A Huge Dose of the Wildlife of Far North Queensland

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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Cairns
June 21st 2016
Published: July 9th 2017
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The day started very early waking up at 3 AM to get to the airport for a very early morning flight from Brisbane to Cairns. The flight isn’t very long and the descent into Cairns was cool and it was nice to walk off the plane and see mountains covered in rainforest and feeling the nice tropical temperatures with humidity to take the edge off the heat. It wasn’t too late in the morning when we landed at about nine and being a domestic flight to a very small airport we got straight out and went to our accommodation. We weren’t able to check in of course but we dropped off our bags and headed straight for the Cairns Botanic Gardens which I was very keen to get to for birding and I knew this would be my only opportunity. We would only have three to four hours and this was in the middle of the day, a terrible time for tropical birding, but I had to take the time I had. On the way to the Botanic Gardens though I was able to add two new birds, both things I would see a lot of the next two days but new then, which were Rainbow Bee-eaters and White-breasted Woodswallows, both sitting on electric wires in the city of Cairns. And I also added a new bird for the trip list (but not year or life) which was also on electric wires – Indian Mynas.

Both my aunt and I started by looking around the formal part of the Botanic Gardens. There wasn’t much bird life around and it was very hot particularly out in the full sun. First I heard a really interesting and weird call that took me a little while to track down hiding in a tree, and this turned out to be a Black Butcherbird. A short while later in a palm tree I found a rather large flock of Metallic Starlings feeding on palm berries. Both really cool species that I was pleased to see. This was still in the formal gardens though and the majority of the Botanic Gardens are taken up by forest and the Centenary Lakes which I thought would be better for birds, so leaving my aunt in the formal garden I went to spend the rest of my time around there. On the boardwalk heading through the rainforest to the Centenary Lakes I passed a group of birders which was a good sign (though they seemed to be bird photographers rather than actual birders) and I also saw several more Black Butcherbirds. I was looking out for Orange-footed Scrubfowl which I really wanted to see to add a third megapode to my lifelist but I didn’t have any luck that day despite the fact that they are supposed to be common. The other thing I was looking for around here were Papuan Frogmouths. The Finding Australian Birdsbook makes it seem like they are all over the place and I expected to be tripping over frogmouths and having to kick them out the way to get past. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I didn’t see any. I also didn’t see any at their roosting site at Lake Barrine so I completely failed on that species. I was in the range of three different frogmouth species over the trip and I went to places where I knew they should roost, but I didn’t see a single one sadly.

Anyway enough about frogmouths, the first of the Centenary Lakes is the freshwater lake (there is also a saltwater lake) which was very nice and I had heard a lot about the birds that could be seen here. There was a sign as well advertising the possible species. The first things I saw there were Pacific Black Ducks and more interestingly a small group of Magpie Geese which weren’t very shy and sat on top of a viewing area. I was pleased to be able to get some pictures of these after passing many in the car in Gold Coast. I then began to walk around the lake. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount around though I was scanning the lake constantly with binoculars looking at all the small ducks to see if any were whistling ducks or pygmy geese but they were all Pacific Black Ducks joined by a single pelican. Looking a little further up the path though I did see one of the main species I visited for though, as there was a Radjah Shelduck just sitting on the path which allowed me to approach right up to it without it flying off.

I then went over to the viewing deck where the many Magpie Geese were sitting and here I added yet another new bird, a Yellow-bellied Sunbird, which I saw many individuals of around the lakes. Also here I startled a large group of turtles that was sitting on the bank. One of which came up a bit later, though I don’t think I will be able to identify it.

I then continued on to the saltwater lake passing through a small patch of forest where I saw a second Radjah Shelduck sitting up in a tree. To get to this lake I passed over a mangrove-lined creek which looked like it should contain lots of birds and crocodiles and things like that but all I saw there was a Yellow-bellied Sunbird flitting about, but a male this time. I also heard a group of cockatoos which must have been Sulphur-crested but that was pretty much it for the creek.

