Red-winged Fairy Wren. Photo: Peter Taylor
The states of Western Australia and the Northern Territory contain vast tracts of uninhabited desert wilderness and thousands of miles of unspoiled and stunning coastlines, all filled with birds. Starting out in the picturesque city of Perth, we’ll have a full week to explore the remote southwestern corner of the country. Here we’ll seek regional specialities such as Baudin’s and Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoos, the stunning Red-capped Parrot, and the heathland trio of Western Whipbird, Noisy Scrub-bird, and Western Bristlebird.
After our week in the southwest we’ll head to the heart of the outback in Alice Springs. Here amid the scenic and ancient MacDonnell Ranges, and against a backdrop of outback billabongs and Ghost Gums, we’ll search for birds such as Zebra Finch, Budgerigar, the stunning Mulga Parrot, comical Spinifex Pigeon, and skulky Spinifexbird, Rufous-crowned Emu-wren and Dusky Grasswren. At the Alice Springs wastewater facility there are usually throngs of waterbirds, and sometimes we turn up a surprise like Oriental Plover, Australian Crake or Black Falcon.
Our third stop will be in the humid and lush tropical city of Darwin. Here a rich avifauna, flush with dazzling birds like Rainbow Pitta, Red-collared Lorikeet and Red-headed Myzomela, will keep us occupied for several days.
Our final stop will be the remote outpost of Kununurra, in the far northeastern corner of Western Australia. This is the finch capital of the country, with up to ten species possible, including the gaudy Gouldian, scarce Yellow-rumped Mannikin, and pretty Star Finch. Here too we’ll look for sandstone specialities such as White-quilled Rock-Pigeon and Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and will take a very enjoyable boat trip out on Australia’s largest man-made lake to observe thousands of waterbirds and the scarce Yellow Chat. Our tour ends with a flight back to Darwin.
This tour can be taken in conjunction with Australia: Queensland and New South Wales.*
Day 1: The tour starts with an introductory meeting at 18.00 at our hotel in Perth. Night in Perth.
Day 2: We’ll spend a bit of time this morning visiting one of Perth’s many city parks, where we’ll be introduced to some of the more common wetland birds of Australia. Stately Black Swans, lumbering Australian Pelicans, Pacific Black Ducks, Gray Teal, Blue-billed Duck, and perhaps the bizarre Musk Duck will be paddling around in the lake. Reedbeds should host Australian Reed Warblers and Little Grassbirds, and, with luck, perhaps Buff-banded Rail or Spotless Crake. In the open parklands around the lake we’ll encounter our first (of many) species of honeyeaters, such as Red Wattlebird and New Holland, Singing, and Brown Honeyeaters.
Leaving Perth behind, we’ll make our way to Narrogin, birding en route through the Darling Ranges and Dryandra Forest where we might encounter our first southwest endemics, such as Regent and Elegant Parrots, Red-winged Fairy-wren or Baudin’s Black-Cockatoo. The brushlands around Narrogin should produce our first Australian Ringnecks and perhaps Dusky or Black-faced Woodswallows. Night in Narrogin.
Day 3: Our hotel in Narrogin backs onto a small but very nice wildlands park, and we’ll enjoy a pre-breakfast walk across the road. Here we often encounter the gaudy Red-capped Parrot and Western Rosellas and, if the local Eucalypts are in blossom, there will be a host of honeyeaters and thornbills feeding in the trees. Later in the morning we’ll make our way to the vast Stirling Ranges National Park, stopping at the Wagin sewage ponds where the oddly proportioned Pink-eared Duck, the striking Australian Shelduck, and waders such as Black-fronted Dotterel are often present.
Our lodge is nestled on the north side of the Stirling Ranges, within easy reach of the national park. We should arrive in time for lunch at the local cafe. After checking into our rooms we’ll venture out into the park where the forests should hold Canaby’s Black-Cockatoo, Purple-crowned Lorikeets, Sacred Kingfisher, Restless Flycatcher, “Western” Crested Shrike-Tit and a host of other new birds. Night at Stirling Range Retreat.
