Frogmouths and gibberbirds down under

Bird lovers flock down under to find frogmouths and gibberbirds

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A top-of-the-tale confession: I enjoy the outdoors. Camping, hiking, quiet canoeing, and kayaking - they're all great. But when it comes to bird-watching, I'm a rookie. No, I'm a sub-rookie.

I keep a small pair of binoculars handy when I barbecue, just in case something interesting lands in the small copse of trees near the back deck. When my wife and I work in her vast perennial gardens, I keep an eye out for any new feathers in the neighborhood. But I don't plan trips to exotic places hoping to spot my bazillionth bird species.

That bit of self-analysis doesn't faze Roy Sonnenburg, one of two birding guides I'd contacted to take a colleague and me on two day-long outings in different parts of Queensland. Much of our three-week business trip had kept us in cities. The urge to stretch our legs outside the concrete confines of urban Australia had become almost overwhelming.

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Roy starts identifying birds virtually from the moment he picks us up at Brisbane International Airport and aims his SUV for the bed-and-breakfast he and his wife, Helen, run in suburban Nundah. Before the next day's birding tour is over, we'll have stopped at seven sites, seen 88 bird species, a koala, a seaside town overrun by kangaroos, and the sky- darkening launch at dusk of thousands of fruit bats from a tree-top colony in Brisbane.

For Roy, that's a somewhat light schedule.

Much of the birding activity in Queensland is centered in the far northern reaches of the state. Some 20 percent of the people visiting the area spend time bird-watching.

The reasons: While only 8 percent of the world's bird species appear in Australia, more than 300 species are found there and nowhere else on the planet outside zoos or natural-history museums. The country also serves as a honeymoon suite and maternity ward for migratory species coming in from other parts of Oceania.

There are other benefits to birding down under, says Stephen Schneider, a Stanford University climatologist and avid bird-watcher. Compared with other birding destinations, it's relatively cheap - especially if combined with a business trip. And it's safe.

"It's quite expensive to go birding in the humid tropics," he says. "The reason for this is that you've got the problem of safety. Therefore you have to go with someone who is safe. That generally means an expert, and the expert costs money. You need a car in good repair and with a good spare to handle the roads. It must be driven by a local who knows the natives. And there's a guide, who may not really be a guide but a member of the other tribe, who's along to maintain peace. You have none of that in Australia."

In contrast, it is possible to rent a car, grab a bird book and binoculars, and head into the bush on your own in Australia. Still, there's nothing like having an experienced guide to ensure a newcomer has a productive outing - or that veterans stand a good chance of seeing the species they've got on their "wanted" list.

Our outing begins about 6:30 a.m. Kookaburras greet us with their staccato oo-oo-oo-oo-ah-ah-ah-ah - familiar to fans of Johnny Weissmuller's "Tarzan" movies. Our route takes us along the far bank of a creek at the back of the Sonnenburgs' home. Along the way, Roy introduces us to butcher birds, willie wagtails, a peregrine falcon he enthusiastically proclaims new to the neighborhood, colorful scaly-breasted lorikeets, and purple swamp hens.

We're already getting a sense of the varied avian palette here, prompting Roy to recall a recent visit from some American birders: "Of the 10 species we saw along the way from the airport, eight were black and white," he says. This prompted the visitors to ask, a bit prematurely, "Don't you have any colorful birds?"

As we head for our first stop - Mt. Glorious and the Maiala National Park, roughly 60 miles in from the coast - Roy explains that his job as birding guide is a far cry from earlier days spent as an official with Australia's equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. He'd earned some extended leave time, so he and his family took off for six months "to discover Australia."

"I left a casual bird-watcher and came back addicted," he says.

Roy has become a fount of knowledge on local plant life as well as on the birds that live in them. If you want to find birds, you ought to know what habitats they prefer. He points out strangler figs, hoop pines, and enormous draping "basket" ferns that jut from soaring tree trunks as though someone had climbed them and hung planters.

As he does, he illustrates what must be a job requirement for birding guides: an ability to carry on a quiet conversation, stopping abruptly to point out a bird, then picking up the thread of the chat without skipping a beat.

The flow of part of the story went something like this: "...I'd lost the eyepiece. Oh! There's a rose-crowned fruit dove. See that big thick tree through the gap? The knobbly thing with branches? Just to the left there! Absolutely glorious bird. Rang back a month later, and they couldn't find spare parts. There! It's back again. Two of them there! Absolutely fabulous birds. So he said: 'Your binoculars are in the States for repair....' "

It's really not hard to converse with a birding guide once you get the hang of it.

By the end of the day, which also took us to a cemetery ideally placed for watching waterfowl along the shore of Lake Samsonvale, it had quickly become clear why Queensland is for birders. We failed on only two counts: We never spotted a tawny frogmouth, and we came up empty-handed in trying to meet Helen's request for a fresh pineapple from their favorite roadside stand. Sold out.

This experience led my colleague and me to take another stab at birding a week later near Mossman, about an hour's drive north of Cairns. This time, our guide was Del Richards, a soft-spoken man who has earned a reputation for tracking down some of the most elusive birds in the area.

Like Roy, he is happy to work with neophytes as well as with more experienced birders. "I try to treat everybody equally," he says. "That way I can boost the inexperienced."

As if to underscore the point, he gently tells his two guests at one point that he can tell the difference between city folks and folks tuned to the ways of the wild.

"How?" we ask. By how quietly - or not - they close car doors. Point taken. The doors lose their thunder from then on.

Del demonstrates another tenet of birding - the bush may not always be the best place to look for some hard-to-spot species.

We hike a trail in Mossman Gorge National Park, where he points to a variety of plant and bird species. Then we head toward civilization: His contacts in Port Douglas, about 15 minutes south of Mossman, have spotted three Papuan frogmouths in a tree in the courtyard of a small resort in the middle of town.

We quietly climb stairs to an empty apartment, walk out on a balcony, and come virtually face to beak with the creatures, perhaps six feet away. They get their name from their odd-shaped beaks; and they sport "eyebrows" that would make Groucho Marx jealous. But unless you know where they are and what to look for, they might as well be stubs of broken branches sticking out from a tree..

Stanford's Dr. Schneider, who spends time with Del whenever he's in the neighborhood, recalls sending Del a list of birds he and his ornithologist wife wanted to see during a visit.

"We'd listed the paradise kingfisher with a 'Hah!' next to it," he says. These birds are rare and inhabit only a small portion of northern Queensland's York Peninsula.

Toward the end of their day together, Del offhandedly pulled over to a spot "that would be nice for a walk." While Schneider and his wife sauntered ahead, he quietly hung back, set up his birding scope, and gently whistled for their attention. There, through the lush vegetation, appeared their "hah" species. Del got the last laugh.

Web resources

• Birdwatching in Queensland, a directory of Queensland bird-watching tours, bird clubs, guides, bird-oriented accommodations, and reference information, www.ausbird.com/qld.html.

• Birds Queenslands, website of the Queensland Ornithological Society, www.birdsqueensland.org.au.

• Fine Feather Tours, Del Richards, www.finefeathertours.com.au.

• Birding Services Brisbane, Roy Sonnenburg, www.birdingservices.com.au.

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