Logo of BirdLife Northern Queensland

Logo of BirdLife Northern Queensland

BirdLife Challenge Count Dec 2012

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Event Date: 2 Dec 2012 

It should be easy enough to win an Australia wide twitching competition in our area. After all we have so many more species in Far North Queensland than the rest of the country. Perhaps all we would need to do is get up and look out of the window. But a look at challenge count records of the last 15 years shows this is not in fact the case. FNQ has never done particularly well. A new, young and determined BirdLife Northern Queensland team decided to set the record straight.

After wrestling with the personal moral dilemma of reducing birding to a competitive activity, we decided to take the competition seriously this year. A more organized approach was required.

A few days out from the actual count date we spent a day touring the area, timing how long it took to get from place to place and how long we could stay there. We tried the Port Douglas waste transfer area. We asked the operator there if he had seen any Beach-stone Curlews. The operator clearly had no idea what we were talking about, but before he even finished talking two flew in and landed 20m away. ‘Oh those, they are here all the time!’

We stayed up until midnight driving about Tinaroo Creek Road and getting lost, failing to see an owl of any description. But we were cheered up by a Spotted Nightjar in the road at Mt Molloy.

At the end of the test day we had a good route planned and with a good dose of luck managed to record 184 species. We felt sure it would be impossible to reproduce such a good result.

There are three rules.

1. Midnight to midnight, first Sunday of December
2. 40km radius/80km diameter from a central point
3. Bird must be seen by two or heard by three people

There seems to be nothing in the rules about external assistants with telephones (one), use of playback (once only successfully and twice not), use of iphone bird guide Apps or complying with local traffic regulations (we have all agreed to chip in with Doug’s speeding ticket). We are also unsure if all of the three people who hear a bird have to know what it sounds like.

03.30am Alarm goes off and fresh and alert I jump out of bed, glad to have decided not to stay up for the midnight Wales/Wallabies game on tv.

04.00 After a cold shower and two strong coffees I hit the road from Mareeba to Mossman, running the usual gauntlet of kamikaze wallabies.

05.00 First light at Mossman we meet with our fearless driver, Doug Herrington, top bird spotter Murray Hunt and also Mandy & Chris Coxon who join us from Mossman Bed & Breakfast, looking slightly worried and wondering what they are in for. Mandy & Chris have a disadvantage from the start as one of their guests has stolen their binoculars. Tourists – who needs them!

05.30 Stretching the boundaries of our area we start up at the Wonga Barra Farm, a great location, picking up Burdekin Duck, terns and waders. There are many birds here and we are already over time enjoying looking at them. Doug agrees to be the time Nazi and helps us to keep hurrying up.

05.50 Nearby is the famous Spotted Whistling-duck site, now protected from intruding birders by electric fences and razor wire. But no ducks are to be seen here. ‘Oh you should have been here yesterday’

06.20 We visit a nearby caravan park where Murray knows of a nest with Papuan Frogmouths. Disaster, they have already fledged, but by a miracle Murray spots them higher in the same tree.

06.40 Newell Beach. Good progress as we hear a Mangrove Robin, Varied Honeyeater and see a Shining Flycatcher. Further down at the river we find a Mangrove Kingfisher and a few more waders, but are driven away by mosquitos.

07.10 Still behind time we visit the river at Cooya Beach, amazingly picking up three Beach Stone-curlews on the beach and a handful of other birds in the mangroves.

07.40 By special arrangement we visit the Kiloea waste transfer station at Port Douglas. Luckily the Pied Herons are still sitting in the same tree and we don’t need to look for the Beach-stone Curlews. Mandy & Chris hear some Lovely Fairy-wrens and after quite some time we manage to find them, luckily also viewing a Bush Hen in the process.

08.20 In Port Douglas some time is spent squeaking for White-browed Crakes without much fruition, although we do spot one of the hundreds of Purple Swamphens on offer. We decide not to divert to a nearby pond that has Plumed Whistling-ducks. ‘We’ll certainly see one later” Big mistake - we never see one. A bird in the bush is not as good as one written on the count form.

