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Top End Birding – Darwin to Kakadu Tour Report
Fresh on Day 2
Fresh on Day 2
Day 1 – Wed 8 June – Darwin

On Wednesday evening the group met the tour leader/driver Janene Luff and guide Sheryl Keates for a delicious dinner on the top floor of the Quality Hotel Frontier Darwin.

Day 2 – Thur 9 June – Darwin, East Pt, Nightcliff, Botanic Gardens, Mindil Beach, Nightspotting at East Pt

After a hearty breakfast we set out for the mangrove boardwalk at East Pt. Before reaching the boardwalk, a Grey Goshawk was spotted perched in a dead tree and later a pair was seen soaring near the car park. Birds seen in the mangroves included Yellow White-eye, Red-headed Honeyeater, Lemon-bellied, Leaden and Broad-billed Flycatchers. The distinctive call of the Black Butcherbird was heard close by, but it kept its distance and we did not see it.

As it was high tide, we visited the East Pt foreshore to see an assortment of waders including Australian Pied Oystercatcher, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Great Knot, Pacific Golden Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Greater Sand Plover. Further along a pair of Beach Stone-curlew were found in a small bay with four Sacred Kingfisher looking splendid while perched in the sun on the Porcelainite cliffs overlooking the harbour. Striated Heron and the grey phase of the Eastern Reef-egret were also seen.

At Nightcliff a few Crested Tern rested while Collared and Sacred Kingfishers searched for lunch on the rocks. Along the Rapid Ck foreshore we found a shady table and enjoyed a picnic lunch while we watched the antics of Grey-crowned Babblers. Nearby we had good views of a pair of Barking Owls that were peaking out of their sleepy eyes while perched in a shady spot. Pied Imperial Pigeons were feeding on the fruit of the local Carpentaria Palms.

A family of three Red-tailed Black-cockatoos were on the lawn of the local middle school while a pair of Bush-stone-curlew sat motionless in the garden with two juveniles hiding next to one adult.

After free time to rest or swim back at the hotel, we visited the Darwin Botanic Gardens where we found a Rufous Owl perched in the rainforest section. The owl is no longer seen regularly in the gardens so it was a pleasant surprise. We saw our third Barking Owl for the day roosting in the Black Bean tree near the fountain.

Next was a visit to the famous Mindil Beach Sunset Markets where we dined on the beach while the sun was setting over Fannie Bay. At dusk we gathered at East Pt to listen for the Large-tailed Nightjars to start calling before they emerge from the monsoon forest to feed. While waiting we heard the call of the Rainbow Pitta, a bird we were yet to see. The nightjars eventually put on a great show while hawking for insects. The spotlight showed their brilliant eye-shine and we managed to put the telescope on one that perched in the bushes.

Day 3 – Fri 10 June – Darwin, Casuarina Coastal Res (hospital), Lee Pt, Howard Springs

Our first stop for the day was part of the Casuarina Coastal Reserve near the hospital. As the tide was low, we made our way to Sandy Creek to look for kingfishers and other mangrove species. Some of us saw an Azure Kingfisher as it flew under the boardwalk beneath us. Later, a Little Kingfisher did the same, but in the opposite direction. We watched as a pair of Large-billed Gerygone dismantled an old nest over the water and started to build a new one nearby. Pheasant Coucal, Double-barred and Long-tailed Finches were also seen. At the bower of the Great Bowerbird, we were fortunate to watch as the male displayed to a female with its erectile pink crest on nape of the neck.

On the way to Lee Pt we stopped when we noticed a flock of about thirty Australian Pratincoles trying to land where the ground was being prepared for the new housing estate on Lee Pt Rd. By the time we arrived at Lee Pt the tide was at a moderate height allowing us to see a small number of Sanderling, Red-capped Plover and Greater Sand Plover. The four Australian Pelican there were the only ones we saw for the trip.

Lunch was enjoyed in the park with Little Bronze-cuckoo, Green-backed Gerygone and Rainbow Bee-eater to name a few. We observed numerous Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes flying overhead, possibly just arriving on migration from the south for our dry season. A Forest Kingfisher was seen to dive bomb a Magpie-lark. There was a host of butterflies for those interested.

