Yellow Water and Cooinda, Aug 2021

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

Cooinda is a small settlement in the southern part of Kakadu National Park, notable for its excellent accommodation options and access to Yellow Water, one of the impressive wetlands of Kakadu and part of the South Alligator River floodplain. A boat cruise runs here that proved to be one of the big highlights of our time in the Top End.

Yellow Water Boat Cruise

The boat cruise is organised through Cooinda Lodge and most people will stay in this complex, where a shuttle van takes cruise passengers to the boats. The boats themselves are flat-bottomed, all-metal affairs, with open sides.

Once on the water (about 7am) the boat driver and guide provides a running commentary of the area and its wildlife. Our guide was excellently knowledgeable in this regard and also injected some much-appreciated dashes of humour into his oration.

Once out onto the water you start to get a sense of just how many birds there are on these floodplains. There are loads of egrets of different types both in the swampy grasses and strolling through the shallow waters.

We estimated maybe 2000 Plumed Whistling Ducks (it gets very hard to estimate when there’s so many!), in both small and large groups along the muddy river banks.

A particularly memorable aspect of our cruise was the chance to see many Nankeen Night-Herons. We checklisted eight but I’m sure there were more. This is a bird that I had seen only once until then, at Eagleby Wetlands in Brisbane, but here they were regular features on the water’s edge and it was a treat to be able to see and photograph them so closely. There were many juvenile birds with their strong striations.

The boat held several dozen people and there was a fair bit of crocodile-spotting at first and plenty of ooh’s and aah’s when a big specimen was seen. Interest waned a little after a while as there were a lot of crocodiles!

The further we went, the more birds it seemed were showing up.

Certainly there were at least hundreds, if not thousands, of Magpie Geese in the area, as well as hundreds of Radjah Shelducks, dozens of Comb-Crested Jacana, and we reckoned about 30 Wandering Whistling Ducks. The sheer number of birds was really quite overwhelming.

It was a little trickier with the large boat (really more of a barge) to get closer in to see the smaller birds, but when the guide or a passenger spotted one, the guide gamely nudged as close as possible. Such was the case with a gorgeous Azure Kingfisher who was doing a spot of fish hunting. I remember kneeling at the very front of the boat, realising this was a pretty special moment and frantically trying to get the best photo of this amazingly vibrant bird that I could.

Possibly my favourite photographic moment of the cruise was when a Glossy Ibis posed behind a pair of Wandering Whistling Ducks, in almost a “family portrait” style of shot. Glossy Ibis seem to be one of those birds that I’ve seen uncommonly, and usually not more than one at a time.

As the morning wore on more raptors became apparent, particularly White-Bellied Sea-Eagles and Whistling Kites. The most unusual bird was found by our trio’s resident crake-and-rail-spotter who spied a White-Browed Crake in the swampy grasses at a distance. Not even the guide knew what that bird was, and it was indeed a lifer for us.

The only downside of the boat cruise (well, except for the metal bench seat getting a little uncomfortable after a while) was some frustration at seeing many smaller birds (honeyeaters, for example) in the trees along the water, but being unable to get near them. Even though the boat was quite stable, its movement did hamper trying to see more closely and hence identify the small birds through a camera lens.

We enjoyed the boat cruise so much, and felt like we had barely enough time to take it all in, that we decided to go on the afternoon cruise that same day as well. The Cooinda operators give a 25% discount on the second cruise (the full price is $99 per person).

On the second cruise we got a good look at the two Green Pygmy-Geese we had seen in the boat ramp area when we briefly visited the evening before (see below), as well as most of the birds we’d seen that morning.

A highlight was a (juvenile?) Black-Necked Stork in hunting mode.

The boat got even closer to White-Bellied Sea-Eagles this time. They really are big birds!

A Pratincole was one bird we hadn’t seen in the morning, which was pretty cool to see. Other than that, the whole experience was similar to the morning’s, though it felt like there was a bit less bird activity. There was a herd of buffalo visible at one point, and much time was spent floating serenely on the flat water as the sun set (a cue for most passengers to pose in the dusky glow…). Seemingly endless flocks of Magpie Geese flew overhead, no doubt to their night-time roosts, as the evening settled in.

Around the boat ramp

There is a small public boat ramp at the head of the loop in the road (as marked on the map), which provides a vantage point to see across some of Yellow Water. Around the boat ramp we found a couple of Paperbark Flycatchers – sometimes easy to confuse at a distance with Willie Wagtails.

The many white dots visible on the floodplain were mainly egrets (we guessed Intermediate), though there was also at least one Great Egret, and Magpie Geese were also seen. On the boat ramp itself a Darter was drying itself off, at quite close quarters.

Along from the boat ramp is a metal boardwalk that stretches for about 300 metres (along this boardwalk is where the Yellow Water cruise starts from). Green Pygmy-Geese were paddling by the cruise boat area when we wandered past, and further down was a croc and a Nankeen Night-Heron.

The area around the boat ramp and board walk is a nice little taster of the area but doesn’t compare in scope to the full Yellow Water boat cruise.

Around Cooinda

We splurged to stay in one of the family cabins at Cooinda Lodge and it was exceptionally comfortable. Because we were there for two nights we were able to spend the time to explore the grounds and the nearby areas. We didn’t see many birds on the actual river (Jim Jim Creek) behind the lodge, but did see Rufous-Banded, Dusky and White-Throated Honeyeaters nearby, as well as Bar-Shouldered Dove, Varied Triller, White-Bellied Cuckooshrike and a pair of Rainbow Bee-Eaters. Some of these birds were found near to water sprinklers in the Cooinda Lodge grounds.

A cheeky group of ten Little Corellas was also present in the grounds – another all-white bird (in the vein of the egrets, Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos, etc) to practise trying to take a shot of without blowing out the exposure on all those white feathers…

Near the Cooinda Lodge turn-off from the highway is a campground called Mardukal Campground which we also had a quick wander around (it has a little pathway following the Jim Jim Creek), most memorably finding a Green-Backed Gerygone there. Soon after that, we were lucky enough to spot four Partridge Pigeons from the car, the first – and only – time we were to see these birds in Kakadu. They were on the ground but ran off fairly quickly into the forest, with only time for one quick photo out of the car window.

Summary

I heartily recommend Cooinda as a destination within Kakadu National Park and can’t say enough good things about the Yellow Water cruise that they run. As we visited at the very end of winter, it was well advanced in the dry season and birds are apparently very concentrated around the shrinking areas of water. The number and variety of birds in these wetlands is overwhelming; the whole place feels like it teems with life and gives you a deep sense of what Kakadu National Park is all about. The Yellow Water boat ramp area, Cooinda Lodge grounds, and nearby Mardukal campground all yielded some birding moments but none as grand in scale as the Yellow Water cruise.

eBird
Hotspot: Yellow Water (236 species), Cooinda (177 species), Mardugal (145 species)
Checklists for our visits: Boat Ramp area (18 species), Yellow Water cruise Aug 31 morning (46 species), Cooinda (12 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Overwhelming bird life showcased in comfort from the Yellow Water cruise boats
+ Chance to see all sorts of different birds and other wildlife too (like crocs)
+ Good accommodation options at Cooinda Lodge (though can get pricey)
– Tough to have good encounters with the smaller birds from a moving boat
– Patchy birding around Cooinda and Mardukal
– Boat cruise is a little touristy and does cost money (but is worth it!)

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