Fogg Dam, Aug-Sep 2021

[A stop on the Darwin and Kakadu Trip, Aug-Sep 2021 trip]

How good does a birding location have to be to be crowned the Northern Territory’s #1 hotspot?

Pretty good, I’d say. Let’s see if Fogg Dam lives up to the hype.

It’s quite easy to access: only 45 minutes or so east of Darwin, and no 4WD is required. It also has a number of good facilities: public toilets, bird hides and scenic lookout platforms, boardwalks and information signs. Perhaps a little more unusually, it has a sealed road across the dam wall that you can drive across. Short of a boat cruise, I can’t think of anywhere you could get up close and personal with such an extensive wetland system.

Originally constructed by the RAAF Airfield Construction squadron (who named it after Managing Director, Mr J D Fogg) to provide irrigation in the 1950s for the Humpty Doo Rice Project (yes, that’s a real name), the dam was unsuccessful as part of that agricultural system. Birds quickly found a use for it and it was declared a Bird Protection centre in 1959 and then a Conservation Reserve in 1982.

Apparently there are also plenty of Water Pythons and Dusky Rats locked in a nocturnal predator-prey war here too. Death Adders are also found. Oh, and there’s year-round crocodile danger – you’re not supposed to walk along the dam wall (they say drive instead… see below). So yeah, be careful!

Car Park

The car park, being situated in roughly in the middle of some of the different habitats of the reserve, is quite good for birds and is worth lingering at.

On our first visit, we had arrived quite early, so the car park area still had some pre-dawn grey about it; only after we finished the Monsoon Forest Walk and returned did we find more birds here – a Rose-Crowned Fruit Dove, Rufous-Throated Honeyeaters, Figbirds, and a Green Oriole.

On the second visit a week or so later, the main excitement was a Broad-Billed Flycatcher – though we weren’t sure at the time, as this bird is quite close to a Leaden Flycatcher, and one must examine both the broadness of the bill, and whether the tail feathers are staggered. We posted to the Facebook group ABID (Australian Bird Identification) who confirmed it as a Broad-Billed Flycatcher – our only one for the trip.

Monsoon Forest Walk

The Monsoon Forest Walk is a flat 2km return walk that starts from the main car park.

By this point in our Darwin/Kakadu trip we were starting to get used to the idea of Monsoon Forest being great in theory for birds, but having a tough time actually finding them in the dense foliage and leaf-strewn understory. We were looking for Rainbow Pitta, and managed to hear some of their calls on this walk, but didn’t see any of them.

In this kind of “low percentage” bird environment, just one or two awesome moments can make all the difference to one’s birding experience. For us, the only birds we got a good look at were Grey Whistler and Arafura Fantail. Others, like Varied Triller and a few raptors (glimpsed through gaps in the overhead trees) were barely seen.

A consolation was an obliging Spangled Drongo on the way back. For some reason I never get tired of taking their photos.

Dam Wall

The main entry road into Fogg Dam leads straight to the dam wall once you’ve passed the main car park. This straight stretch of road is about 1.5km long and is one of the most bird-rich environments you might ever see from the comfort of a car on a paved road.

The first thing we noticed is just how many birds there were – particularly ducks, Magpie Geese, Pied Herons and Egrets. The vistas stretch for a good distance on both sides of the road, especially to the east, and you can see endless white dots of egrets calmly hunting in the grasses there. It really is pretty cool.

There are some little pull-out/parking spots along the dam wall, and a couple of viewing areas. We were cautious of crocs and snakes when getting out of the car anywhere along here, though it is admittedly easy to get blasé about it.

Setting up with a spotting scope would probably have been rewarding, but we didn’t have that equipment with us, so settled for scanning the area with cameras.

Australasian Darters were present – we counted at least eight, and Comb-crested Jacanas were around too, though it seemed like there were big stretches with few water lily leaves for them to walk on. Hence, we saw them in flight a few times, with their gigantic legs trailing behind them.

Egrets and Pied Herons were pretty much everywhere. With so many water birds, there’s good likelihood of at least a few being near the dam wall for close-up photography.

We saw a couple of Radjah Shelduck, but the dominant duck seemed to be the (adorable!) Wandering Whistling Duck.

