Thursday, July 29, 2010

Winter in Darwin - 2010

My dream of leaving winter behind and heading north to Darwin to beat the cold this year has certainly worked, even better than I expected. Australia is presently experiencing the two extremes with cold, wet and miserable weather in the south and extreme heat in the north. This pattern has been the way of it now for the past 6 to 8 weeks.

We have been surprised at the heat in the top-end considering it is the middle of winter. 2010 has turned out to be the hottest July in Darwin for over thirty something years and the southern tourist have all been caught by this weather change. Even the locals are expressing concern at the heat and are expecting the summer thunder storms to start rolling in any day now.

Temperature have been sitting between 25C night time minimum to 37C maximum temperature but many nights it does not get that low. We are feeling the extreme heat during the day and I guess the humidity is also playing a major role in this. Men are walking around at 10.00pm of an evening in shorts with no shirt on and cold showers are the order of the day. Several people who spend the winter up here are turning around and heading south again. I have never been a beer drinker unless I have been extremely hot but since coming to Darwin it has been buy it by the case and always have them in the fridge. Beer is now my daily drink.

We are having trouble getting the caravan fridge cold enough to keep anything frozen. We rang the fridge man who told me that everyone is having the same problem especially with caravans. His only advice was to install a fan to cool the back of the fridge and get rid of the build up of heat.

Coba is really feeling the heat and yesterday we drove around Darwin in the air conditioned car for some relief. Of a morning I have been going out doing my bird photography and by lunchtime I am back at the caravan. By then all the birds (Except the swamp birds) have moved under shelter from the heat and they do not come out again until around 5.00pm. It is really noticeable in the caravan park. The brown honeyeaters are around in the morning and then disappear until late afternoon seeking shelter in the shade and saving energy.

The National Parks of Kakadu and Litchfield are also experiencing these conditions. The return of the crocodile to the north since they have become protected has stopped swimming in several places where people once swam. These man-eaters have returned with vengeance and are taking over all the waterholes. The beautiful swimming hole at Wangi Falls is just one of the swimming holes closed due to crocodiles.

Our plan was to spend four weeks in Darwin and then slowly return south via Queensland. We are now leaving Darwin on Sunday and going to Katherine and on to Kununurra where hopefully it might be a bit cooler. We will have to return to Darwin two weeks later to fly home for a week but we will leave the van in Katherine and drive up to catch the plane. On our return we will pick up the caravan and head for Townsville to visit family.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Corroboree Billabong Wetlands Cruise

The Corroboree Billabong Wetlands Lunch Cruise would be the best value for money experience you could get in the Northern Territory and probably Australia. For $55.00 / person you get a three hour boat cruise on the Billabong with a salad and cold meat lunch provided.

Corroboree Billabong is 104 kilometres (75 minutes) from the centre of Darwin on the Arnhem Highway and is part of the Mary River Wetlands. It is teaming with birdlife and Crocodiles, both salt and fresh water varieties. The guides are also well experienced in the area and can pick out the wildlife even when camouflaged in with the background. Our guide was Ian and he did an exceptionally good job in point out the different species.

Corroboree Billabong
Waterlilies on Corroboree Billabong

Some of the salt water crocodiles were over four metres long and varied in size around the girth. The fresh water crocks were in the fresh water mangroves where they live to stay safe from their salt water cousins who will kill and eat them without hesitation.

Salt water Crocodile sun-baking at Corroboree Billabong
This large Salt Water Crocodile sunbakes on the bank of the billabong probably after a good meal. It is estimated that this maneater is over four metres long.

Bird life was plentiful with White Bellied Sea Eagles, Jabiru, Brolgas, Herons (Four varieties) Ducks, Dotterels, Jacanas and Whistling Kites just to name a few. Photography from the boat was great for the average photographer but was unsuitable for using my large lens because of the boat drift and movement. I still managed to get some great shots of the Jacanas which were the birds that I really wanted. Sadly I dipped out on the sea eagles due to the boat movement.

Tempting Death. This adult male Jabiru in this depth of water is a potential meal for any hungry crocodile.
A Comb Crested Jacana chick searches for insects on the lilly pads at Corroboree Billabong.
A Comb Crested Jacana also called the Jesus Bird because at a distance it appears to be walking on the water. In fact it is walking on lilly pads or other plant life on, or just below the surface of the water. Its feet are larger than its body to allow it to do this.

