This report covers a recent trip to the southern part of the Top End. A superb birding area – it’s a Mecca for finches for instance – these are the places ~300 to ~500 km south of Darwin. This report covers a trip I did there in late October (the end of the dry season) in 2015. For ease of reading, my report’s divided into three parts: 1. Gregory (Judbarra) National Park, 2. Victoria Hwy and 3. Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park.
Here’s the scenario. Fly out of Melbourne (Victoria) at 6:00am. Arrive in Darwin (Northern Territory) at 11:00am. Pick up hire car and supplies. Drive 600 km to the Victoria River Roadhouse in Gregory National Park near the Western Australian border. Arrived in time to drink a cold beer under the shade of a flowering Desert Bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) that’s full of Varied Lorikeet and honeyeaters such as Banded and Bar-breasted Honeyeater, all flittering about its blossoms. How good is that! As you can imagine, I slept well that night.
1. GREGORY (JUDBARRA) NATIONAL PARK
So, where to begin. I had several aims while visiting Gregory National Park. My first was to track down some full-breeding plumage Purple-crowned Fairy-wren. A stunning bird, I’d seen them before, but never in full-breeding plumage. After that, I wanted to explore the region for a couple of days, look for the some of the escarpment birds such as White-quilled Rock-Pigeon, visit a few birding sites a bit further west, and see some of the regions wonderful finches, such as Gouldian and Star Finch and Yellow-rumped Manikin.That’s not asking too much.
Some Background Notes and Where to Stay
First, a bit of background to Gregory National Park. It’s ~160 km west of Katherine on the Victoria Hwy and covers 1.3 million ha, which is big. It’s was described to me by a friend of mine, Tim Bawden, as the most beautiful place in Australia. This because it featuring open woodlands that are dissected by fantastic rugged escarpments and deep gorges. The magnificent Victoria River carves and weaves its way through the top end of the park. To me, it reminds me of the area around the Lawn Hill in north-west Queensland. Indeed, there are a lot of parallels in terms of plants, animals, birds and the landscape generally. In my opinion, Tim B was right, Gregory National Park is one of the most beautiful places in Australia!
At Gregory, I camped at the Victoria River Roadhouse. In October, and the late dry generally, staying at the roadhouse was a good option. They had some large trees that provided permanent shade, and showers. The average temperature was around 38 d, so the order of the day was cold showers. There are also basic cabins here. Note, another option for camping is at Sullivan Creek, located on the banks of a permanent waterhole, 17 km east of the Victoria River Roadhouse. It’s small, but not a bad campsite. Ther’s also a caravan park at Timber Creek, and a range of campsite in the south end of the park.
My hire car for the trip was a 2015 Mitsubishi Outlander, which proved a perfect car. Being AWD, it can travel all the roads in the places I’ve mentioned. In addition, the new Outlander is designed so you can sleep full length in the back.
A final thing to note. When packing your bags for the Top End don’t bother packing warm cloths, such as jumpers, warm long trousers, etc. You’ll never wear them. For example, to give you an example of the heat, while showering, I never used the hot water, the cold water was always warm to hot.
Plants of Gregory National Park
Here’s a quick rundown on the plants at Gregory National Park. It’s an extremely remote area, and features tropical and semi-arid plant life. There are a number of iconic trees in the park.
The Boab (Adansonia gregorii) is widely recognised icon of the Kimberley and Victoria River Regions. It’s an interesting species in terms of phytogeography, representing ecological link between Australia, Madagascar and continental Africa. It was extremely culturally significance to the local Ngarinyman Aboriginal people. Some trees are sacred sites, while other have carvings dating to pre-European contact period. European explorers carved names and dates on Boab trunks, the most famous of these being the ‘Gregory Tree’, which marks the site of the base camp of the North Australian Exploration Expedition lead by Augustus Gregory in 1855-56. Ferninand Von Mueller was a member of this expedition. Von Mueller is one of Australia’s greatest botanists. For instance, as the director of the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, he pioneered an appreciation for the importance of Australian native plants. Von Mueller named the tree Adansonia gregorii in honour of the expedition leader.
Another of the iconic trees of the park if the Victoria River Palm (Livistona victoriae). It’s confined to sandstone range country where it grows in escarpment gullies and along streams where there’s permanent seepage water available for its roots. When you first drive into Gregory National Park the sheer majesty of these trees is one of the first things you notice. The height of the trunk up to 18 m high. The fruit was an important food source for the local Aboriginal people, and the fronds were useful as place mats and for covering food in bush ovens.
