TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Northern Australia
The Best of Australia's Tropics

24 August - 11 September 2002


Tour Leader: Richard Jordan
Associate leader - Roslyn Hemsley

Guides - Glenn Holmes (Cairns/Tablelands)

Adrian Boyle (Broome area)

Chris Dahlberg (Daintree River)

Mike Ostwald (Mary River)

Special birds recorded

Endangered species

Southern Cassowary

Gouldian Finch

Rare and vulnerable species

Yellow Chat

Grey Falcon

Rufous Owl

Great-billed Heron

10 Most Exciting species (other than the above)

Barking Owl

Large-tailed Nightjar

Lovely Fairy-wren

Black Bittern

Rainbow Pitta

Superb Fruit-Dove

Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove

Pied Monarch

Pacific Baza

Spotted Harrier

Best mammals

Platypus (6 in broad daylight)

Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo (1 in broad daylight)

Daily Log

Monday 26 August 2002

Richard and Glenn were ready and waiting as the plane arrived from the UK with Jon, Rosemary and Sheila at around 10am. David and Wendy were already at Inn the Pink - so we all met up there for the start of another Travelling Naturalist adventure.

In fine and mild weather, we were all soon down on the Esplanade noting that the handsome Pied Imperial-Pigeons were already back in Cairns - and checking out the waders. Lunch was at Centenary Lakes, where highlights were great views of Double-eyed Fig-Parrots in the scope, and a Black-necked Stork at the Freshwater Lake. Everyone was fascinated by the 20-odd Bush Stone-curlews standing around the graves at the Cemetery, and the tall Paperbark forest was enjoyed for botany, and its exotic atmosphere.

The day ended with a barbeque at the 'Flying Horseshoe', and our first bird log.

Tuesday 27 August 2002

Today the group was off on the luxury catamaran 'Ocean Spirit' for a day on the Barrier Reef. It was fine early, but a strong southerly raised a bit of a sea. Fortunately the stomachs of all of the group were up to it! The wind did dampen enthusiasm for swimming - but excellent viewing of corals and fish was enjoyed from the semi-submersible - and the lunch was as magnificent as ever. The breeding Sooty and Crested Terns were everywhere as usual, but rather quiet for the special birds we look for - such as the Frigatebirds and Tropicbirds.

Our day finished up at the Figtree Lodge, with a choice of Barramundi or Steak and Guinness Pie - with an amazingly rich mud-cake to follow.

Wednesday 28 August 2002

An early walk to the Esplanade to raise our appetites for a big buffet breakfast! Then we loaded up the vehicle for a 4-day circuit of the best of the World Heritage Wet Tropics around Cairns.

Machan's Beach yielded Greater Sand-plover and Red-capped Plover, but more exciting were the two male Lovely Fairy-wrens that sat right in front of us near Dongetti Beach.

Good views of Crimson Finches at the Smithfield turn-off - then on to the splendid rainforest of Mossman Gorge. Here we took a leisurely 3km walk examining trees (especially the huge buttress roots), fungi (a favourite for David's photography) and insects. Bird highlights were Pied Monarch, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and Spotted Catbird.

We arrived at Daintree Village in the late afternoon for a stay at Red Mill House, with its lovely bush garden. An informal dinner at the Jacana Restaurant nearby was enjoyed by all.

Thursday 29 August 2002

The weather was not at its best as the group set off at dawn on a 2-hour river cruise. Drizzle spells early took the edge off the fun, but things fined up after the first half-hour. Good birding from the boat - and especially exciting was the Estuarine Crocodile that surfaced very close to the boat! Chris Dahlberg was kept busy pointing out Large-billed Scrubwren, Shining Flycatcher etc - but, disappointingly, no Great-billed Heron or Papuan Frogmouth (but see later in this account!).

