The Top End
September 3, 2009 — September 15, 2009
In September 2009 I spent two weeks travelling the Top End looking for birds. I spent most of my time in the Darwin region, but made forays to Mary River Conservation Park, Kakadu, and Mataranka. All up I saw 193 species of birds, and many mammals, herps, dragonflies and butterflies. Many thanks go to my friends Pete and Micha for giving me a bed and use of their car, as well as providing great advice on birding in the region.
There are some photos in the gallery of dragonflies that have not been identified - any help would be appreciated.
Leanyer is quite famous amongst Australian birders, as it has one of the best records of vagrant species to Australia of any site. Birds like Garganey, Little Grebe, Ruff, Grey Wagtail, Little Ringed Plover, Yellow Wagtail and Red-rumped Swallow have occured here, and it can also be a good site for mangrove birds and finches. Permission is required to visit the site, and if you do not have a local contact with a key you will need to set up a permit several months in advance. At the time of writing, NT Power and Water could be contacted on 1800 245 091, however this can be checked with a white pages search or by using directory assistance.
I managed to visit the site three times during my stay (thank you to Pete and Micha for arranging this). My main target was Little Ringed Plover, and I recorded these on all three visits. There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to which path they sit on. There were many Common Sandpipers present also, which from a distance made finding the plovers less easy, however the birds have a different stance so it should be possible to drive down the middle road and search the side-paths without going down them and scaring all the birds. The many Pied Herons were a highlight for me, because though I'd seen this species many times before it was great to get so close to them and have a chance to take some good photos. There were a small number of Wood Sandpipers present also, mostly perched on a thick crust of scum accumulating in the corners of some of the ponds. On the road into the ponds we recorded Long-tailed, Crimson, and Double-barred Finches.
Knuckey Lagoons is a great freshwater wetland at the outskirts of Darwin. It is a regular site for top end specialties like Green Pygmy Goose, and a haven for hundreds, even thousands of water birds. It can also be good for freshwater waders like Wood Sandpiper, Swinhoe's Snipe, Ruff and Long-toed Stint. There are two main ponds to view, one via Fiddler's Lane off McMillans Rd, and the other off Lagoon Rd via Secrett Rd. The site is also know to have the potential for Yellow Chat to turn up, though in the times I have been there (dry season) it hasn't looked promising.
I visited Knuckey Lagoons a number of times during my visit, and every time there were several thousand waterbirds present. Magpie Geese, Pacific Black Ducks and Green Pygmy Geese were the most numerous birds, however Wandering Whistling Ducks and Wood Sandpipers were around the area. It was still too early for Swinhoes Snipe to turn up, but there were a couple of Australian Pratincole present on our first visit. Secrett Road is apparently a good site for Silver-backed Butcherbird (a subspecies of Grey Butcherbird), however I didn't have any luck on a number of visits.
Lee Point is one of the best migratory shorebird viewing sites in the Darwin region, up there with Nightcliff and East Point. This is the site where many of the larger species come to roost, such as godwit and curlews. It is quite near the Buffalo Creek area, and the birds will often roost about halfway between the two sites on the beach. As with Buffalo Creek, there are crocodiles in the area, and an extreme risk of car thieves so be cautious. Park your car as close to the tip of the point as possible, and walk out to the beach and turn right. The shorebirds will congregate somewhere along the stretch of beach between there and Buffalo Creek as high tide approaches.
During my visits to this shorebird roost, I saw many species but nothing particularly outstanding. We apparently had the first sighting of Black-tailed Godwit for the season, and there were a number of Sanderling in partial breeding plumage, which is an awkward stage for identification purposes. We initially also misidentified a Whimbrel as a Little Curlew, which were at the time yet to return (slightly embarassing for me, though I didn't make the initial call), however we did realise our mistake fairly quickly. As well as the shorebirds, we managed to find a Little Tern, and a Brown Booby feeding out to sea, as well as an Indo-Pacific Humbacked Dolphin, one of the special local cetaceans.
Though caution is advised, this site is definitely worth a visit, particularly from October onwards, as Asiatic Dowitcher is possible amongst the godwit, and vagrants are highly possible.
