Inala Nature Tours - Cape York & Wet Tropics - 20-28 June, 2018
Tour Report - Prepared by Steve Davidson (with a few additional snippets by Tonia Cochran).
For the second consecutive year Inala Nature Tours has completed a very successful tour to the wilds of Cape York Peninsula in far northern Queensland. With a large portion of the tour devoted to exploring the fantastic and unparalleled Iron Range National Park, which contains the largest area of lowland rainforest remaining in Australia, we also traversed the tropical woodland zone along the Peninsula Development Road of central Cape York, with particular emphasis paid to the amazing Lakefield National Park and Musgrave areas. The tour ended with a touch of the Wet Tropics in the Windsor Tablelands and areas of lowland rainforest and mangrove around the Cairns area.
Our aim was to make contact with, amongst many others, the fascinating group of birds found here occurring nowhere else in Australia, that have links to the avifauna of Papua New Guinea, just across Torres Strait. Birds like Eclectus Parrot, Palm Cockatoo, White-faced Robin, Tropical Scrubwren, Frill-necked Monarch and Yellow-footed Flycatcher have much wider ranges in PNG, yet only just extend into Australia in this far northern region of the country due to a land bridge joining the two landmasses during the last major Ice Age.
In addition, we were determined to connect with the only two birds that are endemic to Cape York Peninsula itself – the critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot and the strange White-streaked Honeyeater.
Day 1. Wed 20 June 2018. Fly Cairns to Lockhart River, Iron Range National Park.
Day 2. Thu 21 June 2018. Iron Range National Park.
Day 3. Fri 22 June 2018. Iron Range National Park.
Day 4. Sat 23 June 2018. Iron Range National Park.
Day 5. Sun 24 June 2018. Iron Range to Musgrave.
Day 6. Mon 25 June 2018. Musgrave and Lakefield National Park.
Day 7. Tue 26 June 2018. Musgrave to Kingfisher Park.
Day 8. Wed 27 June 2018. Kingfisher Park to Cairns.
Day 9. Thu 28 June 2018. Depart Cairns.
Day 1. Wednesday 20 June 2018. Cairns to Lockhart River, Iron Range National Park.
After a late start due to some rather harrowing aircraft technicalities that threatened to derail the tour before it had even started, our intrepid bunch finally arrived to greet Tonia and myself at the Lockhart River arrivals lounge. By lounge I refer to some dry grass outside a small, weatherboard, post WW11 processing terminal…However, it didn’t matter, everyone had arrived safely, and after we checked in to our rooms at the nearby accommodation we tucked into some pretty sumptuous nosh provided by the amazing locals Greg & Sheree. After which there was little else to do but take a stroll into the fresh, tropical night air. Some maniacal gobbling nearby held more than a passing interest for us as it was none other than a Marbled Frogmouth uttering its territorial song in some vine scrub cum rainforest. A bit of judicious playback failed to entice the bird into the open, so it was headlong into the scrub in an attempt to locate the culprit. Pretty soon we were all looking straight into the deep golden eyes of a Marbled Frogmouth, sitting beautifully on a hanging vine. A great first bird for everyone and a brilliant way to commence the tour. The planet Mars was also looming bright tonight which was a celestial bonus.
Day 2. Thursday 21 June 2018. Iron Range National Park.
Day two saw us rise early, full of anticipation and champing at the bit, for a pre-breakfast walk around the environs surrounding our beautifully positioned accommodation. Birds were plentiful in the tropical woodland and we soon picked up Olive-backed Sunbird, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Mistletoebird, Rufous Whistler, Rainbow Bee-eater, Bar-shouldered Dove, Dusky Myzomela, White-throated, Yellow-spotted & Graceful Honeyeaters. But some raspy, grating and metallic calls caused all heads to wheel about, for we had none other than our first Cape York endemic in the form of a pair of Fawn-breasted Bowerbirds, cavorting on the lawn areas near the airfield and looking rather incongruous indeed. These are normally rather shy denizens of rainforest edge and vine scrub that have wrought frustration and exasperation for generations of birders, many of whom have gone home without so much as a feather. But be that as it may, these beauties deigned us all suitable recipients of their subtle feathered glory, and we were under way on our Iron Range escapades.
