Birdwatching in the Northern Territory

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01 January 2012

There is no denying that Kakadu sends twitchers’ hearts aflutter, but the neighbouring Mary River region also has plenty of Top End birdwatching credentials.

 It’s hard having a star in the family. The signs down the Stuart Highway from Darwin all point to the Holy Grail – Kakadu – and the 4WDs roar down towards the national park’s gates barely glancing at the scenery along the way.

Which is a pity, according to locals, because the attractions of the Mary River region, 170km east of Darwin, are just as varied and rewarding. Here, in big sky country, are giant billabongs humming with birdlife, long patches of sparkling water descending to inky depths whose surfaces are choked with lilies. Hordes of buffalo and wild pig (not entirely welcome) roam through the bush and sun themselves quietly on river banks; and there are enough saltwater crocs to keep the tourists happy: “They never want to see anything else,” one guide says resignedly.       

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A new luxury resort, Wildman Wilderness Lodge (from $245 a night/double/safari tent, wildmanwildernesslodge.com.au) has also opened in the region. It is set on a quietly spectacular and undisturbed private property and designed to lure visitors from Kakadu to Mary River. Will it happen? “The wetlands here are bigger, prettier and more accessible to Darwin,” offers helicopter pilot Dom Ferguson as a reason people should come. “The Yellow River cruise [at Kakadu] is very small compared to the Mary River Corroboree Billabong cruise.”

Chris Parker – who runs Fisherking Safaris (from $95/half-day, fisherkingsafaris.com.au) and takes tours through the area – is more philosophical: “Better than Kakadu? I don’t know. But the thing about the Mary River is you get more of a chance to get out and walk around. In Kakadu you’re always driving because the distances are so huge.”

On a half-day tour with Parker, there is indeed a lot of walking – through bush, scrub, chest-high grasses, around a large billabong, through mud and water and sand and the occasional bit of swamp. There is also a chance to see the real beauty of the Mary River – its opulent bird life – which is what draws most visitors there.

The tour starts early in the morning when birds are up and about – and according to Parker – singing about their night and about the spots they found. He is full of such birdy lore, a self-proclaimed bird nerd from an early age, who moved to the Northern Territory from Sydney more than a decade ago. He is also skilled at tour-related things: making bird noises to attract the hard-to-see brigade, healing stings from the hungry insects, and a pro at teaching amateurs how to aim and focus binoculars – harder than it looks.

We travel from the grasslands, where weebills, honeyeaters and noisy bands of lorikeets rule, to the wetlands, where we spot several varieties of ibis, jabiru, kingfishers, radjah shelducks, plover, sea eagles, magpie geese and a wheeling brolga overhead, herons, a croc or two and, at one point, a discombobulated tawny frogmouth, disturbed from its daytime snooze. There are black cockatoos in one area, returning after the annual burn-off, and comb-crested jacana – or “Jesus birds” – picking their leggy way across the water in another. 

In bird world, it is the Gouldian finch many twitchers have come to see. Though there have been sightings that very morning, we are out of luck. A hot hour squatting under a tree, binoculars trained on a scrubby bush earns us a finch spotting, but it is only a brood of teen-agers – their parents, the brightly coloured payoff, stay well-hidden. Parker seems to consider this a bit of a letdown, but it’s hardly a disaster given what we have seen. Whether it is “better” than the big Kakadu kid up the road depends on what you’re looking for, but if what you crave is seeing the bush come to life, Mary River delivers.

Source Qantas The Australian Way January 2012

Amruta Slee

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