In an effort to avoid the chill of winter, I decided to spend two months travelling across the top of North Queensland and the Northern Territory. Heading up the coast I spent the first night with Harry Zawacki and his wife Eleanor at Woodgate. Harry was a previous member of QOSI (now Birds Qld) and was on my twitchathon team during the early 1990’s. We birded Burrum Coast National Park where we saw a new bird for his list for that area an Eastern Spinebill. Black-breasted Button-quail have been recorded there but we didn’t see any that day.
Then on to Calliope Crossing where we had about two inches of rain overnight and I woke up to water flowing through the campsite. Almost the first bird I heard next morning was a Black-chinned Honeyeater calling loudly throughout the camping area. Then onto St Lawrence Wetlands, one of my favourite camping spots. If you haven’t visited this site then put it on your list for your next journey northward as it has wonderful wetlands with a viewing platform over some lagoons as well as mangroves along the road offering a wide variety of birds as well as a free campsite with hot showers and flushing toilets.
I called into Cape Hillsborough National Park but there were very few waders and being winter time the birds were not so numerous. I then went on to Townsville where my sister lives and where I would meet up with another sister who lives in Canada but was holidaying in Australia for a few months. We then headed north together stopping at Tyto Wetlands near Ingham and then Murray Falls.
As she had never been to Paronella Park, we had a night there. This is a very interesting place which was started in 1937 and which I had visited on my honeymoon in 1961. But it had become derelict over a number of years before a couple from WA purchased it and it is now slowly being restored and has lighting tours at night which are quite spectacular.
We then toured Cairns as my sister wanted to do the Kuranda Rail trip and the Skyrail and of course it was raining so very little birding that day. Then on up the coast to Mossman and Cooktown as we were doing the tourist trail. As my sister wanted to get back to Townsville, we only stayed in Cooktown one night and then headed for the Tablelands. It had started to rain making walking and birding difficult as we walked through Wongabel State Forest. After visiting this area, I wanted to continue west while my sister headed back to Townsville and it was good to get back to some serious birding.
I met up with some friends John and Marian Clarkson (nee Buchanan) who live amongst rainforest at Topaz near Malanda. Marian also used to belong to QOSI when she lived in Ipswich. It was lovely to stay with them and to catch up on some rainforest birds such as Topknot Pigeons, Victoria’s Riflebird, Grey-headed and Pale-yellow Robins, Macleays and Graceful Honeyeaters with both Chowchilla and Red-necked Crake calling. Then on to Hasties Swamp which had thousands of Plumed Whistling Ducks and a few Magpie Geese but not the great assortment of birds that can be found there in summer.
Herberton Historical Village is a must see and you need at least half a day to do it justice. Whilst having a damper and stew lunch, I received a call from Keith and Lindsay Fisher who used to own Kingfisher Park Lodge in Julatten. They were heading to Herberton on their way back from out west after having completed the Grasswren surveys around the Mt Isa area. It was lovely to catch up with them as I would have missed seeing them. It’s amazing how birders can meet up in unexpected ways.
They gave me directions about where to find the Herberton Honeyeater a proposed split by Lloyd Neilsen. This bird was previously regarded as the Yellow-tinted Honeyeater and more recently as the northern race of Fuscous Honeyeater. As I drove past the road they mentioned, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. It was fairly straight forward to find the site only about two kilometres off the main road. As I got out of the car I heard the very familiar call of the Fuscous Honeyeater only much louder and then one flew into a tall tree near where I was standing. It appeared much bigger but it was too high to note the difference in the shape of its plume. This is the bird mentioned in Lloyd Neilsen’s new book.
Then on to Ravenshoe Caravan Park beside the old Railway station where I got the last site available. Next morning I walked the main street and saw the memorial erected in memory of those killed in the gas bottle explosion last year. The site of the café has been cleaned up and you wouldn’t know anything had happened there.
Time to turn west towards Georgetown stopping at the Forty Mile Scrub for lunch. Of course you can’t drive west without stopping at Cumberland Dam where many species of finches have been seen over the years. What a surprise to see a new viewing platform with a telescope and a new toilet block which had only opened 3 weeks previously. I saw a very extensive list of species around the dam over the two days I was there. While I was at the dam, Phil and Patricia Maher turned up with a group of birders on tour to western Queensland. Phil is the expert guide for Plains Wanderers. However the finches were very limited although I did find Black-throated and Masked Finches at a small waterhole down behind the dam on the last morning.
