Saturday, 17 August 2013

Daintree River bird watching cruise and Daintree National Park

From Julatten we headed down from the Atherton Tableland to Mossman, skirting the northern edge of Mowbray National Park descending steeply through rainforest. Once again, as soon as the terrain flattened we were in sugar cane country. It would seem all of the lowland rainforest between the coast and the foothills of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland has been cleared, mainly for sugar cane. No sizeable chunk has been preserved; only the rainforest on steep country near the coast has survived?
After stocking up with food we drove north to Wonga Beach where we have been for the past three days. Wonga Beach is only 12km short of the Daintree River, so we could easily access our birding cruise and a day trip north of the river to Cape Tribulation and beyond.
There were two operators offering small boat, small group, specific bird watching and photography cruises on the Daintree River. Both operate from the jetty at Daintree Village and both run for two hours starting at dawn. Almost on the flip of a coin we chose to go with Ian Worcester who runs Daintree River Wild Watch, see details at
Early morning on the Daintree River
Other larger cruise boats operate from Daintree Village however these are large group tours focused more on the scenery and seeing crocs. Crocs are also seen on the small boat birding cruises. Personally looking for crocs is not of great interest however they are impressive ancient predators and seeing a large one sunning on a river’s edge is always a good reminder to be croc aware in these northern waters.
This is a nearly fully grown female salt water crocodile at about 2.5m long. It is the males that grow really big. She looks as if she is smiling? This should not betaken as any sign of friendliness, to all crocs you are simply a meal opportunity.
It was a refreshing change to be out early on the river in scenic country looking for birds. It is often impossible to access river environments without a boat. Going with an experienced guide is a huge extra bonus – we would not have found two of the rare species, Papuan Frogmouth and Great-billed Heron without a guide.
Our first encounter was a pair of Shinning Flycatchers feeding along the edge of a backwater. When I first saw this species some years ago I thought the female was more attractive however when the light is right, the black plumage of the male lights up with glossy satin blue colouring which is very attractive.
The female Shining Flycatcher.

The above females mate? The male often looks black however when the light angle is right they are blue.
After making our way downstream, our guide, without announcing any purpose, nosed the boat in under a large mangrove tree at the junction of a side creek. With some difficulty at first we spotted our guide’s objective, a pair of very cryptic Papuan Frogmouths perched together in the mangrove above us. One was a grey coloured male and the other was a brown or rufous coloured female. The birds must roost in this location on a regular basis. Finding them from scratch would be a difficult task as there are many kilometres of suitable mangroves along the Daintree River to roost in.
The birds did not seem to mind our intrusion. After a cursory glance through half opened eyes they resumed the typical dead tree limb pose of all frogmouths while we snapped away below them.
The pair of Papuan Frogmouths roosting in a large mangrove tree on the Daintree River. The brown coloured bird on left is the female and the grey bird is the male.
The female Papuan Frogmouth. Note the long tail.

The male.

We left the frogmouths to their daytime sleep and made out way up the narrow side creek. It brought back memories of a river trip on the Tambopata in the Peruvian Amazon in 2011, lush jungle growing down and over the river banks. In the side creek our guide located a Great-billed Heron, an elusive bird many twitchers come here to tick, including many overseas birders. On board we had a German birder who first made a birding trip to Australia 23 years ago and has made many visits since.
We only found one Great-billed Heron, a juvenile bird about 10 months old according to our guide. The bird was perched high in a dense tree making photography difficult. Fortunately the bird decided to fly a short distance downstream where we found it again perched more or less in the open in the top of a leafy tree canopy.
The elusive Great-billed Heron. This is a juvenile bird about 10 months old. They are large birds and the name great-billed is certainly an appropriate description.
The bird moved a few times giving some varied photo poses. It was good to see our guide suggest it was time to leave the bird in peace. I am sure he wants it to be there again for the next group coming through however this ensures the bird's welfare.
Our trip north of the Daintree River was disappointing from a birding point of view. We did short walks in beautiful rainforest at Jindalba Boardwalk, Marrdja Boardwalk and Dubuji Boardwalk plus a short walk up a creek bed north of Emmagen Creek and found very few birds at all locations. Birding in rainforest is frustrating. You can hear birds calling in the canopy but cannot see them. Because you are new to the area many of the calls you do not know. Down at mid story and below there are very few birds. I suspect the best place to look for birds is on the margins of rainforest where there is an opening such as forest clearings. 
There are a number of fruit eating pigeons and doves in the rainforest. They are mostly only heard however I did manage a few shots of a Brown Cuckoo-Dove and an Emerald Dove. We often heard the amazing calls of Wompoo Pigeons however have only had a few brief glimpses of these birds.
The Brown Cuckoo-Dove. There were two feeding on the fruits in this tree. This is how you often see them, just a brief glimpse as they emerge from the foliage. Note the long tail.

An Emerald Dove - they seem to forage on the ground.

1 comment:

  1. I've just found your blog through a link with Gouldiae and having read your description of your boat journey up Barratt Creek I'm feeling quite homesick. That's my backyard! Wonderful photos, especially of the GBH which is a particular favourite of mine. It is difficult birding in the rainforest, much easier to see birds along the margins as you suggested. Have a good trip home.
    Cheers Barbara