Trip report by Inala guide Steve Davidson Feb 2022
This eight-day Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range NP) and Wet Tropics tour was the inaugural outing for Inala Nature Tours to this region in the Wet Season, and the chance to witness the small but spectacular handful of migrants that visit north Queensland from Papua New Guinea.
Between late December to April during the wet season months, Papuan (Red-bellied) Pitta, Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher and Black-winged Monarch visit the lowland tropical rainforests of Iron Range NP on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula. Our time here was concentrated mainly on seeing these birds, as well as the myriad other birds that occur here and nowhere else in Australia. And to top off the tour we had a couple of days in the Atherton Tablelands, inland from Cairns, to track down the elusive and quite breath-taking Blue-faced Parrot-Finch.
Day 1. Mon 7 Feb 22. Arrive Cairns.
We all met in the foyer of our accommodation to say hello and plan what to do with our afternoon. Across the road is the amazing and famous Cairns Esplanade so it was an easy decision. Fuelling the fire was the chance of an extremely rare and unlikely migrant in the shape of the returning Nordmann’s Greenshank. Alas we weren’t able to connect with the ‘shank but we did enjoy close looks of Varied Honeyeater, Metallic Starling, Blue-faced Honeyeater, flotillas of Australian Swiftlet overhead, Far Eastern Curlew, Great Knot, our only Striated Heron for the trip, plenty of Whimbrel and endless squadrons of Torresian Imperial Pigeon passing through.
Dinner at our favourite Balinese restaurant topped off our first day up north, redolent as it was with anticipation for what was to come…
Day 2. Tue 8 Feb 22. Fly Cairns to Lockhart River, Iron Range National Park (Kituni-Payamu).
Trying to forget about the early alarm that shattered our dreamscape, 5 bleary-eyed punters made their way to the airport this morning for the 7am flight to Lockhart River. With a ten-minute leg stretch where the only bird available to us was a lone Torresian Crow, we made the short hop to Lockhart River. The views over the Cape from the plane were unbelievable…
No sooner had we set foot on the deck and gathered the bags than we were met by the inimitable Sheree & Greg from Portland Roads – supplier of vehicle, accommodation, meals and a picnic hamper full of delicious lunch stuff as well as coffee, tea and biscuits. The hamper was a devastatingly nice touch, and came in very handy over the coming days. Our hosts even took our luggage for us back to the accommodation.
There was nothing else to do but go birding, so within half an hour and merely 500m from the airport we’d picked up Trumpet Manucode, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, Varied Triller, Hornbill Friarbird, Yellow Oriole and Rufous Shrike-thrush. A very vocal Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher gave brief but unsatisfactory views…
Driving into Lockhart River we stopped and were greeted by a big flock of Spotted Whistling-Duck (recent self-introducees from PNG and a great bird to pin down), plus Radjah Shelduck, Common Sandpiper and a dinky little flock of Green Pygmy-Goose. A tiny Black-throated Dragon afforded ridiculous close-up views next to our parked vehicle. At Quintell Beach we picked up Lesser Crested, Little and Crested Terns, and some Pacific Golden Plover.
Heading back into the rainforest and toward Portland Roads we made strategic stops along the way, as well as for the yummy lunch Sheree had bestowed upon us.
Key species came in the form of our first of the PNG migrants – an amazingly confiding Black-winged Monarch, as well as Iron Range endemics like Green-backed Honeyeater, Tropical Scrubwren, Graceful Honeyeater, the astonishingly captivating and ridiculously resplendent Frill-necked Monarch, and Magnificent Riflebird.
As the afternoon wore on we picked up some distant fly-by Red-cheeked and Eclectus Parrots, plus stonking views of our first Palm Cockatoo perched roadside.