On towards Croydon where I saw a pair of Black-breasted Buzzards circling over the highway. This was to be the first of many sightings of these birds during my travels. I also saw a White-breasted Sea-eagle feeding beside the road and he tried to take off with his carrion but was eventually forced to drop it. Of course with the narrow one lane bitumen and gravel shoulders, the inevitable happened and a large rock broke my windscreen, luckily on the passenger side. Next morning it developed into a 30cm crack but thankfully it stayed this way until the morning before I got home 6 weeks later.
25 kms south-east of Normanton is the most wonderful campsite I had during my trip i.e. Leichhardt’s Lagoon with lots of shady level sites right beside the lagoon and hundred of birds out in front, hot showers and flushing toilets for $8 per night and a 3 course dinner on Saturday nights for $6 per head. Unfortunately I arrived on a Friday and the dinner was all booked out. There is also a BBQ night on Tuesday and a talent quest on Thursday making it a very entertaining place to stay as well as wonderful birding. Here I saw the only Sarus Cranes of my trip with two birds right out in front - and the sunsets were breathtaking.
On towards Karumba where I had hoped to go on a half-day fishing trip but it was cheaper to do both the birdwatching and sunset cruise with the Ferryman who has been operating bird tours out of Karumba for about 13 years. Unfortunately a very strong wind came up overnight so the trip was postponed until the next day. The boat crew feed a pair of Black-necked Storks named Mr and Mrs Red Legs and it was interesting to the see the rivalry between two males when one tried to come into the other’s territory. Of course one would be disappointed if you didn’t see some White-breasted Whistlers and the crew know the exact spot where to find them. Unfortunately we didn’t see any Mangrove Golden Whistlers. The waterfront along the river has been done up recently with a new boat ramp and walkway along the foreshore of the Norman River.
A Red-headed male Honeyeater landed on the anchor on the front of the boat giving everyone wonderful photo opportunities and a Great-billed Heron flew along the river. A large flock of hundreds of Royal Spoonbills were standing near the mouth of the river and we saw a pod of Irrawaddy Dolphins. Great Bowerbirds are very numerous around the northern towns as are White-gaped Honeyeaters and Whistling Kites which were nesting in quite a few places around Karumba. A Channel-billed Cuckoo was heard on both days which is unexpected at that time of the year.
I stopped at the lagoon near the entrance to the town to look for Star Finches and was lucky enough to see them. As I was about to leave the town, I saw four trucks with double decks of cattle ready to be leave so I headed south swiftly rather than have to travel behind them. The first one stayed on my tail for the 200 kilometres to Burke and Wills Roadhouse where I stayed the night proving they do more than the 70kph they maintain. There were two more White-breasted Eagles feeding on dead kangaroos beside the highway making them a target for these trucks as the eagles are hampered trying to take off with their carrion. This was the third sighting of a sea-eagle feeding beside the road, something I had never seen before. Was it because there was a shortage of fish in the Gulf this year due to lack of monsoonal rains?
An interesting phenomonen was seeing lots of termites mounds dressed up with Tshirts and a collection of clothes. This extended right across the Barkley Highway and up the length of the Stuart Highway with hundreds altogether and included whole families of Mum, Dad and two children. The occasional one was dressed complete with a hat, beads, handbag and Ug boots. Some had obviously been there a while as the Tshirts were starting to disintegrate and were stained red from the colour of the termite mounds. Most were in the middle of nowhere and some extended 50m into the bush. You couldn’t help but smile at the creativity shown by some of the costumes.