The other side of the creek, where the saltwater lake was, had a few more birds though. The lake itself had loads of fish in it and there were several egrets sitting in the mangroves on the edge fishing, and around the lake in the grass I added another new bird with several Nutmeg Mannikins sitting the grass hopping about. Though they are introduced it was nice to see them and add a new species and as far as I know they’re not having terrible negative environmental effects like some other introduced species (though please correct me if I'm wrong on that). Also around in the grass were Spotted Pigeons, and a Bar-shouldered Dove. I would soon have to head back to the formal gardens to have a quick bit of food before we left so I walked around the rest of the saltwater lake and headed back stopping at the freshwater lake for another look. There were a few more of the same birds that I had already seen and some momentary excitement at something scratching in the ground turned out to be a Brush Turkey rather than an Orange-footed Scrubfowl. I did, however, add one final bird from the Botanic Gardens as I was crossing the road to go from the natural forest to the formal gardens, which as a Pacific Baza soaring overhead.

We needed to get back to our accommodation quite quickly because we needed to be checked in and ready to go out again by 1:30 so we asked for a taxi to come and pick us up which was of course late, so we had ten minutes to check into the room and be out again. Luckily I always carry around everything I may need, including torches, so that was no problem for me.

So the next part of the day, and probably an even more exciting part than the Botanic Gardens, was a Wait-a-while Rainforest Tour. It is advertised as a Day/Night Tour but the main reason for me doing it was seeing some nocturnal/crepuscular animals that I would never have been able to see for myself with my limited time of only six days in Far North Queensland. It’s not a cheap tour but I felt that it was worth it because it would have taken me a lot more time and a lot more effort to try and find that stuff myself and I suspect I wouldn’t have actually succeeded with many of the species.

We were met by our guide, and owner of the tour company (I believe he is always the guide) Paul at the hotel at 1:30 and we got on our mini bus for the tour. It supposedly can be up to eleven people but luckily it was just the two of us on that tour which is the minimum number. So we headed off in the minibus out of Cairns with me sitting in the front to get the best view and spot things while we drove. Of course the main target was to see as many mammals as possible but I was also looking out for birds, reptiles, amphibians, and generally everything. The mammal total ended up being 13 with 10 being lifers and an additional one being new for the year. First though we stopped by some fields just outside Cairns where there were dozens of Agile Wallabies just sitting in fields which was cool to see.

And two birds of particular note from around here were Peaceful Doves and a Helmeted Friarbird, both lifers, and there were also a few Willie Wagtails around even sitting on the wallabies' backs. The other thing we looked at here were Green Ants crawling on a fence post which apparently taste of citrus, though I didn’t fancy eating them.

We then headed out of Cairns completely and we were told about Cairns and its history along the way and I also asked about different animals that we could see and that were around and Paul, the guide, seemed very knowledgeable. Most of the tour was due to be up in the Atherton Tablelands, however we did make one more stop before heading up into the mountains which was to look at a huge colony of Spectacled Flying Foxeswhich was very interesting, though there were no Little Red Flying Foxes in the group that day and I would see many Spectacled Flying Foxes in Cairns in later days. We then headed up a very long windy road up into the mountains, the lower part of which was through tropical dry forest however at one specific point correlating to a sign at a corner, the forest suddenly changed to tropical rainforest very noticeably.

Once we were up in the Tablelands we had a series of places to visit starting with a place called the Cathedral Fig, mainly to look at a very large strangler fig that gives the place its name. There were no mammal targets here apart from the possibility of Musky Rat Kangaroos (which we would be looking for again at the next stop) but there were lots of cool birds which Paul was able to save me some time identifying because he could do almost all of them, and I just had to have a quick check in the field guide. The highlight bird from here were the many Grey-headed Robins, but the other new bird was a Black-faced Monarch.

