Sunday, September 16, 2012

Birding Cape York August 2012

Day one August 21.
Forest Kingfishers were common
Cape York and Iron Range NP in particular have been on top of my ‘must visit’ bucket list of birding venues for decades. So when the opportunity presented itself to make the trip with two other birding nuts I couldn’t resist. After much planning, brothers Mike and Steve Potter and I ultimately met in Cairns airport on August 21 for what promised to be two weeks of top shelf birding. When I say ‘much planning’ I should point out that Mike did the lion’s share of the planning – thanks mate.

After hiring a Pajero and buying supplies we didn’t waste any time heading straight for the Cairns foreshore to kick off our bird-list for the trip. The Cairns foreshore is an amazing place and never fails to deliver with a mix of waders, mangrove birds, and a whole range of forest birds in the fig trees of the parklands. Before long we had Helmeted Friarbirds, Fig-birds, Double-eyed Fig-parrots (incidentally this is the best venue I know of to have easy views of these little gems), Varied Honey-eaters, and Large-billed Gerygone along with a bunch of waders as well. The mangrove forests directly north of the foreshore area in downtown Cairns are also one of the easiest venues for sightings of Mangrove Robins and these were a tick for Mike and was the first for the trip so high fives all round. Mind you the sandflies are unbelievably ferocious and unless you have long sleeves or lather yourself in litres of toxic insecticide you won’t last long here.

We then headed up to Julatten and along the way had some Sarus Cranes in a field and Bush Curlews out in the open. We finally arrived at Kingfisher Park after dark and bunked down for the night ready for an early start the next day.

Day two Julatten to Musgrave Station – August 22.

Typical Cape York Woodland
We heard a Barking Owl calling just outside our cabins and it proved to be a bit of a dog to find in the pre-dawn gloom but Steve eventually collared it with his torch beam. We were on the road at dawn and it didn’t take long to start finding plenty of the more common birds as we headed north and by the time we reached Laura we had come across our first Cape York specialty in the form of a Black-backed Butcherbird. We spied these in the park next to the petrol station there.

By early afternoon we arrived and set up camp in the Musgrave Station campgrounds which turned out to be much more comfortable than anticipated with shady, lawn-covered campsites, and all right next to a well supplied café restaurant. We wasted no time setting up camp as we were keen to get back out to Artemis Station were Mike had arranged for us to hook up with Sue Shepherd who is the unofficial Queen and protector of the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot.

Sue met us at the homestead and before long she jumped astride her 4-wheel motorbike to lead us a short distance to the secret location of these enigmatic birds. We stopped our vehicles at a patch woodland that looked about as unpromising as you could imagine. Burnt-out, rocky ground, all sparsely covered with native grasses and a few straggly gums. But after a hundred metres or so we soon sighted out first Golden-shouldered Parrot. Then another, and another, and then some more! What a bird! The colour-combo of turquoise flanks, red vents, and bright golden shoulders were as stunning as they were unusual.  The whole area was crawling with them – literally. The parrots were almost oblivious to our presence as they scrabbled around in the coarse earth looking for grass seeds and we were able to get close views and easy photos. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. It was a privilege to see these rare and beautiful birds at such close quarters. After having our fill of the parrots we talked with Sue about the management of the birds and I was amazed to discover that this task falls largely to her. We made a donation to the cause and Sue also gave us directions to a site where we might get the chance of seeing a Red Goshawk at the nest.
Only a short time later we homed in on the Red Goshawk site and sat at a safe distance and waited. There was already an adult, presumably the female, on the nest but she was keeping a low profile. After fifteen minutes or so another adult Red Goshawk came to the nest and sat obligingly on an open branch. This was too good to be true; two rare and wonderful birds in one day. The exact location of this site completely escapes me as I write but I believe Sue might be able to help you out with the details. Needless to say we were pretty pumped and well satisfied with a great day’s birding.

