Australia Birding Adventures, Part 1

I think every nature lover has dreamed of one day visiting Australia. The continent boasts a remarkable level of biodiversity and endemism, with some of the planet’s most famously unusual creatures calling the Land Down Under home. To residents of the Northern Hemisphere, it seems like another world: a mythical realm of marsupials and venom, isolated for so long that the evolutionary arms race has created a truly unique ecosystem. From the Great Barrier Reef to the Outback, Australia is full of fantastic wildlife and spectacular scenery. It has been the clear, undisputed number one spot on my list of “must see” destinations ever since I was a child, but I knew this was not a trip to be taken lightly. A journey to the far side of the world is not easily crammed into a week-long vacation in the middle of the school year. Intentional, strategic planning also helps to keep the costs down. Getting to Australia was always a matter of “when” rather than “if” as far as I was concerned, but the logistics of classes, work, and life in general kept the inevitable adventure shrouded in uncertainty for years.

The stars finally aligned when I began planning for summer vacation 2019. In the last days of June, after finishing up a training session for the upcoming school year, I started to seriously weigh my options. There were two major excuses to celebrate: my newly acquired tenure status and the imminent 1,000th species on my life list. With only 24 more birds to go, I wanted to commemorate the quadruple digit milestone in style. I briefly considered a small scale trip, somewhere in the Caribbean or the United Kingdom, where I could pick up the handful of lifers I needed and check off a new country in the process. My parents, ever the explorers themselves, encouraged me to aim higher while we talked over start-of-vacation drinks at the bar. “Don’t do a vacation you can do in a week when you have the whole summer. Go for Australia. Now’s the time.”

It was a crazy idea to pull off a trip of this magnitude on such short notice, but I couldn’t resist. When I looked at airfares, the window for the cheapest flights fell between July 8th and July 23rd. I pulled the trigger and booked the vacation on June 30th, leaving me just about a week to sort out target destinations, plan accommodations and tours, and study for identifying the fauna of a totally foreign continent. This spontaneous decision and quick turnaround was entirely different from the multi-month buildup to Panama, where the Canopy Family guides took care of nearly everything. I was going to be largely on my own, with just a few days to get everything in order. It was clear that this would be the biggest adventure of my life, with the shortest preparation time leading up to it! 

Welcome to Oz

After a full day of flights that crossed the International Date Line, I arrived in Cairns on the morning of July 10th. The birding began before I even retrieved my luggage. In fact, I’d added my first new birds of the trip during a brief layover in Brisbane: Tree Martin, Willie-wagtail, and Torresian Crow. While I waited to pick up my reserved rental car, I spent a few minutes exploring the fringes of the parking lot, where I met Brown Honeyeater, White-breasted Woodswallow, Olive-backed Sunbird, and more. By the time I left the airport, I had a dozen species under my belt, halfway through the 24 I needed to hit 1,000. It was only a short drive to the Centenary Lakes at the Cairns Botanical Gardens, one of the premier birding locations in the city. The sight of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos strolling about on the lawn adjacent to the parking area served as a dramatic reminder that I was in unfamiliar territory. I could hardly process that my lifelong dream trip was finally happening.

The Botanical Gardens proved to be a productive first stop, which made for a great introduction to the local avifauna. Magpie Geese and Pacific Black Ducks paddled across the surface of the freshwater lake. Australian Brushturkeys and Magpie-larks strutted around the park, paying little mind to human passersby. Honeyeaters fluttered through the flowering shrubs, while Australasian Figbirds and Rainbow Lorikeets chattered in the treetops. I quickly found my first Laughing Kookaburra, listening with glee as it cackled away in chorus with an unseen mate. I tallied up the newly added birds as I went, realizing I only had one more to go. 

