October 2nd Arrive at Cairns. Night near Lk. Eacham on Atherton Tablelands,
October 3rd – Atherton tablelands (Yungaburra area)
October 4th – Atherton tablelands (Atherton area)
October 5th – Atherton tablelands (Yungaburra, Milla Milla areas)
October 6, 7, 8 – Great Barrier Reef
October 9th – Cairns to Kuranda
October 10th – North Atherton tablelands (Kuranda, Mareeba areas)
October 11th – Kuranda, skyrail to Cairns, drive to Julatten
October 12th – Julatten, Mt. Molloy areas
October 13th – Julatten, Mt. Molloy, Mt. Carbine areas. Drive to Daintree
October 14th – Daintree River boat trip, Drive to Cape Tribulation
October 15th – Daintree
October 16th – Daintree, Cairns
October 17th – Fly to Sydney
Having never been to Australia, and suffering from the “I want to see it all” syndrome, we planned this trip to see a wide-range of Australian birds found in Tropical North Queensland and temperate areas of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. This portion of the trip report details our trip in Queensland, a very large Australian state (as they all are), in the northeastern part of the continent. We limited our visit to the areas near Cairns and the Atherton tablelands to the southwest.
This area is within the tropics and consisted of moderate-sized mountain ranges (often coming right down to the water), and broad, upland plateaus (mainly inland). The habitat is a patchwork of tropical rainforest, dry eucalyptus forest and agricultural areas. The farms grow sugar cane in the hotter, coastal areas near Cairns and are used to graze cattle in many parts of the Atherton tablelands. We also saw tropical fruit orchards and other farming operations. Shopping for fruit and produce was fun as there was a wide variety of locally grown, exotic produce. Everything from lettuces and other vegetables to noticeably small apples and “sweet pine” (pineapple), lychees, mangosteen, papaya and more exotic fare.
After leaving Seattle the evening of Sept. 30th and traveling about 30 hours via L.A., Auckland and Brisbane, we arrived in Cairns around 12PM, October 2nd. After getting our rental car we headed outside and encountered lifers in the carpark: White-breasted Woodswallow and Brown Honeyeater.
Our first destination was the Cairns Esplanade, famous for the Asian-breeding shorebirds that spend the Australian summer here. More lifers here included Far Eastern Curlew (world’s largest Curlew), Red-capped Plover (resident), Red-necked Stint, Pied Oystercatcher (resident) and Gull-billed Tern. Also present were some Common Greenshanks. In the park nearby we found Masked Lapwings, Magpie Larks and Nutmeg Mannikins. We could only spend a short time here and after stocking up on groceries we headed for Chambers Rainforest Lodge (website here) near Atherton, an hour and a half’s drive away.
Making a few roadside stops along the way we encountered some Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and Black Kites and as we drove through the rainforest along the lodge’s driveway at dusk we got fleeting looks at Orange-footed Scrubfowl and Eastern Whipbird. It was early to bed as we had a 7AM birding appointment with Richard Nowotny of Melbourne. We initially contacted him via BirdingPals about birding in Melbourne. Turns out he and his wife Diana were in Cairns for a few days and Richard agreed to show us around Queensland as well.
October 3rd - Atherton Tablelands (Yungaburra area)
The dawn chorus was incredibly loud and started around 4:30-5:00 AM. We met Richard outside our lodge at 7AM and enjoyed several hours birding in front of the lodge. Chambers is situated in a small rainforest clearing and the variety of birds flying from tree to tree was amazing. We hardly moved our feet the first several hours and yet started on an impressive list: Australian Brush Turkey (which turned out to be an ever-present, scrounging bird at the lodge), Brown Cuckoo-dove, Emerald Dove, Wompoo Fruit-dove, Crimson Rosella, Black-faced and Barred (unusual) Cuckoo-Shrikes, Gray-headed Robin, Golden Whistler, Bower’s Shrike-thrush, Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Mistletoebird, Figbird (omnipresent in Queensland), Eastern Spinebill, Victoria’s Riflebird and Spotted Catbird.
The harsh calls of the Riflebird and the Catbird, the loud whip call of Eastern Whipbird and low-pitched calls of Wompoo, Rose-crowned and Superb Fruit-Dove made an impressive soundtrack for the lush jungle here. The Rose-crowned and Superb Fruit-doves were incredibly difficult to find in the high canopy and we were only aware of them through Richard’s alerting us to their calls. The spectacular Wompoo was easier to see and we had a couple of nice looks at one before birding in a small ravine on the property, where we added Brown Scrubwren and Little Shrike-thrush. Driving out we found a Tooth-billed Bowerbird (aka Catbird) squawking his jangling, harsh song. Several of these bowerbirds were on territory along the driveway.
