Top End tour 2017 trip report

Darwin, Kakadu NP, Pine Creek, Katherine, Victora River, Timber Creek and Kununurra (WA)

Australian Ornithological Services Pty Ltd

Pre-tour reconnaissance 20 and 21 May 2017

Northern Territorian, Darryel Binns, and I spent the best part of two days searching for white-throated grasswrens in the Gunlom area in the vain hope that the species had mounted a comeback. 

We spent the first day searching the known areas where the species once occurred, adjacent to the falls. The second day we searched an area that looked suitable further back along the road into Gunlom .

Our search proved fruitless as far as the grasswren went. We found lots of habitat that looked fantastic for the grasswren but close inspection revealed that all areas appeared to have had at least one fire through it in the past ten years. We also discovered that the beautiful race of variegated fairywren Malurus lamberti dulcis to be almost gone from its regular haunts on the top of Gunlom. We managed to locate just one group of the fairywrens in two days of searching and this was the first group I have seen on my annual visits in about four years.

We saw most of the other Arnhemland endemics in the course of our search for the grasswren. Only a single banded fruit-dove was seen and perhaps another heard at the top of Gunlom. This species' numbers appear low at present, probably due to recent poor Wet seasons — particularly 2015/2016 when it appeared that virtually no figs were fruiting anywhere around the escarpment — figs being this species' main diet  

The white-lined honeyeater, which probably also includes a lot of figs in its diet, seemed to be back in reasonable numbers with about ten heard over the two days. This species was also difficult to locate in 2016.

We finished up with eight to ten chestnut-quilled rock pigeons but very few at the top of Gunlom where twenty or more years ago the species was quite common.

Just one pair of partridge pigeons was seen around Plumtree Creek. There has been a big decline in this ground-nesting species over the past twenty years or so in Kakadu NP possibly due to mistimed fire regimes back in the 1990s and early 2000s. The earlier and smaller patch burning regime that is currently being implemented in the park will hopefully be more conducive to the survival of this and other fire-sensitive species.

The only other bird of note we encountered was a peregrine falcon that may have been nesting somewhere along the cliff face at the second site we searched back from Gunlom.


Day 1
24 May
We had Australians, Gabrielle and Glen, who we knew well from previous tours, Jim, who I had met on a couple of plains-wanderer outings, Ros who had recently done a plains-wanderer outing, Oregonian, Steve, who had done Alice Springs with us just the month before and Texan, Barbara, a survivor of the washed-out Strzelecki Track tour of 2016

We kicked off our tour with a boat cruise up Sadgroves Creek hoping to see chestnut rail. A pair of bush stone-curlews in the parking bay at Stokes Hill wharf was a nice surprise when we arrived and we picked up a couple of grey phase reef egrets while we waited for the boat. I was surprised to see a collared kingfisher hanging around the restaurants at the wharf but the boat captain said it was regular sighting. Sadgroves Creek turned out to be alive with collared kingfishers and an azure kingfisher was also seen along the creek. One of our first sightings just before we entered the creek was around ten grey-tailed tattlers roosting in a mangrove tree waiting for the tide to recede a little further. It was not long after we entered the creek that our first chestnut rail was spotted feeding out on the exposed mud as the tide was going out. We had good looks at it although the sun was not at a great angle for photography. Quite a few other common species were seen from the boat but we could not find any other mangrove species although we heard mangrove robin. On the way back a second chestnut rail was spotted and we watched it feeding on and off for about ten minutes. We were more than happy because without access to a boat this species can be touch and go around Darwin. You can spend days searching, sometimes not seeing it at all and sometimes getting only poor views and often getting muddy and attacked by sand flies, While our morning was a success, it’s worth noting to not take this cruise in the early morning as the sun is at a disadvantageous angle for going up Sadgroves Creek, especially for anyone wishing to get a good photograph of chestnut rail.

We headed for East Point to try the mangrove boardwalk. Before the tour, I had visited the boardwalk to see what was about and had a bit of squeak in the mangroves not far from the boardwalk. An adult male mangrove golden whistler came hurtling in, closely followed by a sub-adult white-breasted whistler. The white-breasted is a tough bird to see around Darwin and the mangrove golden is not easy either. I was hoping I could repeat this double on the tour. The walk through the small patches of stunted monsoon forest on the walk into the mangroves turned out to be so productive that it took over an hour to get to the mangroves. One of the highlights in the monsoon forest was an immature bar-breasted honeyeater spotted by one of our sharp-eyed troops. Not the commonest bird about Darwin. Other good sightings here included little shrike-thrush, little bronze-cuckoo, varied triller, green-backed and large-billed gerygones (as well as mangrove gerygone when we finally got to the mangroves), rufous-banded and dusky honeyeaters and our first Arafura and northern fantails. The mangroves added red-headed honeyeater and broad-billed and shining flycatchers. An unexpected sighting here was a mangrove roosting northern brushtail possum. No whistlers sighted today. We’d have to wait for Whydham.

We headed back to the Botanic Gardens for lunch where Trish was waiting with her usual array of picnic fare, followed lunch with a stroll in the Gardens.  l was hoping to relocate the rufous owl I had found before the tour started. Luck was with us, it was in the same spot. This bird is well used to people. When I did the reccy, a tractor was working almost under the roost tree with a noisy reversing beep and the owl couldn’t have given a hoot.

We turned our attention to some fruiting palms nearby that were proving attractive to several rose-crowned fruit-doves and had some great views of this delicately coloured bird in the scope.

Our first Torresian imperial pigeons were also seen in the gardens as well as the ubiquitous orange-footed scrubfowls. We were unable to find the barking owls that once hung out in the gardens. I have not seen it here for a few years and it doesn't appear to be as common around Darwin as it once was. We adjourned for a rest at our hotel.

Mid afternoon, we headed back out to East Point to bird the monsoon forest proper. Our main target bird here was the delightful rainbow pitta and it was not long before we encountered our first. We also had good views here of emerald dove or to give it its new title Pacific emerald dove. Other species here included spangled drongo and yellow oriole. A dead barking owl was found under the power line that was probably the cause of its demise. No barkers were heard after dark at this locality, which had long held a pair.

Just before dark we searched around the Point for beach stone-curlew and just before the light faded we located the pair.