A multicolored bird sailed over my head and perched up prominently in the branches of a nearby tree. Rainbow Bee-eater! My 1,000th species for my life list! Nearly 27 years of exploration and encounters leading up to this moment. It might be just a number in the end, but I can’t help feeling pride for what this milestone represents. What a fantastic bird to mark the achievement, too! The bee-eater was soon joined by several others, and they began sallying out over the lake to snag insects in flight. I spent a few minutes admiring the dashing aerial acrobats before continuing down the path. I’d reached my first goal, but the trip was only just getting started.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Spangled Drongo, Spectacled Monarch, and Little Bronze-Cuckoo were among the other species I first met at the Cairns Botanical Gardens. A passing local birder, noting my binoculars and wide-eyed awe at even the most common birds, offered some helpful tips on where to search next. Following his advice, I was able to track down a roosting Papuan Frogmouth on the adjacent sidestreets. He also directed me towards Les Davie Park, where I found Bush Thick-knee, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, and a nesting pair of Rufous Owls. I knew I had to check in at my lodgings before nightfall, so I hit the road towards the forested slopes north of Cairns. The first of many Masked Lapwings were the most notable wildlife I observed on my drive towards the town of Kuranda. 

Legends Come to Life

I arrived at Cassowary House, the world-renowned bed and breakfast I’d booked for the first night, late in the afternoon. After checking in with the owners, Phil and Sue Gregory, I spent a few hours exploring the property in the fading light. Countless unfamiliar songs and calls echoed from the rainforest surrounding the densely vegetated gardens, but I was able to identify a few of the more distinctive sounds, like Eastern Whipbird and Wompoo Fruit-Dove. I managed to track down one of the hefty, gaudy-plumed pigeons along the entrance road, and I also spied my first Pale-yellow Robin and Spotted Catbird. Once the sun set, I headed to bed in the hopes of resetting my internal clock quickly and painlessly. I knew the following day was going to be a big one, and I didn’t want to miss a second of the excitement.

I was up with the sun on the morning of July 11th. I took a leisurely stroll through the gardens again as I made my way towards the main building for breakfast. When I heard a faint noise on the trail behind me, I turned to see a periscope neck with shaggy brown feathers peering out from behind a bush at me. I froze in my tracks as a young Southern Cassowary trotted my way, regarding me curiously. This was my first encounter with a flightless bird in the wild, and I was more than a little awestruck. I have long held the cassowary as one of my most wanted birds in the entire world, a nearly legendary creature that I could scarcely imagine meeting in real life. This individual was practically a baby, likely about a year old and only recently independent from paternal care, but it was nonetheless an impressive sight. Stepping politely to the side, I allowed it to pass down the staircase to the backyard, where it knew it would find its own breakfast.

Sue soon arrived and gave me the signal to join the other guests on the veranda out back. We enjoyed a delicious meal of fresh fruits and toast while the yearling cassowary picked its way through the garden below. There were feeding trays set up along the railing of the deck as well, offering cheese and bananas which attracted the attention of various rainforest birds. Yellow-spotted and Macleay’s Honeyeaters, Helmeted Friarbirds, and Black Butcherbirds all swooped in to sample these offerings. The stars of the show were the Victoria’s Riflebirds, one of Australia’s species of birds-of-paradise. The iridescent males announced their presence with harsh, rasping calls and rustling wing feathers whenever they approached to nab a morsel, but the more subdued females put on quite a show of their own as they gorged themselves within arm’s reach of our seats. I also got to see my first wild macropods! Several Musky Rat-Kangaroos and Red-legged Pademelons were observed hopping across the forest floor, munching on fruit alongside the brushturkeys and Cornelius, the friendly resident rooster.  

After breakfast, I was invited to join a guided walk with Phil and another group of visitors. We made our way up to the main road, pausing periodically to look and listen for wildlife. It was a great opportunity to pick up some helpful hints from a seasoned local, and Phil was more than happy to share his knowledge with me. He highlighted the difference in vocalizations between Rufous and Gray Fantails, pointed out the distinctive chip note of Graceful Honeyeater, and confirmed the identity of the Superb Fruit-Doves I’d been hearing since I arrived. He also helped us locate number of tricky targets, including Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, Mistletoebirds, and Pied Monarchs, one of the specialty species endemic to the Wet Tropics region of northern Queensland.

