My colleague, Digital Spring’s Rob Jolliffe, is in Australia’s Northern Territory, enjoying the birding trip of a lifetime courtesy of Tourism NT.
Rob will be sending updates as regularly as the schedule and broadband connections allow, and with over 300 species recorded in just the Greater Darwin area alone they promise to be mouth-watering and envy-inducing!
Here’s the fifth update, describing the amazing wildlife of Arnhem Land…
Birding Australia’s Northern Territory – Day 5. Arnhem Land.
It’s Day 5 and I’m up again at 6.30am for a quick cup of coffee and piece of toast in the plush central dining / bar area of Davidson’s Camp, Mt Borradaile, a remote safari camp in the middle of the native escarpment of Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
After our quick breakfast, we pile into two old, tough-looking, windowless 4x4s and set off into the savannah forest with little idea what today has in store. A short way into the forest someone spots a Treecreeper sp., working its way up a Paperbark Tree to our right. It’s a new bird so we stop, jump out and get onto two Black-tailed Treecreepers, a male and female, working their way through the forest foraging for insects from one Eucalyptus to another.
Back into the vehicles and it’s off deeper into the forest along a narrow, bumpy path with scrub, and branches brushing against the vehicle and depositing leaves, twigs and, on occasion, ants into the back of the truck as we try (and mostly fail) to duck out of the way. After about 20 minutes the forest thins and opens out into what appears to be a mangrove swamp, with a huge body of water visible through the branches beyond. The trucks stop and we immediately hear a distant insect-like droning sound, reminiscent of a huge swarm of mosquitos coming from behind the mangrove margins. We quickly realize that the body of water is not a sea or estuary but is in fact Coopers Creek, a vast lagoon-like mudflat in the shadow of Mt Borradaile, and what we had thought might be a swarm of insects is in fact an impossibly huge flock of honking Magpie Geese, grazing on the mudflats as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Coopers Creek Lagoon
Following a rough count, we estimate that the flock of Geese that stretches out in front of us is some 500,000 birds, which would make Coopers Creek, one of the world stongholds of the species. But it’s not just Geese on the flats. A detailed scan reveals hundreds of waders too, including Marsh Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt and to my delight, several sizeable parties of Little Curlew, one of which obliges us with a fly past directly over our head. In addition to shorebirds, Rainbow Bee-eaters hawk overhead catching flies and perching up on the exposed branches of Eucalypts.
It’s now 35 degrees and we leave the lagoon and head off into the dry bush on foot to climb the hot, escarpment up to Jabiru Rock, an amazing sandstone outcrop that commands a 360 degree view of the forest and the lagoon over to the main Coopers Creek, the rich, Crocodile infested Billabong that glints in the distance beneath Mt Borradaile. From this position we can see the awe-inspiring scale and volume of wildfowl and water birds feeding on the mudflats.
It’s now mid-morning, and time for a water break with some fruit, which we take whilst perched on a precipitous rocky ledge, below an overhang that has been intricately decorated with Aboriginal Rock art depicting animals, gods and ancient people. As we quench our thirst (it’s now 38 degrees) we reflect on the fact that this place, where the air is thick with the magic of aboriginal culture, has been the home of indigenous populations for more than 30,000 years, and the stories being told in the art are over 2,000 years old. Suitably refreshed we scramble down through the rocky scrub forest back to our vehicles picking up Olive-backed Oriole and Brown Honey-eater on the way.
It’s then back to the Camp for lunch and a short relax for an hour or so, to take ourselves out of the searing heat of the middle of the day. After a delicious lunch and a quick scout round the compound which produces a nice flock of Little Corellas, it’s back in the trucks and down to the edge of the billabong and out onto the water.
This time we head up stream where the channel gets narrow, with overhanging Pandanus branches, casting dark shadows into the calm, murky water. As the sun dips, the birds increase in number. Nankeen Night Herons fly around the boat. A Striated Heron, crouches on a branch, it’s elongated body and dagger-like bill poised to strike at an unsuspecting Catfish or Barramundi.
Shining Flycatchers buzz around at the river edges, the beautiful all-black male, chasing the chestnut-backed, black-headed female from root to root. Small birds flit in the canopy above us, and we quickly rack up Bar-breasted Honey-eater, White-gaped Honey-eater, White-throated Honey-eater and Northern Fantail. Helmeted Friarbirds and Figbirds, bully each other noisily in the treetops above us. Our fifth Black Bittern of the trip makes a break for it from the bank, alighting on an overhanging stem, before characteristically creeping behind a tree trunk out of view, much to the chagrin of the group, most of whom thus far have failed to get a decent shot of this enigmatic species.
It’s now time to about turn and return to the pontoon, to decamp into a slightly bigger skiff, on which we will set out into the main billabong to see in the day in drinking fine wine and eating canapés (life’s hard sometimes). Just as we approach the pontoon, I notice the distinctive eyes, snout and gnarled upper body of a huge Estuarine Crocodile which seems ominously, to have cottoned on to the fact that this part of the river sees a lot of traffic getting into and out of boats. He has set up shop about 5 feet from the pontoon in eager anticipation of lost footing leading to his own canapés at dusk.
Large Croc at Coopers Creek Billabong, lying in wait for our boat.
Needless to say, we make sure we don’t slip as we transfer into the bigger boat and set off into the main billabong. We drop metaphorical anchor in the middle of the calm waters, over-looked on one side by the red, craggy outcrops of Mount Borradaile and looking out on the other side over the flood plains beyond, the first of the roosting parties of herons and ibis’ start to make their way over our heads to there roosting trees. A party of majestic, slow flying Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, wafts over the boat and lands in an Acacia on the river bank.
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo
Gull-billed, White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns buzz around us in the rich reddish light of dusk before flying upstream. Someone notices two Black Kites wheeling and diving over the marsh in pursuit of a hapless Masked Lapwing, which is eventually worn down and caught in a melee of talons and feathers. The natural world is sometimes difficult to watch.
As the sun sets over the billabong and flood plain, the sounds, smells and sights blend together into an intoxicating blur (helped along by some strong Aussie Sauvignon). Now the sun has set but in the half-light, strings of herons (Pied and Nankeen Night Heron) Egrets (Great, Intermediate, Little), Ibis’ (Straw-necked, White, Glossy) and Cormorants (Little Pied, Little Black) continue make their way across the reddish skyline to their roosts (see Photo). On return to the pontoon, we round a bend in the river and slowly pass a large bushy fig in which over a thousand herons are perched to roost. Despite our best efforts at subtlety, we flush most of them, which delivers a cloud of birds into the half-lit sky above us.
As we pass underneath, such is the density of the wheeling flock above us, I get the distinctive smell of musky guano, that I have only previously experienced on the breeding grounds of seabirds. A memorable evening indeed.
It’s now back to the camp for dinner and a (relatively) early night, in preparation for tomorrow’s journey cross-country by light aircraft to Nitmiluk Camp , Katherine’s Gorge. More NT specialty birds in prospect including the rarest raptor in Australia (and one of the rarest in the world) as well as some of the most sought after endemics this part of the world has to offer.