Cairns To Broome Part 1
On 3 September 2008 I flew out of Melbourne to join Geoff Jones, Jim Neiger and David Milson in Cairns. Geoff Jones is a name you should now be familiar with as I have been circulating his beautiful photos for 12 months or so. He now has his website up and running - Barra Imaging - and likes to get feedback on it. I had not previously met either Jim Neiger or David Milson. Jim is an outstanding Florida USA based professional bird photographer Geoff had invited to Australia, having previously completed one of Jim’s photography classes in Florida. His website is one of the best I have seen - Flight School Photography. David Milson is a long time fishing buddy of Geoff’s who lives in Cairns. He came along to share the experience and to extend his birding knowledge and interest. David also kindly provided his 4WD as a second vehicle to the hire 4WD.
Geoff’s plan was to drive through central Cape York to Iron Range (on the east coast in the far north of the Cape) and back to Cairns with 2 goals:
1. to help Geoff achieve the 5 year goal he has set himself to photograph every bird species in Australia; and
2. to give Jim a great trip, his first outside the USA.
It was a wonderful privilege for me to travel with the group. Watching and talking to Jim especially gave me a perfect opportunity to improve my fledgling photographic techniques.
I arrived in Cairns before Geoff and Jim, so headed straight for the foreshore. Handicapped by my luggage, I still managed to see and photograph Eastern Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler and Gull-billed Tern. When the others arrived we drove to Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat, a small and secluded lodge near Butcher’s Creek on the Atherton Tableland. From our room the view was across a rainforest valley of the Wooroonooran National Park. Beneath our first floor window we had an assortment of flowering Grevilleas which were a magnet for honeyeaters and other birds. That afternoon and the following morning we photographed Lewin’s, Bridled, Dusky, Scarlet, White-cheeked and Macleay’s Honeyeaters and Eastern Spinebill, plus Grey Whistler, King Parrot and Pied Monarch. Our efforts at spotlighting produced Southern Boobook and Eastern Barn Owl, but no Tree Kangaroos. I would thoroughly recommend a stay at Rose Gums and the proprietors, Jon & Peta Nott, are very obliging and can provide very acceptable Asian influenced meals if required and if given some notice.
From the Atherton Tableland we spent 2 nights at the Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve. Our accommodation here was more basic (tent style with no 240V power, only solar) and there are no restaurant facilities (but there are small gas camping stoves for guests to do their own thing). You can stay in cabins but they are even more expensive than the not inexpensive tent style rooms. The birding though is great – we saw and photographed Emu, Magpie Goose, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Green Pygmy-goose, Hardhead, Australasian Darter, Eastern Osprey, Sarus Crane, Brolga, White-browed Crake, Comb-crested Jacana, Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Pallid Cuckoo, Forest Kingfisher, the spectacularly different melanotus form of the Brown Treecreeper, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Brown Honeyeater, Grey-crowned Babbler, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Pied Butcherbird and Double-barred and Black-throated Finches. A highlight was a boat trip around the main lake with the resident naturalist “Chook”. We were assured by Chook that there was no point searching for Buff-breasted Button-quail, one of Australia’s rarest birds, as they are only found there in the wet. Spotlighting around the wetland produced Australian Owlet-nightjar and Spotted Nightjar.
Next stop was the very well known Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge, at Julatten which is leased and operated by very competent birders, Keith & Lindsay Fisher. This spot is a magnet for birdwatchers and we had too little time to fully explore its potential. In the single day allowed in our itinerary we managed to see but not photograph Blue-faced Parrot-Finch (in a recently discovered site away from Mount Lewis) and photograph Australian Brush-turkey, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Emerald Dove and Pale-yellow and Grey-headed Robins. The others with their superior cameras also got photos of Spotted Catbird, Yellow-spotted and Graceful Honeyeaters and Red-browed Finch, but my gear could not cope with the low light. Spotlighting around Julatten is always a highlight and we were not disappointed with Sooty Owl (no longer regarded as a separate species – Lesser Sooty Owl), Masked Owl and Eastern Barn Owl: all seen well and photographed. Two owls with long dangling legs provided me with an identification challenge and they may have been Eastern Grass Owls. We got some photos and I need to do more work be sure of their identity.
