Monthly Archives: March 2021

Pitta Party

The Northern Territory of Australia is vast swath of land, home to very few people. It spans more than half a million square miles, almost twice the area of Texas. And it’s home to fewer people than Madison, Wisconsin. About one-quarter of the population are indigenous aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. The northern part of the territory is classified as tropical savanna, while the interior “red centre” is mostly hot and very dry desert. Neil and I were planning to spend the first few days around Darwin, picking up few costal specialties, and then work our way south through world-famous Kakadu National Park and down into the real Outback, as far as Pine Creek or Katherine.

Our first morning in the NT, we arrived at Buffalo Creek just before dawn. The Buffalo Creek management area is 20 minutes north of Darwin. It protects valuable wildlife habitat along the banks of lower Buffalo Creek where it empties into the Timor Sea. This area can experience dramatic tidal changes of up to five or six vertical meters (nearly 20 feet!) in the span of about six hours, so we had consult a tide table to make sure that our birding area would not be underwater. Fortunately this week the difference between high and low tides was a more manageable three meters (about 10 feet), and sunrise corresponded roughly with low tide. We would have to keep an eye on the time and the tides, though. I’d heard that they wait for no man, and we didn’t want to swim back to the car.

Also, swimming back to the car would be a terribly bad idea. The area’s saltwater crocodiles are extremely dangerous, and have been known to kill and eat humans.

The very long boat ramp provided some dramatic evidence of just how much the tides could change. We found the start of a trail, and began working our way into the forest. It was tough going through the dense mangroves, and several times we had to ford small creeks or navigate around them.

Muddy silt and dripping mangrove leaves reminded us that this entire area was underwater a few hours ago.

The cool morning air was alive with birdsong. We quickly picked up a couple dozen species, quite a number of which were new for our trip including Arafura Fantail, Mangrove Gerygone, Red-headed Myzomela, Rufous-banded Honeyeater, and Varied and Red-collared Lorikeets. Chestnut Rail, a shy specialty of the area, eluded us.

After more than an hour in the forest, we returned to the beach area and noticed a large flock of birds along the waterline. We had to trek across an expanse of sand to get close enough to identify them, but soon we were looking at a giant mixed flock of shorebirds and seabirds.

During the next half an hour we sorted through six species of terns, including Little, Lesser Crested, and Whiskered, and 13 species of shorebirds including Lesser and Greater Sand-Plover, Great Knot, Red-capped Plover, Common Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, and Far Eastern Curlew. Nothing escaped Neil’s sharp-eyed seabird scanner, and he was picking out a couple of offshore Brown Boobies while I perused the seashells washed up on the beach.

Returning to the car, we realized that had notched almost 50 species, 16 of which were brand new for our trip. There is something magical about birding a totally new geographical location. A fresh, unknown experience is always just around the corner. At this point the sun was rising higher in the sky, the tide was inbound, and we had other places to check out before the oppressive heat of the afternoon descended.

The forest trail along nearby Lee Point had been recently subjected to a controlled burn (a not uncommon practice in the Top End), but we still managed to find a couple species of cuckooshrikes and a spectacular Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove. On the way back to the car, Neil was distracted by yet more shorebirds, which we were curiously unable to identify down to species.

Our next stop was the East Point Reserve. By this time the sun was high in the sky, and temperatures had reached the mid 30s C (mid-90s F). The Monsoon Forest Walk was supposed to be good for Rainbow Pitta, a bird that both Neil and I were very keen to see. Monsoon forest is a dry tropical forest biome which experiences a long, hot dry season and then heavy rains. We were in the middle of the “cooler” dry season, but it wasn’t feeling so cool right now. Before setting out, we refreshed ourselves on the Pitta’s distinctive call: a loud, multi-syllabic squawk that is often transliterated as “I WALK to WORK!” Entering the forest, we found ourselves surrounded by a still quietude, punctuated only by our footsteps crunching through the dead leaves. We hiked all of the primary trails, covering a mile and a half in one hot, sweaty hour. We had seen only a handful of birds total, although two of them (Green-backed Gerygone and White-gaped Honeyeater) were new for our trip. The White-gaped Honeyeater completed our set of white-embellished honeyeaters, as we had previously ticked the White-eared, White-cheeked, White-throated, White-plumed, and White-naped. I’m not impressed with Australian ornithologists when it comes to their creativity in naming honeyeaters.

A couple of times I thought I heard a Pitta-like “WALK” calling in the distance, but decided that it was either wishful thinking or auditory hallucinations brought on by the fact that my water bottle was empty and my body temperature was rising. I thought heard it again… up ahead, something was calling. Rounding the next bend in the trail, I paused to listen. Instead of hearing another bird call, I heard the faint rustle of a small creature walking or hopping through the dried leaves. Neil caught up, and that’s when we spied the Pitta.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

It was spectacular. More colorful and vibrant that I had even imagined. I held my breath, certain that it would instantly vanish back into the forest. But it didn’t. The Pitta was not in any hurry to go anywhere. It sauntered around on the ground, up into a low bush, and then back to the ground.

