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Queensland, Cairns and Cape York : Kingfishers, cockatoos and kookaburras


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It’s been 30 years since I’ve been to Cape York, north of Cairns. The first trip was an overland camping trip in 1991, way before I was interested in birds. This year I decided to take a winter break and fly north to the sun for a visit to the Iron Range NP that I’ve heard described as a Holy Grail for Australian birders. I booked Doug Herrington, owner of Birdwatching Tropical Australia for 10 days to show me the birds of the far north.


I left a snowy Hobart and arrived in balmy, tropical Cairns 9 hours later. The good weather didn't last long and most of the trip was dogged by grey skies, wind and even rain which is very unusual and disappointing during a Queensland winter!


Doug arrived at 7 am the next morning and we drove north through isolated settlements such as Musgrave, Lakeland Downs and Laura - some of them just a roadhouse offering food, fuel and possibly a campground. Lakeland Downs was our morning tea stop and as it was Sunday the Pacific Islanders who harvest the fruit and vegetables were attending church. We arrived at Artemis Station in time for a picnic lunch and watched the Magpie-larks and Pied butcher birds hanging out. Doug decided to try for Black-breasted Buzzard with no luck. Just a little further down the road we found a circling female Red Goshawk. There were many other birds high in the trees including Yellow Honeyeaters, Rainbow bee-eater, Varied Sitella and Mistletoebird.

The Golden-shouldered Parrots were at the feeders at Artemis Station.








Sue Shepherd runs the Artemis Nature Fund a program to bring the Golden-shouldered Parrot back from the brink by habitat restoration and a feeding program.  There were many Little Friarbirds in the trees and a Bar-shouldered Dove fossicked under the feeders watched by a Great Bowerbird.




Great Bowerbird


Doug made dinner back at the accommodation- cold chicken and salad, jelly and custard. The accommodation is in transportable dongas, basic but adequate. Dongas have become the backbone of mid-range outback accommodation. They come in a range of sizes and comfort - this trip was a bit like basic, better, best with Artemis Station being basic, Green Hoose being better and Musgrave Roadhouse the best.


429033528_0004-Dongaexterior.JPG.100c6c57dd91b0b4346ecc85fe31539c.JPGArtemis Station dongas


1997734412_0170-Donga1.JPG.9b10eed3565239e9875a22691cdeaf01.JPGGreenhoose Donga




This morning the Magpie Geese honked as they flew over Artemis. Breakfast was at Doug’s - fruit, muesli and weetbix.




The Golden-shouldered Parrots didn’t show so we drove down to a pretty water lily covered dam where we saw Green Pygmy Geese, Comb-crested Jacana, Whistling Kite, Forest Kingfisher and an agile wallaby. Dipped on the Red Goshawk.



Green pygmy geese


Further down the road we saw a brolga, a pair of White-necked Storks, Masked Finches, Bar-breasted, Blue-faced and Yellow Honeyeaters before starting the long drive north to Iron Range National Park.


Bar-breasted Honeyeater


Blue-faced Honeyeater


We passed a very busy Musgrave Roadhouse where the parking area resembled a city construction site parking area. 




There is an alarming amount of traffic for so early in the season. There were a couple of Wedge-tailed Eagles along the way. Diesel at Coen cost $2.57 per litre. Driving north we crossed flooded creeks and travelled over both gravel and bitumen roads. There is a new bridge being built at the Archer River where the water rises up to 15 metres in the wet season. There is still a Toyota Ute now filled with sand - a casualty of the last wet season.




After Archer River the road was mostly bitumen, we turned off to Portland Roads, crossed the Wenlock River and had lunch.




These male Tree Snakes fell onto the Lockhart River Road, wrestling for dominance.






Crossed more flooded creeks and arrived in Lockhart River for a supermarket stop. I visited the library and Doug checked out the Nonda Plum tree much beloved by the Palm Cockatoo. Unfortunately the fruit has finished so we drove to Quintal Beach and checked the Beach Almond, also favoured by these exotic parrots. Stopped into the sewerage ponds where we saw Rajah Shelduck, Cattle Egrets, Welcome Swallow, Golden-headed Cisticola, Rainbow Bee-eater, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike and Australian Swiftlets.


Rajah Shelduck

There was an interesting WW2 display at the Lockhart River Airport that covered the activities of the allied army in 1942 following the Battle of the Coral Sea. The area surrounding Lockhart River was a US army base and there were many relics of the war years around the coast. We arrived at Greenhoose on the edge of the rainforest and settled in for the evening.

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Glad to see this report...A trip I hope to do one day when we return to Australia!  Had to look up what a "donga" was :)


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@janzinCape York is a wonderful destination, I hope you get to visit someday. Its home to some fabulous endemics such as the Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Frill-necked Monarch and White-faced Robin.


Breakfast today is at 6.45 before an early start at Quintal Beach where a single Palm Cockatoo nibbled on beach almonds. The wind played havoc with that magnificent crest!






We went back to Greenhoose for tea and took a walk through the Bush where the site of the old WW2 bakery was very busy with Spectacle and Frill-necked Monarchs, an immature Yellow-breasted Boatbill and Rufous Fantail.



Yellow-breasted Boatbill juvenile


Further down the track on the river bank we saw Rufous Shrike-Thrush, White-faced Robin, Shining Flycatcher and White-eared Monarch.




Rufous Shrike-thrush


White-eared Monarch


After lunch we bashed our way to the “Hilton”, a tree used by Palm, Red-cheeked and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos but no birds were around. The Rufous Shrike-Thrush and Rufous Fantail were hanging around the trail. The Magnificent Riflebird didn’t appear at his display perch, so we wandered along the path looking for Northern Scrub-robin and Tropical Scrub-Wren, however it was the Frill-necked Monarch that stole the show.






This Large-Billed Gerygone sat quietly over a peaceful river.





The Eclectus Parrots screeched in the trees but didn’t show, unlike this Water Python we found whilst spotlighting.






Next morning we eat breakfast on the deck watching the brush turkeys scratching around the garden and hoping that the weather will be kind. The first stop was on the entrance road looking unsuccessfully for Eclectus Parrots and Yellow-billed Kingfisher, although a yellow streak that flew across the road could only have been a YBK. The wind and overcast conditions make birding tough today. Later we went to a quarry for White-streaked Honeyeaters and found a Mistletoebird before a stop at the Mt Tozer lookout and then staked out a grove of grevilleas that attracted Dusky Honeyeaters.









Dusky Honeyeater.



Before lunch we walked down the old Coen Road where a Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and Tawny-breasted Honeyeaters were more obliging. A Magnificent Riflebird hugged the shadows, we heard his rustling wings in flight - a dead giveaway that a Riflebird is nearby.  Also seen down the road were Orange-footed Scrubfowl and Spectacled Monarch.










This afternoon Doug drove to Chilli Beach where a Bar-shouldered Dove, Spangled Drongo and Rainbow Bee-eaters showed along the way. Chilli Beach was not living up to its reputation as an iconic Cape York destination, however imagine how beautiful it could be on a fine day.







Portland Roads is a tiny coastal town with a big history.






After the Battle of the Coral Sea Portland Roads became a busy port supplying the Gordon Airfield, a bomber base built about 25 kms inland. This is the site of the former wharf.












Today a large 3 metre saltwater river croc patrolled the bay and the mangroves.







Birds seen were a Beach-stone Curlew and Eastern Reef Egret.



Eastern Reef Egret



Beach-stone Curlew



Dinner tonight is at Out of the blue cafe before spotlighting on the way home where we saw 2 Brown Tree Snakes.





This White-lipped Tree Frog welcomed us back to Greenhoose.

















Edited by Treepol
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This morning the brush turkeys joined us for breakfast before we headed out early in search of the Eclectus Parrot.






This Snake-necked turtle was fishing around on the creek crossing where he would have been flattened by a 4WD and caravan. Doug waded in and rescued him after which he gratefully zoomed towards deeper water.




Just down the road the male Eclectus Parrot flew out of the nest, squawking. The female looked out of the nest hole before ducking out of sight as three big trucks carrying construction equipment rumbled by putting an end to the sighting. It’s too windy to try for White-streaked Honeyeater so we returned to Old Coen Road where Graceful Honeyeater, Olive-backed sunbird, Tropical Scrubwren and Rufous Shrike-Thrush showed well.


Graceful Honeyeater


A White-faced Robin showed a treat.




An Azure Kingfisher perched at a roadside creek.






We returned to Greenhoose for tea before heading back to the poo ponds. Doug heard the call of the Yellow-billed Kingfisher, slammed on the brakes and we found this little beauty.




Down at Quintal Beach it was blowing a gale, the only birds around were a pair of hardy Pied Oystercatchers, a pair of silver gulls and a common tern.





A Rufous Fantail, Fairy Gerygone and the attention seeking Rufous Shrike-Thrush are jumping around back at Greenhouse.


Rufous Fantail


Rufous Shrike-thrush


A short walk down to the old bakery site delivered the endemic Green-backed Honeyeater.




Later we took a drive out to the Eclectus Parrot site but we were spotted before I could get any photos - these birds have very sharp eyesight. Later on we found a Wompoo Pigeon - this bird helpfully calls out its name, wom-poo, wom-poo. We tried unsuccessfully for good views of the Magnificent Riflebird as he shuttled backwards and forwards across the road shuffling his wings. This evening Doug and I went looking for spiders in the rainforest, found some very furry critters with 8 beady eyes.




