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 the top of Gunlum Falls

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