Friday, 31 July 2015

Favourite Nature Locations; 1. Cairns/Atherton Tableland, North Queensland, AUSTRALIA

Again apologies that this is not Malaysian nature; it is the quiet season here and I usually go to Australia for their spring in October/November....I recommend it.

I have done nature photography in various parts of Australia but I have a strong affinity for the Cairns/Atherton Tableland area. I have been for 4 trips there over the last 12 years and each time find some hidden gems. It is suitable for each of three types of nature photography.

I have my own definition for the three types of nature photography;
1.    Shooting as many ‘birds on sticks’ as possible
2.    Documentary photography. Where you make a story about one species or one area.
3.    Competition photography; this ranges from club competitions to international salons to BBC wildlife-type high end prestigious events.

All these interests are served by the Cairns/Atherton Tableland area….the main advantage of this location is the number of diverse ecosystems in such a short distance......and believe me most distances are not short in Australia.

For the sake of clarity I have broken the area up into 10 sections, each with something different to offer.
The best time to go to this area is in mid to late October and early November….the local spring time.

The colour-coded locations described below

When you go on a shooting mission;
1.    Do your homework….find out what you can before getting there.
2.    Make a hit-list of species you want to target….whatever mode you shoot
3.    Get the best information as up-to-date as possible. I recommend hiring a local guide for a half-day or a day and tell them what you would like to see.

My hit list
1.    Great Bowerbird tending his Bower
2.    Golden Bowerbird around his Bower
3.    Tooth-billed Bower singing above his Bower
4.    Clear shot of a Spotted Catbird
5.    Displaying Victoria’s Riflebird
6.    Nesting Kookaburra
7.    Nesting Rainbow Bee-eaters
8.    Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher
9.    Cassowary portrait
10. Shots of Lorikeets and other parrots
11. Shots of the more colourful nectar feeders
12. A visit to the Barrier Reef

1. Cairns (red dot).
Cairns has a population of around 180,000 and is a relatively safe tropical city and easy to navigate around. I particularly like the esplanade and boardwalk, which is very well set-up and maintained. It is popular with walkers, joggers and muscle-builders, the latter using the well-designed public facilities. The boardwalk is good to walk along as the sun rises as the morning brings many moods. Bird-watchers are well served with knots of seabirds foraging at low tide. The Esplanade is one of North Queensland's most accessible areas for observing migratory waders. An amazing 220 species have been recorded on the mudflats and in the adjacent parkland. There is a tidal range of 3 metres and best viewing is at mid or incoming tide in the afternoon when the light is best. Numbers are highest from September to March when up to 2000 waders have been counted. Waders present usually include, Eastern Curlew, Whimbrel, Lesser Sand Plover, Greenshank, Grey-tailed Tattler, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Stint, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Great Knot, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Rarer waders include; Franklin's Gull, Laughing Gull, Asian Dowitcher and Common Redshank.
The trees along the promenade may host nesting Willie Wagtails or roosting and noisy fruit bats. Motels, hotels, back-packers hostels as well as many restaurants serve the area. It is a good place to start or end your adventures in the area.

Dawn along Cairns Esplanade

The foreshore along Cairns Esplanade

Groups of shorebirds along the Cairns Esplanade boardwalk

In Cairns I equipped myself with a small camper van and set off on my photographic adventure.

2. Kuranda (orange dot)
Kuranda is a town on the edge of the Atherton Tableland 25 kilometres from Cairns. It is surrounded by lush tropical rainforest and is adjacent to the Wet Tropics World heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park. Kuranda is a tourist destination and is served by the Kuranda Scenic Railway and the Skyrail Gondola Cableway. As well as tourist shopping and restaurants there are a bird aviary, butterfly sanctuary, raptor rehab centre, reptile park and koala sanctuary. My main reason for going there is that it may be your best place to get up close and personal with Cassowaries. Sue and Phil Gregory run Cassowary House and I booked a stay there on my penultimate visit. They have a resident pair of cassowaries and although they can be lethal it is a neat experience being close to these large birds. I was staying in a separate building that was built from spare parts…..I saw a sign for a telephone embedded in the infrastructure.....somewhere is missing a phone booth. I had the door open at one point and was packing my kit for the day with equipment lined up on the floor. I was crouching over packing and was aware of another presence in the room. An adult Cassowary with inquisitive eyes and fluttering eyelids had come into the room and was curiously examining my array of equipment.
On the way to Kuranda Superb Fruit Doves, Cicadabirds, Little Lorikeets and perhaps Cassowaries may be seen.