If you are coming north to Darwin or Kakadu do not miss this cruise. One hour cruises are also available for $30.00 throughout the day but the lunch cruise is the best. You will pay twice the price for a cruise at Yellow Waters in Kakadu and see the same things.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Bird with its own Shawl

I wonder how many people know that the practice of wearing a shawl around the neck to keep warm was done thousands of years old. The bird that started using it is the Straw-necked Ibis.

Young Straw-necked Ibis have no feathers around their neck. Instead they have a black leathery skin. As they mature they get cold around this bare neck so they have developed the practice of growing their own Shawl. Don’t believe me well look at the photos below.

The Straw-necked Ibis with its shawl or is it a necktie.Notice how the shawl hangs from the back of the neck.

How many times have you seen a Straw-necked Ibis and never knew that it wore a shawl.

Owls of the Darwin Botanic Gardens

Portrait of an Owl.

Darwin Botanic Gardens are known for their Owls especially for the Rufous Owl. This Owl lives on Possums and Gliders as its main food source. The other owls in the gardens are Barking Owls. My trip to the gardens was most successfully being able to photograph one Rufous Owl and two Barking Owls.

Arriving at the gardens I came across Andy and Trisha Pavone from Hervey Bay who were obviously bird watches. They turned out to be members of the Hervey Bay bird club back home. They were also searching for owls. We swapped phone numbers and agreed to ring if we found one.

I made the first strike finding the Barking Owls and contacted them and all of us enjoyed the find. An hour later I received a phone call and they had located the Rufous Owl. Working as two teams really paid off.

Rufoud Owl.
(Reminds me of one of my old school teachers.)

Barking Owl
(Just about to ask me what I am doing down there)


From Pine Creek we left the Stuart Highway and headed towards Jabiru. The last time we were here was in 1988 and this was a dirt road in those days. We were to find that all the roads to the major attractions are bitumen sealed these days, a bit different to twenty-two years ago. Our destination was Malabanjbandju Campsite, which showed on the map as a caravan camping site. It was also a site recommended by a fellow traveller we had met in Pine Creek.

Kakadu now has a $25.00 entry permit fee that lasts for 14 days. Trouble is it is still $25.00 for one day. On top of this you still have to pay camping fees and for any trips that you do in the park. In Pine Creek we were given entry tickets that were still current for three more days by people who were finished with them. These entry tickets are not transferable so we should not have been using them. I had no problems in using these tickets but Coba on the other hand had a real problem. It was at the stage where I was ready to buy new ticket for us just to make her happy and put her in a better frame of mind. She made me pay for not purchasing our own tickets. At school she was known as Saint Coba because she would never do anything wrong. Fifty years later she’s has not changed and I guess I haven’t either.

We made our campsite by 11.00 am and set up the caravan. After lunch we explored Jabiru and then travelled to Ubirr Rock art site and the Border Store on the East Alligator River. This Aboriginal Art Gallery has been greatly changed since our last visit. It is now all set tracks and barriers to keep people away from the rock paintings.

Back at the caravan I went for a walk with the camera and managed to photograph a Jabiru and some Cotton Pigmy Geese. The humidity was high and this made conditions unpleasant. We tried to sit outside the caravan but the mosquitoes carried us away. So it was back into the van and open everything possible that had screens on it. That night I was pleasantly surprised to hear the ghost like call of the Bush Curlew. I cannot recall hearing it since my childhood days in Mackay when we lived in Archibald Street and these birds were a nightly visitor or probably better described as a local resident.

By next morning conditions had improved and I found myself under a sheet and thin blanket. We made an early start that morning leaving the van and heading for Nourlangie Rock Art Gallery. To me this is the best Aboriginal art gallery in Kakadu. The large shelter cave is also worth the visit if you are in the area.

Aborignal Rock Art - Nourlangie Rock

Leaving Nourlangie Rock we set off for Jim Jim Falls. This is still one of the remaining dirt roads in Kakadu and it is approximately sixty fivekilimetres from the main road to the falls. The last nine kilometres is a two wheel track with creek crossings and mud patches. It has been made worse by the NT Parks Service installing either large speed humps or diversion humps across the road. These are continuous for the full nine kilometres of four wheel drive dirt track. Passing other vehicles on this track is also an experience as it is often a tight squeeze to get one of the vehicles off the track. We finally arrived at Jim Jim Falls to find the carpark resembling a major shopping centre car park. It was so bad we were not able to get a park in the main parking area and had to return to an overflow parking area a bit down the track.

