From: Denise Goodfellow <>
Date: 8 September 2006 5:24:48 PM
TOP END BIRD TRIP 30/8/-7/9/06
The trip began with a sojourn to the Leanyer Sewage Pond. There
were only a few waterfowl present, namely Wandering Whistling-duck,
and also Australian Pelican, Pied Heron, Whistling Kite, Common
Sandpiper, Whiskered Tern and Gull-billed Tern, and one adult male
Black-necked Stork. However, the walk to the sewage pond outlet
through the mangroves proved more fruitful. The usual crew were
present eg Red-headed and other honeyeaters, Brown/Grey Whistler,
Mangrove and Large-billed Gerygone, and Yellow White-eye. A nice
plus was Great-billed Heron. We then retired to my home for lunch.
As Sterling and Veronica were staying with me and Michael, they got
an easy introduction to some of the local birds – Brown, Dusky,
Rufous-banded and White-gaped Honeyeater, and Yellow Oriole, and
Crimson and Double-barred Finch, and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin.
Sadly an immature Yellow-rumped Mannikin I’d spotted a few days
before didn’t visit. Figbird and Varied Triller turned up to
protest with the others when our Spotted Tree MonitorVaranus
scalaris decided to sun himself on the fence.
That afternoon we visited Fogg Dam. The eastern side was populated
mostly by Intermediate Egrets and Pied Heron with a few Royal
Spoonbill and Brolga. An immature Marsh Harrier quartered by and we
heard White-browed Crake calling in the spike-rush.
On the monsoon forest walk two-Broad-billed Flycatchers attacking a
Little Shrike-thrush caught our eye. The easiest way to tell the
difference between female Leaden and Broad-billed is the lores,
which are obviously paler in Top End bird. We spent some
interesting moments watching these two little creatures trying to
drive away the bigger bird.
I had just a glimpse of a flying Rainbow Pitta, which unfortunately
my friends didn’t see. I checked without success to see if any
birdy trees were fruiting, for instance Carallia brachiata, a
favourite with Rose-crowned Fruit-dove. But none were.
The next morning Sterling and I visited Palmerston Sewage Pond. For
the past few weeks copious webs have covered an extensive area of
mangal, and several birds have been feasting on the spiders, among
them Broad-billed and Leaden Flycatcher and Spangled Drongo.
However, this morning all was quiet. Generally, Shining Flycatcher
or Mangrove Robin are easy to see on the mangrove mud nearby, but
neither made an appearance, although both were calling some
distance away. Finally, some squeaking and pishing brought in a
Mangrove Grey Fantail and two Rufous Fantails.
We sat for some time at a favourite spot of mine for Mangrove
Golden Whistler, but none showed. Two Large-billed Gerygones amused
us for a while with their nest building. A Brown Honeyeater came to
investigate whereupon the two little birds took up defensive
positions near the nest with wings outspread.
Unfortunately no White-browed Crake were seen in the ponds as the
vegetation has been cleared. There were several Whiskered Terns in
partial breeding plumage, but the White-winged Blacks I noted a few
weeks ago appear to have gone.
PINE CREEK AREA
Later that morning we left for Pine Creek, on the way stopping for
lunch at a bamboo-lined creek where we searched for Buff-sided
Robin. Alas, not even a hint of a call.
What struck me on the trip was the dearth of flowering trees.
Generally at this time of year, some eucalypts are flowering, eg E.
tintinnans, E. dicromophloia, E. confertiflora, and E. tetrodonta.
But we saw hardly any. I wonder whether the very heavy wet season
plus Cyclone Monica may have caused this.
That afternoon we drove to the Pine Creek cemetery often a good
place for Red-backed Kingfisher and Black-breasted Buzzard. But not
this year. At the sewage ponds we picked up Black-fronted Dotterel,
a few Grey Teal, and a Black-winged Stilt among other birds. A nest
in the nearby pylons utilised by a Black Falcon some years ago, and
occupied by Brown Falcon last year, was now the abode of a pair of
Then we drove to Umbrawarra Gorge. On the way I heard Black-tailed
Treecreeper (I describe the call in Birds of Australia’s Top End as
sounding like someone whistling with his head down a toilet bowl).
