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Australia & Singapore: Lady Elliot Island & Return

20 October to 24 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction & General Singapore Darwin area Cairns area O'Reilly's Lady Elliot Island

Journey north from O'Reilly's
After three nights at the splendid O'Reilly's, and just as the weather had apparently improved, it was time to move on again. This was to be our longest drive of the trip, north from O'Reilly's, past Brisbane and on to Hervey Bay, which was the most accessible place to get a flight the next morning to Lady Elliot Island. This was a journey of about 250 miles, and as it was on a Friday, we were keen to get beyond Brisbane before any possible weekend rush started.

So we were off from O'Reilly's reasonably early without adding to our birding tally there. At the bottom of the approach road, the area around Sarabah Road appeared quite birdy, so we spent a few minutes driving along this side track to see what was around. There were some more, distant Galah Parrots, loads of Little Friarbirds and one lifer - an Australian Wood Duck in a tree. But with a long journey ahead of us we didn't linger, and pressed on, initially on small roads, but then onto dual carriageways/motorways as we passed Brisbane mid-morning without any sign of a weekend exodus. The main route north is the M1 and few birds were seen on this busy but mainly straight road.

Lake Afford, Gympie (GPS -26.214622, 152.682937  )
Once well north of Brisbane, we began to think about a rest and a pause for lunch and quite by chance found Lake Afford right next to the main road. This looked to be a pleasant spot and so we pulled in. Indeed it was, with several lakes, some other wet areas, and a park surrounding it. Despite a fair number of other people around (it was a Saturday lunchtime), there were plenty of approachable birds as well, including more Australian Wood Ducks, Hard heads, Black Swans, Dusky Moorhen and Purple Gallinule. Also nesting in trees on small islands in the lake were Cattle Egrets and White Ibis. We even found two more lifers as well - Crested Pigeon and Australian Reed Warbler.

Hardhead Australian Wood Duck
Hardhead (click to enlarge) Australian Wood Duck (click to enlarge)
Laughing Kookaburra  (click to enlarge) Australian White Ibis (click to enlarge)
Purple Swamphen
Australian White Ibis (click to enlarge) Purple Swamphen

After this productive stop we pressed on north to Hervey Bay for a one night stop, before getting the mid morning short flight the next day to Lady Elliot Island.

Lady Elliot Island
This island is at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef and, as such, has so far escaped the horrors of the coral bleaching that have occurred further north. It is quite a small island - it takes perhaps an hour to walk around it, and is good for both snorkelling/diving and breeding sea birds, of which there are large numbers. We spent three nights here which gave us enough time to get a good feel to this superb place. For those on a tighter schedule, day visits are possible. Indeed we came across a birding group one day doing just that. But we preferred our more leisurely approach, particularly as our stay in Australia was unfortunately drawing to a close.

Lady Elliot Island from the plane Reef View from our unit

Access in entirely by flights in small planes from various points on the nearby mainland. Ours from Hervey Bay took about 40-50mins flying time north in a small propeller plane (13 seater at a push). Fortunately it wasn't full - it would have been very cramped if it had been. The flight was quite smooth and scenic, especially as it approached Lady Elliot Island.

The island is bisected by the grass landing strip, which see a daily series of flights in and out. On arrival, the plane does a short sight-seeing circuit of the island before landing. The "terminal" is somewhat informal and all arrivals are given a short induction talk about the layout of the island, additional activities etc. This was quite useful for getting the low down on where the different bird species were to be found. Luggage is automatically taken to your rooms which is helpful.

Resort area
Almost immediately on arrival it was apparent this was an amazing place, with breeding sea birds all over the place, completely unconcerned by passing humans. There were Bridled Terns nesting on the sides of the paths around the accommodation/resort area and every bush was full of Black Noddies, including those around our "Reef View" unit. Pacific Golden Plovers were wandering over the grassy areas between the buildings. At lunch, we encountered our first Buff-banded Rails scavenging for scraps in the restaurant!

