Darwin 2010

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After all the exertion of the Gulf-trip I had built up quite a few days in lieu from work and had intended to spend a week searching for grasswrens with a couple of friends in the Corner-country (SW QLD/SA/NSW). Unfortunately due to wet-conditions this was postponed and so I had to find a way of using up a weeks leave, I decided to contact some old friends and take them up on their previously-issued invite. Sheryl and Arthur Keates have become stalwart members of Darwin’s birding-elite and I knew I would be up for some great-birding, I was given the ‘green-light’ and booked tickets with Qantas (….as they seemed to arrive and depart at civilized times, unlike Jetstar & VirginBlue!)

Alas, my in-flight optimism from Brisbane was soon eroded as the 767 was delayed for two hours after an engine ‘warning’ light was detected (see previous experience on the trip to the Gulf) Approaching Darwin the flight was delayed again for a storm (…and this is supposed to be the ‘dry’ season?), we finally landed after at least seven ‘circuits’, and I was relieved when I saw Sheryl waiting at the ‘passenger pick-up’.

Barking Owl (Ninox connivens)

One of the main targets of the trip was to find Rufous Owl (which I’ve yet to see on numerous trips to North Queensland), Sheryl suggested we do a tour of Darwin Botanic Gardens where a pair had been resident for some time. Unfortunately despite combing the area every day for a week they now seem to be absent, although I had cracking views of a pair of Barking Owls near the fountain (a species I have only encountered once before.)

Saturday morning began with a visit to Lee Point, Arthur and Sheryl were keen to check new wader arrivals and I was pleasantly surprised when Sheryl spotted a pair of Rainbow Pitta in the scrub near the beach, one of these was very tame and allowed reasonable photographs. The metallic-blue shoulder-patch on a black body is almost day-glo, making them particularly easy to track through the vegetation and they seem to spend more time on branches than other pitta species that I’ve encountered.

Pitta iris

Another species that I was keen to photograph was the Green-backed Gerygone and they were plentiful and vocal in the area.

Green-backed Gerygone (Gerygone chloronota)

On the high-tide roost Arthur had found quite a few Sanderling and lots of Greater Sand Plovers with a Lesser-crested Tern, later we were joined by a Dutch birder Bas Henson and a couple of old friends, Peter Kyne and Micha Jackson.

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

Pete and Micha

We returned to Darwin for lunch then went up to the Royal Darwin Hospital  for an afternoon walk. The area around the hospital is excellent for birding with a mixture of monsoon forest, mangroves and grassland, I was keen to see a Little Kingfisher which is frequently recorded at Sandy Creek, however I failed to catch up with one on this trip but did see Black Butcherbird, Broad-billed and Shining Flycatcher. Returning to the car we came across many honeyeaters drinking from a small creek, Banded, Rufous-throated and Rufous-breasted, and Bar-breasted.

Bar-breasted Honeyeater (Ramsayornis fasciatus)

Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula)
Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula)

Leaden (Satin?) Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula)

I also came across an odd ‘myiagra’ flycatcher which I initially suspected to be a Satin but after photographing it and questioning it’s identity on the Birding-Aus mailing-list, I’m still no wiser. Personally I think it’s an aberrant Leaden Flycatcher but I’ve had plenty of response suggesting that it is a Satin (although I don’t have a great deal of experience with this species, so will have to reserve judgment)  There are more images on my Picasa site, would welcome any more comments. (Please note: I’ve uploaded most of this birds images in a Gallery, please visit this for better-quality pics and comparison shots)

Gouldian Finch (Chloebia gouldiae)

Gouldian Finch (Chloebia gouldiae)

We were up early on Sunday, Arthur, Sheryl and myself headed out east towards Kakadu, near Mt Bundey Arthur stopped at some old gravel-pits where he had seen Gouldian Finches in the past. We noticed other visitors positioned close to the water but probably preventing birds from coming in to drink, then spotted a flock of 20-30 Gouldian’s landing in the trees between us. Unfortunately they were obviously being deterred from drinking by the other party but we ended up counting nearly 80 birds, including red, black and orange-faced individuals and lots of juveniles. Apparently 2010 has been a very successful year for this species though I don’t want to be too precise with the location of this sighting publicly but can provide details via email if required.

