From the 24th of September to the 8th of October I was lucky enough to have a 2 week birding holiday in Far North Queensland. The main goal of the holiday was 4 nights in the Iron Range but also had quality birding time around Cairns, Musgrave, Daintree and the Atherton Tablelands. I had a very successful trip with over 240 species of birds seen. As this was my first real time birding north of Noosa I also got a rediculous number of ticks. I have written this report to hopefully add my 2 cents to the pool of information on this fantastic birding area that is out there.
Back in April, Tim Dolby posted a message on Birding-aus asking for interest in filling spots in his car for a trip to the Iron Range. Being such a good oppurtunity the spots filled fast but there was enough people to get together a second vehicle. So Laurie Living, John McRae, Mark Stanley and I had a couple of meetings at the Irish Times in Melbourne where some serious planning (and drinking??) was done. Thanks must go to Tim Dolby for putting the group in touch and for his very practical advice during this period. Car, flights and accomodation was booked and then it was a countdown of days. Unfortunately Mark had a family emergency and was unable to attend at the last minute but his place was taken by his mate Jim Preston. Mark was good enough to give us his printed notes, checklists and maps which were very useful throughout the trip
As far as birding preparation went I bought Jo Wieneke's "Where to find birds in North-East Queensland" for my time around Cairns and I printed and read every trip report I could get my hands on. Jo's guide was quite useful and I visited many of the sites listed around Cairns and the Tablelands. Unfortunately I did not take the time to learn the calls which I ended up regretting. I definitely recommend acquiring the necessary CD's and learning the calls, particularly the Iron Range specials!
I was dropped at Melbourne Airport about 2 hours before my flight was due to depart, unfortunately due to the duststorms in Sydney the day before all flights were delayed - mine 3 hours!! After 5 hours in the delightful confines of the Virgin terminal I was certainly ready to be in the air. Finally underway and I was then to enjoy the experience of a tantrum throwing 3 year old #@!$ kicking the back of my seat the whole way, I can usually do a pretty decent glare but this child was immune as was its mother. I hope the plasma TV she bought with her baby bonus was worth it. In Cairns the first bird I saw was a Pied Imperial Pigeon flying over which was a lovely first tick. I picked up my hire car for the next couple of days - the redoubtable Hyundai Getz whose white paintwork had taken on a beige colour due to all the dust and smoke in the air.
First stop was the mangrove boardwalk on the Airport Road. Unfortunately it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and stinking hot so I did not see or hear a single bird on the whole loop. Off to the Esplanade next where I bumped into a number of birders including Laurie. Some of them had seen the Laughing Gull earlier but were not sure where it was now. I walked a further 20 meters along the Esplanade and there it was in the first group of gulls I examined doing its best to be quite photogenic. Seeing good numbers of not so common waders down south like Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek Sandpiper and the Lesser and Greater Sand-plovers was a real pleasure. I spent a bit of time along the Esplanade seeing a pile of new birds and with light fading left to catchup and stay with my Uncle.
After the last thing close to a lie in I would get for the next 2 weeks I picked Laurie up from the Esplanade for a bit of a jaunt up to the tablelands. We watched a pair of Beach Stone-curlews for a bit of time before setting off, they were catching crabs out on the mudflats and running back nice and close to the shoreline to eat them. Heading south from Cairns we headed up the Gillies Highway towards the Tablelands. The area was thick with smoke and it soon became apparent why with the first of many burns occurring on the eastern slopes. Driving through smoke and smouldering logs was something we would certainly get used to over the next week or so.
First stop was Lake Barrine where quite a few birds were calling despite being 10am. We walked the small circuit track from near the entrance to the park, down to the lake and to the 2 giant Kauri pines. Tooth-billed Bowerbirds were calling their little hearts out and we got good views of a couple. Other good birds included my first Grey-headed Robin, a beautiful Spectacled Monarch and Spotted Catbirds. Plenty of Musky Rat Kangaroos in the leaf litter provided another point of interest. The 2 magnificent Kauri Pines are well worth a look. Lunch at the cafe was pretty good with Scarlet and Dusky Honeyeaters feeding in the bottlebrush right next to the balcony.
