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Darwin September 2006 Bird Watching Trip Report

Author: Carl from Pahrump
Date of Trip: September 2006

In 2006 and 2007 we spent 255 Days driving around Australia. We started in Darwin, drove south to Alice Springs, backtracked to Cairns, went down the East Coast to Rockhampton, cut over to Melbourne, went across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth, drove up the West Coast to Broome, and finished by crossing the Kimberely Region on our way back to Darwin — 24,000 miles & 6 rental cars. Along the way we stayed in 56 cities and saw 693 bird species/subspecies.

This Trip Report covers the 28-days we spent in Darwin. Some of the nature areas we visited were:

Nature Area Lat & Long Bird Billabong 12.706S 131.630E Buffalo Creek & Lee’s Point 12.330S 130.896E Djukbinj NP 12.694S 131.370E Fogg Dam 12.562S 131.302E Holmes Jungle 12.416S 130.941E Howard Springs Nature Reserve 12.456S 131.052E Knuckey Lagoons 12.426S 130.938E Litchfield NP 13.054S 130.905E Nightcliff Foreshore 12.382S 130.841E Scout Hall Paperbarks 12.430S 130.959E Territorial Wildlife Park 12.709S 130.997E

If you put these coordinates into Google Earth, you can see the locations I am discussing. Typically, there will be lots of pictures as well.

The top birding areas where: Location Bird Species Fogg Dam 73 Territorial Wildlife Park 68 Buffalo Creek & Lee’s Point 59 Holmes Jungle 57 Grungle Downs B&B 48 Knuckey Lagoons 47 Bird Billabong 42 Howard Springs Nature Reserve 35 Djukbinj NP 29 Nightcliff Foreshore 25 Litchfield NP 23 Scout Hall Paperbarks 24 Total 178

All these parks are within an easy drive of Darwin. Fogg Dam is about a 35-minute (30 mile) drive. The Bird Billabong (Wetland) is the furthest at 60 miles.

Lodging

We spent 28 nights at the Grungle Downs B&B (www.grungledowns.com.au 12.417S 130.938E) on the outskirts of Darwin. We reserved the 2-bed room cottage with air conditioning and a full kitchen. The owners, Paul & Christie, didn’t cut down any of the native Paperbark, Eucalyptus, and Magnolia trees. That really helped to bring in the birds to get the fruits and berries. We would typically see about 20 birds at the B&B every afternoon.

When I was planning the trip we decided not to get a car till we had adjusted to the time difference. For meals, we arranged to eat with the owners. On the first night we had breaded veal cutlets, mashed potatoes with parsley, and cauliflower & carrots in a cheese sauce. We ate outdoors on a large wooden circular table with a “Lazy Christie” in the center. These people are wonderful cooks! We ate and talked till 10pm. We didn’t have dessert, but Christie had made me a blueberry pie with almonds to take home. After a few nights of meals like this, we decided to have all our dinners with Paul and Christie.

Highlights of the Region:

Sunrise and birding at Fogg Dam — so many birds circling around and calling.

Seeing a tree top covered with Gouldian Finches at the Bird Billabong, and later in the day seeing Masked, Long-tailed, Black-throated, Double-barred, and Crimson Finches on the ground.

Seeing the vast sandbar at Buffalo Creek during low tide with a flock of white Australian Pelicans in the distance holding their beaks up in the air like flags.

Seeing thousands of migrating shore birds at Lee’s Point during the 8 meter Spring Tide.

Getting Thai Spring Rolls and Papaya & Banana Milk Shakes at the Sunday Rapid Creek Oriental Produce Market.

Special Comments:

Our flight from Columbus, Ohio to Los Angeles to Sydney to Alice Springs to Darwin was 12,000 miles – thank goodness for frequent flyer miles and first class seats. We arrived in Darwin on time at 7pm on August 29, 2006. We took a taxi to Grungle Downs. The owners, Paul and Christie, had bought some initial groceries for us. We had a ham sandwich on great multigrain bread, and crashed for the night.