Pine Creek is the best spot anywhere to see Hooded Parrots. It can also be good for Gouldian Finches. It is about three hours drive from Darwin, at the southern end of Kakadu National Park. There is fuel and accommodation, but food is expensive (no supermarket). The pub does good meals, but beware camping in the caravan park as it can get noisy at times (I was kept up until about 4am). In the town itself the Water Gardens and the Water Tower behind town can be good for the parrots. A short distance from town are the cemetary and the sewage treatment ponds, and these can be good for dry country birds like Diamond Dove, though on most of my visits the area has been fairly disappointing. Further out of town is Copperfield Dam, the best spot for Gouldian Finches and very good for dry country birds. The slopes around here are also a potential spot for Chetstnut-backed Button-Quail. The dam itself is fairly quiet for birds but there is always the potential for something there so it is worth checking.
We spent some time in the Pine Creek area on the Friday evening before dark, and at dawn on the Saturday, and I passed through Pine Creek on the way to Mataranka the next weekend. On both occasions I recorded Hooded Parrots in town, first at the water gardens, and the second at the entrance to town of the Stuart Highway. The flock at the water gardens was impressive, with around 70 Hooded Parrots being present by the time we had to move on. We also recorded many other parrots in the area, with Red-winged Parrots, Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, and Cockatiel in the area.
On the road to Copperfield Dam we didn't have much luck, though no doubt a recent burn was partly to blame for this. We did have our only records of White-throated Gerygone and Jacky Winter for the trip however, and at the Dam itself Green Pygmy Geese and a very very young White-necked Heron were interesting finds.
The top of the escarpment at Gunlom is the best known spot for one of Australia's hardest endemic species, the White-throated Grasswren. It is hard because it is rare, found only in difficult, inaccessible terrain, and very shy. These factors combine to provide a challenging environment to try and see the birds in. Fortunately the sandstone escarpent country they are found in is also home to a number of other endemic species, some quite localised. The top of the escarpment also has a number of wonderful swimming holes along the creekline. The bottom of the falls is a picnic area, swimming hole and campground, and the road in has many opportunities for dry country birds. Just after the wet season tourists should be careful, as Estuarine Crocodiles (the dangerous ones) could have moved into the swimming areas, including the ones at the top of the falls.
In September, temperatures are starting to reach 35 degrees, and humidity can get up towards the 70% mark, combining to make long hikes less than pleasant in the middle of the day. If you plan to try for the Grasswren, take plenty of water (and I mean plenty, I ran out while carrying over 3 litres on the first day). I would also recommend a navigational device, preferably a GPS with a compass as a backup, as getting lost up here could very quickly get you in trouble. I would also recommend letting someone in the shop at the bottom know you are heading up, and a rough time of return. This is because the terrain is very difficult, and there is no water away from the creekline.
Our trip to Gunlom was one of mixed success. We dipped on the Grasswren despite about ten hours of searching in viable habitat. On the other hand, we had good records of Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon (new for me), Sandstone Shrike-Thrush, White-lined Honeyeater, the sandstone subspecies of Helmeted Honeyeater, race dulcis of the Variegated Fairy-Wren (though only males where the female is the more interesting of the two) and Banded Fruit-Dove. All of these are good birds. We also had some great reptiles, and apart from the heat, the walk itself was a reminder of how beautiful Australia can be. Ah, but the heat. The swim in the creek at the end of both days was heavenly! At the bottom of the escarpment we had a few nice sightings, with Banded Honeyeaters in the picnic ground, and a single White-lined Honeyeater near the bottom of the falls. Silver-crowned Friarbirds were common in the area, and at night we managed to find an Owlet Nightjar in the open right behind where we were camping. We also had great views of large numbers of Partridge Pigeons on the way in from the highway, another new species for me. All in all a great experience, though I was of course disappointed to miss the grasswren once again.
I had several attempts to get ahold of Oriental Plover while I was there, without any real success. I did get good views of a number of shorebirds, including several Pacific Golden Plovers in advanced breeding plumage. I also had Collared Kingfishers giving good views and Rufous-banded Honeyeaters in the mangroves being quite confiding. Read more.
