Sunday 24 September 2017

Australia 2017. Part 7: Pine Creek, Katherine and Berry Springs

[Saturday 12th August cont...]

Heading south out of Kakadu, the landscape didn’t really change a lot, except for going over a low range of hills. Our next stop (well, the next stop – there aren’t many) was the small town of Pine Creek. This is renowned in birding circles as the best place to see Hooded Parrots, an extremely range-restricted species of the Northern Territory. We’d got gen that we needed to look in the small Bogger’s Park behind the Shell garage. Predictably, we couldn’t find a Shell garage. We popped into the ‘Lazy Lizard’ store for a drink (=iced coffee fix) and the store owner assured me that I didn’t want to go to Bogger’s Park, but that the very best place for the parrot was just in front of his store. However, they only ever appeared at dawn and dusk when he put his sprinklers on. It was now 1330 and we had a long way to go, so there was no way I was going to convince the troops to hang around for another five hours. So, we had a small wander around the ‘water gardens’ in the middle of town and did see a few things – Blue-faced and White-throated Honeyeaters, Grey-crowned Babbler and Forest Kingfisher. Most noteworthy though were hundreds of roosting Black Flying-fox in some of the trees. We’d previously (in Atherton) been warned that our next campsite at Katherine should be avoided as it had been ‘devastated’ by 100,000 fruit bats. We were mildy perturbed by this intelligence, but didn’t really have a plan B, so were pushing on anyway. But it was interesting to see these bats here in Pine Creek (even if they weren’t quite Hooded Parrots).

Black Flying-fox, Pine Creek

Blue-faced Honeyeater, Pine Creek

Onwards south to Katherine along the Stuart Highway, a good fast road through more miles of monotonous country. Not a lot to see on the way – I only jotted down Black and Whistling Kites and Black-faced Cuckooshrike. Others have noted Black-chested Buzzard along here, but no such luck. We finally made it to Katherine itself (lots of Black Kites), stocked up on supplies, and took advantage of the first bit of Wifi for a few days. Then north to Katherine Gorge itself, with a flock of ten Galahs and a Blue-winged Kookaburra on the way. We got to the site and checked in, and were able to look down on the riverside trees where – yes – there were quite a lot of fruit bats. Lots and lots, roosting in trees but a few already flying around in the late afternoon. We went to put up tents then had a wander nearby. There were a few very tame Agile Wallabies on the site, and birds included White-bellied Sea Eagle, Great Bowerbird, Paperbark Flycatcher, Galah and Red-winged Parrot. After doing a few sample counts of c500 in a typical tree, we felt that 100,000 bats was not an unrealistic estimate, and was perhaps even a little too small; anything up to a million would have been believable. The bats’ guano apparently smelt a little overpowering after a while (although I am blessed with a dysfunctional sense of smell). The majority of the bats down nearer the river appeared to be Little Red Flying-fox, although there were also some Black Flying-fox around the campsite itself. As dusk descended, the bats became increasingly active, many flying over the river to drink.

We watched for a while, then returned and ate our dinner on a campsite table, with bats overhead and a Bush Thick-knee wandering about calling. Oddly, there were also three Blue-winged Kookaburras visible in the lights after dark, one being approached within six feet. Then back to the tent, but just as I was getting in, I heard a distant call of what was surely a Southern Boobook (owl), so I grabbed the torch and headed off to find it. Sadly, it shut up before I got anywhere near so I returned to bed. I then had to get up again to tell a stoned couple next door to pipe down (which they did, eventually).

Sunday 13th August

I slept fitfully and as dawn approached, the clamour of bats got louder and louder. I was amazed (well, not really I suppose) that the rest of the family slept through the din. The sight of bats streaming across the pre-dawn sky was an incredible experience. But as the sun rose, the flow switched off and the noise dropped to nothing. I got up and had a mosy around the campsite. Highlight was watching and listening to some Pied Butcherbirds – an adult and two immatures – incredibly attractive sound seemingly at odds with the thuggish appearance. Other birds included Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles, Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Galah, Little Friarbird, Grey-crowned Babbler, Red-winged Parrot and a single Northern Rosella. After breakfast we walked the Baruwei loop, up onto the escarpment and back down. This was OK but not especially challenging and pretty birdless, the exception being a relatively distant view of my first Wedge-tailed Eagle (an immature) and the only Great Cormorants of the trip flying over – also Brown Goshawk, Blue-winged Kookaburra, etc.

