Trip Report: Wet Tropics - Queensland (Australia), October 9-21, 1997

Edwin Vella, Sidney, Australia;

9/10/97 Thursday

Arrived at Cairns Airport about midday today. The weather was about the high twenties in temperature, and the sky was clear and sunny. I picked up my hire car as transportation for my trip, a brand new Nissan Pulsar 4-cylinder and then, I was off.

A Brahminy Kite soared over, as I exited the airport being the first native bird seen. The first stop was the Smithfield shopping centre, just a few kilometres north of the Airport. Here I stock up a weeks worth of groceries. Just outside the shopping centre, the constant calling of Brush Cuckoos, Figbirds and the sight of White-breasted Woodswallows, Spangled Drongos and Forest Kingfishers on the powerlines were very welcoming. I then took the long trip from Smithfield to the place where I will be spending the next 12 exciting days, that is, Kingfisher Park (KP) at the small village of Julatten.

I took the long way to KP via Mareeba which ended up being a one and half hour journey. The first attractive placed I stopped was Lake Mitchell (sometimes referred to as South-edge Lake) and is a few kilometres just past the town of Mareeba. Here there were small numbers of both Glossy Ibis, Jacana and a group of Grey-crowned Babblers. I saw here, for the first time, the northern form of the Masked Lapwing which has much longer wattles then the southern bird and also lacks the black neck patches of the later.

The next stop was a place referred to as the Abattoir Swamp Environment Park. This is were I got the first lifer for the trip, a pair of Lemon-breasted Flycatchers with both birds calling and one bird then settling on its tiny cup shaped nest. Several Yellow Figbirds and Olive-backed Orioles were calling about. I started to do a bit of squeaking, and then came out a party of Red-backed Wrens and a Brown-backed Honeyeater, then the explosive call of Yellow Honeyeaters.

At about 2:30 PM, I finally reached Kingfisher Park. After placing my gear into my cabin, it was time to tick. There were birds calling everywhere in this delightful rainforest setting, and I was able to identify the birds that were calling (memorising the calls of these birds without doubt pays off). Macleay's, Yellow-spotted and Graceful Honeyeaters were easy to identify and new to me. A lot of the honeyeaters are attracted to the 3 feeders at KP, and it was a delight to see the Lewin's, Yellow-spotted and Graceful Honeyeaters feeding together at the same feeder. Though similar in appearance and in colour, each species had a distinctive call and size variation. The most dominant species of Honeyeater at the feeders were the Macleay's Honeyeaters which were at times aggressive to the others.

A lot of birds and animals were also seen feeding on the seeds that had been thrown on the ground. Emerald, Bar-shouldered and Peaceful Doves, Red-browed Firetails, Brush Turkeys and Orange-footed Scrubfowl were all feeding on this seed and were all fairly approachable. This seed, later on the day and evening, was food for the resident Northern Brown Bandicoots and Red-legged Pademelons.

A walk to the orchard at the back got me many more. These were Yellow-breasted Boatbills, Pied Monarchs (males being much nicer than the females for these two flycatchers. The first is very active, and the later species climbs up trunks of trees in a spiral, like a Tree-creeper), Grey Whistlers, Little Shrike-thrushes, a group of Fairy Warblers plus many more birds.

Later that evening, I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of a Red-necked Crake at the small rainforest pond beside the orchard. This is a very shy bird, and a lot of patience is required to see the bird. The bird will often give its loud "Ak-ak-ak-ak-ak...." call before showing up.

Upon evening, I went for a brief spotlight session which yielded Spectacled Flying Fox, Barn Owl near nest hollow and Large-tailed Nightjars all around the place.

Due to much excitement of my next day's anticipation, and the never-ending calls of Bush Stone-curlews throughout the night it was a bit hard to get a full night's sleep on my first night.

10/10/97 Friday

Woke up early in the morning to head off on the long windy road to Mt Lewis State Forest. This was an excellent place as every endemic bird to the Atherton Region occurs here. Highlights here were the brilliant male Superb Fruit-dove, Chowchillas, Fern Wrens, Bower's Shrike-thrushes, a White-eared Monarch, those fairly aggressive Bridled Honeyeaters, male Victoria's Riflebird, several noisy Tooth-billed Bowerbirds and Spotted Catbirds, and a Golden Bowerbird male displaying and calling at his bower.

The mountain form of the Grey Fantail was seen here, being much darker in colour than the southern birds. I did not see any of these fantails in the lowlands but Northern Fantails were present at the lower altitudes. It was interesting to see White-cheeked Honeyeaters present in a clearing, which may have been over 1000 metres above sea level.

