Darwin and Kakadu Trip, Aug-Sep 2021

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…

Torresian Imperial Pigeon – the first of many we would see. George Darwin Botanic Gardens.
Forest Kingfisher… we would come to appreciate just how many of these vibrantly-coloured birds there are in the top end over the coming days. East Point, Darwin.
First sighting of the plain-but-friendly Grey Whistler, also quite common up north. East Point, Darwin.
Eastern Reef Egret, East Point, Darwin.

‘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).

Crimson Finch. Finches (including Long-Tailed and Double-Barred Finches) were playing on the gravel road at Holmes Jungle.
The ever-photogenic Crimson Finch, at Holmes Jungle, Darwin.
Red-Collared Lorikeet, just like the Rainbow Lorikeets back home, but different… Holmes Jungle, Darwin.
Is there any bird in Australia as striking looking as a Rainbow Bee-Eater? Discuss.
A sample of the tree line at Holmes Jungle finds one staring at large numbers of Black Kites.

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.

A pair of Brown Goshawks was a rather good consolation prize for dipping on the Chestnut Rail.

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.

Rose-Crowned Fruit Dove. What an amazing looking bird! At Fogg Dam car park area.
Spangled Drongo, dense forest specialist. Fogg Dam.
Driving along the dam wall yields a view of many, many water birds, like these Pied Herons.
Australasian Darter with the art of gentle branch descent… Fogg Dam.
An Egret at Fogg Dam… one of many.
Intermediate Egret at Fogg Dam.
Comb-Crested Jacana using its huge feet to stand on a large lily pad, Fogg Dam.
Wandering Whistling Ducks, Fogg Dam.

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.

Rufous-Throated Honeyeater, Pine Creek.
Also, Pine Creek has bats…
Rainbow Bee-Eater post-dip, Pine Creek
Red-Collared Lorikeets and other birds were partaking of easy mango feeding at Pine Creek
“Feed me, I’m hungry!” – Grey-Crowned Babblers at Pine Creek
We hadn’t seen any Magpies or Butcherbirds on our trip at all yet, until coming across this dapper Pied Butcherbird in Pine Creek
White-Breasted Woodswallow at Pine Creek. This was the only species of Woodswallow we saw on the trip.
Female and male Hooded Parrot at Pine Creek
The Hooded Parrot really is a rather cool-looking bird. Pine Creek.

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.

Radjah Shelduck, shot taken through the wire fence at the Wastewater Treatment plant just outside Pine Creek
Roadside birding doesn’t get any shinier than the wings of this Blue-Winged Kooka
I’ll always stop for a Brown Falcon.
A Silver-Backed Butcherbird (alert – lifer!) at the first Ranger’s Information stop

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!

Paperbark Flycatcher is also shiny… so shiny.
Australasian Darter having a yap
Little Corella having a snack-on-the-go

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!

Egrets! I’ve seen a few!
You couldn’t pose water birds any better than this Glossy Ibis and two Wandering Whistling Ducks
It was a great treat to see so many Nankeen Night-Herons lining the waterways – this one is a juvenile.
Nankeen Night-Heron adult, just as still and sentinel-like in its hunting method as the younger ones. Kudos to the boat driver for getting us up close to birds like these.
A croc maybe hoping food will simply jump into its open maw… not likely…!
Not a good time to be a fish.
Pied Heron, a rather handsome bird I will say.
Azure Kingfisher. So gorgeous.
Plumed Whistling Duck. These ducks formed the vast majority of the birds seen.

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).

Banded Fruit Dove – a top Top End bird
Partridge Pigeon – endemic to Kakadu, and our (very lucky) one and only sighting
Nourlangie scenery
Sandstone Shrikethrush, singing on a sandstone outcrop at Nourlangie.
Rainbow Pitta at the Manngerre Walk at Ubirr – so happy to spy this incredible bird and even have a prolonged encounter as it hopped along the path in front of us
Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos were a common sight. This one is on a tree by the car park at the Ubirr Rock Art site.
Could we find the elusive Chestnut-Quilled Rock Pigeon, a Kakadu endemic species, amongst all this sandstone?
Yes, we did find the Chestnut-Quilled Rock Pigeon, and counted ourselves rather fortunate.
A Green Oriole, confusingly also known as a Yellow Oriole.

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.

Long-Tailed Finches chillaxing at the end of the day, Jabiru Town Lake
“If you could scratch me just… there!” White-Throated Honeyeaters at our caravan park
Rufous-Banded Honeyeater, probably the dominant honeyeater in the region, and that’s no bad thing.
A Dusky Honeyeater enjoys a splashing from the caravan park’s sprinkler system
Masked Finches in the caravan park across the road… who would’ve thought?!
A Blue-Faced Honeyeater tries to cool off by releasing heat through its beak… though you can also think of it as screaming out something important, if that’s your bag, man.
Lizards are also a thing in Kakadu.

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.

Water birds from the air
This place is called “Dinosaur Valley”, presumably because it’s really old. Incredible landscape.
From the air you can see how much of Kakadu is floodplain, holding life-giving waters even well into the dry season
Brolgas flying away from the big annoying buzzy thing
Our chopper pilot kept the best to last, giving us a fly-by of this Black-Necked Stork nest with a couple of storky youngsters hanging out in it.

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…).

Arafura Fantail, showing its impressive rufous colours (or trying to ward off potential predators, take your pick). Mamukala Wetlands.
Bar-Breasted Honeyeater with its complicated mottled chest patterns at Mamukala Wetlands
The Northern Fantail is slightly different from the Grey Fantail you find further south. Mamukala Wetlands.
The ever-present and always-stunning Rainbow Bee-Eater. Mamukala Wetlands.
A Pheasant Coucal, one of a few sighted at Mamukala Wetlands
A Pacific Baza “negotiates” with its prey, at Mary River National Park.
The gigantic and somewhat demonic Channel-Billed Cuckoo, Mary River National Park.

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.

Broad-Billed Flycatcher… another lifer bird at Fogg Dam… at the car park, no less.
Barking Owls will definitely out-stare you. Fogg Dam.
Magpie Geese at Fogg Dam
Magpie Goose and the Art of Elegant Landing, Fogg Dam
Baillon’s Crake… skulking in dry reeds at Fogg Dam, an exciting find for the team
White-Browed Crake… about the best photo you’re ever gonna get of this secretive reed skulker. Fogg Dam.
Whiskered Tern. Probably. There are too many terns, am I right? Fogg Dam.

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.

Male Little Bronze-Cuckoo, George Darwin Botanic Gardens. Only my second sighting of this bird, ever, and it’s a cracker!
This Rufous Owl would very soon go back to sleep, largely uninterested in humans… at George Darwin Botanic Gardens
A very obliging Spangled Drongo poses for the keen bird photographers, George Darwin Botanic Gardens

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…)

Greater Sand-Plovers and a Whimbrel at East Point, Darwin
Beach Stone-Curlew at East Point… our second sighting of this unusual-looking bird in the Darwin area
Australian Hobby, an unexpected raptor on our last day, East Point, Darwin
Red-Collared Lorikeet with a “nectar necklace”, East Point, Darwin
Green-Backed Gerygones – unconcerned about people, they just go about their business
The Robin-like Lemon-Bellied Flycatcher was seen in several places on our trip, but none more closely than in the East Point mangroves
Torresian Kingfisher munching down on a mangrove snack special

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.

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