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Top End of the Northern Territory – Kakadu, Matarinka & Tennant Creek

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, flew to Tasmania and back, 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 13-days we spent bird watching in the Top End of the Northern Territory — Kakadu NP, Matarinka Hot Springs, and Tennant Creek. We saw 156 bird species at 6 nature areas:

Nature Area City Lat & Long Kakadu NP Jabiru 12.664S 132.837E Katherine Gorge NP Katherine 14.312S 132.423E Low Level Park Katherine 14.491S 132.250E Elsey NP Mataranka 14.922S 133.134E Mary Ann Lake Tennant Creek 19.610S 134.210E 41 Mile Bore Tennant Creek 19.321S 134.850E

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 parks where we saw the most bird species were:

Park Bird Species Kakadu NP 90 Elsey NP 60 Three Ways Roadhouse 47 Mataranka Cabins 44 Mary Ann Lake 30 41 Mile Bore 24 Low Level Park 20 Katherine Gorge NP 17 Total 155

The destinations where we saw the most birds:

City # Birds # Days Mataranka 95 7 Jabiru 90 3 Tennant Creek 80 3

Some people use the Unlimited speed limit in the NT to drive the 666 miles from Mataranka to Alice Springs in 12 hours without spending a night at Tennant Creek. If we had done this, we would have only seen 124 bird species in the Top End. Birding along the Stuart Highway, Barkly Highway, and around the Three Ways Roadhouse let us see an additional 22 bird species in the Top End.

Lodging

Jabiru – Hotel accommodations in Kakadu NP are very expensive. We almost didn’t come, but then we found the Kakadu Lodge & Caravan Park (www.caravan-parkfinder.com.au/pages/directory/parks/view/9534-kakadu-lodge-caravan-park 12.664S 132.837E). The Kakadu Lodge has the dual distinction of being the most expensive lodging of our trip and the most basic accommodation.

We had a small Lodge room with no bathroom or sink. There was a small refrig. The air conditioning only operated when you were in the room. We could fix our own Br and Lu in the room. There is a shared kitchen where we wash dishes that has a TV. The shared bathhouse is very big and clean, with plenty of hot water.

Matarinka – We stayed at the Matarinka Cabins & Caravan Park (www.matarankacabins.com.au 14.912S 133.083E). We stayed here because we read the rare Red Goshawk sometimes nests near the cabins. Sure enough, there it was! We could see Mom feeding two little snow-white headed chicks from our porch.

The cabin is what is normally called a “Park Unit” at an RV park. It was basic, but had a kitchen and air conditioning. We really enjoyed birding around the grounds and meeting other birders.

Tennant Creek – We stayed at the Three Ways Roadhouse — a combination gas station, restaurant and campground — about 15 miles north of Tennant Creek (www.threewaysroadhouse.com.au 19.437S 134.208E). This location gave us good access to all the birding spots in the area. We had a deluxe Glendales room, which was pretty small but had a refrig and air conditioning. There was a private bath but no washcloths.

I don’t know where people eat in Tennant Creek. The Three Ways Roadhouse was the only place we ever found open for meals. No Problems! The meals there were wonderful!!!

If we were planning the trip again, I would:

Try to get to Matarinka a little earlier in the year – before the Flying Foxes arrive.

Consider flying from Darwin to Alice Springs, especially if you had made the drive once. We only saw 8 bird species we didn’t see somewhere else on the 255 day trip.

Highlights of the Region:

Watching a Mum Red Goshawk sitting over her 2 white-headed chicks all day, with her wings drooping to shield the babies from the blazing sun; and being there in the late afternoon to see the Dad bring in fresh kill for dinner.

Jamming on the brakes to avoid hitting a mob of 8 Wedge-tailed Eagles eating a dead Kangaroo in the middle of the Stuart Highway.

Seeing 10,000 Budgies (a.k.a. Budgerigars) flying like a ball of feathers at the 41 Mile Bore on the Barkley Hwy.

Seeing 200,000 Little Red Flying Foxes (Bats) take-off at sundown from the Hot Springs in Elsey NP.