We got up at 5am on Aug 30 to the sounds of calling birds. When the sun came up about 7am we headed out to see some birds. We walked around the property and found 12 birds, including an Orange-footed Scrubfowl, a Rainbow Bee-eater, a Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, and some Yellow Figbirds. It was really dry in Darwin – the last rain was in April. The owners of the B&B had birdbaths situated around our cottage that drew in the birds, especially in the afternoon. We could sit on the side of the cottage and watch a constant procession of birds come to the baths. They also had numerous flowering plants (a.k.a. pot plants), many in large containers, for the honeyeater birds.

When it got light on Aug 31 we went on a birding hike in the Holmes Jungle Reserve behind the cottage. We saw heaps of birds, including Crimson Finches, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorikeets, and 100’s (maybe 1000’s) of circling Black Kites. When we came home we saw the Pheasant Coucal that lives on the property.

Just before sunrise on Sept 1we left to walk to the nearby Knuckey Lagoon and wetlands about 2 Km away. It took us a long time to get there because of all the new birds we saw along the way. We saw 25 birds this morning, including a pair of giant Brolgas flying, a Jabiru, a pair of Galahs, a Masked Lapwing, and several Double-barred Finches.

Later in the morning Christie gave us a tour of the Darwin waterfront. Our best find was Ginger Beer — it tastes just like the ginger candy you can get at Chinese grocery stores.

In the afternoon we swam in the B&B pool, and watched the birds come to the birdbaths. We saw a Blue-winged Kookaburra and Silver-crowned Friarbird in the trees by the cottage. We also saw a White-bellied Sea-Eagle fly over twice.

We decided to take it easy on Sept 2. We still saw three new birds including the Brahminy Kite, Yellow Oriole, and Little Friarbird just after sunrise. In the afternoon a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo came to the birdbath. For supper Christie fixed BBQed domestic rabbit, Water Buffalo, and Buffalo sausage served with spicy rice and salad. We had never eaten any of it before. Everything tasted really good, but the sausage was hot and spicy.

About 7am on Sept 3 we went out the back gate of the cottage for a walk in the Holmes Jungle Reserve. Over the next 3 hours we covered 5Km. We saw 20-birds types including a Pied Heron, Olive-backed Oriole, Zebra Finch and Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike. We saw several flocks of Little Corellas squawking as they circled around us. At one point the trees on a distant hillside were covered with Little Corellas and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos with a tornado of Black Kites and Whistling Kites circling overhead.

Mid-day we headed off to the Sunday Rapid Creek Oriental Produce Market with Christie. There is large SE Asia emigrant population in Darwin and it seemed they all must have been here selling fruit, veg, and cooked food. We bought some raw sugar, Thai Spring Rolls, Green Papaya Thai Salad, and Jack Apples (looked like an apple but inside it was more like Rambutan). We also got a papaya & banana milk shake.

We stopped at the regular grocery store on the way home. We bought some Dittol & baby oil, and a spray bottle to make insect spray. Dittol is a common antiseptic over here that comes from England. You mix equal parts of Dittol and baby oil and spray it on to keep the flies and mossies (mosquitoes) away. Works good, and it is good for you. However, it is messy to apply and tends to get all over your clothes, so it is best to put it on before you get dressed.

Before we left for Dinner we saw our first amphibian — a medium sized frog on our patio. We told Paul and Christie about it at dinner. They said they would have to catch and freeze it – since it was a Cane Toad. Cane Toads are poisonous if eaten by a dog or birds (only Crows know to flip them over on their back and just eat the stomachs). They can kill a 13-foot croc in 2 days.

It is traditional in Australia to have roast on Sunday. We had a beautiful pork roast with potatoes broiled in olive oil and herbs, and a mixed green salad. For dessert we had Pavlova (baked meringue) with heavy cream (Dollop) and fruit on top.

We got our rental car on Sept 4 in downtown Darwin. We didn’t have much trouble driving it, but I tended to turn on the windshield wipers when I wanted to use the turn signals. The traffic was lite so I didn’t have much problem with the traffic circles.

We went grocery shopping in the afternoon. We got bacon to make biscuits and gravy. Australian bacon is a lot meatier than what we buy in the US. We also got free-range eggs.

