Litchfield + Katherine + Kununurra trip, 2022

The Dream Team, subtly renaming themselves to The Team With The Dream, took themselves off to the Northern Territory in July 2022 to chase birds, and especially those cute little denizens of the grasses, the finches. It was our second trip to the Top End after a successful birding expedition to Darwin and Kakadu in 2021. What would be our fate? Would we find the fabled Gouldian Finch? Would the crack in our rental car’s windscreen from a freak stone chip on the passenger side edge make it all the way across to the driver’s side? Here are all the answers, and more…

Buffalo Creek and Lee Point: You Couldn’t Script a Better Start

When we booked our trip many months earlier, we knew we were going to be chasing finches as our top priority, and Kununurra (just over the Northern Territory border in Western Australia) was always going to be the prime destination. It’s known as the Finch Capital of Australia. What we didn’t know when we booked was that there was a population of Gouldian Finches that had made its way to Lee Point, a suburb on the north-western edge of Darwin, an almost unprecedented “irruption” that brought many birders from all over and even made the news. So we hoped to find that bird much more easily than first anticipated.

We found a few dozen Gouldian Finches within a couple of hours of arriving in Darwin, and they are just as spectacular in person as they are in all the photos you see of them!
The Gouldian Finches were mainly resting in the shade of the mid-afternoon. Here you can see three red-headed Gouldians, two Black-Headeds, and three juveniles.
At the waterhole at Lee Point we also found a Bar-Breasted Honeyeater, a lovely bird indeed.
A Masked Finch shaking itself off after a bath in the sprinklers and bird baths helpfully provided by the adjoining caravan park at Lee Point.
We estimated 300 Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin (also a type of finch) in the same area (Lee Point) as the Gouldian and Masked Finches; this one is a cute juvenile munching on some grass seeds.
A Chestnut Rail skulking amongst the mangroves at nearby Buffalo Creek – another exciting lifer bird for the team, after missing this bird the previous year when we visited the same site
A Brahminy Kite surveys its dominion at Buffalo Creek

Onto Litchfield National Park, Magnetic Termite Mounds and Bat Colonies Notwithstanding

Yes, Litchfield National Park is probably the best place to see magnetic termite mounds, as well as hosting a number of stunning creeks and waterfalls. We were lucky to spot a Pallid Cuckoo from the car, a bird that can be found all over Australia but never very commonly anywhere (a sort of “everywhere but nowhere” sort of bird), as well as having a number of other exciting encounters. The landscapes definitely competed with the birds though!

A creek at The Cascades at Litchfield National Park (turn around 180 degrees from here will find a dozen people swimming…)
A hungry Pacific Emerald Dove just a few metres from the edge of a large and very noisy bat colony at Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park
Red-Winged Parrots were a surprisingly common bird we found almost everywhere we went on this trip; this one is at The Cascades in Litchfield National Park and, if you are so inclined, you can watch this bird eating its fruit in this video we took here.
The wonderful Northern Rosella, which we missed last year, was (who knew?!?) apparently easy to find at Tolmer Lookout in Litchfield National Park – first detected from the distinctly rosella-ish calls heard (then subsequently seen by sneaking up on it through the bush!)
Red-Tailed Black Cockatoos are the dominant black cockatoo of the area (the overall “dominant cockatoo” title of course belongs to the squawky boi Sulphur-Crested) – here seen on the edge of Litchfield National Park.
We stayed at De Lago Resort at Lake Bennett, within striking distance of Litchfield National Park, and (don’t mention this is where we cracked the windscreen, don’t, just… don’t) anyway look at these adorable White-Breasted Woodswallows getting ready to roost for the night in their favourite tree
A Mistletoebird on the edge of Lake Bennett. Do highly recommend the De Lago Resort, great accommodation option… cracked windscreens notwithstanding

The Big Busy Highway to Katherine via Pine Creek and Edith Falls Which We Came To Know So Well

Once we resigned ourselves to hoofing it from Katherine back to Darwin – and then back to Katherine again – a six hour round-trip – to replace the rental car (seriously, that crack though), we made the best of it with a few stops at select birding locations on the way – Pine Creek (reliable site for the wonderful Hooded Parrot), Edith Falls (idyllic lake area where you can while away a few hours casually birding in the picnic areas with all thoughts of cracked windscreens washed away), and Fogg Dam (the NT’s #1 birding hotspot, with good reason).

