Looking for birds in tropical Queensland

By Chrissie Goldrick 26 June 2014
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An abundance of native birdlife in tropical north Queensland calls to sharp-eyed twitchers far and wide.

I’m starting a list. A life list. Not a bucket list. I’ve no plans to wingsuit off one of the seven summits, learn the oboe or get a tattoo. I just want to see as many Australian birds as I can.

I’ve no time limit, but after just three days in far north Queensland, my life list is off to a flying start with a catalogue of 71 species, among which are names that would cause a frisson of interest in even the most hardboiled of birders: spectacled monarch, little kingfisher, black-throated finch, red-winged parrot, lovely wren, yellow-bellied sunbird, spangled drongo.

The Wet Tropics stretch from Townsville to Cooktown encompassing approximately 9000sq.km of rainforest interspersed with farmland, rivers and tropical savannah, not to mention coastline and coral cays. Such an array of habitats explains the region’s high diversity of flora and fauna. With more than 450 species recorded, including 12 endemics, it’s Australia’s twitching mecca, and you don’t have to venture far from Cairns to enjoy a rich birdwatching experience in a variety of environments.

My introduction begins on the Atherton Tableland, at the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetlands Reserve. The dry, scrubby, vegetation of the 2000ha reserve is fed by a succession of freshwater creeks and lagoons, created as part of a one-time agricultural irrigation scheme. A patch of lotus lilies in the centre of Clancys Lagoon, provides vital habitat for the delicate comb-crested jacanas, which pick their way across giant pads in search of insects, while darters and little black cormorants dry their wings on tree stumps in the shallows.

As I gaze out across the lagoon from the deck of Mareeba’s interpretive centre, I can see black swans, Pacific black ducks and green pygmy-geese gliding between patches of duckweed. But the eagle-eye of my fellow visitor, Madeline Bauer, a hard-core American birder, identifies a white-browed crake moving among the reeds, and a big pheasant coucal, its rich chestnut plumage flashing among the low greenery just above the reeds.

I’m grateful for the sharp vision of both Madeline and our expert guide, David ‘Chook’ Crawford, who is escorting us on a dawn search for Madeline’s three target species. These are the northern form of the brown treecreeper, the black-throated finch and the less glamorous squatter pigeon. A statistician at the University of Southern California, Madeline takes a methodical approach to her life list, telling me that “the squatter pigeon is on just for the tick, but it’s not going to be anybody’s favourite bird”.

Chook leads us through dry savannah country, thinly vegetated with eucalypts and quinine trees between which huge termite mounds stand, eerily tomb-like in the early morning light. We disturb a flock of chestnut-breasted mannikins hundreds strong, which suddenly ascends in a cloud of dusty wingbeats, ballooning above us before coming to rest, chattering excitedly, along the branches of a nearby tree.

We catch sight of a number of similar LBJs (birding shorthand for ‘little brown jobs’ – mostly drab songbirds), before Chook identifies the call of the brown treecreeper and directs our vision to the high boughs of a poplar gum. There, what looks to me like yet another LBJ busily moves up and down the branch, foraging for invertebrates. While brown treecreepers aren’t rare, this black-backed tropical variety is on many a birder’s must-see list.

With one target ticked off, we scour the surroundings for our next two. We spot myriad honeyeaters, parrots, wrens and other avian delights, before spying a small party of black-throated finches on the track ahead. Another tick for Madeline. But the heat of the sun is starting to burn off the mist, and our morning adventure must draw  to a close – squatter pigeon or no squatter pigeon.

At dusk, we assemble at Pandanus Lagoon to watch the arrival of cranes in the dwindling light. It’s hard to distinguish sarus cranes from brolgas, but it’s a fine sight, and with the addition of a black-necked stork patrolling the distant shore, the day draws to a satisfactory close.

THE NEXT morning, I decide to head for a contrasting habitat. I’ve been bitten by the twitching bug and I want see as many birds as I can. Trisha and Andrew Forsyth kindly offer me a bed at their birders lodge, Red Mill House, in Daintree Village, bang in the heart of the rainforest. It couldn’t be more different from Mareeba and I’m excited about the birding prospects. I bid farewell to Madeline, still in search of the squatter pigeon, and head down off the Tableland.

I’ve exchanged the dry heat of Atherton for the perfumed humidity of the rainforest, and, as I explore the grounds of the lodge, the loud, throaty warble of the yellow oriole echoes through the dense canopy above. It’s late afternoon when I head out along the Daintree River with birding guide Ian ‘Sauce’ Worcester. It’s high tide and the wide, dark swathe of fast-moving water is flanked by emerald pastures from which pure white Brahman cattle watch us with interest, perhaps wary of anything that might turn out to be a crocodile.

Ian navigates us into a side channel and hands me a ticklist of 91 species. He starts reeling them off and I can hardly keep up with the looking, photographing and ticking. He hears birds before he spots them – it’s this sight-and-sound combo that are the hallmarks of an expert birding guide.

As the sun sets, Ian steers to the mid-point of a broad stretch of river. Groups of three or four cattle egrets fly towards us in the setting sun, heading for roosts downriver. Their numbers increase until hundreds are gliding silently overhead.

On my last morning, I venture out with a larrikin group of birders from Townsville. We head downriver and turn up Barratt Creek. Birds are abundant and active in the cool of the morning and Marleen Acton is keen to add a great-billed heron to her list, so this becomes our group target.  

Our guide Murray Hunt points out a brown-backed honeyeater nest suspended from a branch that looks like a tangle of dead leaves to my untutored eye. “I used to think the bush was boring,” he tells me. “But once you get into birdwatching, it comes alive, and there’s always something happening… Even with a fairly common species, if you look closely, you might see some unusual behaviour, like nest-building.”

He points out the nest of a great-billed heron high in a mangrove, but its resident is sadly out on a fishing trip. The channel gets shallower and narrower and we have to weave through the overhang. Here we spy a pair of shining flycatchers flitting along the muddy bank, followed by a little kingfisher, whose blue plumage catches the sunlight in the dappled shadows.

By this stage I’ve put down my camera with its unwieldy, telephoto lens and I’ve begun looking through binoculars or with my own two eyes, and really enjoying the thrill of every sighting of yet another wonderful species: 71 and counting.

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #111.