Sunday, 24 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 7: Pine Creek, Katherine and Berry Springs

[Saturday 12th August cont...]

Heading south out of Kakadu, the landscape didn’t really change a lot, except for going over a low range of hills. Our next stop (well, the next stop – there aren’t many) was the small town of Pine Creek. This is renowned in birding circles as the best place to see Hooded Parrots, an extremely range-restricted species of the Northern Territory. We’d got gen that we needed to look in the small Bogger’s Park behind the Shell garage. Predictably, we couldn’t find a Shell garage. We popped into the ‘Lazy Lizard’ store for a drink (=iced coffee fix) and the store owner assured me that I didn’t want to go to Bogger’s Park, but that the very best place for the parrot was just in front of his store. However, they only ever appeared at dawn and dusk when he put his sprinklers on. It was now 1330 and we had a long way to go, so there was no way I was going to convince the troops to hang around for another five hours. So, we had a small wander around the ‘water gardens’ in the middle of town and did see a few things – Blue-faced and White-throated Honeyeaters, Grey-crowned Babbler and Forest Kingfisher. Most noteworthy though were hundreds of roosting Black Flying-fox in some of the trees. We’d previously (in Atherton) been warned that our next campsite at Katherine should be avoided as it had been ‘devastated’ by 100,000 fruit bats. We were mildy perturbed by this intelligence, but didn’t really have a plan B, so were pushing on anyway. But it was interesting to see these bats here in Pine Creek (even if they weren’t quite Hooded Parrots).

Black Flying-fox, Pine Creek

Blue-faced Honeyeater, Pine Creek

Onwards south to Katherine along the Stuart Highway, a good fast road through more miles of monotonous country. Not a lot to see on the way – I only jotted down Black and Whistling Kites and Black-faced Cuckooshrike. Others have noted Black-chested Buzzard along here, but no such luck. We finally made it to Katherine itself (lots of Black Kites), stocked up on supplies, and took advantage of the first bit of Wifi for a few days. Then north to Katherine Gorge itself, with a flock of ten Galahs and a Blue-winged Kookaburra on the way. We got to the site and checked in, and were able to look down on the riverside trees where – yes – there were quite a lot of fruit bats. Lots and lots, roosting in trees but a few already flying around in the late afternoon. We went to put up tents then had a wander nearby. There were a few very tame Agile Wallabies on the site, and birds included White-bellied Sea Eagle, Great Bowerbird, Paperbark Flycatcher, Galah and Red-winged Parrot. After doing a few sample counts of c500 in a typical tree, we felt that 100,000 bats was not an unrealistic estimate, and was perhaps even a little too small; anything up to a million would have been believable. The bats’ guano apparently smelt a little overpowering after a while (although I am blessed with a dysfunctional sense of smell). The majority of the bats down nearer the river appeared to be Little Red Flying-fox, although there were also some Black Flying-fox around the campsite itself. As dusk descended, the bats became increasingly active, many flying over the river to drink.

We watched for a while, then returned and ate our dinner on a campsite table, with bats overhead and a Bush Thick-knee wandering about calling. Oddly, there were also three Blue-winged Kookaburras visible in the lights after dark, one being approached within six feet. Then back to the tent, but just as I was getting in, I heard a distant call of what was surely a Southern Boobook (owl), so I grabbed the torch and headed off to find it. Sadly, it shut up before I got anywhere near so I returned to bed. I then had to get up again to tell a stoned couple next door to pipe down (which they did, eventually).

Sunday 13th August

I slept fitfully and as dawn approached, the clamour of bats got louder and louder. I was amazed (well, not really I suppose) that the rest of the family slept through the din. The sight of bats streaming across the pre-dawn sky was an incredible experience. But as the sun rose, the flow switched off and the noise dropped to nothing. I got up and had a mosy around the campsite. Highlight was watching and listening to some Pied Butcherbirds – an adult and two immatures – incredibly attractive sound seemingly at odds with the thuggish appearance. Other birds included Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Galah, Little Friarbird, Grey-crowned Babbler, Red-winged Parrot and a single Northern Rosella. After breakfast we walked the Baruwei loop, up onto the escarpment and back down. This was OK but not especially challenging and pretty birdless, the exception being a relatively distant view of my first Wedge-tailed Eagle (an immature) and the only Great Cormorants of the trip flying over – also Brown Goshawk, Blue-winged Kookaburra, etc.

Justice dealt out to our noisy neighbours in the shape of a raiding Great Bowerbird

Distant Wedge-tailed Eagle

We then had an early bit of lunch before going down to the boat launch area; an adult Wedge-tailed Eagle flew over being mobbed by Torresian Crows. Also whilst waiting for the boat, I picked up Rufous Whistler and White-gaped Honeyeater. We then got on a powered boat to take us a few miles up the river into the gorge. Highlight was seeing our first Freshwater Crocodiles – reasonably sizeable beasts in their own right, even if not a shade on the Salties. We were then dropped off and given canoes, and had a couple of hours paddling up and down the steep-side gorge. Quite fun, although the only species I noted were Peregrine, White-faced Heron, Sulphur-crested and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Great Bowerbird, Torresian Crow, Brown Honeyeater and Fairy Martin (including seeing nests of the latter in overhung riverside caves). After this the boat took us back downstream (past more Freshie Crocs) and delivered us back to the campsite. Had a fairly lazy evening thereafter, nothing to report (except for several 100,000 fruit bats of course).

A few Little Red Flying-foxes, Katherine Gorge

Mouth of Katherine Gorge (many of the trees along the river here were full of fruit-bats)

Monday 14th August

My birthday today, so of course I was hoping for some nice new species, and indeed I struck lucky almost straight away. Rising at first light, just outside the campsite I found the bower of a Great Bowerbird that was under attack by a flock of seven Apostlebirds; this interesting species had been reported here by someone else in a trip report, so I was pleased to catch up on it (especially after previously dipping at Mareeba). Amongst other common species I also had good views of Leaden Flycatcher, Collared Sparrowhawk, White-winged Triller, Northern Rosella and a nesting Brown Honeyeater.

Impressive bower by a Great Bowerbird

After breakfast we sponged the bat shit off the tents and packed up, then headed off south again. Amazingly, I had two more lifers at a random roadside stop in a more open area of fields – a Masked Woodswallow on a wire and then I noted a couple of Rufous Songlarks on the roadside fences. There was also another Wedge-tailed Eagle along this road this morning. We again stopped in Katherine for supplies and wifi (and saw a Crested Pigeon in the supermarket car-park). We then had to make a decision: head back north as planned toward Darwin and home; or say goodbye to our normal lives and turn the other way and off into the interior. Sadly, the others talked me out of the latter option, and we turned back north along the road towards the coast.