We headed to Lk. Eacham, just down the road; between this Lake and nearby Lk. Barrine we saw our first new waterbirds: Australian and Great Crested Grebe, a molting Hoary-headed Grebe, Australian Pelican, Little Black, Little Pied and Great Cormorants, Wandering Whistling-duck, Gray Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Dusky Moorhen and Eurasian Coot. We drove to Forsythe Rd, near Atherton, and picked up Straw-necked Ibis, White-faced Heron, Peaceful Dove and Chestnut-breasted Munia (Mannikin). Richard had heard good reports on Forsythe Rd. and we saw a lot of raptors, many dozens of Black Kites as well as Australian (Nankeen) Kestrel and a Spotted Harrier that flushed an unidentified quail as it quartered the fields. A flock of about twenty Australian Pratincoles appeared to be beating the 100F heat by flying through an irrigation sprinkler. We watched as they repeated this trick a good half dozen times. Following Forsythe Rd. down to a wetland we found some egrets – Great, Intermediate and Cattle, as well as a Royal Spoonbill and Purple Swamphen. A Brown Falcon soared overhead.
Heading back to base we stopped along Forsythe Rd again and found large flocks of Sarus Cranes feeding. We searched for Brolgas in the failing light but dipped on those. Red-backed Fairywren and Bar-shouldered Dove on a side road to a nearby farm capped off a great first day. Finally, we added Australian King Parrot to the day list as we observed a gorgeous male at the carpark at Lk. Eacham.
After dinner we headed to Yungaburra for a spotlighting tour with Alan Gillanders. We pre-arranged this through the lodge and saw Common Brush-tailed Possum, Green Ringtail Possum and Tree Kangaroo. There were no night birds to speak of, other than some calling Bush Thick-knees.
October 4th - Atherton Tablelands (Mt. Hypipamee, Atherton area)
Again through the lodge, we had made arrangements for a tour. We met Glen Holmes, of Atherton, outside the lodge at 7AM and headed out looking for some of the higher elevation rainforest specialties. Without Glen’s professional help we would have never found many of these species. We headed to Mt. Hypipamee, picking up new birds on the way: Forest and Sacred Kingfisher, White-throated Needletail, Tawny Grassbird, Golden-headed Cisticola, White-throated Gerygone and Red-browed Firetail. At Mt. Hypipamee Glen took us down a small track for ½ mile and at a practically invisible side trail he led us under the rainforest’s canopy for a hundred yards or so where a Golden Bowerbird could be found. He showed us the bower, which he said had been there at least thirty years and about 15 minutes later a male Golden Bowerbird showed up. Circumspect at first, it eventually came in close and then sang a strange, clicking, rattling song and was joined briefly by a female. They foraged in the area for about ten minutes before melting away into the forest. On the way back out we managed to get pretty good looks at Eastern Whipbirds and a Fernwren which Glen lured in with his tapes. In a small clearing we got teasing glimpses of some Rainbow Bee-eaters foraging over the canopy. Just down the road, after trekking through the rainforest understory Glen lured in a pair of Chowchillas, and we got looks at the orange-breasted female. I nearly managed not to see one, as I struggled to see these very shy birds despite their proximity.
We made our way to lower elevation, dry eucalypt forest and looked for some of the elusive button-quails. No luck there, but we did add many new species including the striking Crested Shrike-tit, Brown Treecreeper, Dusky Woodswallow, Yellow-breasted Boatbill (truly exotic-looking), Banded, Fuscous and Bridled Honeyeaters, Rufous Whistler and Torresian Crow. Around 3PM we went back to the lodge to get ready to help the local bird club do their annual “crane count”.
We met the rest of the crane counters at Hasties Swamp and ticked Black-necked Stork, Pink-eared Duck, and White-headed Stilt while the groups got organized. We were teamed up with Glen Holmes again, and spent a memorable evening watching dusk fall and birds fly to roost. We observed large flocks of Black Kites in the distance and had distant scope views of a pair of Pheasant Coucals foraging in the grass. A White-bellied Sea-eagle and an Australian Darter were seen at Lake Tinaroo (our counting area) and a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo perched at the tip of a distant snag as we scoped it for our first cuckoo - which proved to be a difficult to find group of birds. We met at a local’s house after the count for dinner and drinks, hearing a Large-tailed Nightjar from their garden.
