10 - 20 June – Queensland Gulf Country to Darwin and beyond

Immaculate completion

Pictorella Mannikins
With all of my Cape York boxes ticked, I was becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of what would be my last potential mainland ‘tick-fest’: the Top End. Ahead lay the legendary birding hotspots of Katherine, Darwin, Kakadu and Timber Creek in the NT; and Kununurra, Gibb River Road and Mitchell River across the border. As always, I can handle the long drives so long as there is time to punctuate the day/night with occasional half-hour birding-breaks in appealing habitats along the way.

Tracking westward towards Normanton on the Gulf Development Road, I stopped to sort through several groups of finches. Soon, I had my first taste of Pictorella Mannikins (tick). Nice! This attractive species would prove to be more widespread and abundant across the north than I’d expected – though a different pattern would unfold in my pursuit of the other two important Top End finch species: Yellow-rumped Mannikin and Gouldian Finch.

Welcome to Gulf Country – the bird-friendly Gilbert River crossing
Buff-sided Robin

Sublime Lawn Hill

I arrived at beautiful Lawn Hill NP on the Queensland-Northern Territory border on the afternoon of June 11. After reading Tim Dolby’s glowing freshly-blogged trip report I had high expectations indeed – expectations that soon proved well-founded. Within a half-hour of arriving at the National Park, in the fading afternoon light, I saw several Buff-sided Robins (tick), a group of Purple-crowned Fairywrens (tick), and a good range of other species. A predominant feature of the birds of the Lawn Hill Creek basin is a high density of Great Bowerbirds – they seemed to be everywhere.

Barking Owls
Next morning, arriving at the National Park car-park an hour before sunrise, I put breakfast on hold (the usual tin of ‘four-bean’ mix and second cup of coffee) when I heard a Barking Owl calling from nearby scrubby brush/timber. Creeping to within camera range, in the earliest morning light I had a sensational view of a pair of Barking Owls (tick and click).

At sunrise, along the scenic walk towards Upper Gorge Lookout I saw lots of gorgeous Little Woodswallows, a Sandstone Shrikethrush (tick), numerous Silver-crowned Friarbirds (tick) and a nice little group of Northern Rosellas (tick). These were birds that I’d been looking forward to seeing – and each encounter was mighty satisfying.

Little Woodswallow
Lots of honeyeater activity around the flowering Grevillea, including Brown, Yellow-plumed, Grey-headed, Banded and White-gaped - but nothing new for my year.

The gorge is very scenic, birds or no birds, and considering the high standard of the walking tracks and educational and service facilities, it is no wonder that ‘Boodjamulla’ National Park has become an important tourism destination for Queensland. From a birding perspective it is, as Tim Dolby aptly summarised – simply sublime.

It only happens when you’re tyred…

Back for my second go through the wonderful Barkley Tablelands, en route to Darwin, I was tempted to return to Connell’s Lagoon Nature Reserve – a protected expanse of Mitchell grasslands via the Ranken Rd, which tracks northwest from Avon Downs and the Barkley Highway to Brunette Downs Station and the Tablelands Highway. 

Flock of Varied Lorikeets

Nearing sunset, and still a couple of hours from the reserve, I stopped to change a flat tyre.
With the radio tuned to ABC National I continued listening to an interview with Rick Shine from Sydney Uni describing his latest cane toad control research. Much of the country I’d be seeing in the weeks ahead had been invaded by the westward marching toad front in recent years, with catastrophic impacts on a wide range of snake and lizard species of which I have many fond memories of encountering in the wild. I had made annual wet season trips to the Northern Territory during the first half of the previous decade to collect/rescue snakes of several species from just in front of the westward bound ‘toad front’ for inclusion in the Reptile Park’s venom production work (we are the sole-suppliers of terrestrial snake venoms required by CSL Ltd in the manufacture of Australian snake antivenoms). On each trip I found that to the west of the toad conga-line the magic of Top End reptile diversity persisted. But to the east – it was a very different story, with few if any, larger reptiles. It was like an overnight massacre. Rick has been conducting leading research into the Cane Toad problem since before those days, and it is mildly comforting to hear his informed prognosis that although native predator populations will continue to crash, it is unlikely that outright extinctions of any larger vertebrate species will arise directly from toad consumption.

