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Australia & Singapore: Cairns area

9 October to 17 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction & General Singapore Darwin area Cairns area O'Reilly's Lady Elliot Island

Cairns area
We arrived at Cairns airport at about 23:00 after the evening Qantas flight from Darwin and then had some hassle over collecting our Europcar hire car. We were offered an upgrade, which wasn't to my liking & the guy on the desk appeared to take offence at that! [We returned the next morning to change it, and had a much more pleasant representative]. After our late arrival, we drove the short distance into Cairns city centre, checked into our hotel and crashed into bed - it had been a very long day - since getting up at 05:00 for the second of our Yellow Waters boat trips.

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.

Cairns Esplanade
The Cairns Esplanade is world famous for its waders, but having already seen most of my targets at Lee Point near Darwin, it wasn't as special for me as it could have been. The Cairns Plaza hotel, where we were staying, was very convenient for the eastern end of the esplanade that seemed to be favoured by the waders. We made two visits  - the first was in the late morning after our arrival from Darwin the night before. Arriving about 2hrs before the quoted high tide time I was surprised to find the water already well up with no mud at all left. Fortunately however a small, tight group of waders remained miraculously on the beach, only a few metres from the esplanade itself, and almost directly opposite the hotel. This was a very accessible section of the beach and another photographer and I tried to keep the odd stray member of the public from wandering off the path and flushing them all!

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!

Great Knot Australian Pelican
Great Knot (click to enlarge) Australian Pelican (click to enlarge)
Black-fronted Dotterel Black-fronted Dotterel
Black-fronted Dotterel (click right to enlarge)

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.

Cassowary House (GPS -16.803607, 145.636229)
We spent two nights at the splendid Cassowary House which is up in the forested hills behind Cairns and only about a 45min drive, yet feels as if its in the middle of nowhere! It is reached by a very narrow track that descends quite sharply. We arrived mid afternoon and were welcomed by Sue, her son and Jun who was to be our guide the next day.

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.

Southern Cassowary Southern Cassowary
Southern Cassowary (click left to enlarge)

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.

Also seen while having breakfast were several of the localised Macleay's Honeyeater and Brush Turkeys both coming to feeders. A Kangaroo Rat also appeared briefly on the ground down below. 

Victorias Riflebird
Victoria's Riflebird (click all to enlarge)
Macleays Honeyeater Victoria's Riflebird
Macleay's Honeyeater (click to enlarge) Victoria's Riflebird (female)

Full day guiding
While at Cassowary House we also had a full days guiding with Jun Matsui, who was Japanese and has spent many years in this part of Australia and so knew the local birds very well. He was an excellent and very professional guide - much in demand. To make sure of his services via Cassowary House, you need to book well in advance (e.g. a full year). This day started with a one hour, pre-breakfast stroll along the drive at Cassowary House. During this time, Jun pointed out a female Victoria's Riflebird, Pale Yellow Robin, Rufous Fantail, Little Shrike Thrush and others - but as with much rainforest birding most were fleeting glimpses only.

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.

White Browed Robin
White Browed Robin Red backed Fairy Wren

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!

Black faced Monach, Hastie Swamp Wedge tailed Eagle
Black faced Monarch, Hastie Swamp Wedge tailed Eagle
Pacific Koel
Pacific Koel Welcome Swallows

Karunda, Mareeba & Mareeba Wetlands (GPS -16.925514,145.360595 )
The following day we said farewell to Sue and the others at Cassowary House and headed in the direction of Kingfisher Lodge where we were to spend the next two nights. En-route, we first stopped at Karunda which is major tourist destination, reached by Skytrain from Cairns. I was hoping for fig parrots here (based on info from Jun) but there was no sign of them. However we did find some Scaly-breasted Parrots high in a tree on the edge of the village.

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!

Channel billed Cuckoo Leaden Flycatcher
Channel billed Cuckoo (click to enlarge) Leaden Flycatcher
Willy Wagtail Red winged Parrot
Willy Wagtail Red winged Parrot 

Kingfisher Park (GPS -16.925514,145.360595 )
Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge is inland and north of Cairns and close to some of the Atherton Tableland mountains including Mt Lewis, which offers prospects for different bird species than those found around Cassowary House and Cairns. The Park was reached by a comfortable drive from Cassowary House, taking in the various stops mentioned above.

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!

Red browed Finch Chestnut breasted Mannikin
Red browed Finch (click to enlarge) Chestnut breasted Mannikin (click to enlarge)
Emerald Dove (click to enlarge) Orange footed Scrub Fowl (click to enlarge)

Guiding from Kingfisher Park
The following day we had pre-booked a full day's guided birding a year previously when we booked. This turned out to be with Carol, the other owner, and unusually it was to be in our car, with Carol in the back. This arrangement allows them to keep the cost down but wasn't ideal as (a) I had to do all the driving and (b) Carol, being in back, wasn't best placed to spot birds as we drove along. This was however a very good day, but could have been even better as Carol had led almost the same tour the previous day, and had seen considerably more! Typical!