As we stopped a female Hooded Parrot flew overhead to land in the
same tree as a pair of Black-tailed Treecreepers. Nearby sat a
Brown Goshawk sizing up our mad chase after the birds.
Both Veronica and Sterling were taken with the gorge. There were
few birds and certainly nothing new, but it is one of my favourite
places. Fern-leaved Grevillea were flowering, and also several
herbs including the mauve-floweredOsbeckia australiana and the
bladderwort Utricularia fulva. The former plant is a favourite
because I like its black currant-like fruit.
Next morning we drove to the Fergusson River. We were there early
and it was quite cold. Sterling and I crouched on the grassy bank
while Veronica stayed in the car with her audio books.
With all the water lying about I had some doubts about seeing
Gouldian Finch, but the bird didn’t disappoint us. Soon we heard
the plaintive calls of Long-tailed Finch. Often Gouldian Finch
comes in with this species but being less active (at least the
adults), can be hard to spot.
Scanning a nearby paperbark I spotted a male Gouldian Finch sitting
quietly. Soon, half a dozen Gouldians, adults and immatures came
down to drink among the cobbles, accompanied by Long-tailed and
Only a few paperbarks, namely M. argentea were flowering. Some
years all blossom together and then thousands of birds – Varied and
Rainbow Lorikeets, Hooded Parrots and Northern Rosella and Banded
and Yellow-tinted honeyeaters can be seen. I did see both Banded
and Yellow-tinted in flight, albeit briefly and not long enough to
point out to Sterling. White-throated Gerygone and Striated
Pardalote were calling. We saw the latter but not the gerygone.
Sterling was led a merry dance after a Great Bowerbird cavorting
near its bower, but always just out of sight of his binoculars.
Another highlight were two immature Black Bitterns in flight. They
had been lurking under the weeping paperbarks. Butterflies,
including Northern Jezebel Delias argenthona and Orange Lacewing
Cethosia penthesiliawere present.
On the way back to the highway I looked for one of my favourite
plants Pterocaulon serrulatum. Plants of this genus are utilised by
many indigenous groups. I find its fresh coconut smell almost
addictive, and often hang it in the car as an air freshener. At
Pine Creek next morning I found several such plants.
We then travelled to Edith Falls. I had worked as a biological
consultant on the nearby Mt Todd project several years before, and
know the fauna and flora well. However, there was one surprise in
store for me. Basking in the sun on the lawn was a slender two
metre, uniformly dark brown snake with a long head and pale face. A
taipan! In my 24 years as a guide/biological consultant I have
rarely seen this elapid, and certainly never basking on a lawn! I
followed as it moved off towards the nearby scrub. Then, running to
the nearby kiosk I asked the lass behind the counter to contact the
They arrived half an hour later, and of course didn’t believe me,
saying I’d seen either a Mulga Snake/King Brown or a Black Whip
Snake. I know these snakes well. When I mentioned my name, the
rangers said they knew me to be a credible source, and so were
prepared to accept my sighting.
I had been very excited to see the snake, and the rangers said
they’d wished they’d seen it too. However, none of us wanted such a
snake in that setting, and the rangers said they’d remove it if
they could find it.
Oh, we did see some nice birds at Edith Falls. There, Fern-leaved
Grevillea were still flowering and we picked up Bar-breasted and
Banded Honeyeater, and also Brush Cuckoo. However, there were many
birds I knew to be in the area that we didn’t have time to look for.
DAY 4 KAKADU
The next day we visited a few sites around Pine Creek looking again
for Hooded Parrot. Finally we spotted a dozen or so in a park along
with a couple of Olive-backed Oriole. We then drove onto Kakadu.
Sterling wanted to search for White-throated Grasswren but as we
were staying at Cooinda,it was some distance out of our way. We
went straight to Nourlangie/ Anbangbang Rock, but being midday,
little was moving about. White-lined Honeyeater and Sandstone
Friarbird Philemon buceroides ammitophila were calling but not nearby.
Disappointingly, little was flowering (there was one spike on a
On the way down from a rock shelter, I spotted a White-lined
Honeyeater fossicking in nearby bushes at about eye-height. I
called to Sterling, but he had gone to the lookout, and couldn’t
join me quickly enough to see the bird.