Black-tailed Treecreeper (Climacteris melanurus)

From Mt Bundey we headed back towards Darwin then went south on the Marrakai Track, unfortunately there appears to be ‘development’ occurring along the northern part of the road and sub-division looks imminent. However we did manage to see one of the ‘target’ species early on, my second ‘lifer’ for the day, the Black-tailed Treecreeper. Further along we found another bird which I was keen to catch up with, the ‘leucoptera’ race of the Varied Sittella, this has white rather than orange wing-panels and black on the head, although the sexes have differing amounts of black on their heads, males are ‘capped’ whilst females appear to have a full-‘hood’.

Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera)

Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera)

Continuing along the track we stopped at a dried-up creek-bed with flowering melaleuca, there was an intense ‘gingery’ smell (if only you could ‘bottle’ it!) and singing their plaintive  “three-blind-mice” song, I found my first stunning Buff-sided Robins.

Buff-sided Robin (Poecilodryas cerviniventris)

Also present in the same creek-bed was a nice male Shining Flycatcher and a Banded Honeyeater feeding on the melaleuca blossom. From there we moved to a dry open flood-plain where I spotted a Red-backed Kingfisher. We stopped for lunch at a wonderful river crossing, heard Azure Kingfisher, saw more Shining Flycatcher and Arthur spotted a large fish. In a nearby billabong we had a Black-necked Stork, some Radjah Shelduck and a White-bellied Sea-Eagle perched near it’s large nest. Before reaching the Stuart Highway we passed through a nice rainforest area known as “Bamboo Creek”, here we saw a pair of Brown Goshawk, and a flock of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo.

Broad-billed Flycatcher (Myiagra ruficollis)

Grey Whistler (Pachycephala simplex)

View of beach and mangroves at Kulaluk

Red-banded Jezebel (Delias mysis)

Female Mangrove Golden Whistler (Pachycephala melanura)

Arafura Fantail (Rhipidura dryas)

Red-headed Myzomela (Myzomela erythrocephala)

During the following couple of days before Sheryl left for a brief return to Brisbane. I concentrated my efforts on the greater Darwin area and visited some of the more accessible areas such as Kulaluk Reserve at Coconut Grove, East Point Mangrove Boardwalk, Royal Darwin Hospital and Aralia Road at Nightcliff. The search for the elusive ‘Rufie’ Owl continued in the Botanic Gardens without success, though we did find an Orange-footed Scrubfowls wing, which raised my hopes somewhat. At Kulaluk we managed to find a pair of Mangrove Golden Whistler, Mangrove Robins and an Arafura Fantail, at Aralia Road I saw 3 species of Kingfisher (Collared, Forest and Sacred), plus several species of wader. Despite several returns to the hospital I failed to re-find the mystery flycatcher.

White-throated Honeyeater (Melithreptus albogularis)

Rufous-banded Honeyeater (Conopophila albogularis)

Banded Honeyeater (Cissomela pectoralis)
Banded Honeyeater (Cissomela pectoralis)

Before leaving for Brisbane Sheryl generously took me around and late-afternoon on Monday we visited Buffalo Creek to search for the big red ‘Chook” (…or Chestnut Rail) She decided that it our chances were greater observing from the bank further upstream and as the tide started to return we entered the muddy world of northern mangroves by crossing ‘dubious’ bridges and covering ourselves in ‘deet’ to combat the hordes of mossies and inevitable Saltwater Crocodile attack! Even the fisher-folk seemed to be packing up to go home , but as I was endeavoring to photograph a wily female Shining Flycatcher was amazed when she told me to look over to the other bank…..there it was, a big red chook wandering along the mud for a few seconds before re-entering the dark-jungle from whence it came! I managed to get some shots but they were distant and quite heavily ‘cropped’.

Buffalo Creek

Northern Fantail (Rhipidura rufiventris)

Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

Chestnut Rail (Eulabeornis castaneoventris)

On Wednesday I had the good-fortune to meet Darryel “Biggles” Binns, a local Darwin birdo and well-known guide. He drove up from his home at  McMinn’s Lagoon and attempted to find ‘Rufie’ for me at the Botanic Gardens, failing again we headed out to Howard Springs Nature Reserve where we saw Rainbow Pitta and Large-tailed Nightjar with ease.

Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)

From Howard Springs we headed for Fogg Dam, a nature-reserve I had visited twenty-one years ago in a vain search for White-browed Crake, which Biggles found within ten minutes of our arrival! I re-acquainted myself with Pied Heron and near the hide my guide had a conversation with a Barking Owl, which remained invisible…..most entertaining, especially as it was lunch-time.

