Saturday, 24 August 2013

Wonga Beach – Cooktown – Atherton

We are now in Atherton on the Atherton Tableland. Since the last post we have traveled further north from Wonga Beach just south of the Daintree River, to Cooktown where we spent three days before heading south to Atherton. After spending a couple of days here we will be heading south towards home via an inland route.
For a range of reasons we decided against going further north up Cape York and therefore Cooktown was the turn around point for the trip.
Compared to our last trip to Cooktown and the Cape early in the 2006 dry season we have found conditions in August this year much drier. As a result I think the birds have been scarce and hard to find.
Here is a mixed bag of photos and highlights from the past week or so.
Olive-backed Sunbird nest:
A fellow camper at the Wonga Beach Caravan Park pointed out a Sunbird nest with a female incubating her eggs very close to a number of van sites. The female builds the elaborate hanging nest and incubates the eggs without any help from the male.
However, the male does defend the nest (and help feed the young???). The Sunbird often choses to build her nest close to human activity, deriving the advantage of reduced predators. The first time I saw a sunbird nest was in 2006 while having our vehicle serviced in Cooktown. The nest was hanging above a workbench in the busy workshop where vehicles we being serviced and repaired.
The Olive-backed Sunbird nest hanging under the shelter of a tree trunk. A remarkable construction for one small bird working alone. The female, who builds the nest and incubates the eggs, is looking at me from the nest.
A close up of the female who is keeping an eye on the photographer standing about four metres away.
At Cooktown we investigated a number of mangrove habitats, looking without success for birds such as Mangrove Gerygone, Mangrove Robin and Mangrove Golden Whistler. By way of consolation we found mudskippers and crabs.
Mudskippers are fascinating vertebrate animals, that is fish, which have evolved to live partly out of water by being able to breath air and use their front side fins to move about. One can imagine this adaption is similar to the ones that lead to animals moving from the sea to the land.  
This mudskipper's modified fin for crawling about is clearly visible. The eyes on top of the head are another useful adaption for an animal that is at risk from above.
There are a large number of crab species that have adapted to living in mangroves. The most famous and possibly the largest is the mud crab, a much sought after and highly priced delicacy. One does not see these crabs at low tide and must set traps to catch them when they come out to feed during high tide. One crab that caught my attention has a very large bright orange and white display and fighting claw and one small feeding claw. I have seen these in Broome so they are no doubt widespread across northern Australia. They are far too small to be of food interest to humans however they are an attractively coloured animal in a drab mangrove environment.
Note the smaller left claw of the larger crab which is used for feeding. The smaller crab of same species on the left has a large left claw so they are not always on the same side? Both are close to their holes. Also note the eyes on long stems.
Black Butcherbird:
After looking for many weeks for Black Butcherbirds and only seeing one brown coloured juvenile bird high in a rainforest tree in the Daintree National Park I finally found a family group in paperbarks fringing Keating’s Lagoon near Cooktown. They were wary and kept moving away from me as I tried to get close enough for some photos. Eventually after scrambling through some scrub to the open understory of the tall melaleucas I managed to get reasonably close to one of the adult birds that had decided to take a bath in a small pool. It seemed comfortable with me nearby and I took a few shots which were difficult in the highly contrasting light of alternating patches of shade and full sun. I decided to get closer when the bird went back in for another dip and was ready to take a better photo when a woman on the nearby walking track greeted Ms Avithera with a very loud voice and the bird immediately took fright and flew off. No more photos of this group!