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.

Noisy Pitta
Double Eyed Fig Parrot Noisy Pitta (click to enlarge)

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.

Great Bowerbird bower Great Bowerbird
Great Bowerbird's Bower Great Bowerbird

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.

Blue faced Honeyeater Tooth billed Bowerbird  
Blue faced Honeyeater Tooth billed Bowerbird (click to enlarge)

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.

Newell Beach Boat Ramp (GPS -16.433977,145.404192 ) 
The next day we stopped off here briefly en-route to Daintree on Carol's recommendation. The boat ramp overlooks a muddy estuary which can be good for herons, waders etc. When we arrived the tide was in a good state - coming in. Waders included Grey-tailed Tatler, Terek Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper and Eastern Curlew. There was also a Reef Heron, a Striated Heron and Crested Terns about. A worthwhile stop but pretty warm in the midday sun.  

Grey tailed Tattler Striated Heron
Grey tailed Tattler Striated Heron

Daintree Boat Trip (GPS -16.433977,145.404192 )
Daintree is well to the north of Cairns but the boat trips on offer from here sounded really good, so we scheduled a single night's stay in Daintree to allow us to go on this (although the boat trip we went on included Jun and 3 guests from Cassowary House who had driven up that morning starting at some remarkably early hour). We thought getting up at 05:30 was quiet early enough!

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.

Wompoo Fruit Dove Azure Kingfisher
Wompoo Fruit Dove (click to enlarge) Azure Kingfisher (click to enlarge)
Great billed Heron Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
Great billed Heron Sulphur Crested Cockatoo (click to enlarge)

Daintree Village (GPS -16.249306, 145.319593   )
We did a little birding around the village with the main aim of trying to find the elusive Lovely Fairy Wrens along the first stretch of Stewart Creek Road away from the village. This wasn't successful on our own on the late afternoon of our first day. However we tried again the next morning after the boat trip when we had the considerable benefit of assistance from Holly who is a budding bird guide from the Red Mill House we were staying at. She knew this site very well and was soon pointing into the bushes on the right of the road where she had heard them calling. Sure enough we had very brief glimpses of a pair - but they were very skulking - nothing like the other Fairy Wrens were encountered. Unfortunately they soon moved down the slope away from the road so I never got any photos of them worth showing.

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.   

Bush Stone Curlew
Bush Stone Curlew (click right to enlarge)

Michaelmas Cay
Michaelmas Cay is a tiny island which forms part of the Great Barrier Reef, off Cairns. It is another site I had read good reports of from the seabird and photography perspective. The recommended boat for birders is the Seastar that leaves first thing in the morning (07:30) and hence arrives on-site before all the other day tripping boats arrive.  This is mainly a snorkelling trip and after visiting Michaelmas Cay the boat then heads further out to another submerged reef where the only interest is snorkelling. This trip is supposed to offer birders the opportunity, on request, to go round the back of the island. However when I asked I was told the tides were wrong for this, so there was nothing special for birders on this trip, other than to arrive first on the island - but as everyone else snorkels off the beach, it doesn't really matter much.

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.

Brown Booby (click both to enlarge)
Brown Booby (click to enlarge) Sooty Tern (click to enlarge)
Common/Brown Noddy (click both to enlarge)


Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Cairns Plaza Hotel A not too pricey hotel in Cairns, just back from the sea, very well situated for the eastern end of the Esplanade that seemed to be the best for waders. Friendly and helpful staff on reception. We stayed here one night after our late arrival from Darwin and then for 2 nights before departing to Brisbane. We decided to upgrade our room for the second stay and enjoyed the spacious suite we ended up with. Breakfast not included but the continental was perfectly adequate and reasonably priced (unlike some places). Noise from an adjacent building site was a potential issue but we were up before it started most mornings!
Cassowary House Informal Guest house accommodation in the middle of the rain forest, but only 45mins from Cairns and close to places for evening meals. There seemed to be only two rooms - ours (Catbird cottage) had a basic kitchen which we used for a meal one night. Breakfasts (included) on the veranda of the main building were excellent -and surely the only place in the world where you can see Southern Cassowarys and Victoria's Riflebirds while eating boiled eggs and fruit! In addition to the mini kitchen, our slightly basic room had a small balcony (one chair) but the room itself had no chairs (although there was a sofa), and a dodgy shower.
Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge As they were nearly full, we were upgraded to a double unit which was very spacious and had a fully equipped kitchen. Good standard of accommodation in an excellent birding location. No meals served but there were places to eat nearby and self catering was easy.
Red Mill House, Daintree A very welcoming, friendly and helpful small hotel in the village. The inclusive full breakfast was probably the best we had on the holiday. Our ground floor room was fine. A shame we were only able to spend one night here. Within easy walking distance of the boat launch ramp and places to eat in the village for dinner.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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