Saturday 9 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 4: Atherton Tablelands

[Thursday 3rd August cont....]

Heading south, the next place I fancied stopping was at Big Mitchell Creek reserve (key site for White-browed Robin). We could see the lake from the road, and even managed a distant, drive-by tick of Black Swan, as well as an Australian Pelican. However, we missed the entrance to the reserve. In retrospect, this was because there was a gate over the track so we'd assumed it must just be a farm track. By the time we’d realised, it seemed a bit far to turn back. So we carried on to the Mareeba Wetlands, which we were keen to visit as it seemed to be the only place on our whole itinerary where we had a chance of seeing Emu. We turned off the Mulligan Highway at Biboohra and initially crossed some dry farmland where I was pleased to see a good close Brown Falcon. On stopping to look at this however, an even bigger thrill was that we then noticed two Australian Bustards in the field – how jammy was that? I’d made a decision previously not to spend time going to the Mary Road site near Kingfisher Park, so assumed we wouldn’t see these and was pleased to be proved wrong. Slightly less exciting but new all the same were several Australian Pipits in the field with the bustards. Checking a distant congregation of Black Kites also got me my only Little Eagle of the trip; not dissimilar to a Whistling Kite but the jizz gave it away as a Hieraeetus to my eyes.

Australian Bustard, near Mareeba Wetlands

We bumped a few more miles down the track and eventually came to the Mareeba Wetlands, hoping to be greeted by Emus in the car park. But on asking in the cafe, it transpired that the Emus only appeared at first light, when the kitchen staff put out their waste vegetable peelings. It seemed like we’d dipped, which was annoying to us all. However, the lake here was pleasant to sit and have a drink by, and we started notching up more new things: lots of Green Pygmy Geese, Australasian Darter (completing the set of the world’s four darters for me!), Comb-crested Jacana and White-necked Heron, as well as our first Coot of the trip (same species as a home!) A small flock of the delightful little Double-barred Finches was seen by the centre too. We then followed a trail to the Pandanus Lake. This was a hot walk, and generally quiet for wildlife (knowledge of calls would have helped greatly of course). We didn’t see the local speciality, Black-throated Finch. We did see our first Red-tailed Black Cockatoos however, a flock of six flying over. These birds are initially confusing to a British birder, being huge and apparently all black (the red doesn’t really show in flight), and with very slow wingbeats; they can look like ravens or raptors, and their far-carrying calls sounded like cranes to me. Great birds.

Australasian Darter, Mareeba Wetlands

Comb-crested Jacana, Mareeba Wetlands

We eventually got to the viewing platform at Pandanus Lake which had lots of birds on it – far better views of about 40 Black Swans here (in fact, our last views as we didn’t find these anywhere else) and our first sightings of Little Black Cormorant, Australian Grebe and Brolga. Additionally, the lake held Magpie Geese, Green Pygmy Geese, Australian Pelican, a huge Black-necked Stork (which the locals tend to call a Jabiru) and Great and Intermediate Egrets. We then wandered back through the heat – Duncan up front flushed a wallaby which the rest of us missed. One good find on this section however was a pair of Shining Bronze Cuckoos quietly eating caterpillars in trees above our heads. We also noted Rufous Whistler and White-bellied Cuckooshrike here. Eventually we made it back to the first lake and stopped at some picnic tables where we were lucky to chance upon a family party of Red-backed Fairywrens (including a stunning male), followed by a fly-by Swamp Harrier. Overall, this is a really good site, and there was probably a lot more to find.

Nice lizard at Mareeba Wetlands, suggestions welcome!

We still felt a bit short-changed on the kangaroo/wallaby front. I knew that Mareeba golf course was supposed to be a reliable site so I got some directions from the staff at the cafe. We then headed back to the main road, but actually had an excellent view of an Agile Wallaby on the way – our first decent view of a decent-sized roo. We carried on to Mareeba and found the golf course easily, seeing our first Crested Pigeons on roof-tops as we arrived. The information on the roos was indeed reliable and we had great views of 50-100 Eastern Grey Kangaroos here, mostly hopping around the fairways, although one came very close to us along the road. Splendid animals and we finally felt we’d got our Aussie-roo experience. Another new thing here was our first Blue-winged Kookaburra (mad-looking birds), as well as a nice Forest Kingfisher and several Bush Thick-knees. No sign of any Apostlebirds, which other people had reported at the site previously.

