Australia is similar in size to the 48 contiguous states of the U.S. but has only seven percent of the U.S. population. However, this continent is home to over one million native species, of which about 80 percent of its plants and animals are unique to Australia. On my three previous trips I had become familiar with butterflies and fish. On my next trip, I would focus on some of the 800 species of birds. Amidst the prolific wildlife in Australia, this unique land holds history and mysteries I could only imagine.
Most Australians live on or near the coasts because the country’s interior is a harsh and dry land inhabited by indigenous people, Aboriginals, and by rugged ranchers. The original inhabitants arrived on the continent about 50,000 years ago and historians estimate their population roughly about 300,000 when European settlers first arrived. The Aboriginals of Australia suffered a fate similar to our Native Americans; white settlers drove them from their homelands and killed most of the indigenous population, in large part by imported European diseases. Only in recent times has Australia begun to recognize the rights of its indigenous people and try to rectify centuries of abuse and genocide.
The Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, an early explorer working for the Dutch East India Company, established the western perimeter of Tasmania in 1642. Tasman named the island Van Diemen’s Land, after the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies but in 1642, it was changed to Tasmania to honor TAsman’s work there.
In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook (later promoted to Captain) claimed for Britain what is now the territory of New South Wales on the east coast of Australia. Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to see and chart eastern Australia. He also recommended colonizing Botany Bay where Sydney was later built. In 1788, the first British fleet carrying minor felons from Great Britain arrived at Sydney Cove to establish its first penal colony on Australian soil.
Over time, many former prisoners settled permanently on this distant continent and expanded the colonized areas as the white European population grew. The separate colonies established on the continent of Australia united to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902.
Four Visits to Australia
During my years of world travel, I had the opportunity to visit Australia on four separate occasions. The first time I was a young Peace Corps volunteer on my way home from two years working in Tanzania. I passed through Australia briefly but had the chance to visit the steamy tropical jungle of Dunk Island, Queensland, where I netted an iridescent blue Morpho butterfly to carry home. At that time, I travelled with a small backpack and carried the equipment to collect, prepare and travel with my specimens.
In 1986, I joined an Earthwatch expedition to assist researchers studying Damselfish in the waters near Lizard Island, Queensland. My third visit was in 1992 when I traveled to Australia once again, this time to scuba dive with a friend on Lady Elliot Island, the southern most coral cay of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Another friend’s invitation to return to Australia in 2007 as a birder rekindled my fondness for that diverse and environmentally rich continent. In recent years, birding had replaced my passion for scuba diving, giving me the same thrilling interaction with wildlife as diving, but without the inconvenience of hauling heavy equipment or taking the risk of getting a tank of bad air. As a birder, I loved that I could carry a field guide with me that contained photos or drawings of all the bird species. Matching a live bird to a photo in the moment was so much more satisfying than struggling to recall what I had seen under water during a dive.
The anecdotes in the following chapters come from my fourth visit to Australia. They focus on the pursuit of particular birds in Queensland and Tasmania, along with some related travel experiences. As you will see, birding involves so much more than just seeing a bird!