[A stop on the Cairns + Atherton + Daintree, 2021 trip]
The Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland is truly enormous at 1200 square kilometres and is a very special place indeed. One of the highly recommended ways to explore it is via a boat cruise on the Daintree River, and for birders especially this is a super-worthwhile experience: enough to put Daintree River boat cruises as Australia’s #5 birding hotspot for all-time, according to eBird.
There are several boat cruises on offer, and we tried a morning one and an afternoon one with two different providers, chosen as they seemed aimed at birders: Daintree River Wild Watch (in the morning), and Daintree Boatman Wildlife Cruises (afternoon). Both were excellent!
Both of these cruises start from the boat ramp area at the end of Daintree Village, about an hour and three quarters north-west of Cairns. The vessels used are flat-bottomed and either electric or quiet small motors, with capacity for 10 people. Booking ahead is recommended.
For our morning cruise the weather was looking decidedly gloomy and no sooner had we floated across the other side of the river to check out a Brown-Backed Honeyeater than it started to truly pelt down. The skipper, Ian “Sauce” Worcester, recommended we postpone for an hour and we duly went ashore and returned once the rain had stopped – a good call! While waiting out the rain we saw some Wompoo Fruit Doves on a power line in the village.
There aren’t any “big ticket” sights to see on the river. It’s… just a river, with some agricultural land, mangroves and of course rainforest on both sides.
The memorable moments come when you float closer to the shore and start to witness the flora and wildlife up close.
After seeing Cattle Egrets, some Magpie Geese, a clutch of Radjah Shelducks and a Large-Billed Gerygone (the cruise’s first lifer bird for us), a truly magic moment came with a male Shining Flycatcher which “Sauce” got us very close to. This bird really did live up to its name – it was incredibly shiny!
A Little Bronze-Cuckoo sighting followed and then we headed into a side creek, much narrower and with many overhanging trees.
The biggest highlight of the morning cruise was next: a Great-Billed Heron, a lifer bird for us, and one often seen on these cruises. It was standing on a horizontal branch overhanging the creek, so allowed for awesome views, and it also called a few times, a sound that eBird describes as “deep, horrifically resonant roar”. It certainly does sound prehistoric, at least.
The heron is a really, really big bird – with the 500mm Nikon prime lens I was using, I struggled to fit it in the frame!
Not long after was another huge highlight, a Papuan Frogmouth sitting sleepily on its stick nest. Like the Tawny Frogmouth that was more familiar to us, it is nocturnal, though the Papuan is the largest of the dozen or so frogmouth species (and is supposedly the most instagrammable of birds!)
We had a glimpse of an Azure Kingfisher, Yellow-Spotted Honeyeaters, and heard plenty of Yellow Oriole calls before returning to the main river again, where the boat pulled in close to a Shining Flycatcher nest in the mangroves attended to by a male-female pair.
We counted 28 species in the morning cruise, with a handful of very memorable bird encounters.
The “Daintree Boatman” afternoon cruise kicked off at 4:30pm, helmed by skipper Murray Hunt, and headed in the same easterly direction as the morning ride. Murray provided a most engaging and informative commentary and background on the area and some of the animals and birds, and after spotting an Azure Kingfisher along the river bank, he described how the male will present a female with food to maintain their pair bond, and very soon after we were lucky enough to witness just that. It was extraordinary and the birding highlight of the cruise: even seeing just a single vibrantly-coloured Azure Kingfisher is a treat, let along two of them interacting like this.
The boat ventured much deeper into the (same) side creek than the morning cruise, passing along totally flat water under huge river red gums. It made for a serene and atmospheric ride.
The Papuan Frogmouth nest must have been known to Murray too, because he made sure to stop by; the frogmouth was still there and just as sleepy. He also drew the vessel close – very, very close – to an Amethyst Python, which remained completely motionless while we observed it.
I had seen Black Bittern at Cattana Wetlands in April, though that bird was a little distant, so was interested when we came across one in the trees above the creek. In fact we ended up seeing three, with excellent views to boot. Murray had to explain to the non-birders on the boat how special this was – they had no idea!
Of the 18 bird species on the afternoon cruise, we picked up several that we’d also seen that morning: the four Radjah Shelducks, Yellow Orioles, Large-Billed Gerygone, Australian Swiftlets and Torresian Imperial Pigeons. A pair of Green Pygmy-Geese and the Black Bitterns were new, however.
In the small Daintree Village we spent a little downtime between boat cruises spotting some of the many Australian Swiftlets and White-Breasted Woodswallows flitting about in the sky, as well as spending some time watching Rainbow Lorikeets and Olive-Backed Sunbirds.
Later in the morning we headed up the water tower track which starts at the corner of Stewart St and Stewart Creek Road and mentioned in Dolby and Clarke’s Finding Australian Birds as a good spot for Lovely Fairywren. We saw a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo and not many other birds, and unfortunately no fairywrens.
The cruises we did were certainly worth the time and money. They are semi-reliable for finding Little Kingfisher, and (less likely) Spotted Whistling-Duck, neither of which we saw, but we were more than happy with wonderful sightings of several lifer birds including Great-Billed Heron and Papuan Frogmouth. The all-time count of 269 species on eBird is indicative that you might see almost anything – heck, they have nine species just of the kingfisher family recorded. The boat ride itself is pretty relaxed, with open vessels allowing good opportunities for photography and skippers who know the river well.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Excellent birds to be found
+ Wildlife and nature watching in relative comfort
– Costs money to cruise
– Hard to predict if you’ll find your target species