The signage at the start of the track to the falls said it was a one kilometre walk along the creek to the falls. It also recommended allowing two hours for the return trip. Coba opted to stay at the car but after getting this close I was going the rest of the way. The walking track to the falls was more rugged than I thought it would be with a lot of bolder hopping along the way. Jim Jim turned out to be two very small streams of water going over the falls. Having achieved my objective and taken some photos, I set off back to the car. The creek itself was very beautiful and a crocodile trap and warning signs were sufficient deterrent to stop people swimming here. I arrived back at the start of the track in just under the hour.

Jim Jim Creek below the falls.

Jim Jim Falls - Kakadu

From there it was on to Yellow Waters where it was time to photograph some of the local birds. The glossy Ibis were used to people and allowed me to get real close. The Mask Lapwings were different to the ones I had seen elsewhere and lacked the black shawl markings that normally come down from the back of the neck in front of the wings to the breast area. I also photographed my first Pied Herron here as well.

Northern Mask Lapwing - Yellow Waters

Pied Hern - Yellow Waters

Back at the caravan we enjoyed the late afternoon breeze until the nightly raid by the local mosquitoes swarmed in like fighter jets from the swam area behind the van. At this point it was time to retreat and allow them to their environment. At night we could hear them buzzing on the screen of the open windows. This went on all night and thankfully the screens held the enemy was kept at bay.

Next morning we hooked up the van and headed for Darwin. We stopped along the way at the Mamulala Wetlands bird hide around 25 kilometres west of the township of Jabiru. I managed to get a couple of good shots of masked finches here along with ordinary shots of Long Tail, Crimson and Double Bar Finches. We stopped for lunch at Bark Hut and then continued on to the caravan park at Berry Springs.

Masked Finch - Mamulala Wetlands

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pine Creek

Pine creek is the home of the Hooded Parrot so a two day stopover here was on the agenda just to find this parrot. It has a very small range and is one of the rare birds of Australia. Local help was not much good in pinpointing the area the birds frequented. I did however get given a location by a fellow bird photographer while I was in Mataranka which yielded success. These parrots seem to travel in small flocks of two to six birds but when they feed the flock increases to around 50 birds. I counted 44 birds in the flock that I managed to come upon feeding. This is probably like a family group going to a restaurant in human terms. I also noticed a lack in the number of mature male birds in the flocks. I found a group of around twenty birds on the second morning and there were no mature males in this group at all. When I later spoke to a local he agreed that there appeared to be one mature mail parrot for every ten parrots in the area. The majority of the parrots in the area were female or Juvenile birds.

Hooded Parrot

I also managed to photograph the Northern Rosella, The bar Breasted Honeyeater and the Red Browed Pardalote while I was here.

Nothern Rosella Red Browed Pardalote

Except for the birds, Pine creek does not have much to offer the tourist. There is still an operating gold mine in the area and a mining museum and a Railway museum which displays the old steam train used in the film, “We of the Never Never”

We of the Never Never train

Umbrawarra Gorge, south west of the settlement is worth a visit. This gorge retains several waterholes in the dry season but at present it is still running due to recent rains. It is also a Mecca for wildlife. The bright orange gravellier trees were right through the gorge and providing a food source for the honeyeaters in the area.

Umbrawarra Gorge
Umbrawarra Gorge

Edith Falls 2nd & 3rd July 2010

Turning off the main highway into Edith Falls we were greeted by a sign saying that the campgrounds were full and to ring and confirm a booking. The Next G phone would not work in this area so unless people had a satellite phone nothing else would work either. The heavy load on the campgrounds was due to school holidays in the NT and some other states.

We continued on and as we approached Edith Falls, the air was filled with smoke where National Parks had been burning off. On arrival we were able to get a site for our van. We booked in for one night but soon decided on staying another night.