Day 4: We’ll spend the morning exploring some of the many dirt roads that bisect the national park. Keeping an eye on the skies as we drive, we might bump into a soaring Square-tailed Kite (more common in the southwest portion of Australia than in the east) or perhaps a Little Eagle. Western Rosellas and Red-capped Parrots should be foraging along the roadsides, and short walks into the bush might reveal more skulky species like Western Fieldwren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater and Blue-breasted Fairy-Wrens. The heathland south of the Stirling Ranges hosts over a thousand plant species, many of which should be in full bloom.
Our goal for the afternoon is to reach the coast at Cheynes Beach. Here our comfortable lodge offers excellent access to the coastal heathland and sandy stretches of beach that ring the southwest corner of the continent. In the late afternoon we’ll explore the roads around Cheynes Beach, looking for Brush Bronzewing, Southern Emu-wren, Red-eared Firetail, and Western Wattlebird. Night at Cheynes Beach Caravan Park.
Day 5: We’ll concentrate on finding the three skulking heathland birds endemic to the area. Western Whipbirds should be quite vocal, and with some patience we should locate one perched low in the heath. Western Bristlebirds can sometimes be quite tame around the heathland behind the lodge, often coming out in the morning along the edges of the artificial firebreaks. The third species is Noisy Scrub-bird, which can be heard singing all over the reserve but will likely take a significant amount of time and patience to see as it scurries across a firebreak or forages on the ground in dense cover. This species was thought to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1961 at Two Peoples Bay and is one of two species in the endemic Australian family Atrichornithidae.
We’ll have time in the afternoon to bird some of the headlands around Albany, where given favourable winds we might spot Indian Yellow-nosed and Black-browed Albatrosses, Great-winged Petrel or Flesh-footed Shearwater. Mammals abound here as well, and with some luck we could find a diminutive Honey Possum foraging in flowering heath. Luck will not be required for us to spot Western Grey Kangaroos, which are nightly visitors around the cabins. The estuaries around Albany will offer our first groups of waders, with migrants from Asia joining the local specialities like Pied Oystercatcher, Red-capped Plover and Fairy Tern. Offshore in October it is often possible to see Humpback Whales and Southern Right-Whales, and occasionally Sea-lions or Fur Seals haul out on the beaches. Night at Cheynes Beach Caravan Park.
Day 6: After an early start we’ll drive inland to the northeast of Cheyne’s Beach and an area of mallee (thin, multi-stemmed species of Eucalyptus that form open but dense forests along a latitudinal band in southern Australia). Although at first glance mallee forest can often appears nearly lifeless, an amazing diversity of wildlife uses these scrubby forests. We’ll seek out birds such as the appropriately named Shy Heathwren, Southern Scrub-Robin, and the odd Crested Bellbird (recently elevated to a nearly monotypic family). We’ll also visit a (hopefully active) mound of the impressive Malleefowl; the world’s southernmost megapode. In the afternoon we’ll either return to Cheyne’s or head south to the coast to explore some of the estuaries and headlands for waders and seabirds. The brilliant blues of the Southern Ocean, offset by high bluffs and gleaming white sands make for a most attractive backdrop to the birding. Night at Cheynes Beach Caravan Park.
Day 7: Today is largely a travel day as we return to Perth. We’ll stop en route to look for Western Corellas near the Ramsar-listed Lake Muir Wetlands. Our actual route will be determined by our chances for new bird species, before we arrive back at our hotel. Night in Perth.