We still had one more bird, the large-tailed nightjar, to get before we could enjoy our meal at nearby Peewees restaurant. As we waited for darkness to fall they started up with their haunting calls and we soon spotlighted a couple of birds. One displayed, fanning out its tail. We then made haste to Peewees restaurant where we had pre-ordered our meal. Peewees is arguably Darwin's best restaurant. A perfect day starting off with chestnut rail and finishing with beach stone-curlew and large-tailed nightjar plus all the stuff in between and a good meal. It would be a hard to beat.

Day 2
25 May
Today we headed south to Palmerston where our first stop was a park beside a lake. While in the car park, our first pair of red-tailed black-cockatoos flew over. Our target bird here was silver-backed butcherbird and we soon encountered a pair with juvenile young. There were a few cuckoos about the melaleucas and we had good views of brush and saw another little bronze-cuckoo. The presence of brush here, which was calling well, was probably due to the late Wet as I hadn't had them here previously in the dry season. There were plenty of bush birds in the melaleucas including white-throated, brown and blue-faced honeyeaters and our first yellow-throated miners, leaden flycatcher and some distant grey-crowned babblers. On the way out of the car park we noticed a cloud of white-breasted woodswallows go up in a frenzy and soon spotted the reason for their excitement. A pair of Australian hobbies was on the hunt and had birds going in all directions. As things settled down we had a family group of crimson finches including a full-coloured male, and double-barred finches feeding on the lawn beside us. Across the road in some tall grass was a small flock of chestnut-breasted mannikins. The hobbies were still on the hunt and seemed determined to capture a woodswallow and when last seen were in hot pursuit.

Our next stop was the Howard Springs area where our target bird was little kingfisher. We had only just walked down to the pandanus-lined creek when we had an azure kingfisher whizz by, then minutes later a little kingfisher did the same but landed in full view. After watching it for some time through binoculars and telescope we realised there was a second bird present and we watched the pair of little kingfishers feeding and sitting about. Our target birds just kept coming like clockwork.

Other birds of note here included Arafura fantail and a pair of green-backed gerygone. The dominant species in this habitat was the very vocal white-gaped honeyeater. Our next stop was Buffalo Creek where I was hoping for a few migratory waders but thought the tide would be out too far and sure enough it was. We added red-capped plover and whimbrel to the list but not much else. A walk in the mangroves and monsoon forest produced plenty of bush birds including more red-headed honeyeaters, lemon-bellied flycatchers and of course the ubiquitous grey whistler. It was lunchtime by now so we headed for the gardens where Trisha had another spread waiting for us. We had a break after lunch as it was hot and humid and some of us were starting to wilt.

After our siesta, the first stop was the mangroves on Tiger Brennan Drive where I was hoping for mangrove robin, which we were still missing. I had done a bit of a reccy in the mangroves before the tour and had seen the robin easily in at least two localities. Now they were nowhere to be seen. We left them for another day and headed out to East Point again to bird the mangrove boardwalk where I was hoping we might run into the two whistlers. We showed a bit more discipline this time and reached the mangroves in good time. I squeaked in the mangroves till I was squeaked out but no whistlers came to see what was going on. It would have been good to get them here but there were other chances later in the tour.

Our best sighting in the mangroves were two black butcherbirds, possibly an adult and an immature, feeling pleased with themselves as one had managed to capture a largish two-lined dragon. There was much calling and displaying as they decided how the prize catch would be divvied up!

I was hoping to find some overwintering migratory waders before we left Darwin so made a last ditch attempt at a high tide roost, our final stop for the day. We located a small flock of waders roosting and added terek sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, great knot, a couple of lesser and about twenty greater sand plovers and more grey-tailed tattler. A fitting end to another great day's birding around Darwin.

Day 3
26 May
Not one to give up easily, before we left Darwin I had another try for mangrove robin. I had seen the species pre-tour at a spot near Palmerston. We also had a chance there for mangrove grey fantail, a species that is quite difficult to see around Darwin since access was cut off to the mangroves behind the Pamerston STW. The tide, high when we arrived, was falling rapidly. Great views were had here of male red-headed honeyeater while we were hunting around for the robin. We had seen quite a few red-headed honeyeaters already but not a cracking male up close. With some perseverance we eventually coaxed a mangrove robin out and good views were had but no mangrove grey fantails were seen.

With that we made haste for Fogg Dam but we’d only gone a short distance down the Arnhem highway when a Pacific baza flew over the road with other birds in hot pursuit. We pulled over and charged out of the vehicle.  Sadly it just kept going and didn't circle back, so at best, some had poor views  This was the only baza seen for the tour and an uncommon bird around Darwin.

We continued on towards Fogg Dam. Just down the road to the dam we were surprised to see three pink-eared ducks on a small muddy dam on the roadside. This is quite an uncommon bird in the Top End and l have never seen one around Fogg Dam before. Also around the muddy dam were our first Australian pratincoles, a single grey teal, Australian pipits and black-fronted dotterels. Our first white-necked heron was seen nearby. We finally made it to Fogg Dam and headed straight out to the wall. Some waterbirds, such as little egret and royal spoonbill were in good numbers feeding in the shallow water on the far side of the dam. Jacanas were also in good numbers and a male with three small young were seen looking awfully cute. Many firsts for the tour were added here including brolga, one glossy ibis, pied heron, intermediate egret, wandering whistle-duck, one plumed whistle-duck, Australasian grebe, darter, little black and little pied cormorants and magpie goose. Despite there being lots of water in the dam only about fifty geese were sighted and just a few radjah shelduck were seen. Strangely enough, no white-browed crake was seen or heard on the dam this year. Also on the dam wall we had our first paperbark flycatchers.

We headed back to the rotunda in the monsoon forest where Trisha had lunch ready, after which we birded the monsoon forest. We managed to find a pair of barking owls in the forest and saw another rainbow pitta. As per usual there were lots of flycatchers about including broad-billed and more Arafura fantails. The melaleucas weren't flowering at all so bar-breasted honeyeaters were scarce. A dusky honeyeater was building a nest in a melaleuca. We also saw the first of many rufous whistlers in the forest. I tried for tawny grassbird to no joy. The boardwalk meandered through the flooded melaleuca forest, and assorted acacias, in full bloom, strewed their yellow blossom onto the water.

