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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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!)
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.
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:
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