A substantial breakfast at Red Mill House, and then we headed up to the Tablelands, and our stay at Kingfisher Park. We were soon entertained by Red-browed Finch + Macleay's and Graceful Honeyeaters at the feeders - and Glenn found a pair of Papuan Frogmouths in the forest. The weather was still drizzly after lunch, so we headed inland to the drier country, starting at Mt Molloy with a wonderful Great Bowerbird at a huge bower in the primary school. It was decorated with all the sorts of things you find around schools - pens, ribbons etc. On to Mt Carbine, where we soon found an Australian Bustard very close to the road. Highlight for the day, however, was a Squatter Pigeon; now very rare in the area.

After Apostlebirds and ice-creams at the roadhouse we headed back to the Lodge, pausing for a Collared Sparrowhawk at Abattoir Swamp. An excellent dinner 'in the forest' followed by spotlighting. After a quiet start Glenn found us a pair of Barn Owls perched near their nest cavity.

Friday 30 August 2002

Another dull start to the day, but fine by the end of the day, and the rest of the tour was fine and sunny throughout! Lake Mitchell was a feast of waterbirds, with highlights being Black-necked Stork, Glossy Ibis and close views of White-throated Gerygone. Big Mitchell Creek did not disappoint, with White-browed Robin being found very quickly.

The golf course at Mareeba is a great place for close encounters with Eastern Grey Kangaroos, and the lunch break was enlivened by the nearby colony of Spectacled Flying-foxes. We stopped by Hastie's Swamp for massed ranks of Plumed Whistling-ducks.

Glenn decided to take us to some dry forest further inland, and it proved a bonanza for new species - amongst them Brown Treecreeper, Fuscous and White-naped Honeyeater, Eastern Spinebill and White-browed Scrubwren.

Heading back into rainforest country we stopped at a roadside quarry, and quickly spotted a Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo in full view up a tree. Nearby Glenn found Atherton Scrubwren and Mountain Thornbill.

Highlight for the day, however, was our last stop at a wide pool in the Upper Barron River, where at least 6 Platypuses gave us great viewing for several minutes in broad daylight.

We farewelled Glenn and retired to an excellent dinner at Kookaburra Lodge.

Saturday 31 August 2002

Glorious weather, and an Australian Hobby flying over our accommodation in the early morning - plus excellent views of Scarlet Honeyeater (at last!). We marvelled at the Curtain Fig, then headed on to Lake Tinaroo. This lake must form an important drought refuge, because we were greeted by the sight of thousands of waterbirds, including around 4000 Little Black Cormorants, plus numerous other waterbirds. Highlights were Latham's Snipe and Cotton Pygmy-Goose.

Lake Barrine proved quiet, but gave us a nice forest walk. Our lunch stop at nearby Lake Eacham proved more productive, with Wompoo Fruit-Dove, Victoria's Riflebird, Grey-headed Robin and Golden Whistler. We were frustrated by being able to hear Eastern Whipbird, Crimson Rosella and Australian King Parrot close at hand, without getting a glimpse.

We drove back down to the coastal plain, getting magnificent views along the way, and headed back to Cairns. A walk in the mangroves proved fun, but was very quiet for birds. We finished the day with a huge seafood buffet at Charlie's.

Sunday 1 September 2002

This was 'The Day of the Cassowary'.

Breakfast at the Figtree, with fluffy pancakes etc. Then a 2 hour drive down the coast to Mission Beach and the Great Cassowary Hunt. On the way we had great views of Pacific Baza in a roadside tree.

We arrived at Lacey's Creek. Lots of fresh droppings, but no bird. So on to the Licuala Palm Forest. No fresh droppings, but Wendy said 'let's walk along the road anyway'. As we were about to give up one well-grown immature cassowary crossed the track ahead. No sooner had it disappeared than an adult male appeared - accompanied by a stripey chick! It walked along the track ahead of us as we crept closer, getting good video and photos. What a thrill.

