Sunday 24 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 6: Kakadu

[Wednesday 9th August cont...]

Onwards east and into Kakadu. This was a two hour drive that seemed much longer. Most of this journey (and indeed most of the next few days) involved a vista of long straight roads through unending Eucalyptus scrub, peppered with termite mounds. Impressive at first, a little wearing after a while. There was very little wildlife to be seen whilst driving at speed, except for Black and Whistling Kites congregating wherever there was an active bush fire. The only open area was after passing the South Alligator River; this looks like it could be amazing in the wet season, but we saw little here except for a couple more Black-necked Storks. Otherwise, in this two hour journey, I noted Brown Falcon, Collared Sparrowhawk and Torresian Crow. We finally made it to the Bowali visitor centre at Jabiru. Had a drink, filled our water bottles, and looked round the displays. Not a lot of birds around here – Blue-winged Kookaburra and Orange-footed Scrubfowl of note.

We then drove a few miles further south, picking up my first flock of about 20 Little Corellas by the roadside – easily overlooked as Sulphur-crested Cockatoos if not paying attention. After yet another pair of Black-necked Storks, we pulled off down a track to the Burdulba camp ground. This was a very basic site, the only facility being a small toilet block. The downside of this site was the mosquitoes. The upside was that we had it entirely to ourselves. We had a short walk along a trail as dusk approached, and picked up my first Little Woodswallow and Nankeen Night-heron, as well as Forest Kingfisher, Rufous Whistler, Yellow Oriole, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and so on. We then put the tents up (without bothering with the outer covers). I had one more wander down the track and found myself an immature Brush Cuckoo, before returning for tea inside the tents, all of us highly focused on keeping mozzies out. After dark, without our outer tent covers on we had an amazing view of the stars overhead, as well as a few fruit bats and the inevitable wail of Bush Thick-knees nearby.

Thursday 10th August

We managed to stay mozzie-free overnight, but on waking, we could see them clustered on the outside of the tent. So we did a rapid pack-up and sadly we didn’t really get a chance to explore Burdulba any further. We set off on a relatively short drive to Nourlangie. After leaving the main road for a few km, I finally clapped eyes on something I’d been scouring the roadside for miles for - a Partridge Pigeon flew up and landed not far away, allowing a decent view from the car. Sadly, this was the only one of these that we saw, but they’re clearly pretty elusive.

Partridge Pigeon, Nourlangie

At Nourlangie car park we had breakfast, whilst I tried to scan the cliffs of the impressive sandstone escarpment for some of my key Kakadu targets, namely Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Banded Fruit-dove, White-lined Honeyeater and Sandstone Shrike-thrush. No such luck, with just a Great Bowerbird, Yellow Oriole and a few Helmeted Friarbirds in evidence. We joined the first ranger-guided walk, which explained nicely about the rock art (which was OK, but not as impressive as expected). During one of the talks, I noted my first Peregrine of the trip high overhead, and I later notched up a handful of other species including Torresian Crow, Dusky Honeyeater, Norther Fantail, Mistletoebird, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo and Rufous Whistler. But no hint of the key targets, which was disappointing.

Green Tree Ants (Oecophylla sp?) were common and apparently taste of lemon...

It was getting hot now, but we decided to try a different strategy, driving a few miles back along the track then branching off a short way to the car park for the track to Nanguluwur. From here we had a short hot march through the bush to another point at the foot of the sandstone escarpment – nice to be aware from the crowds of tourists at the main Nourlangie site, but similarly birdless. I only noted Black Cockatoos, Red-collared Lorikeets, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, Great Bowerbird, Helmeted Friarbird, Grey-crowned Babbler and Spangled Drongo. We gave up and sweated our way back to the car and had some lunch in the shade. Overall, I was disappointed with the Nourlangie area, although I guess just a slight change in luck could have made it great. Interestingly, I spoke to a birder who spent the effort doing the full 12 km Barrk Bushwalk, and he also failed to find any of the target specialities either.

