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Birding Cairns - My Cassowary House Adventure (1 Viewer)

John Cantelo

Well-known member
A very long, verbose trip report - please have patience!

Over the last two or three decades an old school friend has persistently invited me out to visit him in a variety of exotic locations. Unfortunately, our schedules never seemed to coincide to allow our mutual intentions, his to invite and mine to accept, to become a reality. Then I upped and retired. So it was I found myself early in December 2010 on a snowy platform in the south-east of England about to launch my nervous self on my first solo long distance flight – destination Queensland, Australia.

Although on this trip ‘lifer’ and ‘bird’ became near synonymous terms, this was primarily a long awaited social call. I had no plans for long haul drives, bug-eyed dawn to dusk birding and blindly searching every habitat with a fanatical lust for that last possible elusive lifer. Well, yes, but then again it didn’t have to be! That old friend’ just happened to be expert bird tour guide and Phil Gregory and my destination the famous Cassowary House (www.cassowary-house.com.au) which he and his wife, Sue, have been operating for the last fifteen or so years. Phil and Sue also run Sicklebill Safaris (http://sicklebillsafaris.com) so I was in very good hands! Whilst I left the question of where we might go up to my host, my preparations before the event were meticulous. I systematically read the guides, made illustrated checklists of what to expect and annotated my field lists. Naturally, hardly an iota of all this actually stuck or survived a few minutes in the field!

A lifetime of pretty much knowing what to expect and identifying birds with confidence in the UK and, to only a slightly lesser degree in Europe, didn’t prepare me at all for the perplexing diversity of Australia. It hadn't been so hard when I'd visited North America, but I didn't have this aging brain then and it was no longer so good at digesting what novel birds I might expect. Oddly, though, once I saw the birds in real life, rather than on the printed page, the difficulties quickly evaporated even if they didn’t entirely disappear. The other great advantage was birding with Phil. His experience and knowledge meant I was birding with a walking, talking, proactive, reactive and interactive bird field/site guide! This was incredibly useful since I quickly found that, particularly in the rain forest, field guides were pretty much useless. When, oh when, will someone produce a rainforest orientated field guide rather than a more conventional one? Just to make the problem clear they could call it “Looking up Birds’ Bottoms for Beginners”.

But first, the Prologue: Hong Kong …..

Saturday 4th December
Kowloon Park

I arrived in Hong Kong by mid-afternoon, tired and somewhat sleepy, and by the time I dropped my bags at the hotel I felt even worse. But there was still just time to get to Kowloon Park on HK’s excellent metro where I could sleep walk my way through some birding. Despite being very crowded the park quickly produced two bulbuls, Red-whiskered and Chinese; in part thanks to their voluble, noisy nature. Night Herons perched in the trees were more familiar even if the surroundings, groups of chattering graduating Chinese students and the backdrop of huge skyscrapers seemed both exotic and improbable. The Black Kites drifting between Mammon’s canyons were expected – I’d done my homework, remember – although a slightly odd looking Buzzard was less so. Both presumably belonging to unfamiliar eastern races, lineatus and japonicus respectively. This signalled a numerical uncertainty that dogged the trip, what forms could be classed as ‘lifers’ or merely ‘country/continent ticks’? Similarly, could the feral Alexandrine Parrots coming into roost be listed without hesitation (or guilt)? Also in the park were more ticks - Spotted Doves, Masked Laughing Thrush, Black-collared Starling and Eastern Magpie-Robins. The evening ended with the, to me at least, incongruous call of the Yellow-browed Warbler from the tree-tops – something I associate with autumn days on the Kent coast rather than the heat and urban sprawl of Hong Kong.
 

Jeff Hopkins

Just another...observer
United States
To answer one of your questions, I've been told the Alexandrine parrots in Kowloon Park are not tickable by "official rules."

Your mileage may vary :)
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Thanks, Jeff for your info on Alexandrine Parrot a pity as they looked quite at home!

