AUSTRALIA’S OUTBACK QUEENSLAND & CAPE YORK BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 1 The tour begins this morning at Cairns in northern Queensland, from where we will head north to the remote Musgrave region in the southern part of the Cape York Peninsula for a two nights stay. Road conditions have vastly improved in recent years, but there are still stretches of corrugated, unsurfaced road to cover. Late this afternoon we will begin our exploration of the Musgrave area.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 2 Our main purpose in coming to this remote region is to look for the rare and highly localized endemic Golden-shouldered Parrot, a much sought-after species that few Australian birders have ever seen, let alone overseas visitors, owing to the remote location of its small surviving population in the Cape York Peninsula. As well as dry eucalypt woodland punctuated by numerous termite hills (in which the parrots nest), there are also extensive grassy plains, lagoons and gallery woodland along the rivers of this region.
We have an excellent chance of finding the beautiful little Golden-shouldered Parrot at a drinking pool either early or late in the day, and we should also come across Black-backed Butcherbird, another Cape York speciality. We even have a very good chance of coming across a Red Goshawk, one of Australia’s rarest raptors, in this splendid area.
Other likely species in the Musgrave region include Australasian Grebe, Australasian Darter, Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants, White-necked, White-faced and Pied Herons, Eastern Great, Intermediate and Eastern Cattle Egrets, Nankeen (or Rufous) Night Heron, Glossy, Australian White and Straw-necked Ibises, Royal Spoonbill, Black-necked Stork, Magpie Goose, Plumed and Wandering Whistling Ducks, Radjah Shelduck, Green Pygmy-goose, Grey Teal, Pacific Black Duck, Hardhead, Whistling, Black and Brahminy Kites, the impressive Black-breasted Buzzard, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Nankeen (or Australian) Kestrel, Black Falcon, Brolga, the impressive Australian Bustard, Australian Pratincole, White-headed Stilt, Black-fronted Dotterel, Masked Lapwing, Comb-crested Jacana, Latham’s and perhaps Swinhoe’s Snipes, Common Greenshank, Marsh, Wood and Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns, Common Bronzewing, Peaceful and Bar-shouldered Doves, Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Rainbow Lorikeet, Red-winged Parrot, Pale-headed Rosella, Pheasant Coucal, Eastern (or Australian) Koel, Channel-billed Cuckoo, Southern Boobook, Large-tailed Nightjar, Papuan Frogmouth, Laughing and Blue-winged Kookaburras, Forest Kingfisher, Rainbow Bee-eater and Oriental Dollarbird.
Passerines include Great Bowerbird, Red-backed Fairy-wren, Striated Pardalote, Weebill, White-throated Gerygone, White-gaped, Yellow, Yellow-tinted, Bar-breasted, Rufous-banded, Rufous-throated, Dusky, Red-headed, Banded, Brown, White-throated and Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Silver-crowned and Little Friarbirds, Grey-crowned Babbler, Black-faced and White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, Rufous Whistler, Grey Shrike-thrush, Australian Figbird, Olive-backed Oriole, Pied Butcherbird, Australian Magpie, Spangled Drongo, Willie Wagtail, Torresian Crow, Broad-billed and Leaden Flycatchers, Magpie-lark, Lemon-bellied Flycatcher, Jacky Winter, Horsfield’s Bushlark (split from Singing), Golden-headed (or Bright-headed) Cisticola, Olive-backed (or Yellow-bellied) Sunbird, Double-barred and Masked Finches, and Australian Pipit.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 3 After some early morning birding in the Musgrave area we will continue deeper into Cape York until we reach Iron Range on the east coast where we will spend five nights. We should arrive in time for some introductory birding in the late afternoon.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Days 4-7 Iron Range is a wonderful part of Australia and deservedly a birding ‘mecca’, although relatively few Australian birders get up here, never mind overseas birders. Iron Range posesses the largest remaining area of lowland tropical rainforest on the continent. The habitat in much of Iron range is a patchwork of tropical rainforest, drier eucalypt and paperbark woodland and areas of tropical heathland.
There is a fantastic selection of speciality birds at Iron Range, including a long series of species that normally only occur in Australia in the Cape York Peninsula: Spotted Whistling Duck, Palm Cockatoo, Eclectus Parrot, Red-cheeked Parrots, Chestnut-breasted Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Fawn-breasted Bowerbird, Tropical Scrubwren, White-streaked Honeyeater, Tawny-breasted Honeyeater, Green-backed Honeyeater, Frill-necked Monarch, Black-winged Monarch (this migrant species will just be arriving at the time of our visit), Trumpet Manucode, Magnificent Riflebird, Yellow-legged Flycatcher, White-faced Robin and Northern Scrub-robin.