Back down the road, I saw my first Yellow-bellied Sunbirds. These little gems, Australia's only species of Sunbird are common and widespread in the Wet Tropics and were nesting everywhere.

At Mt Malloy, Great Bowerbirds were around the town, as well as more sunbirds, figbirds, Olive-backed Orioles, Little Cuckoo-shrikes (being much a common bird than the black-faced cousin), Dusky and Yellow Honeyeaters, Little Shrike-thrushes and a male Satin Flycatcher. A Pheasant Coucal, a bird quite common in the surrounding canefield (and also a frequent road kill) was trying to get away from me as it went up higher and higher in a paperbark, which is a usual reaction to people.

Back at Kingfisher Park, another round of spotlighting obtained me good views of a pair of Large-tailed Nightjars (their "chop chop" calls could be heard everywhere around KP on every night) and a Papuan Frogmouth.

11/10/97 Saturday

This time I had to wake up very early for Chris Dhalberg's Daintree River Cruise, about 4:15 am. But just as well, as a Lesser Sooty Owl was calling just after I woke that morning, about 4:30 am. I imitated its call, and the bird landed in a tree above me. I imitated its shrieking call, and it called back. Its eyes went bright red as I shone the torchlight on the Owl.

It was an hour's drive from KP to Daintree Village where I met a whole group of keen birdos at Red Mill House. My two main objective birds on this cruise were the Great-billed Heron and Little Kingfisher, both of which I did see. Two Great-billed Herons were seen on the cruise on the nest. Other highlights were Green Pygmy Geese, flocks of Pied Imperial Pigeons and excellent views of 2 male and 2 female Shinning Flycatchers. The Little Kingfisher made itself readily available to be ticked at the small pond at Red Mill House. This bird is really tiny and fairly approachable if done so quietly.

After a brief lunch, I spent early afternoon at Centenary Lakes and the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Gould's Bronze-cuckoos and Lovely Fairy-wrens were new to me here. Varied Trillers, Yellow Orioles, Pied Imperial Pigeons, Sunbirds, Brown-backed and Yellow Honeyeaters were everywhere, and there were also Fig Parrots, Rainbow and Scaley-breasted Lorikeets in the same tree.

In the mangrove-lined channel in the middle of the park, Large-billed Warblers and Brown-backed Honeyeaters were nest building, and a Common Sandpiper was feeding there.

At the Flecker Botanical Gardens, I saw a Cicadabird whose call was different to those which migrate down south, and those found on the tablelands. The call seems to be much slower than that of the other birds and I've heard that work is being carried out on the birds to determine whether 2 races exists.

Later on I went to Cairns Esplanade to view a good variety and number of shorebirds as the tide was coming up. This being an excellent place to view shorebirds in Cairns but is under threat from business development. (Why spend millions of dollars in rubbish developments when this beautiful site of nature provides tourist dollars at no cost!) Varied Honeyeaters with their melodious calls were all along the Esplanade.

As I headed back to KP, I briefly stopped at Lake Mitchell and saw a pair of what I really wanted to see on the trip, and had been chasing around the Hunter in our own state. A pair of stately Black-necked Stork's (aka Jabiru), and the sighting of these birds was not my last.

12/10/97 Sunday

I spent early to mid-morning in the Mt Carbine Area (about 40 kilometres out from KP). Saw 3 Australian Bustards there, of which 2 where displaying, giving out some sort of roaring sound like a distant lion. Other goodies here included Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, a beautiful pair of Red-winged Parrots, several Blue-winged Kookaburras and Pale-headed Rosellas. The Weebills here were much brighter yellow in colour then their southern counterparts.

At the Mt Carbine Caravan Park, I watched the display of a Great Bowerbird at his bower. Here the male decorated his bower with white shells, bones and other white objects and used these toys in its display where it revealed its lilac-pink crest.

The next stop for the day was Big Mitchell Creek where I saw my first pair of White-browed Robins. These beautiful robins were quite approachable, if done very quietly. These robins often raise their tail up, being fairly unusual among robins.

Further up the road, I also saw my first pair of Brolgas at Lake Mitchell. A pair of these large grey birds where feeding in the grassland, not far from the lake's edge. On the Atherton Tablelands, there are more Sarus Cranes than Brolgas, where the former species is displacing the later crane.

Just after lunch, I arrived at Tinaroo Falls Dam were I saw several Banded Honeyeaters feeding on the blossoms of an umbrella tree. Birds in various plumages (from juvenile to adult birds) were feeding with Scarlet and Brown-backed Honeyeaters, Rainbow Lorikeets and Noisy Friarbirds on the same blossom.

