Cairns-Daintree-Julatten Christmas trip, 2022

You know you’re a pair of tragic-level birders when one gets the other a Christmas present consisting of a 5 day trip to far north Queensland in summer to see birds… oh well, life is tough, isn’t it? We simply do what we must.

Straight off the plane and into birding is how we do it

We were out at the excellent Cattana Wetlands site with the luggage barely off the conveyor belt. It really is a terrific spot for birds, though quite hot and mosquito-infested in places, as was the Botanic Gardens (even more so, actually). A giant thickshake or two with lunch kept things bearable.

The Double-Eyed Fig Parrot is Australia’s smallest and possibly cutest parrot – seen here munching near the entrance to the Cattana Wetlands birding site. See a Bird Spots video here to watch the bird in action!
Willie Wagtail on nest
Peaceful Dove. Plus a video of a Peaceful Dove.
Comb-Crested Jacana that even the most staid and official of bird guides describes as having “outrageously large feet”. Hard to argue with that…
Papuan Frogmouths, not very active during the day, but very nice to see – and actually, the only time we would see that bird on the trip

Cairns: hot, hot, also quite hot and oh yes also very humid too

Going to Cairns in December was always going to be dicey weather-wise: the days hit 35 or 36 degrees and humidity goes through the roof. Basically you can’t survive unless (a) you were born there and it’s normal for you, or (b) you spend a lot of time in air conditioning, or (c) you are lucky enough to experience many cooling breezes. There were some forest tracks where we did approximately three minutes of birding along before aborting due to sticky conditions (no breeze) and abominable mosquitoes (they literally laugh at your insect repellant application). Fortunately one of the biggest birding hotspots in the area (and in Australia) is Cairns Esplanade, which is always a little blowy, and we explored it a couple of times.

Bush Stone-Curlew. We counted 25 of them, but this one was behaving extra-derpily.
Striated Herons are ninja-style hunters wherever you find them
Rainbow Lorikeets, their colour pops like nothing else
Beach Stone-Curlew decides it will have seafood for breakfast again
Torresian Imperial Pigeons nest in their thousands at this time of year in this region – here’s one grabbing some nesting material at the esplanade
Awwww, and the bubsy Torresian Imperial Pigeon too 🙂

We head to the Daintree, making an important stop for gelati at Port Dougie

The whirlwind tour continued north with a quick look at the Barron River Mouth, then driving through endless cane fields, making time for gelati at Port Douglas and a more or less random birding stop at a local park there. We trawled along Stewart Creek Rd near Daintree Village in the afternoon, then took a Daintree River cruise the next morning (Black Bitterns incoming!).

Keen followers of previous trip reports will recognise the diminutive Mistletoebird as one that randomly pops up just about anywhere, but only infrequently. This one is at Barron River Mouth just north of Cairns.
Doing the hard yards in the sweltering beach heat at Barron River Mouth trying to identify shorebirds… in this case, we think Great Knots
A Spangled Drongo is surely a regular feature of most birding trips to the northern climes of this big brown land
Olive-Backed Sunbird, Australia’s honorary hummingbird – Daintree River Cruise
Striated Heron’s goofy pose belies the watchfulness with which it guards its nearby nest (on a bare branch overhanging the river…) – Daintree River Cruise
The tiny Australian Swiftlet is small enough to look like a microbat, and is usually seen swirling high in the sky; here a swarm of more than a dozen splashed repeatedly into the Daintree River but were almost impossible to photograph (we tried!)
Metallic Starlings are cool-looking birds, not least because of their crazy red eyes. At Stewart Creek Rd near Daintree Village.

Is Julatten the Promised Land of birding? Don’t answer, you know it is!

Kingfisher Park Lodge is one of several accommodations in the Julatten area targeted at bird lovers. It has a reputation as the site to see Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfishers (which breed on the grounds) and Red-Necked Crake (which are insanely hard to find anywhere else). We also had time to visit nearby Mt Lewis (awesome high altitude rainforest birding) and some country roads in the area. Time well spent!

Macleay’s Honeyeater… not eating honey. At Kingfisher Park Lodge.
It doesn’t get more colourful and vibrant than this male-female pair of Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfishers
Spectacled Monarch is a regular fixture at Kingfisher Park Lodge
Some sort of lizard stuffing its gob, at Kingfisher Park Lodge
A Pacific Baza or two cruises over the Orchard section of Kingfisher Park Lodge, scaring away all the other birds (dammit!)
Kooka looks like a raptor (to the tune of Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady”) – Julatten country roads
Rainbow Bee-Eater, you so pretty
The Black-Shouldered Kite is surely one of Australia’s most elegant raptors. On a country back road near Julatten.
Brown-Backed Honeyeater at Abbatoir Swamp, possibly one of the best sites ever to find Brown-Backed Honeyeaters… if you are trying to find Brown-Backed Honeyeaters, that is
And here’s a Brown-Backed Honeyeater’s nest, an elaborate hanging structure.
A lizard with a Vogue-like pose at Abbatoir Swamp car park

The last day in which we try to bird as much of the Atherton Tablelands as humanly possible whilst somehow successfully avoiding apocalyptic rain

We had to get back to Cairns airport by 1:30pm, and with dozens of desirable birding hotspots on the Atherton Tablelands it was time to be ultra-judicious and just pick one or two and hope for the best. While anxiously checking the rain radar (think “solid blue incoming”). And anxiously checking the time (the drive down from the range back to Cairns is not exactly a straight road).

Golden Whistler at the awkwardly-named but amazingly-naturally-scenic Mount Hypipamee Crater
A Brown Gerygone collecting nesting material at Lake Eacham‘s Day Use area
It’s a Superb Fruit Dove female – we’ll take it! After hearing them high up in the canopy for days (maybe, who knows), we finally saw one at Lake Eacham
What a way to end the trip – a close encounter with a Tooth-Billed Bowerbird at Lake Eacham. Bird was calling from this eye-level branch and politely waited for the photographers to pull out a tripod for a video interview. Can’t complain about that.

Summary: We came, we saw, we birded

‘Twas a whirlwind trip featuring visits to many cherry-picked birding sites that the Cairns/Atherton region has to offer, and although it was often hot and sticky, the bird life provided more than enough interest to overcome the uncomfortable conditions. It was fascinating to compare this trip with the previous one to the area; plenty of old favourites turned up, though often in different areas to that seen previously, and a few new birds were discovered too (notably Superb Fruit Dove). It is just rather neat that you can jump on a plane and in a few hours find a diverse range of interesting birds you’d never otherwise see.

The trip in stats
Number of species observed: 156 (31 eBird checklists)
Most numerous species: Torresian Imperial Pigeon (196), Rainbow Lorikeet (166), Metallic Starling (121) – though honorary mention must also go to the numerous White-Breasted Woodswallows found on nearly every power line north of Cairns
Most elusive birds seen: Red-Necked Crake, Papuan Frogmouth, Pied Monarch, Superb Fruit Dove
Biggest “dip” (bird not seen): Little Kingfisher
Biggest checklist: Cattana Wetlands (37 species)

eBird Trip Report

AUTHOR: ANDY GEE
BIRDERS: ANDY GEE, LUKE S

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