Trip Report: Cairns Area (Queensland, Australia), August 16-31, 1997

Murray Lord, 6/17 Cecil Street, Paddington, NSW 2021, Australia;

I spent a fortnight birding in the Cairns area at the end of August 1997. In that time I saw a total of 208 species of birds.

This report is intended to be read with Richard and Sarah Thomas' Where to Find Birds in Australia for information on how to get to sites. I am really offering a commentary on what I found by visiting those sites, together with details on a few other spots. I also used Jo Wienecke's Where to Find Birds in North East Queensland. It offers a greater number of sites, although the ones in Thomas are the pick of the crop. Thomas is also more specific on how to find difficult species. Jo's book would be a better choice for longer, more extensive visits to the area.

As I visited many sites more than once I am giving the report on a site by site basis. Sometimes I have given details on birds seen by other birders at the time to give a more complete picture.

Cairns Botanic Gardens

The gardens themselves didn't have the promised plethora of honeyeaters, but they did produce some goodies including Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Metallic Starling (about 30, flying across the main road outside the entrance), Black Butcherbird (seen from the street on the western side of the gardens), and Yellow Oriole.

The track to Centenary Lakes produced a Red-necked Crake. Not far from its beginning, the boardwalk crossed a tiny pool of water (the whole rest of the area was dry at the time). I heard a movement there, and thought it was probably the crake. I played a tape for about two seconds, only have one reply from the opposite side of the track. It came out, but tended to want to stay under bushes.

I looked for Mangrove Robins around the waterways, without luck. Sacred Kingfishers and Dusky Honeyeaters were common.

The mangroves alongside the creek where the main road to the Botanic Gardens crosses it are worth a look. I didn't see much initially, but pishing quickly made Dusky Honeyeaters, a Leaden Flycatcher and a Varied Triller appear close by.

Little Road Cemetary

Not in Thomas, this site is slightly south of the Botanical Gardens. It is a reliable site for Bush Stone Curlew, especially at dusk when driving through produced at least half a dozen. Wandering around the trees at the northern end in the middle of the day produced Spangled Drongo, Forest Kingfisher and Brown-backed Honeyeater.

Michaelmas Cay

This was not as good as when I last visited in December 1991. How much of that was due to the month I don't know. Brown Boobies were seen on the way out, and there were reasonable numbers of breeding Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns. No sign of Black Noddies or Bridled Terns. A quick trip by boat around the far side of the Cay yielded a single Lesser Crested Tern (apparently the first there for several months) and a group of terns I think were Roseate, but I didn't get a good enough look to be certain.

Also, a female Greater Frigatebird hovered overhead for most of the day. Of course it was a Lesser I really wanted to see...

Mount Whitfield

There were a number of interesting birds here, but nothing really outstanding. I did the shorter loop walk. Lovely Fairy-wrens were present in the bamboo near where the loop track rejoins the outgoing one. Brush Turkeys and Spectacled Monarchs were reasonably common. I listened carefully for a Noisy Pitta without luck.

Turf Farms at Edmonton

The one on the road to Yarrabah was the only one with birds present. My first visit yielded nothing unusual, but by the end of August at least two Australian Pratincoles were there and easy to view.

Cairns Crocodile Farm

This site, on the road to Yarrabah, is well worth a visit for crakes and rails. I saw a lot of White-browed Crakes and a couple of Buff-banded Rails, as well as some Latham's Snipes and a Little Kingfisher. A Painted Snipe had been seen here in mid-August. If you say you are a birder when you go in, they will give you a folder with a map of bird sites on it.

The 7000 crocodiles made an impressive sight too.

Thompson's Road, Edmonton

Reading Thomas you would think that Mangrove Robins fall at your feet here. Yet four visits yielded nothing more than a very distant bird calling, which would not come in to either pishing, whistling or a tape.