Late in the afternoon we drove to Knuckey Lagoon to see water birds. We saw lots of birds, but most were pretty far away. Then we met Bob, a retired birder from Mt Isa, who had a 60-power spotting scope. He spotted the birds and helped us identify them. He said it brings him good luck to help people find birds because he invariably finds new birds that way. Sure enough, we helped him find an Australasian Grebe. We also saw a Magpie Goose, a Straw-necked Ibis, some Pacific Black Ducks and some Wandering Whistling-Ducks.

For dinner tonight Paul fixed his signature spaghetti sauce with linguine dish. We had toasted bread with olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese for starters, and finished with Pavlova with some Kings Island Chocolate Cream Sauce. Great stuff!

We got to the public part of Holmes Jungle about 7am on Sept 5. We birded till Noon and saw 30 different bird type including the Emerald Dove, Mistletoebird (a.k.a. Flowerpecker), Nankeen Night-Heron, and Northern Fantail. The Flowerpecker is a small, strikingly beautiful bird with red on the throat and red in the butt.

In the afternoon we found our first green toad in the wash sink. They live in the water system here and are harmless, but they can scare the crap out of you when they croak while you are using the toilet.

In the late afternoon Christie arranged for us to visit a private farm (12.427 S 130.945E) adjacent to Knuckey Lagoon to see a pair of Bush Stone-Curlews with their chicks. But first we had a guided tour of the Lagoon by the owner. We saw the endangered Jabiru (Black-necked Stork), some Jesus Birds (Comb-crested Jacana), a Green Pygmy-goose, and a Sacred Kingfisher. A large flock of Wandering Whistling Ducks flew over followed by an even bigger flock of Pied Heron.

The Comb-crested Jacana is referred to as the Jesus Bird because it can walk on water. We had never seen one before. This place must be like Heaven to them because we saw over 40 of their little red crowns bobbing across the water.

The Bush Stone-Curlews are large birds that are only active at night. Their call is a very loud, blood curdling, mournful wail — like something is being slowly killed. We hear them every night at our cottage. When you see them standing, they are like statues. They are amazing to see.

Dinner tonight was baked Quail with a fancy rice dish that had pumpkin, zucchini, and onions in it. We liked the quail and their dogs liked the bones.

For breakfast on Sept 6, we made everyone biscuits and gravy with fried eggs and bacon. The biscuits turned out good and the gravy finally thickened. In short order it was all gone. This was a first for our hosts and their housekeeper.

Mid morning we heard a racket by our car. It seems a Yellow Oriole saw himself in the side view mirror. He stayed around all day looking at himself in the mirror and singing, rubbing against the mirror, and hopping on top the mirror. Other Orioles would come by and dive bomb him and chase him away, but he always came back.

About 4pm we decided to go birding at Holmes Jungle. We saw 4 new birds including a Red-headed Honeyeater and Shinning Flycatcher.

We awoke at dawn on Sept 7 and headed off to Lee’s Point — a beach about 10Km from our cottage on the Timor Sea coast. We got there at low tide, which meant the shore birds had plenty of room to spread out. We saw Greater Sandplovers, Eastern Reef Herons, & Red-capped Plovers.

For dinner tonight we started with pita bread, groundnuts and olive oil (you dip the bread in the olive oil and then the nuts), followed by cigars (spinach and brie wrapped in a filo leaf). Then Christie grilled steak. We had the steak with stuffed potatoes (twice baked) and green beans.

We got to Lee’s Point on Sept 8 at High Tide this time. The vast beach, exposed reef, and small trees we saw yesterday was gone. That forced the birds to be closer to us. The beach was covered with Red-capped Plovers and Silver Gulls. Later in the morning it was neat to see the treetops emerge from the water. The beach is so flat it didn’t take long for things to get back to normal.

Later we drove over to nearby Buffalo Creek (12.337S 130.908E). We saw a flock of Australian Pelicans about half a mile away. We walked toward the Pelicans in the exposed sand-mud. When we got out on the sand-mud flat we saw other birds like Little and Eastern Curlews. Paul was surprised we didn’t see any Crocs.

