I had planned on a guided trip to Queensland's Iron Range National Park on the Cape York Peninsula, but the trip got cancelled on me at the last moment because not enough people signed up. Oh well, there are worse fates than finding stuff to do in Queensland for a birder.
I managed to get on a non-birding 4-wheel-drive trip to the tip of Cape York Peninsula with the Adventure Company, Australia, something I had wanted to do for a long time. My birding trip would not have gone that far north. But as expected, there was not much chance to bird.
Here are some highlights.
In Cairns, July 16, the night before we left, there was a full eclipse of the moon. The sky was completely clear. It went into full eclipse at 11 PM and stayed that way for more than an hour. It was beautiful to be down on Cairns's esplanade watching this wonder with the tide very high and the water lapping at the retaining wall. I even saw a little RED-CAPPED PLOVER on the mud by the wall.
On the first day, July 17, in Daintree National Park as we stopped for ice cream made from local fruits, a flock of about 20 BROWN CUCKOO-DOVEs* (* = lifer) hung around. They are a beautiful iridescent brown.
Next morning at the campsite near Cooktown, July 18, I had my first sighting of an AUSTRALIAN BRUSH-TURKEY*. I wasn't very well prepared for the Australian leg of my trip and was amazed to see such a bird. The Cape York race of this bird has pinkish purplish neck feathers, rather than the yellow ones seen further south near Cairns.
Later at a pit stop at a campground near Laura we found two TAWNY FROGMOUTH* in a tree together. These birds look just like a part of the tree. The species was also one of my main target birds for the trip so I was very thrilled as were the other trippers, non-birders that they were. That night at the Hann River campsite we found the larger red-eyed PAPUAN FROGMOUTH*. Someone in this remote area kept peacocks too at the campsite! Something for my exotic list.
On the third day, July 19, we came across a WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE* eating carrion on the road. It is a huge bird. Soon after we found a group of three BROLGA* near the road.
July 20, three AUSTRALIAN BUSTARDS* fed near the road near Moreton and flew up after a minute or two.
A bit further on, at the Wenlock River crossing, I got my only sighting (glimpse actually) and hearing of the PALM COCKATOO*. I would like to have a better view.
On July 21, we made it to the tip of Cape York. The native people up there are Melanesian and culturally close to the Papua New Guineans rather than to the Aborigines. It's almost to the equator there, and the temperature in winter is about 29°C in the day.
We saw a BLACK-NECKED STORK (JABIRU)* on the beach at the tip. An AUSTRALIAN PELICAN swam off the beach at Seisia, unafraid of the Esturine Crocodiles that are supposed to be in the sea there. GREAT CRESTED TERNs were everywhere.
On the way to Thursday Island on July 22, we saw BROWN BOOBIES* flying offshore plus a couple of GREAT FRIGATEBIRDs. I was extremely disappointed to find that Thursday Island in the Torresian Strait has been taken over by HOUSE SPARROWS. The most interesting things (bird-wise) there were two OSPREYs carrying fish.
We flew back to Cairns in three small planes. We each had to be weighed on giant scales so they could split the weight evenly among the three aircraft. We flew low over the Great Barrier Reef and could see the reefs under the water, sometimes rising up into islands.
* = Lifer
My experience in the Cairns area was similar to Tom and Carol Bishop's so I will not repeat what they say. They also managed to see several more birds than I did. However, I did do a couple of different things so I will emphasize that.
Nevertheless, I would also highly recommend the Red Mill House (bed and breakfast, breakfast included) in Daintree Village, Kingfisher Park Birdwatching Lodge (camping, two bed bunk rooms and apartment type accomodation, BYO food) in Julatten and Cassowary House (guesthouse, all meals extra (gourmet)) in Kuranda. Heaven for birders, all three.
In Cairns, I stayed mostly at the Floriana. The prices are modest - most rooms have to use shared facilities - and it is right by the Esplanade. It has a friendly and old-fashioned Queensland atmosphere.
A new wetlands conservation area near Mareeba has great birding. Mareeba is west of Cairns at the junction of the Kennedy Highway (which goes past Kuranda) and the highway to Cooktown. Sue Gregory of Cassowary House told me about it. Just a few kilometres north of the town there is a sign pointing to the west to Mareeba wetlands. You drive in there through some cattle country for about 10(?) km. Just after I got to the gate of the conservation area, I saw my first flock of DOUBLE-BARRED FINCH*. A minute or two later a flock of the rare BLACK-THROATED FINCH* appeared by the road. Once I got to the wetland itself I saw several PALE-HEADED ROSELLA, COTTON PYGMY-GEESE*, BLUE-WINGED KOOKABURRA, MAGPIE GEESE*, as well as many water birds of all kinds. As an added attraction, a concert of classical selections - chamber, opera and piano - took place by the lake as I walked around it.
Unfortunately, I got there too late for the trip they have to a more remote area of the park (you must be accompanied). Sarus Cranes and Brolga (cranes) roost there, and there are more species there than I saw. The conservation area is closed on Monday and Tuesday (and maybe Wednesday) so you should check the hours of opening and their trips.
Luckily, I did see a group of SARUS CRANEs* staging by the edge of a cultivated field on my way out (at dusk) before they flew to the roosting spot.
Along the highway to Cooktown, I also enjoyed visiting Lake Mitchell (large flock of WANDERING WHISTLING-DUCK* - go out on the causeway) between Mount Malloy and Mareeba and Hasties Swamp (huge flocks of MAGPIE GEESE and PLUMED WHISTLING DUCK), south and west of Atherton.
Another highlight of my trip occurred at Michaelmas Cay. I was watching the breeding BROWN BOOBIES, SOOTY TERNs* AND BROWN NODDIES when a BLACK NODDY* landed on a 16-inch high wire (it roped off the bird area from the beach area) in front of me. I had been afraid that I might not be able to differentiate the black tern from the brown one. But there was no doubt. The BLACK NODDY is smaller and compared to the BROWN looks scrawny. The white on the head goes down much farther than on the BROWN. However, the brown colour of the two birds looked identical to me.
On the reef, I mostly dedicated myself to diving and snorkelling and felt like a disloyal birder. The snorkelling is very good, especially the coral. They have serious dives (probably to about 30 feet) for non-certified divers (after some training of course). If you psyche yourself up before hand so as not to be surprised by the opportunity when it comes on the boat, you might find yourself doing something quite enjoyable. For certified divers, they will only take you down as deep as 60 feet. Unless you have an advanced certification, you can't go deeper.
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