from the Top End

To: "birding Aus" <>
Subject: from the Top End
From: Goodfellow <>
Date: Sat, 3 Nov 2001 07:17:54 +0930

These are notes from a couple of recent trips.

Last week I went out for four days with a couple of English birders. They 
had already spent some time in Queensland and had seen over 200 birds. 
Top of their list was Rainbow Pitta, usually not a difficult bird to find 
at this time of year. 

We began at Leanyer Swamp where Zitting Cisticola obliged us with good 
views. The areas was burnt a few months ago but the birds simply 
retreated to the tufts of grass that were left, and now that new grass is 
growing, are moving into that.   Mangrove Gerygone is rather quiet there 
this time of year although still calling lustily in the mangroves at 
Leanyer Sewage Ponds.  New birds for them were Green-backed Gerygone, 
Red-headed Honeyeater (Rufous-banded they'd seen at East Point the day 
before), Yellow White-eye, Brown (Grey) Whistler and Shining Flycatcher.  

White-winged Black Terns now dominate the air above the sewage ponds 
along with Gull-billed Terns which were present in larger numbers than 

Searches of East Point (by the English birdwatchers) for the pitta, and 
of Howard Springs (three of us) were unsuccessful - we heard only distant 
calls.  However we tracked it down at Fogg Dam.

The pitta was calling quite close to us on the forest walk (left hand 
side going in), but it was in an area with a dense population of 
freshwater mangroves ('Barringtonia acutangula'). 

Although I couldn't see much leaf damage I was concerned about the itchy 
grubs that feed on these trees (and can leave one itching for weeks) and 
suggested they not leave the path.  We finally found an obliging pitta 
near the carpark carrying nesting material. 

It wase difficult to pin down the source of this bird's call (as it can 
be with Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Black-tailed Treecreeper and a number of 
other birds). So we triangulated as one does with frogs, each coming from 
a different direction.

We then drove down the old Stuart Highway to Robin Falls and the resident 
Black Bittern, but had only a glimpse before it flew.  We searched the 
creeklines for White-browed Robin after I heard a snatch of song while we 
were driving along.  But the bird proved elusive, giving only a couple of 
soft calls, as it moved away. As the going was tough (high, thick, 
tangled grass) we gave up after half an hour or so.

With a lot of water lying around and few grasses seeding, finches, and 
most seed-eating doves and parrots were thin on the ground. After a 
fruitless hunt for Hooded Parrot and Gouldian Finch (both problematic 
this time of year) we took the Mt Frances Creek Road.Groups of 
Grey-crowned Babblers were very common as was Olive-backed Oriole (it is 
largely absent from Darwin at this time of year). 

In Kakadu we had great views of an obliging White-lined Honeyeater from 
the top of Gunnwardewarde Lookout but Banded Fruit-dove and 
Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon were nowhere to be seen, and we didn't have 
time to go to other outliers or to revisit Nourlangie. 

Sandstone Shrike-thrush was also elusive but we finally caught a glimpse 
of one on top of Little Nourlangie. It was about then that I discovered 
Brian was also interested in mammals, reptiles and plants so from then on 
I pointed out anything I thought he might find interesting eg 'Jacksonia 
dilatata' a shrub with zygomorphic flowers growing on the tips of 
cladodes (expanded stems).  Some Aboriginal people make an antiseptic 
wash from this plant.   

Black-tailed Treecreeper was also elusive although it had been quite easy 
to see only a few weeks before, at Nourlangie. I heard a snatch of song 
way off in the forest but too far away to bother chasing. One flew across 
the Arnhem Highway on the way home.  We stopped to search the forest but 
after giving a couple of calls the bird disappeared.  We finally saw it 
in near Mary River. 

Both Doug and Brian had an extensive knowledge of a range of topics from 
medicine to indigenous people and terrorism, and our discussions were 
most enjoyable.  

Friday, Nov. 2

A friend and I drove out to Gunbalunya, Arnhemland to help with mobile 
polling for the Aus Democrats.  

There were many road kills on the Arnhem Highway, mainly Agile Wallabies, 
large goannas 'Varanus panoptes', and water pythons, attended mostly by 
Whistling Kites and Torresian Crows.  Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Brown 
Falcons were the other birds commonly seen (unfortunately the driver 
wasn't a birder and anyway, we were in a hurry!).

After crossing the East Alligator and entering the floodplains we came 
across a flock of Brolgas, adults with almost full-grown young, perhaps 
fifty birds in all; grey statues against a blue sky, their feet in 
emerald grass which stretched on one side of the road, as far as the eye 
could see.

During the day there was no time to watch birds what with handing out 
pamphletts and meeting and greeting my Kunwinjku relatives most of whom I 
hadn't seen for months. As I didn't know many of the men I either handed 
them a copy with one hand on the other arm (proper procedure for people 
who stand in some relationships), or asked Fay my offsider to hand them 
out.  As it was I shook hands with one man who turned out to be Wamud, my 
brother!  But that was okay as I'm considered 'Ngalkobanj' (old, or wise 
lady) anyway)!  I had a copy of the 'Lonely Planet guide to Aboriginal 
Australia' that I had worked on with my Kunwinjku relatives, and most 
hadn't seen it.  Later I gave the book to Grace, my niece (she calls me 
Berloo - auntie), and one of the people who speaks for the Gunbalunya 

We became even busier after discovering that very few of the Bininj 
residents of Gunbalunya knew how to vote. So together we representatives 
of the CLP, the ALP and the Aus Demos worked together explaining to each 
person how the system worked.   After all we all wanted the same things, 
good government and a democracy, and without assistance these people  
wouldn't be making an informed choice.  When the CLP rep had to leave 
early the rest of us handed out his brochures. Only in the Top End!

The Brolgas had disappeared from the floodplains by the time we passed on 
our way home leaving just a few egrets (Intermediate and Great), 
White-necked Herons, and Pied Herons on the banks of the streams 
(Nogadjok marbut, my partner's dreaming).  A solitary Black-breasted 
Buzzard wheeled above the nearby escarpment.  

The car broke down just before the East Alligator, luckily before the 
crossing (I've always had a fear of being stranded mid-river especially 
at night when crocodiles patrol the causeway). Fay waded very carefully 
through the swiftly flowing water covering the crossing to get help, but 
before she reached the nearby Border Store  my Kunwinjku relatives 
arrived in a 4WD and towed the car across. I glimpsed a Great-billed 
Heron flying out of the paperbarks as we started off, but my thoughts 
were with the car shifting in the force of the river.  Obviously, we made 
it safely across. My Kunwinjku son (Djedje) Peterson was on the other 
side and with the help of Lisa from the Border Store was able to get the 
car running again.  While they were working on it I was fulfilling social 
obligations with my Mamam (daughter-in-law) and her children, in other 
words catching up on the gossip!

As Fay and I drove home with under gilt-edged stormclouds shot with 
lightning, my colleague and I agreed we wouldn't want to be anywhere 

I go back to Gunbaluyna next week for a funeral;my sister Esther's 
daughter was killed in an accident a couple of weeks ago.  As I'm taking 
my own car I should have more time for birding.  


Denise Goodfellow  (Lawungkurr Maralngurra)

Follow these direct links to my work on the web:
Four Short Stories

Birds of Darwin Sketches

Birding & Natural History in the Far North

World Birding Event

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