On my way out from the dam, I stopped beside the road to view a pair of Sarus Cranes feeding in an open paddock, 20 metres from the road. Good numbers of these birds were also seen later on, at Broomfield Swamp just out of Atherton. About 700 of these birds come to this swamp to roost every night during the dry season.

My way back to KP was a bit of a drive and a concern, as road trains carrying harvested sugar cane often went past and blew dust all over my wind screen as I drove through the narrow roads. Just before I drove through Mt Malloy, a nightjar flew from the side of the road and landed near-by. I then parked my car and heard the bird call from where it flew to, giving its "caw-caw cook-ook-ook-ook...." call. This was fairly dry habitat, and this Spotted Nightjar is one of Australia's three species that all breed around this area.

By the end of the evening, I had seen 50 new lifers since the first day of the trip on Thursday, i.e., in 3 1/2 days.

13/10/97 Monday

I spent the whole of Monday with Del Richards who runs "Fine Feather Tours". The trip is a great value and very well recommended, especially if you have limited time in Cairns. Del certainly knows his birds, and where they are. Excellent birds found with Del included Mangrove Robin (this birdwatcher's bird is not easy to find but Del will show you their haunt), Barn and Pacific Swallows (Del along with Loyd Nielson is renown for the discovery of the later species, and Del on his tour showed me the distinguishing features of this swallow, one being the amount of white in the Pacific Swallow's tail when fanned which is merely a few spots, but a band of white in the Welcome), several Black-necked Storks (Del was able to find me various storks in all sorts of plumage, 5 birds in total. Wow!), Broad-billed Flycatcher, Northern Fantail, a roosting Papuan Frogmouth, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo (this was certainly the highlight of the day and a fairly rare bird in the area, being more common in Cape York. The bird has much darker and richer colouring than a Fan-tailed Cuckoo but has a very similar call) and Squatter Pigeons (at Mt Carbine). Just about all these species were only seen during Del's Tour, and I was well looked after during the day with his provision of an excellent barbecue lunch and continual supply of refreshments. This was definitely one of my best parts of my trip.

At KP that evening, Ron took us for a bit of spotlighting as a small group. Highlights were Striped Possum, White-tailed Rats, Spectacled Flying Fox, Fawn-footed Melomys and a Cape York Rat. KP is excellent for spotlighting.

14/10/97 Tuesday

I set aside the whole of today to find Black-throated Finches. For some reason, I really wanted to see this bird.

The first place I tried was Mt Malloy Cemetery. No luck here, but there were 2 adult Banded Honeyeaters, a pair of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos and a Red-winged Parrot.

The next places to try were Lake Mitchell, Big Mitchell Creek and the outskirts of Mareeba but still no luck.

The final place of search was around Mt Carbine, were I finally obtained my luck when 20 birds were calling from a Pandanus. These are truly beautiful finches and well worth the chase. Other drier country birds such as Australian Bustards, Little Friarbirds, Great Bowerbirds, Apostlebirds and Grey-crowned Babblers were also around the area.

15/10/97 Wednesday

The whole day was spent on a trip out to Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef aboard the Sea Star 2. A trip also highly recommended, and the lunch provided is well satisfying.

At the Cay, hundreds of both Sooty Tern and Common Noddies were present and at times harassed by 2 Greater Frigatebirds. Lesser numbers of Black-naped, Crested, Lesser-crested (having a bright orange bill compared to the yellow bill of the former), Little and Bridled Terns and 20 Brown Boobies were also present at the Cay. Lesser (Pacific) Golden Plovers and Ruddy Turnstone were the 2 species of shorebirds present at the Cay.

The skipper of the Sea Star 2 took me for a trip around the Cay in his small dingy, to obtain better views of the seabird colony which was an advantage as the area is not fully accessible to people. It is also well worth to bring a scope with you on this trip to obtain better views of the bird's, which I did.

At Hasting's Reef, a few Bridled Terns were just about the only birds seen here. I did not go snorkeling at the reef, but went on the glass bottom boat to view the nice coral fish in the area. From this boat I saw some of the non-feathered residents of the reef such as Giant Clams, Clown Fish and Damsel Fish.

16/10/97 Thursday

Went up early morning to Mt Lewis State Forest to get the missing Atherton endemic, the Atherton Scrubwren, which I did see. This bird, hopping about on the ground in the open, took not much notice of my near presence. This bird is fairly similar to the closely related and more abundant Large-billed Scrubwren, and with its ground loving habit, larger and heavier build, as well as a meaner look in its face, is identifiable from the Large-billed.

