AUSTRALIA’S NORTHERN TERRITORY BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 1 Our Australia’s Northern Territory birding tour begins this evening in Alice Springs, where we will spend three nights.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Days 2-3 Situated almost at the geographical centre of Australia, Alice Springs (or ‘Alice’ as it is typically referred to) has become an important administrative and touristic centre in the midst of the starkly beautiful desert scenery of the Northern Territory’s ‘Red Centre’. Deep gorges (known as ‘gaps’) cut through the orange sandstone of the MacDonnell Ranges, whilst in the dried-out watercourses, the gleaming white trunks of the eucalypts contrast in spectacular fashion with the dark green foliage, the orange rocks and the intensely blue sky. Between the ranges are areas of savanna and, of particular interest for birdwatchers, tough and spiny spinifex grassland.
Bird density is not very high in this desert country, but there is a good variety of species, many restricted to the interior of Australia. Specialities that we will be focussing on include Bourke’s Parrot (a crepuscular species that comes to waterholes to drink at dusk), the pretty little Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Dusky Grasswren (one of the easier grasswrens to see!), Redthroat, the superb Western Bowerbird (hopefully we will be able to watch a male displaying at its bower), Spinifexbird and Painted Firetail. We will also spend time in a favoured area of mulga woodland looking for the uncommon Grey Honeyeater. If we are in luck, we will also see one or more of the nomadic honeyeaters that turn up in the Alice region from time to time, which include White-fronted, Pied and Black.
Amongst other interesting species we should see are the powerful Black-breasted Buzzard, Port Lincoln Ringneck (sometimes lumped with Mallee Ringneck under the name Australian Ringneck), Mulga Parrot, White-winged Fairy-wren, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Grey-headed and White-plumed Honeyeaters, Hooded Robin, Crested Bellbird, Little Woodswallow, Little Crow and the handsome White-backed Swallow. With luck we will find Slaty-backed Thorntail or Ground Cuckoo-Shrike. The rocky gorges also provide a home for the restricted-range Black-footed (or Black-flanked) Rock Wallaby.
Likely species of wide distribution include Black and Whistling Kites, the impressive Wedge-tailed Eagle, Little Eagle, Collared Sparrowhawk, Brown Falcon, Nankeen (or Australian) Kestrel, Spotted, Peaceful and Diamond Doves, Common Bronzewing, Crested Pigeon, the magnificent Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo (whose flight action is reminiscent of a Black Kite’s), Galah, Red-backed and Sacred Kingfishers, the beautiful Rainbow Bee-eater, the marvellous Splendid and Variegated Fairy-wrens, Striated and Red-browed Pardalotes, Weebill, Western Gerygone, Inland and Yellow-rumped Thornbills, Spiny-cheeked and Singing Honeyeaters, Yellow-throated Miner, Grey-crowned Babbler, Red-capped Robin, Grey Shrike-Thrush, Rufous Whistler, Willie Wagtail, the strange Australian Magpie-Lark, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, White-winged Triller, Black-faced Woodswallow, Pied Butcherbird, Australian Magpie, Fairy Martin, Australasian Pipit, Zebra Finch and Mistletoebird.
It may be possible to visit a wetland area where likely additions include Pink-eared Duck and Black-tailed Native-hen, as well as Hoary-headed and Australasian Grebes, White-faced Heron, Black Swan, Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, Hardhead, Eurasian (or Common) Coot, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Masked Lapwing, Red-kneed Dotterel, Red-capped and Black-fronted Plovers, White-headed Stilt, the lovely Red-necked Avocet and Whiskered Tern.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 4 After some final birding around Alice Springs we will head south, travelling along the famous Stuart Highway that crosses the empty heart of Australia, to Erldunda for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 5 Around Erldunda we will search the desert habitats, including the stark, stony ‘gibber’ plains, for the handsome Inland Dotterel, the spectacular Major Mitchell’s (or Pink) Cockatoo, the nomadic Budgerigar, Chiming Wedgebill, the handsome Cinnamon Quail-thrush, the gorgeous Crimson and Orange Chats, and the localized Banded Whiteface. Other new species here are likely to include Southern Whiteface and White-browed Babbler.
