Summary: Incredible hotspot for almost-tame rainforest birds along with awesome bushwalking
Dates of visit: Nov 4 to 9, 2020
Lamington National Park. Of all the excellent places to see birds in South-East Queensland, this is the only one listed in Australian Geographic’s book Australia’s Birdwatching Megaspots. That’s a lot to live up to!
As there are many tracks and spots in the O’Reilly’s section that I explored over a 5 day period, this blog post is going to be quite long. I’ll divide it by areas, starting with the grounds around O’Reilly’s Guesthouse, which is the focal point for this section of the National Park and the trailhead for this end of the Border Track and several other trails.
First things first. Getting to O’Reilly’s is a journey in itself and can test one’s patience for winding roads. There’s only one way in, and it is all sealed but sometimes narrow; it’s two hours from Brisbane and 90 minutes from the Gold Coast. You’ll definitely want to stay overnight if you can; I stayed in one of the Villas and can highly recommend them, though there are camping and other options.
O’Reilly’s Retreat Grounds
O’Reilly’s Retreat was founded in 1926 after Lamington NP was established around the O’Reilly family’s land in 1915. There has been tourism and bird-feeding for over a century, leading to the birdlife around the retreat becoming incredibly tame. eBird has photos of Whipbirds landing on people’s arms! While I was there an Eastern Yellow Robin perched happily on a street sign, Regent Bowerbirds landed on my villa balcony, and Crimson Rosellas, King Parrots and Satin Bowerbirds all strolled or flew about the grounds without a care for humans. I even saw a Grey Shrikethrush and a Wonga Pigeon out in the open here. It really is incredible and feels like a place where the normal rules simply don’t apply.
And it’s not like there’s only a couple of these wild birds; the whole area is teeming with Rosellas and Bowerbirds. There’s a little feeding area where you can feed the birds after purchasing some seed from the nearby shop, and here’s when the birds go really crazy, landing on your head and shoulders. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a male King Parrot happily crawling about on your hair! Red-Browed Finches, Pied Currawongs and Brushturkeys all get in on the easy feeding, and Superb Fairywrens and Welcome Swallows flit around the building grounds close by too.
Regent Bowerbirds were a little more standoff-ish than the other birds in my experience, tending to keep to the safety of trees rather than alighting on the ground. But they’re still often out in the open, leading to easy, light-filled photos.
There is a bush-lined pathway between the Retreat grounds and the villas (I’ve dubbed it “Villa-Retreat Connecting Track” on the map), which I traversed many times over the course of the five days. It is quite good for birds and even has it’s own eBird hotspot. I saw plenty of Rufous and Grey Fantails, Satin Bowerbirds, Eastern Yellow Robins and heard (and glimpsed) a few Whipbirds on this path; closer to the retreat grounds where there are more planted trees (like Grevilleas) there were thornbills and Eastern Spinebills.
Rainforest Circuit and Tree Top Walk
Near the end of the main road in, just before O’Reilly’s reception, is the trailhead for the Border Track which goes all the way to Binna Burra (around 21km); at the very end of the road is a little track network called the Rainforest Circuit which incorporates a Tree Top Walk and the Green Mountains Gardens. This area is excellent for birds; many birds there are very used to people, and you’ll likely see Whipbirds out in the open on the boardwalk or near it. Albert’s Lyrebird is a sought-after species that is often seen in this section too.
The Tree Top Walk is pretty easy and leads you 20 metres up in the air. It is very safe. For extra height there is also a series of metal ladders at one point, which take you right to the top of the canopy – here is where I took my best-ever Green Catbird photo.
White-Browed, Yellow-Throated and Large-Billed Scrubwren chitter around the pathway, again very tame, though it can be a challenge to photograph them as they are small and usually moving fast. Lewin’s Honeyeater and Golden Whistler calls echo through the trees, while Logrunners and Brushturkeys comb through the leaf litter of the rainforest floor.
In the Green Mountains Garden, a little criss-crossing network of small paths within a riotously variable bunch of trees and bushes, I saw a male Paradise Riflebird, though it was late in the day and photos were terrible. I also saw a possum (?) of some kind; it was a bit of a shock to see a creature so large when I was looking for small birds.
This whole area is excellently signposted, is easy to get around, and provides a smorgasbord of amazing rainforest birds. The Whipbirds are probably the highlight, I can’t think of anywhere else you could have such close encounters with this often elusive species.
Python Rock and Moran’s Falls Tracks
I thought I would lump these two tracks in together because I did both in a sequence to make a long but enjoyable bushwalking/birding adventure (on November 5). A sealed pathway runs alongside the main road from O’Reilly’s to the Python Rock/Moran’s Falls Track trailhead (they have a common start point); along here I picked up a Logrunner who momentarily hopped up on a rock – my best Logrunner photo ever!
I found Python Rock Track to be quite a pleasant walk. The forest is reasonably dense but drier than a full rainforest. Signage is excellent and the terrain is very easy – it’s mostly quite flat, in fact.
Birds seen were White-Browed and Yellow-Throated Scrubwren, Catbird, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, juvenile Whipbird, Golden Whistler, Crimson Rosella and a tantalising glimpse of a Black-Faced Monarch.
It’s definitely more “regular” birding here – i.e. patiently wait for bird encounter and photograph opportunities, in contrast to the O’Reilly’s Retreat grounds where birds are basically right in your face.
The view from Python Rock is outstanding – you can see for miles, including across to Moran Falls, where I saw a flock of white birds. There are also some grass trees in this area.
I back-tracked to the start of the Python Rock walk, and headed down the other trail towards Moran Falls.
This was also quite a nice walk, with birds including Grey Shrikethrush, a juvenile Grey Fantail, Brown Gerygone, Lewin’s Honeyeater and a couple of Eastern Yellow Robins in beautiful sunshine.