The next place we stopped was by coming off on the Edith Falls Rd, where Hooded Parrots had been seen by others previously about 6 km from the main road. This was very dry and hot – Trudy stayed in the car whilst the boys and I had a few minutes wandering about along the edge of a small creek. No luck with the parrots, but from the tiny bit of wet habitat we did manage to flush a surprising number of waterbirds – our second Black Bittern, plus two Nankeen Night-herons, Great White Egret, White-faced Heron and a Black-necked Stork. It really was too hot to subject non-birders to a long stay though, so we headed back north (Pheasant Coucal and several Brown Falcons along the road) to try again around Pine Creek. Again, we hit it at the wrong time of day, which just couldn’t be helped. However, this time we did find the small Bogger’s Park; the Shell garage we’d been looking for is now a United garage! We drove up to the viewpoint at the top of the hill out over the flooded mine workings, then returned down to have lunch in Bogger’s park. No luck with the Hooded Parrots though. I was somewhat despondent about the fact it looked likely that I would dip these. We popped into the local museum, and the lady in there also confirmed that people only ever saw them at dawn and dusk at the Lazy Lizard store. Yeah thanks. Anyway, we thought we’d walk down to where there was a mining museum and as we did so, I picked up three tiny, long-tailed parrots hurtling into a dense tree. Surely? Yes, we got up to the tree and peered up, and picked up a couple of stunning Hooded Parrots sitting quietly in the shade. Brilliant! So, you don’t have to visit at dawn or dusk (but to be fair, I’m sure it helps!) For reference, the tree was by the ‘1889 water column’ – in fact, just for fun, I think this is the tree. Other birds around Pine Creek today included Brown Falcon, Great Bowerbird, Figbird, White-winged Triller, Paperbark Flycatcher, Rufous Whistler, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbirds and Galah, as well as about 250 Black Flying-foxes.

Hooded Parrot, Pine Creek

We celebrated with an iced coffee (well I did) and then we pushed on north. Not a lot to see by the roadside, the habitat still looking essentially the same as within Kakadu – tall eucalypts and termite mounds, with an open understorey including Sand Palms and Pandanus. We had a stop at the Manton Dam reservoir for a leg-stretch, but there wasn’t really a decent walking trail here. A few birds included Green Pygmy Goose, Darter, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Red-winged Parrot, Drongo, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Torresian Imperial Pigeon (note the far-carrying booming call), Pheasant Coucal and Orange-footed Scrubfowl.  We then continued a few miles further north to Berry Springs, a very dispersed ‘village’ where we’d booked a room for our last two nights. This was a cabin in the corner of someone’s plot along Kultaar Road, which was very pleasant and relaxing. A handful of birds around here before dark included Little Corella, Red-winged Parrot, Double-barred Finch and Bush Thick-knee. We went out for a meal at a nearby restaurant as a birthday treat after days of cold camp food.

Tuesday 15th August

Our penultimate day. On waking, I simply logged the birds around our accommodation; nothing particularly special but including Black-faced and White-breasted Cuckooshrikes, Pied Butcherbird, Galah, etc. After breakfast we headed off to a small site nearby called Berry Springs Nature Park. This was OK, but its main attraction was a few natural swimming pools that were very popular, so the number of people was a bit high for our liking. There were also lots of signs saying to the water had high bacterial levels and we should stay out, so we just sat on the side and dangled our feet it, watching some large fish swim past. There was a short loop trail that had a sign saying it was closed for repairs, but we walked around it anyway and I was surprised to pick up two lifers; at least two Green-backed Gerygones in a mixed flock of birds, plus a Little Bronze Cuckoo. Other species here included Lemon-bellied and Shining Flycatchers, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Arafura Fantail, Large-billed Gerygone and White-winged Triller.

Black-faced Cuckooshrike, Berry Springs

From here we made a short visit to the Crazy Acres mango farm, where they sell mango ice-cream. Nice, but we thought there might have been more to it than just a shop and tables. So we ate our ice-cream then drove off. We tried the road to Middle Arm which is supposed to be a site for a number of mangrove species that I still needed, but the road was frustratingly closed for repairs. Instead we drove north then west onto Channel Island. Not really recommended – it’s a long way, a bit industrial around here and the access wasn’t great, but we did get close to a few mangroves. After some lunch in the car we had a short wander around the boat ramp area where I picked out Varied Triller, White-gaped Honeyeater, three Common Sandpipers, Eastern Reef Heron and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher. But nothing more exciting. The heat was quite intense here so we didn’t last long and in the end we gave up and returned to our accommodation via a supermarket to pick up beer and supplies for a barbecue. We then spent the afternoon doing what normal people probably do on holiday – i.e. not very much, just sat around reading and drinking beer. I did have a nice view of a perched Brown Goshawk being mobbed by Pied Butcherbirds though. Towards the end of the day, the boys and I walked a short loop around the roads, picking up 19 species in about an hour including 40 Little Corellas, Red-winged Parrot, Galah, Silver-crowned Friarbird etc. We then sat and watched the Baz Luhrman film ‘Australia’ on the TV, which seemed apt (particularly the bits of it set around Darwin).

Brown Goshawk, Berry Springs

Wednesday 16th August

Our final morning. The usual selection of common species around our digs was joined by a fab little male Red-backed Fairywren, visible from the loo.

Red-backed Fairywren, Berry Springs 

We packed everything up ready for the plane and set off north back towards Darwin. A flock of four quails (likely Brown Quails?) flew across the road at one point, my only sighting of any except for the ones at Mareeba Wetlands. We had time for a few stops, so we had a quick look around the boat ramp on the north side of the Elizabeth River crossing, which others had mentioned as a place for mangrove species including Chestnut Rail. Again, the tide was in although I thought I might have heard a distant rail calling. I tried a little tape-luring for Mangrove Gerygone and Mangrove Robin, to no avail. We did see a nice Red-headed Honeyeater, and there was a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles on the pylon. Most impressive thing though was a cool jellyfish swimming past the end of the ramp.

White-bellied Sea Eagle, Elizabeth River

Cool jellyfish at Elizabeth River boat ramp

Red-headed Honeyeater, Elizabeth River

Our final place to look around was the Charles Darwin National Park, an impressively large protected area on the outskirts of the city with lots of mangrove habitat. Sadly, the walking trails were all in the scrubby woodland and we couldn’t find any way of accessing the mangroves. So it was pleasant enough, but we didn’t add any final new species. Birds here included a flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Black-faced Cuckooshrike and so on. We finally called it a day and made our way round the airport. Not wanting to give up the Australian birding until the last minute, I logged nine species around the airport terminal: Brown Honeyeater, Red-collared Lorikeet, Spangled Drongo, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Magpie-lark, White-breasted Woodswallow, Figbird, Little Friarbird and Dusky Honeyeater.

We flew from Darwin to Singapore, where in the fading light, we noted hundreds of mynas along the runway.  Despite not really being able to study them in any detail (and it was dark by the time we finally made it into the terminal), these were clearly Javan Myna which, it appears, has mostly ousted Common Myna from its position as number one introduced species in the Singapore area. We spent a few hours around the airport, getting food and looking at the unique in-airport butterfly garden (although the butterflies were clearly asleep), before taking the long flight back. In contrast to our way out, the Singapore Airlines A380 was very comfortable indeed, even in cattle class where we were travelling (sadly, we didn’t have our own suite, which you can get for about £7K per person). We landed back at Heathrow on time and 10 minutes later had the welcome news that Tom had got the grades he needed for his place at Cambridge University, a great end to a great trip. The final Australian bird tally was 240 species of which 205 were new. I definitely want to go back and continue to explore this amazing continent.

Finally, huge thanks to my ever-patient and long-suffering family. Even if they did grip me off with the Red-necked Crake...

Team Musgrove at Mossman Gorge

Australia 2017. Part 6: Kakadu

[Wednesday 9th August cont...]

