9 January 05

Dear friends and family,

I think this is a record late Christmas letter for us, but it was a very busy fall and before we knew it we had to get ready for our end of the year trip. Eileen and I doing well, with no major news to report. Eileen is still volunteering with the Nature Conservancy (in her sixth year there) and also has started up a second volunteer position at Young Audiences of Rochester, a local non-profit organization that provides numerous resources for incorporating the arts into education. Examples of the types of services provided include workshops, consulting, and study guides for educators and students; and presentations/performances by writers, musicians, dramatists, dancers, etc.

I led a large research project on medical image quality in 2004, but my responsibilities are up in the air for 2005 after a massive reorganization of research. The situation at Kodak continues to deteriorate and is pretty discouraging. On the brighter side, the ISO standard I wrote is generating quite a bit of interest and is about to be published, and a paper on medical image quality I gave early in 2004 at a prestigious conference was very well received. Over the past few months I have taken some training time to learn a new programming language, C++, which has been fun.

Eileen keeps a list of the books she reads each year, and reports that she waded through 69 titles in 2004. Some of her recommendations this year are "The Fox and the Whirlwind" by Peter Aleshire, a dual biography of Gen. Crook and Geronimo; "The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson, on the Civil War; "Funny Cide" by the Funny Cide Team with Sally Jenkins, the remarkable story of a recent thoroughbred horse; and "Gerald Durrell, The Authorized Biography" by Douglas Botting, an account of this famous naturalist and conservationist. Brian suggests "Swimming to Antarctica" by Lynne Cox, describing her distance swimming exploits, and "In a Sunburned Country" by Bill Bryson, a humorous account of travels in Australia.

We both continued to learn more about classical music this year, with a combination of courses on tape and attending performances of our local philharmonic orchestra. Dvorak has become a particular favorite of Brian's, ranking right up there with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. For Christmas this year, we got a an MP3 player, which is a cigarette box-sized hard drive on which digital music files can be stored. Our model (Dell DJ20) has enough capacity to hold about 300 CDs worth of music and we have transferred all our CDs to it. We also have started downloading digital music tracks from the internet, which costs about a buck per single track or $10 per album. The MP3 player can be used during vigorous exercise without any skips or other interruptions, so it is great for running. With accessories to hook it up to our home and car music systems, and with its very low power requirements, we can conveniently take all our music with us anywhere. We also bought noise-canceling headphones, which do a good job of suppressing many types of ambient sounds; they are commonly used for airplane travel to reduce all the flight noises. They can be used without music, just for quiet; or with music, with the noise canceling on or off; in the latter case, they just work like normal headphones. Bose Corporation developed the original noise-canceling headphones, but they were very expensive ($300); we got a new Sony model for only $60 and they seem to work quite well.

We have continued to enjoy the camper immensely. According to our log book, since we bought the camper in July 2002, we've spent 213 nights in it, sleeping in 23 different states and provinces. In our most ambitious upgrade to date, we decided to replace the propane refrigerator, which gave us a lot of trouble, with a super-efficient electrical model that we used in Australia and which performed admirably. The claim to fame of this unit from Engel, which is the top-selling brand in both Africa and Australia, is its swing compressor, which contains only a single moving part that is self-lubricating, a neat piece of technology. This was a major project, involving electrical, gas, and a lot of carpentry work; it took about 40 hours to complete, but seems to have come out nicely.

Our first trip of the year (actually in December, 2003) was to southern Florida for a canoeing holiday, and we enjoyed the trip so much that we did a similar trip again this year. The tourist season in Florida does not start until later in the winter, when northerners become increasingly disgruntled with the weather, so it is a nice time to visit. The weather is gorgeous and the bugs are typically not too bad, although we encountered some problematical areas on the second trip. Both years we drove the camper down, which takes about 25 hours one-way, and each year we detoured a bit in one direction to stop in Charlottesville to see my mother and brother Chris. In 2004, we began the trip with a dawn snorkeling trip to Homosassa Springs to swim with manatees. This was a thrilling experience; the animals were everywhere and they would swim right up to investigate if you avoided rapid movements. Although they are wild animals, they do like to be scratched, and languorously twist in a spiral motion as they swim by, so you really get to see them up close and in detail. They are beautiful animals with sad faces. Formerly their populations were quite depressed, in part from injuries from boat props, but with increased protection the Florida population is now around 3500 individuals.