After a short break we went to Howard Springs. We tracked the call of a Rainbow Pitta to the other side of the circular track and saw it perched while calling. The highlights were an Arafura Fantail and a female Shinning Flycatcher feeding near the track. Barramundi, Pig-nosed Turtle and Northern Yellow-faced Turtle were amongst the aquatic species. Some of us walked to see the spring water bubbling up from the ground.

Back to the hotel with time to shower and dress for dinner at Nirvana which was within walking distance. The banquet was enjoyed by all, followed by the nightly bird list. It was a pleasant walk in the moonlight back to the hotel. On the way a Common Brushtail Possum Trichosurus vulpecular (Top End and Kimberley race) caught our attention. It had a sparsely furred blackish tail unlike those found in most cities in Australia.

Day 4 – Sat 11 June – Darwin, Fogg Dam, Adelaide River Bridge, Mamukala, Sth. Alligator

Due to the big wet season and the presence of a very large Saltwater Crocodile, the Dam Wall and the Monsoon Forest Walk were closed to pedestrians at Fogg Dam. However, we were able to drive along the wall to see three species of egrets, Pied & White-necked Herons, Royal Spoonbill, Magpie Goose with goslings and Comb-crested Jacana. From the two-level bird high at Pandanus Lookout, we were able to see species such as Radjah Shelduck with ducklings, Wandering Whistling-duck, Green Pygmy-goose, Black-winged Stilt and a lone Australian Pratincole. From the top deck Glenda spotted two White-browed Crakes having a dispute on the edge of the billabong directly in front of the hide. We were entertained by the black-bellied form of Crimson Finches in the surrounding Pandanus. Most of the waterbirds were feeding with evidence of many species having breed in the wet season.

We walked part of the Woodlands to Waterlilies Walk until it became wet and muddy underfoot which was perfect habitat for a frog Limnodynastes convexiusculus that we found. Good views were had of Grey Whistler and Little Shrike-thrush as they fed near the track. There were several very large Golden Orb Weaver spiders in their webs. A picnic lunch was enjoyed overlooking the Adelaide River Wetlands before stopping at the bridge where we added Mangrove Golden Whistler, Restless Flycatcher (paperbark form) and Mangrove Gerygone to our list. Those who dared to look, saw a very large Saltwater Crocodile launch itself onto the river bank opposite us.

After entering Kakadu National Park, our first stop was Mamukala where we found Black-necked Stork standing on top of its huge nest with two juveniles on the nest below. On the way back to the car park, we saw Brush Cuckoo, Little Bronze-cuckoo and Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo while the Crimson Finches played hide and seek in the Pandanus.

At the picnic area at South Alligator River, we were surprised to see a Zitting Cisticola, possibly due to the big wet season and the vegetation not been burnt. Golden Headed Cisticola were seen and heard there also. A pair of Brolga with a young one were feeding on the floodplain.

We checked into our accommodation at Aurora Kakadu Resort for the next three nights. After a scrumptious buffet dinner we spotlighted as we drove as far a Mamukala. We had success in seeing Nankeen Night-heron, Bush Stone-curlew, Masked Lapwing, Barking and Barn Owls as well as a Northern Brown Tree Snake and many Saltwater Crocodiles in the Sth. Alligator River, while a couple of baby crocodiles were seen feeding in a culvert.

Spotted Nightjar
Spotted Nightjar
Day 5 – Sun 12 June – Kakadu NP – Nourlangie, East Alligator (Bardedjilidja walk), Ubirr (Rock Art site & Lookout)

Janene started the day with seeing an Eastern Koel in the gardens of Aurora Kakadu. Our Aboriginal guide Victor Cooper joined us for our two days in Kakadu National Park. On the way to Nourlangie, Brian saw a Little Eagle take off. We were lucky enough to see a Partridge Pigeon fly from the roadside and perch on a dead tree long enough for all to see. At the car park, Silver-crowned Friarbirds allowed us to view them while feeding in the Woolly-butts (Eucalyptus miniata). With no obvious fig trees fruiting or flowering trees other than the Woolly-butts, it was a little disappointing bird-wise, but we enjoyed viewing the art and the magic of Nourlangie Rock.

Certainly no one went hungry when we had our picnic lunch (supplied by Aurora Kakadu) beside the East Alligator River while a White-bellied Sea-eagle soared overhead with Whistling and Black Kites gliding by. We needed exercise so we did the Bardedjilidji walk where Alan spotted Little Woodswallows, a tick for him. We added Sandstone Shrike-thrush to our growing list. Victor and Dorothy were first to see Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeons on the rocks. Judy, a keen naturalist and photographer, found all sorts of subjects including flowers, butterflies, caterpillars, spiders, dragonflies, skinks, etc. Cave Duskhawker (Gynacantha nourlangie) dragonfly was found resting on the ceiling of a cave.

At Ubirr, Victor explained some of the art, Aboriginal culture and what different plants and trees are used for by the indigenous people. To our surprise a pair of Sandstone Shrike-thrush poked around the crevices around the art site. They seemed almost tame. It was well worth the climb to the lookout to view the Nadab floodplain which was very green and still wet. We could see many Green Pygmy-geese on the distant wetlands.

Back to Sth. Alligator for dinner and a short walk around our accommodation with the spotlight produced a Barking Owl near the swimming pool, mostly likely feeding on moths around the lights. We spotted a Black Flying Fox as it hung from a tree and an unknown spider in the mown grass. Beside the Arnhem Highway we saw an Agile Wallaby and about four Dingoes roaming around.

Day 6 – Mon 13 June – Kakadu – Little Nourlangie (Nawurlandja), Anbangbang Billabong, Jabiru, ERA Ranger Mine, Bowali Visitors Centre, Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Yellow Water Cruise

A good start to the day was the sound of a Channel-billed Cuckoo. Brian heard one the previous morning but dismissed it as he thought it not possible for the time of year. On the way to Little Nourlangie we stopped when we heard a Black-tailed Treecreeper. Good views were had as it came closer to us. Although we found some fruiting fig trees at Little Nourlangie, the Banded Fruit-dove remained elusive. Waterbirds and waterlilies at Anbangbang Billabong were like a picture postcard and a Bush Stone-curlew was seen hiding on the opposite bank. On our way back to the car park, we spotted Weebill feeding in the canopy overhead and a Northern Rosella flew to perch for us to see it. After visiting Jabiru, Victor showed us the nearby ERA Ranger Mine and explained how it operates now and plans for the future underground mine.

During a break and lunch at the Bowali Visitor Centre, our only Red-backed Fairy-wrens were spotted. Unfortunately, there were no males with breeding colours to show the crimson-backed form. A tree orchid Dendrobium canaliculatum and various fungi were subjects of photos in the grounds of the visitor centre. Before our boat cruise at Yellow Water, we had time to visit the Warradijan Aboriginal Cultural Centre where some of us enjoyed some retail therapy.

The sunset cruise to see the birdlife of Kakadu’s World Heritage wetlands did not disappoint. The highlight being when Audrey spotted Little Kingfisher fishing from a Freshwater Mangrove (Barringtonia acutangula). David, our driver, kindly turned the boat around so we could see it. Little did we know that three others would be seen during the cruise. The Plumed Whistling-ducks outnumbered the Wandering Whistling-ducks. A male Comb-crested Jacana with four juveniles were slowly sinking on the lily pads as they fed, despite their very thin long toes to spread their weight.

A White-bellied Sea-eagle posed for photos while it perched on a tree over the water. It then showed us how to catch a fish. Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodiles were numerous, both in and out of the water, affording many photo opportunities. Sitting in the stationery boat, watching the sunset with flocks of birds silhouetted against the colourful sky was a fitting and peaceful end to the day.

Victor joined us for a delicious dinner in the outdoors at Cooinda before Janene drove us back to our accommodation at Aurora Kakadu. As we crossed the Sth. Alligator floodplain, we saw much the same as the night birds we’d seen on Saturday night. The presence of crocodiles in the river was evident by their eye shine.