Departing Fogg Dam, we continued west. Not far along the highway on the Adelaide River floodplain we had our first couple of jabiru (black-necked stork). The species was scarce this year with a total of only seven birds seen for the whole tour. I guess with all the water about they were spread far and wide.

Our last stop for the day was down the Marraki Road. Here we had about five antilopine wallaroos although no magnificent old males. Some bird activity along the road on the way out caught our attention and we had two species of our most delightful grass finches, the masked and the long-tailed. The beautiful northern race of striated pardalote was also seen. We made haste for our accommodation at South Alligator River as we still had spotlighting on the programme tonight.

After dinner we headed out to the floodplain of South Alligator. Barking owls and bush stone-curlews serenaded us as we set off. A couple of scrawny looking dingoes were our first quarry. Out on the floodplain we had several nankeen nightherons feeding along the road. In all we spotlighted about ten barn owls, one barking owl, a badly injured southern boobook and a small water python. Strangely enough, no spotted nightjars were seen, perhaps the first time I have failed to find one here. This species seems to have greatly declined over the past ten to fifteen years; probably due to the all to frequent droughts that inflict southeast Australia where the species mainly breeds. 

To finish the night off we had our first tawny frogmouth back in the monsoon forest. Another big day in the Top End with many new birds and some mammals and reptiles added to our list.

Day 4
27 May

One of our first birds this morning at our lodgings was a pair of delightful forest kingfishers.  We headed out onto the South Alligator floodplain, one of my favourite areas in Kakadu. It looked in great shape this year after the big Wet and the late rains had it still lush and green. Before the cane toad invasion the floodplain was a haven for giant king brown snakes (particularly when the native rats were plaguing) and northern death adders but sadly these have been largely wiped out by the poisonous toads. I have not seen either species since the toad invasion.

There was a large amount of freshwater on the floodplain with a nice lot of waterbirds feeding in it. Here we had ten or so brolgas, about fifty glossy ibis as well as straw-necked and white, royal spoonbills, little, intermediate and great egrets, pied, white-necked and white-faced herons as well as white-headed stilt, purple swamphen and radjah shelduck. A large flock of grey teal was present, a duck mainly of the inland and  not normally associated with the Top End. It was a sight to see all these species feeding together. Out in the beds of sedge, small groups of magpie geese were feeding. We searched the vast areas of native grasses and sedges for cisticola, hoping to find a zitting amongst the golden-headed but the task proved too great for us. The zitting is usually easier to see at this time of year if there has been a late wet so I thought our prospects were good. Even the golden-headed was in low numbers this year, perhaps due to the previous poor wet seasons. It was very dry here in 2016 and much of the floodplain was burnt.  IIt will take a couple of good wets for the cisticola to get their numbers back up. Still we had many other good sightings while searching for the cisticola. These included two sub-adult spotted harriers, four black-shouldered kites and a couple each of white-bellied sea-eagle and brown falcon. A single brown songlark was flushed, quite an uncommon bird this far north. We also saw many rat burrows on the road verges indicating that dusky rat Rattus colletti numbers are starting to build up.


Back near the South Alligator River a black falcon was spotted up high with black kites. We tried to get closer to it but it was not seen again. We had a nice lot of bush birds along the river including a pair of yellow white-eye building a nest. In some burnt ground near the river we had Horsfield's bushlark but a much darker phase than we are used to down south, with much more contrasting markings — a handsome bird.


We went back to the monsoonal forest at South Alligator. Some years cicadabird and overwintering channel-billed cuckoo are about but this year was not one of them. We saw a few bush birds, the best of which was a juvenile brush cuckoo, but it was getting hot so we moved on.


We called in to Marmukala wetland but it was quiet this year with all the water about and only a few jacana were seen although we had some nice bush birds including double-barred finch.


We continued on to Jabiru where lunch awaited us in the park by the lake.  Afterwards we checked out an area for partridge pigeon to no avail. We headed north towards Ubirr where we saw the magnificent Arnhemland escarpment for the first time. We checked out the escarpment hoping for some of the Arnhemland endemics. After a short search we located a couple of white-lined honeyeaters and then a bit later chestnut-quilled rock-pigeons. We found the rock-pigeons fairly quickly but it took a bit more effort before everyone had good views. We eventually located a bird up on a rock ledge and had it in the scope for some time.


After this success we headed south for Cooinda for a two-night stay. On the drive back towards Jabiru we had a couple of partridge pigeons feeding on the road verge. This species seems to be increasingly difficult to see in Kakadu NP.


Barking owls and bush stone-curlews serenaded us as we walked to the Barra Bar and Bistro for dinner.

Day 5
28 May 2017
Our task today was to find one of the hardest Arnhemland endemics, the elusive banded fruit-dove. With poor wet seasons the prior two years and no figs fruiting in 2016 the species had become even harder to pin down

We headed off early to Nourlangi Rock, one of the more reliable sites for the species. On the walk in we had a pair of silver-backed butcherbird, possibly the first I have seen at Nourlangi. Almost as soon as we got to the site, a banded fruit-dove was spotted hanging about a fruiting fig. There was much competition for the figs with a great bowerbird chasing the fruit-dove from the tree on a couple of occasions. The fruit-dove waited its turn in the fig tree, allowing us great looks in the scope. After a while it flew off but returned a little later and landed in an even better spot for viewing. In the still morning air we could hear the mournful calls of hundreds of red-tailed black cockatoos feeding kilometres away in the tropical woodland. There were lots of friarbirds about including some little but I think most were likely to be silver-crowned but it was difficult to get a close up look at them to be sure they weren't the sandstone race of helmeted friarbird. Sometimes I wonder if the sandstone race really exists! On the way back we encountered what was probably the same banded fruit-dove; closer this time but seen only briefly. Another emerald dove was also observed along the trail in a tiny patch of monsoonal forest. A spring trickling water that cascaded like a curtain down the cliff face had dozens of friarbirds bathing in it as if taking a shower.

We walked back through the Aboriginal rock art site, where we passed Namarrgon, lightening man, the creator of wet seasons. These sites were fundamental in achieving a World Heritage Site classification for Kakadu NP.

Along the way we encountered another pair of white-lined honeyeaters as well as having close up views of a female black walleroo. Back at the car park three northern rosellas flew over.

