Birding in the Top End for the First Time

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Subject: Birding in the Top End for the First Time
From: "Carl Weber" <>
Date: Sun, 11 Oct 2009 18:03:47 +1100
My wife Lyall and I have just returned to Sydney from an 18 day holiday in
the Top End ? Darwin, Kakadu, Pine Creek, Katherine, Litchfield, from 22nd
Sept-9th October.   On most days, one or both of us spent at least an hour
or two on birding, and used ?Finding birds in Darwin, Kakadu and the Top
End?, by McCrie and Watson, as our birding Lonely Planet Guide.  This book
contains detailed information, including maps, habitat, and lists of key
bird species to be found, on about 40 sites within our reach.  We managed to
visit 27 of these sites, some twice.  Our main aim was to simply see what
birds came along, but we were also very much interested in finding ?Top End
Endemics?, which for us means birds that only occur in northern Australia,
that is from the Kimberley in the west to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the
east.   We also had some favourites that for various reasons had captured
our imagination prior to the trip: rainbow pitta, great billed heron,
chestnut-quilled rock pigeon, white-lined honeyeater, white-throated
grasswren, hooded parrot and Gouldian finch.

Our first setback was the sedan rental car: dirt roads were off-limits and
driving at night was not allowed. This ended our hopes for white-throated
grasswren, and would ultimately cost us chestnut-quilled rock pigeon.  It
also curtailed spotlighting for the several owls and nightjars listed by
McCrie and Watson.  On arrival, our first surprise was to discover which
birds are common and which are not.  Pied imperial pigeon, magpie goose,
bar-shouldered dove, red-collared lorikeet, yellow figbird and orange-footed
scrubfowl are ubiquitous.  Birds that we found to be fairly common included
white-bellied cuckoo-shrike, rufous-banded honeyeater, shining- and
lemon-bellied flycatcher, forest kingfisher, brahminy kite, intermediate
egret, white-gaped-, white-throated-, and dusky honeyeater.

A summary of our experiences in the four of McCrie and Watson?s regions that
we visited is set out below.  McCrie noted that, in order to have a chance
of seeing some birds, the sites should be visited at certain times of the
year (we visited in the dry season, near its end); early in the morning
(this was often not possible for us, and we visited regardless, sometimes in
40o heat); or at certain levels of the Top End extreme tides (we found this
to be difficult, especially if the prescribed tide has to be at dawn).   

Darwin Region

We found McCrie?s localities of Darwin Harbour, Tiger Brennan Drive,
Casuarina Coastal Reserve, Lee Point-Buffalo Creek, and Howard Springs
Nature Reserve to be excellent.

At Tiger Brennan Drive I stood on the concrete block described in the book
and within 10 minutes had mangrove robin within 4 metres. The walkway along
Stoddart Drive was alive with birds at 7.30 am and yielded collared
kingfisher, common sandpiper, shining flycatcher, helmeted friarbird,
rufous-banded and rufous-throated honeyeater.  We heard some extremely loud
calls from about 10 m into the adjacent mangroves, and were later told that
this was chestnut rail. The park next to the Esplanade gave us northern
fantail (seen only one more time).

Casuarina Reserve yielded our only sightings of large-billed gerygone,
oriental cuckoo, and rose-crowned fruit-dove. At Lee Point we had our only
sighting of green-backed gerygone ? this had become our serious bogey bird,
and we have the local birder we met at Knuckey Lagoons to thank for

After 3 days and 6 visits, rainbow pitta was looming as a problem.  However,
McCrie said that Howard Springs Nature Reserve is the most reliable site for
rainbow pitta, and that proved to be the case: we had 4 sightings, all at
close range.  This was a highlight. We only saw one more pitta elsewhere.
Another nice bird at Howard Springs was little shrike-thrush.

We had only modest results at Charles Darwin NP, the Botanical Gardens, East
Point Reserve, and Knuckey Lagoons.  At the Botanical Gardens, which are
notable for rufous owl, there is an exercise book in the Information Centre,
where owl sightings and their location are recorded by members of the
public.  There had been rufous owl sightings in mid September, a week before
our first visit, and on 4th, 5th and 6th October.  We went on 8th October
and dipped out.  Well done to the Englishman who, on 4th Oct ?found a pair
of cracking owls after 3½ hours search?.  At East Point, new walking trails
appear to have been put in since the publication of McCrie?s map, and we
were confused for a while. A signposted trail leads from the road, before
you reach the restaurant mentioned in the book as a starting point.

Fogg Dam Region

At Fogg Dam, we did the Woodland to Waterlilies Walk, which yielded a few
birds of note, including Arafura fantail and rainbow pitta.  Walking on the
dam wall was prohibited because of the possibility of a crocodile attack.
Unfortunately our visit coincided with that of a group of workmen with
trucks and a very noisy hydrofoil boat. Nice birds for us included crimson
finch, varied triller, and pied heron.

We didn?t stop at the Adelaide River bridge, but probably should have tried
harder to make time ? but it was 40o and 3 pm.  We were unable to locate the
Mary River excavation pits, perhaps because they were inside the locked gate
with a Keep Out notice.