Back to Lacey's Creek for lunch, and we decide to take a walk along the 1km circular track. Lots of native fish and turtles in a clear pool - then an adult cassowary crosses the track ahead of us. We head closer, then freeze as it turns and walks towards us - passing close enough to touch. Quite an experience - and we are now all cassowaried out!

Richard explained that he had NEVER had such a great day with this highly endangered bird.

Then it was back to the airport for an uneventful flight to Darwin. Roz picked us up in the Emu Bus, and we settled in to the Botanic Gardens Apartments with wine and nibbles.

Monday 2 September 2002

Much hotter than Cairns for the group, but we headed out before breakfast in the relatively cool early morning for some birding in the Botanic Gardens. Highlight was fantastic views of Channel-billed Cuckoo in Richard's new scope.

After breakfast Holmes Jungle yielded several Grey Whistlers, but no Rainbow Pitta. At Lee Beach there was a lively discussion about a tern, which 'terned' out to be a Whiskered Tern, unusual away from inland waters. Buffalo Creek disappointed - no Red-headed Honeyeater or Yellow White-eye.

At Holmes Jungle we hit the jackpot, with views for several minutes of a Rainbow Pitta on a low branch. Tragedy when we returned to the bus to find that there had been a break-in, with bags belonging to both Roz and David being taken. The police subsequently recovered everything except David's scope - a serious loss for him.

A poolside barbeque in the evening, with chicken and sausages.

Tuesday 3 September 2002

First stop today, as we headed towards Kakadu National Park, was Fogg Dam. This wetland was established as part of a rice project in the 50's, which was subsequently abandoned. Sheila's eagle eye spotted a White-browed Crake - with Rosemary finding a Pheasant Coucal. Three Broad-billed Flycatchers completed a fruitful visit - which also included lots of Green Pygmy-Geese and a few Australian Pratincoles.

A short stop at the Adelaide River Crossing exceeded our wildest dreams. Mangrove Golden Whistler appeared almost immediately, but we also found Buff-banded Rail, Red-headed Honeyeater and Broad-billed Flycatcher - all in a small patch of riverside vegetation near the restaurant.

We arrived at Mary River Park around 3.30pm, with time to settle into our cabins and embark on a cruise along the river. Excellent views of Great-billed Heron, and a superb white-morph Grey Goshawk at a Flying-Fox colony. We called back to base to pick up dinner supplies, then headed up-stream for dinner on a sandbank surrounded by crocodiles! Sounds dodgy, but there was a sort of fence to protect us. A total of 5 Great-billed Herons by dinner time, with brief views of a Black Bittern. We tucked into stew and damper, with beer and wine, while Mike, our guide, entertained us with his harmonica and bush poetry in the light of a circle of flaming torches. We headed back home with the eyes of the crocodiles winking in our spotlights. Back at base we had stupendous views of a pair of Barking Owls hunting round the Park floodlights.

Wednesday 4 September 2002

Up early for tea and toast, then a 3-hour stroll along the riverbank with Mike. The area proved a haven for honeyeaters (Brown, Banded, Rufous-banded and Rufous-throated), and our first flocks of Varied Lorikeets. The prize of the morning was a pair of Rufous Owls sitting side-by-side near their nest - we set up the scope and could look at them at leisure.

We left mid-morning for Kakadu National Park, with our first stop being at Mamukala Wetland. This was a feast, with thousands of Magpie Geese and squillions of Great and Intermediate Egrets, Whiskered Terns and Wandering Whistling-Ducks. There were smaller numbers of Pied Heron, Royal Spoonbill and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. We had to drag ourselves reluctantly away from this spectacle.

Next was a visit to the Rock Art at Ubirr in the heat of the day. In addition to the art we were rewarded with a panoramic view over the South Alligator River floodplain. After lunch at the Border Store we travelled to Nourlangie Rock on the edge of the Arnhemland escarpment. Here there are cool overhangs with varied art featuring figures such as Lightning Man and the Rainbow Serpent. As well as finding the rare White-lined Honeyeater the highlight for the afternoon, as we listened at a lookout to expert interpretation by a Parks Ranger, was a rare Grey Falcon passing close by.

