Australia 2004 April North Queensland

Fairywrens, Falcons and Frogmouths

This is a report on a brief sojourn in the Cairns & Daintree areas as part of a more extensive birding trip in Australasia

Those taking part were Bo & Maggie Crombet-Beolens and friends Brian & Joanna Anderson. Brian is a wheelchair user being unable to walk or stand so the trip represented some logistical problems which were overcome through planning, goodwill and Brian’s willingness to sacrifice dignity and comfort in pursuit of a long list! This was my third trip to Australia and my second to Cairns but I had never been further north before to Daintree and the area around Mount Molloy and Mount Lewis. I had particular target birds in mind to extend my world list but, as always, never went in pursuit of one rare or difficult to find species at the expense of more common lifers, or, indeed variety. So many birds are special to Australia that seeing many species again was welcome.

Background

Through Fatbirder I had corresponded with Lloyd Neilson and had heard of Fine Feather Tours and Kingfisher Lodge but not actually met any of the characters involved with them. However, I had heard many good things it was obvious that time spent with any of them would pay great dividends. Lloyd had offered to spend a day with me and we arranged to make contact as soon as I was in Cairns. I planned this leg of my trip with his excellent guide to hand.

I knew that our visit would probably be just too late for some of the special birds of the North but, for some hard to fathom reason, I had not realised that Cairns would not be the wader paradise it had been on my previous visit, forgetting that waders migrate too. It was a bit of a shock to arrive and find so few waders about – doh

We had arranged to hire a vehicle for the week from Ability Access [run by Tony & Della Mahon 07 4033 6293 Mob 04177 64028] who have one of the few wheelchair accessible vehicles in the area. In addition to this dearth of accessible vehicles it was disappointing to note that the concept of a hand-controlled vehicle for a disabled person to drive seemed to be an alien concept.

Disabled persons driving? Whatever next! The vehicle supplied was a large van with a rear facing, narrow, bench seat and a single seat in the rear along with many anchoring points where a wheelchair can be firmly locked in. At the back was an easy to operate tail-lift. The ability to get the wheelchair in and out of the vehicle was a great improvement on previous methods, and once the anchoring system was managed efficiently it was a reasonably quick operation to get in and out of the vehicle. Unfortunately, sitting in the vehicle, in the wheelchair, meant that bird watching from the anchored wheelchair proved to be a neck twisting, torso bending trial because the wheelchair is very much higher than the seating of the vehicle. This restricted, very much, the area that could be seen from the vehicle as opposed to the full views enjoyed by the front seat passengers.

There was, of course, the option of the wheelchair passenger transferring to the rear-facing bench seat. Apart from this seat facing the opposite way to the rest of the passengers it was too narrow to sit comfortably on for any distance. Possibly things could be improved with better seating and an improved seating configuration.

Day by Day

Day 1

A phone call from the airport brought the vehicle to us and we drove to our hotel for breakfast. [Our flight from Darwin was at 6.00am]. We booked in at the Acacia Court Hotel. We stayed here again as Maggie and I had previously stayed there and remembered the “eat all you can seafood buffet” as being second to none. They also assured us that they had accessible rooms at the rear of the hotel. As is so often the case with such facilities, the “disabled rooms” were truly horrible and situated close to a noisy parking area. Brian & Joanna took one look and decided to manage in a standard room with a sea view. Their rooms and balconies are accessible to wheelchairs although the bathroom is a bit of a squeeze and showers were not possible for a wheelchair user.

Once we had settled in and rested a little I decided to take the vehicle out to get used to driving it and Brian accompanied me – inevitably we had a look around the town for birds and spent a while sitting on the esplanade. There were a few waders in small numbers, [Eastern Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Marsh Sandpiper, Greenshank, Terek Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher, Turnstones, Great & Red Knot, Red-necked Stint, Ruff and Pied Oystercatcher] some Herons [Great & Intermediate Egret, Striated Heron and one Black Bittern] and a few terns [Gull-billed, Caspian, Crested and Black-naped with one Whiskered Tern]. There were also several Forest Kingfishers fishing from tiny mangrove saplings. Around the parks and gardens we also saw Masked Plover, Diamond and Peaceful Doves, Willie Wagtails, Magpie larks and other common species.