Edith Falls is a great place and the campgrounds is run by National Parks and costs $9.00 / person / night. It has flush toilets, hot showers, drinking water and good campsites but no power. Unlike Katherine Gorge, all areas are accessible provided that people are prepared to walk and one does not have to pay for boat trips to see the attractions. It consists of three waterfalls with good swimming pools at the base of each waterfall. The Edith River is also a great walk especially above the top falls to Springwater waterhole.

The 1.2 kilometre track to the top falls is a good climb and is rather rugged and rocky in some parts. The 1.6 kilometre track to the top falls on the opposite side of the creek is even more rugged and care needs to be taken. The Jatbula Trail finishes at Edith Falls and I took the opportunity to re-walk a section of it the first day we were here. The second day I did the circuit walk to the top pools and had a swim at the top. I am amazed at how well my knees have performed on these rugged tracks. No problems at all. To think that twelve months ago I would not have been able to walk them without severe pain that would have last for several days.

TheEdith River below the Waterfalls

The Edith River below the Waterfalls
Looking down on the middle pool from above the second waterfall
The top waterfall and pool.

The Temperature here at present is rather warm for Mid Winter. Saturday night (3/7/2010) at 9.00pm the temp was 32C and Saturday morning at 5.00 am it was 21C. That evening was cooler at 28C. We had the caravan fully open to catch any breeze but we need the screens for the mosquitoes.

There is a reported area 15 kilometres back along the road where Gouldian Finches are supposed to be found. I went there at 6.30 am on Saturday morning for a couple of hours and found nothing. The campgrounds are full of Great Bowerbirds with some Red-wing parrots. I have found the bird life to be very poor around here. Tomorrow we head north again with a stop at Pine Creek to look for the Hooded Parrot.

The Bowerbird in its Bower at Edith Falls

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mataranka and Katherine

Our arrival in Mataranka was timely as our provisions had run right down and we were badly in need of new supplies. Our first stop was the local store and the prices reflected the isolation of the town.

We had decided on staying in a caravan park and we definitely needed one the first night as were both longing for a nice shower, bathing in a bucket of water in the caravan is only good for so long. We selected the Homestead at Mataranka Springs and booked in there. My first action was to soak it up in the thermal Rainbow Pool and although it was slightly warm, it was not hot.

Although the pool was a definite plus the caravan park turned out to be a bad choice. There were four bus loads of high school students camping there for two days and the caravan park was full. The students soon found that the laundry was a great meeting place and the laundry was right opposite our van. The septic system could not handle the load and raw sewerage was running down the roads in the park. We stayed two days and then moved into another park in Mataranka for a night.

The highlight of Mataranka for me was finding and photographing the rare and endangered Red Goshawk. The second caravan Park Manager told me where it was nesting and I managed to find both the birds and the nest.

The Rare and Endangered Red Goshawk

The other thing Mataranka is known for is its Thermal Pools. There are two main pools, Rainbow Pool at Mataranka Homestead and the spring and pool at Bitter Springs. There are several others in the area but these are the two main tourist pools. At Bitter springs, people float down the narrow creek in a slow drift with the flow of water from the spring. The creek is deep and I could not touch the bottom although there are some logs to stand on at times.

Drifting down the creek at Bitter Springs The Pool at Bitter Springs
Rainbow Pool at Mataranka Springs
Rainbow Pool at Mataranka Springs
It was 105 kilometres from Mataranka to Katherine and this took us around one and a half hours with a stop for coffee. Katherine is the home of the famous Katherine Gorge which is a money making machine for the NT Government from the tourist industry. I have done the gorge trip several times before and walked the track along the top of the gorge and also the five day Jatbula Trail, a 58 kilometre walk from Katherine Gorge to Edith Falls along the escarpment. This is a great ,easy and beautiful walk with campsite at waterfalls or pools each night and plenty of time for swimming after you arrive.

So for us, Katherine was a place for more supplies, gas, fuel, a new phone and some bird photography. We went to the gorge and I managed to get some great photos. These are also on my Flickr Site.

Radjah Shelduck - Katherine
White Throated Honeyeater - Katherine
Brown Honeyeater - Katherine
Leaden Flycatcher - Katherine

Tomorrow, (Saturday 3 /7/2010), we head to Edith Falls, a short drive to another beautiful area.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Daily Waters - A Place of Character

Daily Waters is four kilometres off the Stuart Highway and is worth the detour to see this one pub, one servo, no shop settlement. The Daily Waters pub is a place of Character along with Frank the Chook Man who is the nightly entertainer there. There is a caravan park and cabins here and the pub is an entertainment centre of an evening.