Fogg Dam Scene 1

Forest Kingfisher (Todiramphus macleayii)

Fogg Dam Scene 2

Pied Heron (Egretta picata)

From Fogg Dam we proceeded on to the Adelaide River, where the crocodile-cruises run from. Here we hunted for Mangrove Golden Whistler eventually finding a male in a large tree behind the restaurant, much to the delight of the patrons. A Paperbark Flycatcher was nest-making near the bridge.

Male Mangrove Golden Whistler (Pachycephala melanura)

Paperbark Flycatcher (Myiagra nana)

Early start on Thursday, Biggles had agreed to drive down to Mataranka to help find the nesting-pair of Red Goshawk on the condition that we had a look for the northern race of Crested Shrike-tit. The journey is approximately 4 hours straight driving from Darwin so it was some relief when we arrived at Pine Creek and I managed to photograph one of my target species the Hooded Parrot, we also had great views of Northern Rosella, a species that I had only seen once before, twenty-one years ago at Howard Springs.

Hooded Parrot (Psephotus dissimilis)

Northern Rosella (Platycercus venustus)

After a coffee-stop at Katherine, we headed towards Mataranka turning east along the Central Arnhem Highway to look for the Shrike-tit, some of the areas had been extensively burnt and bird activity was very low (probably due to the time of day) but we did manage to see Yellow-tinted,  Golden-backed Honeyeaters, Black-tailed Treecreepers and a small group of Varied Sittellas. At the point of giving up, we reached the distance-marker sign 10 km to Stuart Highway and I thought I heard the birds plaintive-calling, similar to the eastern race. Suddenly Biggles announced that he was on one and we had a total of three birds, I managed to get a couple of reasonable shots.

Kilometre Sign

Northern Shrike-tit (Falcunculus frontatus)

From this good-fortune we continued on to Mataranka, in search of the Red Goshawks. Apparently the birds have moved their previous nest-site across the road and it didn’t take long to find the new one with a bird sitting, though we thought we would hang around and wait until it’s partner turned up. After 15-20 minutes Biggles heard a call which sounded similar to a Brown Falcon and looking on the outside of the tree we realized that the other bird had been perched there all along (…and it was practically asleep!) I’m fascinated how a bird that has taken me 23 years to find can be so obvious and easy to see here.

Mataranka Scene

Red Goshawk nest

Red Goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiatus)

Red Goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiatus)

Elated by the latest ‘lifer’ we headed back towards Katherine and resumed our search for Chestnut-backed Buttonquail (we had stopped at several likely-spots with no success)  At Chinaman and Chainman Creeks on the Victoria Highway west of Katherine we drew ‘blanks’ but I was quite worried at one point when Biggles disappeared into the scrub and then I saw a large ‘willy-willy’ in the same area. Fortunately he returned several minutes later, safe but quail-less!

Big Willy-willy
Big Willy-willy

Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni)

At Katherine Sewage-works I was rewarded with a new reptile, a Freshwater Crocodile (or ‘Freshie’) was photographed basking on the bank. We continued on to Copperfield Dam,  just outside Pine Creek and had a look around for the buttonquail but the highlight here was another surprise, I had heard a slight noise which I attributed to a small reptile, and so scanning the rocky-ridge, I got a great fright when about ten Partridge Pigeons erupted at my feet! As they flew off like rockets in totally random directions views were poor but I did manage to see the red eye-colour on one bird. Despite the sun having set Biggles decided to try for the buttonquail at Pine Creek Sewage-works (…where we had searched in the morning) and this time we had more luck and flushed a group of about ten birds. We then returned to Darwin after an incredible day’s birding!

The last two days were taken up trying to find a few odds’n’sods and we visited Palmerston Sewage-works, Lee Point, the Hospital and other spots, though the Leanyer Sewage Works were still out-of-bounds to birders (supposedly from fear of a croc attack!)

Australian Pratincole (Stiltia isabella)

Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola)

Azure Kingfisher (Alcedo azurea)

Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton)

So ended a great week’s birding, ten ‘lifers’, 179 species and some reasonable images, many thanks to Arthur & Sheryl, Pete & Micha and Biggles for their hospitality and great company. If anyone requires further information on this trip please let me drop me a line.

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Tom Tarrant is a wildlife enthusiast with a passion for photography, video and (open-source) computing.

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