We tried Little Nourlangi Rock where in the past I have had chestnut-quilled rock-pigeon, banded fruit-dove, white-lined honeyeater, sandstone shrike-thrush and the dulcis race of variegated fairy-wren. I was hoping we might see the sandstone shrike-thrush there on this occasion but was disappointed to see a severe wildfire had swept up the rock face the previous dry season and cooked the figs halfway to the top. It will be a while before birds are back at this locality.

Still, it had been a good morning. We headed back to Cooinda for lunch and a siesta.

After, we ventured out into the  tropical woodland for some dry country birding. In the past we have seen chestnut-backed buttonquail in this area but this species is now a rare bird in Kakadu NP. Still we saw plenty of other good birds in the woodland including our first pair of black-tailed treecreepers, good looks at northern rosella, weebill (the lovely yellow northern form), a large flock of eclipse-plumaged white-winged trillers and some more masked finches. There were hardly any Darwin woollybutts Eucalyptus miniata in flower this year so honeyeaters and lorikeets were in short supply. We headed back for dinner.

Some of us went spotlighting after dinner hoping for spotted nightjar, which had managed to elude us so far. We did quite well seeing a couple of dingoes, bush stone-curlew, good looks at tawny frogmouth and southern boobook and a beautiful black-headed python but no nightjar.

Day 6

29 May 2017
Cooinda to Pine Creek

First up this morning we ventured down to one of the big billabongs behind Cooinda. This is often a good spot for great-billed heron and for the last few years at least one or more birds had been present here. However on this occasion neither sight nor sound was had of the heron. With so much water out on the floodplain the great-billed herons are spoilt for choice for breeding localities. In the previous years of poor wet seasons, breeding areas would have been limited to the big permanent billabongs.


A little kingfisher with a fish in its bill was spotted as we walked along the the billabong. It flew, still with the fish in its bill, about five metres away from the waters' edge. This suggested it may be going to a nest. We backed off a bit when we saw it being hesitant, thereafter it went straight to the nest and fed young. Shortly after a second bird came in and did the same. The nest was up about three and a half metres in the side of a relatively small melaleuca. The kingfishers had dug out a neat round hole in the side of the melaleuca a few centimetres back from the end of the burnt off stump where a branch had burnt off some years before. This is the first nest of little kingfisher that I I have ever encountered in almost forty years of observing birds. I was surprised how far back from the waters' edge it was and also how high above ground. I presumed little kingfishers' nests would have been in a similar situation to its congener, the azure kingfisher, which is down low to the water in the root ball of a fallen tree or a river bank.


Other birds of note along the billabong were forest kingfisher, varied triller and little shrike-thrush.


We left Cooinda and headed south to a creek along the Gunlom Road where Trisha had lunch waiting. En route we had our first good looks at red-tailed black-cockatoos feeding by the roadside. After lunch we walked down to the creek where, having not birded it for many years, I was pleased to find a pair of buff-sided robins still present.


A male brown goshawk was confiding, landing above us and peering down. We headed towards Gunlom where I was hoping we might relocate the beautiful dulcis race of variegated fairywren that Darryel and I had found on our pre-tour reconnaissance. We walked in to the locality and heard fairywrens calling but they refused to be seen. A banded fruit-dove flew over while I was looking for the fairywrens but was only seen by me. A patch of monsoonal rainforest at the base of the escarpment contained a pair of green-backed gerygone. We called time on our hunt for the fairywrens and headed in the direction of Pine Creek.


On the drive out we had our first good views of little woodswallow with a group by the road. A bit further along we checked out a site for red goshawk, Australia's rarest raptor. Luck was with us still as the male bird was in a roadside tree and the female was calling continuously nearby as she tore up a kill. Up until then I thought we had been having a mediocre sort of day but it had just been become one of the best days of the tour. The goshawks looked fantastic with the late afternoon light bringing out the rich red plumage. We watched them for about half an hour as the female devoured the prey while calling to her mate. I suspect the male had probably just brought the kill in to the female before we came along. What a bird!


We made haste for Pine Creek as the sun was getting low in the sky. The ferals were out: We stopped for a large wild boar that on being pished contemplated whether to charge us, and a little further up the road a bull water buffalo tried to look inconspicuous by throwing grass over its head.


Back in Pine Creek I had a couple of unexpected requests at our accommodation in Pine Creek. The first involved removing a green treefrog from a toilet bowl, which wasn't too difficult but the second had me a little concerned. 'Ros says, ‘Could you come and get this snake out of the bathroom please!’ Fortunately the snake proved to be about fifteen centimetres long and quickly dispatched.



Day 7

30 May 2017

Hooded parrots were the order of the day today and we had them in spades! It seems they are taking over the town of Pine Creek with up to twenty birds drinking from a dish near the public toilets in the main street.  We watched adult and immature birds for an hour or so drinking and bathing and sitting about preening. Our first really good views of the spectacular male red-winged parrot was also had here as well as habituated grey-crowned babblers. What a great town for birding. It seems flying foxes are also taking over the town with some large roosts of little reds in the main street. At another locality in the town we saw a superb great bowerbird bower. Our next stop was Chesterfield dam but we didn’t stay long here. The local constabulary was having target practice at a nearby shooting range and we weren't sure about the accuracy of their aim. There didn’t seem to be much about at any rate.  We continued on down the road to Umbrewalla Gorge and found a good lot of bush birds feeding  in some burnt woodland. These included white-winged trillers, masked finches and our first diamond doves and jacky winter. Also along this road we had little eagle, quite an uncommon bird in the Top End.


Back on the highway there was a good fire going near Pine Creek so we stopped to see what raptors were about. There were the usual black kites and brown falcons and way up high another black falcon was spotted although didn't hang around.


A visit to Pine Creek STW also added more birds to our list. Here we had our first red-backed fairy-wrens although no coloured males were present. Tawny grassbird may have also been present but we could not get a good enough view to confirm it. Red-kneed dotterel, an uncommon bird this far north, was another new trip bird. We had more Australian pratincoles, radjah shelducks and our first good looks at plumed whistle-ducks.


After our lunch and a break we headed north to Edith River. Along the highway we spotted our first black-faced woodswallows. There’s often other birds feeding with black-faced so we pulled up. On this occasion there were masked and long-tailed finches, amongst other species. We continued on to Edith River and birded the stony hills not far down the road to the Falls. There were some bloodwoods in flower here and we scored our first banded honeyeater. While walking in the woodland we disturbed a most peculiar moth here with a beautiful pattern on its wings. The late Wet had also produced some nice wildflowers, something I don't normally associate with the Tropics.