Back on the road, I got to Connell’s Lagoon late at night after losing an hour because of an inadvertent turn to the right - and nowhere. Plenty of Barn Owls, lots of plague rats (long-haired rats), but no night-hunting Letter-winged Kites as hoped. Once in the cattle-excluded Park, I veered right onto a barely-visible track and drove towards the centre of the Park to camp in a sea of pristine knee-high Mitchell grassland. It was a nice moment. The dramas of the previous hours forgotten, I was feeling great. The tent was up, I’d done a bit on the laptop and had poured myself a glass of the Hunter’s finest. Nothing to do before hitting the hay than to lean back against the car door and take in the very special moonlit vista. But my ‘special moment’ ended with a soft yet unapologetic “clunk” as all five car doors simultaneously locked after I brushed against the auto-locking button on the door handle. It took a few seconds to appreciate what had just happened. I’d locked myself out of the car in the precise middle of nowhere. Of course the key was right where I’d left it, in my trouser pocket – but the trousers were roughly folded on the front seat. Having grown quite fond of the Jeep, I hated the idea of what would obviously need to be done. Not that there was anything outside the car substantial enough to smash a window anyway – there are no rocks above these loamy soils, and I wasn’t through with the wine bottle just yet. So I poured another drink and set off trouser-less, to hike the five kilometres back to the nearest fence-line in order to commandeer a metre of fencing wire. I had no trouble finding a length of wire and an unused star-picket - for a prospective window-smasher. I saw several Long-haired Rats along the way, including one that I’d inadvertently flattened a couple of hours earlier on the drive in. I also had a frustratingly uncertain look at what was probably a Letter-Wing kite hawking a few metres overhead. Back at the car I soon realised that the old days of sneaking a straightened coat-hanger with a loop at the end over the top, or around the sides of a closed car window to snag the manual locking button had come to an end with improved theft-resistant design. I crawled into my swag in disgust, only to re-emerge a minute later with a new plan. I set about using the wire to fish around into the panel of the door via the window slot, hoping the right-angle bend with 50mm of ‘hook’ would catch on something that would pop the lock button up. It took some doing, but eventually I heard the sound I was hoping for and saw the internal locking nib pop up. Bliss. Enough time for a short, but deep sleep, then back on the road, full of renewed anticipation.

Charcoal Woodlands 

Banded Honeyeater

I made Mataranka by 9pm on June 14, and endeavoured to overcome my excitement about the next day’s birding and catch up on sleep. Up before sunrise and onto the Mainoru Highway, there was no need for sunlight to determine that the countryside had been almost entirely burnt on both sides of the road for at least first 20 km – and right through the specific birding sites I’d come to see. Smoke was heavy in the air and occasional stretches of roadside grassland were still blazing. In the coming days I would find that a surprising proportion of the landscape had similarly been torched – and if not, then apparently in the previous dry season. Welcome to the Northern Territory. Although my dream of ‘tick-festing’ my way through the northern woodlands had taken a hit, I found a nice little patch of unburnt country surrounding Beswick community that provided me with a beautiful pair of Hooded Parrots (tick) and quite a diversity of other bird species, including a targeted bird I’d been particularly looking forward to seeing – Banded Honeyeater (tick).

Northern Rosella

Back to the Stuart Highway, I headed north to Katherine where I hooked left onto the Victoria River Hwy heading a short distance westward to the bird-famous twin creeks with confusing names – Chinaman Creek and Chainman Creek. Although the specific patch of tall grass on the west side of the first hill past Chainman Creek (identified by T & T as the best spot for Chestnut-backed Buttonquail) had recently been burnt, adjacent similar countryside still had chest-high grass understory and proved to be quite productive for a range of birds, particularly honeyeaters, finches and a group of Northern Rosellas. Marching through the tussocks flushed several birds, but only one could be 100% identified – a single Red-chested Buttonquail (tick) – a relatively common and very widespread species that I’d no doubt seen many times previously, but was unable to positively ID. I also flushed a small group of larger button quail that were probably the targeted Chestnut-backed Button Quail (CBBQ) - but I couldn’t get a fix on them.

Copper-smoke Dam

Back to the Stuart Highway and north towards Darwin, I moved on to several other iconic birding locations including Edith Falls Road, Fergusson River and Copperfield Dam. On approaching the Copperfield Dam reservoir, I was gutted to see that the ‘sure-bet’ CBBQ site (according to my workmate Tim Faulkner) along the hillside to the right of the drive had been recently torched. I gave the left side of the road a solid effort, but didn’t flush anything other than bar-shouldered doves.

Many of tried-and-true Northern Territory bird-spots had been burnt in the weeks prior to my visit,
including the well-known Copperfield Dam site for Chestnut-backed Buttonquail. 

I decided to hang around the Katherine area for another day to have a second go at Chainman Creek for the CBBQ. I studied the ID paintings in Slater for the umpteenth time. An early morning start and bingo – good looks at a covey of perhaps eight CBBQ that took turns alighting. The large size, big chunky light-coloured bill and ‘chestnut’ coloured back closed the deal (relief tick). This would be my last buttonquail tick during my Top End trip, despite making considerable effort to find Red-backed Buttonquail - a smaller and much more widespread species.

A cheeky Rose-crowned Fruitdove along
the access track to Fogg Dam

Fabulous Fogg Dam

Resuming the drive north I arrived at Fogg Dam, off the Arnhem Highway, by early afternoon on 16 June. Stepping out of the car I was almost instantly blown away by the birdlife. ‘Good’ birds were everywhere – not just the expected in-your-face water-birds in the huge wetlands, but all along the access road and walking tracks that dissect the rare and spectacular chunk of preserved monsoon rainforest. Green-backed Gerygones (tick), Grey Whistlers, Little Shrike-thrush, Arafura Fantails (tick), Northern Fantails, Paperbark Flycatchers and Lemon-bellied Flycatchers all seemed to make considerable effort to be seen and photographed. A Rose-crowned Fruitdove (tick), larger than life, fed in the lower branches of a track-side tree, allowing me to within five metres. No field guide painting had prepared me for how spectacular this colourful bird is. Just before sunset I made my way down to the dam – and the extensive wetlands to either side. Wow.

Paperbark Flycatcher
A stunning range of birds including the Grey Whistler
were found within minutes of arriving at Fogg Dam

Bad day for a Slaty-grey Snake at Fogg Dam.