The Bar and reception centre of the International Daily Waters Pub
The stage at the Daily Waters Pub
The Kitchen Servery at the Daily Waters Pub
The Service Station at Daily Waters
Frank the Chookman's Caravan

Devil's Marbles to Longreach Waterhole

Birdlife on Longreach Waterhole
It was a late start leaving the campsite at the Devil’s Marbles having taken photos and walked around the marbles again. From there it was into Tennant Creak, a place that I cannot say much about except to avoid if possible. We did however fuel up here and bought lunch for a change.

Settling for a short day, we drove to a roadside rest area known as Attack Creek which is 70 Kilometres north of Tennant Creek. We were now in the tropics and winter seemed far away even though it was only June. While we were at this campsite, we packed our bed Dooners into plastic bags and stored them under the bed. The feather down coat also went into storage; no we will not need them again this winter. The days are now in the low 30 degrees and the nights very pleasant.

Friday was to be another short day doing less than 200 kilometres. Why is that? Well we found a small piece of Paradise. We followed the Stuart highway to Elliott, another town not worth mentioning but the gateway to Longreach Waterhole, 10 kilometres west of the township on a dirt road. There are no signs to show you it is there just a dirt track and a Private Property Keep Out sign. We heard about it in Tennant Creek but the locals in Elliott like to keep the place for themselves.

Longreach Waterhole is a natural watercourse approximately 150 metres wide that leads into the 240 square kilometre Lake Woods and the waterhole forms part of this lake. Lake Woods is a major breeding habitat for many inland birds. As we pulled up there were water birds everywhere. They included Pelicans, Cormorants, Darters, Straw neck and Glossy Black Ibis, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, Whistling and Black kites, Brolgas, Jabiru, Large and Intermediate Herons, Finches, White winged Thrillers, Rufus Whistlers, Jacky Winter and the list goes on. It was difficult to make time to set up the caravan, I just wanted to go but Coba had other ideas.

Just after we stopped a pair of Brolgas was dancing on the bank opposite the caravan. Then an army of around 500+ pelicans and 2000 little black Cormorants came down the waterhole hearting the fish in front of them and fishing at the same time. They were packed together so tight I do not know how they got their head in the water. This happens several times a day.

Birdlife on Longreach Waterhole

The birdlife on the waterhole was an example of the biggest and strongest beats up the smallest and lives easy on the small guy’s hard work. The Terns would dive into the water and catch fish and the kites would attack them to make them drop their catch and then swoop down and take it up from the water. The little black cormorants need to surface to swallow their fish that they catch and the nearest pelican would attack it for the fish. I saw a pelican grab a Little Black Cormorant in its bill and hold it under water until it let the fish go and then the pelican took the fish. It was nature at its best.

Caspian Tern with a fish
Little Black Cormorant with a fish

Next morning I was up at daylight and out with the camera. It was a shot a second and I did not know where to point the camera next. It is unbelievable that there could be so many fish in this waterway. At times there would be a dozen cormorants in camera range all trying to swallow full live fish. At the same time there were so many birds in the air I wanted to get flight shots. This place was a bird photographers dream.

A Jabiru or Black Necked Stork skims the water at Longreach Waterhole
Pelicans in Flight - Longreach Waterhole
A Black Kite on the lookout for Terns with fish.

By 10.00 am I had to walk away and try for some bush birds. Red-browed Pardalotes were calling in the trees but finding them was another challenge. There was one calling from a tree just outside the van and I had Coba and myself searching for it and we still have not found it. I headed bush and after two hours I saw my first Red Browed Pardalote. An hour later and I had managed to get some shots of these small elusive birds. After lunch we went for a drive following the winding waterway and looking for more birds. In the evening we had some of our caravan neighbours over for a show of bird photos taken along the way. While we were doing this I noticed that there was an eclipse taking place so we followed the moon though part of this process.

Sunday was a repeat of the first two days although several pelicans left the waterhole soaring up until they were out of sight before heading off, probably to Lake Eyre. We had our third great sunset again this evening and it was necessary to capture the moment for the memories. Monday morning it was on the road again, next stop – Mataranka.

Sunset at Longreach Waterhole near Elliott in the NT