Crested Pigeon, Mareeba

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Mareeba

Eastern Grey Kangaroos at Mareeba Golf Course

We carried on south, via a supermarket in Mareeba, and soon had a confusing large flock of about 100 large black birds over the road which I couldn’t stop for. I was puzzling over whether they could be Australian Raven, but in retrospect they were obviously Red-tailed Black Cockatoos. We made it to Atherton and turned east towards Yungaburra, with the bizzare sight of about 500 Sulphur-crested Cockatoos on the ground in a single ploughed field. We were going to go straight to our campsite at Lake Eacham but we had a quick stop at Yungaburra to get some cash. This was a very fortuitous decision for two reasons. Firstly, the cash machine gave me an extra $50 over what I’d asked for. Secondly, Trudy looked at a map of the town and noticed there was a ‘platypus viewing platform’ marked on it. Having determined that this was about 200m away,  we felt it would be rude not to go and have a look, so we parked by the river, walked a short distance and had fantastic views of our first Platypus swimming and diving in the murky water. Duncan was slightly annoyed that we’d de-gripped his earlier sighting! Another real highlight of the trip, these are truly amazing animals to see. This one was a youngster, but as we walked back to the car there was a larger adult showing well also. In the field by the bridge there were also two more new birds – a flock of about 500 Plumed Whistling Ducks and an Australian Swamphen.

Platypus at Yungaburra

We finally headed off to the Lake Eacham Holiday Park which was another good site, well recommended. The site owners were keen to give us loads of gen (which we were grateful to receive of course!) We pitched tents, had a meal in the big campers’ kitchen, and made use of the WiFi before going to bed. There were some weird animal calls going on which I hoped might be a nightjar but it later transpired these were Cane Toads – I saw several by torchlight. As with most other places, there were also Bush Thick-knees calling after dark.

Friday 4th August

I woke at dawn and could hear what were clearly Eastern Whipbirds calling around the edge of the campsite. I got up and tried to track some down but to no avail; a really amazing call though, dueted by pairs of birds (of which there seemed to be two pairs nearby). Some other nice birds around the campsite however: Spotted Catbird (heard), Lewin’s Honeyeater, Spectacled Monarch, Topknot Pigeon, Dusky Honeyeater, Scarlet Honeyeater, Bridled Honeyeater, Fairy Gerygone and Red-browed Finch. Finally I found a new species – seven King Parrots perching high in the taller campsite trees (they stayed in evidence most of the time we were here). Whilst having breakfast we also found a large hawkmoth that had been attracted to the lights.

Topknot Pigeon, Lake Eacham campsite

Privet Hawkmoth sp. Psilogramma menephron/casuarinae, Lake Eacham campsite

We then drove the short distance to Lake Eacham itself – so short, we really should have just walked it. This is a very attractive crater lake surrounded by rainforest, with a well-made trail making it a very easy walk round. Whipbirds were common and I eventually clapped eyes on some on the forest floor. We also had Brown Cuckoo-dove, Victoria’s Riflebird, Atherton (I think) Scrubwren, a pair of Grey-headed Robins, Pale-yellow Robin and a calling Wompoo Fruit-dove. Good views of what were apparently Saw-shelled Turtle in the lake but sadly no sign of the pythons that occur here. One stunning new bird was a male Golden Whistler which gave great views. We found the small Rainforest Display Centre which was very good, detailing work going on locally to try to replant areas of rainforest. By this centre I finally matched some of the small birds to some of the songs I’d been hearing and confirmed they were Brown Gerygone – clearly quite common once I’d sussed the song. We were also delighted to find our first leech, on Trudy- just one and hadn’t fully attached, so not a big deal.

A quick burst of Eastern Whipbird, perhaps my favourite Aussie bird call (close run thing with Laughing Kookaburra though!)

Leech, Lake Eacham. Apparently the commonest species is Gnatbobdellida libbata.

Striking display at the Rainforest Display Centre, Lake Eacham. Nice to see Ulysses Swallowtail, Brush Turkey, Platypus and, of course, Cassowary.

After lunch, we headed off towards the Nerada tea rooms. This took us through somewhat different habitat to previously – more open farmland (ex rainforest of course). As a result it yielded some different birds too - Black-faced Cuckooshrike and the splendid Australian Magpie. We also had brief views of a butcherbird that I didn’t turn around for (and regretted this later) as well as Pied Currawong, Torresian Crow (our first decent views), Bush Thick-knee, Crested Pigeon and Forest Kingfisher. At the Nerada tea rooms we first sorted out the top wildlife target, with good views of four Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos in the narrow belt of trees between the site and the road. Having sorted them, we then looked at the factory and had a cup of locally grown tea. It started to rain here but I had a wander anyway and found Australian Pipit, Pied Currawong, Australian Swamphen, Pacific Black Duck, Nankeen Kestrel, Macleay’s Honeyeater, several obliging Bush Thick-knees and a calling Eastern Whipbird.

Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo, Nerada Tea Rooms

Bush Thick-knee, Nerada Tea Rooms

From here we went across to Malanda Falls – another nice patch of rainforest. Sadly it rained persistently here but it was good to look more closely at the rainforest trees. We did pick up a few species – lots of ‘snapping turtles’ (different or the same to Saw-shelled Turtle of Lake Eacham?), Duncan got a leech, and we recorded a few birds included Brown Gerygone, Victoria’s Riflebird, Eastern Whipbird, Brown Cuckoo-dove, Yellow-throated Scrubwren and my only Barred Cuckoo-shrike of the trip. From here we made our way back, with roadside birds including my first confirmed Brown Goshawk and a family of Sarus Cranes. We had a brief stop at the Curtain Fig Tree (impressive, but raining quite heavily now) and then returned to the campsite. The lady running the site later told me of exactly where I could see a Lesser Sooty Owl. As a result, after dinner I left the others and drove there to have a go at spotlighting for owls, but I failed to connect. I did see a Common Brushtail Possum in the headlights by Lake Eacham though, my only possum of the trip. Lots of Cane Toads in evidence around the wet campsite when I got back.

Curtain Fig Tree, near Yungaburra

Saturday 5th August

Up at first light and whilst Duncan and Trudy went for a run around Lake Eacham (Dunc narrowly missed another Red-bellied Black Snake), I had a relaxing walk along the road to the main lake car park and back (and Tom stayed in bed). Birding was good, with nothing new but a good selection of quality birds, including Eastern Whipbird (seen very well along roadside), Brown Cuckoo-dove (several calling and two seen), King Parrot, Emerald Dove, Scarlet Honeyeater, Golden Whistler, Victoria’s Riflebird (great views but still no adult males), Spotted Catbird (heard), Wompoo Fruit-dove (heard), Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Topknot Pigeon, Pied Monarch, Grey-headed Robin, Bridled Honeyeater and a fab Yellow-breasted Boatbill. Was annoyed with myself for never reading up on Bower’s Shrikethrush properly as I later had a feeling I might have overlooked this, although my one photo of a shrikethrush is clearly a Little.

Grey-headed Robin, Lake Eacham

King Parrot, Lake Eacham campsite

After breakfast, we made a bold move to split the party. Tom was getting history-withdrawals so we dropped him and Trudy off at a Historic Village at Herberton. Duncan came with me as we looped round back to Mt Hypipamee (also known as The Crater, or indeed, as Mt Hippopotamus, or Mt Hypochondriac, etc), famed for being a site where one might see Golden Bowerbird or, at least, their bowers. We drove into the car park and immediately were confronted with a Cassowary wandering nonchalently about in front of the car. We’d heard other reports of the species being seen here so weren’t 100% shocked, but great to see again. Eventually it wandered off and we parked up. Some other birders were around, including Clyde Odonnell who we’d been chatting to on and off since Kingfisher Park. Two other birders got fed up looking and wandered off to see the bowers, whilst I was pleased when Clyde pointed out a White-throated Treecreeper, my first (and only) one of this family which are unrelated to the treecreepers from Europe etc. Then Duncan pointed out that he’d found a bright yellow bird sat in a tree – golden even. There sat a stunning male Golden Bowerbird, right next to all the parked cars. Once we’d seen it it was obvious, and it perched still for ages. Indeed, it just flew off again just as the two birders came back and they missed it. We stood for a while trying to refind it, and were delighted when we next picked out a Tooth-billed Bowerbird, another mega endemic species, albeit not quite so photogenic as the Golden. Having seen these two top targets – as well as Golden Whistler and Brown Gerygone - Duncan and I went off to see the two bowers built by the/a Golden Bowerbird (which were frankly pretty rubbish; my friend and colleague Kate Risely had seen these last year and had described them as "a bit shit", which I don't think we'd disagree with). I got my first leech – hooray. We then returned to the car park, said our goodbyes, got in the car, then Duncan found the Golden Bowerbird again so we jumped out and got everyone onto it, to general rejoicing.

Golden Bowerbird, Mt Hypipamee

Tooth-billed Bowerbird, Mt Hypipamee

Duncan and the Mt Hypipamee Cassowary

We had time before picking up the others, so we had a quick look at Hasties Swamp. Wow, what a lot of ducks. We didn’t do a proper count (which I regretted later) but at a conservative estimate there must have been at least 10,000 Plumed Whistling Ducks, which on a non-especially huge site was quite a spectacle. These were accompanied by lots (1,000?) of Magpie Geese, alongside smaller numbers of Pacific Black Duck, Australian Grebe and Hardhead interspersed. Thinking there really had to be something here I persevered, and was delighted to pick out a handful of wacky-looking Pink-eared Ducks in the mass of whistlers. I kept scanning and eventually found a female Chestnut Teal which was far less exciting to see. Other species here included Dusky Moorhen, Coot, Australian Swamphen, Little Pied Cormorant, White-necked Heron, Great Egret and lots of Black Kites. We then headed off to get Trudy and Tom, and also jammed into the only Noisy Miners of the trip (in the Herberton car park), before returning to Hasties to have lunch in the hide, enjoying the spectacle. This second time, we added Swamp Harrier, Whistling Kite, Forest Kingfisher and Australian Darter to the site list.