There were huge numbers of Magpie Goose, plenty of both expected Whistling Duck species, Green Pygmy-geese, Raja Shellducks, Darters, Egrets, Cormorants, Jacanas, Purple Swampies, and all the rest of it. I watched a Jabiru (ok, Black-necked Stork…) wrestle with and devour a Slaty-grey snake. I was looking for White-browed Crake, and had no trouble hearing individuals on either side of the dam right through dusk.

Fogg Dam is supposed to be the standout location for White-browed Crakes – but despite four separate trips to the dam over the next week or so, I never clamped an eye (nor scope) upon one. Instead, the crakes stubbornly remained hidden within the dense reed-beds that appear to have proliferated since the removal of Water Buffalo a decade or so before, occasionally calling to one another to spite me. Members of Rick Shine’s herpetology team permanently reside near the dam and have been doing research on the water pythons and Colubrid snakes at the dam for many years – with a recent shift in focus to assessing and finding ways to minimise the cane-toad impact upon Top End ecosystems.


Over the next few days I picked off most of the Darwin/Kakadu/Katherine specialty birds: Black-tailed Tree-creeper on Marrakai Track; Rainbow Pitta at Howard Springs Nature Reserve; Banded Fruit Dove and White-lined Honeyeater at Nourlangie Rock; and Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Partridge Pigeon and Helmeted Friarbird (recently split from the Qld form) at Gunlom Falls.

Black-tailed Treecreepers
Despite lots of effort, and several flushed buttonquail,   I didn’t score Red-backed Buttonquail.

While in Kakadu I devoted three solid half-day efforts to search for White-throated Grasswrens. I devoted one morning at the ‘old’ Gunlum site and two mornings (well, sunrise to 2pm) at the ‘really old’ Plum-tree Creek site. Unfortunately, despite only patchy recent burns, I could only find very few small patches of mature spinifex habitat at either site. Although I’m hopeful that someone proves me wrong, I don’t think the birds are in those accessible areas at this time.

Apart from the elusive grasswren and the impossible buttonquail, no new birds remained for me here and it was time to head west to the great western frontier – the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Due to the poor timing of the tides the search for Chestnut Rail would have to be deterred anyway.

21 – 27 June – Finches and Grasswrens, East and West Kimberley

West to the Kimberley

Since I’d failed to find Gouldian Finches and Yellow-rumped Mannikin (YRM) at any of the well-known Katherine sites, I headed west with renewed hope. Although stops at Victoria River Roadhouse, Policeman’s Point (great site!) and a couple of other likely spots along the Victoria Highway yielded plenty of finches, no Gouldians nor YRMs were seen. Arriving in Kununurra late-avo on June 21, I set up the scope at Kimberlyland Caravan Park to search the promising vista of reed-beds lining the Lily Creek Lagoon. I’d heard that the White-browed Crakes mix it up with the plentiful Comb-crested Jacanas there, walking Jacana-like across mats of water-lilies. As the sun went down, I watched plenty of big-footed Jacanas actively foraging throughout the scope-view, but no Crakes. That was until the approach of sunset, when a White-browed crake skirted out of the reeds and into view for a very few seconds. I had good scope views before deploying my trademark UFO/Big-Foot blurred-imaging camera to record nearly identifiable images of the crake in the fading light.

The mysterious Hidden Valley NP, tucked behind the Kununurra township.
The next morning gave me my first opportunity to explore several well-known Kununurra birding sites, including Hidden Valley NP and the famed irrigation canals north of town. I saw hundreds of finches at the latter: Star Finches, Masked Finches, Long-tailed Finches, Crimson Finches, Double-banded Finches, Zebra Finches and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins. But apart from some false-starts (immature CBMs and Stars) –no Yellow-rumped Mannikins. I tried walking up and down other canals, including the big ‘main’ one, but no cigar. I did see an Australian Hobby stoop-and-swoop to nail a Long-tailed Finch, in what looked like a high-tech military jet strike.

A little bit disheartened, I decided to suspend further searches in the Kununurra/Wyndham area and hit the road again, to pursue four West Kimberley specialties: Black Grasswren, Kimberley Honeyeater, White-quilled Rock Pigeon and the northern race of Crested Shrike-tit, a possible ‘future-split’. The two elusive finch species could wait a week or so until I returned on the way back to Darwin.

The Mild Mild West

My interest in Kimberley reptiles has taken me to many remote corners of the northwest over a long period of time - extended through more than 20 trips. As the present trip would bear out, the seasonal influx of visitors to what is now Mitchell River National Park has absolutely exploded and the associated noise generated by helicopter and Cessna joy-flights has become quite a part of the dry-season experience. After this particular trip, I’ll be returning to my usual wet-season timing for Mitchell Plateau visits (hint – you can fly to Mitchell Plateau airstrip cheaply throughout the fabulous wet season on the mail-plane – March is unreal).

A non-birding mate – and talented workmate at the Reptile Park, Chris Wallace had joined me earlier in Darwin for the tail-end of my time there, mainly to participate in the Kimberley-bashing phase of my year. He’d heard all the stories from other staff members who have been on various supposed life-and-death misadventures in the search for Rough-scaled pythons and other Kimberley-endemic reptiles. I’d explained that ours would be a very tame adventure, with the closest thing to hazardous misadventure perhaps confined to the risk of being invited by colonies of ‘grey nomads’ to campsite sing-alongs. I also made it clear that I was on a mission, if it didn’t wear feathers, I didn’t want to know about it. He’d be on his own if he wanted to chase reptiles – and of course that would be fine.