The next spot was Yule Point to find the Beach Stone-curlews. I did not see this species that time. As the tide was falling out, at least 200 Large Sand-plovers and 100 Mongolian Plovers amongst other waders were feeding on the rich mud and sand flats. Varied Honeyeaters were about the mangroves.

In the mid afternoon, I arrived at the Cairns Crocodile Farm, just a little south of Cairns, in a suburb called Edmonton. As I got out of the car, I was greeted by a beautiful and very approachable male sunbird giving out its beautiful notes. I got my video camera on this bird as this was a very good opportunity to film it, and the bird stood still as it sang.

The Crocodile Farm is an excellent place for birds, and the man to see is Andrew Young, the bird person of the place who can show you where all the farm's special birds are, and the regular haunt of the Painted Snipe. I did not see the snipe, but I added to my list White-browed Crakes (at least 10 birds were seen and with many other's calling. Andrew believes that as many as 40 birds may live on the farm) and those gorgeous Crimson Finches (several where nesting about the farm and mostly in man-made structures such as under sheds). I also got within 20 metres of a Jabiru and saw 4 Buff-banded Rails, Wood, Sharp-tailed and Marsh Sandpipers and several Brown-backed Honeyeaters nest building among many more interesting birds.

My last point of call for the day was the Turf Farm just down the road from the Crocodile Farm where I saw another pair of Crimson Finches, an Australian Pratincole and 4 Little Curlews. About the wet season, this is often a reliable site for Yellow Wagtails and Oriental Plovers but I may have been a bit early for these birds.

17/10/97 Friday

Went again on Chris's Dawn Daintree River Cruise. My only Osprey for the trip was seen on this cruise, and I got much better views of the Great-billed Herons which were still on the nest. It was also interesting to see at least 3 male Shining Flycatchers chasing each other and a female on a nest. Another sign of breeding was a pair of Double-eyed Fig-Parrots carving out their nest hollow.

Chris recommended me to see Bruce Bultcher to get the Collared (Mangrove) Kingfisher near Cape Tribulation Ferry (on the Cairns side). I did meet up with him this morning and had a great view of this kingfisher of taller mangrove forest. A pair of birds where present and may have been nesting. Bruce also showed me my first wild Crocodile, a 3 metre reptile.

At around midday, I tried for another shot of finding the Beach Stone-curlew at Yule Point. After about a kilometre walk along the beach from Yule Point, I heard the bird calling from the mangroves and then got very good views of this unusual species with my scope. Also seen here was a Dark-phase Eastern Reef Egret and other shorebirds, a Gould's Bronze Cuckoo and various mangrove species.

At the Cairns cemetery that afternoon, I was surrounded by the eerie calls of the Bush Stone-curlews, and 20 birds were seen. Their likeness for the cemetery may be due to presence of the several tombstones to assist with their camouflage against likely predators. Like our Rookwood cemetery, this is also a good place for birding.

18/10/97 Saturday

Spent just about the whole day at Lake Barrine National Park, just east of Atherton. I did the complete lake circuit and was completely rewarded especially with all 3 colourful Fruit-dove species, several Chowchillas, Spotted Catbirds, Tooth-billed Bowerbirds at their display arenas (large green leaves are placed around the base of a sapling with the bird calling just above, often mimicking other birds) and the most absolute highlight of the day, watching the complete display and mating of a pair of Victoria's Riflebirds (very much the same as in John Young's videos). Many Musky Rat-Kangaroos and a Dingo were also seen on the trail. At the end of the track a White-eared Monarch was calling, and I had a great view of the bird at eye level only a couple of metres away.

After lunch I did the Rainforest trail and saw some of the Atherton endemics such as Pied Monarch, Bower's Shrike Thrush and Grey-headed Robins which I have already seen.

19/10/97 Sunday

Met a lot of birdos on the Cairns Esplanade this morning for the "Birds Australia" Convention. Keith and Lindsey Fisher (members of the North QLD division of Birds Australia) and other members of the organisation were discussing the importance of the Esplanade to the large numbers of shore birds that stay or pass through this area during the warmer times of the year. This is an important stop over to the many that head down south. Of course, we did some birding, and this is when I got the Asian Dowitcher. There were many birdos there with their scopes and binoculars scanning the mudflats as the tide was coming in. When suddenly I said, "I've got it" a vast panic of many twitchers followed who wanted to see the bird, and most (if not all) got good views. The bird which was among both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits as well as Great Knots was in non-breeding plumage, having a thick black strait bill, a head shape similar to a Snipe, the body size of a Great Knot and the height of a Bar-tailed Godwit. Some birdo showed me some excellent photos he took of the bird a few days ago, and with these, the record should be accepted by the Rarities committee.