In the afternoon we decided to walk the Petersen Creek area along the edge of Yungaburra, where we’d seen the platypuses previously. We’d read about some rainforest re-creation here, although it still didn’t look especially extensive on the ground – good start though. Birding was pretty quiet, with nothing new and the only things of note really being King Parrot and Pied Currawong, plus some nice Agile Wallabies. We walked back through the town and stopped at a bar for a drink where we had a chance meeting with local birding guide Alan Gillanders (I think the large telescope on my back might have given me away as a birder). Alan was clearly really knowledgeable and also very free with his advice, particularly given that he’s a professional guide and we weren’t paying him (should have bought him a drink really – Alan, if you’re ever in Norfolk....) Most importantly, he explained the fine detail missing from my gen from the previous night’s Lesser Sooty Owl dip. We wandered back to the car, seeing Platypus again but dipping at a Green Ringtail Possum stakeout Alan had given us. However, the owl gen was spot on. Just as it got dark, and the sounds of riflebird, whipbird, catbird and wompoo had died down, a juvenile Lesser Sooty Owl popped out of a nest cavity in a large rainforest tree – absolutely stunning and sadly far too dark for me to get a photo as I didn’t want to spotlight it. We got a few mossie bites in the process but (I at least thought) well worth it! Back into Yungaburra where we treated ourselves to a meal out – simple but pleasant fare at the Yungaburra Hotel. Then back to the campsite where we did most of our packing up before we went to bed, ready for an earlier start than normal.

Agile Wallaby, Yungaburra

Sunday 6th August

This was the last day of the first half of our trip. We had to be at the airport in Cairns by late morning, although it was only about 90 minutes away. However, we decided we needed to go for the boldest gamble in our quest for Emu. Remembering that they apparently turned up first at Mareeba Wetlands we rose at 0530 and chucked the stuff in the car, setting off by 0600. We saw Red-legged Pademelon and Long-nosed Bandicoot (‘Dinkicoot’) by Lake Eacham in the headlights, but otherwise nothing before it got light when a Black-necked Stork was seen a few miles north of Mareeba. We headed to the reserve but found the road blocked by a shut gate, still about 3 km short of the centre. We took the opportunity to have our breakfast and repack our bags ready for the plane and surprisingly, I managed a further three lifers whilst sat here in the bush – Pale-headed Rosella, Grey Shrikethrush and Noisy Friarbird – as well as some good Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin and Australian Magpie.

Whilst we waited, some staff came to the gate and although it didn’t officially open until 0830, they took pity on our emu-less status and let us in half an hour early, what super people. And when we got to the car park and walked down to the visitor centre, bingo, there were four Emus, walked around just as promised, eating scraps thrown out from the kitchen. They were exceptionally tame (or just plain un-bothered) and were still present when we left about 0920. Whilst watching them (with Trudy and the kids working on their emu-selfies), we noticed some smaller birds picking at the vegetable peelings which turned out to be Brown Quail, a species I’d really not banked on being able to clap eyes on properly so a real bonus. We then went and had a drink at the cafe (would have been rude not to), and as well as the jacanas and Green Pygmy-Geese on the lake, a dull bird landed in a nearby tree which proved to be the only Yellow Honeyeater of the trip. Nice, but not quite an Emu.

Brown Quail, attracted to vegetable scraps at Mareeba Wetlands

Emu, obviously

No scope required

Emu, wild bird of the remote bush

From here, we headed south back to Mareeba and Duncan called that he’d seen something like a pheasant on the verge. Puzzling over this, a few seconds later we saw another – a fine Pheasant Coucal! Surely the last tick of the Cairns leg? But no, we swung east towards Cairns and a few miles further on two Galahs flew over the car, so close that only I really saw them properly. We’d been assuming Galahs would be ultra-common, so to get it so late in the day was really surprising. Anyway, back to Cairns airport, dump the hire car, check the bags in and relax. A quick tot-up showed that we’d recorded 182 species of which 157 were new for me (just one was heard-only – Eastern Barn Owl).

We thought the Cairns area was fantastic and would highly recommend it. Really hope to return one day, maybe heading south from here towards Brisbane. But next, we had to fly west, to the Northern Territory....