Running the Wallaby gauntlet at Matarinka at sunrise as we left our cottage.

Awesome desert sunsets. One day we saw the full Moon rising in time to reflect the red glow of the setting sun. Very romantic!

Birding the Gum Trees of dry riverbeds.

The Yellow Waters boat trip in Kakadu NP. There is a Croc every 10 sq meters out here. We saw the Azure Kingfisher, Arafura Fantail, Royal Spoonbill, White-breasted Woodswallow, and Zitting Cisticola; along with 40 other birds in 2 hours — most were very close.

Seeing the Great-billed Heron at Elsey NP

Disappointments

The Katherine Gorge boat tour was just OK. We didn’t see anything spectacular or unusual from a birding standpoint.

The Matarinka Hot Spring was pleasant and relaxing – until we started smelling the stench of 200,000 Little Red Flying Foxes.

Birding Summary

Of the 156 bird species we saw in the Top End area, 40 are endemic to Australia. Most of the 116 non-Australian Endemic bird species we saw in the Top end area were new for us. 8 species were never seen again during the 255-day trip around Australia; that is:

Arafura Fantail Red Goshawk Buff-sided Robin Rufous Owl Geney Fowel Sandstone Shrike-Thrush Pied Honeyeater Zitting Cisticola

Special Comments:

On Sept 26 we drove 230 Km from Darwin to Jabiru in Kakadu NP, a World Heritage site. Cyclone Larry (Cat. 5) heavily damaged this area in 2005. In many places half the trees were uprooted. Preventative grass fires had charred the trees that were left standing.

We stopped at the South Alligator gas station for a Maxibond Ice Cream Bar for Lunch. The naming here seemed crazy since there are no Alligators in Australia.

We stopped at the massive Mamukala Wetlands (pronounced Mar-moo-car-lar) in the early afternoon (12.650S 132.574E). Our best bird was a flaming Red-backed Fairywren male — a small black Wren with a huge red area on the back. We enjoyed it so much we came back here for more bird watching before sunset, and saw a covey of Brown Quail.

We were up at 4:30am on Sept 27. We drove 40 Km in the dark to Ubirr (pronounced Oo-beer) on the East Alligator River (12.410S 132.959E). Ubirr is a rock art site. From the top of the sandstone bluff there is an expansive view of the floodplain and Arnhem Land.

We went birding along the river and through the sandstone cliffs. We saw a Sandstone Shrike-Thrush and a Pheasant Coucal (a Pheasant that likes to climb trees). We walked 7 Km this morning.

We headed off to the General Store to get some real Aborigine tucker for lunch. My wife had the Aborigine Burger with the Lot (lettuce, cheese, ham, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, cucumber and beet root with a mild BBQ type sauce). The sandwich has at least 3/4 Lbs of hamburger. I had an Aborigine burger with the Lot minus the eggs and beetroot. They were great sandwiches but very thick.

After a very hard, hot, long, and exciting morning of birding, it was time for a shower and a 2-hour nap. My wife took a shower wearing the white camisole she wears under her blouse while bird watching. That way you get clean clothes as well as a clean body.

We headed off to the Nourlangie area in the late afternoon for birding at the Bubba Billabong (12.858S 132.756E). We saw a pair of Little Eagles and some Plumbed Whistling Ducks.

We were up at 4:45am on Sept 28. We drove 40 Km to Anbangbang (pronounced Arn-barng-barng) Billabong in the dark (12.864S 132.796E). At very first light (about 5:45am) it sounded like someone flipped on the radio at full blast. It sounded like we were surrounded by millions of birds. Actually, it was a few hundred Little Corellas that can make that much noise with a support crew of a few thousand water birds.

We walked the 2.5 Km track around the Billabong in 3 hours. It was cool in the beginning, but we were drenched by the end of the walk. We saw dozens of Rainbow Bee-eaters and Forest Kingfishers, plus Square-tailed Kites and Great Cormorants. Plumbed Whistling Duck predominated the waterfront.

