[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree, 2021 trip]
The famed Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge in Julatten, Queensland is truly a very special place.
This is reflected in its eBird all-time species count, which places it as the #4 birding hotspot in all of Australia. What’s interesting though is that if you filter eBird’s top Australian hotspots to the current year (2022 at the time of writing), you’ll find that Kingfisher Park Lodge falls completely out of the top 100 sites. What gives? Are its best days behind it?
Well, perhaps. Speaking to Carol (one half of the couple that run the lodge) when I visited, she mentioned that fragmentation of the land between the lodge grounds and the nearby ranges of Mt Lewis National Park has likely reduced the variety of birds that can now be found. Satellite imagery confirms that the lodge is a forest oasis nearly completely surrounded by agricultural land. However, note that the town of Julatten – which is also an Australian top 20 site – remains very high up (when filtered either way), so the lodge still generally remains in a very high biodiversity zone. On top of that, very desired species such as Red-Necked Crake and Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher can both be seen here far more easily than just about anywhere else on the planet.
To get there is a 90 minute drive from Cairns, and is roughly the same whether you go the “coastal” route (passing the turn-off to Port Douglas) or the “inland” route (through the Atherton Tablelands and Mareeba etc). The lodge lies just a little bit off the main Mossman Mount Molloy Rd that passes through Julatten and is well signposted. Once down the driveway, there are only a couple of buildings and it’s pretty easy to orient yourself. In terms of accommodation, there are two 2-bedroom villas and four “standard units” with most everything you need (though note no TV or air conditioning). Note that they do not allow day visitors.
Around the Accommodation Block
On the afternoon we arrived we waited on the concrete pad at the back of the motel-style units where there are a couple of bird baths set up, hoping to see the Red-Necked Crake that often pops in for an evening bath. We were super lucky to see it and have great views of this incredible bird, which Wikipedia describes as “little studied and seldom seen due to its secretive nature”. There are only 66 photos of this bird in eBird for the whole world, 65 of which are in Australia, and 54 of those being in the Tablelands region – the vast majority of which were taken here at Kingfisher Park Lodge, many showing the very same bird bath as the one below. This place really is Red-Necked Crake Central.
The honeyeaters also attend the bath and I saw Blue-Faced in this area as well as a Cryptic Honeyeater. All three of Cryptic, Graceful and Lewin’s Honeyeaters can be found on the grounds.
Behind the units there are also some bird feeders set up – a hanging seed dispenser, which attracts good numbers of Red-Browed Finch and Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin, and a wire hanging basket whose banana skins attract the large honeyeaters.
I was very much in my happy place watching the finches and mannikin flit in and out, and with only a little patience these birds soon became very used to me standing within 3 or 4 metres of them. Getting a shot of a Red-Browed Finch next to a Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin was a first and something I didn’t know I wanted so much…!
There are a lot of Pale Yellow Robins around the place here. Like, a lot… including juveniles, with their brown plumage changing into greenish-yellow. We also found Rufous Shrikethrush and Spectacled Monarch very close to the main building.
Front Forest and Gardens
Venturing further from the units gives access to the bigger trees as well as the flowering bushes that grow along the Mount Kooyong Rd edge of the property. In the big trees we managed a sighting or two of the amazingly-attired Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher, a bird you will never forget seeing. It migrates to north-east Queensland from Papua New Guinea in November, and also breed in the grounds of the lodge (in termite mounds, usually on the ground). This is the iconic bird the property is named after.
Cars occasionally tear around the corner (there is a nursing home further down the road), so you do have to watch yourself if you end up doing roadside birding.
The grevilleas and other flowering shrubs right by the roadside proved particularly productive for honeyeaters.
We saw Silvereye, a Dollarbird, a Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Red-Backed Fairywrens and an Olive-Backed Sunbird here too, as well as a very drenched Pale Yellow Robin (maybe from a swim in the water pooled in a hollow in a nearby fallen tree trunk).
A Black Butcherbird was an initially confusing sighting, as it was a juvenile, which has brown colouring (!). Less ambiguous were the Metallic Starlings, which were flying to and from the taller trees gathering nesting material, which they were using to help form their nests right next to the lodge’s main driveway. Cheap real estate, I guess!
The Orchard and Creek Line
At the back (western) half of the property, one wanders through a short (less than 100m) thick rainforest to emerge in “The Orchard”, a clearing hosting several types of fruit trees. Here the Kingfisher Park experience comes to full fruition, with many types of bird species that can be found.
In the taller trees we saw Topknot Pigeons a few times; there were plenty of Kookaburras; an Orange-Footed Scrubfowl or two, Varied Triller, Figbirds, Spangled Drongo and a Pacific Baza. Some of these birds were spotted in the fringing trees around the orchard, where it can be difficult to see the smaller species. There is some quite dense vegetation going on here!
In the fruit trees themselves we came across a Yellow-Breasted Boatbill, which was rather exciting, but it was soon chased away by the Spectacled Monarch that seemingly thought it owned that tree; the monarch had been hanging around in there for a while (and I spectacularly failed to get a clean photo of it). More photographic success was had with a couple of Double-Eyed Fig Parrots, who stayed around for a long time adorably munching on fruits.
A little waterhole nearby has chairs set up for those looking for the Red-Necked Crake and other skulking birds, while a little leaf-strewn pathway at the bottom of the orchard leads to the local creek. There were a couple of smaller birds dipping into the water in this area but mosquitoes meant we didn’t stay to watch long.
Guided night nature walks are an option here too with a knowledgeable local as guide. We did this with a small group and were treated to the (distant) sight of a Barn Owl emerging from a tree hollow in the adjacent Geraghty Park, while frogs and geckos featured as well. A snake was also discovered on the edge of the orchard.
Kingfisher Park Birdwatching Lodge provides a terrific base for birders to explore the area (Julatten and Mt Lewis particularly) as well as being a superlative birding site in its own right. It was a pleasure and a privilege to stay long enough to thoroughly bird around the property (note it does have a minimum two night stay). Every time we ventured into the orchard area we found a slightly different set of birds, testament to the richness of birdlife to be found here, but the entire property is a veritable oasis for those who love birds, and is rightly renowned as the best place to find Red-Necked Crake.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Superb variety of birds including some very desirable species such as Red-Necked Crake
+ Decent sized area to explore
+ Can stay on site (and watch birds from your back door!)
– Some areas of very dense vegetation can make spotting and photographing challenging
– Private property, a cost is required to stay and explore