[A stop on the Darwin and Kakadu Trip, Aug-Sep 2021 trip]
The area around Ubirr is about as far east as you can go in Kakadu National Park without crossing over into Arnhem Land (which requires a permit). There are a few different things to do here including gazing in wonder at the ancient rock art, watching crocodiles at the Arnhem Land border point of Cahills Crossing, and of course, go birding.
There is a patch of monsoon forest here with a short trail called the Manngarre Walk, a longer and drier stone country trail called Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk, and the main rock art site itself, Ubirr. There is potential for interesting birdlife at all three sites, as we found out!
This short walk lies within a bend of the East Alligator River and passes through very dense forest, with a couple of rockier patches. We were super keen to find a Rainbow Pitta at this location, as we’d missed seeing it at both East Point in Darwin and at Fogg Dam (though we had heard at least one there). Would today be our day?
The entrance to the loop walk is right next to Cahill Crossing and there is a very spacious car park, and excellent signage. With hope in our hearts we walked towards the trail where it enters the forest at the edge of the car park… and saw a Rainbow Pitta! It was right at the track’s entry way, hopping quietly on the ground. We couldn’t believe our luck, and followed it at a respectful distance for some time as it made its way along the path in front of us.
This Pitta has similar colouring to a Noisy Pitta (with a black head and brown stripe, and the green wing with blue panel), but it is much blacker and hence harder to capture well in a photo. We were so grateful that this bird allowed such a prolonged encounter, as it was extra special for us to get decent pictures as well as just seeing and admiring the bird.
There is a colony of fruit bats – Little Red Flying Foxes – near the start of the trail too, which may freak out some birders, but I’m guessing don’t really cause any problems for bushwalkers. The noise is a little anxiety-inducing though.
Apart from the Rainbow Pitta, there were few birds to be seen. We had become used to this in monsoon forest – you hear much more than you see due to the dense tangle of foliage. Some regulars like Orange-Footed Scrubfowl and Bar-Shouldered Dove were about, and we heard a Pheasant Coucal. Torresian Imperial Pigeon and Arafura Fantail were glimpsed.
At the far end of the walk is a small section that is for women only (yes, that’s right!), so only one of our group of three could walk that. Further on, there is a flat rocky section where we saw a couple of noisy Spangled Drongos, some Little Corellas and a Whistling Kite flying over.
Very soon after plunging back into the forest to complete the circuit, we spotted another Rainbow Pitta, almost as obliging as the first, and were able to get more photos. What a cracker!
To the north of the Mangerre Walk is the main section of Ubirr, where there is a lot of excellently preserved rock art. There is another spacious car park, testament to the large numbers of people and tourists that visit here. In the dry season the site opens at 8:30am, so that’s why we did the Manngarre Walk first.
The walk itself is around 1km and is quite pleasant with lots of shade on the flatter areas and under the overhanging rocks. We saw some Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos on the edge of the car park, happily munching away.
A couple of hundred metres up the trail (we were doing the main loop anti-clockwise), there is a large glade with a few large overhanging trees, where we stood for quite a while watching Red-Backed Fairywren, White-Gaped Honeyeater, Little Corella, Varied Triller, Spangled Drongo and Northern Fantail. A wire fence kept us from getting closer to these birds, but it was fun for a while wondering what was going to show up next.
The rock art here really is worth taking your time over, there is a lot of variation and some wonderful explanation panels that give illuminating background. Then, for a change of pace at the top end of the loop there is a short climb up to the Nadab Lookout, which offers a superb view out across the floodplains.
We kept an eye out for birds here, seeing only a Whistling Kite, and some dots which were probably egrets down on the wetlands far away. At the start of the rock climb some dry grasses provided a group of Crimson Finch, and we also saw Peaceful Dove and a Forest Kingfisher nearby as well.
The Ubirr site provides a little bit of variety, with rock art (the main tourist attraction), stone outcrops to climb for amazing views, and a little birding too.
Cahills Crossing is a road that crosses the East Alligator River into Arnhem Land, and is basically a concrete causeway that usually has some level of water flowing over it. The main draw here is the crocodiles which, depending on the water level, can be very active in the river. A small boat cruise – the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise – visits here where again the crocs are a drawcard.