We climbed over rough quartz rock to the Nawurlandja Rock Lookout (12.865S 132.814E). The trail is only 600 Meters to the Lookout, but you go up about 300 ft in elevation above the Billabong. From the Lookout you have a nice view of Nourlangie Rock. The main draw here is the ancient rock art sites. The art is integrally tied into the culture and doesn’t mean that much to the uninitiated. The rock art was spiffed up a few years ago by the Aborigine Caretakers, so it is very visible.

We ate dinner at the resort restaurant. For starters we had flat bread with 3 sauces (spinach blended in cream cheese, corn blended in sour cream, and ground pickled beets). I had a Greek Lamb Salad, which was loin fillet marinated in Olive Oil, Oregano, lemon juice served medium rare over a Greek salad garnished with Fete Cheese and Black Olives. My wife had Chicken and Red Pesto, which was grilled chicken tenderloins tossed with sun dried tomatoes, pesto, garlic and mushrooms finished with spinach and cream cheese. Beautiful!!! For dessert we had Kings Island chocolate on shortbread in our room.

We were up at 4am on Sept 29. We drove 55 Km to Yellow Waters. Along the way we ran over 2 Cane Toads and saw an Australian Owlet Nightjar. We talked to the guide for the fishing charter while we were waiting for the resort to open so we could buy our tickets. He said he could also take visitors on all day bird watching trips.

We went on the 6:45am Yellow Waters cruise (12.896S 132.517E) on south Alligator River Flood Plain. It is a general-purpose tour but featured birds. We also saw Brombeys (Wild Horses) and cattle with egrets on their backs. We saw miles of floating grass and Pink Lotus Lilies. There is a Croc every 10 sq meters out here.

We drove out of the park and on to Pine Creek. As we entered town we spotted an Australian Hobby on a telephone post.

We ate at Mayse’s Cafe — named after a woman who used to live here that wrote the book “No Place for a Woman”. We had the Pork sandwich special, chips and pork rind with a Mango Smoothie and Hemp energy drink.

We saw lots of boulder piles on the drive south this afternoon. The countryside looks really dry, like one giant fire waiting to happen. The roadside slogan was: “Don’t burn your bird — fire safety starts with you”. We arrived in Matarinka about 3pm.

It was a chilly 68F on Sept 30 at sunrise. We went over to the nearby Bitter Springs for our early morning birding (14.912S 133.089E). We saw a dozen Wallabies and a giant bee hive (to sustain the Bee Eaters). The area is covered in Cabbage palms.

Later in the morning we drove out to Elsey NP (14.922S 133.134E). We were greeted by a conclave of Apostle Birds squawking like gray crows. The Palm trees along the river are home to 200,000 Little Red Flying Foxes (a.k.a. Bats). They were hanging and flapping everywhere.

The water in the Thermal Pool looked clean, so we went for a swim.

We had massive Barra burgers and chips at the resort for Lunch. A Great Bower Bird was willing to join us for Lunch, but we didn’t share. The old movie “Never Never Land” based on the book “We Of The Never-Never” By Jeanie Gunn was always playing on the big screen TV.

Most things seem more expensive at the local grocery store. The wash detergent we paid $4A for in Darwin cost $12A here. No wonder some of the local folks don’t smell so good.

We went back to Elsey NP at sundown to see the big Bat fly-off. Just as the sky turned golden, stacks and stacks of Little Red Flying Foxes blackened the horizon going in all directions.

We were up before sunrise on Oct 1 to listen to the birds. About 8am we drove out to Elsey NP to go birding on the Botanic Walk (14.922S 133.134E) — a nice shaded walk on a hot day. We ran into the Little Red Flying foxes along the river. Our presence caused them to panic and noisily fly away. We spotted a Buff-sided Robin. There are 17 varieties of Robins in Australia. In the afternoon we went birding around our cabin (which is on a fruit orchard). A Germany birder helped us find a Weebill.