Before our evening meal at Charlie’s we spent time [on two evenings] watching birds coning to roost in the trees that line the Esplanade which can be seen from may of the hotels. These included large flocks of Metallic Starlings, Figbirds, White-breasted and masked Woodswallows, Varied Honeyeaters and several unidentified flycatchers. All the while White-rumped Swiftlets and Fork-tailed Swifts were streaming by with an occasional White-throated Needletail too. As dusk came on small bats appeared and then large fruit bats [Flying Foxes].

Day 2

On day two we explored a bit further afield venturing out towards the Tablelands and forest near Lake Eacham and towards the Crater National Park and then circle south back to Cairns. The day started bright but unfortunately the weather deteriorated and it became a dismal day with torrential rain interspersed with showers and the occasional bright spell.

En route we went off the road when we saw what we thought were accessible toilets – it was a mistake but a whim took us off on a small road towards Frazier turning off the Kennedy Highway opposite Rocky Creek Memorial Park near Tolga on the Atherton Tableland. Where the road turns right and a track goes off to the left we stopped as we heard so many bird calls. It took us ages before we actually saw any and realised that the majority of noise was coming from Rainbow Lorikeets and Red-winged Parrots but there was also noise from finch flocks. When they did pop up high enough in the grass it turned out to be a flock of Chestnut-breasted Manikins – our first god look at these common but beautiful birds. We were also very lucky to see several Scarlet Honeyeaters; the sun was shining on us literally and figuratively!

We drove on but, by the time we reached our goal, The Crater near Mount Hypipamee National Park the rain was torrential. We sat in the car for some minutes before deciding to press on preferring to travel in the wet hoping to bird as soon as it was dry enough. It was still raining when we stopped towards Malandra for a delicious lunch at the “Tree Kangaroo” small eateries with excellent home cooked meals. We headed for Yungaburra having been told by Lloyd Neilson the area was good for White-headed Pigeon. This turned out to be a good call and we had great views of several in a tree as we turned the vehicle round having taken a wrong turning. The tree also held a number of Rainbow Lorikeets which we had to go to the book for as they were of a different race to those we had previously seen. We also stooped to watch some Pied Currawongs.

As we were wandering the area we saw a signpost for Lake Eacham National Park and thought we could do worse than give it a look. Approaching the park we saw a sign for a Lake Road and took a wrong turning into some agricultural land with small stands of trees. This proved the most productive mistake of the day with good views of Emerald Dove, Brown Cuckoo Dove, Lots of White-eyes and Red-browed finches and a host of common honeyeaters. We then managed to find the right road around the Lake and enjoyed hearing the whipbirds calling and had good views of displaying Rufous Fantails and a great number of Brush Turkeys and some Orange-footed Scrubfowl. The rain returned and we decided to head back to our Hotel.

Day 3

The next day we set off for Daintree with an appointment en route with Lloyd to discuss our targets for the day he had set aside for us. At 10 o’clock we met up with him at Kingfisher Park near Julatten. Ron Stannard, the owner of Kingfisher Park Birdwatcher’s Lodge, kindly supplied coffee and cakes and extra advice whilst we had our discussions with Lloyd. The feeders next to us attracted no less than three lifers in the first few minutes, Little Shrike Thrush, Spectacled Monarch and Graceful Honeyeater as well as photo opportunities for Red-browed Finches, Emerald Dove and Macleay’s Honeyeaters. We later added Silver-crowned Friarbird and had terrific views of every stage of maturity of Blue-faced honeyeaters.

Lloyd [author and webmaster of Birding Australia] told us that our day out would also have the added advantage of being accompanies by Del Richards, owner operator of Fine Feather Tours. Ron told us to look for Bush Hens on our departure and that the last of the Buff-breasted Kingfishers was still hanging around and he advised us to look for it as he assumed it would have migrated by the next day. We eagerly took his advice and spent sometime circling around before Maggie spotted this magnificent bird only a few feet from us low to the ground among the trees. It took nearly an hour to manage views for all the party but it was time well spent as we managed to add another lifer – Pale Yellow Robin, too.