We didn’t spend a huge amount of time at the Cathedral Fig because we had many more places to visit, and I was able to add another new bird out the window while we were stuck behind some road works which was a Leaden Flycatcher. The next stop on the rainforest tour was at the Lake Barrine Crater Lake which I really liked very much. It is a huge crater lake surrounded by rainforest. While here we stopped for tea and coffee and cake (included in the tour) at a picnic area under a little corrugated metal shelter, and roosting in the wooden beams supporting the roof of the shelter were quite a few Gould's Long-eared Bats. This kind of stuff I would never have found for myself. We then did a bit of a walk around the lake, we didn’t have time to go all the way around, but we did a bit of the walk looking for birds with Paul giving general rainforest information and information about the plants as well, however the main purpose of the stop was actually to find a Musky Rat-kangaroo. Before we started looking for the Rat-kangaroos though, the first thing to see on the walk was a Boyd’s Forest Dragon that apparently liked to sit on an exposed tree by the track. I was told that they usually disappear up into the canopy during the winter, only coming down to the ground to sit on tree trunks in the summer but Paul had been given a tip off that one forest dragon had come down and was sitting by the path, and he was right. The dragon was there just sitting right next to the track, yet another thing I would never find for myself.

Quite near to the start of the trail, not long after the Boyd’s Forest Dragon, Paul spotted a Musky Rat-kangaroo that ran across the road, but neither my aunt or I saw it (I was probably looking at a bird or something). Apparently it’s not unusual for him to see a Rat-kangaroo but for none of the people on the tour to see it. About fifteen minutes later though he spotted another one and this time I was able to see it while it foraged around not too far from us. The birds at Lake Barrine were also of interest to me of course. On the lake itself were many Coots and Great Crested Grebes, though sadly there were no Wandering Whistling Ducks, or Pygmy Geese, or anything else like that. There were a few sightings within the forest itself of particular note though, in addition to the many Grey-headed Robins. Of course I heard and saw with very poor views a lot more than I saw properly, but that’s the problem with birding in the dense rainforest. The first thing I saw was the best sighting of Lake Barrine which was a Yellow-breasted Boatbill flitting about and showing really nicely through binoculars. Of course I wasn’t able to get a picture with the photographically-unfriendly rainforest but it was definitely one of the top ten birds of the trip. Google it if you don't know what it looks like.

Around the same time as the sighting of the boatbill was a small brown bird hopping about on the ground quite obviously. Paul had no idea what it was (he knew all the interesting birds, but he didn’t seem to know the little brown jobbies that only serious birders would want to look at) but it was obviously a Scrubwren, and now that I’ve had lots of time to look it up I’m pretty sure it must have been an Atherton Scrubwren, an endemic that I was hoping to see, but I only had time to have a quick flick through the field guide then and not identify it properly so it stays of the list for now. The final notable sighting was an Eastern Whipbird that dashed across the path, enough to identify but not much more. I think I was quite lucky to see that because outside Lamington National Park, apparently it’s quite difficult to see.

So after a bit more walking around and looking at plants and things we left Lake Barrine stopping to look at a roosting site where Papuan Frogmouths were very often seen though my lack of luck with frogmouths continued to here and they were not there. As we walked back to the van though I added another species to the heard-only list – Victoria’s Riflebird.

The next stop on the tour was to find a tree kangaroo. The site for the tree kangaroo was a bit of a longer drive away so we drove for a while to reach it. I added two new birds for the list while we drove though, the first was a very long overdue sighting for the year of a Black-faced Cuckooshrike, and the second one we came perilously close to running over which was a Pheasant Coucal. We actually went back along the same road on the way back after the tree kangaroo, and we nearly ran over the same coucal again! Silly bird.