We had our first pair of grey shrike-thrush, which must have been feeding young as they flew off carrying food. Many birds were still breeding this year, thanks to the big Wet. There were quite a few birds about, big mobs of overwintering white-winged trillers and black-faced woodswallows as well as a huge flock of tree martins feeding low over the woodland in the late afternoon. I had a feeling we were going to find something good. We came upon a flock of hooded parrots feeding in the burnt woodland. While we were watching them a raptor must have gone over and disturbed another big mob of around fifty hooded parrots and a good sized flock of finches flying in a tight group, which I was fairly sure were Gouldians. We headed down towards the creek where they were last seen. There was heaps of water in the creek so they could have been drinking anywhere. The colder air had finally pushed up from the south so it was much cooler today which meant that birds did not need to drink so regularly. A few masked and long-tailed finches coming down to drink caught our attention. Crimson and double-barred finches were also coming in, and then suddenly two adult Gouldian finches, a red faced and a black faced male came down to drink. Another great day's birding in the Top End.


Day 8

31 May 2017
Pine Creek to Katherine

We set off early this morning as we were heading south of Katherine to bird the Central Arnhem highway, one of my favourite spots in the Top End. The prime target here was the northern race of crested shrike-tit. We tried hard for the shrike-tit but it eluded us. There were plenty of other good birds to be seen. In the morning we had great views of the delightful black-chinned honeyeater in its golden-backed form. Fantastic views were had of both the male and female of the black-tailed treecreeper and all the intricate markings about the face and throat of both sexes could be seen. This species is usually shy and difficult to approach but at this locality they were particularly bold. Both black-faced and little woodswallow were also about in good numbers. We finally caught up with the beautiful form of white-winged sittella here. The grevilleas were in full flower and there were quite a few honeyeaters about. We saw more banded as well as our first rufous-throated and yellow-tinted honeyeaters. A couple of silver-crowned friarbirds were seen and several flocks of varied lorikeets flew over without stopping. I scratched a few trees for owls or nightjars but none was forthcoming. A few more antilopine wallaroos were also seen on our morning's ramble.


Lunch was in town by the Katherine River. Trisha had set up an appointment for Jim at a Katherine dentist, so we dropped Jim to his fate and repaired to our motel. A gaggle of grey-crowned babblers kept us amused, jumping all over the outdoor furniture and poking their heads down the umbrella hole in the table looking for spiders.


Jim returned, pleased with his dental experience in Katherine, and we headed back out Central Arnhem Road to have another try for the shrike-tit but with the same negative result. On any trip there is always one or two birds that give us a hard time. Still, we’d had a dream run. We did catch up with our first white-throated gerygone, and also had pallid cuckoo here. Our best views were had of long-tailed finch with a group of adults and juveniles feeding on the burnt ground, as well as couple of rufous songlark. A group of feral donkeys was seen in the late afternoon so we cleared out before the buffaloes appeared!


Day 9
1 June 2017
Katherine to Victoria River

While looking for a paddock with bustards in it (or alternatively looking for bustards in a paddock), we chanced upon the Katherine STW. This was fortuitous as we added quite a few new birds to our list and we had our best looks yet at pheasant coucal with a pair seen near the ponds. We had our first hardheads and only our second sighting of pelican. There was a huge flock of fairy martins feeding over the ponds with some tree martins with them. A few cockatiels flew over and plenty of crested pigeons where in the general area. We continued our search for bustards and only went a short distance before three were located, all adult males I believe.


Next on our list was chestnut-backed buttonquail, a tall order as it is becoming a tough bird to get in the Top End. We tried a locality west of Katherine where I have had the species previously. Initially we flushed up quite a few brown quail but then realised some in fact were chestnut-backed buttonquail. My beaters performed adroitly and in all we flushed up about ten chestnut-back buttonquail and had some half-decent views in flight. As we were leaving, a group of northern rosella flew across the road, which we followed and caught up with.


We spent a little time searching for the shrike-tit west of Katherine where I have seen them years ago but still no joy. Our first apostlebirds were seen along here as well as red-backed kingfisher. A fantastic giant stick insect that sadly had been hit by a car was found along the road. We caught up with Trisha for lunch at one of the roadside rest areas. Continuing west, we birded a side-road south of the highway. Here we had our best views yet of Gouldians, seeing some full colour adults as well as quite a few juveniles. In all, about thirty were observed. Another pallid cuckoo was seen as were more varied sittella and a black-chinned (aka golden-backed) honeyeater was heard. Further south in some swampy country, we found a Merton's water monitor, the first I have seen since the poisonous cane toads came through and all but wiped them out. Also along here we had a single adult pictorella mannikin drinking at a roadside pool but it got away before everyone got onto it and no others were forthcoming.  Our first flock of masked woodswallows was also seen along this road. We headed for Victoria River.


Day 10
2 June 2017
Victoria River to Timber Creek

First thing we did was search the cane grass for purple-crowned fairywrens at the Victoria River. The previous poor wet seasons made the species harder to find so I was hoping for better results this year.  Around the old bridge they were still scarce with only one group seen and they did not particularly want to be observed. Down at the boat ramp they were less wary and about three groups were seen including several coloured males. Olive-backed orioles were also seen along the river. We were keeping an eye out for yellow-rumped mannikin but none were about here but  we tried a bit further west and were successful finding both yellow-rumped mannikin and star finch, two of our target birds. The star finches were in large flocks consisting of mainly juveniles and we had to search through them to find the adults. Likewise the yellow-rumps except they were also mixed up with chestnut-rumped mannikins. The juveniles of these species are difficult to tell apart so we worked on finding adult yellow-rumps and had some nice scope views. These were the only ones seen for the whole tour. They were feeding quite low in the cane grass so didn't stay in view for long. We walked down to the river to see if any finches were drinking but none was seen. The main sighting of interest here was an azure kingfisher feeding in an area of open water and perching on boulders; I can't recall having seen the species do this before. We headed west for Timber Creek where lunch was ready. Along the way, several wedge-tailed eagles were feeding on road kill.