We were off at 5:45am on Oct 2 for the 90-mile drive to Katherine Gorge NP (a.k.a. Nitmiluk National Park). Three Flowerpeckers greeted us at the Visitor Center. We took the 4-hour boat tour (14.312S 132.423E) that covered the first 3 of the 13 sandstone gorges. There was ample water in the river, but the side waterfalls had dried up. When it starts raining, the water level can raise 10ft.

You have to change motorboats between gorges, and walk from the head of one gorge to the beginning of the next gorge. There weren’t a lot of birds, but we did see a flock of Fairy Martins nesting in a cave on the side of the gorge. We had a swim break at a nice sandy beach late morning since there are no Salt Water Crocs in the Gorge.

We had Lunch in Katherine at the Cheeky Crock. I had a steak sandwich minus the Beet Root. My wife had the fisherperson basket. The young waiter asked us how we like the weather. My wife said it was pretty hot (95F). The waiter said “this is nothing, in the summer it gets 40 to 45C (113F) here with a pot load of humidity”.

We bought a box of No Worries Insect Repellent Patches. The patch uses Vit B1 to keep Sandflies, Mosquitoes, and Bush flies away. Seemed to work.

When we got back to our cabin, we noticed that Long-tailed Finches were building a nest in a bush beside our patio.

We were at Elsey NP at sun-up on Oct 3, but the bat stench was already so strong we decided to skip the thermal pool and bird walk. We drove away from the resort stopping to check the spring-fed marshes. Wallabies kept running out in front of the car, but we managed to miss them. We eventually found a Buff-banded Rail in a marsh. About that time a Dingo found us. My wife stared it down.

When we got far enough away from the bats stench, we went for a walk along the Roper River (14.948S 133.209E). We were surprised to find lots of rough lava rocks. We found the rare Great-billed Heron along the river. Later we saw some Little Woodswallows. At 10:30am we headed home — the temp was 93F, but with the direct sun it felt like 113F.

On Oct 4 we decided to walk the 4 Km track to Matarinka Falls (14.953S 133.220E) in Elsey NP. After 2-hours of walking and bird watching we had only gone 1.1 Km. We saw the Great-billed Heron again and heaps of Finches, Lorikeets, and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. An Azure Kingfisher zipped past our face on its way up a creek. We decided to turn back. It only took 1.5 hours to get back to the car. We could have made it faster but we got hung-up watching Channel-billed Cuckoos nesting.

Mid afternoon we went for a walk around the Billabong (14.909S 133.085E) behind our Caravan Park. It is mind-blowing when you think that this marshy area will soon be submerged under 10 to 30 feet of water for a few months before the dry land appears again next April. In fact, all the marshes, Billabongs and rivers around for 100’s of miles here merge into a vast inland sea as part of the annual cycle of life.

We saw a young Jabiru at our Caravan Park today. Jabiru is Portuguese for Stork. The bird watching Establishment in Australia wants to rename the Jabiru to be the Brown-neck Stork (except the Jabiru has an aqua green neck). Australians are fairly rebellious, and birders still refers to it as the Jabiru.

A Jabiru can kill a Croc by jabbing its machete-like beak into a Croc’s skull. The Jabiru is the only animal that is known to kill Crocs (except Cane Toads and other Crocs). It is said that there are no records of Crocks killing Jabirus.

At 6am on Oct 5 we successfully ran the Wallaby gauntlet and headed off to the Low Level Park on the Katherine River (14.491S 132.250E). The Little Red Flying Foxes had taken up residence across the river in Eucalyptus trees. We saw a pair of White-belly Sea Eagles perched in a tree drooling (Sea Eagles eat Flying Foxes) We got to Cutta Cutta Cave Natural Park (14.576S 132.472 E) about 9:30am. It was already too hot for birding. We only saw a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike.

Sept & Oct are the Burning Season on the Aborigine calendar. That is followed by the Raining Season (could start any day now), then the Monsoon Season, the Flooding Season, the Green Season (starting in early May), and finally the Tourist Season (Ju, Jy and Aug when the temperatures are mild and it Never Never rains).

