Tuesday 5 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 2: Daintree

[Saturday 29th July cont.]

It was quite nice to get away from the city at last, although we had a frustrating sighting of a field apparently full of kangaroos that we couldn’t stop for. There wasn’t a lot of birds to see, except for stacks of Cattle Egrets everywhere there was livestock, but after seeing a few large nests on pylons, we finally came across White-bellied Sea Eagles just south of Port Douglas. We made our way to Mossman Gorge, parking by the visitor centre (where we saw some decent sized Aussie spiders at last!) and taking the short bus ride up to the forest area.

Big spider, Mossman Gorge visitor centre (no idea what it is)

From the birding trip reports I’d brought, not many birders seem to visit Mossman Gorge, but I thought it was excellent, especially given that it was early afternoon and we were sleep-deprived. On entering the forest, I was immediately stumped by a featureless bird than I saw several more times over the coming days before realising that these had probably all been Little Shrikethrush. We then came across Large-billed Scrubwren, Silvereye and Grey Fantail in quick succession, as well as a Black Butcherbird. The path eventually leads to the river in a steep-side valley, and whilst sitting here, we saw Pied Currawongs and Topknot Pigeons flying and perching high up the slopes. A Graceful Honeyeater showed well (and helpfully called). As we left the river, a large black snake crossed the path and gave great views; although we couldn’t make out much other colour, I suspect this was a Red-bellied Black Snake. A little further along the path we walked into Spectacled Monarch and then Pale-lemon Robin in quick succession. There were, of course, lots of unidentified calls – later experience suggests some were Yellow-spotted Honeyeater and Victoria’s Riflebird. There was also a weird interlude when a flock of large dark birds entered the canopy above us and made a real racket, crashing about and dropping fruit. Despite making sufficient noise that they sounded like a troop of monkeys, we hardly saw a glimpse of them, although I suspect they were Pied Currawongs. As we made our way back towards the start of the walk, we came across two more attractive species – Pied Monarch and Rufous Fantail. Definitely a good spot and worth a visit.

Bird's-nest Fern species, Mossman Gorge

We left Mossman Gorge, soon picking up our first Whistling Kite as well as Sacred Kingfisher, Laughing Kookaburra and another White-bellied Sea Eagle. We made our way to the Daintree river ferry, which was quick and easy, and then we were over into the Daintree National Park, one of the world’s oldest rainforests – very exciting. We soon came across a viewpoint where we stopped to admire the view. We didn’t stay long though, as we got chatting to a family who said they’d seen a Cassowary by the road just 20 minutes away – panic! We beat a hasty retreat, and drove as hastily as seemed reasonable, without speeding too much for fear of colliding with the target bird. Sadly, we didn’t see it, and we made our way north to Cape Tribulation. My fatigue was really kicking in now and it was a good thing we didn’t have any further to go as I was hitting a wall (not literally, but almost). Eventually, we made it to Cape Trib campsite, which was mercifully quiet, albeit infested with Brush Turkeys. A couple of Double-eyed Fig Parrots flew over before dark. We cooked a quick meal at the campers kitchen then hit the sack.

Sunday 30th July

Slept like the proverbial log. Up at 0615, joined by Dunc and Tom but leaving Trudy in the tent. We drove carefully south along the road looking for cassowaries. To our delight, after about 20 minutes, there they were – a pair of Southern Cassowary on the verge on the stretch of road west of Thornton Beach, the female sitting low and the male apparently allopreening it. Bingo! Not wanting a family dip, we drove back, bustled Trudy into the car, then drove back to the spot. No sign – darn! But then we saw them again, ca 200 m further back along the road. Great views as they foraged along the edge of the road. My number one target for the trip was safely in the bag, which is always a relief as it means I can relax (a bit) and enjoy the trip rather than having to keep searching for it.

Southern Cassowary, Daintree National Park

We returned to the campsite for breakfast, then walked north along the beach to the Dubuji boardwalk. Sadly, a large section of this was closed for repairs, but we could walk part of it through the pristine lowland rainforest. Almost immediately, I had probably the most frustrating dip of the whole trip; I was walking at the back (as usual, as I get rather easily distracted), when what was clearly a Red-necked Crake walked over the boardwalk in front of Duncan; Tom and Trudy also saw it – all I managed to get was a bit of movement of a dark thing in the undergrowth. One of the real local megas, and I missed it! However, some recompense was forthcoming when we had crippling views of our only Little Kingfisher of the trip shortly afterwards.  I then clinched the identification of Little Shrikethrush and Yellow-spotted Honeyeater – both species I’d clearly previously recorded but never quite sussed 100%.

Of all the rainforest trees we saw, the Fan Palms (Licuala ramsayi) were the most striking

We made it through to a roadside cafe and had a drink, before taking the track back towards the beach. A Yellow Oriole showed well and was joined by my first Varied Triller, whilst in an area of mangroves we had decent views of both Bridled Honeyeater (a real NE Queensland speciality) and Dusky Honeyeater, as well as confirming my first Silver-crowned Friarbirds. Back at the beach we continued north, with Red-capped Plovers on the beach and White-bellied Sea Eagle overhead, and made our way to the small Kulki boardwalk which overlooks the more northern bay. Highlight here was a close male Shining Flycatcher. We then wandered back to the campsite where we found a huge Lace Monitor (or ‘Goanna’) basking in the sun; we were warned off going too close.

