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Queensland, Australia - part I
October 2023

    Itinerary:
   
Girraween Environmental Lodge and Girraween National Park
    O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat and Lamington National Park
    Michaelmas Cay, Great Barrier Reef
    Cassowary House, Kuranda and Baron Gorge National Park
    Daintree River and Rainforest (boardwalks and Mossman Gorge)
    Sweetwater Lodge, Julatten
    Atheron Tablelands: Lake Eacham, Hasties Swamp, Curtain Fig Tree, Mount Hypipamee, Yungaburra


Synopsis

We made most of the reservations for this trip eight months in advance. Yet, why did I feel mentally unprepared when it came time to pack our bags and get on the plane? Although we had gone to Africa in 2022, I think the pandemic shutdown really screwed with my brain and that non-traveling mentality held me back. But ready or not, we had plane tickets and the day had come to travel.

We flew through Vancouver, Canada before the 15-hour direct flight to Brisbane, Australia. The red-eye flight was long and uncomfortable in coach class, but still more pleasant than our flight to South Africa. Sleep deprived and tired, we snaked our way through the long customs line. Once we picked up our rental car, we hit the road toward our first stay:

Girraween Environmental Lodge and Girraween National Park

After the slight mental adjustment to driving on the left side of the road, we escaped the traffic of Brisbane and were soon driving through agricultural lands and small patches of eucalyptus forest. Long-billed Corellas and Magpielarks fed in the grass of the highway medians. In town, lorikeets flew by with quick wingbeats. Even the junk city birds were exciting. The road took us through the Great Divide National Park, where we stopped briefly in the high-elevation rainforest to stretch our legs and see if there were any birds about. A couple of female Satin Bowerbirds, a Lewin's Honeyeater, and a Pacific Baza flew into the unfamiliar eucalypt forest. Above the canopy a flock of Yellow-tailed Cockatoos flew by, while Crimson Rosellas fed on fruits in the treetops. We arrived at the Girraween Environmental Lodge in the early afternoon in time to be checked in by a friendly Romanian woman. Driving to the grounds our cabin, we passed through open grassy fields with grazing Eastern Gray Kangaroos and Red-necked Wallabies. Crimson and Pale Eastern Rosellas, Noisy Miners, and Australian King-Parrots squawked and squabbled in the eucalypt forest.

Our cabin was pretty luxurious compared to our usual standards. The cabin was a small 2-bedroom house with a complete kitchen, living area and large bathroom. A covered porch with bbq and patio furniture provided a nice place for meals while watching the kangaroos and wallabies graze among the gumtrees. Because of the mild temperatures of the region, the cabin windows were screened with slated glass that could close if it got too cold. The lodge had several other cabins tucked into private corners of the forest and a private pool that we could sign up to use in the evenings.

After unpacking and refreshing after the long flight, we hiked up one of the many lodge trails. We hiked through the eucalyptus forest taking in the unfamiliar smells of the flora and sounds of bird calls.

Side note: Disappointingly, we learned the hard way that the Merlin app for song recognition doesn't work in Australia. At the time of our trip, Merlin could only recognize bird calls and songs of North America and some of South America. I tried to use another app: Birdly that was supposed to identify birds by their song and calls. But throughout the trip, Birdly was disappointingly inadequate at identification. Even with a bird close by, the app could not identify a call or song. Instead it would guess it was a Galah or starling. Birdly was worse than not having Merlin because it promised to do something it couldn't deliver on and I had to pay a small fee for the monthly subscription (which I canceled). In the multiple times I tried Birdly, it only correctly identified the bird twice.

We hiked up one of the trails to large granite boulders among the forested hillsides. Gerygones, thornbills, honeyeaters and mistletoebirds feed among the leaves, fruits, and blossoms. At sunset, we visited the small ponds by the cabins. A surprising number of frogs called loudly from the lily pads and reeds. They were easy to hear, but much harder to spot when hidden under water plants and in the mud.