.... but now some trademark rubbish photos
 

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John Cantelo

Well-known member
Sunday 5th December
Mike’s Patch – Mai Po

Despite my post flight exhaustion I was up early to meet Mike Kilburn, my guide for today. Meeting at a Tai Wo metro station we caught a bus to Mike’s village and his ‘patch’. (NB Buses and taxis, I found, were by British standards amazingly cheap) Even before we reached Mike’s flat (to pick up his scope) I had my first lifers in the form of Chinese Pond Heron, Daurian Redstart and a startlingly bright Scarlet Minivet. From his small balcony I added White-breasted Waterhen and Long-tailed Shrike; the first far more attractive than I’d imagined and the second just as good as I’d thought. Climbing up into the secondary forest the new birds came thick and fast; another bulbul (Chestnut), Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Greater Coucal, Silver-eared Munia, Brown Bush Warbler, Common Tailorbird (its Mountain cousin only called), Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Japanese White-eye, Verditer Flycatcher, Crested Myna and Ashy Drongo. A Crested Goshawk dashed by, but a handsome Crested Serpent Eagle with ‘zebra-crossing wings’ put on a great display lazily soaring around on its broad wings. Other birds, familiar from European field guides if not European fields, included Olive-backed Pipit, Pallas’s, Yellow-browed and Dusky Warblers and Red-flanked Bluetail. The most astonishing thing, though, was to spend several hours birding on this over crowded peninsula without seeing another soul.

Moving on to the legendary Mai Po a new suite of birds became available. As we entered the area a number of Grey-headed Lapwing were seen feeding along the canal and a sole Chinese Azure-winged Magpie sat in the shade (although I remain uncertain whether this introduced species can be ticked with a clear conscience). On the reserve itself new birds included Black-faced Spoonbill, Pied Kingfisher, two prinias (Yellow-bellied and Plain), Scaly-breasted Munia, Collared Crow, Red-billed Starling and Grey-backed Thrush. To any sensible person the star bird should have been the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, but, in my parochial British way, the star birds were my first Greater-spotted Eagles and Oriental Turtle Dove. Dusky Warblers were good here too. It’s just a shame the calling Siberian Rubythroat never showed itself.

Monday 6th December
Tai Po Kua – Long Valley

Fortunately, Mike K. was again available to show me around this morning – this time our destination was Tai Po Kua area where he’d been informed of a fig tree which was attracting a variety of thrushes. No wonder I’d failed to see any thrushes in Kowloon park – I never appreciated that out in HK they weren’t the UK’s lawn loving birds. The lane, which lazily twisted down to his informant’s house, was bordered by secondary rain forest from which strange intriguing calls emanated. Despite the dense tree cover, with patience Grey-backed, Eye-browed and Japanese Thrushes were added to the tally. Even better, though, were the Fork-tailed Sunbirds – as handsome as they were exotic! We then meet up with Mike’s informant who was en route to work, but suggested we wandered along the lane to have tea with his wife (also a birder). Sitting in the warm sunshine in a charming garden sipping tea and munching chocolate biscuits whilst watching more sunbirds as an Olive-backed Pipit tootled around on the lawn was, I thought, as close to heaven as I’d ever get. But heaven drew a bit closer when a Mugimaki Flycatcher appeared in the tree above me! Bliss!

Decision time. Hang around in the hope of spotting an elusive White’s Thrush or explore a new habitat? Being an impatient sort of fellow I opted for the latter so it was back into taxis and off to Long Valley. Here White-rumped Munias were an easy tick, but Greater Asian Painted Snipe allowed only UTVs (first no more than a beady eyeball and then briefly in flight). Similarly frustrating were the ‘Swintail’ Snipe; clearly distinct from the Common Snipe that flew up with it, but impossible to know if it was a Pin-tailed or Swinhoe’s. Twenty odd House Swift over the area meant I could avoid wondering whether to tick the distant singleton we’d seen earlier in the day. The wet area here held a number of wagtails and pipits. Although disappointed not to connect with Citrine Wagtail (a lifer) here, another lifer, had a better grasp of the script; a gorgeous White-breasted Kingfisher. This snow white, chocolate and azure confection graced by a red carrot for a bill was absolutely magic!

I was richly compensated too by excellent views of Richards and Red-throated Pipit, both leucopsis and lugens races of White Wagtail and the striking taivana race of Yellow Wagtail. This race looked so distinctive that an armchair tick must be a possibility in the future.

At this point Mike K., who’d already given so much of his time, had to leave. I had the option of staying on and making my own way back or returning with him to the metro. Any respectable hard core birder would have stayed on, but by now the heat was getting to me and tiredness was kicking in. Besides, and whisper it soft, I rather wanted to see downtown Hong Kong and do the ‘touristy thing’ before I left.

Although perhaps I didn't see quite so many birds as I should have done - I don't have a twitcher's 'killer instinct' for birds - but I did see some great birds. Better still, in Mike K., I had a local birder whose expertise came a close second only to his affability and good company. Bottom line – if you’re spending any time in HK and want to go birding, you’d be a fool not to contact Mike.

Photos -Mike's patch (despite the mislabelling!), Long-tailed Shrike & Chinese Pond Heron
 

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John Cantelo

Well-known member
Tuesday 7th December
Cairns - Yorkeys Knob – Cassowary House

My old friend Phil Gregory arrived at Cairns Airport bang on time to collect me, but, unfortunately, the flight had arrived early which meant I had thirty minutes struggling with the alien Oz avifauna alone! To my relief the airport environs held few birds and no problematical ones so, although still groggy from a sleepless flight, I quickly ticked Figbird, Australian Swiftlet and White-breasted Wood-swallow. The first two species were good, but meant little. The wood-swallow, however, belonged to a group of birds I’d long wanted to see.

The drive from the airport up to Phil’s place, Cassowary House (www.cassowary-house.com.au) in Kuranda, takes about thirty minutes; naturally, we took a couple of hours. Our first detour was to a small pool near the turning for Yorkeys Knob (what an outrageous place name …. we Brits’d never leave out the apostrophe like that). Here we had Pied (Torresian) Imperial Pigeon, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, Mistletoebird, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, Spangled Drongos, Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Welcome Swallow, Fairy Martin, Australian Pipit, Golden-headed Cisticolas, and the scarce Crimson Finch. Each one deserves a paragraph, but the one that stood out was the mannikin; a gem of a bird so much better than any illustration can show. As we drove along more birds, either by the roadside or flying over, were casually pretending they weren’t important lifers; Australian White Ibis, Australian Darter, Pacific Black Duck, Masked Lapwings, Magpielarks , Metallic Starlings (glossy back birds with rubies for eyes) and the ubiquitous Willie Wagtail. Once again, the latter was one of those birds you just had to like, but surely it should be ‘Willie Wavetail’? All were great birds, but soon to be relegated to walk on parts in the daily tally of lifers. However, it was always a thrill to see the Forest Kingfishers – white and blue birds of real character. The abundant Common Mynas, a rapidly spreading introduced species, were very handsome in their cocoa-coloured livery, but entirely disdained by Phil for the threat the pose to native species.

Turning off for Yorkeys Knob, we headed for the local golf course where there was a small pool which sometimes held wildfowl. As it transpired, the absence of wildfowl here became something of a theme and we struggled to connect with any of our web-footed brethren throughout my stay. There was compensation though; Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Scaly-breasted Lorikeets (it still seemed wrong ticking parrots!), Rainbow Bee-eaters (good, but not a patch on the European version), Yellow Orioles (with a loud but oddly ‘hollow’ song), Helmeted Friarbird (a slightly thuggish looking bird I thought) and my first honeyeater, a Brown-backed. This bird was my introduction to this ragbag group of birds and, in some ways, a telling one. Like so many of this loose clan of birds, it appeared to be extraordinarily localised found here but not in similar habitats in the area. This ‘localism’ of Australian birds was in stark contrast to the blanket frequency, within a broad church of habitats, of small birds in the UK and in Europe.