Howard Springs is probably my favourite birding site in the Top End - not because of the rare birds there (or not just because of them), but just because it is just a generally great birding spot, with a big list of birds for the area. A short stroll around the carpark in the morning can turn up Large-billed and Green-backed Gerygone, Grey Whistler, Yellow Oriole, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove and Shining Flycatcher among many others, while a short distance into the forest the Rainbow Pitta is almost reliable, particularly in the mornings, and Little Kingfisher is a strong possibility, though much harder to see. Outside of the rainforest area, the savannah has its own suite of birds, making it possible to see well over 50 species in a morning here.
Another point of interest is the freshwater fish that are fed in the main pool. Saratoga and Barramundi have been able to grow massive here as they are protected from fishing - they are not shy and you should be able to see them even without feeding them. There are also many freshwater turtles in the pond for those intersted in herpatology.
Highlights for me this trip were seeing Rainbow Pitta 5m from the carpark and getting cripplingly good photos of them, Shining Flycatcher actually standing still for long enough to photograph, and a generally great morning of birding. Lowlight was the masses of mosquitoes in the area - so many that without repellent I had to flee and come back another day. At one point I think I had over 100 mosquitoes biting me at the same time. As well as natural pitfalls, I believe there is a security risk to leaving your car unattended here, so the same rules as for Lee Point/Buffalo Creek apply.
Anyway, avoid the parasites (human and insect) and you're likely to have a great birding experience here.
The Palmerston Sewage Treatment Plant is a fantastic spot for mangrove birds, and in the peak of the season can turn up some interesting waders too. While possibly not as great for rarities as Leanyer, Palmerston is possibly the best site anywhere in the country for Mangrove Robin, and has a chance for Great-billed Heron, Chestnut Rail, Mangrove Grey Fantail and White-breasted and Mangrove Golden Whistler, as well as many others. The nearby woodland can also be great for finches, and the site has at times supported flocks of Yellow-rumped Mannikins (I'm told), though I'm yet to see this species at the site.
My visit to the SP this time around was extremely productive. I started with lots of Pacific Golden Plovers on one of the causeways in the ponds themselves, along with Green Pygmy Geese and Radjah Shelduck. In the northern corner of the ponds is the best place to look into the mangroves from, though don't try and drive all the way there. It is bet to park in the eastern corner and walk the short distance to the northern tip of the ponds. I had great views of a Mangrove Robin pair foraging through the mangroves, as well as fleeting glimpses of Mangrove Grey Fantail. I saw what was probably a female White-breasted Whistler very briefly (too briefly for a solid ID), as well as a large heron flying out of the mangroves as I arrived which was probably a Great-billed (again, no solid ID). Since my visit, this site has turned up a likely Little Stint and a possible Grey Heron (maybe my bird??), so it can be a good spot for all kinds of reasons. It is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Darwin for me in terms of seeing difficult birds and generally having a great birding experience.
A walk from the campus to the Darwin Hospital could be very productive at the right time of day, and though I didn't see one, I'm told that Silver-backed Butcherbird can be seen on the path between the two. Read more.
The George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens (or just "The Gardens") is a well known birding site in Darwin. The diversity isn't great, but it is the most reliable site for Rufous Owl. There is also a pair of Barking Owls that have taken up residence on the far side of the gardens from the Rufous Owls (a wise move on their part no doubt...). The Rufous Owls roost in the rainforest section, and it should be easy enough to pick them up just walking around and checking suitable trees along the path. If you have no luck, ask a staff member as they often know where the owls are. The Barking Owls are at the carpark in the south-west corner of the gardens. There is one very dense tree, directly next to the carpark, and they are in that tree (it is really the only suitable cover for them in the area). They can be hard to see, so keep trying different angles to look into the inside of the canopy.
I found both species in an afternoon (though the Rufous Owls took a lot longer to find than I anticipated). Allow at least an hour, but on the plus side, this can be done in the middle of the day when the birding is poor elsewhere.
The Mary River Excavation Pits is just one big birding cliche. A small set of ephemeral wetlands right by a main highway that you'd drive right past if you didn't know better, with some of the best birding to be had anywhere in Australia. In the late dry season, when I was there, Gouldian Finches are often found coming in to drink in what little water is left at the pits. I was fortunate and had one black-faced adult male come in while I was there, however only a few weeks before there were something like 300 Gouldians coming in to the same spot. The site is great for other finches, and the surrounding woodlands are also good for honeyeaters and other dry country birds. I have no doubt more unusual birds like Black Bittern are also a chance.
