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Cape York – Iron Range Tour Report

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Magnificent Riflebird by Rob Hynson
Day 1

Five intrepid explorers met at Sydney airport early on the 28th November ready to flee the flooding that had hit Sydney that morning. Our destination was Iron Range National Park, a jewel in the heart of Cape York. This part of Queensland, once connected to Papua New Guinea, has flora and fauna more akin to our northern cousin than Australia. After our flight to Cairns we set off on several short flights, stopping at Coen and Arukun before arriving at Lochart river, our base for the next 5 days. While stretching our legs at the regional airport we were greeted by Australian Pratincoles, Red-winged Parrots, Whiskered Terns, and shortly after take-off a huge flock of Magpie Geese took flight. After arrival at Lockhart river we went out for a post-dinner spotlighting session, the highlights including a cooperative pair of Large-tailed Nightjars, Bare-backed Flying Fox and a Cape York Melomys.

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Female Eclectus Parrot by Rob Hynson
Day 2

An early start saw us head into the heart of the rainforest of Iron Range. Many unfamiliar calls greeted us and it wasn’t long before we saw our first White-faced Robins, Graceful Honeyeaters and Pied Imperial Pigeons of the trip. At our second stop we were treated to one of the jewels of Iron Range – a male Magnificent Riflebird displaying just a few feet from us. This species is ubiquitous in the rainforest, with its ever-present whistled call a constant companion. Seeing displaying males is a rare treat witnessed by few visitors. This sighting was cut short when a Canopy Monitor scurried along a branch hoping to nab the Riflebird for breakfast; this was the first of several exciting reptiles seen on the trip. Further birding in the rainforest produced many calling Yellow-billed Kingfishers, a bird we heard throughout our trip but needed a special effort to see later. Our final highlight before lunch was a Palm Cockatoo spotted feeding in a tree. After a well-earned lunch we headed out to Mount Tozer to explore the heathland habitat. Birdlife was quiet around the heaths but we had a large flock of Australian Swiflets with a few Fork-tailed Swifts mixed in. Spotlighting in the rainforest after dinner produced several calling Marbled Frogmouths, one of Australia’s most bizarre songsters. Despite several birds calling around us, we were unable to sight any. To round the evening off we had great views of a Common Spotted Cuscus feeding in the trees above our heads.

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Cape York Melomys by Rob Hynson
Day 3

An early morning walk along the rainforest campground track rewarded us with stunning views of a Noisy Pitta feeding out in the open. The blue shoulder-patch glowed brilliantly despite the dim morning light. Black-eared Catbirds were heard several times but only fleeting glimpses were had. Yellow-breasted Boatbills and Shining Flycatchers brightened our morning, with the flycatchers showing off the brilliant orange inside their bills as they sang. Lunch was had at the Out of the Blue Cafe in Portland Roads, which offered the opportunity to drive through some drier habitat and into Palm Cockatoo country. No cockatoos were forthcoming, despite our spending far too much time at the local dump, a historical hotspot for the cockatoos. As we sat down for lunch, the first of many Lesser Frigatebirds were sighted hanging in the air out at sea and occasionally flying over us, allowing scrutiny of their underwing pattern for identification purposes. This was Brian’s 600th bird for Australia and we celebrated with lemonades all round! A post-lunch stroll allowed close views of several species of shorebird – Grey-tailed Tattlers, Whimbrel and Common Sandpipers foraged close to shore, oblivious of our presence. The remainder of the afternoon was spent at Chili beach, an idyllic tropical setting with coconut trees lining the beach and tropical seabirds feeding offshore. The first flock of terns seen feeding offshore included several Crested, Bridled, Little Terns and Black-naped Terns (the latter being the only lifer for the guide for the trip!). Further flocks seen offshore included many Lesser Frigatebirds and Common Noddies plus a fly-by Brown Booby. Among the feeding throng of seabirds a White-bellied Sea-Eagle splashed into the water and caught a fish for tea. We were able to watch the eagle devour the fish sitting on a rock far out to sea. A small island offshore had several Pied Imperial Pigeons nesting on it plus a number of shorebirds roosting on the rocks. Out of nowhere, a Peregrine spooked the shorebirds and the pursuit was on. After a few minutes the shorebirds settled back on the rock and the Peregrine left empty-taloned. A quick spotlighting session and a creek crossing produced a beautiful Water Python sitting on the road. Further along the creek we found several Wood Frogs but dared not explore the creek further for fear of lurking crocodiles.

