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Gulf country : finches, friarbirds and fairywrens


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A visit to Lawn Hill Gorge and Queensland's Gulf Country has been on my bucket list for many years. I enjoy travelling in the Australian outback where the space, stars and colours contrast with the cities and urban landscapes where I live. An almost last minute opportunity to join a Bellbird group in the far north was impossible to pass up, so I made the booking in April and held my breath, hoping that no Covid events would interrupt this adventure. I had St Christopher's blessing and the trip went ahead as planned.



Getting there


The alarm went off at stupid o’clock and I raced around doing last minute things until it was time to head to the airport for the 6 am flight from Hobart to Melbourne. This was going to be an interesting experience because half of Australia is in lockdown and I have to transit through Melbourne and Brisbane in order to connect with the onward flight to Mt Isa. This is the starting point for the 8 day Bellbird Gulf Savannah trip from Mt Isa to Cairns.


Armed with multiple permits for transit, border declaration and checkin apps I started out on a loooong 12 hour trip from Hobart to Mt Isa, with a 4 hour transit in Brisbane Airport. There were 9 passengers aboard the 737-800 plane from Melbourne to Brisbane.






Anyway, I made it to Mt Isa having met up with Helga from Bellbird at Brisbane Airport who will be one of the guides for the next 8 days. Noted author and guide Tim Dolby met us at Mt Isa Airport for the transfer to the Abacus Motel where the rest of the group had arrived earlier. We had a pleasant dinner and an early night ready to hit the road at 0730 tomorrow.



Day 1



The first stop this morning is Lake Moondarra where a pair of Purple-necked rock wallabies soaked up the morning sun. The female had an extremely large Joey in her pouch, so large that the legs and tail didn’t fit anymore.





We searched unsuccessfully for Painted Finch but found Grey-fronted Honeyeaters, an Australasian Grebe on a nest, Little Corellas, Australian Pelican (the largest of the pelican species) and a flock of feral peacocks. A former General Manager of Mt Isa Mines had a bird collection that included peacocks and peahens that were re-located to Lake Moondarra when the Manager was transferred. The population has been doing well in this area for the last 40-50 years. 






There were so many birds here it’s impossible to list them all - Glossy ibis, Hardhead, Comb-crested Jacana, Green Pygmy Goose, Australian Bustard, Spinifexbird and Black-fronted Dotterel. A Euro formerly known as a Wallaroo watched us from a hill and the shy Spinifex pigeons beat a hasty retreat. 






Australasian Grebe




Spinifex pigeons


A few photos of the Lake Moondarra landscape.









After enjoying this bird-rich site we began the long drive to Lawn Hill Gorge a 5 hour trip over rough roads. Along the way we saw Wedge-tailed Eagle, Brown Falcon, budgerigars,Masked Woodswallows and more Grey fronted Honeyeaters. Eagle-eyed Wayne spotted a Black-tailed Treecreeper and we decided to have lunch on the roadside.


Further down the road we stopped for coffee at the small town of Gregory (population 72) where Crimson Finches perched in the garden. Tonight our accommodation is at Adel’s Grove and we have all day tomorrow to explore Lawn Hill Gorge NP.









Edited by Treepol
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I will be following this TR with interest @Treepol  A 12-hour domestic journey sounds rough!


I had not heard of Hardhead ducks before - neat looking divers.   Kind of remind me of our Common Goldeneye here in North America.

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Very much looking forward to following this trip @TreepolWill bring back happy memories of our Gulf Country trip. Canoeing on the Lawn Hill Gorge one of my favourite memories.

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This is very interesting @Treepol, I had NO idea where Gulf Country is so I had to look at a map. Not on the usual birding circuit for sure. 


Looking forward to more!


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@offshorebirderthe Hardhead is a very attractive duck and stands out very well in a mixed flock, maybe its the dark colour that makes it so distinctive. @KiwiGranand @janzinthanks for your encouraging words.