A Little Friarbird catching a tasty spider (presumably tasty, I dunno; discuss) at Pine Creek
Blue-Faced Honeyeater at Pine Creek, shortly before popping down to the ground to shred apart someone’s sandwich crust. Bird was seriously right into it. Probs you had to be there.
The world’s most friendly Northern Fantail at the picnic area of Edith Falls. Cue another video.
Blue-Winged Kookas are kinda weird-looking and kinda goofy-looking and a bit fishy to boot and also make weird calls. But they are still pretty cool. This one’s at Edith Falls. Sadly, we saw more than a few as roadkill, more so than any other bird, not sure why.
One of our favourite encounters of the whole trip was a pair of Rufous-Banded Honeyeaters that flew straight towards us while we were late lunching at the Fogg Dam viewing platform. Much hurried placing of sandwiches and crackers and grabbing cameras saw us getting some cracking shots.
Rufous-Banded Honeyeater angling for a drink at the Fogg Dam viewing platform. Would you drink that water? I wouldn’t, either.

Katherine, a Country Town With Plenty of Birds and Suchlike

Katherine lies 270km south of Darwin and we had a decent time birding there and enjoying Nitmulik (Katherine) Gorge National Park. It’s a big enough town that there’s a supermarket, Red Rooster and McDonalds, Coffee Club and plenty of petrol stations and caravan parks… and small enough that birds tend to treat the human presence as barely a blip in their countryside. Huge thermals saw massive funnels of Black Kites circling over the town, and we found Zebra Finches and Grey-Crowned Babblers within the confines of our hotel grounds. NICE.

Less nice as a birding location is the Katherine Wastewater Treatment Plant, which we visited not once but twice; it played host to a lot of water birds, a croc or two, and many swarms of annoying insects. Also, these two elegant Pied Stilts.
Masked Woodswallows were in serious abundance at Katherine Wastewater Treatment Plant, swooping around madly taking out bugs from the air. Go you good thing!
The less common but equally awesome White-Browed Woodswallow at Katherine Wastewater Treatment Plant, spotted from our diligent walking of the fenceline perimeter (well, not the whole 6km of it, just a portion… cue desiccated kangaroo remains, croc sightings, enthusiasm over the huge numbers of Woodswallows, more bug swarms, sun rapidly setting, etc).
An egret at the “Low Level Nature Reserve” in Katherine, so named because it gets rather inundated by water during the wet season. Also a site of a very large (and noisy) bat colony.
“I’m tired of looking at this bird” said nobody EVER of the wonderful Crimson Finch. At the riverside track near Katherine Hot Springs. Also available as a super-cute, soul-warming two minute video, should your needs require it.
The fabulous Straw-Necked Ibis was the dominant ibis in these parts… at Katherine Hot Springs

Nitmulik (Katherine) Gorge: Just the kind of Refreshing Wonderland You Want to Find in the Outback

Those familiar with places like Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park in north-western Queensland will know the sheer joy of discovering watery wonderlands tucked away in otherwise dry country, and Nitmulik (Katherine) Gorge is one such place. There are a variety of lovely walks from the very well appointed visitor centre, and a boat cruise up the river too.

A look down Katherine River, from a lookout, where you can look out from. Look out!!
A Brown Honeyeater tucking into breakfast at Nitmulik (Katherine) Gorge
A serene and lovely Green Oriole chilling on a tree branch, at Nitmulik (Katherine) Gorge
Great Bowerbirds are a widespread bird here and seem to fulfil the role of scavengers, perhaps akin to Magpies on the east coast (ducks for cover from expert ornithologists derisively denouncing these naïve and amateurish claims). Anyway, this one was spotted from the deck area of the Visitor Centre during our lunch.
White-Gaped Honeyeaters are the dominant medium-sized honeyeater in these regions, and this one was also spotted from the Visitor Centre deck. Seriously, that Visitor Centre deck area was pretty decent for bird spotting, and their beer-battered chips are nothing to sneeze at either.