Perhaps the biggest birding challenge in the Kimberley –
the northern subspecies of Crested Shriketit 

Great tits – shame about the beak

Not far out of Kununurra on June 22, Chris and I passed through the regal Cockburn Ranges on the rough Gibb River Road, before experiencing my fourth flat tyre of the year. Turning north, the road deteriorated to bone-jarring status, so the timing was good for a half-hour birding break (well, birding for me and ‘herping’ for Chris) at what is possibly the best chunk of woodland along the entire Kalumburu Road. Sections of relatively closed woodland with particularly mature trees and reasonably complex understory persist on either side of the Gibb River and have been known to yield the hard-to-find northern subspecies of Crested Shrike-tit in the past, particularly a bit further north at Drysdale Station. Plenty of birds were seen, including some good honeyeaters, a Black-tailed Treecreeper and yet another unidentifiable button quail (!) - but no Crested Shrike-tits.

When I got back to the car Chris had apparently given up on finding Frilled Lizards and Black-headed pythons and was looking through the Slater field guide. Awaiting my return he’d been playing calls from his iPhone of the three or four bird species we hoped to see in the days ahead. He recounted to me that when he played the Kimberley Honeyeater call, a “black and yellow” bird appeared to respond. He hadn’t found it in the honeyeater section and was looking for the Golden Whistler image when he saw the picture of Crested Shriketit.

Oh dear
You beauty! We played a snippet of more targeted playback, and within ten seconds had a pair of Northern Shrike-tits eyeing us from a nearby tree. As far as I’m concerned Chris earned his birding stripes right there and then. Northern Shrike Tit is a notoriously difficult race to find and I certainly hadn’t presumed to see it during my Big Year. Back on the road, with hopes of making it to Mitchell River by nightfall, Chris’s inevitable school-boy variations of the obvious theme peaked with ‘Best tits in the Kimberley’ before the fully-laden roof-rack slipped forward during a particularly dramatic stop, crash-landing on the bonnet of my poor Jeep – once again completing the inexorable Ying/Yang cycle.

An hour later, with the roof-rack mounts repaired and the load re-established, we continued onto Mitchell River NP, reaching the campground not long after dark. Although I knew the area well from non-peak season visits, I was in for quite a shock. The enormous camping area was chock-a-block full of tents, SUVs, caravans and giant 4wd buses. Intruding renditions of ‘Kumbaya My Lord’ and the like persisted well into birders’ night-time.

Early bird doesn’t always get the worm

I got up at 5am (I thought) to get onto the walking trail to the famous three sets of falls well in front of the punters. Arriving at the first of the three sets of falls - Little Merten’s (I know this site well as the type-locale for Rough-scaled python) I wondered where the creeping dawn was hiding. A glance at my watch indicated that it was 3:30, not 5:30. I’d used the alarm clock app on my iPod to awaken – but it hadn’t been time-adjusted for the western time-zone yet. Back to camp for a snooze, then off again at first light to creep up and down the walking trail between the campsite and Big Merten’s Falls – the second set of falls on the circuit – which reaches a crescendo at Mitchell River Falls a bit further again.
Top of Little Merten’s Falls, epicentre of Black Grasswren sightings of the past.
White-quilled Rock Pigeon
With ears tuned in and eyes open, I crept around likely habitat, veering off the beaten path from time to time, and sat tight for periods of ten minutes or so at particularly likely spots in hope of hearing something. By 10am I’d had no luck with the Grasswren but I did hear at least one Kimberley Honeyeater along the stretch of trail that drops down into the cover of paperbarks and Pandanus along Merten’s Creek on the way to Big Mertens (I’ll call this section of the walk Pandanus Gully). Unfortunately I couldn’t follow these up successfully. During the course of my stay I saw quite a few interesting birds in the gully, including a Buff-sided Robin and several Green-backed Gerygones. By noon and heading into the ‘dead zone’ time of day I’d had enough of buzzing helicopters and heavy foot traffic and took an overland side-trip to a section of the Mitchell River that I knew well. The remarkable caves there have very impressive galleries of Bradshaw-type paintings. Some of the images are like old friends and it was very nice to catch up again.

The mighty Mitchell River

In the Groove 

Reinvigorated after a cave-snooze, I made my way back towards the maddening crowd via the ‘other’ side of Pandanus Gully and the associated billabongs that feed Big Merten’s Falls. While watching a feeding group of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, I was relieved to hear, then plainly see a mature Kimberley Honeyeater (tick) with an immature off-sider jumping from tree to tree. A half-dozen or so Little Woodswallows were as cute and cheeky as always, and a range of other good birds were seen.

The endemic Kimberley Honeyeater proved to be
surprisingly difficult to locate.

The billabongs that feed Big Mertens Falls
proved to be very bird-friendly.
Chuffed with the Honeyeater encounter, I hiked to camp with attentive ears, but again failed to detect any grasswrens. By late afternoon most of the happy campers had straggled back from the falls, so I set off to search the track for grasswrens again. Nothing along the way to Little Mertens Falls, through the sections where most sightings have been reported in the past.

Further along however, a couple of hundred metres before Pandanus Gully I thought I heard a grasswren call. A bit of patience was rewarded with a definite call before a brief visual of a Black Grasswren (tick) at 4:30pm.

Continuing on, after rounding a corner on the other side of Pandanus Gully I all but stepped on a very surprised group of at least five Black Grasswrens that beat a hasty and raucous retreat in multiple directions. The likely king-pin of the group headed right onto a waist-high sandstone shelf to lecture me from a safe distance. Wish that some of the other grasswren species I had been chasing earlier in the year had been so argumentative. Internal high-five.

How sweet it is – the very special Black Grasswren,
another Kimberley endemic

With both the Kimberley Honeyeater and Black Grasswren in the bag on day one and with only the western race of Partridge Pigeon remaining for me to see in the north Kimberley, I decided to forgo the pigeon and start back for Kununurra. Chris and I packed up and tackled the very rough track to Drysdale Station, where we retrieved our repaired tyre, filled the petrol tank (in exchange for a wheel-barrow full of dollars) and set up camp in another sea of tents and caravans - and more singing tour groups.

YRM or bust

We took our time getting back to Kununurra through ‘God’s own’ country on the 24th. The next morning I took Chris to the airport so he could begin his journey home – he intended to do what he anticipated would be “serious herping” in the Darwin area on the way through to Sydney. It was great fun and very helpful to have Chris along. It was also nice to have a technical guru to explain how everything from electronic gizmos to car engines work. A carpenter by trade, Chris is Projects Manager at the Reptile Park while also continuing to play a major role in the construction of Devil Ark www.devilark.com.au - the large-scale Tassie Devil breeding facility in the Barrington Tops.

Chattering Experience

I spent all of the rest of the day unsuccessfully searching some of the best-known Kununurra hangouts for Yellow-rumped Mannikins and Gouldian Finches. Same basic story the next morning, before heading south to Lake Argyle, in part to search for Gouldian Finches. I’d arranged for a boat trip to ‘Chat Island’ later in the afternoon with Greg Smith of Lake Argyle Cruises to look for Yellow Chats. Greg occasionally takes bird groups out to see a range of species on a very speedy outboard ‘Cisticola’. Greg explained that higher than usual water levels the year before had inundated the ‘islands’ and that he didn’t know if the birds had returned to the soggy island now that the water level had dropped back down. But he said that he’d been looking for an excuse to scout the scene out, and upon hearing about my Big Year organised his birding buddy Dave (who was doing a stint as gardener at the village caravan park) and off we went. Ours proved to be a wonderful little adventure, speeding through the guts of this enormous reservoir while skirting around protruding ‘islands’ – which presumably provided cat-free and fire-free refuge for at least some lucky birds.

After a year of submerged habitat, it was heartening to see that at least some
of the resident Yellow Chats had returned
We soon reached our destination and weren’t long on Chat Island before Greg was onto a drab female/immature Yellow Chat (tick) and shortly thereafter spotted a boisterous bright yellow male. After getting my fill of watching the cheeky male chat, my attention shifted to a mixed group of terns roosting near the shore while the boys resumed walking towards the other end of the 200m long island. Greg casually called back to me “Did you see the Painted Snipe?”. “Uh, No…”. Greg and Dave had flushed out a Painted Snipe that landed a short distance further along. No amount of my feverish criss-crossing of the tiny island could entice a repeat performance by this very special bird, leaving me with that empty feeling akin to when the ‘big one’ throws the lure and disappears.

The single male Gouldian Finch observed at Lake Argyle

Still, getting the last of the Aussie chat species out of the way was a great result. Not only that, but Dave put me onto a nearby site for Gouldian Finches. He had witnessed groups of Gouldian’s coming and going on each visit to the subject waterhole, including the previous day. Stepping off the boat I bee-lined to the site and sat til dark. Plenty of Long-tailed and Double-barred Finches dropping in for a drink, but no gaudy flashes of green, blue, yellow, lavender, black and red. So back in the morning to sit and wait. Long-tailed finches came and went over the next couple of hours before a single ‘black-headed’ male Gouldian Finch flitted in and perched 30m away for a brief assessment of the scene, before giving me the thumbs down and splitting. Tick! This proved to be the one and only Gouldian for the trip, and in all likelihood, for my Big Year. It had proved a big day for rare birds, but it was time to get back to Kununurra to get serious about Yellow-rumped Mannikin.

YRM or bust: And this time I really mean it

The end of a hard-fought battle – a surrendered pair of
Yellow-rumped Mannikins near irrigation canal at Kununurra

Arriving at the much-touted ‘third canal’ north of Kununurra by early afternoon (dead-zone time, I know), and as had happened three times previously, I managed to see a stack of finches, but with no Yellow-rumps amongst them. Continuing further along the canal this time, about a kilometre from the car (Ivanhoe Road), a fast-moving band of finches, with a few other bird species mixed in, crossed the path from the direction of the canal heading off to my right and through a small but fairly dense patch of high brush/low timber.

As I followed, most of the birds kept moving through and beyond the thicket. But at least two good-sized finches remained in clear view at the far edge of the thicket. Flitting around at head-height in a single bush, a pair of Yellow-rumped Mannikins allowed me to get to within about ten metres before heading off in the same direction that the other birds had gone. Another drawn-out challenge with a happy ending –
I was elated.