Bridled Terns (click both to enlarge)
Pacific Golden Plover Buff banded Crake
Pacific Golden Plover Buff banded Crake (click to enlarge)

A word of warning about the sea birds though. They can be pretty noisy at night and the (constant) smell is like a large sea bird colony in the UK (e.g. the Farne Islands or Bempton Cliffs!). Taking photos of the settled birds in the bushes all around is almost too easy, but flight shots were more challenging.

Black Noddies (click to enlarge)

A really special bird that also breeds here in small numbers is Red-tailed Tropicbird - there was an adult with a large juvenile nesting in bushes just beyond the last unit, that was only a few metres from ours. Only obscured views can be obtained with them on the ground under bushes, but once or twice the adult took to the air. These really are spectacular birds - which I last saw in Hawaii back in 2006.

Red-tailed Tropicbird Red-tailed Tropicbird
Juvenile  Adult
Red-tailed Tropicbirds (click to enlarge)

Around the resort area is a good place to look upwards for Crested Terns (they hang around on the restaurant roof) and also both Great and Lesser Frigatebirds which appear to gather, hanging in the wind, in the evenings outside of the restaurant.

Crested Tern Great Frigatebird

At night, there were some strange calls that we tracked down to some bushes just by the toilets on the way back to our unit from the resort buildings! They were Wedge-tailed Shearwaters - possibly the first shearwaters I have ever seen on land.

Southern Shore
A little further from our unit, around the southern end of the runway, there was a sizeable colony of Brown/Common Noddies. These generally nest on the ground whereas the Black's preferred the bushes. A little further along the coast towards the western shore there was a White-bellied Sea Eagle in a tree.

Common/Brown Noddy (click to enlarge)

Eastern Shore 
On the eastern side of the island, there is a coral fringed lagoon and north of the main buildings is a promontory with a rocky area that held a few waders including Black Oystercatcher, Turnstone and a distant Tattler species - possibly Wandering given the habitat.

Western Shore
The northern shore was supposed to be the place for a small colony of Black-naped Terns that are probably the rarest breeding species on this island but we didn't find any there. However on the rougher western shore we did find small numbers (2-3) on two occasions including once when we were wading out for some snorkelling - I even recognised them without my spectacles and bins! The second time was when we had walked over to enjoy the sunset one evening whereupon the light from the setting sun on these birds was superb. Also here were some Roseate Terns. This is a great spot to enjoy and relax at in the evening - for the setting sun and the atmosphere generated by the hundreds of noddies, terns etc that come in off the sea to roost. There are even some chairs for visitors!

Black-naped Terns Roseate Tern
Black-naped Terns (click to enlarge) Roseate Tern
Sunset from the western shore Exhausted Green Turtle after laying eggs overnight

The breeding sea birds are to be found all over the island as are the Buff-banded Rails - that especially favour the grassy airstrip. We also found a few other species in the wooded/bushy areas of the 'interior' including Tawny Grassbirds that were surprisingly obvious (for an Australian passerine) and singing in bushes just by the airstrip to the north of the resort area. The only other passerine we saw on the island was Silvereye.

All visitors get a free short introductory snorkelling session from a boat that last lasts about half an hour. Ours was off the west shore from a boat and was good for the odd smallish turtle and some colourful fish, including larger ones. However, Lady Elliot Island advertises itself as the "home of the Manta Ray" and this is what we wanted to see. The first evening we were there, we went to a talk about rays, and the presenter said that the best way of connecting with these is by going on one of their snorkelling safaris. These are at additional cost and provide up to at least an hour in the water from a boat. On our safari, there was only one other guest, and the guide - much less than the free session. Again the boat departed from the western shore, but went out a bit further than the free trip. Almost immediately the guide was jumping up and down shouting MANTA RAYS!! The rays swim up a narrow current that forms off the western shore of the island, hoovering up plankton etc as they go. The guide's tactic was to get ahead of them in the boat, and then to get us to jump into the sea, with her, at the right moment.

