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Australia & Singapore: O'Reilly's

17  October to 20 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

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

O'Reilly's (GPS -28.230364,153.135075)
After the good weather of our trip so far, the conditions on our last night and following morning in Cairn's were a bit of a shock to the system, with rain! Although still warm, it was raining heavily as we departed Cairns on a morning Virgin Australia flight to Brisbane. The flight was fine and on-time and we picked up an Avis hire car at Brisbane Airport without any problem, only to find it was still raining and distinctly cooler. We didn't know it at the time, but the rain was to last for most of the next three days!

Having collected the hire car, we then laid in a course to O'Reilly's on my faithful TomTom and we were off driving through rain the whole way. The journey was initially on dual carriageways/motorways but we soon turned off these for the inland route towards O'Reilly's that is a Rainforest "Retreat" up in the hills of the Lamington NP about 80miles (2hrs) to the south of Brisbane.

We stopped briefly to stock up on provisions at a soggy Canungra, which is near the start of the narrow road to O'Reillys that leads up into the hills. Just before the climb started we saw a few bedraggled Gala Parrots on wires by the road and had brief views of Wonga Pigeons as we ascended up towards the clouds. We also had glimpses of birds with yellow rumps that we later learned were Eastern Yellow Robins.

On arrival at O'Reilly's, which is at the top of the hill and the end of the access road, the temperature had dropped to a cool 12C° and it was still raining. More like Scotland than Australia! We checked in and drove round to the Rainforest View villa that we had booked - imagining an extensive vista across the rain forest. However this was not the case - the villas in this category have no view at all, other than the very edge of the forest. We phoned reception to explain our disappointment and, as it was a quiet time of year, managed to get a free upgrade to the type of villa we thought had booked - called Valley View. This was much better! It was very large, with extensive decking that had superb views over the rainforest and valley below. The deck even had a spa bath on it - not much use when it was cold and wet though! By far the best accommodation we had on this trip, albeit probably the most expensive.

We saw few birds that late afternoon/evening in the poor conditions - only a bedraggled Crimson Rosella that arrived on our deck - no doubt expecting to be fed.

Guiding - day 1
There was heavy rain overnight, and it was still raining in the morning. We had a quick breakfast in our villa, when we saw King Parrot, Regent Bowerbird and female Satin Bowerbird on the deck!

We then headed over to the centre to meet up at 07:00 with our guide, Matt, who had driven up from the coast, for about 3.5hrs of guiding. There were both Satin and Regent Bowerbird around the entrance and we were then driven off for the guiding. The first good bird was a Bassian Thrush on its nest by the road - which we would never have spotted without a guide. But the weather and light was very poor for photography - and stayed that way for most of the day. We then had a few glimpses of Green Catbirds flying across the road in front of the car before walking down a track to a colony of Bell Miners. Another stop produced Grey Shrike Thrush, Grey Butcherbird and a Tawny Frogmouth on its nest.

Grey Shrike Thrush
Grey Butcherbird (click to enlarge) Grey Shrike Thrush (click to enlarge)

We had been told by Carol, of Kingfisher Park Birders Lodge, that Duck Creek Road was the place for various new species so we asked to go down there. Unfortunately, our progress was halted by a tree across the track - that had come down in the night. So that put paid to any prospects for Pardalotes etc.

Area around the centre
If you like your birds colourful, exotic and above all tame then the area around the centre at O'Reilly's is the place to be! It was ideal for photography, although made more challenging by the rain and poor light. Early in the morning, just outside the main entrance is good for Regent Bowerbird coming in to be fed. There were also Satin Bowerbirds around but they were less obliging.

Regent Bowerbird Regent Bowerbird
Regent Bowerbird (click to enlarge)

There used to be Satin Bowerbird bowers in the nearby car park, but we were told there were none there any longer. However during our first day's guiding we were told of the site of a bower that was currently occupied and was close to the central buildings. The owner was apparently famous, having starred in a David Attenborough programme for which the camera crew had been in residence for a month. We on the other hand only had two, mostly rain filled days!

After the guiding, this is the place we headed. Here we easily found the bower and its builder was in residence! We also came back here the following day, but both times the conditions were poor (rain and bad light). It is a remarkable testament to the capabilities of modern digital cameras and lenses that any worthwhile images could be obtained hand-held. The high ISO ability of the 7D Mk II (for frame filling subjects) and the four-stop IS on the Canon 100-400 Mk II lens (& its close focussing capability) both played their part in allowing these photos to be obtained.