Subsequently we did full-day paddling trips from Koreshan and Collier-Seminole State Parks out to the Gulf of Mexico, and then set up base at Flamingo, in Everglades National Park, where we did 5 day paddles through a variety of habitats: mangroves swamps, spikerush marshes, sawgrass prairies, tidal bays, etc. Some of our more memorable sightings were of crocodiles (we were able to paddle right up to them; they are very rare in the US); short-tailed hawks (an uncommon species specializing in hunting from the air, just above the treetops of subtropical woodlands, of which we saw 6); small sharks hunting in shallows; several species of fish, including sheepshead, gar, and mullets (which repeatedly jump clear out of the water); a lesser black-backed gull in Snake Bight (an uncommon species in North America, breeding in Europe); and all the expected wading birds (including numbers of roseate spoonbills, wood storks, great white herons, yellow-crowned night herons, and reddish egrets, particularly in Snake Bight). On one trip, to the aptly named Alligator Creek, we counted 32 alligators and 3 crocodiles in just a couple of miles of paddling, and at the narrows where the creek empties into a bay, the water around us was filled with them. That day we ate lunch sitting in the canoe at the edge of a mudflat, as there was nowhere to land, and while we ate quietly, a huge feeding flock of avocets, stilts, and other shorebirds enveloped us, some birds so close we could nearly reach out and touch them. The subtropical plants were very enjoyable; we saw many airplants in the genus Tillandsia and a few orchids, adorning the branches of buttonwood and red mangrove trees; several palm species including the very restricted paurotis palm, found only in the Everglades; and a variety of shrubs, including the particularly attractive cocoplum.

After leaving the Everglades, we took a glass-bottomed boat trip out in Biscayne National Park. We were followed for many minutes by playful bottle-nosed dolphins, which afforded great looks. We then spent several days in the keys, paddling to Lignumvitae Key, where a ranger gave a great botanical walk through the beautiful wooded areas of the island; and circumnavigating Big Torch Key, which featured unusual jellyfish. On the way home we spent a few hours in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. In 2004, we started at Loxahatchee and again used Flamingo as one base camp, repeating favorite trips from the previous year and trying a few new ones as well. Interestingly, we found what was probably the same lesser black-backed gull in the same place as last year, Snake Bight. This is the best spot in the US for flamingos, and although we saw two here about five years ago, we didn't find any on either of these trips. However, the birding from a canoe is superb here; we ate lunch on a sandbar here with a continuously wheeling and calling flock of 800 black skimmers, and big flocks of white pelicans circle lazily overhead. One day we were eating lunch in the canoe in Whitewater Bay when we heard an explosive sort of noise nearby and looked to see a substantial wake from an underwater creature approaching the side of the boat. Momentarily, on the other side of the boat, a bottlenose dolphin surfaced and exhaled, and was soon joined by a second!

We spent the second half of the trip based out of Big Cypress National Preserve, which adjoins Everglades National Park on the north side. From here we did spectacular day paddles on the East River in Fakahatchee State Park and the Turner River and other sites in the preserve. We saw several cottonmouths on roads, and a nighttime drive yielded long looks at a hunting barred owl plus several opossums. This year we racked up 7 short-tailed hawks, and unlike last year, encountered white-crowned pigeons three times, obtaining excellent looks at them. We had seen this species only once before, about 15 years ago, and not especially well. They are quite hard to find in winter, when most birds move to Caribbean islands.

In January, I presented a paper and a short course in San Jose, Calif., and Eileen came along and we turned the trip into a short vacation. We hiked on the Sunset Trail in Big Basin one day, and visited the tide-pools and Pigeon Point and the elephant seal breeding colony at Ano Nuevo another day. I had attended this conference once before and these excursions were repeats for me, but new for Eileen. We spent a long day hiking in oak savannah habitat in Henry Coe State Park, identifying about 35 species of plants, including spectacular displays of flowering bigberry manzanita, and the largest bay laurels I had ever seen. Golden-crowned sparrows were common here. We also spent a day hiking the perimeter of scenic Point Lobos State Park, where we had great looks at California sea lion, harbor seal, sea otter, bottlenose dolphin, and chestnut-backed chickadee. Finally, we took a great pelagic trip out of Monterey, which gave us our best views ever of Pacific white-sided dolphin, as well as good looks at flesh-footed shearwater, ancient murrelet, rhinoceros auklet, harlequin duck, and black-footed albatross.