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Frill-necked Monarch by Rob Hynson
Day 4

Today’s adventure took us onto Aboriginal land with our guide Christopher Dean along with bush medicine expert Uncle Vince. This land is only accessible by organising a day out with Christopher and Vince and is quite an experience. All the Cape York endemics are found here plus many other species not found on regular trips to Iron Range. Our first stop was for a snake on the side of the road, a Greater Whipsnake which had just caught a Tawny Rocket Frog. After another quick stop for another Greater Whipsnake we stopped for yet another Yellow-billed Kingfisher. Having stopped for this species on many fruitless occasions this was the time we really got to see the Kingfishers in action. After a few minutes, Christopher had spotted the bird and we were all treated to long extended views of it. After a short while the bird flew off with its partner but was soon spotted again; this time, both birds were seen repeatedly swooping down and pecking a termite mound in a tree, trying to excavate a nest hollow. A small waterhole on the way to our lunch spot produced our first Pied Heron and Glossy Ibis for the trip. Lunch was supplemented by wild grapes thanks to Vince’s intimate knowledge of the land. The first post-lunch stop was along the banks of the Lockhart river, where flowering trees held many species of honeyeater including our main target for the afternoon, White-streaked Honeyeater. Driving through the grassy plains produced two Oriental Plovers and an Australian Pratincole. While we were watching these two grassland specialists two Dingoes walked casually by, looking splendid in the golden early evening light, a perfect way to end such a wonderful day.

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Shining Flycatcher by Rob Hynson
Day 5

Another early start in the rainforest saw us targeting one of our last remaining endemics for our trip, the Northern Scrub-Robin. These birds are notorious for being active at first light and disappearing shortly afterwards for the rest of the day. After sighting the ever cooperative Noisy Pitta at the rainforest campground we still had only heard the Northern Scrub-Robin. A walk into the forest with our guide produced a brief sighting of the Scrub-Robin. Brief views were had by most of the party but another early morning beckoned the next day. Continuing with our rainforest birding we came across many Frill-necked Monarchs including a family party with the adults feeding dependent young. Although we had seen this species earlier in our tour it was a real highlight to see this family gathering. Our final rainforest stop for the day was at Gordons Creek campground, where many birds were feeding on fruiting trees by the creek. A bizarre call alerted us to the presence of a Trumpet Manucode. We watched the usually secretive Manucode as it fed on orange fruit high in the canopy. A second bird was sighted further down the road; this time the bird was perched out in the open and was calling regularly: the whole bird could be seen to coil up each time it boomed its eerie call. After a well-earned rest we headed out in the afternoon heat to the sewage treatment plant, top of every birders’ list of sites to visit, and the plant lived up to its reputation. Large numbers of waterbirds were present including many Radjah Shellduck, Magpie Geese and Pied Herons. As we explored the many ponds a Spotted Whistling Duck was sighted among Grey Teal. After prolonged scope views the Whistling Duck decided to take off and do a few laps flying around us before settling in a tree with some Magpie Geese. One final Cape York endemic was seen that afternoon, a Fawn-Breasted Bowerbird perched in the open for all to admire. Our daily post-dinner spotlighting jaunt produced no new species for the trip but a very exiting experience for the group. An odd noise was heard from the rainforest canopy. The owners of the noise were two common spotted cuscus and they were calling back and forth to each other. A wonderful wildlife experience to round off yet another fantastic day.

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Tawny Rocket Frog by Rob Hynson
Day 6

Our final day saw us out early in search of better views of Northern Scrub-Robins. Several birds were heard around the rainforest campground and eventually good views were had of this cryptic rainforest specialist. The incessant calling of two Black-eared Catbirds drew us into the forest itself, where 30 minutes of fruitless searching yielded no catbird sightings but we had great views of a young Superb Fruit-Dove sitting in the open. After more stunning views of Frill-necked Monarchs we decided to head back to town for a cultural experience. Our last stop was at the Lockhart River Art Centre. This gallery is dedicated to helping Indigenous Australians produce and sell their art work and is a must for anyone visiting the area. After a wonderful cultural experience at the art gallery it was time to wave goodbye to Iron Range and fly back to Sydney. The birding wasn’t over just yet: on our brief stop at Arukun we had spectacular views of a party of Red-winged Parrots, with the males’ wings glistening in the afternoon sunshine. Our final birding sight for the tour was two Brolgas flying over Arukun airport shortly before our takeoff. A fitting end to a remarkable tour.

A wonderful time was had by all on the inaugural tour of Iron Range for Follow That Bird, a big thanks to everyone who made the tour so enjoyable!

By Robert Hynson guiding for FTB

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Follow That Bird   Phone: 61 2 9973 1865
Fax: 61 2 9973 1875
3/59 Central Road
Avalon NSW 2107
Sydney Australia
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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer