Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
Australia & Singapore: Darwin area
4 October to 9 October 2017
By Stephen Burch, England
Darwin area & Kakadu
We spent 5 nights in this area - 2 in Darwin and then 3 in Kakadu, after which we departed on the Qantas evening flight to Cairns.
In Singapore we had been car-less, which always makes things difficult, but now we could go where we wished at any time with all optics etc on board etc. Driving the short distance from the airport to the motel like Club Tropical Resort we were immediately struck by how birdy the place seemed, compared with Singapore. For example, Black Kites were almost constantly to be seen in the air.
Checking in at the hotel it was apparent that even the hotel grounds were also good for birds, with the aptly named Rainbow Lorikeets and Helmeted Friarbird particularly obvious.
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The next day was to prove to be one of my best birding days ever, anywhere! It started with a longer exploration of the Stringybark walks shortly after dawn. After the birds had woken up, there were plenty of new species here, the most impressive being a Pheasant Coucal and Orange-footed Scrubfowl (we didn't know at the time that these are actually very common in the right habitat) as well as Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and Red-winged Parrot. Smaller birds included the common Figbird and the more localised Northern Fantail.
The car park itself had loads of Rainbow Lorikeets but getting photos was difficult. There were plenty of other birds showing well - Forest Kingfisher, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Brush Cuckoo, Bar-shouldered Dove, Peaceful Dove, Long-tailed Finch and probably best of all a Rainbow Bee Eater being much more obliging than European ones normally are!
Our second visit to this site was at the end of the memorable first full day in Australia and was to look for waders that my wife had spotted the evening before. It also fortunately coincided with a high tide. To reach the wader roost area, turn right along the shore from the Lee Point car park. This was a great walk in late afternoon favoured with a low sun behind giving excellent light for photography. The first birds we came across were a couple of Crested Terns and then Caspian Terns.
The main highlight for me was to locate a large flock of a long sought after wader - Great Knot! Most birds even had some remnants of their smarter summer plumage to varying extents. But the main wader roost (some 1-2km from the car park) also had other interesting waders as well - Red-necked Stint, Grey-tailed Tatler, Lesser Sand Plover, Eastern Curlew, Red-capped Plover, Sooty Oystercatcher and a pair of friendly Beach Stone Curlews, one of which allowed a reasonably close approach.
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Charles Darwin NP
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There was however an Australian White Ibis pottering around in the car park area to welcome us. We then walked a short distance and took the bridge over the left end of the small lake. Here there were several birds - a Little Pied Shag close by, a male Shining Flycatcher coming down to drink just by the bridge and a Brahminy Kite just in the tree above (but into the strong light) and an impressive Australian Tiger Dragonfly.
The recommended path for the Pitta's is a fairly short circular loop that we turned left on just past the bridge. Here there was plenty of rustling in the leaves but they were all Orange Scrub Fowl, that were particularly numerous. Initially there was no sign of our target and I was beginning to get a little concerned, when I suddenly spotted a Rainbow Pitta in the open, near the path! Staying still it seemed unconcerned by our presence, and even came towards us until it was more than filling the frame of my camera. We watched it for a fair while before a sudden movement scared it a little way off.
A really magical moment this, and my main target seen and photographed in the first full day! It was about 2/3 way along the first side of the loop, I would estimate. Around the rest of the loop there was little to see, but we departed very pleased with this really close encounter. As we were to find throughout our stay in Australia, many of the birds are remarkably tame by UK standards.
Birds on the shallow lake to the left were plentiful and varied, with Intermediate Egret, Radjah Shelduck, Wandering Whistling Duck, Australian Darter, Green Pygmy Goose and Magpie Goose particularly obvious. Comb crested Jacana were pottering around on the lilies and we had our first sighting of Whistling Kite that turned out to be very common subsequently. We saw all these species again in Kakadu but it was good to see them so well and easily here first. To the right, we could see distant Brolga Cranes.
Over the far side of the dam, the road bends to the right and ends close to an observation platform overlooking the plain with the Brolgas. A Crimson Finch appeared briefly much closer. However the bushes between the parking area and the platform were more productive with small birds such as Paperbark Flycatcher and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher.
So all in all a very productive brief interlude on the long (3+hr) drive to Kakadu. However on our return 3 days later we also called in here briefly and found the water level had gone down appreciably, and the number of birds had dropped markedly as well.
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So the next morning we were up at 05:00 in order to arrive at the boat first before the bus carrying the others arrived at around 05:50. This was to ensure we secured prime positions for photography in two of the four available seats at the very front of the large boat. This plan worked well and we got the seats we wanted just as dawn was starting to break and before any other passengers were to be seen. Departing at dawn was very atmospheric, very calm and with a slight mist lingering in places - and the anticipation of seeing some great birds close up with minimal physical effort!
In the following 3hrs we were treated to a great experience and plenty of birds, including some of the less obvious passerines (e.g. Buff-sided Robin) and distant waders - that Luke had a 'scope specially for - including Australian Pratincole. This trip was very good for kingfishers, including several tiny Little Kingfishers (which we got very close to, being at the front of the boat), Azure Kingfisher and Sacred Kingfisher.
This boat trip and the surrounding terrain was reminiscent of the Pantanal in Brazil we had visited way back in 2004 and was very good for photography as I think these results show. However, in this first trip, despite Luke's best efforts, we only got one of the big three - Little Kingfisher which was slightly disappointing
Two days later we couldn't resist going on the early morning trip again (no problem booking at short notice at this time of year), but this time it was with a native Australian guide and was not particularly bird focussed (none of the other passengers appeared to be serious birders). Indeed the guide (who maintained a continuous, amplified, running commentary for the entire 2hr trip) kept on saying he hated birds! But despite this, the light was superb - probably better than the first trip and we did stop to get close to several of the more impressive species (maybe because of the obviously keen birder couple at the front?!). Most notably we saw two of the big three - with a stonking Great-billed Heron in addition to another Little Kingfisher.
At first we only had brief flight views of the Great-billed Heron as it flew along the river but later we caught up with it in a riverside bush. It was, like everything else, clearly very accustomed to the boats and allowed a close approach.
The guide for the second trip seemed obsessed with crocodiles, which is what I suppose the average passenger was interested in. There were plenty of them around as well! Introduced Water Buffalo, being large and impressive, also received considerable attention. Despite this, this second trip turned out better for photography than the first - with the majority of these images coming from it.
These two boat trips were definitely one the highlights of our trip.
Cooinda and Mardugal Camp ground
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The nearby Mardugal Camp ground was recommended by Luke from NT Bird Specialists as it has a leaking high-up water tank that attracts birds. We had a brief visit here and saw a few birds - White-gaped Honeycreeper, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and two very good lifers - Red-tailed Cockatoo and Blue-winged Kookaburra (our only one of the trip).
The site was better for rock art than birds though - with only Helmeted Friarbird and White-lined Honeyeater of any note.
With the continuing severe drought the billabong had only a small amount of open water remaining, but there were still plenty of water birds crowded into it. These included Royal Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Egrets, Whistling Ducks, Rajah Shelduck, and Little Black Cormorant. Also out on the mud was a flock of Red-tailed Cockatoos which were also in the trees surrounding the billabong, as were the now familiar Little Corellas and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. The birds here were noticeably less tame than on the Yellow Waters boat trip, and in the grounds of Kakadu Lodge.
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch