Mt Lewis, Nov 2021

[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree, 2021 trip]

Mount Lewis is a region of highland rainforest within the huge Wet Tropics World Heritage Area of northern Queensland. There is only one road in, Mount Lewis Rd, starting just a kilometre or two north of Julatten.

The road has two major sections: from the Mossman-Mount Molloy Rd turnoff up to “the clearing”, which is gravel and is navigable by most vehicles at least if it’s dry (it is reputedly difficult to impassable in the wet, so be warned), while further on from the clearing requires a four wheel drive.

Just over 3km from the turn-off is the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area sign which is an advisable stop to search for various lower altitude species. Around here we had a Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher streak across the road, its brilliant white tail streaming behind it – most exciting. And although we could hear plenty of bird noise, the only encounter of note apart from the kingfisher was a Large-Billed Scrubwren.

The road is quite long and winding, and you may wonder what you’ve gotten yourself in for. It takes 11.6km to get to “the clearing”, where you’ll find you cannot park and must continue a little further (at least 100m and out of sight of the sign). This is because the clearing is a protected hotspot for the Blue-Faced Parrotfinch, a very desirable (and typically difficult) bird to find in Australia. These birds prefer foraging in grassed clearings deep within rainforests!

Spoiler alert, we didn’t see a Blue-Faced Parrotfinch in the clearing, but we knew it was very early to be finding them here, as they are usually only seen between mid-November and April. We did see a Mistletoebird, a couple of Grey Fantails, and a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo flying by. Closer encounters were had with some Bridled Honeyeaters pecking through the flowering trees along the roadside.

A track off the clearing leads into the rainforest and here things get pretty tough, due to the dimness of the extremely dense bush. It’s amazing there’s even a trail through here, to be honest, and it’s sometimes quite narrow and features a few obstacles to navigate, these being muddy patches, tree roots and fallen branches and logs, and overhanging foliage.

But the rewards are in the form of many of the wet tropic endemics. Tooth-Billed Bowerbird is one such bird, and we were lucky to see one down in the lower canopy.

Another rainforest bird to watch out for (though listening is also a very good tactic) is the Chowchilla, which are the north’s counterparts to the Logrunners found in more southerly climes. Like the Logrunners, they thoroughly scratch through the leaf litter with seemingly untiring feet. Also like the Logrunners, they are difficult to capture with photos as they barely ever keep still!

Grey-Headed Robin was another treat as was Mountain Thornbill, fortunately the only thornbill possibility you can see here so there’s no ID’ing problems. Rufous and Grey Fantails were seen on this trail as well as Large-Billed Scrubwren and Victoria’s Riflebird; only the fantails were “easy” to see in these challenging conditions.

The trail widens and flattens once it reaches the dam area. Further paths allow for extra exploration in this area (watch out for snakes), but we didn’t do a whole lot more.

Once back at the clearing we were treated to better views of a Mountain Thornbill.

Even better was an Atherton Scrubwren foraging on a tree on the side of the clearing. This bird is endemic to the Atherton Tablelands and can be difficult to identify in other parts of its range due to its similarity to Large-Billed Scrubwren in particular – it is larger than that bird and browner (less pale), and is also the more populous species here at Mt Lewis, so we were confident it was an Atherton Scrubwren. Note the leg band!

It was very cool to be able to get clear shots of the Atherton Scrubwren and despite it being “just” a small brown bird, it was the highlight of the day. We’re talking about a bird which has only about 130 photos on eBird – ever!

Fourteen species is not a lot to show for four hours birding, but here it’s definitely as case of quality over quantity. Birds we didn’t see but you may have a chance at here include Fernwren, Bower’s Shrikethrush, Spotted Catbird and Golden Bowerbird amongst others – these are all species you’d be very happy to see anywhere.

On the way back down from Mt Lewis we stopped the car due to seeing a lizard (missing its tail) in the middle of the road, which we later identified as a Northern Leaf-Tailed Gecko. It wasn’t keen on moving along and we certainly didn’t want to run over it (!), so we waited for it to amble off and took some photos in the meantime. A most peculiar-looking reptile.

Mount Lewis provided a memorable experience for us. It feels like a journey in itself just to get up to the clearing area, and once there you’re pretty much in the thick of pristine rainforest wilderness. Plenty of amazing bird species can be found including Atherton’s Scrubwren and Victoria’s Riflebird, and it may be one of the best places in Australia to try for Blue-Faced Parrotfinch; not to mention the biodiversity of mammals and reptiles as well (the spectacular Boyd’s Forest Dragon is one you might see). It is at its best in drier sunny conditions which we were fortunate enough to enjoy – you’ll need to take much more care if it’s wet.

Hotspot: Mt Lewis clearing to dam track (121 species)
Checklist for this visit: Nov 14 2021 (14 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Chance of seeing many desirable and endemic bird species including Blue-Faced Parrotfinch
+ Pristine natural wilderness feels a million miles from anywhere
– Super dense rainforest means low light and hard to find and identify birds
– Track to the dam can be a little difficult at times

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