Tropical North Queensland, Australia

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


Great Barrier Reef

by James Walsh

Tropical North Queensland is a birdwatchers paradise. The area boasts an international airport, all types of accommodation from backpackers to 5-star, a laid-back tropical vibe, uninterrupted sunshine for weeks on end and a large diversity of habitats. These include the Great Barrier Reef, rainforest, mud-flats, mountains, 'bush', waterfalls, swamps and lakes all in a very compact area.

mudlfats off Cairns Esplanade

In summer you can witness the spectacle of large flocks of migrating waders by the Cairns Esplanade and it is the only window of opportunity for species such as Little Whimbrel, Oriental Plover and the enigmatic Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher.

In winter the weather is more accommodating (temperatures dropping to around a cool 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and many birds form feeding flocks in the rainforest.


The easily accessible centre of Tropical North Queensland. One of the first things you notice about Cairns, as in most of Australia, is the incredible tameness of the birds. There are Willie Wagtails, Magpie-larks, Peaceful Doves, Masked Lapwings and introduced Common Mynahs everywhere, while groups of Sacred Ibis visit the parks to be hand-fed alongside pigeons, sparrows and Silver Gulls.

Cairns is world-renowned as a site for migrating waders on their 'break' from breeding in Siberia. Get the tide right at the Esplanade and you'll be rewarded with close-range views of flocks of Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, Far Eastern Curlew, Sharp-tailed, Terek and Curlew Sandpiper, Red-capped Plover, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit, Sandplovers and Red-necked Stint. Amongst these you may find Double-banded Plover, Marsh and Broad-billed Sandpiper, or even an Asiatic Dowitcher; Pelicans, Royal Spoonbills, egrets, herons and terns all add to the heady cocktail. At the sandier north end you may find the statuesque Beach Thick-knee hunting for crabs at low-tide, and keep an eye out for Varied Honeyeaters and roosting Rufous Night Herons in the trees here.

Bush Thick-knees patrolling Cairns cemetery

In the north-western suburbs lies Cairns cemetery where a flock of around 40 Bush Thick-knees while the day away patrolling the gravestones and Rainbow Bee-eaters choose the headstones as vantage points to make frequent sallies for insects.

Just up the road, Australian Hobbies can be seen hunting dragonflies and hirundines some evenings over the picturesque Centenary Lakes. Yards away, at the Flecker Botanical Gardens, is probably the best place in Australia to see Red-necked Crake - sometimes at ridiculously close range. I have even seen them walk right underneath my feet as I was stood on the raised rainforest boardwalk.

Across the road is Mount Whitfield, which is the most immediate area to become familiarized with many sub-montane passerines including Noisy Pitta, Rufous Fantail, monarchs and Macleay's Honeyeater, and in the summer is a breeding ground of the Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, which nest in termite mounds and spend the winter to the north in Papua New Guinea. The panoramic viewpoints are good spots for watching birds of prey such as White-bellied Sea-eagle, Whistling, Black and Brahminy Kite, Little Eagle and Grey Goshawk. With plenty of sunshine and superb hunting areas it would be no surprise if you saw 20 species of raptor in a trip to the Cairns area, although you would be lucky to see the notoriously elusive Red Goshawk.

Cairns Crocodile Farm is popular with the tourists and also provides ideal habitat for rails and crakes. It is a good spot to pick up a vagrant wader such as a Painted Snipe, Green or Pectoral Sandpiper.

Sooty Terns, Michelmas Cay

Of course, your time wouldn't be complete without a reef-trip and the best one for birders is the MV Seastar II, which offers a boat-trip around the seabird rookery on Michelmas Cay, aswell as snorkelling and scuba-diving. Michelmas Cay is packed with Sooty Terns, Common Noddies and Brown Boobies; Frigatebirds sometimes wheel menacingly overhead and a passing Humpback Whale will often complete an idyllic scene.

North of Cairns:

Cruising up the coast, Beach Thick-knees drop in to bathe at the mouth of Hartley's Creek, Mangrove Robins can be 'pished' out at Cooya Beach and Wandering Tattlers sometimes frequent the jetty at Rocky Point.

A must is an early morning cruise on the Daintree led by Chris Dahlberg who knows every inch of the river and its' precious eco-system. Some of the delights he frequently uncovers are the scarce Great-billed Heron, roosting Papuan Frogmouths, 4 species of Kingfisher (including the diminutive Little) and Shining Flycatchers, aswell as loafing Estuarine Crocodiles.

Moving inland, Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge in Julatten is an essential birdwatching spot. It is central to several great birding areas and is completely geared for naturalists - the feeding stations are alive with honeyeaters, firetails, robins and lorikeets, there is an orchard to explore and a stream which is home to Duck-billed Platypus. Nearby, if you manage to drive, hitch or walk up the basic Mount Lewis road (note:it is sometimes inpassable) and you have good information you will come across many rainforest specialities. Three species of Bowerbird (Golden, Satin and Tooth-billed build their intricate bowers and expect to find Chowchillas, White's Thrush, Fernwren and possibly a Southern Cassowary on the forest floor and Victoria's Riflebird, Eastern Spinebill, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and Bridled Honeyeater amongst the canopy. Two endemics to the area - Atherton Scrubwren and Mountain Thornbill - are easily seen in the scrub and lower-storey. It is also reportedly the most reliable site in Australia for the Asian Blue-faced Parrot Finch. [Want to find out more about Kingfisher Park ? - click here]
Going 'out-bush', Mount Molloy has Great Bowerbirds and Square-tailed Kite around the bakery; at Mount Carbine a large population of Australian Bustards grace the rough paddocks and Apostlebirds, Galahs and Red-winged Parrots gather to roost around the village. Heading south, Lake Mitchell is full of waterbirds and one of its' feeder streams, Big Mitchell Creek, is a stake-out for the shy and skulking White-browed Robin. Careful exploration of the dry grassland, agricultural areas and waterfalls of Mareeba is your best chance of seeing species such as Black-throated Finch, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Squatter Pigeon and Rufous Owl.

Atherton Tablelands:

Lying to the south-west of Cairns, the Tablelands are another close-knit patchwork of habitats. Lake Eacham, Crater National Park and the spectacular-looking Cathedral Fig Tree all provide excellent upland rainforest birding; Lake Tinaroo holds small numbers of the exquisite Pink-eared Duck (part Marbled Duck, part Shoveler with a fluorescent pink spot on the ear coverts);

Hasties Swamp, Atherton Tablelands

Hasties Swamp has standing room only for the thousands of Plumed Whistling Ducks and Magpie Geese, and hundreds of Brolga and Sarus Cranes spend the day feeding in the farmland before pouring into roost on Bromfield Crater against dramatic sunsets.

Brolga and Sarus Cranes coming into roost at duck on Bromfield Crater, Atherton Tablelands

Whatever you decide to do here, I guarantee a trip to this area of outstanding beauty will blow you away, mate!

James Walsh