Cassowary portrait

Barron Falls the dry season

3. Mossman/Daintree (yellow dot)
On separate visits I have stayed in both Mossman and Daintree. Mossman is a small sugar town and Daintree consists only a few shops. To get there from Cairns you pass Port Douglas which is worth a stop for lunch or longer. 
Mossman has a population of 1732 people and is located on the Captain Cook Highway 75 kilometres north of Cairns. Mossman Gorge is located 5 minutes west of Mossman and is a popular section of the Daintree National Park, set within a steep-sided valley on the Mossman River. Guided tours, walking tracks and swimming in the refreshing waters of the river are popular activities. I went into the Gorge at sunrise and was mainly after a Wompoo Pigeon nest that I was told about by a German birder. This species of pigeon always cracks me up with its ‘Bollocks are blue’ call. (play the top of the two calls)
Having an awakening rainforest to myself was a really nice experience.

I have stayed at guesthouses at Daintree (including Red Mill House) and have been on the river with various guides on three occasions. A good guide knows where the nature is and it is worth a trip. These are tourist oriented so don’t expect killer photos. If you see something worth photographing or spending more time with it is best to make a private arrangement with the boat operator. Sightings have included; Great-billed herons, Papuan Frogmouths, Azure and Little Kingfishers, Black-necked Storks, Channel-billed Cuckoos, large-billed Gerygones, Pied Imperial Pigeons and Black Bitterns. On one of my trips just as the sun went down there were hoards of fruit bats taking off for the night along the river. It was a great spectacle but on my next trip they had moved on and were not seen in such large numbers.
Birds in the area include Lesser Spotty Owls, McLeay’s Honeyeaters, Pied Monarchs, Victoria’s Riflebirds, Great-billed Herons, Black Bitterns, Mangrove Robins, Lovely Fairy-wrens, Double-eyed Fig parrots, Red-necked Crakes and Southern Cassowaries. Eight out of ten of Australia’s Kingfisher species, including the spectacular Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher and the diminutive Little Kingfisher can be spotted in the Daintree area.

Mossman Gorge

Wompoo Pigeon (Wompoo Fruit Dove)

Double-eyed Fig parrot

Black Bean flower

Daintree River reflections

Rainclouds and sunlight, Daintree River

Daintree River

Yellow-bellied Sunbird (male)

4. Kingfisher Park Birdwatchers Lodge, Julatten (light green dot)
When I visited in November 2014 it looked like this lodge may close unless a buyer was found. The park is a favourite with birders and fortunately Carol and Rob Iles, who are both experienced guides, took over the Lodge in early 2015.
Some of the birds recorded around the park include; Red-necked Crake, Bush-hen, Double-eyed Fig Parrot, Barking, Sooty and Barn owls, Papuan Frogmouth, Grey-headed Robin and Pied Monarch. The Emerald Dove and Noisy Pitta breed on the grounds as do Large-billed Scrubwren, Large-billed and Fairy Gerygone, McLeays, Yellow Spotted and Graceful Honeyeaters, Pale-yellow Robin, Little Shrike Thrushes Yellow-breasted Boatbills, Spectacled Monarchs, Cicadabirds and Spotted Catbirds.
The park grounds also hosts a number of marsupials, snakes, skinks, frogs, Wallabies and butterflies. I camped on the grounds in my campervan and the facilities are excellent. It is a good place to mingle with other nature-lovers to see what they have seen in the area. There was a fruiting tree not far away on an adjacent road that hosted a lot of rather nervous birds.
The other feature of Kingfisher Park is that there are other birding sites in a relatively short distance from it.

The camp kitchen/dining room at Kingfisher Park

Black-faced Monarch

Zitting Cisticola

Barred Cuckoo-shrike

Metallic Starling

Azure Kingfisher
The Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher is a migrant from Papua New Guinea and comes to far north Queensland around the beginning of November each year to nest in Termite mounds. Strangely there can't be enough termite mounds in  Papua New Guinea to go around. They stay through the wet season in Far North Queensland. They could be found in a number of locations in the areas outlined including Granite Gorge but usually later than when I was there.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher

5. Mount Molloy (dark green dot)
On the road from Kingfisher Lodge to Mount Molloy I stopped at Abattoir Swamp and photographed a male Mistletoe Bird, a type of Flowerpecker.

