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Adventures in the mountains

April 19th, 2012

Living at the foot of the gorgeous Blue Mountains gives me the inspiration to visit her gullies, ridges and forests at any given opportunity. Her many creatures, birds, reptiles and mammals beckon me. One bird in particular that I have always been hopeful of photographing is the Superb Lyrebird. Ever since August 2009, when I’ve witnessed a male sing his mimicry at Glenbrook, hidden deep in the bushes, my affinity for this mysterious bird has strengthened. I asked Carol Probets (http://www.bmbirding.com.au/) where she would suggest I could see and perhaps photograph this magnificent bird. She suggested the rainforest boardwalk at Scenic World should be a good starting point as they’re fairly used to people and are less skittish than at other locations. In fact, she suggested that many tourist sites in the mountains have lyrebirds more accepting and tolerant of humans in close proximity.

I planned a descent into the valley via Furber Steps at first light so I can avoid tourists and the general public. I was not sure at the time whether I wanted to walk back up or catch the Scenic Railway. My adventure began at 03:35 on a Sunday morning (15 April), when my Pied Butcherbird alarm awoke me after barely three and a half hours sleep. When I get excited about a project, nothing can stop me from thinking, daydreaming of what lies ahead. Hastily preparing breakfast and snacks and water for my big walk that day, I also briefly gave my photo equipment the final checks to ensure I have all the lenses and flashes I need. Despite choosing not to take my 500mm super telephoto lens, my camera back pack with all the gear, food and some four liters of water weighed around 20kg. Was I really looking forward to walking around ten kilometres with all this equipment? You bet! I was a little frustrated when I was informed that my train to Katoomba was running 15 or so minutes late. Not much I could do, but daydream some more.

Once onboard, it was obvious who uses trains at such “ungodly” hour of a weekend dawn. Late night revellers were sprawled across the carriages (not too many thankfully) catching some sleep on the ride home. It was quite pleasant and peaceful a trip to Katoomba. It was nearly 06:00 and the first signs of daylight have already started to creep across the cloudy skies and I could make out the fog in the Jamison Valley. I was somewhat surprised at the mild chill in the air, despite being 11 degrees Celsius, but it was not a problem knowing that the walk from the station to Scenic World will keep me warm. The first birds I saw and heard were a small group of Crimson Rosellas with their quaint tinkling calls as they flew north over the pass above the station. Walking down Parke Street the wonderful melodies of Pied Currawongs and Australian Magpie warmed my soul and they are songs I adore and can listen to all day. Passing through beside a small reserve, I fondly remembered the encounter (by hearing only) of a Lewin’s Rail a couple of years back while Graham Turner and I were searching the area for Highlands Copperhead Snakes to no avail. Satin Bowerbirds, Australian King Parrots, Brown Thornbills were all busy calling, and I heard the calls of an Eastern Whipbird. 

As I was approaching Scenic World, I noted some crake-like birds foraging in the grassy picnic area near the entrance and a quick look through my ancient binoculars revealed four stunning Buff-banded Rails. They were quick to depart when I tried a sneaky approach. But, the biggest surprise then was the calls of a Rose Robin. Thinking I may have been hearing things due to lack of sleep, I played the call on my smart phone and very quickly a male flew in right above me checking me out. I am not all that keen to use calls, despite what a lot of people may think of bird photographers in general (and what about bird watchers/twitchers using calls?), and certainly this time of the year is when I would be less shy to do so when species are not breeding. During breeding season it’s a no-no for me. After a brief confusion thinking Furber Steps were next to Scenic World Kiosk, I consulted my bushwalking guide and it said Katoomba Falls Kiosk, a few hundred metres back to the east. Once on track, I began my descent.

 

Funny that at 07:00 there were hardly any people in the street and not a soul on my descent. Yes, it is true. Your legs do feel like jelly at times so I took it easy getting down. At one spot I was excited and started to jog down the steps and as I approached a corner a female Superb Lyrebird was spooked by me and she quickly ascended the embankment. Well, I thought at least this would be a sighting, even if I fail to see another. When I walked through the Scenic Boardwalk gate I was blown away by the serenity and tranquility of the rainforest that greeted me. I am sure you know what I mean when I say that I could smell Sooty Owls and Powerful Owls in there. In fact, I will be heading out there someday to do some well-deserved spotlighting, because I feel the area has huge night time potential. The dawn chorus was well underway and it was still quite dim in the rainforest.

I could hear many birds singing their territorial songs and sonatas, including Eastern Yellow Robin, Golden Whistler, Grey Shrike-thrush, White-browed and Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Eastern Whipbird, Lewin’s and White-naped Honeyeater, White-throated Treecreeper and Grey Fantail. Interesting that at this early point I was not able to pick up lyrebirds. Also, one thing that had crossed my mind is that it is possible that some calls were mimicked by lyrebirds, but I was not able to hear their mechanical whirring sounds that appear to be in between other species’ calls that they mimic.

What a beautiful walk it was with not another soul around to distract me from my enjoyment. As I walked a loop around the boardwalks along the Yellow Robin Link then followed by the Lilli-Pilli Link. It is near this intersecting point where I first started to hear the lyrebirds. At first, the mechanical whirring calls from a distance, then the mimicry. I sat on the boardwalk quietly and waited patiently. One beautiful male came towards me with no fear and was scratching so close I could almost touch him as I lay down flat. I even had to change to a macro lens as 300mm was way too long. The time was getting nearer to 09:00 when the first train and cable car would arrive so I prepared an exit to avoid any hint of crowds. It was a good tactic as I was seeing the people land just as I walked towards the landings. However, nothing could be more satisfying than knowing this beautiful morning was finished with four male lyrebirds scratching, feeding and calling near me in one spot en route to my exit point.

Climbing back up was not as bad as I had envisaged. A walk to Echo Point was a beautiful way to end the adventure, however, I had to walk very fast to catch a train back to Penrith. The walk from Echo Point to the station took me 21 minutes only. It was very hard with my pack, but a worthwhile bit of exercise. Rest assured, on this Thursday morning (19 April) as I write this, my leg muscles have just started to recover from the walk. What a wonderful experience to have! It was the highlight of my week off work this week and only topped by a great photographic encounter with Bassian Thrush at Mount Tomah Botanic Gardens the following day.

Stay safe, and happy birding!

Ákos

Nature Photography

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