Monday, May 3, 2010

Top End Visit - Darwin, Mary River region and Kakadu

On a whim at the start of April I booked a 6 day holiday to Darwin and the Top End from the 22nd of April to the 27th. As I had never been to the Top End before there were a lot of species to target so I focused on the areas around Darwin and Mary River and a couple of sites in Kakadu. When booking I didn't really pay much attention to the season, in hindsight I possibly should have gone earlier or later in the year. When searching the archives for trip reports, there was precious little from April. I still had a great trip with 147 birds seen with nearly 30 of those being ticks. Hopefully this report may help someone else along the way.

I utilised Niven McCrie's "Finding Birds in Darwin, Kakadu and the Top End" and Denise Goodfellow's " Birds of Australia's Top End" Both these books are excellent and fill different niches with Niven's focusing on sites and Denise's on birds and behaviour. I visited many of the sites listed in Niven's book and was able to find at least some of the key species listed at almost every site.


Caught the overnight flight from Melbourne which arrived early just before 5 am. Picked up the hire car and headed to Buffalo Creek, first bird being a Bush Stone-curlew in a north Darwin suburb.
  • Buffalo Creek - arrived here when it was still dark and immediately heard Large-tailed Nightjar and Australian Owlet-nightjar which I was able to spotlight hawking around the carpark lights, also a ridiculous number of cane toads. Sat at the boat ramp as the sun rose, heard Chestnut Rails calling a couple of times but they did not show. Had about 6 Fork-tailed Swifts overhead. Birded in the monsoon forest and woodland behind the beach with highlights including 3 Rainbow Pitta seen with more calling, my first Green-backed Gerygone, flock of Varied Lorikeet and 4 Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove on an exposed branch. In all, over 50 species seen by 9:30 am. I did mean to get back here but ran out of time.
  • Lee Point - Spent about an hour here and should have brought a scope. Several Lesser Crested Tern were among Crested Tern on the rocks, several waders - Grey-tailed Tattler and a number of Greater Sand-plovers colouring up nicely. In the bush behind the beach was surprised to see a number of Banded Honeyeater. Of interest on the road out was a Whistling Kite struggling to carry off a large dead snake.
  • Darwin Botanical gardens - Eventually found a single Rufous Owl in the rainforest section after about an hour and a half of searching, it was panting and had its wings slightly fanned, seemed as hot as I was. No sleep and the humidity caught up with me so I went to check in and have a shower.
  • Stuart Park Mangroves - I visited these a number of times over a couple of days and each time I saw something interesting. Unfortunately I didn't really come prepared for mangrove bashing so most of my birding was done from the edges. Collared Kingfisher, Mangrove Gerygone, Mangrove Robin, Black Butcherbird and Yellow White-eye all showing well here.
  • Charles Darwin National Park - went for a walk here late in the day. Birds were mostly quiet but there were a few good patches. Banded Honeyeater was quite common here as were Northern Rosella. Flushed a couple of Brown Quail in long grass near the mangroves.
  • Howard Springs Nature Reserve - Denise was good enough to take me for a morning walk around Howard Springs, here knowledge of plants, wildlife and indigenous culture is amazing. Large-billed Gerygone in the carpark was a good start but birds on the whole were rather quiet. Shining Flycatchers and Grey (Brown) Whistler are always a delight to see. We had walked almost the whole circuit but hadn't heard a pitta but right at the end one was hopping around quite unconcerned.
  • Holmes Jungle Nature Reserve - stopped in here for an hour or so and went for a walk down near the grassy area and back through the woodlands. The grassy area was very wet but had plenty of cisticolas and finches but only Golden-headed were calling. My first Long-tailed Finches were very much appreciated. Also saw my only Rufous-throated Honeyeater of the trip!
  • Leanyer Sewage Works - Denise took me for an afternoon visit to the poo farm. Definitely the highlight for me here were numerous White-winged Black Tern's in full or near full breeding plumage, stunning birds!! The only migratory waders left were Common Sandpipers. There was not a single swallow or martin of any kind to be seen. Of interest was a Little Egret with the yellow boots of the asian race. Around the edge were Mangrove Gerygone, Collared Kingfisher and a bird that had a number of the characteristics of a Broad-billed Flycatcher without the graduated tail. In the end I left it unticked as I was fairly sure I would pick one up later.
  • Knuckey and McMinns Lagoons - Due to it being at the end of the wet season there was a lot of water and foliage but not much in the way of waterbirds - just a few pygmy-geese and jacanas. Most of the action was in the bush and grasslands around the lagoons with a nice selection of finches, honeyeaters and some bushlarks. A White-winged Triller on wires on Fiddler's lane was a nice addition to the trip list.
Fogg Dam
  • On the third day I headed to Fogg Dam after a bit of a lie in (it was supposed to be a holiday after all) The croc is still on  the loose so walking on the dam wall is not permitted but there was a good selection of herons, egrets, spoonbills and Black-necked Storks where the water was flowing over the road. I walked the Woodlands to Waterlillies walk as the other was closed. This passed through flooded monsoon forest where the absolute highlight was Little Kingfisher perched less than a meter from me!! Also there were plenty of Broad-billed Flycatcher being very vocal and chasing each other round which gave me good opportunity to go through the fieldmarks. Around the carpark were Restless, Lemon-bellied and Leaden Flycatchers . A visit on the way back only added a couple of Magpie Geese.
Mary River Region