Day 2


This morning Rufous-throated and Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters and Great Bowerbirds are feeding in a large tree outside the dining area at Adel's Grove, a 30 hectare property with accommodation and dining facilities that is a 5 minute drive away from Lawn Hill Gorge. Originally gazetted as a Miner's Homestead Lease in 1904 the property was later leased to Albert de Lestang in 1920 and became an experimental Botanical Garden that supplied many of the world's botanical gardens with seeds from the onsite nursery. The current property name, Adel's Grove is taken from Albert’s initials. Albert's garden, home and research papers were destroyed by fire in the early 1950s and it wasn't until 1984 that the present camp ground was opened.



Great Bowerbird



Yellow-tinted Honeyeater



Rufous-throated Honeyeater


Lawn Hill Gorge NP is home to one of the Holy Grails of Australian birding - the Purple-crowned Fairywren and we were lucky to see several pairs during our visit.



Photo: Tim Dolby.


What a gorgeous bird! The Buff-sided Robin is also present and is a real poser.






This pair of Whistling Kites perched high above the gorge.






This was our first view of the gorge and in the green depths Archer Fish are lurking, this species is well known for spitting at prey and the water here is so clear its possible to watch them watching us. Another local - the Grunter (Black Bream) also lives in the Gorge.


We leave the cool river side path and head across some open country to begin the climb up to the gorge lookout. A pair of Striated Pardalotes kept a watchful eye on us.





A tree with bright yellow flowers is known locally as the “crocodile tree” because when it flowers is the time to eat crocodile eggs.






The colours of the gorge are spectacular against the blue sky.






The views over the gorge from Indarra Lookout must be seen to be believed, what a beautiful oasis. We watched a family of Sandstone Shrike-thrushes on the opposite side of the gorge. This Ring-tailed dragon was basking on a rock and an Asian House Gecko rested a little further along the track.






After lunch back at Adel’s Grove we set out on a walk along the river- I found a quiet stretch and where Brown Honeyeaters, Crimson Finch and a Paperbark Flycatcher perched in the sun.




Paperbark Flycatcher



Crimson Finch


This Gilbert’s Dragon raced across the track in front of us.






Tomorrow we have a cruise through the gorge, a second chance of Purple-crowned Fairywren and then a 220 km drive to Burketown.





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i love fairywrens - and that purple crowned fairywren is a delight! 


Never realised Australia had so many birding/wildlife spots other than the more well known and larger reserves. So it's great that you are continuously introducing new spots to us. 

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@Kitsafarithanks - I do my best to discover and share information about new wild places in Australia (its a hard job, but someone has to do it! ;)) and thankfully there are still many new places to visit!





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Day 3


The tree near the dining room is alive with honeyeaters and Great Bowerbirds as it was yesterday and at the Lawn Hill Gorge car park the birds really put on a show - feeding Varied Lorikeet, Silver-crowned Friar Bird, Grey Shrike-thrush and Great Bowerbird.



Varied Lorikeet



Silver-crowned Friarbird



Great Bowerbird

Unfortunately the Purple-crowned fairy wren was not around for photos, so we headed for the boat station where Archer fish, catfish and Black Bream (Grunter) gather around the boat. The views are spectacular all the way up the Gorge and a sighting of a Black Bittern is a bonus bird.













We did a short walk along the river where a Sandstone Shrike-thrush perched on a rock ledge.






The return trip is no less spectacular.






Back at Lawn Hill a Black-chinned Honeyeater shows well as does a White-breasted cuckoo-shrike.






A confiding Buff-sided Robin waits along the path. After lunch we begin the drive to Burketown with a stop at a roadside creek where Zebra Finches, Peaceful Doves and Fairy Martins drink during the heat of the afternoon. We stopped at Gregory for coffees at Merv’s Place - a pop-up coffee shack.






Closer to Burketown an Australian Pratincole landed on the road just past a Wedge-tailed Eagle on a carcass.






We arrive at Burketown around 5 pm and check into the very comfortable Savannah Lodge.