Nourlangie Rock View
Day 7 – Tue 14 June – Sth. Alligator, Mary River Excavation Pits, Bird Billabong Rd, Mary River Billabong, Darwin

It was time for us to say goodbye (Boh Boh) to Victor and take group photos before our journey back to Darwin. At our first stop beside the road we watched as Striated Pardalotes inspected mounds of soil that would be most likely used for road works. We wondered if they would have a chance to nest there.

A stop at the Mary River Excavation Pits was unproductive. However, we found a frog Litoria rothii and an interesting sundew Drosera indica. With so much ground water still evident, finches and the like were not limited in finding drinking water. On the way to Bird Billabong, we came across a large flock of Red-tailed Black-cockatoos, many of which were feeding on the recently burnt ground. Further on Varied Lorikeets were feeding on the flowers of the Woolly-butts so we stopped to accept the challenge of finding them with our binoculars and the telescope as they fed. While looking at the lorikeets a Black-breasted Buzzard came into view. White-breasted Woodswallows looked cute as they huddled together on bare branches.

From the Bird Billabong car park we walked each end of the circular track hoping to find Gouldian Finch. We did however see Masked Finch with nesting material and our first recently arrived dry season White-winged Triller. At this time of year, it’s not unusual to see flocks of twenty to thirty trillers.

Back to the Frontier Hotel for a shower and dress for dinner. We walked from the Frontier Hotel to the Casino for a beautiful seafood buffet. On our way back, Bush Stone-curlews and a Barking Owl were heard.

Day 8 – Wed 15 June – Darwin – East Pt, Buffalo Ck, Knuckey Lagoons (Fiddler’s), Elizabeth River Bridge, Palmerston Ponds, Marlow Lagoon, Spot 0n Marine

After breakfast we had good views of a Rainbow Pitta as it fed beside the road at East Pt monsoon forest. Nearby a Rose-crowned Fruit-dove was heard and then seen perched for a short time. Buffalo Ck was our next stop. With the tide falling, there was an opportunity to see the Chestnut Rail come out to feed on the freshly exposed mud. Fortunately the rail performed on cue to the delight of everyone and we all had views in the telescope as it moved towards us on the mangrove lined bank opposite the boat ramp.

We checked Fiddler’s Lagoon which is one of the four Knuckey Lagoons on the outskirts of town. There was nothing unusual among the waterbirds. Waterlilies dominated the scene with a bright buttercup yellow aquatic herb Nymphoides hydrocharoides surrounding most of the lagoon. After a big wet season, many waterbirds were spread over the huge wetlands. Common species of duck were conspicuous by their absence.

As we walked along the new jetty beside Elizabeth River Bridge, the wind off the river was quite cool. A distant bushfire was spreading quickly with the strong wind, causing huge clouds of smoke to envelop the sky. We scoped the river banks but unfortunately no Great-billed Heron was visible.

After lunch at Palmerston, we visited the Palmerston sewage ponds. A particularly well coloured Whiskered Tern feeding over the ponds caught our attention. We sat in the shade of the mangroves at the back corner of the ponds and watched as birds went about their activities. The highlight was Mangrove Robin as it bathed in some clean water a short distance from us. An Arafura Fantail and a Red-headed Honeyeater paid us a visit before it was time to move on.

A visit to the very pleasant Marlow Lagoon produced a family of Grey Butcherbird (silver-backed form) and Yellow-throated Miner. Rufous-banded and Blue-faced Honeyeaters were diving in to bath in the lagoon. With the telescope, we were able to view the Red-collared form of Rainbow Lorikeet as it fed on the bright orange flowers of a Woolly-butt. A view in the telescope of a male Red-winged parrot while perched was another delight. Late afternoon we visited Spot On Marine at East Pt hoping to find a Black Butcherbird or have a better look at Red-backed Fairy-wren. Instead we saw Golden Headed Cisticola and Double-barred Finch (black-rumped form).

Our last dinner together was at Crustaceans on the Wharf. The bird list was completed with a total of 161 species for the trip. Everyone contributed to the enjoyment of the trip with many magic moments.

by Sheryl Keates for FTB

Follow That Bird   Phone: 61 2 9973 1865
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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer