-less get around if I avoided driving in the city.

They briefly mentioned that I would need a visa, but I had reserved the whole trip in July.  Since the visa would only be good for three months, I couldn't order it until October at the earliest.  I had planned to double-check everything in December, but due to my workload, I never spoke with the agent again.  In late November, I finally received an envelope containing my tickets.  The tickets were in a folder with a yellow post-it with the agent's phone number attached to the front.  I didn't want to remove the post-it, for fear of making it loose, and losing her number. Little did I know that beneath this imperiled sticky lay an even more important sticky that read "Australian visa required!"

Well, I found out at the Qantas counter.  Currently, visas for Americans are obtainable via the airline at the counter, so this is no longer a potential problem.  However, for me, this was a big problem.

Spotted Sandpiper Not having a visa, and my flight leaving on a Saturday, I found myself stuck in Los Angeles for two days while I waited for the Australian consulate to open.  I took the opportunity to look for birds, of course.  I rented a car, and went up to the Santa Monica Mountains, then saw all sorts of birds in Malibu and the Tijuana Estuary, including Marbled Godwits, Brown Pelicans, Caspian Terns, and Spotted Sandpipers .  Armed with a new camera, I took as many pictures as I could, and had them developed right away, so I could look at them on the plane.

On Monday morning, I picked up my visa, and boarded the flight.  When I arrived in Cairns, the customs guy held me up, very curious about what I was doing there.  He seemed apprehensive, and I couldn't understand why.

Well, as he explained to me, I was a single woman, travelling alone, equipped with an Australian field guide, binoculars and a camera, and claimed to be a "birder".  Evidently, egg smugglers recruit single women for their nefarious purposes, and I matched the description. 

Anyway, when I showed him my big stack of second-rate bird photos, he turned a bit red, and allowed me into the country.


Well, that was interesting.  Since I had missed the Cairns tour, I was on my own, and decided to rent a car to explore the area.  That paid off very well.  Once again flustered by having to navigate from the left-hand side of the road, I missed the exit to my hotel, and had to double back along the waterfront.  Glancing toward the water, I couldn't help but notice...

There was no beach!  There were only wetlands!

Wetlands covered with birds!!

Marsh Sandpiper and Black-tailed Godwit It took me maybe two minutes to drop my bags off, run back to the shore, and start photographing every lifeform out there.  I don't even remember everything I was seeing: Marsh Sandpipers and Masked Plovers, which I had seen in New Zealand.  Bar-tailed Godwits.  Black-tailed GodwitsMongolian Plovers.  Greater Sand-plovers.  Terek Sandpipers.  Curlew Sandpipers.  Common Sandpipers.  Royal Spoonbills.  Great Egrets.  Intermediate Egrets.  Little Egrets.  Australian White Pelicans .  Whimbrels. Greater Crested Terns.  Silver Gulls.  Even a crocodile, poking his head out among the reeds!

Royal Spoonbill I was thrilled, but also frustrated by the field guide.  None of these birds looked anything like the drawings in the book: they were all brownish, and the birds in the plates were all drawn in shades of gray.  They were all moving so fast, I couldn't even see their beaks, and there were so many of them!  I decided to take my film to a one-hour developing place, and do a print-to-plate comparison later. 

As I was walking by, I noticed the only other birders near the place, two older English gentlemen (judging by their marvelously proper accents), who had a scope trained in one spot.  I had to ask what they were looking at.

A rare bird, they said.  An Asian Dowitcher !! Asian Dowitcher, Curlew Sandpipers, Mongolian Plover and friends...

Not that I had heard of it, or would recognize one if it landed on my head, but they pointed it out, and I was very, very pleased.

I spent the rest of the day on that beach, er, wetlands, transfixed by the variety of birds, and amazed how no one else seemed to notice.  Later on, I was accosted by an Aussie selling ice cream, and he stayed to chat a bit.  He expressed what seemed like the more common opinion that it was a waste that they had this marsh instead of a beach.  Well, may I humbly disagree.

Browsing the jewelry shops, the proprietor seemed to be thrilled about birds.  She described how she was so excited to have just gotten a Sunbird in her backyard shrubbery.  At that point, I remembered the thick, dense jungle surrounding this city, and elected to investigate the botanical gardens.

Australian White Pelican I wasn't disappointed.  In the gardens, I found Orange-footed Scrubfowl scraping the leaves among the bushes, Rainbow Lorikeets flying around and screeching from the flowered treetops, pairs of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos grooming each other in the lower branches of the large eucalyptus trees, and even a Spangled Drongo - a glossy black bird with a long tail parted at the end like a pageboy haircut.

The next day, I set out for the wilderness, in search of anything feathered.  Along the northbound highway, I found Rainbow Bee-eaters on posts, Kookaburras on wires, and farther north, even King Parrots and Imperial Pigeons flying overhead.  In the mountains above Cairns, I found Rainbow Pittas, and as I walked along the trail, I found myself being followed by a Cassowary!  As I headed west toward the Atherton Tablelands, I found Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and dozens of kites perched on the utility posts.  Returning in the late afternoon, I pulled off to explore a trail in the waning sunlight, and found Brush Turkeys scraping around their large mound nests in the near darkness.

I wish I had had more time in that area, since two days were not nearly enough.  However, I had a tour that originated from Darwin in two days, and I had to continue on..