Having said that, it is a very good site for other birds. Brahminy Kites appear to nest near the launching ramp. The row of trees on the launching ramp side of the speedway yielded Red-backed Wrens, Lovely Fairy-Wrens and a Little Bronze-Cuckoo. A Pacific Baza was in the trees near the building opposite the speedway once. At the Mangrove Robin site Shining Flycatchers could be seen most times. And on the way to the Mangrove Robin site, I saw Fairy Gerygones, a Little Shrike-Thrush, a Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, and (once) a young White-eared Monarch, which had me stumped for a while as it was grey rather than black.

On my last visit there I had fantastic views of two Fig Parrots feeding in a tree next to the road, just above the start of the track to the robin site. They were no more than two metres from the ground and three metres from me.

Eubenangee Swamp N.P.

This spot is signposted on the east of the highway about halfway between Innisfail and Babinda. You take the road to Bramston Beach to get to it. There were a reasonable numbers of waterbirds present (especially egrets), but they were a fair way away from the viewing mound. Apparently a Grass Owl has been seen here recently.

Mission Beach Area

The best place to get a Cassowary at the moment seems to be at Licuala State Forest's southern picnic area. To get there, coming from Cairns, take the Mission Beach turnoff and go past Lacey's Creek. Turn right towards Tulley instead of going in to Mission Beach. After about 5 km, turn right and drive along to the parking area. Just walk along the track a little way past the barrier and wait. Or alternatively, keep walking along the track, because you will eventually get back to Lacey's Creek, and anywhere along there should be good.

The bird had been seen there the week beforehand. I walked about 100 m and waited, and one crossed the track 200 m ahead of me. If you aren't looking up at the right time you could easily miss one crossing though. After this view I walked up further and waited again. The bird eventually came out onto the track about 10 m from me, and instead of crossing over it turned right and started walking straight towards me.

Having done my homework on Cassowaries, I immediately started walking backwards. After about 30 m I thought, "Let's see who's boss", and I stopped walking. The Cassowary kept coming, so with that question answered I started backing off a bit more rapidly! Luckily the bird soon lost interest and headed off.

Lacey's Creek is worth a look regardless of whether you are after Cassowaries. A Pacific Baza circled overhead when I was in the carpark. Fig Parrots were seen there by someone else.

Jourama Falls N.P.

This area is an excellent one for nightjars. It is about half an hour's drive south of Ingham. I went to the camp site at dusk, and soon heard White-throated Nightjars calling. A little while later Large-taileds called. I was able to get the spotlight on Large-taileds overhead, and one landed on top of a tree and called for about thirty seconds. The big white patches in the tail could be seen easily.

I drove around the Ingham area for a bit after that in the hope of seeing a Grass Owl. Unfortunately I had no information on exact sites, so predictably I was unsuccessful.


A stop at the beach at the southern end of town was quite productive. It was at a park beside the highway, with a few mangrove trees on the beach. Species included Varied and Graceful Honeyeaters, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns and a Little Cuckoo-shrike on a nest.

Paluma and Mount Spec N.P.

If you are visiting Paluma you should be warned that the Ivy Cottage tea gardens referred to in Thomas are not open on Mondays, and Cliff and Dawn Frith, who are also referred to, no longer live there.

I tried looking for Golden Bowerbirds and bowers near Birthday Creek Falls without success, but I didn't have any specific information on where to look.

The promised Chowchillas and Fernwrens were found at Witts Lookout Track. To find it turn right just as you come into the town. There were at least a dozen Chowchillas, and I saw one Fernwren. It appeared to be feeding in leaves disturbed by a pair of Chowchillas. Victoria's Riflebirds were present in the area too.

As I was returning to the highway I drove up the Big Crystal Creek Road, which was an area Jo Wienecke mentioned for White-browed Robins. The spot where the road crossed Little Crystal Creek looked like a good spot to me, so I stopped and played a tape for all of five seconds from the car. Not ten seconds later one appeared, and flew across the road to have a look at me before returning from where it came. One of the easiest target species to get!

Townsville Common

I had a brief look only around the Townsville area. I was hoping to see a Bustard, a species seen occasionally in the park, but had no success.

The Cotton Pygmy Geese found 'year round' on the Borrow Pits were conspicuous by their absence. However I did get excellent views of Brolgas and many other waterbirds.