Aside from those two trees, the two most prominent woodland tree species were Small-fruited Bloodwood (Corymbia dichromophloia) and Northern White Gum (Eucalyptus brevifolia). While the plateau side slopes and valley are dominated by Darwin Box (E. tectifica) and Desert Bloodwood (C. terminalis) woodland with a tussock grass and Curly Spinifex (Triodia bitextura) understorey. In the open-woodlands, you also find Jigal Tree (Lysiphyllum cunninghamii) and Turpentine (Acacia lysiphloia).
Along the ephemeral creek line and the banks of the Victoria River, there were Northern Swamp Box (Lophosyemon grandiflorus), Durin (Terminalia platyphylla), Ghost Gum (Corymbia papuana), Broad-leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca leucadendra), Canary Cheesewood (Nauclea orientalis), River Red Gum (E. camaldulensis) and the iconic Boab (Adansonii gregorii).
In addition, it’s here that you’ll find River Pandan (Pandanus aquaticus), Leichhardt Tree (Nauclea orientalis), Freshwater Mangrove (Barringtonia acutangula), and grasses such as River Grass (Chionachne cyathopoda), Grass (Mneisthea rottboellioides), Black Speargrass (Heteropogon contortus) and Dardy’s Oats (Arundinella nepalensis). The grasses are important, as they hold the banks together when the river floods and, they are of course the favoured habitat of spectacular Purple-crowned Fairy-wren.
One of the most interesting vegetation habitats at Gregory is the plants that grow in and around the rocky overhangs and gullies. These plants occur in the caves and under the huge red sandstone cliff faces that tower over the foothills. These were the areas used for human shelter and for rock paining. Although the surface is often barren, plants are able to tap the subsurface moisture by sending roots deep into the ground, or rely on seeping or dripping water. The vegetation is usually safe from fire and includes species such as Figs that normally associated with remnant rainforest or monsoon vine thickets. This is the habiatat that the Victoria River Palm occurs, as well as plants such as Celtis (Celtis australiensis), Xanthostemon (Xanthostemon psidioides), Swamp Satinash (Syzygium angophoroides), Smooth Chastetree (Vitex glabrata) and Cluster Fig (Ficus racemosa). Another intriguing plant found here is a fern called Dicranopteris linearis. Known locally as Ngabujbu, it occurs prefers moist shady conditions where there is water seepage. From a birding point of view it’s interesting because it one of the favoured roosting sites for White-quilled Rock Pigeon. The pigeon create a network of tunnels throughout the fern thickets, providing ideal shelter from predators.
If you have time to look, there’s a few rare species limited to the park. Eucalyptus gregoriensi, first noticed in 1996 and only named in 1998 is a white stemmed, small tree that’s known from four places on the sandstone plateau in the west of the Park. Melaleuca triumphalis was also first discovered in 1996 and is only known from the Victoria River Gorge in the eastern sector of the Gregory National Park. In the Northern Territory Grevillea miniata is found exclusively in the Park, while the rare wattle Acacia stipulosa occurs around the Paperbark Yard camp. There are also several small woodlands of Lancewood (Acacia shirleyi), the most westerly recorded for this wattle species.
The main weed problem in the park is Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), a native to South Africa. The dried plant are capable of working their way into the mouths and hooves of the larger mammals, causing injury and discomfort. As a result, each year the park hosts the “Devil’s Claw Festival”, an eradication program run by Park staff and volunteers. Now that’s a great idea. A public festival to eradicate weeds! Perhaps an idea for other national parks in Australia to think about.
Animals of Gregory
The main macropods I saw while visiting Gregory were Common Wallaroo (Macropus robustu), Antilopine Wallaroo (Macropus antilopinus) and Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis), the latter very common around the Victoria Roadhouse. Northern Nailtail Wallaby (Onychogalea unguifera) also occur at Gregory National Park, and amongst the rocks look for Wikins’ (formerly Short-eared) Rock Wallaby (Petrogale wilkinsi) – a species that’s easy to see at Nourlangie Rock in Kakadu. The incredibly cute Spectacled Hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes conspicillatus) is also patchily distributed in the Gregory.
Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps), like Wikins’ Rock Wallaby, is another species that may be a new species, known as the Northern Sugar Glider (see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-10/researchers-may-have-stumbled-on-new-species-of-gliding-possum/6686056), being spit from the Sugar Glider species found in southern Australia.
Other native animals include Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), Dingo (Canis familiaris). While smaller mammals include Common Planigale (Planigale maculata) Stripe-faced Dunnart (Sminthopsis macroura), Water-rat (Hydromys chrysogaster), Forrest’s Mouse (Leggadina forresti), Delicate Mouse (Pseudomys delicatulus), Western Chestnut Mouse (Pseudomys nanus), Common Rock-rat (Zyzomys argurus) and Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus) – this being the favoured food source of Letter-winged Kite. The Kimberley Pebble-mound Mouse (Pseudomys laborifex), once thought to be restricted to the Kimberley, has recently been recorded at several sites in Gregory National Park. It occurs mainly on stony and gravelly hill slopes and is interesting because it builds mounds of stones and pebbles around the burrows in which it sleeps. While Black Flying Fox and Little Red Fly Fox are common there too, not to mentioned over a 15 species of bat.
There’s nine introduced fauna species are recorded for Judbarra including Donkey, Feral Horse, Feral Cattle, Water Buffalo, Camel, Wild Pig, Rabbit, Cat, Black Rat and, of course, Domestic Mouse.
There is a fantastic array of reptiles at Gregory National Park, with 76 species recorded. The waterways are home to large numbers of both Estuarine Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) and Freshwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni). In terms of lizards, there’s 13 Gecko species and approx. 30 skink species. Monitors to look for Ridge-tailed Monitor (Varanus acanthurus), Pygmy Mulga Monitor (V. gilleni), Long-Tailed Rock Monitor (V. glebopalma), Pygmy Rock Monitor (V. kingorum), Yellow-spotted Monitor (V. panoptes), Sand Goanna (V. gouldii) and Merten’s Water Monitor (V. mertensi). Many of the Monitors are considered vulnerable because of their propensity to eat Cane Toads and die from the ingested toxins.
Interestingly Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) has been recorded at Judbarra, representing the northern extension of its range. Other lizards to look for include Slender Blue-tongued Lizard (Cyclodomorphus melanops), Common Blue-tongued Lizard (Tiliqua. scincoides) and Centralian Blue-tongued Lizard (T. multifasciata), as well as Two-Lined Dragon (Diporiphora bilineata) and Gilberts Dragon (Lophognathus gilberti).
There’s three species legless lizards including Hooded Scaly Foot (Pygopus nigriceps), Burtons Legless Lizard (Lialis burtonis) and Sharp-snouted Delma (Delma nasuta). Pig-nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta), the only living member of the genus Carettochelys, has also been recorded in the Victoria River.
In terms of frogs, one of the fauna highlights of Gregory National Park is the Magnificent Tree Frog (Litoria splendida). First described in 1977, it’s a large impressive frog, mostly restricted to the Kimberley, but extending eastwards as far as Timber Creek, Jasper Gorge and Joe Creek. While the Victoria River contains healthy populations of Barramundi, Salmon, Black and Silver Bream, which explains why many of the people who visit this area are fishermen.
Gregory has a wide selection of key target species, most notable Purple-crowned Fairy-wren, White-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush. While it is also a brilliant place for Australia’s most spectacular finches such as Gouldian and Star Finch and Yellow-rumped and Pictorella Mannikin. Other species to think about while birding is Chestnut-backed Button-quail, Pale-vented Bush-hen and Varied Lorikeet. Both Victoria River and Gregory National Park also seem to generate more than their fair share of Grey Falcon sightings. Interestingly Masked Owl is also known to occur on the Gregory National Park, but little is known this population.
While staying at the Victoria River Roadhouse (as mentioned in the introduction) there was a flowering Desert Bloodwood in the campground. When these trees flower, the nectivorous go crazy! Like a tree flowering along the Victoria Hwy (discussed below), it was full of lorikeets, both Varied and Red-collared Lorikeet, as well as some honeyeaters such as Banded Honeyeater and Little Friarbird. Purple-crowned Fairy-wren occurs around the Victoria River Crossing Bridge next to the roadhouse. I had a brief look, without any luck.
