Darwin and Kakadu, Northern Territory – The Top End (2006)

Hooded Parrot. Image Jon Thornton

Over the years I’ve traveled the Top End a number of times. This report mainly covers my first trip there, a trip I did in 2006 when visiting Darwin for Birdlife Australia’s annual general meeting. After the AGM, I linked up with friend Greg Oakley and we hung around the Top End to do some birding. This report is broken up into 5 parts: background notes, Darwin, Arnhem Hwy, Kakadu and Pine Creek.

The Northern Territory’s Top End provides some of Australia’s most spectacular birding. Covering 400,000 sq. km, it stretches from Darwin and Kakadu in the north, south to Pine Creek, Katherine and Mataranka, then east to the Barkley Tableland and the Gulf Region, and finally west to the Victoria River and Gregory National Park. With a harbour seven times the size of Sydney Harbour, Darwin is a gateway to most of the Top End’s main birding sites.

The wonderful habitat
The habitats in the Top End are extremely diverse. These range from seashores (such as at Lee Point) and river systems (such as the Adelaide River), floodplains (such as between Adelaide and South Alligator River and Marrakai and on the Mary River floodplains) and wetlands (such as Fog Dam, Yellow Water and Mamukala Wetlands), monsoon forests (such East Point, Holmes Jungle, Howard Spring and Fog Dam) eucalyptus woodlands (such as along the Kakadu Hwy, Nourlangie etc.) and, to top it off, there’s the spectacular escarpment plateaus (best accessed via Nourlangie, Gumlon, Yurmikmik and Plum Tree Creek). This diversity of different environments, combined with the monsoonal climate, makes the Top End a fantastic place to going bird and wildlife watching!  It can’t get any better.

Darwin Harbour

The fantastic climate
The Top End has a tropical monsoonal climate with two major weather extremes: heavy rain during the monsoon season known as the wet (from November to April), and winter droughts during the dry (from May to September). Most birdwatchers visit during the late dry season when the humidity is low, the average maximum daily temperature is 30°C, and the minimum night time temperature is 16°C.The period between October and November, known as the build-up, is hot and humid. If you can handle the conditions then this period can be very rewarding, with many of the summer migrants, such as waders and larger cuckoos, arriving back in the Top End. Generally, the summer migrants arrive between August and November, and leave between March and May. Visiting the Top End during the wet summer months can be stifling (temperatures rise to an average 38.9°C), but again it can be rewarding, with some potential to find visiting rarities. Morning and late in the afternoon is the best time to go birding during this time. There are a few species (such as Spotted Nightjar, White-breasted, White-browed and Little Woodswallow, Australian Pratincole, Tree and Fairy Martin, and many birds of prey) leave the Top End during the wet, moving to more southerly areas of Australia.

In 2006, I visited in May, which was the beginning of the dry season. At this time of year the weather is simply perfect! The average maximum daily temperature is around 30°C and the minimum at night around 16°C. There’s not a cloud in the sky, the humidity levels are low, and importantly all the dry weather roads, such the road to Gunlom Falls, are open! It’s a time when you camp Kakadu style. You might sleep in your tent, but because there’s virtually no chance of rain, there’s no need to put the fly on. At night, you can look directly up into the stars.

Traveling around the top end
The main roads in the Top End are excellent, with sealed highways providing easy access to most bird sites. The main highways in the Top End are the Stuart Hwy from South Australia, the Barkly Hwy from Queensland, and the Victoria Hwy from Western Australia. Darwin is well-serviced by national coach companies and the Ghan (rail) travels from Adelaide to Darwin. A 2WD vehicle will get you to the majority of birding sites in the region, however if you intend to explore remote locations a 4WD is essential. Daily scheduled flights to Darwin operate from every mainland Australian capital city. Darwin, being the closest Australian capital city to Asia, has regular international air services from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. It is possible when booking your flights to arrange to have a rental car awaiting your arrival at Darwin airport.

Basically, our trip to the Top End provides me with some of Australia’s most spectacular birding. Covering an area of around 400,000 sq. km, our itinerary involved first birding around Darwin, and then drove to Kakadu, stopping at the Fogg Dam and the Adelaide River along the way. In Kakadu we visited Nourlangie and Gumlon, and then drove down to Pine Creek and back up to Darwin – driving about 1500 km along the way.

The birding highlights and there are many!
The Top End has four species endemic to the region: Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, White-throated Grasswren and White-lined Honeyeater are restricted to the Arnhemland plateau, while Hooded Parrot occurs in the southern section of Top End. Banded Fruit-Dove (found also in Indonesia) in Australia is restricted to the Top End.