On towards Mt Isa next morning to stay at the McNamara Rd site for the Carpentarian Grasswren. This road no longer has the McNamara sign on it but is approximately 65 kms north-west of Mt Isa and has a big copper mine sign near the beginning of the road. The road has been widened and sealed with a well developed turn off at the Grasswren site where the cairn is found 8kms from the highway. During the time I was there, six other birders had scoured the hillsides without any luck. On the last morning, I flushed a bird which quickly disappeared into the bottom of a bush never to be seen again. As I had seen these grasswrens before and it was typical grasswren behaviour, I felt justified that I had seen it again. Other birds here were Black-tailed Treecreeper, Grey-fronted Honey-eater with (one building a nest beside the track), Grey-headed Honeyeater, Spinifex Pigeon and both Crested Bellbird and a Red-browed Pardalote heard.
A very strong wind had come up while I was there which prevented me from cooking my leg of lamb in the campoven (after working in spinifex country at Newhaven I know what fire can do) so I moved on towards Camooweal where I always enjoy staying along the Georgina River. I was desperate to cook my lamb so I dug a deep hole and surrounded it with large rocks to get the oven down below the wind. It was cooked in about 45 minutes and was wonderful. There was not a lot of water in the lagoons so birdlife was restricted although the brolgas were doing their regular dancing act.
Then onto the Barkly Highway for the long trip to the Stuart Highway. About 150 kms along the highway, I hit a small bird and decided I should go back to see what is was and found a Little Button-quail. I felt bad but what can you do and it was good to be able to have such a close view of one, with its white flanks which is the diagnostic feature to look for when they fly away from you. Along the highway I also saw two more Black-breasted Buzzards circling overhead with their large prominent bullseyes in the wings as well as Spotted Harrier, Black Falcon, Horsfield Bushlark and Splendid Fairy-wren. Diesel at the Barkly Roadhouse was $1.79/l and $1.68 at the Three Ways where the Barkly joins the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory.
Keith and Lindsay Fisher had told me of a good spot on Newcastle Creek off the highway on the northern edge of Elliott. It was over 12 kms of corrugated sandy road in to the site but miles of room along the edge of the water for camping. There were not a lot of species like at Leichhardt Lagoon but there were hundreds of Pelicans and Little Black Cormorants who fished as a group each morning. It was a spectacular site to see. Darters were spread out along the shore in numbers drying their wings. About 30 Caspian Terns flew up and down over the water at intervals and rested on the opposite shore along with two Bustards amongst them. Budgies were numerous with a Paperbark Flycatcher flitting in the trees along with Rufous-throated Honeyeaters and a Black-chinned Honeyeater visited each morning. Whilst Black Kites are numerous virtually all over most of Queensland and the Northern Territory, they were conspicuous by their absence on this waterway where the Whistling Kites dominated with up to three nests in many trees.
After two days it was time to move on. As I drove through Dunmarra, a water buffalo was grazing beside the highway and I saw another Black-breasted Buzzard. I continued onto Bitter Springs just north of Mataranka where I had seen nesting Red Goshawk in previous years. But all the raptors had disappeared except the ubiquitous Black Kites. The owner said they had disappeared along with the excessive heat and drought of the last few years when it had reached up to 50-52 degrees during the last summer. A visit to the thermal pools found a Shining Flycatcher enjoying the beautiful surrounds. Then on to Adelaide River where I started to see Red-collared Lorikeets, Orange-footed Scrubfowl and Lemon-bellied Flycatchers which were everywhere from here on northwards.
As I entered Darwin I called into Charles Darwin NP but the midges drove me out swiftly and then Tiger Brennan Drive where I had seen Chestnut Rail previously. This roadway is being upgraded but you can still pull off to the side to search the mangrove areas. But it is very noisy and close to the busy road and best done in the early morning. Down to Causarina Coastal Reserve and Lee Point but it was midday and the tide was way out so on to Buffalo Ck. Two Beach Stone-curlews were on the sandbank and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters were in the mangroves.
I stayed at Lee Point Caravan Park but at $55/night it was a short visit. Next day I did Charles Darwin University where I saw Red-headed and White-gaped Honeyeaters and Helmeted Friarbird. Then to the Botanical Gardens to look for Rufous Owl but unfortunately I could not find it. Sadly we can’t be everywhere at the right time of the day or year and it was lunchtime when I got to Howard Springs. This is a lovely area to walk around but I missed the Rainbow Pitta which is usually seen here but I did see Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Large-billed Gerygone and Shining Flycatcher.
