20 May - 9 June – Tropical Queensland: unfinished business


Zen Birding 101

After dropping Tim and Scotty off at Alice Springs airport on 20 May, I prepared for the drive to north Queensland to target a few remaining Cape York endemics, and hopefully a few wider ranging species along the way. As much as I enjoyed my time with the boys and greatly benefited from their way-superior birding abilities, it was a nice change to be birding solo again. Alone, I’m able to walk much slower, looking and listening more completely when there are no peripheral considerations such as the needs of others. It’s a personal thing, but I find that when I’m on my own it much easier to keep the thinking mind at bay, remaining ‘tuned in’ to prospective bird calls. Once that connection is lost and the mind starts chewing over tangent upon tangent, the real listening is lost and its all-over-red-rover. 


Trephina Gorge in the East MacDonnell Range is
a scenic alternative to more popular birding
locations west of Alice Springs, with plenty
of arid-specialists like Spinifex Pigeon.
 

Gorge-ous

First stop on the long haul from desert to rainforest was the spectacular Trephina Gorge, in the East MacDonnell Range,   one of the most scenic arid landscapes Australia has to offer. The main walking track from the carpark soon led me to two separate but equally flighty Spinifexbirds (tick), a pair of     Spinifex Pigeons and a group of Dusky Grasswrens – all within   a short half-kilometre. Red-browed Pardalote (tick) was prevalent within the Ross River valley below, as well as at the start of the John Hayes Rockhole walk – where Dusky Grasswrens were also found. 

Majestic Prairie

I reached the Barkley Tablelands on the night of the 21st, with the hope of finding Yellow Chat in the reed-beds that sometimes flourish in miniature wetland ecosystems within the cattle dams. The dams appear as ‘turkey mounds’ every so often along the Barkley Hwy and Tablelands Hwy. The dams were productive for Spotted Harriers, Black Falcons (tick) and kazillions of Black Kites. Australasian Grebes and Australian Reed Warblers were present in some of the dams, but alas, no Yellow Chats could be found. I have no idea how the Reed Warblers managed to pioneer these island-wetland refuges - surrounded as they are by huge expanses of arid grasslands. 

Spencer’s Monitor 

Connell’s Lagoon Nature Park is a small reserve on Ranken Rd at the back of nowhere, which appears to be the only remaining bit of cattle-free Mitchell Grass plains. This must be what much of the Barkley Tablelands looked like before the cattle-grazing pressure of the past century. It appeared to be in great shape - with attendant large numbers of Australian Pratincoles (tick), as well as Inland Dotterels, Ground Cuckoo-shrikes, and a stack of additional arid species. This is the habitat of some unique reptiles – snakes included, but being winter, I was happy to settle for one big and typically dopey Spencer’s monitor. 

Back on the road, some good sections of habitat from Alexandria Station through to the Barkley Highway yielded some good birds, including Golden-backed and Pied Honeyeaters, and huge numbers of Varied Lorikeets feeding in abundant flowering gum trees in the vicinity of the Ranken River. More Spotted Harriers and Black Falcons and three or four more groups of Ground Cuckoo-shrikes were seen (possibly still my favourite bird species, though Black Falcon is now in the running). 

Barkley Tablelands supports huge numbers of raptors with a diversity 
of impressive species such as Spotted Harrier.

Owl-ing Mad 

I made it to Ingham Queensland on 23 May in time for a nocturnal search for the Eastern Grass Owl. I’d failed to find this species on numerous occasions over the previous five months. Tony Ashton (aka ‘Tyto Tony’) advised me to try the roads from Ingham through the sugar-cane fields – particularly heading up towards the Wallaman Falls. Despite drizzly conditions, I only had to travel a few kilometres past Trebonne to encounter my first Eastern Grass Owl (tick!). Momentarily perched on a traffic sign it was easily distinguishable from the Barn Owl by its rusty colouration and extra-long legs. By the time I registered the bird and dropped the anchor, the owl disappeared into the adjacent cane-field. I played Grass Owl calls in the dark from my car speakers for a minute or so, before turning the recorder off and switching on my torch. Bang! The owl (or one that looked very similar) was tightly circling me (and the car) – no more than a few metres above ground. I seriously considered the possibility of it landing on my head. Camera fumbling and attendant swearing didn’t help as I tried to get the bird in frame while keeping the torch on it – which ended in a complete shemozzle. Heading off, the owl almost landed on the overhead power-line, but appeared to have second thoughts (or heard my swearing) and disappeared again – this time for keeps, over the cane-fields. No more than a few hundred metres further along the road however, another (or possibly the same) Grass Owl took flight from the edge of the sugar-cane crop, and vanished over the cane-field. Several more hours of car spot-lighting in the wet conditions yielded no additional sightings, so I called it a night, hoping for another crack at a photograph the next night – hopefully in better weather conditions. 

