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Contact Call | Volume 10 Number 1 | March 2021

Having Nordmann’s Greenshank on the Cairns Esplanade this January has been a great experience and there have been birders galore traipsing up and down looking for it and calling each other on their mobile phones. This made me recall the previous four twitching events in our area.

In April 1987 we had moved from Darwin to Cairns and were enjoying the challenges of shorebird identification on the Esplanade where we spent quite a bit of time. John Crowhurst was employed by the Mulgrave Shire Council (now the Cairns City Council) as a gardener on the Esplanade and, as he was an enthusiastic birder, that enabled him to keep a close watch on the shorebirds.

On a Sunday morning in December 1987 we received a phone call from John to say he had a strange gull on the mudflats and could we come and have a look. By the time we got there he had consulted his copy of Harrison’s Seabirds and decided it may be a first year Laughing Gull, which would be a first record for Australia! Photos were taken, from memory probably using an Olympus OM2n with a 70-210mm lens, and the print film taken to a one-hour processing lab.

The next step was to post the photos by mail to our friend and birder - extraordinaire John McKean who was living in Townsville. The next day he had received the photos and phoned us to say it was certainly a Laughing Gull and was on his way to Cairns. Meanwhile more phone calls were made to people like Mike Carter in Melbourne and the grapevine started to work. This gull stayed on the Esplanade for almost two years and in April 1988 was joined by another one, which stayed until October 1989.

The next big event was in 2002 when some Canadian birdwatchers staying at Kingfisher Park Birdwatcher’s Lodge in Julatten, found an Isabelline Wheatear at Mt Carbine. This was quite extraordinary as it was a bird that normally migrated from breeding grounds in Central Asia to Africa, so had made a huge navigation error much to the delight of Australian birders. It was present from the 15–25 November making itself at home in a dusty cow paddock near the side of the main road.

The next twitch was mid February 2008 and another gull, this time in Cooktown. Apparently the council workers had been watching it for a week or so while having their lunch break on the foreshore (probably feeding it chips!) and eventually the harbour master was alerted that there was a strange gull around. No-one was sure what it was and it took a world-wide effort by email to eventually decide it was a first year Slaty-backed Gull.

Slaty-backed Gull. Cooktown, February 2008. Image: Keith Fisher.

It stayed around until early April and there was a constant stream of birders driving up to see it. I never saw it as the morning we decided to drive up the monsoon had set in and when we got to the first major river crossing and found water lapping at the edge of the road we decided to turn around. We were due to fly to New Zealand a few days later and didn’t want to be stuck in Cooktown! Keith had already been the day before, so l dipped which compensated for the fact that Keith had missed the Isabelline Wheatear by one day as he had been up Cape York!

Eyebrowed Thrush. Malanda, February 2011. Image: Keith Fisher.

February 2 2011 saw Cyclone Yasi devastate the far north Queensland coast, but it also brought with it another first bird for Australia. Close to Malanda, a flower farmer had been watching a strange thrush hop around his orchard. He called in local birder Alan Gillanders who worked out it was an Eyebrowed Thrush. This bird breeds in Siberia and winters in south-east Asia, so must have got caught up in the huge cyclonic system and made Malanda it’s home for two weeks. Again a flurry of birders arrived to tick a new species, but being a skulky thrush and having monsoonal conditions made it hard for some and there were quite a few dips! We were in Julatten and our road was flooded for quite a few days before we eventually got to Malanda and saw the bird.

I wonder what our next twitch will be?


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