Headed Mary River Park where I spent 2 nights. The basic cabins there are certainly that and not particularly cheap but at least the food at the restaurant was good and the beer cold.
  • Adelaide River Bridge - Stopped in here in the middle of the afternoon but could not hear or see a sign of the whistler although there were a number of Broad-billed Flycatchers. I came back the next morning and soon got onto a several Mangrove Golden Whistlers.
  • Marrakai Track - I really enjoyed birding along the first few kilometers of this track until it got a bit rough for my hire car and visited several times. I just drove along slowly with the windows down until I heard a treecreeper type call. Stopped and got out and straight away got onto my first Black-tailed Treecreepers. This turned out to be a great little area with Varied Sitella, finches, honeyeaters and a small party of White-throated Gerygone which has been an absolute bogey bird of mine! Would love to go further along this road next time.
  • Mary River Excavation Pits - had no real expectations here considering the time of the year and that it was mostly under water but dutifully got there before dawn and sloshed in. Did not see a single finch of any flavour and little of note.
  • Mary River Park - stayed here as noted and walked the Bamboo walk which was apparently closed due to a large croc in the first billabong. Was hoping for Buff-sided Robin but did not see or hear a sign, was probably just as well I didn't spend too long hunting round the first billabong. An immature Sea-eagle being harassed by cockatoos was probably the highlight of the walk. At night Barking Owls were calling and showing around the camp.
  • Mary River National Park - Drove in on the track to the Bird Billabong carpark early in the morning and almost immediately saw a covey of small two-toned quail scurrying across the road, I crept up in the car but could see or hear no sign of them. The grass was waist high but I went in after them and succeeded in flushing a Brown Quail after about 10 minutes, but I am fairly sure this was not what crossed the road earlier. Further down the road I came across some Little Woodswallows which I got out to watch, I followed a weird sounding Pallid Cuckoo up the hill and around 100 meters from the road I bumped into a Gouldian Finch! My little jig of joy disturbed 3 others.... 3 black faced, 1 red faced. Watched them for a couple of minutes before they flew. I walked into Bird Billabong which was very wet... once again not many birds on the billabong itself but some great woodland birding on the way in. When I visited later in the day, a flock of at least 25 White-winged Triller was of interest, perhaps recently returned migrants?
  • Jimmy Creek Walk - thanks to Arthur and Sheryl for putting me onto this little gem of a walk which is at the Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge. Its a short walk of about 1.6 km through jungle with a crystal clear stream running through. Azure Kingfisher, Rose-crowned Fruit-dove, Arafura Fantail and Rainbow Pitta all seen here. Be warned that the mosquito's are savage!!!
Kakadu Region

I left Mary River Park before dawn and headed to Kakadu. A lot of places in Kakadu were still closed for the wet and I only had limited time so I decided to concentrate my efforts around Nourlangie and stay at Cooinda. The trip to the park border was uneventful aside from a single Dingo.
  • South Alligator River - This was the only place on the trip that I heard and eventually saw Zitting Cisticola.
  • Nourlangie - I arrived at Nourlangie on the first morning at around 8 am and immediately found a Banded Fruit-dove at the top of the first stairs. I ended up seeing what was probably the same bird on each of my 3 visits to Nourlangie in the same place. White-lined Honeyeater were calling regularly, often reasonably close but I frustratingly couldnt get onto them. Eventually climbed a couple of kilometers up some lookout walk but they always seemed to be calling just ahead of me, a Black Wallaroo watched me and laughed. Other birds of note were Rainbow Pitta calling and showing well, a number of flying Banded Fruit-dove and the sandstone race of Helmeted Friarbird. I came back later in the afternoon and still had no luck with the honeyeater. The next morning the gate was open at 7 am so I came in and found the White-lined Honeyeater feeding in grevillia at the top of the first set of stairs - a very satisfying tick!
  • Nawurlandja - close to Nourlangie, I visited this site twice. I saw a number of Banded Fruit-dove in flight on the road between here and Nourlangie. I thought this might be a good site for the shrike-thrush but despite many hours of searching and scrambling up and down rocks and small cliffs I saw or heard nothing. In fact aside from a Little Shrike-thrush in the mangroves near Darwin I did not see any other shrike-thrushes of any flavour for the entire trip. There were around 20 Banded Fruit-doves feeding in fruiting trees about 200 meters off to the right when you first climb up the stairs. Flushed a Spotted Nightjar which circled above me before landing quite close giving excellent views. Also of interest was a rock-wallaby which made a mockery of my struggles across the rocks.
  • Gubara - visited here in the middle of the day where my main goal was a swim. The woodland has been burnt to the base of the sandstone cliffs which allowed easy access giving me good views of a pair of Chestut-quilled Rock-pigeons, I later saw more in flight. Northern Rosella was probably the highlight of a good selection of woodland birds on the walk in. The pool at Gubarra was fantastic and just the thing in the middle of the day. The fish were a definite highlight, especially what looked like freshwater garfish.
  • Cooinda - I stayed here the night but only spent a limited amount of time birding. The accommodation was good but food and beer expensive. Highlights here were my only Bar-breasted Honeyeaters of the trip and Spotted Nightjar and Barking Owls at night.
I would like to thank anyone else who has posted trip reports on birding-aus, the archives were a very useful resource when planning. I would especially like to thank Denise for your great company, knowledge and your time and Arthur and Sheryl for your advise and company. And of course Simone for letting me go without her xx :-)

A trip list can be found here

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