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 third update, describing river trips, owls, kingfishers, snakes, and something known as ‘Big Arse’…
Birding Australia’s Northern Territory – Day 3. The ‘Top End’.
I’m awoken at 5.30am with a Barking Owl passing noisily over my rather luxuriously appointed, safari-style tent at the newly built Wildman Lodge Camp. Quickly giving up on a return to sleep, I get out of bed, make myself a cup of coffee and sit on my balcony to enjoy the fabulously atmospheric dawn of the Australian Interior.
As the sun rises over the Eucalyptus woodland and scrub, the mist, which hangs at middle elevation, starts to lift, giving way to a scene in beautiful burnt pastel colours of termite mounds, sleepy looking wallabies, and a cacophony of bird song.
Dawn chorus is spectacular here because most of the species seem in some way louder than anywhere else in the world both metaphorically, in terms of colour, size and appearance, and literally in terms of the sheer volume and sumptiousness of calls and songs. Blue-winged Kookaburra, the guttural hoots of Helmeted Friarbird, the liquid, nightingale-like babbling of Brown Honeyeater all combine to create a stirring performance.
Once dawn has finally broken, it’s off to the pontoon on the margins of Wildman’s ‘House Billabong’ for a trip across the water with our new guide, Amy.
A ‘small’ Croc!
Amy greets us with the question “Do you like Crocs? Well you’ll love our Big Arse!” It’s difficult to know how to react at 6.30am when a complete stranger tells you that you’re gonna love their Big Arse, until we realize that Amy is referring to ‘Big Arse’ the resident 5.5m dominant male Estuarine Crocodile, which frequents this rich wetland area. Apparently, according to Amy, ‘Big Arse’ has ‘real issues’ and has on a number of occasions attacked the tour boat in an attempt to feast on the tourists inside.
So it is with a mixture of excitement and terror that we set off on a boat which we now realize is both a couple of sizes smaller than yesterday’s Mary River boat, and more worryingly, listing heavily to the starboard (not something which turns out to be a problem).
Our first birds from the boat are good numbers of Plumed and Wandering Whistling Duck, as well as Magpie Geese, Green Pygmy Geese, Jabiru and 3 species of Ibis. I spot a juvenile Nankeen Night Heron (our first today of over 30 of this most common of Herons at this location) as it flies up from the river margin and alights on a tree overlooking the river. In the lilies up ahead are the unmistakable eyes and snout of our first Croc of the day, a 2.5 metre young male or female. We are reliably informed that ‘Big Arse’ would not tolerate another adult male in his territory.
Little Pied Cormorant, House Billabong, Wildman Lodge
As we round the corner of the billabong we notice a tiny, iridescent blue and white Little Kingfisher perched on an overhanging mangrove branch. Our first for the trip and a difficult bird to pin down according to our guides so far. A majestic White-bellied Sea-Eagle takes an opportunity to show us how to catch fish, as it swoops down from it’s vantage point on top of an acacia on the river bank and grabs a massive Barramundi out of the water with a single, fluid and effortless movement, before banking round and landing back on the tree.
Many more birds are seen but despite best efforts we fail to get to grips with the big Croc which could, I guess, count as a good thing given that we may have ended up AS breakfast rather than AT breakfast by 8.30am. This reptilian ‘dip out’ however, only serves to galvanise our resolve to find a massive, dominant male Croc for ourselves at some point over the next few days. We’re particularly hopeful about Yellow Water (more on that in a day or so).
Another lovely breakfast, followed by packing and then onto the coach as we set off for the famous Kakadu National Park, the famous, rugged 20,000 square kilometre national park in the centre of Australia Northern Territory’s Top End.
Our first destination within Kakadu is a site within the park bordering the East Alligator river (named after a famous reptile mis-identification in the 19th Century). We are greeted by an inquisitive Dollarbird, perching up on a dead tree in the car park surveying the area. This site is known for it’s large Crocodiles and summarily delivers, with great views of yet more large males sunning themselves very close to us on the shoreline. While watching the Crocs from the safety of the riverbank we hear the strange, guttural whistles and squeaks of what turns out to be more than 500 Black Flying Foxes (giant fruit bats) that hang upside down from the Eucalyptus canopy branches above the river bank, chatting noisily to one another and scratching their not insubstantial Bat-Kahunas (we’ve all been there).
After lunch we take a short coach ride to locate the rare Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, a species which usually requires many hours of desert and scrub work. On this occasion however, the Dove decides to save us the effort and alights on the road in front of the coach affording great views for everyone.
Then on to Yellow River and our accommodation for the night at Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda. We arrive at dusk, enjoy a nice dinner and then set out again around the Hotel compound after dark to try to locate the Barking Owls that have been calling like love-sick Jack Russells since we arrived. Ten minutes of searching with torches in the canopy, reveals two, perched respectively on a TV mast and a tall tree around the compound.
Finally, and instead of opting to return to the room and complete the Day 3 Blog, your writer decides to join the splinter group consisting of our excellent Guides, Luke and Gerry from Intrepid Connections, as well as half of the trip group, down to Yellow Water (by this time it is long since dark) to check out the File Snakes fishing in the shallows.
We arrive and are immediately rewarded with 5 or so 1.5 to 2 metre aquatic File Snakes catching unsuspecting fish in the shallows 5 ft in front of us, by coiling themselves around then fish for the kill. A fascinating introduction to Billabong Nightlife. With this early boost, Luke, our guide, decides to suggest we take a ‘midnight stroll’ down the unprotected boardwalk to check out the wildlife. We duly agree (4 pints of Aussie lager will do that to you) and follow timidly as Luke picks out Wolf Spiders, Tree Frogs and Huntsman Spiders on the railings and attached to seemingly every tree stem.
30 yards down the metal boardwalk we hit the reptile jackpot with a beautiful Carpet Python coiled around a log about a foot from the base of the walkway.
Carpet Python Morelia spilotes
Realising that nightlife struggles to get better then this and the fact that tomorrow is is set to be a long day we call it a night, having enjoyed a magical nocturnal experience which is thoroughly memorable.
Back at the hotel and a short sleep in preparation for visits to Yellow Water (at 6am the following morning) and a light aircraft trip to Davidson’s Camp, Borrodale, an unbelievably remote and exciting wildlife camp in the heart of Aboriginal Arnhem Land.
Details on all of that in tomorrow’s update.