After adding a bucketful of lifers to my list, we headed up into the hills, along Black Mountain Road, through the rain forest and towards our final destination - Cassowary House. On arrival, Sue’s greeting was almost perfunctory as she quickly rushed me round to the back of the house where daddy Cassowary and his three chicks dutifully waited. Yup, my first bird at Cassowary House was, er, Cassowary! Staying at Cassowary House is, without doubt, the easiest and most surefire way to catch up with this awesome bird. As befits a bird native to Germaine Greer’s home country, it’s the male that looks after the chicks whilst the female gads about the jungle unfettered by domestic responsibilities! In the days that followed, save for when I was up and out very early, I saw the species everyday. Usually it was just Pa and the young uns, but Ma, larger, taller and perhaps a little belligerent, popped in a couple of times. Dressed in sombre black, the funerary seriousness of the plumage was quite at odds with the long eyelashes and the brilliant blue, pink and purple of its skin of its head and neck; somewhere between a lurid Venetian masque and a clown’s greasepaint! In contrast, the chick’s sartorial development, currently dull browns and ochres, closely resembled that of wild piglets – surely an example of convergent evolution.

So having ticked out so well, it was time to relax on the veranda. Well not quite as I had a good few more lifers to negotiate even in the relaxed ambiance of Cassowary House; Australian Brush Turkey, Emerald Ground Dove, King Parrot, Pacific Swift, White-throated Needletail, Macleay’s Honeyeater, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Little Shrike-Thrush, Barred Cuckoo-Shrike, Victoria’s Riflebird , Silver-eye and Spotted Catbird. From this list of avian luminaries, one bird stood out – the White-throated Needle-tail. To any Brit birder it’s a bird of myth and legend, but having dipped on one in Kent decades back it was a ’must-see’. Was there to be no end to this tick-o-manic torment? I rather hoped not and nor there was as a quick look at the surrounding forest added Wompoo and Superb Fruit Doves and Pale Yellow Robin. So a bewildering day ended with me tallying over 40 new birds and that’s not counting the birds heard, but not seen! On any other day a new mammal, particularly my first marsupial, would have been a highlight, but today seeing the Musky Rat-kangaroo was something of a sideshow. However, over the next few days this archaic macropod, bullied alike by Cassowary chicks and Brush Turkeys, became something of a favourite. Billeted in a small chalet (aka “the cottage”) I retired to bed happy but exhausted
 

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John Cantelo

Well-known member
.... and now the Cassowary. Check out that vicious inner claw - little wonder that in Papua New Guinea they were used to make neat little skull perforators! Anyone else think of Trotsky?
 

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joannec

Well-known member
Sounds like you are having a good time, John. These birds are but a dream to me.


As befits a bird native to Germaine Greer’s home country, it’s the male that looks after the chicks whilst the female gads about the jungle unfettered by domestic responsibilities! In the days that followed, save for when I was up and out very early, I saw the species everyday. Usually it was just Pa and the young uns, but Ma, larger, taller and perhaps a little belligerent, popped in a couple of times.
,


Mrs Cassowary's got it all worked out! Gadding about the jungle is more fun.
 

chris butterworth

aka The Person Named Above
Cracking trip report John. The Cairns area is rather special isn't it?

Chris

p.s. Just wondering something. Why do you carry a skull perforator when you're birding in Oz?

C
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Well, Joanne, I've lived with the dream of seeing these birds for a decade or more. I even went out and got a copy of Slater's field guide in 2006 as I really thought I was going to make it that year. When I realised, as I explained at the start, that the 'window of opportunity' was there for Dec 2010 I couldn't wait any longer! (Maybe I should have as then I might have had a bit longer to enjoy the place).

Chris, although the English had just started to beat the Australians at some strange totemic game (named, I think, after a small hopping insect), I found the locals all very friendly so never had any need for a skull ventilator. This was one of the props that decorated my host's house - the legacy of a long residency in Papua New Guinea. Yes, I was invited there too, but unlike Jos, I'm a whimp so never made it out there!
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
I did get much better views of Wompoo Pigeon (naturally when I was without my camera), but I had to put that photo of the bird in (repeated below) to illustrate my gripe about field guides. For much of the time this was the sort of view you got of canopy loving rain forest birds - straight up their nether regions. Yet all the field guides only showed them in the conventional side-on view. I know that this is understandable as that's how you can most easily see both the dorsal and ventral sides in one image. However, it'd be pretty damn useful to have some illustrations of what they look like from below!
 

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stevieb

Attempting to put Melksham on the map
John,

I missed you by a couple of weeks, I was at Cassowary House on 16th November.