Shattered but pretty darn happy, we eventually pulled into Portland Roads, where our palatial accommodation and an incredible meal awaited us…
A quick stint of spotlighting netted us a huge Papuan Frogmouth and a couple of Large-tailed Nightjar, their eyes reflecting like some sort of satanic laser…
We heard a couple of Red-necked Crakes from along a well-vegetated creekline, but they were a little hesitant to emerge for us. A Slatey-grey Snake crossing the track as we headed back was a nice surprise.
Day 3. Wed 9 Feb 22. Kituni-Payamu.
A bit of rain fell overnight, and we awoke to steamy scenes but a clearing sky it seemed. Heading into the national park after a relaxed breakfast, rain soon started falling again however, and didn’t seem to want to stop. Pushing on we tried to listen for calls and birdwatch from the car, all the while hoping a pitta or kingfisher would be on the side of the road… When that didn’t happen, it was time to get wet.
Walking for a bit in the rain slowly started paying dividends, and we picked up our first Orange-footed Scrubfowls, White-eared Monarch and the seriously cute White-faced Robin.
However. It was when we heard the call of a Papuan Pitta above the relentless downpour that things started to get exciting. And what’s more it sounded like it was really not very far from the side of the road. With a little bit of judicious play-back we were able to entice the calling bird a bit closer, and in an instant there it was, first popping out onto a low vine, and then transferring its gorgeous little self to a nearby perch where it commenced preening and stayed put for a good ten minutes. Words can’t describe…
Rain continued to fall a bit harder, so we started making our way back for lunch, only to be met by a bit of a raging torrent at Gordon Creek. We decided it best not to attempt to cross that, so headed back to the airport for a bit of shelter and some coffee and biscuits. Eventually we were able to make contact with base, whom informed us that unless it stopped raining pronto, we wouldn’t be able to get back to Portland Roads that night as Chili Creek was 3m above the bridge! Yikes.
For the rest of the afternoon it was a waiting game as the rain continued, but we birded anyway, picking up Pied Heron, Azure Kingfisher, Brahminy Kite, Lesser Frigatebird, Grey Goshawk and Eastern Osprey amongst others. A random stop near the airport yielded not only a pair of beautiful White-browed Robins, but another Black-winged Monarch and the incredible sight of a Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher as it flew in and landed directly in front of us. What a truly amazing bird this is…
Miraculously the rain eventually stopped, and although it was touch and go for a bit there, at the critically late hour of 5pm we were instructed to make our way back toward Portland Roads; with some luck Chili Creek might have dropped enough by 9pm…
It turned out to be one of those golden evenings as the clouds eventually cleared, we slowly made our way, and we were treated to a magic sunset, as well as White-streaked Honeyeater – one of only two species endemic to Cape York Peninsula.
At the agreed time we met Greg at the still swollen Chili Creek, and with some clearing of debris and excellent guidance, we powered our way across. It really was the best feeling having made it back, and to have a beautiful meal waiting for us on the table when we got home was just fantastic. What a bloody amazing day…
Day 4. Thur 10 Feb 22. Kituni-Payamu.
Birding continued hard for our intrepid posse, and with a beautifully clear but hot morning, we started proceedings along the waterfront and woodland edge.This paid big dividends, and in a flurry we soon had a pair of Shining Flycatcher, Large-billed Gerygone, marauding Black Butcherbirds and a very responsive and polite Yellow-billed Kingfisher, yet another regional endemic, and very often so hard to find. A fly-by Oriental Cuckoo frustrated us, but it was our second such sighting and I was confident we’d see more. Off the point we saw several Lesser Frigatebirds and Lesser Crested & Crested Terns, plus a distant feeding flock of noddies and terns way out to sea, the identity of which were just too far out to determine.
Back into the rainforest and we soon had a pair of calling Noisy Pittas around us. Try as we might we couldn’t entice them to perch nearby like the Papuan Pitta had, but we still had some pretty good views as they flew back and forth across the track; they are a riot of colour. Nearby our first male Magnificent Riflebird put on a good show, and Wompoo Pigeons flashed their colours too. Good views were had of a Little Bronze-cuckoo and Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, and Eclectus Parrot were heard but remained frustratingly distant.