Male Mistletoe Bird

Mount Molloy is a rural town 50km NW of Cairns. It was named after Pat Molloy who discovered copper there, beside Rifle Creek, in 1885. Copper prices fell in 1907 and the town diminished although timber concessions and dairying blocks kept a small population. The current residents total 273.
According to several sources Mt Molloy is close to being the hotspot for birding with more species being observed in the vicinity than any other place in Australia.
I have visited Mount Molloy on four different occasions, as it is central station for Great Bowerbirds. The male of this species builds a rather elaborate bower on the ground and a number of these were scattered around the small town. The bowers may be operative for 4-5 years. There was one on the boundary of a domestic property near the primary school. It was very ornately decorated and easy to photograph. It was no longer there in November 2014. There was also another lane where the young males practiced the art of female attraction. This was also overgrown in 2014. There is however a quite famous bower ……in the grounds of the primary school. With noisy and energetic kids in close proximity it is the last place you would expect to find a bachelor’s pad. The school takes a good attitude to photographers and allows access to the bower for a small donation.  The best time to access is as the sun rises in a direct line with the bowers entrance. The host bird will let you know he is around and comes in to primp and housekeep every 10-15 minutes. This is not the best bower to photograph in the general area as there is a forward line of twigs, like a wind-break, that the male has constructed that rather limits the view of the entrance. There are a number of other birds in the area including Bush Thicknees, Dusky Honeyeaters, Red-winged Parrots, Rainbow Lorikeets and Figbirds.
The bowerbird situation is dynamic and changes over the years……check with the locals also and the school if there are folks there. Long lenses and children don’t go well together these days so keep away from the school during opening hours. The Bowerbird clearly has open access to the school because he steals ball-point pens, especially red ones from the offices to use as a favoured sex attractant.
There are only a few stores in Mount Molloy and a hotel and restaurant. Petrol is available and there is a general-purpose store.
A video of the Mt Molloy Bowerbird can be seen here;

Rusting machinery on Mount Molloy

The male Great Bowerbird calling from his calling platform

The bower at Mount Molloy School.

The male Great Bowerbird calling from another bower entrance

The male Great Bowerbird deploys his lilac-coloured feathers and displays a toy

Blue-faced Honeyeater

The 'toys' around a mature bower

Photographing the young males and their practice bowers

Several practice bowers

Bush Thicknee

6. Granite Gorge (lilac dot)
I was introduced to the Granite Gorge Nature Park (Camping ground) by a local guide who wanted to show me the Great Bowerbird bower there. The Park is located 12 km west of Mareeba. Volcanic activity has forced up huge weird boulders that stretch out over a kilometer. The park is known foremost for the Rock Wallabies that can be easily sighted and are quite tame as tourists  feed them. I found they are generally not in pristine condition and you have to be selective to pick one where the fur is not disturbed. They are not a major feature for photography but other features in the park are excellent. The Great Bowerbird Bower is better to photograph than the one at Mt Molloy. The rising sun lights it up well. Hazy sun is better as the bower and surroundings can get quite contrasty, especially as this species likes white decorations.  I spent several mornings photographing the activity around the bower with a digital camera and video camera, including a GoPro. I have written a two-part blog on Bowerbird behaviour which can be found here;

A video of the Bowerbird can be found here;

There is abundant wildlife around the camping ground and I stayed there for a total of 5 nights. There was a nesting Tawny Frogmouth…that sat patiently on the nest and yawned occasionally. Squatter Pigeons strutted around on the ground, Lorikeets noisily attached fruit on trees, Kookaburras sat close by on branches waiting to steal food and Red-winged parrots visited to drink water or nectar. A walk around the boundary and between the boulders revealed a rather secretive Frill-necked Lizard and some nesting Rainbow Bee-eaters. I love Bee-eaters and would like to have spent more time photographing them coming in with prey to their nest holes.

Laughing Kookaburra

My photographic assistant

Rock Wallaby joey in the pouch

Rock Wallaby

Granite Gorge vista

Red Ballpoint pens are popular bower decorations

Great Bowerbird decorating the bower.

Great Bowerbird scolding a Rock Wallaby for eating his decorations

Tawny Frogmouth sitting on its nest

Rainbow Bee-eater near the nest hole

Squatter Pigeon

Pied Butcherbird (immature)

Frill-necked Lizard

Frill-necked Lizard

The camping ground was not busy but the facilities were very good. One friendly little bantam like to sit alongside the toaster and lay an egg ….what breakfast service.