Afterwards, we headed back to the lodge stopping at Lk. Eacham on the way. Here we heard a Rufous (Nankeen) Night-heron and at the lodge we heard a Southern Boobook Owl calling. We got our flashlight and headed for the owl. We didn’t find it, but we found a Northern Brown Bandicoot searching in the dry leaf litter and when we heard a noise above us we shone the light to see an uncommon Striped Possum in a tree not ten feet from our heads! John, the owner of the lodge, was working on the lights in the marsupial feeding area and pointed out the sugar gliders licking honey from the trunks of the trees. We watched them for a while and noticed how much they resemble flying squirrels as they jumped and glided between the trees.
Oct. 5th - Atherton Tablelands (Yungaburra, Milla Milla area)
We were now birding on our own, and decided to combine some local sightseeing with our birding. As we drove away from Lk. Eacham we spotted a Dollarbird on a wire next to the road. In Yungaburra we birded in town and saw Metallic Starlings and White-rumped Swiftlets. At the famous “curtain fig” we encountered a foraging flock of Atherton Scrubwrens, a probable Sacred Kingfisher, Black-faced Monarch and a few other birds, but things were rather quiet here. The fig is an outstanding sight though, and the interpretive signs well done. Heading south to Milla Milla and the “waterfalls drive” we only managed to make it to the first falls. After that the traffic thinned out and the scenery became even more attractive - rolling pasture and forest land. The birding became so good we burned up our time before making the next falls and had to head back to the lodge to keep an appointment to go owling with Glen Holmes at 6PM. New birds we encountered near Milla Milla included Helmeted Friarbird, Dusky Myzomela (Honeyeater) and Rufous Fantail. We also got better looks at Rainbow Bee-eaters and Topknot Pigeons than we had before.
After picking up Glen in Atherton we headed south to dry woodland and listened for nightjars. We saw our first Noisy Miner in the dusky light but found no nightjars. Before the night was over though, we had heard Australian Owlet-nightjar and seen Lesser Sooty Owl (Mt. Hypipamee), Large-tailed Nightjar & Barking Owl (Atherton). It’s only because of our guide’s knowledge and energy that we managed to find anything, as we were on the edge of exhaustion by then.
Oct. 6,7,8 - Great Barrier Reef
On the morning of the sixth we drove to Cairns for our diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately the boat did not pass Michaelmas Cay or any of the other cays with seabird colonies, but we did see a few lifers during the trip. Our course took us north to Opal Reef, Cod Hole and other points along the ribbon reefs, about 60 miles north and east of Cairns. The birds we saw well offshore were: Wedge-tailed Shearwater (uncommon), Brown Booby (1), Black-naped Tern (common), Bridled Tern (fairly common) and Brown Noddy (uncommon).
I may have seen Sooty Terns near Opal Reef the first day, but couldn’t confirm it later. We also saw a Sterna tern, possibly Roseate, while we were in the water with our dive gear on (w/out bins alas).
The diving was great, despite visibility being limited to 25-75 ft. – typically around 40 ft. We saw a lot of wondrous things such as giant clams, moray eel (on a night dive), Barracuda, Puffer Fish and a dazzling array of colorful fishes and corals.
October 9th - Kuranda/Cassowary House
We returned to port at Cairns in the morning. Soon we were seeing good numbers of Pied Imperial Pigeons, which were absent in the higher country around Atherton. We took a train to Kuranda and at our first stop just outside Cairns we watched some Double-eyed Fig-Parrots feeding in a garden right next to the tracks – turned out to be the best looks we had the whole trip! On arrival in Kuranda I videotaped an immature Black Butcherbird as it tried to catch a small skink or Lizard. Figbirds were omnipresent here, as they seemed to be most everywhere in Queensland, excepting dense rainforest. We were picked up and taken to Cassowary House, where we hoped to see both Southern Cassowary and Red-necked Crake. We soon got our first lifer here: several Olive-backed Sunbirds feeding on the beautiful flowers of the Scarlet Passion Vine. Spotted Catbirds and Victoria’s Riflebirds were both common in the garden, and from our cabin’s veranda we saw another Spectacled Monarch.
Although it was the heat of the day, we walked out to the road and birded for a couple of hours. Although birding was slow we did see our second Yellow-breasted Boatbill of the trip, as well as Pale-yellow Robin, Varied Triller, Dusky, Graceful & MacLeay’s Honeyeater and we heard good numbers of Wompoo, Superb and Rose-crowned Fruit-doves.
