Kites, Crocs and Crakes
This is a report on a brief sojourn in the Darwin area 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 but my first to the Darwin area and 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 [with one exception] at the expense of more common lifers, or, indeed variety. So many birds are special to Australia that seeing many species again was welcome.
I had corresponded with Mike & Gina Ostwald of Mary River Park for some years and decided to use Mike’s services as a guide and to stay at Mary River Park for two nights during a four night stay in the area. For the other two nights we booked in at the Mirambeena Hotel which we were told was of a good standard and had gardens good for birds. The plan [later changed] was to bird our way, with Mike, to Mary River Park, spend a day in the area and then a day birding our way back to Darwin. I had previously visited Broome and Cairns but this was my first visit to the Northern Territories “Top End”.
On arrival at the airport there were no suitable taxis available and we sweltered for 30 minutes whilst waiting for an adapted taxi to arrive. [We made sure to book the same very helpful lady for our early morning departure – what is more being an idiot I gave $100 too much by mistake and the taxi driver came back to give me my money back – thank you mam – City Radio Taxis 8981 3777]. Our enforced wait did mean we managed to add a couple of birds to the list including our first White-gaped Honeyeater.
The Mirambeena was indeed a very nice hotel with a good [albeit somewhat pretentious] restaurant and a pool surrounded by tropical vegetation. In our time there the only bird that showed itself was a Yellow Oriole on our first day there – a welcome colourful lifer. The desk, porterage and room service were all exemplary and the food good so I can recommend the hotel. Furthermore the hotel had a suitably adapted “Handicapped” room which Brian and Joanna used. however, it was the furthest room from the lift which seems rather odd.
Day by Day
Next morning at 7.00am we were met by Mike in his four-wheel drive vehicle. This was a little smaller than Roy’s and proved a bit cramped in the back for three people. Mike has a sister who is a wheelchair user and had no ramp but readily took to lifting Brian bodily into the back seat whenever necessary. Whilst Brian thanked him for this self-sacrificing method it is not ideal either from the disabled birder’s point of view [independence is always better] but also from a health and safety point of view – such lifting is always at the lifters own risk.
We began a long but fruitful day’s birding with a ride down to a car park near to Buffalo Creek. Our intended goal was a jetty used for launching boats but the tide was so high and the river in spate so this was well under water. Here we had very good views of Red-headed Honeyeater, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Little Friarbird and both Forest and Collared Kingfisher amongst other birds. Nearby we had some fleeting glimpses of Yellow Oriole, Rose-crowned Fruit Dove and good views of Black Butcherbird, Sacred Kingfisher and Dollarbird. As is so often the case all the kingfisher species were on telephone wires. We also managed a poor view of our first Orange-footed Scrubfowl which was roosting high in a bush. Some of us had a Weebill here but it was so high in the trees that it was difficult to see from inside the vehicle and flew before some could get out.
Our next stop was the Botanic Gardens in search of a couple of owl species. Only one was roosting during our visit but we had stunning close-up views of Rufous Owl. We used the park facilities and Joanna was surprised to find that her cubicle toilet bowl had a large resident frog!
Next port of call was a concrete path near a new housing development in Bayview. The path follows the edge of the mangroves and we arrived on a falling tide. Undoubtedly the best bird here was only seen by two birders, I was lucky to look where Maggie pointed to a Chestnut Rail as it went into the edge of the mangroves working its way along parallel to the path before disappearing into the shrubbery. This is a much desired bird and is certainly a very handsome one. As is so often the case Maggie spotted the bird of the day – we are thinking of hiring her out for birders trips as, among other birds, she is always first to spot any raptor. The supporting cast included some Common Sandpipers and frequent views of Double-barred Finches flitting among the mangrove bushes.
By this time the sun was really hot and we decided to take lunch back towards the city and welcome cold drinks.
Our next stop was at Palmerston Sewage Works in search of waders and herons which were conspicuous by their absence. We took a difficult drive around the perimeter and were rewarded with some good views of small passerines and an obliging Oriental Cuckoo. There were also more good views of Red-headed Honeyeater, Little Friarbird, Blue-faced Honeyeater, White-eyes, Brown Honeyeater and others. A couple of White-faced Herons were about the only water birds in sight although, like such facilities the world over, there were plenty of common hirundines about too.
The next stop was specifically to target one species – Rainbow Pitta – as I have long wanted to see any member of this family. We went to a renowned spot at Howard Springs Nature Park 35 kilometres south of Darwin, where a pool fed by a spring is surrounded by Monsoon rainforest. Here we walked a trail which was remarkable for the number and tenacity of its mosquitoes. I had not known what to expect and wore shorts – a BIG mistake. The trail follows the spring-fed stream and we were treated to excellent and frequent views of Shining Flycatchers and glimpses of other birds such as White-winged Triller, Black Butcherbird and Northern Fantails. Maggie and I had the very briefest of views of a rainbow Pitta on a stump six inches off the ground suddenly visible in a beam of sunlight that turned its green back almost yellow. But it disappeared almost as soon as it appeared and we were left feeling as if we had seen a phantom. Whilst Mike went on in search of better views we retreated as, by this time, my legs were literally running with blood from the numerous bites despite my having smothered my legs and arms with insect repellent. Was the briefest of glimpses of a Pitta worth all this – you betcha!