The tree kangaroo place was actually just a little strip of forest along a road, not exactly the sort of dense rainforest where you would expect to see a tree kangaroo - something that I at least think of as really rare and awesome - but it seemed to be a fantastic place to see them because it was very open on one side with the road allowing clear views all the way up and limited space back away from the road where the kangaroos can go so it's simply a matter of walking down the road and eventually seeing them. So we just parked and walked down the road until one of us spotted one of the tree kangaroos, and this time it was me who spotted it. At first I just saw one curled up in a ball, but looking closer through binoculars we then saw that there were two, a female and its nearly adult offspring. They were only about two trees back from the road and it was still bright with quite some time yet until sunset, so we got fantastic views. They even uncurled from their sleeping positions for a little bit and moved around, I was so incredibly pleased by that sighting which was even a walk-away view meaning I left before the animals did.

There was still quite a lot left of the tour, and the next thing on the list was a platypus. There were two sites that we would be trying, first we stopped at a lily-covered pond that was connected to streams on both ends so was slowly flowing, which apparently was very reliable for platypus in the past but has become much less reliable recently. We didn’t see a platypus there, however it wasn't a wasted stop because out on the lake were two Comb-crested Jacanas walking around on the lilies which was another of my target species. They seemed much smaller than African Jacanas which is the other species I had seen in the wild and especially seemed small when compared to a Pacific Black Duck.

We then continued to the second of the platypus sites which isn’t quite as easily accessible as the first pond which is right by the side of the road, but is very reliable and apparently Paul has managed to see at least one platypus here on every single tour for at least the last six months. This other platypus spot was a slow flowing river with lots of meanders and a very rough track going along the side of it, ideal platypus habitat. We walked along the river very slowly looking out for any bubbles or ripples or any sign of a platypus but these all turned out to be leaves falling into the water or trapped methane or quite commonly a Saw-shelled Turtle of which there were many in the river. We walked down the river until it was very nearly sunset but we didn’t see any platypus so walked back along, still looking for platypus, and still didn’t see anything. By the time we got to the car it was completely dark. I was worried that this may be the first time in six months that we didn’t see the platypus but we would try again later.

So we then went for dinner, which was included in the tour, and discussed more about animals we could see at night and other things that we wouldn’t see on that tour but are about in the Atherton Tablelands. After dinner we went back to the same platypus spot and did the same rough track along the path in the dark which was considerably more difficult than in the day. We went along scanning the torch on the water and also turning it off and turning it back on when we heard movement in case the platypus wouldn’t come up in the light, but we didn’t see anything. What we did see though were many Fishing Bats, or Large-footed Myotis, swooping low along the water and I was able to look at them closure at their roost under a bridge. Also seen swimming in the water right by the bank, which my immediate reaction to was platypus, but once looking at it properly it was obviously not a Platypus and was a large rodent that turned out to be a White-tailed Rat. I also saw my first amphibian of the trip so far (somewhat surprisingly, though I think I’d have had better luck in summer) apart from a tiny and unidentifiable frog in Perth, which was a rather large Northern Barred Frog.

After we turned around and were heading back, when we got quite close to the car we heard something in the water, turned the torch on it and a platypus splashed and dived under and I saw its side and its feet as it turned and went under. I became distracted immediately after that because in the tree above the river was a Coppery Brushtail Possum but I was told not to look at that because we’d look for those later and we concentrated on finding the platypus again. It must have swum around the nearby bend though because it didn’t come back up. Although it was probably good enough to count, I wanted to see it better so we decided to try for a third time after the next stop.

So next we headed to the main possum site and we were told that we would most likely see three species of possum with two more that were possible and one further one that was technically possible but extremely unlikely and that Paul had only ever seen once. I ended up seeing all three likely ones, but didn’t see Striped or Lemuroid Ringtail, which were possible, or a Pygmy Possum which was extremely unlikely. The possum site was around a second national park based around a strangler fig, this time the Curtain Fig which is an oddly shaped strangler fig that has grown over a partially fallen over tree. The first thing we saw immediately upon getting out of the car was a CopperyBrushtail Possum which I got to look at properly as it was very close by and not too high up a tree. We then did the boardwalk around the fig itself where we didn’t see any more possums but saw some fresh possum poo on the boardwalk as well as various large spiders and insects and we also saw two non-possum mammals which were Long-nosed Bandicoot and Red-legged Pademelon, both fleeting views as they disappeared into the forest away from us. Also while we walked around here we heard a very loud bomb whistle call of the Lesser Sooty Owl which I would have loved to see, but a few seconds later we heard the same call again but from further away as I assume the owl was leaving. Chances of finding a smallish grey owl in a big, dark rainforest were, I suspect, less than finding half a needle in a hay factory, but hearing the call was better than nothing. We also saw a considerably flatter Pademelon on the road that cuts through the national park.

