22 May to 6 June 2004
By Kay Hahne

Five member of COG – Rosemary Ryan, Neville and Lesley Page (new), Horst and myself – joined with Helen from Murwillumbah for Philip and Patricia Maher’s Darwin – Kakadu – Kununurra Birding Tour of the Top End. We all flew to Darwin, and started the tour 22 May, during what should have been the end of the Wet in this Monsoon Rainforest area. But this year it kept raining occasionally, hence the very high humidity along with the heat of approx. 32 C each day. Because there was more water about there were still a lot of mosquitoes also. We came prepared with an assortment of Aerogard, Rid and Bushman’s Deet!

The Darwin Botanical Gardens soon revealed the magnificent Rufous Owl, exactly where it was supposed to be. The mangroves provided us with many species including the elusive Chestnut Rail, Striated Herons, Mangrove Robin and Mangrove Northern Grey Fantail. We saw Red-tailed Black Cockatoos on our first day and every single day thereafter. Other species which seemed to be everywhere we went (even though we didn’t note them for 1 or 2 of the 16 days) were: Black and Whistling Kites, Masked Lapwings, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorikeets, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Magpie Larks, Willy Wagtails, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes and Torresian Crows.

The normal time for breakfast was 6:30 at the motel or roadhouse and away we went in a 12-seater Toyota bus. Trish’s nourishing and variety lunches were eagerly devoured after the morning’s activity. It was a good group and we had a lot of fun together and lots of new species were seen by all of us.

Our early boat trip on Yellow Water, 7-9:20 am, was a definite highlight. We had one boat and one guide all to ourselves, so we had plenty of room, information, shade, views from either side, and no mosquitoes! The pink sunrise was magnificent and the water lilies fabulous. The birds were not as numerous due to the amount of water still around, but we scored 53 species, including land birds in the vegetation along either side of the South Alligator River. A Crimson Finch had a nest low in a Pandanus, and two White-breasted Sea-eagles were building a nest high in a dead tree. Several species of Kingfishers, Egrets, Herons, Ibis and both Whistle-ducks were present. Unfortunately the cane toads Bufo marinus have arrived, plus there were several wild pigs including piglets, one monstrous water buffalo (they are getting fewer and the pigs greater in numbers), a Merton’s Water Monitor (an aquatic goanna), a tree snake swimming and several Estuarine Crocodiles Crocodylus porosus which are so much more enormous than their Freshwater cousins Crocodylus johnstoni.

At Gunlom (Waterfall Creek), still in Kakadu, we scrambled up a steep, rocky slope up to and beyond the inviting rock pools. We kept going over boulders and through long grass and were rewarded with long views of three bouncy little White-throated Grasswrens. What a delight they were to observe as they investigated, chirruped and scolded – never still for a moment. They were "cheeky, with an air of self-importance" as Slater states. Indeed! We had time to note the Turkey Bush Calytrix exstipulata exploding with reddish-pink blooms, a holly-leaved grevillea Grevillea angulata, and some delicate, small, fringed yellow waterlilies Nymphoides hyrochoroides.

Sewerage Ponds were always a good venue, and Phil knew just where to find them! They sported such finds as dozens of Pied Herons in breeding plumage, many Whiskered and one White-winged Black Tern, a pair of Radjah Shelducks with a raft of eleven downy ducklings, stately Jabirus, elegant Black-winged Stilts and busy Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels.

Eventually, west of Victoria River, we started to see our first Boab trees Andansonia gregorii. What fascinating shapes and sizes they are! Cabbage Palms were growing on the cliffs in Gregory National Park – a Livistona sp unidentified as of 1993, found very locally. The Timber Creek area gave us even more finches. The day before we had spotted the beautiful red-faced Star Finch plus the Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins in long grass; next it was good views of Masked and Long-tailed Finches on the roadside together. And yes! At long last! the colourful red-faced phase of the Gouldian Finch, along with lots of duller immatures. That was a very special find for all of us.

We spent four nights at Kununurra, WA with a variety of episodes. During our early am trip on Lake Argyle we were rewarded with views of fat White-quilled Rock-pigeons, the beautiful echoing song and sight of two Sandstone Shirke-thrushes, lots of Australian Pratincoles, Northern Nail-tailed Wallabies Onychogalea unguifera, huge Garden Orb spiders and their extremely strong silvery webs, and just before we returned – the Yellow Chats appeared at the 11th hour!

Up at 04:15 on 4 June, to the local airport by 05:00, a one-hour flight in a 10-seater aircraft, landing on a grassy runway, and then ferried by an open, no doors, 5-seater helicopter to the Mitchell Plateau – in the middle of nowhere! We were after Black Grasswrens. The big boulders were too daunting for half of us, but those who persisted had a good sighting of five eventually. But it was so hot! Those of us who were too tired to continue got to see Mertens Falls from the top and cool our feet and legs in the water before it plummeted over the edge. Ah, wonderful! You have to stop and give yourself a small reward now and then when the going gets tough. I admire those who went on every single outing and followed Phil over the roughest terrain. It was an exhausting trip, especially with the heat and humidity, but very rewarding with many new birds, flowers, trees, rainforest, mammals and reptiles seen, plus waterfalls, gorges, cliffs, rivers, lakes, ocean beaches and mudflats. In all, a wonderful experience.

'Top End' poem by Kay Hahne

'People on the Top End Tour' poem by Kay Hahne

AOS 2004 Darwin/kakadu NP & Kununurra trip report

2005 Darwin/kakadu NP & Kununurra itinerary