Around dusk we visited the back deck of proprietors, Sue & Phil Gregory to watch for the Red-necked Crakes which come regularly at that time. After sitting and chatting for about 15 minutes we heard the loud calls of the crake and eventually two crakes came up to the house where the bolder of the two was rewarded with a piece of cheese, its favorite handout apparently, tossed down from above.
October 10th - Kuranda, Mareeba
On our last day out with our guide Glen, we birded the road near Cassowary House from 8:00 to 9:30AM. We picked up both White-eared and Pied Monarchs, which are difficult to see, as they prefer the rainforest canopy. Getting brief looks at a Chowchilla was an unexpected bonus and we also found a Gray Whistler – slow-moving and drab, it could have been easily overlooked.
Lake Mitchell was the next stop and we tried for passerines before it got really hot. A Leaden Flycatcher was new to us, and we got our first look at a Bush Thick-knee as we startled it from near the roadside as we drove past. A large Collared Lizard was warming itself up in a dead tree. At this large lake we found good numbers of waterbirds including Green and Cotton Pygmy Geese, Comb-crested Jacana and more. After locating a small group of Varied Sittellas, we had lunch and resumed by searching for shorebirds at a different part of the lake. Here, there was a good variety of species. Lots of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, White-headed Stilts, Masked Lapwings, Red-capped Plovers and a few Black-fronted Dotterels. Best of all was an unexpected, small flock of Little Curlews – a real bonus. A Little Tern, which Glen said was rare away from the coast, cruised by and when we went to the other side of the lake to try to see some Sarus Cranes better, Marissa’s sharp eyes picked out our first Latham’s Snipe.
Heading to Mareeba we added Pallid Cuckoo, Common Koel, Little Friarbird and Olive-backed Oriole at the Golf Course and saw the bower of a Great Bowerbird. Nearby and in town we were glad to find a flock of Apostlebirds and some Gray-crowned Babblers and managed to add Double-barred (“Owl-faced”) Finch at some feeders. We also saw Red-shouldered Parrot and Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, which we finally managed to find perched rather than flying swiftly past. Just outside town we were amazed when we saw our first Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flying. They are amazingly large and look almost prehistoric from a distance with their huge, black wings and buoyant flight. Outside town we searched in vain for Black-throated Finch, but did see Squatter Pigeons, a Weebill, a pair of Pale-headed Rosellas and got good looks at Pheasant Coucal.
Glen new a creek-bed where we could possibly find Rufous Owl, and luck was with us as we trekked downstream to find a pair of the owls at roost. As dusk came, we heard White-browed Robin, known to inhabit this riparian zone, and Marissa managed brief glimpses of one. Moving on for more owling we saw several Barn Owls and heard Owlet-Nightjar, Large-tailed Nightjar and a new one – White-throated Nightjar. Try as we might though, they would not come in to taped calls. We ended the day with about 104 species, which was a high count we matched only one other day, late October in the Werribee & You Yangs area near Melbourne. Turns out we had missed the Cassowary, the main reason we had birded around the house in the morning. It had turned up about an hour after we left Cassowary House. Oh well.
October 11th - Kuranda, Cairns, Julatten
Early the next morning we headed into Kuranda to take the Skyrail back to Cairns. A man at the station noticed we were birders and told us there were Bush Stone-Curlews nesting nearby. We walked to the area he described, in the shadow of the Skyrail, but it took us about ½ an hour to find one bird standing near some bushes. It was worth it though, and as our car left the station we looked down on the area and we could see the bird and its presumed mate 30 feet below us! The ride on the Skyrail was fantastic. It was much more scenic than the highly touted train we took up the mountain from Cairns. Riding high over the rainforest and looking down on large raptor or parrot’s nests, complete with eggs, was unforgettable! It really gave us a different perspective on the immense size of some of the rainforest trees.
In Cairns we had to wait for our rental car to show up. I made a brief stop at the esplanade and picked up Striated Heron, but without the scope I couldn’t ID the several hundred shorebirds out on the flats. Eventually we headed to Kingfisher Lodge in Julatten, stopping at Cassowary House briefly to retrieve our luggage, which isn’t allowed on the Skyrail. It was fairly late when we arrived at Kingfisher Lodge. After the solitude and the absence of birders at most of our other accommodations, it was fun to come into the more social scene at Kingfisher Lodge. We were glad though that we had a regular room and didn’t have to stay in the “dog-boxes” as someone called them - the tiny row-house rooms on the grounds. Even the camping area looked preferable to that.