So after the boardwalk we walked down that road to look for some more possums. The next thing we saw was another Coppery Brushtail, followed by a Green Ringtail which was a particularly cool possum followed by another green before the third possum for the day which was a Common Brushtail which was not a lifer but was new for the year, and was also a new subspecies for me after only seeing the South Western Australian subspecies. In the end we saw exactly three of each of the three possum species which wasn’t a bad total, though I’d have liked to see a Striped or Lemuroid. Apparently Paul had seen three striped possums in the last two weeks (doing trips almost every night) but not seen a Lemuroid in a little while.

After we had finished with the possum site it was getting quite late but I was still keen to get a better view of the platypus and Paul also wanted to uphold his reputation of providing consistently good platypus views so we headed back to the same stream for the third and final time. This time we didn’t actually have to go very far before we heard a distinctive splash which apparently was definitely a Platypus splash but probably a startled one so it might have disappeared off. We turned the torch on a very wide beam covering that stretch of the stream in dim but consistent light which was good enough to see, and luckily the Platypus can’t have been that disturbed because it came back up!

It sat on the surface for probably a couple of seconds before diving back down again. It repeated this three times within the range of our torch beam allowing for reasonably good views and very poor pictures without the flash before it dived down again and must have reappeared around the bend. We tried to follow it around but being in a rather muddy and thickly vegetated river bank, we were hardly quiet, and we heard a big splash and it was gone. I’m rather satisfied with that sighting to be honest!

So it was a bit late but I was certainly very pleased to have seen the Platypus properly, and Paul seemed pleased too, so we got back in the van and headed down the mountain. As I mentioned right at the beginning, I was sitting in the front, and having been kept solely awake by adrenaline after waking up at three that morning in Brisbane I was starting to get tired so it took a few seconds for me to register that a rather brown blob on a lamp post was alive and was a bird and then it dawned on me that this was a Rufous Owl, which I confirmed as it flew away when we drove past.

We soon got back into the suburbs of Cairns and we could have a look at the Agile Wallabies in the dark if we wanted to. My aunt was asleep so I said I did, I’m definitely not missing out on any additional animal sightings. So we drove back around the same areas as we saw the Agile Wallabies in the day where they were just lounging around in the fields. At night they were much more active and numerous, bounding around a lot and hopping across the road. So that was the end of the Wait-a-while Tour, and we were taken back to our accommodation and dropped off absolutely exhausted, but I was incredibly pleased with how our first day in Cairns had gone.

New Birds seen from the Botanic Gardens and surrounds:

Rainbow Bee-eater
466)White-breasted Woodswallow

Indian Mynah
467) Black Butcherbird
468) Metallic starling
469) Radjah Shelduck
470) Yellow-bellied sunbird
471) Nutmeg Mannikin
473) Pacific baza

New Species From the Wait-a-while Rainforest Tour:


Peaceful dove
Helmeted Friarbird
Grey headed robin
Black-faced Monarch
Leaden Flycatcher
Yellow-breasted Boatbill

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike
Pheasant Coucal
Comb-crested Jacana
Rufous Owl

Heard only: Lesser sooty owl 'bomb whistle' and Riflebird


Agile wallaby
Spectacled flying fox
Gould's Long-eared bat
Musky Rat-kangaroo
Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo
Fishing bat (Large-footed Myotis)
White-tailed rat
Coppery Brushtail Possum
Green Ringtail Possum

Common Brushtail Possum


Boyd's forest dragon
Saw shelled turtle
Northern Barred Frog


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