Breakfast is provided alongside the toaster

Dinner arrives

7. Mount Hypipamee (light blue dot)
The Mount Hypipamee Crater, also known as ‘The crater’ is a huge diatreme located south-east of Herberton on the Atherton Tableland. It is 61 metres in diameter and 82 metres deep. Hypipamee is a corruption of the Aboriginal word nabbanabbamee, which is connected with a legend of two young men who cut down a sacred candlenut tree, only to be swallowed by a large hole in the earth….the crater. Although you may visit the park for the bird life…check out the crater.
From the carpark you will immediately encounter the ubiquitous Australian Brush Turkeys as well as Grey-headed Robins. Other birds encountered were the Atherton Scrub wren, Yellow-throated Scrubwren and Eastern Whipbirds. More careful birding located the  Shrike-thrush, a Scarlet Honeyeater, Bridled Honeyeaters, a White-throated Tree Creeper, a Brown Gerygone, Mountain Thornbills and several Rufous Fantails.
The main reason I first visited Mount Hypipamee was for the Golden Bowerbird. There were actually several in the area but one was easier to access and I spent two mornings watching his behavior. I again refer to my article. The location is sort of secret but all tour guides and most birders know about it. It is great that this community of enthusiasts have not interfered with the breeding process. In respect to the secret location…I was having a quiet moment with my little Golden friend one morning and was joined by two English birders. They said that the Bowerbird in question was ‘famous’ in England!
Even on a fine day it is dark on the forest floor and photographs, even with modern high ISO capability, is limited to portraits….which are precious as this is the least accessible of the Bowerbirds.

The Crater...a large diatreme

Male Golden Bowerbird with a flower for the lady

Male Golden Bowerbird

Part of the Golden Bowerbird's bower. The flowers are gifts for the female

Shooting conditions near the Golden Bowerbird bower

Not at the park but nearby my guide for the morning indicated a Blue-winged Kookaburra feeding a nest in a gum tree. It was on private property but I had a reasonable view of the activity ….from just inside the aggressive barbed-wire fence.

Blue-winged Kookaburra

Blue-winged Kookaburra with a mouse

Blue-winged Kookaburra leaving the nest hole

Towns like Mareeba, Atherton, Malanda and Yungaburra are good for supplies. There is a peanut industry in the area and some pleasant derivations of these are available to satisfy the tastebuds.

A Black-shouldered Kite

8. Lake Eacham/Lake Barrine (dark blue dot)
Lake Eacham is a popular lake of volcanic origin and along with Lake Barrine were formed 12.000 rears ago by molten magma and later subsidence.
This is undoubtedly my favourite area in the Atherton Tablelands. I have stayed at Chambers Wildlife Rainforest Lodges several times and the Lake Eacham Tourist Park on one occasion. Both are highly recommended. At Chambers they feed Sugar Gliders and they plus the odd opossum are good to see.
There is abundant wildlife in the bush around the lake and both the accommodations mentioned above: Spotted Catbirds, Victoria’s Riflebirds, Tooth-billed Bowerbirds, King Parrots, Grey-headed Robins, Eastern Whipbirds, Brush Turkeys, Orange-footed Scrubfowl, Boobook Owl, Lesser Sooty Owl, Crimson Rosellas and many more.
My main mission in the area was the Tooth-billed Bowerbirds and the Victoria’s Riflebirds. I had seen them both displaying on Chamber’s property in previous visits. On my latest visit several Tooth-billed Bowerbirds were calling along a track adjacent to the nearby Lake Barrine. I located these in dark forest conditions and took several images…not an easy task. They remain fairly static but are often in vine-infested areas. While visiting this species early one morning I saw a Victoria's Riflebird on a long fern stump………and he was calling the ladies. I slipped into the best location for images and took a series of him displaying. I was elated…the first time I had seen this. I returned the following morning and he appeared on his stage but did not break into song and left soon after. It shows that chance plays a big part in nature photography but you have to be there and ready for action.
Cassowaries can also be found around Lake Eacham. A number of years ago I visited the lake with my wife and two young daughters. We were looking for Cassowaries…we walked the 3.5 kilometers around the lake without a sighting. There was one standing next to the car in the carpark when we returned!