A range of resident species found elsewhere in Australia is often easiest to see in the Top End. These include Pied Heron, Lesser Crested Tern, Chestnut Rail, Chestnut-backed and Red-backed Button-Quail, Rufous Owl, Partridge Pigeon, Varied Lorikeet, Northern Rosella, Rainbow Pitta, Arafura Fantail, Paperbark Flycatcher, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Green-backed Gerygone, Rufous-banded Honeyeater and Gouldian Finch. In the far west of the Northern Territory you can see White-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Purple-crowned Fairy-wren and Yellow-rumped Mannikin. In the Gulf country and Barkly Tableland, you can find Flock Bronzewing, Letter-winged Kite, Purple-crowned Fairy-wren, Carpentarian Grasswren, Yellow Chat, and Pictorella Mannikin. Summer migrants include Little Curlew, Swinhoe’s Snipe and Oriental Plover. A wide range of Australian rarities have been recorded including Eurasian Little Grebe, Garganey, Northern Pintail, Green and Stilt Sandpiper, Little Stint, Pin-tailed Snipe, Little-ringed, Caspian, Kentish and Ringed Plover, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Elegant Imperial-Pigeon, Black-headed, Franklin’s, Sabine and Black-tailed Gull, Oriental Reed-Warbler, House Swift, Barn and Red-rumped Swallow, White and Grey Wagtail.

Several birds found in the Top End have recently been elevated to full species:  Buff-sided Robin (split from White-browed Robin), White-lined Honeyeater (separated from Kimberley Honeyeater) and Arafura Fantail (separated from Rufous Fantail). Some authorities consider the ‘Silver-backed Butcherbird’, currently a subspecies of the Grey Butcherbird, as a full species. Some of the interesting subspecies found in the Top End include White-quilled Rock-Pigeon (cinnamon brown ssp boothi), Partridge Pigeon (red-eyed ssp smithii), Rainbow Lorikeet (‘Red-collared Lorikeet’ ssp rubritorquis), Variegated Fairy-wren (‘Lavender-flanked Fairy-wren’ ssp rogersi  and dulcis), Helmeted Friarbird (ssp gordoni), Helmeted Friarbird (‘Sandstone Friarbird’ ssp ammitophila), Black-chinned Honeyeater (‘Golden-backed Honeyeater’ ssp laetior), Grey Whistler (‘Brown Whistler’ ssp simplex), Crested Shrike-tit (‘Northern Shrike-tit’ ssp whitei) and Crimson Finch (black-bellied ssp phaeton). The Tiwi Islands, isolated from mainland Australia since the last ice age, has a high level of endemism with eight subspecies, including unique forms of Masked Owl, Helmeted Friarbird, and Hooded Robin (the last, possibly extinct).

Our main aim for the 2006 trip was to catch up with the sandstone escarpment specialists, namely White-throated Grasswren, Banded Fruit-Dove, Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, White-lined and Banded Honeyeater and Variegated Fairy-wren (‘Lavender-flanked’ ssp dulcis). Some of the other interesting birds we’d be targeting would be  Hooded Parrot, Rufous Owl, Chestnut Rail, Lesser Crested Tern, Mangrove Golden Whistler, Rainbow Pitta, Red-headed Honeyeater, Gouldian Finch and Red Goshawk.

For the record, on our 2006 trip I also saw Gouldian Finch and Red Goshawk. Our Gouldian Finch record was particularly satisfying – it appears that our 2006 record was the closest wild record to Darwin in nearly 40 years. In the last last few years have been an increase in Gouldian Finch sightings near Darwin.

Birding around Darwin is a rewarding experience, with good numbers of excellent birds found within cooee of the centre of the city.

On the edge of a harbour seven times bigger than Sydney Harbour, Darwin provides a gateway to most of the Top End birding sites. The city is serviced by air, road and rail links with other Australian cities. There are a number of excellent birdwatching sites close to Darwin, with all the sites easily reached by car. The city has an extensive network of bicycle and walking paths. It is worth spending at least three days in Darwin to give you the best chance of seeing the birds of the region. Day one: visits to Buffalo Creek, Holmes Jungle, and the Darwin Botanical Gardens; day two: plan trips to East Point, Leanyer Treatment Plant, and Holmes Jungle; day three: Fogg Dam is a must.

Charles Darwin University
The university hosted the AGM of Birdlife Australia, so (during lunch and tea breaks) I spent the first two days of the meeting slipping out to go birdwatching, concentrating mainly on the area between the university and the beach. The university is located 12 km from Darwin’s CBD, the Casuarina campus of Charles Darwin University is set on 56 hectares of urban parkland bordering mangroves and beaches. To get there from the Stuart Hwy take Bagot Rd onto Trower Rd and turn left into Lakeside Drive. At the first roundabout take Dripstone Rd, and at the second roundabout turn left into University Drive South.

For a visiting Victorian birdwatcher, the birding was superb! Without exception, all the species seen are different to those found in Victoria. Honeyeaters were particularly prevalent. On the west side of University Drive South, riverine monsoon forest borders Rapid Creek (1). Here you can see most of Darwin’s resident honeyeaters such as Red-headed, Dusky, White-gaped, White-throated and Bar-breasted Honeyeater as well as Varied Lorikeet, Red-winged Parrot, Pied Imperial-Pigeon, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Grey Whistler and raptors such as Collared Sparrowhawk, Pacific Baza and Osprey (they nest at the university).

Further along University Drive South (at the intersection of University Drive West) is a pathway that leads to Casuarina Beach. The track winds through melaleuca and mangrove forest (2); expect to see Yellow White-eye, Large-billed and Green backed Gerygone, particularly near the footbridge 100 m from the road. Chestnut Rail occasionally feed openly in the grassy areas of the university.