And Then West, via Victoria River Roadhouse and Timber Creek

Cue amazing arid landscapes, counting the wheels on the roadtrains, and entertaining trivia quizzes to while away the time between birding sites…

A stop at the Victoria River crossing was a tad disappointing on the bird front, except for the ever-reliable Rainbow Bee-Eaters, who would brighten up any day no matter how dull.
At the small township of Timber Creek you may while away a little time wondering where all the famed finches are, and come away with photos of birds such as this White-Throated Honeyeater instead.
Buff-Sided Robins getting uppity at the eponymous Timber Creek

Lake Argyle: it’s Big, it is indeed a Lake, and it’s Awesome

I can’t say enough good things about Lake Argyle Cruises, who provide boat cruises on the lake including a dedicated birding cruise which visits Chat Island, home of the gloriously vivid Yellow Chat. Not only did we see the chats as the boat approached the island, but I think I hadn’t lived until I saw the bird’s vibrant colours in our guide’s spotting scope.

Lake Argyle resplendent in the morning sun. It’s so large that at times you can’t actually see land on the other side of the horizon…
This White-Browed Crake foraged happily not far from the boat which had pulled up to the side of the lake while we munched on breakfast. Talk about up close and personal! We also saw two more White-Broweds and a Baillon’s Crake.
A Reed Warbler also blissfully ignoring our boat and our madly clicking cameras as it went about its morning business in the reeds.
A pair of Brolga were standing innocuously on one of the rocky islands in the lake.
Chat Island was a rookery for many hundreds of Caspian Terns, a couple of which grew agitated at our intrusion (we didn’t go too near the rookery…)
The amazing and incredible Yellow Chat. Our boating guide said they hadn’t missed seeing these chats in eight years of visiting the island. Guaranteed lifer, right there!
Towards the end of the cruise a White-Quilled Rock Pigeon was spotted moving along the rock faces. When still, it camouflaged extremely well into the shadows (ahem, unlike the above photo…)
Rock Wallabies are adorable and incredibly nimble hopping about the rocks
Anyway enough marsupials, here’s some Long-Tailed Finches. At Lake Argyle Resort, which incidentally serves the best fish and chips… anywhere.

Kununurra: Just Another Idyllic Oasis in the Outback

Kununurra was always our big target destination for the trip and one where we hoped to find many finches. We had four nights there so were able to explore quite a few sites around the town as well as day-tripping an hour west to Parry Lagoons (recommended!) and even as far as the river port of Wyndham (not recommended!)

Ivanhoe’s Crossing, just north of Kununurra, was the sight of our first Star Finches and a Yellow-Rumped Mannikin to boot, and seemed to be a favourite spot for the locals (and maybe tourists?) to test out their four wheel drives – by driving over the weir. (We did not).
We were lucky to find a single Yellow-Rumped Mannikin hidden amongst a flock of about 150 Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin at Ivanhoe’s Crossing, and it would be the one and only time we would see this bird.
Yellow-Tinted Honeyeaters are probably the most numerous of the small honeyeaters in this part of the world. This one is at Celebrity Tree Park in Kununurra.
“Take a photo at ground level,” they say. “It enhances eye-level engagement with the bird,” they say. Crimson Finch at Celebrity Tree Park in Kununurra.
The master of lily pads, the Comb-Crested Jacana – though seen here sinking into the water… see this video (or… this one!) to witness those big feet in action. At Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve.
Just another day, just another stately egret… at Parry Lagoons Nature Reserve
Paperbark Flycatcher. Is it time for another video? Why, sure it is!
Osprey are pretty much the same the world over: dive into the water and nab an unsuspecting fish, fly off to a branch and dismember and consume it, rinse and repeat.
Crimson Finch once again, this time along one of the many irrigation channels at Kununurra
Fairy Martins having a well-earned rest, Kununurra
Red-Backed Kingfisher along Ivanhoe Road at Kununurra; it’s not always easy to see the coppery red on its back which gives the bird its name
Diamond Dove on the beautiful River Farm Rd at Kununurra. We were amazed to see so many Diamond Doves on the trip, though they were heavily outnumbered by Peaceful Doves.
If perchance you also wanted a video of this Black-Faced Woodswallow standing on this tree branch just lookin’ around, perhaps with some cheeky upbeat background music, here ya go.
We stopped at a pretty random sandy waterhole place in Kununurra in the middle of the day and had another Star Finch Experience – this one is a juvenile. Star Finches outnumbered the others (Double-Barred and Masked we saw drinking here) by quite a margin, which was rather happy-making!
At the same random waterhole (location disclosed for a small one-time fee), many Black Kites circled above. Like, at least 35 of them. And sometimes barely above your head. Makes you wonder who really is at the top of the food chain…
That pleasing moment when you get the Whistling Kite shot you’ve always wanted, with the bird looking down at you (there’s that term again, engagement) and the sun lighting up its wings from behind.
One of the landscape discoveries of the trip, Mirima National Park is on the doorstep of Kununurra and features some incredible rocky scenery that has to be seen to be believed, especially when the late afternon sun strikes the rocks just so. We were lucky to see White-Quilled Rock Pigeons and Sandstone Shrikethrushes here (and Weebills, those little cutie pies!)