From Barrine we went to Lake Eacham where Bridled and Macleays Honeyeaters were feeding in the parking lot. Overhead was my first good look at Australian swiftlets. Would have liked some more time here but we had a few more places to visit. Next was the Curtain Tree Fig but there was nothing much happening there. In a field near Atherton were 1000's of Plumed Whistling-ducks and 100's of Magpie Geese. Not far past here Laurie yelled for me to stop... pulled over and there in a field were over 60 Sarus Crane - what a great sight. They were calling and doing little parts of dances.
We continued on to Hastie's Swamp where there were amazing numbers of Whistling-ducks and Magpie Geese. Darting in and out of the ducks were scavenging Buff-banded Rails and a flyby of a White-belled Sea-eagle caused all sorts of consternation. The highlight of the trip back to Cairns was a magnificent Spotted Harrier which sat on a fence post by the road giving us fantastic views.
Got up and went and picked up the guys and went to the airport to get the 4wd. There was a bit of a dispute about the car and apparently we weren't allowed to take it north of Cooktown but soon enough we were back in town getting supplies. Headed up through Kuranda and Mareeba and stopped at the Mareeba wetlands for lunch. At the house on the entrance road we found Great Bowerbird and bower, Pacific Baza and I saw a Banded Honeyeater. The wetland centreitself does a nice meat pie although there was not too much on the wetlands in the middle of the day with Green Pygmy Goose and Jacana being the highlight. Outside a daddy Emu and chicks modelled for the camera. Next we stopped at Lake Mitchell before heading to the Mt Molloy pub to watch the AFL grand final. During the game breaks we checked the town for Squatter Pigeon and ended up seeing a number of Red-winged Parrots feeding in someones front yard. After the Saints threw it away we stopped at the campground at the edge of town for Emerald Dove and a Scaly-breasted Lorikeet or two for Jim. A quick stop in at Abbatoir Swamp and then on to Kingfisher Park for the night.
At KP we went to see the owls at the oval. There is some dispute as to whether they are Masked or Barn Owls.... to me they looked and sounded Barn but I will happily hear more thoughts on the subject. During the night Sooty Owls called a number of times. That night we met Tim Dolby's group, Greg, Paul and Ruth who we would have a lot to do with over the next week.
Up early to explore the grounds of Kingfisher Park. Great place with a lot of the Wet Tropics specialities seen easily in the grounds. So many highlights - Papuan Frogmouths in the orchard, first attempts at seperating Yellow-spotted-graceful-lewins Honeyeaters, Barred Cuckoo-shrikes and Double-eyed Fig-parrots in a fruiting tree, Spotted Crakes errr.... Catbirds at the crake pond and endearing Grey-headed and Pale Yellow Robins.
After breakfast we went up Mt Lewis where we found Bower's Shrike-thrush, Fernwren, Victoria's Riflebird and Chowchilla. After quite a bit of following down the small plain scrubwrens near the clearing we decided we had Atherton Scrubwrens. The highlight for me on the way back down for me was certainly a Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo on the road. We later found out from Keith and Lindsey at KP that this is a really rare daytime sight on Mt Lewis.
We headed north, diverting down the Maryfarms side roads where we saw a number of Bustard, some right beside the car. The Palmer River Road House is well worth a lunch stop with Pied Butcherbird, Great Bowerbird and Apostlebirds hanging around the outside eating area. Out of Lakelands there was a surprising amount of bitumen going a large part of the way to Laura. Whilst driving close to 100 kph I saw some dark shapes beside the road, Squatter Pigeon!!! A quick u-turn and there in the shade were 3 Squatter Pigeon who really did not want move in the heat.
Past Laura we started seeing our first Black-backed Butcherbirds. At a wetland on the left we stopped for three Sarus Crane which gave us a good show before flying off. We stopped in at Artemis Station to say hello to Sue Shephard and to ask her permission to look for GSP. We went to Windmill Creek where we staked out a couple of dams, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos, Galahs and Common Bronzewing were coming in to drink, we saw no sign of the GSP although perhaps I heard what sounded like Red-rumps but may have been my imagination. A Brown Goshawk thundering through ended up putting everything on edge. As it was starting to get dark we drove to Musgrave for the night... unfortunately the suicidal Agile Wallabies proved to be anything but agile..... Bumped into Tim's group at dinner where we decided to get up early and go look for the GSP together in the morning.