After lunch and a rest we hurled ourselves back into the fray. There was burn-off going on near the town so we stopped to watch the spectacle. The black kites were having a fine old time catching grasshoppers flushed by the fire. A brown quail was flushed out but managed to avoid all the predators. A mouse also ran out but changed its mind halfway across the road and ran back again. Whether it was a native rodent or house mouse I couldn’t say.


We headed down a side road that offers up surprises, south of Timber Creek. We had not gone far when bird activity caught our attention and we stopped to check it out. Lo and behold we spotted what appeared to be a black-eared cuckoo. Closer inspection proved that this was indeed the case and good views were had. It is the first black-eared cuckoo I have seen in the Top End for many years, perhaps as far back as 2002. They occurred with some regularity about Yellow Waters in Kakadu in the 1990s. It’s a scarce bird and now you’d be lucky to see one anywhere.


A little further up the road a group of sittella was preening each other. A couple more Horsfield's bushlark were also seen and finches kept coming with more Gouldians, long-tails and masked finches seen. We continued on further south. Some more bird activity caught our attention. We were in for another big finish to the day as here we had good views of varied lorikeets, pictorella mannikins, red-browed pardalotes as well as more masked woodswallows. About thirty pictorellas were seen, of which the majority were juveniles but we had some nice adults in the scope. No others were seen for the rest of the tour. Eight species of finch were seen for the day and somehow we managed to miss double-bars!


We went for a short spotlight drive after a dinner cooked by Trisha on the verandah of our accommodation. We were hoping for spotted nightjar, which was becoming a bogeybird; a thought that was confirmed as we failed to see it yet again. We did however see another bush stone-curlew and tawny frogmouth as well as our first euro.

Day 11
3 June 2017
Timber Creek to Kununurra
It was quiet out at the Victoria River. No yellow-rumped mannikins were seen, so it was fortunate we had them yesterday. There were flocks of star finches about the canegrass, consisting mainly of juveniles although we did see some adults. An estuarine crocodile sunned itself on the river bank.

Our next stop was up the escarpment overlooking Timber Creek. There was a beautiful, flowering eucalypt Eucalyptus phoenicea as well as other nectar-producing trees and honeyeaters and other nectar feeders were abundant. Other shrubs and wildflowers were in full bloom and the whole area looked fantastic. We had our first grey-fronted honeyeaters up here as well as good numbers of banded and rufous-throated honeyeaters. A few varied lorikeets were feeding in the flowering eucalypts but were elusive. Woodswallows were also attracted to all the flowering trees and we had big mobs of masked and our first white-browed woodswallows.

We ventured down the side road, south of Timber Creek,  where we had had many great sightings yesterday. Going a  little further south this time we added two birds to our list, singing honeyeater and hooded robin. It is close to the edge of the range of both species. Just a single hooded robin was seen and a couple of pairs of singing honeyeater. Big mobs of overwintering trillers were seen down here and a couple of rufous songlark. We headed back to Timber Creek for lunch beside the creek. After lunch we had another sighting of a pair of the delightful buff-sided robin.

Devouring all the fruit on board we then headed to the quarantine station on the Western Australian border. On the drive to the border we had another sighting of bustard beside the road and a family of brolga was seen. Another spotted harrier was also observed and we had our first zebra finches. A nice flock of Australian pratincole was seen in a floodplain area. The landscape along the escarpment consisted of tumbled red boulders and rotund boabs of myriad formations.

Between the WA border and Kununurra we had our first Australian magpies. We made Kununurra in good time and stopped by the lake to bump up our day list. The last birds added for the day included our first white-browed crakes and Australian reedwarblers, and lots of other waterbirds such as green pygmy-geese and jacanas. At our accommodation by the lake thousands upon thousands of little red flying foxes emerged from their day roost and poured out across the lake.

We headed down to the Pump House restaurant, a stone's throw from our accommodation. While the Pump House may lack the serenity of Peewees in Darwin, the quality of the meals is comparable.

Day 12
4 June 2017
Kununurra to Lake Argyle
We headed off at 5 am for our 6 am booking with Greg from Lake Argyle Cruises. The water levels this year were high because of the big Wet, which meant that the islands where the yellow chats normally nest were well under water. We were assured there was still one island out of the water where we'd find chats. We stopped part way across the lake in a sheltered cove to have some breakfast. The big Wet generally and the high water levels in Lake Argyle made waterbird numbers lower but most of the species were still present. This is the only place on the tour where we see pied cormorant. Some of the birds at the breakfast spot included white-bellied sea-eagle, four species of egret, glossy ibis, white-browed crake and very close up views of jacana.

After breakfast we continued out across the water, eventually stopping at some extensive rocky outcrops way out in the lake. Here we had our first short-eared rock wallabies sheltering in their little caves. Nearby we had our first pair of sandstone shrike-thrush, having missed them in Kakadu NP. The male sang for us although he kept his distance. We headed further south on the lake until we reached a large flat island, which we hoped had yellow chat on it. Sure enough Greg was on the money and we had a yellow chat before we left the boat. We disembarked and spent a couple of hours on the island. Tremendous views were had of male, female and immature yellow chats. Other species seen on the island included Australian pratincole, black-fronted and red-kneed dotterels, red-capped plover, a single Australian bustard, a variety of ducks and our first freshwater crocodiles. An Australian bustard, one of the world’s heaviest  flying birds, laboriously took flight. Kununurra-grown melons were on offer on our return to the boat.

On the way back we stopped off at another rocky outcrop where we saw several white-quilled rock-pigeons. A couple of birds were seen in flight so we could see the dramatic white wing patches while another sat up on a rock ledge and just looked at us somewhat bemused. Further along, a jabiru allowed a close up view.

A birding cruise with Greg of Lake Argyle Cruises is a must for birders visiting the Kimberley.

We lunched in the picnic area at Lake Argyle. Our group had grown with the addition of Greg and Judy from the NSW north coast and my mate Dave, currently working on Groote Eylandt. There were quite a few birds about the picnic ground but I think the most spectacular was the local form of pied butcherbird. What a beautiful bird this is with so much more white on the back than ours down south and such a clean white. We also had an orange tiger butterfly here.

Appetites sated, we started birding our way back to town. We hadn'tt gone far before we stopped for our first osprey carrying a fish back to its mate on a nest on a power pole.