October 12th - Julatten, Mt. Molloy
In the morning we ate our breakfast at the lodge, while watching the feeders then walked the area around and outside the lodge’s property. The feeders were fairly active; seeing a semi-tame Buff-banded Rail on the ground under the feeders was a surprise and there were plenty of honeyeaters visiting the nectar feeders. Blue-faced, Graceful, Yellow-spotted and Macleay’s were all rather common. Rainbow Lorikeets and Metallic Starlings added variety, the starlings visiting each morning to bathe and drink. There was a large colonial nest of Metallic Starlings across the road from the lodge, near the park and library.
A bottlebrush was blooming on the road that leads to the nearby retirement home and it attracted Brown and Dusky Honeyeaters as well as some of those we had seen at the feeders. Also seen during our walk were: Bar-shouldered Dove, Wompoo Fruit-dove, Topknot Pigeon, Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, Forest Kingfisher, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Barred Cuckoo-shrike (a good chance to confirm our earlier sighting on the Atherton Tablelands), Pale Yellow Robin, Little Shrike-thrush, Olive-backed Sunbird and Spangled Drongo. Unfortunately we dipped on Lovely Fairy-wren, which sometimes inhabits the shrubs near the creek and retirement home.
After lunch we headed to Mt. Malloy; enroute we stopped at Abbatoir Swamp. There were supposed to be lots of honeyeaters in a bottlebrush near the parking area, but the only bottlebrush we found was at the hide. It did have its requisite honeyeaters, and we picked up a new one, Brown-backed Honeyeater, that was building a nest near the hide. Yellow Honeyeater was also present; a bird we saw in several locations, but never seemed common. We scanned the wetland, which wasn’t very busy with birds, but we did see a Brown Falcon soar overhead, and just before we were ready to leave a Dollarbird flew in and perched prominently over the swamp.
We headed to Mt. Molloy in search of raptors and Great Bowerbird. Ron, the manager of Kingfisher Lodge had given us information, including the location of a Great Bowerbird bower in town. Just before town we stopped at the campground to use the bathrooms and found a Great Bowerbird near our car. So much for that search! We did drive into town to see the bower anywise as it is always fun to see what an individual bird has collected for his bower.
At a spot Ron suggested for raptors we found a nest. Soon we spotted a fledged bird, and then another sitting on branches in the vicinity of the nest. A little study of the field guide and we found they were juvenile Whistling Kites. They were fully feathered and likely capable of flight, so we were lucky to find them before they dispersed from the area. Later one of the adults came in and fed one of the young.
No more than 300 feet away we found a second and a third nest, the last one also occupied. This one had an adult perched nearby and when we got our scope on it, we found we were looking at an adult Square-tailed Kite, and excellent bird and quite difficult to find. We circled around behind the trees for a better angle on the nest and watched as the male Square-tailed Kite brought food to the nest. Due to the density of the foliage we couldn’t see the food transfer, but we did watch as the female fed the young. They were too small to see and by their high-pitched peeping obviously far younger than the nearby Whistling Kites.
We struck out on Pacific Baza here, a place where they had been seen before, which was disappointing as it was probably the most wanted raptor on my “hit list”. Before leaving we flushed a Pheasant Coucal near the raptor nests, spotted a Pied Butcherbird on a snag and watched a pair of Weebills gathering nest material.
It was getting late in the afternoon but we still had some time to head towards Mt. Carbine and Mt. Lewis, areas that could easily have taken a whole day to bird. As always we had to compromise on time issues - there’s just never enough of it! Along East Mary Road we found several Australian Bustard. We had seen one in flight near Atherton, but here and along West Mary Road, we had a chance to study them in the scope and even watched as one crossed the road with its tiny youngster in tow. We also saw three Red-tailed Black-cockatoos and a Pale-headed Rosella. We found our first Galah of the trip perched along the highway. They certainly were less common in Queensland than they turned out to be down south.
A night-spotting trip around the lodge was led by a local named Nick, the regular leaders being out of town. There weren’t many night birds around, a Barn Owl being the only nocturnal species we found. Papuan Frogmouths, which often live near the lodge, had not been seen for some time, but there was much to see besides birds. We saw several Boyd’s Forest Dragons (impressively ornamented, but not a lot longer than their name), trapdoor spiders, fireflies, Northern Brown Bandicoots and an Echidna, which curled up and lay still in the leaf litter as we checked it out.
