Three of us took ten days out of our busy lives to travel to the Northern Territory to seek out the beautiful and exotic birds of the Top End.
Darwin: The Top Of The Top End
We had barely arrived in mid-afternoon when the inevitable question arose… where to go first? The answer being: the George Darwin Botanic Gardens, just a few km up the road from the Darwin CBD; and from there, a quick trip up to East Point before the sun set…
‘Tis quite the tradition to watch the sun set into the ocean when one is in the Top End, so we dutifully followed suit…
We chose another high-quality birding site near Darwin for our first proper morning’s birding: Holmes Jungle. Despite the name, it is a patchwork of different habitats, not just “jungle” (ie., rainforest).
A mangrove-lined estuary called Buffalo Creek was next up, supposedly a site for the elusive Chestnut Rail. Maybe we didn’t try hard enough, because we didn’t see that bird. Oh well.
Heading South:The Discerning Birder Would Make Fogg Dam Their First Stop
Fogg Dam is the #1 birding hotspot in the Northern Territory according to eBird, so we were understandably keen to visit. We were also keen to see a Rainbow Pitta. But that didn’t happen. We heard their calls in the Monsoon Forest walk, though.
Pine Creek: Can We Find Hooded Parrots?
Short answer: yes, yes we can. Long answer: the Hooded Parrot has a very restricted range within the Northern Territory, but they are very easy to find in the little township of Pine Creek, which also hosts a goodly array of other birds too. We had a great time birding there.
The Road To Kakadu(cue music to the theme of “Xanadu”)
We made sure to stop for opportunistic roadside birds as we headed into Kakadu National Park, Australia’s largest national park.
Cooinda and Yellow Water: How Many Birds Can You Take?!
We stayed at the most excellent Cooinda Lodge, and popped down to the boat ramp at Yellow Water, where our cruise was to depart from the next morning. Anticipation ran hot!
The cruise was amazing, both for the crocs and the many wonderful birds we saw. In fact, we liked it so much we went on the afternoon cruise boat as well!
Maguk, Nourlangie, Ubirr: A Kakadu Highlights Reel
We hit up a few of the big sites at Kakadu National Park: Maguk, Nourlangie, and Ubirr, going early to avoid the crowds (though there weren’t, actually, that many tourists) and the heat (there was plenty of heat… with most days hitting 36 degrees).
Jabiru: A Bird, But Also A Township
We stayed in a cabin at a caravan park in the town of Jabiru, the easternmost settlement of Kakadu before you cross into Arnhem Land. There were a surprising number of good birds to be found there, including around the large town lake, which you can walk all the way round if you so desire.
Helicopters! We See Lots Of Birds From The Air, Too
Yes folks, we did this… went for a chopper ride across the edge of Arnhem Land. And boy, was it so worth it, for both the incredible scenery and a chance to observe birds from an aerial perspective.
Mamukala Wetlands and Fogg Dam Part 2: The Long And Kind Of Great Road Back To The Big Smoke
Mamukala Wetlands is a pretty nice birding spot that has a loop walk as well as a spacious and breezy bird hide to look out over the water. Like everywhere else in the Top End, it’s also a case of Beware of Crocs (not the ones you wear on your feet…).
It might be said that enthusiasm was running a little low after we drove 25km or more down Marrakai Road, supposedly a “fantastic” area for birding… thought it kinda wasn’t, at least in the middle of the day. We did see Varied Sitella, which was mildly interesting. No, the only thing for it was an impromptu “hail mary” stop back at Fogg Dam. Did I mention it is the Northern Territory’s #1 birding hotspot? Yeah, there’s a reason for that.
We Return Triumphantly To Darwin, But The Birding Is Not Yet Over
Buoyed by a successful return visit to Fogg Dam, it seemed appropriate to return to a site of previous birding triumph, with another saunter around the George Darwin Botanic Gardens, this time looking for the Rufous Owl that was supposed to be resident there. And did we find it? Heck yes, we did.
Our very last morning of birding saw a return to East Point, wandering along the shoreline and the excellent Mangrove Boardwalk (if you can find the start of it, that is…)
And In Conclusion…
We had a great time from a birding perspective and most places we visited in the Top End gave us satisfying bird encounters. We were lucky enough to find most of the target species we were looking for, and also gained a profound sense of the ecology and landscape up there, with its fascinating cycles of wet and dry and the adaptations and behaviours of the animals and birds in the floodplains and forests. It was ten days we will long remember.