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.
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!!
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 Godwits. Mongolian 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!
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 !!
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.
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..