Of these the most significant to visiting birders are those endemic to Cape York (rather than shared with New Guinea); Northern Scrub-robin (now a Cape York endemic following the splitting of Papuan Scrub-robin), Frill-necked Monarch and White-streaked Honeyeater. Another key species is Tropical Scrubwren, a species that is not normally seen on bird tours in New Guinea.
Other major specialities include Rufous Owl and Marbled Frogmouth (the form of the latter here, marmoratus, may represent a different species from the form plumiferus, Plumed Frogmouth, of the central east coast).
Some of the specialities here are highly memorable birds in their own right. Who could forget the huge Palm Cockatoos raising their punk-style crests and screeching loudly as they perch in the rainforest trees? Or fail to be impressed by a Magnificent Riflebird’s shiny plumage, or a Marbled Frogmouth peering down from its perch? And what about a puffed-up Frill-necked Monarch or some vividly-painted Eclectus Parrots?
Other new birds we may encounter at Iron Range include Australian Brush-turkey, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Striated Heron, Little and Eastern Reef (or Pacific Reef Egrets, Black Bittern (infrequently seen), Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Pacific Emerald Dove, Superb, Rose-crowned and Wompoo Fruit Doves, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Australian Swiftlet, Lesser and Great Frigatebird, Pacific Baza, Brown and Grey Goshawks, Collared Sparrowhawk, Pied Oystercatcher, Pacific Golden Plover, Mongolian and Greater Sand Plovers, Eurasian Whimbrel, Common Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Red-necked Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, Silver Gull, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Bridled, Little and Black-naped Terns, Brown (or Common) Noddy, Double-eyed Fig Parrot, Little Bronze Cuckoo, Oriental and Brush Cuckoos, Masked Owl (uncommon), Azure and Collared Kingfishers, Noisy Pitta, Spotted Catbird, Lovely Fairy-wren, Large-billed and Fairy Gerygones, Yellow-spotted, Graceful, Varied and Brown-backed Honeyeaters, Helmeted Friarbird, Cicadabird, Varied Triller, Grey Whistler, Little Shrike-thrush, Yellow Oriole, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black Butcherbird, Pied Currawong, Rufous Fantail, Shining Flycatcher, White-eared and Spectacled Monarchs, Yellow-breasted Boatbill, White-browed and Mangrove Robins, Silvereye, Metallic Starling, Mistletoebird and Red-browed Finch. Mammals are not conspicuous, but we can expect Agile Wallaby and there is a good chance for Southern Spotted Cuscus.
[Kindly note that we will likely be at Iron Range too early to see one speciality of the area, the migratory Red-bellied Pitta (a species that occurs from the Philippines to Australia, although taxonomic reorganization means that some authorities now split the form found in southern New Guinea and Cape York as Papuan Pitta Erythropitta macklotii), which usually only arrives in December. The problem is, this is often after the onset of ‘the wet’ in Cape York and road access can be impossible, never mind the fact that interior Queensland further south would be baking hot and some birds hard to find. We have seen this species at Cape York in October, but the chances are very slim.]
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 8 After some final birding at Iron Range we will retrace our steps to Musgrave for an overnight stay.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 9 We will have the chance to stop along the way today as we work our way southwards, looking out for such birds as Squatter Pigeon, Brown Treecreeper, the curious Apostlebird and the uncommon Black-throated Finch. Eventually we will reach Cairns where we will stay overnight.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 10 We will set out early today for our long drive southwards to the remote town of Winton for a three nights stay.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Days 11-12 The Winton area holds some very exciting birds. Pride of place goes to three restricted-range, mega-specialities, Rusty Grasswren, Hall’s Babbler and the attractive Chestnut-breasted Quailthrush, all of which we expect to find during our visit. Rusty Grasswren is one of three recent splits in the Striated Grasswren complex, and as the IOC has never failed to uphold previous splits in the grasswrens, we can surely expect this one to be ratified by them in due course. The other really great bird in this area is the rare Grey Falcon, which is reliably found at one particular site. We also have a good chance of seeing Rufous-crowned Emu-wren and additional opportunities for Spinifexbird and Painted Finch.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 13 We plan to set off very early today and head for southwest Queensland’s ‘Empty Quarter’, the Channel Country that stretches as far as the distant Birdsville Track connecting Queensland and South Australia. Only a few utterly remote cattle stations survive in this wilderness, but from a birding viewpoint, it has great attractions! We will loop down into the Diamantina region today, giving us a first crack at a number of very special birds, before ending up at the even more remote town of Boulia, where we will stay for two nights.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 14 Today we will head south to explore some arid plains that are home to some great birds, in particular the lovely Inland Dotterel, the smart Flock Bronzewing, Orange Chat and Gibberbird. We even have a slim chance of encountering the rare and nomadic Letter-winged Kite here in the Channel Country.
More widespread species we may well find in the Boulia or Winton regions include the comical Emu, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, the handsome Spotted Harrier, Australian Hobby, Mallee Ringneck (usually lumped with Port Lincoln Ringneck under the name Australian Ringneck), Australian Owlet-nightjar, White-winged Fairy-wren, Inland Thornbill, Red-browed Pardalote, Spiny-cheeked and Singing Honeyeaters, Crimson Chat, Masked and White-browed Woodswallows, Little Crow, Red-capped Robin and Brown and Rufous Songlarks.
Less frequently encountered possibilities include Black-breasted Buzzard, Little Buttonquail, Black-tailed Native-hen, Banded Lapwing, the elusive Black-eared Cuckoo, Bourke’s Parrot, Spotted Nightjar and Ground Cuckooshrike. Flowering bushes sometimes attract nomadic Pied and Black Honeyeaters.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 15 This morning we will head northwards to Mount Isa for a two nights stay. We will spend much of the day birding in the Mount Isa area.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 16 Mount Isa is an unlovely mining town (although the sheer scale of the mines is impressive in a Tolkienesque-manner), existing solely because of the huge mineral wealth of the surrounding region, but it has the distinction of being the only place of any consequence for about 700 kilometres (420 miles) in any direction! The near-desert conditions of western Queensland, thinly populated by tenacious farming communities that often barely seem to survive, are hard to reconcile with the verdant, tropical exuberance of the Queensland coast.
Around Mount Isa, the land has been turned on its side. Upheavals millions of years ago shattered the rocks and pushed them upwards, only for the elements to erode jagged peaks and contorted gullies over the subsequent aeons. Nowadays much of this country is covered in thin spinifex and wattle scrub where cattle eke out an existence, but there are also low sandstone ridges with many tumbled boulders and scattering of acacias and eucalypts, while the Mount Isa highlands are a belt of low, rugged hills made up of granite intrusions with areas of spinifex, Snappy Gums, Bloodwoods and Western Box on the plateau-like tops. For most of the year this is a hot, dry, harsh land, but after rain the landscape is enhanced for a short time by a brilliant display of wildflowers and the seasonal rivers begin to flow once more, either northwards to the Gulf of Carpentaria or southwards until they dissipate in the great thirstlands of South Australia.
During our visit to the Mount Isa region, we shall be looking in particular for the elusive Carpentarian Grasswren, a species that managed to remain undetected for more than 60 years after its initial discovery, and the Kalkadoon Grasswren, which was only described in 1969 and which was for a time lumped in Dusky Grasswren.
Additional specialities of the area include the cute Spinifex Pigeon, the localized Cloncurry Ringneck (usually lumped in Port Lincoln Ringneck), Black-tailed Treecreeper, the beautiful Spotted Bowerbird and the skulking Spinifexbird.
Other birds often found around Mount Isa include Hoary-headed and Great Crested Grebes, Australian Pied and Great Cormorants, Australian Pelican, the strange Pink-eared Duck, Maned (or Australian Wood) Duck, Brown Falcon, Dusky Moorhen, Eurasian (or Common) Coot, Red-necked Avocet, Red-capped Plover, Caspian Tern, Crested Pigeon, Diamond Dove, Little Corella, Cockatiel, the nomadic Budgerigar, Pallid Cuckoo, Tawny Frogmouth, Sacred and Red-backed Kingfishers, Variegated Fairy-wren, Grey-headed, Grey-fronted and White-plumed Honeyeaters, Yellow-throated Miner, Crested Bellbird, Black-faced and Little Woodswallows, Australian Raven, Paperbark Flycatcher, Fairy Martin, and both Painted Finch (or Painted Firetail) and Zebra Finch. We should also encounter the huge Red Kangaroo.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 17 After a last morning around Mount Isa we will drive eastwards to Hughenden for an overnight stay.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 18 We will return to Cairns for an overnight stay, probably arriving in time for some final birding from the famous Esplanade.
Australia’s Outback Queensland & Cape York: Day 19 The tour ends this morning at Cairns.