In early April, we spent a 4-day weekend camped in Algonquin Provincial Park. Mammals were surprisingly evident in the snow and ice, with the most exciting being a brief view of a wolf on a frozen lake, as they are so hard to see in forested areas. Traditionally, North American wolves have been placed in two species, gray (timber) and the smaller red (eastern), the latter restricted to the southeast US, and now nearly extinct except for reintroduced populations. But DNA research published 5 years ago supports a reinterpretation, in which all the wolves from southern Manitoba south to coastal Texas and east to Quebec were red wolves, but those in the northeast US were rapidly extirpated with the arrival of Caucasians, leaving a huge gap in the distribution. Thus, in this view, the wolves we have encountered in Algonquin are actually red wolves. Other species seen on this trip were beaver, moose, river otter, red fox, spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, boreal chickadee, common redpoll, and snow bunting.

New national parks continue to be designated at a rate of one every few years, so our goal to visit all the national parks in the US has a moving target. One recent addition is Cuyahoga Valley National Park, south of Cleveland, OH. We made two trips there, one in late April and one in late May. The park was formerly a recreational area and still has a strong recreational emphasis, with more development and less pristine land than found in most of the longer established national parks. The first trip yielded some nice spring ephemeral flowers such as white trout lily and spring cress (probably the best displays we have ever seen). This area is good for fox squirrels, and we even saw a few black phase ones. The later trip was intended as a birding trip at the height of spring migration, as the riparian woodlands along the Cuyahoga River are supposed to be excellent for songbirds. We arrived to find the park largely flooded and most of the trails closed. There were very few migrants in the areas we could reach, so it was a disappointing visit, but a few nice plants consoled us: Miami mist was in bloom (this is a member of one of our favorite genera, Phacelia), and without knowing they were in the area, we recognized our first black maples, which resemble the abundant sugar maple but have drooping leaf margins. We have now visited all but 10 of the 53 national parks, with half the remainder being at remote sites in Alaska.

In early May we visited Eileen's parents and brother Paul in El Paso and her brother Tommy and her sister Kathleen's family (husband Patrick and children Corey, Claire, and Thomas) in Albuquerque. It was great to see everyone again. Corey (who has visited us in Rochester a couple of times) and I got out for a day of birding along the Rio Grande and up on the Sandia Crest, where we had good numbers of Virginia's warblers and plumbeous vireos, as well as a tassel-eared squirrel. We visited Big Bend for a few days with Eileen's parents. Highlights included an elf owl calling and attacking a mockingbird in plain sight well after dawn at Government Springs; and a gray hawk and a pair of brown-crested flycatchers at nests in Cottonwood Campground, both of which are good records for Texas. One day Eileen and I hiked to Boot Springs to see Colima warblers, which breed nowhere else in the US but in the Chisos Mts. This hike is favorite of ours, although it has quite a reputation for difficulty among birders, being about 10 miles round trip with 1800 feet elevation gain on rough trails. We had our first Colima warbler of 21 at only 6200 feet elevation on the Laguna Meadows Trail shortly after dawn; they may have bred a bit lower than usual because of the wet spring. Other species of note were whippoorwill, poorwill, and black-chinned sparrow on the way up, painted redstart, blue-throated hummingbird and Arizona cypress at the spring, and zone-tailed hawk on the Pinnacle Trail on the way down.

Later in the trip I was pleased to be able to meet up for a morning with John Parmeter, whom I had not seen since a trip to Costa Rica, and his parents Mike and Sally, who we saw in 2003 in California. We birded together at Rattlesnake Springs, a terrific migrant trap in southeast New Mexico, where we saw two vagrants from the east, chestnut-sided warbler and rose-breasted grosbeak, plus juvenile eastern bluebird (this might be the only breeding site in New Mexico) and bronzed cowbird. But the most exciting sightings for me were of mammals; there were a number of Mexican ground squirrels (which I'd seen only once before) in the area, and Mike pointed out a bat roost under a building overhang, which contained one pallid bat (a life species for me) among the Mexican free-tailed bats. That afternoon I hiked in McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mts. National Park, seeing hepatic tanager and chinquapin oak (Quercus muhlenbergii), the latter interesting as it is found in very different habitats in the east (but still usually on limestone).

