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 first, describing his arrival Down Under – and the birding begins almost immediately…
Day One: Darwin and Buffalo Creek
When thinking about how to start my first in a series of reports from my birding trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, I was going to start by talking about how long and tiring the 20-odd hour flight was, and how I’d start the trip feeling like I’d been beaten up by a sumo wrestler, and that whilst my brain knows it’s Saturday my body clock doesn’t seem to know whether it’s Christmas day or Sheffield Wednesday.
But, the fact is, when you arrive at a place like Darwin just as dawn is breaking and there are unfamiliar bird calls and songs coming from every tree and bush and you rack up 15 lifers before you‘ve even unpacked your bags, then frankly the travails of the journey getting there melt away pretty quick.
We arrive at the Hotel Mantra on the Esplanade, a classy, modern hotel surrounded by fig and acacia trees, it’s 6am (10am what seems like the the day before yesterday in the UK), and it’s already 25 degrees. Hot, humid and sweaty, but a great feeling all the same to know that you’re truly in the tropics and there is some great birding in prospect.
We freshen up and head downstairs for what turns out to be an epic breakfast of eggs benedict x2, bacon, sausage, tomato and porridge (not together I hasten to add). After breakfast we decide to peruse the area around the hotel whilst we wait for taxi’s to our first destination, Buffalo Creek.
Around the Hotel, which is no more than a few hundred yards from the sea front, we quickly rack up three species of Honeyeater (Brown, White-gaped and Rufous-banded), whilst wild Orange-Footed Scrub Fowl pad around the scrubby flower borders of the hotel like strange prehistoric chickens. A Forest Kingfisher darts into a nearby acacia tree and perches motionless, affording nice scope views for everyone. Other immediate introductions to the more common local avifauna include gaudy yellow and black Figbird, Little Friarbird as well as White-breasted Wood Swallow, and Wattled Plover which is very common across Darwin and the rest of N Territory. Silver Gulls fly past in regular squadrons and a group of Australian White Ibis fly through, over the hotel. So a great start in just 15 minutes. Then cabs arrive and it’s off, with Ben, our less than loquacious cabby, to Buffalo Creek which is a Dry Monsoon forest and Mangrove complex only 15 minutes from our hotel.
We’re dropped off and immediately the forest and scrub is alive with birds. Within minutes we’ve seen another three additional species of Honeyeater (Red-Headed, Rufous-throated and Dusky) as well as Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles, Helmeted Friarbird, more Figbirds, a beautiful delicately barred male Varied Whistler, which looks like a weird Masked Shrike, followed soon after by the female.
The beach at Buffalo Creek. Photo © Rob Jolliffe/Digital Spring
We decide to make our way through a gap in forest onto the beach to check out the sand flats for waders. The tide is out and the beach stretches away into the heat haze for miles in all directions. Waders proliferate and within 5 minutes we’ve seen Great Knot, in parties of 10 feeding in the shallow tidal creeks, as well as Grey-tailed Tatler, Eastern Curlew, Red-necked Stint, Greater Sand Plover, and Chestnut-headed Plover. Someone notices a beautiful Rainbow Bee-eater feeding on insects in the sand, whilst two Gull-billed Terns and a Caspian Tern patrol overhead for crabs and stranded fish on the ebbing tide.
After 20 minutes or so of this wader festival one of our more enterprising compadres strikes gold on the forest floor bordering the beach. A fabulously beautiful, but subtly graceful Rainbow Pitta is discovered making light work of a huge snail, which it is beating against and fallen tree. This is my first experience of old world pittas and what an introduction it is as we drink up fantastic views.
The next 3 hours is spent working the forest, mangrove and beach areas adding species after species including flocks of of 100s of Whistling and Black Kites scavenging washed up fish on the beach, a Buff-banded Rail makes it’s way stealthily along the muddy mangrove shoreline and the low scrubby trees are alive with Lemon-bellied Flycatchers, Double-barred Finches as well as 2 species of fantail, Northern and the rare Golden Mangrove Fantail.
An amazing morning, but at midday it’s back to the hotel for a beer (a brave move indeed if like many of us you’ve had 2 hours sleep in the last 20 hours) and review of the species we’ve seen so far.
In the afternoon we are picked up by our Guide, the knowledgeable Chris from Fisher King Tours. His brief, to show us some of the specialities of the Darwin area.
Knuckey’s Lagoon. Photo © Rob Jolliffe/Digital Spring
First on the list was an unbelievable area of water called Knuckey’s Lagoon (naturally).
On arrival at the lagoon we are greeted with a spectacle of birds. Our first introduction to the famous Magpie Goose with flocks of hundreds around the margins of the lagoon. A single, regal White-bellied Sea Eagle stands preening on a post in the middle of the lagoon, flanked on adjacent posts by two Australian Darters. We spend the next 40 mins going through the vast numbers of waterfowl present adding Australian Black Duck, Plumed Whistling Duck, Green Pygmy Goose, Rajah Shelduck and Wandering Whistling Duck all in very good numbers indeed. Waders, too proliferate and within minutes, we’ve had several Marsh Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers, as well as at least six Australian Pratincoles, which are distinctly Courser like by virtue of long legs and a habit of running around on the wet grassy lagoon margins.
Then someone has a ‘strange wader in the haze at the far end of the lagoon. Originally called as a potential male Ruff it is quickly re-identified as Little Curlew, a bird that has a mystic resonance for me personally given that the last one I saw was the 2nd British Record in Cley, Norfolk back in the 1980’s (I was about 11 years old).
Tawny Frogmouth, Sydney. Photo © Charlie Moores
Following Knuckey’s lagoon, it is on to a stakeout for recently nesting Tawny Frogmouth. Following a few minutes of consternation as the bird proved not to be on the actual nest, we relocated it perched on a low branch, obtaining amazing views of what has to be one of the world’s weirdest birds.
Then finally on to East Point for a Champagne (well Australian Sparkling Wine) sun downer over looking the sea whilst watching Terek Sandpipers, Pacific Golden Plovers, Beach Thick-Knee (see video above), Red-Necked Stint and the trip’s first Lesser Sandplovers all feeding together in the tidal rock pools and mud flats. A fitting end to an amazing first day in Oz.