Articles - Top end, down under: birding Australia's Northern Territory
Ian Lycett - Posted on 06 Jul 2010
I was once asked, rather bizarrely, if it was a long way to Australia. My considered response was that it was advisable to take a packed lunch. That said, Darwin, on the north coast of Northern Territory, is only four hours from Singapore and the closest entry point from Europe.
|Rainbow Bee-eater is the sole member of its family to occur in Australia and illustrates the link which the north of the country has with Asia's avifauna. Photo: Carole Leigh (Firecrest Wildlife Photography).|
Arriving at Darwin in the early hours of an October morning, I checked into the airport resort and crashed out. I usually struggle to get out of bed after only three hours’ sleep, but having been dragged back into consciousness by my alarm, the unfamiliar calls of an Australian dawn chorus had me up and out in no time. My cabin looked over some eucalyptus scrub and I was soon finding the sources of the songs and calls. Striking black-and-white Torresian Imperial-Pigeons, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes and the first of many flashy Rainbow Bee-eaters and Dollarbirds sailed past – a good way to start the day.;
After breakfast, I met up with Dr Richard Noske from Charles Darwin University for an intensive taste of its birding course. Starting at the nearby mangroves of Ludmilla Creek, where a ringing project is in operation, we were treated to in-hand views of Mangrove and Large-billed Gerygones and a very vocal and aptly named Shining Flycatcher.
The surrounding mangroves were alive with birds and our brief spell here produced excellent views of several Red-headed Myzomelas, Yellow White-eye, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Broad-billed Flycatcher, Collared Kingfisher and a fly-over Channel-billed Cuckoo – the ridiculously large bill making it look as though it should belong to the hornbill rather than cuckoo family.
Darwin is in the tropics, with an annual wet season from November to March, and our second stop was the monsoon rainforest at East Point on the outskirts of town. This being the favoured habitat of my ‘most wanted’ species for the trip, I was hoping to get lucky in the limited time available. Within two minutes of parking, we heard a distinctive ‘walk to work’ call, and after some careful stalking we were enjoying scope-filling views of a stunning Rainbow Pitta. ‘Stunning’ is a much-used epithet these days, but after watching shafts of sunshine catch this bird as it hopped around on the forest floor only 20 ft away, that is a fitting description.
|The gorgeous Rainbow Pitta is one of the most-wanted species for birders visiting Australia's 'Top End'. Photo: Carole Leigh (Firecrest Wildlife Photography).|
We kept moving: the nearby beach at Buffalo Creek held a nice mixed flock of waders and a hidden Chestnut Rail called from the mangroves, while a roosting Barking Owl showed well in a park.
The huge Brolga towers above all of the other waterfowl at the wetland. Photo: Tourism NT.
Birding a beautiful far-flung destination regularly involves a tour of a sewage works. The settling tanks at the Leanyer Treatment Plant held large numbers of Pied Herons, egrets, Plumed Whistling-Ducks, Magpie Geese, three huge Black-necked Storks and hundreds of Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns. Nearby, the aesthetically more pleasing Knuckey Lagoon held more than 1,000 Magpie Geese, with three Brolgas towering above the flock and several roosting Royal Spoonbills following the family trait of inactivity.
The day was really beginning to heat up – it was about 34 degrees and humid – so we grabbed lunch, turned up the air-conditioning and drove south-east down the Stuart Highway through seemingly endless eucalyptus brush dotted with termite mounds.
Predominantly grey in colour, male Great Bowerbirds have a small pink crest on the nape of the neck. Photo: Carole Leigh (Firecrest Wildlife Photography).
Arriving in the small town of Pine Creek a couple of hours later, we set about locating our next target, the rare and endemic Hooded Parrot. Stepping from the car, I was distracted by the wonder that is the bower of a Great Bowerbird.
Great Bowerbirds are master builders, constructing huge bowers decorated with shells, pebbles, bones, glass and fruit in an attempt to attract a mate. Photo: Ian Lycett.
The main construction was a double concave avenue of small sticks, approximately three feet long, a foot high and six inches wide. Both ends of the bower were decorated with piles of white shells, pebbles and a few bones, with a few pieces of green glass and fruits adding a splash of colour.
Bowers are not nests. The females choose to mate with the male who has the most accomplished decorating skills. The Jay-sized owner of this bower was hopping around a short distance away, waiting for a female to impress.
Just across the road, a party of nine Hooded Parrots, including a golden-shouldered adult male, were feeding on the grass in the parkand affording superb views. We had our fill and then drove to the Mary River Roadhouse for a well-earned feed, refreshing ales – and bed.
Searching for skulkers
At dawn the following morning we climbed 300 ft to the top of Gunlom Falls. Used as a spectacular backdrop in the first Crocodile Dundee movie, the falls drop off the 600 million-year-old Arnhem Land escarpment. The waterfall was only a trickle (October being the end of the dry season) but the view from the top was expansive, with eucalyptus forest stretching away to the horizon. Even before the sun rose, the air was hot, and I was glad I had carried a rucksack full of bottled water with me. The air was full of the echoing whistles of Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and a small group of White-lined Honeyeaters was feeding on a flowering eucalyptus at the side of the track.
|The rocky, scrub-covered terrain of Arnhem Land in Northern Territory is home to many specialities, including the very elusive White-throated Grasswren. Photo: Ian Lycett.|
We picked our way along a ridge and a rare Black Wallaroo watched us briefly before bounding round a cliff. A Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon – a localised endemic speciality – had the decency to show well, but our other target, White-throated Grasswren, did not. The grasswrens live in the coarse spinifex grass that grows between the boulders. They are real skulkers, spending long periods avoiding the heat by hiding in crevices. We picked our way across the rocks, fought off some particularly irate biting ants, and sweltered in 40-degree heat before finally admitting defeat and heading to the pool at the top of the falls for a refreshing swim.