Spotted Catbird

Female Victoria's Riflebird

Section of a Curtain Fig near Yungaburra

Lake Barrine

Lewin's Honeyeater

Lake Barrine, first light

Tooth-billed Bowerbird
The simple bower of the Tooth-billed Bowerbird consists of a cleared forest patch with overturned leaves

Male Victoria's Riflebird...warming up

Male Victoria's Riflebird displaying

Brush Turkey

Eastern Spinebill

Rainbow Lorikeet

Rainbow Lorikeet

Male Scarlet Honeyeater

Farmland between Lakes Eacham and Barrine (early morning)

9. Tarzali/Malanda (purple dot)
The Nerada Tea Plantation near Malanda produces six million kilograms of fresh tea leaves each year. There are trees around the estate that have as residents Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroos. With the help from one of the tea workers I managed to locate the arboreal marsupials. It is currently the most reliable place to see this species and apparently more reliable than the local power supply , which was down when I asked for a cup of tea in the tearooms.
On a previous visit I stayed at the Canopy Rainforest Tree Houses and Wildlife Sanctuary near Tarzali. This place is fantastic. It consists of purpose built five luxury timber and glass tree houses that are perched on the banks of the Ithaca River. Each tree house is secluded and offers a Kingsize bed, a double spa, a wood fireplace, fully contained kitchen, a balcony with a barbecue…and a hammock. These tree houses are in 100 acres of high-country rainforest with a high density of wildlife. Cassowaries, Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos and Green Possums call the forest home. Platypus inhabit the river and a patient session sitting on riverside rocks at night will result in sightings. Pademelon Wallabies and Coppery Brushtail Possums visit the balcony each night. In the morning a serenade of birdsong greets you and a parade of rainforest birds come to the balcony seeking food. The hosts provide appropriate food for various species and you can really get close to a number of species.
One evening we had a Brushtail Possum arrive with her baby……she sort of left us to babysit while she went foraging.

Rusty tractor, Nerada tea estate

Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo

The Ithaca River and bush at 'The Canopies'

Shooting from the deck at 'The Canopies'

White-throated Tree-creeper

Emerald Dove

Male King Parrot

Red-browed Finches

10. The Great Barrier Reef (black dots)
The Barrier Reef can be accessed from a number of places from Mission Bay in the South to Port Douglas, north of Cairns. It is not a great place for photography unless you have specialist underwater equipment or land on one of the islands where you can walk about. I went on two trips to the reef in November 2014. The first was to the Frankland Islands with members of the Cairns Camera Club. The Frankland Islands is a group of islands; High, Normanby, Mabel, Round and Russell. They are bout 45 kilometers south east of Cairns and 10 km off the coast near the mouths of the Russell-Mulgrave Rivers. James Cook is credited with naming these islands. We departed from the Deeral landing on the Mulgrave River and journeyed for 30 minutes up the mangrove-lined river. We landed on Normanby Island …there are nesting Black-naped Terns at the back of the island…on a small offshore island which challenge photographers for action shots. A big lens is necessary although the terns fly quite close at times within the range of a hand-held 300 or 400mm lens.
My other trip to the reef was also well organised with the boat trip on a fast catamaran taking 90 minutes each way. They moored on a floating shelter  where visitors could go diving, snorkelling, or exploring on a glass-bottomed boat, a semi-submersible or even a helicopter. Some young Japanese I noted signed up for each activity. They even taught them to scuba dive in 20 minutes on the way out. The visibility was not great although much could be seen. The surface was a bit choppy but I enjoyed some snorkelling. There was a large and friendly Maori Wrasse called Wally who played all sorts of games to get as much feed as he could. 

Frankland Island Ferry and underwater viewing boat

Small tern nesting island (Frankland islands)

Flying Black-naped Terns

 Black-naped Terns

Ferry to the outer reef

Covered floating platform on the reef

Reef fish

Diverse coral

Wally the large Maori Wrasse

You can see that I hit all of my target list......sometimes by good luck rather than good measure but having goals gets the job done.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Graeme, A wonderful and informative write up on the Cairns region. Thank you for sharing :-). I am on my way for my first visit in Oct- Nov 2015. (Really excited). Already booked at KFBW Park, and also with a local guide for multiple days. Spent 10 days in July on St Paul Island, Alaska for another incredible AK experience. Hope to post images soon. Thinking about a trip to Malaysia with you next year. I will write to you under separate cover. Cheers Graeme. Kent Downing (Tauranga NZ)