The morning I was there the highlights were a large number of Varied Lorikeets and Banded Honeyeaters as well as the Gouldian, Crimson, Double-barred, Masked and Long-tailed Finches in the area. There is a nice flat solid dirt area to park on just east of the first wetlands (which are often dry by late spring). On the eastern edge of that dirt area is a small soak which seems to hold water the longest of any of the little claypans in the area, and this is where the finches were coming in to drink. The other advantage of the site is that it is nearby to Bird Billabong, another great birding site, and you go past Marrakai Track and Fogg Dam on the way (or way back), so in a day you can see a lot of good birds and habitat quite easily.
Fogg Dam is an amazing wetland an hour or so outside of Darwin, with a huge diversity and density of waterbirds, and several walks through monsoon and dry forest that can be quite productive for other species. The dam is the best known site for White-browed Crake in the NT. It is also meant to be good for Rainbow Pitta and Little Kingfisher, though I tend to spend most of my time in the wetand section, as I've found Howard Springs to be better for these species. At night there is a good chance of Barking Owl, and possibly Southern Boobook in the area, as well as Large-tailed Nightjar. It is worth being cautious about crocodiles here, as this time there were warnings everywhere and apparently a 4m saltie on the loose in the area.
I had two visits to the dam area on this trip, with different results. I had quite good views of Rufous-banded Honeyeater and Crimson Finch both times, and there were many Australian Pratincoles running around on the drying up lower side of the dam wall. There were many thousands of waterbirds in the area, including a large flock of Purple Swamphens, apparently not a normal bird in the area in the dry. A confiding Spotted Harrier was very obliging on the first visit, while we all got exceptional views of White-browed Crake on the second. Jacana are there in large numbers, and we had a single group of over 50 birds at one point.
At the end of the second visit, we stayed at the hide on the far side of the dam for sunset. It was very interesting watching the Night Herons fly out from their roost somewhere to the west of where we were. We counted over a hundred individuals, but I suspect there were many many more. Microbats and then Black Flying Foxes also began to arrive (with millions of mozzies). Just after dark we also began to find hundreds of Roth's Treefrogs, a few Desert Treefrogs, and several very pretty skinks (Glaphyromorphus douglasi probably). We also had an Owlet Nightjar and Barking Owls move through the area, though we couldn't get a look at them.
Fogg Dam is one of the top birding sites in the state, if not Australia, so check it out if you are in the area.
I did this road no justice at all, arriving in the area at about 11am, when the temperature had already soared above 34 degrees and humidity was high. I didn't record anything of interest at all, but the area can be good for Button-Quail, particularly Red-backed, but Chestnut-backed and Red-chested have also been recorded. It is also a site for Zitting Cisticola.Read more.
While this is the Bird Billabong site, I didn't even have a chance to get to the water on this occasion, as my intent here was to look for Gouldian Finches and Black-tailed Treecreepers, which are found foraging in the areas of woodland along the roads in. I spent a while searching areas close to the Billabong end of the road with little success, but the woodlands closer to the entrance near the highway were more productive. On the far side of the ridgeline on the east of the track I found six Black-tailed Treecreepers moving around and making a lot of fuss (I found them easily by call). While I was following these birds around, I flushed a single immature Gouldian Finch. The bird was still in its olive juvenile colours, except for its face, which had already moulted black adult feathers, giving the bird an odd look. The whole area has been burnt fairly recently, and the woodland didn't really provide much in the way of birding beyond the above sightings, though I'm sure in better times it can be quite exciting. Bird Billabong is meant to be quite good, but allow some time as the walk in is quite long.Read more.
The Adelaide River crossing, along the Arnhem Highway, is a well known stopping off point on the way out to Kakadu and the birding spots in between, however it is also a great spot to look for birds in its own right. The area is a big tourist attraction because of its Saltwater Crocodiles (which have been "taught" to jump for meat, so be very very careful near the water). The mangroves around the kiosk and jetties are the place to see a number of local mangrove specialties, and more besides. I turned up in the middle of the day, and stopped for a drink. The stopping part was fortunate, because the first 15 minutes of searching for birds turned up only 1 Shining Flycatcher and 1 Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, however while I was sitting having a drink, I had Large-billed Gerygone, male and female Mangrove Golden Whistler, and Arafura Fantail (split from Rufous Fantail) all giving fantastic views around the kiosk. The more normal place to see the Whistlers is off to the left (when facing the river) under the bridge and through to a caged off area. If you're lucky, the gate will be open and you can wander carefully along the boardwalk. If not, stand at the gate and try pishing, though this didn't work for me.Read more.
Chainman Creek (as opposed to Chinaman Creek, the one before this one), is one of the best known sites for Chestnut-backed Button-Quail in the top end. It is a bit over 20km south of Katherine along the Victoria Highway, and is primarily grassy savannah woodland. The best spot to see the Button-Quails is not beside the main highway, but on the north side of the road past the old highway and into the woodland with the denser, longer grass. The site is also good for many other dry country birds, including being a potential spot for Crested Shrike-Tit.
On my visit, the area was teeming with birds. I managed five views of Chestnut-backed Button-Quail in flight, but sadly couldn't manage to get one "on the deck". Rufous-throated Honeyeater and Silver-crowned Friarbird were common in the area, and there were some big flocks of Varied Lorikeet around too. I got the sense that if I had time to stay, I could have had a great days birding, however I had to move on to Mataranka and as I had found my target birds decided to keep going. This is a great site and worth more time than I gave it.
Bitter Springs is a beautiful natural spring that is heavy in minerals (including a liberal dose of sulphur). The waters run crystal clear, a beautiful blue-green colour and though the water is low in oxygen and therefore terrible for fish, there are many dragonflies and birds in the area. Adjacent to the spring is Mataranka Cabins and Camping, which was my real destination for the trip. This is because across the road is an active Red Goshawk nest. The springs can be great for a number of bird species, particularly honeyeaters when the trees are in flower, but there is a lot of foot traffic and people swim in the springs, so during the day there aren't many waterbirds. The water is quite warm, about 33 degrees celcius, so not quite the cooling dip you might be after on a hot day, but worth a soak anyway.
I was highly fortunate that both the male and female Red Goshawks were in attendence at the nest. I only had brief glimpses of the female, as she sat tight on the nest shading eggs (I assume) the whole time I was there. The male however was sitting quietly in the shade of a nearby tree, quite out in the open and confiding and I had wonderful views of this rare and exciting bird of prey. Around the springs I finally caught up with a bird that had been very difficult to find for me to date, with a small flock of Green-backed Gerygones moving through the undergrowth providing great views and some average photographic opportunities. I found and photographed a number of dragonflies on the day too, which I will have to rely on others to identify for the most part.
This is a beautiful site, and though the birds weren't great apart from the Goshawk, I would say it is worth a visit on any trip to Mataranka just as a place to relax.
I had two cracks at the Shrike-Tits, and though I spent a good deal of time in the right area, I didn't hear or see anything resembling one. I did however hear Pallid Cuckoo, see Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo, Black-tailed Treecreeper, and Varied Sitella.
Around the ponds I had great views of Star, Long-tailed, Masked and Double-barred Finch, as well as a single Chestnut-breasted Mannikin immature. A pair of immature Black-necked Storks visited the ponds, and a flock of about 20 Little Black Cormorants were fishing the dam on the second morning. I had good luck with raptors also, with Black Kite, Whistling Kite, Wedge-tailed Eagle, and Brown Goshawk in the area, and Australian Hobby hunting around the ponds trying to catch a Rainbow Bee-eater. This is a great site, worth a visit for the Star Finches alone, if not the chance at a Gouldian or a Crested Shrike-Tit. Read more.
The area has a lot of potential for birds, and hopefully some day hunting will be banned and other less dangerous recreational uses become viable in the area. Read more.
Our visit was extremely productive, with five Barn Owls in the area, as well as an Owlet Nightjar and Barking Owls at nearby Fogg Dam. We managed to find some interesting frogs and skinks as well, though no luck on snakes which was something we were hoping for. Read more.
I visited on a bad tide, and as such only had a handful of waders around. The only bird of any note that I saw was a Green-backed Gerygone by the side of the road. Read more.