Justice dealt out to our noisy neighbours in the shape of a raiding Great Bowerbird

Distant Wedge-tailed Eagle

We then had an early bit of lunch before going down to the boat launch area; an adult Wedge-tailed Eagle flew over being mobbed by Torresian Crows. Also whilst waiting for the boat, I picked up Rufous Whistler and White-gaped Honeyeater. We then got on a powered boat to take us a few miles up the river into the gorge. Highlight was seeing our first Freshwater Crocodiles – reasonably sizeable beasts in their own right, even if not a shade on the Salties. We were then dropped off and given canoes, and had a couple of hours paddling up and down the steep-side gorge. Quite fun, although the only species I noted were Peregrine, White-faced Heron, Sulphur-crested and Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, Great Bowerbird, Torresian Crow, Brown Honeyeater and Fairy Martin (including seeing nests of the latter in overhung riverside caves). After this the boat took us back downstream (past more Freshie Crocs) and delivered us back to the campsite. Had a fairly lazy evening thereafter, nothing to report (except for several 100,000 fruit bats of course).

A few Little Red Flying-foxes, Katherine Gorge

Mouth of Katherine Gorge (many of the trees along the river here were full of fruit-bats)

Monday 14th August

My birthday today, so of course I was hoping for some nice new species, and indeed I struck lucky almost straight away. Rising at first light, just outside the campsite I found the bower of a Great Bowerbird that was under attack by a flock of seven Apostlebirds; this interesting species had been reported here by someone else in a trip report, so I was pleased to catch up on it (especially after previously dipping at Mareeba). Amongst other common species I also had good views of Leaden Flycatcher, Collared Sparrowhawk, White-winged Triller, Northern Rosella and a nesting Brown Honeyeater.

Impressive bower by a Great Bowerbird

After breakfast we sponged the bat shit off the tents and packed up, then headed off south again. Amazingly, I had two more lifers at a random roadside stop in a more open area of fields – a Masked Woodswallow on a wire and then I noted a couple of Rufous Songlarks on the roadside fences. There was also another Wedge-tailed Eagle along this road this morning. We again stopped in Katherine for supplies and wifi (and saw a Crested Pigeon in the supermarket car-park). We then had to make a decision: head back north as planned toward Darwin and home; or say goodbye to our normal lives and turn the other way and off into the interior. Sadly, the others talked me out of the latter option, and we turned back north along the road towards the coast.

The next place we stopped was by coming off on the Edith Falls Rd, where Hooded Parrots had been seen by others previously about 6 km from the main road. This was very dry and hot – Trudy stayed in the car whilst the boys and I had a few minutes wandering about along the edge of a small creek. No luck with the parrots, but from the tiny bit of wet habitat we did manage to flush a surprising number of waterbirds – our second Black Bittern, plus two Nankeen Night-herons, Great White Egret, White-faced Heron and a Black-necked Stork. It really was too hot to subject non-birders to a long stay though, so we headed back north (Pheasant Coucal and several Brown Falcons along the road) to try again around Pine Creek. Again, we hit it at the wrong time of day, which just couldn’t be helped. However, this time we did find the small Bogger’s Park; the Shell garage we’d been looking for is now a United garage! We drove up to the viewpoint at the top of the hill out over the flooded mine workings, then returned down to have lunch in Bogger’s park. No luck with the Hooded Parrots though. I was somewhat despondent about the fact it looked likely that I would dip these. We popped into the local museum, and the lady in there also confirmed that people only ever saw them at dawn and dusk at the Lazy Lizard store. Yeah thanks. Anyway, we thought we’d walk down to where there was a mining museum and as we did so, I picked up three tiny, long-tailed parrots hurtling into a dense tree. Surely? Yes, we got up to the tree and peered up, and picked up a couple of stunning Hooded Parrots sitting quietly in the shade. Brilliant! So, you don’t have to visit at dawn or dusk (but to be fair, I’m sure it helps!) For reference, the tree was by the ‘1889 water column’ – in fact, just for fun, I think this is the tree. Other birds around Pine Creek today included Brown Falcon, Great Bowerbird, Figbird, White-winged Triller, Paperbark Flycatcher, Rufous Whistler, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbirds and Galah, as well as about 250 Black Flying-foxes.

Hooded Parrot, Pine Creek

We celebrated with an iced coffee (well I did) and then we pushed on north. Not a lot to see by the roadside, the habitat still looking essentially the same as within Kakadu – tall eucalypts and termite mounds, with an open understorey including Sand Palms and Pandanus. We had a stop at the Manton Dam reservoir for a leg-stretch, but there wasn’t really a decent walking trail here. A few birds included Green Pygmy Goose, Darter, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Red-winged Parrot, Drongo, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Torresian Imperial Pigeon (note the far-carrying booming call), Pheasant Coucal and Orange-footed Scrubfowl.  We then continued a few miles further north to Berry Springs, a very dispersed ‘village’ where we’d booked a room for our last two nights. This was a cabin in the corner of someone’s plot along Kultaar Road, which was very pleasant and relaxing. A handful of birds around here before dark included Little Corella, Red-winged Parrot, Double-barred Finch and Bush Thick-knee. We went out for a meal at a nearby restaurant as a birthday treat after days of cold camp food.