Further along the walk look in the forest fringe for Orange-footed Scrubfowl, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Northern Fantail, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and Channel-billed Cuckoo (summer). Around the small grass-covered sand dunes you should see Masked, Long-tailed and Double-barred Finch, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Dove, Varied Triller, Red-backed Fairy-wren and the Striated Pardalote.

Royal Darwin Hospital
Open woodland around Royal Darwin Hospital holds similar species to those found at Charles Darwin University. The best birding along the walkway to the beach located west of the Paracelsus Rd carpark. At night, look for Bush Stone-curlew in the car parks, listening for their loud haunting call. During the dry season, the car park is also a good place to see Spotted Nightjar hawking for insects near street lights. Royal Darwin Hospital is located off Rocklands Drive.

Darwin Harbour
It’s worth walking around the harbour, particularly the Stokes Hill, Fisherman’s and Fort Hill wharves. We got onto Lesser Frigatebird, Brown Booby and White-breasted Woodswallow (dry). As an aside, it is also worth investigating any unusual gull species you might see; the harbour is known for visiting rare and vagrant gulls. In recent years Black-headed Gull have been a sporadic visitor to the wharf area with most records between December and March. In April 2008, a Franklin’s Gull was present at Fort Hill Wharf, and there are historic records of both Black-tailed and Sabine’s Gull from within the harbour

Darwin Botanical Gardens
The Darwin Botanical Gardens, located about one and half km from the Darwin CDB, is one of the most reliable places to Rufous Owl. Their favourite roosting site is the trees immediately beside the main toilet block, tending to roost in the large broad trees with an open under-canopy, about 15 m up. If you do not find them, they sometimes found a bit further up the path near the playground, while another spot is the larger open trees along the rainforest walk – look near the pond in the north east section or in the taller trees along the small path at the bottom of the rainforest habitat. If you have difficulty locating them, ask the gardens staff, who usually know their current whereabouts.

While looking for Rufous Owl keep your eyes open for roosting Barking Owl, particularly in the larger trees between the fountain and the rainforest walk. Pigeons and cuckoos are also well represented in the gardens, with some likelihood of Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Australian Koel (summer), Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Channel-billed and Oriental Cuckoo (wet season), and Pheasant Coucal. Other birds to look for include Forest Kingfisher, Pale-vented Bush-hen (uncommon), Radjah Shelduck, Little Curlew (summer), Orange-footed Scrubfowl (common and relatively tame), Varied Triller, Cicadabird, and Spangled Drongo.

Lee Point and Buffalo Creek
At the northern end of Casuarina Coastal Reserve, the Lee Point beach and shore-point serves as a high tide roost for shorebirds. Buffalo Creek, a short 1 km drive from Lee Point (reached via Buffalo Creek Rd south of Lee Point), is an area of mangrove and coastal monsoon forests adjoining tidal sandbanks, 18 km from Darwin’s CBD. To get there from the Stuart Hwy take Bagot Rd, turn right into McMillans Rd and left into Lee Point Rd. Lee Point is 7.5 km from the turn-off, while the turn-off to Buffalo Creek Rd is 6.5 km from McMillans Rd.

On the way to Lee Creek look in the large grassy area on the east side of Lee Point Rd (1), 4 km from McMillans Rd. It is restricted to the public, but you can get good views from the roadside. Look for passage waders such as Little Curlew and Oriental Plover (late spring), Rufous Songlark and White-throated Woodswallow (winter), often seen roosting on the power lines. Raptors include Nankeen Kestrel, Brown Falcon, and Black Kite.

The coastal monsoon forest at Buffalo Creek and Lee Point, particularly between Buffalo Creek Rd and Casuarina Beach, is a good spot to look for Rainbow Pitta. I found that the best way to see them was to walk quietly through the middle of the forest from the eastern end of the car park, then west for several hundred metres – effectively herding the birds in front of you until you reach the end.

Around the Lee Point car park expect to see Spangled Drongo, Varied Triller, Leaden Flycatcher, Torresian Imperial Pigeon, and Pacific Baza. The car park at night is an excellent site to see (more often heard) Large-tailed Nightjar and Barking Owl.

Buffalo Creek mudflats are a reliable place to see Chestnut Rail, particularly straight opposite the boat ramp. The best time to see this shy, chicken-sized bird is in the early morning or late evening on a low tide. Listen for their loud harsh kark kark call; a good indication of the presence of the rail. Buffalo Creek is a popular boating spot, so you may need to wait for quiet periods between boat launches. (Note: if you miss seeing Chestnut Rail here, another good site is the Stuart Park mangroves, 3 km from Darwin City Centre on Tiger Brennan Drive.) I was particularly keen to see Chestnut Rail, an intriguing large rail that is extremely shy, and generally difficult to get satisfactory views. I’d previously tried for them (without luck) at Middle Arm, 50 km south of Darwin. They have a very distinctive and loud drumming call – and frustratingly I was hearing them in the dense mangroves, but not getting any views. At the very last night of my trip, I hung the around Buffalo Creek boat ramp, another known site for Chestnut Rail. The technique I used to see them was simple – sit at the boat ramp, and looking across to the shore opposite, and wait for the birds to walk out on the edge of the mudflat. Again I could hear them calling from the mangroves, but frustratingly could get a view. It wasn’t until it was quite late, well in to dusk – indeed it was getting quite dark – that a single bird wandered out from the mangrove and feed along the rivers edge. Brilliant!