On to Fogg Dam but it was almost dry with very little water in front of the birdhide and only two small pools along the causeway. There were two Radjah Shelducks with some very small babies who were trying to stay cool in their parents’ shadow beside the muddy pond and I wondered if they would survive as it was 34 degrees. It was here I saw my first Pied Heron of the trip. Then to Window on the Wetlands but there were virtually no wetlands to see. Again it was the middle of the day and quite hot. I was feeling quite disillusioned about the heat and the dry so continued on to Bark Hut Inn for the night where I had a buffalo pie and a shandy for tea.
Into Kakadu National Park and Mamakula Wetlands but with little water there were only about 100 Wandering Whistling-ducks and a few Magpie Geese as well as the bush birds. On to Merl Campground at the north-eastern end of Kakadu NP. This is a lovely campground with showers and flushing toilets and large campsites for $15 /n. I walked down to Cahills Crossing over the East Alligator River which is the entrance to Arnhem Land. Here I watched four big crocodiles as they waited to cross over the road at the crossing. I’m not sure if they were waiting for fish flushed by the cars as they crossed or for people who were silly enough to walk down to the water’s edge or stand there fishing.
Some of the first birds I saw at the campground were a pair of Partridge Pigeons, a Northern Fantail and a pair of Crows trying to catch a tree snake but they eventually gave up defeated. During the early morning I heard a Barn Owl flying around the camping area and dingoes calling down by the river as well as Bush Stone-curlews in the distance. On a walk down to the boat ramp, I saw a Rainbow Pitta hiding under the bushes.
Then on to Malabnjbanjdju campground south of Jabiru. This has only basic facilities and is $6 per night. This was close to Nourlangie Rock where I wanted to go to look for Banded Fruit-dove which I had seen here in 2000. But again it was hot and dry and very little flowering with no fruiting figtrees but I did see Northern Rosella and Helmeted (Sndstone) Friarbird. Unfortunately I did not see a Sandstone Shrike-thrush although I heard it calling high up on the escarpment. On to Anbangbang Lagoon where there were a number of waterbirds and a Pacific Baza.
As I wanted to do the Yellow Waters wetland cruise next morning, I stayed at Mardugal campground which is closeby. I was looking forward to a cold shower but the toilet block was closed for urgent repairs. Luckily it opened again late that afternoon. The cruise was $100 for 2 hours and included a hot buffet breakfast back at Cooinda Lodge. It was a beautiful morning and we had wonderful sightings of Azure Kingfisher (but no Little Kingfisher), Green Pygmy Geese, Jacanas, Nankeen Night-herons, Pied Herons, both Whistling Ducks, a Broad-billed Flycatcher and a few Black-necked Storks and of course no cruise would be complete (for some people) without a few crocodile sightings.
As storms were predicted further north for this evening, I decided it was time to head south and see if I could stay ahead of them as they were going to get up to 50mm of rain. It was still very hot and had been 34 degrees in Darwin and 32 all through Kakadu. I went as far as Pine Creek where I had a lovely swim in the pool at Lazy Lizard Caravan Park. That afternoon I went for a walk to the Miner’s Rest area and found Bar-breasted and Banded Honeyeaters as well as a Common Bronzewing, the first one of my trip. Next morning I went there again and found a pair of Hooded Parrots before walking back to the other end of town to the Water Gardens where there was a flock of about twelve Hooded Parrots. Some rain had fallen through the night although not a lot but it was very overcast.
Heading south again, I drove into Edith Falls but it was overrun with caravans and it was difficult to even find a place to park. Then south to Katherine for some shopping and email. Diesel here was $122.7c/l.
A strong headwind had come up so I only went as far as Mataranka CP. It was too late to go for a thermal dip when I got there and too cool next morning. It was still overcast and they had had 50 mm of rain the previous night. I continued on to the Three Ways with lots of water all the way south beside the highway. They had a maximum of 11 degrees the day before with 50mm during the day and everyone was complaining about the cold weather.