After breakfast the birds continued thick and fast, and along the road to the national park we stopped at a patch of thicker rainforest where we picked up none other Green-backed Honeyeater and Yellow-footed Flycatcher – another two Cape York endemics, and difficult at the best of times to find! In the same patch we spied the impossibly cute Yellow-breasted Boatbill, Fairy Gerygone of the distinctive Cape York subspecies personata, our first Shining Flycatcher and the markedly different North Queensland subspecies vegetus of the widespread Silvereye. In the rainforest of Iron Range NP proper we started seeing some of the regional specialties as we cruised slowly along. The incredible Frill-necked Monarch was a sight to behold, as was the seriously cute White-faced Robin, with the Tropical Scrubwren giving us excellent views before lunch. A supporting cast included Spectacled Monarch, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Australian Brush Turkey, ssp purpureicollis, Little Shrike-thrush, Helmeted Friarbird, Rufous Fantail and Australasian Figbird. At various intervals we would hear the loud and brassy honks of Eclectus Parrot overhead, and we had a few glimpses of these incredible parrots as they flew high over the rainforest, always going somewhere else. Red-cheeked Parrots adopted a similar modus operandi, but they flew a lot faster and called a lot louder, yet were glimpsed almost never; this became the theme for the whole visit, and we never really saw these birds at all. At our lunch stop we lucked out when it soon became apparent we were in the company of a small party of feeding Double-eyed Fig-Parrots. With spotting scope set up and cameras a-clicking we enjoyed this very rare treat, with two males and a female providing incredible views. This pulchritudinous little bird was ssp marshalli of the Double-eyed Fig-Parrot, a taxon endemic to the Cape York rainforests and normally only seen hurtling over the canopy…
After lunch we’d only gone a short way when our first Magnificent Riflebirds came into view – a party of three males giving chase and swooping through right overhead. One of just four Birds of Paradise found in Australia, the bizarre plumage on the wings of these incredible birds causes a sound like taffeta when they fly, and the effect of the sun catching the iridescent gorget, crown and tail is really rather breathtaking.
Dinner that evening was a fine affair, with the locals once again providing a fantastic meal as we sat looking out over the Coral Sea. The long drive back to our accommodation provided much opportunity for spotlighting, and we saw no less than 12 Papuan Frogmouths and a couple of Large-tailed Nightjars, with a lucky few seeing what was most likely a Rufous Spiny Bandicoot cross the track. This is a rare rainforest bandicoot with a wider distribution in PNG, but only found in this part of Australia.
Days 3 & 4. Friday 22 & Saturday 23 June 2018. Iron Range National Park.
The next few days followed a similar pattern of events, with several forays into the rainforests of Iron Range NP, as well as visits to nearby coastal areas near the Lockhart River Community, ridgetop heathlands on some of the more open, elevated sections of the park, and open woodlands around the edges of the park. Our rainforest birding included a wonderful sighting of the beautiful Yellow-billed Kingfisher as it flew back and forth across the road in our presence and several Palm Cockatoos flying slowly over the canopy like a flying set of stilsons, one of which we were eventually able to watch as it alighted and perched in the open. Having previously heard Trumpet Manucodes only distantly we managed to catch but a glimpse of these bizarre birds one afternoon as they flew into the canopy close by. Their incredible calls were so loud, however only a few of the group was able to get a half decent look, and they remained frustratingly hidden. We had a magnificent Wompoo Fruit-Dove sit up for us in the canopy, and we finally secured satisfactory looks at the elusive Tawny-breasted Honeyeater. A very vocal but tricky White-streaked Honeyeater had us craning our necks to get a decent view as it remained annoyingly hidden in what was inexplicably thin foliage! Northern Scrub-Robin played hardball with us, and despite two birds in separate locations singing away merrily from the dense scrub, we were unable to connect with this incredibly shy and furtive rainforest specialist. White-browed Robin was equally shy, and only a few of us managed to get the glasses on the pair of birds we found.