Another birdo present at the convention informed me that there had been a sighting of a pair of Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers during the past winter at Mt Whitefield, so I decided to go their as my next stop after lunch, on the off-chance that they where still there.

At Mt Whitefield, I walked the complete Blue Arrow trail. Nice gems were seen on this trail already previous seen, such as Gould's Bronze Cuckoos, Crested Hawk, Yellow-eyed and Little Cuckoo-shrike in the same tree, Lovely Fairy-wrens (a nice male with beautiful females) and the absolute knock-out, a pair of Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers with their very long white tails (more than twice their body length) in pristine breeding condition. The pair of birds were not shy and perched in trees in front of me, moving their tails up and down as they called to each other with their "kiu-kiu-kiu-kiu-kiu-kiu...". This bird was not on my expectation's list as they normally arrive during the first week of November. (They were not yet at Kingfisher Park during my stay.)

At mid-afternoon, I went to Big Mitchell Creek for the final time. Many honeyeaters were still present in the blossoms of the Eucalyptus. Banded, Yellow, Brown, White-throated, Dusky and Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Noisy and Little Friarbirds as well as Rainbow and Scaley-breasted Lorikeets were feeding in the same flowering Eucalyptus tree.

20/11/97 Monday

I went for a long drive to Mission Beach from Kingfisher Park early in the morning. I left KP just about 4 am in the morning (How's that for a dedicated birdo? I don't even wake up that early for a Twitchathon) and arrived at Lacey Creek State Forest near Mission Beach at about 7:30 am. I walked along all the tracks there to find a Cassowary. The only Cassowary I saw stood very still and was made of concrete, and its favourite haunt was the service station. Still however, I got quite close to a Noisy Pitta which I video taped, and a female Riflebird feeding on a fruiting tree close at hand. At Licuala State Forest, I walked through the Fan Palm Forest which was really nice and alive with birds.

Just after lunch, I went for a quick walk on the Botanic trail at Wongabel State Forest. This is an interesting walk, as various trees are sign-posted nearby showing both their Common and Scientific names (for those interested in trees, there are over 200 species of trees on the Atherton Tableland). This was a very noisy place with many Tooth-billed Bowerbirds calling at their arenas and together with Grey-headed Robins, were the most frequently seen or heard birds on the trail.

At Hasties Swamp National Park a flock of 1000 Magpie Geese were seen, which was a much larger number to the smaller numbers that I've seen in the past. Also at Lake Barrine that afternoon, I had at very close hand a Great Crested Grebe which was probably my best ever view of this bird, since I could even see that it had red eyes. The bird was only about 10 meters from the shore.

21/10/97 Tuesday

This was my final day in the Wet Tropics so I decided to spend the early morning at Mt Lewis. I showed an American couple where I had seen the Golden Bowerbird, and we did see the bird at its best, calling (and mimicking) and displaying at the bower (this being my 3rd sighting of the bird on this trip. I don't only tick the new birds that I see like some twitchers. I spend time to study and admire them, no matter how many times I've seen the bird before. I had spent at least an hour watching this truly magnificent bird).

When I returned back to Kingfisher Park to pack up for my trip back home, Ron had just told me that a Bar-breasted Honeyeater was about in the morning while I was at Mt Lewis. This honeyeater is more of a regular bird much further north of the Atherton Tablelands and is rare in this part of its distribution.

I gave my car a descent wash, and after lunch it was time to head back to Cairns Airport for my reluctant trip back home. Amazingly, on my way back to the airport I experienced my first bit of rain for the trip as it had been dry all the time until this day. The rain was also quite heavy (it must have been the car wash).

My trip to the Wet Tropics had been a success, as I saw just about all the regular birds. However, there are many people whom I like to thank for assisting me and providing me with information on where to see the birds on this trip. These include Colin Scouler and Bill de Belin for lending me their information and their excellent tapes of the Bird's of the Wet Tropics (I managed to memorise most of the calls of these tapes. These tapes were no doubt an invaluable aid in identifying the birds heard on my trip. Just about every bird call I heard during my trip I was able to identify. It does pay back to learn the calls, and I highly recommend this to any birder where possible, in planning their birding trips), John Duranti, Irene Denton, Lorne Johnson, David Koffel, those who took me on tour in North QLD as mentioned above, and for parting with me their local knowledge, plus anybody whom I missed out. I also must thank Ron Stannard, the manager of Kingfisher Park, for allowing me to stay at his wonderful place.

This has been a trip of a lifetime.

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