North to Daintree

Centenary Lakes, Cairns Botanic Gardens

We spent the next morning mopping up, which is birder talk for picking up a few species that we hadn’t yet seen around Cairns. A pre-dawn breakfast of coffee and eggs was mostly satisfactory, although Neil was not impressed when he asked for hot sauce, and the cook/cashier/sole proprietor of the cafe gave him a scornful look. “We don’t ‘ave any ‘ot sauce! Thot would change the taste,” he explained. Neil furrowed his brow and muttered under his breath, “Yes, that’s the general idea of a condiment. It changes the taste.”

Fortified with caffeine and a hot sauce-free brekky, we fired up our trusty rental car and hit the road. A stop at some mangroves near Edmonton netted us a small group of very appropriately named Lovely Fairywrens, their purple helmets contrasting with their bright white lores (the space between the eye and the bill). Back at Centenary Lakes near the Cairns Botanic Gardens, the morning sun provided breath-taking illumination for a couple of Papuan Frogmouths. These nocturnal beauties, relatives of the North American nightjars, were dozing in a tropical tree. At nearly two feet in length, the frogmouths made an easy photographic target even as we kept a respectful distance.

Papuan Frogmouth

Heading north, we stopped at the Cattana Wetlands, an old sugar cane farm that had been converted to a wildlife preserve. An ominous sign on the way in warned us that we were entering an Electric ant biosecurity zone.

Shocking! We were careful not to move any vegetation or soil. Electric ants are an invasive species which arrived several decades ago from South America. Their name comes from their powerful bite; they are also known as the ‘little fire ant.’

Cattana is a beautiful area. A boardwalk encircles several lakes, with regenerating forest along the fringes. Highlights here were Green Pygmy-Geese, a Brown-backed Honeyeater, Brahminy Kite, and a Brown Goshawk.

Cattana Wetlands

Keen to keep moving north towards Daintree National Park, we pressed on. We left the farms and settlements behind, moving into primeval rainforest habitat. The highway hugged the coast in places, allowing for spectacular views of golden sand beaches, frothy azure water, and glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef at the edge of the horizon. By the time we rolled into tiny Daintree Village, we were ready to explore this new world.

After checking into the quaint but comfortable Daintree Riverview Lodge and Van Park, we took a walk along the Daintree River on the only road out of town. We immediately stumbled, almost literally, upon a Short-beaked Echidna. Echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters, are found only in Australia and New Guinea. Along with the platypus, they are the only species of mammals who lay eggs. This little guy was foraging for grubs along the side of the road, quite oblivious to our birding efforts. We watched him for a good 10 minutes before he disappeared into the rainforest. The road wasn’t too birdy, but we did pick up Green Oriole and Wompoo Fruit-Dove, a large colorful dove named for its booming call. We headed back for dinner and an early bedtime, because tomorrow morning we had an early appointment with Murray.

Murray Hunt, “the Daintree Boatman,” runs nature tours on his small flat-bottomed boat. Neil and I had reservations for the sunrise trip, so at 6:45am the next morning we made our way down to the river.

Neil attempts the impossible: birding without coffee

Neil, bereft of coffee, was anxious. Birders on Murray’s tours commonly encountered three rare specialties of the Daintree area: Great-billed Heron, Little Kingfisher, and Double-eyed Fig-Parrot. We needed all three. This was our best, perhaps only chance to see them. But they are all shy, and bit elusive. It would take some luck to see them all. Neil hated relying on luck.

The boat tour started well enough. We saw a distant White-bellied Sea-Eagle as we set off. Murray was also able to track down some roosting Papuan Frogmouths and a Black-necked Stork. We spotted our first target, a pair of diminutive Double-eyed Fig-Parrots, eating fruit on a branch over the water. These colorful characters are only about 5 inches long, the smallest parrots in Australia. Their “double eye” is a bright blue spot on the lores. I gave Neil a “thumbs up” when we spotted them. He maintained his serious composure. “Now we need the other two,” he replied.

The ‘other two’ proved difficult. The tide was extremely high, meaning that many of the typical hangout spots for the kingfisher and the heron were totally under water. Seeing two avid birders at the bow, Murray pulled out all of the stops to try to locate these special birds. He squeezed his boat into side tributaries. We patrolled up and down promising coves. The advertised two-hour trip stretched into two and a quarter hours. Then two and a half. Finally, Murray gave up and headed the boat back towards the dock. It was a lovely trip, and we saw many cool birds. Murray was knowledgeable and entertaining. But I could tell that Neil was disappointed that two of the star attractions were no-shows. “We might still pick them up down the road,” I told him. He looked skeptical as we packed up the car and headed south. But both of our moods lightened as the morning wore on and we remembered our next destination: the famous Atherton Tablelands.

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