In late May we started an 11-day trip to the Delmarva Peninsula and Outer Banks. We spent the first morning at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, which had a good assortment of shorebirds. That afternoon we met up with John Bazuin, a great birding buddy of mine while I was at the University of Virginia. We had stayed in touch but had not managed to get together in the intervening 24 years, so it was a treat to see him again and for Eileen to meet him. We hooked up at Trap Pond State Park in Delaware, where we camped for a couple of nights. After setting up camp, catching up a bit on old times, and having a bite to eat, we set off for Elliott I., a small fishing village reached by a narrow road that passes through superb Chesapeake Bay marsh habitat. Along this road we easily found Eileen's first saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows with seaside sparrows in nice evening light. Starting after dark, and going until a little after midnight, we listened for black rails in suitable habitat. Black rails are small, dark, nocturnal birds that live in tall marsh vegetation and so are exceptionally difficult to see. My only encounters with the species had been catching one with Rich Rowlett in 1976, seeing one in 1980 (both along the Elliott I. road), and hearing one with Eileen while camped at Finney Lake in California in 1986. Black rails are very particular about their habitat, and so are of rather local occurrence, and they have been declining seriously in recent years. That first night, which was clear and cold, but mercifully bug-free, we heard poorly a single black rail call, but did see an opossum and a baby red fox, and heard a couple barn owls, a chuck-will's-widow, and many Virginia rails calling. John and I debated the identity of the clapper and/or king rails we were hearing, but it was largely a moot point as they supposedly hybridize in this area anyway, and I'm not even convinced that they are different species, based on the near continuum of characteristics when subspecies found along the Gulf Coast, in Mexico, and in the southwest are included. We also enjoyed hearing choruses of green treefrog and occasional eastern narrow-mouthed toads.

The next day we paddled Nassawango Creek through lovely cypress swamps, drier hardwood forests, and more open marshes from Red Hill to the Pocomoke River a bit south of Snow Hill, MD. Prothonotary warblers were abundant here, as expected, but blue grosbeaks and white-eyed vireos were a surprise; usually these species are found in drier, less treed areas. Swamp azalea was in bloom and there were nice willow and water oaks along the route. Portions of this area are protected by a Nature Conservancy preserve, which Eileen and I visited from land later in the trip. We then headed for Elliott I. again, spending until 3:15 a.m. in the marshes. We again heard a single black rail call, close to the same area as the previous night, but this time the call was very clear, and was a life vocalization for John. We slept late in the morning (what was left of it), and were treated to a vocalizing but unlocatable southern gray (Cope's) treefrog in the campsite. After visiting a bit, we had to split up, John to return to the DC area and us to continue south. We next visited the North Pocomoke Swamp, continuing our itinerary emphasizing my favorite birding haunts while I lived at Chincoteague during my last year of high school and first summer after freshman year at college. This is a great songbird location that had nesting Swainson's warblers when I lived at Chincoteague, but they have since been driven out by excessive use of tape recordings of their songs by birders trying to see them (this being, at the time, the northernmost accessible breeding location). Now the same thing is happening in Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp, the next breeding site to the south. It being a rainy afternoon we had few birds but did enjoy a particularly magnificent example of swamp chestnut oak. Late in the day we headed for Deal I., another Chesapeake Bay marsh area, and then camped at Milburn Landing State Park, MD, on the Pocomoke River.

In the morning, while we were eating at a picnic table after taking showers, a tufted titmouse flew in and landed on Eileen's head, and proceeded to remove a few strands of her long hair for nesting material! We hiked in the park, seeing worm-eating warbler nicely, then visited the Nassawango Nature Conservancy Preserve, hiking the lovely Paul Leifer Nature Trail, and observing the purple-stemmed cliffbrake ferns growing on the mortar of the old brick smelter chimney, this being a notably isolated occurrence of the species. That night we camped on the other bank of the Pocomoke River at Shad Landing, and in the morning paddled on Corker's Creek. We then drove to Chincoteague by way of the Sinneckson road, which goes to the Virginia Atlantic coast just south of the Maryland state line. This road has a superb hardwood forest, and when I was in high school, there was an active bald eagle nest here, and one of the tulip trees was said to be among the largest outside the Great Smokies. We saw a red fox family cavorting in an overgrown field near the end of the road, right about where I saw my first summer tanager ever. Once at Chincoteague, we toured the refuge and took the tram up to the wash flats, where we saw the famous Chincoteague ponies cavorting in saltwater marshes. We found several Delmarva fox squirrels, a distinct, endangered, steel-gray race of the eastern fox squirrel, which was new for Eileen. In the late afternoon we located the house where my family lived in Chincoteague, and then got a good seafood dinner. We finished the day with 105 species of birds, including white-rumped sandpiper and gull-billed tern. Two species we saw at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, blue grosbeak and black vulture, simply did not occur when I lived at Chincoteague in the mid-1970s; the grosbeak occurred in former pine forests devastated by a bark beetle, and the vulture has just generally expanded its range.