More Excuses

Three sightings of ‘Lesser’ Sooty Owls were made
along the final steep and windy loops of road
leading to Wallaman Falls, above Ingham.
After an enjoyable day at Tyto Wetlands, what started as a fairly dry day gradually deteriorated to a drizzly nightfall, unwelcome conditions that further deteriorated into steady light rainfall for the rest of the night. Bad news for the good-guys. No owls at the lucky locations of the previous night, nor anywhere along the maze of roads that crisscross the sugar cane flats. Disgusted with the rain and my stuff-up of the previous night, I decided to head up to the Wallaman Falls NP, where Masked and Sooty owls are supposed to occur before heading ‘home’. I saw three wet Sooty Owls along the steep and winding road to the falls, which was plenty exciting, but no Masked Owls. At about 2am, on the way back to Ingham where I was enjoying the rare luxury of a motel room, I deviated onto a dirt track, still hopeful of catching a Grass Owl off guard. This clearly wasn’t on the cards - but standing in the middle of the road 100m ahead in steady rain was an immature black-backed bittern (tick)! I had a prolonged look at its way-long neck with narrow head and long yellow bill through the windscreen and binoculars. It was on the absolute verge of jumping, and I knew that if I walked towards it, the resulting movement in my headlight beams would mean game-over for any photographic result. So I tried slowly driving closer, but before I even engaged the transmission, it awkwardly flew up surprisingly high, disappearing in the upper story of what is one of the few remaining patches of uncleared rainforest. What a moment! Like the unexpected sighting of Plains Wanderer six weeks earlier in Queensland channel country, this was a welcome shot of birding serendipity at its joyful best.   

Cape York with Robyn
I picked up Robyn from the Cairns airport on May 26. She was looking forward to this trip, our first Cape York adventure together in a very long time. She was especially happy about the shift in focus from taipans and Papuan black whip snakes to golden-shouldered parrots and black-backed butcherbirds. I was secretly happy about the likely slowing of the travel-pace and lessening of the tension (and pressure!) to desperately try to never miss a targeted bird. All I really had to worry about was Golden-shouldered Parrots, Black-backed Butcherbird, and my old friend, Marbled Frogmouth. With some last minute ‘good oil’ from Cairns birder Martin Cachard, Robyn and I began our northward trek. Beach Stone-curlews were right where they were supposed to be at Yule Pt (thanks T & T - tick).     At Mossman we hooked left for the tablelands and bee-lined to Mareeba to chase the local square-tailed kite that regularly haunts the southern end of town. True to form, the bird was right where it was supposed to be at mid-afternoon (tick). Nearby Emerald Ck gave us a group of Black-throated Finches and a Scarlet Honeyeater. The Rufous Owl that in the past was known to roost in trees along the creek at the car-park couldn’t be found. 

Golden-shouldered Parrot – Round 1

Heading up the Cape we made Musgrave Roadhouse on the afternoon of 28 May and had a preliminary look around the well-known Windmill Creek site, a dry season haunt for Golden-shouldered Parrots. No GSP, but we did find Black-backed Butcherbird (tick). Next morning we watched the sun rise at Windmill Creek with hopes renewed. Alas, with all the water around the region, the lure of dam water for the parrots didn’t happen. I hiked through a range of surrounding habitat-types until mid-afternoon, before resigning to the likely need for help from Sue Shepherd of Artemis Station for this species. Sue is well known for her conservation activities associated with the Golden-shouldered Parrots on her property, so I arranged to see her a few days later on our return from Iron Range.

This Green Tree Python was caught in ambush
feeding pose back in early January, when most
Iron Range bird species were initially sighted.
Conditions in May proved too cool for
much nocturnal reptile activity.

