Up top, down under!
It was 4:36am on a September morning, and 26 degrees C. We had arrived, catapulted into an Australian spring. We were guests of Tourism NT, a statutory body promoting tourism in the Northern Territory, and were about to embark on a whistle-stop birdwatching tour.
The Northern Territory makes up about a sixth of Australia. You could fit Britain into it six times over; yet it has a population of just over 200,000 people, about the same as Oldham! Darwin is the territory’s capital – it sits on the coast at the ‘Top End’ of the territory and is the gateway for international flights.
This continent-country is home to around 800 bird species. Our tour would show us some of the avian delights of the Top End, the northernmost quarter of the Northern Territory. Australia sits at a higher latitude than you might imagine, and the Top End is well within the tropics. It’s a land with a lot of space, a lot of birds and over 100,000 crocodiles!
A new set of birds
This was the first time I had been anywhere near this part of the world, and most of the species we encountered were new to me. These kinds of birding experiences take you right back to basics and remind you what it’s like to be a beginner. It’s not just that you don’t know what bird you’re looking at – you might even not know what family it’s in, or whether it’s a bird you are going to be seeing again and again or something an Australian birder would be getting excited about.
When you’re birding a new avifauna, do your homework before you go. Get a decent field guide and get familiar with the birds you are likely to see, or at least the families. There are several good field guides for Australia – Simpson and Day, the Slater Field Guide, and the Michael Morcombe Field Guide. They’re all good – Slater is nice and portable for use in the field, and for the techno-birders, Morcombe is available as an iPhone app, complete with calls. When you’re there, take your time and build up your bird repertoire bit by bit. Accept that you won’t be able to identify everything you see. There may well be some birds that you will only be able to sort out if they are in decent plumage and you get a good view. If you can’t identify what you’re looking at, enjoy the bird anyway – don’t get frustrated by your newfound ID difficulties.
For the visiting birder the Top End has much to offer, with almost 400 species on the list and some appetite-whetting specialities. It is a full-on immersion in Australian birds with, for the first timer, an overwhelming new avifauna to get to grips with – cockatoos, lorikeets, a host of kingfishers, cuckoo shrikes, monarch flycatchers, honeyeaters, fantails, trillers, whistlers, and gerygones (Australian warblers). If you’re wondering how to say that last one, it’s jer-i-go-knees.
For shorebird enthusiasts, the Top End is also a chance to get a bit of field experience with some species that just might brighten a day’s birding back at home – Marsh Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, Great Knot, and Little Curlew.
For list-conscious world birders, the Top End’s greatest allure will be the specialities and endemics, including Rainbow Pitta and Gouldian Finch. In eight bird-packed days we certainly had some great bird encounters, and we didn’t have to wait long.
The first birds
I cut my Australian birding teeth right outside our Darwin hotel, wrestling with the field guide to sort out some common species – Bar-shouldered Dove, Masked Lapwing, and Magpie Lark. Ibises performed here too – Australian White Ibis and Straw-necked Ibis. Rainbow Lorikeet was added to the list – the first of nine parrot and cockatoo species. And there were two Orange-footed Scrubfowl. These are megapodes, which means, literally, big feet. They use their feet to create massive earth and leaf incubators for their eggs. To put things in perspective, this could mean a five metre high pile that stretches 12 metres from edge to edge. This is the kind of bird that you read about in ‘The Wonderful World of Birds’, and here they were, strutting around outside the hotel. They weren’t hard to see, and, to quote a particularly chatty taxi-driver, they’re ‘a bloody nuisance in the garden!’
Then, in a haze of jetlag and sleeplessness, we headed straight to the monsoon forest, mangroves, beach and river of Buffalo Creek, a taxi ride from the centre of Darwin. It was steamingly hot and humid. Take plenty of water, take a hat, and take your time! Insect repellent is recommended, though on our trip insects weren’t a big problem. Antipodean birds came thick and fast. Black Kites and Whistling Kites came overhead. But the star of the show was Rainbow Pitta, with its moss-green back, turquoise wing-bend, and dark velvety underparts. This Pitta is endemic to a thin swathe of northern Australia. It proved very obliging, with one even hopping around a picnic table! Chestnut Rail is possible here too, though that sought-after mangrove-dweller eluded us.