Heading south to the Outer Banks the next day, June 3, we birded on the islands of the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel, finding juvenile American oystercatchers with adults on two islands and a territorial pair of adults on a third island, indicating local breeding. A big surprise on this late date was a very worn purple sandpiper, normally just a winter visitor to the rocky islands. We took two pelagic trips with Brian Patteson, one from Manteo and one from Hatteras. The former yielded a life bird, Fea's petrel, and great looks at all three expected storm petrels, Wilson's, band-rumped, and Leach's. On the latter trip, we saw Atlantic spotted dolphin well, which was essentially a lifer; we saw what was presumably this species once before, but could not conclusively eliminate a similar species. I had the satisfaction of spotting a juvenile masked booby, a species difficult to find in the US except at the Dry Tortugas, 75 miles west of Key West, and also correctly distinguished a Manx shearwater (only my third ever) from the expected, similar Audubon's shearwaters, just before it was called out by leaders. The most unusual event of the day was watching a huge mako shark eating a swordfish. One of the crew hooked the dead swordfish and brought it right in to the side of the boat so we could look directly down on the shark; the views were awesome! We stopped in Charlottesville for half a day on the way home to help my mother look for an apartment, and had a tour of Wood's Edge Apartments, a seniors' complex into which she eventually moved in August.

In mid-June, we took 9-day trip to the Green Mts., VT and the White Mts., NH. On the first day we hiked to the summit of Camel's Hump, the third-highest peak in VT, which has the second largest alpine area in the state. Braun's holly fern was a nice find on the way up, and there was an extensive occurrence of Bigelow sedge on the summit, where we finally had some views, breaking free from the fog just in the last hundred feet or so of elevation. That evening we visited my Dad in South Burlington and had a great dinner. The next day, Father's Day, the three of us drove up the highest peak in the state, Mt. Mansfield, which has an extensive alpine area and super views. Dad said he used to ski on this mountain when he lived not too far away, as a young man. Here we saw the rare black sedge, which in VT grows only on this one mountain, as well as a patch of the quintessential alpine plant, diapensia. Eileen and I next headed for the White Mts., where over the course of a few days we visited Franconia, Crawford, and Jefferson Notches and did a number of short to moderate hikes. On one, to Arethusa Falls, we saw dozens of white stemless lady's slippers, a species that normally is pink. In our drives we saw both black bear and moose.

The highlight of the trip was a long but exhilarating day hike for alpine plants on Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. We took the first hiker's shuttle to the summit, where it was 45 Fahrenheit with 50 m.p.h. winds, pretty typical conditions. We hiked down to the Lake of the Clouds and stopped at the hikers' hut there for hot chocolate and to browse their natural history books. From there we took the Bigelow Cutoff Trail to the Alpine Gardens Trail, and this back to the paved road. The alpine flowers were not as good as in a typical year because the season was earlier than usual, but then a late killing frost occurred. Nonetheless, we identified 40 species of plants in the alpine zone, compared to exactly 5 species of birds (junco, white-throated sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler, raven, and water pipit). Some of the more interesting high elevation plants were alpine goldenrod, Boott's rattlesnakeroot, Lapland rosebay, arctic rush, deer's-hair bulrush, bearberry willow, purple mountain heather, a rare avens (Geum peckii), and an unusual willow (Salix planifolia). After walking about 3 miles down the road, a bus driver picked us up on the last run of the day, which gave us an unexpected break. On the way home, we went by Whiteface Mt. in the Adirondacks for a comparison to some New York alpine habitat. There we found mountain pyrola, a species that has long eluded us, and a Milbert's tortoiseshell, a lovely butterfly.

Our major trip of the year was to Australia in July and August; it is described separately at the end of this letter. Most other weekends of the summer and fall were spent canoeing in both new locations (Oswegatchie River, Cranberry Lake, Clyde River) and at old favorite sites: Algonquin (where a black bear swam in front of us on Grand Lake), Fish Creek, Oak Orchard Creek (where we heard a young beaver calling from inside its lodge), Cedar River Flow (on our traditional tamarack weekend), Little Indian Lake (where we had an immature golden eagle, a species rare in the east), and Deer Creek Marsh. We bought our new canoe, christened "Headwind," just a year and a half ago, but since then have paddled 751 miles in it over 70 days, so we have seen a lot of country in it.

