Saturday 23 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 5: Darwin

[Monday 6th August]

Our flight from Cairns took us west over the Gulf of Carpentaria and we had a short stop at the tiny airport with the amusing name (to British ears) of Gove, at the north-east end of Arnhem land. A few mining types were getting on/off. Along the runway I saw a handful of Australian Pratincoles which as it turned out were the only ones I saw on the trip (might be the only bird I’ve only seen from a plane). We had to disembark and go into the tiny terminal, where I picked out my first Pied Butcherbird, along with Black and Brahminy Kite, Nankeen Kestrel and Torresian Crow. We soon got back on and continued further west to Darwin airport and picked up our next hire car. It was noticeably hotter here than Cairns. In the car park I managed two new species, although one was Red-collared Lorikeet which is essentially the same thing as the Rainbow Lorikeets at Cairns airport. However, I was pleased to see Torresian Imperial Pigeons, very smart things.

We drove to find our Airbnb in the suburb of Nightcliff, which was basic but fine (and quiet). Before dark we had a walk along the coast and picked up a selection of common suburban birds which were mostly similar to Cairns, although included Blue-faced Honeyeater, Torresian Imperial Pigeon and Eastern Osprey plus a few new birds. Little Friarbirds were seen around the flat, and in the park-like area along the coast there were a few Grey-crowned Babblers. A little further on by the mouth of the Rifle Creek I noticed Helmeted Friarbird which (I later discovered) is a recent split from the Hornbill Friarbird in Cairns. Finally, a small honeyeater flitting rapidly around was eventually pinned down as being Rufous-banded Honeyeater. As we walked back at dusk, a Brown Goshawk was seen taking food to a nest. We picked up some food at a local shop and then turned in.

White-breasted Woodswallows, Nightcliff

Monday 7th August

I got up early and drove round to East Point to look for my top local target, Rainbow Pitta. I arrived at 0615 when it was still pretty dark, and headed off around the monsoon forest trail by torchlight. Orange-footed Scrubfowl were calling and soon I came on a firebreak where I picked out some eye-shine that soon resolved into a nightjar on the ground. This soon flew over my head and from what I could see, and the ‘chook’ call, it was clearly Large-tailed Nightjar (which I’d seen in India years ago at Bharatpur). I continued around the trail and soon realised I could hear a Rainbow Pitta singing quite close to the path (I had the song on my phone). I tried to remain patient and wait for the light, but eventually cracked and tried a bit of playback with my phone. This was stupid, as the bird then shut up. It got lighter and I could see no sign of it. I didn’t have much time to hang around, and quite a long trail to get back to the car, so I had to leave, pretty pissed off with the situation. However, about 10 mins later I walked around a corner and there was a stunning Rainbow Pitta in the middle of the path. This was my first ever pitta, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped! The bird was very obliging, but it was still too dark for me to get any useful photos (see here for a nice one), so I just had to enjoy it hopping around. A great bird, but soon I had to get back to the car. I did manage another tick before I got there however, with my first White-gaped Honeyeater seen, quite a widespread species up in the Top End.

Rainbow Pitta, world's worst photo, East Point

After returning to the flat and having breakfast, we all went into Darwin town centre for a ‘non-birding day’. I even left my scope and field guide behind, although I ended up regretting the latter. We parked at the end of the Stuart Highway (the one that goes all the way down to the south coast of Australia) and walked through the coastal parkland. Lots of Black Kites here, and other species included Orange-footed Scrubfowl (lots, even in urban car-parks), Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Little and Helmeted Friarbirds, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Figbird, Pacific Reef Heron, Spangled Drongo, Northern Fantail, White-gaped and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Common Sandpiper and Varied Triller.

Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Darwin

One on the most interesting finds of the whole trip however was when I noticed a small, pale beige heron on the shoreline. From its colouration, I thought it was clearly one of the Ardeola pond herons and as there aren’t any resident in Australia, I figured it was perhaps a vagrant Javan or Chinese Pond Heron. However, I didn’t have my field guide – doh! I got what photos I could, then puzzled over how to progress with this bird. Eventually however, we found some Wifi in town and I checked a few photos of pond herons, but none looked quite right. What to do? Eventually, we took a back of camera photo with a phone and emailed it to Rich Fuller in Brisbane, asking for advice and whether Aussie twitchers might want to see the bird. Rich rapidly got back and confirmed that it a pond-heron would indeed be a mega, but that this didn’t look right. He suggested it might be a leucistic Striated Heron, which was a very good call as that was clearly what it was. A highly unusual thing to see, and most unfair for a visiting birder on their first day in a new place!