Day three, Lakeland NP – August 23

After the success of the previous day it was hard to imagine how we could possibly top it today. Nevertheless we headed hopefully into Lakefield NP in search of such targets as Star Finch, Black-throated Finch, and a host of other waterbirds, and bush birds besides. Amazingly the woodland here was full of birds and it didn’t take long to start racking up all the usual suspects at various roadside stops along the way. Most stops had us chasing multiple sightings in every direction and we soon had the Black-throated Finches under the belt.

Further along the road we entered the broad flat grassland/wetland area where we had reliable intel about the whereabouts of Star Finches. Being the end of the dry season the swamps were much reduced. Sadly it was all too evident that the pig population was very healthy and the swamps were consequently very unhealthy. The reed beds and sedges where all churned up and trampled and the margins pocked with wallows. We saw plenty of pigs both here and in the forests but were not so fortunate with the Star Finches. We poked around several other sites but it was generally pretty quite and so we decided to head back to the well known Low Lake billabong for a break.

Low Lake is a brilliant place, reminiscent of the Kakadu wetlands in many ways, and full of waterbirds. I decided to break out the scope here and aimed it out to the lake and focussed on the place it was pointed only to discover that I had randomly pinpointed a crocodile. I decided to move back from the margin an extra few steps. The scope was ideal at this site and with it I was able to turn up some otherwise tricky sightings such as (presumed) Latham’s snipe, Swamp Harrier, Glossy Ibis, and various ducks. We also saw Pied Heron, Brolgas, Black-necked Stork, Lotus birds, Stilts and Magpie geese in plenty. Mike spotted an enormous croc sunning itself on the far bank while I took another step back from the shore. As nice as all this was it wasn’t getting us any closer to seeing a Star Finch.

Eventually we headed back out to the open grasslands again, but I was not feeling all that optimistic about our chances after we missed the finches in the early morning. We headed to a small creek/billabong in the grassland where we had been reliably informed that the finches might be seen. Before we had even stepped out of the Pajero Steve and Mike were excitedly pointing toward some low bushes that were swarming with finches. From where I sat I thought I was looking at Red-browed finches but then my bins finally focussed on the red face and spotted flanks of an adult male Star finch. At last! What a relief! We hopped out of the vehicle to take it all in and I decided to set up the scope once more for a better look. There were hundreds of Star Finches here all crowded in a few small shrubs near the creek. This was definitely another trip highlight for us all.
Starfinch country

A little later another vehicle stopped nearby and some more birders joined the fray. The sign on the 4x4 indicated this was a professional birding outfit and Dave (Chook) Crawford soon sidled over and introduced himself to us. Dave is not a man you could describe as particularly shy and we soon fell into an interesting conversation about all things birdiferous. Dave gave us a hot tip about a venue where we might do a bit of night birding but we are sworn to secrecy about the exact location of this venue. All I will say is that it is nowhere near Perth.

We carried on birding is serval other locations including some riparian forest where we spied some relatively uncommon species for this region such as White-gaped Honeyeater, Fairy Gerygone, and Papuan Frogmouth. This was to be the first of many Papuan Froggies would see over the next few days. I couldn’t help noticing there was some movement in the water and quietly put together a small travel rod I had packed in my bag and managed to extract a decent Barramundi from the water before setting it free. We also headed up to the mangroves for a squiz but the sandflies staged a brave and formidable defence and successfully kept us out of the densest forests. We did manage a Red-headed Honeyeater on what must be the furthest eastern extremity of their range.
Mozzie time
Barn Owl
As the sun set we headed to the secret night-birding spot and waited. But as the darkness closed in so did the mossies. I thought the sandflies in the mangroves were bad but this was a whole other level of blood-sucking badness. Unless you soaked yourself liberally in deet and then set yourself on fire it was pretty much impossible to blunt the enthusiasm these mini-monsters had for a draught of your blood. Fortunately as the temperature dropped so did the number of mossies. Suddenly I became aware of a presence overhead. I shone my torch in the general direction and there above me was the ghostly figure of what a thought was a Grass Owl! I assume it was a Grass Owl as its talons hung well beyond its tail feathers. But it was only a fleeting glance. I called to Mike and Steve and together we began spotlighting in earnest. Before long we began to capture a whole variety of night birds in our torch beams. First it was Barn Owls, then another Grass Owl confirmed by its larger wingspan and trailing talons, then a Barking Owl, and then a Boobook owl put in an appearance as well. A little further on we spied a Papuan Frogmouth, a Tawny Frogmouth, a Large-tailed Nightjar, a Night Heron, a Bush Curlew, a Pratincole and most amazing of all: a Partridge in a pair tree! Well it seemed like Christmas to me. That was the most night birds any of us had ever seen in a single session and we were pretty chuffed and decided to call it a day, which was strange really as it was night.