In open areas we saw loose flocks of Australian Swiftlet, Blue-winged Kookaburra, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black-faced & White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, Australian Kestrel, Brown Falcon, Straw-necked Ibis, Peaceful Dove and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.
At a few small wetlands we picked up birds like Radjah Shelduck, Australasian Grebe, Yellow Oriole, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Varied Triller and Forest Kingfisher.
On the coastal mudflats and offshore rock-stacks we found Brown Booby, Grey-tailed Tattler, Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Greater Sand Plover, Red-capped Plover, Australian Pied Oystercatcher, Pacific Reef Heron, Gull-billed Tern and Red-necked Stint. We also had pretty good views of a variety of lizards including the Shaded-litter Rainbow Skink (Carlia munda) and a close encounter with a lemon Shark who was cruising half out of the water on the shoreline. Further spotlighting at dusk revealed a Spotted Cuscus- well done Philip for spotting it! We were also lucky to catch up and have a delicious meal with friends Trisha and Phil Maher and their group who also happened to be staying in the area - a lovely evening and thanks Trisha for the wonderful food!
Day 4. Sunday 24 June 2018. Iron Range National Park to Musgrave.
Mid-morning on the 24th July involved a rather reluctant exit from the park, but not before a stop at the spectacular Tozer Gap, with its towering bluffs and distant views of the ocean. We were also lucky to see a beautiful inquisitive young dingo bitch with unusually dark coloration around the muzzle and flanks. Some of us had great views as she stopped to check out the vehicle. A little further on we had our last gasp punt on the endemic White-streaked Honeyeater, with a nice patch of flowering heathy woodland. Birds were heard calling as we piled out of the vehicles, so we deftly positioned ourselves as some gentle playback was tactfully orchestrated. Within seconds a compliant White-streaked Honeyeater flew right in to a tree close by, and the first of our Cape York Peninsula endemics was nailed… The remainder of the day involved some substantial kilometres, so after lunch we undertook the long drive to Musgrave. At a lagoon en route we were able to secure our first and only Spotted Whistling-Ducks of the tour, at a regular location for them. At least thirty of these now semi-regular visitors from Papua New Guinea were on show, along with many Plumed Whistling-Duck, Hardhead, Pacific Black Duck and Magpie Goose. As we headed further south we saw our first Galahs, Blue-faced Honeyeaters and Willie Wagtails. After dinner at the infamous Musgrave Roadhouse we took a short walk to reveal a Tawny Frogmouth in the scrub nearby. Bush Thick-knees were heard singing several occasions however remained unseen that evening. We had an early bedtime tonight, as the planned activities for the coming day were nothing short of immense.
Day 5. Monday 25 June 2018. Musgrave-Lakefield National Park.
With an early breakfast put away nicely we barrelled down the Peninsula Development Road to our first destination of the day, the remarkable Artemis Station where we met up with the incomparable Sue whom was going to show us, with a bit of good fortune, some critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrots. Sue has been managing GSP habitat on her vast cattle station for many years and knows just where to look at any given time of the year. During an extended amble around part of her property we picked up some choice birds like Black-backed Butcherbird, Grey-crowned Babbler, White-throated Gerygone, Red-winged Parrot and Pale-headed Rosella. And to top it all off, the Golden-shouldered Parrots came in right on cue! We had the most splendiferous looks at one beautiful male, as well as a couple of immature males and several females and good numbers of young. Such a beautiful bird and such a relief to get it under the belt. Thus completed was our sweep of Cape York endemics, and with joy in our hearts we travelled east to the mighty Lakefield National Park. Herein was nothing short of a plethora of new birds for the group, and in no particular order we took in Diamond Dove, White-winged Triller, Black-breasted Buzzard, Australian Pratincole, Little Woodswallow, Green Pygmy Goose, Black-necked Stork, Intermediate Egret, Australasian Darter, Spotted Harrier, Weebill, Brolga, Comb-crested Jacana, Jacky Winter, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Red-browed Pardalote, Azure Kingfisher and Red-tailed Black-cockatoo.