For dinner tonight we had Morton Bay Bugs. Bugs are top of the line in Australian seafood. They look like small lobsters but are softer and sweeter. When cooked they curl-up like large shrimp, but are twice as thick. We were lucky to have them tonight because Bugs as so popular here, and the supply so limited, the seafood stores don’t always have them in stock. The Bugs were served with a mango & almond rice dish. The Bugs and rice were wonderful.

Christie also fixed some of the Bugs in a soupy dish with garlic, bok choy, spinach and other vegetables and served it with fresh home made bread. This was great too!

At 7am on Sept 9 we were walking out the back gate to Holmes Jungle. We saw 2 Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos land near us. We spent a lot of time watching a pair of Red-winged Parrot eating fruit in a small bush. We saw 2 new birds: the Silver-backed Butcherbird and White-winged Triller.

Saturday night the birds were taking their bath in the sprinkler system during our walk. We saw a Little Bronzed-Cuckoo — it is only found around Darwin.

We were up at 6am on Sept 11 so we could see the Spring tides at Buffalo Creek & Lee’s Point. They were expecting 8-meter (24 foot) tides today. When we got to Buffalo Creek the tide was still rising. The huge sand-mud flat we walked on before was gone. We walked out on the little strip of remaining beach at Buffalo Creek, but had to retreat when we saw a little ribbon of tide water trying to cut us off from the main land.

We found some higher ground at Lee’s Point. The shore birds, gulls and terns were corralled up on a finger of beach that was still out of the water. There were thousands of birds. We couldn’t identify many of them till Bass from Holland came along with his 80 power spotting scope. Through the spotting scope you could see birds right, left and center — what we had thought were rocks turned out to be an army of Great Knots and Red Knots. Yesterday they counted 850 Great Knots on this beach.

On Sept 12 we went into town to the free NT Art Gallery and Museum. We liked some of the Aborigine art and paintings, but didn’t understand most of it. The pandanas baskets were great. There were also exhibits on the 1970 Cyclone Tracy that destroyed Darwin with 200+ mph winds, and a big stuffed 17 ft Crock named Sweetheart from out near Kakadu NP

We were up at 5am on Sept 13 so we could get to the Fogg Dam wetlands before dawn. At first light, we could see clouds of birds flying by and swalking. There were 1000’s, if not 10,000’s, of magpie geese, mixed Egrets, Pied Herons, Green Pygmy Geese, Radjad Shelducks, and White Ibis right, left and center. We saw our first Royal Spoonbill this morning — then we saw 100’s of them.

Driving across the dike, we had to stop for a flock of 100s of Magpie Geese (they are twice the size of Canadian Geese) on the road. We stopped to photograph a Nankeen Kestrel eating a Dusky Rat. Then there was the 10 Swamp Harriers eating road kill with a White-bellied Sea Eagle overseeing the job.

Info at the park said they estimate there are 100,000 Dusky Rats per Square Km and 800 Water Pythons per Square Km — the greatest biomass on Earth. Since there were 100s of Sq Km’s you would think we would see lots of snakes, but we didn’t see any (that’s OK). They say in The Wet the rats migrate 12 Km to the Adelaide River and the snakes follow. I wouldn’t want to live there.

When you are at Fogg Dam, especially driving on the dike, the sound of the thousands of birds flying is a natural symphony. It sounds similar to a swarm of bees but magnified thousands of times.

For the first 2 hours we had the park to our self. The din of bird squawking was always in the background. We could drive on the dam and stop whenever we wanted to see birds. We saw lots of Willie Wagtails and Jesus Birds. At the lookout tower we saw a pair of Jabirus (they look like the toy soldiers in the Nutcracker, except they have really long black beaks), Star Finches and Chestnut-breasted Manikins.

Fogg Dam is a permanent wetland 54 Km from our cottage (35 minute drive). It averages 54 inches of rain during the Wet.