An afternoon tour took us around some of Darwin’s birding hotspots. Knuckey Lagoon heaved with birds – five heron species, two cormorant species, Plumed and Wandering Whistling Ducks, Royal Spoonbill, statuesque Black-necked Storks (or Jabirus), Australian Darter, Green Pygmy Goose, and Australian Pratincole. This was our first encounter with the $500 bird – Radjah Shelduck – kill one of these and that’s the fine. Then on to Rapid Creek, the botanical gardens, and East Point. We failed to find Rufous Owl at the botanical gardens but did see Bush Stone Curlew and Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, completed the Stone Curlew set with Beach Stone Curlew at East Point, watched our guide help a Frilled Lizard across the road, and had a memorable meeting with a wonderfully cryptic, amphibian-faced Tawny Frogmouth at Rapid Creek. A good look at one of these and you can see why they’re called Frogmouths!
From Darwin we drove to the iconic Kakadu National Park, which has a bird list in excess of 290 species, more than a third of the continent’s total. The journey takes about three hours, or much longer if you bird on the way! We did of course, stopping off at Palmerston sewage works, Howard Springs Nature Reserve, Fogg Dam, and the Mary River National Park, with a night at the Wildman Wilderness Lodge. A close-up look at the avenue bower of a Great Bowerbird was one of the trip’s highlights for me, and there were views of its creator too. This wasn’t tricky either – our guides knew where the bower was, and it was just by the side of the road, a far cry from the hours of trekking through forest that seems more appropriate to clock one of these! Later, after some effort, a Mangrove Robin, a bird found only in northern Australia and New Guinea, was located in the Palmerston mangroves.
Howard Springs is another Rainbow Pitta site and they were there, but there was no sign of Rose-crowned Fruit Dove, another ‘highly desirable’. We never did catch up with this small pigeon, though one called later while we watched Black Falcons, a very nomadic species and an unexpected bonus, located the day before by our impressive local guides. An Estuarine Crocodile ruled out a thorough exploration of bird-rich Fogg Dam, but we were still able to enjoy fly-over Brolgas (a crane), White-browed Crakes, and Buff-banded Rail.
Boats are the best way to get close to the Territory’s wetland wildlife. Our first cruise was on the Mary River wetlands and brought us close to Australia’s second largest bird of prey – the White Bellied Sea Eagle, or, to use an Aboriginal name, the Mukmuk. That would be highlight enough, but a close encounter with a sizeable Estuarine Crocodile stole the show. We were about four metres away from a mass of reptilian muscle, and it was clear that flossing was not its priority! We were safe enough in this boat, but estuarine crocs are dangerous so do take the warnings seriously. Agile Wallabies know the risk – rather than going to the water’s edge to drink, they’ll dig a hole five to ten metres back and get their water that way! A cruise on the Wildman River brought us our first Little Kingfisher, a shining blue-and-white gem that is about the size of a thumb! This was one of six Kingfisher species that we enjoyed, with stonking Blue-winged Kookaburras being at the other end of the Kingfisher scale. And, in a variation on what we expect Kingfishers to do, we saw Kingfisher holes up trees, in arboreal termite mounds.
Kakadu itself is almost 20,000km2 and includes savanna woodland, sandstone escarpment, and monsoon forest, as well as the wetlands that it is perhaps most famous for. It qualifies as a World Heritage site twice over – once for its natural beauty and once for more than 50,000 years of Aboriginal history. Estuarine crocs hung out near a river crossing, and, nearby, perhaps 100 or more Black Flying Foxes hung from the trees, chattering squeakily, the males with very conspicuous genitalia! The local knowledge of our guides came into its own again and led us straight to a Chestnut-quilled Rock Dove in the Upper East Alligator area. This is a sought-after sandstone endemic found only in a small patch of the Northern Territory. The sought-after pigeon count went up one more when two Banded Fruit Doves were picked up at Nourlangie Rock. White-lined Honeyeater was heard here too, though none of us saw it. This Honeyeater is only found in northern Australia and has a very limited range.
The best way to experience Kakadu’s wetlands is a cruise on Yellow Water. It attracts a lot of tourists so try to get on a boat with a guide who can talk birds as well as crocodiles. We went for the sunrise experience and saw plenty of birds, with Black Bitterns, which can be tricky, more Brolgas, more Little Kingfishers and Bar-breasted Honeyeater among the highlights, all nicely topped off with a Buff-sided Robin.
