watching birdwatching –

you knew it had to come to this.

nankeen kestrel in flight

being married to a twitcher (hardcore birdwatcher) is like, um, well, hmmm, um… well… in a bird paradise like australia, it’s a first-class ticket off the beaten path to some of the most exotic places on the planet.

since arriving in oz, we’ve tried to combine business trips with side excursions to “megaspots” where bird life is varied and plentiful, or where rare species hang out. this month pernille had business in brisbane and sydney, the capitals of queensland and new south wales, respectively. instead of flying, we drove, with a few detours along the way. round trip, nearly 3,000 km.

the first day’s drive traversed 800 km (500 miles) to coffs harbour, a seaside community along new south wales’ north coast known for surfing and bananas (one banana so big you can walk through it).

the big banana is a family fun water park built in a banana plantation

accommodation for the night was a funky motel just off the beach, near a surf shop bumping noses with a skin cancer clinic. a coincidence?

after a morning hanging out with beach bums and seagulls at coffs harbour (elev. 3 meters), we set the GPS straight east and upward to o’reilly’s rainforest retreat, nearly a thousand meters higher.

o’reilly’s is the centerpiece of lamington national park, a world heritage area straddling the new south wales-queensland border.

lamington is for the birds, sure, but it’s more. it is vistas limited only by the curvature of the earth, hikes down mountain tracks to tropical rain forest waterfalls, and live trees so big you could hold a family reunion inside their hollow trunks.

o’reilly’s is ranked among australia’s top 10 romantic hotels, though the last 12 miles (20km) of road is a white-knuckle affair with more than a few “lover’s leap” opportunities (ideal for newlyweds experiencing “buyer’s remorse”.)

for birders, it’s home to several rare species, including a twitcher’s dream, the albert’s lyrebird. this long tailed bird only exists in a small area of eastern australia, marked in purple on the map.

albert’s lyre bird

we spent the better part of half an hour ogling a pair of these rare birds foraging in the forest undergrowth, unperturbed by our presence.

lamington is a bit of twitcher sensory overload, though. first thing each morning a crowd gathers at o’reilly’s for a bird-feeding walk. every participant is given a handful of crushed nuts. holding out your hand is considered an invitation for the feathery natives to zoom in for a nibble.

yes, a bird in the hand beats two in the bush, but they’re in and out so fast it’s hard to get a good photo. it’s even harder when you’re holding one hand out and taking pictures with the other.

pernille refuses to count captive birds among the nearly 200 species she’s seen since our arrival in australia, but we couldn’t resist the lure of the daily “birds of prey” show at o’reilly’s. many of these are “rescue birds”. the owls are adorable.

american bald eagle

the young sea eagle above is of the same genus as the american bald eagle. they look similar now, but this “ugly duckling” will mature into a swan.

from o’reilly’s we went “rolling down the mountain” going not so fast, toward brisbane, for a one night stand in australia’s third largest city. business, you know. that was followed by another day’s drive toward sydney, with an intermediate stop on the outskirts of newcastle (#7 in population, a coal town just like its UK namesake)* for a quick peek at the hunter wetlands.

“wetlands” it turns out, is just a fancy term for swamp, and a chunk of the hunter wetland conservation area was once the newcastle city dump.

later it was converted to a football field, but the surface kept flooding. eventually it was returned to what it originally was, a swamp. a bird conspiracy, perhaps?

“cacatua galerita”, painting by sharon o’hearn

the hunter wetlands visitor center hosts regular ornithological art exhibits, this one featuring the bane of our canberra existence, the sulfur crested cockatoo. they’re handsome devils, usually pure white with that hand-of-bananas plumage shooting out of their heads. but their screech makes neighbors want to call the police with a public nuisance complaint.

less noisy and maybe more regal is this egret portrait. her mate (right) is roosting on a log just outside the exhibition hall, probably waiting for closing time.

we arrived early enough to witness the invasion of the magpie geese, which takes place at an appointed time every morning, when an attendant dumps a bucket of grain at the edge of the swamp. the attendant says the birds know exactly when to fly in, except twice a year when daylight savings time gives them a headache.

another hunter wetlands specialty is a dinosaur. yep, a pre-duck duck that preceded modern day waterfowl in the evolutionary chain. they’re freckled.

these rare freckled fellows sleep all day, so they appear here in their preferred sleeping position, head buried between wings.

before exiting the swamp, we were treated to one more visual feast, mom and dad black swan and their three white ducklings paddling single-file across the algae covered pond.

there’s a lot to learn from our web footed friends. be kind. listen. (click the link).

so what is it like being hitched to a twitcher? to borrow a phrase from owlspeak — it’s a hoot.

*according to wikipedia, the australian port of newcastle is the world’s largest coal exporting harbour.