At Mary River Park, we did the Wallaby Track and Bird Billabong; the Boat
Cruise was unavailable.  We found lots of nice birds on the Wallaby Track,
but nothing exceptional. It did, however give us our first close look at a
flock of varied lorikeets.  To me, this is a strange-looking bird ? as if it
had been designed by Salvador Dali. At Bird Billabong, Lyall found banded
honeyeater in the only flowering eucalypt present.  A black ?breasted
buzzard flew overhead for some time. We also found a lone black-tailed
treecreeper ? upon our return in the car park, as suggested by McCrie and
Watson. This was a very nice find, as it gives us the full set of 6
Australian treecreepers.

Kakadu National Park

In Kakadu, we visited all the sites listed in McCrie and Watson, except
Gubara and Gunlom, both of which are accessible only via gravel roads.
Overall, although we had great views of many birds, especially wetland
birds, the really serious endemics eluded us.  I may have glimpsed a
chestnut-quilled rock pigeon at Bardedjilidji, but no tick.  A seemingly
knowledgeable park ranger at Nourlangie said that chestnut-quilled rock
pigeon was plentiful at Gunlom, but very unlikely at Nourlangie. He also
said that there was a good chance of banded fruit-dove on the Barrk Walk,
which leads from the Nourlangie circuit. Unfortunately, we had run out of
time for that.

Highlights for us were little kingfisher (at Nourlangie, within 2 metres of
us on the Cooinda Boardwalk, and on the Yellow Waters boat cruise),
paperbark flycatcher on the boat cruise, red-faced partridge pigeon (early
morning on the Nourlangie road, and on the highway), and sandstone
shrike-thrush at Nawurlandja and Bardedjilidji.  We counted 39 species on
the early morning Yellow Waters boat cruise. I asked the boat tour guide
about great-billed heron, and he said that he had seen it once this year in
the distance.

The South Alligator River crossing on the Kakadu Highway yielded a few nice
birds, in particular banded honeyeater. We saw no birds at Bukbukluk, and
nothing of note at the nearby creek crossing.

Katherine Region

We birded at the McCrie sites of Pine Creek, Fergusson River, Edith Falls
Rd, and Chinaman Creek.  We also birded Katherine Gorge, which is not
covered in McCrie.  With one key exception, we found almost no key species
at any of the places listed, and virtually none of the Top End Endemics. The
best birding was at the sprinklers near the Katherine Gorge Visitor centre.
Chinaman Creek appears to have been used as a booze drinking rendezvous -
there are numerous vehicle tracks and hundreds of discarded VB cans.

However, at the Edith Falls Rd site shown as no.2 on McCrie?s map, we met a
Belgian who was filming wildlife.  He told us that 2 days earlier he had
seen ?twenty hoodeds? about 1 km to the east.  This seemed unlikely, but we
went there anyway.  We soon heard some calls, then saw some blue and green
birds.  These  proved to be a flock of at least 16 hooded parrots, feeding
on the burnt ground.  As we approached, they would fly up into nearby trees
and slowly move away.  Ultimately, we got to within 15 m of the flock. The
birds were stunning ? their blue and green colours in the morning sunlight
were far brighter than the pictures in Pizzey and Knight would suggest. The
female in particular has a sky-blue face.

But wait, there?s more!  Whilst watching the main part of the flock feeding
on the ground, there in the middle were three smaller and quite different
birds ? two had black heads and pinkish breasts.  We had lucked onto three
Gouldian Finches, two adults and an immature! I felt as lucky as Olympic ice
skater Steven Bradbury, but like him, decided that the luck was deserved by
the years of effort put in to get to that point.  The spot is on the
opposite side of the road to no. 6 on McCrie?s map. (No.6 is not discussed
in the text.) However, he did say ?Almost anywhere along the road provides
opportunities to see Gouldian Finch and Hooped Parrot?.

We were aware that red goshawk had been nesting at Mataranka in July, but
unfortunately for us  this was a bird too far.

Litchfield National Park

McCrie and Watson do not list any birding sites within Litchfield NP.  Our
experience is consistent with this omission, as in two days we saw only a
few species of the more common birds, and none of the Top End Endemics.

In Conclusion

We found McCrie and Watson to be a most useful guide. The maps are very
helpful and enabled us to plan our trip and to find the actual sites with
ease.  It led us to find rainbow pitta, black honeyeater, partridge pigeon,
hooded parrot, Gouldian finch, mangrove robin, northern fantail, and several
other species.

On the negative side, green-backed gerygone was listed as a key species at
many sites, but we found one only at one site.  To be fair, our ineptitude
may have contributed to this. Great-billed heron was listed at several sites
? we dipped out completely.  Nevertheless, Channel Island was described as a
reliable site for this bird.  Yet, the two experienced birders that we spoke
to, both said that they had seen great-billed heron at Buffalo Creek and
never at Channel Island.

Finally, for the last sighting on our last morning, on Stoddart Drive, 100 m
from our car, on top of a light pole, as clear as day, there was a black
butcherbird, a great Top End Endemic to finish with!

Carl Weber

11th October 2009

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