Satin Bowerbird Satin Bowerbird
Satin Bowerbird Satin Bowerbird
Satin Bowerbird (click to enlarge)

Between the main reception and the large car park there is a grassy area, with a small roped off area that is designated as the bird feeding area. Feed can be purchased from the visitor centre between 11am and 3pm, I think. The birds are hand tame and descend on anyone with feed - perching on their heads, arms etc! The main species are both brilliantly coloured, even in the rain - Crimson Rosella and King Parrot. These birds can also be found all over O'Reilly's and come into the visitor centre cafe and even the villa decks looking for food. So plenty of photo opps - particularly if you have a close focussing lens.

Crimson Rosella Crimson Rosella
 Crimson Rosella Crimson Rosella
Crimson Rosella (click to enlarge)

Another delightful bird to be found hopping around the visitor centre/cafe area was Superb Fairy Wren.

King Parrot
King Parrots (click to enlarge)
King Parrot Superb Fairy Wren
King Parrot Superb Fairy Wren (click to enlarge)

Probably the most sought after bird at O'Reilly's is the extremely localised Albert's Lyrebird, which naturally I was keen to see. Connecting with them can be a matter of chance, but fortunately we found them relatively easily and had 3 separate encounters. The first was of a couple of birds close to the path at the start of the track to Mick's tower (a location recommended by our day 1 guide, Matt). But these were in dense cover and moving fast with no photo opps. The second was quite by chance and was more obliging - seen from the car at the top of the side road down to the villas (the bird was on the track that runs parallel to the main road). We were put onto the third by a helpful member of staff who passed by when we were at the Satin Bowerbird's bower. It was near the staff buildings that are beyond the main reception building (quite close to the start of the track to Mick's tower).

Alberts Lyrebird Alberts Lyrebird
Alberts Lyrebird
Albert's Lyrebird (click top left and above to enlarge)

Guiding - day 2
When we booked here, a year previously, I had requested two half days of guiding, which had been confirmed a little later. Hence I was not impressed when I received an email while in Australia, saying that the second day had been cancelled. Talking to others, it seems that O'Reilly's currently have something of an issue with availability of guides. Nevertheless, I complained saying we had booked this so long ago, and were coming 12,000 miles etc etc. After some further exchanges with a more senior member of staff, a short 2hr guiding session was organised for our second morning.

Arriving at the reception area at 06:30 we met our second guide - the amazing and entertaining Glen who had clearly been at O'Reilly's for many years, and had personally hand-tamed several of the local birds who recognised him and came when called! With only a couple of hours available, Glen chose to stay in the area around the centre. Initially he took us out along the Main Border Track where he introduced us to 'his' Eastern Whipbird - the only hand tame one in the world, Glen reckoned! Others birds readily seen from this track included Eastern Yellow Robin, White-browed Scrubwren and Yellow-throated Scrubwren.

Eastern Whipbird Yellow throated Scrubwren
Eastern Whipbird (click to enlarge) Yellow throated Scrubwren
Eastern Yellow Robin Eastern Yellow Robin
Eastern Yellow Robin (click to enlarge)

A more difficult bird to see well, let alone photograph, was Southern Logrunner that crept around on the ground feeding, never staying still and usually well hidden in vegetation or leaves. Eventually, I got a just about acceptable image by turning the ISO up to 12800!

Southern Logrunner
Southern Logrunner

At the end of this guiding session, Glen took us past the car park, and back along the approach road a little way to a spot where Rose Robin had been seen recently by others. Here, the bird appeared but very briefly and never stayed stayed put for more than about a second - so I never even got my bins on the bird, let alone the camera!

Despite the awful weather, our stay at O'Reilly's was one of highlights of our trip. At least it brightened up for our last evening!  It is a great place for tame, colourful and exotic birds and taking photographs of them. Species diversity may not be that high, based on our experience, but the quality of those present, and their tameness, more than makes up for it. Definitely a must visit location if you are in the Brisbane area and surely one of the great locations for birding on a world scale. Comparable in some ways to the Asa Wright centre in Trinidad, which we visited in 2015 - both are based on remote, venerable buildings with long traditions and great birds.

Not the best conditions for birding! Sunset from the Valley View Unit (after the rain had stopped!)

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
O'Reillys Rain Forest Retreat The villa we were upgraded to (Valley View) was in a separate area away from the main buildings and was great - by far the best accommodation of our trip, albeit with a price to match. When the weather finally improved on our last evening, the deck with its spa was a splendid place to relax and admire the extensive views over the rainforest covered valleys and hills below. There was even a partial sunset to enjoy. The villa itself was very spacious with a fully equipped kitchen. The dinner we had in the restaurant back in the main building was OK - but self-catering was very practical in the well equipped kitchen and more economical!

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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