Onwards east and into Kakadu. This was a two hour drive that seemed much longer. Most of this journey (and indeed most of the next few days) involved a vista of long straight roads through unending Eucalyptus scrub, peppered with termite mounds. Impressive at first, a little wearing after a while. There was very little wildlife to be seen whilst driving at speed, except for Black and Whistling Kites congregating wherever there was an active bush fire. The only open area was after passing the South Alligator River; this looks like it could be amazing in the wet season, but we saw little here except for a couple more Black-necked Storks. Otherwise, in this two hour journey, I noted Brown Falcon, Collared Sparrowhawk and Torresian Crow. We finally made it to the Bowali visitor centre at Jabiru. Had a drink, filled our water bottles, and looked round the displays. Not a lot of birds around here – Blue-winged Kookaburra and Orange-footed Scrubfowl of note.

We then drove a few miles further south, picking up my first flock of about 20 Little Corellas by the roadside – easily overlooked as Sulphur-crested Cockatoos if not paying attention. After yet another pair of Black-necked Storks, we pulled off down a track to the Burdulba camp ground. This was a very basic site, the only facility being a small toilet block. The downside of this site was the mosquitoes. The upside was that we had it entirely to ourselves. We had a short walk along a trail as dusk approached, and picked up my first Little Woodswallow and Nankeen Night-heron, as well as Forest Kingfisher, Rufous Whistler, Yellow Oriole, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and so on. We then put the tents up (without bothering with the outer covers). I had one more wander down the track and found myself an immature Brush Cuckoo, before returning for tea inside the tents, all of us highly focused on keeping mozzies out. After dark, without our outer tent covers on we had an amazing view of the stars overhead, as well as a few fruit bats and the inevitable wail of Bush Thick-knees nearby.

Thursday 10th August

We managed to stay mozzie-free overnight, but on waking, we could see them clustered on the outside of the tent. So we did a rapid pack-up and sadly we didn’t really get a chance to explore Burdulba any further. We set off on a relatively short drive to Nourlangie. After leaving the main road for a few km, I finally clapped eyes on something I’d been scouring the roadside for miles for - a Partridge Pigeon flew up and landed not far away, allowing a decent view from the car. Sadly, this was the only one of these that we saw, but they’re clearly pretty elusive.

Partridge Pigeon, Nourlangie

At Nourlangie car park we had breakfast, whilst I tried to scan the cliffs of the impressive sandstone escarpment for some of my key Kakadu targets, namely Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Banded Fruit-dove, White-lined Honeyeater and Sandstone Shrike-thrush. No such luck, with just a Great Bowerbird, Yellow Oriole and a few Helmeted Friarbirds in evidence. We joined the first ranger-guided walk, which explained nicely about the rock art (which was OK, but not as impressive as expected). During one of the talks, I noted my first Peregrine of the trip high overhead, and I later notched up a handful of other species including Torresian Crow, Dusky Honeyeater, Norther Fantail, Mistletoebird, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo and Rufous Whistler. But no hint of the key targets, which was disappointing.

Green Tree Ants (Oecophylla sp?) were common and apparently taste of lemon...

It was getting hot now, but we decided to try a different strategy, driving a few miles back along the track then branching off a short way to the car park for the track to Nanguluwur. From here we had a short hot march through the bush to another point at the foot of the sandstone escarpment – nice to be aware from the crowds of tourists at the main Nourlangie site, but similarly birdless. I only noted Black Cockatoos, Red-collared Lorikeets, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, Great Bowerbird, Helmeted Friarbird, Grey-crowned Babbler and Spangled Drongo. We gave up and sweated our way back to the car and had some lunch in the shade. Overall, I was disappointed with the Nourlangie area, although I guess just a slight change in luck could have made it great. Interestingly, I spoke to a birder who spent the effort doing the full 12 km Barrk Bushwalk, and he also failed to find any of the target specialities either.

After lunch we made our way to Cooinda for a cold drink (I started developing a bit of an addiction to cartons of iced coffee) then had a look at the nearby Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Cooinda which was reasonably interesting. In the vicinity I noted White-bellied Sea-eagle, Whistling Kite, Forest Kingfisher, Paperbark Flycatcher and Torresian Crow. We then made our way to our evening campground – Jim Jim Billabong – a bit early. Another nice quiet site, although some other people at this one. No mozzies thankfully, although the site was occupied by a Dingo. Somewhat chunkier than my preconceived idea of what one should look like, but it seems that most are very mixed up with more recent feral dogs, giving them very variable appearance. Anyway, no-one owned it and it was wandering around in the bush, so surely a Dingo. We called it Ringo.

Ringo the Dingo at Jim Jim Billabong

After putting the tents up we went for a walk along the tracks here (accompanied by Ringo who seemed to have adopted us). There were some decent birds in the open bush here, with four new ones for me. Firstly, I finally confirmed Fairy Martin, a couple of which were flying around with a flock of Little Woodswallows. Two new species of finch were welcome – a couple of Masked Finch and about 10 Crimson Finch. I was confused by the final tick and had to work through the book later comparing my photo to the plates, but eventually I realised it was a White-winged Triller. Quite a few other birds here – Black Cockatoos, Dusky Honeyeater, Leaden Flycatcher. Grey-crowned Babbler, Australian Pipit, Rufous Whistler and Black-faced Cuckooshrike. A surprising flock of about 100 White-headed Stilts flew over high up, followed by 150 Little Black Cormorants; clearly water somewhere nearby, apart from the relatively small billabong. We returned to the tents, ate and turned in for the night. For a change, the Bush Thick-knee calls had to compete with Long-tailed Nightjars.

White-winged Triller, Jim Jim Billabong

Friday 11th August

We were woken by Torresian Crows, which we felt have quite an amusing call – a series of descending caws rather like a classic cartoon downfall ‘wah-wah-waaah’. The Long-tailed Nightjars were still calling at dawn too. I had a short walk along the track, finding a pair of White-winged Trillers, about 40 Rainbow Bee-eaters, Leaden Flycatcher and had good views of an adult Brush Cuckoo, before finding my only new bird of the morning, a Striated Pardalote which took a bit of separating from Red-browed. A flock of finches that flew through may have been Long-tailed Finch, but they didn’t stop for confirmation.

Little Corella, Yellow Water

We packed up and headed off to Yellow Water, with nice views of a Pheasant Coucal on the way. We had a boat trip (courtesy of my generous parents) booked on Yellow Water but arrived a bit early, so had a bit of a wander on foot, chatting to a Texan birder who was there too. Around the car park, there was a persistant call which I finally tracked down as emanating from a pair of Brush Cuckoos, as well as Rufous Whistler, Leaden and Paperbark Flycatchers and a Brown Goshawk. By the boats there was also a very short boardwalk but this gave nice views of a range of waterbirds, including Whiskered Tern, Green Pygmy Goose, Darter, Shining Flycatcher, Black-necked Stork, White-necked Heron, Comb-crested Jacana, Pied Heron, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Royal Spoonbill, Nankeen Night-heron, Rajah Shelduck and eight Glossy Ibis. I was also a little surprised to find a Torresian Imperial Pigeon here too. However, the highlight was good views of two Saltwater Crocodiles.