As we headed back to Matarinka we turned off on a side road to see if we could find any birds. We found a nice Jabiru in a creek (14.637S 132.686E). As we approached an Aborigine settlement we saw a sign that said taking alcohol past this point on the road was punishable by a $1000 fine or 6 months in jail, subsequent offenses were punishable by $2000 fine or 12 months in jail. Liquor is a significant problem for Aborigines (they can’t metabolize it). They take their Blue Laws seriously here!

We spend a lot of our afternoons watching the Red Goshawk nest. The Mum sits over the 2 chicks all day with her wings drooping to shield the babies from the blazing sun. In the late afternoon Dad brings in a fresh kill for dinner. The Mum plucks the dead bird and pulls off little bites for the chicks to eat. She alternates feeding the chicks. Later the chicks climb on the side of the nest and flap their white Downy-covered wings. This is the third time this pair of Goshawks has nested here.

For our late afternoon walk-about we went back to Elsey NP. In the swamps we found a White-faced Heron and a Common Bronzewing. Down by the Roper River we found a Flowerpecker basking in the sun. As we drove back to the cabin we saw an awesome desert sunset. When we got home the tree by our cabin exploded in a cloud of 200 Rainbow Bee-eater – a very dramatic conclusion to our time in the Top End.

We left at 6am on Oct 6 driving south into the Red Center of Australia. We were birding as we drove, which meant we often turn around to go back and check-out some bird we saw in a tree or bush.

In the first 2 hours of prime bird watching time we only drove 85 Km, but we saw a mob of Wedge-tailed Eagles eating a carcass on the road. Our first clue they were Eagles was when we almost ran over one. Wedge-tails are really slow getting off the ground! Later, we saw some sitting on the side of the road with their big square jaws.

There are a lot of WWII historic sites on this section of the Stuart Highway. We stopped at most of them — they get you back in the bush away from the road for good bird watching. However, it appears many people use them as bathrooms.

We stopped for Br at Daily Waters about 10 am; having driven 164 Km. My wife got an egg and bacon sandwich. I had a hamburger with cheese and the Lot minus eggs but with pineapple. As we slowly drove south we saw 4 new raptors including the Brown Falcon, Nankeen Australian Kestrel, Swamp Harrier, and Spotted Harrier. We also saw flocks of Diamond Doves & Cockatiels, several Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters, a Rufous Whistler, Rufous Songlark, and Red-backed Kingfisher. We saw 45 birds today. We alternated driving 70mph and stopping to see birds in the afternoon. We got behind a Road-Train, which was having trouble with the cross winds, so we just stopped and let him get far away from us. We covered the 540 Km and arrived at the Three Ways Roadhouse at 4:30 pm (19.437S 134.208E). We were knacked! We had the Black Russian Beef Roast special at the Roadhouse for Dn. The roast was marinated in Red Wine and Black Pepper, and served with roasted potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, cauliflower & cheese, and pumpkin (squash). Really good beef!

The days are getting longer now as we move south and east. We were out at 5:50am on Oct 7 and it was already light. We drove down to the Mary Ann Lake and Dam for birding (19.610S 134.210E). The sky was clear but the wind was pesky – so were the flies. We donned our Burpkas (fly and mossy-quail nets) over out birding hats to keep the flies out of our eyes and ears.

There were heaps of birds around the lake. We saw a White-plumbed Honeyeater and Flowerpecker in the trees by the car park. We saw Australian Pratincoles and Black-fronted Dotterels on the lakeshore. There were Pacific Black Ducks and cormorants in the water. We saw a Great Egret with a neck that looked like it belonged on a giraffe.

Around 9am we headed into Tennant Creek — or what used to be the “Gold Heart of the NT”. The last active gold mine closed here in 2005. The receptionist at the Visitor Center suggested we try birding at the old Telegraph Repeater Station and the Pebbles rock formation.

There were no birds at the Telegraph Station (19.556S 134.229E), just something that looked like Bunny Tail Grass, and lots of blazing sun.

