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Australia & Singapore: Darwin area

4 October to 9 October 2017

By Stephen Burch, England

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

Darwin area & Kakadu
Darwin is about a five hour flight from Singapore, so comparatively short compared with the other trans-continental flights we took on this trip. We chose to go during the day, via Silk Air, which was booked via Singapore Airlines as part of one multi-stop booking that covered all the long haul flights.

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.

The weather here was hot and dry, quite a contrast to the wet & humid conditions of Singapore. Even in Darwin it was well into the 30°s C, but in Kakadu it was hotter - with the car recording a max of 39°C, although it was much pleasanter in the early morning. Everyone was commenting on the drought that was approaching the longest on record, with no rain for months. Although the wet season was due to start shortly, the complete lack of rain was highly unusual - no doubt another sign of global warming.

Darwin area
The 08:30 flight from Singapore required an early start that day, but the arrival was then in daylight at 15:00. Darwin is quite a small airport (quite unlike the massive Changi Airport at Singapore) and we were quickly through immigration (UK e-passports had a special automated lane!). The service provided by Airport Rent A Car/Bargain Car Rentals was excellent - an efficient collection and transfer to their office where the driver (and owner?) even transferred all our bags to the car while we signed the paperwork.

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.

Stringybark Walk (GPS -12.340487, 130.8922 )
Almost directly opposite the hotel is a track with a notice saying Stringybark Walks (see here for a fuller description ). This leads to a whole network of paths through a scrubby/wooded area that proved excellent for birds early morning and late afternoon. Immediately after checking in, we went on a very brief walk along this path but even this produced a couple of species - White-throated Honeyeater and Yellow Oriole.

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.

Rainbow Lorikeet Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
Rainbow Lorikeet (click to enlarge) Sulphur Crested Cockatoo
Northern Fantail Pheasant Coucal
Northern Fantail Pheasant Coucal

Lee Point (GPS -12.332503, 130.894715)
Lee Point was just up the road from our hotel. We visited here twice, first on the evening of our arrival and secondly in the late afternoon of the second day. Both visits were very successful. The first brief visit provided a great intro to Australian birds and I confined my attentions to the area around the main parking area and track that led back towards the Stringybark walks opposite the hotel. On both visits, the sun was shining and the light was superb in the late afternoon as it got lower & lower.

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!

Rainbow Bee Eater (click both to enlarge)

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.

All in all a great spot for wader enthusiasts!

Beach Stone Curlew Great Knot
Beach Stone Curlew (click to enlarge) Great Knot, Red-necked Stint, Lesser Sand Plover & other waders (click to enlarge)
Crested Tern Red-capped Plover
Crested Tern (click to enlarge) Red-capped Plover
Lee Point sunset

Club Tropical Resort (GPS -12.340487, 130.8922 )
The grounds of this hotel/motel appeared good for birds, although we spent little time looking for them there. Rainbow Lorikeets were almost constantly to be seen flying over (I briefly tried for flight shots from the first floor walkway outside our room but didn't have any success) and the area in front of reception had Magpie Larks, Little Friarbird and White-winged Triller. Early in the morning one day, there were White-bellied Cuckoo Shrikes, Friarbirds and Spangled Drongo on the wires just by our balcony! Further exploration would no doubt have produced more.

White winged Triller Little Friarbird
White winged Triller Little Friarbird

Charles Darwin NP (GPS -12.443495, 130.877354 )
We visited this site on our return from Kakadu, prior to our evening flight to Cairns and only briefly explored the picnic type area at the centre of the park. Here we found several species we had already seen earlier, such as Rainbow Lorikeet  and Silver-headed Friarbird. Only Dusky Honeyeaters coming to a dripping water fountain were new.

Howard Springs (GPS -12.456589, 131.051637)
This site is about a 30min drive Darwin and is said to be the best site for Rainbow Pitta - a bird that was at the top of my target list for this trip. We therefore visited it on our first full day in Darwin, on the grounds that if we failed to locate one, we could always try the next day (or on our return from Kakadu three days later). It was very warm when we arrived mid morning - not the best time of day for birding.

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.

Australian White Ibis Australian Tiger Dragonfly
Australian White Ibis Australian Tiger Dragonfly
Brahminy Kite
Brahminy Kite Little Pied Cormorant

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.

Rainbow Pitta Rainbow Pitta
Rainbow Pitta
Rainbow Pitta (click all except top right to enlarge)

Fogg Dam (GPS -12.566864, 131.308011)
The next day we departed Darwin and headed towards Kakadu on the Arnhem Highway. After about 65km we turned off left towards Fogg Dam. Although there are some trails here, because of our limited time we opted for the lazy option - driving the car across the dam itself, which has good birding on both sides - although be wary if getting out of the car in this area - there is supposed to be a large croc in the area, of which we of course saw no sign!

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.

Wandering Whistling Duck Magpie Goose
Wandering Whistling Duck (click to enlarge) Magpie Goose (click to enlarge)
Graphic Flutterer
Graphic Flutterer

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.

Kakadu NP

Aurora Kakadu (GPS -12.674834, 132.478434 )
The road to Kakadu is long, straight and quite monotonous, passing through mile upon mile of similar dry woodland appearing to hold little in the way of wildlife. The drive from Darwin takes over 3 hours, so we were looking for a break and stopped at this place, which had a tourist info centre (where we bought Kakadu NP passes), fuel and toilets etc. Round the back of the info centre, I found these charming, and obliging Little Rosellas, making it a worthwhile halt.