28 June - 3 July – Darwin again 

After refuelling the Jeep and restocking the tuckerbox from one of Kununurra’s two 24 hour supermarkets (the wild-west pioneer nature of this working-town sure has softened since my first visit in the 80s), I started the long drive to Darwin. I had plenty of time to psyche up for an all-out assault on that mud-skulking glorified game-bird that had so far eluded me. I couldn’t even consider continuing homeward from Darwin without first ticking the Chestnut Rail box and I made a commitment to myself to devote up to three days in the mangroves if need be to get the job done. Neil Young saw me through to the Victoria River Roadhouse campsite.

An immature ‘Bar-breasted’ Honeyeater
without the name-sake barring

Cortez the killer

No luck at Chainman/Chinaman Creeks, so heading north from Katherine I revisited Copperfield Dam looking to find and photograph Chestnut-backed Buttonquail on the unburnt side of the access road. I gave it a good effort, trudging several kilometres from the car, but didn’t flush a thing. Upon climbing the last incline, before reaching the parked Jeep, two police officers suddenly appeared in the waist-high straw-like grass – one holding binoculars in her hands, the other with a hand against his holstered pistol, “Hold it right there please!”.

It unfolded that they were considering the possibility that I was Jonathon Stenberg, a fugitive from NSW and the subject of a massive NT man-hunt. Mr Stenberg had been accused of chopping off a mate’s head and had been ‘living off the land’ in the region for a week or so. The officers were soon convinced I wasn’t the bad-man, the red hair no doubt helping for once. When I explained about the CBBQ shortage due to the burnt out condition of the recreational reserve, the male policeman invited me to check out a covey of quail that he said resided at the Elliott Police Station (Brown Quail). At the Copperfield reservoir itself I was very pleased to find a Bar-chested Honeyeater (tick).

Arafura Fantail

Back on the Rails 

Reaching the Arnhem Highway, 40 km south of Darwin by early afternoon on June 28, I indulged in a nice long session of birding at Fogg Dam. It truly is one of the best birding sites I’ve experienced, up there in the clouds with Mt Lewis, Iron Range, Bruny Island and Werribee STW. I got great views of a whole bunch of species, including Little Kingfisher, Arafura Fantail, Rose-crowned Dove and many more. By late avo it was time to get moving towards ‘the big one’ – the famed Buffalo Creek boat ramp site for Chestnut Rail.

A Fogg Dam specialty – Green-backed Gerygone

Arriving at the Buffalo Creek boat-ramp a couple of hours before sunset, with pre-game jitters, I was pleased to see the outgoing low tide so low - as forecast. Apart from the previous week I’d been here a number of times in the past – but always at night and always in search of water snakes, not birds. The mud banks of the river and adjacent sandy beaches are widely known as one of the most accessible places for several Homalopsid species (rear-fanged Colubrid snakes). I can honestly say that on this current occasion I had no interest in seeing any scaly creatures whatsoever, no matter how elongate and scarcely seen. I followed the well-worn pathway through the mangroves upstream, perhaps half a kilometre, to a vantage-point I’d identified previously as providing the most strategic view of mangrove frontage on both sides of the river. Along the way I encountered some great birds, including Mangrove Gerygone, Canary White-eye, Mangrove Golden Whistler (female only), and surprisingly, in a clearing at an outer edge of the mangroves, a Beach Stone-curlew. Positioning myself on the edge of the mangrove ‘front’, with the steep grey incline of the river bank at my feet, I crouched and maintained vigil in the fading light. Half an hour later, to the right - on ‘my’ side of the river, I became aware of a Chestnut Rail down nearly at water level, just as sunset conditions were turning to twilight. To get there it had to have been in my line of sight for at least thirty metres – I don’t know how I missed it. Never mind: a ‘tick’ is a ‘tick’. I fired up the special effects ‘Big Foot/UFO’ camera for the umpteenth time of the year and took a series of nearly identifiable photos of the busy rail as it hacked around near the water’s edge, conducting some sort of rail-business in the mud. I triumphantly emerged from the mangroves sky-punching just as darkness closed in. Wouldn’t be dead for quids.

Barely discernible photograph of super-shy Chestnut Rail

The next day gave me a chance for another exhausting high-knee romp through the head-high grass at Holmes Jungle Swamp looking for Red-backed Buttonquail. This is the place where ‘everybody’ gets RBBQ and somehow avoid twisted ankles in the deep and hardened mud impressions of wading cattle hooves, legacies of the previous wet season. Still, seems to be my curse, I flushed a single small Buttonquail into the direction of the sun that I just couldn’t see well enough nor get the bins onto quickly enough. I also kept an eye open for Zitting Cisticola at Holmes, and later searched several other known hot-spots heading west on the Arnhem Highway near Mary River - but no certain IDs. There certainly were plenty of Golden-headed Cisticolas calling and not a proper peep (‘Zitt’) from a Zitter. I found the Golden-heads to have a nasty little habit of hanging around in the vicinity of Crimson Finches - which to my untrained ear has a call in its repertoire that is not far off that of Zitting Cisticola.

Masked Woodswallow
Arriving at the Mary River Caravan Park late afternoon, I made a preliminary walk along the Bamboo Walk, which runs along the Mary River and a number of associated billabongs. Some good birds, including Little Shrikethrush were nice to see, but what I was there for would have to wait til nightfall: Rufous Owl.

From sunset til maybe 10pm, I worked the length and breadth of the winding Bamboo Walk, which has apparently ‘always’ been good for Rufous Owls. Experimenting with playback, I had no response. Continuing a pattern I’m adopting for owls with some success, I hit the hay and returned to the track much later – this time at 3am. Whamo!  Only a few hundred metres from the campsite, shortly after playing a short blast of playback, I heard a large bird land on a branch several metres directly above my head. In the torchlight I saw for the first time a larger-than-life and truly spectacular Rufous Owl (tick).

Riding a wave of Top End wins, I decided to have another go at White-throated Grasswren at Plum-tree Creek Kakadu on July 1 and threw everything I had at the effort.

What a bird! Rufous Owl at Mary River Park
Unfortunately, you can’t make steak from mince, and though I hope to be proved wrong, I don’t think the grasswrens are present in the few semi-mature patches of spinifex still hanging in there.

Hope springs eternal though, so I hit the Gunlom Falls site the next morning hoping also to photograph Helmeted Friarbird along the way. I only found one willing Helmeted Friarbird and several White-lined Honeyeaters, but without working too hard, concluded that there was little or no mature spinifex to be found on the plateau and I lost heart early in the piece, getting back down the falls-track back to the car by mid-afternoon.

Magic view of Kakadu from above Nourlangie Rock  
It was time to head back to the tropical Queensland coast for another go at photographing Grass Owls, and to follow the east coast homeward. I had to call into Mt Isa to pick up the Reptile Park’s box trailer, which I’d stored at a servo, since the end of the epic grasswren trip with Tim and Scotty in May, for the cost of two cartons. Wanting to make up for no photo of Carpentarian Grasswren from the above-mentioned trip, I returned to the Lady Loretta site and with some difficulty, got onto a group of grasswrens and fluked a photo.

Loretta Mine Road: Home of Carpentarian Grasswren

I spent the night in Isa and next morning went to the Pamela St site for Kalkadoon Grasswren, which played hardball by comparison to my previous experience there. Only one bird seen – smack in the spot described in Tim Dolby’s recent trip report. I heard at least one bird in the opposite gully, to the left of the road/track, opposite the Dolby left turn between the tanks.

The elusive and camera-shy Carpentarian Grasswren

7 - 16 July – from Paluma to Palmdale: La Nina sucks 

Continuing eastward, I detoured to little-known Moorrinya NP south of Hughenden following a recent report on Birdline of Plum-headed Finch at ‘Dam Paddock Dam’ near the entry to the Park. It proved to be an interesting little Park with a good diversity of birds. I saw two Plum-headed Finches on the morning of the July 6. Although the sighting was in-flight only (because I approached a water hole recklessly) I had a good enough view for the tick.

Back on the road, I made the outer suburbs of Townsville by 9pm, following the directions of my GPS voice-lady ‘Kelly’, as usual, towards my much anticipated warm dry motel room. The only reasonably priced room on Wotif.com for Townsville, when I booked a few hours earlier, was the “Hotel Arcadia”. All the other affordable hotels were full because, as I found out upon encountering road-blocks throughout many Townsville streets, the V8 Supercar rev-heads were in town for a street race the next day. With half the roads in town barricaded off, it took a half hour and a lot of ‘alternate route’ manoeuvring for GPS Kelly to eventually get me through town and past the Casino on the left to nice patch of waterfront, before instructing me to “Take the ferry to Magnetic Island”. She was lucky that I only unplugged her and didn’t toss her into the sea. Since the next ferry was an hour away, at 10:30, and it didn’t accommodate vehicles anyway, I hit the road and eventually found a place to camp near the Townsville Town Common to sneak my tent up in the wet dark. Not happy.

The drizzle stopped by morning and I livened up to have a quite enjoyable morning at the Town Common wetlands. At mid-morning I bumped into a ‘real’ birder - Ed Pierce, who gave me advice about the location of various species. I later saw Ed’s Birdline report listing 68 species for the day, probably twice the number I managed!

A Macleay’s Honeyeater takes advantage of
a break in the wet Paluma weather 

I’d been looking forward to exploring the rainforests at Paluma up the mountain from Townsville for a fresh perspective on the rainforest birds, that most people only see further north, and a chance to fill some photo spaces. Unfortunately, increasing cloudiness reached a wet crescendo upon my topping the narrow, steep and scary road from Townsville, and on-and-off rain really spoiled the birding. I managed to fill a couple of gaps in my photo accounts though, including Macleay’s Honeyeater, but neither saw nor heard anything that justified the effort.

Back down the dangerous winding goat-track, I turned left at the coast for Ingham, and made my way by nightfall to the Trebonne Grass Owl site, camera and torch taped together this time, and ready for anything.  Once again, rain spoiled the party. Some dry season. I didn’t have the stomach to keep trying beyond 10pm and slinked back to my nice warm motel room in Ingham empty-handed.

That’s GOLD! But I prefer ZITTS!

Next morning brought a weather reprieve, and I had a look around at Tyto Wetlands.

A Tyto Wetlands specialty: Little Kingfisher

I’d communicated with ‘Tyto Tony’ – Tony Ashton previously by phone and email, but when I saw him at the wetlands, tripod-ed up, I figured it had to be him so I introduced myself. He was very generous with good gen for the wetlands and surrounding areas – particularly for Zitting Cisticola. He’d recently posted a commentary on the difficulty of distinguishing between Golden-headed and the much scarcer Zitting Cisticolas, concluding that its almost best to ignore colour pattern and markings, and base the ID on the calls alone. As he put it, if it sounds anything like a bird,
it’s not a Zitter.