October 13th - Kingfisher Lodge, Mt. Carbine and Mt. Molloy
Regrettably, we only had two days at Kingfisher Lodge, one could certainly spend much longer and bird south to Mareeba, north to Mt. Carbine and Mt. Lewis and even down to Mossman Gorge on the coast. We were told the Noisy Pittas had not been at the lodge since March or April and there had been no recent reports of Blue-faced Parrot-finch from Mt. Lewis despite recent searches, so our hit list was narrowed down for us. Again, we started near the lodge, looking for Scarlet Honeyeater and Lovely Fairy-wren. Two strikes there, but we did see our first Brahminy Kite. Otherwise the list was the same as the previous day, with the exception of a heard Spotted Catbird, which seemed odd in this dry area.
We checked out of the lodge and headed back to Maryfarms, near Mt. Carbine, hoping to see a Channel-billed Cuckoo, which other birders had seen the day before. We parked at the highway junction with East Maryfarms Rd and ate our lunch. Before we were finished a Channel-billed flew in from the west and nearly over our heads. What a rush to see this immense, gross-billed Cuckoo! Down the road we again found the bustards, this time many of the males were displaying; feeding in the same field were four Red-tailed Black-cockatoos. We also found another Great Bowerbird on this road.
We hadn’t actually been as far as the town of Mt. Carbine yet, so we drove up there and checked a dirt road across from the store/gas station. I remember Ron telling me there was something good to be seen there – but couldn’t remember what. About 100 yards down the road there is a small house with nice trees around it. In some trees, eating green mangos, were eight Red-winged Parrots. There was only one of the colorful males, among seven females but we got great looks at it; our previous sightings had been in flight views. I guess this was what Ron meant for us to find!
We still had some time, and despite the threatening gloom the birds were still active so we headed into Mt. Molloy, hoping for Pacific Baza. We drove down Fraser Rd., past the Great Bowerbird’s bower to where the road turned to dirt. We followed it for about a mile and then stopped and birded our way back. This was actually a very productive area. We added several species to our Kingfisher Park area list, and got good looks at some species we had only seen briefly before. Among the highlights were four female White-winged Trillers, two male Red-backed Fairywrens hopping sideways down a barbed-wire fence, numerous, petite Banded Honeyeaters and six White-throated Honeyeaters. We also saw some Olive-backed Orioles, and small flocks of both Red-browed Firetails and Double-barred Finches.
The rain began in earnest around nightfall, and we had some fun finding our accommodations, which were outside the town of Daintree. Red Mill House, so popular among birders, had been booked up early and we had made reservations at Daintree Valley Haven. It’s down unsealed roads, a few miles from Daintree, but it was really a beautiful place, with orchards and gardens among the rainforest and so quiet and peaceful that after a couple of days the loud singing of the Yellow Orioles actually became a bit annoying. The gardens are very open and sunny, with many areas to walk. The cabins are very clean and the whole area is scenic. It rained all that night, so hard that I was worried that either we wouldn’t be able to get out because of washouts on the road or the river might rise so much it would be too dangerous to do the boat trip.
October 14th - Daintree and Cape Tribulation
Neither the road nor the river turned out to be a problem, and at 6:30 we were getting on the boat with a couple from Switzerland. The evening rain had stopped and the river was actually very smooth. Chris was a very accommodating guide and knows his birds. We cruised several backwater areas and went up and down the river a bit. We quickly found Shining Flycatchers on a nest that Chris knew of and I even got good video from the boat. A roosting Papuan Frogmouth was a real challenge to see despite our very close approach. It was well-concealed by foliage and its incredible camouflage. Its huge size took me by surprise. Despite our closeness I’m not sure if it ever woke up!
The trip also netted us other great sightings. Our first Azure Kingfishers (several) were stunningly gorgeous. We dipped on Little Kingfisher and Great-billed Heron but overall the trip was worth it. The huge flocks of Rainbow Lorikeets and Metallic Starlings racing along the riverbanks was memorable and we had nice looks at Magpie Geese in the trees, Brahminy Kite (quite approachable), Mangrove Heron, Pheasant Coucal and Bush Thick-knee. All told we saw 37 bird species. We also had lingering, close looks at a crocodile and floated under a roost tree of fruit bats – Spectacled, I think.