Leucistic Striated Heron, Darwin

Alongside this excitement, we did some tourist things, looking at some WW2 tunnels, visiting a Chinese taoist temple, and so on. Towards the end of the day we made our way down to Stokes Hill Wharf for some fish and chips. Some good wild fish viewing here too (don’t know what they were!) but the fish and restaurants attracted a fair flock of Silver Gulls which were accompanied by Crested and Gull-billed Terns and a Brahminy Kite, with a few Little Black Cormorants and a normal-coloured Striated Heron also in the harbour. Wandered back, did a bit of supermarket shopping and experienced a few highly drunk locals along the pavement (some big horse racing event had happened today which had presumably acted as a suitable excuse to drink since lunchtime). Then back to Nightcliff.

Stokes Hill Wharf

Tuesday 8th August

The other key target I had before leaving Cairns was Chestnut Rail, so I rose pre-dawn again and drove up to Buffalo Creek, where a boat ramp allows a view of the mangrove-fringed mouth of the creek. Annoyingly, the tide was high, leaving no exposed mud for the rails. This was frustrating, but I took the opportunity to have a short look around. Most notably, there was a mixed flock of waterbirds on the beach at the mouth of the creek which I was able to work through when the sun had risen. I counted about 200 knot (and felt these were probably about 50/50 Red Knot/Great Knot), 25 Sanderling, 15 Eastern Curlew, 50 Masked Lapwing, 2 Pied Oystercatcher, 1 Common Sandpiper, 120 Silver Gull, 35 Crested Tern, 15 Lesser Crested Tern, 17 Gull-billed Tern, 1 Common Tern, 1 Australian Pelican and 2 Pacific Reef Heron. Other more notable species around the car park here included Sacred Kingfisher, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, about 20 Red-winged Parrot, Black Butcherbird, Darter, Yellow Oriole, Brahminy Kite, White-gaped Honeyeater and also five Red-tailed Black Cockatoos that were seen well out to see, flying north (perhaps towards Gunn Point rather than all the way to Melville Island?) I also heard a possible Mangrove Gerygone here but couldn’t pin it down.

I then returned for breakfast, before we all headed out to the East Point area for the day. On route I finally managed a convincing Collared Sparrowhawk (on size and jizz). We first went to the Military Museum, which particularly focused on the Japanese bombing of Darwin shortly after Pearl Harbour and was pretty good. In the grounds, along with various pieces of hardware, I found a few decent birds including my first Lemon-bellied Flycatcher as well as Brown Goshawk, Double-barred Finch, Shining Flycatcher, Forest Kingfisher, Varied Triller and Rufous-banded Honeyeater.

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, East Point

After this we went back to the Mangrove boardwalk. Although only short, this was highly productive for new birds in a short space of time. I found one tree containing three new birds: Arafura Fantail (split of Rufous Fantail), Yellow White-eye and Large-billed Gerygone. Even better, at the far end of the boardwalk (which annoyingly doesn’t stick out onto the beach but stays in the mangroves), there was a fine pair of Collared Kingfishers – now split as Torresian Kingfisher, and the only ones I saw on the trip. We spent a little time watching the crabs here, and came across a pair of Broad-billed Flycatchers here which were also new. As we walked back, a Red-headed Honeyeater zipped past, sufficiently striking to identify in flight.

Forest Kingfisher, East Point

Torresian Kingfisher, East Point

Colourful crab in mangroves, East Point

We then spent a little while by the small Lake Alexander where the kids had a swim and we had lunch. Lots of Black Kites, Straw-necked Ibis, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Magpie Lark loitering around the picnic benches. There was also a Rajah Shelduck on the lake and a distant White-bellied Sea Eagle here. During the afternoon, we did a walking loop that took us along the Monsoon trail, back along the north side of the peninsula towards Lake Alexander, back around the south/west side of the peninsula, then back in along the Monsoon trail. Sadly, no further pitta success but a few nice things. A pair of Pacific Bazas gave fantastic views but annoyingly my camera failed to focus succesfully on them (although a video was better). The best bird of the day though was a fantastic Beach Thick-knee which caught my eye whilst we were walking on top of a low cliff, and the bird was walking on open sand. It soon walked into an area of rocks where it was much harder to pick up. We watched this for a while until someone walked along the beach and the bird flushed off to the north. After failing to find this in the Cairns area, I was very pleased to pull it back. Otherwise, three Caspian Terns were seen flying north offshore, and the beaches also held Common Sandpiper plus Striated and Pacific Reef Herons. Eventually we drove back to our flat, with an Australian Hobby flying over in Nightcliff – my only record of this species during the trip.

