Summary: Queensland’s number 1 birding hotspot does not disappoint! A huge area to explore with magnificent birds of all types.
Dates of visit: Aug 25-28, 2020
Townsville Town Common Conservation Park is listed as the number 1 hotspot in Queensland, with 282 species. I visited across 4 days and covered a lot of the vast area.
Hold on to your hats, because here’s a day by day breakdown. Or… you can skip to the end to see the executive summary 🙂
The first day we (that is, me and my Dad!) drove along Emmerson St past the golf club and into the Common. We weren’t sure what we’d find, or what the roads were like or how far you could drive (a little lack of research here…) So it turns out you can drive a long, long way on the unsealed road. Not knowing this, and seeing the road just keep going, we stopped at Payet’s Tower and climbed it. Here we saw Gull-Billed Terns swooping, with Townsville and some ranges in the background, but otherwise not much was happening. I could hear birds by the roadside but couldn’t spy any.
We decided to backtrack, aiming for the Forest Loop, but stopped along the way when I saw some flashes of Crimson Finch – one of the key species I was hoping to see on this trip to Townsville – in the grassy brush along the roadside. Aptly named, and they hung around for a while as I excitedly jabbed the camera’s shoot button. An Olive-Backed Sunbird also fluttered curiously near our car; the photo really drives home just how small this bird is.
At the Forest Loop, we encountered Brown-Backed Honeyeater, White-Bellied Cuckooshrike, Blue-Faced Honeyeater, Spangled Drongo, a Varied Triller swallowing a big red berry, Brown Honeyeater, Peaceful Dove, and Rainbow Bee-Eater. The loop itself is a narrow dirt track that is rough in places (holes in the dirt for the unwary), and is a bit longer than it looks on the map. (Also, annoying flies…).
We then headed up to the “main” area – accessed by a spacious car park at Walter Nesbit Park. Turns out this park is a lovely spot to chillax at and provides a good entry point (no long unsealed road!) into the Common.
The Wetlands Walk here saw Red-Backed Fairywrens, more Brown-Backed Honeyeaters, Double-Barred Finch, Crimson Finch, Spangled Drongo, plenty more honeyeaters, and finally a good look at the raptor that had been high above for a while – which I think was a Black Kite. Another Varied Triller hung around too.
Then into the Freshwater Trail things REALLY kicked up a notch. An Osprey flew by above (we were later to discern its nest), and three Brolga appeared in the “open” area – another target species if you’re in this part of the world, methinks. Into the bushier area, Peaceful Dove seemed to like pecking along the trails, there were Olive-Backed Sunbird, Sacred Kingfisher, Whistling Kite (probably), more Fairywrens, White-Bellied Cuckooshrike (a wonderfully obliging photographic subject), and Rainbow Bee-Eaters.
In Townsville one quickly learns to do one’s birding from shaded areas – the hot sandy trail in full sun is not anywhere you’d want to linger for too long. Fortunately a lot of the Freshwater Trail does afford tree shade.
There are two bird hides along the Freshwater Trail, and they are excellent, both for looking out over the reed-strewn lagoons, and for providing breezy cool relief from the heat. Magpie Geese were in numbers – spoiler alert, I eventually completed the entire circuit around to the Lagoon Trail (with my uncle, my Dad having aborted long before) and I estimated some 250 of these birds in the lagoons. I also spotted Pelican, Pied Stilt, White-Faced Heron in the water too. Now and again flocks of water birds cruised above, too far away to positively ID.
The lagoons themselves are huge, and apparently grow and shrink as the wet season (basically, Australian summer) comes and goes. As my visit was in late August, they were in the “shrinking rapidly” stage, with plenty of reeds and grasses flourishing, mud drying up, etc.
Further down the trail a group of half a dozen Crimson Finch were foraging right on the path and in the surrounding branches too, giving stunning photos – plus I saw a couple of Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin. I probably missed more birds than I saw right along this trail, as there is a lot of activity that you can hear but not necessarily track down.
Approaching the intersection of Freshwater and Lagoon Trails gave more Red-Backed Fairywren, Golden-Headed Cisticola, and a not-very-close-but-oh-well sighting of a Nankeen Kestrel. The variety of raptors here was starting to dawn on me! Around to the Lagoon Trail had more of an open-country feel, with less birds (though that could have been a function of the time of day, as it was now past 1pm…); I did see another Blue-Winged Kooka, yet another Varied Triller (not jaded, me!), plenty of Egrets, a couple of White-Necked Storks, and a pair of Forest Kingfishers.
Final tally for the day was 28 species – though I definitely missed recording a few; 700 photos, some of which were really great (an almost studio portrait-like White-Bellied Cuckooshrike being a huge highlight, as well as vivid images of Crimson Finch and Brolga); and a solid appreciation of the Townsville Town Common area as an amazing place for birding that I couldn’t wait to return to the next day.
eBird checklist for the day (probably should have split it up more…)
Buoyed with somewhat ridiculous levels of enthusiasm, I convinced my Uncle to attack the entire “Under the Radar” / Shelley Beach / Freshwater Trail circuit which is 16km looping around the entire mini-mountain range at the north end of the Common. My uncle has lived and bushwalked in Townsville for years so he knew the area well. Little did we know the epic trek that awaited…
We drove to the very end of Cape Pallarenda Road, starting off before 7am (half an hour after sunrise). The trail here hugs the steep coastline for quite some time, and we didn’t see many birds for a while except Red-Backed Fairywren and Varied Triller, and a bird which looked a lot like a Lewin’s Honeyeater, but I’d done my research and knew it was rather, a Yellow-Spotted Honeyeater. Peaceful Doves were also here too.
I was initially disappointed as it felt like we were traveling a decent distance along the bushy shoreline without encountering very many birds. The sight of Magnetic Island and the sun-lit ocean more than made up for it, though: it was just a nice bushwalk. It was still early enough that it wasn’t too hot yet. As the trail climbed higher, I spotted a Brahminy Kite over the water below, no doubt looking for its breakfast. Photogenic encounters were then had with Spangled Drongo, a male/female pair of Olive-Backed Sunbird and a Brushturkey (a more welcome sight out here than messing up my backyard in Brisbane).
Then I got a not-very-good photo of a bird I identified later as a Dusky Honeyeater (I think…), and then a mystery bird which I still haven’t ID’ed – there’s always one on every trip, right?
Later we skirted around a snake – could have been a harmless Tree Snake, but we weren’t getting close to find out. Here the Under the Radar trail heads south, away from the coastline, and it started to get much hotter; the grass looked very parched and crickets leapt up from each of our footfalls. A Mistletoebird was the only bird seen (apart from a crow) for nearly 90 minutes. What a slog!
When we hit the Shelley Beach Trail, we saw a pair of male Leaden Flycatchers, and a couple of the seemingly ubiquitous Peaceful Dove, and we briefly toyed with the idea of exploring a side trail before wisely deciding against it, and headed south towards the western end of the Freshwater Trail. As we came ever closer, the birding started to pick up again, with Rainbow Bee-Eaters and White-Throated Honeyeaters, and both Black-Faced and White-Bellied Cuckooshrike in attendance as we sat down on the side of the track for lunch.
More birds showed up as we continued walking, with a Rufous Whistler male/female pair showing very well, more Rainbow Bee-Eaters and Red-Backed Fairywrens and Varied Triller. The wind was increasing too, blowing pretty hard by the time we crossed into the Freshwater Trail and on into the bushy bird hide area. Here I used continuous shot to try and nab a picture of a Rainbow Bee-Eater in flight, with some success. Another bird species I saw here was a group of about 10 Scaly-Breasted Munia, which alighted excitedly on a bush long enough to snap just two photos before taking off and disappearing en masse again.
On the way out of the Common our sore feet (we were at the 15km mark by now…) were alleviated a little by the sight of a Jabiru, which was hanging out with the resident Brolga. Very neat (and a lifer!). Finally near the very end of the trail I had an incredibly close encounter with another Rainbow Bee-Eater: I had very patiently inched closer to see if I could get that perfect shot.
eBird checklist for the day – again probably should have split it up, but nowhere shows the hotspot borders between Cape Pallarenda and the Town Common…
Third day was another (shorter!!) sojourn into the denser bush around the bird hides on the Freshwater Trail with my Dad. Upon parking at our (now usual!) spot at Walter Nesbit Park, a Pacific Baza gazed down at us from the trees in the early morning light. They look like goofy, buff pigeons, those Baza. A quick detour through the Wetland Walk yielded some Figbirds, before heading across the open area showed up a White-Bellied Sea-Eagle, and the Brolga again, as well as an elderly and clearly very experienced gentleman who was trying to track down Varied Sittella. Into the denser area were more glorious Olive-Backed Sunbirds (seriously, can you get any more photogenic than these birds?!) and a few more of the species I’d come to recognise as common to the area. What wasn’t so typical were the Pacific Baza now in numbers, landing awkwardly at the tops of the trees – I think there was maybe 4 of them? We felt a little… surrounded.
Later I saw a Rainbow Bee-Eater squaring off against a Brown-Backed Honeyeater, which didn’t come to blows but looked amusing. It is always nice to get photos of birds interacting, rather than the usual one-bird-on-a-branch shots. I also took a couple of photos of a mystery bird that I later identified as a Little Shrikethrush.
One final walk round the Forest Loop (hey, I did have to catch a plane later that morning…) gave some amazing photos of Crimson Finch, Black Kite, White-Breasted Woodswallow, and Rainbow Bee-Eater.
Townsville Town Common is an amazing place for birding. On the days that I was there I saw loads of great birds, including water birds, bush birds and raptors, and there weren’t even very many other people there (noting that these were weekdays, not the weekend). Although it can get hot and the trails are sandy and long – I’m not sure I’d be up for the 16km round-trip circuit again – this is definitely a location to return to (note to self: with a longer camera lens than the 300mm one I was using this trip).
Most memorable encounters:
- Rainbow Bee-Eater
- White-Bellied Cuckooshrike
- Brolga and Jabiru
- Magpie Geese
- Olive-Backed Sunbird
- Various raptors – Osprey, Kites, Sea-Eagle, Pacific Baza etc
Pluses and minuses:
+ Huge area to explore with tons of magnificent birds of all types
+ Less people than you might think for a premier location
+ Bird Hides that you can actually see birds from
– Can get hot, especially in the sheltered areas on sandy trails (this is Townsville, after all) – carry lots of water
– Stringing together multiple trails to make longer loops is not for the faint of heart