Day four, Iron Range NP – August 24.

As good as the last two days had been we were all itching to get to Iron Range. Not that we had much choice after the way the mossies had torn into us the night before. But we were still keen anyway. We broke camp before sunrise and made it to Coen for breakfast. Here we came across Pied Currawongs which seemed so out of place this far north. We pressed on eventually turning off the main road and ultimately entering the Park by about 10: 30am. All we had heard and read about this unique rainforest environment had us twitching with anticipation so when we finally entered the first patch of forest we tumbled out of the vehicle with high hopes of some frantic birding. We did manage fleeting views of the loud and noisy Eclectus Parrots but other than that the forest was virtually silent and the birds nowhere to be seen.

That’s when it begins. You know what I’m talking about, the lame excuses and philosophical banter. “It’s not all about the birds after all, it’s just a privilege to be in a place like this…” and so on. It’s a lie of course but what can you do? We reasoned that we had simply missed the dawn chorus and decided to head for our accommodation in Portland Roads instead. Mike had arranged for us to stay at the Portland Roads Beach Shack and it turned out to be a brilliant place with a fantastic view of the little beach and north coast. It was basic but charming. We decided to try the café next door for lunch and were completely overwhelmed by the class of food and service in such a remote location. This meal would have put many an upmarket inner city café to shame. We unanimously decided where lunch was going to be each day. There were plenty of Sunbirds, Honyeaters, and Gerygones here to entertain us as we ate but we were still keen to get some of the rainforest species under the belt.
Iron range forest
Papuan Frogmouth in Portland Roads
When it cooled down a bit we headed hopefully back to the forest and finally managed our first Iron Range specialty in the form of a Tropical Scrubwren. We really worked hard but the birds were just not showing. Rainforest can be soul-destroying at times and this was one of those times. We birded our collective heads off and just before the sun dipped below the horizon we did mange to get onto the comical looking White-faced Robin. On the way back we stopped off at the Portland Roads dump where we were told Palm Cockatoos roosted. We waited til sunset but the Cockatoos didn’t show. Instead we were rewarded with some nice views of Large-tailed Nightjars and on the way back we saw many more Large-tailed Nightjar and White-throated Nightjar on the road.  It had been a tough day and we were pretty much at a loss about what to do.

Day five, Iron Range NP – August 25

Next day we had a bit of a look around the Portland Roads area and picked up both species of Frigatebird right overhead out front of our accommodation before heading back into the forest. We decided we would simply have to put in the time and the kilometres today if there was any hope of working through our list of hopeful ticks. We headed to the southern end of the Old Coen Road walking track where we managed to spot another of our target birds, a Tawny Breasted Honeyeater, before beginning the walk proper. The path here traverses varied habitats ranging from closed woodland, to vine forest, riparian forest and dense rainforest. We began to spy some nice birds such as Yellow-breasted Boatbills, Rufus Fantails, Woopoo Fruit Pigeon, and Suburb Fruit Doves but still no more of the IR specialties.

Then in a nice patch of vine forest we eventually found a party of birds and for a few hectic minutes managed a couple of our target species with nice views of White-eared Monarchs and best of all a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird. It was good to the see the Bowerbird, especially as they are reportedly becoming scarcer and harder to find.  We pressed on but that was pretty much it. After about 11am the birds just shut down and the forest fell silent. Very frustrating. After another sensational lunch at Portland Roads we eventually waddled around the immediate environment near our accommodation where we had Collared Kingfisher, Reef Egrets, Sacred Kingfishers, Broad-billed Flycatchers and Rose-crowned Dove. Both Mike and Steve had purchased 400mm SLR camera outfits before the trip and were having a ton of fun capturing some of the memories with some spectacular images of these birds.