We stopped again at some flowering grevillea where we had our best looks yet at red-collared lorikeets looking garish amongst the bright orange grevillea flowers. A single grey-fronted honeyeater was seen. As we walked off the road verge a covey of brown quail exploded from under our feet.

A little further along we stopped for a hobby sitting in a boab tree. The hobby moved off and we found a coloured male red-backed fairywren with a group of jennies. Perhaps not in full colour, he still looked handsome. After seeing so many groups of brown birds it was good to finally see a coloured bird.

Back on the highway we came to a screeching halt when we spotted about half a dozen spinifex pigeons on the roadside. Nearby we encountered another congregation of Gouldians, consisting of a few adults but mostly juveniles.

Back to town most of the troops called it a day but a few continued on to look for crake and Australian little bittern around the lake. We managed to find more white-browed crakes and heard spotless crake call but it was reluctant to come out and we only had glimpses of dark shapes. (We used to record Baillon's crake and little bittern regularly but have not recorded either species here in recent years). We surrendered to the light even though it was only 5:30. The oom oom call of a tawny frogmouth could be heard while we dined by the lake.


Day 13
5 June 2017
Kununurra to Wyndham
We were in for a big day as we headed to Wyndham to bird the mangroves and the Parry's Lagoon area. This is one of my favourite days of the tour because you never know what surprises await you at Parry’s. Over the last couple of Top End tours, all the big shallow lagoons have been dry but after the big Wet this year I was confident they'd have water.

Four roadside bustards was our most notable sighting en route to Wydham. Diamond doves crossed the road in big numbers. At the Grotto, in a short time, we had several white-quilled rock pigeons, sandstone shrike-thrushes, bar-breasted honeyeaters and more Gouldian finches. Mistletoebird was recorded; a species once common all over Australia but now observed less frequently.


With the tide dropping, we headed for the Wyndham mangroves. It's always hard going in the mangroves without the luxury of a boat or a boardwalk. We worked our way in and soon had great views of mangrove golden whistler. Several birds were seen including adult males and female and immature birds. This was followed by several sightings of mangrove grey fantail. We worked hard for white-breasted whistler and eventually most of the troops had a view. We saw about three birds all males but none was overly cooperative. Other sightings in the mangroves included Arafura fantail, yellow white-eye and many mangrove gerygone.


There were a good number of red-backed kingfishers about Wyndham; about fifteen recorded for the day. Out near the jetty we had our only adult Brahminy kite for the tour. Striated heron was also seen here which we had not had since Darwin. We had an early lunch in Wyndham as we were heading for Parry's and there's little shade out that way.


At Parry's, shallow lagoons were covered in birds as far as the eye could see. The bare floodplain areas between the lagoons were dotted with hundreds of Australian pratincoles; the most I have ever seen here in nearly thirty years of visiting the area. It was difficult to know were to start. We picked out a couple of lagoons that appeared to have a good diversity and headed for them. A fair amount of leg work was required as the ground was still soft in places and treacherous to drive on. The birds in the biggest numbers were grey teal (100s) royal spoonbill (100+), little egret (100s), glossy ibis (1000s) and pied herons (100s). The little egrets and royal spoonbills were feeding in big cooperative flocks and we marveled at them working together. Further out on the floodplain about thirty brolga were feeding.


Our attention turned to shorebirds. Probably the most numerous were red-kneed dotterels that were in the hundreds. (I've rarely seen more anywhere in Australia). We searched hard for painted snipe but none materialized. We did find a couple of Australian spotted crakes; a bird not often encountered this far north. Some migratory waders were located and we had greenshank (30), marsh sandpiper (2), black-tailed godwit (≈30) curlew sandpiper (≈10) and red-necked stint (≈100). Non-migratory waders, including white-headed stilt and red-capped plover, were in big numbers. The red-capped plovers were nesting and some had small young. There were also a few gull-billed terns around, which appeared to be seeking out the red-capped plover chicks — the adult plovers became highly agitated every time a gull-billed tern came close. (The gull-bills like to hunt over dry plains and I have seen them on the Hay plain catching relatively large reptiles). Whiskered terns were also present as was a solitary jabiru.

We headed over towards the permanent lagoon and looked out over the magnificent floodplain from the top of the hill. Huge squadrons of plumed whistle-duck could be seen in the distance beside the lagoon. We continued on over the floodplain searching for a suitable area of grassland to search for buttonquail. Once found, we spread out in formation and commenced our beat. Our first quarry was not a bird at all but a northern nail-tailed wallaby. We had nice views of this quant creature as it bounced around, stopping to look at us occasionally. As we watched the nail-tail bound away we noticed it flushed up buttonquail while the best we could do was a couple of Horsfield's bushlark.


We kept at it and eventually started flushing red-chested buttonquail. In all, we flushed about ten red-chested plus one darker buttonquail that I believe was red-backed buttonquail. Another nail-tail was flushed and again it flushed up buttonquail as it bounced away. I suggested we’d do better if we bounced through the grass rather than walking sedately. (A couple of the troops had already taken a tumble so my suggestion wasn't enthusiatically adopted). A pair of swamp harriers was seen here, another first for the tour. But that is not all: as we started heading back a magnificent pair of flock bronzwing flew overhead.


We only finished up with around one hundred bird species for the day but the quality was excellent, making it one of the best days of the tour. We kept a look out for spotted nightjar on the drive home in the dark but again dipped. Still, this was an excellent day.


Day 14

6 June 2017
Optional Kununurra to Mitchell Plateau charter. A big day and a tough one to boot.

While we had lost Gabrielle, who, having allready seen black grasswren, flew home today, our ranks had grown with Judy, Greg and Dave, who had been with us for a couple of days as well as John, Shirley, Paul and Chris who joined us for the Mitchell Plateau day. Texan, Barbara, who had been on the whole tour had wisely opted to do the less arduous Purnululu NP flight (aka Bungle Bungle) and had a fabulous time.

Having breakfasted in the small hours, we were out at the airport at five o'clock and a group of twelve of us left for the Mitchell Plateau about three-quarters of an hour later on a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan. As we flew over the Wyndham area we witnessed the King River snaking towards the ocean and wonderful patterns fashioned by mangroves and mudflats.

