Finding feathers in the far north

An abundance of native birdlife in tropical north Queensland calls to sharp-eyed twitchers far and wide.
By Chrissie Goldrick January 11, 2017 Reading Time: 8 Minutes

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 them 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 avian 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 seasoned 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.

bird watching tropical north queensland

Birding guide David ‘Chook’ Crawford (above, at left) and Madeline Bauer move in for a closer look while twitching among the dry savannah grasslands of the Atherton Tableland. (Image: Chrissie Goldrick / Australian Geographic)

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 – the northern form of the brown treecreeper, the black-throated finch and the less glamorous-sounding 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 trunk, 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, the temperature is rising and our morning adventure must draw to a close – squatter pigeon or no squatter pigeon.

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

great-billed heron

The great-billed heron (Ardea sumatrana) is a drawcard species for birdwatchers along the Daintree River. (Image: Ray Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo)

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 leave Madeline still searching for 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 down a side channel and hands me a tick-list of 91 species. He starts reeling them off and I can hardly keep up with the looking, photographing and the ticking off. He hears birds before he spots them – it’s this sight-and-sound combo that is the hallmark 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 egrets fly towards us in the setting sun, heading for roosts downriver. Their numbers increase until hundreds are gliding overhead in a silent spectacle.

On my last morning, I venture out with a larrikin group of birders from Townsville. We head downstream 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 – really enjoying the thrill of every sighting of yet another wonderful species: 71 and counting.

AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC thanks Neil McGlip and Dale Flack at Tourism Tropical North Queensland and everyone else mentioned in the story for their assistance with this story.

6 of the best bird-watching spots

In addition to the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetlands Reserve mentioned in the story, here are six more great birding spots in tropical north Queensland from expert twitcher Lloyd Nielsen.

1. Atherton

This is an essential location to see the upland endemic species and a favourite with local birdwatchers – one popular spot is the new walking track (the Atherton Tablelands Rail Trail) along Priors Creek on the edge of town. Not far from town at Longlands Gap and Mt Hypipamee (The Crater National Park), you’re likely to find the golden bowerbird. The bower is about 1.5m tall, and consists of two towers built of dry sticks. A fallen branch usually joins the towers and this is heavily decorated with moss and lichen. Just 4km away, Hasties Swamp National Park supports a great variety of waterbirds. Magpie geese flock to this wetland in the dry season by the thousand – a spectacle in itself. An elaborate two-storey hide has been built for birders at the edge of the swamp.

LOOK OUT FOR: Tooth-billed bowerbird, golden bowerbird, fernwren, Atherton scrubwren, mountain thornbill, chowchilla, bower’s shrike-thrush, grey-headed robin, blue-faced parrot-finch.

2. Daintree valley and river

This is one of the best examples of a tropical river with rainforest growing right to the water’s edge, which provides for some great birding. The river is most famous for the great-billed heron and little kingfisher. The heron, one of the world’s largest, was always a ‘phantom’ bird for birdwatchers. Twenty years ago, it was rarely seen. Once birding tours commenced on the river, exploring the small rainforest and mangrove creeks that ran from it, the bird was seen more regularly. Even now, however, it remains elusive and can melt into the shadows of the rainforest or mangroves right before your eyes.

LOOK OUT FOR: Southern ­cassowary, Papuan frogmouth, black bittern, great-billed heron, red-necked crake, little kingfisher, lovely ­fairy-wren.

3. Lockerbie Scrub

This extensive area of mostly lowland rainforest is just 15km from the tip of Cape York. Unlike other areas on the peninsula, it can be easily accessed during the wet season. A bonus is the good birding in the surrounding open forest and mangrove-lined creeks. The palm cockatoo is a prime target of birders, as is the elusive marbled frogmouth. Its gobbling call can be heard through the night; it’s probably one of the weirdest of all bird calls and must have sent a shiver down the spines of early settlers. One of Lockerbie’s major highlights is the arrival of the brilliant red-bellied pitta, which comes down from New Guinea in early December. It quickly breeds over the early wet season and departs through February – one of the shortest stays of all migrants.

LOOK OUT FOR: Marbled frogmouth, palm cockatoo, chestnut-breasted cuckoo, yellow-billed kingfisher, red-bellied pitta, fawn-breasted bowerbird, tropical scrubwren, white-streaked honeyeater, black-backed butcherbird, frilled monarch, trumpet manucode, magnificent riflebird, yellow-legged fly-robin, northern scrub-robin.

4. Michaelmas Cay National Park

A seabird hotspot 40km north-east of Cairns, this is one of the most important seabird breeding sites in the Great Barrier Reef and the most significant around Cairns. It doesn’t have a large variety of species but it’s a great spectacle. There’s always the possibility of seeing rarities here, such as the Bulwer’s petrel, Tahiti petrel, white-tailed tropicbird, brown skua and long-tailed jaeger. The ground is covered with nesting terns and noddies. Tourist boats visit daily and visitors can spend time on a small fenced-off area of beach and watch the nesting seabirds just metres away. Some operators will launch a dinghy and circumnavigate the cay, where other terns can be seen.

LOOK OUT FOR: Red-tailed ­tropicbird, brown noddy, black noddy, lesser crested tern, roseate tern, black-naped tern.

5. Cairns foreshore and esplanade

The esplanade has long been recognised internationally as one of Australia’s best wader sites. Asiatic waders arrive from their Arctic breeding grounds around September and depart again in March–April. Rarities and vagrant species sometimes turn up, including Franklin’s gull, little stints, dunlins, kelp gulls and fairy terns. It’s also an excellent spot for bush birds and a feature of the area is the loud cheery voice of the varied honeyeater. Large numbers of Torresian imperial pigeons breed in the trees along the esplanade – this species winters in New Guinea and returns to north Queensland to breed. The rufous owl, a popular species with birders, sometimes roosts nearby. In March, large flocks of metallic starlings hurtle through the area before heading off to New Guinea for the winter.

LOOK OUT FOR: Lesser and greater sand plovers, black-tailed godwit, terek sandpiper, red knot, broad-billed sandpiper, double-eyed fig-parrot, rufous owl, varied honeyeater.

6. Mission Beach

This birding hotspot is famous for its cassowaries, which are sometimes seen wandering the streets. The lowland rainforest surrounding the town is always a great spot for birdwatching. Nearby, Lacey Creek and Licuala day-use areas in Djiru National Park are excellent spots for beautifully coloured fruit-doves, the noisy pitta and the Victoria’s riflebird, an endemic bird of paradise.

LOOK OUT FOR: Noisy pitta, barred cuckoo-shrike, white-eared monarch, yellow-breasted boatbill, Victoria’s riflebird, crimson finch. 

This article was originally published in the AG Tropical North Queensland Special Edition.