Birding Nirvana

We traversed increasingly topographically-varied and vegetation-varied country to arrive at Iron Range NP before nightfall on the 29th. The spiritual allure of the place is palpable. But the spectacular beauty of the place, and the rich bird fauna aside, I had one clear mission: get a look at a Marbled Frogmouth. This was the only Iron Range specialty bird that I dipped on in early January, representing unfinished business for my Big Year and sense of accomplishment. In actual fact, I did see a Marbled Frogmouth at Cook’s Hut campsite during my wet-season stay – but it fell on the night of the 29th of December – two days too early to count! Feeling confident about seeing the frogmouth again after that sighting, I fooled around and didn’t start night-spotting again until the 3rd of January – and failed spectacularly each night – under an increasingly full-moon. Although I saw three spectacular Green Tree Pythons, a half-dozen Scrub Pythons, and several other familiar snake species early on, as the nights progressed, and the moon became fuller, snake activity waned (no surprise to me), and I wondered if feathered nocturnal hunters also become less apparent in moonlight. 

Now, four months later (seemed more like four years) with a clean slate and two sets of eyes instead of one, I was reasonably confident about finding the frogmouth in short order. We drove up and down the road from West Claudie River crossing, past the campsites, to the eastern edge of the rainforest – using the hand-held spotty to search overhead branches, and occasionally stopping to listen for the maniacal call of Marbled Frogmouth. We hung in until 11pm. One Spotted Python, a couple of other usual suspects of the serpentine shape, but no Marbled Frogmouth.  Looking for Grass Owls in the cleared paddocks between ‘T intersection’ and Claudie River bridge (and a bit further), we didn’t bump into any owls, but did encounter several Large-tailed Nightjars, a Night Heron, a Papuan Frogmouth and two Water Pythons.

This Jumbo-sized Scrub Python soaked up morning sun
directly above the Old Coen Rd walking track.


The next morning was just as enchanting as expected, with spectacular birds-a-plenty everywhere we searched. Either end of the ‘Old Coen Road’ walking track provides a good shot at many of the more difficult species, such as Northern Scrub-robin. After dark, as would be the pattern for our stay, we hit the road for frogmouths til late. No luck was to be had, we couldn’t even elicit calls with short blasts of ‘playback’.     It was looking grim.

This second trip to Iron Range was almost as fun as the first one, and most of the
Park’s special bird species, like this White-faced Robin, were readily found again,
providing a second chance to photograph some of the shyest species.

No more ‘Mr Nice-guy’

We stayed two days/nights longer than planned owing to the difficulty in finding the frogmouth. No complaints about being stuck in the Iron Range – but we agreed that the night of June 2 would have to be the line in the sand. Still, that night came, and same result – NADA. The northern and southern races of Marbled Frogmouth are touted as possible future ‘splits’ – so I really needed to see both forms – but neither were making it easy. I’d already dipped on the southern subspecies at O’Reiley’s, Queensland in April and the prospect of missing out on my last chance for the Iron Range form really got under my skin. So, to give it one last go, I set the alarm for 4am and was on the road again. Good call for a change! Marbled Frogmouths could be heard in several sections of the road. One bird was heard near the Gordon Ck campsite, though my noisy approach through the scrub silenced it. 

After remaining two extra days in the Iron Range in search of
the elusive Marbled Frogmouth, finally, on the last night
available, and quite nearly the last possible moment –
the hide-n-seek game ended with a ‘tick’.
Between the first and second west-bound crossings of the West Claudie River area there were a number of the frogmouths calling along the edges of the roadway. I honed in on one, only 20 metres or so into the rainforest from my parked car. Despite my inevitable bush-crashing and attendant swearing, I got quite close to the calling bird before it silenced. I sat down to quietly await – and hope beyond hope that the bird was still perched nearby. When the strange bill-snapping calling did recommence from no more than five metres away and perhaps three metres up, I positioned the camera and torch in the direction of the sound, flicked the torch on, and POW! Magic birding moment number 30 for the year.      A tiny Marbled Frogmouth sat still long enough for me to blind it with torch and camera flash and get a soul-fulfilling look at it (tick). This was a young bird, but even full-sized adults are smaller than the southern race and much smaller than the more widespread Papuan or Tawny frogmouths. This was a deeply satisfying tick for me, even if it isn’t generally regarded by better birders as a particularly difficult bird. 

Golden-shouldered Parrot – Round 2

Heading back down to Musgrave Roadhouse and Artemis Station, I couldn’t resist some birding around the incredible Pascoe River – the river valley and surrounding country seems to provide a collision of surrounding habitat-types and is well known to reptile nuts as one of the best snake haunts on the Cape. No snakes for us on this day, but plenty of birds - including very cheeky White-streaked Honeyeaters, which I had not previously photographed. 

