Cunningham’s Gap – Mt Mitchell, Jan/Sep 2021

Summary: Enjoyable hike passing through a few different bird habitats along the way

Dates of visit: Jan 24 and Sep 10, 2021

Mt Mitchell lies on one side of Cunningham’s Gap, a mountain pass of the Great Dividing Range, about 90 minutes from Brisbane. Return to the summit of Mt Mitchell is 10.4km; on the other side is Mt Cordeaux (a 12km return trip).

After the washout of a previous attempt to climb Mt Mitchell, me and my bestie birding buddy re-attempted on Jan 24 2021 with the weather being a lot finer. A King Parrot, Black-Faced Monarch, White-Headed Pigeon, Lewin’s Honeyeater and Rufous Fantail were all among the first birds we saw in the lower rainforest at the start of the track, as well as hearing some obvious Whipbird calls.

The track winds through rainforest with some evidence of past bushfires where bright green undergrowth (somewhat weedy-looking) is filling out the lower canopy. In places this crowds onto the track, making it quite narrow. A few gullies and creeks adds interest to the walk as does the mix of vegetation including some very tall trees. Satin Bowerbirds tend to hang out up there but can be difficult to photograph so high.

As we continued and the rainforest thinned out, Grey Shrikethrush, Golden Whistler and a few Red-Browed Finches became apparent, and the track started to skirt around a section which was clearly dominated by Bell Miners, their little sonar pings echoing through the trees.

The track becomes quite open now for some time and heads directly west, with plenty of rock jumbles as well as some grass trees, and some scenic views across the range starting to develop. Crimson Rosella were a highlight here for us but otherwise there were far less rainforest specialists. Instead, we were treated to White-Browed Scrubwren, Crows, Yellow-Faced Honeyeater and even an Eastern Spinebill.

At one point we stopped to watch some Silvereyes drinking from a little water flow that passed right across the track.

A dozen Topknot Pigeons alighted in one of the higher mossy trees soon after; whenever I see these birds I am reminded that they apparently once roamed in enormous flocks. Sadly, due to deforestation and shooting (!), this isn’t the case any more.

An Eastern Yellow Robin and a White-Browed Scrubwren or two later, the track curled southward behind the mountain and we – unexpectedly! – entered a second large patch of rainforest. The heavy shade provided welcome relief on this warm sunny day. This section is probably a result of rain shadow; it was quite moist with dripping rocks, lush and mossy growth, and most importantly: dense forest birds.

We saw a Brown Thornbill and heard the calls of at least a couple of Black-Faced Monarch, then had a rather wonderful close encounter with a Large-Billed Scrubwren. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many good photos I’ve ever managed of this bird: it is just so fast and small (and the forest light often low) that it is a real challenge. But today was the day!

It feels a little like déjà vu when the track emerges once again from the thick forest into open terrain dotted with grass trees, but now the summit is visible not far off. The walking is fairly easy, heading east, though with a few sections of steeper ascent. Satin Bowerbirds made a return and a White-Throated Treecreeper and Variegated Fairywren were observed too.

The summit has some interesting bushy patches but also an open rocky area which offers near 360 degree views. Overall it is well worth the effort to get to the top! There were also still some intriguing bird calls so high up, though they could have been emanating from Satin Bowerbirds, which do make a range of rather strange vocalisations.

We saw mostly the same bird species on the way down, finally gaining a semi-decent picture of one of the Black-Faced Monarchs, and amusingly seeing another (the same?) Grey Shrikethrush with an insect in its mouth. We had picked up 36 species for the day.

A return visit: Sep 10, 2021

After having a rather fun time walking up Mt Mitchell in January, I came back in September. For reasons lost in the mists of time, I actually started with a short walk down the Gap Creek Falls track first, picking up a great shot of a Bell Miner and a Spotted Pardalote, as well as having an awesome Logrunner encounter on the Rainforest Circuit on the way back to the car park.

However, after such a great start, not a whole lot was happening on the Mt Mitchell track, which I began at 9:40am. Green Catbird, Lewin’s Honeyeater and Wompoo Fruit Dove were the only interesting encounters in the lower rainforest section.

Once out of there, Red-Browed Finches were predictably around as too was an Eastern Yellow Robin, quite close and confiding yet for some reason frustratingly difficult to get a good shot of.

Some of the grass trees were still flowering from winter but the only bird that seemed to be interested in the nectar on offer was a Lewin’s Honeyeater, so I spent quite some time watching it and trying to adjust for the different angles of sun on the bird as I was taking photographs. Full sun on feathers can cause glare issues, but it’s unbeatable for picking out fine feather detail, which is very possible when you’re able to get quite close to a bird. Also, I love Lewin’s Honeyeaters 🙂

Apart from Bell Miners and Red-Browed Finches, White-Browed Scrubwrens were the most numerous bird and a couple of these were very confiding, particularly on the way down where one was seemingly collecting some bark material on the side of the track.

The upper rainforest section was curiously quiet, with the main excitement actually being a far off Peregrine Falcon seen before I entered the rainforest proper. It was as dark and shady and damp as I remember from the previous visit.

I lingered for much longer at the summit this time, enjoying the sunshine and the view, munching on my lunch, when I looked around after daydreaming for a while I saw I was sharing the rocky tops with not only a couple of other hikers, but a very close Grey Shrikethrush. Alas, the bird was gone by the time I thought to pick up my camera – it was the closest I’ve ever been to a Grey Shrikethrush. I did manage to get a photo of one on the way down but who knows if it was the same individual.

I had spent six hours on the track, about the same amount of time as the January trip, but this time checklisted only 25 species. Could be the result of the different season, or the later start, or having one less pair of eyes observing… who knows.

The Mt Mitchell Track side of Cunningham’s Gap is well worth the time to explore. Passing through not one but two quite different rainforest sections at different elevations makes for an interesting experience, and there are atmospheric mossy trees and grass trees and some interesting rock formations in the more open sections. The bird life is very decent and ranges from Catbirds, Satin Bowerbirds and Crimson Rosellas to Cockatoos, Scrubwrens, Finches and Fairywrens.

Hotspot: Mt Mitchell (88 species)
Checklists for these visits: Jan 24 (36 species), Sep 10 (25 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Plenty of good bird encounters possible
+ Two rainforest sections to enjoy at different altitudes
+ Variety of habitats and vegetation, and scenic views
– Track can get messy and muddy
– Thick weed/bushfire regeneration undergrowth in some sections
– Might be too strenuous for some

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