From Erldunda we will head westwards to Ayers Rock, or Uluru as the local Aborigines know it. The rock changes colour in a spectacular manner during the final hour or two before the sun sets over the desert (during sunset itself the rock appears quite dull, contrary to popular mythology). Formed about 500 million years ago during the Cambrian era when central Australia was a huge inland sea, Ayers Rock (or Uluru), the world’s largest monolith, soars dramatically out of the flat desert landscape of the ‘Red Centre’. At 349m (1145ft) high and nearly 6km (3.6 miles) long it looks big enough at the surface, but astoundingly it is thought that only a tiny portion is visible above ground and that below the surface it may extend as much as 5km (3 miles) deep!
For thousands of years, the area has been sacred to the Pitjantjatjara, Yunkantjarjara and Ngaanyatjara tribes. Their relationship to the land is a complex one conditioned by their belief that before the ‘Dreamtime’ the earth was flat and featureless. Then it spawned creatures which looked like animals but thought like humans. The adventures and journeys of these creatures changed and formed the landscape, creating a three-dimensional record of the ancestors of present-day Aborigines. For these people the stand of desert oaks to the southwest of Ayers Rock are the Liru, or poisonous snake men, sneaking up on their enemies the Kunia, or carpet snake men. The pockmarks on the southern face of the rock record the spears thrown by the Liru and the deep ridges on the top are the tracks made by the Kunia as they fled. Europeans only discovered the monolith in 1872, after which it was named in honour of the then premier of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
Our main target here is Sandhill Grasswren, a proposed split from Striated. We also have another chance for nomadic honeyeaters here and we even have a good chance of encountering the amazing little Thorny Devil, Australia’s most charismatic and spectacular lizard. The latter likes red sandy areas, where it moves very slowly in search of tiny black ants.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 6 After a chance to catch up on a few desert birds we might have missed earlier on our travels, we will drive back to Alice Springs and catch an early evening flight to Darwin for a three nights stay.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Days 7-8 The Darwin area offers excellent birding, with some local specialities. Here, at the northernmost tip of the Northern Territory, there is a pronounced monsoon climate, with a heavy rainy season from about November to April. Instead of the parched desert country typical of most of the territory, the vegetation here is rich and varied. Eucalypt savanna is the dominant habitat, but to this one can add sandy beaches, mangroves, creeks and marshes.
Amongst the specialities that we are likely to encounter during our visit are Raja (or Radjah) Shelduck, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Torresian Imperial Pigeon, Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove, the gaudy Red-collared Lorikeet (sometimes lumped in Rainbow), the huge Blue-winged Kookaburra, Forest Kingfisher, the gorgeous Rainbow Pitta (often quite unafraid of people here!), Large-billed Gerygone, Helmeted Friarbird, Rufous-banded and Red-headed Honeyeaters, Northern Fantail, Broad-billed Flycatcher, Mangrove Robin, Brown Whistler (sometimes treated as a distinct species from the Grey Whistler of northeast Queensland), Black Butcherbird and Yellow White-eye. With a bit of luck, we will see a Chestnut Rail at one of the mangrove creeks and a Rufous Owl at a daytime roost.
More widespread species we are likely to encounter include Australian Pelican, Australian Darter, White-necked (or Pacific) Heron, Eastern Cattle, Great, Little and Intermediate and Eastern Reef Egrets, Striated Heron, Glossy, Australian White and Straw-necked Ibises, Magpie Goose, Pacific Baza, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Brown Goshawk, Australian Hobby, Brolga, Buff-banded Rail, Comb-crested Jacana, Ruddy Turnstone, Eastern Curlew, Eurasian Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler, Marsh Sandpiper, Australian Pratincole, Pied Oystercatcher, Grey (or Black-bellied) Plover, Mongolian and Greater Sand Plovers, Silver Gull, Gull-billed, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested and White-winged Terns, Bar-shouldered and Emerald Doves, the noisy Little Corella, the raucous Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Red-winged Parrot, Pheasant Coucal, Little Friarbird, Blue-faced, White-gaped Honeyeater, Brown Honeyeater, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Spangled Drongo, Yellow Oriole, Australasian Figbird, White-bellied Cuckooshrike, White-winged and Varied Trillers, White-breasted Woodswallow, Grey Butcherbird, Torresian Crow, Tree Martin, Horsfield’s Bushlark , Tawny Grassbird, and Crimson and Double-barred Finches.
