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A flying visit: Bird-watching in Australia

Australia presents a magnificent array of birds, for those who care to make the effort

Satyajit Das
Published: Mar 4, 2016 06:31:57 AM IST
Updated: Mar 1, 2016 11:32:58 AM IST
A flying visit: Bird-watching in Australia
Image: Konrad Wothe / Minden Pictures / Corbis
A pair of eclectus parrots, one of the 55 species found in Australia

Tourists to Australia usually visit cities, especially Sydney. They take in urban attractions, such as the Sydney Harbour, the legendary, if impractical, Opera House and the golden beaches. They eat, drink and shop for luxury items. Some visit the Great Barrier Reef. But only a few make the effort to venture further to visit sites such as Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, a large sandstone rock in the continent’s empty and desolate interior. Australia’s unique wildlife is generally not a central part of the tourist experience, with visitors opting to see kangaroos and koalas at zoos or wildlife reserves for the obligatory photo ops.

Australian residents, like my partner and me, are saving domestic exploration for our dotage, when the lack of travel insurance and physical limitations will stop us from taking long journeys. But the visit of some American friends prompted us to make a short trip to Cape York Peninsula, the beautiful and rarely visited region in Australia’s far north-east.

The peninsula is one the world’s unique and last wildernesses. There are remnants of rainforest, woodlands, heath, swamps and grasslands. The eastern edge has tropical beaches and patches of mangrove. When sea levels were lower, Cape York was linked by a land bridge across the Torres Strait to Papua New Guinea. This means the region not only has its own unique wildlife, but also various Melanesian species.

We begin and end our trip at Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. With our guide Klaus, a transplanted German, we venture north to the Iron Range National Park, a remote part of Cape York.

This outback country is the real Australia, visited only by a few people each year. It is unlikely to appeal to those who prefer spas and Michelin-starred dinners.

Starting off

We arrive in Cairns before our travel companions, and have some time to explore the surroundings. Just off the city’s esplanade along the sea, low tide leaves large mud flats, full of wading birds that migrate each year from as far away as the Arctic to escape the northern winter. There are thousands of red-necked stints, red knots and great knots, whimbrels and a variety of sandpipers feeding on crustaceans. The foreshore trees are home to figbirds, honeyeaters, woodswallows and metallic starlings.

The Cairns cemetery is a good place to get close views of the endemic bush stone-curlews, which are also known as thick-knees (a reference to the prominent joints in their long legs). The birds have strong black bills and large, reptilian yellow eyes. Their cryptic plumage, which blends into the litter of dry leaves and gravestones, along with their habit of freezing when disturbed, makes them hard to spot even from a short distance. We see the rarer beach stone-curlew near the ocean later in our trip in Iron Range.

On our return to Cairns, we are also lucky enough find a rufous owl, Australia’s second-largest owl. The dark brown owl has breasts featuring dramatic thin cream bars. We see it in a city park, near a colony of flying foxes, a favoured prey.

From Cairns, we make two separate day trips to the Atherton Tablelands, which has mainly small towns and agricultural holdings with some nature reserves. In a suburban street near a small park, Roger, our local guide, takes us to a male great bowerbird. The species is renowned for its unique courtship behaviour. We find this bird’s bower filled with brightly coloured plastic and metal refuse, collected in an attempt to attract a mate. I wonder what the birds did before human detritus made it easy for them to find suitable baubles.

In a field, we find a number of feeding brolgas. These stately, long-legged grey cranes stand 1.4 metres high, and have a beautiful dancing display of leaps and bows, accompanied by a whooping trumpet call.

The Hasties Swamp National Park is home to a wide range of duck and waterfowl. A highlight is the pink-eared duck, with its large spatulate bill, a pink spot on its head and unmistakable black-and-white barred sides (responsible for its other name, zebra duck). Pairs of pink-eared ducks often feed by vortexing, where two ducks spin about a central point with the head of one opposite the tail of the other, concentrating food in a gyrating column of water.

Although we take a boat trip on Lake Eacham, a lake of volcanic origin, we don’t get to see the Amethystine python. Capable of growing five to seven metres in length, the beautiful snake is named for the milky, iridescent sheen of its scales, which gives it an amethyst-like colour.