The next morning, we hiked a few more trails around the lodge taking in the new birds and environment. The unusual calls of the Pied Currawongs and the song of the Rufous Whistler filled the chilled morning air. A small flock of Superb Fairy-wren flitted near the creek and Gray Fantails spread their tails for an impressive display. Eastern Bearded Dragons basked in the warming noon sun. In the afternoon, we drove over to Girraween National Park, which was adjacent to the lodge. We hiked along Rock Creek on the Junction track. The lovely track followed the slow moving granite-lined creek and through blooming brush. The scent of eucalyptus permeated the air. Lines of rosy sundews grew in the granite cracks along the creek. Water skinks and an Eastern Water Dragon scampered across the large boulders. A flock of Variegated Fairy-wrens chittered in the bush. Near the Junction of the two creeks, the trail dropped into a shallow granite valley with larger pools of water trickling. During the wet season, the creek must rage and scour the granite floors. But during the spring, the water was slow moving and calm. In the evening, a mixed flock of honeyeaters, fantails, and greygones fed in the dying light above the calm waters of Rock Creek, while a Lace Monitor swam through the still waters.

After spending the morning walking around the lodge's trails and taking in the new surroundings and bird life, we drove back to Girraween National Park and hiked Dr Robert’s Watering Hole and Underground Creek tracks. The short tracks crossed through golden meadows dotted with purple-flag iris and lined with tall eucalyptus. A Red-browed Treecreeper poked along the flaking bark, while small flocks of thornbills probed the leaves. A Brown Goshawk patrolled overhead and in the creek, frogs barked loudly from hidden confines of a fallen log.

Around noon, under the growing heat of the sun, we packed up and headed to our next destination:

O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat and Lamington National Park

The drive to O'Reilly's from Girraween was surprisingly long. We back tracked through the farmlands over the Main Range NP and almost to Brisbane before turning south. The roads passed through more farmlands and a few small towns before the road began its windy ascent up the mountain. The narrow 2 lane road was a little ill-defined in some parts and pinched down to only one lane with a steep drop off on one side. We crawled up through eucalyptus forest on hairpin turns and blind corners, as cars came whizzing down in the opposite direction. The traffic didn't phase the whiptail wallabies who were calmly grazing next in the grassy ditches next to the road. Road construction was underway to help stabilize the falling hillsides. For us, it was a stressful drive. I'm sure to the locals it was quite a joyride.

Closer to the top, the eucalyptus and grass trees gave way to dense rainforest of fern trees and towering buttress-root trees covered in moss and birds nest ferns. By the afternoon, we reached the end of the road and the rainforest lodge. After checking in, we pulled into our tiny parking space under our room. Upon squeezing out of the car, an Australian brushturkey wandered over to check us out. Around us were the sprawling grounds of the lodge with its many buildings of various levels of housing, a swimming pool and hot tub, cafe and gift shop, bird feeding area, and a viewing deck that overlooked a large lawn with an apiary that housed raptors for a "wild encounters" show. A campground with pads and tented camps was adjacent to the lodging. Below the campground was an entire community of townhouses that people could rent for an extended more luxurious stay. O'Reilly's was a much different type of lodging than Girraween.

We had the next 3 nights at O'Reilly's. We got familiar with the Crimson Rosellas and Australian King-Parrots that would come down whenever someone was picnicking or eating breakfast on their decks. They were well habituated and knew people equals food. As charming and beautiful as they are, they were pushy when it came to grabbing a snack. The other birds that were commonly fed at O'Reilly's were the Satin and Regent Bowerbirds, who were fed sultans (raisins) and apple chunks in the evenings in front of the guesthouse. Wonga Pigeons, parrots, brushturkeys, and Crimson-browed Firefinches all feed on the bird seed that was available at the gift shop. During the free morning bird walks through the rainforest, the guides handed out mealworms, so it was common to see Eastern Yellow Robins, Yellow-throated and White-browned Scrubwrens, and Eastern Whipbirds following humans along the park tracks right outside of O'Reilly's. In the evenings, the dark sky revealed the Milky Way and the infinite number of twinkling stars. The mountain air cooled at nights, which provided a pleasant bug-free time for a nighttime walk through the rainforest. We walked around the lodge and a little ways into the rainforest and spotted dozens of common ringtail possums. Among them were a few short-eared possums. It was quite amazing to see such a density of possums. At night, the red-necked pademelons would come out on the lawn to graze. We were told the numbers of pademelons on the lawn had decreased when the dingos started preying on them. One night we walked down to the glowworm grotto on the resort's property. Upon approaching the creek, the loud shrieks of a Sooty Owl pierced the still air under the rainforest canopy. At the creek, many unseen frogs croaked. A few dozen glowworms glowed blue from the creek wall.