Daintree River Trip

I did HREF="">Chris Dahlberg's trip. It was very impressive, and I have no hesitation recommending it. One word of warning -- don't rely on it for Mangrove Robins, which Thomas claims to have seen several of. I asked Chris Dahlberg, and he said: "No, we never get them up here."

Highlights of the trip included: Large-billed Gerygone, Green Pygmy Goose, Papuan Frogmouth, Little Kingfisher, Shining Flycatchers, Fairy Gerygones, Grey Whistler, White-eared Monarch, Pied Imperial Pigeons (three early returners), Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters, Topknot Pigeon, Wompoo Fruit Dove, Barred Cuckoo-shrikes, a Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo (a brief view only -- Chris Dahlberg had identified it by call), and an immature Great-billed Heron. No Black Bittern unfortunately, it was the wrong time of year although one had been seen earlier in the week.

The trees in the carpark near the wharf are worth spending some time around. The previous evening they had been empty, but after we got off the boat, one tree had nine Barred Cuckoo-shrikes in it, and ten minutes later we noticed a couple of Fig Parrots flying in. Waiting a bit longer yielded about eight of them.

Newell Beach

Since I was going past I thought I would drop in and look for a Pacific Swallow. I only saw two swallows and both were Welcomes.

Mount Carbine Area

This area gets only a brief mention in Thomas, and very little specific information. I never saw any Black-throated Finches (and apart from a sighting a long way further north none of the other birders I saw in the area at the time did), so I can't help on that front. But both Australian Bustards and Squatter Pigeons are relatively easy to find.

The Bustards are at Maryfarms. As you drive from Mt. Molloy, you come to East Mary Road and then West Mary Road, both on your right. The latter seemed the better option for Bustards. I saw up to a dozen, and initially they were fairly close to, or even on the road. I visited again only an hour later and saw only one, so it seems they are not always easily visible from the road. The Maryfarms area turns up unusual raptors too on occasion. I also saw a couple of Red-winged Parrots and Pale-headed Rosellas, and a flock of about 120 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos.

I saw Squatter Pigeons twice, both times near Mt. Carbine. The first pair were just beyond the reed-lined pond you can see from the road on the left as you go through the town heading north. The second occasion was on the road signposted to the cemetery, about 2 km past the town as you head north. It was on the road just after I made the turnoff, and I had pretty good views.

Mt. Lewis and Julatten

I stayed three nights at Kingfisher Park, which is now run by Ron Stannard ( I heard Red-necked Crakes there but didn't see them. There is also a fairly reliable Platypus on the premises.

Spotlighting along the main road nearby yielded a Barn Owl family with two young and a Barking Owl. Mammals seen there were Northern Brown Bandicoots, Green Ringtails and (after a lot of waiting) two rather shy Striped Possums.

I went up Mount Lewis twice. By the time I got there I had seen all the likely birds of the area except for the Blue-faced Parrotfinch and the Golden Bowerbird. The Parrotfinches are apparently almost never seen at that time of year, and I had no luck. As for the Golden Bowerbird I had an equal lack of luck, but I was told later the information I had on where to go was out of date. After eleven km from the turnoff onto the Mount Lewis road you come to a concrete culvert, and soon after that a track goes off on your left. I searched the first one km of that track, before it forks. Apparently you should look beyond that on the left fork. I also know they were seen further along the main road, by walking past the barrier.

Birds I saw there included Chowchilla, Atherton Scrubwren, Mountain Thornbill, White-cheeked Honeyeater, Bower's Shrike-Thrush and Wompoo Fruit-Dove.

The Button Quail site at nearby Mount Molloy mentioned in Thomas is apparently now inaccessible. I didn't bother trying (that reflects my level of skepticism about button quails in general), so I am relying on unchecked information in saying that.

Abattoir Swamp contained absolutely no birds when I visited it.