Immediately to the right of the boat ramp a small (often muddy) trail walks into the mangroves. Look for Red-headed, Rufous-banded and White-gaped Honeyeater, particularly when Grey Mangrove (Avicennia marina) is flowering, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Green-backed and Large-billed Gerygone, Grey Whistler, Yellow White-eye, Varied Triller, Mangrove Grey Fantail and Mangrove Golden Whistler (uncommon). Along the creek’s edge look for Little and Azure Kingfisher, Striated and Nankeen Night Heron, and Chestnut Rail skulking in the mangroves. Raptors fishing along the creek include White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Brahminy, and Whistling Kite. Renting a dinghy and outboard from a boat hire company in Darwin can be worthwhile, giving you access to the river and areas of mangrove further downstream, and also giving you a chance of seeing Great-billed Heron.

The beach and extensive tidal flats adjoining Buffalo Creek’s mouth (5) hold large numbers of shorebirds such as Whimbrel, Eastern Curlew, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit, Common Greenshank, Terek Sandpiper, Sanderling, Great Knot, Sanderling, Grey and Pacific Golden Plover, Lesser Sand and Greater Sand Plover, Little, Caspian, Crested and Lesser Crested Tern. Beach Stone-curlew also occurs in the area. The mudflats have good potential for rarities, such as Kentish Plover, recorded here in November 1988. Birders should also scrutinize flocks of Silver Gulls carefully for Black-headed Gull; a vagrant that has been detected her (especially in December and January) with some frequency. Dugong feeds in the seagrass meadow just off Casuarina Beach.

The Lee Point Beach and shore-point serves as a high tide roost for shorebirds. A beautiful place,at the point itself are several small reefs where shorebirds roost. Look for Grey and Pacific Golden Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Pied and Sooty Oystercatcher, Eastern Reef Egret, Lesser Crested, Little, Roseate (uncommon) and Caspian Tern and at sea Lesser Frigatebird, Brown Booby and Barn Swallow (uncommon summer).

Charles Darwin National Park
Charles Darwin National Park, the closest national park to Darwin, just 8  km from the CBD. To get there take Tiger Brennan Drive. It is a particularly good place to see woodland birds such as Varied Lorikeet, Northern Rosella, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Brown Quail, Banded Honeyeater, Silver-crowned Friarbird, and Great Bowerbird.

Bordering the park is a large expanse of mangrove. At the end of the national park access road, a path leads to a border section of mangrove. Here we saw Yellow White-eye and Red-headed Honeyeater. Here we saw Yellow White-eye and Red-headed Honeyeater. Although we didn’t see any, Chestnut Rail, Pale-vented Bush Hen and White-breasted Whistle have all been seen here.

East Point
East Point Reserve, a 200-hectare recreation area, has a range of habitats including monsoon forest, mangroves, open parkland, and beaches with rocky outcrops. This variety of habitats provides a perfect opportunity for seeing a good selection of birds. To get there from Darwin take Gardens Rd and continue on to Gilruth Ave and then East Point Rd, 3 km from the Darwin City Centre. Continue down East Point Rd and then Alec Fong Lim Dr for a further 3.8 km.

On the monsoon forest walk, which starting just west of the Pee-Wee’s at the Point restaurant, we searched the forest floor for Rainbow Pitta, Emerald Dove and Orange-footed Scrubfowl (there are several active nest-mounds along the walk). In the forests mid-storey we saw Green-backed Gerygone, Grey Whistler, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, cuckoos such as Little and Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo, Oriental Cuckoo (uncommon during the wet), and Pheasant Coucal. In the canopy look and listen for Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove (in winter perching on powerlines at East Point), Yellow Oriole, and Spangled Drongo. Honeyeaters include Brown, White-gaped, Bar-breasted and Banded (uncommon) Honeyeater, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbird. At night Rufous Owl (uncommon), Large-tailed Nightjar, Owlet Nightjar may be encountered.

Mixed flocks of shorebirds roosted on the reefs and beaches at the end of Alec Fong Lim Dr in the north-west section of East Point. We saw Pacific Golden and Grey Plover, Lesser and Greater Sand Plover, Grey-tailed Tattler, Terek and Common Sandpiper, Great Knot, Eastern and Little Curlew, Red-necked Stint, Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, and Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwit.  With luck, you might see rarer waders such as Pectoral Sandpiper, Asian Dowitcher and Common Redshank. Other birds include Intermediate Egret, Striated and Eastern Reef Heron, Beach Stone-curlew and terns such as Little, Gull-billed, Caspian, Common (summer), Lesser Crested and Crested Tern.

At low tide, when the mudflats are exposed in the mangroves on the north-east shoreline of the reserve (between Ludmilla Creek and Colivas Rd), look out for Chestnut Rail, Collared Kingfisher, Green-backed and Mangrove Gerygone, Yellow White-eye, Black Butcherbird, Shining Flycatcher and Mangrove Golden Whistler (uncommon). When we were there, someone had reported Beach Stone-curlew from here the day previously.

Darwin Airport
At the airport, the last two birds I recorded for the trip were Bush Stone-Curlew and Barking Owl – both heard in the car park around 9:00 pm, when parking the hire car.Leanyer (Darwin) Sewage Ponds
The best time to visit Leanyer is between September and March when migrant waders and rarities are a feature.

Just before the main entrance to the treatment ponds, a drain and track lead north for approximately 80 m. This area is good for finches such as Double-barred, Long-tailed and Crimson Finch and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin; be sure to look carefully as Yellow-rumped Mannikin (uncommon) have been seen. During the wet season, look for Eastern Yellow Wagtail and vagrant species such as Grey and White Wagtail.

Once inside Leanyer the best method for birding is to drive up and down the causeways between ponds. These hold large numbers of waterbirds, with a chance of significant finds including rarities such as Swinhoe’s and Pin-tailed Snipe, Little Ringed Plover, Long-toed Stint, Red-necked Phalarope, Little Curlew, Ruff, Oriental Plover, Oriental Pratincole, Garganey (odd birds are sometimes found in flocks of Grey Teal and Pacific Black Duck), Northern Pintail, Barn and Red-rumped Swallow. More common species include Australasian Grebe, Great, Intermediate, Little and Cattle Egret, Pied Heron (also common at the Shoal Bay Waste Disposal Site near Karama off Vanderlin Dr) and ducks such as Wandering and Plumed Whistling-Duck, Radjah Shelduck, Hardhead and Pink-eared Duck. Waders include Pacific Golden Plover, Common, Wood, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, and Black-winged Stilt. Also look for Gull-billed, Whiskered and White-winged Black Tern (summer), White-breasted Woodswallow, Welcome Swallow (rare in the Top End), Brown Quail, Pale-vented Bush Hen (around the vegetated fringes during the Wet), Horsfield’s Bushlark and Flock Bronzewing (rare).
The third area in which to concentrate your birding are the mangroves bordering the ponds on the northeast side (3). Look for Great-billed Heron, Little Kingfisher, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Mangrove Gerygone (in areas of low growing Grey Mangrove), Yellow White-eye, Dollarbird (summer), Red-headed Honeyeater, Cicadabird, Broad-billed, Paperback and Shining Flycatcher, Northern, Arafura and Mangrove Grey Fantail, Grey Whistler, Mangrove and Green-backed Gerygone, Mangrove Whistler and White-breasted Whistler (uncommon). 

Access to the ponds is restricted so you will need to contact NT Power and Water to collect a key and to complete the induction and indemnity process before entering the site. For details contact Customer Service on 1800 245 092 or email customerservice@powerwater.com.au. Once accessed is approved from the Stuart Hwy take Bagot Rd, turn right into McMillans Rd, left into Lee Point Rd and then right into Fitzmaurice Drive.

Palmerston Sewage Works
Palmerston Sewage Works holds similar species to those found at Leanyer. Interesting species to look for are Pale-vented Bush-hen (summer), White-browed Crake, Garganey (summer), Grey Goshawk and Yellow-rumped Mannikin (uncommon). In the mangroves to the north of the Works look for White-breasted Whistler, Collared and Little Kingfisher, Chestnut Rail, Mangrove Grey Fantail, Mangrove Robin, Broad-billed Flycatcher, Cicadabird, and Mangrove Golden Whistler (uncommon). To get to the Palmerston Sewage Works, from the Stuart Hwy, take Roystonea Ave, then right into University Ave, left into Elrundie Ave and after 2.4 km turn right at Catalina Rd, and then drive to the end of the road. Pale-vented Bush-hen are also regularly seen on the small creek that crosses Wishart Rd (500 m east of Berrimah Rd), between Palmerston and Darwin.

Northern Territory Twitchathon
As an aside, on Sunday 28 May, we participated in the NT Twitchathon. Members of the team included Tim Dolby, Greg Oakley and local ornithologist and good bloke Chris Brady. It was great fun. For the record, we came second, with 126 bird species in 12 hours, compared with the winning teams 128. To compensate for this we did score the best bird for the Twitchathon – Gouldian Finch! (see Arnhem Hwy discussion below) This easily made up for our 2 bird loss in the race.

A Freshwater Crocodile at Fogg Dam


Holmes Jungle
Grasslands border the fence line on the northern side of Holmes Jungle. In this area got on to several Red-backed Button-quail. The grassy area is also good for Red-chested Button-quail, Brown and King Quail have been recorded – with Red-backed Button-quail and Brown Quail being seen most frequently. Zitting Cisticola was also seen around the wet grassy edges – listen for the zit-zit-zit flight song

Tim Dolby birding Kakadu.  No trip report to Kakadu would be complete without an image of someone standing in front of an enormous termite mound!

We also walked the Rainforest Walk. It winds along Palm Creek through some excellent monsoon forest. Here we saw and heard Pacific Baza, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Rainbow Pitta, Grey Whistler, Spangled Drongo, Northern Fantail, and Red-backed Fairy-wren. Also – perhaps surprisingly – there was a small family of Helmeted Guinea-fowl in the company of a single Indian Peafowl.