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Very nice report @Treepol.  The Iron Ranges are on my wish list as well (so is most of Queensland for that matter). 



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@AtdahlI think you would enjoy Cape York, we saw quite a few reptiles and all but 2 of the endemic birds.


Today we begin the long drive south to Musgrave. The brush turkeys are around and the Yellow-Spotted Honeyeater was feeding in the white mulberry tree outside my room.



The female Eclectus Parrot was on the nest but wasn't in the mood to pose for photos. Once again it was too windy to try for White-streaked Honeyeaters. We drove through the rainforest, entered the heathland and then re-joined the Peninsula Development Road for the trip to Musgrave Roadhouse. Driving south we saw Rainbow Lorikeets, Wedge-tailed Eagles and Torresian Crows. We stopped at Coen but the Little Black Flying Fox colony had moved on before a late morning tea nearby a roadside dam where Rainbow Bee-eaters chased insects and a pair of Pacific Black Ducks paddled amongst the water lilies. Arrived at Musgrave Roadhouse in time for a late lunch. 

This afternoon we drove by the Red Goshawk nest where the female was sitting dozing on a branch and gave excellent views.




Further along the road we saw Diamond Dove, female White-winged triller, Masked Finch, Peaceful Dove, Brolgas, Swamp and Spotted Harriers, Australian Pratincole, Masked Lapwing, Little Egret, a Golden Orb Spider and an Australian Bustard. The welcome blue skies returned this afternoon.

Diamond Dove


White-winged Triller


Masked Finch


Peaceful Dove




1087357102_0383-Harrier.JPG.93efce6b3bb0a863f7b8f74e99547430.JPGSpotted Harrier


Australian Pratincole and Masked Lapwing


Australian Bustard


The Nifold Plain is a Serengeti-like landscape sans wildebeest but with magnetic termite mounds.






We had dinner near a water lily covered waterhole where a family of Forest Kingfishers fished for dinner and a Magpie Goose settled for the night.










An Australian Hobby perched in a dead tree while it’s offspring demolished one of the young kingfishers.


Australian Hobby


Later, over 100 Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flew over at dusk, some landed on the road for a while as the sun slipped below the horizon on the Nifold Plain.










Just after sunset it was time to go spotlighting- we saw a Barking Owl, 3 Barn Owls, 4 Bush-stone curlews and numerous Spotted Nightjars.


Barking Owl


Barn Owl


1059717833_0256-SpottedNightjar.JPG.fabd0a70fb4d5124f6388aea6f2210df.JPGSpotted Night-jar

Otherwise the drive back to Musgrave was pleasantly cool and uneventful.

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We left Musgrave Roadhouse at 7 am and headed back out over the Nifold Plain, retracing yesterday’s trip through beautiful Lakefield NP.


211016442_0257-MusgraveLandingStrip.JPG.075aad09e91863f8246d0507f606ea8a.JPGMusgrave landing strip






Diamond Doves were our companions for most of the day. A single Black-throated Finch had joined this flock for breakfast.




These Pied Stilts waded in a shallow muddy pool just along the road from a flock of Star Finches.







A family of Australian Bustards stood by the roadside.




A flock of Red-backed Fairy Wrens flew across the road, the colourful males hugging the foliage. A Grey-backed Butcherbird perched nearby. Bar-breasted and Banded Honeyeaters were out early today. Morning tea was at the site of the Breeza Homestead where Doug discovered a St Andrews Cross Spider.






A Great Egret stood at the waterhole behind the site. Further down the road a large flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flew down the road and were joined by some noisy Sulphur Crested Cockatoos - the contrast of the black and white birds against the unfamiliar blue sky was spectacular.




Lunch today is at the site of the Old Laura Homestead, home to the O'Beirne family who were early pioneers in the district.




The last bird sighting of the day were the white-bellied form of the Crimson Finch (evangelinae ssp).




A Lace monitor is camouflaged by a pile of roadside leaves.




The outback seems far behind us as we drive into Port Douglas, a very busy resort town north of Cairns. My accommodation here is the Port Douglas Motel, a funky 1970s place where my furniture is coloured burnt orange and lime green. Its strange to be back in town, where its noisy, crowded and the traffic is fairly constant - I'm missing the outback already. 


0261 - Yellow snowflakes.JPG

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Really interesting TR, thank you.  Golden-shouldered parrots, just wonderful, although I reckon the star of the show is the Yellow-billed kingfisher. What a little sweetie! Such a shame that the weather wasn't kind as those beaches look amazing.

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@Galago the YBK was the bird of the trip for me. I'm so pleased that we did get to see and photograph this beautiful bird. 


Doug is waiting at 7 am for the short drive north where Olive-backed Sunbirds, a female Leaden Flycatcher, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Peaceful Doves and Chestnut-breasted Munia’s aka Spice finches or Nutmeg Mannikins are into a breakfast of insects or seeds.