Deplanchea tetraphylla
Mid-afternoon we headed hopefully toward Chilli beach where we tried the short walking track behind the camping area and were rewarded with views of the non-descript Green-backed Honeyeater. On the way back we had a look at a small freshwater lake where we jagged a group of Palm Cockatoos flying overhead.

Eventually we returned to the dump for another look at the large-tailed nightjars. Before the sun fully set we could hear Eclectus Parrots calling from the nearby forest and after pushing through the dense grass and pushing through a little forest we had brilliant views of both the male and female parrots roosting high in the trees. So far we had only seen the male of the species which, although pretty spectacular in its own way, is nothing compared to the bright red and blue female. Once the sun set, the Nightjars came out to play and eventually we spot-lighted one at close quarters.

Speaking of spot-lighting we headed back to the main forest and walked for kilometres along the road with our lights in the hope of seeing a Marbled Frogmouth or some of the other nocturnal wildlife known to inhabit these forests but nothing stirred. Apparently it had been unusually dry lately and I guess this had an affect on the birds and animals. But who really cares? It’s just a privilege to be in such a magnificent part of the world really….. Steve hit me with a stick at this point.

Day six, Iron Range NP – August 26

By now we were starting to get desperate and decided to put in an extra early start. Back in the rainforest at dawn the first call we heard was the strangely human like whistle of the Magnificent Riflebird. We had been hearing this call all over the place but so far had not really put in the effort to get a decent view. We chased this one down and eventually managed to get an eyeful of the female of the species. A little later we also happened upon the magnificent male of the species as well - which explains the name I guess.

Female Yellow Billed KF
After finally seeing the magnificent Magnificent Riflebird we decided to simply walk along the Portland Roads road. Slowly but surely we began to grind through our list of target species. First it was the dainty little Yellow Legged Flycatcher, then the charming Frilled Monarch. We also had fleeting glimpses of Red-cheeked Parrots as they dashed overhead. Another bird we were real keen to eyeball was the Yellow-billed Kingfisher. We often heard their trilling refrain coming from the densest part of the forest but they only called infrequently. There was nothing for it except push into the forest through vines festooned with dagger like thorns and clouds of biting insects and wait for them to repeat their bleat. Our first several attempts went unrewarded but eventually we chased down a call about 100 metres into the forest and while we were all waiting silently in the gloom the Kingfisher trilled only a few metres to our left. We had stunning views of a female Yellow-billed Kingfisher at close quarters.  High Fives all round. On the way back to Portland Roads we happened upon a couple of comical Palm Cockatoos in the woodland and managed to snap a few photographs. They really are worth the trip to Iron range.

At lunchtime Steve swore blind that he had seen a White-streaked Honeyeater in the trees near the restaurant which sent Mike and I and a whole bunch of other birders into a mild panic but it turned out it was just a common Varied Honeyeater. An easy mistake to make I’m sure you’ll agree and Mike and I were careful not to ridicule Steve for this little blunder or remind him of this event ever again, which I think was very good of us.

In the afternoon we managed to turn up a party of Lovely Fairywrens in the vine forest near Portland Roads before heading back to Chilli beach again. With the aid of the scope we were able to identify Black-naped Terns on the little island just offshore here. We also saw plenty of Pied Imperial Pigeons roosting on the island as well. It was windy here and apparently the Sou Easter is fairly persistent at this time of year. We reviewed the walking track again and managed to see another Yellow-billed Kingfisher with relative ease. It had been a tough day but we were pretty happy with the results.

Day seven, Iron Range NP – August 27

Next day we were back at it at dawn. So far we had dipped on the White-streaked Honeyeater despite repeated attempts to track one down in the woodland areas. On the way over to the main forest we stopped off in the stunted woodland near the highest point of the road and after a while I finally managed to get onto an adult White-streaked Honeyeater in a grevillea. I called to Mike and Steve and the bird waited til they arrived then promptly disappeared before either one of them could get their bins on it. We poked around here for some time until we disturbed the nest of some Paper Wasps that launched a ferocious attack that had us scurrying back to the vehicle.

We really wanted to see a Trumpet Manucode, but we simply didn’t hear a peep from one for the whole day. We also hoped for a Northern Scrubrobin and the Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo as well but time was fast running out. We walked and walked and walked some more today but the forest was virtually silent and even the common birds were thin on the ground. We ended up walking about six kilometres for no score. Our only consolation was finding an Eclectus Parrot nesting in a hole in a large rainforest tree. We had great views of the female in the nest-hole as the male attended her.

There were quite a few other birders camping here and everyone was experiencing the same tough conditions as we were. Fortunately I was able to console them with the thought that it’s a privilege to be in a beautiful place like this whether we see the birds or not. Oddly people began hitting me with sticks.   

We birded our way through the rest of the day but apart from the loan White-Streaked Honeyeater, we simply couldn’t find any more of our target birds.

Day eight, Iron Range NP to KFP – August 28

This was our last day in the park before we travelled back south so we headed to the camping area and had one last thrash but to no avail. We slowly dragged ourselves away from the forest and reluctantly headed out of the park. I tried to ignore the fact that we had dipped on a few of the key birds and reminded myself what a privilege it was to even be here when just as we left the park I couldn’t help but notice that some heartless public servant had erected a totally unnecessary and hurtful sigh with the word “DIP” emblazoned in large bold letters on a bright yellow sign. Who are these people?  Talk about the lemon juice of torment being poured on the paper-cut of disillusionment.
The trip south was pretty uneventful apart from a Black-breasted Buzzard that buzzed over the vehicle. We tried for Squatter pigeons at a couple of locations near Mt Molloy but no joy. We finally arrived at Kingfisher Park at sunset.

Day nine, Michaelmas Cay, Cairns – August 29

Steve snaps an easy shot of the Noddies
Next day we were up before dawn – yet again – in order to get down to Cairns to take a boat out to Michaelmas Cay where we hoped to sight a few terns and some other tropical seabirds. I’m afraid I get sea sick at the sight of a rocking boat. I’m close to the magical 600 on my Australian list and could easily attain it with a couple of pelagic trips but the thought of hurling breakfast at the birds all day just doesn’t work for me. Fortunately we had picked a calm day and the cruise out to the cay was okay. The cay is a brilliant jewel in a turquoise sea and is covered with Common Noddies and Sooty Terns. Also present were Brown Boobies, Frigatebirds, Crested Terns, Lesser Crested Terns, Black-naped Terns, and Little Terns but we dipped on the resident Red-footed Booby and the Roseate Tern.  I know that some of you reading this are expecting me to make some kind of lame attempt at humour by talking about other kinds of boobies we may or may not have seen but I do have my limits and I’m afraid I refuse to indulge your childish desires. Although I will say this: there was a woman on the boat who had an enormous hat. We also had the chance to snorkel on two sites on the reef which was nice and we also saw a Humpback Whale.
Fish boatside

Back in Cairns we headed over to the Centennial Lakes for a quick scrounge to see if we could find Red-necked Crakes or Little Kingfisher.  I managed a Little KF in the mangroves but he gave us the slip. This park is an excellent place to bird if you have limited time and I have had many happy hours wandering around here in the past. A great day all round.

Day ten, KFP and Mt Lewis – August 30

We had been sleeping in Kingfisher Park for three nights but had yet to spend an hour of daylight there so it was great to finally have the chance to reacquaint myself with the park and with Keith and Lindsay Fisher. I had been to this area several times before but I still had a few species I was keen to connect with. Today we had secured the services of Del Richards to assist us. I have never used a bird guide before so this would be a new experience. We gave Del our hit list and we had hardly got underway when he pointed us in the direction of a flock of Barred Cuckoo Shrikes which was a tick for me and Mike and Steve as well.

We gradually made our way up Mt Lewis finding most of the target birds that Mike and Steve were looking for such as Pied Monarchs, Paradise Riflebird, Fernwren, Tooth-billed Bowerbird and Bower’s Shrike-thrush. It was amazing to me just how well Del knew where to find these birds. The Fernwren in particular was wonderful as it was singing loudly with its odd penetrating call. But I was starting to get a bit toey about seeing something I had not seen before such as a Golden Bowerbird or a Chowchilla.
A view from KFP
We tried for a Golden Bowerbird in several places but it was not to be. Just as we were about to call it a morning Del heard the call of a Chowchilla which sent me dashing back into the forest to stalk the Chowchillas. It didn’t take long to find a whole family of the birds and it was a huge relief to finally get these birds out of the unseen column and into the seen. It certainly increases the pressure when you pay someone to point you in the right direction and I have to admit Del did in a few hours what had taken me days to achieve on previous trips but I still prefer the emotional highs and lows and the blood sweat and tears that come with the challenge of thrashing about for days and days and eventually tracking down your own birds in the traditional demoralising way – what was Del’s number again?

That afternoon we tried for both the Blue-faced Parrot Finch and the apparently non-existent Squatter Pigeon in the traditional demoralising way with the traditional demoralising lack of success. Back to KFP and Mike and Steve managed to have good sightings of the Little Kingfisher at the crake pool.

Day eleven, KFP near by – August 31

This was to be our last full day and we decided to try a whole bunch of different venues. That’s the amazing thing about KFP – there are so many options from open woodland, grassland, wetlands, rainforest and more all within sight of each other.

We had another tilt at the Blue-faced Parrot Finch. Nahdah! Then we tried the Mt Molly cemetery for the Squatter pigeons. Nichts! Then we headed out toward Mt Carbine where we were had been told we might find a Squatter pigeons. Zilch! Then we tried some open paddocks at Bustard Downs to see if we could find a Bustard for Steve which we unbelievably did! Lucky bustard. Then we headed back up Mt Lewis to see if we could find a Chestnut breasted Cuckoo. Nawt! It had been an eventful morning so we decided to repair to the Mt Molly café where we ordered unbelievably enormous servings of food. Steve ordered a hamburger which had a trolley full of food shoved between two car-door sized slabs of bread.

We had one last chance at the Squatter Pigeons further south so we headed off hopefully toward Mareeba. As we were approaching our destination Steve and Mike were arguing about something of small importance when I noticed a squad of Squatter Pigeons crossing the road in front of us. I inarticulately blurted out “On the road, there, there, on the road…!” and contemplated throwing myself out of the moving car in a death roll to make sure I finally ticked these nemesis birds. Eventually sanity prevailed to some degree before we all threw ourselves out of the car in a death roll. High fives all round.

Day twelve, KFP to Cairns – September 1. 

This was our final day and so once again we dragged ourselves out of our beds at some unearthly hour. While we were messing around getting ready to go Dave Crawford turned up to meet some clients and we were able to thank him for his invaluable intel and regale him with the stories of our successful sortie. Steve moved in and gave him a big bear hug which was fun to watch as I’m pretty sure Chook is not a man who is overly comfortable with man hugs, or for that matter, skim milk, hair gel, sandals, or non-kaki coloured cloths.  But he recovered tolerably.

 We had one last lurch at Mt Lewis and essentially reviewed all the birds we had seen two days before. We said our final goodbyes to Keith and Lindsay (who are incidentally looking to sell their interest in KFP if anyone is looking for a tree change) before heading back along the coast to Cairns.

It had been an incredible trip with many happy memories with 225 species of birds and for me 24 ticks. Sure we dipped on a few nice birds but that gives us an excuse to come and visit this amazing region again. In any case it’s just a privilege to even be in a place like this….


1 comment:

  1. Truly entertaining read thankyou....i read it first on the birdingaus site then had to check out your blog for the photos.....i've always wanted to go birding up that way....but reading this just makes me want to get up there all the more..Glad you had such birding success (recently just found my own flock of hooded parrots..would love to see its close relation the Golden Shouldered Parrot........Thanks for the inspiration
    Kirri :D