Typically, Great Bowerbird was a common campground bird, as were Red-collared Lorikeet, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbird. Aside from that, birds I saw around the campground included Red-backed Kingfisher, Pheasant Coucal, Red-winged Parrot, White-breasted Woodswallow, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Spangled Drongo, Paperbark Flycatcher and Crimson Finch. An unusual sight was seeing Blue-winged Kookaburra hunting insects at night at the street lamp near the campground. At night I heard Large-tailed Nightjar, Australian Owlet-nightjar, Barking Owl and Southern Boobook. Also In the campground I saw Northern Delta, while Agile Wallaby were everywhere.
Victoria River Boat Ramp
The Victoria River Boat Ramp is probably the most accessible sites for seeing Purple-crowned Fairy-wren in the Northern Territory. Living in small family groups, they display a distinct preference for the narrow band of Pandanus and cane grass along the riverbanks. As mentioned, one of the main reasons I was at Gregory National Park was to see Purple-crowned Fairy-wren in full breeding plumage. I’d seen them before, but in eclipse plumage. They’re an interesting species amongst fairy-wren, and birds generally. Most species when they go into an eclipse phase during non-breeding plumage simply revert to a dull grey form of their original self. Purple-crowned Fairy-wren, by contrast, completely changes into another bird. Their plumage is almost as interesting in eclipse as in full breeding plumage. However in full-breeding plumage they are spectacular!
As one of the national park signs said, Purple-crowned Fairy-wren has high tastes for real estate, with a preference for river frontage. This is certainly true. In fact, if you think about the places they’re found (Victoria River or Lawn Hill), these are some of the most specular and sublime places you ever visit.
I concentrated my search near the Victoria River Boat Ramp, which is located about 1 km south of the Victoria River Roadhouse. To get there, turn south down the boat ramp access road (located 500 m west of the roadhouse). I got there early, and found the best place to look was the cane grass around the carpark, and the cane grass between the carpark and the boat ramp. Indeed, I heard them calling almost immediately within in the first few metres of the walk to the boat ramp (here -15.630781, 131.133018).
There was a nice selection honeyeaters in the trees around the boat ramp including White-gaped, Rufous-throated, White-throated, Brown, Blue-faced Honeyeater and Little and Silver-crowned Friarbird. In addition, there was Pheasant Coucal and Dollarbird. Down near the boat ramp itself Azure Kingfisher huntered for fish, and Crimson Finch were common. It’s worth noting that a range of uncommon species have been recorded along the river here, such as Pale-vented Bush-hen (in grassy fringes), Black Bittern, Star Finch and Yellow-rumped Mannikin.
Escarpment Walk and Around the Carpark
There are two main things to do when you get to the Escarpment Walk (3 km return), accessed from the Victoria Hwy 2 km west of Victoria River Roadhouse.
Firstly, before heading up the escarpment, stop and bird the grassy areas around the carpark. I found the best time here was immediately after dawn. Later in the day (around 10am), it becomes quiet. This carpark is a surprisingly good spot for birding. In fact, it can be fantastic. I visited there a few times, and each time I’ve had several flocks of Yellow-rumped Mannikin feeding in the grass. In addition, there were Crimson, Masked, Long-tailed and Double-barred Finch, Golden-headed Cisticola, a few Ground Cuckoo-shrike, some very friendly Rainbow Bee-eater, and several Pheasant Coucal who bashed around the bushes lookng for grasshoppers. I got the impression that it’s the sort of place where anything can turn up. For instance, previously others have recorded Gouldian and Star Finch and Purple-crowned Fairy-wren.
Secondly, head up the escarpment walk, about 3 km return. Again, best in the morning, so you’ll have to drag yourself away from birding around the carpark. There are two main escarpment specialties at Gregory National Park, White-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and you may also see Short-eared Rock-Wallaby. I saw a White-quilled Rock-Pigeon about three quarters of the way up, with the bird flushing from rocks before me. This was near an area with a large rocky overhang, pictured in the image above. I didn’t see Sandstone Shrike-thrush here, but did hear them calling in the distance – calling their wonderful melodic call that echoed of distant rock faces. Other birds I saw here included Grey (Silver-backed) and Pied Butcherbird, White-throated Gerygone, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Yellow-tinted, Banded and Blue-faced Honeyeater, and Black-faced and Little Woodswallow.