The only down-side of the trip was that several times Chris drifted the boat in too close to the animals. Usually birders don’t complain of this, but several times we flushed a bird (Azure King. (twice) & Brahminy Kite) because we actually floated so close the bow of the boat actually went under the bird and we had to look upwards to see the bird about five feet from us before it flushed. Everyone had bins and we could much more easily have seen (and videotaped) from a distance of 10-20 feet.
After the trip we visited Red Mill House and chatted with the very friendly new owners. They seem to know their birds well and I think it should remain a great bird lodge – although I would still recommend Daintree Valley Haven over Red Mill House if you want more of a country/jungle atmosphere. We added lifers right there in the garden at Red Mill: Australian Koel and Satin Flycatcher – which was nice to see right after seeing Shining Flycatcher on the boat trip. A Black Butcherbird was also a lifer for Marissa and the first adult I saw – earlier I had seen an immature bird at Kuranda.
It was only around 11 AM when we finished the trip and some quick shopping, so we took the ferry across the Daintree towards Cape Tribulation. The road north of the Daintree is quite curvy and narrow at first, but in good condition. Our first birding stop was at the Environmental Center. I think this was a new place. The rainforest observation tower was nicely done and a unique way to see the jungle and its wildlife. It wasn’t crawling with birds at the top but after 45 minutes or so we managed two excellent raptor sightings: a distant Pacific Baza which eventually flew high overhead in a roller-coaster display flight and a Gray Goshawk which did a low, slow flyover. I would’ve had a hard time ticking the Goshawk given its scarcity, but we had magnificent, albeit overhead, looks and another birding couple from England concurred with the ID.
On the trails around the center we looked at the nicely done plant labeling and watched for Noisy Pitta. None were to be found, but the bigger quarry was Cassowary. One had been reported and eventually we saw it. It was a young bird and quite tame. A small crowd gathered on the boardwalk and we all watched as it preened, walked about and settled on the ground for a rest. Even every non-birder was interested and impressed when they saw it. Spotted Catbirds and Victoria’s Riflebirds were in the area; this was the only place we encountered them in the lowlands.
Further north we stopped at some of the beach accesses and at one particularly beautiful beach we spotted a large, distant shorebird. It approached slowly, feeding its way towards us among the surf line. It was a Beach Thick-knee - a really smart looking bird with its bold pattern, heavy bill and almost comical face. It was feeding on small crabs, which it seemed to catch from the waves as they dissipated on the sand. It beat each small (1-2”) crab into submission and quickly swallowed it. The bird seemed to have no trouble finding sufficient food. Eventually it waked down the beach all the way towards and then past us as we watched from about 20 feet up the beach. Walking down to a small cove we spotted more lifers, a dark morph Pacific Reef-Heron a couple of Greater Sandplovers and a distant Common Sandpiper. This was an idyllic spot and the light coming down to the beach was striking as the sun sank behind the looming, green mountains just across the road. We hadn’t actually made it to Cape Tribulation and we’d come to far not to, so as darkness fell we made the end of the pavement and the cape where Captain Cook and his men stayed while rebuilding their wrecked ship. The drive back in the dark was a challenge but we did see a Giant White-tailed Rat cross the road.
October 15th - Daintree
The next morning was a little rainy and we took the chance to sleep in. A quartet of four male & one female Lovely Fairywrens showed up in the bushes outside our lodge. We felt lucky as we had not seen this Queensland specialty and were down to our last two days in the north. The rainforest and pastures around our lodge were alive with birds and the owners told us of a mown path that followed the property lines, so we ventured out around mid-day for a bird walk. Metallic Starlings were abundant, and a Cicadabird drove us nuts with its secretive behavior. We heard this bird several times in the Daintree River, including on Chris Dahlberg's boat trip, but we never did manage to see one.
The highlight of our walk was at the end with the appearance of a pair of Pacific Baza; again we watched as one did a display flight. Perhaps their breeding cycle corresponds with the onset of the rainy season. After admiring the exotic fruit trees on the property, from which we had a breakfast sampler plate each day, we headed back to the lodge and birded from the porch as we continued the rest and relaxation. Several White-winged and Varied Trillers, a couple of Double-eyed Fig Parrots and a Rufous Fantail were seen among the more common fare. I found it difficult to tell if a bird I was seeing was a Lemon-bellied Flycatcher or a Gray Whistler. The color pattern is similar but I felt I should've been able to differentiate them by shape or behavior. Chalk the confusion up to inexperience.