Tuesday 15th August

Our penultimate day. On waking, I simply logged the birds around our accommodation; nothing particularly special but including Black-faced and White-breasted Cuckooshrikes, Pied Butcherbird, Galah, etc. After breakfast we headed off to a small site nearby called Berry Springs Nature Park. This was OK, but its main attraction was a few natural swimming pools that were very popular, so the number of people was a bit high for our liking. There were also lots of signs saying to the water had high bacterial levels and we should stay out, so we just sat on the side and dangled our feet it, watching some large fish swim past. There was a short loop trail that had a sign saying it was closed for repairs, but we walked around it anyway and I was surprised to pick up two lifers; at least two Green-backed Gerygones in a mixed flock of birds, plus a Little Bronze Cuckoo. Other species here included Lemon-bellied and Shining Flycatchers, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Arafura Fantail, Large-billed Gerygone and White-winged Triller.

Black-faced Cuckooshrike, Berry Springs

From here we made a short visit to the Crazy Acres mango farm, where they sell mango ice-cream. Nice, but we thought there might have been more to it than just a shop and tables. So we ate our ice-cream then drove off. We tried the road to Middle Arm which is supposed to be a site for a number of mangrove species that I still needed, but the road was frustratingly closed for repairs. Instead we drove north then west onto Channel Island. Not really recommended – it’s a long way, a bit industrial around here and the access wasn’t great, but we did get close to a few mangroves. After some lunch in the car we had a short wander around the boat ramp area where I picked out Varied Triller, White-gaped Honeyeater, three Common Sandpipers, Eastern Reef Heron and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher. But nothing more exciting. The heat was quite intense here so we didn’t last long and in the end we gave up and returned to our accommodation via a supermarket to pick up beer and supplies for a barbecue. We then spent the afternoon doing what normal people probably do on holiday – i.e. not very much, just sat around reading and drinking beer. I did have a nice view of a perched Brown Goshawk being mobbed by Pied Butcherbirds though. Towards the end of the day, the boys and I walked a short loop around the roads, picking up 19 species in about an hour including 40 Little Corellas, Red-winged Parrot, Galah, Silver-crowned Friarbird etc. We then sat and watched the Baz Luhrman film ‘Australia’ on the TV, which seemed apt (particularly the bits of it set around Darwin).

Brown Goshawk, Berry Springs

Wednesday 16th August

Our final morning. The usual selection of common species around our digs was joined by a fab little male Red-backed Fairywren, visible from the loo.

Red-backed Fairywren, Berry Springs 

We packed everything up ready for the plane and set off north back towards Darwin. A flock of four quails (likely Brown Quails?) flew across the road at one point, my only sighting of any except for the ones at Mareeba Wetlands. We had time for a few stops, so we had a quick look around the boat ramp on the north side of the Elizabeth River crossing, which others had mentioned as a place for mangrove species including Chestnut Rail. Again, the tide was in although I thought I might have heard a distant rail calling. I tried a little tape-luring for Mangrove Gerygone and Mangrove Robin, to no avail. We did see a nice Red-headed Honeyeater, and there was a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles on the pylon. Most impressive thing though was a cool jellyfish swimming past the end of the ramp.

White-bellied Sea Eagle, Elizabeth River

Cool jellyfish at Elizabeth River boat ramp

Red-headed Honeyeater, Elizabeth River

Our final place to look around was the Charles Darwin National Park, an impressively large protected area on the outskirts of the city with lots of mangrove habitat. Sadly, the walking trails were all in the scrubby woodland and we couldn’t find any way of accessing the mangroves. So it was pleasant enough, but we didn’t add any final new species. Birds here included a flock of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, Black-faced Cuckooshrike and so on. We finally called it a day and made our way round the airport. Not wanting to give up the Australian birding until the last minute, I logged nine species around the airport terminal: Brown Honeyeater, Red-collared Lorikeet, Spangled Drongo, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Magpie-lark, White-breasted Woodswallow, Figbird, Little Friarbird and Dusky Honeyeater.

We flew from Darwin to Singapore, where in the fading light, we noted hundreds of mynas along the runway.  Despite not really being able to study them in any detail (and it was dark by the time we finally made it into the terminal), these were clearly Javan Myna which, it appears, has mostly ousted Common Myna from its position as number one introduced species in the Singapore area. We spent a few hours around the airport, getting food and looking at the unique in-airport butterfly garden (although the butterflies were clearly asleep), before taking the long flight back. In contrast to our way out, the Singapore Airlines A380 was very comfortable indeed, even in cattle class where we were travelling (sadly, we didn’t have our own suite, which you can get for about £7K per person). We landed back at Heathrow on time and 10 minutes later had the welcome news that Tom had got the grades he needed for his place at Cambridge University, a great end to a great trip. The final Australian bird tally was 240 species of which 205 were new. I definitely want to go back and continue to explore this amazing continent.

Finally, huge thanks to my ever-patient and long-suffering family. Even if they did grip me off with the Red-necked Crake...

Team Musgrove at Mossman Gorge