Pacific Baza, East Point

Beach Thick-knee (and Masked Lapwings), East Point

Wednesday 9th August

I didn’t get up early for once, having sorted most of my targets in the Darwin area (except for the tide-dependent Chestnut Rail). After breakfast we packed our stuff away and headed off to a supermarket for supplies, then set off down the Stuart Highway and into the outback. Our first stop was at Fogg Dam, about an hour after leaving Darwin and about five miles north of the main road. We set off on the trail along the east side of the lake but made a major mistake of not taking insect repellent with us. The trail was fine at first but on reaching the edge of the lake, the mosquitoes rapidly became a real problem. The others beat a retreat before I did, trading the chance to look for birds for stacks of bites. Annoyingly, I didn’t add much for my pains, although a pair of Paperbark Flycatchers was new, along with Leaden Flycatcher, Arafura Fantail, Varied Triller, Azure Kingfisher, White-gaped and White-throated Honeyeaters, Darter, Magpie Goose and Plumed Whistling Ducks with young. Back at the car park and loaded up with DEET, we then decided to walk along the dam. Before we got very far, we came upon another problem – a recent sign saying quite clearly that there was a large saltwater crocodile around and that no-one should cross the dam on foot. You’ve really got to listen to that sort of advice.

Public service notice at Fogg Dam - seems fair enough

Fortunately, there is a road along the dam also so we drove. This revealed a spectacular concentration of waterbirds, perhaps the most spectacular I remember seeing anywhere in the world. Below the dam, marshy ground extended for miles and was completely packed with thousands of birds. In particular, I found my first Pied Herons; not just a few but at least a thousand in dense flocks of hundreds. The most numerous species was probably Magpie Goose, alongside Plumed Whisting Ducks (and I should have checked more closely for Wandering) and Green Pygmy Geese, Great and Intermediate Egrets, White-necked Heron, Comb-crested Jacana, Darter, Straw-necked and Australian White Ibis, Masked Lapwings, Little Pied Cormorants, Swamphens, Royal Spoonbills, Pelicans and at least two Black-necked Storks. Another new species was White-headed Stilt, quite numerous here and not especially different to other ‘Black-winged Stilts’ around the world. In the distance was a flock of hundreds of marsh terns which appeared to be Whiskered Terns. Finally, high above I picked up a soaring raptor which proved to be a Black Falcon, my only one of the trip.

Pied Herons, just a few of the massed throngs at Fogg Dam

I could have stayed here all day but we still had a long way to go. Next stop along the road was the ‘Windows on the Wetlands’ visitor centre. This was quite well done with displays and the like. Around the centre were a few small birds including Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Lemon-bellied and Paperbark Flycatchers, Varied Triller, Rufous Whistler. Down below on the flood plains, there were another pair of Black-necked Storks, lots of Cattle Egrets on the backs of (apparently domestic rather than feral) buffalo, c100 Green Pygmy Geese, White-necked Herons and so on. As we drove away from the site, we were just accelerating along the main road when a fast-flying flock of about 20 green/yellow birds was seen hurtling along parallel to the car. Although it was hard to make out detail, I felt they had to be Budgerigars, as nothing else seemed to fit. We chased them but they soon veered off into the bush. On viewing videos when back home later, this is clearly what they were.

We continued east, crossing the Adelaide River soon afterwards. As we crossed the bridge, we could see a large Saltwater Crocodile swimming to the north of the bridge, instantly distinctive. Sadly we couldn’t stop on the bridge so continued on to the small Leaning Tree Lagoon to have some lunch in the car. This was a very attractive spot a short distance south of the road, with water-lily covered pools surrounded by the bush. It looked like a likely spot to get ambushed by a crocodile if you wandered too close to the water’s edge – so we didn’t. The pools had quite a few waterbirds, including my first identified Wandering Whistling Ducks (I suspect I’d overlooked them earlier in the day), 13 Rajah Shelducks, two juvenile Black-necked Storks, about 20 Little Black Cormorants fishing cooperatively, Australasian Grebe, Comb-crested Jacana and our first Glossy Ibis of the trip. But then onwards east into Kakadu National Park.

Juvenile Black-necked Stork, Leaning Tree Lagoon