We should also find one or two of the less common species such as Pied Cormorant, Red-backed Buttonquail, Caspian Tern, Brush Cuckoo and Little Bronze Cuckoo, and quite likely two or three of the shorebirds that are scarce at this season, such as Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Terek and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint and Sanderling.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 9 Today we will head for the Katherine region for a four nights stay (spending two nights at each of two locations). We will make a stop for Mangrove Golden Whistler along the way.
During the afternoon we will visit the quiet waters of a beautiful billabong. The wet meadows are packed with waterbirds and the creeks are fringed with tall trees and luxuriant vegetation, the dead snags creating perches for kingfishers. Huge Saltwater Crocodiles can be seen basking in the late afternoon sun, or occasionally launching themselves with awesome speed into the deep waters. Here we are likely to encounter numerous waterbirds, including Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants, Pied Heron, Nankeen (or Rufous) Night Heron, Royal Spoonbill, the spectacular Black-necked Stork, Australian Swamphen, Azure Kingfisher and great numbers of Magpie Geese, Plumed and Wandering Whistling-Ducks, and Green Pygmy Geese. We should also see Shining Flycatcher and there is a good chance for the uncommon Little Kingfisher. Towards evening, Agile Wallabies emerge from their daytime hiding places.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Days 10-12 Arnhem Land is a wild tract of country. This region, part of the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory of Australia, has been inhabited by Aborigines for thousands of years and their vivid rock paintings can still be found amongst the steep sandstone escarpments that rise high above the sea of eucalyptus woodland and grassland studded with impressively large magnetic termite hills. This is a good area for three Top End endemics, Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon, Black-banded Fruit Dove (split from Banded) and White-lined Honeyeater, while other specialities include the red-faced form of the Partridge Pigeon (also endemic to the Top End), Bar-breasted Honeyeater and Arafura Fantail (split from Rufous).
We will look for the lovely but rare and localized Hooded Parrot at favourite drinking and feeding sites. The beautiful but rare Gouldian Finch also regularly comes to waterholes, and we may be treated to a large gathering of these colourful little birds. Masked Finch is also likely here. Other northern specialities we are likely to encounter include Northern Rosella, Golden-backed Honeyeater (sometimes split from Black-chinned), Paperbark Flycatcher and Masked Finch.
We will also visit an area of dry woodland to look for Chestnut-backed Buttonquail and the localized Black-tailed Treecreeper. If there is an active nest in the area at the time of our visit, we will go in search of the fabled Red Goshawk, one of Australia’s rarest and most sought-after raptors. We have had some great views of this magnificent bird of prey, but its nesting in accessible locations is very unpredictable.
Other species we are likely to encounter in the Katherine region include Spotted Harrier, Brown Quail, Varied Lorikeet, Cockatiel, Eastern (or Australian) Koel, Barking Owl, Tawny Frogmouth, Large-tailed Nightjar, Dollarbird, Great Bowerbird, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Green-backed Gerygone, Silver-crowned Friarbird, Yellow-tinted, White-throated, Banded, Rufous-throated and Dusky Honeyeaters, Varied Sittella, Leaden and Restless Flycatchers, Jacky Winter, Olive-backed Oriole, the curious Apostlebird, Rufous Songlark, Golden-headed Cisticola and Long-tailed Finch.
We also have a chance for Great-billed Heron and, if we are lucky, the scarce Square-tailed Kite and the very rare Northern Shrike-tit during our stay in this exciting area.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 13 Today we will journey westwards to remote Timber Creek for an overnight stay. We will be keeping a lookout en route for the huge Australian Bustard and we will also stop at the Victoria River, one of the few reliable sites for the very attractive but rare and endangered (through overgrazing by livestock) Purple-crowned Fairy-wren. At dusk, we will go out in search of Barking Owl and Spotted Nightjar.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 14 Around Timber Creek we will be on the lookout for Buff-sided Robin (split from White-browed), the uncommon Grey-fronted Honeyeater and the lovely Star Finch. We should also find Crested Pigeon, Banded Honeyeater and Chestnut-breasted Mannikin, and we also have a fair chance for Pictorella Mannikin. During the afternoon we will drive back to Katherine for an overnight stay.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 15 After some final birding in the vicinity of Katherine we will head back to Darwin for an overnight stay.
Australia’s Northern Territory: Day 16 Our Australia’s Northern Territory birding tour ends this morning at Darwin airport.