After dinner a few of us went out spotlighting again, and were fortunate to find a patch of vine scrub that was seemingly full of Marbled Frogmouth, with 8 heard calling like maniacal, exploding turkeys. We saw one bird really, really well…
On the way back to base we found a Large-tailed Nightjar with its very cute, just fledged chick on the side of the track.
Day 5 Fri 11 Feb 22. Kituni-Payamu. Fly Lockhart River to Cairns.
This was our last day at Kutini-Payamu, but we still had a full morning of birding before the flight back to Cairns, so we made the most of our remaining time here. First up we found a pair of Lovely Fairywren, with a gaudy female Eclectus Parrot making a close fly-by. Further along the road we stopped when a pair of Pheasant Coucal flushed but afforded amazing views as they alighted and sat in the sun, and nearby a party of Red-backed Fairywrens showed beautifully.
Moving on and the chance calling of a roadside Northern Scrub-robin had us scrambling out of the vehicle yet again, and within 20 minutes we had not only the scrub-robin showing pretty well (considering its normally exceedingly shy nature), but a little party of Rose-crowned Fruit-doves, as well as 5 Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfishers calling all around us, another fly-by Oriental Cuckoo and a Frill-necked Monarch. Quite the roadside stop this was…
At our coffee break we finally had good enough views of an Oriental Cuckoo as yet another one flew past. This one flew a little slower and banked nicely for us, showing the banded underparts well.
Deep into the rainforest we caught up with the sweet-voiced Grey Whistler, as well as Fairy Gerygone (darker Cape York ssp personata), a fly through Superb Fruit-dove, and an adult female and young Red-cheeked Parrot. A male Magnificent Riflebird also made an appearance. A little further on the surprise sighting of a Canopy Goanna was much appreciated; this species is normally found, as its name suggests, high up in trees, and is only found in the lowland rainforests in this tiny part of Australia.
Sadly, we had to get on a plane and leave this amazing place, but not before a rather spectacular tropical storm passed by. To put it simply, it had been an incredible four days in arguably the best destination for birds in Australia, and we were all a little humbled by the experience it has to be said.
Flying into Cairns late in the day we had just enough light left to get in our hire vehicle and race down to the Esplanade to barely see a just recognisable Nordmann’s Greenshank settling in for the night… Vowing to be here at first light the next day, we had some dinner and retired for the night.
Days 6. Sat 12 Feb 22. Cairns to Atherton Tablelands.
Right at the crack of dawn we were at the same location as the night before, ready and waiting for the light to improve. Dark silhouettes of waders were there on the shoreline, and in a mix of delight and sheer relief, there was our quarry, the Nordmann’s Greenshank. The rising sun brought it out into sharp relief barely 10 metres away as it ran around with knot and godwit on the receding tide. What a moment, one of the world’s rarest shorebirds right in front of us. Many photos were taken, and then many breakfast was had.
With lots of patience and a pleasant lack of sand flies we eventually secured brilliant views of Mangrove Robin, Torresian Kingfisher and a pair of rather pterodactyl-like Black-necked Stork as they made a slow overpass.
Heading off we stopped for some magnificent Red-tailed Black-cockatoos, and south of Cairns picked up Crimson Finch, Plumed Whistling-Ducks, Tawny Grassbird, Chestnut-breasted Mannikin and Australian Pipit.
Climbing up onto the Atherton Tablelands necessitated a long and windy drive, and after some time to recuperate we enjoyed a ripper lunch, after which we set about birding again, this time in a new area and with a new avifauna. Birds like Macleay’s Honeyeater, Black-faced Monarch, the small northern ssp minor of White-throated Treecreeper and Brown Gerygone all made an appearance. In some slightly higher altitude rainforest we looked for Blue-faced Parrot-finch, and although we missed them here, we did pick up Victoria’s Riflebird, Pied Monarch, Bridled Honeyeater, Bower’s Shrike-thrush, Yellow-breasted Boatbill and Dusky Honeyeater.