Rainbow Pitta – photo by Neil Hayward

We watched it for a good 15 minutes before it eventually slipped back into the forest. Despite the fact that we had hardly moved, I felt out of breath. Realizing that I had been alternately holding my breath and breathing very slowly and shallowly, I took a moment to take some deep breathes and give some high fives. We finished our walk, and then headed out for a well-deserved lunch and some cold drinks. In the late afternoon we checked out East Point, and then returned to Buffalo Creek where we picked up Broad-billed Flycatcher and a fly-by Torresian Imperial-Pigeon. Nothing could match our encounter with the Pitta, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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Barking Mad

I opened my eyes early the next morning, the predawn glow already lightening the eastern sky through the window above my bed. We had spent the night back at the Reef Palms in Cairns, and I was awoken by the Rufous Owls immediately outside my window duetting about 3am. It was now a little after 6am, and I turned on a light and started re-packing my bag. In less than an hour, we were leaving for the Cairns airport to catch an early flight to Darwin in the Northern Territory. We were scheduled to get in late morning, and Neil had already sketched out a madcap afternoon of birding all around the Darwin metro area. I was very excited to see what Darwin would be like. Although I had visited Queensland and New South Wales before, I had never been to Australia’s Top End. I picked up my phone, and saw that I had a text message from Jetstar. It said that my morning flight to Darwin had been canceled. Well THIS was going to throw a spanner into the works!

When Neil got out of the shower and got dressed, we spent 45 minutes on the phone with Jetstar. We never got an explanation as to why the flight was canceled, but we were able to get rebooked on another flight to Darwin in the late afternoon of the same day. Hanging up, we stewed a bit in frustration. We had already seen all of our target species around Cairns, and now we were stuck here another full day. We had also planned an aggressive itinerary in the Top End, and losing most of a day was going to force us to make some difficult choices about what to leave out in the days ahead. Neil was surfing around eBird just on the off chance that something unusual had showed up, when he sat bolt upright. “Little Kingfisher was seen yesterday at the Cairns Botanic Gardens,” he exclaimed.

Careful readers of this blog will know that we searched in vain for Little Kingfisher earlier in the trip near Daintree, and Neil was bitterly disappointed that we had dipped on this uncommon specialty. Now another one had shown up only 15 minutes away. We had a plan for the day! While packing the car, we picked up a flock of Metallic Starlings in the park across the street, a new bird for the trip! We also stopped by the Esplanade, because it was directly on the way and Neil has a deep, almost unnatural love for shorebirds. I took a silly panorama of the beach at sunrise while Neil stared intently through his scope. He did pick out some Red-capped Plovers, another new bird for the trip! After a rotten start to the day, we were on a roll.

Arriving at the Botanic Gardens, we spent a pleasant but Kingfisher-less half hour prowling its last known location. After a while, we bumped into another birder who had just seen the Little Kingfisher in the ponds across the park. We got precise directions, and then set off. “It was right there! You can’t miss it!” he called after us. My heart skipped a beat. If it’s one thing that you never, ever say to a birder chasing a rarity, it’s “you can’t miss it.” Because, dear reader, you very much CAN miss it. In fact, that’s why they’re called “rarities” – they show up rarely, are sometimes very hard to find, and often disappear without a trace. And the worst karmic curse one birder can bestow on another is telling them “you can’t miss it.”

We missed it. One hour stretched into two. We walked all of the trails along the ponds, through the gardens, along the small stream, through the forest boardwalk, and back again. Over and over. The Little Kingfisher is, in fact, quite small: less than 5 inches from tip to tail, about the size of a sparrow. And it is quite shy and somewhat sedentary. It will often sit quietly, tucked away on a small branch overhanging the water, just out of view amongst the foliage. Walking back to the car, I was hot, frustrated, thirsty, hungry, dusty, and tired. I was also wishing some rather uncharitable unpleasantness on Mr. Can’t Miss It. Neil’s brows had furrowed so deeply I contemplated planting some seeds in there. As I turned my head towards the pond, something whipped by my peripheral vision and zipped into a well-vegetated branch near the pond. I looked white and … blue? I scanned with my binoculars, but saw nothing. Then, I saw a small bird dipping its tail. It was … “Little Kingfisher!”

Neil had one panicked moment in which he couldn’t find it, but eventually we both got very satisfying views. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that we were standing about 20 feet from where we had parked the car. Relieved and happy, we piled into the our vehicle and headed out for some well-deserved lunch. Later in the afternoon we headed to the airport for the (fortunately uneventful) flight to Darwin. At the Cairns airport I stopped for a wrap and found myself face-to-face with another one of Australia’s mysteries:

I ate one, but I’m not sure that it changed my lifestyle that much. Landing in Darwin after dark, I was in favor of a quick dinner and an early bedtime. All of the airline and kingfisher drama had really wiped me out. Neil, of course, had other plans. “I have a place for Barking Owl in Darwin!”

I tried to argue that tomorrow night would be better for owling, but our lost day in the Top End was looming large over both of us. So I agreed to at least scout out the location. Neil’s “place” turned out to be an outdoor movie theater in the heart of Darwin’s urban core. We parked across the street from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly, and began to walk around the tiny park on the edge of the harbor. It was a very small area, and I didn’t hear anything except for the movie playing in the outdoor cinema below. There was the sound of two actors arguing, the rippling laughter of the audience, and a dog barking. A dog barking….? I quickly queued up the call of the Barking Owl on my phone and pressed it to my ear. The sound was nearly identical. Pocketing my phone, I took a couple steps down towards the cinema entrance, and suddenly a Barking Owl appeared in the trees above.

Barking Owl – photo by Neil Hayward

It barked at us for a few minutes, as if chastising us for interrupting the movie, then flew back down towards the cinema to catch the car chase scene. As Neil drove us to our hotel, my heavy eyelids drooped and my mind replayed the events of the day in bursts and flashes. It was not the day I was expecting, but it was a pretty great one nonetheless.

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