Confined to a tiny range of habitation, Golden-shouldered Parrot
is an important inclusion for any Cape York birding mission.

I put in one more big day of searching for Golden-shouldered Parrots, and the mythical Red Goshawks a bit further up the road, before our scheduled visit to Artemis Station the next morning. Lots of fabulous birds to be seen, but the only ticks came in the form of a single Masked Finch in GSP country and numerous Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters – somewhat east of most field guide range maps for this species, in one of the historic nesting sites of the Goshawk.

Finally, on the morning of the 4th, we met up with Sue Shepherd – the Golden-shouldered Parrot Guru, at Artemis Station. She was fantastic and took us to a nearby spot where at least ten of these severely range-restricted birds were happily feeding on grass seed. We hung around with Sue and watched the birds for an hour or so – soaking up yet another fantastic birding experience. I would certainly have preferred to find the bird without guided help – but as they say: sometimes ‘you gotta do what you gotta do’. Helped or not, this was a mighty big tick indeed.

Larger than life, a female Red Goshawk –
perhaps Australia’s rarest resident raptor. 


Make it a Tri-fecta

That afternoon, still glowing from the GSP experience we resumed our search for Red Goshawk. This  time with additional encouragement and advice (ahem) from a nameless local in-the-know, we managed to find and photograph a spectacular female Red Goshawk (big tick). With our luck running that hot, we headed over to the edge of Lakefield National Park, on a sizzling tip concerning Saurus Cranes. Kapow! A trio of Saurus Cranes (tick) - two adults and a young bird were there patiently waiting for us in a remnant billabong. I chased a group of Star Finches around, but they never settled, and I couldn’t be sure of their ID, so we agreed to return the next day. 




A trio of Saurus Cranes provided the only sighting
of this species in Lakefield NP – while Brolgas
appeared to be present in huge numbers.
The Star Finches were a bit more willing the next morning, flitting from bush to bush along the string of billabongs that comprised a reasonably large creek. Tracking them I got several adequate views - enough for a tick, but couldn’t muster a photo. Continuing through the fabulous Lakefield National Park, Robyn and I were mightily impressed by the Nifold Plains – it had been more than 20 years since either of us had been there. But happily, the birds were still there – and included large numbers of Brolgas, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos and Bustards. Reaching Cooktown we headed down the Cape Tribulation track through to Daintree Village, in readiness for a morning appointment with a Great-billed Heron.



Beautiful Daintree River

Robyn and I joined a morning river cruise tour and had much better luck than I’d had back in mid-January, when a downpour the previous day and night had raised the water level and spoiled my chances of seeing Great-billed heron. Not so this time! We had whacking good views of a young bird and later a mature bird. We additionally got fleeting views of a Little Kingfisher and fantastic looks at Azure Kingfishers. This nicely finished Robyn’s big Queensland trip and she headed back home on the following morning.



Jewell of the Daintree: Azure Kingfisher


Tern Island - 8 June 

I joined the mobs of tourists on the Cairns to Michaelmas Cay cattle-boat with the hope of knocking over a few tropical terns. The only tick came with a group of Black-naped Terns secreted on the far side of the island. This was not all bad news, since the other two targeted species – Roseate and Bridled, should possible be further south later in the year, and are regarded as ‘sure-bets’ on the upcoming October Ashmore Reef trip with George Swann. 

A cloud of birds signal arrival at Michaelmas Cay, an hour-long boat-ride from Cairns

       
A range of species nest on
the tiny island, including
Sooty Tern (pictured here).
Black-naped Terns provided a much-appreciated
tropical tern ‘tick’.
   
I spent the next two days hiking around some of the Atherton Tableland hot-spots, really enjoying my slow-paced solo-birding, but not looking for anything new (there isn’t anything ‘new’ to chase). This gave me a nice opportunity to fill a few photographic gaps for my year. Heading away from the Tableland, I detoured to certain ‘in-the-know’ locale for Cotton Pygmy Goose. True to promise, a dozen or so of the appropriately named birds were there in gracious splendour (tick). 

Dozing ducks by the dozen. Hasties Swamp is one of many ‘must visit’ birding locations
on the Atherton Tablelands.  These Plumed Whistling Ducks snooze most of the day away.