Fogg Dam
I visited Fogg Dam twice: once briefly during the NT Twitchathon thon and then on my last day, spending a good 5 hours just hanging around. What a fantastic place! There are two excellent walks, both leaving from the first car park.

The 2.5 km-return Monsoon Forest Walk winds its way through a variety of habitats including monsoon and paperbark forests, and then on to edge of the floodplain. The denser forest near the start of the walk can be good for Rainbow Pitta. Other birds to look for include Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove and Emerald Dove, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Sacred Kingfisher and Olive-backed Oriole.

The 2 km-return Woodlands to Waterlily Walk leads you through forests that fringe the floodplains and then to a boardwalk on the edge of the dam. Birds along here include Little and Azure Kingfisher, Green-backed Gerygone, Lemon-bellied and Broad-billed Flycatcher, Grey (Brown) Whistler, Dusky and Red-headed Honeyeater, Northern Fantail, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Varied Triller and Yellow White-eye. The grassy fringes of the floodplain can be especially good for Tawny Grassbird, Golden-headed Cisticola, Australian Reed-Warbler, Crimson Finch and Chestnut-breasted and Yellow-rumped Mannikin (though the latter is uncommon).

In the morning, the trees around the first car park were alive with bird song. Here I just sat and enjoyed the space, seeing Broad-billed (quite common), Leaden and Paperbark  Flycatcher, Forest and Sacred Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater, Red-backed Fairy-wren,  Brush Cuckoo, honeyeaters such as White-gaped, Bar-breasted and Rufous-banded.

Birding along the  Dam Wall Walk – following the causeway along Fogg Dam Rd, it’s about 2 km return – provides convenient viewing into the wetlands. Keep an eye open for White-browed and Baillon’s Crake, and Buff-banded Rail in the marshy shallow fringes near the central viewing platform, Comb-crested Jacana walking on lily pads, and for terns such as Gull-billed, Whiskered and White-winged Black Tern. The Pandanus Lookout on the west side of Fogg Dam provides clear views over the northern section of the wetlands and floodplain. From this vantage point look for larger waterbirds such as Magpie Goose, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Radjah Shelduck, Green Pygmy-Goose, Royal Spoonbill, Black-necked Stork, Glossy and Straw-necked Ibis. Egrets and herons include Little, Intermediate and Great Egret, White-faced, White-necked, and Pied Heron.

Just west of the Pandanus Lookout is a causeway that on occasions can teem with birdlife, especially fish eating species that congregate for the easy pickings. Here a great flocks of Pied Heron, Intermediate and Great Egret feed on smaller fish. South of the lookout (across a small bridge) in the first section of forest there was a Nankeen Night-Heron roost. Birds of prey hunting over the wetlands include Swamp Harrier, Whistling and Black Kite, White-bellied Sea-Eagle and Pacific Baza. Also seem at Fogg Dam were several Freshwater Crocodile, and near first car park there was a very loud family of Wild Pig.

Small wetland behind the hide at Fogg Dam.

Arnhem Hwy and Adelaide River
The first big surprise for the trip was twitching a Gouldian Finch during the NT Twitchathon. The bird we saw was a black-faced bird, seen in grassland bordering a monsoon forest precisely 55 km  from Darwin (8  km past Lambells Lagoon), just before the Jabiru 200  km (J200) road sign (-12.612176,131.255225). In the woodland here we also saw Masked, Long-tailed, Double-barred and Crimson Finch, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, Northern Rosella, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Varied Lorikeet, Black-tailed Treecreeper and Blue-winged Kookaburra. Another black-faced Gouldian was later seen near the same spot – possibly the same bird. From all indications, this was the closest record to Darwin of a Gouldian Finch for many years. The initial reason we stopped at this site we thought we’d seen Grey-crowned Babbler. This was the only woodland bird we didn’t record at this site! Despite this, we jokingly kept calling it the “Grey-crowned Babbler site”. Generally speaking, it is worth stopping in roadside areas that support monsoon forest with long grasses as finches favour these areas.

Further along the Arnhem Hwy, about 17 km east of Marrakai (-12.862985,131.587821), there two gravel extraction areas with water holes adjacent to tropical woodlands and series of low range of hills. Gouldian Finch have been observed drinking here (the first hour or two after dawn is best), along with Crimson, Masked, Double-barred and Long-tailed Finch. If both pools contain water then the eastern water hole is often the more productive of the two. A further 6 km east of the extraction area (about 25 km east of Marrakai) Gouldian Finch feed around the Bird Billabong car park and along the walk to the billabong, and  Black-tailed Treecreeper occur in the tropical woodlands here.

Whilst driving the Arnhem Hwy maintain a sharp lookout for raptors – we saw such as Brown Falcon, Spotted Harrier, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Black and Whistling Kite and Brown Goshawk – and there are records of Black-breasted Buzzard and the Red Goshawk.