I suggested Sterling and Veronica do the Yellow Waters boat trip
that night. He had seen most of the birds that we were likely to
pick up and so the trip would mainly be for the scenery. Our
indigenous guide was Aggie, a Muluk Muluk woman from the Daly River
(few Mirrar people appear to be involved in tourism). We met at
lunch when she pointed out a lurking Pied Heron, warning us it
would try to take our food.
I told her the bird, Nogadjok, was my husband (Michael has Pied
Heron Dreaming), and would stay away if I told it to. Discovering
she was Muluk Muluk I asked if she knew my brother Don. Yes, he was
her uncle. So I call Aggie my niece/daughter.
We arranged to go on Aggie’s boat. She asked me to help her with
the little birds. I promised, if she would go to look for Little
Kingfisher, one bird Sterling hadn’t seen.
It was near the bamboo thickets that we ran into trouble. Weed
clogged the boat’s propellors. Aggie went over the back of the boat
to free them, and I followed to stand behind her with a paddle in
case a Ginga (Kunwinjku for estuarine crocodile) showed itself.
Incidentally one of my dreamings is Ginga (estuarine crocodile) and
so I’m supposed to look after the habitat of this creature. And if
one attacks, the most I’m supposed to do is “ask it politely to
leave (me) alone”! So said Djedje when I asked him.
However, now I was considered Ngalkobanj, “old” or “wise” lady, I
was allowed to decide whether to wade into an attacking Ginga or
not, so hence the paddle!
Then we seemed to be out of fuel, so a couple of local lads on
board helped out. But still one of the engines played up.
As Aggie returned to the steering wheel, she saw a Little
Kingfisher. “There, there”, she kept saying. But I had no idea
where “there” was! Suddenly the bird flew, but Sterling missed it.
As we motored forward I spotted the kingfisher in a gap in the
foliage. Aggie reversed immediately, but again the bird flew.
Sadly, we didn’t see it again.
Next morning Sterling and I returned to Anbangbang. It was more
humid than the previous day and I hoped this might encourage the
birds to fire up. White-lined Honeyeater was calling much more
vigorously, and we soon spotted the bird, and Sandstone Friarbird.
At the Gunnewardewarde lookout we spotted a female Black Wallaroo
bounding along the cliffs opposite, and also a Short-eared Rock-
I checked the rock figs Ficus platypoda and found them fruiting –
good for Banded Fruit-dove. However, the only one of this species
spotted was far away in the distance.
At Nawulandja (Little Nourlangie) a Sandstone Shrike-thrush was in
full voice (we’d heard them at Anbangbang but far away). On the way
back we spotted a Frilled Lizard, the first I’d seen for many months.
Back at Cooinda I met Michael – we had been neighbours in Parap for
twenty years. He is now driving boats on Yellow Waters, and offered
to take us to look for Little Kingfisher. However we had planned to
go to Ubirr and couldn’t take him up on his kind offer.
That afternoon we drove to Jabiru to pick up fruit and juice for my
Mam mam (daughter-in-law) and other relatives we were going to
visit in Oenpelli the next day. Then we drove onto Ubirr Rock. This
part of the trip was mainly for Veronica. Not a birder she was most
interested in indigenous art. I know something of rock paintings,
having learned from my brothers and brothers-in-law who were among
the last men to paint on rocks. I had also spent time in the area
with authority George Chaloupka while studying anthropology.
The indigenous ranger who came to speak about rock art at Ubirr
looked familiar. He turned out to be Russell Lee, from Darwin. I’ve
known his aunty Mary for many years. As an alderman on Darwin City
Council in the early 1980s I’d invited her to meet Lady Stephens,
wife of Sir Ninian Stephens, and they’d become friends. This
invitation had been part of my push to get Darwin City Council to
acknowledge indigenous people, an uphill battle at the time.
We listened to Russell, and then climbed the rock to view more
paintings. However, the only new wildlife we saw was a Day-flying
Moth Dysphania fenestrata, a beautiful orange and purple banded
creature with clear, purple-veined wings.