This worked brilliantly and we were soon having amazing close views of the Mantas as they swam towards and then underneath us going so close you felt you could almost reach out and touch them. This was an amazing experience - and one that was repeated several times as the boat would pick us up (not easy to get back onboard), and then we would jump off again when instructed. Quite arduous, but this was definitely the non-avian highlight of the trip - and one of the reasons I had chosen Lady Elliot Island as somewhere to visit. Its just a pity I didn't have an underwater camera to capture these magic moments.

Hervey Bay - Arkarra Lagoons & Tea room (GPS -25.276738, 152.759263 )
Prior to the trip, I did some Googling to look for somewhere to bird in the Hervey Bay area if we had any spare time. The Arkarra lagoons and Tea room seemed to be about the only place, and so we tried this site after returning from Lady Elliot Island and before heading back south towards Brisbane. We had a short wander around the place and lunch at the tea room afterwards. But by this stage of the trip, it was becoming difficult to add to the trip list and we saw nothing new here, although there were a few birds around such as Wood Duck, Little Black Cormorant, Australian Reed Warbler, Grey Shrike Thrush (in the car park while having lunch) and a Figbird. But a pleasant place to spend a short amount of time.

We spent the night after leaving Lady Elliot Island at Noosa, that was notable only for a sleeping Koola up a tree near the very busy car park for the National Park.

Koola asleep up a tree

Thereafter we caught an evening flight from Brisbane to Sydney for the last 3 nights of our trip. Here we were just being tourists. The only notable birds we encountered were at the cafe in the Royal Botanical Gardens where a Laughing Kookaburra was "bombing" people's plates for food as they were eating off them!

Return Flight
Thereafter we boarded an afternoon Singapore Airlines flight from Sydney airport to Heathrow, via Singapore (a 2hr stop and change of terminal at Changi airport - plenty of walking and a monorail needed). The Sydney flight departed at 16:30 local time and we arrived at Heathrow some 24 hours later the next morning at 05:55! It took about 5hrs to cross the northern coast of Australia. Thereafter it was a very long night as the dawn was chasing us from behind, and only just catching up. Back to work the following morning...

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Emeraldene Inn & Eco Lodge, Hervey Bay A motel I picked on the basis of reasonable TripAdvisor reviews for the night before our flight to Lady Elliot Island. Not sure why it reckoned it was an Eco Lodge - just a pretty standard motel. Downside, not mentioned on TripAdvisor, was traffic noise and also loud helicopters passing over at intervals through the night - seemed to coming into the nearby hospital. Provided an adequate continental breakfast we ate in our room. Not somewhere to rush back to.
Lady Elliot Island The so-called  "Eco resort"  is the only place to stay on the island. There are various grades of accommodation. We selected reef view which was very good, giving us a nice lookout over the sheltered tidal coral lagoon. One night a large Green Turtle had hauled itself up the beach and laid its eggs right in front of our unit. The next morning it was found just below its nest clearly exhausted, but was gone after breakfast! The unit was adequate but not luxurious. The meals were served in the restaurant/cafeteria which was very noisy and busy. We preferred to eat outside where it was much quieter but a lot cooler. The food was buffet style and nothing special. But all in all this is a great place, albeit pricey. 
Noosa River Retreat Another motel type place for a one night stay chosen on the basis of TripAdvisor reviews. It wasn't expensive and the accommodation was of a high standard. The only snag was its location - surrounded on 3 sides by busy roads. So hardly peaceful.
Rendezvous Hotel, The Rocks, Sydney This hotel was well situated right in the centre of the Rocks area of the City Centre. We had a third floor room and could just see the Harbour Bridge from the balcony. Higher rooms should also have had good views of the Opera House as well - worth asking. The room itself was fine, but we were surprised to find that this hotel, despite its considerable cost, had no facilities at all - no bar, no restaurant. Clearly I hadn't read the website carefully enough. Some of the recent TripAdvisor reviews mention this basic issue, but I don't remember any of them doing so at the time of booking! There is another Rendezvous hotel in Sydney near the station, that does apparently have a restaurant and bar.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch


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