After lunch we made our way to Cooinda for a cold drink (I started developing a bit of an addiction to cartons of iced coffee) then had a look at the nearby Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Cooinda which was reasonably interesting. In the vicinity I noted White-bellied Sea-eagle, Whistling Kite, Forest Kingfisher, Paperbark Flycatcher and Torresian Crow. We then made our way to our evening campground – Jim Jim Billabong – a bit early. Another nice quiet site, although some other people at this one. No mozzies thankfully, although the site was occupied by a Dingo. Somewhat chunkier than my preconceived idea of what one should look like, but it seems that most are very mixed up with more recent feral dogs, giving them very variable appearance. Anyway, no-one owned it and it was wandering around in the bush, so surely a Dingo. We called it Ringo.

Ringo the Dingo at Jim Jim Billabong

After putting the tents up we went for a walk along the tracks here (accompanied by Ringo who seemed to have adopted us). There were some decent birds in the open bush here, with four new ones for me. Firstly, I finally confirmed Fairy Martin, a couple of which were flying around with a flock of Little Woodswallows. Two new species of finch were welcome – a couple of Masked Finch and about 10 Crimson Finch. I was confused by the final tick and had to work through the book later comparing my photo to the plates, but eventually I realised it was a White-winged Triller. Quite a few other birds here – Black Cockatoos, Dusky Honeyeater, Leaden Flycatcher. Grey-crowned Babbler, Australian Pipit, Rufous Whistler and Black-faced Cuckooshrike. A surprising flock of about 100 White-headed Stilts flew over high up, followed by 150 Little Black Cormorants; clearly water somewhere nearby, apart from the relatively small billabong. We returned to the tents, ate and turned in for the night. For a change, the Bush Thick-knee calls had to compete with Long-tailed Nightjars.

White-winged Triller, Jim Jim Billabong

Friday 11th August

We were woken by Torresian Crows, which we felt have quite an amusing call – a series of descending caws rather like a classic cartoon downfall ‘wah-wah-waaah’. The Long-tailed Nightjars were still calling at dawn too. I had a short walk along the track, finding a pair of White-winged Trillers, about 40 Rainbow Bee-eaters, Leaden Flycatcher and had good views of an adult Brush Cuckoo, before finding my only new bird of the morning, a Striated Pardalote which took a bit of separating from Red-browed. A flock of finches that flew through may have been Long-tailed Finch, but they didn’t stop for confirmation.

Little Corella, Yellow Water

We packed up and headed off to Yellow Water, with nice views of a Pheasant Coucal on the way. We had a boat trip (courtesy of my generous parents) booked on Yellow Water but arrived a bit early, so had a bit of a wander on foot, chatting to a Texan birder who was there too. Around the car park, there was a persistant call which I finally tracked down as emanating from a pair of Brush Cuckoos, as well as Rufous Whistler, Leaden and Paperbark Flycatchers and a Brown Goshawk. By the boats there was also a very short boardwalk but this gave nice views of a range of waterbirds, including Whiskered Tern, Green Pygmy Goose, Darter, Shining Flycatcher, Black-necked Stork, White-necked Heron, Comb-crested Jacana, Pied Heron, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Royal Spoonbill, Nankeen Night-heron, Rajah Shelduck and eight Glossy Ibis. I was also a little surprised to find a Torresian Imperial Pigeon here too. However, the highlight was good views of two Saltwater Crocodiles.

Magpie Goose, Yellow Water

With a little time still to spare we popped back to the nearby Cooinda camp for a drink, where there was a flock of Little Corellas, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and White-bellied Sea Eagles. Then time for the cruise, from about 1130 to 1330. This was great and the guide was excellent – inevitably focusing on crocodiles for most of the guests but paying attention to the birds too. Most of the birds were the common and widespread waterbirds we’d been seeing so far, but views were good of species like both Plumed and Wandering Whistling Duck, Rainbow Bee-eater, Azure Kingfisher, Black-necked Stork, Royal Spoonbill, Nankeen Night-heron, Crimson Finch and Australian Swamphen. A couple of Brolgas flew over and a Dusky Moorhen was a surprise as it wasn’t mapped here in the field guide (but subsequent investigations showed that they aren’t unknown here). The avian highlight was my first Black Bittern that flew across the channel in front of the boat, landing in bankside vegetation and sadly quickly dropping out of sight. The mammals were interesting too, with one area of marsh with a dozen feral pigs causing very visible habitat destruction, a group of six brumbies (feral horses) accompanied by Cattle Egrets, and three feral buffalo in dense bankside vegetation – plus Agile Wallabies. The Saltwater Crocodiles were obviously also a highlight – I counted 10 individuals, mostly large and impressive specimens.