From Julatten we drove north to Lotusbird Lodge near Musgrave. I caused us to lose about 5 hours by letting Dave Milson get too far ahead of us and then missing the turn off to Laura. We were almost in Cooktown before we realised my mistake, which caused us to drive an extra 200 kilometres with the second half along the notoriously corrugated Battle Camp Road. In the meantime Dave had realised we were “lost” and had gone back to look for us. When we arrived at Lotusbird Lodge we were staggered Dave was not already there – he was responsibly still waiting where we had disappeared. We spent 3 nights at Lotusbird Lodge on the journey north and one on the return journey. It proved to be one of our favourite stops: Jim enjoyed the opportunities for flight photography, spending 2 days on his own while we explored the surrounding country. The food is outstanding – the proprietor Gary is a chef extraordinaire and his partner Sue went well beyond the call of duty by doing our laundry without charge. All of us loved the views we had of Red Goshawk nesting on the Lilivale Station road and the 30 or so Golden-shouldered Parrots we saw on Artemis Station with assistance from the owner, Sue Shepherd. Other highlights were Radjah Shelduck, Black-necked Stork (having food provided by Gary stolen from under its bill by a Whistling Kite provided a tremendous spectacle), Australian Bustard, Squatter Pigeon, Black-breasted Buzzard (nesting), Pale-headed Rosella, Fairy Gerygone, Red-browed Pardalote (nesting), Rufous-banded and Banded Honeyeaters, Yellow Oriole and Black-backed Butcherbird. Trips into Lakefield National Park and onto the edge of the Nifold Plain produced more good birds - a Black Falcon (which the resident expert Scott Templeton advised had not been recorded in the National Park before), Red-headed Honeyeater in the mangroves along the Annie River, Masked Finch (which I missed) and the rare and endangered clarescens race of the Star Finch, which I had not previously seen.
From Lotusbird Lodge we had a long drive to our final destination – the Portland Roads Beach Shack. It sits on the side of the hill with a beautiful view over the small sandy beach and adjoining mangroves. There is definitely no swimming – Saltwater Crocodiles see to that. The Beach Shack would be idyllic, were it not for the sand flies, which are unrelenting at dawn and dusk. This was our base for 6 nights. There are only about 6 houses at Portland Roads and this little community is surrounded by the Iron Range National Park. The park has a diversity of habitats with large areas of dry woodland and a comparatively small area of rainforest. Most of the harder to find birds are in the rainforest, but as it transpired, we spent more time in the woodland and at the nearby Chili Beach. We had many photographic opportunities for Eclectus Parrots (mostly males), Palm Cockatoos and Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds - Geoff even succeeded in finding a bower. We also got photos of Green-backed, White-streaked and Tawny-breasted Honeyeaters, Frilled Monarch, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Lovely Fairy-wren, Large-billed Gerygone, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, Little Shrike-thrush, Shining Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Magnificent Riflebird, White-faced Robin (I could not photograph them due to low light), White-browed Robin, Northern Scrub-robin (which I also missed due to low light), Beach Stone-curlew, Great Frigatebird, Brahminy Kite and Greater Sand Plover (one with a white leg flag on the tibia denoting it was banded in the North Island of New Zealand – if I read the Australasian Wader Studies Group website correctly). We saw and heard Double-eyed Fig-Parrots and Trumpet Manucodes but had difficulty finding one low enough to photograph. Chestnut-breasted Cuckoos had arrived, but we could not photograph them either. As far as we could tell, Black-winged Monarchs and Red-bellied Pittas had not arrived. Spotlighting was once again successful with Papuan Frogmouths plentiful, at least 20 Large-tailed Nightjars and a Rufous Owl (which I missed from the back seat).
Overall a most successful trip with 249 species seen and 132 photographed (by me). I had to return after 2 weeks to attend the BOCA Forum with Branches and Affiliate Groups in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Geoff and Jim have continued to Kakadu National Park, The Kimberley and Broome, where they will spend another 4 weeks before they head home.
I am grateful to Geoff Jones for inviting me to join him. I hope he got some benefit from having me along to find and identify a few birds.