White-breasted Woodswallows huddle together on an overhead wire.






Tomorrow we are birding around Burketown and then driving to Karumba on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria.



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Day 4


We ate breakfast on the lush deck at Savannah Lodge before crawling around inside the mangroves that fringe Burketown in search of Mangrove Golden Whistler. 





Photo: Tim Dolby


Burketown (population 201 in 2011) is a quintessential outback town named for the explorer Robert O'Hara Burke who made the first successful documented south-north continental crossing in 1860-61. The expedition was ill-fated as Burke together with his co-leader William Wills died of starvation and exposure on the return journey and the only survivor, John King, was saved by aborigines and rescued later in 1861 by Albert Howitt. Howitt buried Burke & Wills before returning to Melbourne.







After leaving Burketown, we stopped at the Albert River, a popular place with fishermen. 






Next stop was at a wetland fed by a thermal bore which is a mecca for the local birdlife - Radjah Shelduck, Australian White Ibis, Pied Stilt, Black-fronted Dotterel and Grey Teal were present.






Pied Stilt



Australian White Ibis



Grey Teal



Black-fronted Dotterel


After this, we began the long drive to Karumba on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Tim detoured past (the dry) Leichhardt’s Falls where Little Corellas chattered in a riverside tree.







A pair of freshwater crocodiles basked on a sunny rock.






Back on the road we passed a number of Wedge-tailed eagles on road kill.





Lunch today is in a shady dry river bed where a Red-winged parrot swayed gently in a gum tree.








Normanton is a service centre for this part of the Gulf and for us an essential fuel stop. Blue-faced honeyeaters perched on tables in the park.






Mutton Hole is a wetland just out of town and we stopped for Sarus Crane, but found instead waterlillies.






The Sarus Cranes were further along the road.






We arrived in Karumba about 4.30 pm and found our accommodation. Dinner at the pub is a popular spot where the crowd thins out shortly after sunset.










Tomorrow we are doing a mangrove cruise in search of a couple of northern specialties then birding around Karumba for the rest of the day.

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Day 5


Sunday morning at Karumba is a sleepy time, a few early market stalls are setting up outside the pub just near the barking lot.




The moon hangs over the bay as a pastel sunrise fades.





Back in town the rainbow Lorikeets are bobbing and dancing in a courting ritual and mud larks parade the empty streets. The cruise sets out at 9 am in search of mangrove specialties. The guide gives a brief introduction to the history and industry of the area, that is based on a rich prawn and crab fishery.







A Little Egret has a waterside perch and a White-bellied Sea Eagle gazes out to sea - we are told about his contrary nature. 




Red-headed Honeyeaters flit and flirt amongst the mangroves while we search successfully for White-breasted Whistler that showed briefly deep in the foliage.





A Mangrove Gerygone fluttered by also giving brief views. The White-bellied Sea Eagle was more obliging on the return trip.







After lunch we returned to the land side of the mangroves where a male White-breasted Whistler showed well and also White-gaped Honeyeaters. We searched unsuccessfully for Mangrove Robin before heading to the golf course where Royal and Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Glossy Ibis, Gull-billed tern, Pied Stilts, Grey Teal and Agile Wallabies escaped the heat of the day.



Glossy Ibis





Next stop was at a small waterhole where our approach startled a flock of Black-necked Storks and 3 brolgas. Double-barred finches drank at the water’s edge and a Rufous Whistler and Yellow White-eye flitted through the trees.





A Spangled Drongo perched in a tree by the cars. The final stop of the day was back at the coast to check for waders where we found Australian Pelican, a Whimbrel, an Eastern Curlew and White-faced Heron. The day ends with dinner at the pub. Tomorrow's plans include a return to the mangroves in search of the Robin and any other species that we can see before setting out for Georgetown.

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@Treepolthoroughly enjoying your report.  It's great that you were able to get out and see some new areas.