We were feeling pretty spoiled with access to all these incredible water birds, but the dam wall was actually good for raptors and other birds too – we saw Crimson Finches, Forest Kingfisher, a Whistling Kite or three, Paperbark Flycatchers and even a Brush Cuckoo. Bear in mind we are talking here about a very narrow strip of land that is half paved road!

There is a lookout at the north end of Fogg Dam called the Pandanus Lookout, but we didn’t stop there, merely using the area as a turnaround spot so we could drive back down the dam wall road. That road, it should be said, got fairly busy with vehicles trying to pass each other, including folks towing caravans and what-not; couple that with people walking along the dam wall (signs repeatedly say not to due to crocodile danger), and that takes the glow off the “communing with nature” aspect a little bit.

Woodlands to Waterlilies Walk

About a week after our first visit, on our way back to Darwin from Kakadu National Park, we decided to drop in at Fogg Dam again, and were very, very glad we did so. Read on to see why!

It was around three in the afternoon, so we weren’t sure how active birds would be compared to the early morning. We parked at the main car park and headed down the 2.2km return Woodlands to Waterlilies Walk (surely a pretty name for a trail, if ever there was one). And indeed it was fairly quiet on that walk, though quite pleasant and shady. Like the other sections of Fogg Dam, it is excellently maintained and well signed.

Grey Whistler and a female Rufous Whistler were spied on the walk, as well as a Bar-Shouldered Dove and, in the trees fringing the water, some Rufous-Banded Honeyeaters. Then we spotted two Barking Owls high in a tree right above the boardwalk, which stared down at us for the several minutes we stared back up at them (mostly through our camera lenses!) It is always a fascinating experience coming across an owl, or even two.

After following the edge of the wetland for a while, the boardwalk then goes right out over the water – like right out, and this lets you get pretty close to the water birds. In fact, some of them sit on the railing of the boardwalk itself.

Magpie Geese and Wandering Whistling Ducks were most obvious water birds here, but White and Straw-Necked Ibis, Pied Heron, Radjah Shelduck and many Comb-Crested Jacana were also about.

There is a little covered viewing platform that sits right out over the middle of the water, and here we saw a hunting Whiskered Tern and more Jacanas. It is an exceptional viewing spot for water birds, with 360 degree views.

There were many very tangled dry-ish reeds alongside the boardwalk about 40 metres before it reaches its terminus at the covered platform, and one of us had heard some interesting noises coming from in there – which led us to track down a fairly large lizard awkwardly jumping about just above the water. From there, though, we saw the true source of the sounds, a Baillon’s Crake! It was tough trying to get its photo through the reed stems, but we gave it a good crack.

The Baillon’s Crake was a lifer bird for all of us, and a pretty exciting find. Having found Broad-Billed Flycatcher, Barking Owls and a Baillon’s Crake – all very different and less commonly seen birds – in one short walk, we were all pretty excited. But that wasn’t the end yet – there were more interesting noises from the other side of the boardwalk. In fact at one point it sounded like there were a bunch of crakes in there, and indeed we then saw a White-Browed Crake, much closer and less obstructed than the Baillon’s. Two crakes species in one go!

We actually accumulated 33 species in total, quite respectable for a mid-afternoon short walk.

Summary

Our two visits to Fogg Dam were stunning in their birding rewards. While the Monsoon Forest Walk was a tad disappointing for us, the experience was more than made up for by excellent bird encounters along the dam wall, and a superlative time on the Woodlands to Waterlilies Walk. One could easily spend many hours here gazing at water birds, photographing raptors and bush birds, or simply enjoying the spectacle of nature all around. The site does get quite busy, which causes problems along the narrow dam wall road, but there aren’t many other drawbacks to this superb and unique birding location.

eBird
Hotspots: There are eBird hotspots for each walk and section of Fogg Dam, as well as an overall hotspot – Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve (239 species)
Checklists for our visits: Aug 29 Monsoon Forest (21 species), Aug 29 dam wall (29 species) Sep 6 (33 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Incredible birdlife, in both numbers and variety
+ A water bird paradise
+ Excellent viewing platforms and boardwalk
– Congestion of vehicles on dam wall
– Only two official trails

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