08.50 Excitement is mounting as we race up the hill listening out the window. We haven’t yet recorded Grey Whistler, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater or Brush Turkey which we hear, hear and see on the way up the Rex range. We enter into some debate as to whether everyone has correctly identified the turkey. Nine Mile Road at the top of the hill is very birdy and we quickly pick up a good selection of rainforest species including a lucky pair of Pied Monarchs.

09.15 We have been kindly allowed to walk around the grounds of Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge where we eventually count the Superb Fruit-doves after some replaying of the App on Doug’s iphone to determine what they sound like. There is no sign of a Pitta but we add some honeyeaters to the list and have caught up on time.

09.55 A neighbor of Kingfisher Park has a spectacular callistemon in their garden where we found a Scarlet Honeyeater during our test drive. Unfortunately this talented gardener is mowing the lawn under this exact plant.

10.00 A number of birds are present at the Bushy Creek bridge but they all seem rather distant and we can’t convince ourselves to count Barred Cuckoo-shrike but add Macleay’s Honeyeater.

10.40 Murray tries to catch up on some sleep on the drive up Mt Lewis but we have to keep waking him up so three of us can hear Golden Whistler, Victoria’s Riflebird and Lewin’s Honeyeater. At the Mount Lewis clearing all the wet tropics endemics can be seen including quite a few species we will never see anywhere else. Today they appear to be not so obliging so we go way over time trying to find birds such as Chowchilla and Fernwren. The single Blue-faced Finch we heard during our test run appears to have vanished. But we do see a couple of White-headed Pigeons, a lucky find at this location. Also we see the Barred Cuckoo-shrike we were agonizing about earlier.

12.50 Doug’s African mate Russel has the most extraordinary garden near Julatten. I have never seen so many honeyeaters in one place. Here we quickly add White-cheeked, White-throated, Yellow-faced, Scarlet and Blue-faced Honeyeaters as well as hearing Brown Gerygone

13.20 Abbatoir Swamp Our good fortune continues here with Northern Fantail and Varied Sitella added to the list.

13.50 We catch up some time with Doug’s skilful driving and investigate the Maryfarms area. Here a pair of Bustards are sitting under the same tree as a few days back and a flyby Channel-billed Cuckoo is good to see. Brilliantly Murray manages to find a nesting Black-faced Woodswallow which we were not expecting.

14.10 At the lovely Mt Carbine Caravan Park our previous conversation with the helpful owner has paid off. He has located a Tawny Frogmouth nest and this makes a good addition to our list. Also here we find a number of other new dry country birds, Galah, Pale-headed Rosella and Blue-winged Kookaburra.

14.50 At an unspecified secret location we are all blindfolded while Doug takes us to his secret White-browed Robin site. Sure enough the Robin plays his part and soon adds to our total while a Brown Falcon circles overhead

15.20 Lake Mitchell Here we drive the causeway and add a few more waterbirds. Mandy and Chris spot some Great Cormorants that we have missed. Some local people here are fishing and in a near tragic accident Murray is attacked and bitten by their large fierce dog. He diplomatically avoids punting the terrier into the lake. We are concerned he might have caught rabies as we still need him as a third person to confirm bird calls later that night.

15.55 We drive to the hills opposite Lake Mitchell and listen out for Grey Shrike-thrush and Noisy Miners but their calls are drowned out by the Buff-breasted Button-quails.

16.10 Further towards Mareeba a lucky stop at Magpie Marsh produces a White-browed Crake and the single Latham’s Snipe is still present. Our good luck is continuing. A tally of the totals reveals we are going very well at 169 species, but the rate of adding new birds is dropping sharply.

16.20 We have missed seeing Plumed Whistling-duck, a dead certainty at Brady’s Lagoon but no sign of a duck here. The three Red-kneed Dotterals are good to see. A few years ago you would never see a Red-kneed dotterel but now they seem to be everywhere.

16.30 Mareeba In addition to no PWDs we have not seen a Cotton Pygmy-goose or Squatter Pigeon. A spin around Mareeba rodeo grounds adds only Double-barred Finch.