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@Atdahlit was a fantastic trip and I was very impressed with the scenery and wildlife of the Gulf Country.


Day 6


A pair of brolgas met us at the mangroves which were devoid of small birds possibly due to a pair of Hobby’s, a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles, a Brown Goshawk and the usual Black and Whistling Kites.



Australian Hobby



Australian Hobby


We hit the road for the long drive to Georgetown with a lunch stop at Lake Belmore where Honeyeaters were busy in the trees. Next stop was at Cumberland Dam where Black-throated Finches were our target bird. Apostlebirds drank at a seep.




The obliging Black-throated Finches showed well as did a Red-browsed Pardalote.






Cumberland Dam was alive with birds such as Comb-Crested Jacana, hardhead, Magpie Geese and Australian Pelican.





Comb-crested Jacanas




The town of Cumberland owed its existence to the discovery of gold in 1872 with production reaching a peak in 1878. The Cumberland Company dammed the Cumberland Creek to create a permanent water supply for the town and a battery and cyanide plant was built 1880. The gold rush was over by the late 1890s and today all that remains at the site is the Cumberland Chimney that was attached to the battery.




Tonight we are staying at the very birdy Latara Motel where Blue-faced, Yellow and Rufous-throated Honeyeaters, Crested Pigeons, Pale-headed Parrots, Rainbow Bee-eaters and Apostlebirds gathered around the waterhole. 



Crested pigeon


Tomorrow we are starting at Racecouse Dam before making our way to the Atherton Tablelands and Cairns.

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Day 7


There was time this morning for a visit to the waterhole at the motel where Double-barred finches were drinking, followed by a trip to the Racecourse Dam, a waterhole in a scrubby piece of land in the middle of a gravel racecourse.




A Great Egret enjoyed the morning sun together with a Black-faced Woodswallow.






Other birds seen were a White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Red-winged Parrots, a Forest Kingfisher, female White-winged Trillers, Black-throated finches and a Black-fronted Dotterel.








We had a fuel stop in Mt Surprise (diesel and coffee) where the Pied Currawongs were calling loudly. Mt Garnet was the next small town where Scarlet and Yellow Honeyeaters showed briefly. This Great Bowerbird Bower was unattended but had been lovingly created with primarily white objects.




Galahs fossicked closer to the road and noisy Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos flew overhead. This “frog” installation is a clever use of old machinery.




Lunch today is at Mt Hypipamee where Grey headed Robin, Atherton Scrubwren and Grey Fantail showed well.



Grey-headed Robin


Despite a patient wait we were unsuccessful with the Golden Bowerbird but found platypus in Yungaburra. 




The trip finished in Cairns with dinner at a restaurant along the esplanade where Bush Stone Curlew paraded in good numbers. I was looking forward to spending a further 3 days in Cairns, a very laid back tropical city.










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I had an extra 3 days in Cairns that allowed time for a day trip to the Daintree where the rainforest really does meet the sea. We took in the
views at Port Douglas on the way north, this one looking south from Flagstaff Hill before driving to Mossman Gorge, where I hadn't been before.





The Gorge is very scenic with a few wildlife surprises such as a Red-bellied Black Snake, Jungle Perch and a brightly Blue Triangle butterfly.











Lunch at a Balinese tea-house was included, during which the owner talked to us about the samples of tropical fruit on our plates - they were all delicious and the lecture during the main course was both unusual and informative. A one hour cruise on the Daintree revealed the usual suspects for this part of the world - Welcome Swallows, Australasian Darter, Saltwater Crocodiles, Sacred Kingfisher and Papuan Frogmouths although we missed Great-billed Heron.














Thornton's Peak


Our vehicle is loaded on the barge over the Daintree River where the views continue to be spellbinding and the rainforest slides down to the sea.






On the way home we stopped for tropical ice-cream and twilight views along the coast before arriving back in Cairns around 7.30 pm after a thoroughly enjoyable 12 hour trip to the Daintree - a scenic end to a short break in Australia's Gulf Country.






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