Back to Darwin: Just a Short Eight Drive Then

With nostalgia for Kununurra already warming in our hearts we set off back to Darwin at the ungodly hour of 4am (Western Australia time, so not as bad as you think… though you lose 90 minutes crossing the border back into the NT… owww my head), and with our trip nearly over there was only one thing left to do: cram as much birding into the remaining 24 hours as humanly possible.

We made sure to leave some time to pop in to Timber Creek (Policeman’s Point) for finch chasing on our epic 8 hour one-shot drive back to Darwin, and we were not disappointed! Star Finches were in numbers (at least 150), with even some Gouldians in there for good measure.
Red-Collared Lorikeets squabbling over who gets to sip from the leaky tap at Victoria River Roadhouse. Kinda silly, because there’s a huge river like only 100 metres away…
At George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens the team were like ” The Dusky Honeyeater is right in front of you” and I was like “Where?” and then I saw it, right in front of me….
Back at Lee Point, a Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin enjoying the sunshine.
Lemon-Bellied Flycatcher must be an honorary robin for the way it quietly and obediently (?!) sits watching you. At the waterhole at Lee Point.
A Red-Headed Honeyeater at the excellent (cool and shady) mangrove boardwalk at Casuarina Coastal Reserve in Darwin, where we also spotted a Black Butcherbird and Long-Billed Gerygone (lifers for one of our team!)
This Green Oriole was getting properly stuck into this fruit like there was no tomorrow. So much so that I had to make a video of it with a funk-beat soundtrack.

And in conclusion once again…

Yes, it was hot (36 degree tops, but it’s a dry heat…), yes we had our car worries (par for the course, says the cynic), but we had little to complain about on this birding trip. Travelling as far south as Katherine showed us that the mix of inland birds we had seen in outback Queensland (like four species of Woodswallows in one town) was also similar in many ways in the Northern Territory. But what will linger longest in our memories are undoubtedly the glorious, adorable, wonderful array of finches we saw. We didn’t pick up the Pictorella Mannikin, possibly now the hardest of all the finches to find (now that Gouldians are so passé), but that gives us a good excuse to go back and do it all again…

The trip in stats:

  • 156 species
  • 53 eBird checklists
  • Total number of finches seen: 1342
  • Most numerous birds: Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin (686 in total), Cockatiel (308- nearly all seen at Policeman’s Point in Timber Creek), Peaceful Dove (289), Caspian Tern (281 – mostly at Lake Argygle), Masked Woodswallow (280), Red-Collared Lorikeet (217), Crimson Finch (211), Star Finch (206, hurrah!), White-Breasted Woodswallow (176), Black Kite (159)
  • Guaranteed birds on just about every checklist: Brown Honeyeater, Willie Wagtail, White-Winged Triller, Great Bowerbird, Black Kite
  • “Random bird which might show up pretty much anywhere but is just uncommon enough to be interesting”: Mistletoebird

3 thoughts on “Litchfield + Katherine + Kununurra trip, 2022

  1. Great roundup – thanks, punchy and informative with plenty of pics. We’ve just done two months in FNQ and a similar roundup but more about the way we travelled than the bit-res we saw. I’d be interested to know how you travel (ie camp in tent, take a camper? Or cabins) as were really tossing up on this one for next excursion which is to NT, thanks

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    1. We stayed in hotel/resort/cabin accommodation as we couldn’t bring camping gear with us – plus air conditioning provided welcome respite from the the heat 🙂

      Like

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