We were back at Fogg Dam pre-sunrise on Sept 14. As we approached the area we could see a sheet of mist blanketing the wetlands coming to about 3 feet off the ground. We were greeted by swarms of mossie-quail (really big mosquitoes). The mossies seems to disappear after sunrise. There was a flock of Crimson Finches and a few Star Finches in the parking lot today, plus we saw a Broad-billed Flycatcher. Everywhere we walk we were followed by Yellow Orioles. They have a strange call; like the sound a slot machine or pinball machine makes.

We saw a bee hive today. It looked like a honeycomb attached to a tree with no exterior housing; just lots of bees. There were several Rainbow Bee Eaters around. We could see them catch a bee and beat it to death on a tree limb.

We were at Fogg Dam at 6:45am on Sept 15 for sunrise. Today we took the 2.2Km Lily Pond Track. We saw Water Lilies, Lotus Lilies and Water Lettuce (looks like Hen & Chicks floating on the water). We could hear birds and a Barking Owl, but they were hard to see in the tall trees. We did come on a pair of Green-backed Warblers building a nest in vines hanging over some backwater. We spotted a flock of Purple Swamp Hens along the Dam and heard a Buff-banded Rail.

We saw 2 huge Brolga fly into the Adelaide River wetlands (12.660 S 131.337E) just before sunrise on Sept 16. We spent the early morning at Djukbinj NP, 4.4 Km east of the Adelaide River on the Arnhem Hwy & road to Kakadu NP (NT36).

We had to walk thru the park since the big Cat 5 Typhoon in March 2006 washed out the roads. Just inside the park a flock of 50 Chestnut-breasted Manikins flew into a tree near us. After a little walking we started seeing Agile Wallabies running away from us as fast as their little tails would take them. We saw 7 Wallabies this morning. We saw our first snake — a baby pink Moon Snake (looked like a big night crawler with an attitude).

We went to Crustaceans on the Warf with Paul & Christie for supper. We sat outdoors and the ocean breeze was beautiful — hard to believe this is still Winter here. My wife ordered Croc in egg wash for a starter. Croc is much softer and milder than Louisiana Alligator. The Crock came with a Mango chili sauce — Wonderful! I had 2 crab cakes with a garden salad — similar to Maryland crab cakes.

My wife ordered Australian Prawns for her main course — it came with macadamia nuts and pineapple chunks in a misery sauce. I had Morton Bay Bugs, bok choy, and Parmesan cheese baked in filo leaves. Each order came with a mound of rice (at least 2 cups) and more salad. The main courses were not as tasty as the starters.

Mid morning on Sept 17 we went to the monthly Knuckey Lagoon market with Christie. We bought 3 crocheted market bags for $5US.

The local gem club was at the market selling raw Opals they had found on their recent trip to Cooper Pebbly in the desert of South Australia. We bought 2 sandwich bags full of raw Opals from Mark for $80US. Mark invited us to the Wed night gem club meeting near our cottage to learn how to polish and prepare the Opals for wearing. Even though they are still raw, the Opals really sparkle with their special blue and green irradiances in the sunlight. One looks like a raw Yellow Diamond.

For our afternoon walk we went to the nearby Scout Hall Paperbark Forest. We saw a Frilled Lizard with enormous ears that it can fan out to make itself seem really big to predators. They look like dinosaurs when they run with their ears out. A road sign said: We like our Lizards Frilled, not grilled.

We were on the road at sunrise on Sept 18 and were greeted by widespread heavy fog. We drove 80 miles to Litchfield NP. The area is covered with tall Termite Hills — some look like gravestones, some like Cathedrals, others are additions to trees. A different type of termite builds each kind of hill.

We did 4 walking tracks – not many birds but some nice waterfalls today. The sunset was a deep Ocher tonight. I suppose all the Bush fires lately contribute to the color in the night sky.

We went down the road 20Km on Sept 19 to Howard Springs Natural Park. We walked the 1.8Km trail thru the Monsoon forest. The birds sounded like a pack of monkeys, but it was hard to find them in the tall trees. We got some great views of a pair of Rainbow Pitas scratching on the ground and a Pacific Baza wearing its prison uniform high in a tree. The Rose-crowned Fruit Dove was awesome. There were dozens of Orange Footed Scrubfowl. They build a nest on the ground about 15 ft in diameter and up to 5 ft tall, just to lay their one egg in.

For supper Christie fixed lamb meatballs with a Greek yogurt sauce served with tabulah. For dessert we had banana fritters with Kings Island Chocolate Sauce and Sara Lee Ice Cream.

On Sept 21 we went to the Darwin Sailing Club (open to the public) for a sunset dinner with Paul & Christie. We had ocean front seating and great views of the sun disappearing into the ocean as a giant red/orange ball. We had natural air conditioning with beautiful cooling sea breezes. We ordered grilled and crumbed (breaded and pan fried) Barramundi fish with a salad bar. The food was great and only cost $15US per person.

We met Tim, one of Paul and Christie’s friends, who was taking a year’s sabbatical from being a lawyer. He said several of his friends had recently died which had motivated him to take a break from working and travel more, and generally take a new perspective on what life is about and what’s important. He seemed to be having so much fun I doubt he’ll get back to working any time soon.

We woke-up at 4:30am on Sept 22 to the sound of rain on the metal roof of the cottage. This is the first rain here since April, but it didn’t last long.

We drove 100Km (62 miles) in the dark to the Bird Billabong (Wetland) at Mary River NP. We saw a wild pig standing beside the road. The first bird we saw was a Blue-wing Kookaburra with a small bird in its beak, beating it to death on a tree limb, with feathers flying everywhere.

We walked the 4.5Km track around the Billabong in just under 5 hours. About sun-up we found a tree covered with the endangered Gouldian Finches. While we were watching, a Dove flew into the tree and the Finches exploded out of there in a cloud. When the Dove left, they returned in mass to continue eating the berries. This was our day for Finches — we saw the Masked, Long-tailed, Black-throated, Double-barred, and Crimson Finches; plus a Red-tailed Black Cockatoo. We also saw 8 Jabiru and heaps of ducks, geese, and cormorants.

We had Barramundi sandwiches and chips for lunch at the Bark Hut (12.900S 131.676E) – the only restaurant for 50 miles. They put grated carrots, sliced tomato, cucumber and thinly sliced pickled beets on their sandwiches. The tarter sauce didn’t have pickle relish in it. Beautiful!

We stopped at Fogg Dam on the way back to see the stacks of water birds. The Magpie Geese were taking mud bathes. At one point we saw tens of thousands of Egrets take flight and briefly circle the wetlands. This was our biggest day birding with 73 different species identified.

We went to the Nightcliff Beach on Sept 24 for an organized Shorebird Watch by the Darwin Bird Observing Club. We met Andrew there who had an 85-power Zeiss spotting scope. Andrew pointed out the bird we came to see — the Oriental Plover that had just migrated to Australia from Siberia. We also saw Greater Sand-Plovers, Common Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, and a Whimbrel.

We saw a pair of Long-tailed Finches at our birdbath on our afternoon walk-about. The pair of Bush Stone-curlews we hear every night doing their mournful cries came out on the edge of the horse paddock with their 2 new chicks for a photo event. We checked-out the Forest Kingfisher’s nest we see from the patio — sure enough it is built in a termite nest in a tree.

For dinner Paul fixed Pork Roast & gravy, roasted potatoes & carrots, squash and green beans.

On Sept 25 we fixed Scones & Rue (Buttermilk Biscuits & Gravy) with eggs for Paul, Christie and their friend Gary the Horse Whisper. Great cultural exchange! Gary got the recipe and started making Biscuits & Gravy for his wife.

For our last dinner celebration we started off with pita bread and Christie’s home made Dukkah (ground nuts and spices). Then she added Prawns and dipping sauces. For the main course we had salad (parsley, mint, cucumber and tomato with white wine vinegar dressing) and our first Kangaroo steaks marinated in spices. Paul barbied them, and I took pictures in case no one would believe we ate Kangaroo. Kangaroo is a little gamy, so they were better with Plum Sauce.

Birding Summary

Of the 178 bird species we saw in the Darwin area, 54 are endemic to Australia. 17 bird species were never seen again during the 255-day trip around Australia.

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