Nawulbinbin Walk and Joe’s Creek Picnic Area
It’s worth having lunch beneath the towering foothills and escarpment along the Nawulbinbin Walk, a 1.7 km loop. It starts from the Joe’s Creek Picnic Area located off the Victoria Hwy 10 km west of Victoria River Roadhouse. The Nawulbinbin Walk leads from the picnic area up a steep rocky slope to the base of the escarpment where you will see fantastic examples of Aboriginal rock art, masses of striking Victoria River Palm on the scree slopes and the intriguing Ngabujbu Fern. As said, it’s a good spot to do around lunchtime because it isn’t until the afternoon that the sun reaches the walk due the shade created by the large cliffs. The walk is a good spot to look for White-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and it’s a great place to see Northern Fantail. Listening to their call, they sounds remarkably like Western Gerygone. On the road into Joe’s Creek, I saw a few of the white-bellied of Spinifex Pigeon, which the only place I saw this species at Gregory.
Timber Creek and Policeman’s Point
From the Victoria River Roadhouse, I headed west to the township of Timber Creek. While stopping for lunch, birding around the grassy area in front of the shop was quite good. This spot has become famous because Gouldian Finch occasionally feed on the lawn and drink at the sprinklers at Timber Creek. There weren’t any Gouldian’s when I was there, but it was quite active. Spotted Bowerbirds were very tame, and harass me for food scrap. Indeed I lost half a salad roll, snatched from my table when I went to the car to get my drink bottle! Large numbers of Red-collared Lorikeet called from the trees, and several Black-chinned (Golden-backed) Honeyeater called in the gums on the south side of the hwy.
West of Timber Creek, I specifically wanted to visit Policeman’s Point (here -15.630144, 130.476565). It’s a well-known spot for finches, and it didn’t let me down. The birding here was superb! It’s reach via track that proceeds north off the Victoria Hwy 4 km west of the township.
Parking at the end of the track, between the carpark and the river there’s a small area of scrubs. These shrubs provided the vantage point for finches and honeyeater to roost before they’d fly down to the river for a drink. How’s this for a list of finches congregated in one group. Star, Masked, Long-tailed, Crimson and Double-barred Finch, Pictorella and Chestnut-rumped Mannikin! Not bad! No Gouldian Finch or Yellow-rumped Mannikin unfortunately, but hey, you can’t see everything. There was a nice selection of honeyeaters drink with the finch, including Banded, Yellow-tinted, White-gaped and Rufous-throated Honeyeater. Another pleasant surprise was a Caspian Tern hawking up and down the Victoria River. I always get a bit of a birding shock when I these tern far inland along the large watercourses.
The woodland along the track to Policeman’s Point was quite birdy. Here I saw Australian Bustard, Red-winged Parrot, Black-tailed Treecreeper, Northern Rosella, Brown Quail, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Masked and White-browed Woodswallow, Black-chinned (Golden-backed) Honeyeater, Northern Fantail, and I managed to flush a Spotted Nightjar.
I stopped briefly at the Timber Creek Airfield, 6 km west of the township. another known site for Gouldian and Star Finch and Yellow-rumped Mannikin. However, it was mid-afternoon, the heat of the day had become oppresive, and it was very quiet.
At the start of the Buchanan Hwy (the road down to Jasper Gorge), I visited several sites for finches. The waterholes along a small, unnamed creek 4.5 km from the Victoria Hwy is known to attract Pictorella Mannikin and Gouldian Finch. All I saw, however, was Masked, Long-tailed and Double-barred Finch. Skull Creek, a further 9 km south, attracted similar species. Although I didn’t see one, the Buchanan Hwy is also a reliable – if that’s the right word – place to see Grey Falcon.
Note if you have time, head down to Jasper Gorge. Here there’s a a permanent waterhole at the gorge. The creek lines here hold a good number of finch, with a remarkable 10 species on Jasper Gorges list including Painted, Gouldian and Star Finch, Yellow-rumped and Pictorella Mannikin. Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Spinifex Pigeon, and White-quilled Rock-Pigeon (its southernmost limit) also occur. Also keep an eye open in the grassy woodlands around the gorge for Northern Nailtail Wallaby.
2. VICTORIA HWY
After visiting Gregory National Park, I travelled back east along the Victoria Hwy, stopping at a few spots on route to Nitmiluk National Park. It’s a fascinating drive, typical outback, with a pleasant range of features and habitats along the way. It reminded me of the section of the Savanah Way between Normanton and Atherton in Queensland.
While driving the Victoria Hwy, I tended to stopped and look in any flowering tree. At one spot there was Desert Bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) that was flowering prolifically. Like the tree at the Victorian Roadhouse, it proved a magnet for nectar feeding honeyeaters and lorikeets. The list of species in this one tree was outstanding. How this for a list! Varied and Red-collared Lorikeet, Little Friarbird, Banded, Bar-breasted, Yellow-tinted, Rufous-throated, White-throated, White-gaped and Brown Honeyeater, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Varied Sittella (race leucoptera, the ‘White-winged Sittella’) and Rufous Whistler. That’s basically the fool gambit of northern woodland honeyeaters all in one tree! Beautiful.
About half way along the Victoria Hwy, (I didn’t take note of the location) there’s a large farm dam. This was a drinking site for the largest flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoo I’ve ever seen. There must’ve been at least 1000 birds in one spot!
173 km from the Victoria River Roadhouse (21 km west of Katherine) I stopped at Chinaman Creek. I looked for the rare Chestnut-backed Button-quail in the grassy savannah woodland on the northern side of the highway about 500 m west of Chinaman Creek (here -14.606594, 132.143024). I specifically searched in the taller spear grass, ~ 1 m high. I reckon this time of year (mid-Oct) is the perfect time to look. The grass is tinder dry and was consequently very easy to walk through. My basic technique for searching was to walk quickly and directly through any tall grass trying to flush a bird. After about 30 minutes I luckily flushed an attractive female Chestnut-backed Button-quail.Button-quail are bit like Ground Parrot, flushing the bird is only half your luck. The other half is hoping that it lands somewhere nearby so you can have a decent look! Then, perhaps, just perhaps, you might get a decent photo. Fortunately for me, my bird landed about 10 m away and I was able to walk with the bird for for about 5 min. In birding terms, it doesn’t get any better than that!
From Chinaman Creek, I travelled a further 4 km east to visit a series of pools known as Horse Hole. This is another highway crossing of the Chinaman Creek (here -14.571294, 132.178172). (If you’re coming from Katherine, it is 16.3 km west of Katherine.) The water holes are reached via a small track that leads north of the Hwy for ~100 m. I parked near the old Victoria Hwy. Horse Hole is a well-known site for Gouldian Finch, Hooded Parrot and Chestnut-backed Button-quail. By the time I reached there, again the heat was oppressive, around 40 degrees, and bird life was very low. I did manage to see a several Crested Shrike-tit. This is the northern race whitei, known as the ‘Northern Shrike-tit’, a bird that’s considered a possible separate species. It’s worth noting that Black Bittern have also been recorded here, a bird that tends to move to the waterholes along inland creek lines during the dry.
Out of interest, it 18 km west of Katherine there’s a large truck stop (here -14.587850, 132.159911). This is also a known as a spot to look for Gouldian Finch and Hooded Parrot particularly mid-morning. I stopped for a bit of a look, but, to be quite honest, as truck stops often are, it’s a bit of rubbish dump.Finally, the Victoria Hwy is good for raptors so, while driving, keep your eyes peeled. Along the way I saw a couple of Black-breasted Buzzard, Spotted Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Australian Hobby and Brown Falcon. Interestingly Brown Falcon were surprisingly uncommon in this part of the Top End.
3. NITMILUK NATIONAL PARK
Nitmiluk National Park has some spectacular sandstone valleys. It’s also one of the best places in Australia to see Gouldian Finch and Hooded Parrot! There are two main sections of the park: Edith Falls (Leliyn) in the north, and Katherine Gorge in the south. Access Leliyn is by turning off the Stuart Hwy 42 km north of Katherine (48 km south of Pine Creek), with the falls a further 19 km down Jatbula Rd. The park has really good camping facilities, so I camped for a couple of days at Edith Falls.
Some of the Plants at Nitmiluk
Basically Nitmiluk consists of the following habitat types: sandstone plateau heath, open woodlands, open forest, sandstone monsoon forest and riverine. Each of these have there own collection of plants.
On the sandstone plateau Scarlet Gum (Eucalyptus phoenicea), with bright red flowers, and Variable-barked Bloodwood (Corymbia dichromophloia) grow in areas where the soil is deep enough, and there is a range of Grevillea such as Fern-leafed Grevillea (Grevillea pteridifolia) and Dryander’s Grevillea (G. dryandri) and Turkey Bush (Calytrix exstipulata) scattered across the higher areas.
The sandstone landscapes offer protection from fire and therefore for fire-sensitive species such old growth Curly Spinifex (Triodia bitextura) and Pityrodia pungens, the latter the local food sources for the spectacular Leichhardt’s Grasshopper (Petasida ephippigera). Leichhardt’s Grasshopper likes to stick to the same kind of food across it range. At Keep River it eats Pityrodia ternfolia, at Nitmiluk it eats Pityrodia pungens while at Kakadu National Park it eats Pityrodia jamessii.
The open woodlands in Nitmiluk are dominated by the Bloodwoods (Corymbia foelscheana, C. porrecta, and C. bleeseri) and Salmon Gum (Eucalyptus tintinnans), Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys), Billygoat Plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana) and Green Plum (Buchanania obovata). The Salmon Gum is an important habitat tree, especially for the Gouldian Finch, which nests in them. Annual Spear Grass (Sorghum spp.) are found in these area, serving as food for the Gouldians.The open forests are dominated by Darwin Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) and Woollybutt (E. miniata), and I noticed occasional patches of Arhnem Cypress Pine (Callitris intratropica). There was also Fern-leafed Grevillea (Grevillea pteridifolia) and Broad-leaved Paperbark (Melaleuca viridiflora) with occasional patches of Swamp Banksia (Banksia dentata).There are occassional small patches of monsoon rainforest, particularly in sandstone gorges where they are protected from fire and have access to permanent water seeping through the sandstone. Rainforest trees tend to be tall and provide almost complete shade for ferns and flowering shrubs like the beautiful Native Lassiandra or Blue Tongue (Melastoma malabathricum). The rainforest canopy includes Native Apples (Syzygium Gaertn) and Milkwood (Alstonia actinophylla).
The sandstone plateau drains into the lowlands through watercourses such as Seventeen Mile Creek and the Katherine River. Along the creeks and rivers there’s lush bands of riparian vegetation growing alongside them. There’s a nice example of this habitat type at Edith Falls. The species I noticed growing here include native apple trees including Chalky Apple (Syzygium forte), Leichhardt Tree (Nauclea orientalis), River Pandanus (Pandanus aquaticus), Northern Swamp Box (Lophostemon grandiflorus), Freshwater Mangrove (Barringtonia acutangula), Fishnet Vine (Flagellaria indica), native figs (Ficus spp) and paperbarks (Melaleuca spp) and some introduced Passionfruit (Passiflora foetida).
Animals of Nitmiluk
Just briefly, here’s a bit of a rundown of the animals that you need to look out for at Nitmiluk. The main macropods you’ll see are Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis), Euro (Macropus robustus), Antilopine Wallaroo (M. antilopinus), which were all fairly easy to see in the park. In the rocky escarpments you might find Black Wallaroo (M. bernardus), Spectacled Hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes conspicillatus), Northern Nailtail Wallaby (Onychogalea unguifera) and Short-eared Rock-wallaby (Petrogale brachyotis).The Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus) has apparently disappeared from most of its former range in the Northern Territory and south-east and south-west Kimberley. They do occur in very low numbers at Nitmiluk. Considered Endangered because of a serious population decline (at least 50% over the last 10 years) probably due to the effects of habitat degradation, Cane Toad and introduced predators.While also look for Sandstone Antechinus (Parantechinus bilarni), Common Planigale (Plangale maculata), Kakadu Dunnart (Sminthopsis bindi), Red-cheeked Dunnart (S. virginiae), Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula), Rock Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus dahli) and Sugar Glider (Petaurus brevicep), Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) and Northern Brown Bandicoot (Isoodon macrourus), Water Rat (Hydromys chrysogaster), Forrest’s Mouse (Leggadina forresti), Common Rock Rat (Zyzomys argurus), Grassland Melomys (Melomys burtoni), House Mouse (Mus musculus), Delicate Mouse (Pseudomys delicatulus) and Western Chestnut Mouse (Pseudomys nanus). I won’t list them here, but there’s 78 species of reptiles, including 53 lizard, 22 snake and 3 turtle species. A full list can be found here – http://www.parksandwildlife.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/10169/nnps4_values.pdf.
Birds of Nitmiluk National Park
I was really looking forward to birding around Nitmiluk for a couple of reasons. Firstly, its probably the best place in the world to see Gouldian Finch and Hoodded Parrot. Secondly, given the heat of the day, reaching the high 30’s around 10am, I could go for a swim in the large natural pool at Edith Falls any time I wanted. Indeed, while there, the order of the day was as follows: get up and go for a swim. Go birdwatching. Go for another swim. Go birdwatching. To cool down for the evening, go for another swim. You get the picture. What a wonderful way to spend the day! I highly recommend it. Especially when the birds you are birdwatching is Gouldian Finch. So, where the best place to go birdwatching.A creek line 5.6 km from the Stuart Hwy (here -14.186700, 132.082345) is definitely the first place to go after you’ve had your pre-dawn swim Here’s there’s a small creek line 5.6 km from the Stuart Hwy. Birdwise, the late dry is the perfect time of year to visit Nitmiluk. Late in the dry season several small isolated waterholes form along the creek just north of the road. As a result, early in the morning, a mass of birds come into drink and wash at the waterholes. Making sure I was there at dawn each day, I parked in the circular turn-in that travels north for ~100 m.
The first birds to come in was several Northern Rosella along with a nice selection of honeyeaters – Bar-breasted Honeyeater, Banded, Rufous-throated and Rufous-banded Honeyeater. Then a couple of Hooded Parrot arrived. Very nice! A small bevy of Brown Quail walked down a small track to the pool. Next to come in was the finches! The first to arrive was several Crimson Finch – they inhabited the Pandanas just up the creek. Then mixed flocks of Masked and Long-tailed Finch.
Then I noticed a large flock of birds swirling in the air about 100 feet above me. For a fraction of moment I thought they were European Stirling, as the birds were flying around in a acrobatic mass, Starling-like. Hang on. There aren’t any Starling in this part of the Northern Territory. That murmuration of birds above me was an enormous flock of Gouldian Finch! Whow! Wow! Put simply, this was one of my most memorable birding moments ever! Over the next hour or so, the birds came in to drink, darting back and forward from a bush located next to one of the pool. Once they’d finished drinking, they headed south into the surrounding hills to feed (here -14.189787, 132.081487). I followed, and birdwatched around the hills, I’d occasionally find myself surround by Gouldian Finch, often perched in small chattering flocks in Salmon Gum.
Another spot I saw Gouldian Finch and Hooded Parrot was at the Edith River crossing. It’s located on the Stuart Hwy immediately north of the turn-off to Edith Falls (here -14.183807, 132.032805). I scramble down the ridge to where there was a large pool. Over the course of an hour mixed flocks of finch, mostly Long-tailed and Masked Finch, but several individual Gouldian Finch, plus Hooded Parrot, drank at the waterhole.
Birding around the Edith Falls campground was also very pleasant. The common birds were Northern Rosella, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Lemon-bellied Flyrobin (formally called Lemon-bellied Flycatcher), Little Shrike-thrush, Yellow Oriole, Australian Figbird, Pied Butcherbird and Great Bowerbird, plus a range of the more common honeyeater.
While along the Leliyn Trail, a 2.6 km circuit that leads up the Middle and Upper Pools, I saw Crested Shrike-tit (northern race whitei), as well as Little Woodswallow, Little Shrike-thrush, Banded and Bar-breasted Honeyeater.I also travelled down to the road to Katherine Gorge to check out Donkey Camp Weir. A reliable place to see Great-billed Heron, Tthe entrance to the weir is 10 km from Katherine (500 m past the Kumbidgee Tea Rooms).
I parked at the pumping station and walked down to stream to the weir. No Great-billed Heron, but did flush a Black Bittern from some clumps of River Pandan, the second time I saw this species on this trip. Seeing itmade me think of the first Black Bittern. When I was 17, Dad and I saw a bird along Carnavon Gorge in central Queensland.
Some of the other birds seen near the weir included Nankeen Night-Heron, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Northern Rosella, Red-winged Parrot, Black-tailed Treecreeper, Striated Pardalote, Northern Fantail, Little Woodswallow, Crimson Long-tailed and Masked Finch.From Nitmiluk I headed up to Jabiru in Kakadu for a couple of weeks. I to running some guided bird tours as part of Kakada Bird Week. But that’s another story!