Adelaide River Crossing
Along the Arnhem Hwy, about 7 km east of the Fogg Dam turn-off, we came to the Adelaide River. This is a reliable site for Mangrove Golden Whistler. Just prior to the bridge, we parked in a small pull-in on the north-west side of the road. Here we saw Mangrove Golden Whistler in the riparian forest bordering the river (directly adjacent to the car park). Other birds we saw here included Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Shining, Paperbark and Broad-billed Flycatcher, Yellow Oriole, Arafura Fantail and Yellow White-eye, and Brahminy Kite.

Note: the Adelaide River boat cruises are renowned for their Saltwater Crocodile experiences – on the boat you have good chance of seeing Great-billed Heron and Black Bittern.

White-throated Grasswren atop of the Gumlon escarpment. Considered one of Australia’s hardest birds to see, statistically more people dip on this species than any other Australian bird.

Listed as a world heritage area Kakadu National Park is almost 20,000 sq. km. The park entrance is 152 km east of Darwin, so if travelling by road you should allow two and a half hours travel time. There are a number of key habitats at Kakadu including estuaries and tidal flats, floodplains (regions inundated with water for 2 to 6 months), lowland eucalypt-dominated open woodlands and sandstone escarpments. The bird list for the park is impressive, boasting many of the Top End specialties, and attracting a range of rarities. Sought-after species include White-throated Grasswren, White-lined Honeyeater, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Banded Fruit-Dove, and Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon. Kakadu is also a good place to see Partridge Pigeon and Red Goshawk as well as a large numbers of waterbirds. Spend at least three days in Kakadu, four if you plan to look for White-throated Grasswren at Gunlom. Kakadu National Park is well-serviced by camping areas, all with various levels of facilities. Some are run by the park and others independent commercial operations. If you plan to camp overnight on a bushwalk, you will need a permit from Park Management. For information on accommodation and camping options visit the Kakadu National Park webpage at http://www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu. There is an entry fee of AUD25.00, which provides you with a 14-day pass. Information about Kakadu National Park is also available from the Bowali Visitor Centre, 5 km west of Jabiru, open 8.00 am to 5.00 pm daily.

Our reason for visiting Kakadu was to see the superfluous Top End endemic. These are White-throated Grasswren, White-lined Honeyeater, Banded Fruit-Dove, and Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon. Kakadu also provides good opportunities for seeing Sandstone Shrike-thrush, Partridge Pigeon, Red Goshawk and Chestnut-backed Button-quail. The waterbirds, especially when massed in dry season concentrations are just spectacular. Even non-birdwatchers flock to Kakadu to witness the birds.

Kakadu Hwy
Near the township of Jabiru we got on to our first of many Partridge Pigeon (red-eyed ssp smithii) for the trip. Along the roadside there were also several Frilled-necked Lizard – a spectacular and surprisingly large lizard – as well as Antilopine Wallaroo.

Our second big surprise for the trip (the first was the Gouldian Finch) was seeing a magnificent Red Goshawk flying along the Kakadu Hwy, about 20 km south of Yellow Waters. It flew about 20 m up, directly over our car, turned and then flew back over the car, before banking to left. About the size of a Little Eagle, you don’t realize how big Red Goshawk are until you actually see one.

Red Goshawk

On the road into Nourlangie we saw several Partridge Pigeon. Despite being a very popular tourist attraction (mainly because it contains some of Australia’s best-known aboriginal rock paintings) the extensive sandstone rock escarpment with pockets of monsoon forest, provides perfect habitat for some of the Top End endemics.

When seeking the escarpment endemics it is best to start the 1.5 km circular walk early (it can get very busy with tourists). Look along here for White-lined Honeyeater – they were feeding in eucalypts at the base of Nourlangie Rock (Anbangbang). Banded Fruit-Dove was also seen here, feeding in fruiting figs in the cooler canyons and crevices just north of the rock. Another bird seen was Helmeted Friarbird (‘Sandstone’ ssp ammitophila).

The circular walk ends with a moderately steep climb to Gunwarddehwardde Lookout – it provides excellent views along the escarpment and Anbangbang. Here we saw Sandstone Shrike-thrush and Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon. The Sandstone Shrike-thrush broadcasts its location by singing from ledges along the cliff tops. Banded Fruit-Dove was again seen feeding in fruiting native fig in the gully west of the lookout.

Other birds seen at Nourlangie included Cicadabird, Leaden and Paperbark Flycatcher, Emerald Dove, Olive-backed Oriole, Black-tailed Treecreeper, Great Bowerbird, Pied Butcherbird, Little Woodswallow, Weebill, Mistletoebird, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbird, and Brown, Dusky, White-throated and Banded Honeyeater.

Yellow Water
Yellow Water is located at the confluence of Jim Jim Creek and South Alligator River. It a superb series of billabongs surrounded by floodplains and extensive woodlands. The wetlands are among the most spectacular in the world and act as a haven for waterbirds (especially, late in the dry season).

Although the cruises concentrate their efforts on viewing crocodiles, the list of waterbirds is impressive. Little and Azure Kingfisher are found at various places along the river, becoming more numerous where there is extensive riparian vegetation together with clear water for fishing. They typically they are found perched on exposed branches just above the water. Other kingfishers include Forest and Sacred, and Blue-winged Kookaburra.