Day 8: A morning flight will take us to Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia. This is outback desert country and contrasts strongly with the more temperate southwest. Known as the Red Centre for good reason, the local landscape is dominated by the rich red color of the rocks, and its sparse vegetation provides a home for a surprisingly varied avifauna. After lunch in town we’ll visit Simpson’s Gap National Park, open scrub country with a wealth of central Australian birds, including Pied Butcherbird, Western Gerygone, Gray-headed Honeyeater, Zebra Finch, Black-faced and Little Woodswallows, and Dusky Grasswren. Local rainfall in these deserts determines the presence or absence of many nomadic species, and some years we also see Budgerigar, Diamond Dove, Rufous Songlark, and Painted Firetail. Among the marsupials, Black-flanked Rock Wallaby is a local speciality. Night in Alice Springs.
Days 9–10: During these two days we’ll visit several spots farther away from town. Our choice will be determined by the local conditions, but whichever we choose we’ll be searching for many of the same species, including Spinifex Pigeon, Dusky Grasswren, Rufous-crowned Emu-wren, Spinifexbird, Western Bowerbird, and Red-browed Pardalote. One afternoon we’ll likely visit the Old Telegraph Station next to the spring after which the town was named, a good spot to see Common Walleroo, and the small but well-laid-out Olive Pink Botanical Garden, which often contains some very confiding Western Bowerbirds tending their grass bowers. On one evening we’ll visit a remote water hole where Bourke’s Parrots and Spotted Nightjars sometimes come at dusk to drink. Nights in Alice Springs.
Day 11: We’ll make an early visit to the ponds of the local sewage works to look for Hoary-headed Grebe, Hardhead, Red-necked Avocet, Black-fronted Plover, and White-backed Swallow. Being the only extensive wetland in the middle of a vast desert, the ponds attract any species that is passing through. On previous tours we’ve seen Pied Cormorant, Freckled Duck, Gray-tailed Tattler, Long-toed Stint, Silver Gull, Orange Chat, and Oriental Plover and Little Curlew. Who knows what we may find this time! We’ll then catch a late morning flight to Darwin for a three-night stay.
In Darwin we’ll enter the true tropics, encountering many new and colourful species: Australian Figbirds perch on roadside wires, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes undulate overhead, and Torresian Imperial-Pigeons sit in the treetops. After checking into our hotel we’ll visit a nearby nature reserve at East Point. On a short walk along the coast on a brush-lined trail we should encounter Orange-footed Scrubfowl - our second megapode - as it struts around the lawns that fringe the reserve. Mobs of Agile Wallabies should be grazing on the short turf, and Bush Thick-Knees should be resting under some of the shade trees in the field. Depending on the tide, we may check the exposed reefs for roosting waders, which are likely to include Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers, Pacific Golden Plover, Gray-tailed Tattler, Curlew Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, and Red-capped Plover. If the tide is low, Eastern Reef Egrets and Striated Herons are sure to be fishing in the rocky pools, and the occasional Brahminy Kite will be drifting overhead. Night in Darwin.
Days 12–13: We’ll spend two days visiting a variety of excellent birding spots around town. These are likely to include the following:
At Howard Springs we’ll walk the nature trail in search of the brilliant-coloured and aptly named Rainbow Pitta. Most of the world’s pittas are skulking birds that are extremely hard to see, but this one is an exception. There are lots of other forest birds to look for as well, including Australian Koel, Spangled Drongo, Shining Flycatcher, Little Shrike-thrush, Yellow and Olive-backed Orioles, and a variety of strikingly patterned tropical honeyeaters. There is also a camp of Black Flying-Foxes here, as well as many exotic lizards, colourful turtles, and unusual butterflies.
We’ll visit Buffalo Creek, where, depending on the tide, we have a chance of glimpsing Chestnut Rail. It spends most of its time hidden in dense mangroves, but we’ll certainly hear it calling and with luck might even see it. While we scan for the rail, other mangrove species will entertain us, perhaps including noisy Black Butcherbirds, musical Green-backed Gerygones, dainty Yellow White-eyes, and colourful Azure Kingfishers. On the nearby beach large flocks of migrant waders and terns may be roosting, and these should include many of the waders that breed in Siberia and winter in Australia. A few resident waders may also be present, including perhaps the massive but surprisingly elusive Beach Thick-knee.