A flying visit: Bird-watching in Australia
Image: Martin Willis / Minden Pictures / Corbis
(Clockwise from top left) A pair of Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroos, one of Australia’s largest arboreal mammals; a bush stone-curlew, also known as thick knees for the prominent joints in its legs; a riflebird with its velvet-black plumage set off by blue-green breast

We visit the Curtain Fig Tree, a popular tourist attraction at the Atherton Tableland; it is a large and very old Ficus virens, a common fig species. The tree sits in a small patch of forest, accessible by a circular boardwalk. Finding our way blocked by a large group of shutter-happy Japanese visitors, we reverse direction and retrace our steps to the car. This is when we hear a rustling in the understory—we spy a Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo, one of Australia’s largest arboreal mammals, which is usually rather difficult to spot.

First, we see its long, pendulous tail. Then, we see the rest of the animal, the size of a small dog. Its muzzle, toes and tail-tip are black, sharply contrasting its brown fur. Seeing us, it initially freezes. Then, it climbs away from us, using its sharp, strong claws, powerful forelimbs and long tail as a counterbalance. Within seconds, it disappears from view.

Bird haven
The trip to Iron Range itself, via the Musgrave and Archer rivers, provides a plethora of wildlife. Australian mammals are a rarity. But we see agile wallabies, various possums including sugar gliders, flying foxes, wild pigs, buffaloes and even a brief glimpse of a dingo, the Australian wild dog. There are salt water crocodiles, sand monitors and other lizards. We do not encounter any poisonous snakes, much loved by documentary makers who find them everywhere, threatening travellers to Australia.

A flying visit: Bird-watching in Australia
The birdlife at Iron Range is its major attraction: In a little over two weeks, we see around 150 of the 800 species found on the continent.

There are waterfowl, including a flock of spotted whistling ducks, which have only recently been recorded in Australia. There are various flycatchers, insectivorous songbirds with long tails, including boatbills, monarchs, shrike bills and magpie-larks. There are many honeyeaters, all members of a diverse family of nectar- or insect-eating birds found in Australia and New Guinea. There are friarbirds (also called leatherheads), which derive their name from the circular pattern on the crown of their heads.  

There is a large variety of doves and pigeons. The most spectacular is the Wompoo Fruit-dove, with its green upper body, plum-purple breast, and yellow belly and underwings. Despite its obvious coloration, the doves prove difficult to see as they forage in the high canopy of the rainforests. Standing for a long time under the tall trees, straining to get a clear view of the bird, results only in a severe case of rainforest neck. However, we frequently get to hear their distinctive, deep and resonant ‘wompoo’ call.

Blue-winged kookaburras fly past, displaying their vivid colours. At Iron Range, responding to Klaus playing its call on a recorder, a tiny (around 20 cm) yellow-billed kingfisher appears, perching near us. It is spectacular in the light, with its green wings, blue tail, orange head and neck, black nape patch and white throat.

In the woodlands near a beach, Klaus calls in a buff-breasted paradise-kingfisher, and it flashes past to assess the intrusion into its territory. The bright red bill, rich rufous buff underparts, blue cap and black eye-stripes are striking. As it flies past the distinctive long blue and white tail feathers, the hallmark of paradise kingfishers, flap like carnival streamers.

On a morning walk, our persistence is rewarded with a good view—through a telescope—of a noisy pitta, all lemon-yellows, greens, orange-reds and blacks. We listen for the beautiful red-bellied pitta, but it is too early in the season and they have not arrived as yet from the north.

The Cape York peninsula provides an opportunity to see two species of birds-of-paradise, more commonly associated with Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia. We get some good views of the trumpet manucode in black, with a red iris and elongated horn-like head tufts and loose neck feathers, and hear its distinctive loud trumpeting calls.

The magnificent riflebird lives up to its name: Its glossy velvet-black plumage is set off by blue-green breast feathers. We watch a male on a branch stand erect, throwing up its wings; it circles with outstretched wings, showing off his plumage, which flashes iridescent when the bird turns its head.
Birds of prey are ever present. We see rare red goshawks, black-breasted buzzards, wedge-tailed eagles, black falcons, spotted harriers, grey-headed goshawks, three different types of kites, collared sparrowhawks, Australian hobbies and kestrels.

A flying visit: Bird-watching in Australia
Image: Martin Willis / Minden Pictures / Corbis
The bright red face of a palm cockatoo is a bare patch of skin that changes colour, depending on how much blood is flushed through it

At Lakefield National Park and Iron Range National Park, we get to see nocturnal birds by spotlighting. Although we don’t get to see any grass owls, we see barn owls, long-tailed nightjars and two species of frogmouths. Related to nightjars, frogmouths have a characteristic large, flattened hooked bill and huge frog-like gape that are used to catch insects. Another feature is their cryptic plumage, which provides daytime camouflage.

On several occasions, we see Papuan frogmouths, the largest of the species, with its bright, dark-red eyes that stare in our direction when we catch them in the spotlight beam. Responding to a recorded call, a rare marbled frogmouth flies in almost total silence. Somehow, Klaus manages to find it with his flashlight. It calls in response: A high ‘coo-lew’, followed by a lower one, then a loud tocking, then a laugh, finished off by a repeated gobbling noise. It is one of the most haunting calls among birds.

The best of the lot
The highlights of this varied and fascinating avian world are the parrots. Australia is truly the land of parrots, with 55 of the world’s 332 species found here. Loud, and lacking in musicality, these conspicuously colourful, highly social and intelligent birds are our favourites.

Some are readily seen—sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs (or red-breasted cockatoos), red-winged parrots, rainbow lorikeets and scaly-breasted lorikeets, and double-eyed fig parrots—while others prove exceedingly difficult.

In the Atherton Tablelands, we briefly see a small group of red-tailed black cockatoos. It is almost entirely black, with the panels of bright red becoming visible as they struggle to maintain balance on a tree, swaying in a strong breeze. They are widespread, but we see no others during our trip.

We search high and low for the large and impressive palm cockatoos. Although we get a few teasing glimpses, it is only on our last morning at Iron Range that we see a group. Close up, their shaggy crests and large bills are commanding. The bright red faces are a bare patch of skin that changes colour, depending on how much blood is flushed through it. Males use their powerful bills to eat hard nuts and seeds, and break off thick sticks for drumming displays.
Klaus takes us to a nesting site for a pair of eclectus parrots. The nest hole is high and not easily visible. It is not clear whether it is in use. On our first visit, we hear the birds but don’t see them. On a second visit, we stake out the nest hole for some hours, and our wait is rewarded with several great views. In a reversal of the normal, the female is more spectacularly red, with a very bright blue belly. In contrast, the male is a simpler bright green.
One sought-after species is the golden-shouldered parrot. At Musgrave, we walk along the roadside and tall grasses, trying to flush out some specimens. But several hours of trying yields nothing. Next morning we make a very early start, taking up position at a man-made dam before first light. We wait. The minutes go by. As light breaks, beautiful pale-headed rosellas appear. A forest kingfisher darts by, lunging into the dam on a hunt.

Unexpectedly, a budgerigar—slender, bright green and yellow-throated—appears. Usually found further inland, these birds have been forced by harsh conditions to search for food and water closer to the coast. Soon, an entire flock appears, staying briefly then disappearing.

Finally, golden-shouldered parrots appear warily, eventually making their way down to drink. No photo can do them justice. The males are an exquisite turquoise, with a reddish underside, a black crown and a golden-yellow shoulder. In the soft first light of day, they take our breath away.

Severely endangered by the destruction of its habitat in Cape York, the birds hang on desperately in this highly restricted range. The property we are on is Artemis Station, owned by Tom and Sue Shepherd. Conservationists from before the term was invented, they fight a lonely and unappreciated battle to preserve this last refuge of the golden-shouldered parrots.

While waiting at Portland Roads airport for our flight back to Cairns, we watch a dazzling fire rainbow. It is an optical phenomenon formed by the refraction of sunbeams through ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere, typically in clouds. I think about the spectacularly beautiful landscape and creatures of Cape York, which a few of us have been fortunate to see.

Satyajit Das is a former banker and the author of The Age of Stagnation. His previous books include Traders Guns & Money and Extreme Money. He is also the co-author with Jade Novakovic of In Search of the Pangolin: The Accidental Eco-Tourist

(This story appears in the 04 March, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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