Magpie Goose, Yellow Water

With a little time still to spare we popped back to the nearby Cooinda camp for a drink, where there was a flock of Little Corellas, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and White-bellied Sea Eagles. Then time for the cruise, from about 1130 to 1330. This was great and the guide was excellent – inevitably focusing on crocodiles for most of the guests but paying attention to the birds too. Most of the birds were the common and widespread waterbirds we’d been seeing so far, but views were good of species like both Plumed and Wandering Whistling Duck, Rainbow Bee-eater, Azure Kingfisher, Black-necked Stork, Royal Spoonbill, Nankeen Night-heron, Crimson Finch and Australian Swamphen. A couple of Brolgas flew over and a Dusky Moorhen was a surprise as it wasn’t mapped here in the field guide (but subsequent investigations showed that they aren’t unknown here). The avian highlight was my first Black Bittern that flew across the channel in front of the boat, landing in bankside vegetation and sadly quickly dropping out of sight. The mammals were interesting too, with one area of marsh with a dozen feral pigs causing very visible habitat destruction, a group of six brumbies (feral horses) accompanied by Cattle Egrets, and three feral buffalo in dense bankside vegetation – plus Agile Wallabies. The Saltwater Crocodiles were obviously also a highlight – I counted 10 individuals, mostly large and impressive specimens.

Saltwater Crocodile, Yellow Water

Comb-crested Jacana, Yellow Water

Yellow Water cruise

Feral Water Buffalo, Yellow Water

Don't swim here

After the boat trip, we drove a few miles south to have lunch at the Mardugal car park – nice views here of a perched Collared Sparrowhawk being mobbed by Brown Honeyeaters. We then headed south through more interminable miles of eucalypts/termite mounds until we reached the Gunlom track. I really wanted to go to Gunlom, but it has the slight disadvantage that the approach track is about 37 km of bumpy red dirt. Suffice to say this wasn’t the family’s favourite bit of driving of the holiday, but we gritted our teeth and made it through, nerves jangling. Well worth the effort though as Gunlom (also known as Waterfall Creek) is a lovely spot, albeit a lot busier than we’d experienced at the previous two sites. We put up the tents surrounded by lots of noisy Rainbow Lorikeets, with other campsite birds being typical species such as Magpie Lark, Black and Whistling Kites, Torresian Crow, Forest Kingfisher, Brown and White-throated Honeyeaters, Great Bowerbird, Silver-crowned Friarbird and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. However, it was also pleasing here to find Olive-backed Oriole, something I’d been expecting to see anywhere for weeks. The heat was quite intense here – about 37 degrees – and we quickly made our way to the waterfall-fed pool at the foot of the cliff which is popular for swimming. Most people stuck to the edge but Trudy and I swam right across and back, before being informed that although the pool wasn’t supposed to have any crocodiles, that wasn’t 100% certain. Anyway, we did get bitten, but by some little nippy fish instead of anything more serious.

Gunlom plunge pool

As we had a little bit of daylight left, we then climbed the steep path to the top of the escarpment. Although a steep climb it doesn’t take too long and the view from the top is worth the effort. Sadly, I didn’t have time to go exploring up here this evening for the local specialities, but planned to return in the morning. The only birds of note were Red-winged Parrot and Helmeted Friarbirds, and there were lots of small frogs on the rocks. We returned to the campsite, had some food and listened to a talk by a ranger before bed.

Frog at top of Gunlom falls

Saturday 12th August

Duncan decided to join me and we rose pre-dawn to climb back up the escarpment, managing the ascent in double-quick time. We then spent a couple of hours exploring the jumbled landscape of limestone rocks and scrub, famed as essentially the only site where White-throated Grasswren can be seen. Our hopes weren’t high as no-one had seen the species here recently. However, I also thought we had a good chance of the other local targets I’d missed at Nourlangie, namely Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Banded Fruit Dove, Sandstone Shrikethrush and White-lined Honeyeater. For about the first hour we had very little success at all, although I thought I could hear a distant White-lined Honeyeater way up a steep slope, that I didn’t pursue. Our luck changed slightly when at one spot we came across my first Banded Honeyeater, and this was followed shortly afterwards by another tick – a group of three Northern Rosellas. Other than these, the species tally wasn’t high, with more notable species being White-winged Triller, Brown Goshawk, Northern Fantail, Azure Kingfisher, Red-winged Parrot and White-gaped and Dusky Honeyeaters. But no sign of any of the local specialities, which was very annoying. The terrain was pretty tough and we’d got spiked and probably taken more snake-related risks than were entirely wise too. We’d arranged to meet Tom and Trudy at a pre-set time at the pools at the top of the falls and as we made our way to meet them, at the last moment I heard and then saw a White-lined Honeyeater close to the path. So, at least one of the local endemics, but probably my least sought after.

Olive-backed Oriole, Gunlom

Anyway we had a pleasant swim in the pools here, being nipped occasionally by crayfish, and then made our way back down, effectively having to give up on the other Kakadu endemics. We put the tents down and then bumped our way back along the track to the main road; tarmac is seriously under-rated when you’ve got lots of it. We then headed south and out of Kakadu National Park.

Pools at the top of Gunlom escarpment

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 5: Darwin

[Monday 6th August]

Our flight from Cairns took us west over the Gulf of Carpentaria and we had a short stop at the tiny airport with the amusing name (to British ears) of Gove, at the north-east end of Arnhem land. A few mining types were getting on/off. Along the runway I saw a handful of Australian Pratincoles which as it turned out were the only ones I saw on the trip (might be the only bird I’ve only seen from a plane). We had to disembark and go into the tiny terminal, where I picked out my first Pied Butcherbird, along with Black and Brahminy Kite, Nankeen Kestrel and Torresian Crow. We soon got back on and continued further west to Darwin airport and picked up our next hire car. It was noticeably hotter here than Cairns. In the car park I managed two new species, although one was Red-collared Lorikeet which is essentially the same thing as the Rainbow Lorikeets at Cairns airport. However, I was pleased to see Torresian Imperial Pigeons, very smart things.

We drove to find our Airbnb in the suburb of Nightcliff, which was basic but fine (and quiet). Before dark we had a walk along the coast and picked up a selection of common suburban birds which were mostly similar to Cairns, although included Blue-faced Honeyeater, Torresian Imperial Pigeon and Eastern Osprey plus a few new birds. Little Friarbirds were seen around the flat, and in the park-like area along the coast there were a few Grey-crowned Babblers. A little further on by the mouth of the Rifle Creek I noticed Helmeted Friarbird which (I later discovered) is a recent split from the Hornbill Friarbird in Cairns. Finally, a small honeyeater flitting rapidly around was eventually pinned down as being Rufous-banded Honeyeater. As we walked back at dusk, a Brown Goshawk was seen taking food to a nest. We picked up some food at a local shop and then turned in.

White-breasted Woodswallows, Nightcliff

Monday 7th August

I got up early and drove round to East Point to look for my top local target, Rainbow Pitta. I arrived at 0615 when it was still pretty dark, and headed off around the monsoon forest trail by torchlight. Orange-footed Scrubfowl were calling and soon I came on a firebreak where I picked out some eye-shine that soon resolved into a nightjar on the ground. This soon flew over my head and from what I could see, and the ‘chook’ call, it was clearly Large-tailed Nightjar (which I’d seen in India years ago at Bharatpur). I continued around the trail and soon realised I could hear a Rainbow Pitta singing quite close to the path (I had the song on my phone). I tried to remain patient and wait for the light, but eventually cracked and tried a bit of playback with my phone. This was stupid, as the bird then shut up. It got lighter and I could see no sign of it. I didn’t have much time to hang around, and quite a long trail to get back to the car, so I had to leave, pretty pissed off with the situation. However, about 10 mins later I walked around a corner and there was a stunning Rainbow Pitta in the middle of the path. This was my first ever pitta, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped! The bird was very obliging, but it was still too dark for me to get any useful photos (see here for a nice one), so I just had to enjoy it hopping around. A great bird, but soon I had to get back to the car. I did manage another tick before I got there however, with my first White-gaped Honeyeater seen, quite a widespread species up in the Top End.

Rainbow Pitta, world's worst photo, East Point

After returning to the flat and having breakfast, we all went into Darwin town centre for a ‘non-birding day’. I even left my scope and field guide behind, although I ended up regretting the latter. We parked at the end of the Stuart Highway (the one that goes all the way down to the south coast of Australia) and walked through the coastal parkland. Lots of Black Kites here, and other species included Orange-footed Scrubfowl (lots, even in urban car-parks), Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Little and Helmeted Friarbirds, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Figbird, Pacific Reef Heron, Spangled Drongo, Northern Fantail, White-gaped and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Common Sandpiper and Varied Triller.

Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Darwin

One on the most interesting finds of the whole trip however was when I noticed a small, pale beige heron on the shoreline. From its colouration, I thought it was clearly one of the Ardeola pond herons and as there aren’t any resident in Australia, I figured it was perhaps a vagrant Javan or Chinese Pond Heron. However, I didn’t have my field guide – doh! I got what photos I could, then puzzled over how to progress with this bird. Eventually however, we found some Wifi in town and I checked a few photos of pond herons, but none looked quite right. What to do? Eventually, we took a back of camera photo with a phone and emailed it to Rich Fuller in Brisbane, asking for advice and whether Aussie twitchers might want to see the bird. Rich rapidly got back and confirmed that it a pond-heron would indeed be a mega, but that this didn’t look right. He suggested it might be a leucistic Striated Heron, which was a very good call as that was clearly what it was. A highly unusual thing to see, and most unfair for a visiting birder on their first day in a new place!

Leucistic Striated Heron, Darwin

Alongside this excitement, we did some tourist things, looking at some WW2 tunnels, visiting a Chinese taoist temple, and so on. Towards the end of the day we made our way down to Stokes Hill Wharf for some fish and chips. Some good wild fish viewing here too (don’t know what they were!) but the fish and restaurants attracted a fair flock of Silver Gulls which were accompanied by Crested and Gull-billed Terns and a Brahminy Kite, with a few Little Black Cormorants and a normal-coloured Striated Heron also in the harbour. Wandered back, did a bit of supermarket shopping and experienced a few highly drunk locals along the pavement (some big horse racing event had happened today which had presumably acted as a suitable excuse to drink since lunchtime). Then back to Nightcliff.

Stokes Hill Wharf

Tuesday 8th August

The other key target I had before leaving Cairns was Chestnut Rail, so I rose pre-dawn again and drove up to Buffalo Creek, where a boat ramp allows a view of the mangrove-fringed mouth of the creek. Annoyingly, the tide was high, leaving no exposed mud for the rails. This was frustrating, but I took the opportunity to have a short look around. Most notably, there was a mixed flock of waterbirds on the beach at the mouth of the creek which I was able to work through when the sun had risen. I counted about 200 knot (and felt these were probably about 50/50 Red Knot/Great Knot), 25 Sanderling, 15 Eastern Curlew, 50 Masked Lapwing, 2 Pied Oystercatcher, 1 Common Sandpiper, 120 Silver Gull, 35 Crested Tern, 15 Lesser Crested Tern, 17 Gull-billed Tern, 1 Common Tern, 1 Australian Pelican and 2 Pacific Reef Heron. Other more notable species around the car park here included Sacred Kingfisher, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, about 20 Red-winged Parrot, Black Butcherbird, Darter, Yellow Oriole, Brahminy Kite, White-gaped Honeyeater and also five Red-tailed Black Cockatoos that were seen well out to see, flying north (perhaps towards Gunn Point rather than all the way to Melville Island?) I also heard a possible Mangrove Gerygone here but couldn’t pin it down.

I then returned for breakfast, before we all headed out to the East Point area for the day. On route I finally managed a convincing Collared Sparrowhawk (on size and jizz). We first went to the Military Museum, which particularly focused on the Japanese bombing of Darwin shortly after Pearl Harbour and was pretty good. In the grounds, along with various pieces of hardware, I found a few decent birds including my first Lemon-bellied Flycatcher as well as Brown Goshawk, Double-barred Finch, Shining Flycatcher, Forest Kingfisher, Varied Triller and Rufous-banded Honeyeater.

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, East Point

After this we went back to the Mangrove boardwalk. Although only short, this was highly productive for new birds in a short space of time. I found one tree containing three new birds: Arafura Fantail (split of Rufous Fantail), Yellow White-eye and Large-billed Gerygone. Even better, at the far end of the boardwalk (which annoyingly doesn’t stick out onto the beach but stays in the mangroves), there was a fine pair of Collared Kingfishers – now split as Torresian Kingfisher, and the only ones I saw on the trip. We spent a little time watching the crabs here, and came across a pair of Broad-billed Flycatchers here which were also new. As we walked back, a Red-headed Honeyeater zipped past, sufficiently striking to identify in flight.

Torresian Kingfisher, East Point

Colourful crab in mangroves, East Point

We then spent a little while by the small Lake Alexander where the kids had a swim and we had lunch. Lots of Black Kites, Straw-necked Ibis, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Magpie Lark loitering around the picnic benches. There was also a Rajah Shelduck on the lake and a distant White-bellied Sea Eagle here. During the afternoon, we did a walking loop that took us along the Monsoon trail, back along the north side of the peninsula towards Lake Alexander, back around the south/west side of the peninsula, then back in along the Monsoon trail. Sadly, no further pitta success but a few nice things. A pair of Pacific Bazas gave fantastic views but annoyingly my camera failed to focus succesfully on them (although a video was better). The best bird of the day though was a fantastic Beach Thick-knee which caught my eye whilst we were walking on top of a low cliff, and the bird was walking on open sand. It soon walked into an area of rocks where it was much harder to pick up. We watched this for a while until someone walked along the beach and the bird flushed off to the north. After failing to find this in the Cairns area, I was very pleased to pull it back. Otherwise, three Caspian Terns were seen flying north offshore, and the beaches also held Common Sandpiper plus Striated and Pacific Reef Herons. Eventually we drove back to our flat, with an Australian Hobby flying over in Nightcliff – my only record of this species during the trip.

Pacific Baza, East Point

Beach Thick-knee (and Masked Lapwings), East Point

Wednesday 9th August

I didn’t get up early for once, having sorted most of my targets in the Darwin area (except for the tide-dependent Chestnut Rail). After breakfast we packed our stuff away and headed off to a supermarket for supplies, then set off down the Stuart Highway and into the outback. Our first stop was at Fogg Dam, about an hour after leaving Darwin and about five miles north of the main road. We set off on the trail along the east side of the lake but made a major mistake of not taking insect repellent with us. The trail was fine at first but on reaching the edge of the lake, the mosquitoes rapidly became a real problem. The others beat a retreat before I did, trading the chance to look for birds for stacks of bites. Annoyingly, I didn’t add much for my pains, although a pair of Paperbark Flycatchers was new, along with Leaden Flycatcher, Arafura Fantail, Varied Triller, Azure Kingfisher, White-gaped and White-throated Honeyeaters, Darter, Magpie Goose and Plumed Whistling Ducks with young. Back at the car park and loaded up with DEET, we then decided to walk along the dam. Before we got very far, we came upon another problem – a recent sign saying quite clearly that there was a large saltwater crocodile around and that no-one should cross the dam on foot. You’ve really got to listen to that sort of advice.