We then went on to Daintree to sus out our accommodation. Brian & Joanna stayed at Red Mill House where owner operator Andrew Forsyth had converted one of the downstairs rooms especially for the visit. [Brian advised him of the tweaks to be made to turn it from excellent disabled accessible accommodation into perfection.] Maggie & I drove the 8 kilometres down an un-metalled road to Daintree Valley Haven where we were staying [really excellent self-catering cottages set in beautiful grounds carved out of the forest]. We had time to see our first Yellow-breasted Sunbirds and Varied Trillers of the trip before driving back to Daintree Village where Brian had clocked up Mistletoebird in the grounds of Red Mill House.

We drove back to our cottage to show Brian and Joanna what it was like before going back into the village for an evening meal at Jacanas Restaurant. As Maggie and I travelled back to Daintree Haven we put up a small band of Bush Thickknee and one night bird which we had too little time of to ID. We also nearly ran over a very large snake which was identified from our description as a Brown Tree snake.

Day 4

The next day Brian, Joanna and I met Lloyd and Del the next morning at 7.30am at the turn off the Captain Cook Highway to Newell Beach. They took us to the first stop of the day a group of trees a few hundred yards from the coast where we were delighted to see our first Papuan Frogmouths – a new family for all of us. After this we went into Port Douglas where an acquaintance of our guides allowed us to sit in the vehicle in his driveway whilst a succession of honeyeaters came to his feeders. We had great views of Yellow, Graceful, Lewin’s, Yellow-spotted, Macleay’s, Brown and Bridled Honeyeaters and our first House Sparrows of the trip. Despite the light drizzle this was a great chance to see the size differences between some difficult to separate species.

En Route for Mount Molloy we stopped for Golden-headed Cisticola and tried a spot for Wompoo Fruit Dove without success. Our next stop was at the place where, according to our guides, the wet lands and dry lands had their border. a small picnic site near Julatten Tavern. Whilst eating excellent lamingtons supplied by Del we had terrific views of Channel-billed Cuckoo, Black-faced Monarch and Grey Whistler with rather less good views of Fairy Gerygone and Brown Gerygone. I had a nice close up look at a very large spider that had taken up residence in the toilet bowl at the picnic site!

Next stop was Mount Lewis Road with a quick look for Blue-faced Finches near Nissen Creek, which were not in evidence and then on to a fish farm at Perseverance Road looking for rails. We had very good looks at Buff-banded Rail but the site for Superb Fairy Wren further down the road was quiet although it was hard to see much in the rain.

We headed for Mount Molloy to look for Squatter Pigeon without success but did get a good look at a Great Bowerbird’s bower here. From here we headed along the highway into the dry lands around Mt Carbine in search of dry land specialities. Our lunch stop was at Mt Carbine Caravan Park where another bowerbird’s bower had been cleverly formed using the tunnel of a small culvert which the bird had adorned with white shells and red plastic. Our main target here were Tawny Frogmouths which roosted in easy view once Del and Lloyd managed to locate the right tree. The owner was shown the birds too and was delighted with her residents. This site was also excellent for Pale-headed Rosella and our only views of another lifer – Apostlebirds which, true to their name, went around in a group of a dozen or so.

Off the highway on the road to the old Mt Carbine airstrip we spent some time looking for Squatter Pigeon. These proved elusive but we did have great views of Common Bronze-wing. Del and Lloyd managed to heard some Weebills close to the vehicle and Brian was very gratified to “pull back” this species. We also lucked upon a close Squatter Pigeon that gave great views.

Further on we took West Mary Road at Maryfarms to look for Bustard. which Lloyd saw and I glimpsed but Brian missed. As we drove back we picked up our only lark of the trip; unexpected amongst the Richard’s Pipits.

At this point we needed to head “home” and had the choice of trying again for the bustards or going to another site in search of pardalotes. As bustard was only needed by Brian we decided upon the pardalotes and as we headed for the site a very obliging bustard gave great views beside the highway. The site for the pardalotes [a municipal dump] was quiet and I dipped – the third time of this trip and my third trip in a row where I have heard but never seen any of these birds!

The return trip back was uneventful although we did see a few raptors one circling over the road where there was a road kill carpet python.

Day 5

The next day we decided to retrace some of our steps in search of new species and to give Maggie views of the Papuan Frogmouths. which were obligingly even lower down their roost branch. We took another look at the picnic site but it was very quiet apart from one very unexpected bird. As we were getting back into the vehicle we spotted a bright yellow bird in a tee towards the rainforest. At first we assumed it was an oriole but as soon as we managed to view it through binoculars we found it to be an absolutely immaculate Golden Bowerbird! By the time we got the scope organised it had flown off back to the woods!