We drove the 5 Km over a washboard dirt road to the Pebbles (19.533S 134.180E). This is Aborigine land. They recently fenced off the park to keep people out. We didn’t mind, as it was too hot and windy for us to do much walking. We did see a tiny yellow Weebill in a tree by the car park. Birding from the car we saw several Zebra Finches — they have a distinctive black and white Zebra-striped tail.

Back at our tiny “deluxe room” you could hang meat. Great A/C!!!

We went back to the Telegraph Station for part of our evening walk-about. We didn’t hear a peep. In 1870 a Biology Professor described this area as: “We were up before sunrise and traveled on over the usual uninteresting country, dodging ant hill all the way, seeing nothing but stunted scrub, telegraph line and the horizon until late in the afternoon when we reached the telegraph station at Tennant Creek, the most forlorn and hopeless looking place imaginable”. Nothing much has changed around here, except now you have to watch out for 174 ft long Truck-Trains (what you could call an “84-Wheeler”.

At Mary Ann Lake we saw courting Willie-wagtails and an Intermediate Egret. There was a mob of Black and Whistling Kites circling the lake with several other raptors we couldn’t identify

Dinner tonight was lamb roast. After dinner we saw an Australian Magpie. We had seen it a few times before, but couldn’t figure out what it was. It is striking when you see it takeoff with a large black back and equally large white tail area.

Later we saw the full Moon rising in time to reflect the red glow of the setting sun. Very romantic!

We were out so early on Oct 8 there was just a faint spot of dull pink on the eastern horizon that was further subdued by the bright glowing Moon. Later as we were driving east of the Barkley Highway we saw the Ring of Fire briefly before sunrise.

We drove 70 Km east to the 41Mile Bore (a.k.a. Well). We saw birds all along the road including lots of Zebra Finches, a small Southern Boobook Hawk looking Owl, White-winged Fairywren, Variegated Fairywren, and a Singing Honeyeater. There were hundreds of White-breasted and Black-faced Woodswallows. We stopped to take a picture of a Truck-Train siding full of trucks in the Bush.

The 41 Mile Bore (19.321S 134.850E) is a sprawling rest area/free camping area with lots of trees and bush. Everywhere we looked the trees were full of White-lined Honeyeaters. We watched ten thousand Budgerigars (small bright green parrots with a yellow crown) flying in clouds like schools of reef fish — merging and separating endlessly — when they turned just right their wings flashed the sun’s rays.

If you continue to drive East there are other Bores. They all have leaky windmill water pumps and barrels that attract mobs of small birds.

On the drive back to the Three Way Roadhouse we made frequent stops and saw 3 Red-capped Robins (a small “ball of fire” flying thru the air accentuated by a black breast). Later a Black-breasted Kite with white patches on the end of the wings made a bombing run at our car. There are no “Hawks” or “Buzzards” in Australia.

The morning drive took 6 hours. It was 95F in the shade (115F in the direct sun) when we finished the drive. By then the birds were laying low in the bush.

We decided to go into town for lunch, but there were no restaurants open, so we drove back to the Three Ways Roadhouse. We had freshly prepared fish and chips with salad. The fish was hand breaded and fried on the grill in olive oil. What a Beautiful Truck Stop!

We napped in the afternoon until the electricity went out and the A/C stopped. Fortunately, it came back on in a few minutes. This happens most days.

For our late afternoon birding we drove back on the Barkley Highway 35 Km. We saw 3 magnificent Square-tailed Kites soaring on the thermals steering their course by twisting their large tail. We saw heaps of Zebra Finches. We finally got a good enough look to identify the Pied Honeyeater we had been seeing all day.

When we got back there was a mob of Aborigines standing by a bus outside the restaurant at the Three Ways Roadhouse. They were singing and dancing. It turns out they were from an island north of Darwin and were returning from Alice Springs where they had attended a Catholic conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II coming to Australia. They were singing to thank the Restaurant for fixing them dinner. Some of them were wearing shirts that said: “For thousands of years we have lived in this land and fashioned a culture that endures to this day.”

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