By the light of the tropical setting sun we headed to our overnight motel at Cooinda.

Thursday 5 September 2002

A VERY early start for the dawn cruise on Yellow water. Natasha was the guide on this wetland of international renown - and we gave her the task of finding us a Little Kingfisher. She failed in this, but gave us great close-up views of many more species - as well as the inevitable crocodiles! New was Striated Heron, but the group especially enjoyed the excellent video and photographic opportunities.

Home for breakfast, then a visit to the well-organised and inspirational Cultural Centre. Then we left this magnificent national park and had lunch on the green grass near the big plunge-pool at Edith Falls. We had excellent views of Weebill, Australia's smallest bird, and close-ups of Blue-winged Kookaburra and a party of Grey-crowned Babblers.

The day concluded with a relaxing 2-hour cruise on Katherine Gorge - passing through tranquil sandstone gorges in the evening light. Overnight was in a Katherine motel with buffet dinner.

Friday 6 September 2002

This was the Day of the Gouldian Finch.

A 6.15am start to the short drive to Dead Woman Creek. We settled down to a quiet vigil , but we didn't have long to wait. The Gouldian Finches soon came streaming in, and we were treated to the sight of these gorgeous birds - Black-headed, Red-headed and immatures - in our scope as they waited in the treetops before dropping down to drink. Masked, Long-tailed and Double-barred Finches were there as well - but all eyes were on the Gouldians. Finally the birds moved away, and we were able to enjoy our picnic breakfast.

We drove back towards Darwin, and arrived at the Territory Wildlife Park in time for lunch. We spent the afternoon exploring this huge park, which features only the fauna and flora of the Northern territory. We visited the walk-in aviary, nocturnal house and raptor display, but also with lots of wild birds to see in the surrounding woodlands.

A last night in Darwin, and a poolside barbeque of chops, sausages and kangaroo kebabs.

Saturday 7 September 2002

A relaxed start to the day as everyone prepared for the flight to Broome. Farewells at the airport as Richard and Roz departed for the long journey to Alice Springs in their bus. Over to Adrian in Broome!

Richard Jordan, 10 September 2002

At 1.30 pm we started our birding at the Broome port. The tide was receding and provided a small area of beach in which we could scan. We had extremely close views of Greater Sand Plover along with several Brown Boobys flying low over the water.

A Common Tern, a recent arrival from the north, was spotted sitting on a nearby rock. We left the port and travelled from the south towards Cable Beach, one of the most scenic places in Broome, looking out for bush birds as we went. Whales were a possibility on their southward migration but we were not lucky on this occasion. The beautiful coastline looked great in the afternoon sun.

We stopped to take a few photos and recorded more Brown Boobys, Golden-headed Cisticola and Variegated Fairy-wren. The male of the species obliged only a few. A Blue-tongued Lizard was spotted and captured for every one to view and photograph.

We then proceeded to Crystal ponds (The Broome Sewerage works) We easily recorded over 25 species; highlights included Barn Swallow, which had only been seen this season the day before, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Golden Plover. The duck numbers were large due to it being an exceptionally dry year and a minimum of 250 Plumed Whistling-Ducks were counted along with Hardheads, Grey Teal and Black Duck.

In the fading light we left and found a comfortable place in some nearby bush and whilst eating muffins and drinking tea we conducted the bird log.

Sunday 8 September 2002

An early start saw us heading off to the world famous Roebuck Bay. This area can support up to 150,000 shorebirds at one time and with over 50 species of waders recorded in the area we were in for a treat.

The morning was excellent with cool conditions and a large incoming tide. We proceeded to the Mangroves of Crab Creek and hunted down goodies such as Mangrove Golden Whistler, Mangrove Grey Fantail, Yellow White-eye and the endemic Dusky Gerygone. A White-breasted Whistler teased us for at least half an hour calling only a few meters away but was only seen by a privileged few.

With the tide high and the mudflats covered the shorebirds would be roosting on the remaining beach. A quick visit at one of the roost sights revealed 3 Banded Stilts, a species rarely recorded in the area, amongst 120+ Black-winged Stilts and 40 Red-necked Avocet. We scanned several more roosts and found birds such as Broad-billed, Terek, and Curlew Sandpipers both species of Godwits and Knots, the highlight being Common Redshank, a real rarity in Australia! Another of the many highlights was to see a Brahminy Kite swoop down and catch a Red-necked Stint right in front of us. We had morning tea and lunch at the Broome Bird Observatory looking over the birdbaths. This provided us with some great bush birds such as White-throated Gerygone, Peaceful Dove and Mistletoebird.

After lunch we travelled across the open grassland of Roebuck Plains in search of the elusive but beautiful Yellow Chat. We spotted one from the car and another sitting on the fence allowing great views. We traipsed through the grassy saltmarsh area and located a spectacular male amongst 60 others. Wish the mission successful we headed back towards Broome stopping for Bustards and Spotted Harriers. A great day with 68 species recorded.

Monday 9 September 2002

Another early morning had us travelling for a full days birding in a variety of habitats on the Roebuck Plains cattle station which is 800,000 acres in size.

Our first stop was along side a bridge to look at a nesting Fairy Martin Colony. We also encountered Red-winged Parrots, Horsefield's Bronze-Cuckoo and Grey-crowned Babblers. We moved onto Lake Campion that was dry as expected, but provided great bush bird viewing. We quickly ticked off Rufous Songlark, Diamond Dove, Jacky Winter and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters.

Our next stop was at Taylor's Lagoon where we relaxed under Soap Wattle (Acacia coleil) and had morning tea looking out over the water at hundreds of ducks including the beautiful and uncommon Green Pygmy-Geese. Fresh water Shorebirds were abundant with Black-winged Stilt, Marsh Sandpiper also the rare Long-toed Stint. We eventually, after some trying, managed to get every one to obtain great views of Zebra Finches, which were coming down to drink with Long-tailed Finches. This spectacle was short lived as a Collared Sparrowhawk whizzed by plucking a Long-tailed Finch off its perch. We finished walking around the lake and made our way to our lunch tree located on the side of beautiful Lake Eda.

The lake was drying up fast providing some excellent feeding grounds for Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterels. Over 300 Brolga were counted feeding around the edge of the lake as we had our relaxing lunch in the shade. A Mangrove Gerygone was heard nearby and we cut our lunch short by a few minutes to look for this species usually encountered in mangroves, but in the Broome area commonly seen in the Paperbark fringing the plains.

Avocets were spotted again feeding in the shallows with Glossy Ibis and everyone got excited as we had two Black-breasted Buzzards circling overhead, their white bulls-eyes standing out beautifully. Three small brown shorebirds called and flew over the top of us: they were Oriental Plovers, the first for the season. Only poor views were obtained but on the way across the open grass land dotted with large termite mounds we located two more feeding which allowed us to get very close.

We made our way back to Broome with about half an hour of light to spare. A quick stop again at the Crystal Ponds produced another goodie: White-winged Black Tern. In the fading light we headed back to the accommodation and conducted the bird log.

Tuesday 10 September 2002

In the morning the group had time to themselves and to relax after the hectic birding schedule. I picked everyone up at 11 am and transported them to the airport and waved them goodbye. A pity to see such keen birders leave, they were a joy to spend time with. A busy few days but a good time had by all with everybody getting many new birds, and a total of 142 species in the two and a half days.

Adrian Boyle, Turnstone Nature Discovery


© The Travelling Naturalist 2002