At our accommodation for the next two nights we relaxed the rest of the day, eating an early dinner and heading out after dark for a bit of spotlighting. We quickly heard then found a beautiful Lesser Sooty Owl, with a distant Rufous Owl heard also. In this particular patch of rainforest we had Green Ringtail and Coppery Brushtail Possums, as well as a really cool-looking Leaf-tailed Gecko.
Day 7. Sun 13 Feb 22. Windsor Tablelands.
With an early start required, we set off for the famous Windsor Tablelands region, Blue-faced Parrot-Finch on our minds. This scarce Wet Tropics endemic is sporadically distributed in Australia, being more widespread in PNG and Indonesia. An altitudinal migrant, at this time of year they head up into the mountains to feed on grasses on the edge of highland rainforest, which is where we were headed today.
Often the journey is as good as the destination, and along the way we picked up new birds in the form of Spotted Catbird, Barred Cuckoo-shrike, Emerald Dove, Magpie Goose, Red-winged Parrot and Great Bowerbird.
As we made our way up through the mountainous rainforest we started seeing some of the high-altitude rainforest specialists like Grey-headed Robin, Mountain Thornbill, Atherton Scrubwren, the charcoal-coloured highland ssp keasti of Grey Fantail, Eastern Spinebill, and the skulking yet fascinating Australian Fernwren. After hearing its pervasive song we managed to track the bird down and all had great views as it scuttled around, mouse-like on the forest floor.
Reaching the top of the mountain we didn’t have to wait too long before we heard the distinctive and high-pitched, sibilant contact calls of the BFPF. A couple of fly-bys preceded actually seeing the birds landing in low shrubbery and then feeding on the grass seed-heads they come up here for. At one point we watched four birds together only mere metres away. It was fantastic and we couldn’t have asked for better views, such a stunner…
With the pressure off we could bird in a more leisurely manner, and nearby a Tooth-billed Bowerbird showed, albeit briefly, while we had good views of Yellow-throated Scrubwren and more of those rather demure Emerald Doves.
Back down on flatter ground we stopped at Mt Molloy again for drinks and in some back streets found a chilled party of a most excellent bird, the Squatter Pigeon.
Later in the evening after another excellent pub meal a few of our party went upthe mounatin, seeing en route the Wet Tropics rainforest ssp lurida of Australian Boobook. At our destination it was pretty windy, and light rain was falling so we didn’t hear any night-birds, but did see some pretty cool frogs in the form of Northern Barred Frog, Stony Creek Frog and the amazing, mossy-looking Green-eyed Tree Frog. A Lemuroid Ringtail Possum was also seen well.
Day 8. Mon 14 Feb 2022. Atherton Tablelands to Cairns.
A bit of pre-breakfast birding in the rainforest gave us great views of Brown Cuckoo-Dove and Wompoo Fruit-Dove, whilst on the forest floor Eastern Whipbird, Pale Yellow Robin and a gorgeous male Victoria’s Riflebird showed exceedingly well. The raucous group of Chowchilla that sang at us from not too far away unfortunately didn’t show this time.
Over breakfast we reflected on what had been a remarkable and successful time, with voting all round deciding that Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher was bird of the trip, closely followed by that Papuan Pitta…
Our drive back to Cairns was punctuated by a brace of hitherto-yet-unseen-for-the-trip raptors – Pacific Baza, Square-tailed Kite, Wedge-tailed Eagle and Black-shouldered Kite all seen from the moving vehicle. A Dollarbird was also a welcome aside.
Thus ended the trip soon thereafter, back in the Big Smoke of Cairns, so to speak. My thanks to all of the participants, without you this trip wouldn’t have happened and all that good stuff wouldn’t have been seen. Thanks for the great conversations, plenty of belly laughs and of course, fantastic company.