We pushed on to Katherine, a busy town on the river of the same name with ever-present Black and Whistling Kites overhead and Agile Wallabies hopping across the road. Much of the surrounding bush had been burnt, and while fire is an essential element of this ecosystem, too many fires and introduced grasses are causing problems.
Early the next morning we watched a pool on Chinaman Creek. The last remaining waterholes were a magnet for birds and there was a constant procession of thirsty Rufous-throated and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters. A party of 10 Hooded Parrots dropped in and several large and noisy flocks of Varied Lorikeets passed over, but there was no sign of the hoped-for Gouldian Finch.
Down the creek with a paddle
After breakfast, I said farewell to Richard and hooked up with Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing. I wasn’t sure that birding from a canoe would be viable, but Mick assured me that the canoes were stable and that the birding possibilities were good. Having not been in a vessel of this size since a brief expedition in a pedalo at Butlins in 1979, I remained nervous: they don’t have crocodiles at Butlins. We were dropped off a few miles downstream from Katherine and paddled off slowly. Raucous flocks of Red-tailed Black and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Cockatiels and Red-collared Lorikeets – looking so much better in the wild than in an aviary – flew above us, and the canoe indeed proved to be an excellent viewing platform.
|Canoes proved ideal for viewing a wide range of wildlife, from Nankeen Night Herons and Blue-winged Kookaburras to Little Red Flying-foxes and Freshwater Crocodiles. Photo: Ian Lycett.|
At this time of year, the river is entirely spring fed, the flow is slow and the water is clean enough to drink. As we drifted along, the occasional large dead tree trunk wedged some 50 ft up another tree was an indication of the volume of water that flows during the wet season. In fact, it sometimes reaches 65 ft deep at the height of the flood in March. The riverside vegetation of tall paperbark trees and freshwater mangroves teemed with honeyeaters, orioles and occasional Restless and Shining Flycatchers. Families of Blue-winged Kookaburras announced our arrival in their territory with the maniacal hysteria of mad scientists, dazzling Azure Kingfishers darted from exposed perches and, while approaching one of the deeper sections, we saw a Freshwater Crocodile slide off the bank. Rounding a bend, we flushed a small group of Nankeen Night Herons and the first of no fewer than three massive Great-billed Herons. We were also fortunate to pick out a roosting Rufous Owl, tucked up in an overhanging tree and clutching a dead Little Red Flying-fox like a child’s comfort blanket. Further on, we were treated to the sight of two White-bellied Sea Eagles diving through the trees and trying to grab roosting flying-foxes.
Shortly before dusk, we hauled out onto a sandbank and set up a surprisingly civilised camp, with a fine meal of barbecued buffalo steaks and salad, washed down with a rather nice Cabernet Sauvignon. Later, we took a wander through the sparse forest above the river channel. A combined torch power of around four candles meant my hopes for picking out wildlife were low, but we soon found a very sizeable Cane Toad. This introduced environmental disaster only arrived in the region in 2001, but its voracious appetite and toxic glands that poison native wildlife have already caused havoc. ‘Just another dead stump’ on a nearby tree actually turned out to be a Tawny Frogmouth – a great end to a fantastic day.
Waking to another sunny dawn, we were watched by a group of Agile Wallabies and a much larger Antipoline Wallaroo as we ate breakfast, broke camp and paddled to our pick-up point. I took a dip in the river as the canoes were reloaded onto the trailer, watching a Grey Goshawk and a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles circling overhead. An hour south of Katherine, the small town of Mataranka is known for its thermal springs. Among birders, it is known for the pair of Red Goshawks that have bred annually for 10 years right behind Mataranka’s cabins and campsite. We spent the afternoon studying the female of this rare and elusive bird of prey and her two recently fledged chicks.
|Among many other colourful passerines in Northern Territory is the range-restricted Long-tailed Finch. Photo: Rebecca Nason.|
Panning for Gould
My final morning was the last chance to catch up with Gouldian Finch and we tried several sites along the Central Arnhem road without success. Our last hope was beside the creek and grassy hills at Maranboy. Thick cloud kept the temperature down and we soon realised that there were many finches in the area. Mixed groups of Double-barred, Masked, Crimson and Long-tailed Finches fed in the dry grass and flitted up into the boxwood trees .A larger finch suddenly dropped in and the scope confirmed its identity as a Gouldian Finch. The adults are a contender for the gaudiest bird in the world – unfortunately, this was an immature, a contender for one of the dullest. Still,a tick is a tick and we had to get back on the road north to Darwin.
An elusive inhabitant of grassland and open woodland, the boldly patterned Gouldian Finch is thinly distributed across northern Australia. Photo: Rebecca Nason.
We finished the day at sunset by some Magnetic Termite mounds, towering like gravestones. The termites align them perfectly north-south so that the broad faces catch the sun in the early morning and late afternoon and so maintain a constant temperature throughout the day – brilliant.
All too soon, I was back at the airport and heading home. Darwin is an excellent starting point for exploring this vast and fascinating continent, and it is closer than you think. My flights back to London allowed time for a quick tour of the birding sites of Singapore with Subaraj Rajathurai, a friendly and very experienced guide. We rattled up a quick-fire list of 80, including many Asian migrants and only the fourth record of Pale-legged Leaf Warbler for the island.
|The sight of a flock of Magpie Geese against a northern Australian sunset is hard to beat. Photo: Tourism NT.|
Birdwatch travelled to Northern Territory courtesy of TourismNT. Air travel was provided by Singapore Airways and Tiger Airways. Special thanks to Richard and Mick for their excellent company and expertise. Thanks also to Subaraj (www.subaraj.com) for his time in Singapore.