Little Rosella Little Rosellas
Little Rosellas (click to enlarge)

Mamukula Wetlands (GPS -12.649818, 132.572748 )
This site is just off the Arnhem Highway, somewhat before Jabiru and features a popular large hide overlooking an extensive but shallow lake. This contained many of the same water birds at as Fogg Dam, but with the addition of Glossy Ibis and Great Egret. There were also some interesting passerines in the bushes between the parking area and the hide, including Double-barred Finch and Arafura Fantail.

Intermediate Egret  
Intermediate Egret (click to enlarge) Glossy Ibis

Yellow Waters Boat Trips (GPS -12.896633,132.518457 )
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Cooinda Lodge, which is the only place to stay for the early morning Yellow Water boat trips. On checking in we found that, in addition to the standard early morning boat trip we were already booked on, there was an additional trip that was specifically for birds, as it was the last day of the Kakadu Birding Week. However there was some doubt about whether or not it was full. After dinner we went to a talk given by the excellent Luke from NT Bird Specialists, who was due to lead the birders trip the following morning. I think our attendance at this talk tipped the balance and after some discussion it was decided there was space after all for us! Luke then proceeded to describe the birds we might see the next day, which included the so called "big three" - namely Great-billed Heron, Little Kingfisher and Black Bittern.

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

Little Kingfisher Little Kingfisher
Little Kingfisher (one of the 'big three')  (click right to enlarge)
Azure Kingfisher Sacred Kingfisher
Azure Kingfisher (click to enlarge) Sacred Kingfisher
Black-necked Stork Black-necked Stork
Black-necked Stork (click right to enlarge)
Comb Jacana Green Pygmy Goose
Comb Jacana (click to enlarge) Green Pygmy Goose (click to enlarge)
Pied Cormorant Pied Cormorant
Pied Cormorant (click right to enlarge). This bird had just caught a huge catfish and struggled with it to the bank, whereupon it was quickly stolen by a very alert Whistling Kite!
Whistling Kite (click to enlarge) - getting ready to attack the cormorant above for the fish!

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

Australian Darter Nankeen Night Heron
Australian Darter (click to enlarge) Nankeen Night Heron (click to enlarge)
White necked Heron
White necked Heron Crocodile

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.

Great billed Heron Great billed Heron
Great billed Heron (click both to enlarge)

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.

Early morning croc

Kakadu Dawn

Kakadu Lodge, Cooinda and Mardugal Camp ground (GPS -12.905154, 132.521541  & GPS -12.928682, 132.537554 )
The grounds of the Kakadu lodge were extensive and there was plenty of cover. We didn't spend a great deal of time exploring, but there were some good birds around including Blue-faced Honeyeater, Leaden Flycatcher, Little Rosellas, Orange-footed Scrubfowl and the tamest Sulphur-crested Cockatoos of the trip. 

Leaden Flycatcher Little Rosella
Leaden Flycatcher Little Rosella
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo Red tailed Cockatoo
Sulphur Crested Cockatoo (click to enlarge) Red tailed Cockatoo (click to enlarge)

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).

Blue winged Kookaburra
Blue winged Kookaburra

 Nourlangie (GPS -12.866918,132.810997)
This is a major tourist destination for Aboriginal rock art, and we felt we needed to see this so, to avoid the masses, we had a fairly early start from Kakadu lodge on a morning we weren't doing a boat trip. En-route we were lucky enough to spot a small flock of Black-tailed Treecreepers by the main road, and along the turning to Nourlangie a white-headed pigeon flew across the road in front of us - which was most likely to have been a Banded Fruit Dove.

The site was better for rock art than birds though - with only Helmeted Friarbird and White-lined Honeyeater of any note.

Anbangbang Billabong (GPS -12.866846,132.794277)
This pleasant site was close to Nourlangie and we visited it after the rock art, which meant that it was pretty hot, especially out in the open as we did the 2.5km walk around it. Note there were warning signs for crocs by the path, but we saw none, much to the wife's relief!

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.

Red tailed Cockatoos
Red tailed Cockatoo family

An excellent start to our Australia trip. The early evening walk to see the wader roost at Lee Point at high tide capped one of my best birding days ever, which had also earlier included the Rainbow Pitta at Howard Springs. Both of the Yellow Waters boat trips were also very successful, with two of the 'big three' seen and photographed at close range, particularly the Little Kingfisher. The temperature was a bit on the high side for us at times though! 

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Club Tropical Resort Hotel, Darwin A sprawling motel type place with ground and first floor rooms which were well sized and equipped. Very convenient for the Stringybark Walks opposite and Lee Point just up the road. Some way out of the city, but handy for the airport. Also had a large restaurant that served Ok food. The grounds were good for birds. Few other guests when we were here but it was the low season we were told. Recommended.
Kakadu Lodge, Cooinda Really the only place to stay in Kakadu for the early morning Yellow Waters boat trips as driving in the dark isn't recommended, nor was our hire car covered for it. This hotel seemed to exploit this by charging high prices for the rooms and the food, especially the breakfast. In extensive grounds, the OK rooms were arranged in units of four, spread out over a considerable area. The restaurant was very informal, mostly open air, and served not particularly good quality dinners. Breakfast was in a different area and was better. It is included in the early morning boat trips but otherwise cost a staggering AUD 17 per head so we didn't bother on the day we didn't have a boat trip.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch

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