Birds commonly encountered on the cruises included Magpie Goose, Radjah Shelduck, Grey Teal, Plumed and Wandering Whistling-Duck, Green Pygmy-Goose, Pacific Black Duck, White-necked, White-faced and Pied Heron, Nankeen Night-Heron, Little, Intermediate, Great and Cattle Egret, Australasian Grebe, Australian Pelican, Australasian Darter, Glossy, Straw-necked and Australian White Ibis, Royal Spoonbill, Black-necked Stork, Brolga, Black-winged Stilt and Comb-crested Jacana. Yellow Water is also an excellent location for birds of prey; the most commonly we encountered were White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Black and Whistling Kites, Brown Goshawk, Australian Hobby and Brown Falcon.

The Spectacular Gunlom
We arrived at Gunlom (also known as Waterfall Creek), located on the southern border of Kakadu, in high spirits. This was our main destination for the whole trip, and our aim was to track down the sandstone escarpment specialists, especially the secretive White-throated Grasswren. A notoriously difficult bird to see, it many regard it as the hardest species of bird to see in Australia. There is a well maintained gravel access road (30 km) that runs off the Arnhem Hwy 90  km south of the Yellow Water turn-off. During the dry season, Gunlom is accessible by conventional 2WD, however in the Wet access is restricted, and the road is often closed. We stayed in the excellent campground at the base of Gunlom Falls.

To look for the escarpment specialists you need to walk up to the top of the Gunlom Fall – it’s about 2 km return. From the top, you then need to continue climbing (clambering) up the sandstone boulders north-east of the falls. We started up the rocky slopes about 100 m along the walk track that follows the creek line. There are no clear paths, so it was tough going – and fortunately we’d taken plenty of water.

After many hours of clambering over the uppermost higher sandstone plateaus, we eventually got onto a small family group of White-throated Grasswren, We saw them in a in a football-field sized plateau immediately behind the uppermost escarpment (-13.433217,132.423164). This was an area about 1 km east of the falls track. It seems their optimum habitat was flat, sparsely-vegetated areas with mature spinifex.

In the process of searching for White-throated Grasswren we also saw a range of other sandstone specialists. These included Banded Fruit-Dove (seen in a dark gully high up the escarpment), Sandstone Shrike-thrush, White-lined and Banded Honeyeater, Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Helmeted Friarbird (‘sandstone’ ssp ammitophila), Variegated Fairy-wren (‘lavender-flanked’ ssp dulcis). On the escarpment we also saw another endemic to the Arnhem Land escarpments, a Black Wallaroo. Little Woodswallow hunted along the escarpment edge and over the falls.

Note: that if you don’t see White-throated Grasswren to the east of the walking track, they have also been seen in a large open plateau about 300 m along the creek line. In the centre of the plateau is a rocky outcrop, where White-throated Grasswren have been recorded on the outcrop and in the area between it and the escarpment to the north-east. We spent several hours here, without success.

At the base of the falls and around the campground we saw a Black-breasted Buzzard, Varied Lorikeet, Northern Rosella, Great Bowerbird, Blue-faced Honeyeater, Pheasant Coucal, Blue-winged Kookaburra, Blue-faced, White-throated and White-gaped Honeyeater and Silver-crowned Friarbird, and several large flocks of Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo. Nightbirds include Barking Owl, Southern Boobook, and Australian Owlet-Nightjar.

Our final destination for the trip was Pine Creek, a reliable site for Hooded Parrot.

The Water Gardens on the northern side of town (between Main Terrace and Railway Terrace) as the name suggests supports a series of pools shaded by trees and shrubs. Here the much sought after Hooded Parrot roosts during the heat of the day. After a short walk, we saw a male bird in a tree in main park on Main Terrace near the centre of town.

Around the township of Pine Creek we also saw Varied Lorikeet, Northern Rosella, Jacky Winter, Black-chinned (Golden-backed ssp laetior) and Bar-breasted Honeyeater, Little and Silver-crowned Friarbird, Grey-crowned Babbler, White-throated Gerygone, Long-tailed Finch and Little, Masked and Black-faced Woodswallow; and on power lines where White-breasted Woodswallow and Red-backed Kingfisher.

If you’re unsuccessful at finding Hooded Parrot at the Water Gardens, I can recommend visiting  the trees around Mine Lookout and the nearby water tower. It is located at the southern end of Moule St. They are also regularly roost at the Pussy Cat Flats Racecourse (1  km from town on the northern side of the Kakadu Hwy). This Pine Creek Cemetery, good site for finches such as Long-tailed, Masked and Gouldian Finch, especially along the fence line that leads right from the cemetery gate. The road to the cemetery leaves the Stuart Hwy on the bye-pass around Pine Creek.

Although we didn’t visit this site, yet another spot to look for Hooded Parrot is the Pine Creek Treatment Plant (it’s located on Sewage Ponds-Pine Creek Rd), and the surrounding woodland. It’s also meant to be good for Gouldian Finch, Partridge Pigeon, and Chestnut-backed Button-quail, as well King  and Brown Quail,  Pink-eared Duck, Radjah Shelduck and Common Sandpiper (wet season).

Tim Dolby

Gumlon Fall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s