Eileen's folks visited for a little over a week at Thanksgiving, which was very enjoyable. In addition to a number of good games of anagrams, we saw The Nutcracker Ballet performed by our local ballet and orchestra. With our Christmas trip to Florida already described, that brings us to the end of the year. So far, the only trip we have scheduled next year is an 11-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in April, which we'll extend to include visits to Zion, Bryce, Paria Canyon, and Toroweap on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

We hope that you and your families are well, and wish you a happy new year!


Australia  Trip (21 July - 12 August 2004)

Eileen L. Keelan

Our trip to Australia, planned and organized by our friends Jim and Ellen Strauss from Caltech, was divided into three parts, separated by internal flights: first, Sydney to Wollongong, in New South Wales, along the southeastern coast; second, Brisbane to Lamington National Park, in Queensland, near the mid-eastern coast; and third, Cairns, Queensland to Darwin, Northern Territory, from the northeastern coast through the outback to the north-central peninsula called the Top End. Our adventure started in Sydney, where our flight arrived first thing in the morning. We went through customs and got a rental car and then headed out for a day of birding in the Epping area.

Our first stop was Whale Rock Trail in Lane Cove National Park. Our prime target bird was powerful owl, which Brian spotted perched in a tree, holding a common brush-tailed possum in its claws. We also saw cockatoos, galahs (pink and gray!), and crimson rosellas. We ate a picnic lunch with a kookaburra perched nearby for company. By the end of the day, we had seen about 44 new species in 14 new bird families. (It is exciting to see a new species, but even more thrilling when it is in a new family, and therefore is likely to be very different from any species encountered previously). August is winter in Australia and dark came early, but after the long flight and exciting day, we were ready to take a break.

The next day we visited Royal National Park. Starting at dawn, on Lady Carrington Drive, we again found our target bird, superb lyrebird. We had long, close views of it running around and foraging. We also saw a black wallaby. It was a brief view but our first one of a macropod (kangaroos and related groups). We spent the rest of the day hiking the Karloo Track, looking for origma, a songbird recently reported from the area, which we did not find. We did see the uncommon and closely related pilotbird, however, and had very good looks at mistletoe birds, spinebills, and gray fantails. That evening, we drove to Wollengong, about an hour south of Sydney.

In the morning, we set off for the Barren Grounds Preserve in Jamboroo, driving along a winding road up onto the escarpment. While we were packing for the hike on the Griffiths Trail, our first fairy wren appeared; these small, very cute birds, with long blue tails, were among the birds we most looked forward to seeing after studying illustrations in books. The trail was a scenic 8km loop, with views of eucalyptus trees in the distance and stretches lined with huge ferns in thick stands. We did not see many birds today. Our most exciting sightings were large flocks of yellow-tailed black cockatoos (about 60) and topknot pigeons (about 250). We also saw hopping tracks of a macropod in the sandy trail. After briefly visiting Carrington Falls in Budderoo National Park, we returned to Wollengong, looking forward to a pelagic trip the next day.

The alarm clock went off very early. We ate breakfast, packed a lunch and drove to the harbor where we boarded the Sondra K. The trip was led by Lindsay Smith, the president of the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association. It was a windy (and occasionally rainy) day with rough seas that left Brian miserably seasick. Nineteen species of birds (17 new for the trip) helped make up for the discomfort. The highlight of the day for local birders was the rarely seen white phase of southern giant petrel. We also had large numbers of yellow-nosed, black-browed (2 subspecies), shy, and wandering albatrosses. There were quite a few common dolphins. Once off the boat, we drove to Sydney to be ready for the flight to Brisbane for the second section of the trip.

Jim and Ellen had highly recommended a visit to O'Reilly's Guesthouse, located in Lamington National Park, about two hours south of Brisbane and an hour and half west of Australia's Gold Coast (and 3000 feet above sea level). The park is known for its wildlife, including pademelons (a small macropod), several species of possums, and, of course, birds. After we checked in, we joined the "Birders' Break" group and attended a slide-show introduction to the local birds by Tim O'Reilly, who would be our guide for several days. Tim then led us along the Wishing Tree Trail through the rainforest and down to eucalyptus forests. We recorded about 39 species today, adding 14 new ones for the trip. We also had our first good looks at an Australian land mammal, a red-necked pademelon in broad daylight. We would see many more over the next few days.

