Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
Australia & Singapore: Cairns area
9 October to
17 October 2017
By Stephen Burch, England
We spent 8 nights in the Cairns area doing a mini tour of several places I hoped would be good for connecting with some of the special birds of the wet tropics. Everywhere we went people were talking about the long lasting drought which was badly affecting the trees - with leaves falling constantly. However the weather broke with a vengeance at the end of our stay, and we departed in heavy rain - which was hopefully good for the forests (and birds) in the area.
I think our birding suffered a bit from the drought but there were still plenty of good birds to be seen, including my main targets. The weather was cooler and more comfortable than in Kakadu - up to about 30° max instead of high 30°s. The rains arrived on our last full day, but didn't affected us as we were offshore that day visiting Michaelmas Cay which escaped the cloud we could see hanging over the mountains behind Cairns.
Here is a roughly chronological account of the birding sites and places we visited in the 7 full days we had here.
Great Knot were the main species, but there were a few others including both Godwits and a few Curlew Sandpipers. I tried taking photos but the birds were somewhat into the sun and the midday light was very harsh - a high tide in the late afternoon on a sunny day would have been better.
The second visit was on our return to Cairns after our tour of the 'wet tropics' inland and to the north, and this time the high tide was later in the day. Learning the lesson about timing from the first visit, I arrived about 3-4hrs before high tide. Even then the water was well up the beach but there was some mud visible. Unfortunately there were no waders at their previous location - they were all congregated further to the east - but still only about a 10 min walk from opposite the Cairns Plaza. This time (a Sunday afternoon) there were quite a few other birders around with scopes etc and there were more waders but they were too distant for worthwhile photography. Species included Australian Pelican, Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tatler, Pied Oystercatcher, both Godwits, Turnstone, Red-necked Stint and Gull-billed Tern. Quite a good haul but only the tern was a trip tick. Although the main group of waders were on a quiet part of the beach below the esplanade, with no easy access, they all flew off before the tide forced them close enough in for good pics. There were some more obliging Black-fronted Dotterels that stayed put for a while on a small stretch of sandy beach that was accessible by dropping down off the Esplanade. Getting back up afterwards was however more tricky!
The trees along the Esplanade can also be good for birds, with Varied Honeyeaters but none of the Fig parrots that are reputed to be seen here sometimes.
By extraordinary good fortune our arrival coincided with a visit to the house's grounds by a complete family of Southern Cassowarys comprising the female, the male and three young (that are tended for exclusively by the male - most unusual!). These were truly impressive, enormous birds that were completely tame and could have probably been touched - we were so close at times. I immediately leapt into action with the camera but they were very difficult subjects being so large and close at times even for the 100-400 lens at minimum zoom! It was also difficult to avoid paths and walls in the background. I also grabbed my point and shoot Sony but that didn't work too well - focus was difficult in the poor light.
These birds regularly visit the grounds but connecting with them can be a matter of chance. We saw them again one morning at breakfast very briefly and didn't get nearly as good views. I ended up following the female up the house's approach track but she never stopped - so no worthwhile photos then.
The following morning I got up at 06:00 just as dawn was breaking in an unsuccessful attempt to see Victoria's Riflebird which had, until very recently, been displaying every morning at the top of a post directly visible from the room's balcony. Apparently his season was early this year, and the displaying had stopped much sooner than normal - due probably to the warm winter temperatures and drought. Still I need not have worried as we soon got great views of this excellent bird (which is a member of the Bird of Paradise family) while having breakfast on Sue's veranda. Here they come to lumps of cheese on the feeders! The male made a cautious approach and then landed on the feeder right in front of us! We also saw the female in the trees behind. The next morning the male again came in, but much more quickly and briefly with no time for any photos.
After the breakfast with the male Victoria's Riflebird down to c. 2m (see above) we headed out in his vehicle for the remainder of the day. Its difficult to be sure where we went, but we did visit Hastie Swamp (good for duck etc) and our last stop before returning was the Fig Tree NP. During this day, the trip list rose by a very impressive c. 50 species, nearly all of which were lifers - as we were benefitting from most of the common ones being new to us. Probably the most impressive species were Wedge-tailed Eagle, Australian Bustard and Sarus Crane, but there were plenty of good smaller birds as well including White-browed Robin, the delightful Red-backed Fairy Wrens and Pale Headed Rosella.
Early on other species we saw included Bush Stone Curlew, Crested Pigeon, Pacific Koel and White-browed Robin. The hide at Hastie Swamp was a convenient place to eat our lunch. Notable water birds here were Pink-eared Duck and Yellow-billed Spoonbill and a White-bellied Sea Eagle flew in to take an unlucky duck. The trees around the hide also had plenty of passerines including Black-faced Monarch and Scarlet Honeyeater.
Fig Tree NP has a very short boardwalk to a most impressive (you've guessed it) fig tree. In the late afternoon, and despite all the visitors, we added more good species to the list here, such as Boat-billed Flycatcher, Grey-headed Robin and White-throated Treecreeper.
The Wedge-tailed Eagle, Australian Bustard were seen from the road on the drive back to Cassowary House. A great day for the list!
Thereafter, following a tip we received at Cassowary House, we stopped briefly in the car park of the Mareeba Golf Course, and scanned for Kangaroos. We spotted a few in the distance sheltering under trees from the now hot sun. There were our only ones of this trip, although we saw plenty of the smaller Wallabies.
Mareeba Wetlands also sounded like it was worth a visit, so we called in here next as it was directly on our route. It is reached down quite a long dusty track which leads to a small car park. Immediately on arrival an Emu wandered up, clearly expecting to be fed. Apparently these are somewhat controversial birds and may have been introduced. The staff here denied this, but Sue at Cassowary House said they don't tick them. I'm afraid I did, as we didn't see any others on our trip! From the car park, the visitor centre is reached down a short track through dry woodland.
