Tuesday 29 July 2014

Australia Trip - Day Six: Nourlangie Rock Region, Kakadu - Part One

Stone the crows, this was supposed to be a holiday! Once again it was a very early start this morning, but hey that is birding for you I suppose. After running the gauntlet of a flying fox frenzy outside our cabin, we packed the car at pace and sped off. During the hours of darkness in Jabiru you are likely to be splattered with an unwanted, 'fruit smoothie' if you dilly-dally whilst the giant bats are feeding.

We then headed south down the Kakadu Highway and made a turn off towards Burrunggui for our first hike of the day. The plan was to complete a six kilometre walk to Gubara and back before the heat got the better of us. As we negotiated the sandy track and found somewhere suitable to park the car we spied a Common Bronzewing feeding along the pathway. This became yet another target pigeon species we could tick off the trip list. Trust me, if you are not too keen on the Columbidae family (like me), then Australia will definitely change your opinion, I know mine did.

Taking a 'crocwise' approach heading into Gubara monsoon forest.
Photo by Nadia Shaikh

As the sun rose above the magnificent sandstone cliffs we followed the track at the base of them to a small area of monsoon forest. As this was the dry season there were only a small number of murky, inhospitable looking pools remaining but even these could harbour a crocodile or two. We needed to be extra vigilant. The problem is, when you are focussed on searching for birds, especially ones you have dreamt about seeing for as long as you can remember, then personal safety can foolishly take a back seat. Luckily, Nadia was on hand to rein me in a bit when I became a little too adventurous.

We had already spotted a few new birds like Helmeted Friarbird and White-lined Honeyeater during the stroll down, however the best was yet to come. With Nadia keeping well back from the dried up river bed and checking out the forest edges, I hiked ahead to to see what I could find. The first species I encountered was an Emerald Dove. Unfortunately it spooked all too easily and flew before I could attract Nadia's attention. 

Me doing my Tawny Frogmouth impression at Gubara.
Photo by Nadia Shaikh

Within seconds of me scanning through the darkness of the boulder strewn understory though, I picked up a another slight movement along the ground. Could it be another Emerald Dove? I thought to myself. I trained my binoculars on the area, remained as still as I could and waited patiently. Then after a short while out popped THE bird I had dreamed about seeing most since we first planned the trip, a RAINBOW PITTA. Despite the iridescent green of its back and wings, complete with an exquisite turquoise panel on the lesser and median coverts, this species blends in surprisingly well with its chosen habitat. As I tried to keep track of the bird, I beckoned over to Nadia to join me before I lost it. To her credit, she sprinted down the track as fast as her sandfly-bitten legs could carry her and after a short while the magnificent creature reappeared.

Rainbow Pitta (Pitta iris)
Photographed at East Point, Darwin, NT during October 2008.
Respectfully borrowed from 'Jas & John's Nature Photography'

We both enjoyed superb views through my scope as it hopped around the roots of the trees and flicked through the leaf litter looking for morsels to eat. It would occasionally freeze and listen for the sound of insects moving amongst the leaves, tilting its rusty crowned, black head to the side as it concentrated. Then when it had located an item of interest it would 'up-end', displaying the vibrant red coloration of its under tail coverts. It was one of those wonderful birding moments that we will both treasure for the rest of our days.

As the bird disappeared and with the temperature starting to soar it was time to make our way back. Along the track near the monsoon forest we encountered a pair of Northern Fantail and a couple of remarkable, little Mistletoebirds. As the habitat opened out a bit more we then connected with our first Black-faced Woodswallows associating with a small flock of Rainbow Bee-eaters. Both Helmeted Friarbirds and Silver-crowned Friarbirds were encountered as was the odd White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike. Near the sandstone escarpments we then spotted our first elusive Banded Fruit-Doves, a speciality of the region and several small groups of the noisy Sulphur-crested Cockatoo.  

Black-faced Woodswallow (Artamus cinereus)
Gubara, Kakadu National Park, NT.
Photo by Adam Archer

During a quick air-conditioning fix in the car we made a short drive around to the fantastically titled Anbangbang Billabong to see what we could find. This location was used during the filming of the famous 1986 movie 'Crocodile Dundee', however giant reptiles were not why we were here. This was one of those occasions when as a birder you just do not know where to look first. This relatively small stretch of water was packed full of feathered delights. Amongst the large number of Intermediate Egret, Straw-necked Ibis and Australian White Ibis there were smaller counts of both White-necked Heron and Pied Heron

Whilst admiring a couple of Royal Spoonbill though I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. Less than fifty yards away was our first Estuarine Crocodile, a pretty large three and a half metre long male. I casually mentioned my 'Saltie' sighting to Nadia who initially thought I was winding her up. It was funny to see her literally step back in shock as she located it in her bins. We would need to tread carefully whilst birding around the margins of this particular pool if we valued the use of our legs.

Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
Anbangbang Billabong, Kakadu National Park, NT.
Photo by Adam Archer

Wildfowl included 20 Magpie Goose, 4 Radjah Shelduck, 70 Wandering Whistling-Duck, 120 Plumed Whistling-Duck, 30 Green Pygmy Goose and a pair of Pacific Black Duck. There was also the odd Australasian Darter and a couple of Little Pied Cormorants in attendance as well as a few pairs of Comb-crested Jacana. Around the edges were plenty of Little Corella and Magpie-lark as well as the odd Willie Wagtail, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher and a female Leaden Flycatcher.

Magpie Geese (Anseranas semipalmata)
Anbangbang Billabong, Kakadu National Park, NT.
Photo by Adam Archer

With the heat taking its toll and our water supply close to running dry, it was time to head back to our digs in Jabiru to cool off and relax around the pool for the afternoon. As we had enjoyed ourselves so much though we decided to return to back to the Nourlangie Rock area later in the afternoon. It had been a fantastic morning.

Anbangbang Billabong with Nawurlandja behind.
Kakadu National Park, NT.
Photo by Adam Archer

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