The mangroves that line Adelaide Creek should host Arafura Fantail, Broad-billed Flycatcher and Mangrove Golden Whistler, and in the creek itself we have a reasonable chance at spotting a lurking Saltwater Crocodile. Along the Marakai Track we’ll encounter a range of species more common in the drier interior forests such as Black-tailed Treecreeper, Northern Rosella and, with luck, Gouldian, Long-tailed and Masked Finches.
A late afternoon visit to Knuckey’s Lagoon is always a delight as large numbers of waterbirds are sure to be present, including many herons, ducks, and waders. We’ll search among hundreds of Pied Herons, Magpie Geese, Radjah Shelducks, Green Pygmy-Geese, and Comb-crested Jacanas for scarcer species such as Wood Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint. In the past, local rarities have included Garganey, Ruff, Little Ringed Plover, Oriental Pratincole, and Yellow Chat.
One day we’ll drive to Fogg Dam in the early morning, stopping along the way to look for Horsfield’s Bushlark and Black-faced Woodswallow. The lagoons behind the dam were originally a rice-growing scheme, but thousands of Magpie Geese quickly put an end to that idea and the area was turned into a nature reserve instead. Now it is a mass of reedbeds and lily-covered ponds, home to many waterbirds. Among the scarcer species we’ll hope for are Brolga, Black-necked Stork, Royal Spoonbill, White-browed Crake, Broad-billed and Paperbark Flycatchers, Tawny Grassbird, and Golden-headed Cisticola. Nights in Darwin.
Day 14: We’ll take a morning flight to Kununurra. This remote outpost town has experienced a great tourist boom in the last few years, making it comfortable and easily accessible from Darwin. Kununurra sits in an agricultural plain where irrigated fields are interspersed with vast wetlands and tropical dry forest. The mix of habitats here leads to a wonderfully diverse avifauna, with up to ten species of finch being perhaps the stars. We’ll spend the afternoon exploring near town, seeking out some of the rarer species such as Star Finch, Long-tailed Finch and Yellow-rumped Mannikin, in the vast network of agricultural fields in the Ord River floodplain. Night in Kununurra.
Day 15: We’ll have a full day to explore around Kununurra, and our destination will depend on what we are still looking for. One area we may visit is Lily Creek Lagoon, where we should encounter colourful Green Pygmy-Geese and White-browed Crake. At the nearby Hidden Valley Springs a walk along the roads and marked trails should produce White-quilled Rock-Pigeon, Sandstone Shrike-thrush, and Northern Rosella. And on the Weaber Plains we’ll seek out Australian Bustard, Brolga, and Australian Pratincole in the fields, various finches and cisticolas in the roadside scrub, and maybe Brown Quail. We might go farther afield in the afternoon, toward the coastal town of Wyndham, where Mangrove Gray Fantails occur in the mangroves, with stops along the way to look for Spinifex Pigeon and Gouldian Finch. Night in Kununurra.
Day 16: We’ll start early start for a comfortable morning cruise around the huge Lake Argyle. During the dry season, this giant lake supports simply stunning numbers of birds with hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and a good number of waders. Our main targets, though, are three other birds: the nomadic and poorly known Yellow Chat, for which Lake Argyle is perhaps the most reliable spot; White-quilled Rock Pigeons which tend to sit unobtrusively on small rocky ledges; and Sandstone Shrike-thrush, which breeds on some of the lakeside sandstone bluffs. With luck we’ll see Short-eared Rock-Wallaby hopping about on the lakeshore, and we should have excellent views of Freshwater Crocodiles. After a pleasant lunch we’ll head back to the airport in Kununurra for a late afternoon flight back to Darwin. Night in Darwin.
Day 17: The tour ends this morning in Darwin. Those joining the Australia: Queensland and New South Wales tour will catch an early morning flight to Cairns.
Updated: 17 November 2020