En route we stopped briefly at the small town of Humpty Doo for better insect repellent and Mike bought some Lamingtons [a uniquely Australian cake] for us to eat at out next destination. We then moved on to our final target for the day – Fogg Dam. This is one of the world’s great wetland sites with the entrance road affording terrific close views of herons, waders, waterfowl and passerines culminating in a parking area with an accessible platform [with two tiers] overlooking ponds and with views across hundreds of acres of marsh and reedbed.
From the viewpoint we had excellent close views of Crimson Finches collecting nesting material oblivious to our presence as well as an aerial display by numerous Rainbow Bee-eaters. But the attraction at Fogg Dam are the large numbers of herons and other water loving birds. In front of us were many Comb-crested Jacanas, a whole flock of 40 Royal Spoonbills collectively pond-dipping, and heron after heron including Great, Intermediate, Little and Cattle Egrets, Pied Heron and Nankeen [Rufous] Night Herons, Australian Ibis and Black-necked Storks all vied for attention. Overhead were Whistling and Brahminy Kites and small groups of Magpie Geese – surely as ugly as Friarbirds or Vultures. There were, of course, a number of cormorant species seen too.
This really is one of those unforgettable places ranking with 90 Mile Beach, Townsville Common and Cairns Foreshore as among Australia’s very top birding destinations. We drove on along the Arnhem Highway to Mary River Park as dusk gathered. For many kilometres every fourth or fifth power pole had a roosting Whistling Kite. When we arrived we were warmly greeted by Gina and shown to our accommodation, which proved the first downer of the day.
The accommodation had been described as “budget, air-conditioned en-suite cabins”. Clearly our imaginations had misled us as what we found were similar to caravans – two rooms without a connecting door [i.e. a separate, not ensuite, shower/toilet] with good, fierce air-conditioning with beds and bedding reminiscent of an army barracks. Each stood on a concrete plinth with a steep ramp and unfenced platform. The gloom of dusk was reflected in the mood of the birders – and the next 20 minutes was spent hunting down the resident bugs, spiders and moths and, in our case, one cockroach.
It would be unfair to blame Mike & Gina Ostwald rather than our own imaginations for the disappointment. The extreme heat and humidity called for a cool shower and a cold drink but the stained shower and resident insects were somewhat off-putting. We had expected basic, clean and comfortable accommodation – what we got was tantamount to air-condition camping with walls, the sort of place one would expect when on a fishing weekend with the lads, not for a family holiday. Most of our reaction was down to the gap between expectation and reality but we felt disappointed. Middle-aged wimps as we are we decided immediately to cut our two night stay in half. We told our hosts of this decision and felt backs go up in response. We then had a cold beer in the dining room and waited on an evening meal to be cooked bar-b-q style in the dining room-cum-bar-cum-pool room. This was reminiscent of a factory unit being very large with an extremely high ceiling where the fans circulated the mass of insects that swarmed to the lights through the screens.
We heard no barking owls as we headed to our cabins but did hear the heavy thud of a fellow guest as she took a tumble on an unlit step in the path; badly grazing knees and elbows and look rather shaken.
Breakfast was a basic meal [after which Brian and I watched high-flying Forked-tailed Swifts and a Square-tailed Kite as well as having terrific views of Blue-winged Kookaburra from the veranda] which we followed with a River Trip with Mike in search of birds before being joined an hour later by other nature enthusiasts who were more intent on finding crocodiles.
The trip proved good for new species but poor for bird numbers over all. We managed to twice have good views of Black Bittern flying for cover and numerous Shining Flycatchers crossing back and forth in all their sexually dimorphic splendour whilst cuckoo-shrikes and friarbirds also obliged on many occasions. We saw a couple of Azure Kingfishers and many Black and Whistling Kites as well as one White-bellied Sea Eagle that flew low and for’ard for some time. We also had our only trip tick of a roosting Pacific Baza. Undoubtedly the best birds of the boat trip were a pair of white morph Grey Goshawks with their fully fledged chick all three of which gave excellent views. Other participants were treated to views of small but no doubt deadly Saltwater and Johnson River Crocodiles.
After a light salad lunch we set off to bird our way back to Darwin.
The plan was to try the Bird Billabong first [an area of lily-adorned water which was still too wet to get very close to] for Partridge Pigeon and then try the Marraki Track for finches and Red-Backed Kingfisher. We had no luck at the Billabong so proceeded to the Track which is a dirt road going many kilometres into the bush and eventually fording [in the dry season] the Adelaide River.
This proved an excellent choice and we managed quite a few species of finch such as Double Barred and Red-browed as well as several new species such as Long-tailed Finch and Masked Finch. What is more we did find one Red-backed Kingfisher that was pretty confiding and allowed some good close views. Other notable species were Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Jacky Winter, Grey-crowned Babbler and our only White-bellied Cuckooshrike, Varied Lorikeet and Northern Rosellas of the trip. As we began to drive back down the track we stopped to watch a Jacky Winter catching flies when two Partridge Pigeons walked slowly across the road in front of us, stopping to observe some British birders before steadily walking on their way [apparently this is their preferred mode and they are known to walk many kilometres rather than flying].
En route to our hotel we took a look at the Charles Darwin NP which didn’t turn up many birds but did give us good views of a Frilled Lizard displaying on the side of a tree and some Antilopine Walleroos.
Our final day in Darwin [which was to be followed by a wee small hours departure] was spent resting up and re-packing. [Apart from the previous days spent in the Brisbane Area we had been to NZ for two weeks and our companions had been out of the UK for a month previously so some R&R every week was needed – birding takes so much concentration it is far more taxing than work – especially when it is 35c and 110% humidity!]