The car parking for this spot is basically the same as for the Mangerre Walk, though you’d park at the southern end to access Cahills Crossing, which is just a brief stroll away. After we had parked, my birding companions strode on ahead, seemingly uninterested in the Green Oriole that was hanging out in a bush on the edge of car park. I stayed back and tried to see how close I could get to the bird, as it was at eye level and I had a feeling it was friendly. I was amazed at how near it let me creep, allowing for a couple of great photos but also a memorable encounter, especially as I do love all Orioles.
Cahills Crossing has a sort of shaded viewing area with a railing, where you’re above the water by a few metres, and can look down on the crocs patrolling the water.
Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk
This walk, just to the south of Cahills Crossing, is a 2.5km circuit, though it can be slightly shortened by cutting through the huge rock pillars, or made longer (to 6.5km) if adding the Sandstone and River Walk portion. Northern Quoll and Short-Beaked Echidna are resident here, as well as, of course, birds! Being a very rocky dry area, our big target was the Chestnut-Quilled Rock-Pigeon, a bird found only on the sandstone of the Arnhem Land Plateau and surrounds.
You could access this walk by foot from Cahills Crossing, or park in the car park. Lacking time (and due to the ever-increasing morning heat), we were intending to do the 2.5km circuit, and started off in a clockwise direction, first seeing White-Bellied Cuckooshrike and then, in a clearing, a pair of White-Bellied Sea-Eagles above.
The trail meandered close to the river (where we spotted a Dollarbird on a tree on the other side) and through some denser vegetation, then around a waterhole, where we saw a Mistletoebird with its super-bright red colouring (alas, this bird was not willing to pose for the keen photographers). Then the track emerged into very dry grassland punctuated by fascinating stone pillars.
We weren’t far into this section when one of us startled what we thought was a Bar-Shouldered Dove in amongst the grasses – upon looking more closely, though, we could see it was larger and the colouring much different – a Chestnut-Quilled Rock-Pigeon! It flew up but fortunately alit on the nearby rock ledge and peered at us as we happily took its photo.
It didn’t stick around long, moving over the top of the rock outcrop and over the other side, where we hurried around to and managed one more brief look. It really is quite a stout, and handsome, bird with its subtle mottling and grey-brown colours.
The rest of the walk was spent discussing the encounter and how lucky we were to see the Chestnut-Quilled Rock-Pigeon (a species with only 540 observations and less than 100 photos on eBird), and exploring the rocky pillars and caves. Signage on the trail is a little more scant than on the other tracks, though there is a big map near the car park which you may want to take a photo of if doing a longer walk here. The shorter loop we did was all pretty flat and easy to traverse; I remain curious about the longer loop (an excuse to return one day…)
A Red-Backed Fairywren or two and some Peaceful Doves were the last few birds we saw on this noteworthy bushwalk.
The Ubirr area offers plenty to explore for scenery, tourism and birding. We had a particularly great time there as we were able to tick off Rainbow Pitta and Chestnut-Quilled Rock-Pigeon, the only time we saw these birds in the Top End. But it was generally enjoyable simply wandering the trails and paths, enjoying the scenery, as well as looking for birds. The rock art here is second to none for scope and intricacy, there is camping nearby, and a Border Store selling local Aboriginal crafts. Cahills Crossing offers a shady spot to observe crocodiles. It is just an all-around pretty good location to visit when in Kakadu National Park.
Hotspots: Border Store and Manngarre Walk (114 species), Ubirr (181 species), Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk (139 species)
Checklists for our visits: Manngarre Walk (18 species), Ubirr (21 species), Bardedjilidji Sandstone Walk (13 species)
Pluses and minuses:
+ Mix of habitats including sandstone outcrops and monsoon forest, with excellent well-marked trails
+ Good location for Rainbow Pitta and Chestnut-Quilled Rock-Pigeon, plus others
+ Amazingly detailed rock art site
– Can get quite populated with tourists, especially Ubirr and Cahills Crossing
– Have to drive between different parts of the area (though walkable for those with time and energy)