While O'Reilly's might feel somewhat like a Disney-ized version of the rainforest, it had the benefit of being right in the middle of great rainforest habitat. Walking just a kilometer along the tracks into the rainforest and you felt immersed in the ferns, moss, and trees. We hired a local bird guide, Tom Tarrant, to take us around the area for a day. Tom was a British expat, who had turned to leading bird tours when his retirement funds didn't stretch as far as it should have. He was knowledgeable in both the birds and the ecology of the area. His friendly nature made us feel like we were birding with a good friend. For the day, Tom took us through the rainforest along some of the park trails and a few tracks in the resort area. As with any good guide, he knew the birds by song and was able to point out birds we likely wouldn't have seen otherwise. We were lucky to see a couple of Abert's Lyrebirds (right behind the resort, next to the rubbish bins), Paradise Riflebirds, Rose Robin, and an Eastern Crested Shrike-tit.

After our tour, Tom decided to spend the night at the lodge to scout for an upcoming trip. Another client wanted to see the Rufous Scrubbird, a bird found in a highly specialized environment. It's not a flashy bird, but birders can have odd fetishes. The desire to see the bird would require hiking 8 kilometers through ancient beech forest to the rim of an old caldera. Tom had seen the bird at this specific location in the past, but didn't know its recent status. So he was going to scout the area the following day. The hike sounded like a perfect match to what we were interested in, so we decided to trek out the following day together. Of course, being birders, we made many stops along the track to listen and watch for Abert's Lyrebirds. There were 5-6 actively singing from the dense brush. We never caught a glimpse of one singing, but we did get a great look of one walking down the steep hillside. Seeing the lyrebird in its natural rainforest habitat was more satisfying than seeing them near the rubbish piles. We also tried to see the Noisy Pitta, but could only hear it singing. Other birds' songs that joined the forest chorus included the Golden Whistler, Brown Cuckoo-doves, and the hilarious baby-like cries of the Green Catbirds.The track to the caldera slowly ascended up to the rim from a dense rainforest of buttress trees covered in strangler figs, wait-a-while, and bird nest ferns to a moss enchanted elven forest of ancient Antarctic beech trees. The Antarctic beeches don't grow from seed very well, instead they rely on runners from their root system. These runners remained while the original trees slowly died and rotted away, leaving the trees on stilt like roots.

At the edge of the caldera, the forest dropped down. A viewpoint through the trees revealed the steep forested farside of the caldera, the farmlands in flats below, and far in the distance the blue ocean. We didn't see or hear the Rufous Scrub-bird. But Tom was very excited to see and call in an Olive Whistler. Our views were pretty fleeting at best, but seeing the Olive Whistler seemed to please Tom just as much as had it been the scrub-bird. On the way out to the caldera, we crossed paths with a maintenance crew, who were working on the trail. Tom was able to get a good tip on where to find the scrub-bird, which required a farther hike down the caldera rim. I'm not sure if Tom was able to find the bird for his client, but I hope they were successful.

After 3 enjoyable nights at O'Reilly's in Lamington NP, we headed back down the mountain in the morning. Along the way, we stopped to watch two Noisy Pittas toss leaf litter on the road. With less traffic in the morning, we were stopped to watch the whiptail wallabies grazing in the grassy ditches. The hairpin turns and narrow road was much less stressful with no traffic.

continue onto part II or skip to part III

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