Saltwater Crocodile, Yellow Water

Comb-crested Jacana, Yellow Water

Yellow Water cruise

Feral Water Buffalo, Yellow Water

Don't swim here

After the boat trip, we drove a few miles south to have lunch at the Mardugal car park – nice views here of a perched Collared Sparrowhawk being mobbed by Brown Honeyeaters. We then headed south through more interminable miles of eucalypts/termite mounds until we reached the Gunlom track. I really wanted to go to Gunlom, but it has the slight disadvantage that the approach track is about 37 km of bumpy red dirt. Suffice to say this wasn’t the family’s favourite bit of driving of the holiday, but we gritted our teeth and made it through, nerves jangling. Well worth the effort though as Gunlom (also known as Waterfall Creek) is a lovely spot, albeit a lot busier than we’d experienced at the previous two sites. We put up the tents surrounded by lots of noisy Rainbow Lorikeets, with other campsite birds being typical species such as Magpie Lark, Black and Whistling Kites, Torresian Crow, Forest Kingfisher, Brown and White-throated Honeyeaters, Great Bowerbird, Silver-crowned Friarbird and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. However, it was also pleasing here to find Olive-backed Oriole, something I’d been expecting to see anywhere for weeks. The heat was quite intense here – about 37 degrees – and we quickly made our way to the waterfall-fed pool at the foot of the cliff which is popular for swimming. Most people stuck to the edge but Trudy and I swam right across and back, before being informed that although the pool wasn’t supposed to have any crocodiles, that wasn’t 100% certain. Anyway, we did get bitten, but by some little nippy fish instead of anything more serious.

Gunlom plunge pool

As we had a little bit of daylight left, we then climbed the steep path to the top of the escarpment. Although a steep climb it doesn’t take too long and the view from the top is worth the effort. Sadly, I didn’t have time to go exploring up here this evening for the local specialities, but planned to return in the morning. The only birds of note were Red-winged Parrot and Helmeted Friarbirds, and there were lots of small frogs on the rocks. We returned to the campsite, had some food and listened to a talk by a ranger before bed.

Frog at top of Gunlom falls

Saturday 12th August

Duncan decided to join me and we rose pre-dawn to climb back up the escarpment, managing the ascent in double-quick time. We then spent a couple of hours exploring the jumbled landscape of limestone rocks and scrub, famed as essentially the only site where White-throated Grasswren can be seen. Our hopes weren’t high as no-one had seen the species here recently. However, I also thought we had a good chance of the other local targets I’d missed at Nourlangie, namely Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Banded Fruit Dove, Sandstone Shrikethrush and White-lined Honeyeater. For about the first hour we had very little success at all, although I thought I could hear a distant White-lined Honeyeater way up a steep slope, that I didn’t pursue. Our luck changed slightly when at one spot we came across my first Banded Honeyeater, and this was followed shortly afterwards by another tick – a group of three Northern Rosellas. Other than these, the species tally wasn’t high, with more notable species being White-winged Triller, Brown Goshawk, Northern Fantail, Azure Kingfisher, Red-winged Parrot and White-gaped and Dusky Honeyeaters. But no sign of any of the local specialities, which was very annoying. The terrain was pretty tough and we’d got spiked and probably taken more snake-related risks than were entirely wise too. We’d arranged to meet Tom and Trudy at a pre-set time at the pools at the top of the falls and as we made our way to meet them, at the last moment I heard and then saw a White-lined Honeyeater close to the path. So, at least one of the local endemics, but probably my least sought after.

Olive-backed Oriole, Gunlom

Anyway we had a pleasant swim in the pools here, being nipped occasionally by crayfish, and then made our way back down, effectively having to give up on the other Kakadu endemics. We put the tents down and then bumped our way back along the track to the main road; tarmac is seriously under-rated when you’ve got lots of it. We then headed south and out of Kakadu National Park.

Pools at the top of Gunlom escarpment