The weather was not conducive to birding with light rain and strong winds as I headed across the Barkly Highway towards Queensland so I just kept driving and did it in one day. Into Camooweal and then to Mt Isa where I usually stay at Lake Moondarra CP. It has now changed its name with new owners and the nice grassy sites along the front overlooking the creek no longer exist with permanent dongas installed in those sites. They now cater for miner and itinerant workers so it is not the same place although I did get the Varied Lorikeets as always in the park. I drove out to Lake Moondarra stopping at Clearwater Lagoon but it had few birds except one Glossy Ibis (a first for the trip) and virtually nothing at the lake. I did go down to Pamela St in Mt Isa where Kalkadoon Grasswrens used to be seen but again it was the middle of the day. Apparently they have not been seen here very regularly in the last couple of years.
Continuing east from Mt Isa, I stopped at the old townsite of Mary Kathleen where the mining company allows people to free camp. It is a great spot with lots of concrete slabs from the house sites but no buildings. They were well spaced out and it was great to have your own concrete slab. No fires are allowed here. I went for a walk around the townsite and found some Yellow-rumped Thornbills, a Singing Honeyeater and Painted Finches were seen by some other people. It still hadn’t rained but was very overcast and windy.
I had planned to go to Clem Walton Park near Corella Dam but with the weather still unstable, I went into the Oasis Caravan Park in Cloncurry where they had had 50 mm in the past few days so the campsites were quite muddy. This was the first caravan park which had a TV room and a very nice camp kitchen which meant you got to meet people and share stories of your journey. I was very disappointed with the standard of caravan parks all along the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory. It was lovely to be able to sit down in comfort out of the wind and rain to chat to people. Here I met an elderly couple in their 80’s who had been held up on the Georgina River for four days after the rain as no one could drive on the tracks out to the highway.
On to McKinley with lots of water along the road but it was then very dry between McKinley and Kynuna before turning green again all the way to Winton. It’s hard to believe how one area could miss out on rain when it had been so widespread. Kynuna had the usual three brolgas in the main street where I had lunch. It had been raining from Tennant Creek north to Darwin and then east right through to the Queensland coast during the last few days. On to Winton with water everywhere and very wet around the town. Of course the road to Bladensburg National Park was closed as were all the other dirt roads in the area. A tour group had even been offering mud tours around the town but after 45 mm more the night I was there everything was cancelled.
As you couldn’t move off the bitumen, there was no where to go so I just kept heading east. Little did I know that the highway would be closed to Ilfracombe that afternoon and no one could get out of Winton for three days. I stayed at Ilfracombe Caravan Park that evening which is famous for its nightly Happy Hour. They have a big room set up so everyone is out of the cold, the wind or the heat. One place worth seeing in Ilfracombe is Langenbaker House which the family brought to Ifracombe in the 1890’s from Barcaldine on their horse drawn wagon. It was lived in until 1991 by a son of the original owner, changing very little over the years increasing its heritage value. Eleven children were brought up in the house which would have been very modern in the early 1900’s. It is very unusual in that the verandahs are enclosed by strapping used on wool bales and woven together to give a latticework effect similar to what we see today.
I left next morning and on towards Springsure where I stayed at Virgin Rock campsite overlooking the escarpments which are light up at night showing the virgin in a grotto. It’s quite amazing. Here I found out that people had been locked in at Carnarvon for nine days as the roads were impassable and during that time they had used all their fuel trying to keep generators going. Of course everyone wanted a hot shower and comfort so Springsure had run out of accommodation as well as fuel..
I had planned to stay another night here but it was drizzling with rain next morning so I continued onto Biloela. Of course it was sunny when I got there and for the whole three days until I left to come home. I had done 3000 kms in seven days trying to stay ahead of the rain so I missed lots of opportunities to bird along the way as I had planned. But the farmers were ecstatic that they had such good unexpected and unseasonal rain.
A few interesting summaries re birds on the trip. I did not see ONE emu in either NT or Qld, brolgas were very numerous, the only Sarus Cranes were at Leichhardt Lagoon, I saw five Black-breasted Buzzards over the highways, three White-bellied Sea-eagles were seen on carrion beside the highways and the sight of hundreds of Pelicans and Little Black Cormorants fishing together at Lake Woods was a memorable event. But unfortunately I missed a lot of the Northern Territory endemics because of the drought and the heat.