Olive-backed Sunbird


Leaden Flycatcher (female)


A Spangled Drongo perches on a Gate. A pair of Orange-footed Scrubfowl scratch and scrape at their enormous nest mound. Down the road Fairy Martins perch and preen on a fence.




A family of Beach-stone curlews wander around Newell Beach.




Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos squawk in the pine trees while we have morning tea. Arboreal termites have built a sturdy nest close to the beach.






A Nankeen Kestrel has found a rocky perch.




The roadside fence posts are also handy perches for White-breasted Woodswallows. The sky on the coast is growing grey and threatening rain so we drive over the mountains to the Julatten area where a pair of Papuan Frogmouths have a hideaway.


Papuan Frogmouths


A juvenile Forest Kingfisher also has a fence post perch. Down a quiet road several Pale Yellow Robins are deep in the foliage and I’m grateful when this one ventures into the light.







The Brown Honeyeaters are into the grevilleas at Abattoir Swamp and a Northern Fantail poses for photos.






A local caravan park is alive with birds - noisy Rainbow Lorikeets, Apostlebirds, Galahs but sadly not the Pale Rosella I’m seeking. A Blue-winged Kookaburra sits quietly in a tree while the Apostlebirds jockey for position on a clear branch.


Blue-winged Kookaburra




The Great Bowerbird has attracted a female to his bower and she takes her time checking out the real estate. This Tawny Frogmouth is oblivious to the noise and action below the roost.




A White-backed Magpie checks around for scraps while the local galahs are making the most of a rain shower.



Weebills, Australia’s smallest bird flock into the trees at the local cemetery, where 3 White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes chase through the trees. The female Red-backed Fairy Wrens keep an eye on us, sadly the colourful male is nowhere to be seen. Doug drops me back to Port Douglas late in the afternoon.




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Today is my last day being guided by Doug and we are driving back up the Rex Range Road, traversing the Atherton Tablelands, birding all the way south. We were unsuccessful with the Blue-faced Parrot Finch but hit the jackpot with a pair of Red-backed Fairywrens.






This Scarlet for Honeyeater appeared at the next stop.




We searched in vain for a White-browed Robin, however were luckier with the Scaly-breasted Lorikeet, a lifer for me. A Blue-faced Honeyeater was climbing around a grevillea.




Doug found this Golden Orb Spider at a local caravan park together with White-cheeked Honeyeaters.






A Lewin’s Honeyeater and Rufous-throated Whistler hopped around in the foliage.


Lewin's Honeyeater


Hastie’s Swamp was busy with Plumed Whistling Ducks, while Brown Gerygone’s and an Eastern Yellow Robin posed outside the hide.


Plumed Whistling Ducks


Eastern Yellow Robin


Brown Gerygone


Other birds seen at Hastie’s were Australasian Darter, Hardhead, Grey Teal and Australia Grebe. Lake Tinaroo was peaceful this afternoon - a Black-fronted Dotterel picked along the water’s edge, Purple Swamphen strayed over the grass and a beautifully streaked Macleay’s Honeyeater chased through the foliage.



Black-fronted Dotterel


Purple Swamphen


Macleay's Honeyeater



Brush Turkeys were hanging around the car park at Lake Barrine.




We did a short walk through the rainforest where the final bird of the trip was a beauty- Victoria’s Riflebird feeding at a Bumpy Satin Ash.








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The trip seemed to end very quickly and on the last day I spent a couple of hours wandering along the Esplanade. 



Common Myna



Willie wagtail



Pied Stilt






Sulphur crested Cockatoo



Hornbill Friarbird



Australian White Ibis



Black-necked Stork aka Jabiru



Bar-tailed Godwit



Nutmeg Mannikin aka Spice Finch



Spangled Drongo

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Great trip, so many beautiful birds.  My favourite was also the lovely little Yellow billed kingfisher.

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Very nice selection of birds @Treepol.  Any luck with cuscus in the Iron Ranges?  It's a target of mine if we make it up there some day.



Edited by Atdahl
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What a wonderful selection of birds you saw, and beautiful photos.

I will also vote for the Yellow billed Kingfisher- a stunning bird

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  • 2 weeks later...

Beautiful and colourful birds but for me too, the YBK is the bird of the trip! 

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Thanks all for your kind comments and for reading along. Seems that the YBK is an all round favourite, he certainly was enchanting and well behaved, posing for at least 5 minutes for photos.


@AtdahlCuscus was high on my mammal list along with nail-tailed wallaby, dipped on both. We knew a good place to look but the wind and rain made spotlighting difficult and severely reduced the chance of spotting a spotted cuscus. Sometimes they are seen around Greenhoose but not during my stay. Something to go back for I guess.

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