We spotlighted back to Cooinda but saw nothing apart from a Boobook
Next morning we left for Oenpelli. This was to be a sad trip. The
indigenous son closest to me died at the end of July and I was
going to see his wife, my daughter-in-law and other relatives. A
bunfight had developed over where he was to be buried and I hoped
to be able to mediate.
But first, we were to climb Injalluk Hill. At the art centre I met
several of my relatives including my Maka (grandchild), Eric who
was to be our guide.
At the top of Injalluk Hill, we encountered again Sandstone Shrike-
thrush, two of them (they are said by my relatives to look after
important sites). But there were no other birds. My Maka pointed
out some pelicans and whistling kites on the billabongs below, and
we told Sterling and Veronica their Kunwinjku names.
Maka said that a huge area had been devastated by Cyclone Monica,
that from Marlwon nearly in central Arnhem Land, one could see
right across to several outstations invisible before because of the
tall trees. All, he said, had been laid out like matchsticks.
On the way down I met my dead son’s brother, Luke leading another
group. I didn’t recognise him at first. He looked much healthier
than when I last saw him
Maka offered to take me to where my scattered relatives were
staying. But first we visited the art centre. There among a
wonderful weaving display, I found an exerpt from the Lonely Planet
Guide to Aboriginal Australia. I had worked on this book with my
relatives under my indigenous name Lawungkurr Maralngurra. And this
particular section, on gathering colour and pandanus, and weaving,
I had interpreted and transcribed for my now 82 year-old Yabok
(older sister) Esther. Anthony, the manager had liked our description.
And it was Esther I was most concerned about. She was distraught
over our son’s death, and wanting to keep him near her, had
insisted he be buried at the outstation where she lived with
another son. However, that outstation wasn’t our dead son’s country.
This decision had divided the family and I hoped to mediate.
However, she had gone out bush.
So next we went looking for Manuel, my dead son’s son, and another
of my Maka. He was staying with another of my favourite sons,
Jeremiah, and his wife Louise (I call both Djedje or “my child” -
they have a “wrong” marriage). My Nadjat (uncle) Corey was also
staying with them.
I was so pleased to see them all, but particularly relieved to see
Manuel. He had not come to see his dying father, being estranged
from him. He wept when I hugged him. I reassured him that his
father had loved him and was proud of him, and that I would take
care of him.
There was a little light comedy when my little Gukguk
(grandchildren) whispered to me, “Bird!”, and then took my hands to
show me a nest in a distant antenna (I didn’t have my binoculars
with me but think it was a crow’s nest). I then suggested they show
the nest to Sterling and Veronica, who very kindly played along
showing interest in the nest. Gukguk Sandy and Nabegayo, while only
5 and 6 years old, are enthusiastic about helping birdwatchers, and
I encourage them wherever possible.
Then we went to visit my Mam mam Stephanie, my dead son’s wife.
Sick herself, she is having a tough time, as is her daughter, my
Maka Vicarina. Others had tried to browbeat them into accepting a
funeral at Mamadewerrie but they had not given in.
Although Vicky looked tired and stressed, my goregous daughter-in-
law gave me her big wonderful smile and a hug. She told Sterling
and Veronica, “this lady is my mother-in-law. Only she is more like
Stephanie said several years ago that she wished I wasn’t her
husband’s mother, because then I could be her mother. How sad it is
that now she can call me motherk, after the death of our beloved
Ngangaridj (my dead son’s skin name).
Incidentally, hundreds of people are coming from everywhere to pay
homage to my son, her husband. We have received eight pages of
tributes from all over the world.
While at Cooinda we heard of Steve Irwin’s death. I must admit to
being in two minds about Steve. He certainly cared for Australian
wildlife, putting it on the map indelibly, and I found his
enthusiasm quite lovable. But Steve reminded me in some ways of
another wildlife enthusiast I’d once featured with in a documentary.
This man, Bruce George, told me he caught snakes because he “loved”
them. At the time we were with my Kunwinjku relatives at Baby
I told Bruce that all my children have Python Dreaming, and they,
(including my now dead son) showed their love and also respect for
such snakes, not by catching and handling the snakes, but by
nurturing and caring for python country. Indeed they care so much
for this snake that seeing a python in distress at being handled
was enough to make my son, now dead, cry.