Brian and I saw lots of pre-dawn pademelons the next morning, before joining the rest of the Birders' Break group on a pre-breakfast walk around the guesthouse grounds and a bit of trail through the woods. After eating, we walked the Python Rock Trail, which had a fine scenic view at the end. Along the way, we saw an Albert's lyrebird and had good views of a logrunner scratching in the leaf litter, as well as a male whipbird. The whipbird's cracking call became quite familiar to us during our stay at O'Reilly's. During a break for lunch at the guesthouse, we had superb looks at a male superb fairy wren; we followed him to a shrub where he and his mate sat side by side and groomed each other. Definately a favorite bird of the trip!

In the afternoon, we birded along Duck Creek Road and had good views of spotted quail-thrush, including the white tail tip when it fanned out as the bird flew. At dinner in the restaurant, we had ring-side seats by the viewing window and watched mountain brush-tailed possums feed on the fruit put out for them. Later, outside, we also located a common ringed possum, a little smaller than the brush-tailed. Then Tim took us to his special location down the Duck Creek Road where he showed us two marbled frogmouths, which were also life birds for Jim and Ellen. We could see the barred bristles at the birds' bill and see the bill clap together in a loud "click" at the end of its call. We also had excellent looks at a boobook, a fairly small owl, and the bright spots of thousands of glow-worms, forming sinusoidal patterns on a creek bank.

A high wind and blowing mist kept us from a pre-dawn walk the next morning, but it eventually cleared and we had a beautiful warm day. With Tim at the wheel of the van, we birded our way down the mountain and into the drier Kerry Valley. Some highlights of the day were the glossy black cockatoos, including one holding a casuarina seed pod and eating the seeds; terrific views of both red-backed and variegated fairy-wrens, male and female; a brief view of a beautiful male rose robin and a good view of a female rose robin with a light blush of rose on her undercarriage; nice looks at the uncommon speckled warbler; red-necked wallabies; and a jabiru that flew over during our lunch stop. We birded through a beautiful sunset and drove home in the dark, finishing the day with 101 bird species, about half of which were new on the trip, bringing our trip total to about 150 species, with 22 new bird families.

We spent the next morning with Tim, adding tawny frogmouth and fan-tailed cuckoo to our bird list. Also had excellent views of yellow robins and a male whipbird along the Booyong Trail. We finally had to quit birding and get ready for departure. We had one last session of feeding some of the tame feathered friends who gather around the guesthouse. Crimson rosellas and king parrots would land on outstretched hands to eat birdseed (conveniently available in the gift shop). It was not unusual to see people with a bright green or red bird perched on their heads and shoulders, as well as both hands. We also fed raisins to regent bower birds and brush turkeys. It was really marvelous to be so close to these birds! Then it was time to return to Brisbane for a flight out the next day.

The third section of the trip began in Cairns, where we arrived late in the evening. Farther north, and closer to the equator, it was much warmer than the Sydney and Brisbane areas. First thing in the morning, Brian, Jim, and Ellen went to pick up the rented camper vehicle we would use for the drive from Cairns to Darwin. Basically, the vehicle was a pickup truck with front and back seats and storage area, including refrigerator. Two platforms on the roof could be unfolded to erect the two tents, which were reached by ladders. The whole arrangement was collapsible, zipped inside heavy duty covers for travel.

We birded at the Centenary Gardens and Esplanade at Cairns, stopped to stock up on groceries, and drove to Kingfisher Park, where we arrived after dark. Having "a bit of a wander", as Tim O'Reilly had called it, a few hours before dawn, Brian saw three marsupials (green ring-tail possum, northern brown bandicoot, and yellow-footed antechinus) as well as eerily calling stone curlews. We spent the day birding along the Mt. Lewis road and checking at bridges to look for (but not find platypus). We did see lots of Atherton scrub-wrens, some bustards, and a pheasant coucal.

The following day, Brian and I took a boat trip on the Mossman River. We were able to get only two reservations so Jim and Ellen graciously remained behind. During the one and a half hour river trip, we saw both little and azure kingfishers, male and female shining flycatchers, and heard lots of bar-shouldered doves cooing. We did a little birding locally after disembarking and got to see a really snazzy little sunbird. The four of us drove to Emerald Creek Falls after lunch to look for a reported rufous owl. We did not see one but I impressed myself by finding a flock of double-barred finches and two brush stone curlews, which got me caught up with the group on bird families.

First thing in the morning, we had a great look at Papuan frogmouth, and, finally, a platypus. Jim and Ellen had gotten their life views of the rare red-headed crake the evening before (Brian had seen the bird our first morning there). Even though I missed it, we finished up at Kingfisher Park happy and satisfied.