After dark I spent time videotaping and generally gawking at the incredible rainforest insects drawn to our porch light. A giant, green cricket-like insect turned out to be a "Leaf Katydid" and the prehistoric-looking beetle was a Rhinoceros Beetle. It actually hissed loud enough to be heard if you dared to touch it - they were totally harmless though. An number of colorful, small moths also lined the wall around the porch light. According to Daphne, the co-owner, the fruit bats had awoken her the night before as they came to raid the fruit trees near the main house. We walked over there but they weren't present. Calling from the forest though was a Red-necked Crake, apparently less tame than the cheese-eating crakes of Cassowary House. A couple of Large-tailed Nightjars fluttered low over our heads and we heard one calling from a distance. A medium-sized owl also flew over our heads, but we did not have tapes or a floodlight so it remained a part of the mysterious, unidentified night. Perhaps it was a Boobook?
October 16th - Daintree and Cairns
As we were scheduled to fly to Sydney on the seventeenth, we decided to stop at a couple of places south of Daintree and then bird Cairns more thoroughly than we had in our previous, brief visits.
As we left downtown Daintree we came upon a Blue-winged Kookaburra, only our second one. It would be the last as well. Acting on a tip from Glen Holmes we had searched for Crimson Finch in the sugar cane fields as we traveled from Julatten to Daintree. We gave it another try this day, but again we dipped on this species. Compensation was had though in the sighting of our first Wedge-tailed Eagle. It was spotted as we were driving but had disappeared by the time we were able to turn the car around. We skipped the places we had been told about for Beach Thick-knee since we saw one near Cape Tribulation.
A walk around the mangrove boardwalk trail near the Cairns airport was a bust. We had hoped to see Mangrove Robin, Collared and/or Little Kingfisher and Varied Honeyeater. It was very hot and the only birds active were Brown Honeyeaters. One of those bug-eyed fish (mudskipper?) that crawls up onto the mud was interesting though.
At the Botanical Garden we searched for Brown-backed Honeyeater and again for Little Kingfisher. The Brown-backed Honeyeaters were in, but the Little Kingfishers had heard of our arrival and checked out. The birding was a little lackluster and the heat oppressive. Rainbow Bee-eaters were eye-catching and we had nice looks at Magpie Geese with the Ibises.
At lunchtime we ate near the north end of the Cairns esplanade. There are mangroves here where we were told to look for Mangrove Robin. Though we did not encounter any we were rewarded with a nice selection of shorebirds. The north end is meant to be one of the better areas along the esplanade, though we found them spread out along the entire length of the esplanade, at least when the high tide restricted their choices. We watched seventeen species of shorebirds at close range – eighteen when I reviewed my videotape later and realized I had missed some Red Knots in among the Great Knots. From the large Far Eastern Curlews, Whimbrel (Siberian/Asiatic race ‘variegatus’) and Pied Oystercatchers to the tiny Red-necked Stints and Mongolian Plovers there was an amazing diversity of bills, legs and colors. New species for us were: Lesser Sand (aka Mongolian) Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler and Great Knot. We met a local birder (a rarity itself) and discussed Broad-billed Sandpipers with him. Seems they were only just beginning to show up for the summer and we never did find one. Marsh Sandpipers were also missed here, but the open flats are apparently not their favored habitat. Not to be ignored, a Mangrove (Striated) Heron fished just offshore.
After several hours we managed to tear ourselves away for a quick run over to the sewage plant. We couldn’t miss sunset at such a romantic spot – nor did we want to miss Radjah Shelduck, and this was our very last chance. Glen had tipped us on this possibility and this one came through. It was not far from town and proved to be a productive spot that was not mentioned in our copy of Bransbury’s ‘Where to Find Birds in Australia’. We added two more shorebirds to the day list: White-headed Stilt and Black-fronted Dotterel. A couple of Black-necked Storks were a nice find as we found this bird hard to come by. Of course we were happiest to find two striking, white Radjah Shelducks among the whistling ducks, dabblers and White-eyed Ducks (Hardhead).
In the evening we walked the esplanade once more and had a great time watching and listening to the Spectacled Flying Foxes squabble over green mangos in the esplanade’s ornamental trees. Previously we had heard Rufous (Nankeen) Night-heron on the tablelands. About a half dozen flew in to feed on the mudflats along the esplanade and were just visible in the artificial light.
That concluded our birding in the great, diverse landscape of northeastern Queensland. The next morning we were on a plane to Sydney.
Bon voyage Queensland!