Then there was my Djedje’s (my child) response on seeing Steve
Irwin feeding a large crocodile while holding his baby. He and wife
Stephanie were shocked and called Steve a “stupid man”.
My son, a respected elder, did not speak from ignorance. He could
call up crocodiles. Indeed when he married Stephanie he called up a
4 metre monster to meet Stephanie’s mother. She was still in shock
He was reticent to talk about this skill. Indeed he’d just begun to
discuss this with visitors to give them an indigenous view of such
wildlife and to counter the views of men such as the snake handler
I mentioned previously.
Both my son and Stephanie’s mother had lost relatives to Ginga.
Indeed Gunyok (Stephanie’s mother, my sister-in-law), related to me
a nightmare she had of her deceased grandfather returning riding on
the back of the crocodile that killed him!
Returning to Cooinda, we retraced our steps to visit spinifex
habitats for White-throated Grasswren. It was a long shot, and
apart from one glimpse we didn’t spot anything Sterling wanted to
see. However, sitting there on the ancient boulders surrounded by
spinifex glowing emerald in the dying sun, and sipping an excellent
white, was bliss!
The next morning we left for the Bardelidjidji Sandstone, my most
reliable spot for Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon (apart from Baby
Dreaming). However, we didn’t spot one. The evidence was there –
tracks of fat pigeon toes from the day before. But not one ChQRP! I
checked the rock figs but none was fruiting, so no Banded Fruit-dove.
But I did spot a Nabarlek, a tiny, rock-wallaby, flying into cover
as we walked by.
Despite the dearth of new birds, the sandstone, packed like
pancakes was lovely in the monrning light - another of my favourite
While walking in we disturbed an Emerald Dove, but unfortunately
Sterling didn’t see it. Veronica, disturbed by the voracious March
flies, turned back a few hundred metres into the walk, and
delightedly told us that two EM’s toodled across her path as she
On returning to Darwin we were stopped by a serious car accident.
Two totally wrecked 4WD’s blocked the Stuart Highway. As I’ve not
seen any news on the crash I’ve no idea whether anyone survived,
but I’d be surprised if there weren’t fatalities.
That afternoon we went to Howard Springs to look for Rainbow Pitta.
It was then I discovered that Sterling was listing everything,
including Rainbow Skink Carlia spp., the gecko Gehyra australis in
the restaurant at Cooinda, a dead Varanus panoptes on the Arnhem
Highway, Marble-headed and Black Whipsnakes flashing across the road.
Now he wanted to know the fish. He added Eel-tailed catfish
Neosolurus ater, Barramundi, Chequered Rainbowfish and a few other
species. However, birds came first and Rainbow Pita was the most
As we rounded a corner of the path there it was, a Rainbow Pitta,
only a metre and a half away. It hopped around quite unperturbed
for several minutes.
Again on the walk I checked for fruiting and flowering trees. One
Carallia brachiata was flowering, but on that particular tree I
wanted to see fruit! Rose-crowned Fruit-dove were calling but all
were in the canopy.
The last morning Sterling and I decided to go for a few more
mangrove birds. I suggested a spot that I’ve found to be good for
White-breasted Whistler and Chestnut Rail. We waited until a couple
of hours after high tide then drove in. Before entering I gave
Sterling explicit instructions on what to do if we were confronted
by a crocodile.
Mangrove Robin was the first bird I heard and imitating its breathy
whistle managed to entice one (not hard to do at the worst of
times) into sight.
Then, standing in the mangroves we squeaked and pished up White-
breasted Whistler and several other birds. After standing
stockstill for half an hour, I heard Chestnut Rail not far away.
Another half hour of standing like statues, and I suggested we
climb further in, climb being the operative word! However, there
was no easy way down to the water’s edge. On the way back two
Chestnut Rail began to call only a few metres away on our right.
Then another started on our left. Crouching down Sterling was able
to see the bird.
On leaving we picked up four big bags of smelly garbage that had
been dumped, most likely by the fishermen who visit the area. That,
plus the smell of the mangrove mud that covered our legs and boots
didn’t really make us fit for civilised company but Veronica didn’t
seem to mind. She’d enjoyed sitting with her books, watching the
birds at my birdbath. They next head for Cairns.