Rainforest Camp and Track - visited here a number of times at various times of the day. Often had a lot of very interesting birds - Tropical Scubwren, Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, Shining Flycatcher, Spectacled Monarch, Fairy Gerygone and on the last visit Green-backed Honeyeater. Fruit-doves were calling and Superb and Wompoo gave the odd look. Cuckoos and the YB Kingfisher called regularly but could not get onto them and our woeful attempts at whistling the cuckoos in probably left the local birds in hysterics. Probably the highlight of this site for me was great views of female Red-cheeked Parrots perched in a dead tree one morning. Tim Dolby's group had much more success at this site than we did, time of the day and conditions is probably important.
Cook's Hut - The Highlight of this site was undoubtably the Northern Scrub-Robin calling loudly near the toilet block and giving good views a number of times. A Noisy Pitta fossicked around near the toilet block also allowing some attempts at being photogenic. White-faced Robins were curious and would peer around tree trunks to see what was happening. The creek area down from the camp looked very promising but despite me visiting it many times it never really delivered anything special. Half looks at the manucode and riflebird were probably the best birds at the creek although Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles side by side was a good moment. The Marshalls race of the Double-eyed Fig-parrot showed well a number of times in the campsite. Undoubtedly the patriarch of the campsite was the Brush-turkey with his purple wattle prominant....
Gordons Creek Campsites and track - Probably my favourite of the three main rainforest sites in this area. The birding was often quiet then waves of birds would come through. Good area for monarchs with Spectacled, White-eared and Frilled as well as plenty of honeyeaters. Down in the creek itself was very good for Tropical Scubwren. Female Magnificent Riflebirds were seen quite regualrly, particularly on the small loop track which joins the two campsites. Once again the YB Kingfisher was heard here but did not show.
Would also recommend birding on the road between and around all these 3 areas (especially if there is no roadworks going on!)
Keith at KP had given us a Little Curlew tip so we headed back to Cairns via Mossman to drop off Laurie. Stopped in at Newells Beach and checked out the wires but nothing out of the ordinary. Found the road where the curlews had been seen but they had moved on. The first Singing Bushlark of the trip was a welcome sight. Back to Cairns and the Esplanade where the Laughing Gull was putting on a show. Bit of time there then back to Kingfisher Park for the evening. Mt Molloy pub again for dinner and we were starting to feel like locals.
Up early again and we decided to head to a few Tablelands sites. Started with Mt Hypipamee hoping for Golden Bowerbird but had to settle for a Satin Bowerbird on nest. There were a number of other rainforest species there and would warrant more time in future. Keith at KP had given us the tip of Wongabel State Forest where we walked the small loop track. There I got my first Pied Monarchs which were common and got quite close. Spectacled Monarchs and Boatbills were quite confiding.
Encountered more Sarus Cranes near Hastie's Swamp which again had 1000's of Plumed Whistling-ducks. Around the swamp was White-cheeked Honeyeater and Shining Bronze-cuckoo which were both new for the trip. Went for lunch at Lake Barrine where there was again over 100 Great Crested Grebe on the lake and in the gardens some very obliging Scarlet Honeyeaters, Sunbirds and Eastern Spinebills for photo ops. If only my camera wasnt playing up!
Back to Cairns where we spent an hour or so trying to get the hire 4wd back to a semi presentable condition. Despite plenty of high pressure hosing the red dust continued to flow.... of course we had never taken the car north of Cooktown ;-) A welcome shower, load of washing then a very nice steak.
What a fantastic trip!! Met some great and interesting people almost everywhere I went. I would like to thank my 3 companions Laurie Living, John McCrae and Jim Preston for being such great travel buddies, I look forward to birding with you all again. Thanks to Mark Stanley for his help with planning, maps and checklists, sorry you couldnt go on this trip but anything I can help with next time I will. Special thanks to Tim Dolby for all his fantastic assistance and friendly advice and to his travel companions Paul, Ruth and Greg (especially for the magical ale at Portland Roads ;-) ). Thankyou to my Uncle Peter Ingram for the bed and great hospitality in Cairns (and the esky!). Finally, special thanks to Simone for letting me go, I love you!