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Frogmouths and gibberbirds down under

Bird lovers flock down under to find frogmouths and gibberbirds

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2005


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.

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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.

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.