When we returned to the house, the young cassowary was still foraging in the garden, but there was no sign of the adult birds. Sue explained that the male, who normally keeps a consistent schedule, had been missing for a few mornings and was likely sitting on a new nest. The female is much more unpredictable, and although I lingered as long as I could she didn’t show up before I departed. I hoped I would have the opportunity to connect with the species again before my trip was done. Thanking Phil and Sue for a wonderful morning, I set off to try my luck elsewhere. Cassowary House certainly delivered on making dreams come true, providing my first birds-of-paradise, macropods, and of course the eponymous cassowary itself, but the day was far from over!

Gorges Vistas

I had a motel booked for the night in the town of Mossman, located about an hour north of Kuranda. I’d been told that there were more wildlife viewing opportunities in the area around Mareeba to the west, so I elected to take the scenic route through the Atherton Tablelands rather than head straight there on a direct path. As the winding road descended the slopes, the habitat changed over from dense rainforest to more open, drier habitat. I passed through quiet suburban towns, agricultural areas, and eucalyptus forest along the way. Eventually, I reached the site I was looking for, Granite Gorge Nature Park. 

Granite Gorge is most famous for its population of Mareeba Rock-Wallabies. These small, fuzzy marsupials are endemic to the highlands around Mareeba, with several scattered colonies inhabiting a fairly small region west of Cairns. In most parts of their range, rock-wallabies are shy and retiring creatures, spending much of the day hiding among the boulders and only emerging at dusk to feed. At this nature park, however, the mountaineering macropods have become accustomed to human presence. Campers and hikers can purchase approved wallaby chow and feed these rare creatures by hand. It’s difficult to resist such an adorable face, and the photo ops are absolutely fantastic.

The rock-wallabies were incredibly endearing, but I was equally impressed by the landscape they call home. The ragged, ancient boulderfields at Granite Gorge are quite the spectacle, and there are a number of hiking trails that allow visitors to explore the area quite thoroughly. I spent over an hour wandering through the area during the early afternoon. There were a few good birds to be had along the way as well, including Scarlet Myzomela, Fairy Gerygone, and Black-shouldered Kite. As I made my way back to the parking area, I was surprised by a cooperative Squatter Pigeon that calmly crossed the path in front of me. In many areas, these handsome birds can be challenging to find. It seems that the rock-wallabies aren’t the only specialties that have become habituated to human visitors at this site. 

I gradually continued north towards Mossman, keeping my eyes peeled for roadside critters along the way. Red-winged Parrots, Crested Pigeons, Pied Butcherbird, and Australian Kestrel all joined my life list through the windows of my rental car. When I saw signs for the town of Mount Molloy, a noted hotspot for a few key species, I pulled in at the general store and was immediately greeted by a Great Bowerbird foraging in a shrubbery on the edge of the car park. I also picked up Blue-faced Honeyeater and Black-faced Cuckooshrike before taking off again. By the time I reached the motel, I was more focused on dinner than wildlife and made my evening plans accordingly. Even so, there was one last surprise to be had on my way back from the restaurant. When a large, slow-flapping shadow passed overhead, I wondered at first whether it might be an owl or a night-heron. Then I realized it was a bat. A great big Spectacled Flying Fox, and it had friends coming behind it. Fantastic!

Rollin’ on a River

Departing the motel in Mossman before first light, I made my way up the coast towards Daintree Village. I had a dawn boat cruise scheduled with Murray Hunt, the Daintree Boatman, and I had to be at the docks around sunrise. It was an easy, leisurely drive, and I made good time on my journey. I arrived at the boat ramp on the Daintree River with about half an hour to spare. I took some time to explore the water’s edge near the parking lot, noting my first Brahminy Kite soaring above the river and good numbers of Welcome Swallows skimming low over the surface. Murray arrived to prepare the boat, and I joined the small group of other guests on board. After a short safety briefing, we began our journey downstream. It started off as a misty, overcast morning, but the rising sun quickly dispelled the clouds and made for a beautiful day on the water. 