We arrived at the plateau in good time and the helicopter pilots in two Long Rangers turned up a couple of minutes later and had us close to the campground in about a quarter of an hour. (We landed 500 metres or so from the campground as there's a curfew until 8 am). So far everything was going like clockwork. However one of the pilots told me something that had me worried. He said that a recent burnoff at the campground had got away and had burned the opposite side of the creek from that which had been burned last year. This was concerning as the black grasswren (the main reason we were there) had been burnt out on one side of the creek last year and if the opposite side had been burnt out this year that could mean the grasswrens could be gone from all known localities. I wasn't going to panic until I saw the situation on the ground. The first birds we saw on alighting were several white-quilled rock-pigeons feeding in a burnt area at the base of the rocks.

There were about five target birds to see at the plateau. These were, in order of importance, black grasswren, Kimberley honeyeater, variegated fairywren (race rogersi), Kimberley form of partridge pigeon (yellow orbital skin around the eyes) and Kimberley form of silver-backed butcherbird (which has partial breast band). Whether these latter three species will ever be elevated to full species status is anyone's guess but, in my opinion, the fairywren certainly should be. However all three are distinctive and well worth the search.


We proceeded down to the locality where I had seen the pair of black grasswrens last year. My fears were realised when I saw that it had indeed been recently burnt out. I tried to keep a confident face as I scouted about for some unburnt habitat. A few small patches were found but not enough to hold the grasswren. The silver-backed butcherbird started calling about this time and although I was preoccupied with searching for the grasswren we made some effort to see it. It came in a bit closer and one or two of our group had a brief look at it. It was reluctant to come any closer and it was getting rather windy so I did not persevere with it, being focused on finding the grasswren. We had not gone far when a trio of of the rogersi race of variegated fairywren suddenly appeared in the burnt area. This species is almost as hard to find as the grasswren. It was two males and a female and we had cracking views and managed a few photos. This was all great but it did not help us with the grasswren. We made an effort to get the Kimberley honeyeater while we were in the right habitat but none was forthcoming. I decided to try the other side of the creek where the grasswren had been before they were burnt out in 2016. I didn’t know how long it took for them to recolonise an area after it had been burnt. We worked our way across the creek and out the other side. The Kimberley honeyeater was spotted here and we had great views of this recently split species. This was not the order I like to get these Kimberley species but if the grasswren was next, I wasn’t complaining.

We searched all the places where I had seen grasswren over the last five and more years but there was no joy. The clock was ticking as we had to be back to board the helicopters at 1:30 pm. It was now about 10. I was putting on a brave face but starting to quietly panic. I decided to let some of the group rest and the more agile could scout about amongst the boulders at a faster pace. After about thirty minutes of scrambling over boulders Chris glimpsed some movement out of the corner of his eye — black grasswrens! We finally had a pair at about 10:30 am. They were quite confident as they often are and they came close. Now all I had to do was find my way back to the rest of the group and then find a negotiable track back to where we had found the grasswrens.

I located the troops without too much trouble and started on the route back. After a couple of dead ends I thought I was getting in the ballpark. I called out but heard no reply. I was still mindful of the ticking clock as I pushed on.  I called out over the next ridge and was relieved when shouts and a loud whistle were heard.

The group was reunited and everyone had great looks at the grasswren. We had a rest and a drink and made our way back for a a lunch of sandwiches that Trisha had made. On the morning’s trek, a large grey macropod species was seen — a mother and young. They must have been a grey form of euro, which has many different colour forms throughout Australia depending on the colour of the rocks in which it lives. Dave also saw a black-breasted buzzard. This was a new trip bird as strangely we had not seen any so far. Also along the creek we had a white-necked heron, an odd sighting for where we were and certainly the first I have seen on the Mitchell Plateau.


After lunch we still had half an hour to try and find the yellow-eyed partridge pigeon, which hangs out around the campground. With a couple of minutes to spare we found a pair of partridge pigeons.  We got back to the helicopters only to find that one refused to start. Steve had to catch a connecting flight to Perth that afternoon (and then a domino line of connecting flights back to Oregon, and we were cutting it fine without a mechanical problem). The first helicopter made a return trip to pick up the rest of the group and had to refuel as well. This was done in good time and we only lost about thirty minutes. Back at Kununurra Trish was waiting to whisk Steve across to the Kununurra Airport to catch his flight. All was good and Steve made his flight with minutes to spare. What a day!


Day 15

7 June 2017
Kunnanurra to Katherine
With the tour over, we headed back to Katherine with most of our tour group still on board and with Dave, Greg and Judy still with us. We managed a bit of birding along the way. At Lake Kunnanurra we had another attempt for Australian little bittern to no avail. However, we had a couple of surprises here. These was a pair of pink-eared duck that looked incongruous amongst the water lilies and green pygmy-geese and wandering whistle-ducks. Also here we had our first ever dusky moorhen in the Kimberley. An azure kingfisher was also seen along the lake edge.
We had a big dingo day with five seen. One young dog was very quiet and came right up to us. You can see how strong and muscular they are up close.


Sightings of interest in the morning between the Western Australian border and Timber Creek included our first group sighting of a pair of black-breasted buzzards. Many hundreds of diamond dove came down to drink at waterholes in a floodplain area.

Other raptors seen this morning included little eagle, our second for the tour, spotted harrier and Australian hobby. This was also our best day for wedge-tailed eagles with seven seen for the day, mainly feeding on road kill. Back towards Katherine we had a couple of common bronzewing fly across the road a new trip bird. At our last stop for the day about 40 km west of Katherine we had a group of varied sittella and heard the call of a black-chinned honeyeater aka golden-backed.


Day 16

8 June 2017
Katherine to Darwin
We didn't have a lot of birding time as we planned to be at Darwin airport by noon. We stopped at Pine Creek for about an hour and had a nice time watching the hooded parrots feeding on burnt ground. Our only other sighting of note was another black-breasted buzzard just a little south of Coolalinga. It's the closest to Darwin I've ever seen this species. I was hoping it was going to be a square-tailed kite as we had not seen one on the tour. I think it's the first time ever we have missed square-tailed kite on a Top End tour; most years one or two are encountered. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time. What a bloody marvellous tour it had been. We had seen nearly all our target birds and with such a lovely bunch of birders on board. Thank you to the Top End tour participants: Gabrielle, Glen, Ros, Barbara, Jim and Steve, and the birders that joined us in Kununurra.


2018 Top End itinerary