These not so little guys were there with dad too. Infact they were the first birds I saw on arrival too!

Australia 051.jpg

Great read by the way :t:
 

chowchilla

Maderator.
Now you know why I live here John.;)

I might pop up to Cassowary house again soon to do some frog hunting. I'm getting into them in a big way and learning the calls. There are dozens of species locally and Phil and Sue have one (the Kuranda Tree Frog) which has a world range of, well Kuranda, the town near Cassowary House, and the immediately surrounding area. They have it on their property so may well host a significant chunk of the world population.

The trick with rainforest birding is of course to learn the calls or go out with someone who knows them. I've been at great pains to get to know them as it saves a lot of cricked necks! Not quite as good as Phil yet...
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Some more about Cassowaries and Cassowary House (using some of Phil's stock photos) ....

As you can see from the photos seeing Cassowary here requires dedication, skill and deep field craft .... not! The veranda above (you can see the table set for breakfast) means that even the nervous get great views! The view from the veranda is now a little less obscured - Phil and I did a bit of 'gardening with an axe and saw - but you can see the snags on which many birds were want to perch.

As mentioned earlier, it's the male that looks after the youngsters with the female only occasionally popping in to check that the old man's doing it right! Notice how similar the chick's plumage is to a young piglet's. I'll try and post a shot later showing the thickened quills where the Cassowary's wings should be. Unfortunately for the chicks when they reach a certain age Papa suddenly turns on them and drives them off. Cassowary need a very large range and the little chaps have to fend for themselves. Evidently one of the commonests causes of death amongst young birds is starvation. This seems to be because the habitat available is restricted, increasingly isolated and declining with all good territories already occupied by aggressive birds. Another major cause of decline is increasing road traffic as graphically illustrated in the photo (not one of mine). Perversely, another is the tighter legilation in the use of firearms - previously householders could shoot any maurading pigs, but now traps are set which sometimes catch Cassowary with fatal consequences.

Finally, I've added a photo of the 'cottage' I was staying in and to which I retreated each night (good thing I put a torch in!). It was tucked within the rainforest which meant I could bird from it own little veranda. Not so good, though, after Phil insisted showing me his video of 'Wolf Creek' - a film supposedly based on a true story, about a singularly nasty Australian serial killer. I wouldn't have be so scared had we not been winning the Ashes!
 

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John Cantelo

Well-known member
Now you know why I live here John.;)

I might pop up to Cassowary house again soon to do some frog hunting. I'm getting into them in a big way and learning the calls. There are dozens of species locally and Phil and Sue have one (the Kuranda Tree Frog) which has a world range of, well Kuranda, the town near Cassowary House, and the immediately surrounding area. They have it on their property so may well host a significant chunk of the world population.

The trick with rainforest birding is of course to learn the calls or go out with someone who knows them. I've been at great pains to get to know them as it saves a lot of cricked necks! Not quite as good as Phil yet...

Hi Chowchilla,

I really meant to contact you before I went. My trip was a social call on an old friend ;-), but I might have avoided a few trips to the shops had we met up - although, to be fair, with Phil most shopping trips somehow turned into birding ones too! I should have contacted you, though, as I'd liked to have seen some amphibians (esp. that frog). By the way I now realised why you picked Chowchilla as your online name - what magic little fellows!

Yes, Cairns is an amazing place for birds with so many different habitats close by. I couldn't live there, though. I mean as a retired History teacher how could I when a few paltry early 20th C wooden structures are classed as 'Historic Buildings'?! Places like Yungaburra are very attractive indeed, but I genuinely couldn't live somewhere without the ancient structures (and I don't mean the missus) I see round me every day in Canterbury & in Spain. Incidentally, if any of you do get out there the 'Whistle Stop cafe (pictured) is recommended; great 'tucker' and it caters any special diets (inc. gluten-free and veggies),
 

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JWN Andrewes

Poor Judge of Pasta.
From this list of avian luminaries, one bird stood out – the White-throated Needle-tail. To any Brit birder it’s a bird of myth and legend, but having dipped on one in Kent decades back it was a ’must-see’.

Weirwood by any chance? I was there too, after a mad dash from Hampshire that (as it turned out) began even after the bird had left. Good that you've caught up with one after all this time.