Public service notice at Fogg Dam - seems fair enough

Fortunately, there is a road along the dam also so we drove. This revealed a spectacular concentration of waterbirds, perhaps the most spectacular I remember seeing anywhere in the world. Below the dam, marshy ground extended for miles and was completely packed with thousands of birds. In particular, I found my first Pied Herons; not just a few but at least a thousand in dense flocks of hundreds. The most numerous species was probably Magpie Goose, alongside Plumed Whisting Ducks (and I should have checked more closely for Wandering) and Green Pygmy Geese, Great and Intermediate Egrets, White-necked Heron, Comb-crested Jacana, Darter, Straw-necked and Australian White Ibis, Masked Lapwings, Little Pied Cormorants, Swamphens, Royal Spoonbills, Pelicans and at least two Black-necked Storks. Another new species was White-headed Stilt, quite numerous here and not especially different to other ‘Black-winged Stilts’ around the world. In the distance was a flock of hundreds of marsh terns which appeared to be Whiskered Terns. Finally, high above I picked up a soaring raptor which proved to be a Black Falcon, my only one of the trip.

Pied Herons, just a few of the massed throngs at Fogg Dam

I could have stayed here all day but we still had a long way to go. Next stop along the road was the ‘Windows on the Wetlands’ visitor centre. This was quite well done with displays and the like. Around the centre were a few small birds including Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Lemon-bellied and Paperbark Flycatchers, Varied Triller, Rufous Whistler. Down below on the flood plains, there were another pair of Black-necked Storks, lots of Cattle Egrets on the backs of (apparently domestic rather than feral) buffalo, c100 Green Pygmy Geese, White-necked Herons and so on. As we drove away from the site, we were just accelerating along the main road when a fast-flying flock of about 20 green/yellow birds was seen hurtling along parallel to the car. Although it was hard to make out detail, I felt they had to be Budgerigars, as nothing else seemed to fit. We chased them but they soon veered off into the bush. On viewing videos when back home later, this is clearly what they were.

We continued east, crossing the Adelaide River soon afterwards. As we crossed the bridge, we could see a large Saltwater Crocodile swimming to the north of the bridge, instantly distinctive. Sadly we couldn’t stop on the bridge so continued on to the small Leaning Tree Lagoon to have some lunch in the car. This was a very attractive spot a short distance south of the road, with water-lily covered pools surrounded by the bush. It looked like a likely spot to get ambushed by a crocodile if you wandered too close to the water’s edge – so we didn’t. The pools had quite a few waterbirds, including my first identified Wandering Whistling Ducks (I suspect I’d overlooked them earlier in the day), 13 Rajah Shelducks, two juvenile Black-necked Storks, about 20 Little Black Cormorants fishing cooperatively, Australasian Grebe, Comb-crested Jacana and our first Glossy Ibis of the trip. But then onwards east into Kakadu National Park.

Juvenile Black-necked Stork, Leaning Tree Lagoon

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 4: Atherton Tablelands

[Thursday 3rd August cont....]

Heading south, the next place I fancied stopping was at Big Mitchell Creek reserve (key site for White-browed Robin). We could see the lake from the road, and even managed a distant, drive-by tick of Black Swan, as well as an Australian Pelican. However, we missed the entrance to the reserve. In retrospect, this was because there was a gate over the track so we'd assumed it must just be a farm track. By the time we’d realised, it seemed a bit far to turn back. So we carried on to the Mareeba Wetlands, which we were keen to visit as it seemed to be the only place on our whole itinerary where we had a chance of seeing Emu. We turned off the Mulligan Highway at Biboohra and initially crossed some dry farmland where I was pleased to see a good close Brown Falcon. On stopping to look at this however, an even bigger thrill was that we then noticed two Australian Bustards in the field – how jammy was that? I’d made a decision previously not to spend time going to the Mary Road site near Kingfisher Park, so assumed we wouldn’t see these and was pleased to be proved wrong. Slightly less exciting but new all the same were several Australian Pipits in the field with the bustards. Checking a distant congregation of Black Kites also got me my only Little Eagle of the trip; not dissimilar to a Whistling Kite but the jizz gave it away as a Hieraeetus to my eyes.

Australian Bustard, near Mareeba Wetlands

We bumped a few more miles down the track and eventually came to the Mareeba Wetlands, hoping to be greeted by Emus in the car park. But on asking in the cafe, it transpired that the Emus only appeared at first light, when the kitchen staff put out their waste vegetable peelings. It seemed like we’d dipped, which was annoying to us all. However, the lake here was pleasant to sit and have a drink by, and we started notching up more new things: lots of Green Pygmy Geese, Australasian Darter (completing the set of the world’s four darters for me!), Comb-crested Jacana and White-necked Heron, as well as our first Coot of the trip (same species as a home!) A small flock of the delightful little Double-barred Finches was seen by the centre too. We then followed a trail to the Pandanus Lake. This was a hot walk, and generally quiet for wildlife (knowledge of calls would have helped greatly of course). We didn’t see the local speciality, Black-throated Finch. We did see our first Red-tailed Black Cockatoos however, a flock of six flying over. These birds are initially confusing to a British birder, being huge and apparently all black (the red doesn’t really show in flight), and with very slow wingbeats; they can look like ravens or raptors, and their far-carrying calls sounded like cranes to me. Great birds.

Australasian Darter, Mareeba Wetlands

Comb-crested Jacana, Mareeba Wetlands

We eventually got to the viewing platform at Pandanus Lake which had lots of birds on it – far better views of about 40 Black Swans here (in fact, our last views as we didn’t find these anywhere else) and our first sightings of Little Black Cormorant, Australian Grebe and Brolga. Additionally, the lake held Magpie Geese, Green Pygmy Geese, Australian Pelican, a huge Black-necked Stork (which the locals tend to call a Jabiru) and Great and Intermediate Egrets. We then wandered back through the heat – Duncan up front flushed a wallaby which the rest of us missed. One good find on this section however was a pair of Shining Bronze Cuckoos quietly eating caterpillars in trees above our heads. We also noted Rufous Whistler and White-bellied Cuckooshrike here. Eventually we made it back to the first lake and stopped at some picnic tables where we were lucky to chance upon a family party of Red-backed Fairywrens (including a stunning male), followed by a fly-by Swamp Harrier. Overall, this is a really good site, and there was probably a lot more to find.

Nice lizard at Mareeba Wetlands, suggestions welcome!