At the visitor centre we found a cafe that served lunches etc and a decking that looks out over a lake that appeared pretty devoid of life. We were warned off going for one of the offered boat trips - not worth it they said. An adjacent flowering bush has loads of Brown Honeyeaters and after lunch we wandered outside to see what could be found in the area immediately around the visitor centre. This was pretty productive with a quite close and v impressive Channel-billed Cuckoo and an Orange-winged Parrot. The small marshy area had Double-barred Finches, Red-backed Fairy Wrens, and Yellow Honeyeater. There was also a Leaden Flycatcher around this area and some of the locals helped us get on to an elusive White-throated Gerygone. By the camping area there was a Laughing Kookaburra on the wires. A walk round the lake would probably have turned up more but it was a fair distance and very hot!
On arrival we met Andrew, one of the owners, who checked us in and outlined, in his own distinctive style, some of the birds that could be found around the park. As they were quite full, we were upgraded to a larger and very spacious unit well equipped with its own kitchen etc. It also had its own feeder that had Red-barred Finch and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin. There was also a flock of Metallic Starlings in the trees. The standard units are in a separate row and overlook a much better set of feeders and two small bird baths in the corner. On one of these the wife had a brief view at dusk of a much sought after Red-legged Crake but it had unfortunately gone by the time I got there and we never saw another one!
Guiding from Kingfisher
We started at 06:30 with a walk around the park which was reasonably successful with Spectacled Monach, Papuan Frogmouth, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Scarlet Honeyeater the most notable.
At around 08:00 we set out on the driving part of the tour and had a good trip down the nearby Macdougal's Road. Along here we saw a distant Cotton Pygmy Goose on a small lake, a Scrub Python under a bush and, best of all, Carol's sharp hearing and experience picked up a Noisy Pitta in a wooded area beyond the end of the road. That was another species high on my target list - and apparently difficult to connect with. More often heard than seen! We finally also connected with the tiny Double-eyed Fig Parrots - but only distant views of bird high up in the trees near where we had parked.
After that we had good views of a Great Bowerbird's bower, and less good views of its maker, before returning to our unit for an hours break at lunch time.
After lunch, it was time for an afternoon ascent of the nearby Mt Lewis, where a narrow track, just about OK for an ordinary car, winds its way up. Unfortunately this was the least successful part of the day. Although we spent from about 13:00 to 18:30 here we saw far less than Carol's previous days guiding had produced. Such is birding! Having seen very little from the track on the way up, we then walked a fair distance along a narrow track through the rain forest to a reservoir.
The highlight along this track was a superb (albeit drab) singing Tooth-billed Bowerbird that Carol located by voice just off the path. This was a real challenge photographically requiring a a very ISO setting in the awful light under the canopy. Despite this, the lens and camera performed pretty well I think, given they were hand held. Around this spot, Carol also reckoned she could here a Golden Bowerbird, but it was in an impenetrable section of the forest so we never saw it, despite Carol attempting to get closer. Up here we also saw Grey Fantails, Atherton's Scrub Wren and a few Yellow-throated Scrub Wrens. A notable dip however was Chowchilla which eluded us despite Carol's best efforts.
On our return, there was however a great bonus at the bottom of the track where we stopped at a bridge, when it was almost dark, and watched a Duck-billed Platypus in the stream below. It was just too dark for photos, unfortunately.
We had pre-booked the River Boatman trip through Sue at Cassowary House, months before. When we were staying with her I asked if it could be arranged that we sat in the front of the small boat (only 2 places are at the front). This seemed to have been arranged via a phone call, and sure enough when the boat man invited us all on board, we were given the plum spots at the front (not that any of the others were serious photographers).
The boat trip left at 06:30 and was scheduled to last only 2 hours, although it overran a bit. It was at full tide and I presume the birding suffered from this. It did not compare very well with the Yellow Waters trips we had been on previously in Kakadu. Nevertheless, we saw a few good birds and got a some worthwhile photos, so it was probably just about worth the detour north.
Probably the best bird was a Wompoo Fruit Dove on its nest under a tree and we also had a distant silhouette view of another Great-billed Heron. Going up a backwater was very scenic and produced another Azure Kingfisher with good light on it. Again it was very tame and allowed a close approach that we were able to take full advantage of being in the front.
-16.249306, 145.319593 )
The only other notable bird was some very close Bush Stone Curlews we saw from the car when were leaving for the trip south back to Cairns. These were on the river side of the village on the lawns of the houses along the street about here -16.249311, 145.317222.
We booked this trip through Sue at Cassowary House, and checked with her about parking. She said the best place is the car park under the adjacent Piers shopping centre (entrance at about GPS -16.920178, 145.779788 ). This worked well for us - plenty of space at that time in the morning!
Arriving at Michaelmas Cay, I made sure I was on the first boat load to land on the island. While everyone else snorkelled off the beach (under close supervision of the excellent boat crew), I alone was aiming for birding and photography for the hour and a half available. Unfortunately all visitors are confined to a small patch of beach that only extends a little way onto the island - just as far as the first breeding birds. So prowling along the roped off edge of this area, I set about trying to get photos of the inhabitants. Those within lens distance of the rope were limited to Brown Boobies (that had young) and Common/Brown Noddies (that didn't).
Opportunities for flight shots included Sooty Terns but the only other species I saw were Turnstone and probable Bridled Terns on the buoys on arriving/departing. There was no sign of the rarer species that sometimes visit, which include Black Noddy and Frigatebirds. No matter though - these were all seen in abundance later in our trip at the superb Lady Elliot Island.
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch