Cunningham’s Gap, Aug-Sep 2020

Summary: Excellent bushwalking and great rainforest birding, with good chances of seeing Lyrebird

Dates of visit: Aug 1 (Mt Cordeaux), Sep 13 (Mt Mitchell)

I’d walked the main track at Mt Cordeaux, one of the two peaks on either side of Cunningham’s Gap, back in 2016 and had very positive memories of it. The forest walking is soul-soothing and it’s topped off by stunning, panoramic views from the ridge line at the top.

Visiting the area as a birder in 2020 proved to be just as rewarding. In fact, it was here where I came up with my favourite cheeky adage: “Birding makes bushwalking ten times more interesting.”

To get to Cunningham’s Gap you just drive west from Brisbane (or Ipswich or wherever) on the Cunningham Highway until you get to the top of the Main Range National Park (marked as “The Crest” on the map). Here there’s a car park to one side of the highway; I’d advise arriving reasonably early to avoid the possibility of the car park being full, which does seem to happen on weekends.

You can then walk up the Mt Cordeaux side, or cross the highway to the Mt Mitchell side. On my first birding visit on August 1, a friend and I tried the tracks on the Mt Cordeaux side. We had gone as far as the Fassifern Valley Lookout (not far, on a paved path) and there saw a White-Throated Treecreeper, a group of Silvereyes, and some Brown Thornbills.

Cunningham’s Gap car park

Once we’d then headed up the main Mt Cordeaux track (a narrower dirt track this time) far enough to escape the highway noise (trucks especially), the forest provided an amazing birdsong soundtrack. And little wonder, as some of the best bird calls are found here: Grey Shrikethrush, Golden Whistler, Catbird, Crimson Rosella, not to mention the ever-present trills of Lewin’s Honeyeater. Not that we could spot all these birds in the dimness of the rainforest, especially early in the morning when the sunlight is on the other side of the mountain from the track. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to get good photos, at least for a while.

Reaching the top ridgeline was much lighter and more open and featured moss-covered trees, grass trees, and incredible views. (It should be mentioned that you can’t actually scale the Mt Cordeaux peak itself; you circle around behind it.) Here we got a good look at a Crimson Rosella, and had a close encounter with a very loud Whipbird that was calling from what sounded like right above our heads. In the denser scrub further along the ridge line we then spotted an Albert’s Lyrebird, long enough to get a half-satisfactory photo. Pretty exciting, and (from talking to a couple of other walkers that morning) seemingly a marquee animal that nearly everyone with even a casual interest in wildlife hopes to see.

We then ended up walking all the way out to the end of the trail at both Bare Rock and Morgana Walk, without seeing any birds much. But that’s the nice thing about this location: you can just enjoy the bushwalking when birds aren’t active.

On the way back we stopped on the “open” part of the ridge again, hoping to see a few birds attracted to the still-flowering grass tree spikes, and while munching on a sandwich an Eastern Spinebill arrived. It hung around having its own lunch for a while.

On the way down conditions were still challenging but there was enough light to get half-decent photos of a female Satin Bowerbird, Lewin’s Honeyeater, and a vivid Golden Whistler male.

We’d only picked up 15 species in total for the day, and didn’t get any stand-out photos, but it felt like a decent morning’s immersion in nature.

For the second visit in September, the idea was to go right up the Mt Mitchell track on the other side of the road; however, the weather had other ideas.

The first interesting thing that happened was spying a Thrush under a car right in the car park (the time was about 6:45am). It might have been a Bassian or a Russet-Tailed, as both are found here. Either way, it was a bit unexpected to see such a bird out in the open quite so much, and it’s always a good indication that you’re going to see birds that day when you see an uncommon one barely after stepping out of the car!

The Mt Mitchell side proved to be interesting because as soon as you start the track you are immediately into rainforest territory with birds aplenty. No slogging to get to the good stuff here! We saw Logrunners, Green Catbird, Brown Gerygone, some Crimson Rosellas, Lewin’s Honeyeater, Grey Shrikethrush and even a Brushturkey all fairly quickly. And of course heard a Whipbird or two.

We then heard a terrific squawking and spotted a group of Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos that had noisily arrived in a tree high above. The overcast conditions didn’t make for good photos but it was nice to know they were there. A couple of Brown Cuckoo-Doves and a White-Headed Pigeon also made an appearance.

One bird we were hoping to see was Yellow-Throated Scrubwren, which, based on a few trips to Cunningham’s Gap I’ve made now, is not a guaranteed sighting. This was our lucky day though, because we had an extended encounter with one who at one point hopped about on a burnt log, giving some great photos.

Soon after, however, we decided to turn back as the drizzly rain was becoming annoying and we could see any attempt to climb Mt Mitchell would just end up with us surrounded by white fog. Instead we opted to trek a little way down the Gap Creek Falls track, and although we didn’t go very far, we had a good time there finding more Green Catbirds, a friendly Eastern Yellow Robin, and Lewin’s Honeyeaters and a White-Naped Honeyeater, and an Eastern Spinebill foraging on grass tree spikes. The continuous chime of Bell Miners provided a soundtrack to watching these other birds.

Climbing back up the trail we then found a pair of King Parrots, which we were able to approach very carefully for good shots before they eventually decided we were too close for comfort.

Despite the weather on the Mt Mitchell side, it was a good morning’s birding and we swore we’d come back to properly do Mt Mitchell some time (it wouldn’t be until the end of January, but that’s a blog post for another time…)

The tracks at Cunningham’s Gap are long (12.5km return to the end of Bare Rock past Mt Cordeaux; 10.4km return to Mt Mitchell) and you are basically climbing a mountain, but they are generally not particularly difficult. The Mt Mitchell side probably has the edge in terms of bird encounters, but both sides of Cunningham’s Gap are worth spending time at, for both birds and bushwalking.

eBird hotspots:
Main Range National Park–Mt. Cordeaux (87 species)
Main Range National Park–Cunningham’s Gap (116 species)
Mt. Mitchell Track–Cunningham’s Gap (85 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Beautiful ridge and mountain bushwalking
+ Great birds and awesome birdsong in the morning
+ Various trail options available
– A bit of a drive to get to (though easy access once you’re there)
– Rainforest darkness and high canopy challenges
– Full return walk might be too long/arduous a track for some
– Very busy on weekends

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