We still felt a bit short-changed on the kangaroo/wallaby front. I knew that Mareeba golf course was supposed to be a reliable site so I got some directions from the staff at the cafe. We then headed back to the main road, but actually had an excellent view of an Agile Wallaby on the way – our first decent view of a decent-sized roo. We carried on to Mareeba and found the golf course easily, seeing our first Crested Pigeons on roof-tops as we arrived. The information on the roos was indeed reliable and we had great views of 50-100 Eastern Grey Kangaroos here, mostly hopping around the fairways, although one came very close to us along the road. Splendid animals and we finally felt we’d got our Aussie-roo experience. Another new thing here was our first Blue-winged Kookaburra (mad-looking birds), as well as a nice Forest Kingfisher and several Bush Thick-knees. No sign of any Apostlebirds, which other people had reported at the site previously.

Crested Pigeon, Mareeba

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Mareeba

Eastern Grey Kangaroos at Mareeba Golf Course

We carried on south, via a supermarket in Mareeba, and soon had a confusing large flock of about 100 large black birds over the road which I couldn’t stop for. I was puzzling over whether they could be Australian Raven, but in retrospect they were obviously Red-tailed Black Cockatoos. We made it to Atherton and turned east towards Yungaburra, with the bizzare sight of about 500 Sulphur-crested Cockatoos on the ground in a single ploughed field. We were going to go straight to our campsite at Lake Eacham but we had a quick stop at Yungaburra to get some cash. This was a very fortuitous decision for two reasons. Firstly, the cash machine gave me an extra $50 over what I’d asked for. Secondly, Trudy looked at a map of the town and noticed there was a ‘platypus viewing platform’ marked on it. Having determined that this was about 200m away,  we felt it would be rude not to go and have a look, so we parked by the river, walked a short distance and had fantastic views of our first Platypus swimming and diving in the murky water. Duncan was slightly annoyed that we’d de-gripped his earlier sighting! Another real highlight of the trip, these are truly amazing animals to see. This one was a youngster, but as we walked back to the car there was a larger adult showing well also. In the field by the bridge there were also two more new birds – a flock of about 500 Plumed Whistling Ducks and an Australian Swamphen.

Platypus at Yungaburra

We finally headed off to the Lake Eacham Holiday Park which was another good site, well recommended. The site owners were keen to give us loads of gen (which we were grateful to receive of course!) We pitched tents, had a meal in the big campers’ kitchen, and made use of the WiFi before going to bed. There were some weird animal calls going on which I hoped might be a nightjar but it later transpired these were Cane Toads – I saw several by torchlight. As with most other places, there were also Bush Thick-knees calling after dark.

Friday 4th August

I woke at dawn and could hear what were clearly Eastern Whipbirds calling around the edge of the campsite. I got up and tried to track some down but to no avail; a really amazing call though, dueted by pairs of birds (of which there seemed to be two pairs nearby). Some other nice birds around the campsite however: Spotted Catbird (heard), Lewin’s Honeyeater, Spectacled Monarch, Topknot Pigeon, Dusky Honeyeater, Scarlet Honeyeater, Bridled Honeyeater, Fairy Gerygone and Red-browed Finch. Finally I found a new species – seven King Parrots perching high in the taller campsite trees (they stayed in evidence most of the time we were here). Whilst having breakfast we also found a large hawkmoth that had been attracted to the lights.

Topknot Pigeon, Lake Eacham campsite

Privet Hawkmoth sp. Psilogramma menephron/casuarinae, Lake Eacham campsite

We then drove the short distance to Lake Eacham itself – so short, we really should have just walked it. This is a very attractive crater lake surrounded by rainforest, with a well-made trail making it a very easy walk round. Whipbirds were common and I eventually clapped eyes on some on the forest floor. We also had Brown Cuckoo-dove, Victoria’s Riflebird, Atherton (I think) Scrubwren, a pair of Grey-headed Robins, Pale-yellow Robin and a calling Wompoo Fruit-dove. Good views of what were apparently Saw-shelled Turtle in the lake but sadly no sign of the pythons that occur here. One stunning new bird was a male Golden Whistler which gave great views. We found the small Rainforest Display Centre which was very good, detailing work going on locally to try to replant areas of rainforest. By this centre I finally matched some of the small birds to some of the songs I’d been hearing and confirmed they were Brown Gerygone – clearly quite common once I’d sussed the song. We were also delighted to find our first leech, on Trudy- just one and hadn’t fully attached, so not a big deal.

A quick burst of Eastern Whipbird, perhaps my favourite Aussie bird call (close run thing with Laughing Kookaburra though!)

Leech, Lake Eacham. Apparently the commonest species is Gnatbobdellida libbata.

Striking display at the Rainforest Display Centre, Lake Eacham. Nice to see Ulysses Swallowtail, Brush Turkey, Platypus and, of course, Cassowary.

After lunch, we headed off towards the Nerada tea rooms. This took us through somewhat different habitat to previously – more open farmland (ex rainforest of course). As a result it yielded some different birds too - Black-faced Cuckooshrike and the splendid Australian Magpie. We also had brief views of a butcherbird that I didn’t turn around for (and regretted this later) as well as Pied Currawong, Torresian Crow (our first decent views), Bush Thick-knee, Crested Pigeon and Forest Kingfisher. At the Nerada tea rooms we first sorted out the top wildlife target, with good views of four Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos in the narrow belt of trees between the site and the road. Having sorted them, we then looked at the factory and had a cup of locally grown tea. It started to rain here but I had a wander anyway and found Australian Pipit, Pied Currawong, Australian Swamphen, Pacific Black Duck, Nankeen Kestrel, Macleay’s Honeyeater, several obliging Bush Thick-knees and a calling Eastern Whipbird.

Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo, Nerada Tea Rooms

Bush Thick-knee, Nerada Tea Rooms

From here we went across to Malanda Falls – another nice patch of rainforest. Sadly it rained persistently here but it was good to look more closely at the rainforest trees. We did pick up a few species – lots of ‘snapping turtles’ (different or the same to Saw-shelled Turtle of Lake Eacham?), Duncan got a leech, and we recorded a few birds included Brown Gerygone, Victoria’s Riflebird, Eastern Whipbird, Brown Cuckoo-dove, Yellow-throated Scrubwren and my only Barred Cuckoo-shrike of the trip. From here we made our way back, with roadside birds including my first confirmed Brown Goshawk and a family of Sarus Cranes. We had a brief stop at the Curtain Fig Tree (impressive, but raining quite heavily now) and then returned to the campsite. The lady running the site later told me of exactly where I could see a Lesser Sooty Owl. As a result, after dinner I left the others and drove there to have a go at spotlighting for owls, but I failed to connect. I did see a Common Brushtail Possum in the headlights by Lake Eacham though, my only possum of the trip. Lots of Cane Toads in evidence around the wet campsite when I got back.

Curtain Fig Tree, near Yungaburra

Saturday 5th August

Up at first light and whilst Duncan and Trudy went for a run around Lake Eacham (Dunc narrowly missed another Red-bellied Black Snake), I had a relaxing walk along the road to the main lake car park and back (and Tom stayed in bed). Birding was good, with nothing new but a good selection of quality birds, including Eastern Whipbird (seen very well along roadside), Brown Cuckoo-dove (several calling and two seen), King Parrot, Emerald Dove, Scarlet Honeyeater, Golden Whistler, Victoria’s Riflebird (great views but still no adult males), Spotted Catbird (heard), Wompoo Fruit-dove (heard), Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Topknot Pigeon, Pied Monarch, Grey-headed Robin, Bridled Honeyeater and a fab Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Was annoyed with myself for never reading up on Bower’s Shrikethrush properly as I later had a feeling I might have overlooked this, although my one photo of a shrikethrush is clearly a Little.