16.45 Back to my house in Mareeba for a quick tea break and our good luck kicks in again. There are Squatter Pigeons by the driveway, Cotton Pygmy-goose on the dam, Brown Quail by the house, a flyby Baza and Collared Sparrowhawk up the road.  We agonize about where to go next but a short drive up Chewko road pays off with some late in the season Sarus Cranes plus a handful of Red-tailed Black-cockatoos. We now need to seriously get moving to reach Cairns.

17.40 Cassowary House in Kuranda is our only hope for a Cassowary. Unfortunately, they generally only show up in the morning. We decide not to go in as we really need to get down to the Esplanade at Cairns. But just past the turn off Sue Gregory kindly calls to tell us she has been trying to keep three near the house for us all afternoon. Mandy and Chris, who have been doing very well to keep up with the madness, follow us in an illegal U-turn at the Kuranda range lookout and we make it to Cassowary House, stopping only to add a Grey Goshawk nesting nearby. The sight of one adult male southern Cassowary and two striped chicks feeding quietly on rainforest fruit beside the house was a wonderful sight, the highlight of the day. It was tragic to have to reduce this experience to one tick on the list and race off again.

18.10 Cairns Go-kart. The road beside the Go-kart track is always a reliable spot for Crimson Finches and here they were again.

18.30 We arrive at the Cairns Esplanade after only one speed camera flash. We are just in time to add a few more waders to our total in the fading light. Mandy & Chris are strangely not tempted by the prospect of another five and a half hours driving about in the dark and they head back to Mossman. Murray finds one last miracle bird for us, a Nankeen Night Heron in a fig opposite a famous Scottish restaurant on the Esplanade.

19.30 We retire to the Cairns RSL club for a well earned bite to eat. We have now been birding non stop for 14 hours and in need of a small break. We take it in turns to try and count how many birds we have on our form. We each come up with different figure but finally settle on 197. We have smashed the total from our trial day. But we all agree that we should put in the effort to get to the 200 mark.

20.30 Another easy bird we have missed is the Rock Dove, common enough but where would you find one in Cairns at night? Murray’s mind is still in gear and his suggestion of the Caltex servo pays off.

20.40 Cairns Centenary Lakes is a good location where we might hope for a Rufous Owl or a Black Bittern. We only find more Night Herons until we try the boardwalk where we hear a distant Red-necked Rail. Much more impressive is a Striped Possum right up close to the boardwalk. Unfortunately this creature is not a bird and we can only afford a brief detour to look at him. We are now at 199.

21.40 Still no Plumed-whistling Duck so we race back up to Port Douglas to have another look at the pond where we didn’t stop at this morning. Perhaps if we spotlight the grass in the garden we can see some ducks without waking up the owner of the house. There are lots of toads out but no ducks.

22.10 Again we drive up the Rex Range and stop at Nine Mile Road. Straightaway we can hear a Large-tailed Nightjar calling. We have reached 200 birds! A bottle of champagne is opened and cigars are passed around.

22.30 More good luck, an Eastern Barn Owl is perched on the white fence opposite Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge. 201 species. Hoping for some owl calls we wait for a while in the dark at Geraghty Park, but all is silent and we are struggling to stay awake..

23.00 To keep going we drive around the Hurricane Station road, but there are no more night birds to be seen.

23.30 Mt Molloy We find a log that looks very much like a Tawny Frogmouth. We decide not to count it, forgetting we have already seen both Frogmouths anyway.

24.00 Back at Geraghty Park and no owls continue to call. We have finished and drive back down to Mossman happy with our total of 201.

00.30 Still flushed with the excitement of the day I head back home, back up the Rex Range for the third time. Luckily the wallabies all sit quietly beside the road all the way to Mareeba

14.00 About time for bed now.

The BirdLife Challenge Count takes place on first Sunday of December each year. If you would like to give it a go please contact BirdLife Northern Queensland.

Addendum.
Mention should also be made of two other teams in FNQ who also participated in the count. John Seale and Darren Phillips also counted within the same area as us but just for the morning. They recorded 63 species including two birds we had missed, Brush Cuckoo and that Plumed-whistling Duck. We can add these two to our area total as they were within the same 80km.
Ceri Pearce and Sandra Christensen also surveyed an area based around Innisfail recording 118 species by 19.30.

Dominic Chaplin
BirdLife Northern Queensland