And thanks for taking the trouble to post the account of your trip. A most enjoyable read it is.


James
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Weirwood by any chance? I was there too, after a mad dash from Hampshire that (as it turned out) began even after the bird had left. Good that you've caught up with one after all this time.

And thanks for taking the trouble to post the account of your trip. A most enjoyable read it is.


James

Weirwood? Good Lord no! That's not even in Kent. It wasn't far off though as it was at Wierton Hill, Kent May 1991. I never got close as it'd winged its way off into the wild blue yonder long before.
 

John Cantelo

Well-known member
Wednesday 8th December
Cassowary House (Kuranda) – Black Mountain Road - Kuranda


Today started, as was to become something of a routine, with a pre-breakfast saunter around the Cassowary House ‘estate’ and along the nearby Black Mountain Road. (An odd experience as I’d already ‘driven along’ it in Google’s ‘street view’ before I came. I forgot to take any photos of it so have a look yourself) Not surprisingly, most of the birds featured at the tail end of Tuesday put in an appearance. But the confusion of bird, amphibian and insect calls wrapped up in a dense near impenetrable forest made it a bewildering experience. However from my bewilderment I managed to pluck a Grey Goshawk. It helped by having its nest over the road and by calling repeatedly! At the breakfast table things were easier with a Black Butcherbird surrendering to its improbable love of cheese (shared by the Spotted Catbird and Victoria Riflebird) to show itself at close range. Also ticked were Dusky Honeyeater, Varied Triller (whose plumage I found oddly reminiscent of Masked Shrike!) and Double-eyed Fig-parrot (it must eat a lot of fermenting fruit to get in that state!).

With Phil and Sue’s dogs, Boca and Loki, needing a walk – not an easy thing around the house with Mr Cassowary about – we headed off to nearby Kuranda to take them along the river. Here a party of 50+ White-throated Needle-tails, the last I was to see on the trip, put on a great display with which even a lifer - Large-billed Gerygone – could not compete. This, though, was a novel experience – the first time I’ve ticked a bird without knowing how to pronounce it’s name! Apparently, it’s not ‘gerry gone’ but something like ‘ger-ridge-onie!” A squadron of Topknot Pigeons, perhaps surprisingly my only sighting, flying over the river added another lifer for the day. One lesson I soon learnt was that, when emerging from an air-conditioned car into the humid heat of the day, it takes several minutes for your optics to de-mist!

Back at base all the ‘usual suspects’ were in attendance, but this didn’t mean there weren’t lifers to be had – Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and Graceful Honeyeater dutifully stepped forward. The boatbill was one of the few birds that you really had to see from below as it foraged in the canopy; a mixture of yellow, black and white and with it’s bill the shape of a dinghy’s prow it’s well named. The Graceful Honeyeater is, in the real world, pretty much identical to the Yellow-spotted - it certainly didn't look any more graceful to me. The nuanced distinction in the shape of its bill and yellow cheek spot almost impossible to gauge as they actively foraged in the trees. Fortunately two things made them easily distinguishable; their calls and the fact that Graceful was almost always found at the front of the house and that, unlike Yellow-spotted, Graceful, they tend not to come down to the feeders that bedecked the veranda. The first ID pointer is in the field guides, but strangely enough the second isn’t! One final treat was in store before the dusk gave way to the dark, a Red-necked Crake. As with the eponymous Cassowary, this is an iconic bird here. Unfortunately the very tame bird that once came to Sue’s call to gobble cheese – what else? – is long gone. It was this bird that, improbable though it might seem, inspired a recent best seller – Margaret Attwood’s ‘Oryx and Crake’. A great end to another brilliant day which netted me good haul of lifers considering I mainly spent it pottering round Cassowary House. (PS - that parrot is one of Phil's photos - any photos with PAG in the name are his; the rubbishy ones are mine!)
 

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John Cantelo

Well-known member
.... here's a photo of the Grey Goshawk's nest which was right above Black Mountain Road! Unfortunately, the lens was steamed up when I took this (and many of the other photos) I took in the early morning at Cassowary House. It wasn't until later that I appreciated the problem so be warned.
 

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