The directions for PickfordRoad left me perplexed. Thomas refers to a waterhole after 1 km. At 1.4 km there is an enormous farm dam (you can't see the water from the road, only the dam), and a tiny creek at about 1.6 km, so I never worked out what spot they were talking about. In either case it made no difference, since no Black-throated Finches were there anyway.

Tinaroo Creek Road

No luck on the Squatter Pigeon or finches here. I spent quite a bit of time going along the river looking for Black Bitterns without success either. I did see Azure Kingfisher, Pheasant Coucal and a probable Gould's Bronze-Cuckoo though.

Lakes Eacham and Barrine

I stayed at John Chambers' Wildlife Rainforest Lodge for two nights. Mammals seen included bandicoots, Red-legged Pademelons, a Giant White-tailed Rat and Sugar Gliders. Bird-wise the highlight was a Lesser Sooty Owl seen from the roadway inn, admittedly more through good luck than good management. Boobooks were also heard.

At Lake Eacham itself the area around the carpark contained Bridled Honeyeaters and White-headed Pigeons.

A short walk in the Lake Barrine area yielded Victoria's Riflebird, Pale Yellow Robin, Large-billed Scrubwren, White-throated Treecreeper, and a Yellow-breasted Boatbill. A semi-tame Cassowary frequents the car park there. Several birders I spoke to had seen it, particularly early in the morning.

Atherton Area

Lake Tinaroo at Tinaburra yielded 50+ Cotton Pygmy Geese and over 100 Plumed Whistling Ducks. Mark's Lane runs north-south just east of Atherton. I saw good numbers of both species of crane, and a huge flock of Magpie Geese there. And following a tip-off from a local birder I went to the northern end at night looking for Grass Owls. I did see what probably was one, but the brief view I got wasn't enough to rule out it being a Barn Owl.

Hastie's Swamp

Another excellent spot. Highlight was a male Painted Snipe. It was found by some English birders one evening, and I saw it a couple of times over several days. It was at the southern end of the swamp, and at the far side.

Other birds were: Latham's Snipe (10+), Comb-crested Jacanas, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Black-fronted Dotterels, Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, a Brown Goshawk, and about a thousand Magpie Geese.

Bromfield Swamp

This gets a brief mention in Thomas under the Hastie's Swamp section. It is the place to go to see cranes at dusk. I saw hundreds of Sarus Cranes and tens of Brolgas. Unfortunately they are a fair way away as you have to watch from the roadside.

Wongabel State Forest

Thomas doesn't mention this spot. It is on the road from Atherton to The Crater, and is well signposted. If you walk about a hundred metres south from the carpark to the start of the loop walk have a look around the few trees that are between you and the road. Tooth-billed Bowerbirds were there each time I went past. The loop walk yielded Scarlet Honeyeater, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Emerald Dove, Bridled Honeyeater, a White-headed Pigeon near a nest, several Victoria's Riflebirds, a Mountain Thornbill, two of what we eventually decided were Atherton Scrubwrens amongst quite a few Large-billed Scrubwrens, and best of all, a Rufous Owl. There was a lot of squawking around which made us think 'raptor', but when we searched a bit, there was a Rufous Owl with half a White-tailed Rat in its feet. Presumably it had just flown in, creating the panic amongst smaller birds. All these birds were seen relatively late in the morning, yet seemed quite active.

The Crater

The site at The Crater itself yielded few birds; no Scrubwrens or Fernwrens for instance. However after quite a bit of time there I did find a family of three Chowchillas. I returned to spotlight there in the evening, and saw only Brush and Lemuroid Ringtail Possums, and unidentified small bats.

I managed to find the Golden Bowerbird bower site. The 'big fallen log' on the map in Thomas isn't at all obvious any more, even though several others are. My advice on trying to find the little track to the bower is to count out 300 m from the gravel area. Or else go further than that and walk back -- it's a bit more obvious when you are going that way.

Anyway, I didn't see the Bowerbird. The bower didn't look as though it was getting attended to regularly. However whilst waiting there I got a mammal mega tick -- a Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo that sat on one branch for at least half an hour. For a nocturnal animal it was quite active at about 9 am.

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