Grey-headed Robin, Lake Eacham

King Parrot, Lake Eacham campsite

After breakfast, we made a bold move to split the party. Tom was getting history-withdrawals so we dropped him and Trudy off at a Historic Village at Herberton. Duncan came with me as we looped round back to Mt Hypipamee (also known as The Crater, or indeed, as Mt Hippopotamus, or Mt Hypochondriac, etc), famed for being a site where one might see Golden Bowerbird or, at least, their bowers. We drove into the car park and immediately were confronted with a Cassowary wandering nonchalently about in front of the car. We’d heard other reports of the species being seen here so weren’t 100% shocked, but great to see again. Eventually it wandered off and we parked up. Some other birders were around, including Clyde Odonnell who we’d been chatting to on and off since Kingfisher Park. Two other birders got fed up looking and wandered off to see the bowers, whilst I was pleased when Clyde pointed out a White-throated Treecreeper, my first (and only) one of this family which are unrelated to the treecreepers from Europe etc. Then Duncan pointed out that he’d found a bright yellow bird sat in a tree – golden even. There sat a stunning male Golden Bowerbird, right next to all the parked cars. Once we’d seen it it was obvious, and it perched still for ages. Indeed, it just flew off again just as the two birders came back and they missed it. We stood for a while trying to refind it, and were delighted when we next picked out a Tooth-billed Bowerbird, another mega endemic species, albeit not quite so photogenic as the Golden. Having seen these two top targets – as well as Golden Whistler and Brown Gerygone - Duncan and I went off to see the two bowers built by the/a Golden Bowerbird (which were frankly pretty rubbish; my friend and colleague Kate Risely had seen these last year and had described them as "a bit shit", which I don't think we'd disagree with). I got my first leech – hooray. We then returned to the car park, said our goodbyes, got in the car, then Duncan found the Golden Bowerbird again so we jumped out and got everyone onto it, to general rejoicing.

Golden Bowerbird, Mt Hypipamee

Tooth-billed Bowerbird, Mt Hypipamee

Duncan and the Mt Hypipamee Cassowary

We had time before picking up the others, so we had a quick look at Hasties Swamp. Wow, what a lot of ducks. We didn’t do a proper count (which I regretted later) but at a conservative estimate there must have been at least 10,000 Plumed Whistling Ducks, which on a non-especially huge site was quite a spectacle. These were accompanied by lots (1,000?) of Magpie Geese, alongside smaller numbers of Pacific Black Duck, Australian Grebe and Hardhead interspersed. Thinking there really had to be something here I persevered, and was delighted to pick out a handful of wacky-looking Pink-eared Ducks in the mass of whistlers. I kept scanning and eventually found a female Chestnut Teal which was far less exciting to see. Other species here included Dusky Moorhen, Coot, Australian Swamphen, Little Pied Cormorant, White-necked Heron, Great Egret and lots of Black Kites. We then headed off to get Trudy and Tom, and also jammed into the only Noisy Miners of the trip (in the Herberton car park), before returning to Hasties to have lunch in the hide, enjoying the spectacle. This second time, we added Swamp Harrier, Whistling Kite, Forest Kingfisher and Australian Darter to the site list.

In the afternoon we decided to walk the Petersen Creek area along the edge of Yungaburra, where we’d seen the platypuses previously. We’d read about some rainforest re-creation here, although it still didn’t look especially extensive on the ground – good start though. Birding was pretty quiet, with nothing new and the only things of note really being King Parrot and Pied Currawong, plus some nice Agile Wallabies. We walked back through the town and stopped at a bar for a drink where we had a chance meeting with local birding guide Alan Gillanders (I think the large telescope on my back might have given me away as a birder). Alan was clearly really knowledgeable and also very free with his advice, particularly given that he’s a professional guide and we weren’t paying him (should have bought him a drink really – Alan, if you’re ever in Norfolk....) Most importantly, he explained the fine detail missing from my gen from the previous night’s Lesser Sooty Owl dip. We wandered back to the car, seeing Platypus again but dipping at a Green Ringtail Possum stakeout Alan had given us. However, the owl gen was spot on. Just as it got dark, and the sounds of riflebird, whipbird, catbird and wompoo had died down, a juvenile Lesser Sooty Owl popped out of a nest cavity in a large rainforest tree – absolutely stunning and sadly far too dark for me to get a photo as I didn’t want to spotlight it. We got a few mossie bites in the process but (I at least thought) well worth it! Back into Yungaburra where we treated ourselves to a meal out – simple but pleasant fare at the Yungaburra Hotel. Then back to the campsite where we did most of our packing up before we went to bed, ready for an earlier start than normal.

Agile Wallaby, Yungaburra

Sunday 6th August

This was the last day of the first half of our trip. We had to be at the airport in Cairns by late morning, although it was only about 90 minutes away. However, we decided we needed to go for the boldest gamble in our quest for Emu. Remembering that they apparently turned up first at Mareeba Wetlands we rose at 0530 and chucked the stuff in the car, setting off by 0600. We saw Red-legged Pademelon and Long-nosed Bandicoot (‘Dinkicoot’) by Lake Eacham in the headlights, but otherwise nothing before it got light when a Black-necked Stork was seen a few miles north of Mareeba. We headed to the reserve but found the road blocked by a shut gate, still about 3 km short of the centre. We took the opportunity to have our breakfast and repack our bags ready for the plane and surprisingly, I managed a further three lifers whilst sat here in the bush – Pale-headed Rosella, Grey Shrikethrush and Noisy Friarbird – as well as some good Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin and Australian Magpie.

Whilst we waited, some staff came to the gate and although it didn’t officially open until 0830, they took pity on our emu-less status and let us in half an hour early, what super people. And when we got to the car park and walked down to the visitor centre, bingo, there were four Emus, walked around just as promised, eating scraps thrown out from the kitchen. They were exceptionally tame (or just plain un-bothered) and were still present when we left about 0920. Whilst watching them (with Trudy and the kids working on their emu-selfies), we noticed some smaller birds picking at the vegetable peelings which turned out to be Brown Quail, a species I’d really not banked on being able to clap eyes on properly so a real bonus. We then went and had a drink at the cafe (would have been rude not to), and as well as the jacanas and Green Pygmy-Geese on the lake, a dull bird landed in a nearby tree which proved to be the only Yellow Honeyeater of the trip. Nice, but not quite an Emu.

Brown Quail, attracted to vegetable scraps at Mareeba Wetlands

Emu, obviously

No scope required

Emu, wild bird of the remote bush

From here, we headed south back to Mareeba and Duncan called that he’d seen something like a pheasant on the verge. Puzzling over this, a few seconds later we saw another – a fine Pheasant Coucal! Surely the last tick of the Cairns leg? But no, we swung east towards Cairns and a few miles further on two Galahs flew over the car, so close that only I really saw them properly. We’d been assuming Galahs would be ultra-common, so to get it so late in the day was really surprising. Anyway, back to Cairns airport, dump the hire car, check the bags in and relax. A quick tot-up showed that we’d recorded 182 species of which 157 were new for me (just one was heard-only – Eastern Barn Owl).

We thought the Cairns area was fantastic and would highly recommend it. Really hope to return one day, maybe heading south from here towards Brisbane. But next, we had to fly west, to the Northern Territory....