Shining Flycatcher, Cape Tribulation

Lace Monitor (Varanus varius) and solar panels at Cape Tribulation, both powered by the same thing

After some food, Tom and Duncan decided to do some beach-engineering, and Trudy and I walked another loop – onto the road, up to the Dubuji boardwalk, and back round. Had a good chat to a local hippy-type who told us a bit about the history of the area and some of the battles to keep the developers away, and we saw our first Eastern Osprey (recent split, looks pretty similar to Western Osprey to me!) as well as Black Butcherbird, Pacific Baza and Double-eyed Fig Parrot; we also sussed out the call of Wompoo Fruit-dove, although failed to clap eyes on one. Back to the campsite for tea, then we decided to do a night walk to spotlight for critters – again doing the loop of beach, Dubuji and road. This was pretty poor really – we managed to see the odd frog, cockroach, stick-insect and roosting scrubfowl. I did pick out a roosting passerine which proved to be a Leaden Flycatcher, and we had a couple of Spectacled Flying-foxes. Annoyingly, I had my second grip of the day when Tom & Trudy saw an owl in the torchlight sat on a gate, which flew before I got to it. Tom thought it looked closest to Barking Owl. Ho hum. Back to the campsite and bed.

Monday 31st July

This morning we all got up about 0630, had breakfast (with Black Butcherbird, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Australian Swiftlet around), and drove south a little to the Marrdja boardwalk. We walked along this for a little; several Bridled Honeyeaters here and lots of Wompoo Fruit-dove calls; Tom finally spotted one for us all to see. Then we had a period of torrential rain (it is a rainforest, so fair enough) so we legged it back. Duncan ran into the car and the other three of us stayed standing under a shelter. Soon, Duncan had the window down and was gesticulating wildly at us. We looked over towards him and on the opposite side of the road, behind the car, a Cassowary was peeking out of the forest. It mostly stayed tucked into the trees, hiding sometimes when a car passed, but eventually it emerged and walked across the road, into the woods by the boardwalk where we’d just been walking. We went and joined Dunc in the car and it emerged that he hadn’t been pointing out this cassoway after all, but two more that had crossed the road a little further up and out of our eye-line. Place is infested with them!

We sat in the car as the rain eased, and noticed a bird pop out onto a high branch which didn’t give great views but was clearly a female/immature Victoria’s Riflebird – my first ever bird-of-paradise (and a bit underwhelming really). As the rain stopped, we walked the boardwalk in its entirety, this time even more exciting as we knew there was at least one cassowary not very far away. Sadly, we didn’t encounter it again. We did notch up Pied and Spectacled Monarch, a better Wompoo Fruit-dove, poor views of my first Spotted Catbird and Northern Fantail. There was also a period when there was a racket like a troop of monkeys a little way off across a creek, but they never came into view – maybe currawongs again like the previous day?

We returned to the campsite for some lunch, and I jammed into my only Rose-crowned Fruit-dove of the trip – I’d seen several candidates flying rapidly over but this was the only one I saw perched. There was a Mistletoebird and several Silver-crowned Friarbirds in the campsite too. We then got picked up for our barrier reef trip with ‘Ocean Safari’. After getting kitted up with wetsuits, we walked to the beach and boarded our boat, a very fast RIB. Really a very exhilarating ride, which took us about 10 miles offshore to Mackay Reef in about 20 minutes. No birds at all on the way. At the reef itself, there were a few Brown Boobies sat on a floating pontoon, and I could make out a number of Crested Terns and Brown Noddies on the island itself. However, we weren’t allowed to land and I only had bins to scan it with, so may have been missing something. There clearly weren’t any frigatebirds in evidence though, sadly. The snorkeling itself was excellent however. We swam around two separate sections of the reef, for about 40 mins each. Highlights were the Green Turtles – one seen munching seagrass on the seafloor, but much better views of two further individuals swimming around the reef; swimming alongside a sea turtle was an amazing experience and one of my highlights of the whole trip. Sadly, none of us saw a shark, although there were a few small stingrays, some crazy-looking blue starfish (which post-trip research suggests may be Linckia laevigata), giant clams (Tridacna gigas) and obviously a huge diversity of fish. I didn’t get round to borrowing a waterproof camera beforehand but was happy to just float around enjoying it. The sea temperature was fine with our wetsuits on, and it wasn’t too choppy. Eventually, we returned at high speed to the beach. Went back to the campsite for a shower and a pizza at the bar. I went for another short spotlighting effort to try to find Tom’s owl of the previous night, but with no luck, then had an early night.

Didn't take many photos today, so here's some more Fan Palms at the Marrdja boardwalk

Tuesday 1st August

Duncan and I got up for an early walk on the Dubuji boardwalk so I could try to pull back the Red-necked Crake. No such luck – in fact, it was extremely quiet with mostly just Yellow-spotted Honeyeaters in evidence although we did see our first Azure Kingfisher briefly as it shot past, as well as another Mistletoebird. Back in the campsite, two Topknot Pigeons and a Brahminy Kite flew over as we packed up our tents. We drove back up to the Kulki viewpoint for some photos, then headed south, parking by the beach at Cow Bay. We’d hoped to find a forest trail here but there wasn’t one, so we wandered north along the beach and back. There were very few birds in evidence – a Spectacled Monarch in the car park, a Brahminy Kite and a couple of overflying Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, but eventually I picked up a new bird here with a flock of Scaly-breasted Lorikeets flying over the forest. There was also a brief view of an unidentified raptor, perhaps a Brown Goshawk. Also a nice colourful spider in the loo here. Lunch on the beach then we headed back to the ferry and out of Daintree. What an amazing area though, would love to return.

Nice spider in the loo at Cow Bay