We tried the Mount Lewis Road and Maggie spotted a raptor in a tree top. We fully quizzed the bird not believing it could be a Grey Falcon out of its normal range [later we learnt that it was seen regularly]. Further down the road we stopped to view a feeding flock of birds which turned out to be Metallic Starlings. Other birds flitted around in the bushed and trees including a Red-backed Fairy Wren and Brown and White-gaped Honeyeaters.

Further retracing our steps of the previous day we tried Perseverance Road. As we breasted the hill Maggie spotted a Black-shouldered Kite – our only one of the trip. We had no luck at the Fairywren site and there were no rails in evidence at the Barramundi fish farm.

We went back to the Tavern at Julatten for a late lunch. As we left the tavern the trees around the car park were full of birds and Brian pulled back Pied Monarch and we had good views of Noisy Friarbird and I had views of a Gould’s Shining Cuckoo. There was a supporting cast of common honeyeaters too.

We headed back for an early evening meal and then all drove down the road towards Daintree Haven in search of night birds. Typically all we saw were toads and bats so we drove Brian & Joanna back to Red Mill House; typically as we drove ourselves home, just a few hundred yards down the road Maggie Spotted an owl on a fence. It stayed perfectly still for us in the headlights so we could get a really good look at what proved to be a sought-after and scarce speciality – Lesser Sooty Owl

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Day 6

Our next day was something of a washout. We decided to take the ferry over the Daintree River and drive up to the Jindalba Boardwalk as we had been told that Cassowary had been seen there the previous day. It rained most of the morning and our walk along the boardwalk was unrewarded by ANY birds. In fact we saw very few birds all day as we took whatever side roads we could to explore the Daintree forest area. The only notable birds seen were Brown Cuckoo Dove and a Bridled Honeyeater at the Ice Cream Factory where we stopped to enjoy some unusual flavours of ice cream. Back at Daintree Valley Haven Maggie and I were lucky to spot two Platypus in the dam and to see Brown Swamp Wallaby and Brown Bandicoot there too at dusk. In view of the weather we decided to head back for Cairns the following day.

Our plan was to visit a site for Kangaroo and then drop into Cassowary House in the hope of seeing Cassowary. The journey down to Cairns was uneventful with no new birds added to the list until we took a break and a lunch in the rain at Abattoir Swamp along the Rex Highway. Here we saw a variety of honeyeaters as the picnic area had clearly been deliberately planted with many flowering native trees – these included Yellow, Yellow-faced, White-cheeked, Dusky and Scarlet Honeyeaters. No one was in at Cassowary House and we did not connect.

Day 7

The following day started gloomily once more, particularly over the Kuranda Rainforest so we abandoned our initial plan of going back to Cassowary House in favour of a visit to Cairns’ Flecker Botanic Gardens, the Centenary Lakes and then on to the Crocodile Farm a few miles south of town.

The botanic gardens proved to be a very pleasant [if rather humid] walk amidst tropical palm forest – where we saw not one bird. However, the adjoining lakes did prove more successful turning up a life – White-browed Crake as well as few commoner birds.

By the time we got to the crocodile farm it was extremely hot and we walked around trying not to notice the terrible smell of stagnant water and fetid crocodile breath. one could not forget the crocodiles as a good few manages to make us jump out of our skins by lunging for the fences making primeval noises. A leaflet is available at reception giving locations of some of the birds and this proved useless for locations but useful for knowing what to look out for. The entrance fee for birders is less than for crocodile watchers. Nevertheless, it proved a good source of new birds with several lifers including Lewin’s Rail and Brown-backed Honeyeater as well as a few more trip ticks such as Common Koel, Purple Swamphen, Black-winged Stilt, Little Kingfisher and Black-fronted Dotterel. We also saw more White-browed Crake there and may have heard and seen Cicadabirds but were not sure enough to “tick” them. We were temporarily greatly excited by the Common Koel which was an immature bird with a cream coloured head which looked like an entirely different species to the adult males I have seen before.

Our last evening was spent on the hotel balcony looking out across the mudflats to sea and just enjoying the esplanade.

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