This illustrates one of the frustrations of birding and bird photography in public parks. The opportunities to access good habitat are often limited to the sites provided by park authorities. These facilities on the whole are very good including many of the walking trails, which often have signage explaining the importance and significance of the environment. However the down side is that you will often be sharing these areas with other visitors who unfortunately scare many of the birds away, particularly some of the rarer species which are usually the very ones your are most interested in seeing. So if you are doing a loop walk through a rainforest and there are a couple of rowdy groups only a few minutes ahead of you then don’t be surprised to find no birds in their wake. The other situation I found on a few occasions was after finding a bird and finally managing to get close it is frightened off by other visitors.
This Black Butcherbird has been bathing, the water has added extra sheen to the feathers which can be black or blue depending on the sun angle.
Yellow Oriole:
The Olive-backed Oriole is a summer migrant to southern Australia. Their presence in the south is announced early each spring by their distinctive calls in the lead up to breeding. Once breeding is underway their calls tend to reduce, making them hard to find even though they are still about.
The Yellow Oriole is closely related to the Olive-backed however they are confined to the tropical north of Australia. Their call is much loader and richer and more frequent and is regarded by some as the sound of the tropics. Even though the Yellow Oriole can be heard in many tropical habitats from dawn to dusk they are hard to find and photograph because they tend to spend most of their time high in the canopy. The Morcombe guide refers to them as “inconspicuous and rather elusive birds” and I agree.
After much searching and trying I eventually managed a few photos of the Yellow Oriole.
Yellow Oriole captured at last at the Cooktown Botanic Gardens.
A juvenile Yellow Oriole - note the grey/brown bill and eye - Cooktown Botanic Gardens.
Brown Goshawks:
Brown Goshawks
are fast, agile and powerful forest and woodland hunters big enough to bring down rabbits. Their presence is often signaled by the warning calls of birds that rightly fear them.
There are two races of this widespread raptor in Australia. The tropical north Australian race didimus is smaller and paler than the southern race fasciatus we see in Victoria. While birding at Keatings Lagoon near Cooktown one flew in terrorising the local birds and landed briefly near me where I was able to get a couple of shots which clearly show the paler colouring of the northern race.
The northern smaller and paler race Brown Goshawk at Keating's Lagoon near Cooktown.
We have often seen Brolgas in our travels up north but never the closely related and very similar Sarus Crane. The Sarus Crane is common on the Atherton Tableland during the dry season and after some local advice we managed to find a number of flocks. They can be found in maize stubble and on paddocks under cultivation where along with other species such as Black Kites, Cattle Egrets and Ibis they pick up small animals disturbed by the plough. They are shy easily frightened birds, more so than Brolgas. One flock we found seemed happy enough to share a paddock with a noisy tractor at work ploughing, but when we moved along an adjacent road in our vehicle they took flight. However not before a few long shot photos were hastily snapped off. To our surprise we also discovered a good number of Australian Pratincoles feeding on the same ploughed ground.
Sarus Cranes on the rich red volcanic soil of a ploughed sugar cane field near Atherton. Note the red on head extends well down the neck whereas it ends at the base of the head on Brolgas.
Around Atherton we found many water bird species at Hasties Swamp National Park just north of town and a male Pied Monarch in rainforest at Lake Eacham in the Crater Lakes National Park not far from Atherton. I needed to get the Pied Monarch to catch up with Ms Avithera who had already sighted this elusive bird further south!
Two Plumed Whistling-Duck at Hasties Swamp near Atherton. These two were enjoying the sunrise. There were at least a thousand Plumed Whistling-Ducks on the swamp along with Freckled, Pink-eared and Pacific Black ducks, Grey Teal and Hardhead. Also Magpie Geese, Ibis, Egrets, Grebes, Coots, Herons, Stilts and so on. A great place for birds and highly recommended.
This Pied Monarch darted about looking for food in the rainforest at Lake Eacham a crater lake in the Crater lakes National Park near Atherton.

Another shot of the bird above. Note the blue eye ring and frilled white collar.

We are returning home via an inland route west of the Great Dividing Range where the habitat and birds will be very different from those found on our journey north along the east coast.

1 comment:

  1. Just delightful JH. What a trip?
    It is nice for this southern-bound birder to see such different birds and interesting to see the ones closely related to our species and how different they are in their northern plumage.
    Great work, regards to you both,