The track here follows the steeper terrain and switches back a few times as it navigates various gullies, eventually arriving back out at the escarpment with awesome views to the south and west. The birding ramped up too, with an amazing encounter with a Black-Faced Monarch, and very soon after a Spectacled Monarch!
The track eventually crosses a creek (via a concrete causeway) and puts you more or less at the top of the falls. The track back up to O’Reilly’s from here (I’ve labelled it “Villas-Morans Falls Connecting Track” on the map) winds its way through some dense brush and is excellent for birds; I saw another Brown Cuckoo-Dove and had an excellent view of a Rufous Fantail here.
I made another, shorter foray to the Morans Falls track on November 8, though this time I just cherry-picked the area near the falls and creek rather than doing the whole thing. The first interesting bird I saw I did not recognise! It turned out to be a juvenile Eastern Yellow Robin, and remains still the only juvenile of that species I have seen. Its striking colouring is incredibly different to the adult bird.
The most amazing photo of that venture was a Crimson Rosella which had landed on a moss-covered branch of a tree growing out over the cliffline. Talk about long distance to the background!
Wishing Tree Track
Another, slightly lesser trafficked, track which is worth a walk if you have the time is the Wishing Tree Track. This one starts from a somewhat obscure spot behind the O’Reilly’s Retreat building complex, and goes down through quite dim, dense rainforest to Morans Creek (the main creek which feeds Morans Falls).
The main excitement for birds here was an Albert’s Lyrebird. In fact, I didn’t see too much else. I would actually classify this track – based on doing it a couple of times – as better for bushwalking with some opportunistic birding. There is a spot called Mick’s Tower which has a series of metal ladders taking you up into the canopy, and the eponymous Wishing Tree to be found along the winding, sometimes narrow and steep, track.
The Border Track links O’Reilly’s with Binna Burra and is a tad over 21km long. I walked about 8km of it (and back!), out to where it follows the cliff line that marks the border to NSW and overlooks the Mt Warning crater region. This is also getting close to the area where the incredibly elusive Rufous Scrub-Bird lives, for those who want the ultimate bird-spotting challenge.
It is an amazing walk, possibly less rewarding for birds than for the otherworldly feel of the forest. The towering, moss-covered Antarctic Beech trees are a big highlight, with their alien-like root systems. The Albert River and Toolona Creek circuits also provide more bushwalking possibilities in this area, which I hope to do one day.
The photographic highlight of my Border Track walk were two Brown Cuckoo-Doves; the photos I took really show off how tiny their heads look compared to their bodies. There were plenty of Whipbirds (most often seen rather than heard) and Green Catbirds (ditto!), and a roster of smaller birds like Golden Whistler, Large-Billed Scrubwren, Brown Thornbill. At one point I surprised a Wonga Pigeon walking along the track too, which was amusing.
The length of the Border Track means you have to decide whether your priority is bushwalking and taking in scenery, or birding and photographing birds. I tried to have it both ways by not going too far, and trying to have plenty of time for staying patiently in one spot when there was some interesting bird action nearby. Even so it was still a pretty tiring day.
Vehicle Tracks Behind O’Reilly’s
There is another, much lesser-travelled little network of roads and trails behind O’Reilly’s Retreat that I explored on November 8. This also turned out to be worth doing, both for a couple of good bird encounters, and for some amazing views across to a wilder region of Lamington National Park that is evocatively called “The Lost World”.
Following the gravel/dirt road took me through some pleasant enough forest, a little steep in places, and there was a lot of Tobacco Weed alongside the roads. The exciting moment was a couple of Black-Faced Monarchs flitting in and out of the Tobacco Weed and the trees.
The Tobacco Weed infestation also seemed to be a preferred habitat for Brown Cuckoo-Dove; I counted at least half a dozen, and gradually grew unsurprised when one would noisily beat its wings to fly out of the foliage when it heard people coming.
An Eastern Spinebill and male Regent Bowerbird were both welcome sights in this area, and I also saw a pair of White-Naped Honeyeaters who appeared to be tearing bits of bark off a tree. Perhaps they were nest-building?
The views here out across “The Lost World” are pretty darned good, more so for knowing that this area is much less accessible than the rest of Lamington National Park.
Bird of Prey Show
O’Reilly’s also runs a bird show, where they present 4 or 5 birds – raptors and owls that are being rehabilitated from injury or otherwise unable to return to the wild. The bird handler will throw scraps of food in the air for the birds to catch, which is great fun to watch. There is plenty of information imparted about the birds and of course it is a very easy way to take an amazing photo 🙂
I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 days I spent at O’Reilly’s. The location really does spoil one for birds, not to mention bushwalking. I was lucky enough to have mostly great weather while I was there. The pick of the birding is surely the Retreat grounds, the Rainforest Circuit, and Python Rock/Moran Falls tracks.
A word of caution – do check yourself over for ticks after bushwalking; one member of the birding party I was with had one attach itself to her eyelid, which was fortunately not too hard to remove but left her eye swollen for days.
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat (201 species)
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat–Rainforest Circuit Track (71 species)
Lamington National Park–Border Track start – O’Reilly’s end (93 species)
Lamington National Park–Python Rock track (94 species)
Lamington National Park–Morans Falls Track (86 species)
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat–Wishing Tree Track (82 species)
Note that the vehicle track section behind O’Reilly’s doesn’t have a general hotspot; there is only a specific one for Moonlight Crag Lookout.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Superlative bushwalking and birding possibilities – worth spending several days in the area
+ Amazingly tame rainforest birds in the Retreat grounds and nearby
+ Great accommodation options (villas, rooms, camping)
– Some tracks seem much less bird-rich than others
– Long winding road to get there