[A stop on the Darwin and Kakadu Trip, Aug-Sep 2021 trip]
The main Botanic Gardens in Darwin is 42 hectares in size and includes several showcase habitats, including rainforest, cycads and an African-Madagascar section.
We visited twice, both times in the late afternoon, and each of those days was equally productive for bird sightings.
On our first visit, White-Breasted Woodswallows were circling quite high above when we got out of the car at the car park, and it was pretty clear from the get-go that we were going to see plenty of Figbirds. A Brown Goshawk was up in the sky too.
We had a long debate about whether the Friarbird in one of the massive trees near the entrance was a Noisy or Helmeted, before freaking out at the massive snake on the same tree – which a passing local told us was actually a sculpture. Phew! Some sense of humour, guys.
A couple of Orange-Footed Scrubfowl were lifer birds for two of us, and a Northern Fantail was a lifer for all us. The distinguishing feature from our more familiar Grey Fantail we reckoned was the lack of a black border between its white throat and its chest.
The gardens was definitely a fine place to be on a warm sunny afternoon, with plenty of shade and a number of mostly paved walkways winding their way around the different stands of trees and bushes. White-Gaped, Brown, Dusky and Blue-Faced Honeyeaters were all about, but the most prominent bird apart from the Figbirds was actually the Torresian Imperial Pigeons, unmistakeable in their snow-white plumage, sometimes perching very high up often in plain view, and other times coming down to feed on fruits.
As we ascended ever higher up the hillside (the gardens generally tends to slope upwards from west to east), and rounded the path into the “Cycad Garden Dinosaur Trail”, we did indeed see a dinosaur – and a lifelike one at that – before tracking down a Striated Pardalote. On a nearby tree we also saw a Pacific Baza, quite close, which was also pretty neat. Couple those birds with the honeyeaters and pigeons and you have a bit of diversity there, though curiously no water birds (ducks, cormorants etc) were to be found in any of the ponds or lagoons.
I often seem to have a good time photographically at botanic gardens, perhaps because of the mix of vegetation, some of which isn’t too tall, and the long wide paths which can give good viewing into the foliage. Perhaps also the birds there are very used to people passing through and don’t fly away too readily. Such seemed to be the case with a Spangled Drongo as we finished our circuit and neared the car park.
While we were away from Darwin in the subsequent days we had used Laurie Ross’s excellent location guides to help find birds, and when we looked up Darwin Botanic Gardens we noticed he mentioned that it was “by far your best chance to see Rufous Owl”, which we certainly hadn’t seen (there or anywhere). So when we returned to Darwin at the end of our trip just over a week later, we resolved to have a search for it, in the “darkest part of the forest usually between 4 – 10m off the ground”.
We headed to the northernmost part of the gardens first, as we hadn’t explored the African-Madagascar section the previous time, and quickly found a good variety of birds, including some Crimson and Double-Barred Finches near the bushy creekline, then a gorgeous pair of Rainbow Bee-Eaters (are there any other kind?!)
In this African-Madagascar section were also some White-Throated and White-Gaped Honeyeaters in close proximity, and – leaving the official paths for a bit – I discovered a very tame male Little Bronze-Cuckoo in the sparse bushes, which was actually only my second sighting ever of this bird (the other instance was at Eagleby Wetlands in Brisbane) and the first male. It was a nonplussed enough bird that I called the other two in my birding party over and they got fairly close shots of the cuckoo too before it finally grew bored of us and flew off.
A close encounter with a less common bird can really make your day… but where was that Rufous Owl?
We followed the paths around the north-east of the gardens (which border a school), and headed into the dimmer Rainforest Loop. Some paths in here were closed off, but the paths that were open featured a little bridge and some secluded ponds, one of which featured an enormous water dragon sculpture. Clearly, this botanic gardens was not missing anything (except a Rufous Owl… yet…)
I really wanted to get a “best ever” shot of a Torresian Imperial Pigeon as there were a few about (we counted 10 on this visit, only out-numbered this time by the 12 Orange-Footed Scrubfowl), but it just wasn’t happening. There was a bird up in the tree but it resolutely just did not want to look my way. Oh well. I satisfied myself with yet another Bar-Shouldered Dove close-up and an Orange-Footed Scrubfowl photo before suddenly happening upon a huge brown bird roosting about 4 or 5 metres up off the ground.
Yep, a Rufous Owl.
And a sleepy owl at that. It surveyed us incuriously and went back to snoozing, only rousing again when someone noisily walking their dog passed by below. The light was quite dim here, I had to bump the exposure compensation quite a bit and hold the camera very still – the shutter speed was 1/50th of a second with ISO around 5000. Not to mention the shots where I got the whole bird in the frame I had to step right back (as I use a prime lens, so no zooming out…) For a very still subject, it was a little challenging, but the results were pretty good.
It was a pretty special find.
The afternoon still wasn’t done though; we found more Friarbirds and got good enough views to definitively call them Helmeted, then in the little “community garden” area on the way back we found a super-cooperative Spangled Drongo, which regarded us coolly as we moved around it snapping its photo with various blurry backgrounds, as well as a Green Oriole. The Drongo encounter was extra special for me as I’d been trying for a few months to get a really good eye-level, unobscured shot of one (preferably showing some shine on the feathers and/or the bluish “spangles” around its throat… hey, it’s good to have ambitions…)
One last Orange-Footed Scrubfowl pic and we were done, heading across the road to Mindil Beach for the Sunday sunset markets, having seen five more bird species than on our first visit.
Some botanic gardens seem to almost have a magical quality about them, and the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens is definitely at the top of the heap. Even though our species count was not huge, the encounters we had were generally very good and included great close-ups with Spangled Drongos, Imperial Pigeons, Green Orioles, a variety of Honeyeaters, a Little Bronze-Cuckoo and a very memorable Rufous Owl, to name a few. The variety of trees and shrubs is enormous and with the eye-catching sculptures and water features there’s always something interesting to see around the next corner. Needless to say there are plenty of facilities there too, with excellent maps, signposting, a cafe, a rollicking big playground, an interpretive centre describing the history of the gardens and so forth. They even have their own app!
Hotspot: George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens (165 species)
Checklists for our visits: Aug 27 (19 species, plus a Friarbird of some kind), Sep 5 (24 species)
Pluses and minuses:
+ A selection of really great birds to be found in an inner city setting
+ Gorgeous, lush environs with some startling sculptures dotted around
+ Plenty of facilities
– No water birds
– Would be awesome if the area was larger…