Murray was an exceptional guide. Years of experience leading twice-daily tours have helped him to build an intimate knowledge of the river’s wild inhabitants. He regularly pulled up alongside the dense mangroves lining the riverbank to point out hidden critters. The first stop was a pair of Papuan Frogmouths nestled together on a branch, followed by a roosting White-throated Nightjar and several Green Tree Snakes. Unsurprisingly, we found plenty of waterbirds, including Australasian Darter and Pied Cormorant. Leaden and Shining Flycatchers, Bridled Honeyeater, Large-billed Gerygone, and Green Oriole were among the songbirds observed on the trip, and we also encountered multiple species of kingfishers: Forest, Sacred, Azure, and Little. 

One of the primary targets for cruises on the Daintree River is the Saltwater Crocodile. This iconic beastie, the largest reptile alive today, can be found in waterways throughout northern Australia. We were fortunate enough to spot two different individuals before our morning tour was finished. I was grateful for the opportunity to see the world-famous Salties in the wild, and equally thankful I got to observe them from the safety of a boat. When we disembarked at the docks, Murray gave me a few recommendations about sites to check out on my way back south. Taking his advice, I stopped at Newell Beach to scope the tidal estuary. There I discovered another big croc loafing on the mudflats, along with my first Whistling Kite, Fairy Martins, and Great Crested Terns. 

A Walk in the Park

The middle portion of the day on July 12th was spent in the open woodlands and fields west of Julatten. I knew that this area featured some of the best habitat for finding dry-country specialists on the Atherton Tablelands. My first stop was West Mary Road at Maryfarms, home of Australian Bustards. A lone individual strutting along the fence line right on the shoulder offered incredible close-up views. From there, I continued to the Mount Carbine Caravan Park. Nikki and Darryl Robertson, who run the campground, are wonderfully friendly and accommodating for visiting birders. Nikki personally led me to a the roost site of a Tawny Frogmouth pair, and she gave me some detailed intel about where to search for other wildlife on the grounds of the caravan park.

I spent over two hours thoroughly exploring Mount Carbine. Most of the species I found were entirely different from those I’d seen in the rainforests just a short drive away. Large, loud flocks of Galahs constantly circled through the park, and there were plenty of Little and Noisy Friarbirds hopping around in the treetops. My first Australian Magpies were seen strutting through the campsites, and I caught brief glimpses of Pied Currawong and Brown Falcon. Blue-winged Kookaburra and Pale-headed Rosella were well worth the time it took to track them down, though I was unable to find the local flock of Apostlebirds. Agile Wallabies were a nice surprise on the mammalian front. There were several active Great Bowerbird bowers on the property, and they provided endless entertainment. The males busied themselves with decoration, constantly rearranging their trinkets and squabbling loudly with their neighbors, while the females appraised their craftsmanship from the bushes nearby. 

After thanking the Robertsons, I headed back east towards Julatten. I checked in for my reservation at the Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge, run by Carol and Andrew Iles. After picking up my room key and a handy map from Carol, I moved my gear to the bunkhouse and spent the remaining daylight hours exploring the area around the lodge. On a short track through the rainforest behind the main office, a flash of color just off trail commanded my attention. The Noisy Pitta bounced to and fro through the undergrowth, lighting up the shadowy leaf litter with its bright, contrasting plumage. Other highlights of my walk included Red-browed Firetails, Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, and plenty of woodland songbirds. I watched the lights go down from the banks of Bushy Creek, then headed up the road to the Julatten Tavern for a tasty dinner. A Papuan Frogmouth perched near the park entrance bid me good night when I returned to the park for the evening. I knew there were plenty of adventures still to come, starting bright and early the next morning!