Honeyeaters included flocks of Banded, Brown, loud and boisterous Yellow, Brown-backed, Rufous-banded, Bar-breasted and last but by no means least a party of Black-chinned Honeyeater. Finches included the gorgeous, pastel-hued Black-throated Finch, Double-barred Finch and the main attraction in Lakefield NP – Star Finch, with small flocks out on the grasslands of the wild and windswept Nifold Plain with its alien termite mounds rising like buildings from the flat landscape. The birdlife was incredible, with several areas having mixed flocks and congregations of birds around flowering melaleucas and grevilleas; at times we didn’t know where to look. And the last couple of metres of the huge Estuarine croc that we saw gliding silently into the billabong there was equally impressive. And we also saw the luckiest Straight-browed Ctenotus lizard (Ctenotis spaldingi) survive its ordeal of being picked up and dropped several times on the road by a young Spotted Harrier who was perhaps practicing it’s hunting skills. After the bird lost interest and flew off, we cautiously approached the lizard to view the damage, only to find that it was completely unscathed (physically at least!) and ran off into the undergrowth. We also saw a cracker Yellow-spotted Monitor. The drive back to Musgrave included one of the best sunsets any of us had ever witnessed, just exquisite. A monumental day, and we toasted our success that night before crashing out big time…
Day 6. Wednesday 26 June 2018. Musgrave to Julatten.
The following day was slated as a bit of a travel day, as we needed to make our way down towards the Wet Tropics. However, there was still plenty of birding to be done, and after a more leisurely breakfast than the previous day we wandered around the environs of the Musgrave Roadhouse. Nankeen Night-Herons were in evidence at their regular roost tree, and nearby we had both Yellow and Olive-backed Oriole in the same tree, a nice direct comparison. In the waterhole near the river we watched Freshwater Crocodiles and Macquarie Turtles, with a large gathering of Plumed Whistling-Ducks nearby. Heading south along the Peninsula Development Road we picked up more new birds in the form of Great Bowerbird, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Little Egret, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Pied Butcherbird and our one and only Rufous-throated Honeyeater for the tour. A slight diversion found us the increasingly uncommon black-backed ssp melanotus of Brown Treecreeper, as well as a nice flock of Weebill and a Striated Pardalote. On powerlines further on we found an obliging Red-backed Kingfisher, and just north of Julatten a fine pair of Australian Bustard.
The long day’s driving was rounded out by a stop at some local lagoons near Julatten where we found our first Cotton Pygmy-Geese, as well as a pair of squabbling White-browed Crakes, Fairy Martins and Grey Teal. The local Platypus even put in an appearance as well. We returned to our lodgings to view a variety of local birds and the resident Boyd’s Forest Dragon. A great end to another great day.
Day 7. Thursday 27 June 2018. Julatten to Cairns.
The last day of our official tour was spent in the highlands of the Julatten area, with a number of higher altitude regional specialties on the wanted list. As we enjoyed breakfast we watched Yellow-spotted & Graceful Honeyeaters, Chestnut-breasted Mannikins, Spangled Drongo and an Emerald Dove around the feeders at our accommodation. With our first stop at some low elevation riparian forest we chanced upon a flowering tree bedecked with tiny yellow flowers and dripping with honeyeaters. Here we had several Scarlet Honeyeaters, as well as Lewin’s, Yellow-faced and many Dusky Honeyeaters (Myzomela). In a nearby fruiting fig there was a constant coming-and-going of a variety of birds. Here we saw a good sized flock of Barred Cuckoo-shrikes, Australasian Figbird, Wompoo Fruit-dove and our only Double-eyed Fig-Parrots of the Wet Tropics ssp macleayana. Scaly-breasted and Rainbow Lorikeets flew through as well.
Making our way up into the rainforest we made several stops at suitable looking sites. Here we managed to get onto our first Brown Cuckoo-Dove, as well as the dark mountain form of Grey Fantail, ssp keasti, the localised ssp minor of White-throated Treecreeper, Golden Whistler and Eastern Spinebill. Reaching higher elevations we saw our first Grey-headed Robin, Brown Gerygones, Large-billed Scrubwrens and unfortunately heard but did not see Victoria’s Riflebird and Australian King-Parrot. However we did hit the jackpot when a young male Golden Bowerbird came into full view, perched on a mossy branch festooned with vines & epiphytes, the mist swirling in the background. Quite a surreal and atmospheric moment, and a much wanted species! Further on we found Atherton Scrubwren lurking in the undergrowth, as well as Mountain Thornbill in the mid-storey. Perhaps the best bird of the morning, (or at least a tie with the Golden Bowerbird) was a most spectacularly confiding and pugnacious Fernwren that was first heard in a dense gully, eventually showing well almost at our feet. An auspicious occasion indeed, augmented by a nearby Bridled Honeyeater, yet another regional endemic. As we headed higher the weather took a marked turn for the worse with increasing wind and rain. After a brief look for Blue-faced Parrot-Finch in foul conditions we beat a hasty retreat down the mountain.
After lunch we made our way towards Cairns, with a couple of stops along the way. At a patch of roadside vine scrub en route we enjoyed our first looks at Lovely Fairy-wren, Northern Fantail, Little Bronze-Cuckoo and White-cheeked Honeyeater.
We hit Cairns late afternoon with just enough time to stake out the local pair of Rufous Owl, and whilst we waited several squadrons of fast-moving Metallic Starlings shot through. Also lurking in the area was a hunting Australian Hobby, and as the end of the day drew nigh we saw it take at least one micro-bat that had dared venture out into the gloaming. A great experience for us, but not so good for the bats. And then with a stroke of good fortune we saw the male Rufous Owl returning to the prospective nest hollow right on dusk. Another fantastic day ended, and so did the main tour. After a farewell dinner, we reluctantly said goodbye to those of us who were leaving the group.
Day 8. Friday 28 June 2018. Cairns area.
For the remaining four members of the group, the final day of the tour dawned, and due to various departure times and schedules meaning some participants had to leave early, we scheduled the activities of the day accordingly. We soon had our first really great looks at several Bush Thick-knee camped incongruously in an industrial estate, with Black-fronted Plovers nearby. A small flock of Nutmeg Mannikin also perched up, allowing nice views of this introduced species. This site was also where I’d previously seen roosting Beach Thick-knee on several occasions, but today it was nowhere to be found. At the famous Cairns Esplanade we watched Australian Pelicans loafing out on the mud, with Far Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Great Knot, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-capped Plover, Masked Lapwing, Gull-billed, Caspian & Great Crested Terns and Silver Gull all foraging madly on the edge of the receding tide. In the nearby parkland and mangrove forest the action continued, with Varied Honeyeater, Helmeted Friarbird and Peaceful Dove all obvious in the trees and on the ground. Even better were two key mangrove specialists that gave it up quite easily, with Mangrove Robin and Torresian Kingfisher perched beautifully on the pneumatophores! These two often require sustained searching through the mangroves, whilst sandflies and mosquitoes attack mercilessly, so to have them so ridiculously easily was nothing short of a coup.
After a tasty lunch at my favourite Cairns café we headed to the Cairns Botanic Gardens where we continued our run of good fortune when a Little Kingfisher flashed past. Yours truly missed it as he was looking elsewhere, but the punters locked onto it, and for that I’m grateful as we’d tried but failed to this point. A solid sighting of Large-billed Gerygone and a pair of Osprey nesting in a nearby telecom tower were a bonus too.
We then travelled to the south of Cairns to explore some cane-field and mangrove edge habitats, however it was pretty warm at this stage and avian activity was at a low ebb. We did see our only Striated Heron of the trip here though. I was really keen to find Beach Thick-knee so we set off to the north of Cairns to another known site for the species, however once again they unfortunately failed to materialise, so we retreated back to Cairns with a final stop for the pair of Rufous Owls, both of which were sitting up beautifully in a large fig tree near their nest hollow.
Dinner was lavished upon us in fine style at a local Balinese restaurant that night, thus ending an amazing, fruitful and extraordinary trip.