In September of this year I travelled deep into Australia's Northern Territory (NT) at the kind invitation of Tourism Northern Territory. This article is the first in a series of daily round-ups, chronicling my experiences travelling from Darwin at the northern tip of Australia's Top End, through Kakadu National Park to Aboriginal Arnhem land and then down to Katherine Gorge in the heart of Australia's outback, taking in crocs, critters and cripplers all the way. The daily round-ups will be published each week for six weeks.
When thinking about how to start the first in the series, I was going to start by talking about how long and tiring the 20-odd hour flight was, and how I'd start the trip feeling like I'd been beaten up by a sumo wrestler, and that while my brain knows it's Saturday my body clock doesn't seem to know whether it's Christmas Day or Sheffield Wednesday. But, the fact is, when you arrive at a place like Darwin just as dawn is breaking and there are unfamiliar bird calls and songs coming from every tree and bush, and you rack up 15 lifers before you've even unpacked your bags, then frankly the travails of the journey getting there melt away pretty quickly.
We arrive at the Hotel Mantra on the Esplanade: a classy, modern hotel surrounded by fig and acacia trees. It's 6am and it's already 25°C; hot, humid and sweaty, but a great feeling all the same to know that you're truly in the tropics and that there is some great birding in prospect. We freshen up and head downstairs for what turns out to be an epic breakfast of eggs benedict × 2, bacon, sausage, tomato and porridge (not together, I hasten to add). After breakfast we decide to peruse the area around the hotel while we wait for our taxis to arrive to take us to our first destination, Buffalo Creek.
Around the hotel, which is no more than a few hundred yards from the sea front, we quickly rack up three species of Honeyeater (Brown, White-gaped and Rufous-banded), while wild Orange-Footed Scrubfowl pad around the scrubby flower borders of the hotel like strange prehistoric chickens. A Forest Kingfisher darts into a nearby Acacia tree and perches motionless, affording nice 'scope views for everyone. Other immediate introductions to the more common local avifauna include gaudy yellow and black Figbird, Little Friarbird, White-breasted Wood Swallow, and Wattled Plover, which is very common across Darwin and the rest of NT. Silver Gulls fly past in regular squadrons and a group of Australian White Ibis fly through, over the hotel. A great start in just 15 minutes. Then the cabs arrive and it's off to Buffalo Creek with Ben, our less-than-loquacious cabbie.
Orange-footed Scrubfowl (Mike Unwin).
Female Figbird, Australia (Mike Unwin).
Buffalo Creek is a dry monsoon forest and mangrove complex only 15 minutes from our hotel. We're dropped off and immediately the forest and scrub is alive with birds. Within minutes we've seen another three additional species of Honeyeater (Red-headed, Rufous-throated and Dusky), as well as Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles, Helmeted Friarbird, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, more Figbirds, and a beautiful delicately barred male Varied Whistler, which looks like a weird Masked Shrike, followed soon after by the female.
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike (Mike Unwin).
We decide to make our way through a gap in the forest onto the beach to check out the sandflats for waders. The tide is out and the beach stretches away into the heat haze for miles in all directions. Waders proliferate and within five minutes we've seen Great Knot, in parties of 10 feeding in the shallow tidal creeks, as well as Grey-tailed Tattler, Eastern Curlew, Red-necked Stint, Greater Sand Plover and Chestnut-headed Plover. Someone notices a beautiful Rainbow Bee-eater feeding on insects in the sand, while two Gull-billed Terns and a Caspian Tern patrol overhead for crabs and stranded fish on the ebbing tide. After 20 minutes or so of this wader festival one of our more enterprising compadres strikes gold on the forest floor bordering the beach. A fabulously beautiful, but subtly graceful, Rainbow Pitta is discovered making light work of a huge snail, which it is beating against a fallen tree. This is my first experience of Old-World pittas and what an introduction it is as we drink up fantastic views.
Rainbow Pitta, Australia (Digital Spring).
The next three hours are spent working the forest, mangrove and beach areas, adding species after species including flocks of hundreds of Whistling and Black Kites scavenging washed-up fish on the beach, and a Buff-banded Rail making its way stealthily along the muddy mangrove shoreline; the low scrubby trees are alive with Lemon-bellied Flycatchers, Double-barred Finches and two species of fantail, Northern Fantail and the rare Golden Mangrove Fantail.
An amazing morning, but at midday it's back to the hotel for a beer – a brave move indeed if, like many of us, you've had two hours sleep in the last 20 hours – and to review the species we've seen so far. In the afternoon we are picked up by our guide, the knowledgeable Chris from Fisher King Tours. His brief: to show us some of the specialities of the Darwin area.
First on the list was an unbelievable area of water called Knuckey's Lagoon. On arrival at the lagoon we were greeted with a spectacle of birds including our introduction to the famous Magpie Goose, with flocks of hundreds around the margins of the lagoon. A single regal White-bellied Sea-eagle stood preening on a post in the middle of the lagoon, flanked on adjacent posts by two Australian Darters. We spent the next 40 minutes going through the vast numbers of waterfowl present, adding Australian Black Duck, Plumed Whistling Duck, Green Pygmy Goose, Rajah Shelduck and Wandering Whistling Duck, all in very good numbers indeed. Waders, too, proliferate and within minutes we've had several Marsh Sandpipers and Wood Sandpipers, as well as at least six Australian Pratincoles, which are distinctly courser-like by virtue of long legs and a habit of running around on the wet grassy lagoon margins; then someone has a 'strange wader' in the haze at the far end of the lagoon. Originally called as a potential male Ruff it is quickly re-identified as Little Curlew, a bird that has a mystic resonance for me personally given that the last one I saw was the second British record at Cley (Norfolk) back in the 1980s – I was about 11 years old at the time.
Knuckey's Lagoon (Rob Jolliffe).
Following our time at Knuckey's lagoon, it was on to a stakeout for nesting Tawny Frogmouth. Following a few minutes of consternation as the bird proved not to be on the actual nest, we relocated it perched on a low branch, obtaining amazing views of what has to be one of the world's weirdest birds. Then, finally, on to East Point for a Champagne – well, Australian sparkling wine – sun-downer overlooking the sea while watching Terek Sandpipers, Pacific Golden Plovers, Beach Thick-knee, Red-necked Stint and the trip's first Lesser Sand Plovers, all feeding together in the tidal rock pools and mud flats. A fitting end to an amazing first day in Oz.