I followed Tony’s advice and directions to a nearby Cisticola haunt, which, on cue, immediately attracted a return of drizzly windy conditions. I persevered anyway, and after maybe my 20th Golden-head, I heard a Zitter. I eventually saw it jump up and continue ‘zitting’ for a moment while flying up, then back down into the crotch-high tussocky cover. Not the prettiest tick of the year, but I’m taking it. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to photograph one of these bad boy grassbirds later in the year when they are more actively calling.

Singing in the rain

From there it was off to Eungella, for the namesake Honeyeater.  Rain, rain, rain.  It was raining when I hit the sack at the Broken River Mountain Resort. Not the cheapest night of the year for me, but very nice. The reason I chose to stay there wasn’t to avoid setting up a tent in the rain this time, but because Eungella Honeyeaters had been seen feeding on flowering Callistemon in the surrounding gardens just a few short weeks before. Unfortunately, at first light I was to discover that the Callistemons had run out of steam since the above-mentioned reports, and I saw no reason for the birds to be there. So I systematically explored the surrounding well-reported sites – Diggings Road (where I may have seen one mixing with several Lewin’s…), Snake Road and the trail at the end of Chelmans Road. Rain, Rain and Rain.

After finishing the Chelman’s walk and returning to the car, I walked back along the road beyond the house on the left. Another couple of hundred metres along, I had a brief inspection from a Eungella Honeyeater that jumped from one side of the road to the other, perched in plain sight on a dead tree branch, where anyone with any sort of a brain could have immediately photographed. Instead I put my soaking binoculars to my eyes and the eyepieces were covered in mini-droplet beads – which distracted me out of a couple of precious seconds before I looked beyond the droplets and honed in on the bird. For some reason my eyes went straight to the markings on the chest and below, that made me think of chain-mail. I hadn’t really noticed that in the field guides, and for some reason I lost a few more seconds, sort of mesmerised by the pattern, which I can now recount as similar to the chest markings of Macleay’s Honeyeater, but extending lower down the breast. I wasn’t even properly registering that I was looking at a Eungella Honeyeater – the bird I’d been walking around in the rain fretting over for the past six hours. In full, the bird probably sat for ten seconds – and by the time I began trying to untangle the camera from beneath my raincoat it was gone. Later trying to dissect what the hell happened, I couldn’t even remember if it had been calling. Still, even though a photograph would have be terrific, I was extremely pleased to have this remotely geographically restricted bird in the ‘tick’ column, and I happily called it a day and headed south to Rocky for yet another warm and cosy motel night.

In reaching Inskip Pt on the Sunshine Coast – the undisputed hot-spot for Black-breasted Buttonquail very late in the afternoon in depressing showery conditions. I didn’t expect to get the Buttonquail before sunset and had stopped at Rainbow Beach to purchase a camping permit, with the hope of a drier tomorrow. Still, it would be nice to close the sale now, and get back on the road. I parked the car at the end of Inskip Pt Rd, just past the campgrounds and hit the ground running (really) to get to the start of the short walking track leading north. Despite the intermittent showers, during the two hours or so of light that I had to work with, I had no fewer than five sightings of single birds – two big chunky females with namesake black chin and neck-tie, and three smaller less colourful males. It’s possible that more than one of the sightings were of the same bird, since I was confined to repeatedly hiking up and down the narrow peninsula. Two sightings were of birds seen prior to flushing – a male and a female, and in both instances, although I was able to watch the movement of the birds busily zipping around on high-speed short-striding legs, presumably foraging, the inevitable I never really had much of a chance in the wet darkening conditions in the predominance of brush between the viewer and the viewed.

“Where’s Wally?” The Black-breasted Buttonquails of Ipswitch Point were relatively easily found,
but more difficult to photograph

665 birds, and what a ride

It was time to head south and home for a much-needed rest – really the first for the year. I’d been on this particular road trip for only ten weeks, but it sure seemed longer – and I dare say, with more ‘wonderment’ and adventure into those 70 days than some people experience in a decade. The Jeep’s odometer had crept up from 30,000km to 65,000km – an average of 500km per day, and apart from four blowouts had hardly skipped a beat - enduring two scheduled warranty services in remote outback dealerships. My bird count had increased by average of nearly two birds a day to finish considerably higher than I’d dare hope for, providing the satisfaction of knowing that there were virtually no significant dips needing to be filled across most of the northern half or the arid interior of the country. There were still plenty of birds to chase, but apart from a nasty little buttonquail that might reappear in Mt Molloy towards the end of the year as it did last year, and a one in a thousand chance at Night Parrot, I had finished a huge part of my Big Year challenge. After a two week break, and a chance to catch up at home and work, the second half of my year remained to tackle the birds of the southeast, as well as coastal WA from the Nullarbor to Broome (with a couple of side trips for stragglers), and to face up to my trepidation for boats and harden up for a total of 38 scheduled days on the water (8-days Ashmore Reef, 8-days Albany to Hobart, 13 days Hobart to NZ via Macquarie Island and 9 more individual one-day pelagic trips).