A rare privilege
Then on to Arnhemland, 91,000 km2 of Top End wilderness that abuts Kakadu’s northern and eastern edge. This is aboriginal land and the only way in is with approved tour operators. We stayed at Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge, amidst 700 km2 of sandstone country, wetlands, monsoon forest, and paperbark swamps. The lodge is accessible by four-wheel-drive in the dry season (five hours from Darwin, two hours from Jabiru) or by light aircraft from Darwin or Jabiru. It provides a great wildlife experience and an insight into aboriginal culture. We were in wetland wonderland once more. A lily-walking Comb-crested Jacana tucked its chick away in its belly feathers, giving the adult a remarkable four-legged appearance. Black Bittern hit the list again, and we saw a massive gathering of perhaps 400,000 Magpie Geese. A sunset cruise took us past a roost of thousands of egrets and pied herons – airborne, swirling, and reminiscent of fruit bats. There were real mammals as well – Feral Pigs and a single, hulking, Asian Water Buffalo – not a creature to be taken lightly. The forest yielded Black-tailed Treecreeper and there were sandstone specialities too – Banded Fruit Dove and Sandstone Shrike Thrush. The latter is bigger, feistier, and more characterful than my field guide suggested, and has a noticeably longer tail. It’s one of those birds that world listers are after. We didn’t catch up with White-throated Grasswren, another one of those birds and another sandstone endemic, only found in north-west Arnhemland. They are still out there, but it is not an easy bird to see – two of our guides had never seen one.
The final chapter of the story was based in Nitmiluk National Park, near Katherine. The campsite sprinklers gave us a chance to have a really good look at the ridiculously colourful Rainbow Lorikeets, and Apostlebirds were easy here too – though on this occasion the flock numbered less than a dozen. An evening cruise through the ochre splendour of Katherine Gorge delivered our first Great-billed Heron. It wasn’t the last. The next morning saw us putting canoes in the water by crocodile warning signs, and starting an 8.5km paddle. Our guide knew what he was doing, and this was one boat trip where I didn’t eyeball a single crocodile, which was fine by me! But I did see more Great-billed Herons, Black Bittern, Cockatiel and Varied Lorikeet, and lived to write this article. There were Wedge-tailed Eagles in this area too. This is Australia’s biggest raptor – a female can measure a metre from bill tip to tail tip. They come to roadkill, and as a consequence may become roadkill themselves – a sad end for a magnificent bird.
Time was running out, but the birding highs kept coming! For one of them, we headed south down the Stuart highway, a legendary route that slices through the middle of Australia via Alice Springs. Our destination was a Red Goshawk nest site at Mataranka. This large and handsome raptor is one of Australia’s rarest birds –a bird that Aussie birders really want to see. We had a great encounter – the female on the nest, the male arriving with prey, and the female feeding it to a chick.
An early start the next morning took us to a small patch of water off the Edith Falls Road. The birds here performed brilliantly and on cue – Masked Finch, Long-tailed Finch, Double-barred Finch, and the one we were really after – Gouldian Finch. Ask a child to paint a bird and this is the kind of thing they might come up with. Gouldians come in different colour phases – mostly red or black headed. At one point my scope-view was two red-headed Gouldians, two black-headed, and two immatures. Fantastic stuff!
Hooded Parrot is another Top End bird that makes world listers fidgety! We missed it, despite searching around Pine Creek, but did add some Northern Rosellas at Copperfield Dam as we headed north to Darwin.
From Rainbow Pitta to Gouldian Finch – a remarkable tour which notched up around 180 species. We ate some interesting things too, sampling crocodile and camel during one al-fresco food fest. A local Barking Owl was eating al-fresco too. The owl’s diet was a little less adventurous than ours, but it ruined a roosting dove’s evening…
I’d like to do it all again please – but at a more leisurely pace!
Thanks to Tim Appleton, Fleur Burrows at Tourism NT, Suzanne Holiday at Keene PA, Chris Parker at Fisherking Safaris, Luke Paterson and Gerry Van Wees at Intrepid Connections, Max Davidson and Clare Wallwork at Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris, and Mick Jerram from Gecko Canoeing and Trekking.