We then began the drive to Darwin, making a stop at Mareeba Wetlands, where we saw a crested grebe and both green and cotton pygmy-goose. Once in the "outback", the paved road was reduced to only one lane with wide dirt shoulders. When approaching on-coming traffic, both vehicles pull half off the road in order to pass, unless the on-coming vehicle is an enormous road-train (linked tractor trailers reaching 160 feet in length), in which case he gets the entire road.

The 2000-mile trip across the outback to Darwin took about ten days, including driving time and birding stops. We had some beautiful "bush" camps, remote spots somewhere off the main road, with gorgeous scenery to look at, a little geology scattered around, plant life to wonder about, many birds, and the occasional herd of cattle strolling through. At night, with no city lights to compete with, the stars were spectacular, and we enjoyed the chance to gaze heavenward at the Southern Cross (or, as Brian calls it, the Austral Kite). Once or twice we stayed in actual campgrounds, the kind with shower facilities.

Some of the highlights of this leg of the journey: stopping to watch an emu, which Jim spotted from the car window the first afternoon; camping near a pond with many plumed whistling ducks on it and apostle birds nearby; a flock of galahs flying over, banking and showing "a thrill of pink" Brian said; pratincoles in full breeding plumage; hiking a boardwalk through mangroves at Kurumba and collecting seashells along the way; following the hike with a boat trip on the Norman River during which we saw white-bellied whistler, Brahminy kite, white-bellied sea eagle and red-headed finch, and were served coffee and scones prepared by the captain himself; seeing our first red kangaroos near Burke and Wills Roadhouse; diamond doves at Clem Walton Dam; a dawn search through spinifex for scrub-wren, and, though we missed it, locating crested bellbird and hearing its namesake song, and flushing a spotted nightjar; seeing flock bronzewings, an enormous, well, flock of them, at a bore late one afternoon; spicing up a long day of driving with good views of double-barred, zebra, and long-tailed finches at bores along the way; getting rooms one night at the Daly Waters Motel, which might more accurately be called the Daly Waters hallway, where we indulged in showers and participated in the "beef and barrimundi" night at the pub next door; and a hike through a large maternity colony of little red flying foxes (a species of bat) in Elsey National Park at Mataranka, on the way to a lovely thermal pool.

By now we had reached Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, where we added a dose of culture to the birding and camping theme of the trip: we got to see one of the locations where "Crocodile Dundee" was filmed. But seriously, we did marvel at the beautiful aboriginal pictographs on the cliff faces and overhangs in the Nourlanji Rock area. After we got set up in the campground, we heard a barking owl (this bird is well named!), and Brian called it in. We saw it swoop through the darkness and land just overhead in a tree. We had terrific looks at it in the flashlight.

We spent much of the next day hiking on the escarpment above UDP Falls, looking for white-throated grass-wren without success. We did find sandstone shrike-thrush and had very brief views of a chestnut-quilled rock pigeon; both of these are specialties of the area. In the afternoon, Brian and Jim added banded fruit dove to their life lists. The total trip list now stood at 297.

The ultimate wilderness experience, according to Kakadu's Yellow Water Cruises, is when "canopied boats steer you safely through tranquil waters" and you "witness a land barely touched by mankind where nature is raw, crocodiles rule, and a prehistoric landscape is enlivened by sightings of jabirus, sea eagles, and whistling kites across the floodplain". They weren't far wrong, as we saw thousands of waterfowl including both plumed and wandering whistling ducks, a pair of brolgas (cranes) dancing and displaying to each other, and several crocodiles. We also visited Mardugal Billibong, which was excellent for songbirds.

From Kakadu we continued toward Darwin, stopping at Fogg Dam. We hiked the Woodlands to Water Lilies Trail through rainforest. We had a close view of a large monitor lizard and heard imperial pigeon and rosy fruit dove, then ate lunch in the shade at the edge of the parking lot.

We reached Darwin and made a stop at Buffalo Creek before looking for a motel, which proved almost as unsuccessful as the hunt for a pitta at Fogg Dam. However, we eventually located a place to roost for the night, where we took showers and reintroduced ourselves to clean clothes. Next, we had to wedge a month's worth of birding gear, clothes, and camping equipment back into suitcases for the plane flights home. The final trip totals were, birds -- 313 species, mammals -- 13 species; and new bird families -- 32. About 94% of bird species and all the mammals were lifers for Brian and Eileen, indicating how little overlap the was between the Australian fauna and that of other places we have visited. We had a wonderful time! Thank you, Jim and Ellen!